Mystical Siquijor
- Nathalie M. Tomada () - October 3, 2010 - 12:00am

CEBU, Philippines - The day is dissolving into dusk in this hilly barangay of Tag-ibo in the town of San Juan in Siquijor Island, but visitors are still arriving in the home of folk healer Conching Achay.

A small-framed woman in her 80s, Nang Conching stands in a corner of a receiving area back-dropped by an altar with religious images and a black cat by the doorway, examining a female “patient.”

The patient has red, scaly and itchy spots on her once flawless face, which she bemoans dermatologists failed to remedy for two years now.

Nang Conching feels her pulse. “You can tell by a person’s pulse if the illness is brought about by bad spirits or not,” she tells The FREEMAN in Cebuano.

She then half-fills a glass with water, drops a “magical” black stone into the glass, and blows air into it using a six-inch bamboo tube, while pressing the glass to the young woman’s face. Dust, dirt and some shrubs surprisingly appear in the water.

Nang Conching repeats this procedure with another glass half-filled with clear water. Then she does this again, and again, until the water no longer turns murky and dark, which means that the toxins have been eliminated from her body.

Nang Conching rubs an herbal liniment on her face, and offers a word of counsel, “You’ve been the object of other people’s envy. Don’t draw too much attention to yourself.”

“Also, avoid looking at the mirror too much.”

Nang Conching, one of the 50 identified healers of Siquijor, just performed the bolo-bolo, a folk healing ritual that is unique to this island-province.

Siquijor folk healers believe that illnesses can be explained as either caused by the supernatural or natural. Since not all are attributable to the workings of supernatural forces, you can expect the likes of Nang Conching dishing old wives’ tales and advice on how to avoid the ill-effects of say, physical strain, weather changes, and even too much vanity.

“Alternative medicine” is now in vogue, and Nang Conching with the rest of Siquijor’s folk healers have been generating renewed interest, particularly from the unlikeliest of patients (i.e. foreigners). Since some of these healers are even included in the promotional posters of the local resorts, they have been drawing in curious tourists, despite some measure of difficulty reaching their place. In Nang Conching’s case, her house is isolated and located near the end of an uncemented road.

Nevertheless, Japanese national Toshitl Harada, who owns Villa Marmarine Resort in Siquijor, says that this seems not to matter at all to the batches of Japanese tourists he brings to these healers to try out their folk medicine methods. The Japanese, he says, are no strangers to traditional medicine, but the rustic, quaint and tranquil environment of the island-province provides much for the appeal of the Siquijodnon folk healing experience.

Another foreign resort owner, Johnnie Karstensen of the Danish Lagoon, says that he used to suffer from psoriasis, but a bolo-bolo healer told him to wrap his skin with tugas (molave) bark. He claims he has been healed through this, adding that the weather is also perfect for a person to relax and recuperate. “There are so many Europeans suffering from psoriasis, so imagine what it can do to tourism if they all come here to be treated.”

The provincial government has now jump-started efforts to develop and tap into Siquijor’s potential as a healing and wellness destination. By doing so, they hope to shed off Siquijor’s image as the land of sorcery, hexing or black magic, which has had, for the longest time, given an unflattering look at the island, officials said.

Given the negative impressions and the “unfounded” fears it has fomented, sorcery talk is either frowned upon or ignored in Siquijor. If queried about it, locals readily tell visitors that they don’t believe in it, while others are quick to dismiss it as a dead practice. In the anthropological museum of Silliman University in Dumaguete City, there’s a section displaying witchcraft paraphernalia collected from Siquijor as evidence of it as a practice, as Siquijodnons say, in the past.

But the stigma is apparently wearing off, what with the increase in tourist arrivals. Based on the Provincial Tourism Office records, Siquijor had over 100,000 visitors in 2009, a roughly 30 percent rise from the previous year. Still, the guests are spillovers from the more tourist-preferred neighboring islands of Bohol, Dumaguete and Cebu, and the numbers do not dignify what this postcard-pretty island can offer.

Branding “Mystical Siquijor” as a healing destination has been deemed a good and strategic step to differentiate it from the similar sand-sun-sea-surf attractions of its neighbors. Gov. Orlando Fua Jr. tells The FREEMAN: “At present we are trying to catalogue every point of interest that Siquijor can offer, also encompassing the healing practices of Siquijor, including traditions and folklore that mystify people to Siquijor.”

Elsewhere in the world, travel destinations promoting and banking on traditional healing rituals—from China, to Germany, to Native America—are fast-growing in number.

According to Provincial Tourism head Jossette Armirola, this new direction for Siquijor has found further encouragement from an assessment study recently undertaken by the Department of Tourism - Region 7, together with health and wellness experts in the country. She says the assessment report gave Siquijor high marks for its potential to be a wellness destination.

In the Philippines, Tagaytay is staking a claim as such with its host of resort-spa properties plus retreat centers. But according to Jomar Fleras, a wellness expert who has advocated showcasing traditional healing practices in a spa setting, what sets Siquijor apart is that there’s a lot of culture involved.

He stresses that Siquijor is “special because it offers a folkloric experience” with its healing rituals and healers using varied and fascinating techniques in diagnosing and treating illnesses.

Fleras, who was also part of the assessment group formed by DOT-7, further states that one advantage going for Siquijor is that some of its healers received training from the Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Health Care (PITAHC).

And if we may add, another plus point of these healers, or at least those we interviewed for this feature, is that they are open, personable and media-savvy.

According to Virgie Miquiabas, Ph.D of the Siquijor State College, who has written a book on the island’s mystical practices, there are 50 identified healers in this island with a population of roughly 100,000 people. Apart from the bolo-bolo , some of the rituals and devices employed by the healers are hilot (massaging), tawal (prayers or oracion), sticks, eggs, candles, among others.

Noy Perdo Ano-os of the town of Lazi, who was just interviewed by a Japanese TV crew at the time of our visit, says that his healing tools are a blessed candle and herbal medicine made of ingredients from church vicinity, the river fronting his home, and the mountains. He lights up this candle, and moves it around a patient’s body, while he murmurs special prayers.

Although he doesn’t hesitate recommending to patients to go see a medical doctor, he shares that he is often summoned to the hospital to treat patients already undergoing conventional medication.

It is also interesting to note how their traditional medicine practice is closely and strongly intertwined with their folk and Christian beliefs. For one, the healers, or at least those we encountered, claim that their healing powers emanate from the saints, from the Virgin Mary, and from God. They say that these curative powers were entrusted to them through dreams or even apparitions.

While folk healing is perceived to be at odds with Christian belief systems, the healers we interviewed genuinely regard what they have as a gift that should be put to good and maximum use. They say they do not put a price tag on their treatments and accept donations only.

Noy Perdo, who is in his 70s, admits that many approach him to put a hex (barang, in Cebuano) on other people for a huge pay, but he says he turns them down because it is a contradiction: how can he be called a healer if he wishes other people ill?

As for the bolo-bolo healer Nang Conching, when asked if she has gotten severely sick in all of her 80-plus years, she says, “Gikaloy-an ko sa Ginoo, gilikay ko niya sa sakit, kay unsaon naman nako pag-tabang sa uban kung masakiton ko? (I believe God has felt pity on me and has spared me from serious ailments because how can I help others if I am sick?).

So, why do healers come aplenty and why does folk healing thrive in Siquijor, despite the presence of modern medicine? Dr. Virgie Miquiabas reckons that it is because it has become a tradition that’s been passed on from generation to generation. “Based on my research and interactions with several of these healers, they have already trained relatives so that in the event that they passed away, the practice is sustained because they see it as their profession or trade.”

The governor’s father, Congressman Orlando Fua Sr., for his part, frankly admits to The Freeman that he is a non-believer of folk healing, but surmises that it still exists in Siquijor because the place is abundant in herbal plants.

“If you ask me if I believe in Siquijor’s folk healing, no I don’t. But the herbal treatments are another story,” he says. “Daghan jud diri ang herbal plants (There are a lot here.) The different herbal products you see on television and radio, we have long known about them and their medicinal properties. Growing up then in a large family with very little means, we took in herbal medicine brewed by our mother whenever we got sick.”

In heavily-forested Mt. Bandilaan, the highest peak of Siquijor, and the venue of the province’s First Healing Festival during the last Holy Week, there’s also an area allocated by the government to grow the plants needed for herbal concoctions.

But one cannot just harvest ingredients anytime or frequently, as healers believe this has to be undertaken once in a year only, and during the days leading to the Holy Week to be effective. There is also a group that is solely in charge for the cropping and gathering, and they are called themangangalap.

These herbal plants interestingly bear the names of the kind of effect it leaves on patients, like Tawa Tawa (laughter), Sumbalik (return), Sibog-balik, Tulay (connection), Tulog-Tulog (rest), et cetera.

Twenty-five specific types of these same herbs and leaves are also used in the island-province’s famous love potions, which are the best-selling among all the products that the provincial government brings to trade and travel shows.

But the healers, as well as the herbalism, are just part and parcel to the whole “healing” picture. An overall sense of well-being is induced by the surroundings. Siquijor takes pride in having that, with its fire-tree framed landscapes, gentle, leisurely pace, and array of eco-tourism gems.

No wonder it became the set of the 3rd season of the Japanese version of the popular reality game show franchise “Survivor” in 2002. This was long before other foreign editions of “Survivor,” famous for featuring the world’s most exotic of environs, discovered the Caramoan Peninsula in Camarines Sur.

Gov. Orlando Fua Jr. says, “We have some of the finest beaches in the region, and we still have pristine forests that can be found in Mt. Bandilaan. We’ve maintained the natural beauty of the island.”

There also well-preserved caves, waterfalls, and spring parks, like the Cambugahay and Lugnason Falls, the Cantabon Cave, the Guiwanon Spring Park, which has cottages suspended high above mangrove grounds, among others.

And it is a natural beauty that is apparently time honored and tested, if we were to take into account the pronouncements of the Spanish Recollect friar who built the sprawling St. Isidore Labrador church and convent—named National Cultural Treasures by the National Museum—in the languid town of Lazi.

As documented by the Siquijor Heritage Foundation Museum, Fray Toribio Sanchez had written to a fellow priest why the convent, said to be the largest in Asia, was constructed from 1887-1891: “I want to build a spacious convent so that sick priests can come and rest here because your town is very restful for the mind and spirit.”

Restful and healing journeys cum packages to Siquijor should be not far behind. This October, the LGU hopes to begin its community tour guides training and specializing on healing, training for healers and their family members on customer service, among others. It looks like the traveler looking to veer off tourist traps and well-beaten tracks in the Philippines has an alternative travel concept and experience to look forward to. ?

CONCHING FOLK HEALERS HEALING HOLY WEEK NANG CONCHING SIQUIJOR
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