Northern Connections – The late homecomer


By Waya Araos-Wijangco 

IN May 2021, I had just been discharged from Notre Dame de Chartres Hospital and recovering from a bout of severe Covid-19. I went for a walk every morning around Burnham Lake to get much needed sunshine and exercise. On my first try I barely finished going around the inner lane around the lake and had the hardest time catching my breath. In the coming weeks I regained my strength and was able to get back to work and normal life.

I started living on a more full-time basis in Baguio in early 2021. My husband, Ernie, works in Baguio, and we were separated by the pandemic lockdowns for nine months in 2020. When the restrictions eased in December, I finally took a trip to Baguio to join him. His apartment was on Kisad Road at the time, and we would often take walks in Burnham Park. I’m ashamed to say it, but Burnham Park was glorious during that time. There were hardly any people, and there were many days we had the park to ourselves. On those walks, I prayed for guidance moving forward in these unsettling times, nursed heartaches from losing so many friends during the pandemic and hatched the idea of opening a restaurant in Baguio.

As the pandemic restrictions eased and people started coming back to the park, it gave me great joy to see people biking, boating, and dancing Zumba again. The day kids were finally allowed to come out and play was such an emotional experience. It was like witnessing spring coming after a dark and dreary winter.

  I spent my early childhood and many summers growing up in Baguio. We lived in Queen of Peace Road and Burnham Park was a short walk away and I spent many summer days running around the park with siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles. I have fond memories of the playground, biking and boating, falling in the lake, eating grilled corn, taho and cotton candy.

I got disconnected with Baguio after my grandparents immigrated to the US. Then the earthquake of 1990 happened, then life got in the way.

  I went on a short trip a few years after the earthquake and I was so disappointed with how much Baguio had changed. I told myself I did not want to come back to Baguio anymore – I wanted to preserve the memories of the idyllic Baguio of my youth. The Baguio I found then was too painful to see.

  In the early 2000s, my grandma came back to live in Baguio. She had Alzheimer’s Disease and the family decided she would be better cared for in the PH. She moved back to her house in Queen of Peace and I started going back to Baguio more regularly to visit her. I had my young kids in tow and started showing them bits and pieces of my Baguio, places I loved as a kid growing up. I was panicked over my grandma forgetting everything she knew, so I wanted to make sure we remember for her. Over many visits in a span of 20 years, my family and I grew into Baguio. We developed a community of friends who have become family, discovered new favorite haunts, and created our family traditions here.

  Burnham Park is a 32.84-hectare park designed by, and named after American architect and urban planner Daniel Hudson Burnham, who also designed the original plan for Baguio City. The area occupied by the park was designated by then Governor General Leonard Wood in 1925. The park’s design was influenced by the City Beautiful Movement, a reform philosophy that flourished in the United States in the 1900s with the intent of introducing beautification and  monumental grandeur to cities. Advocates of the philosophy believed that such beautification would promote a harmonious social order, create moral and civic virtue and increase the quality of life in urban populations.

  Having lived in Manila for most of my life, I always get park envy whenever I travel abroad. Parks are such an integral part of city planning in many countries and living near one substantially improves the quality of living of the people in the area. In Manila, people are so starved of free open spaces that whatever little parks we have are crowded with people desperate for fresh air, even if it reeks of pollution and dolomite corruption.

  According to the Baguio Heritage Foundation, the only parts of Burnham Park that still adheres to the original plan are the Melvin Jones Football Field and Grandstand. A lot of the areas were later additions. The park has 12 main areas, the most popular of which are the Burnham Lagoon, a man-made lake with rowboats for hire; a children’s playground; a skating rink; the Rose Garden and the Picnic Grove. 

Management of the park has been passed from the national to the local government through the years. It has been with the local government of Baguio since 1995 but there are still moves in Congress to pass it back to national management. I think that determination of the park should remain with the locals – Burnham is the only free access park in the city and definitive of the Baguio experience. The park should prioritize local life so tourists who visit will have a taste of that, rather than the other way around.

  Central to the “Baguio feel” that people seek out when they come here is the park culture that exists here. There are many public parks that dot the city that allow people a place to enjoy the outdoors, commune with nature and just bask in the cool, balmy weather. The relaxed, easy-going vibe might be the reason why Baguio has become the creative city that it is. The atmosphere is conducive to pursuits of the heart and spirit. 

When I moved to Baguio, I found myself cooking, painting, and writing not just for work but for the sheer joy it brings. A lot of the milestones I marked in Baguio happened around the park: getting better from COVID, hatching a restaurant, planning menus, mourning for a departed friend, and organizing a campaign rally for a candidate I was passionate about.

“Breathe Baguio” is one of the slogans of the City of Baguio. I never paid much attention to it until the pandemic happened. When I came up to Baguio in December 2020, it was a literal breath of fresh air. I did not realize how stifled I had been in Manila and being in Baguio freed up my heart, my spirit, my breath.  In the darkness and despair that the pandemic has wrought on my life, I made my way back by walking around Burnham Park, breathing in the Baguio air, and finding my way home.

 (Chef Waya Araos-Wijangco has been in the F&B Industry for over 20 years working in catering, restaurants and consultancy. Coming from a background in development, she uses her restaurant work as a launchpad for various advocacies: championing better equality for women in the workplace, sustainable restaurant operations, inclusive employment and better relationships with farmers, suppliers and food purveyors. She is currently the Executive Chef of Gypsy Baguio by Chef Waya)

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