Part 6: Around & About the Witch Island

Siqujor was so much more than just party, though.  Even though we happened to be on the island in the peak of the “party” season with every village and island district having their own Christmas and New Year “fiestas”, over the 4.5 days we stayed on the Witch Island, we did have a chance to experience a lot of other things it had to offer.

I have to say a couple of words here about the Philippines in general, which were well represented and well-observable on Siquijor in particular.  When getting ready for the trip, and reading up on all the places we were thinking of visiting, a sentiment from Jody of Legal Nomads got stuck in my head: “Philippines is a Latin American country, that by accident got plopped up in the middle of South East Asia”.  Having visited it now, I can only second this opinion.  There are way too many Latin American, or Hispanic (if you wish) things there, for it to be considered “true Asia”.

Starting with the Catholic religion, brought in by the Spanish invaders in the 16th century.  It sprouted serious and deep roots in the country, and today Philippines are probably more Catholic than the “old world” Catholics themselves.  Churches are everywhere.  They are grand, richly adorned, and revered.  God is even more ubiquitous – Bible quotes decorate every tricycle and jeepney all over the country, Jesus, Mary and the saints are looking at you from buses, buildings, and street food carts.  Catholic holidays paralyze the cities and villages, and turn into a frenzy of celebrations, commonly called “fiestas”.  The signs with “Happy Fiesta!” were all over Siquijor during the time of our visit, and each island district appointed a dedicated day for celebrations, so that the islanders and visitors could party all over the island every day over a period of several weeks.  Each fiesta started with a big prayer, followed by an even bigger feast (with food, chairs and tables brought in by the neighbors), and then a huge party/disco/mayhem of hard-to-believe proportions.

Christmas decorations were another thing worth mentioning – simply because they were in you face literary everywhere.  Imagine all the glitter and bling-bling you have ever seen anywhere, and double it.  Philippine Christmas decorations, just like celebrations were over the top.  Humongous Christmas trees were all over Manila, and it seemed that hotels and official buildings were competing with one another for the biggest, brightest, and shiniest Christmas tree.  On the islands, the decorations were not so grand, but no less shiny, and much more imaginative: we’ve seen Christmas trees made out of old polished CD disks, color-coordinated plastic bottles, coconuts, washed and shiny glass bottles, and everything you can imagine.  Philippines do take their Christmas seriously, and so far beat every other country we’ve ever visited in the scale of decorations and celebrations.

Cemeteries in the Philippines also have a very Latin American look and feel – they are stacked up, with vaults sitting on top of one another.  There was a very picturesque one not far from Sunny Side on the main road of Siquijor, and though much smaller in size and much more modest in look, it definitely brought up the memories of the famous Recoletta Cemetery in Buenos Aires we spent hours exploring several years earlier.

I don’t know if love of pork can be attributed to Catholicism or not (there are definitely parallels with Catholic Bavaria here, but I won’t stretch my imagination that far), but this was another big thing on the Philippines.  Pork was everywhere – every menu, every dish, every local delicacy screamed “pork!”  The food wasn’t particularly imaginative, and compared to other cuisines in the region would lose every time.  Not because of pork per se, but because of absence of spices, or any elaborate art of preparation – it was hearty, heavy, and dropped into your stomach like a brick to sit there for hours to come.

In the Philippines, pigs are kings! That is, untill they are eaten…

Another definitely Latino thing was children.  They were worshipped, and like in Spain or Italy could do nothing wrong.  Unlike Spain or Italy, though, Philippine children did not really abuse their status, and were very well behaved.  Kids were everywhere – smiley, curious, exceptionally smiley and friendly, they would wave you off from the side of the road, would gladly engage in conversation, and give you the warmest and heartiest smile you can imagine, that would melt your heart on the spot.  During our trip around the island we saw numerous school and family parties with dozens of children screaming their lungs out at karaoke, and adoring parents gushing at them from the sides.  Schools were everywhere – every island district had at least one, and judging by the school parties they were all full.  Absence of TV entertainment paired up with Catholic beliefs works miracles!…

What definitely made Siquijor stand out from Manila, and many other places we visited on this trip, was its cleanness.  There was no garbage on the side of the roads, and on more than one occasion we even saw locals sweeping the streets in front of their houses or shops.  This did not look like the “holiday special”, and definitely made the island look neat, tidy, and festive.

By the New Year’s Eve we were all partied out.  The “fiesta” that day was happening somewhere else, far from Sunny Side, and in the morning of December 31st our part of the island seemed unusually quiet.  We started the day by a long and lazy brunch with Chris in Marco Polo.  Sun, prosecco, good company, great ocean views – what else does one need for a happy morning?…

Morning view from Marco Polo
Prozecco breakfast!

It turned out that on the island menu a waterfall was an essential ingredient of happiness, and we were ready to throw that into the mix!  Lugnazon Falls were only a quick scooter ride away, and after parking our mighty steeds and trekking through the jungle for just 10 minutes or so we had them all to ourselves!  Being there all alone, just us with no other people had a surreal feeling about it.  All we could hear was the water, the birds, crickets, and the lazy wind ruffling the tree leaves.  The boys took a dip and splashed around in the turquoise waters of the falls.  I was not quite ready for the swim just yet, and consoled myself with taking photos.  When we were ready to leave, a bunch of local kids showed up, and immediately started making crazy jumps from the top of the falls, and from the rope swing on one of the nearby palm-trees.  The boys were looking jealously at these acrobatics, but were quite a bit smarter (and heavier) than the skinny Philippine teenagers, and wisely stayed away from the jumps.

After the waterfall swim Chris went back to Sunny Side following the call of duty, cold beer, Layka, or all of the above.  We decided to continue with the tourist program, and went to see the Century Old Balete Tree, also known among the locals as The Tree Where The Witch Lives.  The balete tree belongs to the fig tree family that includes about 800 species.  It is a type of ficus, also known as the banyan in other parts of the world, and has prominent air roots that makes it easily recognizable all over the world.

The Tree Where The Witch Lives

In addition to The Witch (which was nowhere to be seen), the tree had a fish spa pond, organized by the enterpreneurial locals from the spring originating from the tree’s base and stocked with garra rufa, or Doctor Fish who happily nibble at the dead skin on visitors’ feet.  This sounds gross, but together with the cooling sensations of the spring water is, in fact, is a pleasant experience.  Entrance to the tiny grounds of the tree used to be free, but now visitors are required to pay a nominal sum of a couple of cents for maintenance of the pool.  When we arrived, about a dozen tired travellers were already splashing their feet in the pool, to the joy of the doctor fishes, hungrily circling around.  I experienced the “fish massage” a couple of years earlier in Cambodia, and while not totally unpleasant, it was definitely a weird and quite ticklish sensation. 

The water was cool, and sitting on the side of the pool was a good opportunity to relax and admire the Witch Tree.  One had to be careful, though – some of the garras in the pond were quite huge, and looked like they could swallow a human toe whole.  We spent a relaxing half hour by the pool, watching the tree, giggling from the little fishes’ nibbles, and shushing the really big fuckers away from our feet.

The New Year celebrations were relatively tame, compared to the mayhem of the two previous days.  Layka fished out two vuvuzela from the depths of the kitchen, and together with one of the neighbors set everybody within the 500-meter radius in the mood with the mental squeaks of these horrible devices.  

Vuvuzela madness

There was the obligatory end of the year fireworks, which I believe happen everywhere around the world, regardless of the culture, religion or general energy levels of the local population.  There is something about the New Year that seriously affects people’s pyrotechnical inclinations, and makes even the most peaceful representatives of our species want to blow shit up.  I’ve observed this phenomenon in the US, Russia, Cambodia, Germany, and was yet to find an exception to this rule.  Philippines happily followed suit – Chris stocked up on cheap Chinese fireworks and petards a week ago, yet with every day closing in on New Year’s Eve he got progressively more worried that what he had would not be enough, and would buy up additional pyrotechnics.  They weren’t especially safe or reliable, and I am to this day amazed that nobody managed to blow up a hand or a head when the time for the fireworks came. 

We are gonna blow these babies up!

Some were more skillful in operating the pyrotechnics than the others, though…  One of Chris’ tenants, a tall Dutch guy, who just arrived on the island that morning, managed to shoot a firework into one of the tents in back, and set fire to it, to the horror and joy of the two English girls who happened to be the unfortunate owners of said tent.  The fire was extinguished quickly, the tent survived, and the girls continued giggling throughout the evening, at the same time trying to stay as far away from the Dutch guy as possible.  The hit of the evening was not the burning tent, though – Chris won the “most memorable firework of the night” competition with a huge firework garland he hung on the big palm tree in front of the Sunny Side.  When he set it off a couple of minutes before midnight, the garland spewed fire around for a bit, after which dis-attached from the palm tree, and fell on top of Chris’ motorbike (with a full tank of gas), continuing to burn and ready to explode.  The Dutch guy redeemed himself by jumping up to the bike, picking the garland up and throwing it into the nearby bushes, where it happily exploded, setting a minor fire to the bushes.

Happy New Year!

The New Year was officially in!  The pyrotechnics stopped (we simply ran out of shit to blow up), Chris and Layka danced a slow Viennese Waltz on the deck of Sunny Side in celebration of the new 365 days, friends and neighbours joined in with songs and dances.  The New Year definitely started on a positive note – one of the bayots who left without saying good-bye the night before, came back, and offered tearful apologies and hugs to his former employer.  Chris was generous and soon the staff of Sunny Side was complete, and re-united, and everybody joined in on the celebrations.  We did not go mental, and were back at Stella’z in bed about an hour into the New Year.

The next day, we continued with the tourist program, and went around the island, to experience everything it had to offer.  The main drag, the Siquijor Circumferential Road, had tarmac, and was relatively good to ride.  We saw nice beaches (deserted due to low tide), numerous kiddies’ karaoke parties all around the island, a couple of big-ass churches, and bright green rice fields on the East side of the island. 

Somewhere on Siquijor

The best experience of the day was another waterfall – the three-tiered Cambugahay Falls were nowhere near as deserted or remote as Lugnazon, but the waters were so clear, so blue and refreshing, that even I ventured a dip.  It was amazing!  Every New Year should start with waking up on the beach, and after enjoying picturesque islands, taking a refreshing swim in the clearest waters of a waterfall!  The place was packed – families with little kids, groups of teenagers, young and old couples were all there, and all shared my newly-found belief about the proper start for the year.  The waterfalls were big, and nobody seemed to mind others – people were enjoying the fresh water, each other’s company, and were just having fun.  Siquijor was definitely good for that!

Cambugahay Falls – the upper level

What the island was not too good with, was ATMs.  Our round the island trip was partially driven by a desire to get some cash.  Honourable plan, which failed miserably.  The only ATM that was not disgusted with our Maestro cards was in the town of Siquijor, and was out of cash.  We found two more ATMs on the island, but they wanted nothing to do with our cards, and just spit them out without offering any other options.  We did know that getting cash would be a problem on the island, and came prepared.  Local prices were low even by Philippine standards, and we still had enough left to buy us two ferry tickets to Bohol for the next day, and even for another nice dinner at Marco Polo.

Las dinner at Marco Polo with Maestro Giulio!

We came back to Chris’ and to our horror realized that January 1st was a dedicated day for the local fiesta in the San Juan province, and the party was being set up right opposite the Sunny Side. Fuck!…. More party… Well, looked like it was inevitable, so we decided to just relax and enjoy. Chris also donated some food and drinks to the party, so we joined in as almost celebrities. We skipped the starting prayer and the meal, and walked in when the disco part of the fiesta was kicking in. It was absolutely mental – the music was blasting from the speakers, everybody was singing and dancing at the same time, blowing up remaining fireworks and drinking. We joined in, dancing our assess off, and singing our hearts out (luckily nobody could hear us in the cacophony of music and noise around!), and in the end of the evening had to partake in some un-identifiable shots of local palm moonshine. This was the end of it – the next thing I knew was waiking up the next morning. Luckily at Stella’z, and with Nic snoring by my side.

Every celebration comes to an end, and so did our never-ending Siquijor party.  We did not meet any witches or sorcerers on Witch Island, but reunited with a good friend, made some new ones, partied our asses out, and were not ready to see more of this beautiful country and continue with our trip.

Next stop – tiny little monkeys and the Chocolate Hills of Bohol !

New Year sunset on Siquijor

Part 5: Siquijor – The Party Continues

The next morning greeted us with the sounds of the waves, blue skies and delicate palm-tree shades on the sand.  That was on the outside.  On the inside we were dying.  Gone were the days when we could party all night and wake up in the morning fresh as daisies ready for more.  We were ready for more, but not before serious resuscitation attempts would be applied.

A beautiful Siquijor morning – view from Sunny Side

To add injury to the insult, I woke up with a UDI (an Unidentified Drinking Injury) on my knee.  The cut and bruise were colorful, although relatively painless, and I had a hard time remembering the origins of this decoration.  Vague memories of the Italian restaurant started surfacing up in my tired and hangover brain.  I desperately needed a shower to wake up, sober up and clean up.  Alas – no such luck!  Nic, ever the gentleman, went out to explore the facilities of our VIP room, and informed me with disgust that he could pee stronger than the water pressure in the shower.  Nature wasn’t on our side either – the morning low tide also prevented us from dipping in the nearby seas.  We put on yesterday’s shorts and T-shirts, and crawled out onto the deck.

Chris was sitting under the umbrella with a standard cold San Miguel as if he never left, and a couple of neighbors were chilling in the loungers next to him.  The bayots were as chatty as yesterday, although fewer in numbers.  Overnight, two of them disappeared, leaving without pay or warning.  That left the proud owner short staffed and puzzled.  Chris was genuinely hurt – he really embraced all his staff members, provided them with food and board (in addition to pay), treated them like family, and gave them the opportunity to be themselves.  Although bayots were recognized and accepted in the Philippines, the general public standing was that they were to keep quiet, know their place and stay under the radar.  Dressing up in women’s clothes, wearing loud makeup and (God forbid!) singing or dancing were all inappropriate behavior in public, and generally frowned upon.  Chris did not give a shit about makeup or dresses, and Sunny Side presented the bayots with a rare opportunity for self-expression during working hours.  The fact that two staff members would leave without saying good-bye, and losing their well-earned wages was a mystery and a disappointment…

But we had our own and quite urgent problems.  If we could not have a shower, we at least needed breakfast to start resembling humans again.  As we already noticed last night, Sunny Side’s engine was powered by beer, and beer alone.  This was fine for the evenings, but if we wanted to sober up, we again needed solids.  We went back to the Italian.  It turned out to have a name, Marco Polo, after a famous Venetian explorer, and in the bright hours of early morning it looked quite different (not that we remembered what it was like last night!) – everything was calm, serene, and welcoming.  Unfortunately, they remembered me, as the first question we heard coming through the door was “How’s the head?…”  My acrobatics with the chair last night apparently did not go unnoticed…  Well, what you gonna do?…

“Marco Polo” (lovely roofs on the right) – view from the sea

In the light of day, we had a chance to not only appreciate (and remember) the surroundings, but chat with the owners.  Two proud sons of Naples and Sicily, they ran the restaurant together, and like true connoisseurs of good food, somehow managed to sneak in proper Italian prosecco, prosciutto, cheeses and wines onto the menu.  We have readily partaken in all (minus the wine – we were here for breakfast, after all!), and enjoyed the wonderful views from restaurant’s terrace.  For the next couple of days on Siquijor Marco Polo will be our go-to place for everything.  If you happen to be in that neck of the woods – make sure to visit.  You will be as delighted as we were!

Breakfast view from “Marco Polo”

Happy, sated, and slightly less hungover than we were (thank you, Italian prosecco!), we could now think about finding a place to stay.  Sunny Side was a designated party place, but one can’t live on beer alone – I needed a shower.  Anne’s place was a bit too far for a permanent base, and the potholed un-lit roads would be too much for us during party-time.  We went back to Chris’ and rode up and down the main drag, knocking on the door of every decent and cemi-decent looking place in the neighborhood.  Everywhere was full.  Turned out that remote as it was, Siquijor still attracted its fair share of tourists, all of whom were intent to have a New Year party on the island.  Most established places in the vicinity of Sunny Side were fully booked.  Luckily for us, new ones were popping up like mushrooms after the rain, and having rode down the road a little further, we secured one of them!

Stella’z Guest House had clean new rooms with functioning showers and water pressure (I checked!), big beds and even air-conditioning.  The location was perfect: less than 5-min ride away from Marco Polo, and about 10-min ride from Sunny Side.  We happily moved in and spend the next hour enjoying the water pressure and the aircon.  The only downside of our new digs was incompatibility of its electric plugs with my hairdryer.  In +35C degree heat, however, hair could dry out on its own, but could not wash itself.  With this conciliatory thought I gave up on trying to find a fitting plug, and embraced the hippy lifestyle.  In all further photos from the island I looked the part, and now you know why…

In front of Stella’z Guesthouse

The day that started so beautifully on the outside and so painfully on the inside also happened to be my very own and very personal birthday.  I guess I might still be relatively young, if the former sentiment about the dichotomy of the inside and outside world still applies…  Generally, the further one goes, the more these two seem to match.  And usually not in one’s favor…

While I fully intended to celebrate said birthday on Siquijor in general and at Chris’ in particular, I could not, for the life of me, predict or foresee the scope of the celebrations to come.  I had a strong suspicion that Richie had a big hand in it, as Chris was way too relaxed and on island time to come up with the organized havoc that ensured.  Having Anne and Cheryl as new friends on the island also played a huge role in what was to come.

With Anne and Cheryl

By the year 2018 I had a couple of weird and memorable birthdays under my belt.  Mad student years aside, the most recent ones included:

  • An impromptu celebration in the “Mushroom Bar” down the dodgy-looking alley in Aonang, Thailand.  The birthday cake was personally ordered by the president of the local MC, and “ladies of the night” danced traditional Thai dances to the “Happy birthday to you” sung by the highly intoxicated yet impeccably friendly biker gang (see here for the full epic story);
  • A more “refined” celebration in an Irish pub in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, accompanied by bottomless Lychee Martinis and a sing-along to the 80-es music marathon on TV (full story here).

The surprise celebration at Sunny Side got its proud place in the ranks of the most memorable birthdays ever.  Preparations must have started early in the morning, but busy with our shower quest we did not notice.  When the new hippy me and Nic showed up in Sunny Side, there was a commotion of people and tricycles, coming and going, bringing in trays and mysterious-looking boxes.  It was hot, but the thought of another San Miquel did not call for a welcoming response from my tired, soon to be one year older body.  I’ve never been a beer drinker anyway – while I can definitely drink the stuff (which last night happily demonstrated), the brewing liquid pleasures were largely lost on me, and I have always chosen wine as my beverage of choice.  However, the realities of life were such, that South-East Asia not being big on grapes, did not present a good platform for indulging in wine, and left one to enjoy what was available.  Hence the San Miquel evening last night, which was thoroughly enjoyed despite of the lack of beer-drinking inclinations on my part.

With all this said, my first birthday surprise of the day were two chilled bottles of wine brought by Richie.  God knows where he found them on a remote island in a region that is only vaguely aware of the existence of grapes, but there they were, and they were very welcome, indeed!

While I was enjoying my wonderful birthday present, the commotion continued.  The mysterious-looking boxes on the deck were now accompanied by a family of drums.  There were the tiny baby-ones hurdled together, a huge monstrous-looking papa-drum, the size of an average human, and every shape and size in-between.  This was getting interesting!…

Drummers

The mysterious trays, covered with banana leaves, revealed all sorts of wonderful snacks, hidden inside, and there were more to arrive – with hot food!

Amazing birthday buffet, courtesy of Anne & Cheryl

By the time the sun set down into the sea, party lights were up, Chris was DJ-ing on the deck, friends, neighbors and random strangers gathered around, and before I knew it, the birthday party was in full swing. 

We had amazing food, birthday cake, fireworks (more practice was apparently needed in preparation to the pyrotechnical mayhem of the New Year celebrations), and the local drummer band playing the wild assortment of drums brought in earlier surpassed themselves.  The music attracted even more people who seemed to have come from the other side of the island. 

My very own triple-cream-layered birthday cake!

The drum band was accompanied by the fire-eaters, juggling burning torches and fire balls to the beat with amazing grace and skill.  One of the guys managed to accidentally set fire to his substantial dreadlocks to the sheer delight and amusement of the public (no worries – the fire was quickly extinguished, and he did not even lose his dreads!). The fire-eaters also doubled up as “sexy-dancers”.  There was an impromptu semi-striptease (nobody got fully naked, though, to my sheet disappointment), the DJ kicked in, wine and beer were floating freely, and it seemed that half the island joined in on the party.

Fire-eaters!!!!

Another year older, and none the wiser!  A great party was had by all.  Needless to say, we again did not remember how we got back to our bed at Stella’z.