Spellbound in Siquijor

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Sir, kailangan ko lang talagang itanong, pasensya na po,” I began, doing my best to appropriately frame my touristy question without sounding offensive, I hoped. “Totoo ba ang kulam?

Instead of drawing a hostile reaction, our two local guides laughed, and one of them, Ralph, answered, “Alam mo, kung totoo ang kulam, wala nang eleksyon! Magkulaman na lang tayo!

I and both Ralph and Roel just had to laugh out loud after that. Ralph’s answer had a great point, and timely, too, since our visit coincided with the last few days of registration all over the country for the national elections, and that the holiday season was fast approaching. After all, this island province has always shared in whatever concerns the nation, disproving its supposed creepy isolation and the rumors that surround it about being the land of witches and sorcery. My stay in Siquijor Island was not the frightful one I have been expecting, but every minute thrilling.

Conveniently circumferential 

One can make a full round of Siquijor in less than a day, traversing its circumferential road. Since most local tourists take on a Siquijor day trip coming from nearby Dumaguete, the circumferential tour appears to be the most systematic way of exploring the island. I took the same approach with our guides, but opting to divide all the activities planned for us in two days. I would recommend the same for other travelers, to allow them at least of an evening in Siquijor in between.

One of our very first stops was the Church of St. Francis of Assisi (in Siquijor, the capital town) with its nearby convent that resembles a kuta (fortification), built in such a way as to shield itself against the constant attack of pirates during the Spanish colonial times. Much of man-made grandeur in Siquijor can be found in its old churches, and this church’s still-operational bell tower may be the most imposing structure  in the entire island. What can rival that would have to be the Church of San Isidro Labrador in Lazi. Built by Augustinian Recollect priests in the 1800s, the locals take pride in this church as “one of the oldest and biggest in Asia,” declared a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum. But I personally find the convent right across it as more arresting, since it is the closest to something eerie that I went to in an island that constantly denied me my eerie preconceptions of it.

According to our guides, the convent now serves as the residence of the parish priest where he occupies a room in the vast expanse of the second floor. “Mag-isa lang s’yang nakatira dito?” I had to ask our guides, and they said yes. As if they sensed my fear for the priest, they assured me that there’s nothing to worry about, because the daily sound of children playing in the adjacent St. Isidore the Farmer Catholic School should cast away any uneasiness.

The rest of Siquijor’s best attractions must be credited to the magic of nature. Ralph said that since Siquijor does not possess any great river, there is no erosion in any part of its coastlines, which in turn allows the island to naturally keep its white sand beach fronts, the most famous of which would have to be those of Sandugan Beach in Larena, Tubod Beach in San Juan and Salagdoong Beach in Maria. Salagdoong Beach Resort has been a property of the provincial government since the 1980s. Ralph explained that the word salagdoong combines salag which means nest, and doong which refers to a kind of ocean bird that used to nest in the area. Even those who do not spend the night in Salagdoong still seek a visit here for its cliffdiving spots. These same thrillseekers can be encountered in Cambugahay Falls in Lazi where guests can opt to swing and dive, and the subterranean cave of Cantabon where travelers can go spelunking.

But my favorites of all the natural attractions would have to be the century-old balete tree at Campalanas and Guiwanon Spring Park. A natural spring pours forth before the tree, and I had a few seconds of foot  spa treatment care of the baby fishes that swim in it. At Guiwanon Spring Park, I walked over a marine sanctuary and protected area via connected wooden bridges that lead from one tree house to another.

We ended our first day munching on fresh-from-the-clay-oven pan bisaya at Camogao. The baker, Lilibeth Alce, fills up the bread with sweet bukayo filling. She also had us sample her salbaros, made up of flour, milk, sugar and margarine, and one unique ingredient I initially could not quite put my finger on. She did not give me a hard time asking as she beamed with her answer: “Royal Tru Orange!” For one moment I had to brace myself about what the secret ingredient could be. It was nearly dusk, after all, and we were yet to come across a spot where there is any gayuma .

No harm, only charms 

Governor Zaldy Villa and national tourism officials all agree that the best way to present Siquijor to travelers is to highlight the positive instead of the absurd elements of its mystic renown. They all came up with a new nickname for the island: the country’s healing capital. This smart move saw the local government identifying and enlisting local healers, and organizing them into an association which takes part in an annual healing festival, attended by travelers from all around the world.

One of Siquijor’s more famous healers, Anecita T. Ponce, makes healing potions out of mixtures of charcoal, coconut oil and sumpa – a concoction of 200 different kinds of herbs that she only cooks once a year, during the Holy Week. The potions can be applied on ailing parts of the body, while dried up mixes of the herbs can be cooked and drunk as tea.

Another healer we were taken to was Guillermo Yungod, who practices the bolo-bolo method. Bolo means blow. Guillermo blows air into a small metal pipe with one end dipped in a glass of water, and the glass brought right in front of the ailing body part as he blows. He will keep blowing into the glass of water until the water is clear, which will signify that the healing is finished. He uses ordinary water, only made extraordinary by having little magic stones submerged in it. He found the stones in the altar of his home after waking up from a dream, where a voice instructed him about how to use them to heal. Unlike Anecita which charges a fair amount for the potions she makes, Guillermo does the healing for free.

Governor Villa anticipates the influx of more tourists in the healing capital, as plans for expanding the island’s airport are laid down. By extending the runway of the airport by 300 meters, and requesting an additional 2-kilometer extension to accommodate airbus planes, direct flights from Manila to Siquijor can be a possibility real soon, assured the governor.

Of course, despite the friendliness of the governor, I dared not ask him about where I could get that which I so wanted to take home from Siquijor as pasalubong – the gayuma. These are love potions, which Roel said the local  healers cook by mixing various plants and herbs, including amorseko (cocklebur), a plant that sticks to whatever it gets in contact with. The principle therefore is clear – as if applying perfume, rub on some love potion on your body to attract romance.

But the people of Siquijor seem to regard the gayuma with more reverence. As Roel and Ralph explained, gayuma can actually attract every good thing in life that we all aspire for, like health, abundance and success. The people of Siquijor will give you every hilarious answer disproving the existence of kulam, but ask them about whether they believe or not in gayuma, and they are unanimous, “Ah, ‘yan, totoo ‘yan ,” with the calm solemnity that can only be seen on people whose most fervent of desires have been granted.

On the last few minutes of our exploration, we headed back to a popular store that sells gayuma. By the time we arrived, it has all been sold out. The clerk said travelers usually buy in bulk, particularly foreign travelers. I should have come earlier, for it can take a while to source new batches from healers who make them. Gayuma, sold out, out of stock, in Siquijor. Who would have thought? I just could not believe it. I just could not accept it. That can only mean I will have to return, whether in the Yuletide season or any other occasion– and right there I felt the invisible hand of the alluring island doing its magic on me.

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