Notes from Surigao Island

I am currently sitting up in be waiting to go to sleep. It be been the better part of three days in various forms of Philippine transit and my lower back is aching. The provenance of the pain is unknown, but is giving me a bit of mental paralysis, yet has thankfully not impeded forward progress. From tricycle cabs to buses to buses to multi-cabs to more buses and boats, we have now arrived at the dry scenic Siargao Island.

Siargao is a 169 mi² island located northeast of Surigao, which is at the northeastern tip of Mindanao. With a population of 90,000 and coverage of occur trees, it is just exotic enough to be interesting, but doesn’t quite qualify as being remote. This is especially true now that it has be christened as the surfing capital of the Philippines and attracted tattooed surfer dudes and gals from around the globe. If you come with the right attitude, however, it has everything to make for a nice, authentic getaway.

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This makes for a nice bookend to three days of intense road warrioring. We belatedly flew from Manila to Butuan (after trying to save a kitten and taking a trip to the human emergency room, another interesting story). From Butuan, we took a four hour bus to Butuan where we were rather out of place as the only foreign visitors (we think) in town. After making an impressive dinner in from t of our hosts (no pressure!), we were off to Hinatuan Enchanted River.

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Hinatuan Enchanted River. The name and imagery rightly stir your soul. Named Rio Encantado by Modesto Farolan, it has not previously attracted any major international tourist following. This is evidenced by the lack of touristy infrastructure and the 40 peso ($0.80) entrance fee. It is visually stunning nonetheless. The crystal clear, unadulterated water, visible depth, and geology give the pool a bright blue, crystalline sheen unknown elsewhere in the world. Fish of various breeds are easily visible below the surface and are fed daily at noon, quite a stunning scene. Thankfully, since 2017, visitors are no longer allowed to swim in the main pool, minimizing pollution and cordoned off the pool for research. Nonetheless, from the roped-off observatory deck, one can clearly observe the river’s glow. When the sombrero-wearing rangers paddle out on bamboo rafts for the noon feeding, various breeds of fish follow closely, swarming to the food and later emitting waste from the food just consumed.

Although tempted to hang around and bask in the river’s glow, we quickly made our way back to the small, but charming Hinatuan Town, which appeared orderly and well-managed. Smoking was banned in public places and litter appeared to be minimal, We had a quick lunch in the main market, sitting on simple wooden benches under a tarpaulin covering, and selecting a few dishes from crock pots which were connected to extension chords dangling along the tent’s walls. Our meal was unfortunately cut short, as the bus to San Francisco arrived.

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The next eight hours revolved around buses, either taking them or waiting around for them. First we went to San Francisco, then to Butuan, and wandered around Butuan trying to find the right bus to Surigao. We first got dropped off at a busy intersection on the side of a highway. After having a quick meal of Chinese-Filipino food and deflecting pitches for unofficial minibuses to Surigao from sketchy-looking young men, we hopped in a multi-cab to the bus station near Robinson mall. Xiangyun and I argued about whether this was the right place and both became irritable upon discovering that it was in fact not. We finally took a bus to the main station, luckily finding the “right” bus and we were Surigao-bound. The trip was bumpy and we saw nothing but pitch-black, but we made it and arrived in the dead of night, our breaths visible in the cool and humid coastal air. As the multi-cabs were out of service, we took a sidecar taxi to our hotel and called it a night.

After almost ten hours on buses, our backs were shot. As such, we were slow to get moving the next morning. Surigao was hot, humid, and abuzz with the sound of motorbikes. We finally made it out the door for the 11 AM ferry (the only morning ferry) around 10:40, rushing to get to the terminal in sufficient time. We bought an air-sealed bag of pineapple from a patient street vendor across the street from the terminal, only to watch our pineapple burst on the ground as Xiangyun fumbled for her ID to show the ticket-taker. Although frustrated, we tried to take it all in stride. After all, we were off on holiday to the Philippines’ palm-covered surfing capital.

Siargao provided a good look at the Philippines’ current state of development. The island had much to offer to tourists: relaxing beaches, high levels of English fluency, and top-notch surfing waves. Infrastructure, however, was still not fully built-up. Cell phone service was non-existent; most hotels on the island lacked tourist luxuries such as hot water and WiFi. Although remoteness and lack of population (total: ~100,000) had may be contributing factors, it may be evident of the country’s overall infrastructure shortcomings. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Siargao Island provided an excellent escape from the sturm und drang of corporate life. We buzzed around the island on motorbikes, having excellent meals, watching the waves, and putting our toes in the water.

People were remarkably friendly, smiling frequently and conveying satisfaction with life. Children played outdoors, often singing 1980’s power ballads and waiving at foreign passers-by. Housing often consisted of wooden huts with thatched roofs, with chickens, dogs, and cats wandering around outside. Relative wealth could be measured by the number of motorbikes present or size of the local chapel. While it would be presumptuous to say that these people were content with their lives and wouldn’t want something more materially, they seemed to at least know what matters: meaningful human relationships, a focus on spiritual well-being, and a sense of meaning. We saw this over and over during our two days buzzing around Siargao on motorbike: each small village seemed happy, despite being materially poor and vulnerable to natural disaster.

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We saw this again at our next stop, the island of Olongo off the coast of Cebu. Unlike Siargao, Olongo is not a Mecca for gringo surfers. In fact, we saw only one Western couple and a few Japanese and Korean families at the resort which we stumbled upon through AirBNB. After lounging around the resort and watching the rain come down our first night there, we rented bicycles the next day, both of which had clearly seen their better days. We happened upon many poor areas, stopping occasionally to dip our toes in the water. Locals were exceedingly polite, as one quickly comes to realize in the Philippines. A young man who studied in Cebu allowed us into his house to wait out the rain and use the restroom. Some young boys helped us fix our bikes, refusing our money for the service. Numerous other people gave us directions. We did manage to see a goat giving birth and happen upon a beach party, all before hurrying back to catch our boat and subsequent flight to Manila.

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The rest of the trip was rather uneventful. We made our way to the ferry terminal, then took a packed multi-cab to Cebu airport, and then waited around for our delayed flight to Manila, followed by the Resort World Bus to our Booking.com apartment. We arrived in Manila after midnight and had to catch a 6 AM flight, leaving us mentally and physically exhausted. It put a taint on the end of a great trip, but in no way took away from a very special experience. The Philippines is a fascinating country and, despite the lack of material abundance, always manages to give a visitor far more than it takes. The people are generous in spirit, perhaps far more than is deserving for many a visitor.

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