The island of Siquijor is a special one in the Visayas region of the Philippines. It has a somehow bad reputation for witchcraft and black magic among Filipinos. And indeed we hardly see any Filipino tourists on the island. There are mostly foreign tourists. As I am pretty interested in all things supernatural, I would like to meet some of the people who practice magic. And they call themselves healers, of course, and not sorcerers. Through our hotel we manage to find a guy who says he can take us into the mountains to some healers. Both he and the hotel stuff appear skeptical and slightly anxious when mentioning the healers. They wonder what we foreigners are looking for.
The guy has a motorbike to take us there. Well, three guys sitting on the motorbike without helmet – this may not seem very mature for a guy in his mid-thirties and might appear more dangerous than witchcraft, but that is how things work here. And our driver is careful on the road as we leave the circular island road and go the way up into the mountains of Siquijor where the healers are supposed to be found. We are going to visit three healers.
The first healer: oil and smoke
We stop at the hut of Annie Ponce, a folk healer. There is a bunch of people sitting outside. Soon we are invited into her house that is decorated with potions, Christian statues, and crosses. Folk medicine and being a devout Christian is no contradiction here. She speaks a little English, even a better than our driver. I try to tell her that I actually would like to learn more about their practices and how it works. This message does not really get through. She briefly explains she makes bad spirits go away with smoke. To none of the three healers we visit we really manage to explain that we are not primarily here for the practical healing, but more for academic curiosity. I would need an exemplary disease. So I just show Annie my arm which is still covered with the jellyfish sting marks from the snorkeling and it actually looks even worse than yesterday.
She starts immediately with the healing procedure. I am asked to sit down and become wrapped in a blanket. She mumbles a prayer. To support the healing she rubs my arms and finally my whole chest – which was actually not affected – with coconut oil. Part of the practice is smoke, so she walks around me waiving a small pot of hot coal while I have to put my arms in a way that the smoke directly passes the affected areas. Her advice is to avoid eating any chicken, eggs or shrimps which makes sense as these contain histamine and proteins that would worsen the allergic reaction.
The second healer: herbs and tea
The second healer we visit also asks for our problem. Again he does not really understand that we just want a general explanation or demonstration. So we say we want a cleansing for the whole body and I show again my arm. The name of the healer is Noel and he learned from his father-in-law who was very famous but deceased a couple of years ago. Noel has a more conventional approach. His hut is next to a forest and a huge garden where all kinds of trees and herbs grow.
He tries to explain us some herbs and plants, but the names are all in Cebuano language and we have no idea what they are called in English or Latin. We do not speak Cebuano, he knows only a little English, so our conversation is a little limited. He shows us some talismans made from wood as a protection against evil spirits. Another curious thing is a plant which promises to bring good luck with all things related to job and business. For general cleansing we are offered a herbal tea which is very dark and a little bitter. I am also given a ointment based on coconut oil and cinnamon to help with my jellyfish sting marks.
Noel is an important healer and in the upcoming Holy Week before Easter lots of healers from all over the Philippines come to Siquijor. He tells us they are brewing a huge amount of a potion for healing together at that time when spirits are alive and everywhere.
The third healer: Bolo-Bolo
On our way to the third healer we stop at the road in the middle of nowhere. Our driver says it is a little walk from here. So we follow a small path that we would have never found on our own and get down the hill to the secluded hut of the healer. While the other two healers were middle-aged, he is quite old. And his practice is more bizarre than the others. He practices Bolo-Bolo.
That means he pours clear water in an empty glass and puts a solid magical black stone in it. The water is clear initially. What happens next is that the healer comes close to you, walks around you with the glass and is breathing out into a long bamboo straw in the water making bubbles. And suddenly some dirt appears. The water is thrown away and fresh water is poured into the glass again. The procedure is repeated until the water remains clear.
Both of us try the procedure for cleansing. The things that happen when it is my turn are even more bizarre. Besides the black dirt some green flakes looking like algae appear in the water. Our driver shouts in excitement this must have to do with my jellyfish stings as it refers to the sea. Repeating the procedure even more green als also strange white flakes appear. All who are present seem visibly surprised of the amount of dirt and how long it takes to get the water in the glass clear.
Of course we wonder if and what kind of trick is involved – if he swallowed some dirt before or if it is hidden in the straw, maybe plausible for the algae, but why did it only appear when it was my turn and not before? Other sources on the internet and the owners of our guest house claim they have checked that there is nothing in their mouths, the straws or the glass.
The healers here are kind of famous here on the island as well as considering interviews or travel documentaries as we find out later. When I google about the sorcerers of Siquijor, I immediately recognize the people on the pictures. All three healers were quite interesting, the Bolo-Bolo being the strangest. My own magic ability is reading intentions and emotions. For none of the three I could identify deliberate frauds. They all were very serious about their practice and convinced about what they were doing. None of them tried to sell us their practice, we had to actively seek them and ask them to show us their work. Also they did not ask for any money. We offered a small donation however.
On the other hand I cannot claim that I suddenly felt much better in my body. The red skin marks from the jellyfish look the same as they did in the morning. Probably they will subside in a few days, with or without treatment. My personal theory is that many alternative practices work on the basis of altering one’s own mindset and activating the self-healing forces of the body. Maybe I was not totally convinced so my placebo self-healing process was not really activated. Or I just have to wait and it does not work immediately. After all they are healers and no magicians, and even conventional medicine rarely works that quickly but often has only small effects and takes time.