It was going to be a rehearsal for the planned historical tour of Baguio, an idea hatched by Noants Travel and Tours and inspired by our group's video documentary, Portrait of a Hill Station. We were to guide a group of over a hundred conventioneers around town - they had their own itinerary, and were asked to inject bits and pieces of Baguio's history as we jump from one destination to another.
First stop was Camp John Hay's Historical Core, and there we introduced them to the genesis of this famous hill station. We were joined by Camp John Hay Management Corp.'s Nonette Bennett who offered the group interesting details about the sites inside the former American military reservation. We allotted around an hour for them to take in as much as they could, but after several photo ops beside the entrance to the cemetery of negativism and with the Bell Amphitheater in the background, and after learning that there are no shops selling key chains or bonnets around, the group was already itching to move on to the next destination:
The Baguio Botanical Garden, which at one point also housed a zoo, really has nothing much to offer these days. While the Baguio Arts Guild's Greenhouse Effect Gallery still offers exhibits every now and then on top of artists offering to do on-the-spot sketches of tourists, only a sprinkling of landscaped patches of common flowers and ruins of the animal cages remain. Sure there are rows of souvenir shops selling key chains and bonnets, but that's not what a botanical garden is supposed to be about. The flower beds proving to be not so attractive to this group of tourists, they spent the allotted 45 minutes just buying souvenirs, not one even bothered to look at the ongoing exhibit inside the gallery. Moving on...
At the Mansion House, after hearing a five-minute spiel about Baguio being the official capital of the country during the summer months in the early 1900's and what that meant, we learned that the museum inside is not yet open to the public, so not much you can do but have your picture taken in front of the gate, which is said to be a replica of the Buckingham Palace gates. Across the road vendors selling Sagada oranges and kiat-kiat were being chased by elements of the Public Order and Safety Department of the City of Baguio. I thought those were better buys than the key chains. Anyway, the group couldn't wait to get to our next stop:
Mines View Park and the Good Shepherd Convent. At the former, the joke goes: there are no more mines, so there's no more view, and there's no parking. More rows of key chains and bonnets and silver trinkets, plus the occasional ukay-ukay stall. They weren't really interested to hear about how the mining boom of the 1930's fueled the growth of Baguio as a city, so we kept that short so they could once again buy more key chains and bonnets, only this time they also have the option of getting a taste of the famous Good Shepherd ube jam, which is really good, I must add. Having nothing much to offer but more of the same, the group didn't stay long and after a whole morning's tour, they were off to their lunch break lugging plastic bags of key chains, bonnets and ube jam.
At lunch, our group of four storytellers assessed the first half of the day. Though they found the spiels on Baguio's history amusing, their minds were focused only on one thing: shopping for souvenirs and finding the best ukay-ukay stall. But, we had a story to tell, and we're gonna tell it (there's nothing much they can do en route to our destinations inside those buses but listen, so we decided to just take advantage of that).
After lunch, the tourists requested a stop at Camp John Hay's Mile Hi, now a strip mall with restaurants and shops selling export overruns. It was a quick stop - after fifteen minutes, they were back inside the buses and adding to their collection of key chains and bonnets were bags of comforters and pillow cases and Baguio City t-shirts. The next drive was a longer one:
We reached Fort Del Pilar in over half an hour, and we herded the group towards the Audio Visual Room of the Philippine Military Academy to view a 10-minute video about the academy. Two minutes into the viewing and half of them were already outside in search of souvenir shops. After posing for photos with cadets, they were back in the buses with, yup, you guessed it, bonnets and key chains, this time stitched with or stamped with the words Philippine Military Academy, instead of Baguio City. Oh, and they had t-shirts too.
Last stop for the day, Burnham Park and if time allowed, the Baguio City Market. Burnham Park, that area that Baguio's original settlers used to call Minac. The only large piece of flat land in the then future city, which, instead of using it for the most revenue generating project, Daniel Burnham reserved for a public park where the general public can go to breath and rejuvenate. At the end of the spiel, we asked them if they had any more questions:
Where's the cheapest ukay-ukay store in Burnham Park?
Where can we buy more souvenirs?
Where can we buy... you know, bonnets and key chains?
And I thought, well, that's what Baguio has become to be known for these days - ukay-ukay, bonnets and key chains. Because we just couldn't stand the site of open spaces in the city, and we keep on trying to put in ridiculous stuff in it like bump car rides and commercial stalls, ignoring the fact that the best parks are those with nothing much in it but wide open spaces and trees to purify the air. Because we didn't value the city's beautiful skyline and ruined it by allowing towering structures to cover the mountainsides, cutting down pine trees that Baguio was once known for in the process. Because we took Baguio's miraculous, healing air for granted, we simply look the other way at the site of taxicabs, jeepneys, SUVs spewing out poisonous black smoke and this made the city among the most polluted in the country - that's coming from being the cleanest and greenest not so long ago. Because we probably didn't care enough, this is what Baguio has become to be known for these days:
The buses parked next to the Baguio Athletic Bowl, and as soon as the doors opened, to the delight of this particular group of tourists, they were greeted by vendors selling... key chains and bonnets.
Welcome to Baguio.