If you’ve been hanging around this dragging little blog of mine long enough, you’ve read more than one or two posts about my thing for the surf scene. Some of you might even be able to recall the part where I wrote about when and/or how it all started—i.e., when I spent one whole day in summer of 2010 cruising up and down that breathtaking stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway between Pacific Palisades and Central Malibu (including one whole afternoon in Paradise Cove) just taking pictures of surfers, surfboards, and their haunts. Thinking about it now, though, I think this fascination took root way before that, and I just didn’t notice it right away, you know? I mean, I did grow up watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High (from 1982) more than a dozen times, and playing with my cousin’s circa late ‘80s California Dream Barbie (who came with her own surf shop and surfboard). My favorite Sweet Valley High cover was that of book number 63 (The New Elizabeth), which shows the good-girl half of the Wakefield twins standing next to a surfboard. Not to mention the TV shows that appealed most to me were almost always those with male leads who portrayed (or were) surfers—from Beverly Hills, 90210, which featured brooding surfer Dylan McKay (played by Luke Perry), down to Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, which had Stephen Colletti and Talan Torriero. I even remember falling madly in love with Michelle Rodriguez’s fiesty daredevil character in 2002’s Blue Crush! So, yeah, safe to say that this whole surf thing had been smoldering away in my, um, psyche since forever, and it just didn’t burst into a full-blown flame until three or four years ago when I got to have a physical glimpse into the fabled Southern California beach life.
But even at the time, sitting in the midst of “the birthplace of modern surfing,” my fascination was kind of superficial. I will admit now that I only began taking pictures of these wave riders (and their surroundings) because I thought they looked cool. To me, the whole thing looked like all the scenes from the TV—and young adult book art and Barbie dioramas—of my childhood were coming to life before my very eyes, and that was what drove me to yank my camera out and snap away. In my mind I was screaming things like, Hey, here’s a Matthew McConaughey lookalike whizzing by on a skateboard, toting a surfboard under his arm—this should make for an awesome picture! Or, Hey, here’s someone who looks straight out of a Billabong Girls catalog—I’ve got to take her picture! I was in it almost purely for the “pimpin’” factor. Didn’t think much about the resulting photos except that they would be great for show and tell, period. I was just being a fly on the wall, too, not even bothering to walk up to these people to ask them about why they did what they did, what made them choose this sport, what made the settle for this way of life. I just wanted to be cool! That was what it was!
And then something happened that would get me past scratching the surface and into the heart of it all: Thanksgiving weekend of 2012, I found myself in Siargao, that island off the northeast coast of Surigao City (flung out eastwards to the Pacific) that people have been referring to as “the surfing capital of the Philippines,” to photograph a newly engaged surfer couple. The premise was simple: tag along with them on an actual surf trip (their fourth for that year—they go on five to six trips a year) and document every single action-packed second and every single adrenaline-laced move (and, well, the lovey-dovey moments in between). Again, on the days leading to this trip, all I could think about was how the resulting photos were going to elevate me to a special level of rad—after all, not a lot of photographers/stylists from around here got to do this kind of thing. And then suddenly I found myself chest-deep in the water to take shots of them in paddling out to the breaks, chasing them around the place as they did their thing, following their trails through thickets that led to their secret spots, hanging out with their friends from the local surfing community, and that was when my eyes were opened to the whole picture. These people did what they did because nothing else heightened their senses and rejuvenated them quite like the waves did—they loved the rush that the waves sent through their veins; the unpredictability that they threw around; the lessons in courage, patience and persistence that they taught. These people chose this lifestyle because it spatially expanded their horizons, it made them one not just with the ocean, but with the universe—because, really, in search of the perfect wave, there were thickets to push your way through, unfamiliar (and sometimes dangerous) terrain to navigate, strangers to befriend and exact wisdom from. And when something awakens your sense of wonder and puts you in a constant state of exploration like that…I don’t think you’d ever want to let it go!
That was my first time ever to see Siargao. For several years before that, I had been constantly regaled by some pretty colorful tales about the island, but being there physically and seeing the place for myself… Well, the experience was much more enthralling than any of the accounts or stories that I had been told. And for no other reason except I got to see it through the eyes of my surfer companions! (Not through the eyes of a haughty, narrow-minded tourist/visitor with impossible yet shallow expectations, which is the kind I tend to become whenever I’m in some other island, like Boracay, for example, and traveling with people whose only mission is to be all partied out.) Getting cooped up in a non-air-conditioned room with the shutters wide open, and falling asleep to the sound of the waves and the rustling of the coconut trees… Waking up at four in the morning to bask in the invigorating Zen of a sunrise surf… Stopping by the local market to snag the freshest seafood (which, more often than not, you end up cooking yourself)… Wobbling through dirt roads on daredevil habal-habals (motorbikes-for-hire) with makeshift surfboard racks… Hopping on a shabby little bangkas (outrigger canoes) in the midst of a tempest to make your way to uncrowded breaks… Taking siestas in rickety thatched-roofed shanties on islets with no electricity (or any trace of outside influence, for that matter)… Breaking open fresh coconuts with a bolo machete… Having your surfer necklaces and bracelets made right in front of you by friendly local artisans… Soaking up the warm glow of a beachside bonfire, exchanging adventure stories… I had been to countless beach holidays before in my life—from Bohol to Dakak (Dapitan), Laguna Beach to Malibu—but I had never been this lost in the moment, this close to nature, this brave in exploring! And to think I was here for work, and not for a vacation!
Needless to say, I came out of that trip a changed person in some way. More appreciative and respectful of surfers now, and of the entire beach/surf culture—yes, we’re using the term culture now, as opposed to scene, because, as I’ve witnessed firsthand, these people, their communes, their activities and artefacts were not just cool to look at, they were awesome to be around with and be part of, too. And they can teach you some pretty invaluable life lessons, if you let them. Safe to say that, because of that trip and because of them, I am more passionate now about discovering new things, more keen on exploring uncharted territories, hungrier for adventure, less afraid of getting lost. I have also learned to pay attention to my own body—I’m at the gym four to five times a week now to work on my upper body and core muscle strength (can’t be feeble in those areas because you have to be able to push up against the board at rapid-fire pace, and once you’ve gotten to surf stance it’s all about keeping a good balance). Amazing how a short trip can get you pumped for life! Imagine what it’s like for people who actually do this for a living! How awesome it must be for people like Australian pro surfer Stephanie Gilmore (whose beautifully fuzzy photo in the June 2012 issue of American Vogue hangs like a shrine on my bedroom wall), for example!
Alas, unlike the Stephanie Gilmores of the this world, who get to travel the world and go with that flow all year round, or even my friends who are lucky enough to be able to afford five to six surf trips in a year, I’ve got three jobs to attend to, workshops to conduct, bills to pay, an apartment which can’t seem to magically tidy itself up no matter how hard I try, etc., which leaves me with very little room to pack my bags and just go. Which is not too bad for now, because somehow I have found a way to inject a little bit of that surf magic into some of the work that I do—example: for a catalog assignment middle of last year (that I did with some Fashion Design students over at the University of San Carlos’s College of Fine Arts), I chose a “tomboy surfer” theme (click here to view photos from that catalog); and for one of my album cover assignments, I threw in some surfboards, baja hoodies, ukuleles, and a circa late ‘60s Kombi/VW T2 into the mix (haven’t released those photos yet, but I will soon)! Trust me to craft my own little methods of escaping when an actual escape is out of the question! I make it sound like I’m a prisoner of the life I’ve created for myself, and that I virtually have no means of taking a break now, but that isn’t really the case. I do get by with the occasional once- or twice-a-year trips, of course. Which brings us to the photos that you see on here!
Yes, these photos were taken just two months ago, in late November/early December of last year, during my second visit Siargao—for a vacation this time around, yes, and with friends, not for an assignment or anything like that. I’d figured, I couldn’t afford to let a year go by without going on a surf trip—not just to practice my skills in adventure photography, but to actually get on the board, as well. The original plan had been to squeeze a little Huntington Beach time into my California itinerary, and I’d actually rung some surf schools and checked out a few beginners’ spots in the area already—but then the typhoon Haiyan had happened, and all I could think of was the well-being of my family and friends back home. Three or four days after flying in from the States, though, and after checking on my family and making sure they were OK, I couldn’t pass up the chance to hop on the next flight to Siargao. This surf trip had to happen, by hook or by crook!
Incredible how the place remained exactly the same as I’d left it over a year ago (well, there were a few changes, like my favorite Greek/Mediterranean-inspired restaurant closing its doors, but nothing too drastic), yet everything felt refreshingly new to me. For the most part I was retracing our steps from the previous year (even stayed in the same hotel), but none of them felt hackneyed at all. Most of the locals I had met before still remembered me, but this time they were armed with new stories to tell. So I guess it’s true what they all say: the most magical places on earth are those you can keep coming back to and yet manage to feel like new every single time. Of course, it wasn’t all backtracking/rediscovering my favorite old spots. I took the time out traversing previously uncharted areas and exploring new corners, too, and making new friends. Happy to report, too, that I also got to spend a good chunk of my time getting on the board—and actually managing not to fall off of it! Yes, whereas the first time I’d tried my hand at it it had been wipe out after wipe out, this time around I was on a roll! Unbelievable what just one year of core muscle training can do!
Not that I mind being wiped out at all. I forgot to mention this when I talked about the lessons this whole thing has thought me: I am less afraid to mistakes now, too, or to feel small amidst something larger than myself. Falling off your board and being smashed by the water—which some might consider embarrassing or terrifying—has sort of a gratifying quality to it. Stephanie Gilmore couldn’t have been more spot on when she told Elle in an interview on the subject of wipe outs: “You can’t control what it’s going to do. The ocean will always be more powerful than anything. So it’s about staying calm, taking the punches, rolling with it, and just waiting for it to let go. I think it’s a great metaphor for life.”
I can’t stop thinking about my next adventure! I might go back to Siargao, but I’m thinking maybe it’s time I should visit the other surfing hotspots in this part of the world, like Baler, Lanuza or La Union. I need my adrenaline! I need to be the fearless version of me again! Just don’t know when I’ll be able to make time this year, though, and that’s the sucky part. Well, at least I have these photos to remember that wonderful feeling by—and to keep my pulse from flat-lining!
Photographed by Angelo Kangleon in Siargao Island, Surigao del Norte, on November 29 – December 2, 2013