Thursday, February 20, 2014

Baler, Philippines

I was increasingly feeling as if I were Martin Sheen in "Apocalypse Now" going up river through the jungles of Vietnam in search of Marlon Brandon as the road I was on to Baler, where the iconic surfing scene was shot,  was turning into a nightmare as I was dealt one unpleasant surprise after another.

For one the road signs and people along the way fed me nothing but contradictory information on how many miles of this rough road through rugged mountainous terrain I would have to endure. I knew enough not to trust what anyone told me after a cop in San Jose, where I left the main highway, told me it was 40 kilometers and someone else said it was 100 kilometers. My maps indicated it might be 80 kilometers, though with all the squiggles on the map it could be 100 or more.

Eight miles after I left San Jose I came upon a sign with distance on it--69 kilometers to Baler.  That would make it 51 miles in total, just as I was surmising.  It was half an hour until dark.  I managed another five miles before I found a place to camp, my first night of camping on the sly.  It wasn't an optimum site by any means, up a narrow river gulley and over a barbwire fence, with a host of rocks to clear, but it was the Taj Mahol to me.  I wasn't totally out of sight of the road if someone glanced up the gulley.  Dark would pretty much insure my privacy, so there would be no headlamp reading this night.  But I was willing to risk the subdued light of my iPad, not only for reading but finding things in my tent and eating  three individually wrapped hefty hot cakes I picked up from a roadside vendor in the town with the kilometer sign for a mere ten pesos each, a grand total of 67 cents, easily the most calories per peso of the trip. I had been finding hard-boiled eggs for ten pesos and thought that was a good deal.  These easily topped that.

I knew it was a slightly risky place to camp, though not as much as if it had been the rainy season.  The risk didn't give me much concern, but rather gave me silent satisfaction,  as it always does in such situations knowing that I would at least be pleasing Nietsche, who advocated "Live dangerously."   I don't necessarily seek danger, but I certainly don't like playing it safe.  If I did, I wouldn't have biked to Banaeu after reading in Lonely Planet that  there were occasional "violent robberies of private vehicles" on that spectacular stretch.

I had perhaps my best sleep of the trip, especially better than the night before in the shed right along a busy highway with trucks roaring past all night.  On this lightly used secondary road there was virtually no traffic after dark.  I was just woken a while before dawn by a rooster on the cliff above me.  I discovered I was just below someone's house, a very modest single room hut no doubt without electricity, nor evidently dog.  There hadn't been a sound from it all evening or any light.  It was dim enough when I took up camp below it that I hadn't noticed it.  Good thing as I would have been inclined to push on.  I had already scouted out three possible places to camp that weren't acceptable and it wasn't likely to find anything further.

As I broke camp I munched on bananas dipped into my just bought Philippine peanut butter.  The only ingredients on the label were nuts, salt and sugar.  It was more sweet than customary, but deliciously so.  And so were the small bananas I had stocked up on leaving San Jose--prices per kilo varying by freshness.

I was on the road by 6:30 with 38 miles to Baler and the beach.  I was at 600 feet elevation with no telling how much climbing awaited me and how severe it would be. After two miles I came to an intersection with a sign that said 39 kilometers to Baler.  That was too good to be true, meaning it would only be a 26-mile day.  If I made it to Baler before noon I would be tempted to just take a couple hour break and keeping on riding.  I have designs on quite a few other places in the weeks ahead and am not sure if I can include them all.  I had actually hoped to reach Baler the night before, but had been slowed by more climbing than I anticipated and an hour with Dudley, known as Dud, and Pearl, the Aussie and his Philippine wife who flagged me down once again and invited me to lunch.  I had just eaten, but there just happened to be a halo-halo stand across the street from the restaurant they wanted to eat at.

Halo-halo is a refreshing crushed ice drink full of a wide variety of fruity and sweet ingredients.  No two are the same.  Tomas and I had had one on our first day, as it was something I was greatly looking forward to, but hadn't had one since.  They weren't so easily found in the cool of the mountains and I had somewhat forgotten about them.  Their taste is so divine I thought their name was taken from those celestial beings who are adorned with halos, but I learned from Pearl that halo means mixture, and that's what these drinks are, an untold, incongruous mixture of fruits and jellies and fluids with a snowball of crushed ice.

Oddly enough Pearl's brother and their driver didn't care to join the three of us with our halo-halos, content with more substantive food.

I nurtured my halo-halo, savoring every mouthful, while Dud regaled us all with more of his travel and work tales.  I learned from them that I could ask for a senior discount on meals and lodging of up to 20% for anyone over sixty.  They didn't get much of a discount on their 500 peso lunch.  When Pearl asked for it they gave her a token twenty pesos back.  It couldn't have been a finer hour unless the restaurant's WIFI had been working, saving me nearly an hour trying to find a WIFI outlet that I could connect to in San Jose.  I tried four places without success, finally having to pay 30 pesos at an Internet cafe, my first Internet expense of the trip.

I didn't get out of San Jose until well after four.  The wise thing would have been to find a hotel there and not risk trying to find a place on the road, but I hadn't even ridden fifty miles yet for the day so I couldn't possibly not push on.  I was very pleased to have pushed on despite the difficulty of finding a place to camp.  I was humming along delighted to have my ride through the mountains reduced by twelve miles.  After climbing over a thousand feet in my first hour I stopped for a breakfast of rice and pork adobo, as much a national dish as halo-halo.  Pearl regularly cooks it for Dud.  She confirmed the main seasonings are garlic and vinegar and lots of sugar.  "That's why I put on so much weight," Dud said.

Ten miles more of steep ups and downs and I needed another helping.  I was still in the thick of the mountains.  It was hard to believe I only had six miles to Baler.  I had seen no more kilometers signs, so I was growing concerned.  Three serious motorcyclists with leathers and bandanas and the glowing faces of guys enjoying their morning ride and their camaraderie sat at an outdoor table, the smoking table, of the restaurant. 

The Philippines have a strong anti-smoking campaign in place.  A couple days before I passed through a sizeable town where smoking had been banned.

But the cigarette packs don't have the gruesome photos as do those in Turkey and France.  Just a very benign warning.

If the jolly and friendly guys hadn't been fuming away I. would have joined them. One said he had seen me leaving San Jose late in the afternoon the day before and was surprised to see me so far down the road.  They all gave a start that I had camped along the road.  "You are an adventurer," one exclaimed.  All three lived in San Jose and were just out for a morning ride, sixty kilometers to this restaurant and then back through the nice mountain scenery and steep, winding roads.  I asked how much further it was to Baler.  They said this was about the halfway point.  That was devastating news, especially since the terrain was becoming more and more demanding, with steep descents into ravines and then ten per cent and steeper climbs out.  The demons had been toying with me giving me woefully inaccurate distances.  If this was just the half-way point, it would be a 56-mile day for me.  It may not even be .possible to complete it before dark.

The news got no better when I resumed riding and the road turned to heavy-duty gravel.  I feared 36 miles of rough road the rest of the way.  If that was the case, I might have to turn back if I had to crawl along at less than four miles per hour.  But this stretch only lasted a mile, though there would be more to come.  The only thing worse would be if arrows started coming out of the junglsih terrain.  Soon the road narrowed to one lane wide for a couple of miles with occasional pull-outs for vehicles to pass.  That slowed me too.

I couldn't ride fast on the descents as the road was regularly interrupted by stretches of gravel, usually towards the bottom of a ravine, to keep speeds down.  With traffic having to slow down on these stretches, some of them were lined with people selling mechandise including "I Love Baler" t-shirts.

My spirit was in a downfall after thinking I would make it to Baler before noon, but now worrying if I would even make it before dark.  But twenty miles before Baler I left the mountains and had relatively flat riding past rice paddies being harvested.  Down at this elevation there are three crops a year in contrast to Banaeu which can only get in one.  It was 48 miles for the day and 64 in total from San Jose.

As I pedaled with relative ease on the final stretch I could once again start feeling the anticipation of reaching the seminal location where Robert Duvall uttered that quote that might have more variations on it than any other line from a movie--"I love the smell of napalm in the morning."   There are probably thousands of other smells that people have said they love in the morning that make them feel victorious.  It was a cliche at one point, but no more, becoming a favored expression in our lexicon.

Less than a mile before Baler I came to the turn to Charlie's Beach Resort, named for Charlie's Surf Point in the movie, the only acknowledgement anywhere in this somewhat dreary surf town to "Apocalypse Now," at least according to the only non-Filipino I encountered on the beach and in the town, an older American surfer who is married to a Filipina and owns a small hotel on the beach.

The beach was nothing special, but I could still feel tremors of delight remembering the majesty of magnitude and significance of this Palm  d'Or winner and all the controversy surrounding the movie.  A documentary was even made about the making of it.  Coppola was so unsure of the movie he was cutting it right up to its premiere at Cannes and wasn't even sure if the cut he would show there would be what he would retain.  As I knew, all the tribulations I endured getting to Baler would be validated.  The beach didn't look much different than the beach in the opening of "Chariots of Fire," another seminal movie scene, other than the palm trees, but I felt a similar exaltation and rush of memories when I laid eyes upon it in Scotland a few years ago.  I could imagine those British Olympic runners training on this beach too with that soaring score that was a cliche for a spell as it was used so often in the heyday of that Oscar-winning film.

Quite a few Hollywood films have been shot in the Philippines.  The Philippine movie industry ranks just behind India and the US in the number of films it produces.  Hopefully I'll have a chance to see one before I end these travels.  I thought a bar here might have nightly showings of "Apocalypse Now," such as the hostel Janina and I stayed at in New Orleans last month with a nightly screening of Spike Lee's Katrina documentary, but no such luck.  That meant I could get to bed early, once again in my tent at a campgrounds by the beach, allowing me to get an early start the next day.



1 comment:

Jeff Mease said...

Thanks George. I'm sure enjoying your trip. Carry on!