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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Aurora: Philippines

Charlie Don’t Surf
Arya Kazemi

The small coastal town of Baler (population 30,000), in the Filipino province of Aurora; is something of a novelty among that nation’s expats and tourists alike: a fairly well-kept secret gem of a place to visit. This lack of hoopla stems more from the logistical problems involved in getting there, rather than a lack of attractions.
The 230-kilometer drive from Manila, to Baler, can only be undertaken in one of the handful of buses leaving from the capital’s main thoroughfare, EDSA, or a private vehicle (preferably a 4-WD), as there are currently no direct flights or ferries from any other towns on Luzon Island or (anywhere in the Philippines for that matter) to Aurora province, and a good portion of the road between Manila and Baler is still unpaved. That not only makes it a very rough experience on a traveler’s bottom, but also makes it a no-go zone during the long wet season due to continuous landslides.

The lack of comfort on the road to Baler is offset by the region’s stunning pristine natural beauty as the visitor is treated to the panoramic Sierra Madre Mountains, clear streams and waterfalls, seemingly endless stretches of rice paddies and countless types of birds (Aurora Memorial Park is a habitat of the endangered Philippine eagle).

Despite its remote location, Baler has quite a bit of significance in the history of the Philippines, and the Museo de Baler (Baler Museum) in the center of town is a good place to start; as its grounds hold a replica of the house on the same exact spot where the first president of the Philippines, Manuel L. Quezon was born in 1878. Actually Aurora province is named in honor of Quezon’s slain wife, Aurora (who was assassinated in 1949 while travelling from Manila to Baler to inaugurate a new hospital). Inside the museum are documents and artifacts not only pertaining to Baler’s favorite son, but also chronicling the town’s discovery by Spanish Franciscan missionaries in 1609 and the nearly three-century long colonization of the area by Spaniards. A few hundred metres away from the museum is the Baler Catholic Church which during 1898-99 (and as a part of the much wider Spanish-American War) was the site of an 11-month siege of Spanish soldiers by Filipino rebels and American troops; both trying to forcefully end Madrid’s long Colonial rule over the Philippines. Out of the 57 Spanish soldiers that were in the church at the start of the siege, only 33 survived and returned to their native land. Baler’s isolation from the rest of Luzon and the country in general prolonged the siege unnecessarily, as no soldiers on either side knew that the war between Washington and Madrid had officially ended in an armistice in August, 1898; almost a year before the church was finally cleared (in June of 1899).

As a visitor to Baler, the great majority of your time is sure to be spent on or near its spectacular beaches. One reason for that is that the area’s handful of lodging are all located by the shoreline; and among them the Bahia Inn, Bay’s inn (which also serves a palatable buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner) on Sabang beach (which is located roughly at the center of the waterfront) and the MIA resort are the best bets—rooms usually range anywhere from 500 to 1000 Philippine Pesos per night, depending on the amount of amenities included. Having air conditioning in Baler and almost everywhere else in the Philippines is highly recommended.

Baler’s first relatively large scale wave of tourism occurred in the early 1970s when the Australian surfing community got word of the fabulous waves washing up on the region’s shores and nowadays the town plays host to the annual Aurora Surfing Cup (usually held in February) which is arguably the country’s most prestigious surfing competition. Cemento Reef located just South of Baler, and accessible either on foot or by banca is not only the site of the aforementioned competition; but also a great spot for snorkeling and scuba diving—once you’d dried yourself up and are in the mood for some more history, president Quezon’s vacation home is within short walking distance of the Reef.

Apocalypse Now stills

A walk to Northern end of the Baler coastline is a treat not only for history buffs, but also for film and pop culture aficionados as well; since most of the filming of the classic 1979 movie Apocalypse Now was conducted in that area. Charlie’s Point is where the memorable scenes showing Capt. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) blurting out the famous lines "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" and he surfing amidst enemy combat fire took place. Further up North is a spot named Lindy’s Point where the fiery opening sequence of the film (with the Doors tune "The End" playing in the background) was filmed. Just north of there is the village of Reserva, home to sundry huge, gorgeous coconut plantations, along with small groups of dolphins swimming very near its shores during morning hours. If a visitor strikes up a conversation with a middle-aged or elderly resident of Baler he or she will likely be more than glad to show you all the Apocalypse Now-related sites around town. Getting to the section of Baler that was used for another very memorable scene in which US Army helicopters attack a village to the booming sound of classical music and German composer Richard Wagner’s "Ride of the Valkyries" requires some assistance from locals in-the-know, as it is a bit remote.

If you’re lucky enough to be in Baler during the month of February then another special event is on the cards for you; the Moro-Moro Zarsuela. This is a show featuring the town’s most attractive and graceful ladies and gents acting out the traditional theme of Moro-Moro (or Moslem-Christian) conflict through a combination of dance and drama. What makes this show all the more interesting is that real weapons (usually knives or bolas) are used in the combat scenes and real bloody wounds and gashes on the faces and bodies of the performers are not an uncommon sight.

Baler’s nightlife is limited to two nightclubs located across the street from Bay’s Inn, named Maharaja and the Coco-hut—each venue features live music provided by both local and Manila-based musicians on occasion. Be aware that the female and lady-boy hookers so ubiquitous in Filipino nightlife are even found in such a remote corner of the country. Gerry Shan’s restaurant on Baler’s main thoroughfare (Quezon Street) is the most popular dining choice for locals and visitors alike, as it features excellent Chinese and Filipino dishes; as well as mouthwatering mango and banana milkshakes.

Those looking for a souvenir of their stay in Baler can choose from various shops selling handicrafts (including some very interesting bamboo ones) or opt for a bottle of the region’s famed and potent spirit, coconut wine; which tends to lull the novice visitor into a false sense of security due to being labeled as 80 proof, but with the ability to totally overwhelm the senses of even a seasoned boozer, even when taken in very small amounts.

© Arya Kazemi Feb 2009
aryaarya at
More of Arya’s work can be read and seen on his website

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