Baguio: Endangered Beauty

My memories of Baguio date back from eons ago. I guess almost all Filipinos have childhood memories of this place we all flock to in the summer or in December, and have our pictures taken amidst pine trees all bundled up in sweaters instead of our regular tees and shorts. Every memory I have of Baguio translate into either spiritedness or a relaxed spirit. It has always been a place to make memories and to loosen up the soul. I suppose I was deeply dismayed by the appearance of SM mall in the pine city that I did not, in so many years, thought of visiting. What was there to go to Baguio to if it was infested with malls and fast-food restaurants? My recent visit was all about giving in to a little girl’s request, she who had never been to this place almost every one in school talked about. I suppose that not every pine tree in Baguio was felled to give way to technology.

I was pleasantly surprised when, as we negotiated Kennon Road, the air was evidently cooler. It was, after all, summer, and too sunny and hot in Manila. I pointed towards the familiar effigy of a lion, but could not explain why Baguio is represented by it. It might as well be an ant. I never thought about it till then. The crisp, cool air was energizing and brought back many old memories, as well as gratifying that Baguio appeared not to have transformed in a huge way.

Brunch at Hilltop Cafe at Casa Vallejo on Session Road was very pleasant. Service was impeccable, Filipino-style. When we asked for plain white rice for the two hungry kids, the waiter gently explained that what they served us was mountain rice grown locally, and it was the healthier choice. While we knew that all along, it was rather tough on imposing it on a little girl and a teen. In sum, our order consisting of bacon and eggs with mountain rice, French toast, fresh milk, veggie panini, pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, and my Benguet coffee were not only satisfying but clearly manifested that we were, indeed, in Baguio.

We stayed for two nights at the Mountain Lodge on Leonard Wood Road, which was an old house converted into a lodging house. The room was huge yet smelled old. There was a fireplace in the living room area that was never lit during our stay. The hallway to our room was decorated with photos of old Baguio. I particularly did not like at all the walls in the living room area that were decorated with heads of dead animals. Perhaps this was reminiscent of hunters from the past who found glory in bringing home the head of a slaughtered animal. From our bedroom window, you can see the colors of Baguio – lots of greens and flowers of various types and colors.

As we went around, I realized the enormous Western influence on Baguio. Session Road was lined with restaurants serving pizza, pasta, burgers. We had dinner at the Cafe by the Ruins near Baguio City Hall, a quaint open-air dining that served veggie delights, and at Mario’s Restaurant the following evening that served sumptuous Paella, among other dishes, and while I relished the good food and wine, I searched for, but couldn’t find, a single locally-owned restaurant that was not part of a food chain like Andok’s or Baliwag or Jollibee, and which served local cuisine identified only with Baguio. Benguet coffee can be found at the restaurants we went to, though, as well as the locally-grown mountain rice.

After several misses on which road to take, and after driving through Session Road and Harrison Road several times in two and a half days, I soon concluded that Baguio had become extremely polluted. There were more cars and jeepneys that spewed smoke in the pine city than people who walked, or biked, and simply enjoyed the wonderful cool weather. I was horrified at a signage on Harrison Road announcing that bikes were not allowed anywhere on it. Right outside the city center, I stared at the multitude of houses built on the mountains wondering if there were any major modifications made on urban planning especially after the killer quake that ruined Baguio in the 1990s.

Camp John Hay remained a major tourist destination in Baguio. When inside it, you can almost forget what you saw on Session and Harrison Roads. The roads were wide, pine trees abound, segregated trash cans were everywhere, and people almost did not just leave or throw trash anywhere they wished. There was a Bird Sanctuary, a trekking area, a paint-ball corner, horseback-riding on safe trekking areas for P500 an hour, and the Tree Top adventure rides where the kids had a blast with the superman, silver surfer, and tree drop rides, a package of three short rides that cost P600 per person.

Wright Park was as well-maintained as the Camp John Hay. There were more visitors, tourists and locals alike, who crowded the Wright Horse-Riding Park. Vendors selling strawberries, oranges, and all sorts of trinkets made locally milled about, but every one of them was courteous and kind and did not pester if you didn’t want their items. They all smiled a lot, and it was hard not to notice that they all had pink cheeks.

In our search for local cuisine, we drove outside Baguio towards La Trinidad, Benguet, and ended up buying bread to satisfy our growling stomachs. We also bought loads of broccoli and cauliflower excited that they cost much much less than in the grocery stores in Manila. We took a quick look at the Strawberry farm where a kilo of strawberries picked personally cost P200, while if you bought strawberries already picked by the farmers, they would cost only P90 a kilo. We took a turn to also see the Rose Farm, where the roads were really narrow, and a small cemetery was sandwiched by residential houses. After driving a few kilometers more into La Trinidad and seeing more passenger jeepneys, trucks, and inhaling more and more fumes, we turned around to go back to Baguio where we spent the rest of the afternoon at the factory outlets inside Camp John Hay and just relishing the scenery.

We bought small gifts at the rows of stores along Kennon Road on our way back to Manila. We trailed a passenger van for a while, angered that the passengers threw trash outside the window and on the road. We bought Indian mangoes and peanuts from vendors along the road, and were amused at the women selling prawns and aligue along the road. Further down the road we bought local vinegar from small stores by the roadside. While the sun was setting, the fields of green patched with nipa huts here and there looked even more beautiful. As evening came and we neared Manila where city lights beckoned, I prayed silently that while we cannot live without the huge benefits of technology, may we learn to use it while sustaining the natural beauty of mother earth.