With only faith and guts to keep me company, I spent the Holy Week away from home for the first time in 22 years and came back to Siquijor—the second leg of my three-week backpacking trip in the Visayas—to know the island-province better. It turns out that my second visit was timely of the annual Folk Healing Festival where faith healers or ‘mananambals’ and sorcerers or ‘mambabarangs’ gather in Mt. Bandilaan, the highest point of Siquijor, to execute their healing abilities to the general public.
I rode a bus from Bacolod to Dumaguete for seven hours, then a ferry to Siquijor for one and a half hours. I’m back, at last. The unique character of Siquijor still lingers, and setting foot on its port feels like entering a dimension where all things magical await.
The Spaniards called Siquijor as “Isla del Fuego” or the “Island of Fire” because of the vast presence of fireflies on the island-province back in the Spanish colonization. However, the Filipinos see Siquijor as the “Mystic Island” because of the sorcerers, faith healers, dancing-doll chanters, and age-old supernatural stories about it.
Artifacts of traditional medicines and sorcery like a mini wooden doll that testifies the existence of witchcraft in Siquijor are housed and preserved in Silliman University Museum in Dumaguete.
The road-side Capilay Spring, where locals cool down, was said to be bathed by a fairy where she drenches her long, long hair.
Imelda Marcos, the widow of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, allegedly suffered from a skin disease when she “got cursed by a mermaid” during the construction of the 2.16-kilometer San Juanico Bridge in the 1970s. She then sent a helicopter from Manila to Siquijor to pick-up Boscia Bulongon, the most powerful healer of Siquijor that time, to cure her. No local knew about the amount of money Bulongon got from Marcos, but the said bullet and knife-proof healer died when her grandson hit her to death out of greed, two decades after Marcos’ treatment.
Sta. Rita de Cascia, the patroness of the impossible, widows, and abused wives located in Sta. Maria Church is an unusual saint you would not want to look at. Dubbed as the “Black Magic Mary,” Sta. Rita is dressed up in an all-black ensemble that makes her ivory-white face stand out, eyes seeking for help, lips downturn, and hands holding a Crucifix on her left and an alleged real human skull on her right. Urban legend adds that the saint walks around after sunset because of the dirt found on her feet and dresses the day after.
All these and more are the popular folklores you will hear from the locals, alongside with the interrogations, eyebrow raises, superstitious reminders, and judgment from the people who have never been there. “Why would you go to Siquijor?” or “Don’t accept any food or drink from the locals,” they would say out of fear of what they don’t know and understand.
As I waited for the two-day festival to come, I got to know Siquijor beyond its folklores. I spent my time by the beach watching children race their toy boats on high tide, and adults play volleyball and gather ‘salwaki’ or sea urchins on low tide. There, I met Mary Jane, who whole-heartedly offered a salwaki feast by the beach in time for sunset. She would reiterate how she could have taught me Bisaya throughout my stay if only we met earlier.
The Enchanted Balete Tree, the oldest and biggest of its kind in Siquijor, was a typical tree with a man-made spring used for the fish spa on my first visit. But the 400-year-old tree revealed its mystic when I came back and learned that the water from the spring comes from an underground cave, which mouth is hidden between the intertwined roots of the tree.
The Cotabato-native siblings I met in Paliton Beach made me appreciate the beauty of life more when they told me, “Masaya kami kasi nasa dagat kami [We’re happy because we’re in the sea],” as they jumped out of the outrigger of the boat.
One of the notable sorcerers in Cantabon showed me around their home and gave me a generous serving of Visayan dessert soup called ‘binignit’ or ginataang bilo-bilo after our pep talk.
Siquijor is filled with light, but all people see are its darkness. How did it come to this?
Folk Healing Festival
Up to this day, people still rely on herbal medicines to cure their sickness and worries away. Locals, expats living on Siargao, backpackers from Japan, and believers from all walks of life hiked their way to Mt. Bandilaan on the first day of Folk Healing Festival. Faith healers from the barangay of San Antonio, Cantabon, Cangmatnog, and Ponong gather in their respective cottages to offer ‘agimat’ or amulet, lucky charms, love potions, reflexology, tarot card reading, bolo-bolo healing, sikihod massage, herbal wine for stomach and intestine relief, ‘lana’ for dizziness, ‘sibukaw’ for frail bones, and ‘himughat’ for relapse, to name some. “Yan lang ang ginagamit namin dito. Wala kaming doctor [That’s all we use here. We don’t have a doctor],” Juanita Torremocha said, one of the famous faith healers and sorcerers on Siquijor.
While herbal medicines are essential to them, love potions remain the best-selling product on Siquijor. “Pahingi ako ng isang baldeng ganyan, Ate Mikee [Please give me a bucket of the love potion, Ate Mikee],” a friend jokingly said when I posted a photo of it on Instagram. But contrary to what we see on local television, love potions are not poured on the drink of your crush. Rather, the 20-herbed potion is used as a perfume to attract love and good luck to businesses. Just be sure to never bring it to funerals and cemeteries, or it will lose its effectivity. Of course, I bought one just in case my future crush refuses to like me back.
Sorcery, on the other hand, is a real deal. I met three sorcerers during the festival and for the record, they look and live normally, except that they can perform ‘supernatural’ rituals. Annie, the love potion expert and occasional sorcerer explains that they don’t do sorcery unless they are asked by a client to do so. She added that usage of voodoo dolls is one of the most extreme ways to inject pain to the target person. “Minsan, ayaw kong gumamit ng manika dahil nakamamatay. Naaawa ako sa bata [Sometimes, I don’t want to use voodoo dolls because it leads to death. My heart melts for the person].”
Juanita, the daughter of the late veteran healer Pedro “Endoy” Tumapon, and his Davao-native husband Noel Torremocha are among the famous faith healers and sorcerers in Cantabon. At the back of their house where their ‘ingredients’ are stored, she explained how they became faith healers and sorcerers with the guidance of her father. “Sa pamilya lang ‘yon naipapasa. Dapat buo ang loob mo kapag tinanggap mo. Nakakasira ng bait kapag hindi mo kinaya [Only the family members can be the next faith healers and/or sorcerers. Your will has to be strong before you accept the call. Otherwise, you will lose your mind].”
During the seven Fridays of Lent, faith healers and sorcerers do the process of gathering or ‘pangangalap’ where they go out to the mountains, seas, caves, churches, and cemeteries to collect ingredients. They get dirt, stems, candles, gingers, sea stars, and jellyfishes, to name a few until they complete the hundreds of ingredients needed for their mixture. On the last Friday, they cook potions used for sorcery, curses, and “other things we do not see” in private. “Dito namin yan niluluto sa may Balete namin. Kailangan sa proper place na walang palaboy-laboy habang nagluluto [We cook it under our Balete. It must be done in a proper place where there are no passers-by while we’re cooking],” she added.
On Black Saturday, the second and last day of the Folk Healing Festival, three faith healers and sorcerers cook ‘parapalina’ or the protection against curses and other illnesses in public. They brew their curses in private in order to be effective, while they cook the protection against curses in public only at this time of the year. They added that cooking need not to be hidden if the intention is good.
After the two-hour long cooking session, a black sludge formed out of the three cauldrons. One of the three faith healers and sorcerers blessed and prayed over the sludge in Bisaya. Believers then lined up to get a can of it in exchange for a monetary donation. Some gave PHP 50, others gave PHP 100.
“Do you believe in that?” I asked Mito, a vacationist from Cebu, as I pointed on the black sludge.
“Hindi. Natatakot ako, curious lang [No. I’m scared, I’m just curious],” he said.
“Para lang ‘to sa mga naniniwala [This is only for the people who believes],” another man replied with a smile on his face.
Siquijor has it all, but only those who believe in it can see its beauty, may they be under a spell or not. As Roald Dahl puts it, “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
This article was originally published in Issue 16 of Explore Philippines Magazine, titled “Spellbound by Suquijor.” Minor edits were made.
Photography by Mikee Pascual