CASA BLANCA by Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo
The unseasonably cool nights we had for a couple of weeks reminded me of my favorite mountain town. So I reread this piece which I wrote about a year ago for a friend who is including it in this book he’s editing, and decided to post it here. (Details can’t be revealed yet because the project is supposed to be a kind of surprise .)
For most people, “Casablanca” is the title of the classic film from the ‘40s, set in Morocco, directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart and Paul Henreid. For me, however, it is the name of a hotel, which was where our family lived whenever our father took us to Baguio City.This was in the ‘50s. And, as everyone knows, that Baguio is gone forever. However it isn’t totally gone. It lives on in memories of people like myself. As does the hotel named Casablanca.
At the top of Session Road, the road forked left and entered what used to be Camp John Hay’s main gate; and forked right into Loakan Road, where Nevada Square now stands. As I remember it, the Casablanca stood right there on the corner – a white house, two stories tall.
It was some distance from the road, so there was plenty of space for cars to park in, and for kids to play in. There were trees that provided shade, and flowers spilling from little terraces or flower beds, which were protected by low walls constructed from the multi-colored stones that Baguio was famous for.
My father liked going to Baguio in November, which may be why I have no memory of other guests staying in the hotel. (But I could be wrong about this.) We were always given the same room on the second floor: a family room, with five beds, separated by a curtain from a smaller room with a single bed. The curtain was in the same plaid as the curtains on the window, and, I think, the bedcovers. Beyond the small room was a kitchenette and a toilet and bath. Papa, Mama, and the three of us slept in the family room, and Boy’s yaya slept in the small room.
Some parts of the hotel were off limits to guests, because they were occupied by the family which owned the place – the Joaquin family – like the living room, which had a carpet, and a big fireplace with a large painting above it. I had never been in a house which had a fireplace and a carpet, and was quite in awe of this room.
I remember Mr. Joaquin as a distinguished-looking, courteous gentleman; and Mrs. Joaquin as a beautiful, elegant lady with a sweet smile and an unfailingly gracious manner. There were five children, whose names I still know today. The three older ones – Pat and Terry and Bud – were good-looking and glamorous. They seemed to have a lot of friends, who dashed up and down the stairs, laughed a lot, and held dancing parties in the basement that lasted long into the night. The youngest girl, Mary Ann, was still in school, and wore a bulky white sweater over her school uniform. And the younger boy, Sonny, used to romp about with the large family dog.
But Casablanca was just one part of the magic that was Baguio in that lost time.
I was only eight years old when I was first taken to Baguio. We went up by car, and and my kid sister, Ting, and I felt that we would never get there. The flat rice fields, which in my Geography book were called the “Central Plain,” seemed endless. My brother, Boy, who must have been only two, simply went to sleep on his yaya’s lap. But I couldn’t follow suit, because the car kept having to stop for Ting to throw up by the roadside.
The “Zig Zag Road” was an altogether different experience. Not only was it traversing terrain that was most definitely not flat, but it also appeared to be climbing a mountain – possibly several mountains – and doing so with great difficulty and at enormous risk.
Our mother was torn between gasps of admiration and exclamations of alarm. The road twisted past old trees, squeezed between enormous boulders, perched above rivers and ravines. Here and there we came upon a small waterfall tumbling down from the mountain slope into the roadside. And sometimes the road became so narrow, and bent so sharply that it was not possible for our father to see whether there was any vehicle coming toward us. Then we had to stop until the vehicle did pass us, and we were waved on by a man standing on the road, communicating with someone else through what was then called a walkie-talkie.
But all around us were wonders that we children were beholding for the first time: astonishing rock formations, trees perched at the very edge of a cliff, their branches dripping with tangled vines, enormous flowers, rainbow-winged butterflies, cascades and precipices. And, strangely, I have no memory of having to stop to allow Ting to be car sick during this part of the journey.
Baguio itself was a wonderland – a marvelous mountain town, draped in mist, smelling of pine trees, and tasting of fresh strawberries and whipped cream. We went pony-riding under the trees and biking around a lake ringed with weeping willows. We wore thick jackets and took long walks in the woods. And every night, before I fell asleep, I prayed that when I woke up, my father would announce that he was closing down our house in Quezon City and moving us all to Baguio.
When Ting and I were in our teens, our family stopped staying at the Casablanca, because a close friend of Papa’s had built a summer cottage for himself along Naguilian Road, which he made available to us whenever we wanted to use it. So our yearly holidays in Baguio remained a family tradition, but Casablanca did not.
My husband and I were to continue this tradition with own children. Even in the middle and late 70s, when we were already living overseas, we would take our little girls up to Baguio each time we were on home leave. But by then, the Casablanca seemed to have ceased to operate as a hotel. So we either went up as guests of friends, whose fathers were judges of the Court of Appeals or justices of the Supreme Court, so that they had access to the summer cottages in the Courts’s compounds; or we stayed at the old Pines Hotel or at the Hyatt Terraces. The Pines was gutted by a fire in 1984, and the equally ill-fated Hyatt Terraces, completely collapsed during the earthquake of 1990. But we simply found other hotels – like the Safari Lodge and the Concorde and the cottages in Camp John Hay – and faithfully made the annual pilgrimage to our favorite mountain town.
By then, Casablanca had retreated to the back of my mind. But many long years later, I would discover that it had never really faded away.
In 1997, the UP Center for Creative Writing, of which I was a part, decided to hold its National Writers’ Workshop at a hotel called Salome, a curious, two-story white house with a sloping green roof. Its tree house, its sun-splashed terrace with the small, white, wrought- iron tables, under gaily striped umbrellas, and the birds singing in its pine trees, made it quite an enchanting little place. Beside it were three or four other old houses which had been converted into inns. And one afternoon, while I sat at one of those little tables, sipping my cup of lemon tea, something clicked in my mind, and I realized that our hotel was on Loakan Road.
A brisk walk brought me to the street corner. And there was the familiar fork, and there was the old gate to John Hay (though it had obviously been closed down). The Casablanca, however, was nowhere to be found. I retraced my steps, and stopped before each of the houses between the street corner and the Salome. None of them even vaguely resembled the white house I remembered. For a brief moment I thought I recognized it in a particularly decrepit structure, the one closest to the corner. But, no, that shabby, unkempt thing couldn’t have been my beautiful Casablanca. What had happened to it? Had I perhaps dreamt it up?
Nearly two decades later, I was invited by my old friend to contribute something to a book that would honor another dear, old friend – and one of Baguio’s favorite sons –who was about to retire, after a lifetime of dedication to the study of Cordillera culture. It was instantly clear to me that I would write about his city… and mine. I would write about Baguio, and about something which will always be a part of Baguio for me.
So I went sleuthing once again for my vanished Casablanca. But this time I would do my searching on the Net.
The first few tries brought up nothing but duds: hotels in Morocco named “Casablanca”, or hotels in Baguio city named anything by “Casablanca.” So much for Google’s finding the answers to everything, I thought.
But I gave it another try. And suddenly I stumbled on this blog by someone called Kathleen Burkhalter. She was writing of her old homes in the Philippines which were called “Casa Blanca” (she spelled it as two words) in Baguio and “Cresta Ola” in La Union. The blogger’s name seemed familiar. A quick search revealed her to be my Facebook friend.
I dashed off a Private Message, explaining who I was, and why I was interested in her Filipino homes. Within a few hours, I received her reply. She confirmed that her family had lived “next door to the Nevadas at #4 Loakan Road,” and she gave me a thumbnail sketch of the Casa Blanca’s story.
In the 1930s, when it was built by the patriarch (her grandfather), Engineer Francisco Joaquin, it was both a hotel and the family residence. It suffered some damage during World War II, and Kathleen’s grandmother, Mercedes Joaquin, “got the Americans to repair it because they wanted to rent it postwar.” However, it was someone called Annette Krasnianska who became its tenant, and she ran it as an “incredibly successful” place called “Annette’s Guest House.” The lady kept a guest book, which she later printed, and which is now in Kathleen’s hands. During that time, Kathleen’s grandparents had gone to Marinduque “to regroup,” which, I gathered, meant waiting for the Baguio mines to be reopened.
In 1961, when Kathleen was herself first introduced to the white house, she was only four years old. The Casa Blanca, wrote Kathleen, “worked hard as a hotel in the 50s” (which was when our family used to stay in it). “Its inner architecture,” she added, “made it able to morph from large home to hotel to summer rentals and back to house.”
She was immediately “enchanted.” She lived there from 1968 to 1975. Her grandparents died in 1966 and 1969. And in 1975, the house was “taken over” by the Social Security System (SSS), which “put an ugly gray façade over the front, made of wood and painted it.”
Kathleen does not know what happened between the 1975 and 1990. But she does know that during the Big Earthquake of 1990, the house “came down” or “was terribly damaged.” And when Kathleen’s mother, Pat made the trip to Baguio in 1993, “only the front steps and the chimney remained.”
So that’s why I couldn’t find it. It actually no longer existed.
My online conversation with Kathleen lead me to other entries in her blog, “Cresta Ola,” and to her photo albums. I learned a little about her grandparents. Francisco Joaquin was from Bacolor, Pampanga, and became a mining engineer after graduating from the Colorado School of Mines. There is a picture of him as a strapping young man, standing tall on some rocks, looking like he owns the world. Mercedes Verdote de Jesus was from Gasan, Marinduqe, and there is a lovely picture of her in a balintawak, when she was named Miss Marinduque in the Manila Carnival of 1927. The young couple were married at the Manila Cathedral in 1929 – and in what must have been an unprecedented move for their respective families – moved to Baguio, where he went to work at the gold mine in Itogon.
The Loakan residents that Kathleen remembers (owners of those houses turned inns that I saw in 1997, which they must have built at around the same time as the Joaquins built the Casa Blanca) were the Domondons, the Nevadas, the Pavias, and the Montinolas. (Lourdes Reyes Montinola recognized her family’s old summer residence when she and her daughter-in-law Ging Gonzalez Montinola, dropped in on the UP Workshop, which was being held at the Hotel Salome.)
The two older girls – Pat and Terry – went to school in Holy Ghost Hill, where they were boarders during the week. On Fridays, their father would pick them up to spend the weekend with their parents in the Antamok Gold Field.
When Baguio was first bombed, the Joaquin family was in Antamok. They had to abandon the mine for Daluirip. They were given refuge by a priest who ran a mission in Itogon, Father Alfonso de Cloedt. Pat was ten and Terry was eight at the time. The Joaquins had to cross the Agno River on a hanging bridge. Igorot men carried Mrs. Joaquin and the children across; the rest of the way was a narrow mountain pass, which they climbed in single file, in pouring rain, praying aloud the whole while. (This part was narrated to Kathleen by her Aunt Terry.) After the war, Kathleen’s grandfather was to be knighted by the Pope for secretly building air raid shelters that would protect Baguio residents from the bombings.
There are several pictures of the family through the years, formally posed in the Casa Blanca’s living room, which I had found so mysterious and impressive; of the Baguio Cathedral before the war, one of its stained glass windows donated by the Joaquins; of the Cathedral’s spires in the distance towering over the ruined city after the war; and of the same Cathedral taken from the space where the old Pines Hotel used to stand, now the city’s highest point: the top floor of the SM Mall.
Kathleen was baptized, and confirmed in this Cathedral. Kathleen’s parents were married in 1955, the Baguio Cathedral, on the same day that her grandparents celebrated their 25th anniversary. Patricia Joaquin wore an exquisite Ramon Valera terno, and John Burkhalter was in a tuxedo. The photograph was taken in Casa Blanca.
Among Kathleen’s photo albums is one titled “Time Is a Wheel that Goes Around and Around.” In it is the one full frontal picture of the Casa Blanca that I have ever come across. The proud owner is sitting on its front steps.
Comments from her FB friends fill in the gaps. Martha Carmel Chanco wrote: “I remember this house so well as we passed it a gazillion times on the way to John Hay, and later PMA, as we visited my brother and went to hops.” (June 20, 2009)
Edgardo Nevada: “The basement of this house became the first discotheque in Baguio, appropriately called ‘D’Basement,’ run by Red, White and Blue, namely Rudy ‘Red’ Nuñez, Tony ‘Blue’ Verzosa and Sonny ‘White’ San Pedro.” (July 11, 2009)
Martha Carmel Chanco: “I remember D’Basement. That was the hottest spot in the early ‘70s and late ‘60s, I think. Kathleen, didn’t you tell me your folks had to add additional boarding to your bedroom floor to protect you from stray bullets in case there was a brawl down there?” (On July 11, 2009)
Kathleen Burkhalter “Yep… those were the days. Finally Mama didn’t renew their lease. Our new tenant was Sister Vincent and the Easter Weavers! From loud music to the music of the looms.” (August 30, 2009)
Patricia Joaquin Burkhalter: “That was my happy home with so many happy memories and my children will always remember.” (September 16, 2009)
Mahrz Leyco: “Nowhere Disco was the forerunner of D’Basement, right Sonny J?” (September 18, 2009)
On September 30, 2009, Kevin Engle picked up the conversation: “Drove by it many, many times, on our way to the Halfway House or the 19th Tee or the library on a Sunday afternoon to read periodicals or to play miniature golf.”
More than a year later (Nov. 2, 2010), Monch S. David wrote: “Tita Pat … so this was Casa Blanca … Ang ganda! I should have tagged along with my mom… Sayang … Lovely house!
Another year later, the comments were still coming in. From Dolly Aquino (July 4, 2011): “My sister, Bebe, and her husband Ernie Bueno had their wedding reception at Casa Blanca in 1952. Later on, my brother, Benjie, managed the pub there, which he named “Nowehere,” a hangout of my brother’s band, the Footnotes. Those were the days when Baguio boys and girls enjoyed clean, wholesome fun, and the evenings never ended in brawls and fistfights.”
And so it goes, the faded photograph of the stately Casa Blanca allowing the intersection of recollections from these old Baguio residents and their progeny.
I also found photographs of Kathleen as a schoolgirl in St. Theresa’s College in Baguio, and as a co-ed in UP Baguio and UP Diliman (where she was part of the UP Concert Chorus). And a couple of pictures of Kathleen’s grandfather (Lolo Paquito), still handsome, though much leaner, after his wife’s death. He had taken up painting and going on solitary walks, and had died himself just three years after she did. And there is a picture of Kathleen sitting by a window facing mountain slopes and pine trees, in Forest House Café and Bistro, beside Hotel Veneracion (which used to be the Salome Hotel) on Loakan Street, when she returned to the Philippines to celebrate Baguio’s centennial. It is captioned “Dreams do come true.”
Finally, I found an entry, titled “A Child’s Memory” and dated August 31, 2009, which begins thus:
“Today is the beginning of Baguio’s centennial celebration. One hundred years is a short time in history but a long time in a family. The picture taken here was from 1955, a few days before my parents were married. My Baguio story began a mere five years after this picture was taken.”
The little essay goes on to describe what life was like in the Baguio of the ‘60s and the ‘70s, from the time Kathleen was first gathered into the arms of her extended family as a 4-year-old, to the time she left it in 1975. She writes of the large stone fireplace, the scent of pine wood, the two fox terriers called “Saddle” and “Queenie;” of dinner around a long narra table, in a room whose windows overlooked the blue mountains; of a sunset that was the color of jewels; of the many dishes and platters that were carried around the table by uniformed maids; of sleeping in a room with “ivy wall paper… a carved dresser with a round mirror,” a room which had been her mother’s, when she was small, and would become hers when she returned to Baguio to live. She writes of the games she used to play, the places she used to haunt, the singing and guitar strumming and sungka marathons when her younger uncle and aunt were home from their colleges in Manila. And finally, Kathleen offers a portrait of the family.
To my surprise, I instantly recognized it, probably because I had seen it somewhere in that white house, those long-ago Novembers. The family is posed rather stiffly in the Casa Blanca living room, the parents in formal terno and tuxedo, the girls in shimmering evening dresses, the boys in sober grey suits. But the smiles seem warm and spontaneous. The picture was taken five days before Kathleen’s parents’ wedding. It was a happy time.
I’m not from Baguio myself, but through the years, I’ve come to feel a stake in it. Even now that Tony is dead, and two of our daughters have left the country to follow their own paths, I continue to make the trip to Baguio each summer. My trips are mostly work-related. When I was still VP for the UP System under President Emerlinda Roman, we would go up at least twice each year, for a meeting of the Board of Regents and for Commencement. The UP Institute of Creative Writing continues to hold its annual National Writers’ Workshops there. And now, the UST Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies, which I head, also holds its annual National Writers’ Workshops in Baguio.
But I know that even when I am truly retired, and no longer have professional reasons for visiting Baguio, I shall be unable to keep away.
I have friends there. And I don’t mean just Delfin Tolentino and Ben Tapang, Kidlat Tahimik (who is Tony’s fraternity brother), Bencab, Babeth Lolarga and Rolly Fernandez (another fraternity brother of Tony’s), Precy and Butch Macansantos, Frank Cimatu, Laida Lim, Baboo Mondoñedo, Padma Perez, Chit Balmaceda, Popoy Saboy…
I refer also to the ghosts of Madame Chiang of the Old Pagoda antique shop; and of the shoe shine boys of Burnham Park; of the little old ladies who sold delicate, filigreed, silver jewelry and teaspoons and little rocking chairs and harps and bahay kubo, in the silver shop run by the nuns of St. Louis University; and of the band that was first called Different Strokes, and later morphed into On Call, which my fellow-UP-writers and I followed from the old Pilgrim’s Cafe, on top of the Azotea Building on Session Road, to the corner of Leonard Drive and Brent Road, to Forest House Cafe, and finally to the Manor…”
And to the ghosts of Sunshine Grocery, where my father would buy bread after having breakfast at Star Cafe; and of Bombay Bazaar, where Mama once had to get socks for us because ours had inexplicably been left at home in Manila; and of the First Cinema; and of Star Café; and of the Nevada Hotel, another casualty of the earthquake of 1990…
Those friendly ghosts will continue to haunt to me. They will continue to call to me. I will pretend not to hear them. I will suddenly turn to the friend seated beside me, or across the table from me, and complain about the pollution and the traffic in Baguio. But eventually, I will capitulate.
And each time I find myself in Baguio again, I will think of the lovely, lost Casa Blanca. I will ask myself if something could have prevented its complete demolition by an earthquake. Maybe not. On the other hand, maybe if it had been well cared for by those who had taken possession of it, in that decade before the earthquake happened, it might have been strong enough to withstand even those violent tremors.
And then I will wonder, again, why Baguio’s City’s government cannot buy houses like the Casa Blanca — houses which are a part of the city’s history — or set up a foundation for heritage preservation, which will give them the protection they deserve, as the treasures that they are.
So that we might once again walk through their tall rooms, and pass our fingers over the frames of their old paintings; or over the edges of their softly tarnished mirrors; and stand before their windows, to gaze at the sunrise, at the circle of light ascending, turning the sky silvery gold, then powdery blue, while beneath it, the well loved city begins to take shape again … as did Paquito and Mercy, and Pat and Terry and Bud, and Mary Ann and Sonny, once upon a time, in Baguio.
(My thanks to Kathleen Burkhalter, who very kindly gave me permission to quote from her blogs and borrow the picture of her old home.)