In the first year of my retirement, following a heart attack and saddled with a ‘terminal’ blood condition, I decided to leave the comfort of small town New Zealand and visit my son in Baguio, up in the Cordillera Mountains of Luzon.
My plan was to experiment with expat life in the Philippines, to see how it stacked up as a possible place to live. Friends in New Zealand thought I was a little bit crazy and very courageous, I think.
I had first visited Baguio back in the 90s when I was living in Hong Kong. I’d been impressed by its quiet, sleepy atmosphere and cooler climes — it’s at least 10 degrees cooler than the lowlands due to its altitude.
Back in those days, of course, Clark Airbase was still home to thousands of American military personnel. These days the airbase is Clark International Airport, and that’s where I was met by my son and his partner. Nearby is Angeles City, also know as the “City of Angels” because even without the lonely servicemen around, it’s still the largest red light district in Asia.
I had struck up a conversation with a Cathay Pacific pilot in the queue at Hong Kong Airport. He was going to Angeles to meet his uncle who had flown out from London. He very kindly helped me retrieve my heavy suitcase off the belt asked if our driver could drop him at the Holiday Inn. We obliged and had a great time before departing for Baguio. We laughed for nearly two hours. A great introduction to the Philippines after two solid days of travel.
The previous day I’d left my home in Masterton at 2am before arriving at Wellington Airport at 4.30am. I then flew via Sydney to Hong Kong where I spent the night at the Regal Meridien Airport Hotel. I had dinner that night with my son’s ex-boss and also met my ex-husband, who asked me to ferry some food and goodies to the Philippines, along with some treats for our grandchildren back in New Zealand. Then, it was bed at midnight and up at 4am to catch the short flight to Clark. I sat beside a Filipina maid who was returning home, much to her relief, after 20 years working in Hong Kong.
I was struck by the traffic
We arrived in Baguio, from Angeles, after 5pm having driven up a winding road from sea level to 5,200ft. The first thing that struck me, unlike my first visit in the 90s, were the car fumes and terrible traffic in the city. This slowed our journey to the gated community of Monterazzas, in a suburb called Tuding, which was to be my home for the next month.
My son and partner had found a very large house for ‘transients’, as tourists are called up in Baguio, which was very comfortable. We had a floor each with living space and kitchen on the ground floor. Fortunately my son and partner looked after finding transport, usually in the form of a taxi which averaged about 100 pesos ($2.50) per trip or, occasionally, a jeepney for about 30.
In Tuding I was faced, for the first time in my life, with the task of having to buy water both for consumption and for showering and washing. Apparently, a Canadian charity had opened two wells up in the mountains which would have served the whole suburb, but the council decided to bung them up as it would take jobs from water truck companies. These trucks were frequently unreliable, especially in the summer, and sometimes people had to go for weeks without any water whatsoever.
The hubs of the neighbourhood were the sari sari stores, a bit like a corner dairy in New Zealand, where one could buy daily supplies. The one near my son’s house had a small courtyard where a group of women, including me, ended up singing one afternoon. One of them had a beautiful voice and played a guitar very well. She and I did harmonies and even sang Po Karekare Ana, which went down a treat. I had not experienced that spontaneous type of singing since I was a teenager in New Zealand.
My favourite areas of Baguio
My favourite areas of Baguio were Burnham Park, which features a lake and paddle boats. Also, the orchidarium which is busting with lovely healthy plants to buy. We visited The Manor at Camp John Hay, which is a swanky hotel near the Baguio Country club. We went for an evening drink and had an excellent cheese platter washed down with margaritas and beer during happy hour. It is a beautiful environment and we were there at Easter time. The night garden was lit in a way which highlighted a display of Easter eggs and bunnies. A walk through the garden was well worthwhile.
Another visit to the Country Club occurred on the following Sunday. Our group arrived at 11am for lunch which offered a superb spread of western fare, Japanese food, and all the other types of food that seemed to be unavailable elsewhere in the area.
Otherwise, the food we ate outside the house was at cafés, which included Volante, right in the heart of tourist country on the edge of the city. Opposite the café were many horses, some with pink-dyed manes, which the locals like to ride as a weekend pastime.
Up at Minesview, which boasted a spectacular view of a valley where goldmines are in operation, there were also opportunities to sit atop a horse with a pink mane and get photographed. One could also dress up in the local garb for a photo opportunity. Well someone has to do it, so I did. Sadly, these photos are now lost.
The many tourist shops in the area featured fabulous local carvings and attractive woven wall hangings and cushions, all available at rock bottom prices. Baguio is a centre of talented craftsmen and women and has a large and talented artists colony.
In spite of the traffic problem in the city, the mountain views are spectacular. Baguio is nestled among some of the most spectacular mountain ranges I have ever seen. The Cordilleras are very steep-sided and many of the houses cling to quite sheer slopes.
Baguio experienced a devastating earthquake in the 90s from which it has recovered admirably.
A move to the beach
Towards the end of my first month a decision was made for us all to move to the beach, so we found a house in Leo Mar resort in Bauang, near San Fernando, looking out over the South China Sea.
The downside for me was the extreme heat after the cooler climes of Baguio, but I could cool off in the lukewarm sea. Mostly, I languished in my air-conditioned bedroom for my sanity. I’m still building up a wardrobe of the coolest clothes I can ready for the summer heat and typhoon season.
Otherwise, the resort has all mod cons and some very friendly locals who love to play bingo, cards and share a few drinks. The sunsets are spectacular.
So, my initial impressions of the Philippines? The locals are very friendly, everything is very cheap. I can see opportunities to invest in business and to teach here. I have extended my stay to help set up a business and to see whether I want to live here permanently.
Much to my amusement, older people with serious health conditions are welcome to stay in the Philippines because they spend money in the health system. I certainly qualify on that score.
So, who knows. I may end up living here for the rest of my life. The expat experiment continues.