I Love The Smell of Surfwax in the Morning


It was a Tuesday morning and the last thing on our mind was work. The air was saturated with the smell of shampoo and perfume as my girlfriend and I found ourselves among a sea of neatly combed heads on their early morning march to work. With our surfboards under our arms, we wormed our way through the endless current of the metropolitan workforce making its way to factories and offices.


A storm was brewing in the southern part of the Philippines and it was generating some good swells worth chasing. 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 from the 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 of Manila, 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 isle was filled with all sorts of luggage and there was barely any space to walk. The clippy made his rounds collecting fares while a teenage preacher standing behind the driver loudly delivered quotes from the bible to the passengers already suffering the hell of tropical heat (he would later distribute letter-size envelopes to passengers to ask for donations). Philippines is fiercely Catholic, even public transportation isn't safe from all the proselytization—and scammers capitalizing on the gullibility of Christian guilt. 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. The concrete jungle slowly began to transform into precarious passageways that carved into the mountains and steep cliffs, leading us to the little surf haven of Baler.


Baler was where Col. Kilgore declared the famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” in the movie Apocalypse Now after ordering his men to surf in the middle of combat. The movie 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 deserted Baler, the locals picked up the surfboards 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 ex-pat surfers.


Some of the local surfers there possess promising talent that could someday thrust the Philippines on to international acclaim. Even Baler’s young grommets (probably as young as 10 or 11-years-old) already feature smooth 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 atmosphere made it easy to imagine how the pyro-heavy movie set in the Scorsese masterpiece might have looked like - except we were seeing nothing but chest-high sets perfectly sculpted by the mild offshore breeze. The bay was devoid of PT boats dotting the horizon and Hueys blasting The Ride of The Valkyries to prompt 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 himself 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.


It was fortunate that Baler did not take the brunt of the storm that day. However, even if it did, surfers there would still take it as a blessing in disguise. From a different perspective, surfing can be extremely pantheistic, considering that its devout followers know that it requires a delicate interplay between all the elements in the universe to produce the perfect wave. Surfers do not necessarily see typhoons as singularly destructive forces. Instead, they see them as necessary entities that keep the balance of nature; they seem to have a much deeper understanding of the nature of typhoons which goes beyond meteorological charts and data.


The waves during our visit were tame in comparison to the wilder waves that the locals there are accustomed to. Baler surfers have gained notoriety in surfing some of the biggest of storm waves in the Philippines; riding waves of consequence puts them in a hyper-aware state, allowing them to experience an unparalleled adrenaline high while they are being propelled by big walls of water deep into a trance like no other.

The day of our visit was strangely peaceful despite the dystopic mood conjured by the storm clouds. There are no real wars to worry about here, just daily battles with mother nature. I began to wax my board as I silently prayed for the victims of the typhoon. The smell of wax wafted through the air as I watched the sun shyly peek behind a tear in the clouds. The other surfers in the line-up sat on their boards in a meditative state as they waited for the next set of waves. In my deep rumination, I could almost hear the faint sound of The Ride of The Valkyries, and Kilgore shouting at the top of his lungs, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!”