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Growing up in early Baguio
by Leonie Paraan San Agustin

7:10 a.m. was the start of my first class every school day when I turned seven. Then, in the early years of the American educational system there were no kindergarten and no preparatory starts for school, when you turned 7 years old, you go to school. I had to wake up early to look for “saleng,” dry sticks of pine tree branches that excrete resinous sap. I never knew then that this sap was later distilled into what they called crude turpentine. Aside from the “saleng,” I had to look around for stray pieces of matches, which were called “posporo.” The early morning chores had to be done very early so that I could cook the “inkirog” fried rice without lard or oil, eat it with fried “daeng.” Then, we lived in one room at the basement floor of Washington Hotel, then the best hotel right on top of Session Road across and down below the slopes of the mountain where Father Carlu’s Church was. I had to cook outside in the open air on three stones to hold the clay pots or the crude “kawa” or “sartin.”

This was my schedule every morning for years. We had no gas stove, no hot plate, and no fancy pots and pans. Because then, there was no electricity in the dark basement. Mind you, I never knew what hot pads were until very much later. The Baguio Central School was already there where it is now—across City Hall, but my family lived at Upper Session Road. So when we went to school, we waded through the swamps, beside Kafagway (the old name of Burnham Park), crossed the road on the wooden bridge at the end of now Harrison Road into the road going up to City Hall, climbed the slopes, passed by City Hall, then arrived at the school. That was around the late 1920s—no taxis, no jeeps, no other vehicles—we walked to school and when we heard the school bell ring furiously, we ran and ran to catch up with classes. We walked to school, strengthened our bones which sustained our bodies. Throughout our young lives, we walked healthy and active. We walked and ran, carried no bags or books, with no yaya to help us carry, no fancy cars to bring us, no yaya or parents to bring us to the doors of the school. Believe it or not, there were no fences to separate the school from the gravel roads.

My most vivid memories of my elementary school was of Gene de Guia and I, separately standing on top of the one by five-feet separate “talaksan” that were stored in the open air. You can imagine how vast the place was—the “talaksan” covered the area from where the gasoline station is now up to the yards of the school—no houses, no stores, no cabins—just “talaksan.” We were rehearsing our speeches for the graduation ceremony where we were honor graduates. 

We were poor, strong, and independent at very early ages compared to the school children nowadays—with their conspicuously “generous” allowances, their fancy rides, and high-priced maids or parents to bring the children to the door. To think that we lived in a beautiful mountain city of Americans, Japanese, Chinese, and different tribal people called Igorots… and yet we went to good schools.

From Baguio Central School, we went to Mountain Province High School, the only public high school in the whole Cordillera. The name “Cordillera” was not yet in use. All those different tribal regions were known as the ‘Mountain Provinces’. That is why the artifacts and culture of the original museum in Baguio were collected and called Mountain Provinces. The term Mountain Provinces meant the people, culture, and the lives of the different tribal groups in the region, while the name ‘Cordillera’ as called, meant the series of mountains with deep and narrow valleys that extended from Baguio to Apayao. The mountain series was called ‘El Gran Cordillera’ by the Spanish explorers. The original name of our Baguio Museum was and still is the Baguio-Mountain Provinces Museum. 

But high school life was happy, active, and innocently free. Our high school principals were the American wives of the officers in Camp John Hay. Sometimes, we had teachers from the Bua Elementary School, whose teachers were the Thomasites or the workers of the church missionaries. They taught English first—we were not allowed to speak in the dialect inside the classroom and in the school premises. I remember until now two teachers: the wife of the commanding officer of the Philippine Constabulary who taught me correct English, good manners, and right conduct; and our principal, Mrs. Lonto, who comforted me whenever she saw me crying because I did not make the monthly honors under my Physics teacher, Mr. Cala. I have often wondered what happened to them—I owe them gratitude for teaching me well. We were taught also songs, dances, hygenic habits, and athletic games. 

During our free time, we sat on the grasses on the slopes of the mountain, beside the stream, and talked about the problems of teenagers. We sat on the slopes under the tree because our school had no fences or benches to idle, talk, and eat lunch. After lunch, the teacher came around and made us pick up the papers, the banana leaves, and other leavings of lunch. Even then, the teachers were environmentally conscious and taught us well.

We were not called teenagers then. Teenager was a term that first came out here in Popular Science Monthly in 1941. We were either kids, teens, pupils, or children—not teenagers. 

I do not know why during our time as high school kids there were a lot of “scares”! We tried not to go home late so that we would not pass the bridge at dusk or nights. The bridge then was high above the water and could not be seen when night comes, and we used to scare the young ones with tales of the headless priest. I never saw him myself but certainly, I would not admit the fact that I had not seen him. There was also our left-over scare from the old big house at the corner of the road from City Camp and the road going downtown. There used to be another “scare” there, because I remember that someone committed suicide there.

But scares and tales were the conversations of high school kids. I remember that there was a pool of water coming from Naguilian Road to the pool behind the Lising (strawberry) house and it scared the daylights out of us when we had to go past the pool where they said the heads of the dead “busol” were. Maybe because many houses were used only during summer, there grew among us the mind-set of the presence of ghosts. Now, even under the bridge, there are people who build their houses under and around the posts.

We were in the high school for four years and gradually, we did not concern ourselves with the ghosts because we became interested in athletics. All around Teachers’ Camp, we played soft ball, volleyball, and ping-pong. Our walking back and forth to school made us agile and strong, so we joined the Benguet team for regional competitions. We were very busy because we were working for honors too. And when the PMA cadets were temporarily moved to Teachers’ Camp—then we had new interests, new horizons, and new “boys.”

The Heritage Commission, started three years ago, had Mrs. Gemma Cruz-Araneta as chair. They were able to raise funds and restore the two schools where we practically lived our lives. Gene and I are rather lucky because they restored the school buildings that meant so much to us—our memories are intertwined with every nook and corner of these two buildings and the hills around.

Every time we have guests, we proudly point to these two schools and so, while we were in high school at Teachers’ Camp, we went back and forth for the tennis courts. To earn money for a tennis racket, we had to work during summer as ticket girls at the carnival, which meant passing the cross roads very often. Being a putol girl was a very difficult job. Four times a day, I passed through the cross roads. I lived in Jungletown, so I had to cross Pines Hotel to go to the tennis courts which was then at the site of the present-day UP dormitory.

Then, the cross roads as it is now, went in many directions but going up the Pines Hotel (now the site of SM) was the latest one that was made. It was originally a gravel-and-mud road – a side road when the road along Vallejo Hotel was full. For many years, it was a parking space for the cars that went up to Pines Hotel.

Aside from playing tennis, we also worked for the manager of Pines Hotel as tourist guides. For that, we only got candies or sandwiches because we were only college students and not professionals, but we spoke English. It was only under Gus Ressurection that we learned tourist guiding. And even then, I was already busy being a new teacher at BCF. 

In 1932, when we had to go to college at UP Manila, the students from other provinces called us “Igorotas.” We did not mind. We were short, with muscled limbs, and looked different from the provincianas. Our clothes were outdated—our hairdo was patterned after the Ifugao coconut haircut, our complexions were sunburned but with rosy cheeks. Gene was beautiful and stylish but I had a flat nose, splayed and wide feet, and “Ay, apo, kasla kami taga-Ifugao nga napukaw!” But they just looked at us askance because we spoke the best English in the class of our English professor and our PE instructor. Over the years, many were often surprised that while we looked Igorot, we were very good in speaking English, while most of the other students from the Tagalog and Visayas could not speak straight English. We credit our English aptitude to our English teachers in high school. 

It is a pity I stayed only for two years in UP because Gene was able to get a scholarship for me. The damson needed a girl to take up Chemical Engineering. So I left UP and went to Adamson as a working student. That’s when my life changed forever.

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