This was not our first trip to this area, Eastern Samar province on the island of Samar, the third largest island in The Philippines. We had been here before in the late 1990’s, the area of the country known as the “Wild East” for the lack of development and propensity for violence.
We had been here previously looking for new waves on a private live-aboard chartered boat, as the area was then considered to be too dangerous for casual tourists on land.
The problem in those days was the NPA, or New People’s Army, the armed division of the Communist Party of The Philippines, founded in late 1968 at the height of student militancy worldwide, which boasted some 15 000 ideologically indoctrinated armed combatants on Samar in the 1990’s.
The provincial capital of Borongan featured bullet-scarred buildings and frequent gun battles between the Philippine Army and the NPA, with a large percentage of residents fleeing the violence with their families for other islands or other countries.
At that time, Borongan was the largest city in The Philippines without a municipal airport, there were no flights at all. Local residents were forced to run the gauntlet to Tacloban City in nearby Leyte Island, through hostile NPA territory where there were frequent ambushes and armed robberies. The lack of an airport was perceived by local residents as a punishment by the government in Manila for alleged cooperation with the NPA in the region.
The animosity between the federal government and the Eastern Samar administration extended to all levels of government, hence the lack of funding from Manila.
The cycle looked set to continue indefinitely, with more residents fleeing the violence and even less funding for infrastructure and development from the federal government. The NPA would reap the rewards, with more recruits to their communist ideology from dissatisfied residents and increased revenues from extortion and kidnapping, with the money used to buy weapons and ammunition from corrupt elements within the Philippine Army.
Things began to change in the early 2000’s as the federal government stepped up funding to the provinces, particularly those like Eastern Samar with a heavy NPA presence and new infrastructure projects were begun to improve roads and communications.
In 2008, the municipal airport for Borongan was finally opened, after some 20 million pesos from the government in Manila was allocated and applied for construction. The original WWII airstrip was enlarged and repaved to modern standards and a terminal building built to handle baggage and entry formalities.
By the time of our return visit to the Wild East in the province of Eastern Samar to film an episode of surfEXPLORE for French television, the city of Borongan was thriving. Bullet-scarred buildings were now on the itinerary of gawking tourists, not NPA guerillas and the city and environs were considered to be safe for visitors.
There was upgraded infrastructure everywhere and a vastly reduced presence of the NPA, now largely a spent force in the province. Former hardcore communist guerillas had been reduced to campsite hideouts in the mountains, subsisting off basic banditry for funding.
The infrastructure and improvements in local governance has encouraged the economic growth of the region, with former residents returning, new investment in small businesses and a growing visitor industry.
Having found a number of quality waves on our first visit to this area, we wasted no time in returning to one of the best spots, a reef break well-hidden from the road.
One has to park at a peculiar privately-funded and built Catholic shrine and walk on the beach to the top of the point, but the wave; even some 20 years after we were the first people to surf here, is never crowded.
The wave is a shallow coral reef break, fast and hollow, ending in a deep channel in the middle of the bay. A large cave on the shoreline serves as a sheltered spot to leave clothes and camera gear, with the paddle-out spot in front of the cave.
The video crew set up and began filming, drones were launched and for the rest of the afternoon, waves were ridden on the point and filmed for television.
It was a rather different and much-improved atmosphere from when we first came here some 20 years ago when residents warned foreign visitors like us that we would be shot at from the shoreline if we tried to surf without the consent of the local NPA commander and unless a “revolutionary tax” had been paid.
Over the next several weeks, we were able to see the improvements to local infrastructure that has taken place in Eastern Samar, particularly after the disaster of Supertyphoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful western Pacific typhoons ever recorded, which killed thousands of people in the province when it impacted in November of 2013.
There was plenty of construction work ongoing, new concrete bridges in several places and much better roads than the muddy, rutted tracks of the 1990’s.
Even in this somewhat remote province in Samar, internet access was good, with new telecommunication towers every few kilometers to handle the data traffic of Filipinos, who are documented as some of the most enthusiastic and prolific social media users in the world.
We surfed and visited many of the locations we had been to 20 years previously and then, at the urging of our producer at Puzzle Media, the French production house filming the episode, we turned our attention to finding new locations for waves.
One of them was a long and quite beautiful beach, still inaccessible by road and completely undeveloped. We drove as far as we could, to a village some 5 kilometers from the shoreline. The locals quickly offered to guide us to the beach on a foot trail and said they had never seen surfers in their village before.
The walk was approximately one hour, so we had a debate if it was worthwhile to walk in there and if we would have enough daylight to go elsewhere if the waves were not good - after all, we had never been there before and had no clear idea if it was a good beachbreak or not.
Someone pointed out, “we have a drone for filming so why not launch the drone from the village and fly it to the beach for a surf check”? We could then see if the waves were what we were looking for, without making the long, hot walk to the beach with all our gear and possibly finding unsurfable conditions.
So we cleared the crowd of villagers to have enough space to launch the drone without any of the excited little kids getting hurt and flew it to the beach in a couple of minutes.
With a towel over the monitor for shade, we could clearly see head-high peaks at a quality beachbreak setup, breaking well offshore with good shape and power. We brought the drone back when the battery light started flashing and hired a couple of guides on the spot for the hike into the beach, satisfied with the results of our new-tech reconnaissance.
With water and snacks purchased from a shop in the village, we hiked into the beach through the dense forest with our guides, emerging on a long beach of white sand without another person (or surfer) in sight.
We surfed the rest of the afternoon at this new location, clean peaks breaking left and right all the way to the sand. The location is sure to become a major stop on the visiting surfers itinerary of Best Waves in The Philippines.
The other location where we might find new and unridden waves was offshore, an area of many small islands surrounded by coral reefs that is accessible only by boat. If we need a boat, then let’s look around and find one, better yet let’s find two boats - one for the cameramen and one for the surfers.
With all the subsistence fishing going on, boats are one thing that is easy to find in this area of Eastern Samar. With Filipino cameraman Abdel Elecho leading the negotiations in Tagalog and the local dialect of Waray-Waray, we soon had two local-style banca boats hired at a good price, fueled and ready to go. After an afternoon out in the bay, we found several quality setups and returned to a wave we had surfed before, on the farthest islet from shore and thus the most exposed reef to the incoming groundswell from the Pacific Ocean.
A coral reef wave in front of a treeless sandbar, this spot was easily twice the size of the waves closer to shore, as the bathymetry quickly drops off to depths of close to 8 000 meters in some places, the extreme ocean depths of the Philippine Trench.
After surfing nearly every day at a huge variety of spots in the two weeks we had allocated in September for filming in Eastern Samar, we were confident we had the material for an episode of surfEXPLORE for French television.
We were also confident we had made a positive contribution to the promise of a peaceful and stable Eastern Samar, in transition from the former “Wild East” with more investment, better governance and less violence.
Eastern Samar was evolving into a place where residents and future visitors inspired by our projects can go about their business in peace and security, as the province continues to develop and provide jobs and sustenance to residents.
Text: John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE
Images: John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE, Abdel Elecho/surfEXPLORE