Fiestas on the Far Shore

Aug 8, 2013 in Philippines | 2 Comments

When I arrived in Siargao, Dexter, who was sent from Ocean 101 Beach Resort to retrieve me from the ferry, excitedly told me all about the fiestas happening around the island for some saint’s day. Not particularly religious, he promised, dancing and partying all night, very fun, I must come with him and some of the other guests and staff from the Ocean 101 Beach Resort. And so as planned, at 10pm on a Tuesday night, I met Dexter, Banche, Jessa and rest of the Ocean 101 gang in front of the resort, and I followed them down the dark dirt road to a small beach, the white sand illuminated by a full moon. We tried not to trip over mooring lines of the small bancas pulled ashore, and one of the girls pointed the dim glow of her cellphone at each one, trying to see which was her cousin’s. As we stood there on the shore, the sound of a motor grew louder out on the bay, and the dark shape of a boat emerged from the night, with a silhouette at its helm, waving a flashlight. It was answered in kind by lit cellphone, and it smoothly glided to shore, and we all clambered aboard, packing the skinny boat from tip to tail. The silhouette poled the craft into an about face, and through the shallows, and then the motor kicked in and we zoomed across the black watered bay towards distant lights.

As we alit on the far shore, climbing up the beach and into the small town, the sounds of music and cheering led us between dark local houses towards the town center, where a large brightly lit structure, a roof held up by rough cement pillars, with sheets strung between, was the source of the commotion: which definitely sounded nothing like a disco, but a very rowdy audience, hooting and hollering and laughing. What the hell was going on behind those sheets? The 101 gang looked just as confused as I, but we all handed over the small admittance fee to Jessa and ducked through the curtains into… an auditorium. A colorfully lit stage was set up at the far end, with a sparkly banner featuring a giant tiara, which read Super Sireyna 2013, and the dark space between the stage and our group packed with a rowdy audience of local villagers of all ages, along with several dogs underfoot. As we squeezed into a clear aisle space, the music kicked in again—
Shine bright like a diamond
Shine bright like a diamond
Shining bright like a diamond
We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky

And out strutted a tall slim beauty in a skimpy bikini.

We were, rather unexpectedly, at a beauty pageant. More specifically, it donned on me as more contestants sashayed out, a ladyboy beauty pageant. We had unfortunately just missed the talent portion of the evening, which was the source of the riotous amusement of the crowd as we walked up, but we were still treated to the swimsuit, personality, and formal gown rounds. Conducted in English, the personality round was delightfully full of the beauty queen platitudes one might expect, but made more bizarre by the mangled English from some of the contestants whose language skill was significantly less fluent. Dex delighted in critiquing the formal gowns—he had been a judge in similar contests before, he shared with me—some of which resembled the neon ball gowns popular at quinceaneras, and many which appeared to homemade, or at least home-adjusted: mini-dresses lengthened with curtains and ribbons, and what seemed to have once been a sexy see-thru nightie, now with massive florets affixed to the more revealing portions. In between the rounds, a raffle was held based on our ticket numbers. We did quite well, winning a bottle of banana ketchup, and a tin of Spam. We joked that it was unfortunate that we didn’t also win the half bag of rice, because then we’d have had breakfast. Winners of each round were then announced, and presented with sashes and flowers, and finally, around midnight, Super Sireyna her fabulous self was crowned.

As the locals drifted off into the night, tired, I figured we’d head back to the boat, but no. Dex explained that the woman who had thrown the event wanted us to come back to her house for the after party, so we began to walk back through town and into a forest of coconut trees along a narrow muddy road. A giant pickup truck came bumping down the road, driven by our hostess, and we all precariously perched in the back as it rumbled to a brightly lit compound by the beach. Entering the house, the first thing I saw was the bevvy of pageant contestants sitting around the living area chatting, and the next was a whole lechon, Filipino style roast pig, lounging across the dining room table. Quite the after party.
We all sat to eat the absurdly bountiful meal, also featuring a whole grilled fish, pancit bihon, fresh mango, and a massive platter of rice. I was glad I’d been working on my Filipino eating style, where the spoon is the main implement, and the fork is used to portion rice and a bit of whichever dish into it—very efficient for such a rice based diet. Over dinner, conversational highlights included a discussion of eye makeup application techniques with one of the older ladyboys, and balut-eating tips from the Queen of queens herself.

After too much food, gracious goodbyes, and a dark stumble through the trees—punctuated at one point by a coconut crashing down so close to our group that it terrified everyone into each others arms, Banche maintaining a friendly arm in arm with me even after our jitters subsided—we arrived at the beach to discover that the boat was gone.
The cousin, apparently, had gotten tired of waiting, and went home to sleep, without much thought to where that left all of us. We sat sleepy and defeated in the sand, and the few friends who were local to the village began to make frantic calls to friends and relatives, until, after about half an hour, someone’s uncle sleepily showed up with his fishing banca, and we gratefully climbed onto the piles of fishing net and zoomed across the calm sea towards home. So full was the moon, and so smooth the water, that I could see all the way to the bottom, making out corals, drifts of sand, and dark patches of seaweed, and all the shore lights seemed very far away as we glided through our dark bowl of night.

When Dex approached me few days later about another fiesta, he swore, this time, it would be a real fiesta; disco, for sure, the whole village would be partying all night. Well okay, I thought, round two, let’s party as the locals do. The night began similar to the previous, as we caught another small banca on the sandy spit down the road, and motored to the far shore. This night, we walked though the village until we arrived at a small house, and ducked inside. The house was made of cinder block, and narrow, on the right side, a raised walkway with doors that appeared to lead to bedrooms, and on the left, the front room containing a small group of old men drinking whiskey seated in chairs arranged around a television, followed by the back cooking room, with a table laden with food to one side. We were quickly ushered in around the table, and plates and glasses of Coke were passed around, and everyone dug into the spread: pancit, beef bulalo, pork sisig, and the requisite platters of rice. Between bites, I leaned to Dex and asked where we were, and what exactly was going on—besides, of course, dinner, apparently. It seemed to be the general agreement that we were at the home of one of Jessa’s cousins, and we’d have dinner before heading on to the disco. I nodded, and thanked the older woman who came around with more Coke for everyone, and she grinned and nodded.
As we finished our meal, folks drifted back into the front room, where the men had vacated in favor of a smoke outside, and we all pilled into chairs to watch the television, showing a local program where it appeared that viewers would write in their heartwarming true life stories, which would be then reenacted on the program. Dex, I think, was particularly engrossed in the tale of one overseas co-worker nursing the other back to health, and falling in love with him, but so sad to have to send him back to his wife, but lo and behold his love was requited after all, and they lived happily ever after—although, it was explained to me when I asked, that no, gay marriage is not actually legal in the Philippines, and in fact most people do not get divorces, either, one simply has shameless affairs, or even just goes and lives with their new lover.
As the program concluded, we finally emerged back out into the night to locate the disco. A habal-habal was waved down, and five of our group clambered on and zoomed off with promises to send another back our way. A habal-habal is a motorbike taxi, where the rear seat has been extended in such a way that four to six adults can fit on behind the driver. According to the guidebook, habal-habal translates literally to ‘pigs copulating’ due to the closeness of the occupants, although I did not verify this translation with my new friends.
As we walked along the dark road in the direction of the promised disco, we passed by a brightly lit building from which loud karaoke was pouring, and one of the other 101 guests that had come along exclaimed that we should all get a beer while we waited for another habal-habal, and he darted into the open door. The locals laughed uproariously and Jessa darted in after him, as, despite the bright lights and loud music, this was not actually a bar, but someone’s house, and he’d just wandered into a family’s fiesta night party. The report was, as Jessa emerged with him in tow, that no one seemed to have minded, or noticed, and he was pretty put out that we couldn’t stick around to have a beer… it was pretty late at this point, eleven perhaps, and everyone was quite sober, and a little anxious for the party to finally start. So it was particularly disappointing when a about a dozen loaded habal-habal started streaming from the direction that we were headed, and shouted conversation between our group and passers-by revealed that the disco was over. Apparently a fight had broken out, and the whole thing was shut down. Well, shit.
The forward party of our group returned, and we dejectedly slumped back towards the beach, only to discover, that yet again, the boat was gone. We laughed, and threw ourselves into the sand. This time, the boat driver hadn’t expected us back until 2am, and so he’d gone off to do his own thing, like us, not anticipating that the disco would be shut down. After an interminable wait, while we discussed our other possible fiesta options, the boat returned, and ferried us at high speed back to Ocean 101. So quick was this trip, the driver anxious to get home, he skipped over the small beach landing and pulled the banca up in front of the reef that stretches about 20 meters in front of the resort, which meant a delicate, knee high wade into the shore. The 101 staff all said their goodnights, and went off to bed, having given up on the night, but the two other 101 guests and I skipped across the road to the 101 Bar and ordered tequila shots and San Migs, which may have not been the right thing to do, but it was the thing we did.

Fiesta at last!


  1. Anne
    August 8, 2013

    Adventure after adventure…sounds like you are having a blast! Love your writing.

  2. Will
    August 8, 2013

    How to party when in search of a party and can’t quite find the party. Dex obviously was overreaching there trying to entertain this tourista guests. Same thing happens here all the time, just not so much waiting on the beach for a boat…


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