Baguio and I are not what we used to be, God knows.
We’re both showing evidence of progressive abuse and neglect—denudation, for one thing. And for one who has lived as long as I, it’s definitely no small consolation that Baguio, as I, if I may carry on with the comparison, has remained loved.
There’s the cool and sometimes foggy air, of course, and there are wild blooms managing to exist untended by the mountain roadsides: fairly thick patches of sunflowers, groupings of violets on vines, yellow bells climbing fences and trees, generous sprays of bougainvillea—reds in various shades, occasional deep lilacs, and whites for some relief.
Soil, wind and weather conspire to allow plants and flowers to transcend their potential here; brought down to Manila, they hardly make it, not unlike summer romances better left where they bloomed.
Baguio’s weather and other charms are indeed made for romance. Surely no one can deny having at one time or another succumbed to its spell. The mountain city seems to do to visitors what it does to flowers; thus, vulnerability is now betrayed by the tall, gangling boy with the fuzzy beginnings of a mustache and the pimply girl with buds that don’t quite qualify for breasts but are padded to qualify for a bra.
Most vulnerable to Baguio’s romantic virus, no doubt, have been teenagers liberated from school and home rules during summer break. Like Alice lost in Wonderland, some of them in our own time lost their heads in elopements and rushed weddings. We sort of knew: They didn’t return to school.
But such has been more the exception than the rule. Baguio was, and still is, a place for family time—time so short, thus jealously guarded, that a wave from a distance feels proper enough greeting to a friend run into. Even friends who take me way back and remind me that much life has been lived, friends I grew up with whose parents were close to my own—they all concede the distance, settling for a quick if tight hug, at this chance meeting in Baguio. The atmosphere has remained honest—no routine promises of “getting together soon” needed.
Baguio continues to evoke sweet memories of my own parents, my own teenaged adventures, and my own children’s, as well—biking, boating, horseback riding. Now, in our senior years, my husband Vergel and I have been drawn back every year for the past four, mainly for 5-year-old Mona, my youngest granddaughter, and usually to welcome the New Year in a Baguio that has become overpopulated, underdeveloped, in fact, ravaged, an abominable excuse for what it once was. To be sure, some of its charms somehow remain intact, mostly in the cool air and the beautiful flowers, but now, again, without the scent of pine.
Piercing the sky
Nothing, indeed, belonged more to Baguio than pine—the trees piercing the sky, their cones fallen on the bed of their shed needles carpeting the grounds, nature’s own protective cover for their long-reaching but shallow roots. Ah, but nothing could protect the pines from man’s greed. They have no longer been cut for Christmas trees but slaughtered for condominiums, hotels, and other such projects pursued without any sense of zoning, indeed without any semblance of discipline.
Nothing remains of the landmarks I cherished, hotels like Pines and Hyatt, among others. An SM mall is a substitute, a cross-ventilated structure whose one momentary attraction is that it sits high enough to provide a view of the magnificent Baguio sunset. A more welcome other is National Artist Bencab’s museum. About the only place left standing I can relate to is Casa Vallejo, rehabilitated and refurbished by its new owners.
In November I was eager to join Vergel there for one of his traveling lectures, because it afforded me an opportunity to relive summer breaks from college spent therewith two schoolmates, Malen and Manit Garcia, the younger daughters of the old owners. Their widowed mom—they called her Mink—managed the place more as a cozy home than as an impersonal hotel. There, by the fireplace, on sofas soft and lumpy from long use, we curled up in our pedal pushers and took in the aroma of Spanish dishes cooking in olive oil in the kitchen below.
Memory is usually sharper aided by olfactory nerves; otherwise it becomes a struggle putting it to service, like now, when I feel lost for Baguio’s trademark welcoming scent, that of pine.
That scent is itself the very essence of the City of Pines, and it seems all but gone. Baguio today is an invaded city, an occupied city, taken for keeps by outsiders coming from as far as Korea. If it manages to carry on, I guess it does so largely on the strength of the sweet scent of memory.
What has happened to Baguio seems to me not much different from the case of an aging woman, like me, in her own lack of discipline and planning and in the natural ravages of time, as well. Maybe that’s the whole point of my loving Baguio: I see too much of myself in its own diminishment.