Manila is like a selfish lover: while it presents many kinds of comfort, it can take away too much if you let it. It knows that you think you can’t live without it—which is true until you actually leave it and realize it's not the only kind of life that's out there.
Some of us have thought about leaving our stressful lives in the city to move to a holiday location at least once in our hectic urban lives. As tempting as it is, making the move is not an easy feat, especially with the handful of compromises that go with uprooting yourself from the city.
By profession, I'm a writer. I'm 29 years old. In 2015, I leased a plot of land in Siargao, and developed it into a humble beach house that caters to backpackers. This is the story of how I made that move.
The big move
Prior to moving to the island, I was a music and lifestyle journalist. I did freelance gigs and wrote for various publications since I left school. In 2014, I became a founding editor and writer for an arts and culture website with an office in Manila. While it was an ideal job for the career I was pursuing at the time, it became too stressful to handle, at least for me.
In between workweeks, I’d plan a trip outside Manila just to “reset” my mind. Jumping on a bus for a weekend getaway was my idea of a retreat. I would squeeze in deadlines in between sunsets and bus rides, but it will only last a couple of days: I’d have to go back to Manila to get stuck in traffic again and waste my days worrying about how I’d finish everything in time for my next trip.
And then one day I decided to visit Siargao Island, a small island in northern Mindanao known for its world-class surf breaks.
There was no way to prepare me for the goodness that the island offered. Everywhere I looked, there were palm trees and the ocean breeze touched everything in sight. In the month that I spent there, I started to get into surfing and it’s true what they say about it: once you’re in, there’s no getting out. Everyday revolved around following the tides and planning where to go.
Surfing introduced me to a kind of lifestyle that I've always wanted to have, and most especially, to a life filled with postcard-worthy views and tear-inducing sunsets. I knew I had to keep it close.
I'll let a few photos speak for themselves:
When I got back to Manila, I spent each night thinking when I could make the return to Siargao. I'm not sure if it's a normal feeling for city-dwellers to crave the countryside and the beaches this much, but at that time, I knew I wanted to stay in Siargao.
Two months later, I was finally able to come back—more or less, permanently this time around.
Initially, I planned on renting a house, and supporting a lifestyle in the island by continuing to do online writing jobs. But it wasn't long before an opportunity came to open up my own backpacker guesthouse.
In September 2015, I opened a guesthouse and called it “The Hangout:” a budget accommodation with a private room and mesh beds suspended eight feet from the ground. It stood on a piece of land that was big enough to allow campers to pitch tents in the yard if they wanted to. We cater mostly to backpackers and surfers, who were into paying less in order to stay in the island longer.
It was a gamble on my part. I had a partner, but committing to a land long-term was still a dizzying prospect at the time. Opening up the place, building the structure and making it cozy had exhausted all my savings—even with a crowd-funding campaign that we did. There was no turning back. For those who'd like to do the same, here's my advice: get to know the locals, ask around the island, and you'll find someone who might be willing to part with their land. I won't disclose the exact figures but let me say this: If you really wanted to live in the beach, you'll find a way to make the numbers work.
This was the result of that labor:
These are the mesh beds hanging eight feet from the ground:
Has it been scary? Yes, the move was probably the scariest thing I've ever done in my life. I just knew I wanted to do it—that was that, and there was little else to do, really, but put up a brave front.
A friend in the island, who was also originally from Manila, told me that everyone who moves to this island or chooses this lifestyle has a common trait; they all want a different perspective in living. And wanting that meant they had to be somehow courageous. I held on to what she said.
It wasn't just about being brave in a new environment. It was also about being brave enough to trust the new people coming into your life. And that trust has bore fruit: In my months of living in Siargao, I can say that I’ve built strong relationships with people from all walks of life—both the locals and the like-minded people who have decided to leave their lives in the city to get a taste of life in the island.
That has been the best part of putting up my own hostel—being able to meet all these brave souls from all over the world. From social workers in Germany and fruit pickers in Canada to furniture designers in Tokyo and tiger handlers in the Middle East, the hostel always has a good mix of people that start as strangers, but end up staying in the island as family. We'd surf together, eat and sleep together, and party together, and ultimately have a blast. Our guesthouse, with the help of my business partner, nurtures that lifestyle very well.
And once you build connections with the people around you, you'll feel a certain measure of strength flow through you, as though a hand were gently prodding you to move forward when you're feeling weak or scared. Months after my relocation, I've comfortably grown into this new life. I've integrated myself in the community, looking out for people in the ways that I can. Thankfully, they've been more than generous in returning the favor. Proudly, I can say that the concept of “bayanihan” is strong and alive in the island. People would go out of their way to help you out, or make you feel better when you need it.
A change of perspective
Conquering that initial fear opened me up to the most beautiful change of perspective I’ve ever had.
I remember waking up early during a camping trip in the northern part of the island and seeing two elderly ladies walking towards the beach, giggling as they make their way onto the shore. They took a dip, laughing all throughout and splashing each other with saltwater. Five minutes later, I see a fisherman emerging in the same area, with two huge freshly caught fish in his hands, his family eagerly waiting by the shore. They were genuinely happy.
It was a happy moment for myself too, because those instances showed me that one can be happy with less. Above anything, that's what the island life has taught me—to want less and live simply.
When I was in the island, I read a letter of advice written by the American writer Hunter S. Thompson to his friend in 1958, he talked about looking for a way of life rather than goals in order to be truly happy. “Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life,” Mr. Gonzo wrote.
For me at least, living in the beach has been that way of life. I have decided how I’ll live and this puts my mind where it should be: always choosing to stay happy and positive, no matter how challenging everything can be. With the certain inconveniences that come with living in a faraway beach, there's a part of me (the city-girl version, perhaps) that's slowly fading away. Yet the change of scenery, the refreshed perspective has, I believe, given me more than I lost. That alone makes this way of life a good life to live.
Building a way of life
Be it the islands or the city, the chores don't completely change.
Some days I would find myself cleaning the bathroom or the kitchen, and some days I would change the sheets or tend to the garden. Some days, I take the guests out, too.
Starting a guesthouse in the island didn’t mean that I had to absolutely forget being a writer who loves music. I was lucky enough to be a part of the island’s first independent community newsletter called Ang Karajawan, which literally translates to “the goodness.” Aside from that, I also got involved in making a quirky, Siargao-based zine called Surfing Carabao, which was initially started by dwellers from Bacolod, the United States, and Sweden. On some Friday nights, I would DJ in a beach front resort called Viento del Mar for its “Art Night” party, and would play old-school hip-hop for travelers to boogie to.
I say this not to promote a gig, of course. My point is, no matter how big a change you make in your life, the things you love will find a way back to you. For me, it's writing and music. That's what's scary too about making changes—some things are left behind. But those that you find really important? They'll find a way back towards you.
The guesthouse sustains my lifestyle with just about enough, teaching me the value of contentment and happiness with just a little. But you know what the absolute best thing about the whole moving away from Manila thing is? I never have to deal with traffic anymore. Scrubbing a bathroom clean or managing bookings might seem like a more laborious task than sitting for hours in Manila traffic, but it really isn’t. Here, I find that there is a reward far better than bonuses or a good review from a supervisor or a boss, and it's the fact that I'm living happily in what I consider my version of paradise.
The Hangout on TripAdvisor
Photography April Arco, Dale James, Heidi Franco