Penman No. 70: Digital Detox and Ambrosia in Puerto Princesa

Penman for Monday, October 28, 2013

AFTER MORE than 20 years of being a digital junkie—usually traveling with nothing less than a Macbook Air, an iPhone, an iPad mini, a standby dual-SIM Nokia, sometimes a Nikon DSLR, two digital voice recorders, and a boatload of spare chargers and batteries—I never thought the day (much less the week) would come when I could pretty much do away with the cellular phone and the Internet.

But very recently, it happened—thanks to a writers’ retreat organized by a tirelessly dedicated Fil-Am writer and hosted by two of the most wonderful and interesting people I’ve ever met. (If this normally reserved writer runs out of superlatives this week, it will be for good reason.)

Almira Astudillo-Gilles has two master’s degrees and a PhD in Sociology, and could have been set for life working in business or academia, but she’s chosen the prickly path of creative writing to find another form of fulfillment. Having published a prizewinning book for children and a novel set in the Philippines, among other works, Almi—whom I met last year at the Philippine Studies conference in Michigan—put her mind to establishing a restful retreat for writers in need of a little solitude to recharge and to get some new work done. Marshaling her organizational resources and with the help of some private and institutional sponsors, Almi led our group to the first Adverbum Retreat for Writers at a hillside villa in Palawan.

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In the group, aside from Almi and myself, were writers Edgardo Maranan, Ricardo de Ungria, and Jhoanna Lynn Cruz, and guests Joel Tan-Torres and his daughter Marjette, who had writing projects of their own; my wife Beng, of course, was with us, bringing her drawing and painting kits along.

The hillside villa is about 1 ½ hours by van from downtown Puerto Princesa, way past Iwahig and a little beyond Napsan, on a road that alternates between patches of smooth concrete and gravel the size of pomelos. (Technically speaking, the villa is just out of Puerto, in Sitio Bubusawin, Barangay Apurawan, municipality of Aborlan. You’d have to remember that Puerto Princesa is the country’s largest city in terms of land area, at almost 254,000 hectares, a bit larger than Davao.) If you’re looking for city comforts, go no farther than the new Robinson’s mall downtown.

I’d have to say that, as a certified metrophile and mall rat, I was daunted and distressed by the villa’s promise of a complete “digital detox—guaranteed NO Internet and NO cellular connection”; I hadn’t gone offline for more than a day in years. I’m not on Facebook, but I check out eBay, PhilMUG, and the news a dozen times a day, and with four book projects in the works, I felt like I was about to vanish into the dark side of the moon. I was placated only by the promise that, should the isolation prove intolerable, we could get a cellphone signal by venturing out farther into the boonies or on the water. And probably worse than the digital detox, I’m a self-described culinary philistine who hates cheese and anything vaguely Frenchy and who thrives on canned sardines and instant noodles; the prospect of being fed fresh vegetables spiced up by offerings from the backyard herb garden sent me into a panic, so I stocked up on ramen and chocolates at the grocery before boarding the van to the villa.

As it turned out, and to my own great surprise, my fears and anxieties proved largely groundless. The detox was made easier by the loveliness of the villa itself—a symphony in wood and stone, perched on a hillside overlooking a long trackless curve of beach and ocean (the silken beach alone would make you wonder why you’d need to go to crowded Boracay), under the shadow of cloud-enshrouded mountains. More than the place, we were relaxed by its owners—a Filipino-Belgian couple whose love for one another and for life itself is manifest in the way they keep their villa and feed and treat their guests.

Gielens

Theresa Juguan is a livewire, a brilliantly imaginative chef who may not have been born with a silver spoon in her mouth but who more than made up for the lack of privilege and opportunity with pluck, inspiration, and a single-minded determination to show the world just how good she could be. Theresa trained as a midwife, but discovered that she had a gift for baking, and was soon delivering fresh loaves and cupcakes instead of babies. The baking led to cooking, which she does with a liberal dash of the herbs she grows in her garden and, she says, “with emotion.”

Unlike most chefs we watch on TV, she doesn’t feel the need to taste what she’s cooking every five minutes or so; she knows in her bones, she says, how the dish will turn out. One guest remarked on the exquisiteness of her pork, which she had served him untasted; she doesn’t eat pork herself and can barely touch it. During our stay, we were served such seemingly simple but delectable creations made with crayfish, octopus, spring rolls, chapatti, and free-range chicken, most of it prepared with as little salt as possible, if any, to let the natural flavors of the ingredients pop.

Theresa also happens to be a talented and impeccably tasteful architect and interior designer, having designed and laid out the villa pretty much by herself. The very first thing that greets visitors to the villa is a striking trellis from which hair-like roots hang like a diaphanous pink curtain.

Her Belgian husband Herwig Gielen—you can call him “Gilles” (pronounced JIL)—was a businessman in the Philippines who one day found himself facing a very irate and demanding client—Theresa—and who was immediately captivated by her gutsiness, very much unlike the sweet, docile, marriageable types that expats like him tended to meet. If Theresa is an earth-goddess type, Gilles is a lanky, amiable god, indeed more shepherd than deity, in the attention he devotes not only to his wife and to the villa but to every small detail that will enhance the guest’s experience, from the virgin coconut oil and citronella concoction he prepares against insects and their bites to the ice for their cocktails and the generator that lights the place up after sundown.

As if the place needed yet another secret charm, you might get to meet Theresa’s five-year-old granddaughter Zanique (Theresa had been widowed before meeting Gilles), whom Beng and I instantly fell for like tipsy dominoes. She doesn’t talk much, preferring the company of her lola and her pet puppy Nitro, but she loves to draw and, not surprisingly, to cook, imbibing Theresa’s mastery of the kitchen.

Surprisingly, after being in operation for a couple of years, the Gielens had never really come around to finding a real name for their place—a visitor called it an “amazing villa” and the name (entirely true) stuck—but they took advantage of the presence of so many writers to cast about for another name, and my suggestion (ahem) was deemed acceptable: henceforth, this corner of Eden will be called Ambrosia, The Amazing Villa, after ambrosia, the food of the gods.

And let me thank Cebu Pacific for sponsoring the flights of the writers on this retreat (some members of the group, including Beng, paid their way through for the presumptive privilege of our company, and we think this can be a model for future workshop-retreats where aspiring or non-professional writers can spend some time and discuss their work with the pros). Since Beng and I are hopelessly footloose but can afford little more than budget fares, we’ve been traipsing all around Asia on one Cebu Pacific promo or other and I’ve been writing regularly about these trips and flights, but the Palawan trip was the first time I actually got a free ticket from CP. When our flight back to Manila was delayed for four hours by maintenance work on NAIA’s radar and runway congestion, Cebu Pac handed out packed lunches to the waiting passengers—nothing on the level of Theresa’s gourmet creations, but welcome nonetheless.

I’ll talk more about the retreat itself and about another place in Puerto well worth visiting—the new Hotel Centro downtown—in a forthcoming column. In the meanwhile, you can check out the Gielens’ place here and here (and you can write Gilles at herwiggielen@yahoo.com for more information—they have a home in downtown Puerto and attend to their email there; do give them some time to respond, as they may be away at the villa).

All I can add is, when my iPhone began chirping back to life on the road back in Iwahig, I felt a deep pang of regret; my message-less and therefore trouble-free week was over. Bon appetit!

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