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Tales from a hill station

Tales from a hill station

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Tales from a hill station

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Dec 19, 2013


The essays in this collection are a selection of some of articles I wrote for various columns, with a few pieces from my blog, thereforeiam-kma.blogspot.com, and are a narration of my experiences as a resident of Baguio and an expression of my views on art, culture, politics and life in general in the new millennium in what was once known as the most beautiful hill station in Asia.

Dec 19, 2013

Sobre el autor

Born on September 20, 1973 to photographer Charles Altomonte and actress Gigi Duenas. Actor, director, composer, writer, photographer, filmmaker and father of 5. Currently lives in Baguio.

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Tales from a hill station - Karlo Marko Altomonte



I am storyteller. I tell stories on stage, in photographs, film, music, and the stories on this book are ones I told on print.

In mid-2002, the late Santiago Bose along with some other friends, after his resignation from the Baguio Arts Guild, attempted to put up a new artist collective called Fish Eye Art Projects. But before we could get started on the group’s first project, Bose passed away on December 3 later that year. But not before we were invited to write a column for the now defunct Skyland News.

The title of our column was Fish Eye, and the members alternated in writing for the weekly paper. When Bose died, some of the other members stopped submitting articles but I continued to do so.

Some couple of years after Skyland News’ closure, in 2008, I was again invited by Pigeon Lobien, to write a column for Cordillera Today. I called it Session Road Blues after a performance-art piece that I never got to get on stage. When that piece almost got a jumpstart 2009, I the reclaimed that title and renamed the column Out in the Open.

The essays in this collection are a selection of some of those articles I wrote for those columns, with a few pieces from my blog, thereforeiam-kma.blogspot.com, and are a narration of my experiences as a resident of Baguio and an expression of my views on art, culture, politics and life in general in the new millennium in what was once known as the most beautiful hill station in Asia.

May 26, 2008

Make a u-turn or straight ahead

A sign next to the Magsaysay flyover says, To Baguio: Make a U-turn, Go To Trancoville Junction, Make Another U-turn, Proceed To Flyover Ramp.

There are signs everywhere. Up on the sidewalks, on doors, motor vehicles: on windshields or bumpers, on paper or tarpaulin, on billboards: in neon, in color, or in black and white.

You’ve got nationwidest coverage? Sure. You‘ve got it all for me? Ok. Katas ng Saudi? Noted. Will I be there? I’m done with school, but thanks for the invitation. Kailangan pa bang i-memorize ‘yan? You’re right, no need to, and I’d have forgotten it had you not kept on reminding me all day that there’s no need to commit the crap you heap on my helpless ears all day to memory.

Sure, the stuffy central business district, with its roads filled with smoke-belching motor vehicles, its sidewalks crammed with people spitting, pissing, throwing up, loitering, littering and not minding whose toes they step on or shoulders they bump into, its once picturesque skyline now obliterated by giant commercial billboards screaming into our faces to buy this, switch to that, eat here, get drunk there, may be signs of a developed city, but from a different angle, these may be signs of a city painted all over with greed and shamelessness – a portrait of an abused city.

Perhaps the ever growing bank account of the city is a sign of progress. But what kind of future does the city face with it and is it worth it? The signs that say Don’t Be A Scofflaw, put up by a corporation with a legally questionable contract with the city government that was found to be illegally occupying public property and usurping the powers of several government entities, can still be seen all over the city. There are still signs proclaiming the city to be the cleanest and greenest in the country, next to piles of uncollected garbage. There are no parking signs next to parked cars, no loading and unloading signs next to jeepneys picking up and dropping off passengers.

What’s a row of bars in front of an elementary school a sign of? What’s a row of sleazy establishments near the city hall a sign of? What’s a police car passing through a red light a sign of? What’s the sight of elderly locals with baskets of vegetables and fruits being chased by government personnel in our streets where legitimate shops selling illegal merchandise thrive a sign of? What’s the plan to provide elected officials with brand new cars while the same elected officials often cite the lack of money as the reason behind the failure of the city government to efficiently deliver public service a sign of?

I’ve said it before, walking down Session Road, one only has to stop and look at the signs to know where the city has been, where it is, and where it’s going.

The sign may say, To Baguio: Make a U-turn, Go To Trancoville Junction, Make Another U-turn, Proceed To Flyover Ramp, or we can simply say, Straight Ahead.

Or maybe the sign could’ve stopped at, Make A U-turn. Looking at where Baguio is today, that makes sense.

March 14, 2008

Panagbenga - keeping it simple, yet meaningful

In ’97 we were there, a small bunch of artists, a couple of benches, a box-full of tapuey and an ice chest-full of sodas, a basket full of tuna and chicken sandwiches, and several hand drums. We positioned ourselves somewhere near the post office steps – next to us were other artists with their hand-painted shirts and prints and paper beads – we don’t remember having to pay tens of thousands of pesos to sit around all day banging our drums and sharing sandwiches and good tapuey with both familiar faces and friendly strangers.

Then, no, we didn’t have to wake up before sunrise to set up our sandwich stand, which was actually just an excuse to have a place where kindred souls can gather and celebrate life in Baguio, there was no hurry nor jostling for prime spots along Session Road: anywhere on the road was a prime spot. And when we found our spot taken over by another group the next day, we only had to move a few meters down from where we were the day before: a small price to pay for enjoying the tapuey a bit too much the day before and waking up late the next morning.

Then, those who participated in Panagbenga’s Session Road in Bloom seemed a lot, but still leaving enough space for people to walk up or down the road without having to squeeze themselves in between other people and merchants and merchandise. There was enough space for Session Road to breathe, and people cared enough not to abuse the plants on the island in the middle of the road. Then, it seemed to be truly in bloom.

Then, we didn’t earn that much money. In fact, we didn’t earn any. That’s ok, we danced and laughed a lot for a few days, and that’s priceless. And after having too much fun and much too little money by the third day, we decided that the rest of the tuna and chicken sandwiches would be the food at our tables at home for the rest of the week. Fry the tuna spread and it’s a mean tortang oriles. But we didn’t stop going to Session Road the rest of the week – there was always some space somewhere where we can lay our mats and play our drums.

And today, so what if one makes millions cramming as many commercial stalls as if there’s no tomorrow along Session Road, when you have as many people hating the experience? Why sacrifice the integrity of what was supposed to be a beautiful and sincere community effort by allowing the pretty costumes to be blighted with corporate logos and slogans just for a little extra money? Who wouldn’t hate hearing commercial jingles during a parade instead of the music that come from the hearts of the people of Baguio?

Back then, I guess the organizers didn’t make as much money from the flower festival, but it was those first few festivals, the ones free from crass commercialism, the ones free from too much politics and misplaced egos, the ones that had the spirit of Baguio painted on every smiling face, those were the ones that made the Baguio Flower Festival live in the hearts of people from all over the country and the rest of the world.

Surrendering and being slaves to crass commercialism may bring in millions of pesos in revenues, but leave a community with nothing but an empty experience. Keeping it simple yet meaningful and leaving a community and its visitors with an awe-inspiring unforgettable experience, now that’s something money can’t buy.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Under the stars

Four weeks, one concert, a couple of public screenings, three performances of two musicals in three different venues. We're coming from providing technical direction to the Panagbenga spectacle that was the Phantom on the Lake, followed by screenings of our documentary on Baguio, Portrait of a Hill Station, and a concert featuring original songs about Baguio. Soon after the last hotdog and corn was sold and the last complimentary cigarette lighter was handed out during Session Road in Bloom, we began putting together two musicals, one of which was the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice classic, Jesus Christ Superstar.

Our mayor, Peter Rey Bautista, encouraged by the response to the Phantom performance at the lake, requested that we perform our production of Webber's rock opera for the community during the Holy Week. The original idea was to perform it on the stage built in middle of the lake, but after finding out that was already removed we suggested that we instead put it up at the Baguio Convention Center and Rose Garden for technical and aesthetic reasons: The BCC for the convenience of a roof in case the rains come on Good Friday (which it did), and the steps that lead from behind the bust of Daniel Burnham towards the lake provides an amphitheater-like feel, surrounded by trees and pocket gardens filled with roses, and it's been our group's dream to perform there.

The cast and staff of about 70 people met for a production meeting which was soon followed by daily (and nightly) rehearsals at the Baguio Convention Center. There were Open Space's resident artists, a hip-hop dance group called Baguio Amplified in their theatrical debut and the AVP ensemble, an informal group of musicians and singers, vocalising, arranging, blocking, choreographing... giving life to the written text. Behind the scenes, other members of the group were all over town with the City Mayor's Office's endorsement letter requesting the support of some friends in the private sector.

The first to respond was Dr. Reynaldo C. Bautista, Sr. of the Rural Bank of Itogon, one of our group's ardent supporters. If we had any doubts at all if the production will really push through due to sponsorship concerns, those doubts were erased as soon as RBI threw its support behind the endeavor. Smart Communications' pledge soon followed, and we knew at that point that there was really no turning back anymore. The next thing we knew, we had Victory Liner's, The Manor's and the University of Baguio's logos on our posters. Later, Beneco pledged its support too and Alabanza Meat Store sent food our way during our second performance.

The reason for the group's enthusiasm for this production is that it proved that given the government's endorsement, the support of the private sector is sure to follow, enabling us to stage free cultural presentations making the arts more accessible to the community.

This while providing a venue for our local artists to express themselves. This while being able to present great stories that present relevant social issues. This while perhaps reinforcing an alternative reason for tourists to come up to Baguio: its arts and culture scene.

During the second performance at the Rose Garden, on the grassy area on either side of the steps, families laid out mats while the children ran around waiting for the performance to begin. The steps began to fill with both locals and tourists wondering what the stage, lights and sound equipment set-up were all about.

Even the ambulant vendors set their wares aside for a night at the theater: under the stars and out in the open. And both the performers and our supporters agreed: let's have more of this.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

This was Session Road in bloom

I kept on saying it over and over that morning, and I'll say it again here now: last Wednesday, April 22, 2009, also known as Earth Day, was truly Session Road in bloom.

I was even feeling a bit guilty that morning that we had to drive to town, but having three energetic kids in tow does not make for an easy commute from where we live to downtown Baguio. So off we went, I dropped the whole family off at the top of Session Road and parked at the mall where I had to do some errands. Half an hour later, I joined them.

Walking down from the mall and still a good distance away from Session Road, and there was already a different feel to the area. Session Road sounded different – without the sound of car engines, you hear the laughter of the people more, the sighs, a man clears his throat, a blind man playing a tune on his battery-powered electronic keyboard.

I entered Session Road, a quick glance at the hideous concrete pine tree, and looked for my family - and there were my children on all fours telling their stories with colored chalks. My eldest son Leon spelled out the word EARTH in various colors and forms while my youngest Aeneas drew what looked like tree-lined road. My daughter Gabriela tried to draw earth, but as she tried to add more bright colors to her work it started to look more like a sun bursting with colors. In the end what she had was a simple kaleidoscopic orb.

People smiled, said hello, people were happy. It wasn’t a sunny morning, in fact it was quite overcast. But the feeling, yes Session Road felt so different that morning, was warm, it was nice. Baguio, on that gloomy Wednesday morning, felt like Baguio again. There was a different sense - a sense of community, something that seems to have been missing in recent years. Something that was totally missing the last time they closed down Session Road to traffic.

What is it with wide open spaces that our honorable (for surely, these are honorable men, and women) powers that be just can’t seem to stand it that they just have to mess it up. Last month they closed down Session Road for a whole week of crass commercialism, it was insane. And some have even claimed that this was among the best Baguio Flower Festival celebrations ever. Sorry but I just don’t see why anyone can be proud of being responsible for the rape of Session Road, or Baguio for that matter. For a whole week last month Session Road was a picture of greed, of senseless materialism, it was an orgy! For a whole week people squeezed in between other people and commercial stalls, shouted over loud speakers asking them to buy this and that not knowing, or caring, that for every item sold a piece of the city’s soul was sold with it.

And at the end of the day, this was how they measured the success of this year’s Panagbenga: how much money the city, and some people, earned. None of them cared how much of the city’s soul was lost. But that’s the thing about abstract concepts such as a city’s soul – you can’t put a tag price in pesos on it, and the honorables just don't get it.

It's not about power, remember? It's not just about money, right? And then there was that Wednesday morning on Session Road: both children and grown-ups down on their knees making known their hopes and dreams for Mother Earth, for the environment, for Baguio; last Wednesday, it felt like we were once again one community, working together to make the world a better place. That, dear honorables, that's what it's all about.

And then the heavens acknowledged a community’s prayers and let down the rains, and the colors and stories on the pavements merged and became one. Last Wednesday, Session Road looked, smelled, sounded, felt different. Again, without the madness, without the pollution and noise, Session Road was truly in bloom.

In the afternoon they let the cars in again. They gave that orgy known as Session Road in Bloom one whole week, and they couldn’t make that beautiful Wednesday last even just whole day.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Maybe this, is

I learned of some of the reactions regarding my article, This was Session Road in Bloom (April 26, 2009). Initially glad to learn that there were people who actually read my column (an artist always appreciate an audience, receptive or otherwise), it was also depressing to learn that a lot of them missed the point.

No, it was not necessarily a critique of the people behind Panagbenga’s Session Road in Bloom, but of the event itself and the concept behind it. For me, no matter who takes charge of that annual rape of Session Road, it would remain what it is for me: rape. Because of the adverse reactions to the article, I asked a few friends, some of whom were actually directly involved in that week-long event: did you actually enjoy Session Road in Bloom? Did you actually feel good about yourself and for Baguio itself walking down that road amidst the chaos and noise and, particularly at night towards the end of the day, filth? I'm sure you can already imagine most of the responses.

I was asked why I was attacking Session Road in Bloom when I myself was a part of it (our group performed and had a public screening of Portrait of a Hill Station, our documentary on the history of Baguio). We were invited to perform at the main stage of Session Road in Bloom, and we are very happy and honored to have been invited at all. Grateful, we truly are, and we thank the people behind Session Road in Bloom for the wonderful opportunity to tell the people of the history of Baguio and sing songs with lyrics such as Kabunyan kami’y dinggin, kalikasan ay i-adya sa lahat ng masama; Sino ba’ng nagmamayari ng lupang ‘to, ano ba’ng tama kasaysayan o titulo?; Ang mithiin ng Baguio isapuso mo, right there at the top of Session Road.

Consider the tentative schedule of events that was published ahead of the festival: 29 scheduled minor events, 19 of which were to be held in one mall, 10 pop concerts, a beauty pageant and a fashion show, a couple of promotional tours by television networks engaged in a ratings war who relentlessly elbowed each other out for better positioning the whole festival, you get the drift. Oh, and ahhh, a Pony Boys’ Day. Panagbenga is a Baguio festival, a good idea to begin with, and like most festivals around the country, you would think that it would highlight and celebrate the beauty of and the many other things that this city can be proud of. 

And that Earth Day morning? That was a celebration of what Baguio is all about, that was something the city could be proud of. No rush, no filth, no noise, just children drawing, just people smiling, just the city heaving a sigh of relief. I also asked some people how they felt on that cool Baguio morning, you can already imagine all of their responses. 

As I said, that previous article was not exactly a critique of the people behind this year’s Panagbenga. Maybe this, is: 

And one night, a big night, Baguio artists played supporting roles in a musical performed on the lake which served as a front-act to La Diva, promoted by festival organizers as the country’s version of the pop group Destiny’s Child. Our group provided stage management support to that musical, and while we were packing up boxes and boxes of props and costumes, preparing huge set pieces for transport after the show, we were being harangued by both festival staff and security guards to quickly get out of the way because the La Divas were coming. And while festival staff sternly informed us ahead of the performance that there are no meals allocated for the unpaid stage management group during rehearsals, and no, they can’t provide a couple of hundred pesos worth of candles that could have added much to the musical’s aesthetic value, and no they can’t provide us with a few extra plastic monoblock chairs for the cast and choir to sit on backstage, and no they can’t provide a few extra personnel for the production that it badly needed, by the end of La Diva’s performance, there were suddenly throngs of Panagbenga personnel and security guards cordoning off the way from the stage all the way to Lake Drive for the three pop stars to make their way to their vehicle safely and comfortably.

Yeah, I think this one is…. a critique of the way the people behind Panagbenga discriminates against local artists in favor of big names. Yes, this is a critique of the executives of Panagbenga and their utter lack of cultural sensitivity, sense of history, of taste, really.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Candy, anyone?

Candy’s remarks left a bitter taste, pun intended. That’s Candy Pangilinan, TV, film and stage actress. Since they say that in showbiz, you’re only as good as your last performance, I am not inclined to call her a comedienne right now, her recent faux pas at a performance in SM City Baguio was not funny at all.

Tao po ako, hindi po ako Igorot, a blog entry said that was posted, and linked to, all over the internet, particularly Facebook and Multiply.com. And the reactions, as expected, were vicious: She’s dead meat next time she comes to Baguio; There will be no next time, she will be persona non-grata; …a comedienne with little or no talent; boycott anything she’s involved in; just to quote a few. There are even nastier unprintable ones. And perhaps she deserved every single one of those tirades that came from, among others, the very descendants of the first families who lived in these mountains, of that man who fought the most powerful government in the world in court (and won), Igorots who’ve risen above stereotypes and have contributed so much more to the country that Ms. Pangilinan can never, ever, equal. 

I’ve seen her teary apology on TV and heard her explanation, accepted by others, rejected by some. But, though what she said is in itself a major blunder, I believe her other mistake is uttering those words in public, with a microphone, in the presence of Igorots. Because, really, most of us would never say to a child who wants to play out in the streets, sige ka, kukunin ka ng Bumbay, in front of an Indian man. Nor would we laugh in the face of a pirated DVD vendor when he offers us dibide-dibide. Ok, we’ve heard some of us utter unkind remarks about Koreans in the presence of Koreans, but that’s only when and because we know they can’t understand Tagalog or Ilokano.

Perhaps this incident brings to the fore, aside from the ugly face of racism, the fact that centuries after the Spanish colonization attempted to make this archipelago one nation, tribalism, at times defined as the possession of a strong cultural or ethnic identity that separates oneself as a member of one group from the members of another (Wikipedia.org), exists and continues to define the way some of us view ourselves as a people. While we’re all Filipinos, for a lot of us we’re Igorot or Bisaya or Aeta or Kampampangan or Ilokano or Maranao , etc., first. Not that that’s essentially wrong: it is good when it forges unity among a group of people, but not when it separates us from others. It is good to belong: to a family, a clan, a tribe, a region, a nation. It’s not good when, as Filipinos, we separate ourselves from others because we come from a different region, or ethnic group, or whatever social divide we think up.

In Baguio alone, there are several groups that exist and at times divide us as a community: taga-Benguet, taga-Kailnga, taga-Ifugao, taga-Bontoc, Ilokano, taga-Pangasinan, Muslim, taga-baba, taga-Manila, Koreano, Amerikano, Australiano. How many Rotary, Soroptimist, Lions, etc., clubs are there in

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