Baguio: When the old meets the new

The great mountain barriers hid behind a wall of fog, too shy to show their green slopes and carpets of pine. Outside, the sky reached for the earth like a silvery curtain gliding a few inches above the worn-out asphalt road, tired of the steady flow of trucks, tourist buses, vans and cars. The driver had turned off the air conditioner, but the cold penetrated the bus, turning it into a freezer on wheels.

After six hours of almost uninterrupted bus ride from Manila, stacks of houses loomed overhead like enclaves of gray and white mushrooms against a sea of green. Slowly, traffic congested, and billboards blared the famed metropolis perched 5,100 feet above sea level—Baguio City.

It took another forty minutes before the bus managed to squeeze out of the bottlenecked gateway of Baguio into an unloading zone. The metropolis is teeming with culture. Pasalubong vendors greet tourists with key chains that look like strawberries, pencils covered in pine tree barks, and woven coin purses in unique Ifugao cloth patterns of red, black and white.

Even the protective railings of a newly constructed flyover mimic pine tree trunks, complete with brown and green paint. The real pine trees that once crowned the city, however, have considerably disappeared, giving way to concrete giants of business establishments, schools and transportation infrastructures.

A year shy from the centenary of its cityhood, Baguio nestles between the old and new, modernity and tradition, culture and commerce.

Strolling through the city: A taste of the new

Outside the Starwood Hotel, one of many tourist lodgings around the city, taxis line the parking space, their engines ready to roar at the first sign of passengers. Just across the street, jeepneys rule the web of roads, giving the more adventurous tourists the local color around the city’s numerous parks and street and night markets.

An overcast sky and cool midday breeze are best when strolling the tiled sidewalks splattered with gardens of red, white, pink and green. Monuments and plaques are everywhere from the Sunshine Garden to the University of the Philippines Baguio, virtually gelling the city into a living, evolving museum.

Most famous perhaps, not only in the city but in the country, is the statue of a young man with outstretched hands and a head to the skies in gesture of selfless sacrifice—Guillermo Tolentino’s Oblation in the front grounds of UP Baguio.

Just a few steps away, atop a hill southwest of Baguio’s Session Road, is an architectural monument dubbed the cleanest and most ecological friendly among its sister-malls. Baguio’s SM City, since it opened in 2003, has added a new dimension to the fusion of old and new. With a perfect view of the city, Burnham Park and Baguio Cathedral, the tented structure’s balconies are among the best spots for sight-seeing.

Towering above most structures within its vicinity, the mall owns the view of Baguio’s pine-lined slopes in the morning, and the glittering carpet of city lights at night.

But better than admiring the beauty of Baguio’s nightlife from afar is living it. An entire street lined with bargain shops or ukay-ukay selling low-priced clothes, shoes, bags, stuffed toys and accessories opens for tourists on shopping spree. Vendors call their products “Class A imitations,” the closest one can get to the real brands minus the exorbitant price.

There are Nike and Adidas jackets and shoes, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Armani and Dolce & Gabbana bags and “leather accessories,” and a myriad of branded trench coats, gowns and long-sleeved formal clothes.

Side-by-side with the famous imitations, however, are Baguio’s very own woven cloth designs and knitted sweaters, ponchos and bonnets in bright colors and simple patterns made by local hands expert with threads and needles. They are neatly folded on plastic covers and make-shift boxes, brandless but bearing Ifugao’s heritage in weaving.

Not exempt from the plethora of products are bahag, the local chaleco and the Ifugao warriors’ headdress. The vendors say these are authentic, made by the locals found in Burnham Park, Mines’ View and the Botanical Garden offering to pose with tourists for 50 to a hundred or so pesos.

The look, design and feel are stunningly similar, but seeing these articles of clothing is a far cry from experiencing the people who wear them not just for festival costumes or for poses with tourists but as part of life.

The outskirts and an experience of the old

About an hour away from Baguio’s city proper, far from the nucleus of the metropolis, from the buzzing markets and roaring taxi engines, the Tam-awan village offers the Cordillera culture in a nutshell. From the Ilocano word which means “to look at,” “to view” or “to see,” this destination houses an alang or Bontoc Rice Granary, Ifugao huts, carved war masks, paintings of Ifugao artists, and woven baskets and handicrafts.

The rhythmic music of the gong in the hands of skilled Ifugao men fills the cobbled activity area, as tourists watch the fluid moves of hands and feet. Rough logs are placed around the center stage serving as make-shift chairs for the audience. Ifugao women in elaborately patterned tapis or a wraparound skirt called ampuyou striped with red, black, white, green and yellow dance to the gong’s rhythm, their arms stretched and their torsos bent in an imitation of birds in flight.

All around them, cameras clicked and flashed, and tourists watched in awe. Just across the performance area, artists offered to draw portraits in charcoal, pencil and paint. A number of paintings covered the wall of the kubo-inspired gallery—some abstract, others that of actors and actresses, and some of famous sceneries in Banaue and Batad.

A man-made pond adorned one part of the village. Hanging above it are dark, translucent plastics, which, at closer inspection, are x-ray results of arms, chests, and feet pasted with coupon bonds with large, red X marks painted on them.

A sign tucked on a log beside the pond says the art portrays the class struggle between the locals and the exploitative factories and industries that have come to their place. The coupon bonds stand for the “big corporations, business establishments, business tycoons, [and the] rich unjust companies” in the Cordilleras.

The X-ray files, on the other hand, reflect the conditions of the workers who, despite their dedication and hard work are “not given just compensations.” They suffer the working and living conditions in the factories and their housing facilities. “They get sick from working and some even died.” Finally, the sign said the red X marks are forms of “sympathy and protest for the working class” whose rights are not respected.

The peculiar display mingled with Cordillera culture in Tam-awan. It laments the growing friction between Baguio’s cultural roots and its ascent to the industrial and commercial era. Just a day’s worth of strolling shows the mixture of old and new, and the delicate balance between them.

The living and evolving museum struggles to keep alive the imprints of the past, and at the same time, to accommodate the blooming buds of modernity.

At noon, a drizzle sprayed over the summer capital, sending tourists to shelters along Session road. All around, people busied themselves haggling prices, trying out bars and restaurants, and buying paslubongs in sidewalk stores. 99 years after, the once struggling city has become a commercial hub in Northern Luzon. Despite its urban identity, however, Baguio remains an imprint of history and Cordilleran culture. Next year, it will turn 100, but the wisdom of the old will continue to fuel the passion of the new.
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