Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Baguio City: Mountain Home By Jason Robert Lobaton

Note: This is one of the two essays that won the essay writing contest organized by Frangeli House. The other winning entry is an essay by Christine Grace Catindig. You can read Catindig's piece here.

A strange truth
Panagbenga. It’s one of those Baguio things that make me squirm. Don’t get me wrong. The flower floats are spectacular, the parades are so fun, and the fireworks are magical. I love the festivities, but I really can’t help feeling uncomfortable and thinking, something just isn’t right here. It was an ongoing mystery for me, until I stumbled across a book that talked about Panagbenga among other festivals. Its title: In Nature's Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth (Montley,2005). It hit me so bad that my dissonance suddenly made perfect sense. Pangbenga is supposed to be a ritual celebrating the earth. I mean come on. Flowers, nature, Mother Earth- how can you not make the connection? And yet Panagbenga is the one time of the year when Baguio gets totally trashed. I mean, when Session is in bloom, the garbage scatters like pollen grain. In supposed honor of nature, we strip the land of its flowers for a few moments of eye candy. We no longer honor the land. We exploit the land to honor ourselves.

The Panagbenga problem does not exist in a vacuum for a people’s rituals reflect their worldview and way of life. We have come to view Baguio in terms of its practical value to us, taking into little consideration the land’s well being. We need to accommodate more people, and so we build more houses, even if the land cannot support it. Our garbage is overflowing, and so our rivers become converted into dumpsites. Shopping must become more convenient, and so we cut off our few remaining pine trees to make way for parking lots. It has become a matter of accommodating all of our selfish desires as humans.

Too often, we have chosen simplistic solutions to deal with these problems. Just clean up the river! Just segregate your trash! Just avoid the mall! But I tell you, it is not just like that. We have to stop of thinking of superficial solutions, because the problem lies much deeper within. Unless we dig out the roots of this problem, it will simply keep growing back like a stubborn weed. The problem lies in the way we view our city, how we think of it, how we envision it. It is a destructive vision that perpetuates to this day, but belongs to the past. And so, to truly understand the situation we are in today, we must take a step backward, and briefly revisit our history.

Yesterday and today: A dangerous vision
Baguio, you see, wasn’t always the way it is today. In fact, prior to the 1900s, Baguio didn’t even exist. Back then it was just a rural cattle ranch with dense pine trees, a far stretch from the highly urbanized city it is today. It was Igorot country and it was called Kafagway. It was only during the American reign in the Philippines, that Baguio was born. Unaccustomed to lowland heat, they were desperate for a place to retreat to and cool off. Kafagway, with its chilly climate proved a suitable candidate, and so with a few negotiations, Kafagway was christened, “Baguio: Summer Retreat”. Various developments were undergone to make the place even more relaxing and comfortable: water supplies, airports, a country club- the works. I mean they weren’t just about to hang out in some rural cattle ranch and plant camote. Sure, it was nice and chilly, but they have to give the place some oomph. Americans wanted Baguio to be the ultimate party house. (Estoque and Murayama, 2013)

The American reign is now long over, but we still subscribe to their vision of Baguio. Little has changed as it evolved from Summer Retreat to Summer Capital. Tormented by the summer heat, we rush over to Baguio in American fashion for a whiff of crisp, cool, clean mountain air. Of course, that’s a rather dated description, with “crisp” and “clean”, being 90’s jargon. Don’t even get started with “piney” because the only thing that punctuates the air is smoke from our congested roads. Baguio isn’t even as pretty as it used to be; mountain scenery now means staring at a plethora of multicolored houses scattered across supposedly green terrain. Frankly, the excess of houses looks like garbage piled up on a mountain, and looking around me, I think, hey, there is a ton of garbage piled up on this mountain! Talk about consistency.

The city really is degrading, but it’s a price we have to pay for the sake of development. This is what we envisioned after all, to become the ultimate summer retreat, the party house, the summer capital. And, you definitely can’t become a summer capital without all the urban attractions and modern conveniences. They may be threatening our environment, but Baguio simply wouldn’t be as exciting without them.

Tourists, of course, get bored easily. In few years time the newly opened restaurant becomes yesterday’s news. We have to keep expanding, and getting bigger and better if we are to keep up. More roads! More restaurants! More malls! Our progress and development can never stop because consumerist desire is never satiated. If it means putting up an infrastructure along a fault line, then so be it. If it means tearing up a forest for a parking lot, then go ahead. Baguio is a party that can never end until everyone is wasted, a wild ride to self destruction that will only stop when the city comes crumbling to the ground.

The heart of it all
Am I implying then that our problems can be attributed solely to American politics? No. Neither is this something I attribute to environmental destruction, or development over sustainability. If we are to understand the Baguio problem we have to stop being so rational about it. We’re used to thinking on very academic, scientific terms, but I’m telling you: drop it. Transcend that kind of thinking; otherwise it will trap you in a box of rationality that enlightenment will never be able to penetrate. Once you overthink something, you’re dead. You’re never going to hit that G-spot. You’ve got to learn to feel things with your heart on a very basic emotional level, because the Baguio problem is a human problem that requires a very human approach. Trust me, this is going to work.

Right now, I want you to drop all that intellectual baggage, and feel with me for a moment. I want you to think of something that you love dearly. It can be that narra tree you climbed when you were little, or pet dog that’s been with you through thick and thin, or an old sweater that your late grandmother made for you. Anything will work. Think of how much it means to you, all the warm feelings you have for it. Afterwards, visualize someone taking it away from you. Think of a corporation cutting that tree and turning it into a table, or think of your neighbor turning your pet dog into stew. Observe your reaction. Devastated? Hurt? Furious?

In reality, your “possessions” were turned into things of much more practical value, such as furniture and food. You ought to be happy about it, and yet you felt so bad over losing them. You see, when you truly value something, it is no longer about how much you can get from it, but about how much it means to you. The usefulness you can derive becomes irrelevant, because it is no longer a thing which you own, but a gift which you treasure unconditionally. It becomes an extension of yourself, a part of who you are. When a thing is laden with meaning, rather than benefit, you will protect it with all of your heart. It’s the reason we keep things like dried up roses, and old dogs that can no longer bark.

Now, shift gears suddenly, and think about Baguio and how easily we exploit its resources and trash its environment. Juxtapose it with the object of your recent meditation, and it becomes very clear why Baguio has all the problems it has today. It’s because we have no emotional connection to it, because we don’t value it in the true sense of the word. It was created by Americans to be a summer retreat, and to this day, we still subscribe to that vision, proudly boasting of it as the summer capital of the Philippines. It has become a tourist attraction to be developed to the full. We treat it as a commodity, and exploit it for as much benefit as it can yield, putting up more buildings than the land can support, and exhausting more smoke than the trees can purify. Even in a festival where we are supposed to celebrate how much nature means to us, we still employ a purely materialistic outlook, emptying our pockets on various attractions, and leaving the place a mess afterwards. In an effort to rectify this mistake, concerned officials and citizens have imposed various measures such as garbage segregation, river clean-ups, and tree planting activities. These are commendable efforts, but they do not cut to the heart of the matter. You see, you can never teach people to care for something that doesn’t mean anything to them. It will never be sincere. .As long as we view Baguio as a resource to be exploited, nothing is going to change. All we will have are empty policies.

It must begin from the heart. We must teach our people to fall in love with the place, to look beyond its material value. We have to stop saying, I love Baguio because at Baguio “They’ve got it all for you” (wordplay intended). We have to think, I love Baguio, because “It means all to me”. We have to learn to look at the pine trees and rivers, and say “This is part of who I am.” We must stop owning the land, and start belonging to it. The concept of belonging may sound too philosophical, but look in your heart, and you will see there are place you belong to: your grandmother’s house, a park you frequented in your youth, a river where your mother’s ashes were scattered. These are places you carry in your heart wherever you go, places you cannot be complete without, simply because you belong to them. Make Baguio one of those places. Connect with the land, create memories with it, and when we are able to do so, our concern and love for the place will flow naturally. Baguio will mean so much to us that the trashing of a river and the slashing of trees will break our hearts. We will learn to protect the land. Taking care of it will no longer be a bothersome duty, but a burning desire.

Look at our Igorot brothers and sisters, for they are the soul of Baguio. In a time when most of the Philippines was conquered by Spaniards, the Igorots firmly stood their ground (Scott, 1971). History books seldom talk about them, but they are the bravest and toughest of warriors, for they were never conquered. They kept the ways of their people, and protected the land that meant so much to them. There is much to learn from them.

It is true that today, Baguio is no longer purely Igorot country. We are a multiracial community of Pangasinenses, Ilokanos, Kapamapangans, Muslims, and even Koreans and Africans. However, the Igorot soul of loving the land must never be forgotten. We may come from different places, but we all belong to Baguio. We are all…. Baguionos? Bagueans? Baguitos? Baguioers? I know the names sound funny and weird, but what’s funnier and weirder is that we don’t even have a name to call ourselves as a people. It comes to show how separated we are as a people and how disconnected we are to the land. We have got to come up a name for ourselves. It would be such a beautiful statement. Imagine people of different colors and ethnicities walking along Session Road, wearing shirts with the same print: “Baguio-er ak!”. Yes it still sounds weird, but more than that, it’s like saying “he’s from Korea, and I’m from Pangasinan, but both us belong to this beautiful land called Baguio. We are no longer tourists who possess the land. Rather, the land possesses us. We are one people”.

The message is simple: learn to love Baguio and the rest will follow. That passion is there, somewhere in our hearts. I long for the day when we will no longer see Baguio as a summer capital to be exploited, but as a mountain home where we all belong. I hope one day, we may all sing together the John Denver-cum-Igorot folk song that my teacher, a Baguio native, used to sing with her clan

Kennon Road, take me home
To the place (where) I belong
Baguio City, mountain country
Take me home, up Kennon Road
(Carino, 2013)

The problems are still there, but as long as we know that Baguio is are home, we’ll surely get through this. The soul of ancient Igorots will guide us, and our hearts as immigrants will be our inspiration. Until then, my fellow Baguioers.

Carino, L. (2013) May 24. Folkhouse Sunstar Baguio.
Estoque, Ronald C. and Yuji Murayama (2013). City Profile: Baguio. Cities 30: 240-251. doi:10.1016/j.cities.2011.05.002
Montley, Patricia (2005). In Nature's Honor: Myths And Rituals Celebrating The Earth. Skinner House Books
Scott, W. (1971). The Igorot Struggle for Independence. paper read before the Cordillera Congress for National Liberation, Mountain Provincial High School, Bontoc. Accessed at truggle-for-independence