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What We Talk About When We Talk About Surfing

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The tiny teardrop-shaped island of Siargao is fast becoming a significant presence in the world of international surfing.

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Sonny Thakur
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Siargao island has been on the map but off the radar—until the mid-00’s, when a reckless, right-breaking reef wave called 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 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 water break that brings hundreds of tourists to the island year after year.

Book a ticket to Siargao and most agent on the other end of the line will take a second. “Surigao?” They ask. Siargao, you say, with the vocal equivalent of the eye roll. There are no direct flights to Siargao. There’s a stopover in Cebu, and then a ride via propeller plane to the surfing Mecca—the local airport is currently more strip than tarmac, and can only accommodate small planes.

There’s a lively buzz during the flight: surfer buzz, pretend-surfer buzz, surfer-groupie buzz. It’s hard to tell which is which, who is who; all wear the same look—the denim cut-offs, the flip-flops, the tattoos of large blue swells of water or surfers making confident lunges on their boards. There are loom bands and there are 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—it goes well with his surfer slang. He says “gnarly” and “rad” a lot. 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 of tourists from coming, and it’s easy to see why. For the most part, it’s still pioneer town—not completely developed, but ripe with possibility. Gas is sold in Datu Puti bottles and cooking oil containers along the highway. During the 45-minute drive to General Luna from Del Carmen, where the airport is, I count one gasoline station.

The distance between attractions and accommodations can surprise the unprepared. We meet at Kermit, a resort owned by marine biologist-cum-surfer Gianni Grifoni. The only one way to get there is 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.

Kermit is a popular dive 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 food as the eye candy—the fare is Italian: not the swanky Italian 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.

There’s a lively buzz during the flight: surfer buzz, pretend-surfer buzz, surfer-groupie buzz. It’s hard to tell which is which, who is who.


Gianni has been here since the mid-2000’s, but surfer expats have arrived to ride Cloud 9’s waves as far back as the mid-90’s and have just never left. Roads are being paved, and a massive resort/spa is on the rise. People 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, all sloping hills and glorious sunsets. More importantly, this is where Anthony Kiedis stayed on the island.


THE MAYOR OF CLOUD 9

You can’t go to Siargao and not visit Cloud 9. Even if you don’t surf. Or paddleboard. Or even swim.

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 some 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 (now Alon). It’s early, so we decide to stop at Café Loka, a new dive co-owned by Gerry’s wife, Susan Brandstetter.


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. The wind shoots from one side to the other. It’s the first place on the island that serves fresh fruit shakes and breakfast sandwiches, and we’re lucky to be part of the first wave of customers. As I scarf down my toasted bacon and egg sandwich and swig at 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 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 director.”

Gerry is a guy who loves Siargao as much as Siargao loves him. “We first got to Siargao in 1995, and we came for the surf,” he says. “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 traveled for a week or so, and we went to a few different places, [but] after that, I went to Susan and said ‘I just want to go back to Siargao.’“


“I came here for one reason, and that reason is because I fell in love with the island.”

He’s been here ever since, and his resort is one of the oldest and most established resorts on the island. Found right in front of Cloud 9, guests at Sagana call first dibs on the waves, and enjoy his easy company. They also enjoy an international menu that revolves around fresh island catch: a Japanese prawn dish one night, pork saltimbocca with mash the next.

Gerry is 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 speak to 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 visit 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, and a weathered two-story hut juts out. A balcony on the second floor allows you if not a bird’s eye view, then at least 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, where we manage—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. As it turns out, this will be my favorite part of the trip.


For the price of one issue of GRID Magazine, we’re able to buy two large pampano. They gleam as they’re fished out of plastic buckets, with thin tubes gurgling 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.

You can’t go to Siargao and not visit Cloud 9, even if you don’t surf.

Melot Abejo has a new vision for Siargao. She is the president of the Siargao Tourism Operators Association (STOA), and in May of next year, will also be known as 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 STOA president, she ensures smooth 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, and earned the trust not just of the local government, but foreign entrepreneurs who’ve decided to set up resorts on the island. She navigates he tricky waters of progress and preservation not like a politician, but a politician’s wife—soft touch, iron grip. To 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,” she says. “Next year there will be direct flights from Boracay and Manila, maybe even Davao. In two or three years, we’ll be opening international flights. That’s big progress for the island, but a number of people are worried because… they’re scared of the island turning into a Boracay.”

The surf in Siargao is low this year, but that doesn’t seem to stop plane after plane of tourists from coming.

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 the experience of Siargao people with foreigners. 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 for one reason, and that reason is because I fell in love with the island,” she says. “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.”


THE BIG ONES

If you only have time to visit one neighboring island, locals will suggest Daku, a 20-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 Php 250. You can also pay Php 50 for fresh buko juice to accompany said view, along with a makeshift spoon made of palm leaves to 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 know of, 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 should go to Daku—and quickly, while it’s still authentic. It has all the accoutrements of village life: roosters, small cooking fires, huts, coconut trees, and a clean, sweeping view of the ocean.

“Daku” means “big,” and around these parts, nothing is bigger than Kyron Rathbone. Sometimes he doesn’t feel like a real person—really more myth than man; a must-see attraction in Siargao, 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 it’s Fiji, or maybe Hawaii. After that, Mexico then Indonesia. Kyron talks about chasing the next wave as if 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,” he says. “People say it’s better than sex. I won’t say if it is or isn’t, but it’s definitely 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. Multiple wipe-outs, stitches on the face: all part of the job description. And 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’s 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 that it is nothing holy; he’s not a spiritual man. But, “Ah look, sometimes I swear I look God in the eye,” he says. “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, better known as 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 relax ka lang. Wala kang iniisip. Para madali mo siyang mapag-aralan. Pero kung madami kang iniisip, matatakot ka.”

The experience of surfing is said to be as erotic as it is evangelical.

Wilmar also recounts the time he miscalculated the height of a wave—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.” 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,” he says. “Kung matapang ka, pumunta ka sa Cloud 9. Mag-surf ka. ‘Yun ‘yung pinakamalaki. Doon mo ipakita ‘yung tapang mo. Ganun lang ‘yun, eh.”

We leave Siargao a day before the closing ceremony. 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. Kyron 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 video. “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 adrenaline, 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.

--

This story was originally published in GRID Issue 05.

This story was originally published in

Issue 05 | Beyond the Break

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