Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Philippines: Cursed on Samar Island

It was an epic journey from Donsol to Samar island. I took 6 different forms of transportation to reach Erenas, the small village where Stephanie's family lived. This included 1 motorcycle, 2 minivans, 1 jeepney, 1 ferry, and 1 tricycle. Phew! The entire journey took me 7 hours. I didn't see one westerner during my transit, either. And I felt as if I was a million miles from Manila.

The island of Samar looked beautiful as I stood over the ferry's rail, now experiencing a pleasant breeze with my backpack on and hat backwards, marveling at the island's vegetation and blue waters. Many children near the dock dove into the sea, swimming up to the ferry as we approached the island. When the children noticed me observing them, they began giggling and hollering at me. I think they wanted me to toss them some coins or something, but I had nothing for them but a thumbs up.

I walked straight past the tricycle drivers who'd parked within the port and had pressed me for their services, and right up to the lone, silent driver parked along the street, figuring I'd get a better deal. Which I did, as the driver charged what Stephanie's uncle, Tontoy, said it should cost. As we arrived in the village of Erenas, the driver asked a random person standing outside as to which house Tontoy and his family lived. All he said was Tontoy's name and the person pointed down the road.

"Almost there." the driver said. "Just a little bit further."

I'm continually amazed by the amount of English that is spoken and understood in the Philippines. I thought for sure no one on Samar Island, way out in the boonies, would speak a lick of English.

As I arrived at the house, it had appeared that everyone had been awaiting my arrival as they were keeningly watching the road while sitting outside.

A man named Reyo greeted me and showed me to my room. There must have been 15-20 people living there at that time. Even though I learned everyone's name, I never did manage to figure out how they were all related to Stephanie. I figured they had to be either 1 of 3 things: a cousin, aunt or uncle. I wanted to introduce myself to all the women who were seated and gathered around, but Reyo was pretty adamant that we continued to the gazebo where the men were. So as I passed the women I made sure to smile, wave, and say 'hello'.

As we approached the gazebo, which was located literally a few feet from the sea, Reyo hollered at Tommy and Nonoy, both middle aged men who were asleep. Tommy didn't speak any English, so he sat there nodding and smiling as Nonoy and I conversed. Nonoy is living with Tontoy and the family until his house is finished being built. Nonoy and his family used to live in Luzon, but after he experienced a stroke a few years back, he has been unable to work. He told me he enjoys Samar island as it's cheaper and more conducive to his rehabilitation process, as he exercises in the sea regularly. Nonoy had employed many members of Stephanie's family to construct his house and was anxious to move in, which, he said, would be in about a month.

Soon after, I met Stephanie's uncle Tontoy and cousin Mabel. It wasn't before long that the rest of the family followed suit, making their way to the gazebo for a meet 'n mingle, curious to learn more about this mysterious traveler from the States who had found his way to their home. Some of Tontoy's friends from a few houses down, curious to see what all the commotion was about, also made an appearance. They were 5 young homosexual men - dare I say women? - named Erica, Sandy, and 3 other names that are typically associated with being a woman.

I got the feeling that Tontoy and the family didn't receive many visitors from the West. Everyone wanted to pick my brain, and I was quickly subjected to being asked a million questions. I loved being the "foreign object" (Read "The Philippines: Part 2" to understand the reference).

After I was offered some coconut juice, I found myself witnessing the best impersonation of Spiderman that I've ever seen, as one of the kids climbed the trunk of a tree (bare feet and hands) at about 20 feet above the ground and began to machete coconuts down. Every evening, everyone would gather around the gazebo and along the sea to enjoy the sunset. I was relaxin' and throwin' back coconuts. Life was good. I couldn't believe that I was actually hanging out with Stephanie's family in the Philippines. Who would have thought?

Every morning I found my breakfast waiting for me on the kitchen table, compliments of Tontoy. So hospitable. Tontoy was such a friendly, warm-hearted person. He worked for the mayor of the town and was in charge of finding the next tourist attractions, e.g. waterfalls, caves, beaches, etc. What a sweet gig. Unfortunately, the mayor that he worked for lost the last election. Thus, Tontoy was soon to be out of a job. He explained that elections are decided by which candidate hands out the most money, i.e. the highest bidder, sort of speak. Tontoy sounded sad as he explained to me that his boss had done a lot for the community but that people had been bought off.

"People only care about money," Tontoy said, sounding defeated.

I spent every morning under the gazebo, relaxing and enjoying my conversations with Nonoy. Speaking to him really reminded me of how fortunate I am to have been born in an industrialized country such as the US. He told me as a laborer he made 350 pesos a day. We're talking about $7 for 8 hours of physical labor. He said he made more though as a jeepney driver, making a whopping 500 pesos/$10 a day. Imagine. Again, due to his stroke which has inhibited him from working, they moved to Samar island where daily expenses are much cheaper than on the island of Luzon. He told me education is much cheaper, too. And for what it costs him to send his son to university every semester, I had in my back pocket. So when you think you have it hard, think again.

The family really began to warm up and take a liking in me. Which was great. One afternoon, they had a bit of a cookout and forced me to eat an ungodly amount of delicious barbecue fish. And to wash it down, Lilia - a cousin of Stephanie's? - pressured me to drink some sort of coconut alcoholic juice. It tasted like sour vinegar. Yeah, it was pretty gross. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to win the hearts and minds of the people. I realized it was a social gesture and Lilia really seemed happy that I was drinking it.

That night as I was sleeping, I was awakened suddenly by a piercing pain on the inside of my right forearm as if something had bitten me.


I quickly turned on the lights to see what was lodged in between my hand and forearm, as something had indeed bitten me.

"Ah!" I yelped, and immediately released the insect that I'd wedged in between my limbs. It was a giant, grotesque looking centipede with hundreds of legs. It was quite a painful sting, and my arm instantly began to swell and turn red. Afraid that it was poisonous, I monitored myself with the lights on for awhile. I quickly wrote down in my journal what had happened just in case, God forbid, it was poisonous and I died or something. At least everyone would know what had happened. Just looking out. The pain, redness and swelling subsided by the morning. What a relief.

After breakfast, as I was relaxing under the gazebo talking to Nonoy's sons - Lawerence, Pedro and Winston - Tontoy approached us and asked if we wanted to go to Spice Beach. Sound great.

"Let's do it," I said.

Spice of Life Beach was located just 10 minutes away by tricycle. And, man, was it beautiful there. It had clear blue water and beautiful scenery of mountains and nearby islands. What a treat. Again, I was the only westerner on the entire beach. Spice was nice.

After we returned from the beach I took a much needed nap. After my nap, however, I began to feel a bit ill. After sitting outside under the gazebo for about an hour, now feeling worse, I mentioned that I was still feeling sick. The next thing I knew, I was being surrounded by the entire family, inquiring what was wrong with me.

"Adam, your stomach is upset?" asked Tontoy. "I'll get you something warm to drink."

"I really don't think my stomach can handle anything, Tontoy," I said, only to have it fall on deaf hears as he continued to walk to the house.

Everyone began speaking to one another in Tagalog. I knew they were talking about me.

"Uhh, we think that you may have been cursed," Nonoy said to me.

"Cursed?" I said, sounding a bit perplexed.

"Adam," Lilia chimed in, "Tell me exactly what's wrong. What about your ears? Are your ears cold, too?"

Before I could give her a response she quickly walked over and began feeling them.

"Oh, my!" she hollered, "They're cold!" And began speaking in Tagalog with everyone again.

"What's all the commotion about?" I wondered.

Lilia walked over and sat beside me. "Do you remember when you walked past a group of women earlier?" Lilia asked.

"Yes," I responded.

"Well, there were 2 women who commented on how cute and handsome you were."

I wasn't following.

"You see, they practice some sort of voodoo. And when they find a man attractive and look at him, they cast a spell on the him - which causes stomach pain."

A couple of voodoo queens had casted a spell on me? I thought. Oh, man.

Yes, I had a pair of Marie Laveaus on my hands. Not good.

"How do you feel? How do you feel now, Adam?" Everyone was asking me.

"Ehh . . . I feel . . . terrible," now feeling weak just to speak.

"We're going to try to heal you, Adam," I heard someone say in the background.

The next thing I knew, my shirt was taken off and people began mumbling words that I couldn't understand as they rubbed my head and slapped my back.

"How do you feel now, Adam?"

"Eh, still not good."

Next, people began spitting on their hands and rubbing them on my chest while, again, mumbling words I couldn't hear nor understand. I was so sick that I felt vulnerable for whatever healing remedy that was available.

I began to think about what Sheila's brother, Mark, jokingly asked me during my first night in the Philippines: "So, what do you think of the Philippines, man? Like, what about right now? What do we look like to you? Do we look like something from National Geographic?

Now if this isn't like something from National Geographic, I don't know what is, I thought, as I was now being smacked by tree branches over my head and back. Yes, tree branches.

They even brought back one of the perpetrators who'd casted one of the spells on me, and told her to undue the curse. She did her hocus pocus thing, and prayed over me.

"How do you feel now, Adam?"

I felt like death, really. But I didn't want them to feel as if their healing powers wasn't working, which they weren't.

"Uh, maybe a little better?" I said.

"If you don't feel any better soon, we'll try one more thing." Lilia said to me.

I was really feeling ill at this point. I was extremely weak, and felt as if I was about to hurl. I quickly stood up and walked over to the steps leading to the ocean, thinking that I was going to throw up. I stood there silently, leaning over. I took a couple of deep breaths through my nose as I felt a pleasant breeze come off the dark shores of the sea.

"That's it," Lilia shouted, "Give me your shirt."

Tontoy then guided me back to the house, now shirtless, as they washed it. Once I sat down, Tontoy (and someone else?) began bathing me with my shirt that they'd just washed. Afterwards, the other woman who'd cursed me entered the house and attempted to heal me. As soon as she finished I got up and darted for the bathroom.


For the next few hours I threw up profusely, followed by violent episodes of diarrhea. Such a night.

I hate it when I get cursed.

The following day I felt much better. I just had a slight headache and no appetite. I spent my last day lounging around and napping under the gazebo. I made sure, however, to get a family photo. I went around the house rounding everyone up.

"Everybody to the front of the house!" I hollered. "Picture time, picture time."

I had to take pictures of the fam. And everyone was such a good sport about it, too. Afterwards, Mabel turned on some music and everyone began dancing and acting goofy. A fitting ending to my stay there.

Stephanie's family were unbelievably friendly, accommodating and hospitable - humanity at its best.

I'll never forget my travels to Samar island. It was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. I said Samar sounded like it was going to be an adventure. Man, I have never been so right.

"Got cursed?"

Next Stop: Manila


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