I was born and raised in this Philippine summer capital originally built as an R&R for American soldiers stationed in the Philippines. It was a haven designed by American architect Daniel Burnham for a population not to exceed 30,000.
I recently returned to Baguio after a quarter-century living the American Dream.
My first impression was that my hometown has lost its small-town feel. The population now stands at 300,000, and counting. Gone are the wide open spaces, including those in the neighborhood I grew up in. In their place now stand more new homes, annexes to old homes, warehouse facilities in what used to be primary residential neighborhoods, sari-sari stores within a few steps of each other, and lots of food stalls (the jeepney and taxi drivers have to eat, and the food vendors have to make a living, I guess).
Speaking of jeepneys and taxis, they have multiplied ten-fold to accommodate the commuting workers and students. It almost makes no sense to own a private car -- there's not enough room on the narrow streets that are now shared between motorists and pedestrians. At least, the city government thought of building pedestrian overpasses in Baguio's central district.
As a child, I grew up in our family home not far from Quirino Hill, where, during the summer months, bright yellow sunflowers bloomed, making it a natural canvas artists can only dream of. Today, there's not a single visible pine tree or sunflower on the hill. It has become a packed albeit colorful mural that depicts the overpopulation that Baguio has to now live with.
Ah, and the Burnham Park I once knew is still there, complete with the muddy artificial lake that hosts canoes and swan-like boats that never fail to attract the picture-hungry (make that selfie-hungry) tourists. But alas, the streets surrounding the park and lake are now lined with vendor stalls selling almost anything you can imagine -- from T-shirts to trinkets, from Nike shoes to leather belts, from strawberries to crepes and pizzas.
Up on Luneta Hill, across from the Baguio City Cathedral, where the majestic Pines Hotel once stood, mall-mania has taken over. The SM Mall has become the center of all activity, including local activism consisting of protests against SM's continued expansion that requires the cutting of trees.
There is obviously more diversity now than when I lived in the city. Korean students and businessmen are now a part of Baguio's growing community where Muslims as well as people from the highlands and the lowlands converge in a melting pot of commerce, tourism, education and crime.
While much of Baguio's infrastructure has grown or expanded, many of the city's traditional attractions have withstood the test of time.
What used to be Camp John Hay, an American air force base, still boasts well-manicured green lawns and trees, paved roads and golf courses. What changed is that it is now home to upscale hotels, convention venues and mansion-like real estate.
Tourists still flock to Mines View Park, the Mansion House (summer residence of the Philippine president) and Wright Park, where one can still ride a horse or pony (the fee, I suspect, may have changed.)
And then, there's still the bustling Baguio City Public Market, which I personally consider the city's top destination for tourists and locals alike. It has shown utmost resiliency, rising from ruins caused by fire and earthquake. I dare say it is one of the world's best public markets where you can get the freshest of meats, seafood, fruits and vegetables; not to mention stalls that showcase unique local produce, arts and crafts.
For the first time this year, I witnessed “Panagbenga,” an annual flower festival celebrated every February, which takes place in Baguio. The term “Panagbenga” comes from a Kankanaey term meaning “season of blooming.” This month-long festival reflects the history, traditions and values of Baguio and the Cordilleras. It has become a festival that attracts more than one million people each year. It approximates Pasadena, California's Rose Parade. I could just imagine the amount of work that the city puts in to hold this month-long festival.
The Panagbenga Festival through the Baguio Flower Festival Foundation, Inc. (BFFFI) holds the distinction of being a proud member of the International Festival and Events Association (IFEA) – the premier association supporting and enabling festival and event professionals worldwide.
Baguio's weather is still something that many lowland people look forward to. One can still experience some frosty and foggy mornings and evenings, although one will also notice the warmth and humidity in between -- a byproduct perhaps, of overcrowding, vehicle emissions and the downing of trees.
A lot has changed in Baguio, but I must say there is really no place like home. More than the progress and changes in the environment, nothing can replace the still vivid memories of being a Baguio boy growing up in a city like no other. Can I say paradise?
Rene Astudillo is a blogger and a marketing consultant.
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