In 2010, I was sent by a travel magazine to Siquijor, a small island province in the Visayas region of the Philippines. You need a ferry to get there, and I and the photographer took one from Dumaguete.
The island was first called “Katagusan,” after the molave (Vitex parviflora) trees that populated it. When the Spanish colonized the Philippines, they named it “Isla del Fuego” after the fireflies that illuminated the island at night. The province’s current name has two alleged sources. The first is from “Kihod,” the man who ruled the island at the time the Spanish arrived, the second is from the Cebuano word “quidjod,” which means “the tide is going out.”
Siquijor is a tourist spot that’s known for its beautiful beaches and lush forests. But what it’s really known for is its link to the supernatural. Ask anyone in the Philippines about Siquijor and the first thing they will tell you is that the island is bewitched. The province has long been associated with occult practitioners and mythological creatures. There are documentaries about both its scary and sacred side on YouTube. One of its biggest attractions is its annual Healing Festival, which happens during Holy Week and is when the island’s healers gather herbs and concoct herbal medicines to use throughout the year.
My assignment was simple: enjoy the island and the resort and write about it after. Not the hardest thing to do, especially since even the dock is postcard pretty. Of course, as a horror writer, the island’s reputation was never far from my mind.
Before I left Manila, a friend who is sensitive (in the ‘I can sense energies’ way, not the ‘you hurt my feelings’ way) told me to watch out because I might get hexed by a mother and child. I didn’t think anything of it because how could anything bad happen on an island paradise?
The dive resort I and my photographer stayed in was one of the best on the island. Siquijor is also a beautiful dive spot. It’s reputation as a mystical island means a lot of its natural resources remained untouched, even in 2010. I don’t know what it’s like now.
Part of the assignment included a tour of the island. Some of the places we visited include the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Siquijor town and the San Isidro Labrador Parish Church in the municipality of Lazi, both of them built in the 1800s during the Spanish occupation. We also toured the Lazi convent which stood across the church.
We also visited a centuries-old balete tree. Balete is the local name for several types of plants that fall under the genus ficus. It is also known as the strangler fig in English because their air roots hang onto host trees, later suffocating them so the balete can grow. In Philippine folklore, this massive tree is believed to house different kinds of mythological creatures, from duende, the local version of dwarves; to kapres, hairy giants who like to hang out in large trees, smoking cigars and scaring people; engkantos or fairies; and tikbalangs, beings with horse heads and human bodies.
Siquijor has a specifically famous one in Lazi that’s become a tourist spot. Simply called “The Old Balete Tree,” the tree is over 400 years old and is thought of as particularly enchanted because of the stream that flows underneath it. No one knows where the water comes from, so it’s thought of as mystical. The area surrounding the stream has been cemented so that it looks like a shallow swimming pool. According to blog posts, swimming is allowed.
Part of our itinerary included a visit to Cambugahay Falls, a popular swimming spot and tourist attraction. The short waterfall is composed of multi-layered cascading falls that empty into a pool that feeds many lagoons before flowing out into Lazi Bay. I couldn’t visit it as I have a muscular disability and could not handle the steep and slippery dirt road that led to the falls. Unfortunately, much of the Philippines is unfriendly to persons with disabilities, including tourist attractions.
I stayed by the hotel jeep on the roadside to wait while the photographer and our drive took a dip. It was a hot day, so I bought a bottle of water from a couple of roadside vendors.
The trip was pretty uneventful, supernatural-wise. What was interesting was that everyone seemed keen to disavow the island’s mystical roots. Whenever I would ask someone about the island’s reputation, they would immediately say one of two things: either it wasn’t true, or that it was something only their elders believed. In this sense, I was disappointed. Siquijor was majestic, but I didn’t get to see any evidence of the supernatural.
Or so I thought.
When I got back to Manila, I started having slight trouble typing. My right thumb would slide on the keyboard of its own accord, sort of like a highly specific twitch. I thought it was a muscle spasm, probably from my disability, but it was playing havoc on my writing. Who knew that such a small thing would have such a big impact? Still, I didn’t think anything of it.
I did happen to mention it to my sensitive friend, though. She said that I had been hexed while on the island and that she would pray over it so that it would go away. I didn’t really believe her, but I see any harm in being prayed over either, so I let her do it. Two days later, the twitch was gone. Everything could have been coincidental, but those are very small odds.
I began to think back to which part of the trip I could have gotten the hex from. I remembered my friend’s prior warning and realized that the vendors I bought the bottled water from at Cambugahay Falls were a mother and son.
There’s a belief in the Philippines that not all people who place an “usog,” or a hex on others do so out of malice. Sometimes, they do so unwittingly because they’ve taken notice of the person in a good way.
For example, when someone makes “bati” a child by, for example, calling them cute, either the person will have to wet their thumb with saliva and rub it on the child (unhygienic, I know) or the child’s parent or guardian will have to utter a phrase to counter the child’s being “noticed” by that person. If this doesn’t happen, the child’s soul could be misaligned and the child could fall ill.
Sometimes, the sickness of a child whose illness has no known cause is attributed to their “being noticed,” and a healer must be called to realign the child’s soul because it’s something that a medical doctor won’t be able to treat.
In Tagalog, Bati’s literal translation means “to greet” and usog’s literal translation means “to move aside. It would be interesting to find out how their meanings shifted from their literal to folkloric ones.
This belief was still widespread when I was growing up in the 80s. I’m not sure if people still believe it now. In any case, I don’t think the mother and son meant me any harm. I think they just thought I was interesting and accidentally put a hex on me, one that I didn’t discover until I had gotten back to Manila, and one that I thankfully didn’t need to go to a healer for.
Would I go back to Siquijor? I certainly would. It’s a beautiful place, one that would be enchanting, even without its reputation for the occult and the mystical.