Monday, March 8, 2010

Around Siargao Island by Motorbike

Two days ago, on a another sunny March morning, we rented a Honda motorcycle from a man nicknamed Dodong and drove around Siargao Island. The two lane road around the island is clay, sand and rock, with some smooth concrete pavement in short stretches.

The scenery was of course, beautiful. Jungle edged the road, the interior dark and tantalizingly tropical. Where the road traveled along the coastline, tidal lagoons at low tide exposed rough, dried out coral in ornate formations, some high enough to be silhouetted against the horizon.

Pilar, a town of weathered gray wood plank and nipa roofed buildings on stilts above a black muddy, mangrove tidal flat is the turn off point for Magpopongko Rock Pools. At low tide a white sand beach slopes down to the Pacific, a tourist kiosk stood empty in this off season. Waves crashed against the coral reefs that had created the lagoons.

Further down the road, we stopped at a small fishing barangay, so small and poor that there was no cafe, so we bought Cokes at a little store in front of someone's home through the chicken wire fencing that separates customers from the owners in all of these shops. As we hung out in the narrow shade someone appeared with plastic chairs to sit. As we drove along, boys walking in the road called out, “hey Joe" to Michael, an expression left over from WWII.

On the far north end of the island, there are crews working to lay concrete, all hand work. Next to these layers of wet concrete are billboards with a photo of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (commonly known as GMA) wearing a hard hat proclaiming that she brought Siargao the paved road. Philippine elections are soon.

On a sheer limestone cliff past the northern most point of the island, covered with heavy growth of tropical foliage, a fresh water stream seeps into a man made pool at Taktak Falls. We drop down into first gear and make it up the steep incline to take a dip in the pool. The small cascade refreshes.

Shimmering green rice fields nearly harvest ready are on one side of the road, sloping up to steep limestone cliffs. In some fields, traditional tall gray wooden houses with narrow balconies sit overlooking the farmer’s hard worked crop. On lower land, rice farms already harvested are being tilled for the next crop by carabao (water buffalo) and wooden plows with a strong, wiry farmer pushing behind. Rice is planted and harvested by hand in the small plots carved out of the jungle between jagged green hills

In the hottest part of the day carabao are taken to wallow in mud holes to regulate their body temperatures. A leash rope tied to nose ring, ears and snout may be all that is visible above the soothing mud.

In a larger town, San Isidoro, a concrete bridge passes over the San Isidoro River, lined with the same type of houses we saw in Pilar, this time hanging over the river rather than a mangrove swamp. The town has a municipal building decorated with a large banner encouraging people to be patriotic and pay their taxes. An “internet cafĂ©” turns out to be a room full of old computers used for video games. We find out from the Filipina owner during another Coke break that the internet provider isn’t able to reach the storefront after all.

People on the island make their living from fishing, rice and tourism. Copra and other side ventures help make ends meet. Drying copra and rice are just as important for the use of the road as motorcycles, jeepneys, bicycle carts and the few cars in the traffic mix. Drivers and walkers swerve in a routine manner to avoid the copra and rice that are laid out on one lane of the road to sun dry.

This is also coconut harvesting time. Yellowed green coconuts hang in clusters under their protective spray of palm leaves at the top of the tall trees, ready for harvest. We pass many places with piles of rotting coconut husks, the white meat already gathered for the copra buyers. Smoke drifts up from thatched huts used to heat dry the copra. Other farmers spread their copra out on the road to sun dry.

Dapa is the largest town, with a dock for ferries to and from Surigao City, a covered market where fresh fish, vegetables and meat are sold and many shops in the surrounding streets. Some shop fronts are decorated with curtains made of intricately hand folded candy and cigarette wrappers. Driving out of town, we paused at a corner, unsure of which direction, but a couple of men took care of us, shouting “GL”, and pointing in the right direction. Dapa doesn’t hold foreigners for long, and the locals know it and know where we go.

Coming back toward our Cloud 9 beach cottage, we pass through the nearest town, General Luna (GL) and by the large Catholic Church that dominates the center of town. A fleet of double outrigger bancas line the beach, some for fishing and others doubling for tourists’ island hopping. That’s for another day.