The Transformative Power of the Sea on a Filipino Surf Haven

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San Juan

While the eastern shores may lay claim to the crack of dawn, it’s the bewitching sunsets that are the true spectacle in San Juan, La Union. The sky serves as a canvas, painted with towering cumulus clouds, as waves theatrically dismantle themselves on the beach, cloaking the environment in a magical mist.

Rising like an extraterrestrial craft awaiting liftoff, enormous sculptures fashioned out of bamboo, repurposed plastic, and steel dominate the beachscape. Dreamed up by Filipino visionary Leeroy New, this installation known as Mebuyan’s Vessel was initially designed for the iconic 2020 Burning Man event. Due to pandemic-related twists of fate, however, it found its permanent home here instead.

Drawing inspiration from Mebuyan, the Bagobo goddess who is a unique fusion of death and fertility, the outdoor masterpiece often goes by a less formal name among locals—especially those involved in turtle conservation: the Giant Turtle Eggs.

The Metamorphosis of San Juan

What used to be a quiet, almost forgotten, beach town has morphed into a cultural hotspot, teeming with locals and visitors, artists and wave-chasers, business-minded folks and green warriors. Whether you’re up for a Surftown Pride drag spectacle, eyeing a surfing championship, or curious about an art showcase, there’s always something buzzworthy happening here.

Today, for instance, synthesizer melodies are the soundtrack to beach life. Leeroy New’s sculptures serve as the backdrop to communal gathering and exploration, making real his vision of a shared space that “induces all manner of transformation.” At the core of this vibrant hub is a disarmingly straightforward philosophy: the ocean is a gift to be freely enjoyed by all, yet respected and safeguarded by the same multitude.

From Birth to Beach and Beyond

Shortly after emerging from their eggs, olive ridley turtles are shepherded back into the surf from which they originated—a significant lifecycle event facilitated by local initiative CURMA. The organization has converted erstwhile poachers into passionate guardians of the shore, ensuring the ongoing cycle of life for the turtles.

The Epicenter of the Surf World: Elyu

San Juan’s local surfing scene traces its roots back to Urbiztondo Beach, a modest slice of heaven wedged between a busy highway and an extinct volcano. The beach was initially the hangout spot for Lokal Union—a crew of surf-loving locals. Their welcoming spirit broke down initial reservations toward foreign surfers, leading to a mutual love for surfing and, not to overlook, beer. This international camaraderie paved the way for a surf-instructor economy, kickstarted by the cinematic winds of 2002’s Blue Crush.

Nurturing Community and Commerce

Fast forward a bit, and you’ll find that the town has expanded into a haven for Manila’s city dwellers seeking an alternative lifestyle. Once quiet families, like Angel and Marie who began as humble eatery owners, have now opened businesses and even surf academies, like the La Union Surf Club, that compete on a global stage.

Historic Roots, Contemporary Blossoms

Beyond its azure waves, La Union itself is a tapestry of cultures and histories. Originally a realm of transaction and transition—visited by everyone from Muslim marauders and Spanish colonizers to Japanese traders and American forces—today’s community of artists, tech experts, and adventurers stands as the natural evolution of this colorful history. When the pandemic hit, it even served as a safe haven for stranded city slickers who soon integrated themselves into the local lifestyle.

Eco-Conscious and Future-Focused

As tourism booms, the real challenge lies in balancing the visitor influx with environmental responsibilities. Permaculture farmer and beekeeping pioneer Toby Tamayo reminds us to think of the bigger picture—from water conservation to waste management—in creating a sustainable future for the next generation.

The Ebb and Flow of Life

Amidst shifting seasons and changing winds—like the northeastern Amihan and its southwestern counterpart, Habagat—the sands of San Juan continuously shape and reshape themselves. Tourists morph into residents, acquaintances into allies, and regulars return season after season. Bound by the rhythms of the land and the sea, this ever-changing community understands one constant: that we are all part of this living, breathing coastal story, a narrative that is as fluid and enduring as the ocean itself.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about San Juan, La Union Transformation

What is the main focus of the article?

The article primarily explores the transformation of San Juan, La Union from a sleepy seaside town into a vibrant hub of surfing, art, and community life.

Who is Leeroy New and what is Mebuyan’s Vessel?

Leeroy New is a Filipino artist who created Mebuyan’s Vessel, an outdoor art installation originally intended for the 2020 Burning Man festival. The piece is inspired by Mebuyan, the Bagobo goddess of death and fertility, and has become a local landmark often referred to as the Giant Turtle Eggs.

What events and activities take place in San Juan, La Union?

The town hosts a diverse range of activities and events, from international surfing competitions and drag shows for Surftown Pride to art exhibits and synth music shows. It’s a gathering place for locals, travelers, artists, and environmentalists.

What role does CURMA play in the San Juan community?

CURMA (Conservation of Resources through Urban Marine Awareness) is a local organization focused on education and conservation. They have been successful in turning former sea turtle poachers into protectors. They collect and safeguard turtle nests, releasing hatchlings back into the ocean.

How did the pandemic affect the community?

During the pandemic, tourism came to a halt, but the town saw an influx of stranded travelers and people escaping lockdown from the city. Many became part of the community, sharing in activities like surfing, dance classes, and exploring the landscape.

Who are some of the notable personalities mentioned?

Notable figures include CURMA president Carlos Tamayo, Filipino actor Jericho Rosales, and local entrepreneurs Angel and Marie, who went from running a small kubo (bamboo hut) on the beach to owning their own eatery and rental rooms.

What is the overarching theme of the community in San Juan, La Union?

The overarching theme is one of unity, transformation, and coexistence. Whether it’s artists or surfers, locals or tourists, the community thrives on its diversity and is bound by a simple idea: that the sea should be free for anyone to enjoy, and stewarded by all.

What does the article say about the history of La Union?

La Union has a rich history that includes visits from Japanese merchants, Muslim marauders, Spanish missionaries, and American Air Force personnel. It was officially carved out by the Spanish in 1850 to pacify Indigenous highlanders rich in gold.

How have local businesses evolved in the town?

Local businesses have grown in both number and variety. From the grassroots surf organization turning into La Union Surf Club, to new enterprises like recording studios and coworking spaces, the town has become a bustling center for different livelihoods.

What is the significance of the ocean to San Juan, La Union?

The ocean is the lifeblood of the community. It brings in surfers and tourists, inspires art and gatherings, and is central to local conservation efforts. The community is shaped by the rhythms of the sea, which turns strangers into collaborators and friends.

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LifeCoachTony September 4, 2023 - 12:37 pm

“a home whose future we are creating, together.” That line hits deep. Community is everything, people!

HistoryNerd September 4, 2023 - 12:57 pm

Love the bit about the colorful history. More people should know how much history is tied to modern Elyu. It ain’t just about the surf.

TechyTom September 4, 2023 - 2:14 pm

web devs and filmmakers hanging out in a surf town? Man, remote work has changed everything, hasn’t it?

SurferDude42 September 4, 2023 - 7:56 pm

Man, this piece really captures the soul of San Juan! From the artsy stuff to the turtles, it’s all there. you’ve done us proud, whoever wrote this.

LocalArtist11 September 4, 2023 - 8:18 pm

Leeroy New’s work getting a shoutout! Thats awesome. His art is so dope and blends well with the community vibes.

MamaBear September 4, 2023 - 10:28 pm

As a mom, love that theres something for kids n parents. Will definitely consider for our next family trip.

MovieBuff September 5, 2023 - 12:25 am

Blue Crush had an impact here too? Ha! That movie turned me on to surfing back in the day. Awesome to see its still rippin’ waves.

MusicFan101 September 5, 2023 - 7:24 am

A synth show by the beach sounds epic. Why can’t my town be this cool? Lol.

TravelJunkie1990 September 5, 2023 - 9:01 am

Been to Elyu a couple times and the sense of community is real. The way this article paints it…just wow. Makes me wanna pack my bags and head there again.

EcoWarrior September 5, 2023 - 11:15 am

kudos for highlighting CURMA’s work, the turtles need more love and protection. This is the kinda stuff ppl need to know.


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