Burnham Park’s ‘boat cabbie’ laments city’s deterioration

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Story and photos by Rosabel Toledo

ON nonpeak months when buses to and from Baguio aren’t even half-filled with excited tourists, the city falls into a sleepy lull: Rates for transient homes drop, the queue for a combo meal at Good Taste clears up, and one can walk Mines View Park up and down without being offered to rent traditional garb for a photo opportunity with a pink-maned horse, or a comically large dog.

The city slumber also shushes Burnham Park, a place that’s bustling with tourists on sunnier months. The little peace and quiet in effect gives boat paddlers like Tatay Greg, 66, the chance to reflect on how much the city has changed across the years.

“It’s disheartening how Baguio seems to have been neglected. It was very beautiful back then! Calamities, like earthquakes, might have had a hand in its deterioration, but the city could have recovered had it not been forsaken,” said Tatay Greg in Filipino, to the agreement of his brother and two nephews, who are boat paddlers in Burnham Park, like him.

Tatay Greg narrates how the city took his breath away when he set foot on it for the first time as a teenager in 1968. His uncle brought him in from Isabela, to have a fighting chance for a better life.

“It used to be very cold, and pine trees were everywhere. The Burnham Lake was pristine—the water was clear and it was truly beautiful. You’ll be greeted with flowers everywhere, and there were only around 10 boats available for rent to tourists,” he said.

At present, there are 90-something paddleboats in the now-murky Burnham Lake—maintained by six different concessionaires. During peak season, boat concessionaires who own over 10 boats each easily earn P250,000 to P300,000 every day. The profit drops dramatically during the rainy season, such as now, but the hit is felt much deeply by the likes of Tatay Greg, who have no boats of their own but instead watches over other people’s boats from dawn till dusk. They suffer the most because they do not earn any money from manning these boats.

As divulged by Tatay Greg and his copaddlers, they only get commissions when tourists ask for paddling services, priced at P50 per half hour. This goes entirely to them, but if a group of tourists only asks to rent a boat but opts to paddle it themselves, they do not get even a fraction from the P100-per-half-hour rental rate.

Tatay Greg said it used to bother him a bit back in the day, so he sought other side jobs, but he is now content with the free meals that come with his boat gig.

“We get paid in meals. When my kids were still in school, it was tough making ends meet. I would get construction and other side jobs. Now, in God’s mercy, our three kids have finished school and are now all working,” he said.

Tatay Greg’s wife currently works as a staff member in the local health center, a job she does not actually need anymore with three children already earning, but a job that she loves with all her heart, as per Tatay Greg.

In spite of the rough beginnings, Tatay Greg did end up falling in love with Baguio, so he never left, despite initial plans of moving to Manila to seek an even better life.

“It’s cold here; I love the cold,” he said, flashing a warm, genuine, toothless grin, when asked why he never looked back. “I really love Baguio even if I was not born here —that’s why I never litter. I hope tourists do the same,” he continued more seriously.

The jolly senior loves tourists and could not wait for the peak season to start so the boats he’s manning could entertain more guests. He simply wishes for them to care of the summer capital as much as he does. He wishes for guests to think about the people they leave behind in the city when they head home, bags packed with ube and strawberry jams, loot from the night market and native handicrafts—people for whom Baguio is home, instead of a weeklong getaway.

At 66 years old, Tatay Greg is not yet looking forward to retirement. “Why, do I look old enough to retire?”

With his contagious laughter, tough limbs from his years of construction and boat-paddling, and the glint in his eyes when talking about the city he loves dearly, one could only answer “no”.

 



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