Siquijor / Lazi / Maria / Enrique Villanueva, Siquijor, the Philippines
March 27 – 29, 2018
My trip to Siquijor came with a warning. Friends expressed mild horror with my choice of vacation spot. Rumors – more likely fake news – of the disheveled babaylan sticking needles into voodoo dolls had dogged the island province since forever. But from the get-go at Siquijor Port, I was witness to the human side, not the dark side, of this supposedly mystical island. As I was taking a selfie at the bike rental shop, a police officer approached offering his photographic skills. Small-town hospitality was charming as it was disarming; he ended up in my photo instead.
At the back of my mind, I expected to feel weirded out, at least. A stop at Our Lady of Divine Providence Church in the town of Maria threatened to deliver the shock value. I remembered a friend’s post on Facebook about the statue of St. Rita in black, believed to go walking about at night as evidenced by dirt and bits of grass soiling her feet in the morning. I asked a passerby for the exact location of the ambulatory statue; he gestured, “Inside.” Perhaps it was out on a walk as I didn’t see it in church.
At a chapel outside, an elderly man was praying with audible cries. What anguish and desperation could well up from the depths of his soul? Perhaps his wife was at the throes of death at home. Or a child was in peril in a foreign land. I came for superstition; I saw faith in action.
It was over at Lazi that I would have my first meaningful human interaction in Siquijor. Fresh off the bike at the acacia-canopied church and convent grounds, I was, in no time, approached by a pubescent boy peddling colored candles. A non-Catholic like me had no use for his wares. Ting! A light-bulb moment though: He could be my resource person in place of a tour guide.
With permission for video recording, I let him introduce his town’s 134-year-old San Isidro Labrador Parish Church. John Brylle didn’t shy away and proceeded to say that the church was remarkable for its uneven wooden floor. I couldn’t make heads and tails of his explanation – that the church was partly built on solid ground and on water. The boy may have taken liberties with hard facts, but if it was town’s lore, then it was no less interesting, perhaps even more.
But like any tout, he vanished as quickly as he appeared upon receiving his big, fat tip, probably a week’s worth of internet rental. Gone with him was any insight I could get about Lazi Convent just across the street. The largest and oldest convent in Asia was restored as a museum, closed for the Holy Week, unfortunately.
Ki and I had not made any reservations; we simply dropped in late in the afternoon at Ocean View Farm & Cottages on the strength of a suggestion from a neighboring resort’s life guard. Manager Lilia Anoos, whose family owned this development-in-progress, was unprepared for guests that day, yet a traditional-modern fusion cottage was made ready in a jiffy while we relaxed at the beach.
Lilia was on top of it all. As the resort was in the fringes of civilization and we were bone-weary from biking half the island, she had her girl Friday whip up a native chicken tinola dinner served al fresco at the porch. All-organic ingredients gave an exotic flavor to this common dish. The cook looked pleased to collect an empty bowl, a testament to her culinary skills.
Come morning, Lilia invited us to the main house for a sumptuous breakfast spread seasoned with interesting conversation about her life in Siquijor. Lean season for tourism brought about such personalized service. As the only customers of the resort, we were treated like family guests.
Our morning walk by the beach detoured through a coconut grove. We chanced on farmer Vincent Castillo busy cracking open coconuts he had harvested. Barely looking up, he explained it was for raw materials to make virgin coconut oil. Though he didn’t betray any sign of annoyance, he was obviously unaccustomed to such attention. We left him to his business of breaking nuts for their virginity.
Later as we drove through the town of Enrique Villanueva, we stopped by a long stretch of beach. John Rey Hinaut, still clad in his wet suit, abandoned his roadside merienda to indulge our curiosity. Confident in his know-how and eloquent in his native Cebuano, he launched a crash course on the age-old fishing contraption called bubu – a fish trap of bamboo and rattan mesh – we found drying out by the highway.
This fishing method seemed highly efficient as it required neither trawling nor waiting for fishy bonanza. Fixed on the sea bed for a week or so, the cage could catch bigger fish like bigeye jack for fishermen without requiring much effort. It was fortuitous that we found this traditional art of fishing still practiced in our islands in this day and age.
Our hunt for the next accommodation was concluded hastily by approaching twilight. There was no room at any inn until we reached Tubod Riverside Guesthouse tucked away in the fringes of resort town San Juan. It was still within the tourist trail yet off the beaten track. A knock on the gate triggered a trio of barking dogs. I had just made a pivot to escape when a staff appeared and bade me in to meet the boss.
The seemingly fierce dogs the day before were actually clingy and affectionate, rubbing their fur on our legs like cats and practically begging to be petted. One was named Evita, the most sociable – or perhaps manipulative like her namesake – of the lot. She stubbornly stayed by our side until she got belly rubs and head caresses. The affinity was mutual with this die-hard Madonna fan.
This place had feel-good vibe all over. Desperate for a roof over our heads the day before, we felt lucky to meet owner Eva Villanueva who offered her spacious cottage with a discount. That good a deal came at the most opportune time. It was all a stark counterpoint to my creepy experience the previous night.
Before bedtime, Ki decided to get drinking water from Eva’s house. I hit the shower. And finished. And dried my hair. An hour on and still no sign of Ki. And no cellphone signal or Wi-Fi. Anxiety crept in. I peeped out the window time and again; nothing stirred in the dead of night. My vivid imagination convinced me I was living out a horror film premise: the isolated guest house was a trap, Ki had been done in, I would be next. This was Siquijor, after all, the island of black magic. The only point up for debate was whether I was in a slasher flick or a supernatural suspense.
Spoiler alert: Ki showed up alive and well. He lost track of time looking out to the moonlit sea from our clifftop perch. After the paranoia, a flurry of emotions came over me: relief that the worry was over and guilt for doubting the goodwill of the people here. And I just felt silly for all of the above.
With us on the ro-ro out of Siquijor was a man traveling with a boy. Ki later recognized the older one to be the good Samaritan who jump-started our bike that conked out at Ocean View. He was taking the farm boy, not related to him, to see the “city” for the first time. In rural Siquijor, city was Dumaguete in the next island.
What an honor to share the momentous maiden journey of this young man from a farm in Siquijor. Dumaguete, previously a quaint provincial city to us, was revealed to be the urban area it had always been. But it took the eyes of an island boy for us to see. Such was the transformative power of Siquijor. There was none of the witchery it was known for, only the spell cast by her humans and at least one dog.