Culion: A Beautiful Story

Monday, June 17, 2019

La Immaculada Concepcion Church in Culion

I stared blankly through the horizon as our boat approached the island. It was around noon, a bit hungry from the short flight to Manila-Busuanga, then a van from Busuanga to Coron, plus a boat ride to this quaint old town. I was trying to figure out if this place is what I remember; reading in books, several online articles - of the island named Culion. 

From afar, I could see the church on top of a rock and on the other side a huge sign that says CULION on it. I immediately slapped my huge airstrip like forehead and felt like doh', this is it, this is the island I've read about!

Garlic Chicken

Pork Sisig

Pinakbet with pink hues, their Bagoong Alamang is different

At the Port, we climbed a flight of stairs of a government building rented out for a local restaurant. I remember the feeling of being awestrucked as I turned my head into the window; a gust of wind whiffed on my face while I witnessed the beautiful surrounding blue waters and well forested nearby islands in Culion. I asked myself a couple of times how this beautiful place seem to have less tourists when it just felt wonderful to be there. I sat down and figured I better take care of my hunger first and deal with the answers later. 

Food was cheap, everyone was in a flurry to have us feel comfortable especially Michelle our guide and Team MSB who was with us to experience Culion. They're in to experience the island before they start to shoot the movie with the same name, we said our pleasantries and headed off to Hotel Maya. The only hotel in Culion.

With our luggages in tow, we walked towards the tricycle terminal and as soon as we set foot outside the port, a man jumped out and greeted us with flair, in the public PA system and got amused of his antics. Felt like fish in an aquarium for a few minutes, then we sped off through a few barangays and reached the place in just a few strides.

Our window view, late sunset. We were on top of a cliff and you could see a small port below. Teens and kids were freely bathing there.

We climbed a few steps, walked a few meters and sitting at the back of the church was a two level bungalow with several rooms. Hotel Maya used to be an orphanage and school for females (Hijas de Maria Dormitory) who didn't have any place to go. They were taken cared of by Sisters of St. Paul of Charters who still had an office in the side of the lot, but the hotel is managed and operated by the same people behind Loyola College of Culion. An institution founded by Jesuits who also served the community. To get a feel of the place, we went to The Culion Museum and Archives to get to know Culion's rich history. If you are visiting the island for the first time, I suggest you do this particular tour in order to get a grasp of it. There is a small fee but really negligible. They also have a very clear, detailed view of the hospital and community operations with the real machines and instruments in it. They also have their own money displayed so you would understand further how they achieved medical success over the years.

If you didn't know, Culion WAS a colony for persons afflicted with Hansen's Disease (commonly known as Leprosy), but have been completely rid of it in 2006. The condition is curable via WHO MDT (Multidrug Therapy) and has been done successfully over decades. It is NOT very contagious, nor is it spread through pregnancy or intimacy. Calling persons afflicted with Hansen's disease with the L word is deemed outright offensive so you should NEVER call them that. This also goes the same with the term "patients" as they're not afflicted with it anymore, they prefer residents just like you and me. 

It totally makes sense. I kept that in my mind while asking questions all throughout the day, I learned this by talking to them directly, their hospital personnel, even the Medical Center Chief who affirmed this. More than the condition, I feel it is the SOCIAL STIGMA that we ought to worry about. If you are reading this from where you are, take a mental note of it and tell your friends, your family, Culion is completely safe and I got to talk to them the next day.

Check out this video I made of our tour!

Imelda Cortez Ganega (66)

Josephina Villarico Pascual (86), Maxencia Gonzales Roldan (77)

Constancio Alinsog (90)

Ms. Imelda used to live and study in the Hijas de Maria Dormitory. She was excited to tell us how they used to live their daily lives in segregation, like she was one of the boys in the island. Ms. Maxencia  also got to tell us about her current involvement in NGO's aimed to help and uplift the lives of people afflicted with Hansen's disease. They want to also bring their plight to the forefront and not do with the social stigma we mentioned earlier. I could see their excitement when they were informed that a film about Culion in the 1940's will be told on screen with no less than master writer Ricky Lee on the helm. Ms. Josephina on the other hand lives in solitude but completely happy with her dog. Mr. Constancio on the other hand told us about his 13 kids and a lovelife that spanned years before he and his wife met again (as this was during the war). Here's the interview on video!

Now that you've gotten schooled about the facts, I should tell you about these folks. Behind these interviews are a whole throng of family who also live with them. In spite of their isolation in the past, I was mostly touched at how they have no thinking of being trapped, some of them have had the opportunity to actually be with family outside or live a life elsewhere but ended up coming back because they find one thing, it was PEACE. 

They are fearless, no different than you and me, the only constant is our ability to treat them as equals and tell our brethren, to have them understand and tell their own because in this day and age, there should be no room for that stigma. They don't ask for anything special, but the same treatment, as Filipinos, as humanly possible.

This stairway had witnessed so many occasions. Almost all portraits, historical figures and photos were taken in this same spot and we had to do something inspired by Vanity Fair, of course!

The film will be featuring different spots in the island that have been part of their day to day lives. The community thrived even during the time of segregation, in a way they went all become very productive individuals and lived off the land. Marriage, romance, love, it all happened in one way or another. There are public baths, communal bathrooms, a little different from the usual but they ended quite fine despite the circumstances. That for me just paints a beautiful picture, of triumph, perseverance, of humanity. So aside from the majestic views, historical landmarks and clear waters, it's the people that makes this place so special.

It was just the first day and I was already learning a lot. Imagine the beach, the water, the sun, the sea and the people, the Culion story in one place. I was just blown away!


Sinigang Ribs

Chop Suey

Crabs, Crabs and more Crabs!

We went back to the hotel and had dinner. True enough, we had our eyes googly over fresh seafood, scrumptious home cooking. You have all the goodness and quality of cuisine from any place in the Philippines, but you really can't buy the ambiance that comes with it. We slept soundly later, with the howling winds putting us to sleep. We wore our smiles thinking we'll be seeing more of Culion and it's people the next day. We got word we'll be seeing the Mayor, and woke up excited at the steps of the island's Municipal Hall.

After a quick breakfast in the hotel (Garlicky ChixSiLog), we rode tricycles to the Municipal Hall. It housed government, the courts and public offices.

Hon. Virginia De Vera, lady Mayor of Culion

We met a very humble Mayor who felt it was just the total trust they have with the producers of this movie that made them say yes to it.  They will help them whatever way they can and acknowledges this will really boost tourism in the island. Albeit being a third class municipality, they are working hard to finish projects in the island. Although it takes years to build roads, ports, structures that could service the incoming visitors, they are very positive this will bring change to the out look, of what people now think of Culion.

Pulang Lupa, look out for this tree and landscape that will connect Ricky Lee's masterpiece to the upcoming film Culion

Culion Public Cemetery

The Culion marker on top of the mountain which can be seen from afar

Here's our interview with the proud Mayor of Culion.

It's been a long time seeing changed lives and medical wonders in Culion. The landscape has changed but they properly rebuilt structures and made the Culion Sanitarium and Medical Hospital one of the most advanced institutions in Palawan. Nearby cities even go to them because of it and the structure remains sound despite the length of time it has been built. I was at awe how they maintained this (see first video above). It takes a strong man to run things and this falls on the hands of Dr. Cunanan. Here's our interview with him.

I left the island a changed man. I felt my fears were unfounded and this is probably the same with most of the population which have fears with olden outdated information languished by more documentaries which only brought fear because it's different and physically manifested. 

Dr. Jose Rodriguez spent almost half a century to help in Culion. He is also the Great Grandpa of blogger Mica Rodriguez, proudly told me about him years ago (for then a movie script she worked on)

Residents have been cured, not all of them have been afflicted, nor is it passed on, so don't let your fears be the reason not to discover a beautiful place and not experience such heartfelt, colorful, warm people. Culion is definitely part of the next frontier and they are starting to embrace you, to come and visit the place they call home.

This experience was designed for us to know why they'll be making a film about Culion. I know the reason why, it's the people. If you experience that, and felt what I felt while talking to them, you'll be glad you did. Now I can't wait to see this upcoming Ricky Lee masterpiece which will be under the direction of Alvin Yapan and produced by Shandii Bacolod and iOptions Ventures Corporation. The film will star Ms. Iza Calzado, Jasmine Curtis-Smith, Meryll Soriano, Joem Bascon and an ensemble cast. I'll tell you about it soon!

In the meantime, I hope you now consider planning your next vacation in Culion to see its gentle people. I fell in love with Culion, you will too!


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