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The Search for Soul

They said it was a place where witches still practiced, a land that cast spells. As a child, I quivered at stories of Siquijor’s black magic. Three decades later, jaded and approaching pre-midlife crisis, I needed magic–of any sort. I headed for the Island of Fire.

Lazi Convent hallway

Lazi Convent hallway

“Be nice,” my mother reminded me, knowing my penchant for returning cold food and not-so-well-done meat in restaurants. “You don’t know what those people can do.”

I packed my most pleasing personality–and my husband, who is niceness personified–and flew to Dumaguete.

Siquijor is an hour by ferry from Dumaguete City, the gateway to visitors from Manila. Being the Philippines’ third smallest province (it used to be part of Negros Oriental) with only around 91,000 inhabitants, Siquijor does not have its own airport. Except on Holy Week, when the media and tourists descend on the island for its curiosities, human traffic could not justify building one.

At the pier, visitors are welcomed by a sign that immediately tries to douse the quest for whatever dark mystery the tourists came for: “Siquijor is just perfect for relaxing and recuperating. Sorcery and black magic do not exist in this island – anyone who offer services for OCCULT practices are FAKES. Report immediately to Provincial Tourism Office.” (Note: Emphasis theirs)

Of course, nobody’s doing any reporting here–everybody wants magic.

We just wanted the beach and the fireflies.

Villa Marmarine beachfront

Villa Marmarine beachfront

After dinner at Triad, an isolated restaurant on the island’s highest point, in Larena, we traveled about 30 minutes on motorbike up another hill, on the so-called Firefly Road. Save for the motorbike’s light, we were moving in complete darkness.

Sunset in Siquijor

Sunset in Siquijor

I looked up. And time stopped.

The sky was dirty with stars.

I forgot about the fireflies. I no longer looked around, I simply gazed at the heavens until the engine died and we were back at the resort. It was the best stiff neck I’ve ever had. I had never seen so many stars.

The next morning, I woke up with an allergy. Normally, I’d feel rotten about getting sick while on vacation, but this time, I thought it was cool. I could test the prowess of those “good witches” to whom Siquijodnons turn for treatment. There was no hospital in the province until 1982, but even now, the locals and some politicians are known to seek the help of traditional healers or mananambal first.

“Where are the witches?” I asked our driver Aipee, who was in charge of our island tour.

He smiled a wary smile. “There are no witches here.”

I raised my eyebrow.

“Okay… How about a healer? I want to see a healer,” I told him, showing him my rashes. That they did have, he said.

The centuries-old Cang-Isok house, the oldest in Central Visayas

The centuries-old Cang-Isok house, the oldest in Central Visayas

We arrived at the nipa house of Consing Achay, one of the last bolo-bolo healers in Siquijor, at past noon. She was performing the healing rite on a neighbor who had ghastly open wounds. When they were done, she turned to Aipee and asked in Visayan what was bothering me.

Allergy, I said.

She emptied her glass, washed her sacred pebbles and poured clean water into the glass. She made the sign of the cross and began running the glass through my arms, neck and back while blowing into a bamboo straw and mumbling what seemed like an incantation. All I could think of was how this 86-year-old healer could wear hot red nail polish.

The water gurgled; Manang Consing did not stop blowing until sandy particles appeared in the glass. Those were the bad elements in my body, Aipee said. Manang Consing threw out the dirty water and repeated the procedure thrice, until the water was clear. That meant I had been cleansed of whatever was causing my illness.

Cambugahay falls

Cambugahay falls

I checked, and my rashes were still there, but because a “donation” was required, I gave Manang Consing P100. I’m sure the American, Japanese and Australian tourists that came earlier gave more. This healer, after all, is famous — she’s been featured by BBC News Magazine.

Curiosity satisfied, we proceeded to the Cambugahay falls in Lazi, a town which boasts the oldest convent in Asia. We descended more than 100 steps (I stopped counting at 132) to get to the first falls but the best one was further down.

Aside from a young Mexican couple, we had the pool to ourselves. The falls was a low drop but the pool was deep and cold and clear. An hour there did more for my health than the bolo-bolo. In fact, even the not-so-pretty Salagdoong beach in the town of Maria, with its tacky concrete facilities, made me feel better.

By the time we rounded up the centuries-old Lazi Church and Convent, the Francis de Assisi Church, and the oldest house in Central Visayas, which is slowly crumbling, I was practically hopping back to the resort.

I forgot about my allergy, I forgot about my toxic work nights, I forgot about my biological clock, I forgot about my unfulfilled dreams. I simply laid my tired back on the hammock by the beach, put my feet up and stared at the bright blue sky.

Everything’s going to be all right.

Salagdoong Beach

Salagdoong Beach


Villa Marmarine Resort

Villa Marmarine Resort


Villa Marmarine, a quaint, Japanese-run resort in Siquijor town, has free wi-fi, a luxury in the province, and a beachfront with Boracay-ish sand. Its cottages (Php1,000-3,000/night without breakfast) are charming and well-kept. The owner gives 10 percent of the resort’s earnings to scholarships. In a province bereft of good restaurants, Villa Marmarine offers the best dining option on the island (Php100-300/dish). Coco Grove in San Juan is the most popular and commercialized — and expensive — resort in Siquijor, but it has a private beach and lives up to expectations.

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