Siquijor is a small island with a spooky heritage. Rumours suggest that spell-making, witchcraft and voodoo were commonly practiced here as recently as a generation ago. The Anthropological Museum in Dumaguete, on the larger neighbouring island of Negros, has plenty of examples of the ‘tools’ of this trade. The colonial Spanish did not help with dispelling the island’s reputation for the occult, calling Siquijor, ‘Isla del Fuego’, or ‘Isle of Fire’. It’s a fitting name, given the swarms of fireflies that gather in the molave trees after dark, casting an eerie glow over the island, and adding to its spiritual aura. In modern times, Siquijor is renowned for its thriving culture of mystics, healers and love-potions. The annual healing festivals bring people hesitantly over the water, seeking remediation from their ailments by traditional medicines concocted by the old people from herbs, roots, insects and bark. But, asking around it seems as though old superstitions have set hard. Many people from neighbouring islands are still too nervous to visit Siquijor under any circumstances.
My first impression of the island was of the impossibly blue water at its beach, at least as far as I could make out through the belching diesel fumes of the indigested ferry. I waited while thirty or forty other passengers all rushed at the exit together, tripping over each other and jamming the doorway in a choreography of slap-stick. The sun was fierce, and it was searing hot, and when I finally made it onto the pier, I almost fell head-long over my shadow. I Tai Chi’d my way between the waving arms of a cluster of men at the pier gates, all trying to rent me a motorbike or sell me a taxi-ride, and hesitating for just a moment, got surrounded.
A policeman swaggered into the melee, and order was restored as the crowd dispersed. This was partly out of respect for his massive upper body, and partly for his holstered Glock. He smiled like a toothpaste commercial, and with a aura of calm and authority led me to the shade of a local café. There, away from the curiosity of the village crowds, he fixed me with a level eye and with a knuckle crushing handshake, introduced himself as Officer Julius. He apologized for the sudden harassment of so many people wanting my business, assured me that Siquijor was a nice place full of friendly locals, and informed me that his sideline motorbike rental service was the best deal in town. With a choreography that must have been practiced in front of a mirror, he casually turned side-on to give me full view of his handgun. Lowering his glasses, he checked his reflection in the window, his uniform too tight to even consider creasing. He smiled like a B-grade Hollywood actor, and without giving time for me to waver, and asked how long I would be keeping it for. He levered free a pen and duplicate contract from an ultra-tight shirt pocket and beckoned me to sign. As I nervously scribbled my details he asked with a voice like Kamahl if I had a driver’s license. As I scrambled to produce my plastic he waved it away, disappointed, flexing just enough to make the polyester gasp. It was later explained that having no driver’s license is no problem, it just adds a 300 peso surcharge payable to the constabulary. Very cheap, good sir.
Officer Julius’ bike was indeed a good deal, and for five days it carted me all over the island, exploring the best of what was on offer. With its luggage compartment bulging with wet towels, sunscreen and good things to eat, I sought out hidden beaches and quiet forests. I made three trips to the apparently enchanted, 400 year old Bayete tree. It features heavily in the local mysticism, and sitting at its base with my feet in the water, fireflies swarming in the twilight, it felt like a scene from Avatar. I went to the cerulean blue waterfalls, and did my best to inflict a spinal injury swinging on rope hanging from a precarious a bamboo scaffolding, with a load rating fit for Filipino children. Still intact and able to wriggle my toes, I went to the centre of the island to take on the best cave, and had a frigid bath in a pool several hundred metres down. I went into the nearby forest to wander around one of the healing centres. In the summer, it would come alive with people, the air thrumming with weird smoke and incantations. At this time of year, it was dark, overgrown and empty, but still radiating a certain power. I checked out the eerie, crumbling San Isidro Convent, exploring it’s dark corners and listened to my footsteps echo off its cold, lichen encrusted walls. I also fitted in a couple of days of diving, which was surprisingly good given that Siquijor is well beneath the diver’s radar.
I braved up enough to wander into the creepy cemetery. I had been passing it daily, veering wildly on my police scooter as I rubber-necked, and was keen to check if it was as intriguing on the inside as it seemed from the out. Space is in short supply, and rather than being buried in individual plots of ground, coffins are interred in concrete bunkers, stacked four or five high. The layout follows no apparent plan, and instead makes for a three-dimensional labyrinth that can only be accessed by clambering around, squeezing between, and stumbling over tombs. The foot traffic, weather, and possibly the original quality of construction, have all taken their toll on the structure. Collapsed tombs were on display left and right, clearly revealing their contents of disintegrating wood, clothes, bones, skulls and hair. I took a few irreverent pictures, feeling guilty about each one, and got out quickly while the going was good.
To complete the set of weird experiences, I sat through a frantic hour of spider fighting. Several times while riding around the island I had seen groups of men clustered into a tight ring looking inwards, like school boys playing marbles, and finally stopped to see what the attraction was. The fight was arbitrated by a beautifully mannered, wheelchair-bound, double amputee. He beckoned me into the ring, exchanged the usual pleasantries, explained the rules, announced the fight, and commanded an enormous amount of respect from everyone. He explained that in these parts female orb-weavers are used, and assured me that they fight for dominance, not death.
The event began with several men offering up their best candidate around a pre-match table. The spiders sit perched on the end of a thin bamboo spatula being held by their owners. Contestants are weighed up against each other until a group decision is made as to which two a best suited. The chosen are then brought close to each other to allow them to stare each other in the eye eight times and engage in some trash talk – a bit like boxers at a pre-fight media conference. Once the red and blue corners have abused each other into a fury, they are transferred to a fight-table and placed on either end of a string held tight between two upright sticks. Wagers were set, wads of money floated around, and everyone found a vantage point. Then the whistle went off. Without any prompting needed, the spiders galloped at each other down the string like a pair of jousters, meeting in the middle in a tangle of small heads, large abdomens, and a blur of eyes and legs. Despite the build up, it was all over surprisingly quickly – the loser spinning a thread to bungee out of town. Scurrying to the safety of her trainer’s spatula, she rested for a few minutes waiting for her octuple vision to clear. Then, after a quick pep-talk and some smelling salts to clear her tracheoles, she was deposited back in the red corner. The excitement rose to a fever pitch, necks craned inward and the whistle signalled the start of round two. This time the red corner had a point to prove, delivering lefts and rights from front to back until her opponent had no option but to rappel to safety.
In the end the red corner was defeated. Blue proved too quick on her many feet, and won the prescribed three rounds. The trainer collected the spoils, both red and blue were sequestered away into their portable accommodation and taken home to (apparently) live and fight another day. On the way out, I bumped again into Officer Julius. He was on the edge of the ring, straining his uniform over a bottle of Pepsi, with his back to the action. I was later told that while the spider fighting is legal, it is discouraged, and the gambling is frowned on. But, without being able to see any money change hands, the constabulary could still be part of the fun without having to shut the fight down or report anyone. The Filipino culture is one of give and take, and occasionally the law looks the other way.
Officer Julius was not my only intersection with the law on Siquijor. As I took cash from an ATM, I was flanked by two security officers, resting the muzzles of their pump-action shotguns on the toes of their boots as they swatted at flies and checked their facebook on their mobile phones. While riding the coast road, I was pulled over by a lone policeman on a scooter with a tazer and two handguns. He told me to take off my hat and sunglasses so he could see my face, but before I could produce my ID he went roaring off into the distance leaving me squinting at his dust. After my second day of diving I was stopped at a road-block patrolled by perhaps twelve heavily armed men in dark fatigues. The front man informed me that they were checking all vehicles for incendiary devices and would I please step aside to be frisked while my bike checked. The group were hooting with laughter when they found my storage compartment full of bread rolls and bananas, and I was wearing only wet budgie-smugglers and board shorts straight out of the water.
Five fascinating days on Siquijor passed quickly, and it was time to leave. I may have stayed longer except for the disquiet of a Muslim splinter group at nearby Mindanao. Before arriving I knew of the beheading of two kidnapped Westerners in the past year. But, during my stay a market bombing in Davao killed 14 people and injured more than 60. Despite being an island away, the police and military were making their presence felt on Siquijor, and I was getting edgy. Riding my scooter back to the wharf on my final day, I was stopped yet again at a road block. This time, what looked like tactical response troops with full riot gear at the ready. Once they were finished with me and my bags I looked back from the armour and assault rifles, glittering in the late morning sun. Behind me, and next in the queue, was a gaunt man leading a skinny cow by a rope through its nose ring. Behind him, his son rode a water buffalo dragging a wooden cart with no wheels. This contrast was my final image of the island, and just another example of Siquijor’s strange and unusual.