Disoriented in Baguio

My earliest memory of Baguio is that of a mystical, magical place reserved for the few fortunate beings who get to visit the city.

It was mystical and magical, for very few of us in far away Sagada came to the city in the 1970s. Those who did went back with tales of big buildings, cars and paved roads. The told stories of movies watched in the city’s many cinemas, and playing in the slides, swings and seesaws of Burnham park; riding on bicycles and boating. They talked of picnics in Burnham Park and Camp John Hay, eating in restaurants and looking at the many goods for sail in the many shops of the city. They told of street lights and taxis and so many people all in one place, of eating ice cream and cotton candy.

Baguio City was the source of many commercial goods that even then was flooding the boondocks: form Levi’s jeans to generic clothing; from loaves of bread to candy; from books and newspapers to guitars and harmonicas.

I was awed when first I came to Baguio City, fulfilling the vision of magic that I associated with it. Playing in Burnham Park was certainly enough to awe a nine-year old child, specially one whose toys were sticks and stones, and who climbed trees and caught beetles for fun. It was in mid-afternoon in Burnham Park that this boy, lost in wonder and awe, noticed that the sun was sinking, but it was sinking in the wrong side of the horizon. Lost in play, the boy became totally disoriented, mistaking east for west.

No matter the fun of that first visit to Baguio, it is the disorientation that dominates that childhood memory.

Still existing in subsistence economies, the many villages of Mountain Province and Benguet looked to Baguio as the entry point of goods and information. Baguio was their door and window to the world. It was also seen as a place of opportunity, a place where people could eke out a living when the small farmholdings in the villages could no longer support the communities.

It was a place where one could get the education and experience to be able to step out into the wider world.

The city was certainly magical, for through Baguio, one is transformed and may stand equal to the rest of humanity. For this reason, the more intrepid members of rural backwoods communities would leave their villages to migrate to Baguio, drawn by the jobs in the city and the surrounding mines and the promise of a better future than toiling in the narrow terraces of the mountains.

Migrants from these villages built shanties in the outskirts of Baguio, crowding together on the slopes and hillsides of the city. Though they were not yet given title to the lands where they built their residences, these migrants began building bigger and bigger houses as they reaped the fruits of their labor. As the years passed, the government would slowly recognize their occupation of the land, and titles would be given to these migrants.

People from other parts of the Cordillera came to Baguio as well, along with many others from lowland communities.

Even as government gave titles to the earlier migrants, more people came into the city, occupying whatever space was left. While in earlier years one would be regaled with whole mountainsides filled with flowering sunflowers, these plants, the trees, and the rock formations that added to the beauty of the city was replaced by mushrooming shanties, later on to be replaced by big residential houses with varying architecture.

The problems that come with urbanization are manifold, and Baguio would have all of them. Traffic and crowded streets, or streets too narrow; garbage, sewerage and other waste management woes; problems in providing utility services like water and electricity, or telephone services; sanitation; pollution of many kinds; criminality and peace and order; unemployment; and problems of governing so many people.

True, the trend of urbanization is not unique to Baguio but a global phenomenon, but we can reasonable expect Baguio’s population to grow exponentially with the continuing influx of migrants to this small city, for it continues to be our window and door to the world.

As the city’s population grows, its problems will be compounded.

Government promises solutions to the problems, and it is certainly true that we could see positive developments in the city. Despite these good developments, there is common agreement that the Baguio of yesteryears was better than the Baguio of the present. It is also apparent that many of the solutions are knee-jerk, mere palliatives and cosmetic responses to a problematic situation that is both literally and figuratively bigger than us.

This space has no bright ideas as to how to govern Baguio City, for certainly government’s many learned minds and experts have a more thorough understanding of the issues.

Baguio recently celebrated its 101st charter day anniversary. And the city continues to be engrossed with solving its daily problems, with limited appreciation of what the future has in store. In a decade, its population might balloon to half a million, possibly more. The problems it now faces will be like a walk in Burnham Park when that time comes.

I am no longer a child, yet Baguio continues to awe me. I am awed, but also disoriented, not because I lost my bearings of east and west, but because I do not see a sense of direction for the city.

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