Road Trip (INQ7, May 2004)

Find it in Baler
By Vicky Mendoza

This sleepy seaside town lies on the eastern coast of Aurora, a province that straddles the Sierra Madre mountain range toward the north and touches Quezon province on its southern tip.

It remains sleepy because of the difficulty of getting there. The route from Manila runs smoothly through the provinces of Bulacan and Nueva Ecija until it reaches the foot of the Sierra Madre. From there, it crawls through more than 40 kilometers of rough road. (A trip by car takes about six hours; a bus ride can take up to eight hours because of the stops.) The purists among nature lovers prefer it this way, to keep the crowds at bay.

The difficulty in traversing the dirt road plays a big part in keeping Baler pristine, a thriving ecosystem where plant and animal life survives and thrives.

On the way passing through Nueva Ecija, I can see the trees dotting the hills in the countryside, a sprinkling of mangoes, acacias, narras, and other breeds.

But once the border of Aurora is breached, at the start of the dirt road up the Sierra Madre, the flora becomes thick foliage of deep green. The trees are much taller, of a wider variety, appropriately spaced, yet in a wild arrangement. The temperature drops a couple of degrees, and the air becomes a fragrant breeze.

This is one of the last remaining (primary growth) rainforests in the country, and only one of three places where Philippine eagles can be found (the other two are Leyte, and certain portions of Mindanao).

An environmentalist once told me that a rainforest is called such because, literally, it rains inside one, thanks to the thick moisture within and the abundant supply of freshwater. With many trees, much of the rainwater is stored underground, assuring the inhabitants of a constant supply.

In contrast to Manila, Baler has not known want of water. Simply drive a pipe into the ground, and you will get an endless flow.

Entering the Baler town proper is like going into a time warp. There are no tall buildings, no malls, no fast-food joints. There is one outdated gas station, and an old Landbank branch without an ATM machine.

There is a small makeshift market by the roadside that comes to life in the afternoons, selling fresh seafood and vegetables. Shrimps, mussels, crabs and all types of fish sell for a bargain. Unique to the place is a fern called pako. Mix it with gata (coconut extract) and a bit of fish, and you are likely to forget your name at first taste. Another local delicacy is the suman (sticky rice). It comes in red and white varieties, and is so famous they even have a suman festival in the summer.

I reach the shore, and the break from reality becomes complete: It is not only a different time but a different world entirely. The shore stretches far and wide on both sides. To the right, it curves gracefully into hilly terrain, lush with its original foliage. To the left, it seems to go on forever, until low-lying clouds hide it from view.

On Sabang beach, the surf is friendly and manageable, about three feet high on most days. One can ride the waves while swimming, or do some beginner's surfing.

Back on the road, we drive for five minutes northward to Barangay Reserva. Here lies a strip of beach (now owned by Jukka Holopainen, the former executive director of the environmental nongovernment organization that I work for) embraced by the Aguang River to the right, and facing the famed Charlie's Point.

It is where the surfing scenes of the cult classic "Apocalypse Now" were filmed. Charlie's Point is a break in the surf where waves can reach up to eight feet high, owing to the converging currents of the river and the sea.

In the Marlon Brando movie, the American GI's code-name for the Vietcong is "Charlie." And since "Charlie don't surf" (and, therefore, have no need for this beautiful beach strip), they bomb the whole village with napalm. (Remember the line, "I just love the smell of napalm in the morning"?)

Late in the afternoon, I take out the kayak and ride up the river, which leads to a fork. Taking the left path, I spot a graceful purple heron and a white long-limbed egret from afar. The birds fly away as I draw near, proof that the place remains mainly uninhabited for them to visit it.

As twilight falls, the left bank, which eventually leads to the sea, begins to fill with fireflies, illuminating the trees with a brilliant veil.

Back at Jukka's place, nighttime is pure delight for the nature lover. There is no electricity in the entire Barangay Reserva, and candlelight is all that separates us from total darkness. But, of course, there is also moonlight.

Strolling toward the shore, we listen to the sound of the waves and view the horizon washed in dreamy moonlight. It is a spiritual experience that is hard to describe: a feeling of leaving everything earthly behind.

At daybreak we are back on the road toward the Ditumabo Falls. The 45-minute trek to one of the falls is an experience in itself.

We cross narrow makeshift bridges, climb up steep stairs carved out of tree trunks, and take dips in the occasional crystal-clear pools along the way. It is as if the path were an ongoing preview of the main feature, called "Mother Falls," raising the anticipation minute by minute.

We hear the sound of gushing water from about 100 meters away, and my breath becomes a mixture of labor and mounting excitement.

When the sound becomes a roar, my heart begins to beat faster, until, after a turn, I am faced with the awesome sight-a monstrous rush of water down a 50-foot wall, a force that renders swimming around the drop point impossible (the strong current will simply push one away).

We content ourselves with a dip a few meters off, while clinging to a log that has been permanently lodged in one place.

A swim, a ride on the surf, a trek to the falls, a river cruise.

The next day, we head home. That is all this trip of three days can permit. There are a hundred other things to see (for example, 11 other waterfalls, including the "Father Falls," and uninhabited white-sand beaches up the Aurora coast) and do (say, visiting the 400-year-old balete tree, or maybe even eagle watching). But that is all I need to find what I came here looking for.

Peace. Happiness. Myself.

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