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My Life in Cebu: Aswangs, Spirits and Superstitions

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I don’t know what you believe, but I grew up in a California suburb and except for my mother’s slight clairvoyant tendencies and a few “superstitions just for fun,” Casper the Friendly Ghost was the only ghost I ever thought about. Until I met my wife.

“I remember when I was young. I heard a lot of ghost stories in the province, in the place called Buhong in Calbayog. In this small barangay they have a hot spring where the Mayon Volcano erupted. Lots of animals and people died. When my family moved there, we had no place to stay, so we stayed in this broken, abandoned house. Our first night in this house our parents were at our neighbors house talking and my siblings and I were about to go to bed when we heard the sound of the Aswang, “Wak, wak, wak.” The sound continued for 5 minutes. We were very scared but my dad came home and told us that there’s nothing to be scared of because when you hear an aswang, if the sound is far it means they are near, but if the sound is near it means they are far away. There was a time also when my mom was pregnant with my younger brother and when we woke up in the morning she saw giant footsteps on the edge of the bed where my mom sleeps. My dad put bamboo spears on the ground to scare away the aswang, but we saw new footsteps the next day. So, he put broken bottles on the ground and the aswang went away.”

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My wife Rachel, from deep in the provinces of Samar, believes in the existence of ghosts, spirits and pays attention to many superstitions. There is no talking her out of it. It doesn’t matter what stories I tell her about our “Western ways and sophisticated knowledge”…. she just says:

“Well maybe you don’t have these things where you are from, but we have them in Samar.”

“There were ghosts at our hot springs too. When I was 7 or 8 we went swimming when my mom and dad were drinking tuba. In the middle of the pond I felt something holding my feet and pulling me down. It wouldn’t let go. I kicked and kicked until I could get to the side and climbed out of the water. The next day the same thing happened to a little boy. I wasn’t there, but he drowned.”

A famous apparition in the Philippines comes in the form of the White Lady. In fact Balete Road in Manila has had many sightings of a woman dressed in white, as well as other enchantments. Engkantos, environmental spirits able to take on human form and associated with ancestors, are believed to dwell in Balete trees. The advice regarding Engkantos is as follows:

“Filipino beliefs say that engkantos dwell at the famous Balete tree. Never say anything if you hear music coming from a Balete tree for the engkantadas are having a party. Don’t laugh or point to a Balete tree for there live fairies and enchantresses. If you cut a Balete tree, you will be meted death as a punishment for you have destroyed the place where the fairies and the enchantresses dwell. If a person was taken by an engkanto, drum beatings near Balete trees are done to recover lost persons.” (Source The Manila Bulletin Online Balete Drive)

Rachel continues:

“Another time when we were in Calbayog we had to cross a river at night time. I was maybe 9 or 10. The pump boat got the last passenger and started out. In a few seconds we looked back and there was a woman all in white, crying, standing by the shed. She was reaching her hands towards us. We looked at each other and then looked back and she was gone.

As our conversation went on, Rachel tells me stories of seeing a Jesus-like figure appear in the sky, surrounded by animals, that suddenly disappeared. And “the fact” that when her grandma’s sister died after having been suddenly ill; her face was covered with scratches; it was an aswang in the form of a cat.

Our talk went on long into the night and shifted towards Superstitions of which I knew there were many in the Philippines. The list is long indeed. Filipino superstitions are mixed beliefs that are composed of different kinds of actions and so called rituals that one person must do to avoid something bad. They are a combination of Catholicism, Chinese Traditions, and Filipino Folk beliefs with strong pagan undertones.

“Do not form groups of three or thirteen because one among you will die.

Give away your black dresses after 1 year of mourning to prevent another death in the family.

Don’t eat eggplant when you are pregnant or it will cause a birthmark.

Don’t comb your hair at night because your parents can die.
A pregnant woman shouldn’t have her picture taken or her child will die at birth.

When a baby lies on her stomach for the first time, place a pencil, paper and a book under her so that the baby will be intelligent.

Don’t put money on the table while you are eating or it will bring bad luck.

If you eat too many onions, you will become a playboy or playgirl.
Don’t stack your dirt dishes one on top of the other or it may lead to adultery.”

Wow. So many things to remember. I was overwhelmed. It was fascinating, but I was getting sleepy. I honestly didn’t have any “comebacks” to my wife’s stories and I wonder how many of you reading this have Filipino stories about superstitions, ghosts, aswangs or other things that you have heard from your Filipino relatives?

We were silent for about five minutes as I drifted toward sleep when Rachel broke the silence in a sing-song voice.

“I thought of another one.

“Yeah? What’s that?

Don’t eat chicken butts when you’re pregnant or your baby will be too talkative.”

“What? Chicken butts? Eating chicken butts?” I couldn’t get my head around it.

“Good night Rachel! Tell me about chicken butts tomorrow.”

Rob Ashley

After travelling to the Philippines and SE Asia perhaps 15 times between 2007-2011, I decided to retire in Cebu and moved here in August 2011. Things changed fast. A month after I was here I met my wife Rachel; In 6 months I decided I was bored after having taught high school English and in a graduate school of education at a Portland, Oregon university for 30+ years; I looked around; I was hired as the Head of the English Department at a Cebu international school. Rachel and I got married; we bought a condo in Cebu City; we got two cats. After 3 years here I was offered a similar position at a Japanese international school, so we went to Japan. After two years there I was offered another position of Coordinator of Languages at a Vienna, Austria international school. Living in Europe was nice, but Rachel said, “It’s too cold here.” So, finally last August, we returned to Cebu for good, and I really am retired. I have learned that you pretty much take your life with you wherever you go. I have a PhD from the University of Oregon and I’m a diehard Oregon Ducks fan. Likewise an NBA Portland Trailblazers fan, so I am often up at 3 am on Sundays or Mondays to watch football and basketball games. Cebu is home now and many thanks to Bob Martin for LIP and the services and opportunities he offers us Expats.

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John ReyesCordillera CowboyPapaDuckGezelRob Ashley Recent comment authors
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Tom Popp
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Aswang, Asawa,, sometimes the same? 😉 Joke Lang

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

Tom: Ha! Good one. I will share it with the Asawa. -Rob

Dennis Glass
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Dennis Glass

I ahhhh, I think I will just keep quiet. Just in case

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

Dennis: Keeping quiet is a good strategy sometimes. I didn’t understand that until I was about 45. -Rob

Jay
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Jay

Hi Rob,

I remember when my wife was pregnant with our first son there was a beautiful big full orange moon. I pointed it out to my wife and she got real mad. Ask Rachel about it and get back to me.Good read Rob!

Peace

Jay

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

Jay: I won’t mention the orange moon. Thanks for the heads up. I did have an experience in Cambodia where I asked a similar “village type” woman, which did she think was closer, the moon or her village? She said, “The moon.” When I asked her why, she said, “Because I can see the moon and I can’t see our village.” Hmmm. A different way of knowing and understanding. -Rob

gcl65
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gcl65

Superstitions really do erk me. Especially to anybody that is Christian. I got into a fairly good argument when I saw a major TV station here perpetrating a demon or ghost story. If there was monsters, we would see them or we would have absolute, undeniable or even scientific evidence of them. I think it was ASB CBN that was running a news story and was basically LYING to the general public and prolonging this superstition about monsters or ghosts. Yeah, don’t get me started…

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

gcl: Well, usually I just side step these beliefs when they come out but I’ve gotten into it a few times…you know, my Western, male enlightenment. But what I tell myself is, “You’re living in a different culture with a younger woman from deep in the provinces. Try to remember who she is and what her experience is.” It helps me retract my claws sometimes. My wife loves all those Grade Z Filipino horror movies too. You know, the ones with the budget of 45 dollars where you can see the actor pour a packet of ketchup on his face… Read more »

John Reyes
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John Reyes

“You’re living in a different culture with a younger woman from deep in the provinces. Try to remember who she is and what her experience is.” – Rob

There you go! Thanks, Rob.

gcl65
Guest
gcl65

Yes Rob, I know that it is best to keep my trap shut. There are two sides. It is, I promise to keep it shut as long as you don’t bother me with it, kind of thing. Don’t get me wrong. It should be on everybody’s bucket list to visit a good while in another country. I am amazed at how things work here. Who would think that you could drive without [following] driving laws. Crazy stuff that somehow works 99.9% of the time. Remember I take everything apart to see how it works. Living in the Philippines gives me… Read more »

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

Jay: ps…I did ask my wife about a big orange moon when pregnant and she hadn’t heard that one. But, we know what we know and what we hear, eh? -Rob

Gezel
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Gezel

Sorry but what I can’t get into my head is how come a volcano in Luzon ( Mayon Volcano – Albay, Bicol) could have erupted in Calbayog Samar, Eastern Visayas. We do have a Kanlaon Volcano here in Negros Occidental and have lovely hot spring. Thanks.

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

Gezel: I have no idea how this Volcano could affect Samar…but that’s the story as it was told to me, and how it may have been explained to my wife when she was young. -Rob

Jay
Guest
Jay

Hi Rob,

My wife has also stated to me if the Mayan Volcano erupted it would destroy the entire Philippines. It does not sound logical to me, but I saw a Discovery or History Channel episode that said that there is a super volcano under Yellowstone and if it erupted people in the USA would be fleeing to Mexico.

Peace

Jay

PapaDuck
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PapaDuck

There is one creature my wife believes in. It’s a Capre. They live in trees and smoke cigars. Whenever we go for a walk and i point at a tree she get’s upset as she say’s it upsets the Capre and he will put a curse on you for pointing at him.

John Reyes
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John Reyes

Randy – Folks in my barrio Salaza (Palauig, Zambales) are cautioned not to throw away dish water out the window at night without first saying, “bari-bari”; otherwise, if the water hits those unseen little people called dwendes that live in molehills under their nipa huts, the dwendes will put a curse on the water-thrower. As for the kapre that dwells on trees, ask Anne if by saying “bari-bari” before you point at the tree, or, as you pass the tree, the kapre will give you a pass. When in Salaza, I catch myself observing traditional beliefs, ridiculous as it may… Read more »

Cordillera Cowboy
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Cordillera Cowboy

Hello John, I also sometimes find myself participating as well. There are mounds of earth around, called bunton. Folks here say they are home to little people called the Ansisit. If offended, the Ansisit will cause trouble for the human who caused the offense. If you find you have to step on a bunton while walking in the forest, the proper thing to do is call out “tabi-tabi po!. I’ve caught myself saying that from time to time as I wander around the ranch. While improving our fence line, the workers asked my permission to skip one concrete post, and… Read more »

Cordillera Cowboy
Guest
Cordillera Cowboy

My wife comes from an educated family, Still, all but my wife, and her mother seem to be terrified of ghosts and spirits. My wife, Marlyn, believes in them, but is not afraid. She often plays pranks on her sisters, convincing them that they’ve been haunted. Mother-in-law chides them, saying they’re all educated, and shouldn’t believe such things, All of the sisters claim that the family house is haunted. When pressed, Mother-in-law says “But it’s a friendly spirit.” When we were first married it wasn’t unusual for my wife to wake me at night, saying that Aunt so and so… Read more »

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

PapaDuck: You synced up with Cordillera Cowboy on the Capre/Kapre story. I’ve never heard of that. Rob

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

ps. I’ve never seen fireflies here and miss them from my youth in Pennsylvania. We used to put them up our noses and blow them out at our friends. We called them “Tracer Boogers.” How’s that for sophistication?

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