Saturday, February 26, 2011

Glory Be, Gilda's at It Again

Her late-night text on a Tuesday didn't arrive. I have a habit of turning off my cell phone just before I sleep; it's something that annoys my eldest child who says, "What if there's an emergency?" Well, it's precisely for that reason I turn the thing off--it's usually bad news that comes in at a late hour. And if it's bad news, it can wait till morning.

It wasn't bad news that Gilda Cordero Fernando had sent me. It was just a request to come in at an earlier time. And being me, when I'm with my shadow, I usually am on time or ahead of the appointed time. So that Wednesday, I arrived at her gate promptly at 11 ("Huwag 10, baka may muta pa ako," she told me on the phone) loaded down with Benguet coffee, an art book, a cat book and a bag of Globake hopia which she loves despite her diabetes.

She was busy in her bed-cum-work room listing down the big paintings/collages she had finished in the past year. Gilda has always handwritten her stuff, even drafts of her essays, fiction, even lesser-known scripts. She has an email address, but someone else, usually a computer-literate help, opens it for her after you text her that you've sent some documents or photos she may like to look at. She can't for the life of her find QWERTY on a Remington or an old-fashioned personal computer. It has always been pen on yellow-ruled pad for her. When she cuts and pastes, she really does that: she cuts with a pair of scissors and pastes the paragraphs that have to be moved up or down with scotch tape.

That morning was no different. She sounded sungit when she turned to me, saying she would get lost in her listahan if she had me to entertain. I said, "No problem. I'll go to the kitchen and look for something to drink." (I hope my mother, who has a Facebook account, isn't reading this note. I wouldn't want her to think that she raised me to feel so at home in other people's houses that the first place I head for is the kitchen or the fridge.) Anyway, I was so confident that there would be a can of Coke 0 ready there so I had one to go with a packet of Skyflakes crackers. Being diabetic, too, I take five or six meals a day, spread out within a 17-hour period.

So when Gilda saw me fully concentrated on munching away at her desk, she told me, "Yah, I know the feeling." She was referring to hypoglycemia when we feel parched and ravenous as our blood sugar drops. "Don't eat too fast," she added, "we have nice hot choco and nice lunch." She returned to her chore.

I talked to her back. "Having a show?"



"Oh, the usual--SLAB." That's Silverlens 's sister gallery on Pasong Tamo, Makati.

Her framer was coming over at 2 p.m. to pick up the works, and she was listing their titles down, plus their sizes, I suppose, for the pre-exhibit preparations.

One of the help, whom I address Ning as I am unsure of her name, comes in to bring me hot chocolate with a separate platito of fresh green pinipig. Gilda knows what I like to drink in her house--homemade hot choco. And what I like to do there is just hang out in her room, taking in the myriad of objects that defines the dweller. Even when she pauses to take a leak or powder her face, going to her very own tatak Gilda bathroom, her presence lingers.

These past couple of days, we've been exchanging text messages about gouache, watercolor, best source of art supplies, the book I lent her, the difference between transparency and opacity.

You'd think you're talking to a classmate or a peer. But it's Gilda who never fails to put an element of mischief in a prosaic thing as an SMS.

I complained about my in-house critic, Rolly Fernandez, who pointed out after seeing the first coat of paint I put on my latest works. "Masyadong manipis ang pahid mo," he said. Annoyed, I decided to haul my unfinished works to my friend Toottee Chanco Pacis's greenhouse in Baguio so I could paint undistracted.

Gilda said hers was no different. Atty. Marcelo is still suggesting that she paint a bahay kubo for her subject.

Now, I don't know if I am better off with my critic.

Photos of Gilda's boudoir by Babeth

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Lemon Chiffon Cake Moment

My Baguio moments are simply that--moments to savor when it’s time to take the bus for wherever, usually to Metro Manila where a pile of work awaits.

So when my neurologist, Edmundo Saniel, pronounced me well but in need of a break to stop two weeks of off-and-on migraine attacks, all it took were a few minutes of packing a bag and sending a sick leave notice to my school supervisor and I was off before you could say, "Biyaheng Baguio."

And my first moments there were spent chomping down a grilled burger at the Hill Station which is turning a year old in March. It is a local success in terms of adaptive re-use of a heritage building. The lighting inside the restaurant is soft so it doesn't trigger a dull, throbbing headache. While awaiting my order, I went down to Mt. Cloud and was gladly "robbed" of a few hundreds of pesos for books and stationery (I reserved some more for another visit).

One evening during this recent week-long break, my old man asked me to follow at Hill Station where he was having dinner with former colleagues Glenda Gloria, Ed Lingao and photographer Melvin Calderon. He hadn't seen them in more than decade, and not even Facebooking could replace eyeballing and reminiscing aloud about good old days in the old-fashioned newsrooms when reporters like Ed could be mentored directly by the desk person assigned to his copy. Today, newsrooms are not the noisy hubs they once were as all communications are done by cell phone or email.

Glenda and Ed were still around when desk persons like Rolly Fernandez and myself walked around with cricks on our neck (from taking long dictation of reporters' stories filed from the field by phone). They say there is little interaction between copy editors and reporters/correspondents these days, and this is one reason the latter don't improve and commit the same errors over and over. But let's not get into that.

I was quite pleased that evening because Melchor the waiter was by our table. He's an amiable fellow, and Melvin correctly guessed that he was named after one of the Three Kings and his birthday fell on Jan. 6. On both counts Melvin was right. Melchor added the info that his second name is Gaspar. Bingo!

Hill Station's moving spirit Mitos Benitez Yniguez brought out a plate of a dessert that was on try-out stage. By the time I return in March, I hope it's permanently on the dessert menu. It's no other than DARK CHOCOLATE brownies. Yes, no typo there. I emphasized decadently dark chocolate. The swift, trigger-happy photog Melvin made sure that the leftover brownies that go well with Benguet coffee were wrapped in a paper napkin and stashed in his camera bag.

After all that fine dining, I had to return the favor to the old man who had gallantly driven me around town and cooked three big meals on the Sunday when my art tutor Norman Chow, his son Chino and I did the final details on my paintings for next month's Nineveh Art Space show in Santa Cruz, Laguna.

I treated him to a Café by the Ruins lunch yesterday--the works, from soup to dessert. As for myself before I took the journey to Work Land, I just had to have my lemon chiffon cake and eat it, too. Sa muling pagbabalik (kain)!

Top photo by Melvin Calderon shows Glenda, Rolly, the blogger and Ed Lingao after a satisfying dinner.

Lower photo is the stuff of my fantasies: lemon chiffon cake

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Pink Roses for Tony Hidalgo

The color pink is not one I associate with a very macho and seniority-conscious organization like Upsilon Sigma Phi, the oldest fraternity in Asia at 93 this year. And yet, at the farewell rites held Feb. 6 at Mt. Carmel Shrine for the late Antonio "Tony" Atienza Hidalgo, writer, publisher of Milflores books, international civil servant and illustrious Upsilonian, each living brod (short for "brother") of his held a pink rose and solemnly placed it atop his coffin.

I was afraid the rites would be marked by blustery speeches. It was for a reason that "barbarians" or non-sister sorority members like myself refer to this frat's members behind their backs as "Upsilon yabang" because some members are so full of themselves and seem to enjoy the sport of putting their brods in positions of influence and power.

But to their credit, the frat has produced outstanding citizens like patriot Wenceslao Vinzons, assassinated Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr., the Laurel brothers (Jose Jr., Salvador and Sotero), past University of the Philippines presidents Salvador P. Lopez and Onofre D. Corpuz, journalist-professor Armando J. Malay, poets Gemino H. Abad and Raul R. Ingles, Sen. Joker Arroyo, Latin American studies expert Modesto "Chibu" Lagman, filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik, even couturier Pitoy Moreno.

My fears were laid to rest that evening. The rites began with a simple roll call of Tony's fraternity batch mates from 1960. The living ones answered with a clear, strong "Here," "Present" or "Aye." When Tony's full name was announced three times in a row, there was silence until a batch mate piped up that Tony could not respond because he was no longer with them; he had departed.

The eulogies by writers Efren Yambot and Ricardo "Dick" Malay and retired diplomat Oscar Valenzuela were short, touching, humorous in parts and revealed the personality of the deceased.

Efren recalled how Tony brought him and other brods to the University of Santo Tomas campus where Tony was courting a junior faculty member, Cristina "Jing" Pantoja. Her office was inside an old, imposing building with a Latin inscription carved on the façade.

Efren bragged that he could understand Latin and volunteered this translation of the Latin aphorism. He said that it just meant "Bawal ang umihi dito (Urinating is forbidden here)." Tony was flushed with irritation at his brod. Obviously, he was embarrassed before the woman who he was courting and who would eventually become his wife. For a time, he snubbed Efren because of this incident.

Efren remembered a time when his play was severely criticized. He went to Tony for words of comfort because he suffered from writer's block. Quoting a French writer, Tony told him that writers are like caravans travelling in the desert at night; dogs are howling at them, but the caravan ignores them and keeps on moving. Consoled, Efren proceeded to write another play.

Dick asked Jing if her Thomasian education clashed with Tony's more secular background. He wondered what it was like to live with an intellectual of Tony's caliber. In a word, the widow replied, "Tough!"

Oscar recalled meeting Tony during his application period in the fraternity. The more senior brod noted how Oscar was partial to the works of existentialist writer Albert Camus. They discussed his works, thus sparing the neophyte a possible rough manhandling which was part of initiation rites.

Later, Oscar and Tony became fast friends, exchanging and discussing books. Among the more memorable discussions was the need for a philosophy grounded on Philippine realities to underpin the leftist ideology that was then sweeping the country in the late '60s. Both were sympathetic to the movement for social change. Each went on to contribute his bit in their spheres of influence.

A little-known anecdote about Tony was he was even photographed joining an anti-Marcos demonstration, and the picture landed in the newspapers. This caused Jing's sudden termination as a teacher at UST while in the middle of her class.

At the end of the rites, the pile of pink roses was bundled up and handed over to slim, dry-eyed, serene-looking Jing. In her brief response, she said she realized that marrying an Upsilonian came with a package deal. She had to embrace and accept the brods, too, entertaining and feeding them when Tony brought them home.

The Pantoja-Hidalgo love story is evident in Jing's collections of essays where Tony figures as a steadfast, dependable partner and literary equal (they served at one time as the INQUIRER's grammar police). Certainly, he is the love of her life. He brought his convent-bred wife and their family to live in politically volatile countries in his line of work as a ranking officer of Unicef. They lived for sometime in countries like war-torn Lebanon and Burma which experienced a military upheaval. For a writer like Jing, these foreign postings deepened her writings.

Looking back at their relationship in an essay in the book “Telling Lives: Essays by Filipino Women” (Circle Publications), she was 22 and Tony 23 when they married. She wrote: “Neither my husband nor I had planned on marrying so early. We were bright and ambitious and gregarious, our heads full of plans for 'making a name for ourselves' and 'changing the world'...

“I was myself also scandalously unprepared for even the role of housewife. My husband still likes to entertain our friends with tales of my early mishaps: the bacon that I drowned in cooking oil, the eggs that got stuck in the pan, the pancake mix that I poured directly into a hot frying pan and watched in awe as it rose to the ceiling like some gothic castle, the rellenong bangus that I sewed up with bright blue embroidery thread, the socks that I left soaking in Chlorox for a week, the pocket-sized front yard which remained totally bare until my father-in-law came one Sunday morning with some flowering shrubs and planted them himself.”

Lucky Tony--he lived long enough to celebrate his golden year as an Upsilonian last year. And a few days before Valentine's, his brods sent him off with offerings of pink roses. This flower is the frat's official one. In the language of flowers, it symbolizes admiration. I cannot think of a more romantic, sensitively masculine gesture than that.

As for Jing as she struggles to come to terms with the loss of Tony, I am sure, that in time, like the iconic American essayist-novelist Joan Didion who bore the death of husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, she will “make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends...”

In that same book “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Didion realized towards the end

“why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

“I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

“Let them become the photograph on the table.

“Let them become the name on the trust accounts.

“Let go of them in the water.”

To Jing, from your wide writing family, here is our inadequate bouquet of words.

Photo from Antonio Hidalgo's Facebook profile, used with his family's permission, shows Tony (left) and Jing (second from right) with fellow writers Ralph Semino Galan, Erlinda Panlilio and Susan Lara.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Aspiration: To Achieve Cat-like Insouciance

Victoria Rico Costina, my friend who has acquired the shibboleth of "Cat Woman of Baguio" and a literature professor at the UP Baguio, will launch her book Those Who Love Cats, essays, profiles, reviews and basic cat care tips for Filipino homes (she's too modest to claim it as her autobiography) on March 4 at the university's student alumni center on Gov. Pack Road. The slim volume (82 pages) will soon be available at Baguio book shops and at National Bookstore branches. Coinciding with her book launch, Vickie invited UP Diliman journalism alumna Angie Salanio to exhibit her watercolors of cats at the same venue.

Vickie asked me to introduce  her book with some urgency while I was holidaying with family in the US. I responded with equal urgency, but then she had some difficulty finding a welcoming publisher until she took matters into her own hands. Recently, she asked me to act as program emcee. I've begged off from that duty.  But I'm returning the honor by reproducing the intro as my contribution to the book's marketing.

I'm especially proud to be connected to the book. Firstly, it's a Baguio production through and through--from the writing to the illustrations (by my fine arts classmate Czarina Calinawagan and fellow visual artist Rishab) to the layout and design by Frederick Pedragosa to photography by Vickie's husband Ruel and printing. Secondly, like I wrote in the intro, this book may be some kind of first in Philippine publishing. Thirdly and more importantly, it marks Vickie's coming out as a writer. So enough of false modesty, Vickie. Please follow up this book with a second one. Congratulations and much affection!


Do cats procrastinate and prevaricate? Put off things for later at the rate that I do and delude myself that nothing is as important as prioritizing de-stressing for health’s sake?

Author Victoria Rico Costina, in what must be the first book of its kind in the Philippines, described cats as pleasure-loving creatures. If I have a choice, I would like to be described that way—a pleasure-seeking adult who has never quite grown up. One time Vickie did call me a “lady of leisure,” but the image that entered my mind was of a matron with bejeweled fingers playing endless rounds of mahjongg with amigas.

I was raised with a killer combination of Catholic guilt and Protestant work ethic so I’m not quite there in the cat summit of perpetual pleasure seeking. I aspire to days of lazing on the bed, curled under a comforter on another foggy Baguio morning. I’d rise when I want to, comfort myself with a glass of milk, pad around softly in the house in my nightgown, go back to bed and siesta as much as I want. Then I’d stretch again, go down to the fridge, help myself to more cold milk, sniff around the bookshelf.

Come to think of it, I’ve been leading a cat’s life of some sort on the day I officially declared myself graduated from the workaday world. So much for guilt and working hard for the money.

I had a black and white cat in my youth. I called him Omar after the Egyptian actor. My kid sister Gigi never forgot how I got her to cradle him like a baby so I could take a picture of her in her sando and shorts. She never forgot the experience—she must have been less that six at that time. I was teaching myself to take a different kind of portrait with my new instamatic camera. I didn’t want anything posed so I instructed her to hold Omar the way a mother would. He would have none of it. For posterity, the photo captured Gigi flinching in pain as Omar clawed her. Perhaps this is why Gigi would rather care for mini pugs and pinschers and has had nothing to do with cats to this day.

Omar was admirably independent. I have no recollection of minding him, except for the time he came down with conjunctivitis. My cousin, a vet, advised me to put ointment on his eyes. By then I was working. From the office, I’d call home and instruct the helper in detail how to apply the ointment. My officemate overheard me and was smiling when I put down the phone. The smile read: “All that for a cat?”

Indeed, that can be said of Vickie’s book. I hope that it’ll be the first of many on singular loves.

To care this much for God’s small creatures, to allow them to take over her life almost to the exclusion of everyone else, affirms her humanity. She reminds me of another cat lover, Nieves Benito Epistola, also a professor of English and literature who reserved her gentlest cooing when she was caressing the head of one of dozens of cats that had the run of her house and garden.

Like Vickie, Nieves always used her cats for a reason for declining an invitation, even if it was a year in Greece with Anton Juan.

The Garcellanos of Kamuning, Quezon City, are in Vickie’s league. They count Kayenne as a family member. Whenever I drop by their place, I try to remember the “catiquette” observed there, one of which is not to talk about the cat when he is present in the room. Kayenne senses when he is the subject of the conversation. Kayenne and his deceased brother Bugsy are immortalized in Edel Garcellano’s poetry in the same way F. Puss the cat “nanny” is in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

“The cat world has a lot to teach us,” Nieves once said in a professorial tone.

I wonder sometimes if the cats in Vickie’s life observe her as keenly as she does them. Like F. Puss, they may be her sitters and she the baby they protect.

Nov. 15, 2009
Torrance City, California

 Cover of book reproduced from

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Portrait of an Artist as Citizen, Not Romantic Recluse

The adjective “Imeldific” connotes over-the-top extravagance and a graspingly ambitious, opulent lifestyle. It derives its origin from the fallen cultural czarina and former First Lady Imelda R. Marcos.
Among the dedicated cultural workers in the Philippines, there is another Imelda they respect—one whose slim, wraith-like figure belies an able leader capable of “graciously bring(ing) people  into her orbit of creative energy without fear of being outshone or diminished,” as described by art studies professor Eileen Legaspi Ramirez.

At long last, Imelda Cajipe Endaya, visual artist, curator, writer and organizer, is receiving an overdue appreciation. The University of the Philippines Press recently launched the anthology of essays “Alter/(n)ations: The Art of Imelda Cajipe Endaya,” edited by Flaudette May V. Datuin, simultaneous with a mini-retrospective of her works at Liongoren Gallery, 111 New York Street, Cubao, Quezon City.

While the exhibit tracks her development from a printmaker to painter to mixed media, installation and collage artist, the book divides her life and career into frames not unlike the windows Cajipe Endaya used in past works as a metaphor for the world out there encroaching on a housebound woman or a marginalized person.

Editor Datuin calls these framing devices “patchwork,” the way “the artist mends, scissors and shapes patches of cloth…from her life;” “artwork,” the way she eliminated the line demarcating lowly domestic crafts like crochet and papier mache from fine arts; and “worldwork,” where her democratic tendencies have made her sensitive to the plight of migrant Filipinos, especially domestic helpers, and enabled her to depict their struggle for dignity in a globalizing world in such a compelling visual language.

Art critic Alice G. Guillermo credited Cajipe Endaya for being “at the forefront of breaking down long-held artistic prejudices” through her use of women’s traditional materials in a contemporary way. In “Musmos” for example, a 1990 work included in the Liongoren Gallery show, the artist paints the face of a girl smiling at an imaginary procession of food and toys although her plate is empty, a sign of hunger and want.

In her piece “My Mother and I,” Indira, Imelda’s daughter and multimedia artist, remembers a childhood of “no Barbies and no junk food.” She was taught “not to be afraid to be untidy and get one’s hands dirty.” This had a liberating effect on the younger woman as it showed her that “creating art and rearing children had neither separate hours nor clearly define breaks…strict borders never existed at home. The whole house was a studio with mounted canvases that would stretch across the entire dining area floor.”

Because anything and everything could serve as materials and stimuli for Cajipe Endaya’s art, Indira realized that “perhaps my mother’s art was a reaction to the times, as much as a reaction to society, domesticity and gender roles.”

She was often asked how it felt to be an artist’s daughter. Indira’s invariable reply was: “Not too different from being the daughter of a dentist or a housewife or a grocer.In reality though, I must admit that life was a tinge more experimental, nationalist, nonconsumerist and nonconformist.”

As Imelda went on to chalk up solo shows, international exposure and awards, Indira observed that her mother never became “self-conscious about being an ‘artiste’ and never had airs or a sense of entitlement.It was pure love of the work, just being professional.”

This “unflappable, low-key presence,” as another essayist, Cherubim A. Quizon, put it, made Cajipe Endaya effective as one of the founders of Kasibulan, a collective of women visual artists. Fellow founder and art educator Brenda Fajardo wrote that through Kasibulan, Cajipe Endaya was able to seamlessly weave the personal and the political. Through various fora and exhibits, Kasibulan has brought women artists closer and raised public awareness of such issues on gender biases and migrant women workers.

Because it is part of this artist’s character to not “sit idly by and merely allow institutions and cultural agents to open up her notions of empowerment,” Legaspi Ramirez has seen how Cajipe Endaya’s cultural initiatives have borne good fruits. Among these are Pananaw: Philippine Journal of Visual Arts that has widened the scope of art reporting and documentation to include the regions and provinces, Sung-duan, a national visual arts exhibition, the traveling exhibition-forum Who Owns Women’s Bodies? and Densities: Making Sense of Dense Cities, a large thought-provoking exhibition that tackled issues of heritage, shelter, power and environment.
Neferti Xina M. Tadiar’s “On Becoming Human” takes off from Cajipe Endaya’s installations on the theme of dehumanization of domestic helpers and the promise of hope. She called Filipino women like the artist as “potentially angels of technology descended onto earth, guardians of the antiquated arts of making life.”

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Gigi Dueñas: Caught Between the Himalayan Moon & New York City

Since the new year, I've been in a sentimental mood, and retrieving old pieces like this profile of compleat actress Gigi Dueñas de Breaupre reminds me once more why I picked her to stand as godmother to my second daughter Miranda Bituin. I wanted Ida to imbibe some of Gigi's intoxicating free spirit, her excellence in her chosen profession that, her in-your-face humor and defiance of constricting conventions that masks a well-cultivated spiritual life. So here's to you, Gigi, from across the oceans. You make Liz Gilbert of Eat Pray Love fame look like a wimp!
She always comes home richly tanned and laden with memories of wind, sand and sun. Gigi Dueñas, actress and true traveler, has scaled the heights and swum the depths of Asia in confirming her conviction that “this is my continent!”

While we mortal plodders, the nine-to-fivers, commute from suburban hutches to Ayala offices, Gigi, 36, lives her “fantasia impromptu” on the beaches of Bali, the lagoons of Tahiti or the mountain trails of the Himalayas.
Not for her the four-day or weeklong group tours that are generally wasted in the shopping malls of Singapore, Hongkong and Taipeh.

“If you travel just to buy Dove soap, Jergens lotion, Agree shampoo, Seiko watches, fake Nina Ricci perfume, diyan ka na lang sa Cartimar,” she declares. “You owe it to the country you’re visiting to learn about the place and culture.”

Lesson One: Nimbly eluding love in Nepal

A fine rain veiled Gigi’s eyes when she first set foot on Nepalese soil 13 years ago. The landlocked country seemed to her like a stew pot, and the storm clouds served as the lid (“parang kalderong nakatakip”).
Months later she embarked on her first trek to eastern Nepal with boyfriend David Forbes, a former ghurkaa captain descended from an aristocratic family and schooled in Eton. Joining them were his butler (“But David, dahling, what is he going to butle?” was Gigi’s ingenuous query) and his client David Lander, then president of Nestle.

Gigi says of the Forbes interlude: “I could’ve married him until I read his mother’s letter. She wrote, ‘Tell your bride not to worry. I’ve got everything under control. By the way, is she really dark? What does she eat?’”

The ex-future daughter-in-law dashed off a reply: “I eat cockroaches for breakfast, rats for lunch and geckos for dinner.”

The end of the trek also marked the end of the relationship. Gigi rented five rooms at the top floor of Traveller’s Lodge in Kathmandu for 25 rupees (roughly P25 at the time) a night. She launched a modest business – sewing sequins on tennis shoes and selling these. “How to live like Imelda Marcos on a (literally) shoestring budget” is her description of the experience.”

She stayed in that three-star penthouse until she met Rob Raab who was to become the father of her son Ziller Miles (or Z). one afternoon, when the full moon was out, Rob and Gigi were wed in a Buddhist ceremony. The union lasted six-and-a-half years.

She cast love aside, but Gigi still keeps returning to Nepal, “my second country. I have an affinity with mountains but especially the Himalayas. They’re young and still growing. Scientists and seismographers are permanently camped out there watching the mountains' constant motion – avalanches and earthquakes. The plates of India 
and Asia are pushing against each other. Squeezed in between is this toothpaste tube called the Himalayas.

“I have to do a trek once a year. It is like cleansing process. It’s my yearly exercise. I don’t like aerobics anyway, or Jane Fonda. She’ll look like Nancy Reagan pretty soon. I go up to the Himalayas to remind myself that the world is beautiful after all. Some people say parang hindi na ako nationalistic because I like the Himalayas. Sa akin, those mountains do not belong (solely) to anybody, any country. This phenomenon belongs to all of us.”

In the fairyland of Nepal, Gigi once in a while crosses her looking glass (“Hitsura lang niyang si Lewis Caroll”). On a trek, she meets different cultures along the way. She encounters saddhus (Hindu mendicants) covered in ashes, hair streaked with cow dung and smoking hash. “Of all the gods,” Gigi says in an informal discourse on Asian civilizations.

“Shiva was fondest of hash, the elixir of life.”

She laughingly calls trekking “a better sport than social climbing. Kung magso-social climbing ka, e di tumabi ka 
na sa god-king. Makipag-rubbing elbows with the Dalai Lama.”

At 15,000 feet above sea level, Gigi is sneezing from the wintry dust. The wind sweeps in from all directions. The mountains rumble constantly. “When the rumbling sound reaches you, tapos na ‘yung avalanche,” she says. “It happened at 20,000 feet.”

She passes through a gallery of votive offerings at 16,000 feet. There, travelers of yore carved out prayers on 
stone while the modern-day ones left their Nescafe cans or signature kerchiefs. Next stop is the shore of an unnamed lake whose emerald greenness dazzles.

Once when Gigi’s party reached Sera Gompa, Buddhist nuns and monks came out to welcome them. They were escorted to the abbott’s room – where they found him playing a Mickey Mouse computer game!
Gigi was struck by the isolated monastery’s being occasionally touched by the crazy vestiges of modern living. 

The computer-enthralled abbott, for instance, had a Hello Kitty thermos at his bedside and a poster of a Japanese punk astride a Yamaha bike tacked on the wall. He wore a pair of Converse rubber shoes (his religion forbids him to be shod in cattle hide.)

Whenever she reaches the Annapurna base camp, she feels like she is entering a science fiction setting. “It is as though you’re in the middle of a basin. All around you are these powerful mountains. They can do anything to you, and you’re helpless. The play of light on the mountains is incredible. It changes from pink to mauve. There is a sharpness about the place. From a mountain peak a raven flies down in one diagonal line. The atmosphere is such that I begin to believe I’m seeing gnomes. It’s like being inside a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. Nothing could be more impressive.”

A trek to the Himalayas “rejuvenates you so you can get back to the rat race,” she says. “I go there to get away from the city’s insanity. Up there in the villages, there are no problems between men and women because they are all busy contributing to the community. Life follows the cycle of seasons and revolves in the old ways when communities were still communal and people still didn’t own titles to the land. You feel you’re a human being, not just a human peeing. You recover your happiness. Nepal is my gift to myself.”

So if in Nepal you see porters wearing yellow “I love Ninoy” caps, you’ll know they once bore Gigi’s bags on their backs.

Lesson two: The business-and-pleasure-seekers of Bali

In the Dueñas book of wisdom it is said, “If you can make life simple, why bother to complicate it?”

On the sands of Bali where the spoiled brats of Europe meet, Gigi sashays down in her bikini and sarong like the girl from Ipanema. She unknots her sarong, gracefully spreads it on the sand, plucks out jewels from her basket and in an instant, she becomes a beachwalk vendor-cum-sunbather. She dares Trade and Industry Secretary Joe Concepcion to do the same.

She describes Bali as “mukhang Bicol. Maraming bulkan at may ocean, hindi nga lang Pacific. The ricefields are giving way to hotel. Western tourists, secretaries from Vogue magazine, models who haven’t quite made it yet and who’ve read romantic novels about the place are there looking for a fling. It’s a decadent lifestyle. The Balinese have this impression of white foreigners – they don’t work, they’re rich, relationships are loose, all they do is lie in the sun and fuck.”

But Gigi and company are the respected members of the community. They are travelers who appreciate the culture of the country they’re visiting and show their appreciation by investing in a handicraft and creating jobs.
She calls her crowd the rich of Europe “but not the Yves Saint Laurent groupies or the Princess Di types. These are the ex-hippies who became successful businessmen, the big drug dealers who decided to go legit after the third bust.”

These entrepreneurs are mostly in the jewelry, textile (blankets, tapestries and shawls) and ready-to-wear business. Gigi says, “We spend two or three hours in the factory checking the designs. The rest of the day is spent on the beach to meet appointments and close business deals. We make our agreements not in corporate boardrooms but there on the sand where we have nothing to hide.”

She also enjoys reflecting on the clash of cultures in Bali. One day, she remembers, an Australian woman “with boobs as big as papayas” who fell asleep while sunbathing. Her purse was stolen. When she woke up and discovered her loss, she hopped on a motorbike and sped off to the nearest police precint, naked breasts, bobbing up and down and the lower half of her body shielded by a flimsy sarong. The policemen refused to hear her complaint and told her to get a bra.

Gigi says, “Nudity or a woman in topless wear is within the Balinese context when you’re working in the field under the hot sun. But if you go to the market naked, which is what these whites do, binababoy mo na ‘yung populace. The worst thing you can show them is your pubic hair.”

No wonder that when Caucasian women enter immigration, native boys would sidle up to them and ask “You 
want jigajig?” (“Jigajig “is their pidgin for a quick lay.)

Lesson three: Why she got no “guten angst’ in Berlin

Why not Europe, why not the United States for your next yearly sojourn?

Gigi drawls in tones drenched with boredom, “New York is probably fun for a week, if you have the money. Then you can have all the glamour – visits to the theaters, museums, restaurants.

In Germany for the Berlin International Film Festival, she saw punks hanging loose outside the gothic and baroque cathedrals. The images (church and youth) symbolized the dying culture of Europe and the alienation of this generation. Even their artists are only making protest statements, unlike in Asia where art is the elevation of life and art has meaning.

A perpetual summer person, Gigi attended a dinner after a film showing in a piña gown. It was a cold March with still no hint of spring. She was met by actress Lauren Hutton’s icy appraisal, “Aren’t you freezing in that?” but Gigi was quick on the draw: “I’d do anything for vanity. Wouldn’t you?”

Gigi saw the Swiss Alps from a vantage point in Munich and thought, “They’re charming, but compared to the Himalayas, they’re just hills.

She prefers small, exotic places where cultures are being threatened with extinction. This is why she feels that the Filipino innocent privileged to go abroad should think of travel as an eye-opener. “Traveling is not so you can drop the name of an airline or some stupid restaurant you ate in Paris, or coming home with plastic bags from Bloomingdale’s. The trouble with Filipino tourists is they see a vendo machine for cigarettes and they get impressed. Ang Pinoy pag naglalakbay, naghahanap ng mas malaking PX center kaysa Dau o Angeles kaya pag-uwi nila, ang pasalubong ay original na Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific. Ayaw managalog ng Pinoy sa eroplano. Ingles nang Ingles maski umaatikabo ang kanilang Enrile accent.”

Lesson four: Klong-klonging it in Bangkok

The kingdom of Siam offers an example of national pride worthy of emulation. “Thais are for Thais”, Gigi says, “Hindi nila babastusin ang kapwa Thai at the expense of paying obeisance to Americans and foreigners. Thais won’t speak pidgin English with you. Every other person you meet is a prince or princess. Even if they studied in Europe or the US all their lives, they come back and are still Thai.”

A people never subjugated by any foreign power wear its pride well. In a simple transaction, Gigi found that Tibetans haggle for the fun of it, and Indians present bolts of third-, second- and first-class cloth even if a purchase is not consummated but just to show how proud they are of their wares. But the Thais, ah, the Thais won’t stoop to haggling. They will just say, “Isn’t your price too expensive?” and leave.

At an exhibit of “a fantastic array of Thai silk,” Gigi saw how the Thais, with their new affluence, spent their money on their own stuff. “The Americans looked at the price ($1,000), didn’t look at the silk, and walked away. The Europeans looked at the silk, then the price, and walked away. A little old Thai lady looked at the merchandise, studied it closely, realized the months of weaving that went into it, and wrote a check.”

In March last year, Gigi took sons Z and Karlo on klong rides in Bangkok. They went up to to the Golden Mountain, a pauper’s cemetery in the old days. Monks there built a huge temple with a golden stupa (“so monumental you feel you’re two inches small when standing close to it”). It houses niches and tombs for the dead.

Also inside are bronze statues gilded with gold leaves – actually pieces of paper dipped in gold and then attached to the statues as a form of worship.

The opulence of religion is stunning. The Temple of Dawn is a mosaic of porcelain jars, saucers and plates rearranged to take floral and bird shapes. The jars were once used by drug dealers to sell opium. To pay for the bad karma, they broke the jars and out of the shards, a temple grew.

Gigi says the statues of the gods are everywhere. They are not hidden in museums. They are in the marketplace, near the garbage heap, on street corners. “The gods are accessible to their people anywhere, any day, any time. And so life in Thailand is itself dedicated to the pursuit of equilibrium, of inner peace.

“Each waking day is the start of a meditation that goes on at work, at play. This can be seen in the fingering of prayer beads, the flying of prayer flags and the turning of prayer wheels.”

Lesson five: Tales from Rushdie Land India

When friends tell Gigi that one of her favorite authors, Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children, Shame and the controversial Satanic Verses), is hard to fathom, she advises them “to read his work with an Indian accent. In a single page, millions of things are going on. There’s so much life in India. You only have two eyes and cannot see everything that’s going on in the street.”

In one typical street, a wedding procession is taking place. A bejeweled elephant lumbers along carrying the bride and groom. Flowers are being flung. A band is playing. At the other end, the untouchables are rioting. Turn your head and watch a leper die.

The nose is assaulted by the heavy scent of spices and incense mixed with the odor of human sweat, feces and animal carcasses. Beggars dance. Shamans chant. And Gigi says, “The variety is overwhelming.”

And adds, “Ang mga fantasia ko as a child, I saw them all in India – temple doors of beaten silver, altars of gold, tall svelte women of Jaipur with their mirrored skirts, the quality of the sand in Rajasthan that can make a city take the color of rose, pink or yellow.”

In Rajasthan the independent-minded Gigi had to don a purdah. Whe she tried walking down the streets in her Western clothes and her face uncovered, the old women spat at her and the men jeered. Her Indian friend Ibrahim borrowed a purdah from one of his seven wives for Gigi to wear.She climbed into layers and layers of petticoat. Last came the black billowing cotton gown with sleeves reaching past her fingers.

She recalls. “The first time I wore a purdah, I was disoriented. I couldn’t walk. I kept losing my balance because 
of this mesh in front of my eyes. Now I know what it’s like to be a walking non-entity, to be a heap of rags na mukhang bangaw.”

India for her is a great paradox. She once entered what looked like a slum and was astounded at the multicolored strands of shimmering silk laid out on the road to try. “But the people are so poor!” she cries.

Lesson six: Tangoing in Tahiti

One look at the Tahitian women (long black curly hair, ample breasts and hips, small waists) and the riot of orchids, birds of paradise and hibiscus everywhere, and Gigi understood why writer Herman Melville fell crazily in love with Polynesia.

It is a fluid culture, a fluid people. “They’re really in the sea  most of the time. They see a wave and they run to meet it with their surfboards. The French says they’re lazy. But Tahitians are fishing folks and you only fish at certain hours. The rest of the day they dance and sing,” she says.

Because of this fluidity it seemed easy for the British, then the French colonizers, to erase the culture. The island people have no script. Theirs is an oral tradition. Whatever writing done consists of family histories tattooed on the bodies of men and women.

The language is fluid, too. Gigi says, “It’s all vowels. Consonants are like hurdles. There’s a place called Faaaa, that place with the hysterical a.”

But the culture has not been completely wiped out: “The Tahitians destroyed the tikis, the statues of the gods, so the foreigners wouldn’t desecrate them. From afar, the foreigners thought that they had won because the natives were burning or burying their gods or throwing them into the mouths of volcanoes, sealed with curses.”

Gigi says her travels have taught her another meaning for Third World. “Okay, so the West ate us up in terms of industrialization. But we still have this, our humanity.”

Photo above (from the subject's Facebook) shows Gigi in her youth; below, with husband Thierry in the French West Indies where she has been based for more than two decades. Gigi remains a Filipino citizen.

The Sunday Times Magazine, March 5, 1989