Baguio City, the Philippines
September 1, 2015
Redolence could evoke memories as vividly as imagery. In an overnight visit to Camp John Hay in Baguio, a midnight walk shrouded in fog and darkness jogged pine-scented memories. Ki and I could sniff the scent of our childhood trips when the city was largely under pine cover. There had been less trees in the city of late, yet patches of forests remained in and around the Camp. Hours later, sunlight pierced through the pine grove by our hotel window and drew us out to take in the crisp morning freshness.
We passed the night at Mile Hi Inn within the former American base established in 1903. Ki preferred this no-frills, one-story accommodation for its backyard un-manicured pine grove as much as for its bargain rates. The inn may be in the shadow of posh The Manor Hotel, literally and socioecomically, but it was one of the Camp’s extant structures built in 1910. The L-shaped strip mall housed the base’s commissary during the American occupation. It had since been repurposed as a commercial center and the digs of drivers and minders of snazzy guests billeted uphill.
Our brekkie on the porch of Mr. Beans came with pine-fresh air, albeit laced with the bane of scenic slopes – vehicular exhaust from uphill driving. The previous night at Pizza Volante in the Convergys complex, the aroma of our tsokolate-eh was overpowered by sidestream smoke from graveyard shifters on a break.
As we set out to explore the Camp, a whiff of horses, a throwback to my boyhood fascination with horseback-riding around Wright Park Riding Circle, tinged the air. A man on horseback leading a pony strutted past us.
We walked up the slope, but Ki strayed off the stairway and wobbled on uneven ground littered with elongated pine cones and needles. We followed trickles of water upstream until Ki found the spot where ground water gushed out. It summed up our exploration on foot, following leads of memories while making new ones.
Picnic tables dotted the slope under the canopy of looming Benguet pines. It was not the Americans who planted these trees, as Ki had thought. It may have been the Benguet pine, an endemic species blanketing the Cordilleras, that enticed the Americans to establish a hill station 5,000 feet up the mountains. Its scent was not only the stuff of my Baguio memories; it had perfumed the isolated world of indigenous people that made their home on the range.
The top of the hill lay the Camp’s Historical Loop, the nostalgic heart of Baguio as envisioned by Americans at the turn of the 19th century. We found a group of university students completing their OJT. The most Enrique Gil-looking of the lot, JV, volunteered to be our tour guide. He was a veritable mountain man from another highland province – Bukidnon in Mindanao. How he had come to Baguio, geographically and culturally far removed from his hometown, was a story not less compelling than the scripted history he had memorized.
The tour opener was a dramatis personae in an Ernesto Duliang totem pole, a rather macabre stack of heads of significant personages in the Camp’s history. Save for the lone Filipino (the first, but arguably ineffectual, president Aguinaldo who delivered the country to the hands of the Americans on a silver platter), the who’s who among American colonizers, immortalized in street names (Dewey, Taft, Roosevelt, Forbes, Kennon, and McArthur), were represented.
The pole stood by the Cemetery of Negativity, aka Pet Cemetery for the animal statues on the headstones. Buried therein were not pets but negative thoughts that smelled like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), a common affliction plaguing military personnel. Perhaps the cemetery dealt with the disease not yet fully understood at that time.
We raced down the Bell Amphitheater and tried out the acoustics of the gazebo that amplified our voices, reverberating throughout this bowl of sunlight and space. The historical core’s centerpiece, however, was the erstwhile officers’ quarters called the Bell House, named after Major General Franklin Bell. The portrait of Secretary of State John Milton Hay, after whom the Camp was named, also hung on the living room wall.
The Americana-style cottage was turned into a museum, its L-shaped porch rented out for events. The fireplace, a singular feature that lent an American aroma to any house in the tropics, conjured up those chilly Christmases my family and I used to spend in Pacdal huddled in the warmth of filial hearth.
A mural adorning the house’s side porch harkend back to the lost scent of innocence of those Christmases of my childhood. It was a painting of a manger scene reimagined in Igorot culture. Baby Jesus wrapped in traditional woven fabric was surrounded by local livestock and vegetables as the Ifugao rice terraces reflected the dawning of the first Christmas morning. Even the Three Kings came on the back of carabaos.
We followed a bowered History Trail that told the story of the Camp in photos and text to Our Secret Garden, a lush refuge where Maj. Gen. Bell retreated to when he needed time and space to think. At the center of a hidden gazebo, JV pointed at a circular metal plate bearing the Camp’s seal. It allegedly covered the tunnel opening that led to hidden treasures. Whether they were of Spanish conquistadores or of the legendary Japanese general, Yamashita, who lived in the Camp during WW2, JV could not say.
The walking tour ended on such a mysterious note, familiar and fresh at the same time. Camp John Hay was evocative of Baguio’s past as well as mine, where the present generation could breathe in the sentimental memories of Baguio oldtimers.
The whole experience was captured in a song an old friend, Maita Roces, sang to me decades ago that had not escaped my memory. In the face of dwindling Cordillera forests, the unrecorded ditty Trees was timely as ever.
Look at all around you
Tell me what you see
Just how can you imagine a life
Without a tree.
The heavens above us
Made trees for us to see
The truth of how important
These trees will ever be.
And now that I can tell you
How I feel so sad
To see these lovely trees disappear
It’s just too bad…