A Slice of Filipino Culture, and Meeting the Ex-Pats

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Asia » Philippines » Baguio
February 26th 2011
Published: March 22nd 2011
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We arrived into Baguio relieved at having escaped the bus journey through hell with our lives, but also exhausted from all the anxiety and having had to death grip the seats to fight gravity and avoid bouncing into the air at every bump or turn.

But we were just out of the pan and into the fire. Of course we had tried to book accommodation for the Baguio Flower Festival before arriving, however, everywhere we had contacted had informed us they were fully booked. Adventurous as we are (or stupid, looking back) we had decided to go anyway, in the hope of finding somewhere to lay our heads for a few nights, agreeing we weren't too bothered about where or what it was. We had not however contemplated that we would arrive in a wrecked state and require something a little more comfortable. So we stepped out of the bus, breathed in a breath of polluted air, and let out a sigh of relief to signal that the rat race had indeed begun.

Baguio is the big city of Northern Luzon- nowhere near the vastness of Manila, but it still had it's fair share of concrete, dirty streets and market stands. We had come to famous annual event, along with every other Filipino on the island it seemed. We were prepared with a little map of the city in our guidebook, but it was no use having no idea where we were. We had been in the Philippines long enough to have learnt that asking a local was not in our best interests, so we decided instead to hail a taxi to take us to the area where most of the hotels and inns are situated, around the local park on Harrison Road.

So we were standing on a main road outside McDonalds in Baguio, trying to hail a taxi on the most crowded day of the year- Saturday of the Flower Festival. This was ironically the exact moment when we realised the fierceness of the competition, and the Filipinos, and the fact that a couple of unseasoned foreigners were not about to win this battle. So we gave up and decided to continue on forward and try to get a sense of where we were. We eventually chanced upon a road sign and were able to navigate our way to Session road (the main road in Baguio) where there were numerous guesthouses and inns situated above bakeries, internet cafes, and karaoke bars with blacked out windows. Along the way we had stopped at a fairly large place named Silvertone Inn. It looked like it was the only survivor of a fairly bad fire from the outside, but this didn't yet deter us. Up the stairs we had been welcomed at reception, and informed there was one room left. Ok, we would take a look we agreed. Up some more steps, down some dark corridors where we passed through an ancient TV room and common area, where the toilet brush and plunger now took pride of place in the once fire surround, up some more steps, past the shared bathroom which was no more than 6ft x 6ft but still housed two toilets and two showers which all shared the same shower curtain, then we had finally made it to our door.

We were fairly certain by this point that we would sooner sleep in a skip than this place, so it was with squinting eyes and closed nostrils that we eased ourselves in and tried to see the best of what Silvertone Inn had to offer. It really was something special as well. If someone could have recieved an award for recreating a school janitor's closet themed guest room, Silvertone Inn would have won it hands down. The room was kitted out with a blackened mouldy sink, wide pipe fittings, crumbling asbestos tiles, an old table broken beyond repair from years of abuse and graffiti, wooden panelled walls, and a high level window with an array of machinery buzzing along merrily outside. The only thing missing was the floor polishing machines and ring dusters, and the narrow single campbed looked out of place.
The room was apparently a bargain at 750 pesos a night though (about £10.65) for the two of us. However, naively we had thought that if the first place we checked had an available bed, then surely there most be something better. Obviously it was also going to be a tight squeeze with the two of us in a caravan sized bed, so realistically we had to turn this attractive option down.

Three hours later however, we must report that with dismay that we found ourselves back at the Silvertone Inn having bustled through the crowds on Session Road, having passed over the overpass several times, having navigated our way around the city, and having come up with precidely nothing. We were desperate. The receptionist fortunately took pity on us as we begged to be allowed to sleep on their sofas (which, let's face it, were a hell of a lot better than the bedrooms). We were told we could sit in reception and wait until morning, but we were not allowed to sleep. This was very kind of them considering that we had turned them down point blank earlier, and we were just glad of being able to put our bags down. However, there was no need to worry. Haha. Some lovely soul checked out at about 1am, meaning that we were provided with a room. Looking back on it now we are truly disgusted at ourselves, as we were the following morning when we woke up and realised where we were. However, at the time we were beyond grateful and practically dived into the camp bed, throwing our bags down in disarray. This is just proof of how tiredness and stress can lead you to act out of character.

Anyway, after our night at the Silvertone Inn we then had to make use of the showers. The most disgusting place either of us have ever stepped foot in during the whole of our travels. Enough said. After, Katie got out her hairdrier where she had to manoever around the litter pick in the common room to use the plug, and managed to get a full insight into what the room was used to store. And she was not disappointed as she watched the cleaner take the plunger from next to the tv, go and make use of it in the gents, then return it to pride of place. She literally was gagging as we packed our bags and decided we had to check out. But there was one thing we were forgetting, it was Flower Festival, and first it was time to check out what was going on!

Stepping out in the street we were overwhelmed at the size of the event. It appeared that we were in the ideal location at Silverton Inn, right outside the flower float procession that was in full swing. Luke had planned to watch from the other side of the street, but everything was cordoned off so that was not an option. We clambered over a few road railings to the back of the crowds to get our bearings and decipher the best available viewing point. There wasn't a lot of space for manouvering but we managed to get up on some steps where Katie could just about see the top of the floats, it was surprising she had to gain any height considering she is the same height as most of the Filipinos.

The crowds were immense and it was amazing to be totally immersed in another culture as they roared with excitement at the arrival of a famous television personality. It was all hustle and bustle as people were constantly trying to gain a better viewing point, fighting over the front spot on the many overpasses; some had even brought along buckets and stepladders for the occasion. There were numerous security guards lining the busiest areas, and as we took our stand on the steps we were touched that one security guard came over and stood right next to us, probably realising we were vulnerable tourists. The event was a really Filipino celebration, and we only saw two other western people during the whole day (disregarding those old men who were with the local girls). Whilst standing on the steps we got chatting to a smart lady with matching purse and scarf, who seemed thrilled that we had wanted to be part of the Filipino celebration. She asked where we were from, and we told her England. Despite telling her we were not American she seemed to think that England was part of the US, and asked us which other states we had visited as her two children had trained as nurses and were working over in America. This was not surprising and matched a similar story our guide had told us back in Banaue; many Filipinos train as nurses so they can work abroad, as the wages are very low in the Philippines. She provided us with the usual advice about watching our bags, and to trust no one but the police. But she also told us to head over to Harrison Park after the parade where we could view the floats up close.

As the parade drew to a close with impressive marching bands including drums and dancing, we were swept towards the park with every other person in Baguio. The entrances to the park were swarming so we followed some locals who were jumping a gap in the fence and tackling the bushes on the other side. It wasn't the easiest way in, but certainly was quicker. The park had a real festival atmosphere with giant inflatable Pilsner bottles, a performance stage surrounded with tables and chairs, and many food vendors including hot-dogs, popcorn, and corn on the cob, and a lot of tents. Many of the people we had met on the bus the previous day had told us they were planning to camp- we wished we had! We tried to force our way through the park but it was soo busy. There was a little market going on, reminding us of a car boot back at home. As we made it to the centre of the park we came across a little lake where paddle boats were available for rent. We sat and watched them for a while over a corn on the cob- it was hilarious half of the people had no idea how to row, and we witnessed a few paddles going astray as the boats rocked dubiously as whole families climbed aboard. It reminded us a little of a scene out of a Takeshi's Castle.

The weather was absolutely steaming, so after wandering around the market we headed back to Harrison Road to check if the Harrison Inn had a vacancy for that night. We were in luck, and managed to score a room with ensuite and cable tv for little more than we had paid back at the Silvertone nightmare. After a difficult push through the crowds moving our bags from Silvertone to Harrison Inn, we headed back out into the mayhem for another wander around. Luke was in his element as there were many street stalls offering free samples of energy drinks which he had many of, and also many offering free whisky shots (which we didn't try!) During the early afternoon workmen were moving into Session Road replacing the earlier parade with stalls for a night market. We were in the early stages of attempting to plan our next move in the Philippines, so headed to a local flight agent to check some flight prices to Palawan. We minused the commission to gain a realistic price of the flights, and decided to book online when we could next get internet.

Next we wanted to eat, but all of the places in the centre were either packed or were takeaway food such as KFC, Pizza Hut, or McDonalds which we desperately didn't want. In the end we referred to our Lonely Planet which recommended the Red Lion just outside of the main city. It would give us the chance to have a real walk around so we decided to head there for a bowl of their reputed chilli.

About five minutes after we arrived, three large Canadians boomed in, alongside a spindly Welsh guy. The Welsh guy pretty much forced us to move out of 'their' seats to another table, but it wasn't too much of a problem as soon we were reimbursed as two pints arrived on our table. We thanked the Canadian guy who was by this point too busy ordering his girl to pick up something off the floor, as he angrily told her 'you know I can't do it!' We witnessed a lot more of this throughout the evening as the girls arrived back from their shopping trips to greet their men.

Initially the Welsh guy was very cagey about his business in the Philippines, possibly he was somewhat ashamed to admit he was 'one of them' to us. He mentioned he had some friends here in Baguio, who he visited from time to time. But when his girl arrived he could hide no more, and she let spill that he actually had an apartment in Baguio. Fortunately she was older than the other girls- at least 40 years old, but still a lot younger than his 75ish.

As the night progressed we were invited to witness one of the Canadians manipulate the karaoke room, much to the dismay of the local Filipino kids who had been practicing their renditions. He encouraged Katie to sing one song which was in Spanish and so quite hilarious, which also ended with another drink materialising. The guys were polite and quite fun around us, but seemed to act very different towards their girls.

Luke had ended up playing pool with a young Egyptian ex-pat who wanted to go back towards the centre for some drinks. We were invited so headed back with him in a taxi, where he knew someone on security at the main stage of the park festival who got us in to the front row. There were a reggae band playing and it was a really pleasant atmosphere. After chatting for an hour or so, Katie was disgusted with this guy as his pure disrespect towards women became apparent. At first she had asked him why he loved Baguio, and he had replied that it was man's business, and tapped his nose and winked at Luke. Then later when he enquired what our jobs were he practically laughed when Katie said she had a degree in building surveying. He was of the opinion that it didn't matter how qualified a woman was, that she would still never be regarded as highly as a man, and he said as much. He asked us what the real situation was in England, stating 'even though they saaay equal rights for women, we all know that's not reeeeally the case' he laughed. Katie was spitting feathers and decided it was time for a hot-dog, code WE ARE LEAVING. After a box of McNuggets she had calmed down, so we headed back to bed where we were kept awake by a cat gang-fight outside the window.

The following day we had planned to visit the local embassy to try and extend our visas. The streets were still heaving in the centre, with Dunkin Donut stands everywhere, and people trying to sell you animal character hats at every turn. We dressed for the occasion in our Sunday best and ended up walking the streets for ages, to eventually be told that the office was no longer located where the Lonely Planet had suggested. We eventually took a taxi to the place that the office had apparently moved to, down by the old army camps. After filling in the forms and waiting a long time we were informed that the man who needed to sign them would not be in for the next few days. We caught a taxi back to the centre and decided to cut our losses and head back to Manila the following day as we wanted to get to Palawan in the next few days. We could apparently extend our visas there anyway, and we were in two minds by this point as to whether we actually wanted to extend, given the price. In the evening we walked around the market in Session Street where we bought frozen drinks, and where Luke had many Dunkin Donuts, his favourite flavour being Boston Creme.

We attempted to walk to the Victory Liner bus station to buy our tickets out of Baguio the following day, to be told that that too had moved outside of town. Planning ahead, we had seen there was a flight out of Manila the following day to Palawan at 3.45pm, so realistically if we wanted any chance of being able to get on it we would have to be back in the city by 12ish. As the journey apparently takes 6 hours from Baguio to Manila, we realised we would have to be on the bus by 5am. Judging the number of people in Baguio at that current time we decided it would be best to buy the bus tickets in advance, meaning we would have to take another taxi to the new Victory Liner station. This too was not that far outside of the centre, in a similar location to where we had been earlier. This would generally not have been a problem, but at around 8.30pm on Sunday during the Flower Festival trying to catch a taxi on Harrison Road was obviously a nightmare. We were offered a lift off a guy who had a really nice car and had chatted to us for approximately 3 minutes before requesting our names, addresses, emails and telephone numbers. He seemed strange, so despite his kindness we decided to wait it out and were eventually rewarded with a taxi approximately 2 hours later. Bus tickets bought, we returned back to the Inn to have a short sleep before our 5am bus.

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