What We Talk About When We Talk About Surfing
This tiny teardrop-shaped island in Surigao Del Norte is becoming a significant presence in the world of international surfing.
But Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta discovers that the charms of Siargao lie not just in the waves, but in the landscape, in the culture, and in the very travelers who’ve come.
(This story was published Nov. 2014 in Issue 5 of GRID)
Photographs by Sonny Thakur
On the map but off the radar until the mid 00’s, when a reckless, right-breaking reef wave, Cloud 9, put it on the grid as a premier surfing destination. Legend has it that Cloud 9 was discovered by a group of Australian surfers while scouring the country for the perfect surf spot. They had worked up such an appetite that they plowed through the only thing on hand—a box of Cloud 9 chocolate bars. Fact or fiction, it’s this very water break that brings hundreds of tourists to the island year after year.
Book a ticket to Siargao and the agent on the other end of the line takes a second. “Surigao?” She asks. Siargao, you say, vocal equivalent of the eye roll. There are no direct flights to Siargao from Manila. There is a stopover in Cebu, and then a ride via propeller plane to the surfing mecca—the local airport is more strip than tarmac, and can only accommodate smaller planes. (Editor’s note: Direct flights from Manila to Siargao are now available via Cebu Pacific and Skyjet.)
There is a lively buzz during the flight: surfer buzz, pretend-surfer buzz, surfer-groupie buzz. Hard to tell which is which, who is who: all wear the same game look, the denim cut-offs, the flip-flops, the tattoos of large blue swells of water, the tattoos of surfers making confident lunges on their boards. There are loom bands and thread bracelets. Someone is reading Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist, someone else is singing a Jack Johnson song.
Everyone has reasons for going to Siargao—not least the annual surfing competition, a recent addition to the international surfing circuit. My seatmate on the plane is a blonde surfer from Brooklyn who, strangely enough, has a California accent, which goes well with his choice surfer slang. He says “gnarly” a lot, and “rad.” He explains what a lay day is—the waiting period you spend just watching the waves. “This competition only goes on for a few days, but other competitions take two weeks,” he says. “That’s because you need a couple of days to watch the waves, so you know how to ride them.”
I’m also told that the surf in Siargao is low this year, but that doesn’t seem to stop plane after plane load of tourists from coming to the place, and it is easy to see why. It’s, for the most part, still pioneer town—not completely developed, but ripe with possibility. Gas is sold in Datu Puti and cooking oil containers along the highway. During the 45-minute drive to General Luna from Del Carmen where the airport is, I see one gasoline station.
The distance between attractions and even accommodations can surprise the unprepared. We meet at Kermit, a resort owned by marine biologist-cum-surfer, Gianni Grifoni. There is only one way to get there—by motorbike. I flag one down, hook my hands on either side of the seat, and pretend I’m not afraid to be riding without a helmet. In Siargao, no one rides with a helmet; it’s just not kosher.
A cottage at Sagana Resort.
Kermit is a popular dive and a choice destination for European surfers. They are long and tan, fair-haired and easy. Somebody remarks that everyone there is so good-looking, it’s unfair for the rest of us. He may be right, but at Kermit, you come as much for the eye candy as the food—the fare is Italian: not swanky Italian like you’d find in Makati, and certainly not like the charming parodies you find in Cubao or McKinley where they serenade you while you eat. We eat pasta with Parma ham and real parmesan in thick creamy sauces that drip from farfalle. These dishes are especially prepared for us by resident chef and artist, Gringo Benedicto—this week, he collaborates with Pinoy masterchef, JP Anglo, who is here for the waves and laissez faire vibe.
Gianni has been here since the mid-00’s but surfer expats have arrived to ride Cloud 9’s waves as far back as the mid-nineties and have never left. Roads are being paved, a massive resort/spa is on the rise. Europeans from Sweden, Italy, Switzerland and France have set up their own resorts, each with the same rustic feel: slatted floors, sawali walls and thatched roofs. There are also eco-friendly and luxury resorts. People who opt to stay away from the surfing crowds may choose Villa Maya. Nestled on a hill, the resort offers perhaps the best view in town: sloping hills and glorious sunsets. More importantly, this is where Anthony Kiedis stayed on the island.
Tasteful Kalinaw Resort, one of more
upscale accomodations on the island.
￼The Mayor of Cloud 9
You can’t not visit Cloud 9 when you’re in Siargao. Even if you don’t surf. Or swim. Or paddleboard. We take an early morning stroll the day after I arrive. It’s overcast but a nice sliver of sun peers through low clouds. By the beach, someone’s carved an impassioned “Lorna” on a coconut bark. The letters are carved so deep, you can almost use them as footholds. We’re here to meet with Gerry Degan, the owner of Sagana Resort. It’s early yet so we decide to stop at Café Loka, a new dive co-owned by Gerry’s wife, Susan. There is one central wall that divides the café and the kitchen. It’s an open bahay kubo, so the wall takes the iconic shape—triangular top, wide rectangular base, and is painted a cool yellow and mauve. Wind shoots from one side to the other. It’s the first place on the island that serves fresh fruit shakes and breakfast sandwiches. We’re lucky to be part of the first wave of customers. As I scarf down my toasted bacon and egg sandwich, and swig my tall blonde like a magazine writer with a deadline, I know I’ll be back tomorrow.
If Gianni Grifoni is Siargao’s resident cool guy, Australian expat Gerry Degan is the Mayor of Cloud 9. As the event director of the surfing competition, he has ties with the local government, and friends in high places. “When there’s a problem here in town, people are like ‘Gerry, can you speak to the government,’ ‘Gerry, there’s a karaoke next door,’ ‘Gerry, there’s five chickens they’ve just brought in and I can’t sleep at night.'” He deals with these things on a daily basis but maintains that, really, he’s just “a humble resort owner and a competition event director.” Gerry is also known as the Mayor of Cloud 9—a guy who loves Siargao as much as Siargao loves him. “Well, we first got to Siargao in 1995,” he says, “and we came for the surf. There was nothing here then—no resorts—and we loved it and had a great time. We were going to travel the country for the next two weeks. We sort of traveled for a week or so, and we went to a few different places. After a week, I went to Susan and said ‘I just want to go back to Siargao.’
Gerry has been here ever since, and his resort, Sagana, is one of the oldest and most established resorts on the island. Located right in front of Cloud 9, guests at his place call first dibs on the waves, and enjoy his easy company. Guests enjoy an international menu that revolves around fresh island catch: A Japanese prawn dish one night, maybe pork saltimbocca with mash the next.
Gerry’s Australian by birth, Siargaonon by affinity. “I’m so accepted here, I can’t pass anybody eating without them saying, ‘come on and join us.’ If I was having a picnic in Sydney, and you walked past, I probably wouldn’t invite you to join me. But I could walk past a family here, and they’ll say join us, come on. Sometimes they’re busy drinking Tanduay, and I’m like no, no,” he laughs.
Gerry and the other resort owners we interview are of one mind—Filipinos in Siargao are authentic and friendly, unspoiled by money. People here aren’t on the make. At least, not yet.
￼Visions of The Future
Between caving, tide pool watching, and island-hopping, we decide the next day to go to Sugba Lagoon—a banca ride from Del Carmen that travels through lush mangroves, only to weave its way into a gorgeous green lagoon. The water is the color of jade.
A weathered two-storey hut juts out of the water. A balcony on the second floor allows you, if not a bird’s eye view, then a small titan’s. There is a makeshift grill on the first floor, coal newly snuffed out—there’s still fresh ash on the grill.
We’ve worked up an appetite and are nostalgic about the meal that’s just been served. It’s almost literary, this memory of a meal not ours, so we decide to get creative and ask the banca operators where we can lunch on local seafood. They take us to a fishing village five minutes away. We’ve managed—I still wonder how—to talk our way into the house of the fish supplier: a hard-talking, chain-smoking local who is otherwise kind and indulgent. I feel like I’m in a movie where a foreigner chances on a secret tribe, meets the chief, and explains in exaggerated English that WE. ARE. NOT. FROM. THESE. PARTS. BUT. WE. COME. IN. PEACE. This, as it turns out, will be my favorite part of the trip.
For the price of a GRID Magazine, we’re able to buy two large pampano fish that gleam as they’re fished out of plastic buckets. Thin tubes gurgle into them like they do in childhood aquariums. The fish is grilled, and we pay a little extra for a kilo of rice at the market. A short lifetime later, the fish is served with soy sauce and crushed siling labuyo. A small mountain of rice accompanies the platter. Properly stuffed, we head back to the lagoon. New tourists lounge inside the hut with packed lunches that can’t, we assure ourselves, possibly compare to the meal we’ve just had.
Susan Brandstetter, part-owner
of Sagana Surf Resort
and Cafe Loka
One person who has a new vision for Siargao is Melot Abejo, the president of the Siargao Tourism Operators Association (STOA). In May of next year, she will also be known as the owner and proprietor of what promises to be the largest resort on the island: a sprawling beachfront property called Siargao Bleu.
Melot is the island’s resident smooth operator. As president of STOA, she ensures smooth interpersonal relationships between foreign proprietors and local government. Not new to politics (members of her family have served as governors and mayors), Melot is from a prominent Cebuano clan—she ran a school in Banilad while in her early 20’s as well as managed various family businesses. “I used to be a hardcore city girl until 2007, when I decided to just stop because I was too young to handle family corporations,” she says, “I fell in love with the environment in Siargao. In Cebu, what mattered was who you were and what your business was. The beauty of the island is that there’s not many people. They’re loving and friendly, everyone knows everybody, and the one thing here is that rich or poor, you’re friends.”
Melot has since settled in Siargao where she has built strong ties with the community, earning the trust not just of the local government, but the foreign entrepreneurs who have decided to set up resorts on the island. She navigates the tricky waters of progress and preservation not like a politician but a politician’s wife. Soft touch, iron grip. I paraphrase an English civil servant: If you want things done, go to a woman.
“Siargao is still very laidback but then, if you’ve noticed, development is ongoing and a lot of people who came here for its silence and peace are quite disturbed. Next year there will be direct flights from Boracay and Manila, maybe even Davao. In two or three years, we’ll also be opening international flights. That’s big progress for the island but a number of people are worried because it will be more open to more people coming, and they’re scared of the island turning into a Boracay.”
Melot’s political and entrepreneurial background have served her well. Next year sees the completion of Siargao Bleu, still in the middle of construction, but already booked for the summer months of 2015. In May of next year, the cycling leg of Ironman takes place in Siargao, and Melot already has bookings for the event. She insists, however, that it’s not just business she’s after. Melot wants to share an authentic island experience. “We want to share with foreigners the experience of the Siargao people. For example, the locals plant rice—why not let foreigners try it. Plant rice, ride a carabao, visit faith healers, watch a cock fight. I realized that foreigners are more interested in trying what is local.”
“I came here,” she says, “for one reason, and that reason is because I fell in love with the island. Let’s share that love with everybody and let’s make that love make things happen here. We have the opportunity to help promote, but still keep, the beauty of the island.”
Our Favorite Spots
Because eventually you have to get out of the water
SURFISTA TRAVELS. Expect surf lessons daily, the time depending on the mood of the waves and weather, as well as random adventures to parts of Siargao like only the locals know how.
+63 917 585 0538 | website
Also known as Caub,
Sugba lagoon is surrounded
by mangroves and limestone cliffs
￼The Big Ones
If you have time to visit only one neighboring island, locals will suggest Daku—a twenty-minute banca ride from the market. Where Cloud 9 is rocky, Daku is all blue ocean and white sand. There are no resorts, but you can rent a hut to enjoy the view for two hundred fifty pesos. You can also pay fifty pesos for fresh buko juice to accompany said view, the water full to the brim. You’ll also be given a makeshift spoon made of palm leaves so that you can scoop out the coconut meat.
Like the fishing village off Sugba lagoon, villagers offer the day’s catch—we choose grilled squid and spider shells, locally called “saang”—it’s chewy, like the squid we have, but less tasty, and trickier to eat because of the spindly shell you have to pry the meat out of.
People who want an authentic island experience—quick, while it’s still authentic—should go to Daku. It has the accoutrements of village life—roosters, small cooking fires, huts, coconut trees; and a clean, sweeping view of the ocean.
“Daku,” of course, means “big,” and around here nothing is bigger than Kyron Rathbone. Kyron isn’t a real person. He’s superhuman, more myth than man. A must-see in Siargao; an attraction like Cloud 9, or local tide pools and caves.
You hear various reports of the daring Tasmanian. Kyron surfed post-Yolanda waters. Kyron surfed a tide in a crocodile infested river in Borneo. Kyron’s been on the cover of every major surfing magazine.
Six months out of the year, Kyron is also a Siargao native. A regular thrill-seeker, thrill-maker and legend. A chaser of waves. This month it’s Cloud 9 next month Fiji. Maybe Hawaii. After that, Mexico and Indonesia. Kyron talks about chasing the next wave, as though it were a mission. “It sounds so corny, but it’s true. It’s completely true. It’s hard to explain when a big barrel wave throws out into a giant tube and you get inside that—there’s no possible way you can put that into words, that sensation it gives you and your body. People say it’s better than sex. I won’t say it is or it isn’t. But it’s an amazing feeling. It’s almost like being reborn when you get inside a really big wave and you come out again.”
He likens riding the big waves to the danger of Roman arenas. “It’s like going into battle like gladiators do with lions and tigers. They went in to fight something and they didn’t know what the outcome would be. That’s what I get in big wave surfing—going in there to wrestle a giant beast. Sometimes you come out, sometimes you get smashed.”
Hard as it is to believe, he’s gotten “smashed” many times—has come close to drowning, has hit his head on rocks and boards. Has had his share of wipe-outs. Stitches on the face. All part of the job description.
Asked if he’s met the perfect wave, Kyron answers: “That’s a good question. You’re never gonna meet the perfect girl. You’ll always think something was wrong,” he laughs. “I like the savage beasts. I like the big ugly ones. The ones that no one else wants,” he laughs again. “Aww, too much information.”
The experience of surfing is said to be as erotic as it is evangelical. Kyron swears its nothing holy. He is not a spiritual man. But, “Ah look,” he says, “Sometimes I swear I look God in the eye, sometimes I’m at the bottom of the ocean and it’s like a hand’s gone down to bring me out of something. I don’t know.”
￼The Tao of Siargao
Perhaps the most prominent surfer on the island is Manuel Melindo, aka Wilmar. A homegrown talent, and local legend, Wilmar is the gleam in the local eye, the boast of Siargao.
This year, he serves on the board of judges for the annual competition. He’s a slippery celebrity, you never know where or when to catch him. He’s also not a man of many words. When he speaks, it’s with the gravity of monks in a Leonard Cohen song.
First, he tells me, waves can be very deceiving. They change from day to day. Some days they’re kind. Other days, they’re cruel. You can’t practice waves but you can study their danger.
It’s also counter-intuitive, but the best way to handle a wave is to clear your mind. “Sa akin, kailangan talaga, basically, relax ka lang. Wala kang iniisip. Para madali mo siyang mapag-aralan. Pero kung madami kang iniisip, matatakot ka.” (For me, basically, it’s important that you relax. Don’t think, so you’re able to study the wave. If you think too much, you’ll be afraid).
Wilmar also recounts the time he miscalculated the height of a wave—it was a twenty-footer—and how there was nothing else he could do but ride it. “I ended up surfing because the fear was there,” he says. “Yung ulo ko napunta sa mga corals. Pumasok yung fins sa loob ng tuhod ko.” (I gashed my head on corals. Board fins cut through my knee bone). He shows me the injury which has barely healed. A few days after the mishap, he was back in the water.
Wilmar also considers surfing the best judge of character. As in, tell me where you surf and I’ll tell you how brave you are. “Pag surfer ka, alam mo na yung ugali ng tao. Kung matapang ka, pumunta ka sa Cloud 9. Mag-surf ka. Yun ‘yung pinakamalaki. Doon mo ipakita ‘yung tapang mo. Ganun lang yun eh.” (If you’re brave, surf Cloud 9. That’s the biggest wave. That’s where you get to show yourself how brave you are. It’s as easy as that.).
Unlikely as it may be, there’s an
entire golf course on the island, at the
Maya Siargao Villa and Golf resort.
We leave Siargao a day before the closing ceremonies. Yellow ribbons are knotted on trees because the President is rumored to arrive. I don’t look forward to my flimsy but dependable ride to Cebu, but I look forward to the many variations of lechon on the Zubuchon menu. In Manila, there’s a snafu at the airport as baggage from three airline flights are dispensed on the same conveyor belt. I ride such ordinary waves.
Almost as soon as I’m home, I plop my computer on the table—wifi has been spotty at best in Siargao. I check out videos of Kyron Rathbone on Youtube. He’s doing Shipstern Bluff, a famous surf spot in Tasmania, notorious for waves that come out of deep water to slap a shallow shoal of rocks. The water has been described as cold, lonely, wet and dark. Sharks have been known to swim in the area. On film, the waves don’t break outwards, they keep breaking inside themselves. Rathbone rides a swell successfully, but a higher swell wipes him out from overhead. The man is almost seven feet tall—I barely reach his shoulder—but against towering waves, he’s a tiny crescent on film. It’s the most violent thing you can put your body through,” he says, in an interview. “The waves happen so fast, you get maybe ten seconds of pure adrenalin, and then it’s over.” His body’s a flimsy thing onscreen, a dangle of limbs reeling from pure shock as he gets wiped out. What he does next is he rides again. A bigger wave this time.