Two days before I was to leave for Palawan to join the first Adverbum Writers Retreat in Palawan, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Central Visayas at past 8 in the morning. Soon after, social network newsfeeds were filled with initial images of the destruction it wrought. Later, television news programs provided more details. It broke my heart to see the ancient Baclayon and Loboc churches destroyed, but even more distressing were the number of human casualties. The earthquake was also felt in Davao City, but to a lesser extent, and with no reported damage. Still, I couldn’t help but feel anxious to leave my two children for a week to do something entirely for myself.
It was a palpable anxiety that I had been feeling since I learned about the retreat. Last July, I received an invitation to the writers retreat from Almira Astudillo-Gilles of Chicago, who organized the retreat to provide established writers with “time and space for creative work.” On October 17 – 22, I was to join Jose “Butch” Dalisay, Ed Maranan, Ricky de Ungria, and Juaniyo Arcellana in a private and secluded villa in Sitio Bobosawen, one and a half hours by road from Puerto Princesa City. With no mobile signal whatsoever, a two-kilometer stretch of coastline, and a view of the mountains, it did sound like a perfect writer’s destination.
When I asked permission to travel from UP Mindanao, where I teach, my dean asked in her usual candid way, “What’s a writers retreat anyway? What do you expect to do there?” It was a question I wondered about too, as this was the first of its kind in the Philippines, as far as I knew. And I had never been to one. Having survived Catholic schools all my life, I only knew about retreats as religious obligations facilitated by a priest, and in which participants must reflect upon their shortcomings, confess, and be changed. Being a retreat for writers, I was confident this one wasn’t going to require confession. And having learned that our organizer, Almira Astudillo-Gilles had a PhD in Sociology and was an accomplished and prize-winning writer herself, it assured me that the retreat was indeed meant to allow us time and space to write. And yet I didn’t go there pressuring myself to finish a book; I went there to clear out heart-space so I could listen to what has been drowned out by the din of everyday life and obligations. If, by the end of the retreat, I was able to pound out a draft of an essay for my bigger book project of essays about the past six years, which I dubbed as “coming to life in Davao,” I imagined I will have achieved my personal objective.
On the day before our flight, Almira thoughtfully informed us that Cebu Pacific, which sponsored our flights, was back to business as usual, despite the earthquake the day before. Ricky de Ungria and I were flying from Davao via Cebu to Puerto Princesa. On the two-hour layover at the Mactan airport, I could sense that even though everyone seemed to be back to work as usual, anxiety hung in the air. Cebu was still experiencing at least 200 aftershocks daily. Thankfully, our Cebu Pacific flight arrived and departed even earlier than expected.
Arriving in Puerto Princesa, I was eager to finally meet Almira, who had singlehandedly organized the retreat, and with her astute marketing skills, gathered sponsors for it, particularly Cebu Pacific and the luxurious Hotel Centro, which provided us dinner and overnight accommodations on our last night in Puerto Princesa. I later learned that organizing this writers retreat had been Almira’s dream, inspired by her experience of the Ragdale Artists Retreat in Chicago, as well as her way of giving back to the Philippine community after she received the Philippine Presidential Award “Pamana ng Bayan” for Literature in 2012 from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas. I was glad to notice that she had a warm and easy demeanor, which we all would later revel in throughout the week. Having arrived earlier from Manila, already waiting in the van were Ed Maranan, Butch, and his wife, the artist June “Beng” Dalisay. Also joining the retreat were father and daughter team, former BIR Commissioner Joel Tan-Torres and Marjette, who each had writing projects they were hoping to get advice on. Unfortunately, Juaniyo had backed out at the last minute because he was recuperating from a bout with dengue fever.
I could barely recognize Puerto Princesa City. The last time I was there was in 1999, when I was hosted by a good friend, Audi Colongon, in their family home. At that time we had to take a public jeepney to visit the St. Paul Subterranean River, which took at least four hours from Puerto Princesa. Today, there are 10,000 beds available in the city, with at least twenty standard and economy hotels, which can arrange their own tours to the various must-see sites in Palawan.
Our group, however, had only one destination: the “Amazing Villa” in Sitio Bobosawen, past the coastal town of Napsan, west of Puerto Princesa. It took us two hours to get there, on rough roads that included a shallow river pass whose bridge was still under construction. If we passengers were shaken, the van was clearly battered, as big rocks intermittently banged against its undercarriage. Our driver, who had never been to the area, deftly navigated the rough journey, hoping he was on the right path, as the only directions he had gotten from the owners of the villa was to follow the road to Napsan. All the time, there was a smaller van ahead of us, which assured us at least that this rocky road was leading somewhere. Unfortunately, past the river pass, that van’s muffler fell and they had to stop. Our driver stopped too, to ask if he could help, and we discovered that the passengers of the van were Theresa Juguan-Gielen, the villa’s owner, and her staff. She assured us that we were nearing the villa, and that our driver should just follow the road and then turn left when it turns left. That was as clear as directions were going to get. Thankfully, after thirty more minutes of shaking and rattling and magnificent views of the mountain range and protected forest, we finally arrived. The lone (amazing) house stood majestic amid the greenery.
Almira, who had been there before on a weekend to check out the villa and the environment, gave us a tour of the organic farm from which the villa’s vegetables and herbs came, introduced us to the livestock and free-range chickens, then took us to the beach, a five-minute walk down a rocky path. It was a trek I would take happily every day, to enjoy the beach, which I had all to myself. My first sight of the lovely cove with an unbelievably long stretch of white sand beach and shallow waters with impressive low waves made me utter a prayer of thanks that I had had the courage to come. I would discover the next day that I could swim out very far from shore and the water would still be within my chest-level, unless a large wave came rushing just to make things more challenging.
But the first thing I did at the villa, which I sorely needed, was sleep. I dropped off quickly into a deep, dreamless nap, long enough to miss the sunset, which could be viewed from the villa’s vine-laden trellis. I caught “only” the gorgeous palette created by the sun sinking below the horizon. Theresa assured me, “Don’t worry. There will be another one tomorrow. But it is different every day.” I wondered how much beauty a person could take, living here.
Our first meal at the villa was a late merienda of Theresa’s pancit bihon and Vietnamese spring rolls, which segued nicely into a delicious dinner of grilled pork and fried rice. Not only were all the ingredients she used organic, she “cooked with emotion,” by her own description. She later shared that she would refuse to cook for guests she didn’t like. She admitted that she had been anxious about our particular group of writers and how she would entertain us. Maybe she thought we’d be a bunch of old fogeys—intellectuals who couldn’t care less about others except their books, or solipsistic poets who sat alone in their turrets contemplating their sorry state. She would be right, in a way. But she revealed that when their van had to stop on the way, she saw me beside Almira, and she knew immediately that everything was going to be ok. She said she has strong intuition about people and she is never wrong. I liked that bit very much, and the whole group would be grateful for all the beautiful and healthful meals we shared while we were there.
The meals at the villa consistently wowed us, especially on the second day when Theresa’s husband, Herwig arrived from Manila, she prepared a sumptuous welcome for him (and for us!) of crayfish in a fruity sauce. None of us had ever encountered this creature before in our culinary adventures. It’s called “pitik” in Palawan, and is fairly common there, but not in the large sizes we enjoyed that evening. They looked like small lobsters with a thicker carapace, and had to be sliced down the middle to reveal the meat. It tasted faintly of the sea, as crabs do, but the flesh was more tender. The roe was even more of a delight, like butter from the sea. I am certain it had aphrodisiac qualities. As Theresa describes it, “you must eat with passion.” She would later share that it is her dream to write her own cookbook, which she would entitle “Cooking with Emotion.” By the end of the retreat, Butch had given her advice on how to structure the book, and Ed had been enlisted to edit it and help her find a publisher. The rest of us gladly volunteered to help in the test kitchen.
Our evenings were devoted to communing with each other, sharing aspects of our lives as well as thoughts on writing. Almira had asked each of the sponsored writers to prepare an activity that we all could participate in each night. On the first night, we held an impromptu poetry reading, as there seemed no better way to get to know each other. On the second night, Almira facilitated a revealing and fun activity, “Two Truths and One Lie,” in which each of us had to share three things about ourselves, and the others had to guess which one was a lie. It was quite a precious evening, one I wish I could sell on eBay. And yet if I were asked right now about the secrets revealed that night, I wouldn’t be lying if I say I have forgotten the details. On the third night, I led an interactive writing exercise on creating character, which demonstrated how Butch very easily and quickly develops a story from a random list of items. I kept his handwritten exercise, which he had carelessly left on the dining table; this one I can probably sell on eBay someday. And then the next nights drifted into their own groove, one devoted to cooking lessons, and another to telling anecdotes about the supernatural, including love potions made from ylang-ylang and gotucola, a natural contraceptive from “bulobituon,” and a mysterious poison from the juice of mating “pawikan,” meant to fatally punish errant lovers.
But perhaps the most engaging story told on the historic table was the one about Theresa and Herwig’s love story. At first meeting, one could conclude that they are just another mixed race couple: an Ilongga and a Belgian thrust together by fate and deciding to build a life together in their own paradise in Palawan. But our time with them revealed much more: of how Herwig had fallen for her particularly because she was not like any other Filipina he had met; she was feisty and outspoken, and had her own money. It took them seven years to grow their love, which ended in this marriage of six years so far, the same time it has taken to build the “amazing villa” we know today.
They did seem to me to be a perfect match, in terms of temperament and life vision. With each bringing out the best in the other and celebrating the gifts of their togetherness each day. Only once did I espy a raw nerve in the couple, when Theresa expressed disapproval of Herwig speaking in French with some of his friends in her presence. It brought to mind my own “la belle histoire d’amour,” many many years ago, when I enjoyed and suffered the consequences of being the “exotic” girlfriend of a French diplomat who was much older than I was. I still remember how much I thought I needed to prove, every time we were out in public, that I was not his whore, that I was somebody. Sadly, even though I remember wanting so much for that relationship to end with a wedding, our differences were too much to bear. By the time he asked to marry me, I had given up on our love. Many years later, we found an opportunity to reconnect online, and to seek forgiveness for having failed each other. I understand now that it wasn’t entirely because he was French and I was Filipina; it was because despite having been together for two years, we remained foreign to each other. All of us in the group admired the Gielen couple, but I think I did so for a slightly different reason.
On Sunday, which could have been any other day, because the days blurred into each other the way they always do when one is on vacation, Almira asked if any of us wanted to venture out to town to go to church. Instead, Butch in particular, wanted to venture out to sea to somehow find a mobile signal. I joined the group because I wanted to take a boat out to sea and to find a coral reef in which to snorkel. We were also going to visit Snake Island, which was notorious for being home to numerous poisonous sea snakes. The waves buffeted our outrigger boat as it traveled for at least an hour in search of a signal. When we finally reached our destination, which was a mysterious point in the middle of the West Philippine Sea, known only to boatmen as the “signalan”—or the place where the signal is strong. Joel took out his laptop and plugged in his pocket Wifi, only to be disappointed. My phone was entirely useless. And our boatman Lolly could only shake his head that our “high-tech” phones couldn’t detect the signal. He said we should have told him to bring his analog phone, which could even get “four bars” of signal out there. Anyhow, it was a scenic trip with views of many coves and glorious cloud formations. I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t have any sea snake encounters, even though I bravely plunged into the Snake Island reef, which was not teeming with fish. (Did the snakes eat them all? I wondered.) I was very glad that the relatively rough sea trip ended with a leisurely snorkel at our own beach’s coral reef, which can only be reached by boat (unless one is willing to swim at least 300 meters from shore). The life and variety of corals was spectacular, and the resident fish were larger than any I have seen; perhaps evidence that the area is protected from tropical fish poaching.
But what about the writing?
In between our meals and social activities, we would each find a space in which we felt safe and solitary enough to open our hearts and writing pads, whether in paper or electronic form. I begrudged Butch and Ed for being able to write even while we were at the dining table, talking. But I understand now that it is a lesson I should teach myself, if I am to be a more productive (and professional) writer—to be able to see writing as an integral part of real life, and not as something so precious, one can only do it under rare and special circumstances. Especially for women writers who have children, many have successfully demonstrated that the work can be done even in the midst of domestic chaos. But this week in Palawan had to be taken advantage of; I owed it to the organizer and the sponsors, but most of all, to myself. So on the third day, I finally found the space promised by the retreat on the beach, after a laborious dip, which was actually a struggle with the villa’s two huge black Labradors.
Gaudi and Gourmet seemed trained to follow anyone from the villa who was going to the beach. And they really like to swim, not just run around. So they playfully joined me in the water, and each time I tried to go deeper, they would jump on me, especially the male Gaudi. Maybe he thought I was drowning, and he wanted to save me. He would jump on me as a big wave came down, and I felt his full weight on my shoulders. I wondered if he was in fact trying to drown me, because this dog is taller than me on his hind legs, and probably heavier. But maybe that’s just my past haunting me. Nothing I said or did worked on these two, so I gave up on swimming and just spread my sarong under a shady talisay tree to write. There I started writing in my thin notebook with a cover design saying, “SCRAP MEMORY. For Creativity and Decoration,” which I had bought to taunt myself. Under the midday sun, Gaudi sprawled beside me, his tongue hanging out. It seemed like he was a guardian angel making sure I was safe, or a devil making sure I was doing my job. With Gaudi keeping watch, I actually felt safe enough to take a nap on the beach after two pages of writing about why I should be writing. Not such a good idea, because the sand flies or “niknik” had a feast. Two weeks after the retreat, I am still scratching the numerous bites on my arms, legs, and back. They are so numerous I looked like I had measles when they were fresh. Today they look like chicken pox scars. Either way, I am marked by my choice of writing space, which I do not regret. I came back the next day, and the next, without canine company. And on our last day there, the sea gifted me with insight.
A child once asked me, many years ago, why I kept collecting “basura” from the beaches I went to. Shells, of course, colored glass, small driftwood, and once, bamboo roots after a storm. I explained that this wasn’t trash; they were leavings of the sea. I took them home as souvenirs from each trip to the beach. Yet I didn’t mark them so I would often forget anyway where each one had come from, unless it was a distinct treasure. I surrounded myself with dead things, I’ve realized now, things I gave new life to by honoring what remained beautiful in them, despite or maybe because of the dying. Of all the treasures I’ve found, combing beaches all over the Philippines, I value most the ones I couldn’t keep—the skeletons of sea urchins, which are too brittle to pack and will never survive the trip home. I had tried once and failed. A slight poke would break them into pieces. So I’ve learned to just take them from the beach and take photos, and then leave them behind.
I found three on my last walk on the beach, which a Cuyonon fisherman told me seemed to be the skeleton of a sea urchin they call “tirik,” the kind that has short spines and are not as venomous as the type with long spines, and which were usually red or pink with orange stripes. He added that the roe was a delicacy, eaten raw, with the spines causing a tingling sensation on the lips, which was certainly part of the gustatory pleasure. The ones I had found were already dried by the sun, beige, oblong-shaped, with the distinct star pattern in the center, and tiny holes around it from which the spines had once protruded.
I held them gently in my palm, and saw, not a star but a Vitruvian-man-of-a-kind, with its heart splayed open, in a final offering to God: “Here I am.” I imagined we all have this pattern, when all the flesh has been stripped away by time—at our core, a star—that which navigates our lives, that which opens the heart at the moment of dying, in a final surrender to the God that had placed it there, and the only one who can truly satisfy it. Everything else aspired for in the living is but a shadow of the true star within.
In Tagalog, the word “tirik” means to stop, but also refers to the rolling of the eyeball inward, a gesture of extreme pleasure, for instance at orgasm (“le petit mort”); or at the moment of actual dying: “Here I am.”
It was difficult for all of us to leave the “amazing villa,” which, on our last night there, was christened “Villa Ambrosia,” upon the suggestion of Butch and the concurrence of the Gielens and our motley crew of mortals blessed to partake in the “food of the gods” in this oasis. I don’t know if Butch and Ed actually finished their books; Almira shared that she finished a short story; Ricky finished a poem inspired by the Gielens’ love story; Beng finished pencil sketches of the women, based on our time together and many photos she had taken of us. I marveled at her portrait of me, which showed a side of me I wasn’t exactly used to, not in my selfies. She said, “I wanted to capture your joie de vivre.”
That night, I dreamt I was with my kids, and that there was an earthquake and a stampede. I held onto my daughter tightly, but my son was dragged away from us. I kept screaming his name and reaching out but I lost him. I woke up in a sweat, and wanting desperately to call home. But it was impossible until we were back in Puerto Princesa the next day. Almira kindly assured me that dreams aren’t literal, so I shouldn’t worry. I figured it was just my residual anxiety about the past week’s disaster.
How does one gauge the success of a writers retreat? I didn’t finish my book in Palawan; I didn’t have to. But I was able to carve out space to hear what my heart wanted to tell me, no matter how faintly its voice seemed. In the process, I confessed to myself, and discovered what and whom I needed to forgive. The peace provided by the retreat shook me up, drawing attention to parts of myself that I need to let go of in order to save what I valued more— not what I have lost in the journey of the past six years— but what I can harvest from it as gifts.
Jhoanna Lynn B. Cruz is a professor of literature in the University of the Philippines Mindanao. She is president of the Davao Writers Guild.
For information about the villa, please visit http://www.holidaylettings.co.uk/rentals/puerto-princesa/285430 and http://www.villarenters.com/rent-villas/philippines/palawan
Cebu Pacific flies daily to Puerto Princesa from Manila and Cebu. They also have one direct flight from Davao to Puerto Princesa and back on Saturdays.