Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Rich History of Culion Island

Our weekend in Coron town included a side trip to the neighboring island of Culion which is an hour and a half away by banca.  I heard that there was a small museum on the island which documented the history of the island as a former leper colony.

We had enjoyed the natural beauty of the Coron island the day before with our island-hopping adventure, now it was time to round off the trip with a history lesson.

I grew up hearing about Culion Leper Colony and always thought of it as a remote, mysterious place that must be avoided. I never imagined that I would be visiting Culion one day as a "tourist".  

There is an entrance fee to the museum which is inside the hospital. Mauricio, the museum caretaker (among many other things--he told me he was also the janitor, a caregiver to patients, and generally an all-around guy) kept the museum open for us even if it was almost noon.

The visit to the museum starts with a short video that explains how and why Culion was set up in 1906,  the events that took place, and the kinds of treatments they had for leprosy over the years. Through a government law, people afflicted with the disease were arrested, forcibly separated from their families and sent to Culion. On the island, there was further segregation--men from women--and when that changed, women from their children.

At one time, Culion became the largest leper colony in the world with over 16,000 patients. Because of this, the island also attracted many doctors and specialists eager to find a cure to the disease.

It was interesting to learn that even if this dreaded and much-feared disease dates back to biblical times, a cure was only discovered in 1981!  It was only in the last 20 years that leprosy was finally eliminated as public health problem by the World Health Organization.

Culion itself was declared  leprosy-free in 2008--very recent indeed.  Mauricio told me he attends to a few "patients", but they are actually cured former patients who just have nowhere to go if they leave the facility.

If G didn't say she had to use the bathroom (which was up a flight of stairs), I would've totally missed the second floor which was the most interesting part of the museum. There are no signs saying that there are more displays upstairs.

 Upstairs on the second floor

Newspaper clippings from the early 1900s, yellowed with age, are mounted on these rotating cylinders. On the walls are dozens of old black and white photos documenting events on the island and the lives of the patients as well as the doctors who came to study the disease.

 Looking at Culion currency

Culion even  had its own separate currency, since people believed leprosy was highly contagious.

 "But mommy, what's a typewriter and how do you use this thing?"

I was fascinated by the display of all the old equipment used in the hospital--medical equipment, typewrtiers, cameras...

A lot of the photos are heartbreaking...

The photos on the wall and the memorabilia transport you to another period in time.  Everything about Culion from its beginning as a leper colony to its recent transformation to a regular municipality is documented extensively right here. In its new incarnation, Culion is hoping to go the tourist route.  I could have spent much more time in the second floor, but we had already used up the whole lunch hour of poor Mauricio. 

When I reached to bottom of the stairs, I saw a sign on the wall with the "no pictures" icon on it. Ooops, too late!  I wonder why they don't allow any picture-taking inside this museum. Pictures of this place would in fact fulfill their tourism goal of getting more exposure for the island. I have photos inside a lot of other museums--the Vatican, Louvre and d'Orsay included, and none prohibited picture taking.

Leaving hospital grounds

Our history lesson now complete (with matching illegal pictures), it was time to head off for a late lunch at the Hotel Maya, a few hundred meters away from the hospital.

It would've been nice to explore more of the island, maybe meet some of the people who live there--mostly descendants and relatives of former patients. I can just imagine the stories they can tell. But the streets were empty. People were probably indoors having lunch or just staying out of the hot sun.

We were heading back to Coron town right after lunch with a plan to visit Maquinit hot springs that evening. We were also flying back to Manila early the next day. There must be a next time for this place--maybe too when the kids are older, so they fully understand the dark history of this beautiful island.

1 comment:

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