Monday, August 31, 2015

Baler Photodiary: My Solo Sojourn

Going on a solo trip to Baler has always been on the back of my mind. I thought, if I can fly to Singapore on my own then Baler should be a cinch! Not sure if that comparison made sense, but ironically I am more afraid to travel domestically. I am also not fond of bus rides but had to learn to live with it during my trips to La Union and Baler.

So off I went last Friday to Baler to maximize the long weekend. I really wanted to go on my own (much to Dad's dismay) because if I can hack it then I can just go anytime I want. Plus going alone will "force" me to socialize, learn to surf properly, budget my money wisely, and even go places that I haven't been to. Going in groups is fun and all but sometimes it sucks when you have to wait for everyone, or have to wait for people to decide where to go, what to eat, etc.

I took the 1:30am Joy Bus to Baler, very excited and anxious, prayed the driver wouldn't fall asleep on the wheel, put on my neck pillow-slash-hoodie from Philippine Airlines, and slept. I woke up at 6:30am at the Genesis Terminal in Baler, took the motorcycle to Circle Hostel (fare: Php 15), greeted Onyo (who was on morning shift), unpacked, slathered on sunblock, and set out to have breakfast.

DAY 1: Making new friends

Circle Hostel was quiet with only 3 guests that morning, myself included. Miguel (a Manila resident who transferred to Baler last January) was in the common area waiting for someone and I chatted with him for a bit, then went to Aliya to have breakfast.

Aliya's tapa tastes like Adobo to me - Php 150 w/ free coffee
Initially I felt a tinge of sadness, It's so lonely to travel alone pala, I thought to myself. Baler was so quiet, more people were expected to arrive Saturday. I was already feeling like I should've stayed in Manila and played with my doggies, but I trudged on. After breakfast I visited Kuya Jayson at El Dawn Surfing School and did a wave check. Um, yeah, the waves were really high this time, I thought they would've died down a bit because the storm had passed. I begged off surfing this morning still tired from Thursday's shenanigans, went back to the hostel and slept like a baby in the common area. I woke up at lunch time, Ate Viah and Den-Den (hostel staff and her 4-year old son) had arrived so I just chatted with them while eating. I thought day 1 was going to be pretty much uneventful, but here's what happened that afternoon....

Not wanting to pay for motorbike or bike rental, I had borrowed Onyo's bike and went around town buying cheap food and killing time. Eventually I found myself in Dialyn's and bought a slice of Brazo de Mercedes (you have to try this, it's so good!) and biked back to the hostel. I shared my slice with Den-Den, then this guy comes up to us and asked for some paint and brushes and started painting near my area.

with Den-Den (that's Joshua in the background)
In true Kira form, I ignored him (so much for wanting to socialize) while he was talking to us, until he reached out his hand and with a big smile said, "Hi, I'm Joshua!" I shook his hand, smiled and said, "I'm Kira, surf tayo?"

Rent your boards at El Dawn, it's only a walk away from Circle Hostel
We did surf that afternoon with Onyo (one of the Circle staff) guiding us. Onyo had 2 months experience but he was really good, walling and catching huge waves and all. I will admit with only my 4 months experience (2 of which were with instructors), I was hella scared of the 6ft waves. So many times I wanted to bail but Onyo kept pushing us to go outside lest we get hammered by the waves and strong current. And so many times when I'd go under and my board was separated from me, I prayed, "I hope I make it, I don't want to die!" or "I hope my leash stays attached to me!"

I remember Errole telling us months ago, "Surfing is the most stupid thing you wanna do if you're scared of the water!" That statement resonated with me the whole time, do I fight it or give in to my fear? The danger is real folks, I won't sugarcoat it. This is why I have so much respect for those who surf. Onyo later told me, "I can see in your eyes you really want to learn, there is so much excitement. But it sometimes gets extinguished by the fear. Don't be scared!" Holy crap, when I'm paddling and spot an incoming wave in the distance that's more than 4 feet high, I get all taranta and stuff. I really need to get over this, but I don't want to be reckless about it either. I had brought my GoPro with me hoping to be able to document this but honestly, I was advised against doing so as many tourists have lost theirs because of the current. So sorry, folks, no actual photos or videos of me surfing.

click to enlarge
Kuya Jayson, injured from surfing as a fin hit his leg, also took me out to the Rivermouth (a couple of kilometers away from El Dawn) to show me this other popular surfing spot. Far away from "mainland" Sabang, this is more provincial and the residential part of Sabang Beach. I will reserve my observations for one on one conversations but bottomline is, it made me understand the need for more sustainable jobs and better education in Baler.

That night, I had dinner at Kuya Jayson's shop along with some locals. Kuya Jayson is super nice and even if you suck at surfing like I do, the whole team is very welcoming. When I got back to the hostel full from dinner and having had some local lambanog, I caught Onyo, Joshua, and Matt (from Texas) playing chess. As the night wound down, I was left talking to Matt about his travels. He used to be an investment banker on Wall Street, then he quit his job and left his six-figure salary, set up pocket online businesses for backpackers, started travelling the world, and never looked back. This is something I hope I can do, leave Manila and hopefully transfer to Baler (or somewhere near the beach), and be able to find something sustainable that I can do remotely.

Matt documented all of his trips in his journal

So you could say day 1 wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. I had made new friends -- Joshua, Matt, and Miguel -- and I was able to enjoy the simple things with the locals. My weekend seems to be off to a great start!

I posted this beautiful full moon on Facebook and people told me I am lucky to be spending the weekend in a great place, whilst Manila is a standstill because of the rally.

DAY 2: That spur-of-the-moment motorbike ride

I had asked Onyo to take me surfing every morning, specifically at 8-8:30am. But my only rule was, he'd have to let me have breakfast first. Some surfers don't like eating beforehand because it makes them feel "heavy", but I really need my rice and eggs to function in the morning.

Breakfast was courtesy of El Teodoro Lodge which I learned from Gera last June. Their meals go for only Php 50-65, great if you're on a budget and want to maximize funds.

After a full meal, we headed out and thankfully the waves although still very high were a little bit forgiving so I was able to paddle outside. There was also no episode of me getting battered by the waves, so that was a good thing. I think more than ever, I had to learn to paddle fast otherwise I'd get stuck in the critical area where the waves were about to break and having been submerged so many times the day before, I really didn't want to fear for my life again.

temporarily back to softboards because I'm scared I might injure myself
I was able to ride albeit very short and technically, some people might not even consider it one. Haha! But I was happy I was able to stand though. Although I've used a longboard in the past, I decided to use a soft board this time because I don't want to risk injuring myself in case I get wiped out. Joshua was a little bit more chill about the whole thing and just laid on the board too pooped from paddling.

all smiles with Joshua
After that we had lunch at The Good Food Project and Maharajas I told him that last time I was here, Cesar and I rented motorbikes and drove around Baler. His eyes lit up, "You can rent motorbikes?!" For sure, I said. I'd take him to Diguisit Beach and Ermita Hill if he'd like.

Beef Kebab with Turmeric Rice- Php 160
Okay, first things first. Aliya took so long to confirm if they still had motorbikes for rent (Cesar and I rented from Aliya the last time), so Joshua the trooper that he was, asked around and found a motorbike from Pajaroja Lodge. I asked Joshua to drive because I didn't know how to drive one with a clutch, plus they had larger scooters. Joshua gladly obliged and we excitedly set off for Diguisit. On the way, I noticed our speedometer wasn't working and we didn't have helmets. Kids, please don't try this at home.

Ermita Hill

I stand corrected, you can drive to Diguisit beach in 20-30 minutes. I think we took longer the last time because Cesar and I got lost, haha. But now since I know my way around, it wasn't as far as I thought it was going to be.

We stopped at Ermita Hill on the way to Diguisit Beach. There's a fork in the road and if you want to drive up the hill you can take that, or park at the bottom of the hill and climb up via stairs.

Ermita Hill has cultural and historical significance to locals because this is where survivors fled to escape the tsunami that engulfed the whole town of Baler in December 17, 1735. Additionally, this was also a haven for those who wanted to hide from the pirates who raided and invaded the coastal areas of Baler and Tayabas in 1798. Currently, the entire Ermita Hill is suitable for trekking and camping for both tourists and locals.

At the viewing deck, one will catch a glorious view of Sabang beach, the town of Baler, and the Pacific Ocean.

the old zoo reminded me of the aviary in Jurassic Park III
Are you familiar with that white cross visible from the shores of Sabang Beach? Yep, we found it here in Ermita Hill. Pretty awesome!

Diguisit Beach

We then drove to AMCO beach resort in Diguisit Beach which took a mere 15 minutes. We were excited about the rock formations and the freshwater pool, and since Joshua brought his GoPro we were able to take a lot of interesting photos without fear of dropping our iPhones.

Joshua climbed to the top!
Baler Fishport

We left Diguisit around 4pm, making a beeline to the Baler Fishport and took some photos quickly because it really looked like it was going to rain any minute.

We had to make haste because we still had some errands to run: Joshua has to pass by Cebuana Lhuillier to get money, I have to pass by the Genesis terminal to buy my return ticket, and we have to grab some snacks as we were starving. Funny that with every visit to Baler I don't buy the return tickets right away, sort of like delaying/dreading the inevitable return to Manila :P

After everything, Joshua and I bought isaw (barbecued chicken intentines) from Rolling Stores for Php7 apiece, then I brought him to Dialyn's and treated him to their famous kiwi cupcakes and a slice of Brazo de Mercedes.

That night, we were set to have dinner again at El Dawn and I bought grilled squid and grilled liempo (Php 150 each) from Yellowfin Grill to share with everyone. I invited Matt, Miguel, and Joshua, I love my "little group" because everyone was so game and friendly :)

with Miguel

Matt, having learned Poi during his travels, eagerly showed off his skills and the kids were delighted! I tried it out as well, and let's just say I'll stick with my day job, haha.

Miguel's friend, Sir Jem, was playing in Aliya so we went there after dinner for some live music and drinks. At this point, I felt so thankful to have met these wonderful yet very diverse people: Joshua the 19-year old student who has been around the PH spending only an average of Php3,500 per trip, Matt the investment banker turned digital nomad, and Miguel the transplant from Manila who now handles social media work in Baler.

Day 3: The longest goodbye

My last day started just like the previous days, very chill and with no plans except to surf and bike around. Miguel messaged me at 6am and asked if I wanted to hang and have breakfast, he was going to paddle out by 8am. I let out a little chuckle because I am not a morning person and I will not get out of bed at six in the morning. I slept again and got up at 730am (sorry, I am mean like that), had breakfast at El Teodoro, then headed to El Dawn.

Miguel had warned me that the waves were killer and because I thought I could hack it this time, I paddled out with Onyo and was stuck in waist-deep water because the current wouldn't let me paddle outside. I gave up after 30 minutes (or so, I wasn't keeping track), laughed so hard on the way back to El Dawn, sat down beside Miguel on the ledge and told him, "You win! I almost died out there."

At this point, Matt was running to us and told us he had built a sand castle and that we should check it out. I told him it looked like a poor excuse for a sand castle and reminded me of Mordor. He was unfazed and set out to build one that would withstand the tide.

We left for lunch, came back at 2:30pm and saw that the waves had destroyed 60% of the sand castle leaving this poor stump. I asked permission if I could "destroy" what remained and he obliged. Aerial assault coming from Kira! I destroyed the towers and said my goodbyes, I needed to catch my 3:30pm bus ride back to Manila.

No doubt this solo travel was more memorable and meaningful than all my trips combined. Although I do love going out in [small] groups, travelling alone makes you more attuned to everything. It made me appreciate every little bit of kindness people showed me. Time was on my side and I appreciated being alone doing nothing. There were moments I sat by the ledge looking at the waves, just genuinely happy to be there. And get this: on my last day at 10:47am, I cried. I cried because how can anyone say no to a glorious view like this every single day? I am so blessed to have a job that affords me the simple luxury of going to the beach every month.

On the other hand, this trip also made me realize how scared I was of so many things. It took a while for me to muster up the courage to surf the bigger waves, I was scared of driving a motorbike with a clutch (I can do only scooters), scared to climb the rock formations (but I did it anyway albeit slowly), etc.

how nice of Cesar to drive me to the bus terminal
In the end, I discovered that travelling alone makes it harder to say goodbye. I was so immersed in everything, even the simplest things. I didn't want to leave. Everyone was telling me to extend 1 more day, what's another Php550, right? But I guess, some things have to end and we just have to accept that. I'll be back in three weeks anyway.

So that's it for my solo sojourn to Baler. I hope to be able to do this again soon, more often if possible.

Circle Hostel - / 0917-5010235
Kuya Jayson of El Dawn Surfing School - 0946-9116272
Genesis Joy Bus -


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