This was first published on GMA News Online
By now it is no longer a myth: Baguio has a mysterious healing power for the broken. On the surface you could attribute it to the cold weather, but only when you have developed a love affair with the city would you understand that the weather has little to do with it.
I have been going to Baguio since I was very young. My fondest childhood memories consist of strawberry taho outside the Holy Family Church in Bakakeng during Sundays, and exploring the forests that often lead to hidden waterfalls and wildflowers. I would always get scratches from the tall grasses, but I’d also come home smelling of pine cones, making the adults forget to scold me.
Through familiarity, Baguio has become home that I never once took a second look at it. But I grew up and found that you habitually lose yourself with age. And whenever I tried to find myself, the search always led me to the mountains.
I had just quit my first job and was struggling to find another one. I am not religious, but it just so happened that the City’s highest staircases were both at spiritual places: the Baguio Cathedral and the Lourdes Grotto. I needed the ascent to divert my exhausting mental energy to a physical quest. I needed to forget in 252 steps that at 20, when I thought I would start to become somebody, I was jobless.
Both times when I reached the top and needed to rest, I prayed to pay respect to the ones the steps were built for. When I descended, I felt so much lighter. Of course it was gravity, but I also wanted to believe it was because of faith—faith that somebody you couldn’t see can comfort you, or really, faith that an uphill battle is really meant to be conquered, and that things get lighter when you’re done with the hard part.
I would be rejected by a multinational company weeks after that trip. I would settle for a writing job that I would also quit two months later. But they were no more than added steps to conquer.
I carried with me this ascend-descend thing wherever I went, and almost all these conquests led to spiritual places: the Taoist Temple in Cebu City, the Ilihan Shrine in Jagna, Bohol.
But one always goes back to Baguio, and my recent find: the Bell Tower. It doesn’t matter which faith you discover on the journey; what matters is that you have faith. I would realize that to believe in anything is life’s meaning.
There were many Baguio trips in between but something special happened in December 2011: I would discover what would become my favorite Baguio destination: the Bencab Museum.
I would come face to face with an artwork that became the battle cry of all my life’s quests: Huwag mong damdamin ang mga bagay dahil ang mga bagay ay walang damdamin.
I became so attuned to visual arts that I would visit many more museums in the years that followed. Bencab was the foundation of a strange interest that has led me to doors of museums within whose walls were some of my heart’s deepest content.
I was with my best friends from college on that trip and it was their idea to have dinner at the Café by the Ruins, where Mace and Anthony sat to talk about their dreams in the now popular flick “That Thing Called Tadhana.”
My friends and I also talked about our dreams that night. Being new yuppies, we listed down our greatest ambitions but agreed that high up there in our priorities were dinners like the ones we were having—jobs were important, we said, but friendship was much more valuable.
I was sent to cover the earth-balling of 182 trees at the Luneta Hill uptown—done so that SM Mall could build a parking lot. What a literary trap, I thought; the line “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” in Joni Mitchell’s song could just as well be the theme of the protesters.
Up Dharma Down sang that very song as daylight battled night, under the lush cover at the Pine Trees of the World area just below UP Baguio. When Armi hummed that phrase I finally understood what they meant when they say there’s no such thing as objective reporting. I decided I was not going to report just from the facts on my notes; I was going to report from the way I felt that moment. I have never wanted to become a child of Baguio more than I did that moment when I wanted to protect its trees, and side with all the artists and activists who shared with me their fondest memories of the trees in their beloved city.
Nature and Art, I found out, can be a person’s greatest tools if she wills them to.
My quarter-life crisis hit again, just as I was beginning my very young career. I was writing news and producing features for television, working from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. It was what I always dreamed of doing, but was I happy? I had my doubts. I just knew I was growing tired.
I got on a bus and planned the quintessential soul-searching Baguio trip. First stop: the Cemetery of Negativity at Camp John Hay. It is a graveyard of tombstones of all your doubts and fears, buried under the ground so they may no longer haunt you. As you would treat a departed one, you have to let them pass and you have to let them go. So I did, or at least I tried.
I proceeded to Tam-Awan Village to look at more artworks displayed in these tiny Ifugao huts dotted along a steep hill. At the end of the short trek there is a dreamcatcher, drowned by the sunlight. Bathe in the heat and slowly look down to see the sun shine over Baguio. How could you ever find the parts of you that you’ve lost, looking out onto such a massive world?
It sounds and feels daunting, but one thing Baguio has taught me is that sometimes the beauty is in the searching.
Like picking the sweetest and ripest strawberries at the Strawberry Fields in La Trinidad—no one ever finds the treasures without having to search.
I never go to Baguio without eating at the Oh My Gulay café along Session Road. Their Gulay Rice and Sili Omelette are always my trip’s highlights, but I do have another reason for eating there. I have wanted, for so long, to bump into its owner, art legend and Baguio’s own, Kidlat Tahimik. In my many years of going there, never did I once see him. But on this trip, he (or his staff, I will never know) posted a poster by the café’s entrance that I will never forget: Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow.
Who cares if I was 23 and unsure of myself? There was always the next day to make a better mistake.
Kidlat, if you’re reading, thank you.
The Christmas breeze was upon the city and I found myself alone in Burnham Park as the moon shone above the river. I was reading a poetry book I had just bought, struggling to understand the bulk of it so I decided I was going to write my own:
Such a cliché to hold hands at Burnham Park
Let tonight pass not being lovers
Just a pair that the stars approve of
I wrote that poem for a friend. Needless to say that if you write a poem in Burnham Park for a friend, that friend was bound to be more than just a friend.
Ten months later after that friend has gone to being more than just a friend to no longer a friend, Burnham Park stayed the way it is. As beautiful and as poetic as ever, even when the heart had broken.
But that time I didn’t write a poem, I just read one:
Yet each man kills the things he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
– Oscar Wilde, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”
For my 24th birthday, I decided I would make it a tradition to go to Baguio every year to celebrate turning a year older alone.
It is, after all, the one day of the year where you are excused to live the Good Life.
I started the day by cutting my hair, ala Basha in “One More Chance.” Except my haircut just cost P60 from a parlor on Session Road. I continued to walk and turned right to Assumption Road where I found a giant tree that bore the sign: Ili-Ikha Artist Village.
It is a food market that sells the cheapest meals and the most delicious chia tea one could ever have. Not to mention its picturesque interior—so cozy and intimate that having lunch alone on your birthday feels less strange.
And because I was on Session Road, I finished off my lunch with the famous Vizcos Strawberry Shortcake that is almost a tourist attraction in itself. Vizcos is such a small shop that you could hear conversations at the next table. I couldn’t decide which I was enjoying more: eating cake or eavesdropping.
Just a five-minute walk from Session Road is the historic Casa Vallejo. It houses two of my favorite places in Baguio: Mt. Cloud Bookshop and North Haven Spa.
Mt. Cloud, you could say, is a bookworm’s dreams come true. It carries only Filipino titles and it has been witness to my literary explorations over the years. I was able to read the work of young, virtually unknown Filipino writers from my favorite shelf in Mt. Cloud. Sometimes when you’re lucky, you will find a book signed by the author. Or the author could be at the counter for a conversation or two. Or the room could be filled with creative writing students who will drink wine while they recite sensual, tender, and intense poetry for you.
Ricky Lee’s words of wisdom by the doors of Mt. Cloud Bookshop.
Or you could just be looking for words to speak to you and there it is—on a poster on the door beside the face of one of the country’s greatest writers.
But you return to food. At the Manor Hotel in Camp John Hay you will find the most heavenly cheesecake on Earth.
When it starts to get cold, warm up with hot cocoa and suman at the Choco-Late de Batirol while a jazz band serenades you.
Maybe there is a mystical being surrounding the mountains that makes it possible for anyone who’s broken to find bits and pieces of herself.
Or for anyone who’s whole to know that life is a never-ending process of discovery.
Today, there are just books and cakes; tomorrow there will be beer (Baguio Craft Brewery, which I have yet to visit!). The next day you would have found yourself, and hopefully, soon enough, you will find someone else.
And the bits and pieces you have searched for will fall into place. And there will be no more sad poems, no more brokenness, and no more mistakes.
The search will one day be over. And the mountains will still be waiting for you.