The Baguio City Market may be a throwback to another era, but it’s still the heart of the city.
The heart of the concrete city of Baguio is made of wood. It’s a labyrinthine assemblage of interconnected wooden barn-like structures that extended snake-like for entire blocks, weaving around intersections, going up and down hills. It seemed as if the modern incarnation of the city was built to suit the contours of the market rather than the other way around. The buildings are like giant storage sheds, with plank boards and plastic corrugated roofing covering a frame that is all beams and 2X4s. The inside is a maze of little booths and stalls which vendors rent out for around $100 per month and sell, quite literally, everything.
This market is unusual, even in the Philippines. It’s a throwback to another time before the proliferation of concrete. Everything but the plastic roof is made of wood, down from the structure itself to the dividers between the booths to the very tables that the produce and products are displayed on. It’s basically a box of kindling. An errant spark, dumbly discarded cigarette, or cooking accident would send the place up in blazes. There are even old, worn and yellowed “Fire Trap” signs plastered all over the market attesting to this fact. Though this doesn’t seem to have an affect on anyone.
Everybody goes to this market. The rich, the poor, the good, and the bad. The place isn’t just geographically the arterial junction of the city but the social one as well. The sidewalks around the market are filled shoulder to shoulder with people, full capacity being breached on a daily basis with the overflow of pedestrians spilling out into the streets. Though there are modern shopping malls nearby, but they come off as mere commercial supplements, as the real heart of commerce is still within the old alleyways of the old market.
The reason for this is simple: it’s where everybody and everything meets. The Baguio City Market is the traditional meeting point for goods from the highlands and those from the lowlands. The city itself is an old market town, positioned right at the cusp of two geographic realms of Luzon. The things that you can get here are likewise a mix from all around the region, and so are the people.
As I walked through the narrow aisles looking into the little booths and making small talk with the vendors I noticed a middle aged man massacring the head of a young woman. She was sitting before him behind a table full of greens. She was a vendor, clad in an apron, and was staring intently ahead — apparently enjoying the cranial disfiguring. The man doing it seemed to have two moves: skull skin pinch and skull thump.
“What are you doing to her?” I asked in feigned horror.
“Massage,” he answered simply with a laugh. “I am a physical therapist.”
He then reached out his hand for me to shake and told me that his name was Daniel. “Like the profit, that’s how you can remember it.”
Each day he wanders around the Baguio City Market looking for vendors who require his services. He moves from booth to booth, going from the cabbage lady to the woman with the tomatoes to the guy peddling pig pieces. For 50 pesos his clients receive a massage and a complementary sermon — the masseuse seems to also be a grassroots preacher. He said that he has a steady clientele now, and has a comfortable little round that he does daily. He’s been doing this for over a decade.
“Do you like your work?” I asked as the began karate chopping the girl’s shoulders.
“I am happy, but I have to be because there are really no other options,” he replied with a laugh.
He told me right off that he was Christian, and that he came from Mindanao in the south of the country. He said he had to leave his village because of violence. “To get away from people, maybe you would say are like ISIS.”
Mindanao is the home base of most of the Philippine’s Muslim population, and a civil war has been flaring there for decades.
Daniel said being a Christian there became too dangerous, so he moved his six kid family across the country to Baguio 12 years ago.
“It is very nice here, very safe.”
I tried to get him to talk more about the situation he fled in Mindanao and about the tribulations of relocating to a place far, far from where he was from, but, like many people who grew up in a place where conflict and violence was simply a part of daily life, he didn’t seem to think what he experienced was anything special. He spoke with the overt matter-of-factness of the refugee. “Things were bad there, so I left.” [Shrug. End of story.]
Daniel’s line of work was not uncommon in the market. As I walked through its narrow alleys looking into the various booths I noticed other people doing massages and various types of grooming. I stopped and gazed with intrigue at a woman whose job it apparently was to clip people’s toenails. She was doing up the toenails of a client as I watched. She had her foot propped up on a sack of onions. Boney shrapnel soaring all over the produce.