Manana in the mountains

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 January, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 January, 1995, 12:00am

'BEFORE you start your tour of Baguio,' says my dog-eared 1988 guide book, 'it's advisable to stop at the Ministry of Tourism office and pick up a map of the city.' The office is a wooden bungalow on one side of Burnham Park. There are whirring fans inside and a dozen doors grandiosely labelled with names and titles: Consuela de la Cruz, Chief Operating Officer and Ramy Ramieriez, Marketing Supervisor.

The offices are empty and there are no maps. The tourism office has no maps. It has nothing any tourist might want. For maps you have to find a bookshop. For anything else, you are on your own.

To say the Philippines is a lackadaisical sort of place is to say Hong Kong is crowded, Alaska a bit on the cool side, Kenny G overrated. Service in Baguio is like service in Manila; charming and polite, but frequently non-existent.

Why do you never ask a Filipino for anything manana? He might think you are being pushy. One afternoon, looking for a craft shop in Engineer's Hill, we stopped our car and asked directions from a man erecting road signs. If anyone knew, it would be him.

He smiled, looked in one direction, then the other, pulled at the hairs on his chin, stroked his lip, and finally admitted he had no idea. We drove on and found Engineer's Hill just around the bend, no more than 100 metres away.

This is initially infuriating, but eventually fun. The Philippines is a country that forces you to relax, a place that makes you realise nothing is so important that it can't wait an hour or two, even a day or two. Perhaps it doesn't need to be done at all.

In a nation of fables one of the best is about the man sitting in the shade of a mango tree, his hat pulled over his eyes. He is chastised by a neighbour for doing no work.

'If you work,' says the neighbour, 'you can earn money, and if you earn money you can go to another country, and if you go to another country you can see wonderful scenery.' 'But,' the man replies, 'that's exactly what I'm doing here.' Baguio is stereotypically Filipino in its laid-back attitude to everything going on in and around it.

Checking into a grand Spanish guest house with a sweeping porch staircase and shuttered windows, we asked about hot water and the owner proudly told us there was plenty.

Half an hour later I found myself naked and cold in the shower with the taps as dry as a bone and a cantankerous toilet bubbling menacingly in the corner.

In other ways there is nowhere in the Philippines that is less like the Philippines. This almost mystical place, 5,000 feet above sea level, inaccessible for parts of the year, often hidden in fog, is a strange hybrid of tropical and alpine.

During the day the air is warm and emollient, with enough heat in it to make walking a strain.

At dusk, when the sun turns the sky into a vast, concave, blood orange, Baguio could be the Tyrol or the Dolomites. The city settles for the night beneath a cool firmament. You need a jumper or a jacket. The smell of pine, and of cooking in the barrios, is everywhere.

The following day we bought a map, on Session Road, and retired for a night to Camp John Hay, at the southeastern edge of the city. The camp was built as a recreational centre for US military families, but has been handed over to the Philippine government. The public can rent bungalows, which sleep up to six, for around HK$1,500 a night.

The camp is vast, wooded and hilly; the third hole on the golf course is dubbed Cardiac Hill, another great name from the nation that, when looking for a nomenclature for a meal of Chinese-style chicken's feet, plumped for adidas.

OVER the next week the map became as indispensable as a wheelchair for a man with no legs. Central Baguio is easy enough to negotiate. It was designed by Daniel Burnham, an American architect, when American colonisers decided to make Baguio their summer capital at the turn of the century.

The oppressive humidity of Manila was too much for the oppressors to bear. In Baguio they built a quaint New England town, with tidy parks and a whitewashed home on a hillside for their governor-general; the home is called The Mansion, and has gates copied from Buckingham Palace.

On the outskirts of the city navigation becomes a challenge. Signposts, despite the best efforts of the signpost-erector, are few and far between. The maze of roads that meander through the hills can be disorienting, but are also a revelation.

Here Baguio is at its best. Trumpet flowers and bougainvillaea burst like Chinese New Year fireworks from the hedges and wooden chalets lurk around every corner, as if fallen from the lid of a European chocolate box.

Along millionaire's row, on the west side, past Wright's Park where visitors hire ponies, is a house that nestles in its own fortified compound like a soldier in a bunker.

Over the top of the barbed wire fence you can make out, on the roof, two helicopters sitting silently like giant insects in the sun.

Along another such road, unlit at night, is a gaping and overgrown plot that stands like a decaying hole in an otherwise healthy gum. This is where the Hyatt Terraces Baguio stood, before the earthquake in July 1990 swept it away.

At night these hills are black and sepulchral. Distant kerosene lamps flicker through the valleys, like stars reflected from the heavens. Watching from a hillside above is like watching from a sack; everything is dark, save the occasional, tantalising glimpse of a distant light.

If Burnham Park, with its children, its lake and its market stalls, is Baguio's heart, Baguio Cathedral is its soul. It stands above the city with majestic detachment, above the cacophony on its own huge plinth.

If cathedrals were people, this would be Audrey Hepburn, prim, proper and very attractive in the right light. Almost too good to be true.

Every morning, noon and evening it tolls the Angelus and every morning, noon and evening it is full. The Philippines may be in Hollywood today, with fast food restaurants and hip radio stations everywhere, but there are always reminders that for more than 300 years it was a convent, under the harsh rule of the Catholic Spanish and their tyrannical friars.

As Baguio rebuilds after the earthquake - it claimed 1,000 lives - problems arise. An optimistic land agent, who seemed unable to stop talking, took us past the city's hillside cemetery to some land for sale overlooking the western valleys.

'There is no pollution in Baguio,' he said. Ahead of us a light van spewed fumes as thick as coal dust from its exhaust. Signs reading 'Smoke Belchers Will Be Apprehended' are nailed wonkily to telegraph poles, but have little effect. Few belchers are apprehended; they go on belching.

This is Baguio's next tragedy, or could be. The earthquake claimed its victims, but memories are short and, drop by drop, once nervous tourists are returning.

Pollution is potentially a more damaging problem, and one that the city fathers must do something about.

Swathes of the city are green and fresh, with religious retreats and strawberry stalls straggling like confused geese along every lane. But along Session Road at rush hour the air is menacingly dark with carbon monoxide.

It leaves dust in your nostrils and a tightness in your chest. What could be a charming pedestrian thoroughfare, dotted with open air cafes, buzzing with sunset promenaders, the cathedral above, is a choked main artery, already showing signs of seizure.

It is Baguio's foibles, its otherworldliness, that make it attractive. Here is a city whose most famous product is peanut brittle, a sweet but delicious blend of peanuts glazed and cooked in brown sugar.

Visitors from Manila make the four-hour journey (that's four hours Filipino time, it's wiser to allow seven) to stock up on blueberry and strawberry jam.

Memorable signs are everywhere - the shop that advertises 'We Never Open', pronouncements along the roadside that chastise drug-takers, praise the religious or announce, most mysteriously, that 'Dust Is Inevitable'.

Then there is the galvanising. If there were an Olympic galvanising event the Philippines would win it every time, and by a huge margin. Galvanising workshops are everywhere.

In Agoo, an hour down the Marcos Highway from Baguio, past a giant and unvandalised sculpture of Marcos' head, there is a shop that offers galvanising 24 hours a day, in case you should want anti-rust treatment at two o'clock in the morning.

Our final night in Baguio we spent at a small, clean, modern hotel run by an effete gentleman in dangly gold earrings who stood in the lobby doing his ironing.

We had already passed on a rambling wooden establishment with gnarled carpets, moody corridors, and a resemblance to the old Bela Vista in Macau.

The rooms in our hotel were cleaner and funnier; aimed apparently at Taiwanese honeymoon couples, with flowery wallpaper and frilly pillows. Accommodation, even at the height of the summer season, and without help from the tourism office, posed little problem.

What can pose a problem is getting to Baguio and back. Philippine Airlines has direct flights from Manila and this is the best way. Baguio airport is within spitting distance of Camp John Hay.

Otherwise you have to take your chances with the buses that stream between the two cities at breakneck speed on wobbly suspensions, or hire a car.

A car gives you the freedom to do as you please, when you please, and roads are surprisingly good, thanks to Marcos, who diverted billions of pesos to his beloved north.

And Baguio stands like a natural gateway to the provinces of La Union, Ilocos Sur and Mountain Province. A few hours away is the old Spanish outpost of Vigan, where horse-drawn calesas clip-clop through cobbled streets. A longer trip over mountain roads ends in one of the country's most spectacular and renowned sights, the 2,000-year-old Banaue Rice Terraces.

This is the other side of the Philippines, away from the beaches, the vendors, the tequila shooter bars and the sex industry.

The best entertainment in Baguio was at two cinemas, one showing Harrison Ford in Clear And Present Danger and the other showing a Tagalog film Machete II, the sequel, I would guess, to Machete.

If you hire a car drive back to Manila along the west coast. Cozy villages are strung out like pearls along the way, roadside picket fences are painted in neat tricoleurs and restaurants are empty and friendly. In a one-horse town whose only notable feature was a faded town hall, the owner of a small cafe had no beer, but gave us two bottles from his private collection.

If you can't make the journey in a day, pull over and find accommodation. We billeted for the night in a functional room (HK$50 for two) near Hundred Islands. There are actually only 92, but who's counting?