People wonder why I lived in San Diego for a decade and never learned how to surf. I ask myself the same. It’s something I’ve always wanted to learn, something I just knew I would end up falling in love with. Like nostalgia for a lover you never knew. Or longing for place you’ve never been. Kinda like that. It’s ironic that I learned how to surf in the opposite side of the world. As if I was subconsciously waiting to save it for a special place, for some reason.
When my feet took me to a little surf town called Baler, I found out why.
My American friend Frieda flew to Manila from Cambodia. She’s an amazing woman (understatement) and a fellow backpacker who I met back in Thailand, in that magical place that stole our hearts called Pai. Our bond was held together by motorcycle gangs, sidecar misadventures, heaps of Chang beer, good music taste (we like to think so), our Pai family, our sweet sweet inside jokes, but above everything… wanderlust.
We missed the only direct bus to Baler that day. So from Manila we took a bus to Cabanatuan. Got off and hopped back on a dinky, old, loud bus packed in with bodies, bags, boxes, and heat. 8 hours later we got off and hopped on a tricycle. We told the driver we wanted to go to the Secret Spot, and he instantly nodded.
He dropped us off in time to catch the sunset.
Tita Rose, the owner of Secret Spot (and an incredibly sweet woman with one of the prettiest smiles I know) showed us around. We asked if she knew of a good place to eat and she told us to take a tricycle to The Rolling Stores. So we went there, ate some really delicious food, and walked around town to get ube and cheese ice-cream.
Eventually we went back to the “surfer’s hut”, gathered all eight of our beds, listened to the waves licking the shore, and instantly fell into a dreamless sleep.
I woke up with the sun the next day. Then sat on the shore and meditated to the ocean music.
I went back to the hut and woke Frieda up. It’s time to learn how to surf.
We walked to Aliya Surf Camp and met up with our surf instructors. Mine was a funny, carefree 35-year-old Filipino who has lived in Baler his whole life. He spoke of how surfing started in this town. In the 70s they filmed the war movie Apocalypse Now at this very spot. The production crew were the first to surf the waves in Baler. Then they left their surfboards behind, and Filipinos taught themselves how to surf. This gave birth to the Philippine surfing culture.
He said that he’s surfed all the spots in the Philippines, but there’s nothing like surfing in Baler. It’s home. The waves aren’t harsh and there are no reefs in Sabang Beach. Most importantly, he loved his community. I knew exactly what he meant. There was no aggression out there, everyone was welcoming. Filipinos are some of the most hospitable people on this planet. It makes me so proud to be one. I love how important family is, blood or soul. That we’re instantly brothers and sisters before even introducing ourselves to each other. Filipinos will happily welcome you to their homes, to eat their food, to join their party, to drink their alcohol, and this case… surf their waves.
He pushed my board and yelled “Paddle, paddle, paddle!”, I fell. When I rose from the water he said to me in Tagalog “You’re thinking too much about surfing, don’t think. Just do it. Relax. Feel the wave. Feel its force, feel it rising under you, then you will know when to paddle and you will know when to get up.”
So I detached from all thoughts and expectations. Eased my nerves. And as I felt the wave rising beneath me, I paddled as hard as I could and got up on my board. I rode my first wave and it was one of the most intoxicating things I’ve ever done.
At that very moment, I fell in love.
After two hours of an exhilarating surf session, my instructor decided to be our tour guide/tricycle driver for the rest of the afternoon. He drove us through intensely harsh rock roads, walked with us through the forest, and took us to the Tumalog Waterfalls.
We passed by a group of laughing children, followed the sound of water and there it was, blue waters enclosed in the green mossy walls.
I jumped in as I felt tiny needles of cold water percolating throughout my whole body. I was revitalized. Then I swam closer to the source and meditated as my body danced with the water’s energy. At one point I looked back at Frieda and she is tiptoeing on the edge with her arms stretched out, smiling at the earth beneath and above her.
I love trees. I love sitting on it, climbing it, meditating on it, I would live in trees if I could. When I found out that the oldest and biggest tree known in asia lives in Baler it gave me another reason to go. So I asked kuya to take us to the Balete tree.
On our way there, we got a flat tire from the extremely bumpy path going to the waterfalls. So he stopped by the nearest shop to melt it back to its holeless state.
When we got out, Frieda pointed at the baby monkey hanging above us. She told me that all throughout her Asia trip she never got a chance to hold hands with a monkey. Something she’s been dreaming of doing and this woman has been through most of the countries in Southeast Asia. Maybe that bumpy road knew what she wanted and granted her wish.
She fed the baby monkey oranges. She was ecstatic.
We were expecting to see a big beautiful tree. But nothing could prepare us for the caliber of its beauty. Also, we didn’t know that we could actually go in it and that we could climb it all the way to the top. I looked at Frieda and her face lit up, I felt mine doing the same.
Next thing we knew we were following the boys who were guarding the tree as we carefully began our ascent.
I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. I felt like I was in a dream. I wanted to live there forever.
When we got back down, the golden sun rays were peaking through the thick veins of the tree that enclosed us in a yellow orange dream. I was intoxicated from the magic that was all around us.
I dreaded leaving the next morning, but I had to fly out to Boracay Island the day after that. So instead of leaving early morning, we decided to stay until noon. Frieda stayed back at the hostel with the free-spirited European couple we met and played with the local children. And I craved for surf.
I put heaps of sunblock on my sunburnt nose and the rest of my body that was about five shades darker than it was the day before. I walked across the beach to get my surfboard and paddled to the lineup. I struggled to get up my first few times. Then I met this British man and a bunch of friendly locals who were nice enough to lend me a better board, they guided me, and mentally push me. They cheered as I rode the next set on my own.
I felt the hours slipping away. We had to catch our bus so I said goodbye to my new friends. I wished I could stay. I told them I’d come back soon, whenever that was. I had fallen in love with this town. I didn’t want to leave. I was longing to be back and I hadn’t even left yet.
But like with any other thing, any other person, any other place, I sent it love and let it go. So I took a mental image of this part of the Earth and the person that I was in that moment in time, and kept it. Then I sat on my surfboard as my last wave approached.
And I rode it in.