Aug 31, 2008

Happy Birthday, Baguio!

By the time this sees print, it would be a day before Baguio’s 99th Charter Day. Tomorrow, we could sit back and look at our 99 year-old city and see what have become of this American dream of a hill station up in the cool mountains of the Cordilleras. I may have written about the city’s brief history before, but looking back again as we look forward to the city’s birthday is something I just couldn’t resist.

A little over a hundred years ago, soon after taking over the archipelago from the Spaniards, the Americans heard of a highland oasis that the previous colonizers planned to turn into a sanitarium, thanks to Professor Dean C. Worcester, the only ranking American official who has lived in the country during the Spanish occupation. Worcester, a zoologist, has made expeditions in different parts of the country between the years 1887 (the year Jose Rizal rocked the country with his “Noli”) and 1893 (about the time the Katipunan was slowly turning into a formidable revolutionary force that would eventually open the doors to Philippine independence). During that time, he learned of the planned Spanish hill station in nearby La Trinidad, Benguet. As a member of the Schurman Commission, the group formed to investigate the environmental conditions up here, Worcester came across a detailed report of a previous commission tasked to do the same thing: the Benguet Commission under the Spanish Governor General Ramon Blanco. And that set off a series of events, fortunate and unfortunate, the realization of the Baguio dream.

It didn’t happen overnight, and several times the whole dream was threatened. Upon visiting the area, the Americans decided that Kafagway, an area that approximates the present site of Baguio City, then divided primarily among Carino, Suello, Carantes, Camdas and Molintas families, was the better site for the future hill station, mainly because of its better accessibility from the lowlands (ha!). The first thing they needed was a road to get there, and here lies the first major setback.

They wanted a railroad from the lowlands up to Baguio, and thought that the trail the runs alongside the Bued river was the best route. The first man tasked to build that road (which was supposedly a mere prelude to a railroad), was Captain Charles Mead, who greatly underestimated the challenges posed by the conditions of the area. What the Americans thought would take only a year to build took 5 years, and would cost only $75,000 in the end cost $2,000,000. And after two failed attempts to complete the Benguet road and millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money and several years, what did the Americans have to show up in the proposed hill station? A tiny hospital and meager lodging facilities. The clamor to abandon what the people believed was a wasteful project aimed to benefit only the elite became stronger and stronger, but the resolve of the Americans seemed to grow stronger than that clamor.

But When Lyman Kennon took over the construction of the road, the dream came closer to realization. Construction activities went into high gear when Kennon made significant developments in the road’s construction, and when he announced in January of 1905 that the “road as it stands is entirely completed and ready…,” Baguio was on a one way road to becoming one of the most beautiful hill stations in the world.

Burnham entered the picture and provided one of the beautiful designs for a future city (of 25,000 people by the way). What was once planned to be a mere sanitarium took a life of its own and became a premier rest and recreation center, helped in so many ways by the declaration of Baguio as the country’s Summer Capital which meant that for a period of time when the heat becomes unbearable in the country’s capital, Manila, the seat of government and its functions are transferred to Baguio.

Here’s my two centavos’ worth: in the decades that followed after 1909 when Baguio became a chartered city, Baguio became one of the most beautiful cities in the world, famous for its pine forests and sunflower covered hillsides and cool climate. But in the last decade or so, we seem to have thrown all that away in the name of mindless hyper-urbanization and to sustain some people’s greed and gambling addictions.

Happy birthday, Baguio! I pray that your people would once again be bound by a sense of community and deliver you from all evil.

Cordillera Today, August 31, 2008 issue

Aug 18, 2008

Slaves

At Puerto de San Juan Beach Resort in La Union, we made our way to a table at the restaurant for lunch. I called the attention of a waiter, who signaled for me to wait as he took the orders of another group at another table. After writing down that group’s preference, he proceeded to give the list to the kitchen before making his way to our table with menus.

We already knew what we wanted, and as I was giving him our orders, a Caucasian male with his girlfriend entered the restaurant and while I was in midsentence, the waiter took off to seat the foreigner and his girlfriend, gave them menus, and with a huge patronizing smile on his face, took their orders. He passed our table on his way to the kitchen, and I called his attention once again to tell him that we weren’t done yet, and he grudgingly stopped to get the rest of our orders.

Racism in this country is puzzling – we are biased against ourselves.

I wanted to tell the waiter that we’re not under colonial rule anymore, but of course his attitude could’ve been motivated by the prospect of a tip in green bucks.

I was cast in a movie produced by a Dutch production outfit years back, and I experienced the same odd case of racism – I arrived at the set one morning, the location was up in the mountains and quite far away from the nearest available restroom, and the site of a portable toilet greeted me with a huge sign that said “For Foreign Cast” only. Of course I explained to the local crew that we Filipino actors experience calls of nature too, and when I didn’t get an explanation, I brought my case to the Dutch producer – I told him how they can probably make their racist biases more discreet, and I was bowled over by his reply: having the portable toilets exclusively for the use of their kind was not their idea and that they were as taken aback as I was.

In Baguio, a look at the Sunday classifieds would reveal several ads for houses for rent with this qualifier at the end: “Preferably Foreigners.” Or if the ad came with a description of the house saying how beautiful it is, chances are it would be concluded with “Ideal For Foreigners,” as if Filipinos have no business living in a house with a fireplace and a dirty kitchen. And no, the Baguio Country Club’s decision to ban Koreans hardly makes things any better.

In Malou Jacob’s play, “Pepe,” a line goes: “Noon, ang mga Kastila’y kinamuhian naming. Ngayon, ang mga banyagang nagsasamantala sa inyo’y tinitingala, pinagsisilbihan, minamahal.”

More than a hundred years after the Spaniards left, and more than fifty years after the Americans gave us our independence (or dumped us, depending on which historical author you patronize), we’re still slaves.

Ay, kawawang bayan. Gising!

Aug 2, 2008

You don't know what you've got til it's gone

Baguio was never about a mall, nor was it ever about a grand parade of floats bedecked with fake flowers. It's not about the humongous P100,000-day convention center, nor the proposed multi-storey parking structure, it was never about having a multimillion-peso concrete pine tree. It's not about having thousands of taxicabs on the road, or having enough hotels to host an advertising congress, or that many call centers, or pseudo-English language schools.

Next time you're on your way to town, leave your car and take a jeep. Listen in on the conversation between the driver who's been plying the same route for decades and the old man who's been riding the same jeep in that same seat ever since he was a young high school boy at City High – they know what they're talking about.

Take a walk through Burnham Park, and hear the laughter of the children at the swings, have your portrait taken by a photographer who've captured the portraits of generations of families, friends, lovers who have made the air and the trees of the park an indelible part of their lives, buy a bag of peanuts and just watch the world go by, or stay still, under the trees and watch the fog hover just above the lake as boats full of smiles come in and out of view, or walk over to where the men play chess and watch the game while having your shoes shined.

Weave through the jeeps and the pedestrian traffic and stop to say hello to an old friend and have a nice steaming Benguet brew in a glass in any of the restaurants along Session Road that have witnessed the transformation of the city through the years.

You don't need to line up at the check-out counter with your vacuum-packed stale vegetables – you can get them fresh at the city market where every single carrot, potato and tomato was picked, cleaned and offered by hands that came from generations of vegetable farmers who have tended the same farms through the years. Get lost in the aroma of freshly ground Benguet, Kalinga or Sagada Coffee. Have your pinikpikan chicken prepared right before your eyes just the way it's supposed to be done.

Treasure the sight of sunflowers that begin to bloom in November, smell the pine-scented smoke coming from a freshly swept yard, pick-up a pine cone and see that tiny pine nut and wonder how that glorious tree hovering over you can came from something so small, so fragile, and imagine what you can do to protect it.

These are just some of the things that make Baguio… Baguio: taken for granted, ignored, buried under tons of uncollected garbage and smog, hidden behind newspaper headlines, unheard of amid the din of political, commercial and industrial noise.

Hush, clean up the mess and all these things will come back to the surface, revealing the real image of a city we all love.

It's so true: You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.