Saturday, July 01, 2017

Never planned to be in Baler, Aurora

The big name
Does having your picture with the name constitute as proof of visit?
Kung walang plano natutuloy, kung di naplaplano natutuloy. Roughly translated it means – if it’s not planned it pushes through, if it is planned it won’t come true.

Strangely the statement is true at least in matters of having fun although in all other aspects of life it makes no sense.

So it was at 7 am on a Saturday, the 24th of June, I was nursing a hangover when suddenly I got a call from one of my old friends. He said to meet at his house later in the night so that by early morning we can go to either Subic or Baler. The old gang will be present along with their families, he adds.

Eid al-Fitr, a Monday, June 26, 2017 was a holiday. His idea has its upside. It’ll be the gang’s once in a while chance to go out. In part I was interested.

But out of town on long weekend and seemingly without a plan, I was also cold to the idea regardless if my long weekend was free as a bird. Long weekend increases the potential for overcrowded vacation spots, congested roads, and that was not an appealing thought.

Then again if things went rough who else in this world would I rather have my back than the old gang? I opted to go. However, being the only single guy left, I waited for the married guys to decide because unlike them I can go anywhere on a whim. 

Strange though, the other two I came with, they both understood the trip as Subic and we would be home by Sunday night. I was convinced it was Subic from them although I earlier thought there will be a big powwow with the guys first before a venue was decided. In the end we went to Baler on an early morning Sunday and went home Monday afternoon.

Either it was an honest miscommunication or a skillful campaign just to get the old gang together by the one who called, we ended up in Baler, Aurora, in a way, unplanned. Overall a great weekend.

The old gang who came
Some of the old gang

Short Version

I’m not a fan of waves but the time and place when I took a dip the waves was a hair above average ocean strength if you can imagine so that was fine. The sand was great on my bare feet.

The baywalk is just weird. Although unique, it ruined the beach atmosphere I was used to. Thankfully this structure goes on only for a few blocks. I miss just having the trees and the sand as I get out of whatever resort I am in, with direct line of sight to the ocean. Baler, shaped like a cove, still has plenty sandy beaches along a very long shoreline as far as my eye could see in both directions. We stayed right in the middle.

If no one wanted to grill we could buy
If none of us wanted to cook this was just a short walk away

June’s Homestay where we stayed is great for the price and location. We were sandwiched by two nice looking hotels; restaurants and bars were nearby. June’s is certainly a place worth going back to and with it Baler.

Longer Version

On the Road

Riding a convoy of 2 vehicles we were on the road around 3 am. The lead car was a SUV and I was on the second car, a van, riding shotgun along with the bulk of our party.

My friend driving the lead car couldn’t resist the power in his wheels; he left us when he could. It was annoying at first. I’ve been to Baler only once and it wasn’t at night. We could get lost in these dark provincial roads.

I was using my Google Map to supplement the always disappearing lead car, made sure we were at least heading in the general direction. There was never any big danger losing our way. Although it is not an exact science the provincial main roads have a flow, and we just followed it. 

We always found our overeager lead car waiting at the forks in the road or at least when the ‘flow’ isn’t so clear. It’s great that the car had unique rear lights, and coupled with a hazard signal it was easy to home in on him from a distance.

Breakfast at Cabanatuan
Him driver, me shotgun, both waiting for breakfast
Cabanatuan City is major city in Nueva Ecija. We reached it around 6 am after a 3 hour travel coming from the eastern side of Bulacan (we didn’t start from Manila). 

Considering that we were to take the road closest to Pantabangan Dam (when I Google Map a route to Baler this one is the top choice), Cabanatuan is the last major city we would pass before reaching Aurora Province. This would be the best place for any last minute supplies but since we were well stocked we just stopped for some breakfast.

Phone data is not that all dependable especially on the mountain roads when the signal is dead. But from one previous joyride I had to Baler – a day trip – with my other group of friends we relied heavily on a GPS device. The thing worked even in the mountains. 

This time out I don’t know if my friend with the SUV had his GPS on when he was driving but then again he has been there a few times before. He only needed to ask for directions once. We followed him all the way.

In any case, after Cabanatuan City it was a matter of following the road through its ups and downs, its curves across the mountains. Overall, going to and going back home was uneventful. There are some frustrating points when we couldn’t easily overtake considering the curvature of the road and the capacity of our van which at times didn’t have enough engine power to breakaway.

We never noticed a way into the dam, I was busy keeping us in the right direction, straining my eyes for the lead car. On the way home we stopped and looked at what we thought was a dam. 

Parked just outside the 1st Maneuver Platoon Outpost we looked.   It was water on one side and a deep valley on the other. We never understood what it is and there was no one to ask. Plus the soldiers looked impatient that we stopped just outside their place so it was a quick peek and then trip back home again.

Some kilometers further we came upon a Ford Ranger with a big ass dent in its hood. The accident doesn’t look fresh nor could have resulted in serious injuries but it was located nearby a curve; a reminder how dangerous this roads can be.

Quiet Waves

I am not a swimmer so surfing is the farthest from my mind but I do love the beach. What I like is the breeze, of course the occasional bathing suit, and a nice quiet dip in the ocean. In my first quick visit to Baler I had already taken a dip and I didn’t like fighting the waves hammering the shore.

Some years previous a colleague from another building was reported to have been pulled into the sea. I don’t have details of what happened but my little office (one of many in a big Department) was one of the few who received the emergency call from the victim’s office that is on team building exercise in Baler. 

I have no idea how bad it got back then but the call made to Manila was for any available car to drive the parents of said person to Baler who, after the rescue, spent some time at the hospital. All things considered I was hoping for a Subic trip.

Lunch upon arrival
First lunch

We arrived around 10 am at June’s Homestay. Our place was not yet prepared, the previous client was still on the verge of packing and still on schedule for the standard 12 pm check out time. While waiting we spent our time at what constitutes June’s Homestay beach front area, ate our lunch. After some rest the kids immediately took to the waters, with some hesitation I followed.

Still on bended knee with beach behind
A noon dip in the ocean. The waves were not as strong as the last time I took a dip 
in these waters. See the shore, see the girl behind me; I'm standing on bended knee

It was low tide and from an elevated Baywalk the water seemed way off. A little confused how to go about it – first time I had to use stairs to head to the ocean – I left my sandals at June’s. The concrete was hot; mind you this was almost noon, so I ran off the stairs and into the sand in a hurry which was also hot.

The water was surprisingly great and the waves are weaker than I remember. It was strong enough to be interesting and not make the ocean feel like a bath tub. I wonder why the waves are not as strong as I remember. It could be the tide, it could be the time of year. 

My friend suggested that the best waves come when there are storms nearby. For me, my bet is the tide. When I took my first dip and fighting the waves it was in the afternoon and the tides were in.

Although with relatively calm waves, the sand great on the feet, no sudden drops in the immediate distance; my friends never lost sight of their kids. A little chat with the locals warned of strong currents and riptides that needed watching.

House on the left is ours
The door to our house
Again the door on the left

June’s Homestay is sandwiched by the classier Bay's Inn and Bay-ler View Hotel. The homestay has two parts: a building like structure at the back which looks like it even has a rooftop area, and small traditionally made house up front.

According to my friend who set it all up, we got the house at P5,000. It was neat, well maintained, and enough space for our needs. It may not have the world class interior design as a hotel would but it’s a house all to ourselves. The house had two floors. 

All of the beds are on the spacious room on top; in fact it is full of beds and no cabinets. The ground floor is basically a studio apartment with dining table, bed, kitchen, and a bathroom. There were 16 of us: 9 adults, 7 children. It was a good fit.

Bottom Floor
Where we stayed, ground floor

My friend’s house help took to the bed at the bottom floor by default. His mother-in-law had intended to join her but she forgot all about it comfortably sleeping up in the second floor with the air-conditioning. 

In the afternoon the air-condition felt like it was struggling which is why it needed two fans on both ends to supplement it. Then again I was laying down at the corner near the only two windows so I was really feeling some heat. The trick is trying to block the windows with a towel and room cools down even further. By night the cold was running on all cylinders.

The second floor had 3 outlets: two electric fans and a TV meant that it was good only for 3 more devices to be plugged in. There is an outlet at the ground floor in the kitchen but since charging time could go for 2 hours, the ground floor open to unwanted eyes, and so close to a hot stove, no one charged any device there.

There was a blackout in the night, good thing not all phones were dead because they were the only flashlights we had. The surrounding classier hotels had their generators on fast; June’s also has a generator for whatever reason we were the last to go on reserve power. I don’t know how long the blackout was but the staff came by us when we were drinking turning off lights to switch everything back to the main grid.

My waterproof camera died earlier than I was hoping and I couldn’t line it up again for a charge; phones being the priority for the child’s games and communication for the trip home. 

What’s bad is that while going around I always left my phone in the room thinking I had enough charge for the camera hence I missed more shots than I would like. Mental note for sling bags and battery packs the next time around.

The second floor door was constructed with an angle, almost like a protruding wall in what otherwise would be a big wooden box. This was positioned beside the only bunk bed. The wives and the mid-teen daughters my friends have along made use of that angle coupled with a blanket, which one of them holds up, to make a makeshift dressing room. Otherwise it would be a hassle to get me and my friends along with their overly energetic sons out of the room every time a lady dresses up.

The only open space in June’s entire lot was in front of that house. It was filled with mono black tables and chairs. We occupied half of it when we needed it for dinner, drinks, and breakfast and lunch the following day. The other half was by another family; I think always the same family, who seem to have rented some rooms at the building structure half of the lot.

In hindsight I am curious why I only saw the same family up front with us. June’s Homestay back parking space was full. Could it be the rooftop/balcony area was also used for dining by other clients?

Grilled Meal

Buying ingredients for dinner
Vegetable section, Baler Public Market
We had an overstock of Chicken Adobo which lasted until lunch the next day, including reheats. For dinner and variety we bought our dinner fresh from the local public market

We got tuna, squid, and crabs for seafood. Some greens for a salad type of meal. We got pork which is always a favorite of the kids. With the exception of the crabs all of them were grilled.  The grill stand was obvious when we came in and the rest of the kitchen utensils we borrowed.

is it cooked yet?
Looking out for the food

The grilling
Because we didn't want to eat just adobo all day

Sun almost down and still on the grill
Grilling until there was no sun

Since we were self contained as a group and stocked, we drank the evening just in front of our little house. We finished whatever we could of the grilled goodies.

Drinking the night away
Can't remember the last time we shared a drink

June’s Homestay does not have fridge so unfortunately we lost two crabs due to spoilage. Eating crabs - leftover from dinner - were just a little too much work for someone who’s on the road to being drunk.

Not the beachfront I was dreaming of

Besides not wishing to make a battle with ocean waves, the weekend I was dreaming of involved a lazy day under a beachfront umbrella, maybe a coconut tree, sitting on beach chair. In that chair I could switch from sleeping or reading the book that I brought with me. I was really hoping to catch up on my reading. There’s even a swimming pool version of those chairs and umbrellas I had in mind should Subic not be a beach.

Among the tables and chairs June’s had in its beach front space is a hammock tied between two wooden columns. Sleeping there was not as fun as having the same tied under a couple of trees. Me at 5 foot 10; the columns are too close than I would like.

In place of beach chairs a hammock
I had it easy riding shotgun with him all the way

By midnight I was actually prepared to sleep in the hammock till sunrise. We had finished drinking in the same area around that time and when I went up the children were awkwardly scattered all over the available space so I went down again. Two of my friends wandered off taking a midnight dip or having a look a nearby bars. The last one was stretched out over the wooden sofa.

When the two who wandered off came back and arranged their sons more reasonably, I went up. The last one stretched over the sofa was incoherently saying that he was OK where he was. Thinking that he’ll wake it off in an hour and get some sense to climb up we left the door of our nice little vacation house unlocked.

I don’t know what time he woke up but when I came too around 5 am he was inside at the dining table, wondering why he wasn’t woken up. I parroted back his drunken answer. In any case he said that he slept fine and that there was no mosquitoes that disturbed him. He slept shirtless.

Morning after
Since Baler is on the eastern coast of the Philippines,
morning means welcoming the sunrise.

Concrete Baywalk

Sabang Baywalk
Baywalk goes on for a few long blocks but still a lot of sandy
shoreline after it, in both directions.

What is the motivation behind the concrete baywalk because it felt more like a pier than the typical beachfront? It does not encompass the entire coastline that my eye could see. What is it about that particular space where we were staying?

Of course one of the top choices are protection against the waves which then begs the question how high can the waves reach in Sabang. My other guess is that June’s is sitting on top of a small hill of solid rock than soft sand. Makes sense since the area is able to take 3-4 storey building hotels and a baywalk would connect everything together and the beach.

first swimmers of monday
Literally it took two pretty ladies (strangers) out for a morning swim
for me to stop and shoot a still hiding rising sun.

We toured around Baler come Monday morning. 

Hanging Bridge

The hanging bridge is in an unfortunate state of disrepair but the sad part is not that we as tourist have lost an Instagram moment, but because the locals still cross it every day.  Imagine a ladder, lay it down horizontally, and every two steps are missing. That’s what the hanging bridge is when we saw it.

Planks of wood were placed only to a side to bridge the long far away steps together, good enough only for one man, maybe barely two in some points. A friend of mine about 5 foot 1 tried for 25% of the bridge while the rest of us stopped at the mouth of it.

We didn’t expect a local boy coming from behind us; of course we couldn’t stop him, he just went on. Even at their size, the point where he and my friend cross paths the boy was still hugging the edge and almost my friend with it as he passed through. He couldn’t move to the middle as one would think of anyone passing through. In the end we took pictures only at the mouth of the bridge.

Ermita Hill

Ermita Hill reminds me of Kamay ni Hesus in Quezon Province; long flight of stairs to a big cross. Problem is, I only thought of the similarities more than a day after my visit. If people knew what to expect then they’ll visit and make more effort enjoying the sites features.

Kamay ni Hesus has already marketed or made itself known as a religious retreat. Going up the hill with a giant Jesus statue carries a religious significance for believers and the top of hill has a view. Ermita Hill looks like it is trying the same in that there is a religious statue on top: a full statue for Kamay ni Hesus and a big cross for Ermita Hill.

Ermita Hill
I didn't see the cross as a T at first

When I took my picture beside the ‘I love Ermita Hill’ sign up front I immediately saw the cross. The cross was so loud that I only took it for a cross and not a T. For some reason the first thing that came to my mind was a cemetery and I wondered where the other graves were. It was a while before I saw the long flight of stairs to the cross and understood what the cross for a T meant.

After letting go of the graves idea, I was thinking this place looks good for a picnic. Ermita Hill at least has two levels. What I would call as the middle (first would be the foot of the hill) level is where all the cars can park. It is a big circular flat space on a hill with huts surrounding the open area meant for cars. There are signs that declare it a tsunami safe zone.

Not that I consider trees to be a bad thing there were only select spots that still had an open view of the sea down below. If there was a view here in the past the foliage has already hidden it except for a few selected huts.

Climbing Ermita Hill
Even with a gradual looking slope climbing isn't easy

After straining the outer perimeter of this middle ground for a line of sight to the sea only did I notice stairs going deeper and it turns out higher. Compared to the stairs in Kamay ni Hesus I like this one. The steps were longer which meant the angle of incline was gradual, it grew steeper in some points. Although the angle looks easier it felt hotter, I was sweating quite a flood out of me. It is refreshing that the stairway was thick full of trees distracting me somewhat that I was indeed climbing a mountain.

Reaching the summit and the cross was underwhelming because what does anyone want to see out of the top but unrestricted view. I was dreaming of a 360 degree unrestricted view deck but it was the opposite. Search a little and there is open space among the trees with an angle of Sabang Beach, the area of June’s Homestay where we stayed.

I am agnostic and religious symbols mean nothing to me but it made the trip more underwhelming to see a plain old giant and dirty cross.

where's the view
The summit but where's the view. There's a hole in the foliage
you just have to look for it.
Compared to Kamay ni Hesus the way up (and down) was not a straight line. When you climb a place as high as this it zaps the energy out of your legs. Going up is murder on the heart and lungs but going down with tired legs feels like you’re one step from rolling down like a landslide. Let me put it this way, the fact that Ermita Hill has longer steps and the climb up has turns, gives you a chance at least that if you fall and roll, it won’t be straight down.

Diguisit Falls

Diguisit Falls is out in the open and that can be a good selling point or a big negative.

One of those negatives is that we missed Diguisit Falls on our first run; no sign, no commotion, no nothing. We ended up at the literal end of the road in Dicasalarin Cove. We could have entered the cove which is the Angara family’s resort (and this you have to verify) but they charge P300 a man.

The local area known as Diguisit in Barangay Zabali is a road sandwiched by the ocean and the mountains. Landslide Warning signs are all around and at some point there are actual boulders on the road.  I looked at the map and there is indeed a river on top of the mountain with water flowing all around, the strongest of which became a Falls.

All over the road we saw locals harnessing the water usually for laundry. There are areas where they’ve even made the water pass some kind of tubing, one even has a 1.5 litre plastic soft drink bottle at its end.  The bottle was full of holes and hung up on a low lying branch like a shower.

This image of water so easily harvested by the side of the road added to Diguisit Fall’s invisibility. It feels like nothing extra ordinary was nearby; the waterfalls I had in mind was the end goal of a walk into the forest. The two known falls that I have seen, Pagsanjan and Kabigan Falls, both involved walking deep into the forests.

Diguisit Falls
Nearly street level view and no angle of the falls. It was a
crowded climb up so I didn't bother.

I did not climb the Falls when we found it. Although already on the side of the road getting the best picture was not a walk up but a climb up. And at least from what I see there was not enough room to hold many people.  

Tourists were already taking photos when we came and a car or two stopped while we were already in the middle of our own photo shoot. I didn’t want to eat up more space or get mud on my person. Some of the holds were muddy that morning but not overly difficult to climb up or down.

Then there’s always the feeling that when I got down from the car – ok I saw it already, I’m good.

The Quieter Beaches of Baler

It is around Diguisit area that we observed quieter oceans often without waves but the drawback is that the sand is rocky, at least those which we could see from the road. There may be still find sandy beaches that I haven’t discovered.

Surf Lessons
Surf lessons offered all around

Sabang Beach even with all its waves has nice fine sand which you can walk on without discomfort. It is definitely a surfer area as advertised with surfing lessons and surfboards are in abundance all over the baywalk. There’s a point in the lessons when these instructors take hold of the board with the surfer on it and they let go timing it with a wave. My friend’s children were easily launched in this manner.

A 360 degree look around on my initial arrival