On Tuesday, July 16, 2013, it would be 23 years since Baguio was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake. A Baguio old timer took exception when I said that a lot of people gave up Baguio for dead at the time. I can understand her sentiment, she must have been one of the many Baguio residents who stood by their beloved city and rebuilt it from the ground up.
But that’s how it felt for people like me who were not living here then. A lot of my friends, some of whom were students here at the time, some were living here, left Baguio after the tragedy and the news they brought down with them was not encouraging: Baguio was almost completely devastated that it seemed impossible that it would ever get back on its feet again. Or at least it would take a very long while. I even know of a friend whose mother worked as a caretaker of a house who ended up virtually owning the house after the owners left Baguio for good, and along with it their property. To this day, the owners have not returned.
The following year, another natural calamity struck: the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, one of the worst volcanic eruptions in centuries. While Baguio was not directly affected by the eruption, save for the few days of gloomy skies brought about by the unthinkable amount of ash that Mt. Pinatubo released, access to the mountain city was hampered due to the destruction in Pampanga and Tarlac. Roads were closed, reopened, and closed again every time the rains fell and lahar flowed.
But Baguio’s residents stood their ground – tourists or no tourists, this was their home, and they will never give up on it. Artists set up soup kitchens to help in the relief efforts of the government in the days following the earthquake. Families rebuilt their homes and their lives. In the blink of an eye, Baguio was back on its feet. Just three years after the earthquake, Baguio hosted one of the biggest international arts festivals the country has ever seen – the Baguio International Arts Festival put together by the Baguio Arts Guild, which served as an inspiration and a model for other art festivals all over the country.
I was here at the time, in 1993, as a member of the cast of the movie “Sakay,” promoting the showing of the film here in Baguio which was sponsored by the Baguio Arts Guild. I remember having to take Naguillian Road on our way up because both Marcos Highway and Kennon Road were closed due to landslides. The arduous journey up to Baguio from Manila, which took more than 10 hours that also involved navigating through lahar-stricken roads in Pampanga and Tarlac, took a toll on my body and I arrived in Baguio shivering and spent the rest of the week here woozy and feeling very weak. But that didn’t stop me from visiting the galleries, spending afternoons at the dap-ay at Cafe by the Ruins pounding on drums with local artists, attending mass at the Baguio Cathedral, and woozy nights at one of the cottages at Teachers Camp.
A couple of years later, I was back this time as a member of the cast of a foreign film being shot here. We did scenes at the landslide prone area along Marcos Highway where the viaduct is now, at Ambuklao and Binga dams, and at the end of the day, while the rest of my co-actors would immediately go to the nearest bar or the tourist section at the market, I would walk to Burnham Park, the Rose Garden in particular, and would just lay on the grass, watch the fog blanket the city until the sun disappeared for the night.
Then I would walk, through the park, just as I did with my mother and brother as a child during our frequent trips to Baguio, by the lake where couples in boats took advantage of the last few minutes before the boatman told them that’s it for the day; through the biking area where kids try to ignore their parents telling them it’s time to go home; through the Melvin Jones Grounds where football players are just packing up and shaking mud off their shoes after a rigorous game.
All that made me decide to make Baguio my home. I moved up here and put up a theater group called "open space." But I digress.
Baguio survived World War II, a devastating earthquake, the countless typhoons that brought immeasurable amounts of rain and the resulting landslides. It withstood all that, it endured and remained a haven, cradled by majestic mountain ranges and towering pine trees even as it continued to progress into a highly urbanized city.
And that’s why we cannot just sit and watch as a few politicians forward their misdirected initiatives that aim to lay all that’s left of Baguio to waste with fences and gates around our parks and concrete on every available natural space.
A friend reminded me just a few days ago, after talking about our effort to oppose the putting up of gates around Burnham Park along with the planned concreting and privatization of portions of it, that the general area where Baguio is today was once known to the natives as “Kafagway,” which meant “open space.”