Luzon & Baguio, the Philippines: Fruits & Veggies, Gardens & Flowers

Baguio’s cool, and I don’t just mean the weather, though that’s significant at this altitude of some 1,400 meters, around 4500 feet.  It’s a nice place also, a true garden city in every sense of the term, complete with “orchidarium,” a term I was heretofore unfamiliar with.  The markets are replete with broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, beans, and all kinds of greens, a fact reflected in the local cuisine, too, with quite a few more vegetarian options than seemed readily available in Manila, or even Vigan, ironically. 


Baguio is the “summer capital” of the Philippines, where all the wealthy lowlanders come when the sweltering and sweat become too much to bear.  It’s the kind of place that I like, too, as a traveler, a mid-size city, something like Montego Bay to Jamaica’s Kingston, big enough to allow for plenty of diversity, without being so big that it’s overwhelming and crime-ridden.  Sure there’s some petty crime, but here it’s mostly good clean fun, bars with more guitars than girls, song-and-dance shows instead of dog-and-pony shows.  Long walks are the order of the day, and the scenery is nothing short of splendid.  All in all it’s pretty darn delightful. 


By some quirk of fate, I seem to be staying in one of the town’s leading hotels, its ads plastered all over the roadside on the way up.  In fact it’s about the only place I could book online through my normal sites, same as Vigan.  This is not a situation I normally find myself in.  That says something important about the reasonable prices in Philippines, and also about my desire for Wi-Fi whenever and wherever possible.  Of course the room sucks.  I can’t stay in a room without a window. Why do they do this to me, unless they want to see claw marks in plaster?  That little patch of blue is my wormhole to another dimension!  Okay, I guess translucent glass bricks are better than nothing, but not much.  I’ve already booked a different place for the return from Vigan.  And room discounting is heavy here as well as Manila, special rates by the hour, by the half day, after midnight, walk-in only, locals only, you name it.  I’ve never seen anything like it.


Those reasonable prices can be downright dirt cheap when you walk in unannounced.  If the best hotel in town is only $40-50 to begin with, then maybe it’s as little as half that without a res.  The amazing thing is that I seem to be almost the only tourist wherever I go, only Western tourist at least.  Thailand—with nothing more than this on offer—has Westerners they can’t get rid of!  There they’re already in the blood lines like an infection that’ll just have to run its course.  So on my return to Baguio I’ve booked a room for less than thirty bucks US, with similar amenities.  It can’t be any worse than the first place.  I stayed there two nights, and on the second night they called at 10 p.m. and asked if I needed my room made up, 10 p.m., mind you.


The predominant local folk art here, as elsewhere in the Philippines, are the colorful jeepneys—local transport—adorned and styled to taste.  Smaller cities such as Vigan may be the exception, with their smaller three-wheelers similarly adorned and dominating local transport need … or that may just be Vigan.  Other towns along the road tend to limit their creativity to color selection, to which they all conform within each town, so that scattered along the way there are green towns, yellow towns, pink towns, and so forth.  But the big thrill along the way was a woman walking completely naked along the side of the road.  You don’t see that every day!  The kids loved it.


But my big project for the return to Baguio is to continue my investigation into the culinary genome of chop suey.  It’s a familiar dish in the US’s old-timey Chinese restaurants that date from the railroad era—but not the new ones—and there are various similar names and versions that I’ve seen and tried in such varied places as Chile and Indonesia.  Now here it is in the Philippines, spelled the same way as the US version.  Now the Philippines get most of their Chinese references straight from the source, not from the US.  They don’t eat spring rolls; they eat lumpia.  They don’t eat “Chinese hamburgers;” they eat sio pao.  So this could be the definitive test.  After hearing on TV yesterday that some Jewish guy in San Francisco invented egg fu yung, this exercise takes on renewed importance, especially since I know there’s a dish in Indonesia called fu yung hai, served on all the same menus that include cap cai.


Now I don’t know much Mandarin and even less Cantonese… but I DO know that cai means vegetables and so does choy, I think, so the fact that that’s what they gave me when I ordered chop suey should come as no surprise, especially after eating chilies yesterday called sili.  “Chop” is a fingerprint of course; Hop Sing taught us that on Bonanza (“everybody have different chop”), and I’ve heard it used in Indonesia the same way, too.  But I suspect it also means just … chop, like “whack,” to slash with a thud, onomatopoeia all over the place, i.e. bifurcate your beans and greens with extreme prejudice.  Now why didn’t you just say that?  Because chopped mixed vegetables are what I got, in a light brown (presumably oyster) sauce, no soggy canned bean sprouts or canned crispy noodles necessary … unless that’s all you’ve got I guess.  Egg fu yung will be my new project for the future.  I can see you Chinese people smiling.  I should be talking to you about all this, right?  Maybe I can buy you a drink sometime…


Sundays are not to be believed here, not that everyone is in church, mind you, quite the opposite.  No, they’re everywhere, filling the streets and filling the parks, making the smallest stroll difficult, if you’re in a hurry.  It seems everybody’s got a babe in arms, if not a couple in tow, if not a little tribe of pot-bellied poopers spread out following in wing formation like ducks on a pond.  This seems like nothing so much as a nation of teenagers, learning their multiplication tables in bed at night under cover of darkness. 


Baguio is the city we built, we Americans, that is.  So I’m staying right across from Burnham Park, which includes a lake with paddle boats and kiddie playgrounds, the whole amusement park feel.  It’s been a long time since Clark Air Force base closed, of course, and longer still since the colonial days.  But the American influence lives on here.  I guess that’s why it took me so long to come.  It was always too closely associated with America in my mind, so not exotic. 

Too bad that influence never crossed over to the supermarkets, which look like a Chinese Ma and Pa store got bigger without getting any better.  They’re pretty shabby, and no brown rice either.  That’s too bad.  Otherwise Filipino food is pretty good, and the breakfasts are the stuff of Filipino lumberjack legend.  I don’t even want to know what’s in the mystery meat.


My hotel left a newspaper outside my door this morning.  Don’t they know I’m a backpacker?  I’m not used to treatment like this.  Abuse me!  Insult me!  Question my native intelligence or I might develop an ego complex!  Or worse even still, I might lose street cred with you, my faithful readers.  I don’t want that.  I need you.

So when the day dawns cloudy and gray, I decide to stay another day.  But I don’t know what to do with myself.  I don’t need any surgery, or any dental work, or computer repairs, so I get some passport photos made.  They’ll come in handy.  Then I go to the big new mall up the hill.  They still have mall rats here!  Does anyone still go to the malls in the US?  It’s certainly not the paradigm that it used to be.  Internet is.


The rainy day depresses me, and the windowless cubicle doesn’t help.  Fortunately the Net’s up at least half the time, like flickering consciousness, so that has to suffice as my little patch of blue on a day like today.  Hopefully the sun will be out tomorrow, so I can get out and see some landscape.  That’s my porn, and my Bible, and most everything in-between.  Where I’m heading is nothing if not exotic, the Ifugao rice fields.  Stay tuned.  I’m finally past my jet lag, and now my trip is half over.  Yeow!

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