THIS week marks a year since I decided to head up to Baguio to wait out the pandemic. Although I’ve maintained a residence in the city since 2017 and was on a timeline to completely uproot myself from living in Metro Manila in a few years, 2020 accelerated everything. I’ve now spent 360 of the last 365 days here – the longest time I have ever lived away from Metro Manila. Baguio is now indisputably my home – where I work and where my life is and where I will vote in the next elections, having registered to move here last year.
While I have always loved Baguio and would make frequent trips here, it was really only in 2020 that I involved myself in getting to know what it is like to be a bona fide citizen. I’ve been trying to get to understand and appreciate the city’s issues – from the arguments around the public market and the mall giant, to the impending water crisis, to the rapid pace the city is losing its trees, to the challenges that being a UNESCO creative city poses. to reimagining how the city can responsibly and sustainably welcome tourists again. One of the things that I wonder about is the status of the plan to revive the Loakan airport.
A little over a year ago, the city announced that they were close to convincing one of the airlines to put up regular flights again to Manila and possibly even Cebu from Loakan. Properties that had encroached into the airport perimeter through the years were already being demolished to make it safe again for commercial aviation. The plan sounded promising. By making it easier for tourists to get to Baguio from other popular transit hubs, there was a chance that we could get tourists more willing to spend in our hotels and restaurants and shops.
When there were still commercial flights to Baguio over a decade ago, I actually had the chance to fly here from Manila. It was a memorable experience. What would have taken six hours took just forty five minutes.
Forty five minutes of floating through landscapes and terrain that I desperately scanned for familiar roads or landmarks, a remembered river or mountain or hill, but I couldn’t find any – even if I had made the journey to Baguio many times before. I grew up in one of those quintessential 80s families that made Baguio our second home. We would go up to Baguio three or four times a year, each time spending at least a week up in the city.
Summers would be bookended by trips up to the mountain city. And we would often see other families there – neighbors, people we knew from school – like the Ledesmas, Montinolas, Lacdaos. Mom even made up a game on who chanced upon the most friends during our vacations. There was real American ice cream and video games in John Hay, haircuts at Koken on Session road, hunting for knives and army gear at Maharlika, strawberries at the public market. I knew the tourist side of Baguio well enough.
But riding that plane to Baguio was a totally different sensation.
It seemed only minutes after the pilot announced that we were starting our final descent. I peered out the window, expecting to see that great big silt filled river on the border of La Union, or that Pepsi plant in Rosario, twisting Kennon Road, the Lion – something, anything. Instead it was all mountains, canyons, small rivers, rocks – not even cars or roads or people. And then suddenly, a single pine tree, then two, then a clump and a cluster, a house, then a few more and then unexpectedly – a city, with dogs and dirty roads and dirty laundry – then a lazy loop, a gentle glide, gravel and ground – Loakan airport.
Pine trees and family and friends, welcomed the small number of us who rode that plane. There was a lady with her American or European fiancé, meeting her family for the first time. Her father had worn a blazer made from traditional Cordilleran weave – handsome and hopeful and happy. There were a couple of Japanese or Taiwanese businessmen, being picked up by their overly enthusiastic local partners with loud voices and exaggerated gestures. And then, there was I, looking for a face in the crowd that would recognize mine and nod and we both would understand that he would be the driver of the service into the city I had known so well but had flown to for the first time.
It was a combination of low ridership, premium P2P bus services, better roads and some issues with the airport that eventually forced airlines to close down the regular routes. With the opening of TPLEX all the way to Rosario, the dramatic decrease of travel worldwide and the precarious state of all aviation companies
and even the old reliable bus companies make the dream of regular flights to and from Baguio seem impossible now for the next decade or so.
I’m thankful I took that one ride, years ago.