Twenty years in Kafagway

I've always thought that I can never stay in one place too long - and then I moved to Baguio in 1996. The city was just getting back on its feet after the devastating 1990 earthquake and there was a construction frenzy going on - a concrete pine tree was erected at the top of Session Road (1994) and the construction of the first flyover in the city at the bottom of Magsaysay Avenue was about to start.

A couple of years, maybe three, I thought then. Almost two decades later, I'm still here, and this chronological narrative paints a picture of those years... beginning with...


Momma, and walking down Session Road in a sarong

You get paid for waiting, really, was it Spanky Manikan or Ronnie Lazaro who said it that afternoon? I was cast in a foreign production being filmed in various locations in Luzon, and we were in Baguio, down a ravine along Marcos Highway just below where the viaduct is today, waiting for the assistant director to call us for our next scene. It's already way past noon and we've been in costume and make-up since six in the morning and have yet to get in front of the camera for the day. I'm sitting against a rock, reading a book, Cider House Rules by John Irving, and I feel dizzy because of the glasses I am wearing for the very first time.

It was a bonanza for many theater actors from Manila who were cast in this Dutch TV series - we were being paid daily for a production that had a 6-month filming schedule. We've been to Pagsanjan, Atimonan, we, the most expensive wall paper in Asia, as the producer teasingly referred to us - Ronnie Lazaro and I. We were playing very minor roles as Indonesian soldiers in the film, hardly any dialogue (yet we still had to attend a few days of Bahasa lessons in case we needed to ad lib), but we were there from day one, almost every single day from sun up until the last shot of the last day.

Ronnie and I were looking forward to a steak dinner complemented by a nice bottle of red at Camp John Hay's Lonestar Steakhouse. It's not often that we get to be employed, and compensated well, continuously for that long, and we have been allowing ourselves the luxury of a sumptuous dinner from the time we started filming "In The Name of the Queen."

We might not get in front of the camera today, I learned, because one of the actors, another "expensive wall paper," Max Laurel, was ill and was needed for the day's shot. He collapsed while we were in the make-up trailer that morning. One of the scheduled scenes to be shot for the day was of us chewing nganga (betel chew) or momma in these parts, and were offered a choice to go with harmless red-colored gum or the real thing by the props man. None of us has ever tried the real thing, and we were told that the first time would be much like the first time you smoke a cigarette, and I didn't like how it felt when I first smoked a cigarette so I, along with the rest of the wall papers, save for Max Laurel, the more than six-foot tall hunk of a man famous for playing the role of the mythical mythical Zuma in a movie, went for the gum. How bad could it be? Max said and added that he'd rather chew the real thing for "authenticity," there's method acting for you, and he put the mix of betel nut, leaf,  some lime or apog and a little tobacco in his mouth and started chewing. I shrugged and the make-up artist continued working on my face. After a couple of minutes I glanced at Max, sitting next to me in the make-up trailer, and asked how he was feeling. Medyo nahihilo, he said and added, I think I'll go outside for some fresh air. He stood up, froze, swayed to and fro for a couple of seconds, and just fell flat on his face, all of the more than six feet of him.

A few hours later and he's still lying down in one of the trailers, dizzy and unable to get up. The director wasn't happy about it, but said that he'll find other scenes to shoot without Max.

The sun was already beginning to set, and we were told to pack up for the day without being in a single scene that day. But that's ok, we were still going to get paid for the day. We were at the location, in costume and make-up, after all. I finish the last couple of paragraphs of a chapter and dog-eared the book and started making my way up. I took off my costume - soldier's uniform, boots, belt, straps for the mock ammunition bags, hat, and surrendered my prop - a rifle, to the art department and put on a shirt and a sarong. Soon we were in a van driving back to Camp John Hay. It was still a bit early for that steak dinner, so I asked to be let off somewhere along Session Road, to the dismay of the other actors I was sharing the ride with who wanted to get back to their cozy cottages at the former US Airforce rest and recreation base sooner.

I actually forgot that I was wearing a sarong, quite unusual for a guy walking around Session Road on a rainy afternoon. But this is Baguio, nobody cares, really. I noticed that when I went into Mountain Studio to buy a couple of rolls of film, and into Rumours for a bottle of beer before making my way back to Camp John Hay.

In Baguio, when it rains

It's always raining in Baguio, I thought then. Or I'm always in Baguio during the rainy season. A couple of years before, in 1993, I was here with the cast and staff of Raymond Red's  "Sakay." The Baguio Arts Guild sponsored the film's screening at the Baguio Convention Center. It was raining then, too, and I was down with the flu, which made the otherwise nice Baguio cold unbearable. Rl saw me for the first time one evening that time, but we didn't get to be introduced to each other for after the premiere screening, while the rest of group chit-chatted with the local artists, I was curled up in one of the couches at the lobby, all bundled up - layers of T-shirts, a sweater and a trench coat, shivering.

Those days spent in Baguio, added to my memories of Baguio as a child when my mother would take us here to spend a few days with artist friends, all contributed to my decision to one day live here.


Another walk to remember...

My mother was in the country, her first trip back home since migrating to Guadeloupe in the French West Indies. It was my first time to see her again since I returned to the country three months after joining the rest of the family in that Caribbean island in July, 1991. My flight was one of the last ones out of the country the day Mr. Pinatubo erupted. 

She was staying at Su's home in Gibraltar, and Santiago Bose and Shant Verdun were there that night for dinner. I always loved watching my mother and Santi talk and laugh their heads off. After dinner, Rl and I said goodbye to everyone, which irked my mother who expected me to sleep there that night. An argument ensued and it was getting a bit awkward having it in front of everyone so the more I wanted to spend the night at Rl's place to let things cool off. 

But that's not the story I wanted to share. Santi and Shant were forced to accompany us "kids" - it was raining all late afternoon and early evening and it was terribly cold when we stepped out of Su's around midnight. Fog covered the streets and we could only see at arm's length at most and had only the ghostly light from the lamp posts to guide us towards the Pacdal circle. There were hardly any cars on the road - it was the time when Baguio still went to sleep at night, and we were walking right in the middle of the road. We were singing a song too, what song I can't remember anymore. But it was a beautiful walk.

We got our respective cabs - us to Rl's mom's place in Campo Sioco and Santi and Shant to Cut-off Road for, I'm quite sure, another round of chess before calling it a night. 

Add that night to the many reasons I decided to move to Baguio.

A Cordillera road trip

I needed to get away from it all, so off I went on a Cordillera road trip alone. First stop was Banaue. On an earlier trip that had Rl and I doing the Baguio-Sagada-Banaue route, we met this restaurateur in Bontoc. He owned Las Vegas Restaurant, a no-nonsense hole in the wall that served sumptuous meals at a reasonable, starving artist-affordable price. We were surprised to learn, upon reaching Banaue during that trip, that he had a "branch" there in a hotel called Greenview Lodge, which happened to be my usual lodging choice whenever I'd go on trips to Banaue way before I met Rl. 

1996 and there I was again, at Greenview Lodge, Banaue. At breakfast, this German tourist chatted me up and soon we were sharing a table with two Israelis who were there in search of this young girl who could sing Hebrew songs that according to rumors - without anybody teaching her. One day, she started singing these songs, they said. 

The German guy and I decided not to join the Israelis in their search. I wanted to go visit the bronzesmiths' village nearby, and the German guy wanted to tag along. Before going our separate ways that morning, Leo, Las Vegas' proprietor, invited all of us for some drinks after dinner later that day. We all accepted the invitation. 

I got bitten by a dog, that day, on our way back to town from the bronzesmiths' village. Back at Las Vegas', I gave Leo my contact information in Manila so he could give me an update on the dog (I was sure the doctor I would go to after I got back to Manila would ask about the dog). I went to my room to take a nap before dinner.

At dinner, I was joined again by the German and the Israelis, who failed to find the girl they came to see in the Philippines yet still thought the sights of Batad was worth the hours of walking. After dinner, Leo came out of the kitchen in a fringed leather jacket and a cowboy hat with a guitar and a bottle of Ginebra San Miguel (4 x 4). He sang this song:

Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge mountain, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, growing like a breeze

But the chorus had a twist, which he sang with all his heart:

Baguio Road
Bontoc Road
Sagada Road
Banaue Rooooooad!
West Lagawe
Mountain Province
Take me home
O' Baguio Road.

With his phone number and a promise from Leo that he would check on the dog for signs of rabies, I returned to Manila rejuvenated, and more and more convinced that I can start a new life up in the mountains of the Cordilleras. My mother's visit would seal that decision.

Ferdie, Rumours, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and Perk Cafe

From the apartment we shared with Baguio folks in Pasay, Rl and moved to a small flat in Project 6, Quezon City where I grew up. It was a long commute to Makati everyday for Rl, while I spent most of my time at home. Work was slow, hardly any auditions nor any projects from my usual employers. The nearly clockwork visit from my childhood friends from the neighborhood every afternoon for a game of tong-its or glasses of rum & Coke depressed me. I had to get out of Manila again and asked Rl if she was up to going for another trip to Baguio.

And one night in Rumours, we had some beers with a cousin of Rl's named Ferdie, also an actor. He didn't realize it but all night I was "auditioning" him - I observed his demeanor, listened to the way he enunciated words and while he and Rl reminisced about their theater days in UP-Baguio, in my mind I was assigning monologues from Eric Bogosian's performance-art piece, "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll" to him. 

I finally brought it up, described the material in detail and Ferdie was excited by the idea of going back up on stage. I gave him a copy of the script and soon, a tentative date has been set for the run. 

In the weeks that followed, I spent more and more days up in Baguio doing script-reading sessions with Ferdie. Rl brought in another college friend, Ningning, to the production as Stage Manager. I met with Perry Mamaril, a Baguio-based artist I once met at the Cultural Center of the Philippines as lighting design apprentice, and asked him to design the lights and be the production's technical director. He agreed. 

Rl introduced me to Gino Orticio, the first guy I know of in Baguio to cash in on the digital gold rush with his company, Compendium, which provided desktop publishing services and sold computers. He agreed to be a sponsor and provided us with our promotional materials along with the free use of a computer for the production. During the day, I would be up in Gino's office at the rooftop of National Life Building along Session Road typing up marketing letters and designing flyers and posters, and afternoons were spent at the abandoned campus of Pines City Colleges in Camp Sioco rehearsing with Ferdie. 

So for a couple of weeks, I'd be up in Baguio and Rl would be in Manila... Makati to be exact, for work, and our flat in Project 6 at the end of the day while I'll be up in Baguio rehearsing and marketing the production. 

One of our letters made it to the desk of Ms. Sonia Dao-as, then Dean of Baguio Colleges Foundation's (now University of the Cordilleras) Arts and Letters Department, and I guess the title intrigued her. The school's golden anniversary was coming up and they were looking for events to celebrate the milestone. I met with her and soon we had a playdate for an opening night plus a few more performances for a decent run. Things were looking good. 
Soon after, I made a long distance call to Rl. "Let's move to Baguio," I said.  

We gave up our flat in Project 6 and initially stayed at her mother's apartment in Campo Sioco. In the weeks that followed, we were all over town - the corner table by the window at McDonald's along Session Road (corner of Mabini) served as an office where downtime was spent reading funny taxi names.

While waiting to be interviewed at SkyCable Baguio at their then offices located in Lopez Bldg., I learned my first Ilocano dirty phrase courtesy of Ferdie. I was also very much amused by the way sentences are constructed in Ilocano - I couldn't stop laughing at the phrase "apay bertdeym?"

There was a new watering hole in town - Perk Cafe, yes, the owners were huge "Friends" fans and every now and then the house music would be the soundtrack of the sitcom (on cassette, which we borrowed one day to copy).

We would usually meet up at around 10:00am to start our day, going around schools pitching the production to deans, teachers. I liked the way Baguio would wake up and be so full of energy at sunrise until around 9, then things start to slow down and even when jeepneys were still allowed along Session Road then, the Central Business District would fall into this quiet hum. We would spend an hour or two at Gino's office to print out letters, that sometimes stretched into a couple or even a few hours if Gino's in the mood for some interesting conversation that touched on everything from politics to spirituality to tech talk to "hello, is this UP?" how things have changed in UP Baguio.      

Coffee at the corner table at McDonald's Session Road. Rehearsals at the abandoned Pines City Colleges campus in Campo Sioco. Perk Cafe in the evening until the wee hours of the morning. If we're up for one for the road and Perk's closed already, then it's the rotunda at the top of Session Road with bottles of beer bought at Mom & Pop. 


(To be continued...)

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