THIS time I went east of Manila to Baler in the province of Aurora. It used to belong to Quezon Province which was formerly called Tayabas. But it has always been isolated by geography and as a consequence developed its own distinct culture, an adaptation to its environment facing the Pacific Ocean to the East and hemmed in by mountains of the Sierra Madre inland.
They have rice, fishing, lumber and lots of water. They weave mats, rattan baskets, cook rice-based sweetmeats and have coconuts. We were into suman, buko, kinilaw. There is too the wide Pacific Ocean surf bearing down on the long beaches north and south of Baler as well as the town itself. Beautiful, blue and not-so-pacific.
Baler has had its experiences with typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and history. In the last few years landslides came with floods during typhoons, an occurrence that was not unknown in years past.
Its church which still stands was the setting of the famous Siege of Baler where Spanish troops held out against Filipino revolutionaries way after the hostilities between Spain and the Philippines had ended. The end came when they were sent newspapers showing them the war had ended. They surrendered but gallantly, General Aguinaldo together with their own King, honored them for their courage and honor. In the annals of Philippine-Spanish relations, this is a much celebrated incident.
Nowadays it is very much in the 21st century. It has an airport, there are regular buses to other points in Luzon and it has modernized its appeal. There are good places to stay in led by Costa Pacifica Hotel and many attractive restaurants. Moreover, Baler has an interesting museum in the town plaza and newly-erected government buildings like the capitol, the town hall, the public market which make the public space of the town attractive and well kept.
Baler is identified with Manuel Quezon, the first president of the Commonwealth and a national leader whose unforgettable persona remains in history and in the memories of those who remember the past or studied the past.
His father, Lucio Quezon, from Manila came to Baler as a schoolteacher and married Maria Dolores Molina of Baler and thus the family grew there and has been identified with Baler from the days of the Philippine Revolution.
In the center of town is the restored house of Aurora Aragon who was to become Mrs. Manuel Quezon. It is a simple, modest, typical provincial house of nipa and bamboo with hardwood touches right in the middle of town.
Today Baler is also identified with the Angara Family, somewhat related to Quezon as happens in most towns in this country where families have interacted over the decades. Senator Edgardo Angara has done much to bring progress to his province as well as define its unique identity. It is now Aurora Province, a province on its own province, after being part of Quezon for centuries.
There is a network of good cemented roads crisscross Aurora. There are sights to see using the roads like the lighthouse and Pag-Asa station in Dicasalarin Beach, a breathtakingly beautiful cove south of Baler. There are waterfalls right along the national highway and more if one is willing to trek for under an hour. There is the surf pounding all along the coast attracting surfers as well as tourists, an expanse of beach that is long and wide.
We also saw quite a few rivers, one of which had a long hanging bridge that led right into Baler from an outer town. The rivers are large, clean and flowing, so are the creeks.
There is a pasalubong center with everything from snacks to woven materials to hardwood furniture made from driftwood. Peanuts seem to be abundant – peanut butter, peanut-flavored polvoron. Also coffee from Dipaculao, a nearby town. I had to be dragged away from doing an inventory of all its offerings from hats to mats.
On the way to Baler are stands selling rattan baskets of all shapes, mortar and pestle sets in different woods, brown rice and piggybanks made of wood and woven rattan. One really gets fascinated with arts and crafts of an environment that is different from the urban jungle one lives in.
To go to Baler one takes the NLEX and the SCTEX and exits in La Paz, Tarlac and goes into Nueva Ecija via Zaragoza. Then go east towards Pantabangan town and finally one is in Aurora. It should take about six hours of easy driving. The roads are good with puzzling unworked erosions in the last few bridges into Baler. One understands the reason for the erosion – heavy rainfall, floods during the rainy season. But one cannot understand why they are not immediately repaired to minimize expense. It is again the lack of maintenance that besets our infrastructure.
Also, a few bridges, enough to be noticed, are without approaches on one side or the other so as to make them unusable. It seems a waste of time and money. One wonders how many years more must pass before they are put to use as no work is being done to do so.
The roads to Aurora are full of curves as one is traversing mountains and hills. It is quite scenic from Zaragoza on as one sees the ricefields growing on either side, then the mountains and rivers approaching Aurora. There is a huge balete tree in Maria Aurora town just before Baler that is worth a detour. Another detour that is worthwhile is Pantabangan Dam, the biggest in the country. It is in Pantabangan, Nueva Ecija, on the way to Aurora Province.
Summer is upon us and it was exhilarating to travel to somewhere close to Nature and note that many of our countrymen were doing the same. Baler had visiting locals as well as foreigners appreciating its gifts.