Baguio City and Tuba, Benguet, the Philippines
February 21, 2015
The best vacay was not a place; it was time. Exactly what my BFF Ki needed: Time. Although he wanted to wake up in a different city, he actually needed “just one day out of life,” as my favorite holiday song went, away from the pressures of a sales job. He decided to drive to Baguio at the eleventh hour; we literally left at 11PM. With the connection of three expressways (NLEx, SCTEx, and TPLEx), travel time from Manila had been halved. In only four hours, we could feel the nippy Baguio breeze on our faces.
We came not for Baguio, the modern city, but Baguio, the hill station established by the Americans over a century ago. Our ambiance chasing led us to Leonard Wood Road. The vicinity best preserved the Baguio of old – wooden cottages flanked by pine trees – only slightly marred by ill-advised concrete structures, no thanks to a lack of zoning.
At 3AM, there was no room at the inn, specifically Mile Hi Inn, our first choice for the pine grove behind it. We jumped at the only available room at nearby Safari Lodge, a chalet that delivered on its name with big-game taxidermy (from the owner’s hunting trips in the 70s) adorning the dining hall. The elephant, rhino, and antelope heads were as awesome as they were appalling. On the upside, the place was a throwback to the Baguio of our childhood. Our breakfast table was overlooking the pine greens and flower colors of Baguio Botanical Garden.
With no planned itinerary, all we had was time. And it crawled at a glacial pace at Dominican Hill, atop of which lay the haunted ruins of the abandoned Diplomat Hotel. I had stayed in this hotel as a kid, and remembered its high-ceiling elegance, but was unaware of its creepy past, violent (WW2 Japanese soldiers beheading babies in a courtyard) and supernatural (faith healing sessions that extracted tumors without surgical procedures). An ongoing event at the lobby had us explore the grounds and forest fringes. There was none of the paranormal “feels” I had expected and all of normal serenity, broken only by the madness of perfecting our selfies.
With much help from Waze, we burned our tires rolling up and down the terrain to the next town for BenCab Museum. An experience with art, for it to be meaningful, demanded slow-burning engagement. We lost track of time, and each other, in the museum. I was caught up in halls of hand-carved wooden sculptures and furniture of the Ifugao, whose province I would be visiting the following week, while Ki was taking in the paintings, mainly by Ben Cabrera, that depicted the life and times of local people. One that Ki took a liking to was titled Vendor, a depiction of a solitary hawker balancing a basket of goods on his head.
Perhaps still feeling the virtual weight of merchandise pressed against the Vendor‘s head, Ki stopped to strike a conversation with an elderly woman seated on the busy sidewalk of Session Road, selling trinkets laid out on her lap. A quote Ki had told me – “When you don’t get a miracle, you can still be a miracle to someone else” – reverberated in my head. It was a touching moment when the salesperson assumed the part of the buyer. He ended up buying ladies’ accessories he had no use for, but they were the best buys. My travel icon, Pico Iyer, had said:
They found surveys that when somebody is standing in a street with a hand extended in need and people are walking past or stopping to talk to that person, the one factor that determines whether they’ll stop and help the person or not is not income or background or race or any of that. It’s just whether they have the time or not.
If you don’t have time, you don’t have enough kindness in your life. You don’t have the chance to open yourself up.
Further down the road, we crossed a foot bridge toward Baguio City Public Market for pasalubong shopping. Munching on fresh strawberries Ki had bought as we entered the market, we took time, and lots of photos, looking for walis tambo (soft broom), and finding a rainbow-colored one, and some good ole Good Shepherd strawberry jam, still the best one in town with less of the sweetness and more of the strawberry bits. Both were pasalubong for my mother.
When time was not of the essence, time became the essence. We started the day late and felt we had done much, but it was just mid-aftie, enough time for a leisurely walk through Burnham Park. It was the weekend leading up to the Panagbenga Flower Festival; the park was already abuzz with commerce and activities. The iconic lagoon looked unappealingly rusty, though. Think red tide. Ki and I parked our butts on a bench to eat. A group of young people suddenly swarmed around us and asked for a groufie. It was for a religious cause we didn’t understand but gamely participated in.
Following the herd, we ended up at SM City Baguio, the capitalist monster vilified for cutting down centuries-old pine trees and strangling local businesses. As prophesied by Joni Mitchell decades ago, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Mall management had recently conducted clandestine tree-cutting in the dead of night for the construction of, yes, a parking building. Of course, the city government could be faulted for selling out Baguio. We didn’t know if Baguio residents regarded it as necessary evil. But for stealing the pine-scented origin of Baguio, we gave it what it deserved: We peed at SM!
Darkness had already fallen when we made our way down the treacherously zigzag Kennon Road. It was the longest day. It turned out there was much to do – or not do – on a day trip. We spent indefinite periods of time walking, sitting…just being. We had nostalgia, art, food, commerce, even some humanity. We left with our hearts full. It was a distinctly Baguio experience, but our take-away was more universal: Time. That “one day out of life” was more than we had bargained for. Amen to Pico Iyer:
I often think we’re most happy when we forget the time. When we’re completely absorbed in the conversation or a movie or a piece of music.