By David Haldane
May 10, 2018
On good days, I tell myself that it could happen anywhere. That it’s all just a symptom of progress, which is both universal and inevitable. But those are the good days. There are other days, lately in increasing numbers, on which I curse the fates and shriek to the heavens; no, no, no, not now and not here, Lord, anywhere but here!
I’m speaking, of course, of my new favorite-place-in-the-world, Siargao Island. Twelve years ago, when I first laid eyes on it, it was the closest thing to paradise that I’d ever encountered. The island’s beaches were blessed with pure white sand barely marred by human footprints. Its waters sparkled in a clear crystalline aqua and the number of resorts – if you could even call them that – could almost be counted on one hand because, well, that was about the number of people who stayed in them on any given week. The perfect place, in other words, to woo my future wife.
I remember returning from my first visit to Siargao in 2006, excitedly googling the name and being surprised at finding only a handful of mentions. Out of curiosity, I googled it again this morning and came up with no fewer than 40 pages of citations including travel blogs, Trip Advisor articles, Wikipedia mentions, and even a movie review.
The review, of course, is of the star-studded feature film bearing the island’s name that opened in Manila on Christmas Day. The story: a famous male rock star and female travel blogger meet en route to Siargao, fall in love and, yup, after a whirlwind romance pursued in the sun, realize that true happiness lies with what they’d left behind which, in his case, consists of the little tear-shaped honeydew island he’d once called home.
Siargao has an interesting history. Long the sleeping beauty of Mindanao, it seems to have been awakened by the prince of American surfing magazines, Surfer, which, alerted to its allure by various surf adventurers of the late 1980s, published an article extolling the island’s virtues in 1993. One of those early adventurers had been an American drug smuggler and surfer who, according to legend, hid out on Siargao in 1988 only to die the next year from a self-imposed “spiritual cleansing fast” lasting 44 days. I’ve heard at least one other version of the story, however, suggesting that the guy was murdered for the considerable amount of cash he kept hidden under his mattress.
Be that as it may, local entrepreneurs soon started a world surfing tournament resulting in Siargao being dubbed the “surfing capital of the Philippines.” For a time, the island managed to keep its pristine best-kept-secret-of-the-Orient quality. Then Boracay shut its shores to tourists and – voila! – a new wave was formed in Siargao; daily flights from Manila and Cebu with plans for an international airport, vacant rooms nearly impossible to find; land once worth 100 pesos per square meter now commanding 12,000; and almost any night in the formerly-quiet town of General Luna now resembling something like Saturday night on Hollywood Boulevard.
Recently this increasingly unpleasant wave started breaking over the top, providing not just the ultimate insult to the past but poignantly personal slaps in the faces to Ivy and me. It has to do with the island’s most iconic landmark, General Luna’s much-photographed Cloud Nine pier from which thousands annually witness some of the world’s curviest curls. It is also the spot whereupon I first asked Ivy to be my wife and upon whose creaky planks we have taken commemorative walks nearly every year since.
Our next walk, we’ve been told, will cost us fifty pesos apiece. That’s the entry fee local government officials have determined to be the most efficacious in protecting the famous pier from the punishing onslaught of tourists.
It’s not the money that bothers us; God knows we can afford it. No, it’s the simple idea that we now must pay for something that once was so free. Ivy has lodged an angry protest on Facebook. And me? Let’s just say, in the slightly altered vernacular of a 1977 epic war film, that this is one pier too far.
A former Los Angeles Times staff writer and winner of a 2018 Golden Mike award in radio broadcast journalism, David Haldane fell in love with the Philippines on his first visit there in 2003. A few visits later, he also fell in love with the beautiful young Filipina to whom he is now married and, with whom, he has returned many times. David has written extensively about his experiences in the Philippines for several publications including Orange Coast and Islands Magazine. Today he and Ivy, along with their eight-year-old son, Isaac, divide their time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Surigao City, Philippines. His award-winning memoir, Nazis & Nudists, recounts, among other things, the courtship of Ivy and finding a place to call home. For David that turned out to be at the tip of a peninsula marking the gateway to Mindanao where he and Ivy are building their dream home next to a lighthouse overlooking the sea. This blog is the ongoing chronicle of that adventure.
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I have been living in the Philippines for some years and have a small resort in the northern part of Siargao Island. It is still peaceful here but with the prospect of the new international airport this will end up just like General Luna within the next five years.
So if you want real peace and quiet on a uncluttered beach under coconut palms where the only sound you will hear is that of the waves, birds and wind then come to Alegria. It will be your last chance before this paradise will be destroyed by crowds of tourists.
Karl Mula, Surigao island.
We are familiar with Alegria, and like it a lot. We have some property at Magpupungko which, as you probably know, is no longer peaceful at all, and Ivy’s mom has a little plot in Burgos, which is still pretty quiet. We will definitely consider visiting your place the next time we are there.
I fail to see the sense of possessiveness exhibited by certain groups of people that something is “mine”, especially if that something clearly does not belong to them in any way, shape or form. If you want to possess something and exclude anyone from getting near it, please buy it!
As I see it, Siargao Island is a beauty to be shared by all. It belongs to no one but to the province of Surigao. It is the only entity that has the right to restrict the “unpleasant wave” of tourists from coming in. I want to visit Siargao with my wife someday in the future, but I don’t want to feel unwelcome. Nor, do I wish to feel as though we are intruding on other people’s privacy.
Surigao province’s hosting the world cup of surfing is indicative of their desire to improve the economy of the province.
It is also their way of saying to the world, “Welcome to Siargao Island, Everyone”!
John, my intention was not to condemn the development and promotion of Siargao; obviously it is inevitable, good for the economy and, you’re right, I don’t own it. What I was attempting, really, was a kind of tongue-in-cheek rumination regarding the ambivalence often felt by someone witnessing the growth and change of a place they have come to love. I actually think this is a pretty universal emotion, though one not shared, certainly, by those in a position to benefit from that change which, in this case, probably includes most residents of the island. Anyway, perhaps the tone of my piece was a bit too harsh to highlight the irony and humor, for which I apologize. As far as I am concerned, you are certainly welcome to Siargao anytime. In fact, I hope to meet you there one day and, who knows, perhaps even show you around…
Let’s forget this one, David. There is no need for an apology. I was only taken aback by the reference to “unpleasant wave” [of tourists], and that puts me in the same category as I am a tourist myself, even in my own country.
Thanks for the personal invite. I will certainly look for you when we get there. Btw, I only had the slightest idea about Siargao until you came on board and talked about its beauty and how you fell in love with the place. Timely, in fact, as I have already been planning this winter’s Philippine itinerary. Last year, it was Boracay, this year I have penciled in El Nido, Palawan. Next year, perhaps, it will be Siargao.
Thanks again for the invite, and for bringing Siargao to my attention.