BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Saturday, March 2, 2013

In Today's Starweek: Life Among the Waves


MANILA, Philippines - From the air, I could see the tear drop-shaped island, a patch of green-covered earth, as our plane prepared to descend.

It seemed enticing enough – sun, sea and sand. But I would later discover that what was visible to the eye would pale in comparison to the experience that Siargao has to offer.

Nestled in the province of Surigao del Norte, roughly 800 kilometers southeast of Manila, Siargao is the country’s surfing capital and the world’s eighth top surfing destination. It is a welcome break from other beaches bursting with tourists.

It is still fresh and relatively raw, with an embrace that is warm and welcoming to any visitor.

There are a lot of foreigners in the island – Australians, Americans, Europeans – many of whom opted to relocate to the Philippines for the love of the waves or simply for love. Each foreigner here has a story to tell – some lured by the great escape, some smitten by sun-kissed island girls while others simply forgot to go home – wherever home may be. Some work in inns as cooks, managers or surfing instructors in exchange for food and a bed to sleep on.

From the airport, one can hire a motorcycle or tricycle to General Luna Street where most room accommodations can be found. One can choose from small inns, high-end hotels, bed-and-breakfasts or homes that welcome visitors at affordable rates.

To enjoy Siargao is to let it linger, like a sip of ice-cold beer or the surge of a shot of Scotch in one’s veins.

Life in the island is as laid back as island life can be. There’s no fake euphoria or manicured festivities, just pure no-fuss paradise living.

Time stops in Siargao. People don’t look at their timepieces, if they have any. Instead, they look at the sky and check where the wind is blowing to see if the waves will permit a good surf ride.

I roamed the island with documentary photographer Jes Aznar, with the six-star $800-a-night Dedon Island Resort as our first stop.

Neither one of us – or both of us combined – had $800 to spare for a night at Dedon, but a quick visit to the island resort allowed us a taste of luxury, albeit short lived.

Dedon, from the German outdoor designer furniture company of the same name, is a high-end intimate nine-villa resort designed by Jean-Marie Massaud and Daniel Pouzet. It has a gaming room, bar, swimming pool, a relaxing massage hut and a dining room where guests have a perfect view of the clear blue sky while feasting on a gastronomic adventure prepared by Chef Nico, who hails all the way from France.

Guests can walk around the island resort barefoot and lounge by any of Dedon’s signature furniture pieces. The perfect spot is the brown “nestrest” – a chair shaped like a piece of Kisses chocolate – hanging perfectly from a tree by the beach.

The villa is another paradise in itself. It is so inviting guests would not want to step out, if not for the lure of the waves or the embrace of the warm yellow sun.

Inside each intricately-designed villa, white curtains and drapery swing to the rhythm of the wind, like ballerinas dancing in harmony.

It is filled with signature Dedon home furniture pieces, such as the swingrest, a seductive hanging lounge chair. There is a canopy bed with the softest sheets.

The gem inside is the walk-in shower, with the shower itself positioned in a way that water rains down on a cradle of pebbles.

Guests who wish to just lounge around the island resort have the option to experience deep-tissue massage in a candle-lit cozy hut, at the hands of a masseur who came all the way from Spain.

Aside from Dedon, there are other places to stay such as Buddha Bar or The Board Walk at Cloud 9.

The Board Walk at Cloud 9, a no-frills inn, is perfectly situated on the famed Cloud 9 spot, one of the best known surfing waves in the world because of its thick, froth-like hollow tubes. It is the site of the annual Siargao international surfing competition.

According to Wikipedia, surfing enthusiasts discovered the wave in the late 1980s.

“It was named after a chocolate bar of the same name, and made famous by American photographer John Callahan, who published the first major feature on Siargao Island in the United States-based Surfer Magazine in March 1993, and hundreds of his photos in many other books and magazines since his first visit in 1992. Callahan has put the island on the international map and has drawn thousands of surfers and tourists to Siargao,” the article said.

Surfing enthusiasts, both beginners and veterans, locals and foreigners, usually wait for the perfect weather to hit the board.

In between waiting for the perfect combination of wind and wave, islanders just go to where their feet will take them, sometimes to another island, a boat ride, a far-away cliff, an inn to enjoy whisky, wine, beer or a hot cup of barako by the bar or from one home to another, feasting on food and booze.

We gate crashed a birthday party, thanks to Marlo Gallardo, a surfer we met along the way. The celebrant is an Australian who moved to the island many years ago, the same man I saw at the check-in counter at the airport in Mactan, Cebu on the way to Siargao. He came from Cebu where he runs a business that makes skateboards out of bamboo.

His fellow foreigners from all over the island joined the party and feasted on lechon, pasta, seafood casseroles, vegetable dishes and a wide array of desserts, prepared by his Filipina wife.

Guests danced under a round yellow moon and strobe lights, to the beat of music that blared from loud speakers.

Amidst the deafening music, Marlo tried to convince me to hit the board, saying that it is worth every second.

Marlo is a laid back guy with strands of sun-roasted hair falling on his tanned shoulders, without a care in the world except for the thrill of surfing.

Like many other men and women who chose to live in the island, he was once just an ordinary visitor who hit a rented board. It was love at first sight, he confesses. He boarded the plane back home only to tender his resignation from an eight-to-five office job.

Now, Marlo spends his time enjoying the waves as they swoosh and splash in all shapes and sizes. He doesn’t need money or a high-paying job, he says. He just needs to be close to the water so he can hit the waves anytime. It is a paradise truly his own, and there is an unbelievable high, he enthuses.

“You just have to try it. You have nothing to lose,” Marlo says with a dream-like gaze.

I give in and on my last day in Siargao, I rented a yellow surfboard. I was promised it would be easy. 
And I believed him. After all, I know how to bike, skateboard, rollerskate, ice skate and even do the stand-up jet-ski. In short, I know how to balance. But surfing was a totally different experience.

First try = splash. Second try = splash. Third try = splash... I lost count of the number of attempts.
And then, miracle of miracles, it happens. For several fleeting moments, I succeed. I will never forget the first time.

There it goes...the world freezes and time stops. There is nothing but blue water, splashing waves and 
my 100-pound heart and soul on a surfboard, riding the waves.

Ah, truly a dharma of in a paradise of an island called Siargao.

Photos by the author, Marlo and last photo is by Jes Aznar