For various reasons, particular places carry special meaning and significance for each of us. For me, the Valley of Baler is such a place. It is a region rich in history, and, for me, a place embodying strong personal associations and memories.
In spite of civilization's encroachments, the shores of Baler that are blessed with beautiful sandy beaches and coral reefs still appear as they must have been for hundreds of years past. During my youthful years, it was easy to conjure a vision of the church of Baler as garrison of the Spanish colonial army; the canal in Kalediyan constructed in 1846; the fortresses in (Castillo) atop Point Baja (Ermita), and by the estuary (sabangan) of Baler Kinalapan-Pingit River erected in 1847; Lieutenant Gillmore's party ambushed and captured by Filipino insurgents on, 12 April 1899, and the lean-tos scattered along the savanna of Pingit all the way to Dibalo were Negritoes sanctuary. Nearly all the historical landmarks in the Valley of Baler were, engineered by Fray Jose Urbina de Esparragosa, O.F.M. His leadership and foresightedness, led to the construction of a canal in Kalediyan to irrigate farmland. On the estuary by the bank of Baler Kinalapan-Pingit River and the promontory of Point Baja, a fortress had been built to counter piratical activities of the moors (moros) marauding towns along the Pacific seaboard in which Baler was no exception. Scandalously, however, his remarkable accomplishment while parish priest of Baler was not his engineering achievements, but the amorous life he shared with companion, Brigida Molina. In ten years that they lived together, he fathered five children. Hence, when the church learned he violated the vow to live the life of celibacy, the church banished him to Magdalena, Laguna until his death at Santa Cruz Hospital on, 2 March 1863.
On my memorable visit to Baler, the mist of time parted wide for me. I retraced the footprints of my visions of Baler engraved and preserved in my memories.
From the hamlet of Kalanan, a winding unpaved road zigzags dizzily along the curve of hazy-gray mountain cliffs to the scenic spot of Boundary. This demarcation site between the provinces of Nueva Ecija and northern Tayabas (Quezon), now Aurora province was developed into a resting station as sanctuary for the road builders. The development started in 1926 during the tenure of Manuel A. Gonzales, the ninth mayor of Baler in conjunction with the construction of Baler-Bongabong national road.
Construction of Baler-Bongabong National Road (1926)
Boundary is located roughly about 68 kilometers west of the town of Baler on the Sierra Madre Mountain ranges overlooking the Pacific Ocean which stands some thousand meters above sea level. Its climate is airy and refreshing, phenomenally cool during the months of October through March, and marvelously pleasant from April through September. Because of its excellent climate, varieties of orchids grew luxuriantly in its surrounding, besides the evergreens that made the place mystically mesmerizing.
At the summit stands a rest house, and from its location the panoramic vista of the blue Pacific silhouetted by the Sierra Madre peels back with breathtaking sceneries. A slippery lane connects the rest house to the national road, and some hundred meters below is a swimming pool designed and engineered by Mother Nature. Shaded by giant ferns, towering trees, and impenetrable by sunlight, the pool is chillingly cold.
Three kilometers before Boundary is Salabusub, a hamlet that became a landmark with an indelible past. It was here, on 28 April 1949, Mrs. Aurora A. Quezon with her daughter, Maria Aurora (Baby) A. Quezon and son-in-law, Felipe Buencamino, III, husband of Zenaida (Nini) A. Quezon, Ponciano Bernardo, mayor of Quezon City and other political affiliates were brutally and mercilessly murdered by unknown assailants. They were traveling by cars to Baler to witness the ceremonies for the unveiling of a monument marking the birthplace of the late President Manuel L. Quezon, to inaugurate the Baler Memorial Hospital, and to attend the ceremonial town festivities. To this day the murderer remains a mystery.
Villa Aurora Rest House
From Boundary to the summer camp of Villa Aurora a decent of 1000 meters in 30 minutes is not for the fainthearted. It's exhilarating and scary to be suspended between cloud-obscured peaks and precipitous ravines on a road often damaged or blocked by landslides. The landscape is dominated by peaks higher than thousand meters, which some remain unexplored. Traveling by air the view of fog-stranded mountains is dazzling, but only at ground level does one begin to appreciate their immensity. Like great gods full of unimaginable power, they pierce the clouds. No mortal can feel anything but insignificant and humble in these imposing surroundings.
Villa Aurora summer Camp was built by the canyon, where Kabatagan River flows. As one approaches the villa, one can breathe the scented air filled with the fragrance of Dame of the Night (Dama de Noche). During the Quezon's presidency, the villa was the center of frequent social gatherings and other festive activities. It was named in honor of the late Mrs. Aurora A. Quezon, first lady of the Philippine Commonwealth.
Villa Aurora's landscapes are filled with wild varieties of edible fruit trees unique to the area, while the roadsides are blanketed with flowers of glimmering hues. Visible through the villa's back window is Kabatangan's crystal clear river with pearly-white sands. On the riverbanks are granite rocks where the rapid flows. Noticeably one's eyes cannot escape the glittering scales of the wigwagging mullets (lulong) and oscars (salagpat) nibbling the algae that cling to the sandy bottom. Overhead rests the majestic Kabatangan hanging bridge.
Inauguration of Baler Bongabong National Road (Villa Aurora 1940)
Thirty minutes from Villa Aurora an opening in the summit of Dimasingay shows a bird's-eye view of the towns of Maria Aurora (Mision San Jose de Casignan) and Dipaculao (Mision de San Miguel). Its cloudy skies are shaded by rays of the sun, with momentarily exciting eyes grown weary of dun-colored dust and green jungle. Descending now, following a stream that flows beneath red clay-cliffs, the bus passed by a road sign "Diteki" fast obliterating from neglect. Along the road are sloping alluvial fan paddies planted with rice, fruit trees, and groves of coconut palm trees. After several sharp turns, the gorge of Diteki appears. During and after World War II through late 50s when the monsoon season was prevalent this mountain pass was impassable to travelers. Once the river was flooded, no one could travel out from, or enter into the town of Baler; one will have to be under the mercy of Mother Nature before one can get through. Fortunately, today's engineering marvels have resolved and alleviated Diteki's problem. In the 60s a bridge was constructed that spans the gorge.
As the bus creeps and rolls along, the mountains behind gradually vanish from view. A few more minutes struggling along the rugged road, the bus arrives at the community of San Luis (Inatangan), established by homesteaders from Baler during the early 1800s, becoming a municipality on, 16 June 1959. Famous for its cool river nearby, Disalet, springs from the ground a few kilometers north of the town. During hot weather people converge to this river as an offering of relief. Sadly, however, San Luis is no longer the community it used to be. Gone are the gigantic towering trees that adorned the roadsides entering town. Disalet River, the pride of the town, is fast evaporating; and the vegetation layering the hills is fast dissipating because of hungry land developers and a general lack of appreciation for land environmental concerns.
After a long and tedious trip, the town of Baler appears from afar. Sixty-nine years ago I was brought up and educated in this isolated and historical town. I remember during the early years of the Japanese occupation, Baler Elementary School, where I first learned the English alphabet, served as the Japanese Army Headquarters. When a man was confined as a suspected guerrilla, the man would not come out alive from that hideous headquarters.
Renovated Church of Baler - Inaugurated 1939
In the eastern part of town between Quezon (Calle de España) and Rizal (Calle del Cisneros) streets stood the church of Baler. Besides being a place to worship God, it also, served as headquarters of the Spanish Colonial Army from April 12, 1870 until its surrender on, 2 June 1899 to the Filipinos. During that era the church consisted of a rectory for priests, a frame-and-concrete house for the governor, barracks for troops, school for the privileged few, and an office where the administration of a crooked justice which was the law of the land.
In the summer of 1947, upon request of Mrs. Aurora A. Quezon, five Carmelite missionaries from the United States arrived in Baler. They were the last missionaries to serve Baler after the Franciscans and the Augustinian Recollects, besides the Filipino seculars that filled in the position as a result of Spain losing the Philippines to the United States. The group consisted of Father Leo McCrudden (parish priest), Father Herman Esselman, Father Andrew LeFabre, Father Gabriel Gates (founder of Mount Carmel College), and Brother Vincent Sheerer. All of them now rest in peace (RIP). They were there to fill the need for an Evangelical mission in the region, where they later established Mount Carmel High School annexing the church and perpetuating the catholic traditions. Those few men did so much to improve the conditions of the community not only spiritually, but also, socially and physically. Lamentably, Father Leo's stay in Baler was short-lived when on, 5 July 1948 he perished in the Pacific Ocean in an attempt to rescue two of his parishioners.
Today Mount Carmel is well establish institution whose graduates govern and promulgate the laws, promote and protect the well being of the people, and the future of Aurora province.
From the church's eastern side and across San Luis street are: the Post Office, Telecommunication Station, Weather Bureau, Monument of the Heroes of Baler, Marker of the episode of Lieutenant James C. Gillmore, and Municipal Buildings, erected in 1927. An addition to these edifices is Aurora Memorial Hospital completed in April 1949. Some of the buildings were destroyed by Mother Nature, and those left remaining have been renovated to meet the needs of the community. In front of the church across Rizal Street, once stood the house where Mrs. Aurora A. Quezon was born. It was demolished by typhoon Jean in 1947. The only parts that survive Mother Nature are its foundations, a scant image of its memorable past. Pristine as it is, the beach of Labasin-Sabang remains unchanged. I remember as a young man, I used to wake up early in the morning and wander the shores in a sullen idleness, watching the enticing beauty of the sun rising above the ocean, and the curling waves swallowing the fiddler crabs (talikakas) boring holes through the sand. I felt the warmth of the shores, the foaming, and the gentle skittering rhythms of surf across white-and grayish-sand beaches. With the air still, voices drifted across the shores, making the seemingly wide distance nonexistent. These shorelines where people fished for livelihood are still the same today. Despite modern fishing techniques, the fishermen of Sabang still use the same methods of fishing as they have for centuries.
Quezons Vacation House at Cemento (1941)
At the southeastern part of the beach was the outfall of Baler Kinalapan-Pingit River that empties into the Pacific Ocean. At the left bank of the outfall stood one of the fortress (castillo) built by Fray Esparragosa the other was on the opposite side of the river atop Ermita (Point Baja).
Since Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States under the Treaty of Paris on, 10 December 1898, and with the influx of people from the nearby towns of Casiguran, Infanta and the island of Polilio, the area by the river where the fortress was situated, has grown into a thriving fishing community. The people that reside there named the community after the fortress Castillo, and their patron saint was Santa Isabel cloistered inside the fortress. For 154 years, the fortress withstood and prevailed the disasters that Mother Nature had imposed against it. It is now neglected, however, still stood firm on its ground.
In 1953, the area at the summit of Ermita where the other fortress was located was developed to accommodate a water reservoir that was supposed to complement the water shortage of the town. The project was completed a year later, but failed to meet its intended purpose and today remains neglected. As time goes by, the tower had eroded and what was left was only its foundation. Some kilometer away from the estuary further inland of Baler Kinalapan-Pingit River in the inner loop by the bend known as Ubbot, Lieutenant James C. Gillmore and his party were befallen by misfortune, they were ambushed and captured by Filipino insurgents under the command of Major Nemecio Bartolome, on 12 April 1899. Gillmore and his party were dispatched from the USS Yorktown, a U.S. Navy Gunboat, anchored several kilometers away from the mouth of the river. It was commanded by Commodore Sperry, under orders from Admiral Dewey to save what was left of the Spanish Army holding refuge inside the church besieged by the Filipino insurgents.
Not far from the headland of Ermita, is the hot spring of Dibitognin an attraction where turritella snail (bitanga) habitate. Further ahead is the hamlet of Cemento where the vacation house of the late Commonwealth President Manual L. Quezon and his family is located. The house was built between rows of coconut groves ablaze with multi-color varieties of climbing bougainvilleas covering the redwood narra walls. Surrounding the house are fringes of cabatiti bushes that cluster around talisay, kadil, baligago, and ilang ilang tree, whose flowers with a scintillating smell can drive anyone into a deep slumber. Also, prevailed southwest off the house is a crystal clear river of Cemento that flows to the Bay. It was dammed and converted into a swimming pool for the President's family to refresh themselves during their occasional visit to Baler. The estate sat on some five hectares of rolling woodland overlooking Baler Bay that is formed from the headland of Point Encanto northwest to Point Dibutunan west of Casiguran.
If there is a Philippine version of Bora Bora, it is in this shoreline of Cemento where the president vacation estate was once located. The shores possess a magical and almost magnetic attraction. The ocean brushes up against the land with deep blue-green waves that match the blue-green forest covering the coastal mountainsides. One can hardly pass by without pausing to feel the sand between one's toes, or view the foamy surf, and meditate for a moment.
On weekends people spent their time in this area as an offering of relief from the drabness of weekdays unpleasantness. I recall one Saturday afternoon, in an isolated spot several meters away from where I was brooding, I watched a man cast-fishing for bottom fishes with a line weighted by a stone tied to the tip of a bamboo pole. Each time he pulled up a fish, the stone would slip out and slide to the bottom. He would rebait his hook, tie another stone and cast out the line again.
Adjacent the pier's deep harbor is the shoal of Malaking Gasang where mangroves (daluru) cover the area. It is an evergreen that provide a first-rate wildlife habitat, both above and below the water. The benefited species, the green parrot (mambog) and the humming bird (patit) claim the canopy. The underbrush areas are a safe haven for mudskipper (talusak), and the crabs below the water take good care of the decomposed leaves. Across the harbor is the coral reef of Munting Gasang, a place where heavy turban (buting) and snakeskin (katti) are plucked for their delicacy. They are creatures that have a unique molding that clearly fits the contours of its elaborate shell, right down to a small fleshy spiral that must reach back into their chambers. When their heads are touched, it flinches and shrinks away.
This monumental estate was abandoned to decay and has been obliterated by Mother Nature. Today, not a trace of the estate can be found. Only the consciousness of memories and precious thoughts remain.
Beyond are the coral reefs of Dapang Bato and Bayou of Puntian, sanctuary for wild species of pigeons. They converge to this area during the month of August where mangrove fruits are abundant for their sustenance. Out from this dense thickets of this birds sanctuary to the rocky shore, is rock Dimadimalangat, a unique natural phenomenon best described by tourists as giant marbles. A volcanic upheaval in prehistoric times accounts for it's geological shape. It litters the landscape like Stone Age relics, into which skin divers and sightseers can venture. Outside its caves, the delicate blue-green shallow waters and the pearl white sand-beaches seem as soft as pastry flour. This island was a barren rock in the middle of nowhere littered with stone crushed by blowing winds, covered with mosses and lichens, and haunted by the lonely cries of the whistling breeze. It's a colossus overlooking Baler Bay.
The Rock of Dimadimalangat (1947)
If there is a place on the shore of Baler that can withstand whatever the wild ocean hurls against it, the granite fist of Luksolukso, would seem to be it. It is a rocky headland that culminates at the shores of the Pacific Ocean. From this promontory one has to leapfrog from one rock to another to reach the shore's sandy beaches. Below are sea caves with high cliffs lashed by surf that engulfs the cave entrances. After a long pause with squirts from the cracks and blowholes, the same waves spew out foaming.
Forgotten and neglected was Natulo, a waterfall cascading from the mountaintop, which snaked its way to sea. During the late 20s Natulo was developed as a source of fresh water for the residents of Baler. Consequently, during the 50s with people migrating to Baler from all over the islands, Natulo could no longer sustain the water needed to meet the demands of the increasing population.
In a distance Pokpok na Bundok looms, a mountain point consisting of eroding rocks populated only by a thick growth of cogon (imperata cylindrica) grasses. Today, there stand a modern weather facility that serves the island of Luzon. Down below it, are swirling schools of fish seemingly performing pirouette in the blue-green sea. On the down slope is the creek of Digisit where prawns (paraw) and eels (palus) are prevalent. On the bank by the seaside is a cave. We camped in this cave while waiting for the tide to recede, then fished for convict tang (padut), rabbitfish (mataway), parrotfish (molmol), lobster (banagan/ pokepok) and other edible sea denizens that populate the coral reefs. Further south is cove of Dikasalarin, where an image of the blessed mother was carved into a rock done by Mother Nature. Beyond is Point Disoksip, and southwest of it is Dibut Bay. There in 1944, submarines USS NAUTILUS and USS NARWHAL surfaced and off loaded the war materiels for the Luzon guerrillas.
Across Baler Bay is the shady outline of the blue-green ridge of Cape San Ildefonso and on the background is Casiguran Bay. On 14 March 1901, Colonel Funston landed his forces here. This led to the capture of the elusive General Aguinaldo.
Back to the ridge of Ermita overlooking the western horizon, are endless rows of swaying coconut palm trees framed by the hill of Dikaloyungan on the foreground. Below are the creeks of Dipanamyanan, Tambubung and Kalewan, tributaries of Baler (Kinalapan-Pingit) River. Beyond is the towering peak of Mount Minoli and below it are farmlands of Dibalo. Southwest of Dibalo is the wetland of Kabussan inhabited by monkeys, bats, wild boars and other predators. Northwest are the rice paddies of Bacong, Kalabuanan, Suklayin, Pilaway, Gabgab, and Kalediyan. In Gabgab located the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company constructed during the 70s. Stretching west through northeast up to the boundary of Nueva Viscaya, Isabela, and Cagayan provinces along the Pacific coast are the jungles of Caraballo-Sierra Madre mountain ranges. Below these mountain walls are the communities of Mision de San Miguel (Dipaculao), founded by Fray Sebastian de la Madre de Dios, O.F.M, in 1719, and Mision San Jose de Casignan, San Joseph (Maria Aurora), founded by Fray Manuel de Olivencia, O.F.M, in 1753. These two missions are the first settlements established by the Franciscan Missionaries for the evangelization of the Ilongots and other non-christian tribes. The others are the hamlets of Kadayakan and Ditale. However, during the American takeover of the Philippines from Spain in 1898, the district of El Principe created by the Spanish Governor General, Antonio de Urbiztondo y Equia in 1853 (in which Baler was the capital), Casiguran, Mission of Dipaculao, and Mission of San Jose de Casignan belonged were disestablished and incorporated into the province of Tayabas by the first American Military Governor, Colonel Cornelius Gardener in June 12, 1902. A year later the Taft Commission proceeded with plans to hold a general election, rather than permit the province to be returned to military rule. When the ballots of the municipal councilmen from all the towns were tallied, the winner and the new governor was another American, Major Harry H. Bandholtz. He was the only American Army officer elected by the people of the province.
Dicaloyungan Picnic Area
In 1903, for the first time civil government was established in Baler and Casiguran by the newly elected Governor Harry H. Bandholtz. Since its inclusion to the province of Tayabas, the town of Baler was administer by ten councilmen appointed by the governor. This trend continued even until the election of Manuel L. Quezon as governor of Tayabas in December 1906. It was not until 1910, when election in Baler was first held, that Benito Angara was elected first mayor. Elections were conducted yearly until the election of Manuel A. Gonzales in 1926. Since then elections were held every four years.
With the creation of Aurora Subprovince on 14 June 1951, the municipality of San Jose de Casignan came into existence on 21 July 1949. A name, Maria Aurora was adopted for the new municipality to honor the daughter of Mrs. Aurora A. Quezon's who died with her in an ambush on 28 April 1949. The Municipality of Dipaculao was established 27 November 1950.
From Dipaculao to Baler, one has to go through the village of Reserva noted for its upland rice (hasik na palay) and cross the Agwang River (known during the founding of Baler as the river San Jose). Its long journey from the Caraballo Mountain climaxes at Baler Bay.
A short distance south of Agwang River is the village of Buhangin. Undisturbed by the influx of migrants, its tranquility and serenity remains. The people live there as their ancestors have done for so many generations and follow primordial rituals and traditions in an unending cycle. Fun and laughter come naturally to them, no matter what station in life. Whether, one is a teacher or a coconut wine (tuba) producer. Festivities are part of their daily life. Late in the afternoon, town folks from Baler converge to this place as an offering of relief from the tediousness of their daily grind. A glass or two of tuba will culminate with hearty debates and altercations about this and that are nothing but chicken-feed cases according to one who was already polluted. Otherwise, (one says) "if you want to earn a degree in Bachelor of Laws, Buhangin is an excellent place to earn it." It has no hustle, and all that is required is to attend the two-hour class sessions (tuba drinking spree) that usually start at 5 PM. About 8 o'clock diplomas are distributed, only, if one survives without passing out.
Unnoticed is the beauty of the brine marsh of Baler, a sea meadow and a monochrome of the Candaba swamps in Pampanga. It is seemingly as empty as the dry riverbed of Balitwak (dry riverine west of Baler Airport.) But if you look closely between the reeds, you can hear spartina (tikiw) grass, resonant as a woodwind concerto. If you dig down deep into the mud of the marsh's saltpans and tidal flats, you will find clams and oysters. Here in the brackish waters of Kagewad, Libuk, Buton, and tributary of Pudok southward to the outfall of Baler Kinalapan-Pingit River in the village of Castillo, shrimps spawn in the sea and struggle to mature in the marsh, while wading herons such as dalugok, malopa, and tagak spear them as easily as sampling cocktail hors d'oeuvres from a party tray. Satisfying an equally undeniable demand are the "dehin paso" and "dehin tinik" (residents of Buhagin and Sabang), plus the consumers from the town of Baler, and other outlying municipalities and villages. Shrimps, crabs, shipworms (katid), flounder (tampalpuki), and other edible water creatures are fished in this sea meadow. One looks across these hectares, seemingly endless, seemingly empty. How could they be considered wasteland ripe for development? Unknowingly, the marshes are a hidden sanctuary where virtually all the ocean's bounty incubates. Even the mosquito has its niche. The marshes are the most productive area in Baler besides the Pacific Ocean. But far from being endless, the marsh is a finite resource, infinitely fragile. Life as we know it still lies in balance.
Foremost is the beauty of Baler rain forests. During the balmy surge of fog and mist, you expect to see capre, tigbalang, patiyanak, and bayagan (gnomes) peering through giant ferns and tall trees of these dense forests.
Baler rain forest is one of the most startling of nature's preserves. Gushing waterfalls and creeks are filled with varieties of crawling shrimps and crayfishes. The forest trees consist of high valued timbers. They are also home to one of the world's most endangered birds, the Philippine Eagle (manaul) and the hornbill or clock of the mountains (kalaw).
Another wonder of the Baler rain forest is the (bromelaids) pasgak. They are among the epiphytes "air plants" that perch, and grow on tree trunks and branches, but do not depend on it for existence. The epiphytes are merely hitching a ride higher into the trees to get more sunlight.
The jungle floor of the rain forest is a mass of intertwined roots and vines. Webs of vegetation are so thick that rattan drapes the damp trail like window lace. In this underbrush, the thought of being grabbed by an alien being didn't seem so far-fetched. Wind-stunted, and gnarled, trees have grown into Liliputan proportions. The smell of rain and an unbelievable vegetative richness hang thickly in the air.
On the windy ridge, one will be drawn around the open summit by the jungle-covered peaks plunging all the way to the white-bordered beaches. Bluish water outlines the Pacific Coast. The town of Baler shimmers in the far distance. The surrounding is hued by a three-dimensional world never imagined. This is Baler, the land of my birth, and the most beautiful spot on earth, a Shangri-La never before imagined.
Today, Baler's legends, and landmarks are just memories, images, and precious thoughts that will never die. They are fascinating nostalgia that transformed me into an argosy that represented this great valley. And finally, as the sun touches the horizon, I head back to town¾ then the spell is broken.