Monday, July 14, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Three: City In the Mountains

Once I survive the 20+ hours of flights along with time spent on layovers and getting through immigration and customs at Manila, my journey still has a long way to go. My wife is a native of Baguio City which is in the province of Benguet in the mountains of central Luzon island or the main island of the Philippines. On paper, it is a 160 mile drive along a fairly direct route but in reality it is a five hour journey via minivan.

The reasons for the length of time can be saved for a later post but part of it is the last part of the journey where we transition from the lowlands and rice paddies to the mountain tops. It is about an hour and a half slog up winding mountain roads no matter which way you come from to reach Baguio, the summer capital of the Philippines. This mountain top city had highs of 76 and lows of 68 the entire time I was there while in the lowlands the temperatures were in the mid 90's for highs and maybe got down to the mid 70's at night.

Most of my trips to the Philippines have me arriving at the airport late in the evening meaning by the time we reach the outskirts of Baguio dawn is just thinking about breaking. Many of our journeys to other places during our stay often start in the wee hours of the morning to maximize time spent at our destination and to avoid the worst of the traffic. As a result, I rarely get to actually see much of the view as we wind up the mountain roads. However on this trip, we did make one short trip down the mountain during daylight hours and I was rewarded with the view seen above.

Baguio is unlike any city I've ever seen, here, abroad or even in the Philippines. It is a city clinging to the sides of mountains and seems very precarious in nature. The only flat spots in the entire town are the two soles of your feet and even they aren't often on the same elevation. Houses are often three, four and five stories tall to conform to the side of the mountains but often are probably about the same square footage as many suburban homes. My mother-in-law's house can be entered in from street level on the fourth floor where the kitchen, living, dining and master bedrooms reside. We stay up on the fifth floor in a suite of bedrooms, while the third floor contains a sort of efficiency suite and the second and first floor small apartments that are rented out. Because of the close confines of everything and the steepness of the surroundings, it is hard to photograph her house and get a real sense of what I am talking about but I was able to capture a picture of a similar residence seen above while driving around Baguio one afternoon.

Baguio City covers about 20 square miles of mountain side and has a population of about a third of a million people. If you count the interlocking barrios, I'm certain that it is closer to a million. During my time of coming to Baguio over the last decade, the population has exploded. Places that were tree covered mountain slopes on previous visits are now packed with houses and roads. It went from a bustling mountain town to a crowded city seemingly overnight. Smog is already a big problem and will probably get worse before it gets better. I tolerate it for my short stays but I definitely would never want to live in Baguio City full time unless I want various lung and breathing ailments later on in life. In the picture above, I'm fairly certain that the mountain in the background now covered with houses didn't look like that on my last visit. It probably had houses back then but not nearly as densely packed as they are now. That and the lack of trees always drew my attention to it whenever we drove by.

This picture was taken with a telephoto lens of the mountain in the previous picture. It certainly gives you a sense of the vertical nature of Baguio and the density all in one photo. Unfortunately the smog problem gives it a foggy appearance.

Most of Baguio City however looks closer to this picture. It is still very densely populated and steep but there are pockets of foliage here and there and larger trees sticking up above the houses. While you see lots of tropical trees like avocado, foliage like bamboo, you also see lots of pine trees which is why Baguio is known as the City of Pines among other names. The view out my bedroom window is of pine trees that whisper in the breezes and being on the edge of town, mercifully free of smog most of the time. Baguio is also known as the strawberry capital of the Philippines though in all my times, I have yet to see actual strawberries growing anywhere. This trip I cam close and saw some strawberry beds being planted in the bottom right corner of the picture at the head of this post.

While visiting a new museum on the edge of town, one of the balconies on the third or fourth floor (at road or entrance level) offered a view outside of town and into the sparsely populated mountains outside of town. I have only made one overnight trip into the rural mountains on my first trip to the Philippines over a decade ago and after this trip where I explored more of the coastal and lowland regions, I wish to explore the rural mountain regions more in the future. They are largely blank on the detailed maps that I bought of the country but I know in a country this populated, they are full of invisible people.


Anonymous said...

That's not a chance in hell I'd live in a house like that in that place. Hell man, to get there you had to pass Pinatubo. That place must shake and rattle like a badly balanced washer. Lovely photos.

Ed said...

Vince - I guess I'm a fatalist because I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it. What happens happens I guess. The people I have asked said that more houses are lost due to mudslides than earthquakes but I have a hard time seeing mudslides in most of Baguio City mostly because there isn't much bare real estate to absorb the necessary moisture. On the outskirts perhaps.

I have only seen Pinatubo once when we swung out more closely to the coast. There were still huge piles of ash in places all these years after the last eruption. In the Philippines you don't take the long way to anywhere you're heading because you are potentially adding another day to your travel due to traffic!