“Trust me,” says Leo, unzipping his shortboard case. “You’re gonna want to wear Crocs.” Roxy and I exchange doubtful glances and cast suspicious eyes at the pile of dusty brown plastic slippers by the doorway. “Seriously, guys.” Leo rolls his eyes. “Just put them on.”
Half an hour later, wading over the insanely pebbled, epically rocky waters of Cemento “Cobra” Reef and mangrove, we get what Leo meant. Never have I been so grateful for a pair of puke-coloured Crocs. (Leo, mate, sorry to ever have doubted you.) My SLR is balanced carefully on my head; Mike and Roxy are further up ahead, militantly keeping potential hazards away from their precious shortboards.
When we finally reach the reef rocks, I stare out at the endless blue sea in utter bliss. The waves, clear and cool, have a pretty strong current going on. Being an inexperienced surfer, I set up camp on the rocks as the other two put on their leashes and paddle out.
At the other end of the rocks I notice a young kid in a camo jersey gazing out at the line-up. I go to sit down next to him, and mustering up my best Tagalog, I say hello. “Kumusta, ate Mel,” he replies, with a grin. “Dustin ako.” We reach out and spud each other.
I learn that Dustin is fourteen years old, grew up in Baler, and is taking turns to surf an old foamie with his best friend. He learns that I am twenty-one, grew up in London, and speak pretty crap Tagalog. Introductions made, we sit and watch the surf in companionable silence, exchanging quiet smiles.
Our reverie is broken when we notice someone paddling back to us, yelling: Dustin’s friend, with a broken half of a board. Ouch. “Ay naku!” His friend hauls himself deftly up onto the rocks and holds up what was left of his board. Dustin chuckles, and, surprisingly, instead of being annoyed, his friend grins and shrugs, as if to say, eh, what can you do? That’s the sea for you. “He catch good waves,” says Dustin. “He’s happy.”
Eventually, they have to leave. As they wade across the reefy mangroves, Dustin clutching the lonely half of the board, I wonder with some sadness if I’ll ever see them again. As if reading my thoughts, Dustin turns back towards me waves enthusiastically, almost losing his footing. “Bye, ate Mel…” he calls out, his voice swallowed up by the wind. I wave back and watch them wade until they become tiny dots on the horizon.
With Roxy, Mike, and Leo still catching waves, I venture out to the mangrove reefs to do some explorations of my own. It’s crazy beautiful standing there, surrounded by water and leaves and hills. I speak to some local kids with buckets who are collecting snails (kuhol) to cook later, and help them pick out a couple amongst the mangrove roots.
After a time, I feel my skin starting to sizzle beneath the blazing Baler sun. Telltale beginnings of our pesky friend, sunstroke. I trickle the snails I’ve caught into a bucket, wish the kids a hearty dinner, scoop up my belongings hanging on a nearby branch, and with one last look at the reef, head back to shore.