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For the love of Baguio

/ 05:25 AM December 18, 2020

Baguio City — I was here just a week before the lockdown and my heart has pined for Baguio ever since, wondering when I can go back. When the Department of Tourism and the City of Baguio launched a limited reopening, I was initially reluctant but eventually decided to see for myself, partly as a participant-observer committed to bearing witness to what’s gone on in our country in this pandemic year, and partly as a weary soul seeking to draw inspiration from one of the special places in my life.

They say that Baguio is haunted by ghosts, but what I know is that it is inhabited by my memories. Like many Filipinos, somewhere in our family home is an album of faded pictures of the country’s “Summer Capital”—like me and my sister on horseback or on a boat in Burnham Park. The family road trips were memorable in themselves—back then it took 10 hours from Los Baños—and to this day Gary Granada’s songs—my father had cassette tapes of his albums—remind me of MacArthur Highway’s acacia trees.

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My young adulthood is likewise filled with Baguio moments, starting with the day my cousin Franz and I covertly boarded that Victory Liner bus on a teenage adventure. Later, when I was in medical school, my friends and I used Baguio as a base for hiking adventures, going straight to Kabayan, Sabangan, or Kibungan from the bus terminal via “monster jeepney.” In recent years, I’ve taken the more relaxed routine of arriving a day before and spending a day or two after, so I can meet with friends, savor the local food, visit Mt. Cloud bookshop, and make sure I have enough pasalubong to take home.

Even when there was no hike, I sometimes decided to go anyway, knowing that I could always do a daily run through Yellow Trail, or even just a jog around town, making a loop from Burnham Park to Engineer’s Hill through Session Road—except during those periods of interminable rain, from August to September, when the highlands are a haze of green and gray.

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The Baguio today, of course, is very different. There are no buses (yet). Before you can even pack your bags, you need a travel permit applied days ahead (via visita.baguio.gov.ph), and an antigen or PCR test (done within 72 hours upon arrival). At long last, TPLEx now goes all the way to Rosario, La Union—but whatever time savings you gain will be lost in the process of being held in an abandoned building, escorted by a motorbike, and inspected in a “triage center” before being allowed to proceed with your itinerary.

In fairness to the DOT and the city government—whose mayor Benjamin Magalong has won initial acclaim for his contact tracing efforts—the strict, albeit somewhat inefficient, measures inspire some confidence, and hopefully, they have absorptive capacity as more visitors come. Like many LGU executives, Magalong has been caught in a wobbly balancing act between public health and economic imperatives. Surely, writers like Frank Cimatu, social scientists like Rowena Boquiren, anthropologists like Padmapani Perez, and artists like Kidlat Tahimik will have much to say about the lived experiences of Baguio during the lockdown.

Of course, beyond the pandemic, and often absent from the view of visitors like me who tend to romanticize Baguio, there are broader questions of the city’s over-reliance on tourism and its unsustainable development—and its place in a neoliberal economy that has seen the city’s nature exploited and its culture commodified. COVID-19 has brought these questions to the fore, but it will require leadership, foresight, and activism to address them in the coming years.

Once you’ve gone through the entry processes, you are free to roam around and see how Baguio—after all these years—has retained its cool climate and its charm, even if the festive Christmas decor and carols, normally so apt for the city this time of the year, seem somewhat strange in a pandemic year. Despite having struggled all year like other industries, and being increasingly dependent on delivery apps, restaurants continue to serve great salads and other amazing food that Baguio is known for.

As for the mountains, they’re still closed to hikers. But Yellow Trail is open, and every day, after work, I have been retracing my old routes through its soft footpaths. There, I can inhale the scent of pines, gaze at the Cordillera’s blue peaks, and, in the meantime, draw strength from all the memories of a place that will forever be dear to me.

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TAGS: Baguio, Coronavirus, COVID-19, health, memories, pandemic, Tourism, travel
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