‘It was the best year of my life at the worst possible time’
When Filipinos are asked what they miss most from their pre-pandemic lives, a complete set of fingers might not be enough to count all the answers. But apart from leisure activities such as seeing a movie in a theater or dining out without the interference of face masks and shields, traveling perhaps tops the list for many. People are longing to feel the sand on their toes, to breathe in sea-scented air, to witness a horizon of clouds on top of the mountain, and to discover new cultures and scenes—all without the risk of catching COVID. Losing the ability to go places is hard, especially for Pinoys as the Philippines is a hotspot for tourist destinations.
But for Kenneth Amparo, his pandemic experience is totally different from what those in Manila have been experiencing. Call him lucky because while we were all desperately searching for new adventures inside the four corners of our homes, he was out of the metro and got stuck in paradise.
For more than a year, Siargao became home for the multimedia artist. And while we are bombarded with news about the teardrop-shaped island dominating international travel polls, he was out there experiencing it and happily savoring every moment.
In a conversation with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle, Kenneth shared his adventure on the island during the pandemic, the struggles he encountered, and what makes his stay there special, apart from the crystal blue waters and its lush green scenery.
Can you tell us how long you have stayed in Siargao? Why were you there in the first place?
I stayed in Siargao for about a year and three months. It was rather unplanned. I originally went just to shoot a summer video campaign for a brand that I was working with. After the shoot, I decided to stay for three more days while the rest of my team went back to Manila. The intention was just to unwind and get a breather from work but then suddenly disaster struck and the pandemic hit us all hard. I attempted to book a flight back to Manila but to no avail. Right there and then it dawned on me, I’m going to be stuck on this island indefinitely.
How was the experience staying there for a year? Who were you with on the island?
My experience in Siargao at that time was a paradox. It was the best year of my life at the worst possible time. I arrived there a complete stranger not knowing anybody on the island. Just a year after, I ended up being a part of this completely amazing and loving community. I met a lot of people along the way, some were fellow stranded tourists from all over the world, others were locals and business owners on the island.
Interacting with people from all walks of life, I definitely learned a lot of new things—one of them being a Siargao essential, surfing. I never really thought I’d love it as much as I do now. It was a totally new experience for me but through it, I was able to meet a lot of new friends on the sea. Another Siargao essential that I learned was, of course, speaking the language there which was Bisaya, specifically Surigaonon. It helped me connect with more locals and with people that I never would’ve met if I just stayed in my comfort zone.
Siargao is one of the islands that was greatly affected by the pandemic since it heavily relied on tourism. So I also made it a point to use my time there to extend my help to the community. I volunteered to cook and pack food in the Siargao Community Kitchen. It’s an organization that was formed during the pandemic whose aim was to help ease the hunger of Siargaonons. I also volunteered at the PUSO Foundation where we gave out school supplies and fishing equipment not just to people in Siargao but to people in nearby islands as well. To also put my creative skills to a good cause, I also helped produce ads and other promotional materials for the small businesses in Siargao.
Being stuck in paradise is definitely a good thing, but did you encounter problems when you were there? If yes, what were they?
While in theory being stuck in Siargao sounded like a dream, the reality of it was that I never really prepared myself to stay there for that length of time. So the first bottleneck I encountered was in terms of my financial capacities. I was a freelancer who had recently left his work in Manila so I had no clear idea if I could survive there. But of course, I had to.
One of the basic struggles that most “work from anywhere” Millennials would share with you is probably having a stable internet connection. I was working remotely and some places in Siargao had a very poor internet connection. I do hope that in the future this won’t be a problem anymore.
Many Filipinos are budget travelers. For sure, our readers would want to ask how much did your stay on the island cost?
To be quite honest, I didn’t account for all my expenses that religiously so I’m sorry I won’t be able to give you a solid figure [laughs]. It’s a bit expensive to stay in Siargao but there are certainly lots of ways to cut down on costs. One of which is when in doubt, do your research and don’t be shy to ask the locals. They have awesome recommendations and this can definitely get you the best bang for your buck for whatever it is you’re looking for.
In terms of accommodations, there are plenty of hostels and homestays to choose from. These are definitely cheaper than resorts and hotels on the main road. If you’re planning to stay for a longer length of time than usual, I’d recommend renting an apartment similar to what I did.
Another tip is to rent your own motorcycle to get around the island since most places are far away from each other and aren’t within walking distance. There’s no jeepney there and oftentimes riding the tricycle or habal-habal can get a bit costly. Besides, motorbiking is, in my opinion, the best and fullest way to experience the island. In terms of food, go for the carinderias over expensive restaurants. You can also opt to cook your own meals if you have a kitchen in the place you’ll be staying in.
After being there for a year, Will you still come back to Siargao?
I actually plan to settle there at some point. I already bought a small piece of land for my dream eco-friendly house and perhaps even a small coffee shop as well.
What are the things you discover being there for so long? What would you recommend travelers do when they get a chance to visit the island?
I’m thrilled that Siargao is becoming more and more visible not just here in the Philippines but also internationally. If I’m not mistaken, it was recently awarded as the “Best Island in Asia” by Conde Nast and I can certainly attest to that. There is so much to do and discover on this unbelievably beautiful island.
If you’re a first-timer and have limited time on your hands, I recommend hitting the standard spots and activities:
- Island hopping (Daku Island, Guyam Island, and Naked Island)
- Coconut Mountain View for the best IG backdrop
- Maasin River
- Magpupungko Rock Pools
- Take a dive in Sugba Lagoon
If you have a bit more time, you can also go to under-the-radar places like Corregidor Island, the mangrove forests, and visit other beaches as well. Siargao has one of the clearest waters you will ever see in your life!
But aside from all these attractions and spots, what really made Siargao feel like home to me was the locals. If you’re going to travel here soon, make sure to get to know the people and make friends. You’ll be surprised by their stories and you’ll even make friends for life.
What factor do you think made your stay better there?
Honestly, it could have easily been an overly extended vacation but I made it a point to stay like a local there. I find that there’s really no better way to experience a new place than seeing it through the eyes of a local. Bond with the people there, they will not only bring you to awesome places but also the best parties on the island. It’s because of these people that I almost never missed home because it felt like I had a family there that made lockdown bearable and wonderful.
Siargao to me was a breath of fresh air from the hustle and bustle of Manila life. I’ve said a lot of things already but I feel as though they still don’t fully encompass my experience there. It was the kind of life that we often under-appreciate and lose sight of.
I fell in love with Siargao and the people that make it what it is.