Baler: Chasing Buses, Waves and Waterfalls

Sunday, September 08, 2013Ryan Mach

"ARE WE THERE YET? AREN'T WE GETTING OFF?" P asked impatiently as the bus gently swerved to the left and made a graceful halt in the middle of a small terminal in Maria Aurora, a town in Aurora province, a few miles north of Manila. A couple of passengers hurriedly got off the bus, carrying their stuff - big boxes and sacks of goods, probably pasalubong for their loved ones who were happily expecting for their arrival.

It's almost five in the afternoon. We had been traveling for ten hours. The aggressive twists and bends on the road from Nueva Vizcaya to Aurora had taken its toll on us. We were already feeling queasy, not to mention tired and hungry.
Almost there...

"Nope, one more town to go before the final homestretch," I told P as if I knew this part of Aurora like the back of my hand. I too was dying to get off the bus. Truth was, I was merely guessing. An educated guess which turned out to be correct because the next town was indeed Baler.

Vans abound right in front of the terminal, but none of them seemed to be interested to go to Baler

In the town of Cabanatuan, four hours earlier, we spotted a road sign which bore Baler's distance from Nueva Ecija's most urbanized city - 143KM. I did a mental calculation of how long the trip would take while munching on my chicken joy at Jollibee. We were waiting for the bus to pass by. J reckoned it would be about four hours. It's like traveling from Dumaguete to Bacolod, he said. He was right.
A small store beside the road (somewhere in Nueva Vizcaya), selling fruits and tupig

We thought going to Baler would be a breeze (I even drafted a very detailed itinerary) but it proved to be a challenge. There's a bus that plies directly to the town of Baler but we weren't able to catch the last trip. We ended up taking an alternative route: Manila > Cabanatuan > Baler. There's an option to take a van in Cabanatuan but the scarcity of passengers prevented the drivers from hitting the road with just the three of us on board. And who could blame them?

Mountainous terrain of Aurora

"Were you able to sleep?" I asked J who was occupying a seat behind me. He shook his head. "Same here," I told him consolingly. J and P had been awake for more than 24 hours. The trip had been a game of catching buses. On a journey in which perspective could have turned things around, exhaustion got the better of us.

It was already sundown when we reached the sleepy and quiet town of Baler. Finally, there was Sabang Beach - all calm and placid.
No waves, now what?
"Where are the waves?" Hearts sinking, we asked the driver, who simply grinned awkwardly and shrugged. There was nothing we could do about it, so we surveyed the long shore to look for a place to spend the night at. After some minutes of hopping from one resort to another, we found a handsome hotel called Aliya.
Our hotel, Aliya, as seen from the beach.

"YOU'VE SEEN THE CHITO-NERI SCANDAL?" P asked J while she was fiddling with her phone and puffing a stick of cigar leisurely - blowing it off in the cool evening breeze. It was a quarter past nine - we were hanging out at a wooden bench in front of Aliya, talking about random stuff, but mostly about local showbiz. The resort's restaurant was almost empty. It's a quiet night.  We just had dinner at Hungry Surfer, a nice watering hole located some hundred meters from Aliya. It had a palpable 'surf' vibe and some fantastic-tasting blue Marlin that made us completely satiated.
The restaurant teems with surfing-inspired themes, such as this surfboard

J merely grunted and took another swig of Red Horse. "It's hot, I'm taking my shirt off," said he. P let out a shriek of disgust after seeing J's bulging stomach. "It's just water," J argued, squeezing his love handles rather gently. I chortled at their banter.

P, J and I work in the same company. We're from the same department and we belong in the same team. We don't eat together when we're in the office and we barely go out. But we joke with each other a lot. One time we decided to do a weekend getaway.
This is how one should spend his weekend

It was during our usual quick break at work when the idea of spending a weekend in Baler came up. The three of us, hungry for adventure and eager to escape the daily grind, easily got on board then invited a few colleagues who might be interested to come with us. "No matter what happens, we will push through with the trip," we promised to one another. As expected, a few people backed out from the trip, but we three went on.
Three's a company

"I'm okay taking this seat. You two can share that one. I won't mind," I told them as we were choosing seats inside a Cabanatuan-bound bus in Cubao ten hours earlier. We were supposed to catch the last direct trip to Baler but it left the terminal a few minutes before our arrival. The bus drivers of Genesis helped us get to our destination by providing an alternative route.
ES Transport is always on the rescue for passengers left by the last Baler-bound trip

J considered for a moment then spotting a vacant seat across P, told us he's fine being alone too. We ended up occupying three different seats altogether. It was an odd set-up but it worked pretty well, to be honest. They planned to sleep the entire trip off anyway, and I finish a novel, so it didn't really matter.
Reading Murakami on the bus

Reading a novel when the bus stereo played Sunday music was a little disconcerting. I lost concentration so I decided to stuff the book inside my bag and took out my camera instead. After a short stop-over at a town in Nueva Ecija, the bus traversed a long and winding road with a scenery that gradually changed: swamps, vast fields, looming mountains and deep ravines. I began fidgeting in my seat - high roads easily scare me.

"I'M TAKING THIS BED," P DECLARED after seeing our room, throwing her bag on her chosen bed to make her point. The receptionist downstairs told us they've run out of triple-sharing room so she gave us a quadruple room instead at a discounted rate. J decided to get the lower bunk - it's a lot bigger than the top bunk, which I ended up occupying. Before I could even argue, P rushed to the bathroom to have her much-needed shower. J went out to look for a pair of flip flops. He realized that his basketball shoes from Zalora that he got recently weren't ideal for the beach.

I can't remember what time the lights were switched off. I instantly conked out right after a cold shower. But I recall waking from time to time.
Complimentary breakfast

"I honestly think that something would grab my legs," I told the two in the morning while we were having our complimentary breakfast (daing for me, tapa for them). They both laughed. It's a ridiculous thought, but I'd always be a superstitious guy who'd find silly meaning on weird things, like our room number: 13.

Nothing grabbed my legs though. They were fine. I was able to surf with ease, which greatly surprised me because the last time I tried this water sport, I had a hard time standing on the surfboard.
I and P riding the waves

Right after finishing breakfast, we sauntered to the beach, which was just a stone-throw from Aliya. There were no other surfers apart from us so we practically had the beach to ourselves. The surf instructors did their short, requisite demo and soon, we were on the shore riding the waves.
Our surfing instructor showing us some surfing basics

"Are the waves always like this during this time of the year?" I asked my surf instructor while resting on the surfboard face down, waiting for a good wave. He nodded and explained that the waves were just fine for beginner surfers like us. From September to February however, they can be as high as nine feet.

"Okay, sir, get ready now," he announced, after spotting a huge bump going our way. I got into position: two hands firmly planted on both sides of the board, right leg bent upward. He then gave my board a slight push, and for the nth time, I was on my own again, gliding along the wave.
Life is like the surf, so you give yourself away like the sea

Time moves too quickly when you're having fun. Before we knew it, our surfing jaunt was up. We left the shore, happy and eager for another surf.

"HOW FAR ARE WE FROM THE FALLS?" I asked our guide who was the same guy teaching us to surf an hour ago. Apart from doing surf lessons at Aliya, he also does tours around Baler using his sturdy tricycle. Since we were not doing anything and we had a few hours to spare before heading back to Manila, we decided to take his offer to visit the falls. It's just 45 minutes from here anyway, he promised. We trod over river rocks and traversed along a narrow rutted road until we reached the drop-off point. From there, we did a 20-minute trek to the falls.  
Crossing this bamboo bridge was no free

"Not too far," he replied, motioning us to hurry. We would stop from time to time to take photos, and he would look at us with an apparent annoyance on his face. Before us loomed the intimidating mountain range of Sierra Madre. We could hear the chirping of birds amongst the trees and the sound of the flowing river just beside the pathway. In my head I was singing Maroon 5's 'Sunday Morning.'
Ditumabo Falls, also known as the Mother Falls, can be found in San Luis, a neighboring town in Baler. I haven't been to many a falls so it's such a delight to see it cascade forcefully down the basin, which served as the swimming area. Five minutes after taking a plunge in its cool pool, I swam back shivering. I found the water was extremely cold.
"You guys want to do a side-trip at Balete Park?" our guide offered. We were winding our way back through the same path, trudging over rivulets. The trek back was surprisingly short. "It's just a town away," he added, after seeing the look of worry on our faces. We were planning to catch the trip to Manila at 2pm.
Dwarfed by the giant Banyan tree

The trip to the town of Quirino took a little over 20 minutes. By the time the trike screeched to a halt in front of the huge, century old Banyan tree, our clothes had already dried up. We gawked at the massive tree whose roots have sprung up to its trunk over time, leaving its roots a labyrinth of interconnecting passages. The superstitious in me had to utter a silent prayer to the deities that might still be residing in the tree.
J decided to climb up the roots and emerged through an opening several feet high a few minutes later. Two local boys appeared out of nowhere and joined him, showing off their Spider-Man stunts by effortlessly traipsing down the roots.

"We really should get going," I told P and J, who were sipping buko juice sold at a table near the tree. We couldn't afford to miss the bus again. I was a buzz-kill and I hated myself for it but my insistence had saved us a huge deal of trouble. We secured the last three seats of the last bus trip to Manila. Our arrival couldn't have been more perfect - barely a minute after paying our tickets, a couple who was also bound for Manila inquired about the availability of tickets.

They didn't look so sad after being told that the tickets were sold-out. They boarded the same tricycle that brought them to the terminal and went back - to Sabang, I presumed, where the sun, waves and sand were waiting for their return. Silently, I regretted getting the last three tickets.

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