Kwentong Barbero, sa Baguio

I’m very picky when it comes to barbers and barbershops. I’m not very OC about it though, what I look for are very simple.

A warm atmosphere, first of all. From the outside, I want the barbershop to invite me in with smiles from the barbers and the warmth of the place.

A good comfortable chair.

A friendly barber, one with a theater stage manager’s sensibility. He must know when I’m in the mood for a discussion about the city’s environmental woes or whether Judge Claravall is giving the mayoralty a second try, or when a plain hi or hello or good morning along with my haircut or shaving preferenced is enough conversation for that visit.

Not too much Vick’s for the facial massage, a sharp razor, a nice smooth shave, a good quick backrub, and avoid conversations with me nor fellow barbers while giving me that shave.

EGAY

I’ve forgotten the name of the barbershop somewhere along Abanao St. just beside Sunshine Supermart where I met Egay, but he was my barber for a while. He’s meticulous, making sure he gets every stubble, and I like that he spreads shaving cream on and shaves my whole face from my forehead to my neck, exfoliating your whole face with that razor. Getting a shave from him gets you a free facial. HE even eventually agreed to do home service, but I only asked him to come over once for haircut for the boys and a shave for me. But without a good old barber’s chair, the experience isn’t nearly the same.

One day, I arrived at the shop while he was still attending to a client. He was midway through a haircut, so when he handed me a newspaper and asked to just wait a while, I obliged. After the haircut, he pulled the backrest down – the client was also getting a shave, apparently. I got a bit annoyed, thinking he should have told me the guy was also getting a shave so I can decide if I was willing to wait that long. Anyway, I did wait. The last straw was seeing him finish that shave, putting a towel over the guy’s eyes and reaching for the massager. I left, and that was the last time I saw Egay. Yeah, I’m matampuhin that way.

B & B Barbers

After my break up with Egay (that’s what it felt like), I jumped from one barbershop to the next searching for a new fave and stumbled upon B & B in La Azotea. They had around a dozen chairs in there, the first two manned by veterans of the trade, judging by how old they looked. I chose one of the seniors.

First I was surprised by his toiletries. They were not your usual generic stuff, most were Old Spice and he even used an old-fashioned, leather strap-sharpened razor. I’m still hating myself for not remembering his name, but he was one of the best barbers that ever laid a hand on my face.

He was slow, he must have been in his 70s already, at least. But it felt good. A shave with him takes almost an hour, so a haircut and a shave is basically a whole morning’s affair. And you get up from the chair recharged and light and happy.

DENNIS

In that same barbershop, I met Dennis, a much younger barber. At times when I didn’t have the luxury of time, I would politely ask permission from the old-timer if Dennis can do my hair or my shave. He understood. So Dennis gets 1 out of every 3 or 4 visits from me.

Dennis was young, and adept enough to give one either a traditional barbershop haircut or any of the more modern hairstyles.

BRONX 

One day, B & B closed down and was turned into a restaurant. That was the only time I learned that the shop was owned by good friend and Baguio old-timer Rhey Bautista and his good friend Damaso Bangaoet. And for a while, I was lost again, a sad man with a bad haircut and an unshaven face.

Then walking down Session Road one day, I happened to look inside Bronx, a barbershop located at Laperal Bldg. and there, inside, was Dennis. I walked in and sat in his chair. “Buti sir nahanap niyo ‘to.” I was glad too.

I asked about the old-timer from B & B, where he could’ve moved, and Dennis said that the old man retired already. He also shared that the veteran didn’t really have to work anymore, as his children were all successful professionals who supported him. But he just couldn’t put those scissors down, so the children let him continue working and one of them who was based in the States would send him those Old Spice creams and aftershaves he used on his clients. But after B & B closed, the old man just didn’t have the drive to look for a new chair anymore, so he retired.

I didn’t like Bronx very much. The owner, a sulky old lady who seem to not like having to sit at the cashier’s table all day, always had a frown on her face. I didn’t like walking up to her to pay for Dennis’ services.

But Dennis was worth the old lady’s kasungitan, so I endured her.

Dennis had a daughter in elementary school, and he was so proud of her for being a part of the school’s drum and lyre band – they were Panagbenga street dancing parade champions a couple of times. He asks about my daughter who was also a participant in that same parade as a member of Baguio City National High’s dance troupe.

He also sympathized with our struggle to save those trees in Luneta Hill that SM City Baguio wanted to eradicate for a parking building. Funny thing though… one day I came into the shop and was informed that Dennis has resigned, pirated by an upscale barbershop, Kwento ng Barbero, SM City Baguio branch.

And since I’m on my 5th year of boycotting SM, that meant goodbye Dennis.

STACHE

I heard about this hipster haunt along Military Cutoff Road, Stache, so my youngest son and I tried it out.

Warm yellow LEDs, an attempt to look and feel rustic with wood panels and what not, stylish barber chairs and seats for waiting clients… and a magazine rack of FHM back issues. Oh well, the tagline says “man hive,” so I guess porn is a necessity. Though in the presence of minors, very inappropriate.

Shave was so-so according to my humble standards, though Aeneas did like his haircut. But they lost me as a potential returnee when one of the barbers on stand by puffed on his mod (is that what it’s called, those vape thingies?). Right inside the barbershop, enveloping the whole place in migraine-inducing vapor. They do have a nice line of artisanal hair care products. We a got a couple.

But the search for a new barber for myself continued.

KWENTONG BARBERO

One reason I preferred barbershops to salons – they’re way cheaper. Although I did try a couple of sessions at David’s Salon in Porta Vaga, and particularly enjoyed the shampooing and the head massage that came with it, I felt my testosterone levels drop to uncomfortable levels. So I tried the barbershops along Gen. Luna and Mabini. Not one convinced me to go back a second time.

Then I learned that Kwentong Barbero, the shop that pirated Dennis, had a branch along Abanao Extension cor. Carino St.

Another upscale barbershop, and on my first visit,  seated right behind me was my good friend Morris. That’s Mauricio Domogan, Mayor of Baguio City.

Place was clean, I was offered coffee, the toiletries smelled nice. And they re-purposed Ginebra San Miguel 2 X 2 gin bottles as water sprayers. Nice.

The shave was not as close as I preferred it to be, but I liked that the barbers were very professional. Too professional in fact – they wore face masks while attending to you. And the place was really quiet, and the few times I went in for a shave I actually fell asleep on the chair. But at P200 on average per service, that meant a P450 expense per visit for a haircut, shave and tip for the barber. I was assigned a different barber every time I went, which meant I didn’t particularly like any one of them.

BARBER BROS.

Living in that particular part of town, Newtown Plaza was our go to place whenever we didn’t have the time to prepare food at home. That mini food court they have is so convenient… there’s a burger joint, a Korean stall and another that offers lugaw and batchoy. One night I read a flyer – launching of a barbershop at the second floor and for the next few days, a haircut would only cost P1. I missed the promo, but finally had the chance to try it out just last week.

Another hipster place. If one Starbucks offered shaves, this could’ve been a branch. A receptionist greets you when you enter.

I wasn’t feeling very well that day. Not sick, but sick of staring at the computer monitor trying to get things moving with this projects and nothing. I needed a lift, and usually, a session with Egay or Dennis would do the trick. Not that afternoon.

The barber had a conversation going with the receptionist when I entered, and that conversation never stopped even when he started giving me a shave. Which meant that his face was right in mine whenever he said something back to the lady. The razor was blunt, and he knew it… any barber or person who shaves would know – it’s rough, it makes that scratchy noise. And it hurt. I guess I didn’t deserve a disposable blade refill.

One minute into the shave and I almost just asked him to stop, but I thought I’d give him another minute’s chance. I ended him letting him finish the job, also because the shave cost P200 and I was hoping that at some point I would get my money’s worth. Nah.

I wrote a review on their Facebook page, and immediately they replied with an apology and an offer for a shave on the house. Never mind the freebie, I responded, but I was willing to give them another chance. Besides, like I said earlier, they’re located in our part of town, very convenient.

RAM’S BARBERSHOP

I knew it won’t be nearly as quiet as Kwentong Barbero, but at P60.00 for a haircut, you can’t expect too much. The TV’s always on and if you choose the right chair, you could have a nice view of what’s on.

I’ll be having my passport photo taken tomorrow, so I thought it was time for a trim and a shave. I’ve been to Ram’s along Mabini St. before for a shave, and it was OK. But this morning, I was Ric was assigned to service me. I cold tell by his cool haircut that, well, he knows good haircuts. Too bad I didn’t want anything “stylish,” just a trim on the sides and a little on the back. And a shave.

I was impressed with the way he wielded that hair clipper, and he worked fast finishing my trim in less than 10 minutes. They’ve got to work fast in there, I thought, for at P60.00 per head, and who knows how much of that actually goes to the barber (half, perhaps?), they have to be able to do a lot of heads to be able to bring home enough. And then the shave came next…

Watered down Vick’s for that initial facial massage, two pats with a hot towel and just when I thought he was ready to start shaving, he started popping my white and blackheads, scraping them with his nails, giving extra attention to the area on and around my nose. He struggled with one particular blackhead and apologized after several tries because he just couldn’t get it out. I said that’s OK, I’ll give it a good scrub at home.

The shave was smooth, comfortable, comforting, relaxing. For a moment there I forgot that I was, in fact, there, in that usually noisy joint. The shave was so nice that the noise seemed to dissipate into a gentle hum. I woke up when he rubbed aftershave on my face, which he immediately followed with a facial massage to lessen the sting. A hot towel again. A short head massage, then the arms and after he raised the backrest back up, a short back rub.

My bill: P140.00.

For now, I have found my barber.

 

Neighboring Baguio

We recently moved to a new house and for the first time since I moved to these parts 21 years ago, I don’t live in Baguio anymore. Technically.

Tuding is exactly the same distance from the center of Baguio as our previous home in Mines View Park. But it does feel much farther. Seeing a mango tree with flowers in full bloom at our neighbor’s garden gives the impression that we’re so far removed from the City of Pines. It’s a mere five kilometers from Session Road, actually. Much lower in elevation… from the junction at the end of Romulo Drive, instead of going up Outlook Drive towards Mines View, we now take the road going down to Itogon.

There are tricycles in our village, another disconcerting feature of our new neighborhood. There are only three units plying the route from Baguio Gold, the mining community down the road from us, to the main road. And while we’re officially inside one of those gated villages, I like the fact that we live on a road that’s practically open to the public. While watering the plants in the afternoon, I watch young students, their mothers and fathers, in a tricycle or riding in tandem on a motorbike, occasionally a guy on horseback, making their way home. 

There are no pine trees within the premises of the new house we’re renting, so I’ve asked the caretaker of the house directly across from us for some dried pine needles to add to my pile of dried leaves. I light up a small fire every now and then to smoke the acovado and mandarin orange and calamansi trees in the garden. According to Melly, the lady who cares for a couple of houses owned by Manila-based families who only come up and stay during long vacations, the avocado tree used to be teeming with fruits almost all year round, but the tenants before us weren’t really friendly and refused to allow anyone from the neighborhood to pick an avocado or two from the tree, even those ones that are hanging from the branches that overhang away from the house and onto the road. The tree seemed to stop bearing fruits since. Nagtampo, another neighbor said. 

This morning, after a few weeks of smoking and watering, I counted close to a dozen avocados on the branches. It would be nice to share these with the neighbors, so I hope the smoking helps the tree bear even more fruits in the coming weeks.

Last Sunday, we invited some friends over for a small gathering, a housewarming of sorts. On our way out that morning to get some paper plates (there’s now water connection in our area, you order water delivered by trucks and stored in tanks), we noticed a group of people with a couple of police officers mingling along the road going up to Outlook Drive, just past the boundary between Itogon and Baguio by a ravine.

I had an idea about what was going on, but I don’t want to talk about that just yet. Not in this post. I’m at a cafe somewhere along Session Road right now and in my mind I’m thinking of the aroma of burning dried leaves sprinkled with a handful or two of pine needles and the smell too of mandarin orange flowers and the way the leaves of the plants in the garden glisten under the gentle afternoon sun after watering. It’s hard these days, but I try to keep my mind on this kind of images.
 

Baguio, Inc.

 

Welcome to Baguio, Inc., a rapidly progressing city that they say is inevitable. And they want us to grin and bear it, welcome it with open arms and embrace it. In today’s Baguio, Inc. corporate interest reigns supreme, and the people are merely a market.

Progress is what they call getting caught in heavy traffic in smog and noise-filled city streets; when we buy our food in cling wrap and bar-coded instead of fresh off the ground at the market; having less earth space and more man-made structures; more money yet a poorer quality of life. It is progress when we lose our sense of community and we walk down streets filled with indifferent strangers.

In today’s Baguio, Inc., they trumpet the building of a parking building and a commercial complex, and muffle the sound of trees being felled and the risks that a denuded and concreted hillside posts on lives and property. In Baguio, Inc., we are supposed to celebrate the sprouting of high-rise condominiums and franchise restaurants all around us. In Baguio, Inc., they highlight the number of jobs created every time a concrete box is erected, and are blind to or intentionally gloss over the fact that we as a community become less and less happy living in a slowly decaying city.

They flaunt the prospect of more money going around and they want us to want that money very badly. And sadly, many of us have gone for the carrot on their one hand, without knowing that there’s a stick on the other. Enjoy the windfall now, and imagine the kind of city you’re passing on to your children.

And you buy it. In Baguio, Inc., your business may be earning a bit more these days because of this supposed progress, but they don’t want you to realize that you are also actually spending way more for everything. You spend more money for food bought from refrigerated shelves. You spend more time getting from here to there because the streets are clogged and they all lead to monuments to crass commercialism, shameless materialism. You now spend for recreation – tokens at the arcade, tickets to the movies, parking fees, entrance fees. You go to the park and you rent a bike, a boat, a pair of skates or buy tickets for a couple of minutes in a bumper car. And for a whole month every year, you go to the park to buy inferior mass-produced plastic crap and eat dirty food.

Is this really progress?

To progress is to develop, to improve, become better. Progress is for a once clean and green city to become cleaner and greener. Progress is for a once beautiful city to become even more beautiful. If you were sad before, to progress is to become happy. If you were already happy before, to progress is to become happier.

Again, in today’s Baguio, Inc., are we really progressing as a community, as a people, as a city?

A tale of two lakes

 

The multi-million-peso project that was the dredging of Burnham Lake is done, all that’s needed now is more water to bring back the nature-initiated, man-made lake’s water level to its usual depth. It reminded me of a similar project we did with fellow artists in Manila long ago.

Actor Ronnie Lazaro gathered us in his studio in 1996 to discuss a project he dubbed “Bayang Ginigiliw” – the clean up of the relief Philippine map at the Rizal Park. There was no money involved, all we had was the permission of the local government to go ahead with it.

On the first day, there were tens of us – theater actors, visual artists, ballet dancers, videographers, photographers, filmmakers, etc. armed with nothing more than shovels, walis tingting and other improvised implements and the determination to clean up the submerged relief map. The area is a bit smaller than the Burnham Lake. We watched as the water slowly drained revealing the stories of people part of whose lives were reflected in, told to, depended on that lake.

As the last of the water was released, years of neglect became apparent. The silt was up to our knees, in some parts waist deep. What we thought was going to be a two-day project ended up being almost a week-long labor of love. We started digging in – picking up coins thrown by people who wished for a better life, and other objects of some value, necklaces, rings, earrings, a watch or two, wallets with washed out photographs, which we later donated to an orphanage. There were guns thrown into the lake by lawless elements being pursued by law enforcers, which we surrendered to the police.

In the days that followed, despite the noticeable decrease in the number of volunteers – by the third day there were only a less than ten os uf left, we toiled from sun up to sun down for days, prodded by the sight of the Philippine map becoming cleaner and cleaner. A lot of passersby, job seekers, stopped to ask how much were getting paid for the job, and were shocked upon learning that we were doing it for free.

We chipped in for food – one day I cooked a huge batch of pasta, another day we ate at some nearby karinderya, once we cooked with an improvised wooden stove right there in the water-less lake.

As the last dust-pan full of silt was swept away, we watched as the lake was slowly filled again with water which played the role of the Philippine seas that cradle this archipelago. It was a beautiful sight, it was a very beautiful feeling.

The dredging of Burnham Lake cost the people twenty million pesos.

Stream of consciousness on a beautiful Saturday morning in Baguio

 

I sit at the kitchen table with my mug of Benguet brew thinking. Thinking of the kind of city that we will be passing on to our children as Baguio continues on its journey on the path it’s on is heart-breaking.

It’s not that we are lost, we know exactly where we are and where we’re headed.

The city government announced the suspension of the number-coding scheme on certain days for the month of February. The schedule corresponds to the days that Baguio is expecting heavy traffic due to the influx of visitors that will be added to the increased number of resident who would venture out of their homes and into the heart of the city to celebrate Panagbenga, the annual Baguio Flower Festival. Is it really wise to encourage people to bring their cars out on those days?

Public transportation is banned along Gen. Luna Road during the morning rush hour. Does it make sense to disallow vehicles that ferry more people, particularly jeepneys that students of moderate means take to get to school, so that gas-guzzling SUVs bringing a student or two each can fill up the road instead?

While nobody was looking a couple of years ago, the Baguio Water District awarded its own executives and board members hefty raises, claiming the move was well within what’s required by law, which includes, according to a newspaper report (not this paper), “a positive balance in average net income of the utility’s 12-month operation.” In the meantime, water in Baguio continues to be rationed and that’s the way it’s been for as long as anyone can remember. The population of the city continues to grow, and we hear of neighbourhoods that do not get any water at all during the summer months for weeks. Justifiable, perhaps, but was their move just? Moral?

We don’t have enough water, we don’t have a sustainable solid waste management system in place, our streets are congested, in the meantime more and more forest covers are being cleared for concrete structures, structures that would bring in more people to the city, attract more motor vehicles, exact more from the city’s limited resources. Our parks are being fenced in and concrete’s being poured all over its remaining earth spaces. And all the powers-that-be in the city care about is how much money was moved today.

I look out the window of our kitchen, I look past the hanging plants outside, past the bamboo hedge, past the top most branches of the neighborhood’s remaining pine trees… blue skies. It still is a beautiful morning, but I can’t help but dread what Baguio would be like at the end of the day.

Really, it’s time for a paradigm shift. Our children, too, deserve beautiful mornings in Baguio.

Serendipity And What Kafagway Stood For

On Tuesday, July 16, 2013, it would be 23 years since Baguio was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake. A Baguio old timer took exception when I said that a lot of people gave up Baguio for dead at the time. I can understand her sentiment, she must have been one of the many Baguio residents who stood by their beloved city and rebuilt it from the ground up.

But that’s how it felt for people like me who were not living here then. A lot of my friends, some of whom were students here at the time, some were living here, left Baguio after the tragedy and the news they brought down with them was not encouraging: Baguio was almost completely devastated that it seemed impossible that it would ever get back on its feet again. Or at least it would take a very long while. I even know of a friend whose mother worked as a caretaker of a house who ended up virtually owning the house after the owners left Baguio for good, and along with it their property. To this day, the owners have not returned.

The following year, another natural calamity struck: the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, one of the worst volcanic eruptions in centuries. While Baguio was not directly affected by the eruption, save for the few days of gloomy skies brought about by the unthinkable amount of ash that Mt. Pinatubo released, access to the mountain city was hampered due to the destruction in Pampanga and Tarlac. Roads were closed, reopened, and closed again every time the rains fell and lahar flowed.

But Baguio’s residents stood their ground – tourists or no tourists, this was their home, and they will never give up on it. Artists set up soup kitchens to help in the relief efforts of the government in the days following the earthquake. Families rebuilt their homes and their lives. In the blink of an eye, Baguio was back on its feet. Just three years after the earthquake, Baguio hosted one of the biggest international arts festivals the country has ever seen – the Baguio International Arts Festival put together by the Baguio Arts Guild, which served as an inspiration and a model for other art festivals all over the country.

I was here at the time, in 1993, as a member of the cast of the movie “Sakay,” promoting the showing of the film here in Baguio which was sponsored by the Baguio Arts Guild. I remember having to take Naguillian Road on our way up because both Marcos Highway and Kennon Road were closed due to landslides. The arduous journey up to Baguio from Manila, which took more than 10 hours that also involved navigating through lahar-stricken roads in Pampanga and Tarlac, took a toll on my body and I arrived in Baguio shivering and spent the rest of the week here woozy and feeling very weak. But that didn’t stop me from visiting the galleries, spending afternoons at the dap-ay at Cafe by the Ruins pounding on drums with local artists, attending mass at the Baguio Cathedral, and woozy nights at one of the cottages at Teachers Camp.

A couple of years later, I was back this time as a member of the cast of a foreign film being shot here. We did scenes at the landslide prone area along Marcos Highway where the viaduct is now, at Ambuklao and Binga dams, and at the end of the day, while the rest of my co-actors would immediately go to the nearest bar or the tourist section at the market, I would walk to Burnham Park, the Rose Garden in particular, and would just lay on the grass, watch the fog blanket the city until the sun disappeared for the night.

Then I would walk, through the park, just as I did with my mother and brother as a child during our frequent trips to Baguio, by the lake where couples in boats took advantage of the last few minutes before the boatman told them that’s it for the day; through the biking area where kids try to ignore their parents telling them it’s time to go home; through the Melvin Jones Grounds where football players are just packing up and shaking mud off their shoes after a rigorous game.

All that made me decide to make Baguio my home. I moved up here and put up a theater group called “open space.” But I digress.

Baguio survived World War II, a devastating earthquake, the countless typhoons that brought immeasurable amounts of rain and the resulting landslides. It withstood all that, it endured and remained a haven, cradled by majestic mountain ranges and towering pine trees even as it continued to progress into a highly urbanized city.

And that’s why we cannot just sit and watch as a few politicians forward their misdirected initiatives that aim to lay all that’s left of Baguio to waste with fences and gates around our parks and concrete on every available natural space.

A friend reminded me just a few days ago, after talking about our effort to oppose the putting up of gates around Burnham Park along with the planned concreting and privatization of portions of it, that the general area where Baguio is today was once known to the natives as “Kafagway,” which meant “open space.”

Rooftop Football

According to Robert R. Reed in his book, The City of Pines, the biggest piece of level land in the area of what was then the proposed townsite of Baguio, was called “Minac,” which Architect and City Planner Daniel Burnham reserved for a huge public park, and everything else needed to realize the Americans’ dream of a hill station in Benguet will be built around it.

Today, we call it Melvin Jones, and through the years, it has served the city in so many ways – as parade grounds, a venue for performances, exhibits, sporting events, particularly football, and at times for miraculous healing as promised by self-proclaimed modern-day prophets and crusaders. But there’s one other purpose it has served that matters the most – a place where the people of Baguio can go to breathe, relax, heave a sigh, protected from the ravages of rapid urbanization by towering trees and colorful blossoms – just as Daniel Bunrham envisioned it to be. That’s what parks are for, a place where we can be under the sun, or the rain, the feel of earth beneath our feet and the scent of green in the air.

Today, most of us would agree that the most common sight there are young men and women, boys and girls, muddied from head to cleats, chasing a ball around the field. Some say it has always served as a football field in the past. And in his speech last weekend at the opening of a football tournament, Ramon Dacawi, respected journalist and known football advocate, couldn’t help but wax romantic about how the grounds have gone back to being a football field, among its original intentions, he said.

But the good feeling was immediately shattered by the pronouncements of the guest of honor who followed Mr. Dacawi at the podium. I hope he wasn’t serious, or that it was just one of those things politicians say for the sake of having something to say and not something that’s really going to happen, or already happening – our honorable congressman promised to “develop” Melvin Jones, and by develop he meant going beyond lighting up the place at night, here’s what we got from what he said:

Melvin Jones will first be dug up to build an underground parking lot, top that with concrete (“tatambakan natin ng semento”), then plant grass and lots of trees over it, the latter said as if its icing to a very suspicious cake. That’s really scary, and sounded like a totally unsound plan. I can’t imagine a football game being played on a “rooftop.” And how much weight will that rooftop have to carry since a lot of earth would need to be dumped on it to be able to support trees and other foliage.

Well, “don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone,” as the song says. Are we really going to allow them to pave paradise to put up a parking lot?

For the nth time, again I ask, why does “development” always have to be about building something and pouring cement on everything? Why can’t it also be about preserving and protecting something that is already serving a noble purpose, such as our parks?  I know the Central Business District has a parking problem right now, but do we really have to desecrate the Melvin Jones grounds to help alleviate that problem? We do need infrastructures, but in a city like Baguio, such projects should be done with utmost care and in harmony with and with minimal or no impact at all on the city’s natural environment.

I beg of our “honourable” government officials, come on, give Baguio a break, give us a break. Leave Minac and the rest of our parks alone for really, they’re the only reminders of how beautiful this city once was.

In Baguio, when it rains

We just had our first typhoon, and I’m very thankful that PAGASA got it wrong again – what they forecast as a typhoon that would hit Baguio directly only brought about moderate winds and gray skies for a day, it was actually nice.

While known as the Summer Capital of the Philippines – originally literally when the American colonial government declared this highland paradise as the official seat of government of the country during the dry season, I have always loved Baguio even more during the rainy season. Having less tourists during that time may be one of the reasons for that.

Now as in when I was growing up, summer for our family meant the going to the beach, so way before I chose Baguio to be my home, my mother would bring me with her on her numerous trips to visit friends here usually during the rainy season. We used to take the Pantranco bus from Quezon Avenue, I’d sleep off the first few hours of the journey and wake up just as the bus perilously starts to make its way up Kennon Road, I’d keep the window open to feel the gradual drop in the wind’s temperature as the bus climbs higher and higher.

Coming here then was like entering a theater to watch a play. Open house starts at the bottom of Kennon Road, with house music provided by the sound of the rushing Bued River. That music slowly fades out as curtain time nears – and you know that the magical Baguio experience is about to begin when the curtain of fog closes, gradually hiding everything from view. The lowland flora slowly exits the scene and a new cast of highland greenery takes its place, waiting in the wings behind the clouds to make their entrance. The air gets colder and everyone in the audience of tourists, students, Baguio folks on their way back home, change costumes – out come the thick jackets and sweaters and scarves and bonnets – back then it was cold enough to wear gloves or mittens.

And the performance begins – the curtains are drawn to reveal a majestic sight of towering pine trees, mossy rocks and thickly vegetated mountainsides. It is a multi-sensory experience – the wind chills and gently moistens the tip of your nose as you stick as much of yourself out the window to take in as much of the ongoing performance as you can, you take a deep breath and smell the unique scent of pine, and your eyes feast on the one of the most beautiful skylines you’ve ever seen. And it’s only the beginning.

A gentle drizzle would complete the overture as the bus enters the center of town. The bus slows down and even before it comes to a full stop people would be getting off their seats already, picking up their bags from underneath their seats or from the overhead luggage rack and start making their way down the aisle. You get off, and Act 1 of Baguio in the rain begins.

In Baguio when it rains, you don’t rush to hide from it like you do elsewhere. Here, you look up towards the heavens and take it all in, and it’s a wonderful feeling.

In Baguio when it rains, walking around Burnham Park is like being inside a watercolor painting where all the colors seem to feather into each other, flowers cross-fading into leaves into earth into people’s faces.

In Baguio when it rains, the lagoon across the Mansion House and the pine forest beside it are a Zen garden.

In Baguio when it rains, artists gather for an exhibit opening and later around the fire to make music; around a table for a warm drink; every establishment along Session Road provides a welcoming, warm sanctuary; the cold brings people closer together.

In Baguio when it rains, you breathe out and make a cloud.

In Baguio when it rains, at night, the lights of the houses in the distant mountains are like fireflies.

In Baguio when it rains, at night when you call it a day, the mountains sing you a lullaby and beginning with your toes and the tips of your fingers, numbs you to sleep, a welcome intermission.

In Baguio when it rains, the next morning when you wake, the sun comes out and the world is young again.

So one rainy day more than a decade ago, I decided to never be elsewhere again but here, in Baguio, when it rains.

Keeping warm on a cold, rainy night

Our gang of performing artists just had a successful premiere a few days earlier so last Saturday, we celebrated that with some food, drinks, music and lots of laughter. The night ended and we left our host’s house in Scout Barrio and were driving home at a little over past midnight towards Nevada Square when upon reaching that last curve before getting to Nevada Square I was quite surprised by the empty road that led to the rotunda at the end of Loakan Road – it was a Saturday night, and usually the very young clientele of the bars located at the square would be spilling over to the road. The sight of some groups actually having their alcohol fix right on the roadside was not uncommon.

“Tahimik a,” I uttered to my passengers in the car which included my wife, my son and a couple of friends. It was the calm before a storm for as soon as I said that, the silence was broken by the sound of glass breaking.

My son is at that age when he’s very impressionable – and what parent wouldn’t be worried when your child chooses gangsters as role models. One can’t help but start to worry seriously when you see doodles in your child’s notebook that look exactly like the images you see spray painted on vandalized gates (including ours) and concrete fences all over the city. You worry even more when you find out what particular gang those images belong to and what that particular gang’s raison d’etre is. We’ve had a lot of talks with our children telling them of the violence that’s usually associated with these groups. My son would try to make it appear that he understood what we were trying to tell him during these talks, but I could also feel that he didn’t fully believe the stories of young boys and girls ending up in hospitals, or worse, dead, as a result of mostly senseless rumbles between gangs, of one gangster getting killed by another simply because he or she belonged to a different gang. I could sense that he probably thought that to discourage him from getting into these gangs, we were making up these stories.

A lot has been said about the very serious problem of gang wars in the city, but we could see that whatever is supposedly being done by the authorities is not enough.

From a distance I could see several young boys spilling out onto the road throwing whatever they could get their hands on towards the direction of one of the establishments in the area. I immediately stepped on the breaks. All of us froze for a moment. More rocks, bottles, and boys with lead pipes, behind me the line of cars were getting longer, not one car dared to go through the war zone. And then gunshots were fired: it wasn’t clear where the gunshots were coming from, and since there were no policemen in sight, I hoped they were warning shots being fired by the security guards in the area to break up the rumble. And then the thought of stray bullets entered my mind, so I started turning the car around to get away from there as fast as I could. As we drove the other way in total silence, I looked at the rear view mirror and saw my son’s shocked face, his eyes filled with terror. I asked him if he was ok, he lied and said yes. I asked him what he thought of what we just witnessed, and he admitted that until then he never thought that the stories we told him were true and that those rumbles really do happen.

It was a cold night, a slight drizzle was starting when we got home. We made some hot chocolate to calm ourselves and brought out mattresses and camped out in the living room for the night. After finishing his cup and getting under the covers, my son hugged me and said, “this is so nice and warm. It’s nice to be home on a rainy night like this.”

In Baguio, the signs are everywhere 

(Originally published in my column in the now defunct Cordillera Today in May, 2008) 

A sign next to the Magsaysay flyover says, “To Baguio: Make a U-turn, Go To Trancoville Junction, Make Another U-turn, Proceed To Flyover Ramp.”

There are signs everywhere. Up on the sidewalks, on doors, motor vehicles: on windshields or bumpers, on paper or tarpaulin, on billboards: in neon, in color, or in black and white.

You’ve got nationwidest coverage? Sure. You‘ve got it all for me? Ok.Katas ng Saudi? Noted. Will I be there? I’m done with school, but thanks for the invitation. Kailangan pa bang i-memorize ‘yan? You’re right, no need to, and I’d have forgotten it had you not kept on reminding me all day that there’s no need to commit the crap you heap on my helpless ears all day to memory.

Sure, the stuffy central business district; with its roads filled with smoke-belching motor vehicles; its sidewalks crammed with people spitting, pissing, throwing up, loitering, littering and not minding whose toes they step on or shoulders they bump into; its once picturesque skyline now obliterated by giant commercial billboards screaming into our faces to buy this, switch to that, eat here, get drunk there, may be signs of a developed city. But from a different angle, these may be signs of a city painted all over with greed and shamelessness – a portrait of an abused city.

Perhaps the ever growing bank account of the city is a sign of progress. But what kind of future does the city face with it and is it worth it? The signs that say “Don’t Be A Scofflaw,” put up by a corporation with a legally questionable contract with the city government that was found to be illegally occupying public property and usurping the powers of several government entities, can still be seen all over the city. There are still signs proclaiming the city to be the cleanest and greenest in the country, next to piles of uncollected garbage. There are no parking signs next to parked cars, no loading and unloading signs next to jeepneys picking up and dropping off passengers.

What’s a row of bars infront of an elementary school a sign of? What’s a row of sleazy establishments near the city hall a sign of? What’s a police car passing through a red light a sign of? What’s the sight of elderly locals with baskets of vegetables and fruits being chased by the government in our streets where legitimate shops selling illegal merchandise thrive a sign of? What’s the plan to provide elected officials with brand new cars while the same elected officials often cite the lack of money as the reason behind the failure of the city government to efficiently deliver public service a sign of?

I’ve said it before, walking down Session Road, one only has to stop and look at the signs to know where the city has been, where it is, and where it’s going.

The sign may say, “To Baguio: Make a U-turn, Go To Trancoville Junction, Make Another U-turn, Proceed To Flyover Ramp,” or we can simply say, “Straight Ahead.”

Or maybe the sign could’ve stopped at, “Make A U-turn.” Looking at where Baguio is today, that makes sense.