Saturday, December 4, 2010

Burnham Park: portrait of a city

- by Joel Rodriguez Dizon
     It is named after Daniel H. Burnham, the Chicago architect who designed the city’s basic layout. Burnham Park is synonymous to Baguio City as Central Park is to New York City. 
     Featurewise, it’s pretty basic. A man-made lagoon dominates the center of the park. Flat-bottomed boats rent out to tourists who care to jostle among a hundred other boaters in this tiny lake. In the 1960s there were real sailboats here too. But few people knew how to work the till, rudder, main sail and jib to actually scoot around the lake on windpower alone, and mishaps were frequent. Increased siltation has also made the lake shallower. The sailboats, with their heavy ballasts under the keel, began running aground. On most days, dead winds forced boaters to use loose oars which were constantly tossing overboard. Finally, the last sailboat was lifted out of the lake in 1974 and all the boats now have anchored pivoted oars and flat bottoms.
     They are less exciting for real seamen but friendly to most landlubbers who have never sailed. At the very least, the boats present a more picturesque alternative experience to sweating it out on a rowing machine in a gym. Imagination has flourished too. More recent novel ideas have given way to prowheads in the mold of "Little Mermaid" and other Disney characters.
With comely mermaids at the prow of Burnham lake's
famous flat-bottomed boats beckoning, who can resist
picking up an oar ?

     The boats also give you unobstructed access to the entire lakeside flower beds ringing the lake. The city parks services does a good job of repotting flowers in sync with whatever species is supposed to bloom at any given time. So the flower beds lining the lake’s perimeter alternately holds vibrant growths of chrysanthemum, dahlia, marigold, everlasting, gumamela, gladiola, baby’s breath, statis, giant sunflower, and many other flowering plants year round. Towering at each corner of the lake is a giant Norfolk pine, kin to the tall "grand pine tree" at the foot of Session Road--which transforms into the largest outdoor Christmas tree in December.
     About the only other activity going on in Burnham Park is biking. Private concessionaires rent out bicycles by the hour on the south lane of Lake Drive. Not much of a cycling circuit this one--mostly, it is there just for people to learn how to ride a bike. But if you’re an accomplished cyclist, the 100-meter turnaround present little challenge. But for the serious two-wheeler, the rest of the city is perfect cycling country. There are several mountain biking and road cycling clubs active in the city. On weekends, colorful pelotons are a common sight around the circumferential roads of Baguio, like Loakan, South Drive, Ambuklao and Kennon roads.

Biking around Lake Drive brings families together--and
can be a perfect opportunity for equalizing the sexes.
Daddy can rest his arthritic knees while Mommy works
the pedals.

     But the biking in Burnham Park is popular for a whole different reason: it brings family and friends together. Also, with its proximity to local schools, I used to believe that every school kid in Baguio at one or another would have indulged in the basic truancy of cutting classes to ride these bikes.
     I know my school mates in Baguio City High School (1980) and I did. We were an entire class, in fact, who would promptly forsake a day’s worth of classes just to scrape our knees and collect road rash in our arms and legs (or sometimes faces!) riding these bikes. Until you learned to ride one of them, you were not considered a "true City Higher."
     We rented our bikes from a retired local sports legend, Alejandro Cabusora, who was one of the concessionaires. He was the 1968 Northern Luzon Athletic Association (NLAA) decathlon champion and would have gone on to become national champion. But the bus carrying the Baguio delegation to the games figured in a crash on the way. Alex Cabusora suffered a spine injury that left his sprinting legs paralyzed. He would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair--but kept inspiring young athletes with his motivational speaking. The City awarded him a bike rental concession in Burnham Park in appreciation.
     Back then, the bikes rented out for fifty centavos for 15 minutes--or two pesos for a full hour. At least in theory. Whenever time was up on our bikes, Alex Cabusora would glance at his stopwatch and yell out to us, "take one last round!" That "last round" would stretch for another half hour because each time we pulled in to return the bikes, Alex would keep saying, "Didn’t I tell you to take one more round?" I know I once rode his bike all morning and paid fifty centavos. Time stood still for City Highers on that bike lane.

All of life is a swing, when you think about it. You hit the
highs and the lows over and over but at the end of the
day you still get off the ride--like these swinging sisters
have discovered.
     When all of Alex’s bikes were out, we rented some from another kindly old man, Mr. Lomibao. He’s another guy with a defective stopwatch just like Alex’s. If my City High batchmates and I were cardiologically healthy in those days, we owe it to Messrs. Cabusora and Lomibao and their bicycles.
     There were memorable incidents too, like when a few misguided misfits (who were not from City High) would try to steal the bikes. They snuck out the hilly portion behind the Children’s Park and spilled out onto Kisad Road. Then these jerks tried to make a run for it, pedaling madly up towards Legarda Road. But all it took is for one of us to shout in Ilocano, "Adda agtatakaw!" (Someone’s stealing a bike!). Mr. Lomibao would chase them down on his motorcycle--and he always got every one of them. But the perps usually never got so much as a tongue-lashing from Mr. Lomibao. He basically just scared the bejesus out of these deviants, threatening to tell their parents about their mischief. They quickly realized their mistake and asked for forgiveness--which they always got. Today, these people would be very forgiving adults, I imagine.
In our day, that's NOT a slide. Back during those times
when kids were sturdier and parents weren't so over-
protective and litiguous, a slide is defined as something
that if you fell off of it, you actually broke a bone! 

     The Children’s Park has been renovated recently. New rides (seesaws, slides and swings---all for free) and jungle gyms have been installed. But I miss the old giant "rocketship" slide that used to sit on the outer edge of the park. Rust and disrepair had forced city engineers to finally scrap it in 1985. It was a tall tower, shaped like a rocketship sitting on a launching pad. The gantries are the downslides--there’s one for fraidycats about 5 feet off the ground, a middle chute for aspiring bullies about 10 feet high, and the topslide for certified playground toughies which was all of 20 feet high. You either slid down off it on the steel chute, and touch on the ground five or six seconds later. Or you could get ambitiously show-offy and slide down "bannister style" sitting on one handrail while keeping your weight across the opposite handrail. You either slid faster and reached the foot of the slide about 2 seconds faster--or you arrived even faster than that and a little "more vertical" at 32 feet per second squared. That means you fell off the slide completely and landed badly on the sandpit below, with a whole new practical understanding of Newton’s law of motion.
     But in those days, unless you were bleeding or you actually broke a bone, no one paid attention. I guess kids were sturdier then.


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