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HORIZONS

Baguio: my dying hometown (1)

When the British author V.S. Naipaul was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize for literature, the Swedish Academy described him as a “literary circumnavigator, only ever really at home in himself, in his inimitable voice.” For contemporary writers like myself, who spend a good portion of the year restlessly moving from one continent to the other, nothing less than the boundless breadth of the world serves as “home.”

In a way, in today’s hyperconnected, social media-obsessed globalized world, none of us are truly at home in a specific geography or time. We are, similar to those in the long-peace zeitgeist of the Japanese Edo period, ever floating in a fluid cosmos of unanchored thoughts and unhinged emotions, constantly craving for the El Dorado of permanent home.

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In Sartrean lexicon, we are intoxicated by the crisis of our ephemeral being-and-nothingness. Yet, once we step back, and liberate ourselves from such bourgeoisie existentialism, we discover that we indeed have a home—a permanent anchor for our unquiet souls. In my case, that’s my hometown of Baguio, a place of birth that has never left me, no matter where on earth I have been.

It’s in Baguio where I often find much-needed respite from the hectic and lonely life that torments young, ambitious professionals residing in megacities. It’s there where I get to spend quality time with family, get some long writing done, and best attend to my most profound spiritual needs.

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And it’s precisely in recognition of the centrality of Baguio to my core being that I can’t but painfully lament the slow-motion devastation of this once majestic city on the hills,
famous for its all-embracing fog and tranquil pine trees. As Baguio people put it, there is just nothing like our city in the entire country.

But the “summer capital of the Philippines” is suffering from what American political scientist Samuel Huntington aptly termed as “westernization without modernization.”

The city’s rapid economic growth, reflected in the incorporation of a metropolitan-style lifestyle and cutting-edge technology, has gone hand in hand with the overall deterioration of the residents’ overall living standards, emergence of once-unheard social inequality, and the stubborn persistence of oligarchic political institutions and ever-circulating “trapos.”

Instead of the Baguio of the postcards, what one tends to see nowadays are trappings of mindless consumerism, a maddening traffic that rivals that of Manila, and untrammeled structural expansion. All of these haunt a besieged city struggling with waste disposal, overpopulation, water shortage, the absence of an integrated modern public transportation system and, especially during stormy seasons, unreliable electricity.

Earlier this month, standing next to the Melvin Jones field, I saw, with horror and grief, the corrosive emaciation of greenery and the remaining few sanctuaries of public life and breathing space in my hometown, as crony capitalism and bureaucratic greed persistently ruin the beautiful city of Baguio. Once, this city had stood well above every other place in the country as a showcase of modernity and world-class urban planning.

Melvin Jones is close to my heart, for I spent childhood years playing soccer there, happily plunging into raw mud, relishing the sweat and soil of home and taking in all the life energy from the clear blue sky that once stood above us.

Today, however, there are fears of anachronistically located and ill-designed parking lots in the few green spaces left across the city, which would negate what Baguio once stood for: harmony between nature and human architecture.

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Baguio’s exceptionalism—a middle-class city built largely by the Americans on the ethos of meritocracy, quality education and egalitarianism—is coming to an end, as the city becomes increasingly similar to
other heavily congested, incoherently developed urban areas in the country. If current trends persist, Baguio residents will have to drop their notorious snobbery toward “lowland” people, because, whether they want to admit or not, their beloved hometown has not been spared getting sucked into the whirlpool of extractive capitalism that has infested the whole country.

The root of the crisis is, above all, the unsustainable process of reconstruction that followed a devastating earthquake in 1990, a traumatic episode that I (barely 3 years old back then) can still remember…

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