North of Home: Finding Brave in Baler

Finding brave in Baler.

I have always been homesick for places I’ve never been. I do my best, at least twice a year, to go somewhere new–whether it’s down a street, or to a random destination by bus. How brave, they told me. How romantic.

The idea might seem so, but it was just convenient cowardice. The truth is, I wasn’t being brave. I only leave town whenever I need to reset, whenever things get too heavy, whenever I need to prolong the inevitable.

I am not a brave person.

I am not a cowgirl. I don’t play sports. My childhood was spent indoors listening to records and reading books. Mother Nature is not my homegirl, and the outdoors is not my jam. I am not a people person– my hands shake when I talk to strangers.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I learned that escapism is not the same as wanderlust. It was the insistence of my uncle, a wild child at heart and an active member of a surfing association, who gave me the courage to ride my first surfboard and experience my first wipe out. All grace and poise drowned, I discovered the warmth of strangers and the conviction to chase that ever elusive stoke.

It was this chase that brought me to Baler, Aurora. It was on its line up that I finally found the thing that I had been so homesick for, as cliche and cheesy as it sounds: my self.

A five hour drive through the mountains of Pantabangan, past the double sunrise at the dam and a straight shot through the heart of Aurora province sits Baler with its long stretch of beaches and heavy waves. We got there before check-in at the hotel, so a quick wavecheck and unloading of boards later, I was in an old shirt that served as a rash guard with the back of my legs and shoulders sunblocked against the sting of the summer sun.

This was my first moment of truth in Baler: my first time paddling out at a new spot without the comfort of anonymity. To make things worse, I was the only non-surfer in a group of relatively new friends who had been surfing since their teens. I immediately questioned what I had gotten myself into.

That morning came to a close with my nose burnt and my lungs full of saltwater – Sabang was a break that wasn’t going to cut me any slack. I spent the better part of that first hour caught inside, constantly being pushed back to shore by white water, but eventually I managed to catch the current and paddle my way to the line up. I almost roared in exhilaration at my success. I had paddled out by myself for the first time without anyone’s help! I hadn’t given up, and not a single time had I reached out to any of my companions for assistance or advice. I had found, and powered, my own way through. This in itself was better than any stoke I’d gotten from any ride before, or since.

This isn’t to say that the rides I caught weren’t amazing. That entire week I was blessed with knee to waist high waves that were perfect for me, beautiful sets set to the music of waves crashing and friends and strangers cheering on the newbie on the longboard. We moved around the different spots, from the thin trail leading to Lobbot’s river mouth to the reef break of Jaos, the head high peelers at Charlie’s to the buwis-buhay sunset session at Cemento. Mother Nature had embraced me and welcomed me into her fold of sun-kissed, saltwater-blooded brood, blessing my first trip with amazing weather and even better company.

I met Mommy and her staff at Rolling Store that immediately fed and treated me like family, came face to face with the diablo chicken adobo at Ram’s tapsilogan, almost wept with joy at the P150 all-you-can-eat buffet at Gerry Shan’s, and waded back to shore after hours of rides and wipe outs to Bay’s Inn’s chocnut turon with homemade vanilla ice cream and a cold bottle of Pale Pilsen with the boys from Mahdox Surf School.

I found my brave in Baler. I found my humility being in the same line up as surfing greats Okoy Rojo and Wilson “Saddam” Faraon, in facefulls of water and sand, in getting crushed by waves as I dove headfirst past its lip, and in being a tiny speck in the great cosmic press that is the sea, sky, and sand. I found my pride in paddling out on my own to head-high sets, in holding my own and self when confronted with fight or float. I became the girl who could carry her longboard without any help from the boys, the girl that knew which wave to catch and when.

I am constantly finding new and better aspects of myself in Aurora, a place that has welcomed me with open arms in sunlight and in storm. I have discovered that I can hike up mountains and dive into icy cold falls, spin strangers into friends for life. I can now confront my Manila life with the certainty that I am a warrior not just on the weekends but always. Now I am armed with the conviction and self-assurance that only adventurers have. I am a more complete human being thanks to this place that I now call my home.

I am no longer homesick for places I’ve never been, but for the places that I am continuously discovering in myself, all thanks to her.

If I could put my heart into your chest and fill it with my love for Baler it still wouldn’t be enough. There are no words for the value of taking a chance on a week or weekend to somewhere you’ve never been. You will meet people who will leave their indelible marks on you through their laughter and friendship, you will find yourself in the quiet of afternoons spent napping on hammocks and in the anticipation of waiting for the next set that brings with it the perfect wave to carry you back to shore.

Baler can complete you. It can set in your heart a compass that will always point true north, home to Aurora.

 

About the Author

Alexis Betia

From city rat to island child, Alexis Betia has done a full 180 in her search for beautiful places. She’s learned the value of turning left where most people turn right, and of reaping the rewards of saying “YES!” to the universe. Books and beaches are her best friends.