Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Myth, the Beauty, and the Island of Fire: Siquijor, Philippines

As soon as I stepped out of the gates of the small pier, five, six, seven men approached me.

"Where are you going?" one asked.

"Tricycle, motorbike?" another interrupted.

"Do you already have a hotel?" a man to my left spoke out.

"I'm going to Villa Marmarine. I'm booked there. Whose tricycle am I taking?" I said, smiling at the commotion every tourist coming here must cause.

I got on a tricycle and we drove past the Saint Francis of Assisi Church near the port. "Welcome to Siquijor," a big sign in front of the church said. From here, we got onto the circumferential road which snaked all around the coast of this tiny island in the Visayas.

Unsurprisingly, the road was empty, save for a truck or a motorcycle we'd meet every three minutes or so. "And this is high season?" I asked myself.

After about fifteen minutes, we turned onto a small gravel road towards the coast and into my accommodations for the night. I stepped out onto a wooden deck by the reception which served as a dining area. The deck overlooked a quiet, white pebbled beach, shaded by tall coconut trees, and then, there was the sea with varying layers of blue, turquoise, and green.

Beautiful sight, I told myself. So why aren't there more people here?

Right. I'm in Siquijor.

Siquijor, Philippines
Varying shades of blue, turquoise, and green. Siquijor, Philippines.

Siquijor is an island about an hour by ferry from the charming, little town of Dumaguete in Negros Oriental province. It's a small island, only about 340 square kilometers. Tourist brochures like calling it 'Island of Fire,' apparently due to fireflies that sometimes illuminate the evenings. This is a quiet place, definitely much quieter than the ever-popular Boracay, or Puerto Galera, or even the remote town and archipelago of El Nido in Palawan. Nothing has changed apparently since I was last here five years ago.

"Those are old wives' tales," the bartender at the hotel said, when we asked her if it were all true, if the stories of the aswang (Filipino vampire) and the mangbabarang (sorcerer) were all true.

It had been the first time I came to this island. There were very few tourists then apart from us, and just like now, those few were all from abroad.

Salagdoong Beach, Siquijor, Philippines
Salagdoong Beach, Siquijor

I still struggle sometimes to comprehend how all that myth and folklore have prevented local tourists like myself from enjoying the undeniable beauty of this place. I get the conveniences and comforts of a developed tourist destination such as Boracay, but to go there every summer, every single long weekend, every vacation you get from work, when the rest of the 7,107 islands of the archipelago I call home is begging to be seen? That I struggle with.

Or maybe it really has to do with the folklore. Growing up, I'd hear stories of sorcerers from this island who, using various concoctions of potions and curses, have the power to bring you physical pains and maladies, to hurt you and your loved ones from afar.

Even back home, every time I mentioned to someone that I was traveling to or that I was in Siquijor, the first question I get is "Isn't scary there?"

Well, no. 'Scary' would not the word that would pop into your head when you arrive here. Beautiful, stunning, and all other travel clichés, those, those you'd immediately blurt out.

Siquijor, Philippines
This is the port you'd arrive in from Dumaguete. Again, this is a port.

Siquijor, Philippines
A small banca docked by the port of Siquijor

To be fair to local folklore, these tales have some truth to them. Siquijor is an island of arbolaryos (witch doctors, healers, or herbalists, whichever way you want to translate it). Before this island was Catholicized by the Spaniards, people practiced pagan rituals and believed in the supernatural. Apparently, but not at all surprising, the arbolaryos of this island still go back to these rituals and beliefs, more so during the Christian Lent.

But why should these stories and rituals keep you away?

It certainly shouldn't when Siquijor promises a real vacation, a vacation away from your everyday stresses, from people, from noise, a vacation where you do nothing but lie on a hammock by a quiet beach that is all yours, every inch of it, all afternoon. That is certainly what happened in my case.

Forget seeing the sights. I already did the first time I came here anyway. When I found said hammock, there was only one thing to do, the only right to do. I had a moral obligation to just be there.

Siquijor, Philippines
A hammock and a quiet beach. There is only one right thing to do here: absolutely nothing.

Siquijor, Philippines
Apart from a couple of locals passing thru every hour or so, this beach was empty all afternoon. Could you blame me for not wanting to do anything else but be here?

The following day, I left Siquijor to attend a wedding back in Dumaguete. It was a short visit but I believe I did good work the short time I was there. And by good work, I mean 'absolutely nothing.'

So by all means, go to Boracay or Puerto Galera. They are beach destinations in the Philippines worth seeing. But please, don't miss out on a place like Siquijor. It does not get as many tourists as it so clearly deserves.

And by all means, believe the myths and the folk tales. They are part what makes this place—any place—magical. But please, don't miss out on a place like Siquijor. You are denying yourself a travel experience a million times worth having.

Siquijor, Philippines
A sunset for the books. Siquijor, Philippines.

Any other quiet, beautiful travel destinations with unjustified reputations that you know of?

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