From Chinatown to the Salad Bowl

From Chinatown to the Salad Bowl
The village of Stobosa, La Trinidad

In Manila's lunchtime traffic snarl, it takes an hour to go from Pasay to Binondo, a distance of only about four miles, by car. My room is just steps from the gates of Chinatown. After some wonton noodle soup at the honestly-named Big Bowl noodles, I stroll toward Binondo Church. I dodge a man urinating in between cars while facing traffic. I'm no stranger to people peeing on sidewalks, but they usually at least turn their backs to the street.

Binondo Church

The number of beggars is astonishing, and many of them are children. In front of the church's main entrance, there's an old lady in a wheelchair with her hand outstretched, seemingly barely conscious. She's there every time I pass by during the daytime for two days, only to disappear in the evening.

Chinatown gate

The following morning, I walk across the bridge to Intramuros, Manila's historic district, hoping to beat the heat of midday. In what used to be the moat of the walled city now lies a golf course. A horse-drawn carriage operator hassles me for a fare, but I am only interested in going to Fort Santiago. It's not far, but he tells me he'll take me there for "only 20," so I hop in. He pauses to put on his "official uniform," which is nothing more than a plain white long-sleeved t-shirt. He warns me about pickpockets in the area. As we trot along, he points to a few men standing on the sidewalk and assures me they are thieves, waiting for their next victim. After the short ride, I offer him 30 pesos to include a tip. He tries to pull the bait-and-switch and demands 20 dollars. I laugh and hop out.

A street in Intramuros

It's still early and there aren't many visitors yet. Inside, I learn about José Rizal, a national hero who was imprisoned on these very grounds before being executed by firing squad in 1896 at the age of only 35 after being convicted of rebellion, sedition, and conspiracy. He was a doctor, writer, artist, and polyglot who studied in Europe, volunteered to treat yellow fever victims in Cuba, and founded a secret reformist organization.

A mural commemorating the execution of José Rizal

The fort itself is underwhelming compared to better-preserved ones I've seen in India and elsewhere. Intramuros was basically leveled during World War II. A white cross marks the mass grave where the remains of over 600 people starved and suffocated by Japanese forces were found in the dungeons below.

Inside Fort Santiago

By the time I leave, there are throngs of Chinese, Korean, and Filipino tourists. I'm shocked by how few Western tourists I see in Manila. The government was slow to relax Covid-19 restrictions compared to other travel hotspots in Southeast Asia. That, along with the extra hassle and cost involved with getting to the islands, seems to be enough to keep most people away, at least for now.

I have an 8:00 bus to Baguio to catch, so by 7:15 I've checked out of the hotel and walked just down the street to a spot where tricycle taxi drivers congregate. After some haggling, I pile my bags into a sidecar and we take off to the Sampaloc bus terminal. My driver is very young and rail thin. He asks me where I'm from. I ask him if he likes the NBA. His sheepish grin reveals a retainer. He mutters a name I can't understand and points to a '13' tattoo on his hand.

We head north on the North Luzon Expressway, bypassing the sleaze capital of Angeles before stopping at a bus station in Mabalacat. I've never seen so many pork skins in my life. All of the dozen or so shops sell them, and some vendors even hop on parked buses to try to tempt riders with them. I resist and pay five pesos to go to the "comfort room," as it is often called here. Back on the bus, a vendor finally convinces me to buy some roasted garlic peanuts. The small paper bag they're served in is quickly soaked through with patches of oil.

We start gaining elevation around a town called Sison and by the time we enter the Cordillera Administrative Region, a group of six provinces, my ears are popping. The last 15 miles through the pine forests take about an hour to climb. Fortunately, it's just a short walk from the Baguio terminal to my hotel.

Statues in front of Baguio Cathedral

This city has seen its share of hard times. On the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombed Camp John Hay, a US military installation just east of downtown Baguio. Within a few weeks, the city had fallen and remained under Japanese occupation for over three years. It was heavily damaged in the war, then hit hard again by a 7.7-magnitude earthquake in 1990 that killed over 1,600 people.

Traditional clothes of an ethnic majority at the Museo Kordilyera

Baguio's night market doesn't officially get started until 9 pm, but many vendors are getting set up well before that. By 8:30, there are plenty of food stalls open already. After sampling a couple of dishes, I walk along Session Road back to my room. There are street performers dressed up as a rabbit, a T-Rex, and Pikachu, singers, and various musicians, all hoping to make some change. The saddest of this group merely shakes some maracas rhythmlessly to an instrumental Clapton tape.

Nothing adds a touch of class to an outfit like a monkey skull hat

I move just up the road to La Trinidad. My room is at the top of a hill that is so steep that only trucks and SUVs can climb it and borderline impossible for motorbikes. Most people who live here have to walk up and down daily. With my luggage, I have to pause for rest a couple of times on the ascent. My host is a tiny 72-year-old lady who goes by Tess. She is a retired real estate agent and lives with her four dogs, one of which is blind. I learn she has had a stroke. Although she's still quite active, I can't imagine how she gets up and down the hill. She assures me that she still takes the trash down every morning.

Tess, my host in La Trinidad

It just so happens that La Trinidad is having its annual Strawberry Festival during my visit. I catch the tail end of a parade before stocking up on strawberry baked goods to go with my morning coffee. I also swing by the local strawberry farm, where they once broke a Guinness World Record by baking a strawberry shortcake that was over 8 feet tall and 12 feet long and weighed over 20,000 pounds.

I walk all the way to Stobosa, a colorful village perched on a hillside between downtown Baguio and the main part of La Trinidad. There's a line of tourists waiting to have their pictures taken on the hanging bridge, so I dart across and start climbing the stairs to the top. I'm amazed by how many people have to make a trek like this every day. It would be daunting at sea level, but doing it at an elevation of around 5,000 feet adds even more to the challenge.

A few kids with full shopping bags say hello as I go back down. One brother introduces himself using his very long full name while the other calls himself something like "Munford." The first brother has a new volleyball, while Munford shows me his new chess set. I see an old man struggle up some steps on crutches while a girl I assume is his granddaughter watches after him. Luckily, he lives near the bottom.

After a quick visit to the Bell Church, I swing by the La Trinidad Vegetable Trading Post. There are bags and pallets of chayote, cauliflower, beans, carrots, peppers, and much more piled high, with trucks loading and unloading constantly. Benguet province is nicknamed the "Salad Bowl of the Philippines" for good reason.

I'm intrigued by something called the Mount Kalugong Cultural Village, so I follow the walking directions Maps gives me, cutting through the campus of Benguet State University. I enter another village, climbing series after series of stairs. I pass by a mother pausing for a rest while carrying her toddler. Something I hadn't even considered until now is that not only do people have to climb these hills every day, but they also have to carry their groceries, young children, work equipment, backpacks, and whatever else they need on a daily basis with them. Unlike in America, the house on the hill obviously comes at a discount, as the homes become more and more run down the higher I climb.

Stairs that go on and on

I reach a dead end where the map shows there should be a walking trail to the top, so I try an alternate route. Again, I come to stairs leading directly to a house. I can see the lookout point on the rocks above, but can't get there. There's an outhouse and I wonder if it's still in use or merely a relic of the past until a man comes out. We share an awkward glance and I decide it's time to head down.

I pass by the mom once again and realize she lives in the home with the outhouse at the very top. She asks me where I'm going, still trying to catch her breath. She informs me there's no way to get there from here and that I should take a jeep.

I cross paths with a couple of well-dressed teenagers. They hand me a booklet and magazine, looking relieved to be rid of them. They are Seventh-day Adventists. Moments later, I meet two more. They look disappointed when I show them I am already in possession of the latest episode of Adventist World. On my way out of the village, I see a group of them. I kindly refuse once again, and they keep wandering along the dirt road, looking for someone who can help them dispose of their materials so they can finally be released from their duties.

It's getting late in the afternoon and I estimate I've walked at least six miles and climbed countless steps. I can feel the blisters on my feet, so any more hiking will have to wait. I have an early dinner of what seems to be a standard local offering: a piece of fried chicken with a fried egg, fried spring roll, and local veggies on top of rice. Tasty, but certainly not light eating. I figure I've burned enough calories to earn some wiggle room, and it gives me the strength to make the final climb of the day back to my room.

The second half of the hill to my room