Instead of touring Philippines like a regular tourist, I decided to plan a trip to the Philippines as a way to learn more about my Dad. As a Filipino-American in Colorado, I wanted to commemorate my father’s memories, who passed away more than ten years ago.
My father, Victor Herreria, Jr., was born, and raised in Baguio, also known as the city of pines. In higher elevation, the city sits 5,000 feet above sea level, making it cool, and bearable during the hot, humid months in the Philippines. It is also known as the summer capital of the island country. I felt like I left the mile-high city of Denver to the almost mile-high city of Baguio.
To understand my father’s upbringings as an orphaned child, I felt the northern metropolis city would be a great starting point in retracing important events of his life before he immigrated to the United States. Three major events of his life include his college years, the pivotal moment of deciding between joining the US Navy or the Philippine Military Academy, and the honeymoon that started at Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in the heart of Baguio City.
It isn’t a typical vacation. It’s not a beach vacation. It’s not an eco-adventure vacation. It’s a vacation of learning about my Filipino heritage, and hopefully discover more about my father.
Saint Louis University
First stop is Saint Louis University, considered the largest university north of Manila. It’s not a tourist attraction but gives visitors an understanding of how education is highly valued in the Philippines, a path for those wanting to move ahead in life. As an engineering major on a full scholarship, it was clear to me he enjoyed math. Under the guidance of my mother’s cousin who everyone calls Honey, we took a jeepney ride to the campus.
The university is the largest educational institutions north of Manila, capital city of the Philippines. As I walked through the campus, with a student population of 30,000, I tried to imagine college life when my father attended the university during the 1960s. Just wandering through the hallways, I found the engineering, and architecture school, the largest one in Saint Louis University. A smaller prototype of the buildings was sitting inside the first-floor lobby. By happenstance, I found the admissions office. I inquired about my father’s attendance.
The lady at the admission table took 15 minutes to find my father’s school records, complete with grades from an old, dilapidated, filing cabinet. I was completely stunned how easily she found the school records. She informed me in a matter-of-fact demeanor that she could not release his records to me because he still had unpaid tuition.
When the admission clerk found out my father passed away several years ago, she crinkled her face into a frown. Generally, Filipinos are superstitious, scared of dealing with death, and bad luck. I did not want to make the interaction awkward but I told her it was a way to remember my day with great memories. She waved me off in a good way, and assured me I was a good daughter. Maybe I needed to hear her say those words, even from a stranger.
Thirty years later, I paid my father’s remaining tuition of $40. Rather than releasing the records to me, I requested his grades be mailed to my mom in California. I also did not reveal this to my mom, in the hopes to surprise her.
To take an emotional break from the morning activities, I needed some retail therapy. Honey, and I headed to the largest swap meet in Baguio — Baguio City Public Market.
Baguio City Public Market
The market contained a wet, and dry market. In the wet market, fresh fish, chicken, beef,, and pork are found in this section. Before I could even find it, the stench, and saltiness of the sea hit my nose immediately, making me cover half my face. Honey confirmed it by saying, “Yep, we’re at the market but everything is fresh.”
Crowded with wall-to-wall people, the dry market, in the middle of Baguio, is overwhelming for anyone who is not used to walking in cramped space. Most store kiosks are packed with old-fashioned baskets, hand-woven blankets, table cloths made of pineapple fibers,, and the market is filled with delightful souvenirs to bring back home. Don’t settle for the barrel man as a souvenir, a wooden man who covers his body with a barrel but once you lift it up, a private part pops up – ideal for potty humor but not really appropriate for a solo woman traveler.
Philippine Military Academy
After lunch at the wet market which included fried fish cooked to order, and steaming, white rice, we headed to the Philippines Military Academy. Honey shared the Philippines Military Academy offered him placement at the school but before a decision could be final, the U.S. Navy accepted his application. Without hesitation, and before finishing college, Daddy headed to the U.S. Navy. I still wanted to check out the Philippine Military Academy. The U.S. Navy allowed my father to apply for citizenship, his boyhood dream.
Taking one of the many jeepneys, a left-over replica from World War II, is like taking a wild ride through the city. Costing one centavo (Filipino currency equivalent to a nickel in USD), the driver took us to the front gates of the Philippine Military Academy, country’s leading, military, learning institution. The red, green, yellow, striped jeepney weaved in, and out of the congested traffic, then up a hill filled with tall, green trees. A military drill was occurring at the same time, so we got to watch a group of men, practicing their march in full uniform regalia throughout the campus.
Just walking through the grounds, I could smell the pine needles, a familiar scent around Christmas time, one of my father’s favorite holidays in the year. As you climb the hills of Baguio, pine trees are all over the city, growing wildly. It also felt fresh, clean, and cool, just driving around the country side, away from the city.
Nestled beyond the entrance of the white buildings are various weapons displayed on the lawn. Most of the out-of-commissioned weapons show a walking history of artillery used during World War II. For younger visitors, a huge treehouse sits in the middle of the yard to show visitors how look-out points are used during military occupation.
With a full day, we decided to visit the grotto my parents paid homage during their honeymoon the next day. It’s good to start the morning at this religious shrine. Located on top of a huge, daunting staircase, climbing the steps represent penance and prayer for those devoted to the Catholic faith. Even the locals recommend visiting the shrine during the mornings so you don’t have to worry about cloud cover or the hot sun.
Weather is fickle in Baguio, even during the summer time. It could rain and last for a few seconds or a thunderstorm can come in viciously and last for hours. During the early morning, a cool breeze help with the humidity.
The historic grotto provides a space to reflect on daily life as devotees walk to the top of the hill. Traditionally, new couples visit this religious shrine as way to ask for blessing on their marriage and life together. Throughout her younger years, mom was devoted to Our Lady of Lourdes, so it felt natural for them to start their new life at this beautiful shrine. It is one of the many sites built to commemorate the visions of the Virgin Mary by a 14-year-old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous.
My parents visited the shrine in 1966. Years later, the shrine is well maintained, and one of the most visited attractions in Baguio. At the top, burning candles are set up on each side of the shrine. During peak time, there’s a long line of visitors hoping to capture a photo in front of the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto.
Of course, I could not resist, and took out my camera to photograph the moment. I felt accomplished yet nostalgic that I walked the same places my father made earth-shattering decisions about his life, and the path he took in moving to California. He also told me he would always return to Baguio. Now, I understood what he meant by that when I say, I could feel, and sense him all over Baguio, the city of Pines.
Saint Louis University: http://www.slu.edu.ph
Baguio City Market: http://www.cityofpines.com/publicmarket.html
Philippine Military Academy: http://www.pma.ph/
Lourdes Grotto: http://www.cityofpines.com/lourdesgrotto.html