Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Mang Isko the Healer

We didn't really have access to the best hospitals growing up, so like any normal Filipino family, we sometimes resorted to 'peripherals'. As a child I remember going at least three to four times a year to the residence of Mang Isko, who was reputed to have been gifted with the power of healing in my father's province of Batangas. He lived on top of a hill, alone, with his small hut that could easily have been a quaint ermita to a traveling image of a saint, and his farm animals, which consisted of cows, chickens, goats, and a carabao.

But first, a background. As I have already said, the circumstances in which I grew up in were not exactly middle class. To save on bills, we would pay Mang Isko a visit. He was, you see, an 'albularyo', a traditional medicine man whose knowledge of herbs and other natural remedies were a cheaper alternative to hospitals. Well, at least I think he was an albularyo; he never claimed to be anything near it, but he played along with that honorific. Mang Isko looked like your stereotypical image of an Asian in the 1940s; think Fu Manchu, with more Japanese eyes, buck teeth, and the like. He even had paler skin than most Filipinos. Mang Isko was greatly respected by all those who knew him, not only because he could 'heal', but because, it was said, albularyos were privy to the secrets of the universe; rivals to priests, in their knowledge of incantations and prayers. It was also said that they chanted in Latin, thus giving credence to the notion that they were priests. There was even an old legend that held that the Jesuits, when they first came to the Philippines, compiled all the secrets and incantations of the albularyos into one black, leatherbound book, possession of which was said to give anyone power beyond his reckoning. To this day, there are still many who hold to this claim. Makes for a good Indiana Jones movie, if you ask me.

Anyway, the drive to Mang Isko's quaint house took about half an hour from my father's childhood home. From the highway one took a right turn to a hill fronted by an aging wooden billboard advertising an equally old and creaky hotel. The road wound up the hill, and to either side were small residences built by squatters. Finally the hill leveled somewhat, and the road led to Mang Isko's grotto of a house, which had a rather spacious veranda overlooking the small plot of land he farmed.

As a city kid, I hated going there. Especially at the age of 9 or 10, when I was just beginning to discover the wonders of the Internet; I felt Mang Isko's home was ancient at best and antediluvian, if not prehistoric, at worst. It was a small wood and stone affair, characteristic of homes built at the turn of the 20th century. The main house, which was of wood, stood on a base of stone, its foundation, and was reached by climbing a small stair. Inside, the house looked like a curio shop. It was literally stuffed with religious images, which contrasted, humorously and ironically enough, with the White Castle whisky calendars the old man had collected over the years (even healers have their needs too).

To one side was a wall, where an ancient, dark, wooden crucifix was affixed. It looked very expensive, with rayos of gold, and bolts of gold on the arms (there's a Spanish term for that which I have forgotten). The corpus had a wig of abaca, with finely worked potencias. The crucifix itself was framed by a gigantic wooden rosary; images of the Blessed Virgin, Saint Peter, and even a 'painting' of St. Michael ripped off a bottle of gin flanked the big cross (A popular brand of gin here is called Ginebra San Miguel). There was a small table which held a large number of candles before the images. There was a small, darkly lit room, with a single wooden bed with no mattress, where he performed his 'hilot' or traditional Philippine massage, his main method of 'healing'.

Mang Isko himself was a pleasant old man, whose hospitality was legendary. The last time we were there, 1998, my dad complained of a bad back, and my grandfather came along as well, as his arthritis was bothering him. So in we go, inside the small, quaint house, drinking small bottles of Coke which I then called the last point of civilization in the genteel, all too quiet surroundings of the farm. The only sound one could hear was the mooing of the cows and the clucking of the chickens. It added a decidedly mystical air to the whole environment, I thought.

Only once did I even dare to look at the procedure, and I was greatly disappointed. I ran into the room, feigning ignorance to mask my prideful curiosity, and discovered the old man rubbing a golden liquid onto my father's back. To my mind then, it looked like piss. I watched Mang Isko rub the liquid with his small, deft hands, which, even in the darkness, seemed to wander as if guided by truth itself into the invisible nooks and shadowy crevices of my dad's back. My grandfather awaited his turn, meanwhile, on a nearby chair, his pant leg rolled up to just above his knees. For an old man, Mang Isko moved with a graceful dexterity that seemed almost superhuman. I remember thinking that he must have loved exercise when he was a kid. That was the most sensible explanation for me.

Bored, I filed out of the house. I ran across the field with my brother, cursing the dumb beasts, throwing little stones at them or else flinging mud everywhere. Finally, after half an hour of doing so, I went back to the veranda, and sat myself on a small wooden chair. Finally, incensed at the constant mooing of the cows, I hurled a large rock at one of them, and screamed at the top of my lungs: 'Shut up you stupid cow!' But there was something about the silence that followed that simply wasn't right. I looked over to my side and saw Mang Isko's little figure, mouth agape, brows crunched, clearly puzzled, if not offended. 'Do you really think I am stupid?', he said. 'I just told your father what any sensible person would do. He needs a new mattress.'

It seemed that, just as I screamed at the cow, Mang Isko was simultaneously telling me that he knew the answer to my father's problems. It was incredibly hideous timing. Hearing the commotion, my dad headed outside, clearly angered at the commotion I caused. 'You ungrateful, disrespectful child! How dare you talk to your elders that way! Puneta!' My grandfather, ever the silent type, just shook his head in disapproval, but his eyes told me that he was greatly disappointed in my behavior.

I never got to apologize to Mang Isko. It was nearing dark, and he had gone to fetch a couple of things from the nearest house some 2 kilometers away; we thanked his housekeeper-slash-fac-totum, and told her to convey our sincerest apologies to Mang Isko. That was in the summer of 1998, and ten years hence, I have yet to apologize for that faux pas. I had never felt so humiliated before; I could not bear to look at his housekeeper, let alone Mang Isko.

The drive down the hill was eerily silent; only the croaking crickets accompanied us on the way down. Even the cows had seized mooing, and the chickens had clucked their last. Above, the full moon shone brightly-- and somewhere to the right, to the side of the road, I saw a small fire. The moonlight revealed Mang Isko's small figure-- hands outstretched in the orans, knees kneeling on dirt, a rosary hanging from either hand. The old albularyo knelt before a small, dilapidated grotto with an image of the Santo Cristo, and somewhere, in the distance, I heard a small voice, chanting words that could only have been Latin.


Archistrategos said...

There are real concerns about albularyos. Some of them resort to incantations and invocations of the devilish kind-- and many of them try to peddle superstiton as Divine Providence. I just thought I would mention that, before anyone gets the idea that they are completely harmless.

Anonymous said...

Sounds a lot like our curandero in Mexico. It is surprising that according to many experts, it was the Spanish themselves who brought many aspects of these arts to their colonized subjects, not the other way around. We have to remember that sixteenth century Spain was not all that different that the Philipines or Mexico prior to their conquests.

The favored way to do a "limpia" in Mexico is with an egg or crucifix. And the knowledge of herbs is a universal archetype. The women in the families often had the power to cure these ailments themselves, it was getting rid of "brujeria", demonic witchcraft, that was the work of the curandero.

Archistrategos said...

Indeed, it is surprising how superstitious the civilizing Spaniards were. I thought 'duendes' were a strictly colonial affair, but I was surprised when a professor, who was of pure Castillian extraction, once noted that his father often feared going out at night because of the mischief that these little
goblins can cause.

Andrew said...

What a fascinating story!

Actually, mixing superstition and religion is fairly common, even in Islamic countries. The local Muslim Malays here visit the local 'bomoh' which is the equivalent of the medicine man or faith healer. He gets called when football matches or some other outdoor event is threatened by rain, when love spells need to be cast, etc. And the rich and famous flock to him. Here, instead of crucifixes and Madonnas and Latin chanting, he chants in Arabic and writes Quranic verses as charms.

Things are the same everywhere it seems.

Archistrategos said...

It's the same in Mindanao too! Isn't belief in jinns and other Islamic curiosities (like the kjaata, bahamut, and falak) more common in SE Asia than in the Mid East? The Wahhabism prevalent in Saudi Arabia is just sad, IMHO.

Andrew said...

Well, in Wahhabi Arabia, many of the local Malay practices such as kissing the hand of the monarchs, visiting the graves of the departed or even having the graves marked would be forbidden. These Calvinists of Islam even bury their Kings in unmarked graves, lest they burial sites become places of veneration.