The Reluctant Stylista

One of those important blog posts I never got to write was how, for my 30th birthday last June, I made the last minute decision to board a bus going to San Juan, La Union.  I was exhausted, overworked, and I really wanted to do something special on my 30th–I was ready to do the whole Eat, Pray, Love shindig.  Scoff if you want, but it turned out to be the best birthday I’ve had in recent memory.  I hopped on a surf board for the second time in my life, enjoyed the beach, and booked at The Circle Hostel where I met new people and made friends (which, if you know me outside of work, I hardly ever do).  All in all, it was an incredible experience, and I swore to myself I’d be back soon.

The first friends I made during my solo trip last year

The common area

My second time to surf since that time I spent my 25th birthday at Crystal Beach, Zambales (five year gap!)

This was waiting for me back in Manila, as a surprise gift from my friend Aliza.

Then life happened.  I’d forgotten about La Union until I saw Kira post about her recent adventures–which to be honest, was quite shocking.  I love my friend, but as I often describe her as prissy, she didn’t exactly strike me as the adventurous, outdoorsy type.  Yet here she was, posting photos of herself surfing and hanging out at *gasp* The Circle Hostel.  I always wanted to go back with friends but it was just exhausting trying to convince people to go that I just gave up on it.  Then the last person I expected to be all gung-ho about the outdoors was suddenly raring to go.  She didn’t need to talk me into it and for once, it took less than 20 minutes to agree on a date (if you’re the designated planner of barkada outings, you know what I mean).  Plus, our friends Krissy and Anne came along, and we all agreed to stay at The Circle Hostel as well.  I had such fond memories of the place, and it didn’t disappoint this time around, too.

The lockers

You can leave your mark at the hostel, they have paint and brushes for your use

If you’ve never been to The Circle Hostel in La Union, here’s what to expect: a charming, artsy and affordable beach lodging consisting of tree houses, huts, bunk beds and hammocks for sleeping space.  There is a common area where people gather or lounge around, and this is where new friendships start (usually powered by alcohol or sugar intake, if you’re not a natural extrovert).  You’ll be walking barefoot for the most part, which isn’t a big deal considering you’re in a surfing town, really.  While you’re not guaranteed any privacy (except if you hide behind your curtains and mosquito net around your bunk bed) the whole place is well-kept and regularly cleaned.  In fact, I find that the caretakers are quite OC about the bathrooms and toilets, they’re cleaned so often.  It didn’t fit with my idea of hostels, really–I often thought roughing it was never that comfortable.  The Circle has got all the basic necessities down pat: Wi-Fi, clean bathrooms and an occasional hot shower, a common area, sleeping space and lockers (you have to bring your own padlock but from experience, your belongings are safe even if you don’t use one).  And aside from the gecko lizard who was trolling me during my first visit there, it was pretty much a happy place that’s always filled with good vibes.

Kira and I didn’t want to share the waves with so many people so we avoided the weekend.  Along with Anne and Krissy, we traveled Saturday night via a 9pm Partas bus from Cubao and arrived Sunday 2am at Urbiztondo, San Juan.  More than half of the guests who were from Manila were leaving that day, presumably to go back to work, so we were pretty much left with foreign travelers.  Big groups tend to make me panic, so this was a relief for me.  Don’t get me wrong, I can be very friendly and sociable when I put my mind to it (it’s a requirement in my line of work after all), and in fact the first time I was in Circle I made friends with a barkada of Ateneo kids.  But it does take a lot of effort on my part, so I find it easier to deal with individual strangers.

As I mentioned, there was quite a number of foreign guests who were at the Circle, too, as expected of summer (and a good wave forecast).  It’s always an awesome experience, being able to chat with people who come from different backgrounds and countries like France, Sweden, New Zealand and Canada.  Looking back, I picked up on a few things.

We’re the weird-haired girls in front (undercut, blonde Asian, strawberry red and Lisa Frank hues)

Hostels are one of the best ways for exchanging multi-cultural stories.
We had the home court advantage, so we were often asked for traveling tips and suggestions.  While we aren’t La Union locals (and really, jaded people from Manila are just generally different from people you meet elsewhere in the country), we were happy to oblige and we shared traveling experiences and got some tips ourselves (should we ever backpack to Europe and other parts of Asia we haven’t been to yet).  But the best stories were the personal ones, of dealing with a different place and culture, trying to be careful not to step on toes in case you come off as insensitive, arrogant or ignorant and laughing at our own misadventures.  You learn a lot.

Adrien, the French traveler and musician who was also our daily ration of pan de sal, hihi

Be prepared for “Your English is so good” comments.
For myself, it’s never been that exact phrasing, but foreigners are often surprised by my accent.  To them, it sounds more American than their idea of Filipino (while my idea of American is far from how I think I sound).  At The Circle, someone commented that it was such a relief that English was so widely spoken in this country, as he had just come from other Southeast Asian countries and it wasn’t the same case.  We explained that we learned our native language along with English from birth, and the mode of instruction in schools (except maybe some public schools) were often in English.  I told them that most Filipinos, even those who had little to no education, can understand basic English, and if they look like they don’t, it’s because they freeze up at the idea of having to communicate purely in English (they just don’t want to deal with it haha).  Another guest at The Circle asked us (while Kira and I were conversing in our usual Tagalog-English) how we knew when to switch and the answer is that we don’t.  English is natural for us and for me, it’s easier for casual conversation.  When I hear pure Filipino being spoken it sounds very formidable and formal to me, and in fact when I have to read Filipino publications or government papers, it takes me a while whereas I read a lot faster in English.

Then someone asked if we knew Spanish.  You think we would, being that we were colonized by Spain for over 300 years, but people from our generation usually don’t.  Spanish as a subject was pulled out from schools around the time our parents were in high school.  The average Spanish spoken now is the bastardized version and half the time we’re not even aware they were originally Spanish words and phrases.  I remember talking to a tourist who read about the Philippines being a Spanish colony for centuries and he started brushing up on his forgotten Spanish skills before his trip to the PH–only to find out that most of the people he encountered when he got here were speaking to him in English instead, haha!

We played Tong-Its during our downtime, and it was Kira’s first time to learn this kanto game, too! The lipstick marks are battle scars. LOL.

Be patient.  Keep an open mind.  And be a good ambassador of your country.
At one point, while making small talk with a newcomer, we asked him where he was from.  ”Europe,” he answered.  And of course Europe is a big ass continent so Anne asked him, “Where in Europe?”  After a slight pause, he replied, “Poland. Do you know where that is?”

Surprisingly at this point, I wasn’t offended yet.  He was new to the country, and for all he knows, we keep to our archipelago.  So we just said yes, of course we know about Poland.  Then he said, “Oh, that’s so smart!”

Kira and Anne swore that my face darkened right after that (and not because I was tan from surfing) and my annoyance was very obvious (I wasn’t trying to hide it at all).  Kira was nicer by telling him, “Globalization, my friend” while I almost snapped at him, “No, that’s just basic knowledge.”  I would’ve said something sarcastic but I thought he might miss it anyway and just cement his idea of ignorant islanders further.

Upon deeper reflection and almost a whole day of keeping away from him, I thought, I really shouldn’t be too sensitive.  He’s traveling, he’s here to learn and experience different cultures.  I can help him with that.  Whenever I read some scandalous or terrifying piece of World News, I often wonder if these are isolated cases or if they’re truly the norm in that country.  Because I feel that’s how Filipinos and the Philippines are widely represented in media.  People think we’re a country full of terrorists living in either slums or the most beautiful beaches in the world.  They go here enticed by the breathtaking photos of our islands and mountains and risk it anyway and find that it’s so different from what they were expecting.

Anne and I found ourselves talking a lot about Manila and Philippines in general with our French and Kiwi friends.  And I realized, looking back on it now, we could’ve done a better a job.  While we weren’t complaining about the PH (which a lot of Pinoys are wont to do as their idea of “bonding”), we didn’t sugarcoat it, either, and our discussion was very matter-of-factly.  What to look out for, where they should be careful, etcetera.  But I forgot to tell them that the islands are all different from each other, too.  Coming from Metro Manila, we’re admittedly a jaded, wary and suspicious lot, but I remember the times I went to the provinces and I was taken aback at how nice people were.  Except maybe for touristy areas, Filipinos are generally kind, warm-hearted and very, very welcoming.  And I find it hard to imagine there can be anything more beautiful than our virgin islands, and I wish I had expressed that as well.

Oh, and we obviously need to brush up on geography.  After giving our new friends names of places they should stop by, of course we had to help them plot it out.  Except Anne and I weren’t at all well-versed as to where each town was located, haha!  I recall this conversation:

“You don’t know your own country?” we were jokingly asked, when we said we’d have to consult the map.

“Give us a break, we have too many islands to keep track of!”

“How many islands are we talking about?”

“We have 7,107.”

“Okay, you’re forgiven.”

We know the main islands Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, but the smaller ones that make up each?  Oh boy.


* * *

My first LU surf instructor Larry (who’s also a Circle hostel employee) introduced me to his wife Maribel, who has been teaching me ever since.

Of course a trip to La Union wouldn’t be complete without surfing.  That’s the main reason why Kira was like an excited chihuahua about going there (and also paddling like a chihuahua after being taught to steer her board hihi), and if she could probably surf the whole day, she would have.  While I love surfing, I also wanted to be more laidback during the trip and to savor three days of uninterrupted bliss.  Plus, we came straight from a 5k fun run the day we left for La Union!  We did surf for two days, and on our last session the waves were brutal (I had to take an Advil after).  You could tell because a lot of the more advanced surfers were all out there instead of noobs like us still trying to learn.  But we still had fun nonetheless.

I briefly contemplated learning more about surfing at a surf camp near Ortigas last year and who knows?  Maybe then I can tick off  ”learn something new” in my 2015 to-do list after all.

My awkward stance while surfing with Kira

Our “couple” photo with the hashtag KirAlex2015

Check out Kira’s blog post for her version of our #KirAlex2015 haha!  I keep telling her, I’m so proud of her!  She’s learning to surf, she’s not maarte about hostels now (though to be honest, as Circle is our first hostel experience, not sure if this is better than average or standard fare) and she’s more open to trying new things.

Left Shark is looking for Kira Ramirez

You can also ask her why Left Shark is looking for her.



Our La Union trip in numbers/FAQs:

Partas bus fare from Cubao to San Juan: P440
Travel time: 9pm to 2am
The Circle Hostel accomodations during peak season: P550/night for a bunk bed
Favourite places to eat: Arby’s (bagnet, P200 for a big slab, good for four), Angel and Marie’s place (omelettes and other comfort food, P150-250) and El Union (coffee, P120-150), Nora’s Eatery (for cheap carinderia food about P50-70 per meal)
1 hour surfing/board rental: P200
1 hour with instructor: P200
Half day board rental: P400
Whole day board rental: P800

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