Philippines Travel: Baguio blues

The 8-hour bus to Baguio wasn’t horrible (reclining seats, air conditioning, leg room) but after about 5 hours I get antsy on a bus. It didn’t help that the sun set about 4 hours into the trip, so the scenery was all just urban sprawl giving way to big boring flatlands. But then, after dark had settled in, the bus started going uphill. The kind of uphill where your neck gets tired of holding your head forward and you just give up and lay back. For two hours, the road went up and up and up…then we arrived in Baguio.

My seat mate told me the taxi drivers in Baguio are renowned for their honesty, so not to worry about rip offs, and I took him at his word. I hopped in an SUV taxi at the bus station, and asked if he knew of any good, inexpensive guesthouses that were nice. That’s a hard set of directions to give…cultural differences, language differences, preferences: it all comes into play. The driver tried his best—we visited about 4 hotels but I felt like Goldilocks (too big! too small! too remote!) and eventually I spied the lights for a Hotel 45 on a hillside nearby and just told him to take me there.

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It was a totally characterless, sterile little room, but at least it was clean and fairly cheap, so I took it. I’ve learned long ago that when you first arrive in a town, especially if you arrive at night, you’re not going to get it right. You’re going to wander around the weirdest parts of town looking for a hotel, or you’re going to go for something the guidebook says is nice and it will turn out not to be the best option, or whatever. There’s just no way….personally, I need the second day and the daylight to get my bearings and figure out what’s what. But all in all, Hotel 45 was fine…just a bit underwhelming.

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After checking in, I walked down the street and found downtown, and went into a little pub called “Hedonism” or something and listened to some local music. Not too bad. I wanted something easy to eat, so I ordered some ‘Chicken Wings’ and got a surprise….in the Filipino chicken wings means everything from the tips down to the shoulder, breaded and fried and served with some spicy chili sauce dumped over them. Very hard to eat, very messy….and the lame napkins they give you means you end up looking like your hands and face were in a shaving accident. But they were gooooooood. 🙂


Next day, I explored Baguio…went to Cafe by the Ruin for a tasty grilled tuna sandwich, went out to Asin Street to see the woodworkers, did a big walkabout the town, saw some great old buildings and even more really cool Jeepneys. These are their version of local transport, and they are very nicely done up! I could totally see turning one of these into a camper…except I don’t fit in them. Sitting in the back means my head is jammed up against the roof, or else I have to sit with my head down between my knees….a common complaint for me on all Filipino transport! And to the amusement of all Filipinos who see me.

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That afternoon I had an interesting experience. I was craving something meaty….maybe a nice steak, and the Lonely Planet mentioned a place called “The Red Lion” where a lot of friendly expats hang out and they have good steaks, so I set off to find it. Three taxi rides later, I got dropped off at a spot where the sign looked like the one I saw online, but instead of saying “The Red Lion”, it said “The Old Lion”. Hesitatingly, Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 10.26.25 AMI went inside and it definitely was the right place. I bellied up to the bar and ordered a beer, and almost instantly a guy came over and asked if I was new here. I said “Yeah, first time” and he said “Mind if I introduce you to some folks?”

He brought me to a long table with three guys at one end and said “Hey guys, this is Myron…he’s new here and from the States but works in HK. Can he join you guys?”

Just like that, I had three new friends and some folks to drink beer with. Very nice way to do it.

But the story continues….

So the three guys were friendly enough…I’ll call them Andy, Bruce and Chris (I have forgotten their names). Andy was really big and pudgy…arms like tree trunks, sausage fingers and a big triple chin hanging out of his collar. Bruce was also burly, but had the build of a mechanic; strong arms, chewed up nails…and a pile of heavy battery cables beside him on the table. It turned out that he was doing some work on his big truck, and had stopped in for a few beers. Chris was your classic effeminate old guy….thin lips, neatly manicured hair, girlish laugh at everything. Andy and Bruce looked to be in their early 50s, Chris was about 15 years older.

As we chatted, I asked what they did. Turns out that all three are retired and living in Baguio on their pensions, which go a long way here. Andy (the rolypoly one) was a PE teacher for 30 years, Bruce (Mr Muscles) was a male nurse, and Chris split his time teaching elementary Math (“I always hated math and never really understood it, but I figured I could do no harm at the elementary level”) and HS US History.

Wow…first impressions sure can be wrong. And it turns out…so can second ones.

As the evening wore on and we swapped tales and consumed beers, the TV showed some images from the plane crash in Taiwan. Andy chimed in “Fucking news. First they’ll say it was this, then they’ll say it was that. They have no idea what really happened!”

Bruce added “Yeah, when that plane disappeared a few months ago, CNN had all sort of bullshit theories…none of which were right. You can’t trust any news channel at all any more!”

“Except FOX!” said Chris. “That’s for sure! FOX is the only one that tells the truth!” they all chimed in.

I could see where this was going to go. There was an uneasy silence that was hard to miss, then Bruce said to me: “See, pretty much everyone out here is a Republican. We don’t want other people making decisions for us….so we live out here and ignore the fucking Democrats who are turning our country into Socialism. They are ruining the place!”

I smiled, lifted my beer and said “Yep, the world certainly is becoming one fucked up place”. They nodded agreement, the conversation started turning to how all the Filipinos were stupid and untrustworthy and there were a lot of adolescent jokes about Filipino girls. There was also a very strange convo I had with Bruce about the name of the bar. It went sort of like this:

“So why is this place called ‘The Old Lion’ and not ‘The Red Lion’?”
“Do you see all those houses around this place? They were all built without permits…its all illegal.”
“Oh….so why the name change, then? To hide from the law?”
“No, I’m telling you! The family who owns this place….they are all Filipino, and they don’t get along. “You owe me this” and “You didn’t pay for that.””

Confused…I tried to clear it up. “So they, what….changed the name….?”

“No, I’m TELLING you! There’s another place down the road called “The Red Lion!”
“Um, OK. So someone else poached the name?”
“No, I’M TELLING YOU! The family owns both places!”

I could not get it straight, so I said “Bruce, help me out here…it’s not making sense. Start again and explain why the name change…?”

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 10.54.22 AMHe suddenly looked to me like Robert DeNiro in “Meet the Fokkers”. He started again:

“OK, Look…I’m fucking TELLING you!! The family that owns this place does not get along…lots of fighting. All the buildings around this place are illegal….look out that window. All illegal!! They own that other place…it’s been around for 50 fucking years!!”

After that, I quietly finished my beer and made my way back out to the cabs.


Later that evening I went to the huge street market where all those clothes HK folks give their amahs end up, for pennies an item. I found two of my favorite t-shirts that are no longer made…they sell on eBay for about US$30 each…I got these both for $1. 🙂

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I also changed to the Veniz hotel, a more upscale place right in town. Turned out that the Hotel 45 was right next door to one of the best bargains and funkiest boutique hotels in town, too…but I didn’t realize that until I was laying in bed reading my Lonely Planet. Live and learn. The next day, I got up to a parade outside my window, then made my way to the bus station and hopped a bus northwards for the 6 hour ride to Vigan, a great little Spanish town on the coast. I was originally planning on going up deeper into the cordillera to Sagada, a very funky little hippie mountain town, but I was starting to feel like a flu was coming on, and could not face the idea of another 6 hours in the back of a bus, but this time on seriously twisty mountain roads the whole time, feeling carsick. So I changed plans and headed to Vigan….and it was only on the bus I realized that I had left the charger for my MacAir behind in the hotel. Bummer.

Next post….Vigan


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