Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Part 4: The Wonder that was Baguio

"My Shangri-La has gone away... She seemed to drift out on the rain, that came in somewhere softly from the blue. Clouds roll by and hide the sun, raindrops fall on everyone ...."
- from the song by ELO

"Apparell'd in celestial light,
the glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;
turn wheresoe'er I may, by night or day,
the things which I have seen I now can see no more."

- William Wordsworth

In December of 1966, I turned 8 and later that month we celebrated our second Christmas in the Philippines with a trip north to the mountains and the city of Baguio.

For over a year friends of my parents had been encouraging them to visit the mountain city, telling them how pleasant and picturesque Baguio was. Barely 56 years old, the city had been built by Americans as a place to escape the heat and humidity of the lowlands. Despite having a 130 inch average annual rainfall, at just over 5,000 feet the city was quite cool year round. It was a popular tourist destination and would get quite crowded during the Easter season.

No matter how great it was, getting my Dad to part with money on something "frivolous" like a vacation was near impossible. But when he found out they could expense the entire trip off by attending the inter-denominational Religious Acculturation Conference they eagerly made reservations to stay a week.

Some of the various Mission denominations maintained "camps" in and around Baguio for the use of it's missionaries; the same Mission Board that ran the Guest House in Malate ran one in Baguio called Westminster. It had around ten little rustic cabins nestled in a grove of pine trees and a main building that had individual rooms and a cafeteria for those that did not want to cook.

Mom was horribly homesick for the States and cold weather and after being bedridden for so many months this would be a real treat for her.
Auring would be coming along to cook and watch us kids while my parents attended the daily lectures. My brother Andy was just weeks out of the incubator at St Luke's Hospital. A sickly child, he was Auring's "baby" and her favorite. I didn't mind, she had plenty of love to share and managed to find plenty of time to pay attention to us.
Baguio had an airport with daily flights arriving from Manila and there were air conditioned non stop buses that departed hourly. However, this was not for us. We got up early one morning before the sun rose and went to the Philippine National Railroad (PNR) station and caught the first train out to the foothills of the Cordillera mountain range, then took a bus the rest of the way up the mountain.
Like so many pre-war travelers before us, this was the quaint old way to get to Baguio. A little more complicated and a few hours longer, but cheaper, which is why my Dad selected it.The train ride was hot and dusty, stopping at each station along the way. Finally we arrived and gathered up our luggage and transferred to the bus. Our bus snaked its way up the canyons following a river. The road became much steeper, tiny streams of water crossing the road now and then flowing from little waterfalls. The change in climate from tropical to temperate was dramatic. Suddenly the air was much cooler, the scent of the Benguet Pine trees filling the bus. The traffic was very light, there were few buses, fewer cars. It was very exciting, we were explorers in a strange new world. Finally we reached the city and it was so cold to our bodies now accustomed to hot humid tropical weather.

We took a taxi from the bus station to the Mission owned group of cottages on a hill covered in pine trees. Some of the older cabins had stone fireplaces, the newer ones had kerosene stovepipe heaters. Auring went to the market to pick up some groceries, Mom started unpacking. I went out to explore.
All the cottages except the main building were perched on the hillside supported on one side with posts, underneath each cabin was the perfect little hideaway. There in the hard packed red clay I discovered someone had carved out a city of roads and caves perfect for my Matchbox cars.
That afternoon I found that the camp had a playground and that there were other kids there too. We soon made friends and would spend the afternoons and evenings playing Tag, Red Rover and Hide n' Seek. One kid had Matchbox cars too, so we began to spend part of each day playing and building new roads under the cabins.

That night after supper Dad lit the heater and the smell of burning kerosene filled the room. That scent became permanently embedded with my memories of Baguio, Christmas, pine trees and cool weather. The next morning we awoke shivering and were surprised to see the mist of our breath. Dad re-lit the heater while we waited for Auring to fix us oatmeal and hot chocolate.

After breakfast Mom and Dad went out to meet the fellow missionary "neighbors" while I went to look around. I discovered the camp had a library too, accessible only by a walkway on stilts. It was a magical place, if I close my eyes I can still smell the
quiet dustiness of old wood & books. Looking out the windows one could only see the tops of the pine trees, as if we were floating in the forest canopy. Inside, arm chairs and sofas were arranged in little reading areas around a big stone fireplace. There were larger tables for playing cards or games, smaller ones by the windows for writing letters.
Shelves along the walls held books, puzzles and board games. I quickly looked over the titles, skipping the religious section and went straight to my current favorite genre: Detective Mysteries. Nancy Drew, Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. A Study in Scarlet, Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Message in the Hollow Oak, The ABC Murders, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It was a gold mine. Reading was my passion and I was always hungry for new titles. Over the years I would read almost every novel that little library contained.

We didn't see much of Mom or Dad that week, they were at the lectures all day and sometimes would go out to eat afterwards with other missionaries. One night we were invited down the road to a missionary's home for supper. Auring stayed behind with the baby and the rest of us walked down the hill. There were some boys there my age and after supper we went out to explore the woods behind their home. Keith
wanted to come along too, but having your 4 year old brother tag along was not cool. I said no, but Dad said

"Take your brother along on your hike"

(You may now remember I briefly mentioned this incident before) My street cred plummeted to zero with my new buddies. We were walking along a trail about 10 feet above a creek when Keith decided to leap off the trail into the water below. Anything to get attention. There was his fat little head bobbing and spinning away down the stream and I had to make a quick decision as to whether I should let the little squib drown or jump in after him. None of my new friends looked the least bit interested in getting wet. That is how come I only have three brothers.

So it was that a short time later we were walking back to the house, soaking wet, with Keith wailing his head off. There was no praise for saving the rat, only a lecture on not having watched him more carefully.
One afternoon Auring and I brought home a Christmas tree and Mom threaded popcorn into garlands and cut out ornaments from paper and pinned them to the tree. That evening carolers came by and sang us Christmas songs. "Scrooge" made a long drawn out pretense of searching his pockets for non existent money, but before he could turn them away empty handed, Mom went and got her pocketbook and handed out money to the smiling faces. I don't remember Christmas morning or opening presents, but I do remember having a traditional American Christmas dinner with turkey and dressing, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy. Before the meal Dad said our family prayer with a few added sentences befitting the occasion: Come Lord Jesus be our guest and let these gifts to us be blessed. Amen.

We didn't do too much touristy stuff our first time to Baguio. We went to the market, we went to Burnham Park. My parents bought some woodcarvings, woven goods and jars of the locally made strawberry preserves. Mom was happy to have American ladies to talk with, Dad was glad to have the American men to argue with. Auring had her hands full with the new baby and Keith (who was amazingly well behaved after his near death experience). And I had my own personal library. Mostly we relaxed around the camp enjoying the the cold fresh clean air. In the evenings we would go outside to watch the amazing sunsets, then Auring would make popcorn and we played Rook or put together puzzles. Sometimes there would be a camp fire and we would roast marshmallows. I think we each found a little bit of heaven that week we spent in Baguio.

Looking back I see now that Baguio was a microcosm suspended in its own time. The Philippines was changing but Baguio and it's citizens resisted that change. Clean and alive and fresh as the blue skies. And it was so different than the rest of the Philippines. The scents of Baguio were unique to the country. Even the smells of the open air market were totally different from those of Quiapo and Cubao.

But it was more than that, it was another world. The parks, sidewalks and streets were clean; oddly they still had their original American names. Traffic was much lighter, cars were of an older vintage. The homes vaguely reminiscent of the older lodge style of the twenties or thirties. Men wore suits or sports coats. Women wore dresses. School girls in uniforms, school boys in white shirts and ties.

The locals were cordial and friendly, speaking to us in English as we passed. In the early evening a siren would blast, people would stop, pause in silent prayer, then move on again greeting each other with an evening blessing.

Whenever I went to Baguio, I have always felt that time stopped, somewhere along that line where the Tropical Jungle met the Pine Forest. There hours were days and days were weeks and years stretched into decades. In the evenings the fog would roll in, as if to hide Baguio from the outside world, like Brigadoon.

Our own private Shangri-La.


  1. Senor Waldo; sadly the scent of Pine Trees on that road 'snaking up the canyons and river' is but etched in our memories...

    nostalgic and poignant...

    love the Nancy Drew photo... and I will echo the matchbox experience...

    you beat me to it again... twas on the back of my head, my very first matchbox...


  2. It is never too late to post a Matchbox memory ... share yours!