It was January 2017 and I yearned to spend one day – even just a few hours – of quality time with friends and fellow travel enthusiasts in a Facebook® group chat. We planned to spend two days and a night on a beach in an island about 30 to 45 minutes from port via a sea vessel. Just as with some plans, it did not go accordingly. The volatile weather came with winds that in turn spawned fierce waves, causing motorboat operators to observe caution and stay put. We needed another plan.
Hency Joyce Gamara had much enthusiasm in pushing for a leisurely trip to happen. On January 1, she came upon an organized event involving a one-day tour of Baguio city. I had visited this place a few times before. Getting there would involve a six-hour drive from Manila. Baguio featured a relatively cool climate due to its altitude. Air temperatures could be compared to those of Tagaytay city in Cavite Province and Marawi city in Lanao del Sur (I could confirm as I had been in these places too). Strawberries, lettuce, and brocolli grew abundantly as a result. Baguio also took pride of its ethnic heritage, contributed by the indigenous peoples of Benguet province. According to Hency, the tour would cost Php 999 including transport and our lunch. However, we had to shoulder the cost of optional entrance fees, snacks, and shopping. Hency, her boyfriend John Vincent “Janbi” Chua, and I joined in. We invited more of our friends. Yet in the end it was the three of us who could come.
At least ten minutes passed before the bus I rode in made it through the seemingly snail-paced traffic at a busy intersection in Imus city. Then it was a speedy trip on Aguinaldo Highway and into Metro Manila under the cover of darkness.
I arrived in Pasay city at past 10 AM. Taking the light rail did not seem practical. This mode of transportation would take me all the way to the meet-up location at Guadalupe in Makati city. However, I came there during closing hours. A second bus ride would be preferable. Stretching my right arm out and waving it, I hailed a passing bus but to no avail. It was already packed with passengers. I kept on walking. Then I found myself at a terminal of the DLTBCo bus company. None of its public transport vehicles were on sight. An eerie darkness drained away every bit of cheer within the facility. Messages calling for reform in the establishment were handwritten on cardboard and cloth. The employees – drivers in particular – went on strike. It took several minutes and a friendly ‘barker’ of public transport patrons before I got in a bus bound for Guadalupe.
Hency, Janbi, and I would rendezvous at a fastfood establishment. I looked for a vacant table, along with a chair to sit on. Sturdy glass windows and fluorescent lighting made the place a refuge from the uncertainties brought by nighttime. Then I waited. The two arrived at around 11 PM. We still had two hours before a white Toyota HiAce van would pick us up. Hency used her mobile phone for us to make a call to Aldous Moncada, one of our friends. Like the couple, I also met him at my second trek at Mt Marami. The three of us also talked about travel and a bit of politics. It was past 1 AM when the van finally arrived.
Only four people sat inside the van, which could carry a maximum of 18 passengers. We went in. Christine Bacus, the event organizer, sat on the front with her daughter, next to our driver who went by the name of Jhonpaul “JP” Silvestre. Then we headed north to pick up more of our fellows. When they got in, I joined Hency and Janbi at the row just behind the driver. Our group numbered 17 in total.
Light from the lamp posts flooded the road. More lights, this time from the headlamps of vehicles, moved with the flow of traffic. Our van’s interior contrasted starkly with the surroundings. I hoped to doze off sooner. Sleeping while sitting inside an automobile en route to a travel destination always proved to be a challenge for me. I took my eyeglasses off, rested my nape on top of the backrest, and closed my eyes. Eventually, I drifted off from wakefulness.
Two stopovers interrupted my sleep. At 4:30 AM, participants in the tour had breakfast. Hency, Janbi, and I ate chicken adobo and eggplant kilawin I brought along. Those food items were supposed to be for our beach getaway. I had prepared them anyway. Adobo consisted of meat cooked in soy sauce, vinegar, peppercorns, and bay leaves. As for kilawin, an eggplant was roasted before sliced into strips, then soaked in vinegar along with chopped tomatoes and onions. It had a sour yet smoky taste. Then we resumed our trip towards the so-called ‘City of Pines.’
Fog blurred the windshield of our van. Some people, clad in hooded jackets, jogged along the roads of Baguio. JP kept on driving. We went straight to the municipality of La Trinidad, just north of the city. Later on, the van stopped on one lane, not on some parking area.
To our right lay an entire barangay, or village, of colorful houses. It felt like staring at a rainbow. However, the hues were diffused instead of organized in rows from red to violet. We just arrived at the first stop of our itinerary – Barangay Balili. Just as I got out of the van, the frigid air of our surroundings managed to penetrate my jacket. I welcomed it. My body had an affinity for cold and disdain for heat. Some of our fellows shivered a bit. Walking gave some warmth. The place offered little activity though. We took photos, stood on a bridge made of cable and Marston mats, and nothing more. Below us, boulders and smaller rocks slowed the flow of the stream, which seemed more like pools of water. Hency was planning a trip to Sagada, which I visited before. One of the attractions there to visit would be Bomod-ok Falls. She remarked about going there and taking a dip in chilly water in the morning. A few women of middle and late adulthood age, residents of this place, crossed the bridge individually, bumping into us. We blocked their path. I asked one to join us in a group photo. Our stay lasted about fifteen minutes before heading to the next destination.
Still in La Trinidad, the famous Strawberry Farm also had lettuce being cultivated. The crops appeared more withered than lush at this time. Janbi pointed out the possible steep demand during Christmas and New Year. My mouth emitted what looked like whitish smoke as surrounding temperatures remained chilly. Yet the sun shone brighter. It would be warmer soon. Hency, Janbi, and I walked on planks that served as pathways for visitors. Beyond the fences made of netting and wooden frames, strawberries and lettuce grew side by side. A group of visitors other than us ventured further. My two friends and I did not go on as we were already here before.
Citing a desire to always try new things, Hency craved for strawberry ice cream despite the cold morning. Yet the vendor was nowhere to be found. Only a two-wheeled metal cart that contained the frozen dessert remained. Ice cream in cones by small-scale makers were peddled this way throughout the Philippines. Janbi and I decided to buy taho, which was soybean pudding sweetened with brown sugar syrup. In Baguio and surrounding areas, tourists might want to try the strawberry variety of taho. I enjoyed it in a plastic cup, sipping with a tiny straw. The pudding and syrup tasted sweet and slightly sour. It had a few bits of actual strawberries too.
The three of us checked shops near the parking area. Delicacies such as jams, peanut brittle, biscuits in plastic jars, and fresh strawberries were sold. We also saw locally-made purses, ski caps, trinkets, chopping boards, and even phallic ashtrays (I am not kidding). More shops lined the other side of the road, offering a wider choice of items. This area resembled the dry goods section of a typical Filipino marketplace.
Murals reminiscent of a kindergarten classroom greeted us upon arriving at Tam-Awan Village. It was situated within the Baguio city proper. The entrance had a bamboo facade. Just above the door, a sign indicated that this attraction would present us a garden in the sky.
The Php 999 tour per head was convenient for someone with a one thousand-peso bill. Even more amazing was how this pricing saved money. If I did this tour by myself, that amount would only cover the round trip between Manila and Baguio. After that, would shoulder the taxi fares so I could visit multiple landmarks. Yet it did not include the entrance fee for Tam-Awan Village. I hesitated to enter. Taking a better look would enrich the content of my blog post though. In the end, I handed a fifty-peso bill to the female receptionist.
My friends and I agreed on a day tour of Baguio as a more relaxing alternative to climbing a mountain. However, the ascending stone steps reminded us of the uphill slopes that drained our energy and caused strain in our legs. Still, we were in a rural village more than the wilderness. The huts of indigenous architectural design had thatched roofs and wooden walls. One of them housed paintings with the Cordilleras as their motif. Another served as a cafe that also had examples of the local fine arts on display. Near it stood a hut on stilts. A sign cautioned us to be careful as we might disturb its occupant. Someone opened the door. Inside, three statues with crossed arms sat side by side. Baguio may had become predominantly Christian but its people still clung to the symbols of folk beliefs as part of an identity. Yet the occupant referred to in the sign was not the statues. Some fellow – possibly a caretaker – wrapped a blanket around himself and slept soundly despite our presence.
Paths crisscrossed the entirety of Tam-Awan Village. Hency took videos of koi fish that lingered mysteriously at one side of the pond. Then we kept on strolling. A hut had been covered in durable translucent plastic, suggesting it was undergoing maintenance. A bit further up, a spot with wooden benches, a mostly bamboo table, and a conspicuous arts festival sign provided a shady vantage point under a sunny sky. The path turned from stone into dirt. A montane forest lay before us. The chirping of birds and even the faint barking of dogs gave life. We followed the trail to see a dreamcatcher of Native American handicraft. It was supersized but the circular object’s design was not what we expected.
We went down a set of stone steps. If I moved clumsily, I would have slipped. This instance brought back memories of the last leg of my descent from Mt Amuyao. The three of us inspected the souvenir shop briefly before heading back to the van. Our companions were simply waiting for us so the tour could resume.
The steps up to the Lourdes Grotto intimidated us at a first glance. Their white surface stood out against a green background, making them appear even steeper. I gave a sigh. Everyone in this tour declined to climb those steps. Good thing we could bypass this seemingly obstacle and simply drive up a road towards the top. Parking our van came with a fee. The grotto was not in sight. At least it could be reached by strolling leisurely on an even path rather than overcoming a 60-degree slope despite the steps. Hency, Janbi, and I exited the van. We saw a row of shops, a taho vendor, peddlers of snacks such as peanuts and cashew nuts, and indigenous costumes that we could wear and then have our photos taken. The three of us noticed that our fellows stayed behind. We went back. No one was interested in visiting the Lourdes grotto.
Diplomat Hotel, on top of Dominican Hill, was our next stop. It was originally built by the Dominican Order of clergy as their vacation house. Completion took place in 1915. The place now looked like one of the ruins on Corregidor Island but more intact. As with Corregidor, this place was devastated by Japanese aerial bombing during World War Two. Refugees who took shelter inside the building were among the casualties. This could explain reports of paranormal incidents in Diplomat Hotel. During the 1970s, the place was renovated into an actual hotel. Then it was closed more than a decade later. Now it had been functioning as a tourist attraction.
A row of flags, including those of France, Japan, and Portugal, stood at the entrance of Diplomat Hotel. I caught sight of a historical marker of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines between an arched window and a fancier arched door. There was a pew inside. After taking some snapshots, Hency, Janbi, and I entered the building. It was just a single bench instead of multiple pews as found in a church. The interior had the feel – if not the look – of a place of worship. The heat from burning wood radiated to my bare palms as I crouched in front of a fireplace. It was not scorching but not that comfortable either.
Both doorways to the left and right led to an ornamental garden, each one having a fountain identical to each other. I sat on the circular stone base. My pants’ upper back got slightly wet. Then I grinned at three fellow visitors. At least it would dry soon. Droplets of water struck my face as I stood close to the fountain. Hency, Janbi, and I took more photos.
Diplomat Hotel had a second floor. I went inside empty and unpainted rooms. Yet there was some graffiti on the walls. Ironically, signs telling people to preserve this historical site had been put up. A hall became empty for a moment until young people chatted with smiles on their faces while walking through. What were once bathrooms had cracked and missing tiles. Moss also grew on the cemented surface. Most of this place seemed to be a building in a war zone or a post-apocalyptic setting.
The terrace gave us a spectacular view of Baguio, especially under a cloudless azure sky. Groves of pine trees dotted a landscape of buildings. This city did not have those towering skyscrapers of Metro Manila. However, Baguio’s laidback atmosphere was being replaced by one with the hustle and bustle. Hency and Janbi asked me to take a picture of them together. Corrosion exposed the metal framework of the large cross, which still stood, from the original Dominican vacation house.
Christine confirmed that we would have that free lunch at Good Taste restaurant. I had been there before. Back in August, a trekking group that went by the name of Talahib undertook the Mt Purgatory traverse. We ended our two-day adventure with supper at that place.
People still flocked to the six-story dining establishment. Our tour group fell in line along with other customers. JP drove the van into the basement parking area. He would catch up with us. We took the stairs to the second floor. Waiters and waitresses moved back and forth like bees flying from one flower to another. The ambience was marked by a slight murmur from chatter and steel utensils. Fellow diners began to fill up entirely this floor. The eighteen of us could fit in one of Good Taste’s elongated tables, with two more chairs to spare. Chicken with barbecue sauce was served for lunch. This meal came in plenty and with boiled white rice too. We had our fill. I could say Good Taste features a balance between quality and quantity when it comes to dining. Its individual meal for around Php 100 could be shared by two people. A group meal would do more.
I felt drowsy following our lunch. Janbi took a nap. I could use one too as we all sat inside the moving van. According to Christine, we would visit The Mansion next. She also talked about night markets in Baguio and her experiences in organizing tours. When we arrived at the tour’s next stop, the noontime heat was too much to bear even in Baguio. I took my jacket off.
The Mansion could be described as a huge house fitting for a duke, if not a king or a queen. In fact, it served as the current Philippine president’s official summer residence. The wrought iron gate, supported by two stone columns reminiscent of Greco-Roman architecture, stood as high as five people put on top of one another. There were three of those historical markers similar to that in Diplomat Hotel. Visitors entered through a smaller gate on the right. A man in military uniform welcomed us coldly.
Whole families and groups of friends crowded the cemented lane as they took photos of themselves with The Mansion on the background. The building itself lay distantly, separated from visitors by what looked like a slightly sloping field of trimmed grass. Christmas decorations such as the Nativity scene had not been removed yet. Roughly-made statues of supposed reindeer ‘roamed’ the open ground, where several artificial spruce trees were set up. Images of Santa Claus’s reindeer resembled the red deer in Europe more than what is called a caribou in North America. They should appear as Sven from the Disney animated movie Frozen. I did not see anyone venturing into The Mansion. We were all content with taking snapshots from a distance.
More locals and tourists filled the roads as the day progressed, resulting in traffic. Our van inched its way towards Mines View Park. Somehow, the vehicle’s air conditioning did not work. JP turned it off and told us to open the windows instead. The fresh air was more soothing and it smelled of pine a bit.
Later on, we got stuck in a traffic jam. Christine said we could drop off in the middle of the road. Hency, Janbi, and I got out of the van and walked past a line of shops. Vendors asked us eagerly to buy their delicacies or wares. People of all ages and walks of life crowded the streets. Automobiles on one lane ceased from moving. The three of us approached the entrance to the park.
Mines View Park was not just filled with visitors. It was congested. People flowed in and out of two gates. They were simpler compared to the one in The Mansion, made mostly of yellowish wood that seemingly had a varnish coating. I could hear children complaining to their parents and more vendors announcing their products. A huge welcome sign had a faded image of the Cordillera mountain range as its background. Hency, Janbi and I decided to check out a building alive with noise and movement. The first floor had shops while the second floor consisted of a museum. After climbing up there through a ladder, I saw a wide range of trinkets, wooden sculptures, indigenous clothing, weapons, and even Catholic objects of veneration. A museum caretaker kept on telling visitors not to touch the items, although these were also sold. Heading back to the welcome sign, the three of us followed a cemented pathway. Then we stopped by at a stall. Janbi asked a woman who sold ornamental plants if she had a pine tree sapling in a flower pot. He followed it up with questions about taking care of it.
For a small fee, I could wear the traditional Igorot costume and have my photo taken. It bore a similarity to the outfits worn by the Incas of South America. After all, both cultures were shaped by life in mountainous terrain. The term ‘Igorot’ could be interpreted negatively sometimes. Just the sound of it might evoke images of a backward tribal people in the minds of lowland-dwelling Filipinos. Some had chosen the term ‘Ifugao’ instead. However, the Ifugao were only one of the several Cordillera peoples such as the Apayao, Bontoc, Ibaloi, and Kalinga. ‘Igorot’ was better to represent the ethnic groups collectively.
After leaving Mines View Park, Hency, Janbi, and I faced the fact that our van disappeared, along with our fellows. We contacted them through mobile phone. There was no immediate reply.
The three of us spent the time looking at the things sold in another row of roadside shops. Hency and Janbi fancied trapper hats, which would keep their heads warm in their planned excursion at Mt Pulag – the highest mountain in Luzon. Gloves would be a good addition too. Hency bought a pair of slippers. Janbi and I took interest in knives with handles and cases made of wood. Even a kalis had a wooden scabbard. This wavy-bladed sword was associated with the island of Mindanao, far to the south – not a weapon used traditionally by the Igorot. Curiously, the kalis had been sold here in Baguio. Janbi and I also saw a bow, a simple wooden crossbow, and their projectiles with blunt tips for play. Among the other items sold in those shops were sweaters, tiny sculptures attached to keychains, and walis tambo – a broom with bristles made of grass – that Mom would love to have at home.
I still had no reply through text message from our companions. The three of us headed towards their likely location. Our next stop would be a place called Good Shepherd. Originally a convent, the nuns there also made delicacies such as jams that became famous well outside of Baguio. The last Good Shepherd product I bought was a jar of mango jam.
A sign warned us to be careful of low-quality turmeric tea as we arrived at the arched gateway into the Good Shepherd compound. The sun’s heat subsided and a cool breeze just blew in, adding comfort to our stroll. I felt even more relief after the three of us saw the van in the designated parking area.
The store at Good Shepherd had the ambience of a grocery store, or more like a drug store. People, most of them tourists, fell in line to buy the sweet edible items of their choice. There were multiple lanes, including a separate one to prioritize elderly customers. The scent of what I thought would be ube jam hung in the air. It was purple yam processed into a fine purée. The jam would likely be spread on a slice of bread. Fellow customers chatted not only with cashiers but also with their fellows. The bit of noise resounded in my ears. When our turn to make a transaction came, Hency purchased two jars of ube jam and one jar of strawberry jam.
A sign on a metal grid said “Shepherd’s Gallery.” It lay at the end of what looked like a roofed basketball court without the hoops and a painted floor surface. People sat on benches. Visitors stood at the terrace, busy with their cameras in mobile phones. Hency, Janbi, and I joined them. The view here had less buildings and more mountains compared to that back at Diplomat Hotel’s terrace. The afternoon light faded gradually. This day would be over soon. I sighed amid the smiles in the faces of my two friends. I might not see them in person again for a long time. We took photos and had laughs. Every minute with them counted. Then we went back to the van.
Our group dropped off at one of the most crowded places in Baguio. Burnham Park would be bustling in this sunny afternoon on a holiday. Classes and many office-based jobs would resume tomorrow. People were making the most of the last day of respite following Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Coincidence or destiny aside, Hency and Janbi had received a good favor unexpectedly. They mentioned earlier a place around Burnham Park that sold burgers appealing to their taste buds. However, they forgot the exact location. Shortly after the three of us left the van, we came upon the burger stand miraculously. It stood outside Angelita’s Restaurant and Canteen. The stall looked more plain than flashy. Stacks of buns in a plastic bag lay on a rack. A middle-aged man with a mustache, who went by the name of Jessie, prepared to fry beef patties on a flat metal grill. At Php 30, a cheese burger was affordable. Hency and Janbi chose the one with egg and cheese that costed Php 55. Delight was evident in their faces as the couple savored every bite. Sometimes, making an effort to go back to a good thing had its worth.
The three of us made our way through the leisure seekers of Burnham Park. First, we came upon a children’s playground. Kids laughed and ran while enjoying the swings and slides, completely unaware of the taxes, bills, and workplace responsibilities that plagued adulthood. Then we walked along a designated bicycle lane. Those on mountain bikes sped past their counterparts on pedicabs. I could rent one for a fee of Php 55 and ride it for 30 minutes. Getting across the torrent of flesh, metal, and rubber proved to be challenging. At the end of the lane, young men practiced their adeptness with the skateboard. They performed what was called a ‘slide’ with little success.
Our stroll led us to several thrift shops, called an ukay-ukay in the Philippines, near Burnham Park. These establishments sold used or surplus clothing for a relatively affordable price. Hency sought them to find more items to wear for her Mt Pulag climb with Janbi. Later on, she found a jacket. Aside from the usual shirts and pants, we also saw shoes, backpacks, and caps. I bought a jacket for just Php 100. It would cost an average of P400 at a thrift shop back home.
The shopping spree went on until it was time to regroup with our companions for the last leg of the tour. Hency, Janbi, and I passed by the artificial lake at Burnham Park. Boat rides gave additional enjoyment for visitors. Some of the watercraft bore the appearance of a white swan. Others looked like miniature Viking longships, complete with a seahorse’s head for a prow yet painted in a pastel color. The water shimmered in the distance. However, it actually appeared murky upon a closer look.
We chanced upon an ice cream vendor like the one back at Strawberry Farm. Each of the three of us had the strawberry and cheese-flavored frozen treat in cones. Our afternoon seemed complete as the surroundings went dim, signaling the approach of night.
Lion’s Head at Kennon Road served as our final stop before heading home. There was nothing much to do except take photos of the gigantic statue. The left paw with its unsheathed claws was raised. The mane seemed more of a barren hill. I simply took a snapshot. High above us, a star could be seen below a waxing moon. A line of shops had been set up next to the Lion’s Head statue. A few vendors closed their stalls already. The rest relied on their light bulbs that illuminated food items and garments. It grew dark suddenly. Some of our companions preferred to just stay inside the van. Then those who got off were summoned so we all could begin the long journey to Manila.
Those twelve hours with Hency and Janbi were some of the happiest in my life. I had my share of worries but these were no match for the beauty and joy that Baguio offered, especially with the companionship of friends. As we sat as comfortably as we could during the homeward trip, Hency compiled the videos she took and edited them creatively. Janbi shared more of his photos on social media. Looking at the road ahead lit by our van’s headlamps, I wondered where and when would I be next with these two.