You learn a lot of useful things while traveling, particularly in a place such as Siquijor Island in the Philippines.
For instance, I didn’t know that a manananaggal is a hideous, blood-sucking witch capable of detaching her upper torso and sprouting wings to search the night for victims.
By day, they may appear as normal females, possibly even luring some boys to chat them up. All seems well at first glance. That is, until the forked tongue emerges during your innocent dinner conversation. And let’s not forget about the demonic wings that pop out. They leave your date’s lower torso standing in place as the top half flies away — greatly reducing chances for a second date.
Needless to say, you don’t want to run into a manananaggal under any circumstances. You can find manananaggals lurking in the Visayas — the geographical heart of the Philippine archipelago. They might also be found on some dating apps.
I was warned over and over about traveling to Siquijor, a small island bobbing among the Visayas. Even educated people I met on Bohol Island told me about the spooks, witches, manananaggals, and other mythological creatures that prefer to call Siquijor home. The amount of superstition with which Siquijor is regarded is amazing. Then again, the Philippines did come across as a fairly superstitious place.
Ferdinand Magellan turned up in 1521 to deliver a particularly heavy dose of Christianity. But he didn’t manage to completely wipe out the old animist ways. Some devotees still volunteer themselves on Good Friday to be publicly flagellated and crucified, despite the government and the Catholic Church begging them not to do so. The religion may have stuck, but going to the Philippines turned out to be a real career-limiting decision for Ferdinand at age 41.
My first reaction to all the warnings about Siquijor Island was predictable: I immediately purchased a ferry ticket. Needing to visit any island flagged as “cursed” is pretty much a given. Call it an occupational hazard for this job.
But I will admit, I was twitchy. I spent the better part of the bumpy ride across rough seas looking warily at the other passengers. Surely someone needed a dosing of salt and garlic — the primary weapons effective against manananaggals and bad internet dates. I was feeling a little invincible after having just survived Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms ever recorded on landfall.
Even more alluring than the prospect of winged witches was the actual existence of herbalists on the island. These famed “witch doctors” had purportedly created a real-life love potion. The mix of roots and herbs was said to make people euphoric and amiable when it was diffused into the room by boiling.
I hadn’t timed my trip well: the island was quiet. An annual festival on Siquijor does attract herbalists and international coverage, but I missed it. During the event, all the outcasts in the Visayas converge on one place to share secrets and mysterious ingredients. Instead, I was going to have to look hard for them. Already, I had heard the true story of a German man with type 1 diabetes who returns year after year to the island to be treated with jungle herbs. After his two-week treatment, he scares the crap out of his doctors by not taking insulin injections — and surviving — for the rest of the year.
Some jungle cures work well and even provide inspiration for modern pharmaceuticals. Aspirin originated from the bark of the lowly willow tree. Indigenous people survived for a long time without Viagra or Valium. They had plants to chew on.
As days burned hot, I grew tired of tip-toeing across plastic-strewn beaches. It was time to get down to business on Siquijor. No self-respecting spook would ever set up shop near the coasts. They avoided the trickle of tourists who were busy sunburning among toothbrush handles and headless Barbie torsos. It was time to enter the shadowy heart of the island, the luscious interior oozing with verdant mystique.
The motorbike rental shop was nothing more than a family’s home. An enterprising teenager was willing to rent me his motorbike for a day’s wages. The large Filipino woman, presumably his mother, was excited to see me. Foreigners only knocked on her door for one reason.
“You wait here. I will call for the motorbike.”
After a quick exchange on the phone, she flopped onto a frayed rug in front of the television to rub her swollen feet. I sat on the porch in the morning sun to wait while her son siphoned petrol out of the tank.
Part of the unspoken rental agreement included the family getting to keep whatever fuel was returned in the bike. Beside me, flies were in a frenzy on some small, silvery fish laid out in the sun to dry on a bamboo mat.
Within minutes, the smiling teen pulled up on my future motorbike. The Honda dirt bike was almost new. It was a shiny, blue machine with off-road tires. The tires made it look more manly than my usual scooter rentals in Southeast Asia. After our exchange, I was soon burning my bottom on the sun-heated seat and looking for the nearest petrol station. A turn of the key had revealed that her son was good at his job.
I popped through the gears and fortunately had just enough momentum to roll in front of a wooden shack with rusted fuel barrel in front. A bored-looking teenage girl leaned on her elbows inside. I raised the seat so she could pour gas into my motorbike from antique Pepsi bottles. The two choices for fuel at the shack were “red” or “green.”
Tank full and small backpack loaded, I joined my Dutch partner in crime, Laura, at a family-run restaurant to determine an avenue of approach for tracking down the spooks. Per the Lonely Planet Philippines, the witch doctors were said to hang around San Antonio, a small village on the slope of a mountain deep in the island interior.
I grimaced at the thought of having to follow up on such an obvious suggestion from the Lonely Planet, but it was our only lead. I envisioned rolling into town to be greeted by signs advertising love potions for sale. More than a few “secret” things in Southeast Asia have been brutalized into commercial ventures that target backpackers. Backpackers who, like myself, complained about commercialization then came anyway.
We had already given best effort to avoid walking into a tourist trap. Every trustworthy person I asked about the herbalists shrank away and pretended not to know. Or they hinted that they knew someone who knew someone — insert a wink or two insinuating that a few dollars would help them remember. One offered to arrange a meeting between us and some herbalists. It made my tourist-scam spider sense tingle, so we declined.
“Hey, Uncle Rodrigo, think you can pretend to be a shaman for 30 minutes?”
Surprisingly, despite Siquijor Island having earned nicknames such as “Island of Fire” and “Mystique Island,” there had not been a single sign, mention, or hint of love potions or witch doctors anywhere. The islanders were exceptionally friendly. If they had bat wings, they hid them well.
The spooks on this island actually were secretive. I was pleased by this. Hidden delights are often destined to be dragged into the light, especially by travel writers in need of stuff to write about. Ahem. Why weren’t we seeing signs for buy two love potions, get a voodoo doll free! as we disembarked from the ferry?
It was time to find out.
Searching for Witch Doctors
The motorbike groaned with effort up the steep mountain. I stomped the shifter through lower gears, but that didn’t stop us from actually stalling out and beginning a precarious downhill slide. Just as I thought the strained gearbox would explode in a disheartening array of gizmos, we would crest a hill then pick up reckless speed ripping down the other side.
Loose gravel kept the rear tire clawing at the road. The path had now tapered down to a single lane with jungle on both sides. Through the trees, I caught glimpses of the coast far down below. Few things are as exhilarating as riding through the jungle, pounding gears on an overworked motorbike, with no idea what is up ahead.
Had we blinked, we would have missed San Antonio. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a trace of anything indicating that witch doctors could be stirring cauldrons nearby. There was no reason to believe that this wasn’t just another dusty, forgotten village floating along on one of the Philippines’ 7,000 islands.
There were three small shops side by side that made up “downtown” San Antonio. A few locals milled about or stared at us with cigarettes dangling. I could smell hot oil when we dismounted. Our Honda needed a break as much as we did.
The first shop on the end was nothing more than a metallic enclosure with dusty bags of local-brand cheese puffs dangling from hooks. Iron bars defended the worthless junk; the tired-looking proprietor lived in a veritable jail cell. The aging man shuffled around on the inside of his tiny world in a dirty, sleeveless top. He strained to hear me as I ducked to speak through the small opening where money rarely passed.
I broke the ice by supporting his business, always a good thing. I purchased an ancient bottle of Sprite with a rusted top. It was warm to the touch. Grubby fingers handed over a few coins. Now that I was a paying customer, I leaned in a little closer to get down to business.
“Do you know where I can find a…um…witch doctor?” I nervously inquired. What a strange question to find yourself asking on a random afternoon in Asia.
The man spoke good broken English; I was happy to hear it. A certain level of communication is required for missions as strange as this one. Regardless, he mumbled as if he didn’t understand.
“Do you know where I can buy medicine? I want to buy special herbs.” I spoke loudly and clearly.
Now the shopkeeper was openly nervous. He rubbed the back of his neck, as if mulling my request over. He mumbled something about perhaps having a friend — he grimaced when he used the word — who could help, but it would take some time. He was perspiring heavily. As his body language grew worse, I suddenly realized something:
This man thought I was trying to buy marijuana.
Clearly a lost cause, I smiled, waved, and walked to the shop next door. I could hear the man’s audible sigh of relief. Next, a collection of women stood at the doorway in white shirts and baseball hats. Young children kicked a ball around in the dirt. A middle-aged woman held a crying baby in her arms as chickens pecked.
I ordered a Coke, which was also warm and ancient. The faded logo announced the bottle to be circa 1987. The women urged us to sit for a while among the screaming children. There were stacks of empty bottles in red and blue plastic crates bound for deposits.
The woman who spoke the most English was delightful. After some gentle prying, and some squirming on her part, I learned that she “had heard of” a family producing local medicine. They lived just up the road. So far, the villagers of San Antonio didn’t seem too excited about the presence of their famed curers of type 1 diabetes. Something strange was going on.
We thanked the group then sped off in a cloud of dust and gossip.
Buying the Love Potion in Siquijor
Turns out, we had been incredibly close to discovering the shaman household on our own. We left the village center, turned left at a fork in the road, and wound farther up the slope of the mountain for only a few minutes. I knew the house as soon as I saw it. Unlike the other houses, this one was in incredible disarray, save for an impressive garden of herbs and plants.
Flowering vines stretched along the dilapidated porch. A collection of rusting junk dotted the muddy front lot. The plants clearly had priority here.
The family saw me coming. As I approached the open front door, a small kid in swim shorts suddenly emerged. His dark, defiant eyes met mine; a green stream of snot leaked from one nostril. He just looked like a bad kid, and to confirm my suspicions, he planted a solid, soccer-worthy kick into the family dog’s ribs. The dog yelped and moved out of the doorway. Just behind the dog was a cat with one freshly missing ear, blood still oozed from the wound. Tiny kittens took a peek at us visitors then clambered back into the exposed living room.
A handful of male family members, some drunk and some pissed off, began to collect around us. The air reeked of negative energy. Everyone inside seemed particularly unhappy about our intrusion. And to think, ironically, these people manufacture love potions?
Just as we began to rethink our decision of walking up to a random house on this island of spooks, a short, middle-aged woman appeared. She was the only smiling face in sight. Around her neck hung various wooden talismans including a large, prominent Catholic cross. She knew right away why we foreigners were there and invited us inside the grim room. Family members sat on mats and against the cinder-block walls. The space was darkly lit and smelled of sickly herbs and musky bodies. An aging TV flickered some grainy channel with uncertainty. Laura and I both agreed that an undeniably negative energy hung in the place.
“You want to buy a love potion?” The purported witch doctor asked through stained, betel-nut teeth. Well, now we were getting somewhere. This woman wanted to get down to business, and I saw no reason as to why we shouldn’t. We had come too far to abort now.
She led me to a single wall in the living room. Various vials and wooden amulets hung on display. She explained the unique uses for each and how the amulets had been hollowed out, filled with herbs, then plugged. Glass mouthwash bottles and other containers had been repurposed with mysterious mixtures.
Trying not to sound too much like a journalist, I hounded the woman with questions as grizzled family members stared on. She shared that the Japanese simply couldn’t get enough of her creation, and representatives returned to the island each year to purchase as much stock as she could make.
The purported love potion was put into potpourri pots during business meetings in Japan to facilitate better deals. She showed me article clippings in Japanese with photos of herself to prove that they were her largest customer. The roots, bark, and herbs in each potion were difficult to come by. Some were seasonal. All ingredients had to be foraged from the surrounding jungle or tracked down and traded.
I chose a small vial of herbs containing her famous love potion and a small amulet as a souvenir. To be honest, I made my choice based solely upon cosmetics; none of the concoctions had a smell. I figured a bottle without a Listerine label would be much more exciting to show off as I bragged about my love potion at home.
We haggled over price and eventually settled on the equivalent of US $10. I probably could have bargained harder, but the possibility of getting cursed, hexed, or stabbed made me feel especially generous this particular afternoon. There’s a high likelihood that I paid exorbitantly for a tiny bottle of useless jungle leaves. I wouldn’t know any different. Then again, I’m bound to get at least $10 worth of conversation out of the strange vial, particularly if airport security asks me about it.
Little did I know how deep the mess would get later when I tried to fly home from the Philippines.
With magic loot in hand, I pointed the motorbike south and sped us away from the depressing place. We felt better and better the more we distanced ourselves from the whole messy scene.
I began thinking about the meeting as I drove. How could a family who deals with happy herbs and greenery seem so unhappy? And in only minutes, they had just earned what was probably a day’s salary for others in the village.
As my time on the island continued, I was blessed with a little more insight from locals. Not all witch doctors on Siquijor are equal. It’s entirely likely that we had accidentally stumbled upon some mambabarang. They are the folks who, for a small fee, will gladly put a hex on your boss, wife, neighbor, or that guy who stole your parking space. They can even cause someone’s stomach to burst open with cockroaches — a bit harsh, but a parking space is a parking space. Mananambals, on the other hand, are the hippies of the herbal world, capable of healing people with folk remedies, peace, and love.
Never confuse a manananaggal, mambabarang, or mananambal. The result could be bad.
Regardless the color of the magic used, the witch doctors are persecuted and shunned by the rest of the island — perhaps, the entire country — for their unorthodox trade. I don’t even like labeling them as “witch doctors”; they are simply people who value the power and potential of plants. Given the way their neighbors had denied their existence, I can only guess they aren’t exactly a welcomed part of the community.
The local shamans believe the most powerful concoctions are created with the magic that permeates the air during the Christian Holy Week. That’s probably enough to piss off their adamantly Catholic neighbors. The Siquijor herbalists are shunned for their animist beliefs, maybe explaining why the largest amulet the woman wore was a cross.
So, although finding the infamous witch doctors on Siquijor Island was a real adventure, there’s a good chance my love potion won’t do much. Or it could cause my date’s torso to detach and sprout wings. Or it could cause cockroaches to burst forth from my boss’ stomach.
I think I’ll just keep it to myself.
Written in 2013.