Who's afraid of Siquijor?

 

Updated 07:30am (Mla time) Oct 24, 2004

By Linda Bolido

Inquirer News Service

 

 

Editor's Note: Published on page J2 of the October 24, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

 

RIGHT smack on a well-trodden tourist path, in a manner of speaking, Siquijor should be a major travel destination. But most people, especially Filipinos -- though eager to visit neighboring Negros, Bohol, Cebu or Boracay -- give the island province a wide berth.

 

During the recent elections, even candidates for national offices did not add Siquijor to their itineraries, a situation that the locals took in stride as it was not the first time they were "overlooked."

 

The answer, of course, lies in Siquijor's reputation for being a place of sorcery, black magic, and generally strange people and rituals. Tales abound of travelers foolhardy enough to wander into the mysterious island and returning to their homes behaving not quite themselves and telling stories that seem to be taken straight out of legends and myths.

 

The intrepid visitor who dares to venture into the province is practically psyched to expect to land on a dark, eerie place with weird-looking people with strange ways.

 

Time-warped

 

Well, the island does seem to be caught in a time warp. It is clean and green, the meandering narrow roads are free of noisy, polluting traffic, structures are no more than two stories high and the people are gentle, hospitable, hardworking and self-reliant. But in everything else, it is certainly not that different from many of the Philippines' more than 7,000 islands.

 

Siquijor's modern-day reputation as a land of occult practices and rituals tends to obscure the fact that it is one of the earliest centers of the Catholic faith in the country. Its proximity to Bohol and Cebu, whose residents were among the first Filipinos to embrace the faith, made Siquijor a major target for conversion by the friars who came with the Spanish expeditionary forces.

 

The convent attached to the St. Isidore Parish church in Lazi is probably the biggest in the country. Completed in 1891, the convent -- named a National Historical Landmark like the church -- remains in use and also houses a small museum of antique religious images.

 

Very religious

 

Not surprisingly, Siquijodnons are very religious, whole families and communities carrying on with traditional practices like jointly dressing up their santos for Lenten processions, following the stations of the cross and generally spending a lot of time praying and meditating in churches during the Holy Week.

 

Resigned to being practically ignored by both the national government and the rest of the country, Siquijor has learned to rely primarily on its own initiative, yet does not look as poor as other island provinces. Among other things, the province has its own dairy production through the joint initiative of the Women's Organization Nurturing Development for Economic Recovery, Babaye Alang sa Reporma ug Gugma (Women for Reform and Love) and Timbaon Rural Improvement Club.

 

The town of Enrique Villanueva (formerly Talinting) has the Tulapos Marine Sanctuary and a thriving and well-maintained mangrove forest. Siquijor has actually been a marine reserve and tourist zone since 1978.

 

Overseas native sons and daughters keep a steady flow of remittances that has made many families comfortable, if not wealthy.

 

Eco-tourism destination

 

Of course, Siquijor can use some of the tourist incomes that Cebu, Bohol, Negros and Boracay get. With its relatively unspoiled tourist attractions, the Department of Tourism (DOT) is packaging it as a major eco-tourism destination. The cable television show "Survivor" has already shot an episode there, which DOT hopes will help convince people that Siquijor is not a place to be feared.

 

Considering, however, how being a favorite travel destination tends to ruin the very things that are supposed to draw visitors, one wishes that people will continue believing all those horror stories about Siquijor. It sends chills down the spine imagining what will happen when droves of tourists finally discover this jewel in Central Visayas.

 

The pier, currently empty except for disembarking and embarking passengers, would probably be teeming with hawkers, porters, possibly beggars and a few shady characters. What are now clear and clean waters and well-kept beaches would be littered with soda cans, plastic wrappers and other debris from people's fun activities.

 

High-rises would be built to provide accommodation to the hordes of visitors, and the narrow but uncluttered streets would be choked with tourist shuttle buses or jeepneys going every which way.

 

The images seem as -- if not more -- scary than all those tales of strange goings-on in the province.

 

Will Siquijor survive such an onslaught? Hopefully, the level-headed Siquijodnons will have learned their lessons well from neighboring tourist spots and work to preserve the things that make their province special.