Think of a poor farmer who gets a horrible cold one day because of the ever-changing weather. He does not want to spend too much time being sick, as he still has to take care of his farm. Upon looking at his savings, he knows that he will not be able to afford modern medicine. However, he has been to the albularyo in the area, and he knows that the albularyo’s treatments work. With that, he sets off to the albularyo. Going to an albularyo, or witch doctor, is not unusual despite the urbanization of most places. Though many do not believe in albularyos anymore, there are still just as many who believe that healings from an albularyo work.
Contrary to popular belief, an albularyo, literally meaning herbalist, can be found not just in the provinces, but also in the cities. The techniques used by each albularyo may differ, but they all work if done correctly. The healings of an albularyo can be successful if both the albularyo and the patient have faith, the illness can be cured using herbs and other methods an albularyo uses, and the albularyo’s skills are well developed. It is essential for both the albularyo and his patients to have faith. Without faith, it is not likely that the healing will work, especially on the albularyo’s end.
An albularyo without faith is not an albularyo anyone would want to go to. Apo Hermie Dela Pena, an albularyo from Bulacan, is one who has complete faith in his healing power. When people think of an albularyo, they usually think of a wrinkly old woman wearing a headdress and talking about ghosts and other supernatural beings. Apo Hermie, however, is just a middle-aged man wearing a white sando, shorts, and slippers. In addition, although he believed in the supernatural, he certainly did not go around telling us about ghosts and spirits.
Upon entering his workroom, the amount of religious paraphernalia inside can be seen. There are a total of four statues of Jesus Christ, one small statue of Mary, a small bottle of holy water, and four pictures, three of which are of Jesus Christ and the other of the Ten Commandments. On the right wall, three sets of incantations can be seen. According to Apo Hermie, these are ‘secret words’ used when an illness has a more supernatural cause, and these words must not be said aloud. Before he starts a healing, he offers a prayer to the Lord. Apo Hermie gets a lot of regular patients.
Some of them surprisingly come from places like Boracay and Vigan. During our visit to Apo Hermie, we were fortunate enough to witness a healing. The healing was done for a girl of around four or five years of age, and she was there because of a fever she had gotten a day or so before. When we asked her mother, she said that they had come all the way from Angat. Apo Hermie says they are some of his regular customers, with the girl having been his patient since she was a baby. The mother’s faith was clear in this way, as they have been such loyal patients of Apo Hermie.
According to her, never had Apo Hermie’s healings failed them, and because of this, they continue to go to him whenever one of their family members is sick. The methods an albularyo uses to heal are simple. For the girl’s fever, Apo Hermie made use of a massage. This is only one of the ways that Apo Hermie heals. He also uses herbs and ventosa, and prayers and incantations for supernatural illnesses. Ventosa is a way of therapy for the back, wherein a small fire is lit in an upside down glass to produce a vacuum effect, and then placed on specific points of the back.
The herbs he uses are guaranteed to be safe, he said. Whenever he is unsure about the actual effects of an herb, he takes it on himself to either research on the herb or try it on himself. Many times, he has gotten sick because of his experimentation with herbs, but not so much that he did not get well within three days at the most. He has been able to prove to himself which herbs work and which do not, so he did not regret the experimentation. Most of the time, Apo Hermie’s patients come to him for simple illnesses such as fevers, body pains, and coughs and colds.
However, there are times when he gets a patient who wants to be treated for a more serious disease. He told us about this one man who came to him before. He was a German doctor, and he had colon cancer. The doctor wanted to be healed, but he did not want an operation. Instead, he went to Apo Hermie, and asked if he could be healed without ending up with any wounds. Apo Hermie refused, as he could not heal cancer cases as severe as the one the doctor had. Such diseases were tricky, and it was impossible not to end up with any wounds.
Going to a hospital would have yielded more results than going to an albularyo in the doctor’s case. Apo Hermie said that sometimes, the people who come to him are better off going to hospitals. Such patients usually have diseases like cancer. Despite being able to heal a lot of illnesses, there are still some that simple herbs and massages cannot cure. The same can be said for modern medicine. Both herbs and modern medicine have the same purpose: to heal someone of whatever illness they have.
However, they are not the same thing, and as such, one is bound to be able to do something that the other cannot. Apo Hermie told us that herbs are safer to use than medicine. After all, Western medicine may contain substances that might not react well to someone’s body, and no one will know until the damage is done. Herbs are simpler, as they are not a mixture of many chemical substances. Also, they work better than some medicines do. While modern medicine takes less time and smaller dosages, it may not fully heal. Herbs, on the other hand, take more time and bigger dosages, but they completely wash away the illness.
The healings of an albularyo can only work well if they are done well. It will not do for an albularyo to make a mistake in his or her healing and end up making the patient even sicker than he or she originally was. Apo Hermie has been an official albularyo for four years. Before that, he and his siblings only helped their father, the late Apo Jesus “Sosing” Dela Pena, with his work as an albularyo. They would help Apo Sosing and his assistants whenever there were too much patients for them to handle.
It was through their father that they learned how to heal, and it was through him that Apo Hermie became an albularyo himself, despite initially rejecting the idea. According to Apo Hermie, it is possible for one to learn the ways of an albularyo. He and his siblings are proof of that. But no matter how one is taught, he or she must always develop the skills on their own. While Apo Sosing taught him more during the older man’s last days, Apo Hermie further developed the skills himself. He did this through research and experimentation of his herbs, and further practicing what his father taught him.
Never has anyone complained to Apo Hermie of ever failing in a healing, and he used this as encouragement in continuing his job as an albularyo. Apo Hermie admits that while anyone can be taught how to be an albularyo, there are some who can be gifted at it. These are the ones who can easily understand how an albularyo does his or her healings. But no matter how ‘gifted’ someone is at the trade, one must always develop their skills. Without development, one cannot really say that he or she is good at what they do. As they say, there is always room for improvement.
Although it looks simple, being an albularyo is not easy. There are times when a healing might go wrong, and the albularyo’s energy can become severely depleted just because of one patient. Their moral values may also be at stake at times, like Apo Hermie’s is whenever couples come to him asking for an abortion. There are also times when an albularyo can just tell when their patient does not have much time left, and they know they cannot heal the patient any more. In Apo Hermie’s case, he admits that he does not know why or how some of his healings work. Yet they do work, and he says he can only thank the Lord.