News & Updates

Surf’s Up!

Rhona L. Macasaet
January 14, 2022

A Hero's Journey: Likhaan Stories Series

The eastern shores of Sabang Daguitan, the smallest barangay in the municipality of Dulag, Leyte, are bordered by the waters of the Leyte Gulf. The gulf, which gives onto the Philippine Sea, which in turn flows into the Pacific Ocean, is everyday backdrop and familiar stage to the locals of Sabang Daguitan: housewives peddling homemade native delicacies; the farmers tending to their crops in their precious plot of land; the fisherfolk casting their nets, reeling in lines; and stoked, sunburned youth straddling surfboards, patiently waiting for the perfect wave to ride.

 

Brgy. Sabang Daguitan facing Leyte Gulf between Daguitan and Dao River

It is a quiet, simple, family-oriented life the locals in Sabang Daguitan lead. It is also a difficult one, marked by the struggle, time and again, to make ends meet. 

This is the kind of life that Carmelita Pogenio, a sixty-two-year-old wife and mother of six, is familiar with—the daily routine of seeing to the needs of her kids and husband, Tereso, and attending to household chores in the small house, surrounded by trees, that she and her husband had saved up for. As with many other enterprising women, however, spurred by the need to supplement the family’s modest income, Carmelita also engages in a little venture of her own, preparing and selling moron (rice cakes like suman, but with a swirl or filling of chocolate) and lidgid (also like suman, but made from root crops like cassava or kamoteng kahoy). Taking to the road on foot or bicycle, she would then market these kakanin to her neighbors as well as to the residents of the municipio. With the proceeds from her sales, combined with income from Tereso’s gigs as a member of a local band, they have fortunately been able to send all their children to school, their last and youngest now in college. 

Like Carmelita, Josephine Dumaguit, a forty-eight-year-old wife and mother of six, describes herself as a “simpleng maybahay” who looks after her close-knit family of six kids, four of whom are still in school. Married to Rene, a fisherman, Josephine helps augment his earnings by taking in laundry, giving massages at her home, and painstakingly constructing pawid from nipa leaves by hand and selling these for roofing.

Twenty-four-year-old Ronald Abasola, one of seven children, juggles the responsibilities of school and those of his livelihood. Following in the footsteps of his father, Oscar, Ronald is also a fisherman. Sometimes accompanied by his siblings, he and his father regularly set out to sea, netting fish and hauling in their catch for his mother to sell, the profits of which they use to buy food. 

Though Carmelita, Josephine, and Ronald may consider themselves hard up, still they continue to yearn and strive for a bright future for their families, still say they are, in spite of their hardships, happy. In Ronald’s words: “Kami man ay mahirap, basta kami ay masaya na pamilya . . .

Because Sabang Daguitan is situated along the so-called typhoon belt, its residents are closely acquainted with the ferocity of storms and often bear the brunt of their full, unrestrained wrath of wind and rain. As such, frequently faced with this threat and having also in the past endured signal number four typhoons (the highest signal then), they know the drill well enough: weight the roofs down; tether loose objects; secure livestock; check food and water supply; evacuate, if need be, or hunker down at home till the howling wind stills and the lashing rain softens to a drizzle. And so, like veterans with experience on their side, who have suffered losses, but always pick themselves up and rebuild their lives, they may have thought, then, that Yolanda, which was forecasted to make landfall in the region that November of 2013, would be like any other signal number four typhoon that they had already previously encountered. Little did they know that, classified Category 5, it would be deemed one of the most powerful and deadly typhoons ever.

Carmelita remembers clear skies, a calmness in the air, and not a drop of rain the day before Yolanda’s onslaught, weather that seemed incongruous with the alarming warnings about the approaching super typhoon. Still, she set to taking the usual measures against the storm—preparing food, charging flashlights, corralling livestock, packing clothes and necessities for her kids who would be evacuating to the elementary school in Dulag, a few, short minutes away. Carmelita herself, however, had decided to stay put, accompanied by two teenaged sons, so that they could keep watch over their house and livestock.

Clear blue skies and sunset at Sabang Daguitan Surf Camp

Yolanda made her unmistakable presence known at 4:40 a.m. of November 8. There was the gale-force wind, shredding and uprooting trees; lifting roofs of galvanized iron sheets from houses and flinging them through the air; knocking down structures as if they were cardboard, leveling entire neighborhoods. There was the torrential rain, whipped by the wind, obscuring vision and pelting skin. Then there was the storm surge, water from the sea rising in waves that—as Carmelita observed—seemed to reach heights of twenty feet. It was high like a mountain, Carmelita said, the water a dirty brown. Though the surge spared Sabang Daguitan, it smashed onto the coastal municipality of Tanauan, rushing inland and sweeping people, even whole houses, trailer trucks, cars, away in its path. The storm surge was a phenomenon unknown and unheard of by the people of Leyte, something they had never experienced before, something beyond the realm of their imagination, and therefore something they were most ill-equipped to deal with. 

As the storm raged and she witnessed roofs flying and trees toppling all around her, Carmelita feared for her family sheltering in the evacuation center, even as her own home was in danger. Eventually, one of her sons insisted that they flee to a neighbor’s house, doing so just in time, before the wind heaved and blew the roof off of their home, before the walls collapsed. Later, Carmelita would also discover that their animals had broken free and escaped, though she can only guess at their eventual fate.

Carmelita narrates this with a sense of urgency in her voice, reflecting the terror-filled and panic-stricken hours of her experience that day. On the other hand, for Josephine, rousing the memories of Yolanda, even eight years later, still brings her to tears.

Pre-empting the storm, she and her kids had moved to an evacuation center, while her husband had opted to stay behind. Though it was distressing for Josephine to leave her husband, she also knew that it was necessary for him to ensure that the family’s home and livestock were safe. But, as Yolanda pummeled Leyte, their home, like so many others, would not survive. Even the evacuation centers were not spared destruction, leaving the evacuees to the mercy of violent winds and rain, so that Josephine and her kids had to frantically seek safer refuge elsewhere, eventually finding one in a school. 

Yolanda’s fury (“galit na galit,” in Josephine’s words) was such that Josephine had, at that time, thought to herself, “siguro katapusan na namin,” because it did seem like it was surely the end for all of them.

Ronald and his family had also packed their belongings for evacuation to Dulag Central School ahead of Yolanda’s expected landfall, making sure before they left that their banca was fastened tight to prevent it from drifting. One sibling was also tasked to remain at home to safeguard the house and livestock, though, like all other homes, theirs would also be unable to withstand Yolanda’s might. In the end, they would lose their home and banca—wrested by the waves and carried away, the waves so big Ronald feared that they would drown.

Yolanda was a cataclysmic event that rendered the region an “apocalyptic” wasteland and was certainly a defining moment for the people of Leyte and others in the super typhoon’s direct path. It was the point in time, with their lives as they knew it suddenly upended, that would in a way redirect the trajectory of their futures, and transform them.

The aftermath of Yolanda bared a ravaged landscape, eerie and unrecognizable. And the residents of Sabang Daguitan had to literally pick up the pieces of their lives, scouring the rubble where their homes used to be for what could be saved. Relying as well on resourcefulness to survive the initial days of uncertainty, Carmelita gathered the coconuts knocked down by Yolanda and that littered the area. These she used to make buchi (a kind of kakanin molded into balls) to sell in the municipio. To fund the rebuilding of their house, Josephine’s family sold their pig, and also managed to salvage wood from the scattered mounds of debris and make use of the fallen trees lying about for construction material. The water that rushed inland from the sea also displaced fish, allowing Ronald to readily catch bangus and tilapia that he then sold. Yolanda, which had exacted such a toll on, and taken so much from, them, now appeared to be making restitution and giving back, an irony that was not lost on Carmelita, Josephine, and Ronald.

In time, with the help of a whole lot of prayer and the barangay coming together, as well as relief goods and aid from the government; the Philippine army; foreign and local NGOs, like World Vision, Red Cross, and the ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation, Inc. (ALKFI), the residents of Sabang Daguitan were able to begin the long, arduous, and real work of starting anew. 

 

For years, the local surfers of Sabang Daguitan had been harboring the idea of establishing a surf camp in the area. After all, they already had, right there, the sprawl of beach, just standing empty, that could be put to good use, and the sea that generated gentle waves suitable for both beginners and more experienced surfers. But because they lacked the means to organize, the idea remained just that—an idea—until Rotchie Castil, a community leader, stepped in. 

Sabang Daguitan Surf Camp with offers Balay Pahuwayan, Balay Katurugan, Balay Kaunan and Balay Harampangan

Rotchie had recognized the potential of Sabang Daguitan becoming a tourist destination with the setting up of a surf camp, promoting surfing as its main attraction. As such, when the Office of the Presidential Assistance on Reconstruction and Recovery assigned ALKFI to assist in the post-Yolanda rehabilitation of Dulag, Rotchie had the chance to propose the idea to a representative of the foundation. Seeing the merits of this proposal, the foundation helped shape and firm it up, before presenting it to the Sabang Daguitan residents. 

From the beginning, according to Carmelita, there were those in the barangay who voiced their misgivings about the project. Would ALKFI actually deliver on their promise of help? Would the foundation stay and shepherd them through to the project’s successful end, and not abandon them? There were skeptics as well who doubted that ALKFI would even bother to waste money (Carmelita used the word “magsayang”) on a small, insignificant barangay like theirs. But Carmelita, Josephine, and Ronald were among those early believers in the foundation’s support and sincere intentions and who understood the advantages of the project. So, paying no heed to the dissenters, they, as well as the majority of the residents, put their trust in the foundation instead. 

In 2015, with the necessary paperwork filed, and permits and approval secured, the Sabang Daguitan Surf Camp project was finally launched. 

One of the first orders of business, as suggested by the foundation, was to organize themselves into, initially, an association and then eventually into a cooperative that would manage the surf camp. And so, merging the already existing associations of farmers and fishermen, and including the group of surfers as well as, later on, senior citizens, they formed Nagkaurosa nga Sabangnon Katilingban Service Cooperative (NASAKASECO)

Determined to see the surf camp come to fruition, some members of NASAKASECO spent the next six months clearing the area of grass and debris in preparation for the construction of casitas, eco-lodges, offices, a store, a restaurant, a social hall, and all other necessary infrastructure, funded by ALFKI. These they also built with their own labor, using mostly local materials like nipa and bamboo. All these they accomplished by selflessly volunteering their time and effort, knowing that they could not expect any compensation or salary until the surf camp began operations and turned a profit. Ronald, understandably, recalls it as a tough time; but with cooperation, patience, and perseverance, they were able to overcome it. 

For Carmelita, Josephine, and Ronald, joining the cooperative paved the way for them to holding a more steady job and therefore earning a more steady income, as staff members of the surf camp. Carmelita has not completely given up making and selling kakanin, but she is now more preoccupied with her job as a massage therapist and agri-technician. Josephine, although she still now and again accepts laundry, is employed as a cook in the surf camp’s culinary department and also handles catering for camp events and outside clients. (Her husband, Rene, has just recently been elected president of NASAKASECO.) Ronald continues to fish with his father and siblings, though only during those times when he is not on duty as a lifeguard or is not teaching a student the finer points of surfing, as one of the surf instructors in the camp.

(Left to Right) Ronald riding waves at Sabang Daguitan Surf Camp, Carmelita in the center, selling farmers produce and Josephine cooking pancit in the kitchen

These are roles that they probably would never have dreamed they could assume, in their pre-Yolanda lives. But the surf camp has given them the chance to take on these roles, roles that entail more responsibilities and challenges—Ronald, as lifeguard, has to be ready to deal with potential life-or-death situations, for example—and are essential to the running of the camp, thereby bringing them a sense of fulfillment and self-worth.

Their work at the camp has not only provided them with relative financial stability, so that they are better able to provide for the family; but, through training programs and seminars, it has also provided them the opportunity to expand their minds and learn new skills—knowledge that, as Carmelita said, could serve them well in the future and maybe even pass on, to benefit others. On a personal level, as cook and caterer, Josephine feels satisfaction in the fact that more people can now partake of, and appreciate, her cooking. Her work has also allowed her to gain more confidence, with her having to meet and mingle with clients, something she never did before. In Ronald’s case, as surf instructor, he gets to share in the pride of his students when they are able to quickly learn, which is also a source of happiness for him as it is a testament to his success as surfer and teacher. As a certified instructor, who undergoes regular training, he is also qualified to teach anywhere, opening up his horizons. He is also grateful for the tips he earns, which go towards helping his parents. As a lifeguard, his water, search, and rescue training ensures that he is efficient and alert, crucial to saving lives.

Beyond these individual gains, the members of NASAKASECO have also been able to give back to the community through donations (for instance, the piglets and feed given to the San Jose Farmers Association, under their Ipasa ang Pag-asa program, initiated by ALKFI) as the surf camp prospered though the years. This is in line with ALKFI’s goal of encouraging its project partners to “pay it forward.” Because of their experience with Yolanda, they have come to respect and value nature and, because ALKFI has also always emphasized the importance of caring for the environment, they have come to realize the necessity of protecting it. As a result, they make sure to conduct periodic clean-up drives and hold tree-planting activities in tandem with other organizations. With the help of ALKFI, the coop members have been able to, thus far, plant two thousand talisay and malabago trees, which help shield the camp from strong winds and under which they set up tables and chairs and hammocks, and pitch tents for glamping. 

The Sabang Daguitan Surf Camp has become a well-known tourist site, offering not only surfing, but paddleboarding and other sports activities, like volleyball. For accommodations, one can choose to book an eco-lodge, or sleep in tents under the stars in the camp’s version of glamping. One can also rent the social hall for special occasions or seminars and workshops, many of which the camp has already hosted. Before the pandemic put a halt to it, the camp was also the site for the Airwaves surfing competition. Not far away is Dao Balay Kawilan, known for its floating cottages on the Dao River, where one can have a relaxing massage or just enjoy the serenity of the surroundings. For those more inclined to active pursuits, they can opt to go kayaking or cruising down the river in boats or engage in other sports, like volleyball, frisbee, kite-flying. 

Kayaking, River Cruise, floating cottages with spa and boating at Dao Balay Kawilan

From managing the surf camp, NASAKASECO has diversified into other sources of income like, among others, cultivating an organic farm and selling its produce, and raising tilapia and native chickens, which are also for sale. It has also now become an agri-products consolidator, where they purchase goods from various farmers’ associations and sell them in the camp or to outsiders. (Carmelita, in fact, is the head of this.) Additionally, the surf camp is a recognized Agricultural Training Institute learning site.

Sabang Daguitan Surf Camp, through the efforts of ALKFI and NASAKASECO, has remarkably thrived through the years and has granted Carmelita, Josephine, Ronald, and the other residents of the barangay a new lease on life, a source of hope. They acknowledge that they will continue to face challenges, even from within the cooperative, given that, as Carmelita said, its members are their own different personalities who may not always agree with each other. So they wish for harmony. They wish for unity. They wish for a generosity of spirit so that the members will instead always look beyond their interests and focus on the common goal of guaranteeing the camp and their cooperative’s success for the common good. They are one in this desire, and are inspired to press on, make certain that the cooperative persists and even, maybe, one day, have their own children take over and carry on.