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Published: March 9th 2009
I screamed with pain as the healer swung his double-edged, razor-sharp sword full force into my belly. It was agonizing but somehow felt more like being hit by a metal rod than a sword.
"Stop, stop," I cried, "I don't want any more!" But I had begun now, and other people held me back. I received two more blows to the stomach and three on my leg, all equally excruciating and producing cries at a similar volume. Afterwards I looked at the areas of flesh he had struck and sure enough there were three long thin red marks where the blade had hit me but somehow not penetrated my skin. Two weeks later, as I write this, huge black bruises still cover the area.
The room in which we found ourselves and the people we were with looked, outwardly, highly Americanised. The healer was no shaven-headed Tibetan monk in long red shawl, no wild-haired, pencil-thin Indian Yogi - he was a fat, simple-faced, warm-hearted Filipino in jeans, a T-Shirt and a baseball cap. We were in no Himalayan temple or Buddhist shrine, but on the twenty first floor of the Herrera Tower in downtown Makati, surrounded by the vast
shopping malls and reflective glass windows of Manila's flashiest area and answer to Singapore. Yet this bizarre ritual took place amid all this seeming hyper-modernity. The other "patients" were highly-educated working people yet they must have believed in the efficacity of the ritual otherwise why would they have been there? Relaxed and trusting, they did not scream while being hit. My own agony upon having the blade unleashed upon me was apparently due to my skepticism; fearing the worst, I had unwittingly tensed all my muscles in useless preparation for the blow.
"Where are you from?" I asked the healer when the ordeal was over.
"The island of Leyte, Sir," he replied.
"And what did you do before you became a healer?"
"I was just a farmer, Sir."
"How did you realise you had this gift?"
"One day God just told me, Sir. I left home and lived in the wild for a year, fasting during the day and never once washing. Then I came back and started to help people." He seemed straightforward, down to earth, and without a cunning bone in his body.
The owner of the
clinic in which the ritual had taken place quoted a couple of verses from the Bible which mentioned metal rods and double-edged swords representing the Word of God which could protect people from death.
"Perhaps it felt more like a rod than a sword when he hit you?" he asked, looking from face to face. He went on to show us some photos of the ritual on his computer where a bright shining light inexplicably appeared near the sword, or where the sword became transparent. We checked our own photos and, sure enough, in one of them the sword was transparent. In another one Lizz had captured the sword just as it hit my leg; it was definitely the blade, not the flat, that was striking me and, what is more, the blade appeared to be partly buried in my flesh.
"Anyway," the owner went on, "this should build up your protective aura enormously and prevent you from getting hurt." He went on to site a list of examples of policemen and soldiers who had taken the same treatment then survived without a scratch after being shot at point blank. Another young man at the clinic told us
that after having the treatment one day he had had an sudden urge to change buses then had watched as the bus he had left blew up in a terrorist attack.
"The clothes you are in now, you can't wear them for a year," the owner said, "unless you are going into a particularly dangerous situation, then they will protect you. For the next three days you cannot shower, eat pork or have sex. For the rest of your life you cannot shower, eat pork or have sex on Tuesdays or Fridays. Whenever you eat meat, you must never skewer it with your fork. And, most importantly, you must say these prayers every day at 6am and 6pm." He handed out several pages of Tagalog and Latin prayers that would take at least twenty minutes to recite.
"We have to say them all twice every day?" I asked with a sinking heart, knowing full well that I would not be able to keep it up.
"Indeed, otherwise you will lose your protection."
We had decided to undergo the treatment by alternative healers because for us it summed up a number of aspects of the
Filipino culture, above all the deep, almost fanatical spirituality which scratched below the surface of the Americanised exterior. The sword healer was apparently a one-off, just a man who had been given a gift by God not to be found in anyone else. Our next experience was to be of one of the most controversial healing practices to be found anywhere in the world: that of psychic surgery. This practice, revered for its successes by the spiritualists and denounced by conventional doctors as giving false hope to people who would be much better off putting their faith in Western medecine, is extremely popular in the Philippines.
I had seen a documentary on TV in the West in which psychic surgery had been proven to be a hoax. When I mentioned this to the owner of the clinic where I had received the sword treatment, he replied that in the whole world there were only about forty genuine psychic surgeons but plenty of people out to make money by faking it.
We were in a tricycle taxi bumping along a small winding street in a poverty stricken part of the Pasay area. The power-dressed, briefcase-clutching businesspeople of Makati were
gone, replaced by street vendors, karaoke bars and crowds of children playing in the street. The cries of "hey Joe!" and "Where you going, man?" that had greeted us everywhere in the provinces but had disappeared upon our arrival in Manila were once again all around us. Fifteen minutes after leaving Makati we were already in a different world, one that reminded us of any number of small provincial towns in Palawan, Panay, Negros, Mindanao, Romblon or Mindoro.
The tricycle drew up outside a small church whose wide doors opened onto a street that was buzzing with life. It made me reminiscent of the provinces. Here people knew everyone around them, laughed and joked with one another, watched the newcomers with excited curiosity; in Makati, as in any big, developed place, the huge numbers of people concentrated in one area silenced each other and shut themselves off from anyone they did not already know.
We entered the Church, a modern little affair whose walls were hung end to end with tapestries depicting different saints, and were greeted by a group of spiritual healers who worked there giving free treatment to the poor of the neighbourhood.
do first is a sort of spiritual x-ray on you to find out what you need doing," a woman told us, "then we operate. The healer will collect all the toxins and bad energy in your body together and materialise it into one piece of blood or flesh or something then draw it out of your body."
Lizz went first. It began by an injection from one of the tapestries. A tassel was somehow attached to her arm and prayers said over it by several mumbling voices. Next came the spiritual x-ray; a man stood over her, hands just above her head, muttering prayers for several minutes. He then plucked a hair, put it in a spoon and boiled it over a candle.
At a desk at the front of the church a woman began scribbling down her diagnosis. Behind her stood another, stroking the tassel of another tapestry and making motions with her hands as if to sprinkle the power of the tapestry onto the head and breasts of the one making the diagnosis. When it was finished the woman finished her writing and slumped back in her chair for a moment, seemingly unconscious, before reawakening with
a distinctly disorientated look in her eyes. I had the impression that she might be sick at any moment.
Lizz lay down on a table and after a quick massage the surgery began. Several hands were placed on Lizz's stomach and the surgeon himself began shaking and went into trance before he began his work. Then I saw his hands begin to move and blood bubbled up all around. A couple of other people had their hands on her stomach and the skeptic in me felt sure this was to block my line of vision so that I could not see whatever trick it was that they were pulling off. I came in closer, bent down right next to the action and sure enough, as far as I could see, the surgeon's finger was actually inside Lizz's stomach, blood coming up all around it. This went on for a couple of minutes until eventually some evil-looking black material was pulled out along with something that reminded me of the tail of a radioactive worm that had featured in one episode of the X-Files. The operation was finished, blood wiped off her stomach and no scars left to show for
Next it was my turn. Being a smoker, the operation was concentrated more on my lungs than stomach. I lay on the table, received the massage and closed my eyes like I was told. Suddenly there was a burning unlike any sensation I had known before coming from right inside my chest and I could feel the surgeon's fingers inside me. They moved gradually down to my stomach and despite the intensity of the burning that followed them I felt no urge to cry out. It took only a few seconds this time before I felt the fingers squelch out of my belly accompanied by the feeling of something being sucked out from inside me. The surgeon told me to open my eyes; he was holding a tiny, tangled mess of flesh and blood which he quickly placed to one side in a metal bowl.
Could the sword healer somehow have swapped the razor sharp blade we both felt for a blunter weapon just before the ritual? Unlikely but possible. Could it, or what I saw happen to Lizz, have been optical illusions? Most probably they could. Was there some potion they could have
rubbed on my skin that made me feel the burning and somehow made it seem like the movement of the surgeon's fingers were inside me while in reality they were on my skin? Possibly. But none of these rational, scientific explanations answer the question of why the healers, who work helping poor people at no profit to themselves, would want to deceive their patients.
"How did you find out about your powers?" I asked the surgeon.
"Everyone has them, but God only tells a very few how to use them," he replied. "It's a gift, not something you can learn."
I, a devout skeptic, left the church confused and unsure what to believe - my own senses or my logical Western mind.
Click here for my website offering advice on independent travel in the Philippines
with a focus on the offbeat and exotic regions and traditions of this beautiful country.
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