Save Our Spots
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - December 18, 2019 - 12:00am

For those who grew up enjoying Baguio, the announcement that the city is undergoing rehabilitation is one piece of good news in this season of cheer.

Mayor Benjamin Magalong is promising to turn Baguio into a smart city, according to Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat.

Like most of us, Sec Berna is disappointed that the Baguio that we know has disappeared. The news that the previous city government had planned to turn Burnham Park into a parking lot was like a seal of doom. There goes the neighborhood – and all the childhood memories of boat rides and learning to ride a bike in the park.

Today Session Road, where we bought silver trinkets and hand-woven Ifugao ponchos and enjoyed Chinese cuisine at Star Café and restaurant, looks like a tiangge in Metro Manila. Star Café, a fixture on Session Road since the 1950s, closed for good in 2014.

The tolling of the bells of the Baguio Cathedral at 6 p.m. for the Angelus is one of the enduring memories of my childhood. The last time I visited Baguio, the cathedral loop was as congested as the street parallel to Mines View Park, and a tricycle stand obscured the entrance to the church.

*      *      *

Our family lived in Baguio when I was a baby, and when we moved to Manila, we always visited the City of Pines every chance we could. We stayed in a relative’s rest house with wooden floors and a real fireplace.

The house, which overlooked a low valley, had a terraced garden that was typical in those days. All year round that garden had an abundance of blooms: gladiolus, giant dahlias, hydrangeas, strawflowers that locals dried and strung together for the iconic Baguio garlands we call “everlasting.”

The Baguio of my youth was a city of pines and flowers. “Bleeding heart” vines adorned trellises. There was an explosion of roses. Azaleas of various colors lined Burnham Park. At night the haunting scent of dama de noche combined with the pine, acting like an air freshener all over the city.

As soon as our car passed the toll entrance to Kennon Road, I would roll down the window to relish the wonderful highland air with its natural perfume. Wild sunflowers, with their own distinctive scent, lined the “zigzag road.”

When I started working and life became more stressful, I often recharged my batteries by taking a break of a day or two in Baguio. Simply breathing in that air was rejuvenating.

*      *      *

I don’t know when the city began turning into an extension of EDSA on a payday Friday.

One summer when I visited, there were signs at the public market warning of pickpockets. The surrounding streets were chockfull of jeepneys that were either parked or crawling along.

It was disheartening to see the city’s slopes looking like the favelas of Brazil; you could count the pine trees that managed to survive the onslaught of property development. Only a few places, such as Camp John Hay and the Baguio Country Club where they have mercifully preserved the raisin bread, still offered the invigorating scents of pine and flowers.

In neighboring La Trinidad valley, the area that was still planted to strawberries seemed so tiny. I couldn’t tell if this was because I was looking at the fields from an adult’s perspective, when things remembered from childhood seem smaller, or if the strawberry fields had truly shrunk dramatically.

The Baguio strawberry, which tends to be small, easily bruised and too tart, can also use an upgrade. Maybe new varieties can be introduced, so the farmers can produce those large, crisp and sweet ones harvested in Japan and South Korea. Former presidential spokesman Harry Roque is proud to say that his farm produces large, luscious strawberries, so it’s possible to grow those varieties in the Cordilleras.

The Baguio strawberry can be featured in the Department of Tourism’s focus on food around the country, with the slogan “Eats More Fun in the Philippines.”

*      *      *

Even if the people of La Trinidad manage to grow bigger, better strawberries, it’s no fun to go anywhere if the traffic is horrid. Getting there is truly half the fun, and before you reach La Trinidad, you must first slog through the traffic jams in Baguio.

Sec Berna, who faced “The Chiefs” for our final episode for the year on Cignal TV’s One News, said she had told Magalong that she no longer wanted to visit Baguio because “it’s so traffic.”

“No, no, no, I’ll convert it into a smart city,” Magalong told Sec Berna.

She’s happy to find local government officials who are taking the initiative to clean up and rehabilitate their own backyards. Sec Berna is impressed that Magalong has detailed plans for realizing his vision of a smart city.

On Jan. 9, she and the mayor will meet together with Secretaries Roy Cimatu of the environment and Eduardo Año of the interior and local government to discuss the city’s revival, including what to do with the residential and commercial structures perched on danger zones on the city’s slopes.

“They shouldn’t be there,” Sec Berna said.

Mindful of the need for a manageable tourist carrying capacity, Magalong wants to develop more areas as travel destinations in neighboring municipalities. Those who may have to move out of danger zones may also relocate to these new development sites.

Sec Berna noted that a similar program was developed by Japan around the old capital Kyoto, one of the country’s top tourist destinations.

The restoration of Baguio will be in line with the bayanihan movement launched by the Department of Tourism (DOT) last month, which aims to instill a culture of responsible tourism at the grassroots.

Called “Save Our Spots” or SOS, it’s an apt movement that includes helping local governments that are taking the initiative in cleanup and rehabilitation efforts.

Baguio, for example, is getting an initial P500 million from the DOT’s infrastructure arm, the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority, to rehabilitate Burnham Park and jumpstart the upgrading of the city’s water and sewerage system.

Let’s hope SOS works for Baguio.

BAGUIO
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