On a busy weekday morning, my girlfriend and I found ourselves going up against a seemingly endless flow of pedestrians on their morning march to work. Their neatly combed wet heads saturated the air with the smell of shampoo. We looked out of place with our surfboards under our arms and bulky backpacks on our back, but pencil-pushing was the least of our worries that day. We were on a mission to chase a swell generated by a storm brewing in the southern part of the Philippines.
Rain clouds had begun to cloak the blue sky as the storm made its slow advance from the Southeast. The dark clouds provided a brief respite fromthe searing temperatures that scourged Metro Manila for weeks, but the impending rain wasn't really good news for the flood-prone city, either.
We wanted to leave Manila and travel to the surf spot of Baler, about 7 hours Northeast since it had the most favorable forecast figures (waves in this country are so fickle, surfers here have to rely heavily on swell forecasts).
The bus was already beyond seating capacity when we hopped on. The aisle was filled with all sorts of luggage, there was barely any space for the clippy making his rounds collecting fare.
While the bus negotiated its way through Manila traffic, a teenage preacher standing behind the driver loudly delivered quotes from the bible to the passengers already suffering the hell of tropical heat in their claustrophobic seats. When he was done, he began passing out letter-size envelopes for donations. Philippines is fiercely Catholic, even public transportation isn’t safe from all the proselytization — and scammers capitalizing on the gullibility of guilty Christians.
I wanted to experience the divine somewhere else and I knew exactly where to find it. I looked outside my window and allowed the lines on the road to hypnotize me while my girlfriend rested her head on my shoulder. The highway slowly began to transform into precarious passageways that carved the mountains and steep cliffs, leading us to the little surf haven of Baler.
Baler was mostly unknown to the rest of the world before Coppola decided to shoot his Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now in the sleepy fishing town. Almost overnight, the town’s coast was transformed into a big Hollywood set that made possible a few of the most unforgettable scenes in movie history—which of course included the unforgettable character of Col. Kilgore giving his subordinates the order to ride waves even under heavy fire. The once unnamed empty surf break where that scene was filmed became known as Charlie’s Point after the movie.
Apocalypse Now would not only leave a legacy in the industry of cinema, but would also birth the thriving surf scene in the quaint Philippine town. When the film crew packed up after several months of a grueling production that almost left Coppola bankrupt, several locals picked up the surfboards that the foreigners left behind and began to learn the art of surfing. For almost half a century now, the waves of the town have nurtured the oceanic needs of a flourishing community of local and expat surfers.
Some of the local surfers in Baler possess promising talent that could someday thrust the Philippines on to international acclaim. Even the town’s young grommets already feature smooth contest-worthy cutbacks and aerial punts as part of their regular athletic regimen.
Upon our arrival, we were confronted with heavy rainfall that made Baler’s coastline look like a doom-laden paradise. Although we were technically out of the typhoon’s way, the storm was so big that its tail still reached the small town, whipping the coast with thick curtains of rain that looked like smoke rising from the ocean.
The low clouds and rain made it easy to imagine how the pyro-heavy movie set in the Coppola masterpiece might have looked like — except we were seeing nothing but chest-high sets perfectly sculpted by the mild offshore breeze, devoid of PT boats dotting the horizon and Hueys blasting The Ride of The Valkyries prompting hundreds of extras to run and scream in rehearsed pandemonium.
I sat on the beach as I watched the glassy peelers roll toward the shore. The line-up was crowded but there were plenty of waves for everyone. I observed one surfer slide across the face of the wave with so much euphoria he couldn’t contain he had to yell. It all seemed like a strange dream — like witnessing in real life the very scene where the G.I.s indulge in some R & R in the middle of an Apocalypse Now clusterf*ck.
The day of our visit was strangely peaceful despite the dystopic mood conjured by the storm clouds. There were no real—or fictional—wars to worry about there, just our daily bout with mother nature. As I waxed my board, the smell of wax wafted through the air, and I could almost hear Kilgore screaming through the bullhorn:
“I LOVE THE SMELL OF SURFWAX IN THE MORNING!”