Stuck in Siargao

Jul 29, 2013 in Philippines | 2 Comments

I’d only intended to stay in General Luna, Siargao Island for four days, or so I’d said when I made my reservation at Ocean 101 Beach Resort. I hadn’t even planned on showing up when I did, but upon arriving in Cebu City from Palawan, I found the city rainy, distant, and my accommodation depressing, and decided to catch a ferry out the very next day. There are many options departing Cebu that I could have chosen, even blindly going to any one of the 4 piers, I could have caught the next boat leaving and probably have been happy with my destination, but Siargao was calling me. I’d read about the famous surfing destination, Cloud 9, in my Lonely Planet, and the name had stuck. The CebuPacific inflight magazine from Puerto Princesa to Cebu City even had a glossy spread on the small island off the northern tip of Mindanao, it seemed like a sign. And so, I went.

And stayed. And stayed.

Fellow residents of Ocean 101 liked to call it the bubble. Groggily dragging ourselves from bed, we’d quietly trickle into in the café communal area at 6am or so, hands wrapped around coffee mugs, faces turned towards the surf break, eyes on the tide.
“You goin’ out?”
“Yeah, we’ll see how I do today. You?”
Rash guards would be donned, sunscreen applied, boards picked, and in our own time, one by one trotting off down the beach trail to the Cloud 9 boardwalk, and out into the ocean. Out on the break, it’d be the same group of locals day after day, while travelers slowly rotated in, and out again. On the Quicksilver side of the boardwalk, left of Cloud 9, the break is mostly beginners, either with instructor or alone, local kids just starting out, and a few skilled surfers taking it easy. This mix made it relaxed, friendly, as better surfers gave advice freely, and flubs of courtesy were easily forgiven. Hours would pass as the tide waxed and waned, before slowly, we’d trickle back to 101, for a smoothie, a shower, a nap. Later, dinner at 101, and likely across the small dirt road to the 101 Bar, and on and on into the night.
Sleep, repeat. The 101 bubble.

When I asked Dexter at the desk about my reservation ending the next day, and maybe staying a few days more, he laughed and said I should stay as long as I like, and I felt like this was said to many a guest. Ocean 101 is a simple collection of blue cement buildings with a stunning oceanfront location, a green lawn looking over the wide bay, and a tower at the corner of the property with a good view of the waves at Quicksilver. It was hard to believe the room was only 500 PHP, except for perhaps the closet, which, like Jumanji, released some new creature every time I opened it—a swarm of termite like things, several cockroaches and miscellaneous beetles, the usual contingency of giggling geckos, and a mouse, which pooped on my shirts. I half expected that the snake I’d seen on the beach trail to come slithering out, and would not have minded, provided he ate everybody else.

That beach trail is a short sandy path by rustic houses, and another small resort or two, to the Cloud 9 boardwalk, five minutes from bed to surf break. The area around Cloud 9 is littered with lot for sale signs, but is not yet overdeveloped, the majority of the view along the packed dirt road is small local houses, and the beach through the palm treed lots. What I’m trying to describe here, is pretty close to perfection.

Let me say, I am not a good surfer, but I’ve always wanted to be. Despite living in Los Angeles (water too cold! Beach too far! Lazy!!), I have just about no skills in the sport, but I keep stubbornly trying on various vacations. I opted to get a lesson upon arrival in Siargao, and then see how I felt, and so began something resembling a friendship with a big, gruff local named Jose. His English is terse, mostly just: “Paddle harder!” and “No good!” and a facial expression nigh impossible to read, and yet I found him intriguing at least. Perhaps it was his constant yelling with the other local guys on the waves, in apparently jovial exchanges in Visaya, the local language here. At least he liked somebody, if not me. Every once and a while, I’d get a thumbs up and a half smile, and that was enough to keep me coming back, again the next day to try with a shorter board, and again and again. I also rented Jose’s motorbike for an afternoon ride into Dapa, allowed him to talk me into what turned out to be death defying trip to Magpupungko due to terrifying roads (even worse than Palawan, I had no idea), and even take me to a ‘chicken fight.’ By the end of the week, when I decided that the next day I’d finally go alone, Jose’s demeanor had changed entirely, and it was “My love, my love!” all day long. Perhaps he was just in a good mood from winning at the chicken fights.

Jose and I.

The ‘chicken fights’ are a huge part of Filipino culture, and I decided, despite reservations about the cruelty of the sport, that’d I’d witness it, for the knowledge, at least. Roosters are everywhere here, on buses, ferries, running across roads just as jeepneys go roaring past. They are kept in hutches in front yards, and men carry them under their arms as they stroll through town, like some sort of feathery, pecking accessory. I’m not sure why Jose insisted on calling them chicken fights, perhaps someone had once told him that the name cock fights was rude, or perhaps in some deference to me; I’d also found it interesting that he did not once offer to sell me weed, since after a few days of surfing together, I found out he was supplying everyone else with it. The man was a mystery, but when he excitedly invited me to attend with him that afternoon, I agreed. I was surprised then, when it was his brother who showed up to pick me up, and that once at the fight… um, arena, he ignored me almost entirely, while his brother guided me through the intricacies of the fight culture—how the betting worked, which chicken was better, and even placing bets for me. The fights themselves are a strange ritual, and quick and brutal—and yet I was not as disgusted by it as I thought I’d be. The aggression of the chickens seemed natural, and the long thin knives attached to their natural spurs seemed to hurry a sort of mercy rather than add additional cruelty. But as I’ve said before, what do I know about chickens. The part I legitimately enjoyed was the betting process. Rather than one person taking all the bets, the way I was familiar with in betting on horses, the men placed bets with each other, shouting numbers and shaking hand gestures until someone took them up on the bet with a crook of a finger. One of the winning matches—I won 80 pesos—was the chicken belonging to Jose’s cousin, whom we spoke briefly to afterwards as he showed off his champion. Children ran by with portions of the loser as we made our way to a steaming pot of some strange sweet coconut stew that seemed to involve bananas, tapioca, potatoes and who knows what else. Only then did Jose nod and smile at me… he must have won again.

Jose was not the only friend I made, as the Ocean 101 staff went far and beyond simple hospitality. The very first night I arrived, Dexter told me that I was lucky that it was Friday, because it was a big fiesta night, everyone in town was going to Jungle Disco. True to its name, Jungle Disco features a packed dirt dance floor under a giant nipa-style roof, surrounded by, well, jungle, and pulsing lights and beats like the best disco, with a crazy mix of locals, ladyboys, and travelers all drinking and dancing. Against my better judgment and nature, I did the same all night with other 101 guests and Dexter and various friendly locals. The next day Dex and Banche told me all about the fiestas planned for the next week, I’d have to go with them. And go I did, to events something like and entirely not fiestas at all.

Even nights without plans generally ended up across the narrow dirt road to the 101 Bar, a simple nipa-styled building, with a rattan bar, wonky pool table, a dance floor punctuated by a stage with a flimsy stripper pole, the same rotation of songs night after night, and the most welcoming and friendly staff—Michelle even being known to run up and hug me in greeting as I crossed the street. A beach bar, like any beach bar, but the one I spent far too many late nights in, playing silly card games with the girls and passing around shots of rhum and coke with calamansi in the Filipino way.

But despite the late nights, I still managed to awake every morning. And despite an ever growing collection of injuries—scrapes and bruises from the reef, my board, another guy’s board, and one time, slipping down the boardwalk stairs on my butt with my surfboard under my arm, almost taking out a small child playing in the waves at the bottom—I still dragged myself out into the ocean for yet another punishing session: goddammit, I will catch a wave today. After my first day out with a long board, I’d switched to a shorter one, determined I’d learn to finally catch and ride the green face of the wave, without assistance from Jose, yelling “paddle paddle paddle, okay” as he gave my board a well-timed push. And did I? That last day of surf, I got worked so many times, and yet I stayed out, even as I felt the sunburn begin to spread across my face, even as paddling out got harder and harder, each stroke punctuated:
I. Will. Catch. A. Fucking. Wave. Today.
And then, a fluke, a slip of gravity, and for one shaky moment, I was there, up on my wave, until, betrayed by exhaustion, I tumbled backward into the surf and my wave rolled on without me. But for one glorious moment…

Cloud 9

I was never really certain I wanted to leave Siargao, but I had a ticket to Vietnam already purchased, an end date to my time in the Philippines quickly approaching. (In order to enter the Philippines, you must have a return or forward ticket leaving the country. I was surprised to run into quite a few travelers who hadn’t known this, which resulted in hastily purchased tickets at the airport to bizarre destinations in remote China. In retrospect, I should have gotten a refundable ticket, or at least one cheaper to change. Another travel tip: if you think you’ll stay in the Philippines longer than the 21 days you’re allotted when you arrive, I found that getting a 3 month visa from the embassy in Los Angeles was much cheaper than applying for an extension in country.) Leaving Siargao when I did meant I had just enough time for a whirlwind tour of the island of Bohol, before I had to bid farewell to the Philippines, and so I left, battered and bruised and sunburned quite spectacularly, with one short but glorious wave to remember.

At the end of September, Siargao hosts an international surfing completion, the quiet sleepy town booked to overflowing for the event. Jose and some of the other local guys enter every year, and he said he hoped to win this year. He wants to take the money to move to Australia to work, and find an Australian girl to marry; he said he really likes the Aussie girls. This, I would love to see. Maybe I’ll just have to go back.


  1. jackie
    July 29, 2013

    lovvveee this. jeal. on the next plane over.

  2. Will
    July 29, 2013

    “Paddle harder!” hahahahahahaa Now you know the secret. Lovely island, that. Trust you’ll get another chance at another surf spot on the tour.


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