The Daily Tribune - Monday, February 21, 2000

A paradise comes to its own

Roughly six hundred years ago, in the vastness of the flora that shaped the landscape created by the unseen hands of bathala, a new birth came, destined to strike an impact on the land that gave it life.

It first stretched out its young branches and lent its leaves to winged creatures that made it their home. The skies let it drink with many rains that fell and the ground fed it with all its other needs. In between, the sun poured its light like the wine across its steadily thickening foliage.

As it acquired age, so did its features change. And mothers began shooing their children away from its reach. After all, they believed it was enchanted; unfriendly spirits, which might cast wicked spells, inhabited it they said.

And they called it balete, a have to creatures that also lived in children's nightmares.

But indeed it was enchanted, chronicling the annals of time as circles form from its bark. Now, after centuries of being silent witness to history, the balete tree born six hundred years ago heralds a distinct recognition. It has recently been chosen as the country's "Millenium Tree." It is the biggest of its kind in all of Asia - it take 60 grown people, holding one another at arm's length, to hug its gigantic body.

It can be found in the province of Aurora and may also be the perfect allegory for this province that is coming to its own.

It might be seldom that we hear of beautiful tourist destinations such as the plot of soil, which nurtures this balete tree to this day. Neither does it land in the list of the places foreign sojourners usually visit. But the truth is, Aurora deserves a place for reverence for what it is all about.

As we usher in the new millennium, Aurora is set to establish a new byword for travel enthusiasts. It is coming out as a haven of natural beauty and comfort whose time has come to shine.

How Aurora came to be

The Millennium Tree was borne witness to the important events that have transpired in Aurora, which was first explored by Juan de Salcedo in 1572 while he was exploring the northern coast of Luzon. He had also visited Casiguran, Baler, and Infanta. Aurora had been ecclesiastically linked to Infanta, which rests further south in the province of Quezon, in the early days of the Spanish colonial period. Early missionaries there were the Franciscans, who had established early missions in Baler and Casiguran in 1609. But due to a lack of available personnel, the area was given to the jurisdiction of the Augustinian and Recollects in 1658. It was, however, returned to the Friars Minor in 1703.

Much earlier in time, Aurora was linked to Quezon Province and Nueva Ecija. In 1591, Quezon, then named Kalilaya, was organized into a district that included a good portion of what now constitutes the provinces of Laguna and Nueva Ecija. Its original capital was the town of Kalilaya. In 1701, Nueva Ecija was split from Kalilaya, and in about 1749, the provincial capital was transferred to Tayabas. The whole province was then called by the same name.

Sometime between 1855 and 1885, Aurora, then named Principe, was declared a comandancia politico-militar, with its capital at Baler. During the Philippine Revolution of 1898, a provincial revolutionary government was instituted briefly in Principe. During this period, Bondo, formerly under the municipal jurisdiction of Mulanay, was made a separate municipality. With the arrival of the Americans, a short-lived military government was established followed by a civil government for this "district" established on June 12, 1902. Simultaneous with the installation of the latter civil provincial government, the district of Principe was transferred from the administrative jurisdiction of Nueva Ecija and placed under the jurisdiction of Tayabas.

However, it was only after World War II that this part of Quezon Province languished in extreme isolation from neighboring provinces and cities. It was Mayor Pedro V. Guerrero, with the prodding of Dona Aurora Aragon Quezon, who sought the creation of a sub-province of Aurora out of the existing municipal districts and municipalities as a stop-gap measure to help re-establish the direction the province was taking. On August 13, 1979, after years of trying to gain its sense of independence, Batas Pambansa No. 7 by then President Ferdinand E. Marcos made Aurora an official province of Region IV-Southern Luzon.

Aurora: Discovering an Astonishing Paradise

When Francis Ford Coppola finally found a fitting location to film his critically-acclaimed opus, Apocalypse Now, the town of Baler in Aurora became the film's cinematic backdrop. The choice was quite reasonable, considering the strategic location of where Aurora lay. It is a magnificent valley hemmed in by the Pacific Ocean to the east. Aurora is also traversed and isolated by one of the longest mountain ranges in Luzon, the Sierra Madre Mountains. At its northernmost tip, Aurora finds Quezon meeting the Isabela boundary. Its boundaries end near Dingali Bay in the south. On its west, it faces the provinces of Nueva Viscaya, Nueva Ecija, and Quirino.

Backpackers who have been to Aurora can attest to the way the province embraces its own natural wonders, which stretch across 323,954 hectares. Those who travel across Southern Luzon by land know how it feels to tread through these kilometric trips while canopied by trees lining the roads leading to Aurora. As one passes the Sierra Madre Mountains, a breathtaking array of dipterocarp, dao, guijo, molave, tindalo or balayong, yakal, and the white and red narra lines the road. Hectares of coconut palm plantations also come into view along the main road to Baler, the lush green wonders seeming to hum as their leaves sway in a rhythmic manner. Vast rice fields also offer a vivid scenery now mostly found on the canvasses of Fernando Amorsolo. And if one were to chance upon the setting sun, the horizon seems to envelop the whole Aurora in a splendid combination of reddish yellow clouds-it creates an impression that you are closest to the divines when you live in the provinces.

Climbing the mountains amid the thick forests is an adventure quite telling of the images portrayed in jungle movies or war flicks. Aurora actually holds the distinction of having the largest forest cover in the Philippines.

Hikers require a lot of patience, well-conditioned feet and muscles, a penchant for adventure, and a readiness that of a Boy Scout's in order to penetrate its wild corners. Picture Tarzan movies, minus Jane, of course. And expect to see the following: wild flowers; towering trees from which monkeys hop from one to another; clear flowing springs with water so cool it is so hard to resist jumping into it; eerie sounds reverberating from a hidden orchestra; and an exotic gamut of plants and animals, extinct or not, that helps in maintaining the ecological balance of the entire forest. Aurora has a total 50,466 hectares of watershed forest reserves, accounting for 50 per cent of the regional watershed forest reserves.

Surfing? Not in USA, but in Baler where the shores are extensive and indented by several mountain headlands, cliffs, bays, and coves. Baler, in fact, has the biggest community of Filipino surfers in the country-some 50 of them. Sabang Beach, for instance, gives unending waves laced with dark but very, very fine sands. At other times of the year, its sandy bottom gently shelves and the rip tides mellow out, making it very friendly for beginning surfers.

It is, however, in the reef breaks of Cemento Rock where advanced surfers test their might against twists of tides. The beaches are marvelously fantastic and an ideal arena for surfing competitions. The annual Aurora Surfing Cup, now on its third year and steadily being developed to be the major surfing Olympiad of the Philippines just held its finals yesterday.

Those who love to frolic in the waters of Aurora should heed this warning: it is habit-forming. Once one takes a dive, the cool and clear water refreshes the body and washes away the dizziness brought by an exhaustive trek.

Aurora rivers and tributaries are abundant with fish and freshwater shrimps. Mangrove rehabilitation projects, such as those promoted by the Dutch Government, aim to replenish the mangrove forests of Baler. Along the riverbanks, deep-rooted nipa palms are propagated for their leaves as a source of excellent roofing. The Bulawen Falls in Dinalungan and the Dimasalang Falls in Maria Aurora will lull anyone as their waters cascade.

There are also places that provide promising landmarks ideal for sightseeing or picnics. There is the Aurora Memorial National Park that houses the Dona Aurora Shrine, which was put up in honor of the great lady. And interestingly, anytime there, one will be surprised to find a hornbill flying or perching in the surrounding trees.

There is also the historical church in Baler, with its plaza reminiscent of an old Mexican hamlet. Certainly, there are no dull itineraries once one gets to Aurora. What is more special to the place is the people whose smiling faces and warm hospitality always makes a stranger feel at home. Just be ready to resist that bottle of tuba they offer, if one has a strict dislike for alcohol. Nonetheless, tasting it is a true blue experience.

The lady behind Aurora's majesty.

Behind the beauty of Aurora is a lady whose guiding hands leave no corners unturned. Her maternal compassion extends to the boundaries of her heart, thus she treats not just her children her own, but more so the people of the province. With its 139,072 population in her coddling arms, they are assured of this lady's unrelenting support and undying love. Time will tell that then and now, she is a presence that really makes a difference.

She goes by the name of Bellaflor J. Angara-Castillo. The honorable representative of the Lone District of Aurora.

Bella is the Senior Deputy Majority Leader of the House of Representatives. Her political acumen has enabled her to enact the most number of national bills into laws and resolutions among neophyte lawmakers and Sectoral Representatives during the 10th Congress to the great benefit of the people, especially her dear constituents in Aurora. Among her significant acts include the National Cave Resources Protections Act, and the National Tourism Policy. However, her authentic concern for the improvement of Filipino lives is very apparent through her bills on the magna carta for women, early childhood development, and the controversial lesbian and gay rights.

With these, she acquired awe-inspiring praises and recognition from her peers and colleagues.

The 139,072 folks of Aurora did not actually place a politician in office. The congresswoman is more than that. From day one in office, there has only been one thing in her mind that has mattered most: bringing Aurora to the proverbial map and uplifting the lives of its people. "I've always wanted to give my kababayans the good life we all wanted to have. Undoubtedly, majority of them is poor; but with their strong-willed determination to move on and better their selves, that's what makes it easier for me to do my job. They've been there from the start, and I will make true of my promises."

Indeed, her promises have not been broken. She has improved and renovated farm-to-market roads in her hometowns; provided medical facilities to safeguard health and sanitation; installed telecommunications facilities where they are greatly needed; introduced cooperatives among farmers and ordinary laborers; bridged the gap of travel through bridges and local streets; and most especially, provided good education and proper school facilities to the children.

"As a young child growing up in well-known family (her father was the late Dr. Juan C. Angara and a brother is Sec. Edgardo J. Angara), my parents instilled in me the importance of education. So when the time comes that we have our separate lives, we will have all the chance to make good living, and somehow, influence other lives as well", she stressed.

Her own family can attest to that. Together with her late husband, Atty. Gregorio R. Castillo, they have provided their children with the best of education and now, all of them are achievers in their own fields. Her eldest son, Joseph is currently a partner in Castillo, Laman, Tan, Pantaleon & San Jose Law Offices. Joy Arabelle, her eldest daughter, is a successful endocrinologist and is now a fellow in Northwestern University Hospital. Jerome Patrick, the third child, is an associate lawyer now taking his Master of Laws degree in Harvard Law School.

Aurora and Hon. Bellaflor J. Angara-Castillo are two good reasons to celebrate the coming of the new millennium. The former is an astonishing paradise to behold that has captured peoples of all generations. It is coming out with a renewed aura of natural bravura generation X'ers would surely love visiting.

The latter is a source of inspiration whose hard work and genuine public service is worth emulating. She is the epitome of somebody who is never afraid of conquering dreams and turning them into reality.

Together, they go hand in hand. Inseparable, really.

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