When Katya and I needed to do some groceries we would walk or take a taxi to the SM mall. SM started out in 1958 as a department store in Manila that specialized in shoes, called “Shoe Mart”. In the 1970s they changed the name to “SM” and gradually expanded in the decades since. Now SM is one of the largest shopping mall chains in the world. The company went public in 1994 and grew to become the largest company listed on the Philippine Stock Exchange in terms of revenue. SM owns 46 shopping malls all over the Philippines and even branches in China. The Baguio SM Mall was opened in 2003, to the dismay of some prominent community leaders who lamented how it put a lot of mom-and-pop stores out of business.
The mall is a popular place to hang out. Within its bright, clean and air-conditioned interior you find the modern equivalent of the food stands you see on the street, selling chicharon (deep fried pork rinds), babingka (spongy rice cake), buko juice (young coconut water), and green mango with bagaoong (shrimp paste).
Another interesting finding was a counter called “Vape King”, right across from and indoor carosel and an electronics store selling large flat screen HDTVs. Vape King sells mini portable vaporizers for “herbs”. This obviously meant marijuana but they also sold packages of flavored tobacco to make it look legitimate. Vaporization is the process of heating dried cannabis leaves to a temperature just below combustion. It releases the resin in vapor form while avoiding the production of irritating, toxic and potentially carcinogenic combustion products. It does not produce smoke and minimizes any odors, and reportedly enhances the flavor of the weed.
Unlike my home state of Washington, marijuana is still illegal in the Philippines. In fact, they have some of the toughest marijuana laws in the world. The first time you get caught smoking you can be sent to rehab for six months. After the second time, you can be sent to jail for 6-12 years. If you get caught growing it, you face life imprisonment or the death penalty.
Despite that, the Philippines is second only to Mexico as the world’s largest producer of marijuana. The plant is not native; the seeds were first brought to the Philippines by American servicemen staying at Camp John Hay in Baguio and Sagada during the Vietnam war. They asked local farmers to plant it. Seventy percent of the country’s marijuana now is grown in the the Cordillera Highlands around Baguio. It’s not a hard decision for poor native farmers to switch from growing other crops to marijuana, since it obviously pays much better than vegetables. The plantations are hidden in the mountains in areas inaccessible by any vehicle, which make them difficult to find and eliminate. They are controlled by organized crime -- the narco-mafia -- and guarded by kids with AK-47s. The weed is carried out on foot trials and sold somewhere to the Japanese Yakuza, Chinese triads, and West African gangs, then smuggled into Japan, Canada, New Zealand, and Europe.
The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency and Philippine National Police are fighting a fiece war on pot, constantly finding plantations and destroying plants. Earlier this month, they claimed to have destroyed 260,500 fully grown marijuana plants in an operation in Kibungan and Bakun towns north of Baguio. Curiously, no cultivator was arrested in the operation. Athough this seems to suggest that the PDEA is winning the war on pot, back in 2009 the PDEA had already declared victory in the Benguet province, declaring it "marijuana free". They accomplished this using programs that assisted farmers to switch to cultivating bees, silkworms, anthuriums, and the root crop yacon.
When people are vaporizing pot instead of smoking it in joints or out of a pipes made out of empty beer cans, that indicates to me they are moving up in the world. Indeed, the people that smoke it in Baguio are primarily professionals and college students. Students from the provinces where marijuana is grown are also often the ones transporting in to the city and selling it to help pay for their education.
The other favorite drug of abuse is “Shabu” or methamphetamine. I had suspected that this was a problem because during my first few days in Baguio I was suffering from a cold and went asking for pseudophedrine at three different pharmacies, but couldn’t find any. I think they have made it totally unavailable because of its use as a precursor in the manufacture of meth.
The SM grocery store at the mall has a large produce department with an amazing array of tropical fruits and vegetables, and about a dozen different varieties of rice. Along with eggplant, bitter melon, long string beans, carrots, and mushrooms, Katya and I picked up some santol, papaya, mangosteen, a small variety of banana, and of course, mangoes. There were others fruits that we didn't know the names of or how to eat but we bought them anyway just to try them.
The mangoes were incredibly sweet and ripe. The Canadians planned to bring home boxes of them. Unfortunately you aren't allowed to bring any into the United States. We also picked up some green mangoes for a green mango/papaya salad. Their “green” mangoes are similar what stores sell in the states as “ripe”.
Another useful thing to know is that you can change money at the SM customer service counter in the grocery.
A taxi line is conveniently located right outside the mall by the grocery store. People roll their carts right up to the taxi and an attendant helps you with your bags.