SAN  PABLO'S  LURE

MANILA
, August 1, 2007 (STAR) By An Mercado-Alcantara - Dawn has yet to crack and I am on my way to San Pablo, Laguna, from Manila, racing down the highway to get there early enough to casually fling open the front door when our first houseguests arrive for the day. My kids are lost in a pile of pillows and blankets at the back of the car. They will wake up an hour and a half later to a different world, far from the intense pressure of the city and closer to the scent of fresh-cut grass and the rambling pace of small-town living. The transition will be swift and dramatic. At the breakfast table, there will be piping hot tsokolate with crunchy pinipig, adobo rice wrapped in banana leaves, pandesal with native coco jam, and the surprise chemistry of a dozen or more strangers come to live with our family for the next couple of days or so.

My husband and I are innkeepers. And while we both have one foot entrenched in city life, we also have the other deeply rooted in our hometown. You might say we’ve taken a radical sabbatical; a borrowed term but nevertheless appropriate for the kind of life I have been living since the urge to live a simpler life came to me a little over three years ago. That was when I quit my corporate job in one of the biggest publishing companies in the country to become an innkeeper and writer-in-residence at Casa San Pablo.

It’s been a slow yet deliberate transition. Our kids still go to school in Manila, my husband still runs a Metro-based business, and I still take on freelance writing and editorial assignments from the city, yet more and more we’ve defined our days by the magic that happens when we sit around the dining table as innkeepers looking after the needs of our guests or holding conversations with travelers who become instant friends because we find in each other a kindred longing for the laid-back, small-scale life.

We live in an area of San Pablo City that old-timers refer to as sambat. Literally, this means junction — the place where people’s paths cross, where friends meet friends, and where new journeys begin. Our family’s beginnings in Sambat date back to the 1900s, when Sinforosa Azores Gomez — Inay, as we fondly called her — inherited this property from her father; back then it was a coconut plantation with a pristine creek running through it and a rest house for guests of the family. Today, it is a sprawling family compound with a 12-room cottage and two casitas for guests to stay in.

Of course, we didn’t start off with that many rooms. We had four to begin with, all designed and constructed in collaboration with Tiaong-based potter Ugu Bigyan, a dear friend. We had the idea that we would run a quaint bed and breakfast similar to those we had stayed in on trips abroad. We calibrated our dream, took only measurable steps and comforted ourselves with the thought that should the project fail, we could always live in the cottage. To our delight, people came and stayed; came back again, and stayed again. They tell us coming to our place is like coming home to family. They also tell us staying in our rooms, packed with collections and memorabilia from our childhood and from our sporadic vintage hunts, make them feel like kids again. Most of all, they tell us the dinner conversation, over meals prepared as our Inay would have prepared them, gives them so much comfort. So from one dinner conversation to another, and with former guests spreading the word to other guests, we’ve strung together the dozen rooms we have today.

Our inn is a family affair. My husband and I hover and buzz over the tables. We change bedsheets and throw out the trash ourselves. My mother-in-law, Vinya Alcantara, is up early mornings cutting flowers from the garden and arranging them into shabby-chic bottles. Not that we don’t have help; we have a good team that works with us. And they, too, are family; so many of them have been working with our family for generations. But it is precisely this opportunity to be so involved in ordinary living that gives us quiet joy.

Interestingly enough, several others have found our part of the world — the Los Baños-San Pablo, Tiaong-Lipa area — ideal for living and doing business at this cozy level. Nina and Paul Poblador took their radical sabbatical down from Baguio a couple of years ago and are now running Kusina Salud, a thriving gourmet restaurant out of mom Patis Tesoro’s summer house in Putol, San Pablo City. We met them first in Baguio. I was still a magazine editor then and was eager to write about this young couple living a Peter Mayle-style life in the summer capital. I envied how the fresh produce of Baguio sparked Paul’s creativity and how Nina masterfully handled the art of tableside conversations with diners. Now they’ve reinvented themselves and the culinary scene in Laguna. Patis herself warmly welcomes guests, and is not above pulling up a chair so she can sit and tell her guests about the places to see in San Pablo.

Entrepreneur-turned-brass sculptor Carlito Ortega stopped straddling business and art to devote all his time to hammering away at his atelier in San Pablo. He, too, took the radical path and now welcomes guests who want to drop by his studio and watch him shape brass, through high heat and brute strength, into his signature writhing carabaos and hefty farmers. What I find most charming about Carlito is his child-like exuberance. Once, after sculpting a carabao head he was particularly pleased with, he tucked it under his arm, jumped into his pickup truck, and took the short drive to our inn to give the piece to my husband, Boots. He showed his work off the way a little boy would show off a captured beetle on a summer afternoon: he was unabashed and so completely pleased with himself.

Ugu Bigyan’s pottery garden in Tiaong, Quezon, is already a traveler’s magnet. He took his own radical sabbatical almost 20 years ago: barely a week after he started working as a clerk in a bank in Makati, he called it quits and went back home to Tiaong to try his hand at pottery. What seemed so radical then has worked out so perfectly for him. Having now been invited to Paris, the US, Thailand and Vietnam as a visiting artist, he says he cannot imagine how life would have been if he had not given up the lure of city life. Today, Ugu has found new passion in cooking. He now serves traditional Laguna dishes, which he markets for and cooks himself, plated on his wonderful pottery. What I enjoy about Ugu is that fame has not changed him. We’ve been friends for over a decade now and, in recent weeks, we’ve taken to spending our day off together. I pack a small picnic basket and head off to his studio first thing in the morning. We spend the day sitting across each other at his work table, fashioning clay into whatever we fancy, and sharing stories of life’s twists and turns.

There are others still of this same mold. In Dolores, less than 20 minutes from San Pablo City proper, former production designer Jay Herrera has also given up the hectic movie world to run the enchanting Kinabuhayan Café, a bed and breakfast. Over at Lipa, Bill Luz of the Makati Business Club has himself turned innkeeper by transforming his farm, Tara Woods, into a charming bed and breakfast. In Bay, Los Baños, my brothers Wawel and Robbi Mercado are also charting new paths for travelers by opening the Los Baños Forest Club for experiential-learning camps. Of course, Don Ado Escudero and his Villa Escudero are light years ahead of all of us. He took the ultimate sabbatical of hacienda living and turned it into a lifestyle trend. Hacienda Escudero has just been launched, offering farm lots for those, like us, who need a place to go to get away from it all.

What binds us together is not just geography, but a way of looking at life on an intimate level and the daring to go after our passion. We support each other on this journey to uncover where our love for life leads us — we drop in on each other, exchange artwork, inspire each other, and assure each other that we are not alone. The people who travel to see us seem lured by this, too. What you will find in what we have come to call Viaje del Sol — a route tracing select destinations across Los Banos, San Pablo, Tiaong and Lipa — are not over-the-top experiences but rather a gentle build-up of small, quiet moments that can be so rare in city life and so precious and essential to the life we have chosen to live. Come have your sabbatical with us soon.

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Casa San Pablo is a country inn at the heart of San Pablo, Laguna. It is open for family visits as well as corporate seminars and workshops. It is an ideal jump-off point for destinations in the Viaje del Sol map. For details on Casa San Pablo and Viaje del Sol, visit www.casasanpablo.com. For reservations, call 0917-8126687.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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