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Of Chickens and Medicine Men: A Local Remedy in Cebu, Philippines

  • John Paul Maclang
  • 5 May 2011

Not long ago, I visited a local hilot, or medicine man, in Bantayan, Philippines. It all started when a wrong turn on a bike quickly became a leaping, flying dash into a rice paddy. What I had expected to be ‘just’ a tourist trip then offered a few valuable life lessons. There is a moral to this story about the painfully swollen ankle I got: I crashed in a place where doctors and hospitals are rare, and instead found luck and kindness.

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The white sandy beaches of Bantayan make it a popular Philippine island for tourists. A twist of fate (and of ankle) took one tourist a little deeper into local life. Photo courtesy of John Maclang

Cycling Through the Sights of Bantayan, Cebu

Pedalling around the island of Bantayan, in the Cebu province of the Philippines, was an exhilarating experience. Located in the northern part of Cebu, Bantayan has retained its old charm despite being one of the top tourist destinations in the Visayas Region and claiming a beautiful, 15th-centry church that is one of the oldest in the Philippines. Another of its strongest drawing cards is the huge expanse of powdery white-sand beaches that are often compared to those of Boracay, yet Bantayan retains a small-town appeal.

The island takes its name from the watchtowers built by the Spaniards in the 16th century to protect Bantayan from marauding moros (Muslims). The stone structures, known locally as Bantayan ng Hari (Watchtowers of the Spanish King), are spread throughout different parts of the island and have provided refuge and protection to its inhabitants for centuries, perhaps even some of its many, many chickens. Since the turn of the 20th century, Bantayan has aptly been called the ‘Egg Basket of the Visayas’ due to local production of more than a 100 tons of eggs per day.

At the Gate of a Local Medicine Man’s House

As a big city dweller (I was born in the Philippines but have spent part of my life in the US and Germany), I often forget how often chickens cross the roads of small towns. So when a chicken did in fact dart across my path, I swerved widely to the left and found myself ditched in a rice field and nursing a bruised ankle.

When I asked local folks where I could go for help, I was told to seek out the small man living in a hut on Santa Fe, Bantayan, who was purported to be the best medicine man around. Locals went to him to cure all ills, from the common cold to the occasional fracture and the sprain.

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St. Peter and Paul Church in Bantayan was built in the 15th century and is still one of the biggest churches in the Philippines. Along with the watchtowers, or 'bantayan' after which the island is named, it serves as a legacy of colonial Spanish rule. Photo courtesy of John Maclang

After I knocked on his bamboo gate, he called out to me from his small hut and motioned for me to come inside. I was hesitant at first, having no experience with folk medicine. The son of practitioners of western medicine, I felt awkward and ill at ease in the presence of this small-town ‘Dr. House‘.

The man was half-dressed, with only white pyjama pants covering him from the waist down. He was chewing on a betel-nut-and-lime concoction and smiled his toothless grin, waving yet again for me to come inside.

My what-on-earth-is-going-to-happen-to-me-now expression had stuck to my face. I walked inside the hut, thoroughly amused.

Local Bath and Massage Treatment

The medicine man motioned for me to sit while I stuttered a few words in Cebuano, the local language, one that I barely understand. I managed to pantomime quite well what happened to me and where I was ailing by pointing to my ankle, which was slightly inflamed and larger in size that it had been earlier in the day.

He stood, took a closer look at my injured ankle, compared it to my other ankle and then again examined my sprain. He nodded his head knowingly and pointed for me to sit down in a small chair. I did as I was told.

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Entering the gate to a local medicine man's house, the one above on Bantayan, Philippines, you never know what kind of traditional remedy he will cook up for you inside. Photo courtesy of John Maclang

Meanwhile, he made his way to his kitchen, filled a pot with water from a large earthen vase and placed it on a wood stove to heat. Speaking a few words in Cebuano, which again escaped my comprehension, he smiled his toothless grin. He was not even five feet tall, bent at the waist and must have been somewhere between 60 and a 100 years old. He sauntered around, doing his best to ensure my comfort.

Returning to sit with me, he rolled some dried tobacco leaves into a cigar, lit it and shared it with me, both of us smiling as we smoked. After a few puffs, though, I became dizzy, but generally still awake.

He ambled back to his pot, which had started to boil. Dipping his finger to test for the correct temperature, he then added a mixture of banana, tamarind and guava leaves to the steaming brew. A waft of aromatic steam engulfed the room, lending it a relaxing vibe. Pouring some of this watery mixture into a plastic bucket, the medicine man then added cold water, returned to where I sat and instructed me to put my foot inside the bucket to soak it.

The warm fragrant water felt fantastic and quickly soothed me. After a short time, the kindly old man wiped my foot with a towel and applied another heady mixture from a rum bottle containing a blend of virgin coconut oil and dried barks and leaves.

Slowly massaging my calf, he kneaded the muscle fibres down to the tendons connected to the base of the foot. For a few minutes, he alternately massaged and tested the range of motion of my ankle. As soon as he was able to manipulate the nerves and muscle fibres completely, relief came to me instantly.

He finished his treatment by wrapping my foot with guava leaves pulled from the pot and securing them with banana leaves tied with twine. When I stood, I could tell that my foot was better.

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Back in the more urban port centre of Cebu, Philippines, John Maclang walks on his remedied ankle and reflects on the kind treatment he received from a medicine man in Bantanyan. Photo courtesy of John Maclang

Lessons in Luck and Kindness

I pulled out my wallet and start counting bills to pay the good doctor, but he quickly responded, in halting English, “No pay, no pay. Me help, bring luck!”

I gave him a look of disbelief. How could I not repay the kindness of this good man? I offered again, but he adamantly refused to accept anything from me. I thanked him profusely and then went on my way.

As I exited the doorway, he reminded me to keep my foot dry for 24 hours and remove the leaves the next day. A short distance down the road, I looked back and saw him waving goodbye, with a smile on his face and a cigar on his hand.

Though I’m back in the city and my foot is well and functional, I still remember the kindly old ‘Dr. House’ and say a silent prayer of thanks.

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John Paul Maclang

John Maclang is a lawyer by profession and now the General Manager for Go Discover Travel Ltd, the whl.travel local connection in the Philippines. He was born in the Philippines and has lived many places. He is an avid windsurfer and divemaster intern and loves the oceans in and around the Philippines. John has been an environmental activist and Bantay Kalikasan' (Environment Watch Group) volunteer since 2005.
John Paul Maclang
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One Response to “Of Chickens and Medicine Men: A Local Remedy in Cebu, Philippines”

  1. Kikay says:

    Wow, that was indeed a great experience you had with the hilot. I hope our kindness will draw you back to our shores.

  2. Teamworkz says:

    A great story, and one that sounds very familiar – have had similar experiences throughout Laos and Thailand, both with traditional medicine and the genuine kindness and hospitality found in some of the more remote areas.

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