The day we were to leave, my mother was too sick to accompany us. So it was my father alone who brought my sister Cora and me to the place that would be home to us for the next few years.
I was 12, my sister 16. Ordinarily this would have been an exciting trip. We were going to Baguio, after all, a resort city up north scented by pine trees and cooled all year round by the chilly mountain air. How often have we gone there for vacation, to escape Manila’s summer heat, and to enjoy all the recreational facilities the city had to offer.
But given that this wasn’t going to be a holiday I had the feeling that recreation wasn’t going to happen. My sister and I were going to Baguio to study, to live with the nuns, in a convent school where dozens of other girls our age had also been exiled. We were going to be far, far away from our parents and everything familiar. So instead of being exciting, this trip was filled with anxiety and dread.
That was all I thought of as the train left Tutuban station and started its long, arduous journey up north. At that time there were still trains that took passengers, if not all the way to Baguio, at least until Damortis in La Union. There, waiting cars would drive the passengers through the winding path up the mountains and on to the city.
Arriving in Baguio late in the afternoon, we headed directly to the school. The setting sun cast a melancholic glow on the school’s driveway, as if signaling the end of an era for my 12-year-old self. In the parlor we were greeted by the Reverend Mother, who seemed friendly enough, certainly friendlier than the nuns in my old school in Quezon City.
After the formalities we were ushered to the dorm on the third floor of the school house. With all the boarders at prayer in the chapel, the rooms were empty and eerily quiet.
A nun showed my sister and me to our assigned beds and cabinets, in a room we were to share with two other students. I tried to unpack my belongings but was too distraught to make much progress. In a few minutes it was time for our father to leave. We said goodbye, then he walked down the long, narrow corridor, farther and farther away from us, his head bowed as if weighed down with unexpressed sadness. For a while I considered running after him, asking him not to leave us behind. But with a strict Belgian nun restraining me by the shoulder, I thought twice before making a scene.
The next few weeks were weeks of difficult adjustment. The weather was always cold and damp and I had to get used to wearing a sweater over my long-sleeved blue and white school uniform. It was hard to fit in with the old students who seemed to lord it over everyone else. Worse, life was like one long unbearable boot camp. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, we were awakened by a bell at exactly 5:45 in the morning. There were no ifs or buts, no five- minutes-more-of-sleep-please. If one didn’t get up right away, she risked having a wet towel thrown at her face by Sister Ivan (whom we called Ivan the Terrible). We had 30 minutes to get ready and be in the chapel for morning Mass.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, Mass was optional so we had an extra 30 precious minutes of sleep. On Sundays, the nuns’ idea of letting us sleep late was to ring the wakeup bell at 6:30 a.m.
Meals were served in the refectory and they were seldom to our liking. Soggy bread. Overcooked vegetables. Bland meat. Still they were a diversion from the strict regimen of classes from 8 am to 4 pm, prayers thrice a day and regular study periods during which time silence was to be strictly observed and everyone was supposed to do homework.
What a far cry this was from the holidays we would spend in Baguio. I remember long summers staying in an aunt’s cottage by the hill, when every day was filled with fun. We would ride bikes in Burnham Park, paddle a boat on the lake, go horseback riding in Wright Park, and take long leisurely walks along narrow mountain trails. And always there would be the cool mountain breeze and the fragrance of pine trees to sweeten our adventures.
Meals in my aunt’s cottage would be hot chocolate and oatmeal for breakfast and lots of fresh, crisp vegetables for lunch and dinner. For snacks our yaya would fix sandwiches according to each one’s preference—pan de sal with butter and cheese, or with sandwich spread sprinkled with sugar, or toasted bread with butter and strawberry jam. Even though they were just variations on the same theme, we never grew tired of them.
One of the things that made those vacations so enjoyable was the semblance of freedom it gave us. Burnham Park, Wright Park, the botanical garden and the lush hills behind our aunt’s cottage made Baguio seem to us like one enormous playground.
One summer, when we stayed in another aunt’s apartment on Abanao street, we were allowed to roam around the neighborhood without a yaya watching over us. A favorite destination was Sunshine Grocery around the corner, where we would spend all our allowance on comic books and candies.
But now this—a rigid schedule run by strict nuns and the incessant ringing of the bell. Since we had no choice, my sister and I decided we might as well adjust to our new regimen. We managed to make new friends with whom we devised ways to outwit the nuns. We would have a lookout for Sister Ivan so that anyone needing a few more minutes of sleep could be warned before she got a wet towel thrown to her face. Conniving with some externs we sneaked our favorite snacks and chocolates in the dorm. And sometimes during study periods, we only pretended to study. In truth we were reading comic books and mystery novels, or writing letters to our parents to complain about the tyrannical conditions to which the nuns were subjecting us.
But to my surprise, some weekends turned out to be delightful. Every first Sunday of the month all the school boarders were herded off to Session Road by one of the nuns so we could buy our personal supplies of books, comics, toiletries and snacks. Favorite stops were the old D & S grocery, which sold the best brownies and cinnamon buns in town; Cid Book Store, where we would buy fan magazines so we could clip out pictures of our favorite Hollywood stars; and U-Need supermarket, with its tantalizing display of chocolate bars and potato chips.
Other Sundays were for horseback riding. Right after breakfast the horses and their guides would show up outside the school gate and we would race one another in choosing the best, tallest and sturdiest horse. One Sunday, feeling quite daring, a friend and I took our horses on a faster and faster gallop through the leafy suburbs of Baguio. A nun had warned us against going near the golf course of Camp John Hay and Country Club. A student once did, she said, and when her horse was hit by a golf ball, it went wild and wouldn’t stop running. With the insouciance of youth, we ignored her warning and deliberately rode our horses to the paths she had forbidden.
But the best times of all were when our parents came to visit. Then my sister and I could stay with them at Vallejo Hotel, a cozy, old-fashioned hotel where the rooms were impeccably clean and the service warm and friendly. We would go to the movies in either Pines or Session theater, and have dinner at Rice Bowl, everyone’s favorite Chinese restaurant. Actually Rice Bowl was more than a restaurant. It was a Baguio institution of sorts, where family celebrations were held and where every evening a group of men would gather to play chess while a handful of kibitzers watched.
And so the years passed. Before we knew it, my sister was graduating from high school. I then had a choice of going back to study in my old school in Quezon City, or staying on in Baguio to finish the next two years of high school. By this time, that school in Quezon City had become just a distant memory. After three years I had become emotionally attached to Baguio, to my friends there, even to the routine which I at first detested. I couldn’t say goodbye to the misty weather and the early morning fog, to the fragrance of pine trees, and to hearing, upon awakening each morning, the celestial sound of Gregorian chants being sung by the nuns in the chapel. Without a second thought, I chose to stay on in Baguio.
There would always be one unfortunate cadet whose date would have to be our teacher
It turned out to be a good choice because that school year, life became more interesting with the arrival of Sister Angelina, the new, more liberal school principal. Suddenly we were allowed to go out in individual groups, by ourselves, without a nun or teacher accompanying us. This gave my friends and me the freedom to choose how we were to spend our weekends. Sometimes on Sunday afternoons we would play bowling or swim in the heated pool of Country Club. We could dine at Rice Bowl even without our parents. Even better we would sometimes have Sunday lunch in the house of our friend, Linda, whose mother would serve us the home-cooked meals we missed so much.
One special Sunday, our piano teacher Mrs. Maniquis invited my friends and me to lunch in her house, where the special guest was the internationally renowned Filipino pianist Reynaldo Reyes. We had been so awed by the concert he had given the previous evening in St. Louis University, so meeting him up close was such a special treat. That afternoon he played several Chopin compositions for us and autographed our piano books—which for years was one of my most treasured possessions.
As high school juniors, we were even allowed to go out on dates—with some cadets from the Philippine Military Academy, who would invite us to their hops. Since a teacher had to chaperon us, there would always be one unfortunate cadet whose date would have to be our teacher. After a while, the guys wised up and got their teacher to date our teacher.
After high school graduation, my visits to Baguio became few and far between. Little did I know that the city was slowly but surely changing. Years later, when my sister and I went there on a sentimental journey, we drove from one place to the next, trying to see what was left of the city we once knew and still love.
We went to Wright Park, but the horses were few and looked emaciated. Rice Bowl had become Rose Bowl. The early morning fog that used to wrap the city in a chilly embrace had been replaced by the fumes from the jeepneys scattered around once simple, once quiet Session Road. Only the areas surrounding Country Club, Teachers’ Camp and John Hay still had their natural charm, still retained their innocent beauty.
We should go visit our school, we said. But hurrying to go back to Manila before nightfall, we only had time for a quick drive-through. The school now belonged to St. Louis Boys’ High, inhabited by strangers, by people we no longer knew. Just like the way Baguio has become different, save for a few faint traces of the familiar.
But it doesn’t matter, I told myself. The Baguio of old will forever belong to those of us who have gazed up at its summer skies, frolicked in its parks and breathed the fragrance of pine trees wafting through the crisp mountain air. No matter how much it changes, Baguio will always be for me a wellspring of treasured memories. Enduring, and sturdy as the mountain on which it was built, Baguio will forever be the link to my youth, to carefree times and to a part of myself that I once knew.