The new expressways now have reduced the road trip to a mere four hours. One can ride buses in unbelievable air-conditioned comfort, with stops at gasoline stations that are equipped with everything a traveler would want -- first class food and a clean toilet (if you pay a Php 20 charge). It's truly a wonder to watch vans disgorge their passengers who scamper towards the comfort rooms in a swarm. Fully re-charged with food and coffee, and their bladders relieved, even mildly experienced drivers can calmly negotiate the once fearsome zigzag of Kennon Road by simply minding the basic rules of safe driving. Don't overtake on a yellow line even if the now wider roads with first-class paving can be tempting. Better still, from Cubao take the non-stop air-conditioned bus. With a stewardess and CR onboard, it’s sheer comfort.
Super-urban Baguio becomes evident at the Lion's Head vista point. Never mind parking because there's hardly any space. Those who arrive earlier jostle with newcomers for the most advantageous selfie stick position. Be careful that you don't get stabbed by one, for there are many sticks in play. From here on, it’s traffic that could put Manila's congestion to shame. Social media, smart phones and easy car loans payments have given wage-earners the means to buy a car for travel-- be it to Baguio or Tagaytay. They also have the means to broadcast their trip to friends and family through Facebook. Your new car can even be blessed, recorded by a selfie, at the Lady of Manoag shrine in Pangasinan on your way to Baguio, just a few miles from Kennon Road.
Strawberry Fields Forever
Besides its mountain scenery, Baguio is also famous for its strawberries. Before imported strawberries became available to Manileños, the only strawberries they could taste came from Baguio. Like pine trees and everlasting flower wreaths, strawberries have been synonymous with Baguio. The berries, however, are grown further out from the city, in La Trinidad, a fertile valley for growing all sorts of vegetables. In more recent times, it has become a tourist destination where hundreds of visitors can pay (Php 10/basket) to have a farmer pick ripe strawberries to take home as edible souvenirs. The expanse of the land for growing is impressive. Several plots are irrigated by a canal that runs across the strawberry plots. Some plots have an even more elaborate growing system -- rows of jumbo size soda plastic bottles with one side off and planted with strawberries. Each bottle is connected to a hose that provides drip irrigation. The beauty of the arrangement is that it is above ground, on a trestle tower, protecting the plants from the ground-level pests that could destroy the fruit. It also increases the plot area for growing. Ingenious. Farmers also do a lottery for whose plot is to be planted and harvested. This ensures that no single plot is over-cultivated, guaranteeing that the soil nutrients are not exhausted from frequent harvesting. I don’t know if this is a traditional Ifugao practice. It’s agri-tourism at its best. The practice makes it a sustainable effort. It’s evidence as well of the strong bond of the mountain communities and guarantees competitiveness against imports. Outside, in the parking lot, young Manileños take selfies in Ifugao costumes rented for 50 pesos.
Daniel Burnham, Chicago architect and proponent of the City Beautiful philosophy will probably cringe if he sees Baguio City today. As Manila's urban planner during the early years of American colonization, he envisioned wide open spaces punctuated by grand buildings -- the Prewar Congress, City Hall and Post Office buildings framed Manila's Dewey Boulevard, now Roxas Boulevard. Burnham Park, the former settlement of the Ibaloi mountain people, was transformed from what a must have been a charming lake during the American period, into a park named after him. Nowadays, this namesake does not do any service to the Burnham philosophy of open space. It has become a tourist playground where flotillas of paddle boats run the risk of colliding against each other. The promenade has become a go-cart track where children of all ages try to outrace each other. And, the curbside street lane has become a parking space. Cars searching for parking circle the Park's perimeter in the manner of a slow processional. There are rumors that to solve Baguio’s horrendous traffic and bring relief, city planners will ban jeepneys from downtown and then convert the Park into a car lot! I think they should instead have a moratorium on condo development until they can rationalize human and automobile traffic away from a helter-skelter development. Nothing is more obvious than the view of houses built along the cliff in Trinidad. The paint colors of the houses give an illusion of prettiness. Without the colors, the hillside would look like one of those Rio de Janeiro favelas, a jumble of oddly built homes.
A few miles down Asin Road is Bencab's Museum, a contemporary structure that sits on the hill overlooking a grand vista of the valley La Trinidad. It is early summer now and the hills are still verdant. Hundreds visit this museum, now a destination spot equal to Burnham Park, or the Mansion House. I wonder if the visitors truly understand what Bencab's intention was in building an art museum far from the city. Most of them take selfies in front of objects they fancy.
The museum is three floors high and houses Bencab's iconic works and those of contemporary artists who work along the same genre -- sociohistorical commentary. There is a lot of Ifugao wood carvings, from animistic bulol rice gods to the hagabi nobility benches. The Asin district after all, was the traditional and well-known area for Igorot wood carvings. The museum has become a repository of contemporary cultural criticism and earthy erotic art.
I sit down in the cafe al fresco. It overlooks a peaceful vista of hills, pine trees and a manicured garden. Between sips of Bencab's magical coffee brew, I ponder how the place must have looked like to the colonial Americans who escaped Manila's summer heat and retreated to the mountains a hundred years ago. A few art pieces in the museum tell this story of colonization. I marvel at the story of my cousin, a nun who teaches at a Catholic grade school nearby; about how her students come from the various language groups, Ifugao, Kankanay, Kalinga and so on, and can converse in good American English, but read poorly. Like Manila, the colonial administration created a city of appearances that mimic American architectural tastes. English was the lingua franca. Baguio imitated the colonial summer outpost, a construct that the British made famous in India and Malaysia. Scanning the verdant horizon shrouded by early morning fog, the colonial would have uttered, "By Jove, I do own this place..." while an Igorot boy held the bridle of his imported stallion ready for a morning ride in the cool pine-scented air.
Old Tech Meets High Tech
Bencab’s museum exemplifies the evolution of Baguio as a 21st century city, from its pre-colonial, American colonial past to a rapidly urbanizing Cordillera hub. Yet, beneath the shiny new façade of an urban city, the indigenous culture maintains its presence, unlike Manila where the “native” has been cast away in souvenir shops or a museum. U.P. Baguio is transforming into an interesting blend of old and new. There is a new auditorium being built, more likely better that the one I performed in. Alongside the old science building, a new all-glass engineering edifice will house future fully equipped science labs. A new guest housing is reportedly being built, no doubt, sans the “ghost” I was supposed to meet in the old dorm room where I was billeted. Further down to the end of the hill, is the gleaming Museo Kordilyera. It opened last February and was inaugurated by out-going UP President Pascual. It was one of his last official chores. There was a full blown inaugural program that included an Ifugao priest who read the liver of a freshly slaughtered pig for signs of good fortune. In this case, the Cordillera gods gave their blessings. It is a fitting showcase of Cordilleran material culture, from textiles and costumes to wood sculpture meant for ritual and community events.
Tucked away in one corner is a glass enclosure where woven textile is stored in temperature controlled setting. It has a “clean-room” look to it like those you might expect in a chip fabrication facility. On my successive visit to the Museo, I meet with its curator Dr. Analyn Salvador-Amores, a very unassuming Cordillera expert -- Oxford (UK) PhD in Social Anthropology, author of Batok, the definitive book and biography of Kalinga tattoo art and its foremost practitioner Whang-od Oggay. Dr. Salvador-Amore and her team have assembled a high-tech research project that will analyze Cordillera textile for its fiber characteristics and its design components by machine testing and imaging technologies. Named CORDITEX, her team of physicists and mathematicians, among others, hopes to generate data that could provide predictive outcomes based on the fiber and pattern design analysis, or answer questions like, which design architecture makes for a stronger fabric. It’s a project Google scientists might find interesting. Totally esoteric for most of us, as their project matures and more textile samples are collected from various ethnolinguistic groups, their research will provide clues to both the scientific bases of indigenous weaving knowledge that indigenous communities have developed over the centuries. It will also give us clues on how and which fibers can be recommended for more efficient and durable artisanal work.
I end the day on the view deck of the once controversial SM Mall, near the UP campus. Local residents had protested against its imposing presence and the felling of pine trees for its parking lot. As the sun sets and its orange glow lights up the darkening clouds, scores of young and old people sit and rest their back on the glass wall of the stairwell to watch the sunset. At a distance, at least for this day, they wait for the majestic Baguio Cathedral, which once dominated the horizon, disappear in the dusk, between the cluttered horizon of high-rise condos. A waft of chilly air sweeps by, signaling the end of another day. Apparently, there are still simple pleasures to be had in Baguio. I saunter up Session Road and end my day with bagnet (crisply fried pork belly) at the Café by the Ruins.
Dr. Michael Gonzalez spent three months in the Philippines as a Fulbright Senior Scholar to research on indigenous textiles. He is with the faculty of City College San Francisco, Department of Philippine Studies. This is first of a series on his three month research in the Philippines.
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