Among the Mangroves
A Hero's Journey: Likhaan Stories Series
In San Juan by the Bay in Santa Rita, Samar, one can walk down a half-kilometer boardwalk among mangrove forests and towards the sea. At the end of the boardwalk, there are a few floating cottages where one can relax, and from which one can swim and kayak in the surrounding water. The mangroves, sixteen hectares in all, harbour small brown sharks and rays. In the evening, fireflies abound.
Source: G Diaries
Perhaps among the most striking aspects of this resort, which is modest and beautiful, is that it was built, and is now owned and run, by twenty-nine members of a local cooperative.
Jessie, forty-nine, is the resort’s manager. He has been here since its inception, having been engaged by the other members to plan and oversee its construction. Ruth, forty-two, is married to Jessie and is the resort’s cook.
Source: Ruth Estojero
Ruth and Jessie are both originally from Samar—Ruth from Basey, and Jessie from Santa Rita. Ruth says they first met at a dance.
As they married and started a family, their life together was often a struggle. Ruth was a housewife, and Jessie a construction worker. They had each studied up to the sixth grade, but did not have the means to continue into high school.
Instead, Jessie learned electrical work from his brother. Through experience, he later broadened his skills into welding and other trades.
Construction jobs, however, were scarce. In between, Jessie needed to find another way to support his family.
During those times, he would take his small banca to go fishing.
He paddled the boat out to sea alone, where he would fish with a hook and a single nylon line. Half a day would yield one or two kilos of fish to sell.
Sometimes the family gathered and sold kindling.
Ruth proudly says that, difficult as things were, they managed to keep their children in school.
The site of San Juan by the Bay, which faces the San Juanico Strait, had long been known among locals as a fine place to swim. It was however not easy to access; one could only get there by boat.
People would come bringing their own supplies, and sit out on the rocks under umbrellas. Their view was the strait between the islands of Leyte and Samar and, from 1973 onwards, the San Juanico Bridge.
For many years, the community and the barangay officials of San Juan had envisioned developing the area for tourists, but could only dream.
The San Juanico Bridge • Source: G Dairies
In a somewhat paradoxical way, it was Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) that gave the resort its impetus. This tropical cyclone, among the strongest to ever make landfall, brought enormous devastation to the Visayan islands, including to the province of Samar. Because of Yolanda, Samar became a focus for rehabilitation efforts, and foreign and local aid.
As relief assistance arrived, a resort re-emerged as a possibility. San Juan had the good fortune of being protected by its mangroves, so that it remained relatively spared from the raging winds and rising waters. ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation, Inc. (ALKFI) donated the building materials, and organized community members into an association and, eventually, a cooperative. In exchange, seeking to encourage ownership and sustainability, it required sweat equity from the community. The cooperative itself would need to build the resort.
Because of Jessie’s skills, he was asked to take charge of its construction. All the workers were volunteers. Ruth’s contribution was to cook for everyone.
Typhoon Yolanda struck the Philippines in November 2013. The San Juan by the Bay resort opened in 2016. In that same year the resort had more than eight thousand visitors, which rose to exceed fifteen thousand by 2019. The COVID pandemic severely decreased these numbers, but in 2021 things are picking up again. The cottages have been maintained through the lean times, and a new one is even being built.
For the first year or so, the members of the cooperative worked for free. The group agreed they would all be volunteers until the resort became stable. Since then, they have figured out their own way to determine salaries, sometimes a percentage of particular revenue streams, at other times a fixed amount.
Aside from Jessie as manager, and Ruth as cook, there are persons who staff the entrance, and who act as kayak guides and helpers.
The resort is a reflection of the community behind it. Resources are proportionate to their limited capitalization, which has consisted primarily of donations in kind, such as the building materials. There is no running water in the cottages, which are single structures afloat in the sea. Water must either be collected from rain or brought in containers across the boardwalk. One of Jessie and Ruth’s sons serves as water carrier, bringing the water down the boardwalk in a little cart. This was no mean feat when the boardwalk was entirely of bamboo. It has since been cemented for practical reasons. Toilets are likewise located before the boardwalk, at the resort’s entrance.
The cottages are made of wood, nipa, and bamboo, and set on plastic drums for flotation. They are comfortable and homey, with curtains and white cushions. The main cottage serves as a restaurant and gathering place.
Tour groups are welcomed with garlands of flowers. Food is fresh and plentiful, including local seafood such as maya-maya and lapu-lapu bought straight from fishermen. Sometimes children will do a dance number for the guests.
Source: G Diaries
Ruth and Jessie’s three children are all on the way to their own livelihoods. The eldest, Jayson, took vocational courses in welding and housekeeping and has worked abroad as an electrician. He helped their second son, James, study criminology. Jane, their daughter and the youngest, is currently studying civil engineering.
Family picture with in laws • Source: Jessie Estojero
Ruth says the mangroves used to be cut for kindling, but that this does not happen anymore. The cooperative’s members now take care of these mangrove forests, and visiting groups such as local government workers, police, and teachers have even planted more mangroves.
Mangrove Regeneration • Source: SJBSC
As Ruth speaks to us, there is a contentment in her tone, and the satisfaction of accomplishment. From cooking only for her family, and then cooking for the resort’s construction workers, she now plans meals and cooks for all the resort’s guests. She says she looks up recipes on the Internet, and that she is happy when people enjoy her cooking.
We learn that some members of the cooperative have even travelled to attend seminars. One of them mentions riding a plane for the first time.
San Juan by the Bay shows what a community that is given a chance, and that pulls together, can do. It is a small business venture in an era of large corporations, but it thrives on its own terms—while livelihood is of course a value, profit does not seem to be an overriding objective. Rather, what seems to matter is the creation of something that works: to welcome visitors in a comfortable way, which is a long-held Filipino tradition; to give personal effort and to share earnings equitably; to be aware and to care for nature and our country’s natural resources.
SJBSC Community • Source: SJBSC
Simultaneously, and in the best sense, it may enhance the lives of the people who have built and who continue to run it.
There is nothing slick or artificial about San Juan by the Bay. It expresses the community from which it sprang, supported by guidance, organization, and the material support it needed to take wing.
They would be happy if you came to visit.