By Miraya B. De Dios

PANAGBENGA season is here once again after two full years of lockdown restrictions. For some, it may seem like time passed in a blink of an eye, as if it was just yesterday when Session Road in Bloom was in full swing last 2019. For many, the circumstances are quite the opposite. Several local livelihoods undoubtedly struggled amidst the pandemic as business operations were reduced and domestic travel was suspended as part of the strict quarantine protocols to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

According to Mayor Benjamin Magalong, Baguio lost an estimated PHP 3.5 billion in tourism revenue in 2020 due to the pandemic. Many micro, small and medium businesses (MSMEs) had to temporarily halt operations, while some could not sustain their business and had no choice but to permanently shut down. 

Families and individuals who rely on these industries have to find alternative sources of income, with low-income households experiencing the worst impacts of the government’s COVID-19 response, from limited health care access, unemployment, financial loss, and inefficient allocation efforts.

Truly, Baguio is marked with the scars of the past years. But now it is reopening to support economic recovery, and with it, the iconic Panagbenga Festival returns.

 In line with the protocols of the new normal, the customary 500 stalls have been reduced to 208 to maintain the 1.5-meter social distancing length. Someone with a keen eye can visibly notice this modification, as the stalls are less cramped than before. 

I remember the last Session Road in Bloom I witnessed back in 2019 was quite a frenzied affair. Granted, that was also my first Panagbenga, so I suppose my surprise was warranted. There were concession stands for just about everything that Baguio had to offer: woven crafts, jewelry, furniture, overrun clothes, leather shoes (allegedly from my own hometown – Marikina!), fresh produce, and yes, street food. There is perhaps none as prominently associated with Session Road in Bloom than shawarma, the Middle Eastern meat dish that takes over half the roadway every year. At every turn, there seems to be a shawarma stall, boasting their own formula of roasted meat, pita bread, and assorted condiment combination. 

I had half a mind to try each stall one by one – my diet notwithstanding – to be able to write a compelling entry on the matter. Fortunately, a dedicated local has already set out to try this idea, sampling different shawarma concession stands and rating them according to personal taste.

 In a Twitter thread, user j1mmydummy lists Shawarmalicious as one of the best stalls offering shawarma at Session Road, second only to the renowned franchise, Turks. There are a number of other stalls on the thread, which can be a good start for anyone looking to satisfy their shawarma cravings. Although I have never been big on it before, passing by the procession of savory meat undeterred is not an easy feat. It was one of the sellers from Bespren Shawarma that did it for me back in 2019. They managed to convince me to get two when really, I can only stomach one. Perhaps it’s the smoky scent, or the compact packaging – perfect for munching on while strolling around – not to mention the persuasive vendors, which have cemented shawarma as a staple of Session Road in Bloom. Competition may be tough for sellers, but its position as the crowd favorite ensures that they will never be without customers. 

As we begin to adjust back to a sense of normalcy, all the while the fog of the pandemic looms over the mountains, it is small comfort to come back to this warmly wrapped fare. And with it, the air sizzles with energy and the road is alive once again, celebrating the season of blooming after a two-year slumber. – Intern