The bus was full. Row after row, I passed. Occupied, occupied, occupied.
I saw two empty seats near the end of the bus. A guy on the opposite side of the aisle was busy with his iTouch. I looked around. It was still a sea of unfamiliar faces. I plopped my backpack on one of the seats. Sat down. Put on some music. Turned it off. Looked around again. Waited for the bus to move. Waited for the person everyone else seemed to be waiting for.
He arrived. The bus gave a lurch. We were off. I stifled a smile. It was 7 a.m. and I was fighting the urge to leap to the middle of all the seats, announce my name and the publication I was from, and belt out the same line from the Hairspray-inspired Nescafé three-in-one commercial: “Good morning saaa inyooo!”
I settled for curling up in the seats and using my lumpy backpack as a pillow. Might as well get some shut-eye.
Except some three hours later my bladder was screaming for release. I prayed for the time to go faster. I was not about to ask the driver to stop at a gas station (even the fields outside were looking mighty tempting); nor was I going to make the trip longer for everyone else, who I didn’t even know. I prayed some more, for sleep this time.
After another round of wake-up-and-hear-your-bladder’s-rallying-cry, the tour bus mercifully stopped and I well, went. I rushed. Came back to the bus emanating (I was sure) an aura of pure relief. Then I told the guy next to me that the restrooms were clean so he could go if he wanted. He thanked me and went. I was sure a bond was formed. Plan B was to go up to the nice-looking boy and say, “Hi, I’m Tricia! Let’s be friends!”
More fields rushed by, streams as well. Then we were headed up, up. Look! Fog in the distance! The view can never compare to anything else. Tree-thick mountains sloping steeply down, ringed with thick clusters of white. In the middle of all that, a stomach-lurching drop.
We passed by a statue of a root crop—not as imposing as the lion’s head (formerly all black, and now sporting a reddish-blond mane.
When I was younger I thought it was a gorilla) on Kennon Road, but still, it was a sign of great things to come: namely, ube jam, cold air, and land! We were in the City of Pines!
Destination: Forest Lodge hotel in Camp John Hay. The Manor’s little sister, who was making her debut that day. I trailed behind the other (more senior) travel writer invited to the event and found my seatmate of sorts doing the same.
“Let’s be friends!” I told him, and introduced myself. And just like that, we were. Plan B worked after all.
Traveling alone has its perks. For one, I had a spacious family room all to myself. (Even better, it was free.) Having stayed with my family at The Manor before, I realized that Forest Lodge had amenities that were just as welcoming, and at lower rates too. There was no scrimping on quality, either.
I had a kitchen, a receiving area, a huge bathroom with a spacious walk-in shower (the tiles were freezing to my bare feet) and toiletries, two beds that comfortably fit two adults, and a sofa next to huge windows that looked out into the pines and the clear sky. If I squinted, I could see the Cordilleras behind the greenery. There was a writing desk too, and a big TV, ideal for catching the basketball game between two fierce college rivals that afternoon.
It was going to be a good day. The bed was calling my name, telling me to turn it into my personal trampoline. But I resisted. After all, I was a civilized young woman and it would be such a shame to ruin the perfectly-made sheets.
Lunch was served at The Manor next door, a picturesque path from my hotel leading to the Le Chef restaurant.
(See how it turned out in this related story: http://www.interaksyon.com/lifestyle/thick-fog-decadent-food-and-full-bellies-dining-with-chef-billy-king-in-baguio)
A huge expanse of the well-groomed grounds put the flora in the spotlight, boughs dripping their long leaves above the heads of passersby, colorful buds attracting camera-happy guests (me included), and a waterfall fountain gurgling in the middle of it all.
I was seated with the other bagets, as our older colleagues dubbed us, and a term we bagets don’t use. Another great thing about traveling without anyone you know? You meet people who are more or less in the same boat. You meet new friends who actually help you enjoy your stay even better through fun conversation and a lot of laughs. You discover more, and having done that, you live even more fully.
That night, my dinner consisted of cocktails, Korean noodles, and roast beef. Mostly my newfound friends and I gorged on adrenaline, the rush coming from the great company, the retro disco music, and the endless dancing. The organizers of the launch party liked to call the event “a symphony of sights, sounds, and tastes,” and yes, it was quite the medley of these three, but with none of the formality that comes with a show by the orchestra. We let loose, jumped around, and enjoyed the city outside of the city. We needed no jackets to warm off the chill; the cold was delicious to our heated skin.
Staff and visitors at the Forest Lodge hotel know how to have a good time:
“We all know that the City of Baguio is the summer capital of the Philippines,” said Baguio Mayor Mauricio Domogan, “a city which has been established for people to have a place where they can escape the heat and warmth of the lowlands. Hence, amenities like this being constructed here will definitely contribute to the city’s tourism industry, as well as to the economy of the city of Baguio, and likewise, to the Philippines.”
Mayor Domogan was at the launch to literally give his blessing to the hotel, along with young performers from the University of Baguio, who did a local dance. Here, Performers from the University of Baguio dance at the launch of Forest Lodge hotel:
“People are really upbeat about the country,” said Tito Avanceña, president of Club Leisure, Inc., which manages Forest Lodge, after we had a few rounds of strawberry punch and other such pastel-colored beverages.
He added, “They’re travelling, they’re looking at it, they’re proud of where they came from. I saw a need to fill the needs of the domestic traveler. I would look around and I would see all these places that aren’t expensive but aren’t nice either. This is our attempt to give them something different from the same places where they will pay the same amount of money. But it’s much nicer, right?”
I agreed, of course, because the log cabin-designed hotel, while it was still being retouched on its exterior, was homey and extremely inexpensive, especially as other hotels charge the same for less of the quality.
This was his way of “cultivating and encouraging” the Filipino traveler, and judging from our personal experience, it looks like it’ll work.
Bury yourself beneath the heavy covers, nuzzle against the plump pillows, and revel in the mountain air, of course. Which was exactly what I did the following morning. Breakfast a few flights down at The Twist was at eight, and I kept pressing the snooze button. Still, I was already alert so I just stared out the window and thought of how much I would miss the room, and having it all to myself.
Everyone should have a break like this one. Weekdays are filled with the rush of all you have to do at work, while weekends are packed with get-togethers with friends and family. Sometimes you just have to take a few moments to yourself. Breathe in and out. Relax. Feel giddy at the fact that you’re alive. Do something different. Let down your hair.
Lying there with my limbs all sprawled out, feeling well and young and content, I was glad I’d gone to this trip, whether I knew anyone or not.
Off to shower. I still had the market to go to with my new friends.