Sunday, March 15, 2009

Missing Baguio

Dear Me,

It's summer already! I think I'm becoming delirious for I've been dreaming about this place for days. My last visit in
Baguio was way back in 2006. Before that, I've been spending my weekends in this cool place every month just to get away with the stress and exhaustion from work (doing projects and research can make you go nuts if you're in such a demanding workplace; despite that, I loved my work). Spending a few hours in that vacation destination is enough for me to rejuvenate, physically and mentally. :)

I definitely agree with
Mr. Michael Tan about this article he wrote in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The title is just befitting. :)

Surreal Baguio
By Michael Tan
03/13/2009

The last time I visited Baguio City was about three years ago. It was not a pleasant trip, because of a combination of work and domestic pressures. I also got caught in an evening thunderstorm on the way back, making the trip all the more harrowing.

Last week's visit, mainly to attend the University of the Philippines' Baguio Centennial Conference, was totally different. It helped having someone drive for me, but the new SCTEX (Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway) also made the trip shorter. You enter at Clark (after the Northern Luzon Expressway) and exit in Tarlac province, a rather short stretch but one which allows you to skip several towns that often have traffic bottlenecks.

I was worried that there would be a mad rush of people, given that my trip coincided with the tail end of the flower festival, but no, we just breezed through the more than 200 kilometers. Total travel time, including one hour to get out of Metro Manila and about 40 minutes for a mid-trip break, was six hours — not bad at all, especially when you have young children with you.

With what looks like a long and hot summer upon us, you might want to consider a trip up, especially since it is Baguio's centennial.

But, you might ask, what does Baguio have to offer? People, including Baguio residents themselves, complain all the time about how Baguio has deteriorated through the years. Intended as a summer capital for government bureaucrats and a place for American colonial administrators to recover from philippinitis (the term actually exists, and was even the title of a US Navy song), Baguio's cool climate, scenic spots and economic opportunities have become liabilities, attracting too many people, whether as transients or permanent settlers.

But Baguio continues to attract people, not so much because it has new attractions each time but because it's just so different, even surreal. Some of this you already know: the cool climate in what is usually a very hot country, the quaint colonial architecture, the flowers that you won’t see back in Manila, the strawberries.

Nothing's constant in Baguio. The colonial architecture used to be just that, a reminder of the American past, but in the last two decades, the buildings, now older and many rundown, have taken a new ambience, this time as haunts.

The reputed ghosts of Baguio gave me an idea for my presentation at the Baguio Centennial conference, and I'll be sharing the paper with you as soon as I can find time to shorten it.


Cowboys

Ghosts aside, Baguio has a way of constantly reinventing itself. At the centennial conference, there were two presentations that I particularly enjoyed: one on the pony boys of Wright Park by Feliz Perez, and the other on the Benguet Koboy by Alice Subido. Both the pony boys and the "cowboys" of Benguet province have common ancestry, back in the pre-American period when the "baknang" (the Ibaloi elite) hired men to care for their cattle. The Americans eventually land-grabbed from the baknang (another story, for another column), but the cowboys lived on, now no longer limited to the Ibaloi, but still carrying on the a distinctly Benguet cowhand culture.

I always wondered why American country music was so popular in the Cordillera region, especially in Baguio, and figured it was simply the product of an American colonial hangover. Mind you, this isn't just folk houses with singers strumming out John Denver songs. I still remember going to a jam-packed music hall where people played American country music complete with fiddles and cowboys strutting around with the appropriate boots and hats.

It turns out this country music craze is tied up to the Benguet Koboy. The conference session on the Benguet Koboy made me nostalgic, and I asked if there were still country music halls. The one I visited some years ago has since been converted into an "ukay-ukay" (used clothing) place, but my Baguio friends said there are still places where country music is played, complete with line dancing.

I didn't have time on this last trip to look up those places, but I did get to check out old haunts (besides haunted houses). I used to go to La Azotea on Session Road because of a folk singing place on the second floor. I ended up on the fourth floor, where the master of the surreal, filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik, has a center that combines, in a multi-level layout, a stage, photo galleries, installation art everywhere, and a restaurant.

Now for a magical mystery dining tour. Café by the Ruins on Chuntug Road, near City Hall, is still my favorite, with its menu offering a fusion of traditional Cordillera food, Filipino food, and a bit of something from everywhere. They now make their own "tapuey" (rice wine) but ran out the weekend I was there. They do carry all kinds of alternative "pasalubong" (arrival tokens] from other producers; instead of the usual strawberry jam, you can find hibiscus ("gumamela") jam, or dried "daguey" (a kind of berry). Weekend mornings they sell organic vegetables.

O My Khan is just across the street from Café, which is where I go for "kalamansi" cheesecake (they call it a pie, but it's really more of a cheesecake, with graham cracker fillings). Ebai, which used to be in Munsayac Hotel and has one of the best carrot cakes around, is now found at Narda's, which is an outlet for the famous Narda's textile products and handicrafts, a pastry shop and a restaurant.


BenCab

A fire just a few days before my visit had gutted down part of the city market but there's still enough of it for the usual businesses to thrive. The market is much cleaner now, but I have to say the vendors can be too pushy, almost desperate. Do scout around first before buying; you'll find, for example, that the best vegetables (including hard-to-find ones like Chinese pechay) are actually further uphill behind the market.

Baguio, or rather Metro Baguio, does have one new attraction: the BenCab Museum, which opened just last month. You go north into Naguilian Road, and right before Cooyeeson Mall, you turn into the town of Asin. The museum is on Km 6 and has National Artist Ben Cabrera's amazing collection of traditional crafts, as well as his and his friends' artwork. The museum is on a piece of land that also has a garden, farm and breath-taking views of the mountains. The ground floor has a restaurant, Café Sabel, with a still limited menu.

Don't rush through the museum. There's enough in there for at least an hour, more if you are into art or anthropology. I had the kids with me and they were quite behaved, almost as if the artwork had sedated them. They were allowed to roam quite freely, but were not allowed into an Erotica Gallery.

So there you have a bit of surreal Baguio in the 21st century. I'm planning one more trip in May, more leisurely this time, without having to think about ghosts and haunted houses, unless my son brings it up. We stayed at a bed and breakfast on Leonard Wood and on our last night there, he kept waking me up, pointing to the window and claiming someone was looking at us from outside.

Source: PDI

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