Natural and supernatural

ON NEW Year’s Eve, in a murmuring forest nestled at the peak of Siquijor, a billowing fog casts shadows and occasionally reveals a supermoon being born. My mind was creating all sorts of conversations – imagined or real – on why I was waiting for the Gregorian year of 2018 to begin in the dark, and on usual existential concerns.

Everyone knows Siquijor to be mysterious; maybe even sometimes regarded as a place to be avoided, an island of voodoo and witchcraft. Such stigma may be damaging and is unfair to the beautiful natural and cultural heritage of the Siquijodnons.

Thanks to many efforts, Siquijor’s reputation has recently been transformed with the good kind of magic. It is now called Healing Paradise.

And paradise, it is. Lush forests and reefs marry in Siquijor.

Waterfalls, rivers and caves whisper sweet secrets. Views of hills and seas will make motorbike drives around this island surreal. My conservationist self is hoping that Siquijor’s canopies of century-old trees remain tall amid a booming tourism, and that the mystic traditions passed on from ancestors remain respected. I hope the healing powers of Siquijor and the spells of sustainability protect this paradise from peril.

I chose Siquijor for my annual yearend retreat because I knew there would be minimal fireworks or less loud parties for NYE on the island. I also wanted to heal – from exactly what, I didn’t know then – maybe from that lower back pain common to the modern Homo sapiens often crouched on their phones or computers. Or maybe from the fiscal year’s obligations and backlogs.

On my first few days on the island, I did nothing. Or at least, nothing planned or scheduled. Lazy Lizard in San Juan was the perfect retreat.

The owners Ody and Chris believe in low-volume, no-frills accommodation, and I have enjoyed my time away from Facebook while lounging in their day beds or wrestling with their rescue dogs.

If you want a quiet base to recuperate from your daytime adventures in Siquijor, stay in the Hut at Lazy Lizard. And take some Monkey Blood, their special cocktail for laidback but authentic socialization at their common lounge.

Friends who founded EECO – Environmental Education and Conservation Organization – Jackie and Julia, also own a private “mountain lodge” near Lazy Lizard, and I was privileged to house-sit for them and practice yoga, meditation, and my relationship skills with cats in their sacred space.

A week in Siquijor will allow you to explore the island in a slow, steady pace – to go on a Motorycle Diaries-inspired journey – see its more known tourist destinations, but also its off-the-beaten trails. There are secret beaches and waterfalls without people; I recommend you find these but with respect to their sacredness and with mindfulness for your safety.

For ocean-lovers, there are many marine sanctuaries to support. I felt romantic having my freediving fins backride on my motorbike while looking for spots to dive at. My favorite swim was with Ody, over a kilometer long, following the coast from Riverside to U-Story in Tag-ibo. There were patches of cold from openings of the river and unseen crevices of the limestone cliffs. And the reefs tell stories of the past, good or bad, that reminds us nature will always reclaim.

I mentioned U-Story – it is a guest house with bungalows and a bar with Buddha statues around evoking calm and serenity. I loved having dinner there facing the sea illuminated in shades of purple and orange.

But if you do not fancy fine dining, I have another favorite food destination: Roch Cuisine, a pop-up eatery by the street, at the bridge in Solangon, San Juan. Rochelle is the friendly host who you know cooked the food with love, home-made style, and with more than a couple of vegetarian options (not just side dishes!). If you get to that street eatery, please let her know Dave recommended the mango cake.

And back to that enchanted forest where I had epiphanies as I turned a year older: Mt. Bandilaan. From the flora up there – barks, herbs, roots, leaves – are ingredients to ancient recipes of potions for love unrequited and love lost.

As someone exposed to science, I know it may sound strange that instead of an interest in this particular ecosystem’s botany, I talk about potions. To quote Bea Crisostomo who wrote about Siquijor in the latest “Fringe” issue of Grid magazine (another recommendation, please do find it), and whose perspective of the island’s culture inspired my title for this column: “There was no distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’.”

When Chris drove me to the mountain days before to request permission to camp for New Year’s Eve, the forest roads were shrouded with mist and fog, and people I talked to wondered why in the world I would want to celebrate a holiday without a party. It is a mountain of spirits and spells, am I not scared to spend the night there?

Looking back to that fateful night, I think I know now what called me to that forest. Or why I was called by the forest. Siquijor is that place where nature is a medium for conversations with our spirits.

After midnight, the trees around me had sounds I never heard before, and a hum that was both frightening and invigorating. It invited me to face my fears, to look them in the eyes and call out their names: Loneliness, abandonment, disappointment, shame, regret, rejection, betrayal, loss, and each of all the other negative energies we have to transform when we contemplate in times like the beginning of a new year.
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