By Bruce Curran
Miles and miles of lush thick deep green mangroves covered the area to the west of the island, and raw nature looked very much in command when viewed through the rounded window of the aircraft. Saw-tooth hills stretched like a magic carpet laced in thick jungle to the north of the island. All around the sea-edges of the land the fluorescent turquoise of the fringing coral reefs caught the eye in a display of nature's power and beauty in this pristine area.
This is the furthest east of all the medium sized islands of the Philippines, and it sits directly next to the vast openness of the Pacific Ocean. Siargao Island stretches some nineteen and a half miles from north to south and is eleven miles at its widest point from east to west. One could only imagine a healthy crocodile population hidden beneath the murky shallows somewhere deep within the mangroves where even man could not penetrate. The power of nature still has a stranglehold on this remote part of the Philippine archipelago.
It’s only a forty-minute flight from Cebu, yet it instantly feels like an ancient part of our planet. It is an exciting feeling, and somehow comforting to know that nature is still in command.
On Siargao Island itself a pair of Philippine eagles soared high above those saw-toothed hills to the north, while a single hornbill flitted, with that distinctive wing flap, across the open valley in the interior of the land. Meanwhile, far off to the southeast, the surfing fraternity, both local and foreign, sat on the shoreline watching the watery horizon, waiting for the arrival of the legendary waves that are the envy of many a surfer.
The next day, on the east coast, a Chinese egret glided over the shallow turquoise still waters and alighted on the outrigger of a yellow painted banca. The sun was not yet in the sky as the snow-white bird began its search for a dawn feed. A brightly colored kingfisher, shimmering in a sheen of green, swooped up onto a frond of the coconut palm that stretched out over the bay. The morning chorus of bird life was fresh in the air, sounding like a practicing orchestra amid the pinking sky. A well-fed light brown dog with blue-white eyes sniffed its way along the beach as the tide reached its zenith at the beginning of another day.
Offshore, a classic tropical island lay protected within its surrounding coral reef, and the dozen coconut palms dressed in the center circle of the island rustled gently in the morning breeze. Guyam Island is a classic tropical place near to the shore of Siargao Island facing the Pacific. The friendly caretaker climbed a very high coconut tree and soon each person had a refreshing buko juice, and it felt as though the cares of life in the city were at least one million miles away beyond the coral horizon.
Off to the right, well within the massive coastal reef, lay a shining white sand bar some 200 meters long, claimed by a flock of some forty black-headed terns, that stood chattering amongst themselves at the waters edge. Named Pansukian, this bare sandbar sits atop the reef amid the crystal clarity and invigorating intensity of the pastel green waters. These are all things that take your breath away, yet it is a common feature in this part of the Philippines.
A blue triangular sail on a tiny banca pulled a lone fisherman towards his fishing grounds. On the horizon a line of white surf rolled over onto the edge of the fringing reef. The Pacific Ocean turns dark as the water rapidly deepens to the east stretching into nothingness for a thousand miles. Forty miles to seaward the ocean falls into the Philippine Deep, descending almost seven miles to a spot deeper than the height of Mount Everest.
The first land reached by the ocean swells coming in from the emptiness of the Pacific is Siargao Island. It is a magic place, largely untouched and unsullied by the modern world. It is a place difficult to match in the imagination, and has a populace that is naturally friendly and welcoming to a stranger, to the extent that you instantly feel like a good friend. The Siargao smile seems somehow legendary, sometimes shy but always beaming and disarming. The visitor is at peace far from home, definitively enchanted in this magic land.
At four in the morning the coconut husks were already smoldering on the corner of Santa Thomas and San Vicente streets in General Luna as Bebie the baker busied herself with preparing the morning bread rolls. The smoke from her open oven drifted lazily off down the streets together with the sweet smell of fresh dough. Her son Evan was still sleeping while her 76-year-old mother Querica, was already busy with the early morning chores.
By daylight the humble streets were awash with activity. Throughout this coastal town many faithful old fresh water hand pumps were already filling the buckets of the local households, as people traipsed to and fro from their wooden houses neatly laid out along the roadways. Everywhere people were tidying their ground space, and the sound of sweeping stick brooms could be heard as a backdrop to household chatter, while the first rays of the sun pierced the coolness of the dusty streets.
Already several fishermen were wading through the seawater off the soft sand beach near their simple wooden houses, loading nets and readying engines. A large grey-haired pig was being bathed in the shallows occasionally squealing with delight, as it stood somehow proud, and enjoying its early morning wash.
Behind the row of houses on the seashore the light brown earthen street was covered in a mass of green. The seaweed farmer's wife was busy laying out a fresh harvest to dry in the early morning sun. Close offshore the long lines of planted seaweed could be seen in the shallows beneath the turquoise waters of the sandy corralled bottom. Her little child stood by clutching a plastic feeder, occasionally chewing and suckling on her morning feed.
Monday was Fiesta day in Santa Monica, and the entire town was out for the occasion. The habal-habal motorcycles were out in force ferrying people big and small all around the compact streets of this little country town. The ice cream vendors were franticly ringing their little bells, and trade was brisk. Everyone was wearing their best smiles, and the colorful uniforms of all the parade children were everywhere to be seen as people dispersed after the finale of the Opening Parade near the Municipal buildings.
Time was marching on this sky-blue August morning, and the streets began to fill with the burble of another ritual. It was now Tuesday morning in General Luna and time for school. The home exodus had begun in earnest as the town folk's youngsters began their ritual stroll through their neighborhoods. The pace was leisurely on the path to another dawn of learning. On every street corner immaculate blue and white uniforms could be seen, as friends, and brothers and sisters ambled easily through the placid streets of their quaint hometown.
The smallest youngsters stood tussled haired and inquisitive watching their kin disappear from view, as parents prepared for the next section of the day.
Around the corner at the municipal hall the flag raising ceremony was well under way, as government workers rallied to the call of national pride. Life in General Luna had kicked into official gear and the pace of the day was blissfully slow beyond words.
The man strode along the beach road and delivered the newest newspaper to the ex-Mayor, Jaime Rusillon, who sat at his breakfast table beside his wife, the current Mayor, Cecilia Rusillon. It was actually the morning of the 26th of August, but the date on the newspaper was the 11th. This somehow put the whole scene into perspective, on an island where the rest of the world only revolves in the figment of another universe.
It is a universe where the progressive thinkers on the island have already banished the destructive forces wrought by dynamite fishing long ago, giving the island a chance on the continuing long road to preservation and conservation, where nature is heralded as king. There is a rapidly increasing awareness of the purpose and benefit of an environment that is eco-friendly.
Meanwhile, 82-year-old Avantino Gopico was down near the municipal fish market on the beach, fixing his 30-foot banca readying it for his favorite pastime, a day's fishing. The boat sported a brand new Kohler engine, and had been a present from his son who lives his life as a Colonel in the Philippine army stationed far away in Davao, Mindanao.
On Siargao Island, in this part of Mindanao, the cares of the day are simple ones well away from the concerns of national security and any threats to sanity. Perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, Siargao Island is a place of true beauty at many levels, and even that Chinese egret on the banca could recognize a perfect spot when it saw one. It is a migratory bird passing through Siargao on its way to the far south. One day it may take a tip from the Pacific Reef egret that used to be a migratory bird, but long ago recognized a good spot, and settled here in the Philippines. The traveller should realize likewise and home in on all this Siargao island magic, it is tantalizingly close, if one but knows where to find it.