Ken says he has never been any place he loved more than here. We are on the small (circumference two hours by motor scooter) and witchy island of Siquijor. That is what most Filipinos think of it, based on its traditional healers. These are famous for a technique of passing a glass vessel filled with clear water and maybe a few black stones over the patient, which changes the water’s color and, depending on what is afflicting them, somehow fills it with non-liquid stuff. For example, shards of broken glass when passed over the joints of someone suffering from arthritis— now cured. Such white magic healers are harder to find these days. They’re old now and their children have moved off the island, often to pursue careers in the healing professions (just like many other Filipinos).
But rumors of dark arts on the island persist. Even voodoo dolls, which belong to the Afro-Caribbean vodun tradition. On the other hand the Philippine islands were connected from the 1600s to Spanish ones in the New World via the Galleon Trade in slaves, cane sugar, spices and gold. A more recent example was passed on to us: during an election year one friend of a cousin was campaigning for Estrada here and forgot warnings to drink only bottles you opened yourself, due to a rumored risk of poisoning. The first of their party to drink one promptly fell down unable to speak. Instead of freaking out, they immediately asked for a Healer to save the person, and an antidote was brought, which worked. The cousin’s pal was pleased that they had stayed calm; if they’d shown much alarm, the cost of the Healer would surely have been higher than 500 pesos ($12 US). This reputation for sorcery keeps most Filipinos away from the island, which may be what has saved it so far from the fate of degradation by tourism that has ruined Boracay or Phuket… and even Bali.
There are some small resorts for divers, and even a couple medium-sized ones, catering mostly to other Asians visiting from Korea or China, plus Europeans and a few Israelis or Kuwaitis escaping their respective national repressions. The Aussies and Americans mostly haven’t found it yet. So as yet there is no Mormon-owned Marriott or Malaysian-backed Shangri La, no U.S. fast food franchises masquerading as elegant dining spots, nor 7-11s replacing the mom-and-pop stores where everyone shops for beer or soap or petrol in one-liter Coke bottles to fuel the ubiquitous scooters and motorcycles.
But here on the windward side (for six months) of Siquijor Island, facing out toward the Sulu Sea, is the paradisiacal place that makes Ken so happy to be here with his cousin Pia and her daughter Samantha. And me too, to see him and to be with him, overflowing. It is more than just fun, snorkeling and learning to ride motor scooters around and across the island. But that is not enough. Just what is so perfect about this place, you may well ask.
It is not just the half-dozen bamboo nipa-hut style bungalows at the small Villa Marmarine, opened by a retired Japanese couple to help provide work and tuition support to put island kids through college. Nor the nearly empty super-fine white sand coral beach, which Ken immediately went down to; he came back excited to report that the dark patches in the shallows at low tide were not seaweed (that is fluorescent green) but thousands and thousands of tiny purple spiny starfish, plus the occasional sea urchin.
It was not merely that the welcoming wavelets were lukewarm, and the water clear to four feet down. Actually, the sea— dark beyond the shallows— he finds terrifying and immense. It extends north into the South China Sea, to the Indian Ocean south, and farther to the vast Pacific, way out to where the sun rises. “It’s like it is just waiting almost infinitely to come for you, to call you in and take you away,” he says.
We see the ocean from the deck chairs on our bamboo-floored balcony, through bougainvillea, nipa palmettos, a flat fan palm, a few maybe 3rd generation papaya trees bearing small green fruits and finally, at the sand’s edge a cluster of tall coconut palm trees— one is even leaning, ever so stereotypically, over the beach. The scene is straight out of Robert Louis Stevenson, the book or the movie (“Yaarrhh!” as Long John Silver continues to say), from The Island of Doctor Moreau (“Are we not men??”), out of Jack London’s tales of Hawaii or Paul Gauguin’s paintings of women in Tahiti.
But nope, it is not even the coconut trees or Treasure Island allusions that make this place perfect for Ken—and me. It is the fact that the locals are his people, Visayans, speaking the language his mother speaks and her ancestors spoke back before the time that Magellan first make contact with them, just 90 miles away on the larger island that would become the Spanish colonial capitol of Cebu. And where he was summarily dispatched via machete by the native soldiers of chief Lapu Lapu. Since then the Visayans have gained a reputation for hospitality.
And his people are beautiful. Always kidding each other and ready to laugh (complaining means losing face), constantly social, in actual conversation or just the gossipy chatter called “chismis”. And unlike in other SE Asian countries we’ve been, here jokes and word play, irony and even sarcasm are understood. Then again, they have been living under colonization by the Spanish, the Muslims, the Americans and then during the war years by the Japanese. And it is considered better to laugh than to cry. It is also true that since the US arrived, and even after independence from us Americans, English has been the language of school instruction and is now the common tongue between the Tagalog of the national capitol Manila and the regional “dialects” like Visayan. which his family speaks.
Needless to say, Ken’s people are not only beautiful on the inside. Women in slim sarongs, skin-tight jeans or even in Daisy Dukes run most of the businesses here, and usually own them (all except for the important corporate ones, such as San Miguel beer or the shipping lines). Filipinas score in every world beauty contest. And Trixie Maristela, a “ladyboy” from here just won the “alternative” World Queen Pageant in Bangkok, which gets broadcast all across Asia to an Oscar-sized audience.
And the guys. They are gorgeous and they are showing off everywhere. Tatted and sunglassed ones on motorcycles. Svelte ones in school uniforms with tight shorts packed into jeepneys, or working class muscled ones hanging off of motorized trikes. And at night, when almost all girls are kept in at home, the boys and men are out on the street, half without their shirts on. Even if males are not to your taste these guys demand attention.
And there are too many stories about sexual adventures between straight guys and gays to dismiss. I was once with an ex visiting his hometown, on a jeepney with ten of the guys he grew up with. They asked in Tagaog if I was his husband. “One of them,” he shot back, and then translated for my benefit. Have you slept with any of them, I asked, rather aghast. “All of them! When I was growing up here, one at a time they would knock on my bedroom window. But not in public.” There are also the usual tales of married men who were “so drunk I didn’t know the girl was a guy.” Sure you didn’t! One straight friend told us that most of the single guys who visit from the oil-rich Arab states come not for females but for males. He’d lived in Kuwait, where he and a gay colleague were once stopped and arrested, “because the cop was attracted to my friend.”
But here even the hetero guys are sweet, good natured and friendly (though maybe more so to foreigners?) and are highly sentimental. As with all romantics everywhere, they are quick to be hurt, and very capable of lashing out when drunk. Their taste in music tends more toward soft rock like Air Supply, even among those who sport Megadeath t-shirts, and embraces singers like John Denver and even Johnny Mathis. And then there are the “mayas,” straight-identified males who just happen in bed to prefer “bakla” or “bayot” in Visayan—a conjoined word made out of “bay” (female) with “iyot” (penis). Ken’s 78-year old uncle filled us in on that word origin!
It stands to reason. Many boys are as slim as ingenues, but may have definition from hard work. And a lot have style, the coolest clothes and haircuts like TV stars. Others however do act out effeminately, as a challenge to the world; they can be easily spotted and heard screeching at top decibels with their girl friends in the mall. Did I mention that mall social culture in Cebu City started a few decades ago with a Robinson’s department store at Fuente Osmena where kids hung out all day hoping someone would buy them something— and has proliferated into The Place To Be for everyone on weekends and holidays. There are now seven full-fledged malls, all are air-conditioned but differ along class lines. Among the bigger locales, one has an I-Max screen in its multiplex, another an ice skating rink, and several feature internal mini-railroad trains. Here young boys and girls, or boys and boys, try to hook up. Plus of course via texts and online, with everyone on iPhones and Samsungs at the high-end malls. There’s no need for gay bars in Cebu several people told us, because gays are a sizable and accepted part of every place.
Gender and sexuality aside, Visayans are sincerely warm people. And here on Siquijor island we can see them as they have always been— it is like Cebu City seen 35 years ago. Before the malls, the 7-11s on each block, and before the big hotels arrive. They probably will, though, now that an airport is being built here. But for now a “Where are you from?” is a real matter of curiosity, not just a lead-in to another sales pitch. Little girls on the streets wave to us. Their mothers smile. Daring adolescent boys try to slap hands as we ride by. Older boys respond to our huge smiles and men nod in greeting.
When I stop to take a picture of an old-fashioned wood frame house from the last century, the family there invites us into their backyard, to the one-year anniversary of the passing of their grandmother. We do accept glasses of water, but not the plates of fiesta food they proferr, since there are six of us. And for Filipinos to make such invitations is almost mandatory. Yet not insincere.