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Bataan Life March

An ascent and descent to Filipino history

Updated

By PAULA MARIE NOCON
Images by EVERYWHERE WE SHOOT

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They say that a good travel article must start with one thing, usually a quest, and end up as something entirely different by the ending. The quest could be a question, burning in the writer-traveler’s mind, which the trip will be fated to answer.

The journey undertaken should induce a change in the writer-traveler— he or she is not the same again after the journey, for that is the purpose of traveling, to change you for the better.

Well, I made a trip to Morong, Bataan recently. And while it fit all the criteria to make a good travel article, I knew after the trip was done that the article would end up as something different, something more than about traveling.

See, the trip was made just at the beginning of the Habagat season— off-peak, wet, meant to stay indoors. As soon as we got to the port to hitch a 15-minute bangka ride to our destination, the Playa La Caleta nature resort in Morong, we were told “No, not today!” by the coast guard. A storm was brewing hence the seas were too choppy. We had two options: go back home to Manila, or hike our way to the resort.

Of course we chose the latter.

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We planned the trek with the locals. Take the longer, safer route, they said. Start at the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant compound.

Approximate hiking distance to Playa La Caleta: Five kilometers. Estimated hiking travel time: One hour or so. The hiking terrain is varied, they forewarned, but no worries. The hiking trails you will take were laid out by our forefathers. You will not lose your way.

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We started our hike on the asphalt and cement roads inside the power plant complex, roads which eventually gave way to mud, grass, rock, rickety bamboo foot bridges, and forest canopy. The words Bataan Nuclear Power Plant held a deep reverb, a chilling resonance, a Cold War vibe.

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Built during the Marcos regime in 1976 to the tune of $2.3 billion, the project was mothballed by the Cory Aquino administration, plagued with allegations of fraud, the curse of the Chernobyl meltdown, a lost court case, and a debt that took the Philippine government 30 years to pay.

We went up the mountain above the BNPP beach and there it was. The sight of it was quite majestic. No one would ever guess that a nuclear plant could look beautiful, but it is. Monstrous, brutalist, Marcosian in its aesthetics, but beautiful—it tells a story.

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The power plant was never used nor operated, and the debate over what to do with this mammoth rages on to this day.

An hour into our trek (we were way behind schedule) it became clear to us that the hiking trails of Bataan were indeed ancient—there was a logic to them that was primal. They were not carved for sightseeing or leisurely meandering. These footpaths were made for hunters, foragers. Later, they were to be the footpaths of our ill-fated World War II infantry soldiers.

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As we went deeper into the trek and the jungle, the specter of World War II made its presence felt. This is the Bataan peninsula, after all, the final battleground before Filipino and American soldierssurrendered to Japanese forces, the site of the atrocious Death March, the setting of 150 days of hell, as one war veteran called the misery they endured as they fought to delay the advancing of the Japanese invasion from Jan. 7 to April 9, 1942. About 106,000 troops perished during that period alone.

I am no history buff. I’m the farthest thing from a military enthusiast. But I am all for immersive travel as a way of understanding historical events experientially, beyond textbook learning.

The best way to spend the night in Morong is by glamping. Playa La Caleta has 20 glamping tents that can house eight persons at a time.

Somewhere in the jungles of Morong I found myself seeing not just one, but all sides of the conflict— from the decision to wage war against the West by the Empire of Japan, all the way to the American atomic retaliation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In between, the poorly equipped but unwaveringly valiant Filipino soldier took his last stand to defend his land in Bataan. Knowing this, a strange peace came over me.

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After clocking in two hours of hiking, the downhill descent to Playa La Caleta began. Pulling into view was the kilometer stretch of white sandy beach and the lovely heart-shaped islet Miguelito, also part of the resort. A brown eagle, adopted by the resort in its eagle sanctuary, welcomed us by flying overhead.

The glamping resort, owned by the Camachos, revolves mainly around eco-tourism first, and art and music next—interests close to the Camacho family’s heart. The Camachos are an old Bataan family, their forebears among Bataan’s war veterans and Death March survivors, and Morong is part of Bataan National Park, a protected reserve since 1945. Their ties to the province run deep. Migs Camacho, the eldest son after whom the islet was named, is a staunch environmentalist, and makes sure the resort stays up-tothe-minute with its ecological agenda.

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He is particularly proud of their giant clam adoption program, a sanctuary for the endangered Taklobo (scientific name: Tridacna Gigas) species, said to be the largest living bivalve mollusk on earth. The clams, which can weigh up to 400 pounds, can be viewed via snorkelling beside Migs’s Underwater Art Gallery and artificial reef, another innovation of the resort.

He tells me that according to reports, giant clams are being illegally slaughtered and harvested in Scarborough Shoal, where China has built an airstrip, 198 kilometer west of the Bataan peninsula. He even named his resort’s restaurant Scarborough, as a protest statement against activities surrounding the shoal that adversely affect its marine wildlife and ecosystems.

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Another theater of war. It got me thinking. A particular location becomes the locus of a repeating pattern that it cannot escape from by virtue of its geography or topography. Almost 77 years have passed and Bataan and its seas continue to be a battleground, for Allied and Axis powers, for the Cold War superpowers, and now the Silent War between China and the US. The players may change, but the story is the same.

And so this may come across as a travel article, but the underlying narrative is an unresolved thread in Philippine geopolitics. Who are we, where are we, who are we up against, who is on our side, are our battles really our own?

If you want to escape reality, go somewhere else—if you want to confront history, come to Bataan. Let the place tell you its stories, let it speak to you. I do believe that it is in Bataan that our burning questions may finally find their burning answers.

TRAVEL TIPS TO MORONG, BATAAN

  1. Bataan is best experienced by combining beach activities and mountain hiking, ecology and history. Playa La Caleta is a beachfront resort but also offers guided hiking tours of the forests and jungles within its property.
  2. Pack waterproof, quick-dry clothing. Wear hiking sandals instead of flip flops. Travel light, bare necessities only.
  3. Grab a copy of the excellent “Remember Bataan” map, an illustrated guide to the Battle of Bataan (available at the Bataan Tourism Center in Balanga), for a backgrounder on World War II.
  4. The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant offers tours. You will get to see the inside of the plant including its unused nuclear reactor!
  5. The Bataan National Park is home to several endangered species. Be a foster parent to a giant clam or sea turtle! Sign up at Playa La Caleta’s adoption programs.
  6. The best way to spend the night in Morong is by glamping. Playa La Caleta has 20 glamping tents that can house eight persons at a time.

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