Long before I found my way to Siquijor and before Google would describe this island as a center of mystic activities and black magic, I had already heard rumors of the existence of “mangkukulam” (Tagalog) and “mambabarang” (Visayan) high up in the hills on this renowned “Island of Fire.” It was always said as a joke to never cross someone from Siquijor or as a fact (yes, it is true, someone I know went and had this and that done), but I have always wondered why, of all the seven thousand plus islands in the Philippines, does Siquijor have to be the one?

The tourism officer of Siquijor gave me two possible “healers” that I could interview and a general description of where I could find them. After asking around, we chose to go to Barangay Cantabon to visit Noel Torremocha of Bahay Pahauli. Because we were unfamiliar with the area and just relied on the directions of local people, it took us 45 minutes to find this place. I hesitated a couple of times because the mountain roads seemed so deserted (for a Sunday morning) and were not entirely paved, but I was already there, so I might as well plow through.

We arrived at our destination to find linemen installing internet services in Bahay Pahauli and Noel’s welcoming voice beckoned us in. I asked him if he was willing to be interviewed and photographed for a story and he was totally fine with it. Before I entered his “healing area,” I spied a wall filled with photographs of celebrities who had visited him. He was more famous than I thought; my perception of a “healer” was one who kept a low profile and relied on word-of-mouth.

I turned on my recorder and asked my first question in our local language, “Why do people always tell you that if you need someone cursed you just need to go to Siquijor?” The 53-year-old Noel replied that during the olden days, these legendary “mambabarangs” did exist — seasoned ones that had complete “materials” sourced from nature — but the younger ones have been coming up short on these “materials” lately, so all they can really do is try when there are people who approach them to perform “barang” (defined as placing a hex or curse on someone, in Tagalog known as “sumpa”). He continued that usually they accept with an intent to help the person or the situation presented to them and said quite candidly that when “barang” works, these spells cannot be proven in court.

His father-in-law, Pedro Tumapon, was the one who passed on this skill to him, taking him for long walks in the forest, pointing out to him which herbs were meant for a particular purpose, mentioning in passing how powerful the Balete tree was. At this point, I was still confused about where the line was drawn between being a mananambal (healer) or a mambabarang (sorcerer), so I let him continue. When his father-in-law passed, Noel lived in the forest for a week, immersing himself in commune with the spirits of the forest, realizing that the “baton” had been passed and he had a role to take on.

He kept repeating the phrase “trabaho-on nato” which meant “we will work on it.” By “we,” I guessed the one who was making the request had to work in tandem with him, or else nothing was achieved. This was in answer to the possible scenarios I presented to him that would push a person to go the mystic way in resolving a situation. To achieve this was a very tedious process that involved gathering the “materials” only during the seven Fridays of Lent (and mind you, only in the morning) and preparing the mixture on “Sabado de Gloria” to “achieve maximum effect.” These seven Fridays, he goes to either the forest, the sea, the church, the caves and even the cemetery to gather what is needed to make his potions and rubs. It was an intricate process — wood, for example, has to be sourced from all points (North, South, East, West) to keep the balance of nature.

An article from 2014 by Maya Jajalla listed down some of these herbs and their specific uses: tagiwili for good luck in business, taliguro/talirunghay/duol for potions meant to make the drinker desirable, tagihumok/taginunot for good luck in career hunting, bugang tapol for countering hexes from other sorcerers, manunggal for saving poisoned victims and many others.

On the counter by the altar of the “healing room,” there were big, colorful jars of this potion and he sold them in bottle form as well as rubs that could be used for certain ailments. The potion I had purchased was purportedly to protect me in case I got poisoned and could be mixed in massage oil in small portions; it also would apparently “boil” when there was a “bad or evil spirit” in the room. The rub was basically for unexplained itchiness and burns. When I asked him to elaborate on how many kinds of “spells or vexes” there actually were, he mentioned seven of them, most of which I had already heard of, now that I was in midlife. He started with the possibility of making the belly big — by filling it with salt water; then the crawling of insects out of one’s skin, the well-known act of repeatedly piercing a doll which he called “half-lit,” the visits to the cave to ask for help from the skeletons or praying to dead souls in a cemetery to banish someone to the “other side.” He also mentioned the legendary “tiyanak” and lastly, talked about the powerful San Antonio de Padua, whom he prayed to on behalf of people who had lost something valuable and came to him for help. He made it a point to visit the saint’s image in the church (also only on a Friday) and mentioned in passing that a statue of the saint carrying the child Jesus on his left arm was very powerful. We were in agreement on this; I was a faithful believer in the power of this saint, being very forgetful as of late.

We came to the matter of payment for services and he told me he only accepted donations except for that one time when visits to him were packaged by an agency, so he had a fixed charge of P150 for a “session” which could be either a consultation or a “hilot” (massage) dependent on circumstance. He was adamant in telling me that he only healed those who could not explain what was wrong with them; if there were official results from medical tests, he referred them to doctors who could prescribe modern medicine along with herbs they could get from him. For other arrangements, such as those that required the seven-Friday ceremonies, he charged more and when people tried to bargain it down, he refused them instead, as the task he would be undertaking was not easy and results were not guaranteed.

Noel had even had doctors come to visit him every now and then and he also visited doctors when he felt sick. He referred patients to them as well if their issues were beyond the scope of his “herbal powers.” He does not accept requests for palm-reading, predicting the future and that sort of thing, as he believes, “Ginoo ra gyuy nahibalo nato” (only God knows what is in store for us).

I asked him what would happen if he had successfully helped someone who had been lying to him about the truth in a given situation. He replied that he believes that whatever spell was cast returns to the deceiver. Simply put, it is karma in another form. Finally, I asked him if he can already get a sense that something is wrong when someone enters his home. He said that at the initial glance, he could already feel if someone’s affliction was brought about by jealousy and the painful truth was that in most cases, it was usually from a family member.

A practical side of him presented itself as I wound down our talk. He mentioned a lot of his patients were feeling sick and weak because they had no money and that the best “gayuma” (love potion) was not in some magical mixture; it was simply having money. I laughed at the truth in his answer; no need for a faith healer to tell me that.

As I bid my goodbyes, I asked him to check my pulse — just in case — and he did. His touch was as light as a feather, almost soothing, and I gave him a small token of my visit — an evil eye bracelet from Istanbul. I told him it was meant to protect him from the evils in his world. He thanked me with a laugh and assured me I was fine (so far). I wished I had the time to stay longer and maybe try out a healing massage.

And I shall do so the next time. I will make sure to come back during Holy Week, most especially on Holy Saturday to witness this “mixing of potions” and spend more time around this amazing, mystical Isla del Fuego while keeping an open mind. There are many things we cannot explain in this world, so here I am telling one version of the multitude of stories that make this place more appealing than it already is. It is solely up to you whether you believe it or not.