What’s brewing in Siquijor?
SIQUIJOR, Philippines—Are there witches in Siquijor? I never saw one, but largely because of the scary stories about them this island-province has kept its freshness, its crisp air, its virgin beaches, its laidback life.
Siquijor’s bad rep precedes her. Don’t visit the island during the Holy Week, it is where the power of the mad witches is at its peak. Black magic pervades the island, you could flirt with it to punish your enemy. Avoid the mountain, it is where the bad spirits live.
As soon as the ferry docks at the port, a visitor could smell and see an island embraced by green sea and forests thick enough to allow one’s imagination to meander to, yes, where the ghosts could be hiding. You get the sense that the bad rep continues to work against the island, because even in a supposed peak tourist season the port is neither packed nor noisy. Yet, it is the bad rep that has kept the province’s adolescent allure.
There is no better place to talk to God, to bask in what He has created, and to realize that life could be lived with so little.
Few Filipinos know the beauty of Siquijor because of the lore that won’t go away and because of its politicians who build bad roads but still get elected.
Audie Estrellado, a Mindanao-born local artist who’s been living here for the last two decades, says he need not go far for inspiration. In his home-cum-studio in the town of Larena, a mangrove paradise, Audie paints real life in Siquijor, where bayanihan is still very much a practice.
The province of less than 100,000 residents is so insignificant to national leaders (voting population: about 60,000) that in the last presidential elections none of the presidential candidates ever set foot here.
This Visayan island of one city and five towns is as scenic and serene and easy to navigate as Camiguin, one of Mindanao’s jewels. Siquijor also reminds me of what another island as pretty as she is terribly missing, Basilan, which without war could rival any Cebu Pacific Airline hot spot. But I digress.
During the Holy Week, the famed healers and shamans of Siquijor revisit their chopping boards and cauldrons to concoct their best brew: various types of herbal cures that promise to give comfort to people sick of anything—a back pain that refuses to go away, migraines that have become daily fare, ailments that doctors could not cure.
The healers’ festival begins on Holy Wednesday and lasts till Black Saturday, at the Mt Bandilaan, the island’s highest peak. It’s an uphill, bumpy trip dotted with coconut and banana trees, nipa huts, well-kept gardens, the blue sea, and Sagada air. We dropped by the home of the province’s most famous healer, 88-year-old Juan “Dako” Ponce, but he’s now retired and taking over his throne is his 57-year-old son Alejandro, who has been brewing herbal medicines for the last 3 years now.
We proceeded to the festival area. We paid P50 for entrance and “environmental fees” and were welcomed by a local band crooning Besame Mucho. On a hilltop, the healers await visitors. A vetmed from Connecticut came to this island to dive with friends. He paid the healers a visit, showed them a hurting finger, and woke up the following morning without the pain. Not bad, he told us.
We tried out the manghihilot and the bolo-bolo healers. The latter heal by literally blowing away toxins and impurities from your body using a small bolo and a cup of water. After a 3-minute ritual, when the water in the cup remains clear, you’re given a clean bill of health. If it’s a little brownish, well, you get the drift.
In both corners, they displayed donation boxes that can’t be missed. Before granting a visitor his bolo-bolo powers, Moises said gently, “do-ney-syon first.” A small bag of chopped grass and leaves sold for P300, with a promise to drive fevers away. There are homemade bracelets on display, which are supposed to scare the devil away. Get a piece for 350 bucks.
Don’t get me wrong. Except for these commercial irritants, natural healing, which this annual ritual promotes, does not only appeal to me, it is also a lifestyle that I try to live day by day. But local officials should know there is a more elegant way of earning a bit than displaying a donation box everywhere, including under a much-talked about Balete tree. Why on earth would I donate for the upkeep of a haunted Balete tree?
For by itself, Siquijor—gentle, charming, clean—can tame the most cynical and heal the aches of the body and soul. So that at the end of it I said a selfish prayer: that the rest of humanity won’t get to discover it for a long, long time. Newsbreak
TAGS: culture, healing, Siquijor, tradition