Surfing lessons in Baler

12:36 AM July 07, 2015

IT’S BEEN a while since we took the long trip to Baler without plan or preparation and for no particular reason except maybe to scratch the itch to get as far away as possible from the madness of city life. Still I can’t seem to get over the fact that lately I had become prone to making such spur-of-the-moment decisions—a dash of daring that, knowing myself to be a fearful and contemplative person, seems totally out of character.

I wish I can rejoice at finding that I still have my wild side, but something tells me that what psychologists say about people my age is starting to manifest itself, and believe me, a midlife crisis is not at all flattering. Getting old sucks; you fight to preserve pride and dignity by doing crazy things from time to time, maybe to create the illusion of youth.


Baler is beautiful. Its breathtaking beaches beckoned as I drove through the winding roads of the Sierra Madre’s rugged southern slopes. But it was difficult to fully appreciate the view when imagining the next sharp bend on the road and feeling the car engine’s throttle starting to falter the steeper the climb went. Perhaps my 12-year-old car is the same age as me in human years, an age when climbing upstairs leaves me out of breath like a beat-up car that needs to see the mechanic.

The breeze from the ocean reminded me of my youth in Navotas before it became dirty and malodorous from all the pollution and overcrowding. I recall frolicking shirtless on the seashore during low tide; I was a short and skinny kid, but I was a tireless bundle of energy then and no amount of swimming and racing against the waves of the shallow sea even at high noon could douse my exuberance.


But when finally I stepped on to the fine sand of Sabang beach in Baler, that kid, along with my lost childhood in Navotas, became but a distant memory.

It made me self-conscious to peel off my shirt on a beach full of mostly young people in the prime of their life—the men with slender waist and rock-hard chest, the women ravishingly built after the statues of Roman goddesses. Me? I would have been happy just to have retractable flesh, to tuck in excess meat protruding from my belly. I wished I could just loll on a hammock and ogle those beautiful creatures. But during the long trip to Baler the whole family made a pact to go surfing, and a promise is a promise. I even raised the stakes by swearing I wouldn’t quit until I could stand on the surfboard and ride the waves like a true surfer.

Then again, it’s one thing to say what you plan to do and quite another to actually do it. When you reach a certain age, your brain can no longer dictate to your body the way it used to.

David, the surfing instructor, was precise to the smallest detail. He told us the basics of surfing wisdom (“find your balance, push yourself up swiftly and smoothly, right foot in front, legs spread apart, knees bent”) up to the last second before we took the plunge. And I also did a bit of prepping, visualizing myself standing on the surfboard in a graceful spread-eagle pose, gliding against the wind, like Leonardo DiCaprio on the hull of the Titanic yelling, “I’m the king of the world!”

The first try. David made me lie on my belly on the surfboard before pulling it a good distance from the shore where he thought the water was deep enough. When a good-size wave rolled in, he pushed the board hard and the damned thing glided from under me and bolted toward the shore, while I quickly sank to the bottom like a rock. I panicked, wriggling and flailing my arms underwater, and must have drunk gallons of the salty stuff before I found the good sense to get to my feet—and realize that the water wasn’t even chest-deep.

The second try. I decided to cling to the surfboard for dear life like a lizard sticks to the wall. As soon as David sent the board racing through the waves, it tilted to one side before capsizing, with me underneath, refusing to lose my grip like a barnacle attached to the bottom of a ship. When finally I came up to the surface, I saw David grinning from ear to ear.

The third try. I was determined to stand proud on that surfboard by hook or by crook. I thought I’d take my time, but it took me so long to make my move that by the time I tried to pull myself up, I had practically reached the shore where the water was about knee-deep. Again I lost my balance even before I could get to my feet; the momentum catapulted me head first into the shallow water and I ended up like a breakdancer doing a head stand. When I saw David, he was laughing his head off.


I tried and tried until I stopped counting the times I tried. Still I refused to get tired of trying. I fell into the water again and again and, once, almost got rammed on the head by a speeding surfboard. But when I looked up, I saw my daughter Sining atop it, riding the waves with the grace of a ballet dancer, happiness all over her face.

Finally, in yet another attempt, I managed to steel myself against the waves and my inner fears, ignoring the pain from earlier falls, ignoring David’s utter inability to stop laughing at my incompetence. At last, I managed to plant my feet firmly on the surfboard, to get into some kind of rhythm with the waves and the wind for what seemed like mere seconds, to stand defiant against the specter of absolute failure.

Those seconds when I stood on that board may well be the equivalent of walking on Cloud Nine…

The experience didn’t make a surfer out of me. But it made me a believer in taking chances, if only to recapture the fleeting yet magical moments that give life meaning and beauty.

Adel Abillar is a private law practitioner with a small office in Quezon City where, he says, “I alternate between being boss and messenger.” He obtained his law and prelaw degrees from Manuel L. Quezon University and the University of Santo Tomas, respectively.

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