Penman No. 303: A Gentleman of Letters


Penman for Monday, May 21, 2018


IT’S BEEN an awful season for writers and lovers of art, as I noted last week. I thought that the passing of Edgardo B. Maranan last May 8 was going to be the last of these woeful events, but no sooner had I spoken at the necrological services for Ed than I was being asked to help put similar rites together for Senator and former UP President Edgardo Angara, who died a few days later on May 13. What an odd coincidence, I thought—first, we lost the two Totis (Bautista and Villalon), and now we were bidding two Eds goodbye.

But among all of those who left us, I felt that it was Ed Maranan whom I knew best. I’d written a biography for Ed Angara, but biographers never really josh their subjects, the way I could do with Ed Maranan. Ed M. invited that, because he dished out a lot of humorous banter himself, even and especially in the worst of times. He could have been in excruciating pain—and I’m sure he was, in his worst days—but he just couldn’t pass up a chance to play with words, as all true writers do.

Most of the eulogies delivered at Ed’s brief wake memorialized and lauded him for his activism—Joma Sison even sent in a statement from Utrecht praising Ed as a “communist,” which he was, at least at some point, as far as I knew. But the Ed I chose to remember was no dour doctrinaire. He loved and enjoyed life immensely (not that communists don’t), and I never heard him spout the Party line; he was too spontaneous, too freely minded, for that.

He was older than me by some eight years, but Ed and I belonged to the same generation of playwrights in Filipino who came of artistic age in the 1970s, a brood that included the likes of Bienvenido Noriega, Bonifacio Ilagan, Nonilon Queaño, Malou Jacob, Reuel Aguila, Rene Villanueva, and Isagani Cruz.

I moved on from writing for the stage to screenwriting later in that decade, thanks to Lino Brocka, and Ed soon asked me if I could help him break into the movies, too. I did—I passed on an assignment that I might have been too busy to do then, a project starring a popular sex siren (and to this day, I wonder why I gave that one away). Later, Ed and I would share another experience—being shafted out of our fees (“nasuba,” in Pinoy screen lingo), and we learned to shrug our shoulders in dismay and disgust.

Our paths crossed again in the mid-1990s, when I got a writing fellowship to Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, and had to pass through London—my first trip ever to Europe, or some part of it. Ed had found a job as information officer with our embassy there by that time, and he became my gracious host. Having ushered at the National Theatre, he took me out to free showings of Shaw and Pinter. Having nothing to repay him with, I washed the dishes in his apartment near Goldhawk Road.

We were both named to the Palanca Hall of Fame in 2000. At that point, with 16 Palancas, I stopped joining, and told Ed that it was about time we hung up our gloves. He wasn’t listening. Like his arch-rival Rene Villanueva, he went on and on, until he had racked up more than 30 to Rene’s 27 (Rene sadly passed away in 2007). It wasn’t the prize money, but the exhilaration of joining and winning, with those two.


A few years ago, in writers’ workshops in Palawan and Puerto Galera, I watched Ed in classic form, charming the ladies with his unstoppable if atrocious puns. I kept rolling my eyes but the ladies kept laughing, much to my growing annoyance. But that was his humor, sly and gentle, as easy on the ears as the guitar he loved to strum.

And then his body began giving up on him, here and there, and he’d message Beng to say, with a rare sigh of sadness, “How the heck did I get a liver problem when I don’t even drink?”

It had been his great dream to go to Hawthornden Castle like I and some other Filipinos had done, and he had been accepted and was all set to leave, but now it was not going to be. Last March, he wrote Hawthornden to say he could barely write with his fingers, and couldn’t come. I could see the deep frustration in his words.

But now he’s off to that great fellowship in the sky with Rene Villanueva, and I hope they hold a celestial edition of the Palancas to keep both guys busy and to settle, once and for all, who the more prolific prizewinner is. Toti Bautista is also going to be there, of course. I hope he enjoys puns because he’s going to get an earful—nay, an eternity of them—from Ed.

So here’s a sad goodbye to a good friend and one of the truest gentlemen of letters I knew. Paalam, kaibigan.


(Pic from

Penman No. 147: On Southern Seas


Penman for Monday, May 4, 2015

“ON A CLEAR day, you can see Malaysia,” they said. And we did, from the waters off Balabac, on the southernmost tip of Palawan. At that point, approaching the lighthouse at Cape Melville, our guide pointed to a gray mass on the far horizon across the strait, and said, “That’s part of Sabah.”

We had arrived in Balabac the day before, after a six-hour ride by van from downtown Puerto Princesa to the station at Rio Tuba, and then another three- to four-hour trip by motorized boat to Balabac’s poblacion. It was an unlikely adventure for Beng and me, being the only seniors in our party that included our favorite traveling companions—my niece Susie, her husband Toto, my cousin Edith, and our good friends the Puerto-based expat innkeeper Herwig and his wife the chef and baker Theresa. We’ve been to Palawan pretty often—staying when possible with Herwig and Theresa, who run the very aptly named Amazing Villa in Aborlan just outside of Puerto—but had never been down to Balabac. An invitation from a Balabac native, Theresa’s lawyer Atty. Regidor Tulale, proved compelling enough to make us pack our bags and head out to our southern frontier.

I’ve always wondered why our tourists—both foreign and local—seem so fixated on Boracay when Palawan offers beaches just as spectacular, in contexts far more interesting than D’Mall, without the crush of tricycles and tourist vans depositing hordes on fellow visitors on the same crowded stretch of white sand. Puerto Princesa alone and the islands on Honda Bay offer enough pleasures and treasures for the urban straggler, but, as we would discover, the farther out you go, the closer you get to tropical nirvana.

There are buses that ply the 240-kilometer route from Puerto to Rio Tuba, the nickel-mining barangay in the town of Bataraza past Brooke’s Point, but it’s a trip best taken in an air-conditioned van, given the summer heat and the need—especially for the elderly—to stop at a gas station now and then for some private relief. It’s a long but pretty ride, not unlike the run up to Baguio from Manila in the distance and scenery, on a road flanked by views of cloud-topped mountains, and golden showers blooming riotously.

Rio Tuba itself seems as rough as mining towns tend to be, an impression little helped by a recent fire that gutted the area around the pier, the transit point for boats venturing on to Balabac. Nevertheless, there was a plucky, pick-me-up cheerfulness to the locals (the fire, they said, had started accidentally in one of the big stores in the neighborhood, and everyone was busy rebuilding what they had lost), and the pier at the end of a huddle of houses on the water bustled with traffic.

The boats they use in these waters are large motorized outriggers that can easily take 30 passengers, seated four or five to a row on wooden planks; they can theoretically reach Sabah in a few hours, but, we were told, these boats were prohibited from docking in Malaysian ports because their breadth took up too much berthing space; the sleeker and faster kumpit would be the vessel of choice for that voyage. There was clearly a lot of trade going on between Palawan and Sabah, judging from the stockpiles of Malaysian goods and groceries in Rio Tuba, and one had to wonder how much of that went through customs and other legal encumbrances, but we opted, I think wisely, not to ask too many questions.

The three-hour ride to Balabac itself, with one or two stopovers on the way, was smooth and pleasant. “Balabac” is the central island and town in the area, but it also broadly refers to a cluster of more than 30 islands, and you’re never too far from one of these. (“That’s owned by Senator XXX and by former President YYY,” our guide would tell us as we passed by one paradaisical isle after another.) The glassine sea challenged the poet to come up with all variables of blue and green, and with some luck—not that day—dolphins were known to swim alongside the boats.


Balabac’s town proper was small and compact, with one main street along which shops selling clothes and groceries huddled; the largest and most impressive building in town, aside from the municipio, was the Coast Guard quarters, a sign of how important patrolling these waters was. The local tribe, the Molbog, are said to have migrated from North Borneo and have their own dialect, but what surprised me throughout this visit was how widely Tagalog (or, more accurately in a national context, Filipino) was spoken, even by the locals among themselves.

You won’t have any problems choosing a place to stay, because there’s only one public lodging house in Balabac, above and adjacent to the Sing and Swing Karaoke Bar. Maybe not the best prescription for a good night’s sleep, as some of my companions would discover, but for P300 per room a night with shared toilets and baths (P100 per extra person), you can’t complain.

What to do in Balabac, aside from shopping for Malaysian chocolates and biscuits? Why, island-hopping, of course, and dining on the plentiful fish, which we did the next day, taking a boat out to Candaraman Island and dipping into the cool clear water beside the small seaweed farms cultivated by the people for their livelihood. Unfortunately, the low tide prevented us from docking and marching up to the century-old lighthouse on Cape Melville, but we did get that glimpse of Malaysia along the way, in a day that culminated in one of the most stunning sunsets I’d ever seen.

As the darkness deepened around us, we sat quietly along the dock, watching the southern summer sky. Above us blazed Venus, a solitary sparkle; down to its left, as if a genie had conjured it up with a wave of his hand, emerged a crescent moon. It was a long way from home, but a sight well worth the journey.

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 45: I Love My Pig

THERE’S SOMETIMES a thin line between handicraft and fine art, and I think that this wooden pig I picked up yesterday from a souvenir shop in Puerto Princesa, Palawan may have crossed that line.

It stood all by itself in a roomful of pretty and exquisitely carved objects, but something about its form appealed to me, even the roughness of its finish—that long rise up its spine and then the precipitous drop down its snout, which ends up as solid as a fifth foot, and here and there the little lumps and undulations suggesting bone and muscle.

It was when I lifted it that I knew I had to have it—it’s one hefty porker, having been carved out of ipil (Intsia bijuga), a local hardwood. My hands wrap nicely over its back and belly. This is one pig that’ll be rooting on my desk for a long time.

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.


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.


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 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!