Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hotel Pontefino: Cozy nest for big dreams

My first stay at the Hotel Pontefino in Batangas City was in 2004, when the hotel was barely a year old. Perched on a hill in barangay Gulod Labac, the boutique hotel glowed with a light yellow paint tempered by an abundance of black lines, contrasting with the predominantly gray, dust-layered and weather-beaten colors of the city. I was charmed by it.
Batangas City, the capital of the province of Batangas, was in the midst of major constructions, being an important urban center south of Manila and the main industrial hub of the Southern Tagalog Region. Hotel Pontefino, the only de-luxe hotel in this part of the country, was a cocoon, where everything was neat and cozy. Its interiors were minimalist and clean, contrasting with the hubbub in the city. The pools at the back reflected the clear sky and overlooked the city and its growth.
The hotel was built in anticipation of the city’s growth. Some may think Batangas is an odd choice to build a hotel in, but the city, located 112 kilometers south of Manila, was identified as a “regional growth center” and a “special economic zone.” A major highway is being built to cut travel time from Manila to Batangas. Several big companies, including oil refineries, have set up their plants in the province. The construction of an international port, an alternative to Manila, is underway.
It was with these developments in mind that the hotel was established by the Hotel Concepts Inc., whose chief executive officer Ricardo Ramon Gutierrez is the owner and founder of the Chateau group of restaurants. For this his first hotel venture, he partnered with lawyer and landowner Antonio Pastor, who comes from a prominent family of Batangas. The venture is entirely Filipino, and Gutierrez envisioned establishing the first modern Filipino hotel chain, starting with Hotel Pontefino, which will serve as bridge between Filipino excellence and the world (The hotel’s name is from the Spanish words ponte, meaning “bridge”, and fino, “fine”.)
When I went back to the hotel three years later, it was under a new management team. Business had been slow in the past years, according to Danny Cabulay, the new chief operating officer. The anticipated international port was taking a tad longer than expected. Fortunately, the companies and plants—Shell Eastern Gas, General Milling Corp., Pacific Flour Mills, Chemphil Bulk Terminal and Himmel Industries, among others—in the province are still doing good, and their expatriate employees, usually on a long-staying basis, form a major part of the hotel’s clientele, at about 60 percent.
The new management team was brought in to revitalize operations, and Cabulay was happy to announce that the hotel has been experiencing full bookings since March of this year, when he took over, which was not achieved in the previous years. Cabulay, who is a former dean of Far Eastern University’s business school and who has an extensive experience in hotel management, came in with Joel Catibog, the hotel’s operations manager, and Mylene Villanueva, its director for sales and marketing.
There will be no drastic changes in the hotel, but they are working on its strengths. Currently the hotel has 60 rooms—40 premium rooms and 20 suites. I experienced the coziness of its rooms anew, but now I was in one of its Fino Suites, a larger room with a king-sized bed, and its own living and dining areas. The interiors were in the relaxing light colors of white, yellow and ochre complementing the light wood parts.
Designed by Yoly Zimmer and Erik Paras of Design Access Limited, the interiors project a global Filipino feel. The Filipino-ness here is simplified and made more subtle, manifesting in the warm colors to mean hospitality. It is more of the colonial Filipino and reminiscent of Spanish villas.
Another outstanding thing about Hotel Pontefino is its food. The hotel has two food outlets located at the lobby: the cafĂ© Robusta and the fine-dining Pastorelli. Hotel Pontefino serves Italian, Asian freestyle and the so-called New Batangas cuisines. The original chef Dennis Edillon created dishes in tribute to Batangas, taking its popular dishes and ingredients, and adding sophisticated twists and using them in creative ways. In my recent trip, many dishes were still there, and it was still a pleasure to dine in Pastorelli. I delighted anew in the New Batangas fare Balayan Caesar’s Salad. It is your usual Caesar’s salad with Romaine lettuce, croutons, grated parmesan cheese and bits of bacon, but made special with the famed bagoong (fermented fish sauce) of the town of Balayan, which is used to flavor the Caesar dressing, adding a pleasant kick of spiciness.
Pastorelli also serves the most famous of Batangas dishes: the bulalo soup, beef and bones simmered into a broth. Here, the broth is cooked with other vegetables. It is a nice and warm comfort food especially for travelers.
The maliputo, the fish endemic to Taal Lake, is served here, simply seasoned with salt and pepper and grilled over lava rocks. Other items on the menu are bulanglang, a vegetable stew with fish tofu, and tapang Taal, pork jerky from the town of Taal. These are best eaten with the simple steamed vegetables of okra, eggplant, tomato, bitter gourd and sweet potato leaves to be dipped in Balayan bagoong with a dash of calamansi.
For dessert, recommended are the Batangas Crepe which has a filling of muscovado sugar and crushed peanut brittle, and Barako Mousse, mousse flavored with Batangas-grown coffee popularly known as barako. Of course, ask for barako coffee to go with these.
These Batangas and Filipino fares are offered along with pastas and ravioli. The other items like appetizers and soups are also good. I loved the cream of asparagus soup and the appetizer of baked mussels, which was cooked with gingered butter, fish sauce, lemon and Emmenthal cheese.
The gastronomic adventure is a good way to launch an exploration of the Tagalog province of Batangas. At the southwestern part of Luzon, Batangas is rich in culture and heritage, and the hotel is tapping this resource to offer its guests. Until now, Cabulay said that people are still raising their eyebrows at the hotel’s location, which is away from the beaches for which Batangas is known.
Hotel Pontefino initiated several tour packages for their guests to discover the culture of the province. Well-known is the Batangas heritage tour in which guests are taken to the town of Taal where the old basilica stands proud and imposing, overlooking clusters of charming old houses. Taal is one of the few places in the Philippines with a concentration of old houses. Here in Taal are the ancestral houses of Filipino historical figures including Marcela Agoncillo, one of the makers of the Philippine flag.
Along with Lumban in Laguna, Taal is also known for its embroidery, and clustered around the marketplace are shops selling embroidered clothes and items. With these dainty things and at the opposite end, the town, and the whole of the province, is also for its balisong, the fan knife. In the barangay of Balisong, several stores line the highway selling the eponymous weapon in different sizes. They also sell pens with knives on the other end as souvenir items.
Also popular is the tour of the Taal Volcano and Lake. The package includes boat ride on the lake and trekking to the crater of the small volcano. Take also the church tour in which seven churches are visited, namely, the Minor Basilica of St. Martin of Tours of Taal, San Jose church, Our Lady of Caysasay Church in Taal, the Lipa Cathedral, the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and Infant Jesus of Batangas City, the Carmelite convent of Lipa City and the Church of the Immaculate Conception of Bauan.
The packages are the hotel’s way of promoting the tourism in the province, as well as answering the perennial questions about its existence here.
After the tours, the hotel offers its spa services for relaxation. Masseuses are available for the usual massage therapies and the not-so-usual hot lava stone massage of Mexican origin.
On the more “sober” side, the hotel has facilities for business: A business center and function rooms for conferences and seminars. The function rooms can accommodate 30 to 150 persons. The Executive Conference Room has a 10-person capacity. The hotel has no big ballroom-type room for big events, but near the pool, it has an air-conditioned tent that can hold as much as 500 persons. And the pool area, which can accommodate 200 persons, is ideal for al-fresco events. Hotel Pontefino is fast becoming a landmark in the area, where local parties and weddings are held. A ballroom that can accommodate 800 to 1000 people is in the planning.
As development in the city continues, the area around the hotel is bound to change. A hotel residential community of about 60 townhouses called Pontefino Residences is going to be constructed near the hotel. Behind it, seven hectares of what is now forest will be converted into a retirement village with 107 units. These plans will be underway in two to three years.
Complementing the hotel, the owning company is setting up a hotel school somewhere in Batangas to supply the demand of the hospitality industry and of Hotel Pontefino itself as it progresses into the realization of its initial vision. Another Pontefino hotel with 60 rooms is planned to open in 2009 in The Fort in Taguig City. The company is eyeing San Francisco in the United States for the first Pontefino abroad. Also, there is talk of building resorts in Boracay, Panglao in Bohol and Basco in Batanes.
Port or no port, Hotel Pontefino is charging on with its own developments and expansions, relying on itself to stir up activity and building bridges of fineness in the region and into the world.

Contact Information
Hotel Pontefino is at Pastor Village, Gulod Labac, Batangas City. The hotel can be contacted through telephone number (043) 723-3466, fax (043) 723-3488 and mobile phone 0917-505-4231. The Manila sales office is at Unit B, 11th Floor, Agustin I Bldg., No. 28 F. Ortigas Jr. Ave., Ortigas Center, Pasig City, with telephone (632) 635-9364 and 631-8310, fax (632) 636-0435 and mobile phone 0917-505-4215. Email and visit Web site

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Into the Quiet Enchantment of Gubat, Sorsogon

Our companion, a typical, easygoing Gubatnon, is amused about a friend’s reaction—a mix of surprise and bewilderment—when invited to come over to Gubat. To many, the name means “jungle,” connoting wildness and remoteness.

Located at the eastern part of Sorsogon, 621 kilometers from the country’s capital Manila and 80 kilometers from Bicol region’s capital Legazpi City, Gubat can indeed be considered remote. Gubat actually is a laidback town with the waves from the Pacific, now tempered, lapping at its feet; the sunrise gilding its houses; and the mighty Mount Bulusan carving a hazy, almost pensive, presence in its vista. It is a town wedged between fire and water, with all their blessing and blight. Perhaps the wildness usually takes the forms of these two things. Lying on the path of typhoons, Gubat is visited by strong winds and rain in the latter half of the year. Sometimes, the ferocity of the typhoon can be ravaging. Less often, Mount Bulusan awakens with a rumble, a long-hidden fury throbbing from the ground, and threatens with smoke and embers.

But most of the time, the weather in Gubat is balmy, and the way of life unhurried. Dragonflies, big and the color of light bronze, flit about around the church and the shore near dusk, neglected and commonplace fairies. Children fly kites at the pier, scattering the riot of dragonflies, or dive into the water near the estuary, their laughter making ripples and making its way through the nipa thickets. The townsfolk gather edible little conches during low tide. At the southern part of the bay, the auburn shore of Rizal Beach is a gentle arm hugging the placid waters, where a few people swim and fisher boats glide to berth.

On the shore, a number of fisher huts stand among the coconuts. Their weathered walls contrast the coats of newness of the rest houses of a number of European retirees who married Filipinas. The resorts, only few, are quiet, particularly in this lean season.

Though one of the most well-known beaches in the Bicol region, Rizal Beach is relatively less frequented by tourists outside of Bico so it is ideal for those who love tranquility. Gubat generally is not known to be a tourist destination. This proves also true to much of the province of Sorsogon, the southern tail-end of the Luzon Island, save for Donsol, which in recent years has seen the flocking of tourists wanting to see whale sharks and consequently rapid but haphazard development.

Gubat, on the other hand, is an unassuming, quiet little town, whose wonders slowly reveal themselves to those with an open mind and heart, and with a spirit of adventure. It stashes them in the crannies of rocks, in the well-used kitchens and in the folds of leaves. It hides them in the ordinary. Gubat appeals to the lovers of genuine rustic charm and to those on the lookout for the roads less trodden. In this sense, Gubat comes close to another Tagalog meaning: something pristine and awaiting discovery.

The Rizal Beach
For many visitors in Gubat, the sea remains enticing, and Rizal Beach is recognized as the most attractive in the town and the whole region as well, luring many excursionists from nearby places. As much as the water, the seven-kilometer stretch of sand proves to be appealing because of its lighter color. We are suckers for white sand. Though not exactly white, the sand here is fine and the color of old ivory, good enough to let it cling on wet skin. The shore stretches wide, sloping gradually into the bay, a perfect swimming beach.

The beach is sporadically dotted with resorts, mostly rudimentary affairs. The Rizal Beach Resort and the Veramaris Resort are two of the biggest and most developed, while the rest are private cottages that can be rented out to guests.

Built in the 1960s, the Rizal Beach Resort used to be a tertiary school until it was transformed into a resort by the 1970s. The Veramaris Resort, which seems as old, is a hulking structure painted in white. Aside from the rooms, Veramaris has a function hall for wedding receptions and conferences.

Kaliyukay and Dancalan Beaches
The Gubat coast, stretching from Barangay Bagacay in the north down to Rizal, offers swimming opportunities, though less popular than Rizal Beach. The Kaliyukay Beach in Cogon and the Dancalan Beach in the poblacion area are also visited by excursionists.

When we berth in Kaliyukay after surveying the mangrove forests, several groups are playing in the water, their bright floaters very visible against the dark sand. The shore of Kaliyukay is wreathed with creeping vines bearing purple flowers on which people lay their wet clothes to dry. Further inland, a fishers’ community buzzes with activity and smells of smoke from kitchen fires.

A short walk from the municipal hall is Dancalan Beach where the Philippine Tourism Authority has kept a tourist facility, now in want of repair and refurbishment.

The mangrove forests
At Dancalan Beach, the row of houses gives way to a clump of mangroves, a strange and quiet landscape, attractive in its mystery. As eco-tourism gains momentum in the country, mangrove forests are beginning to be recognized not only as ecologically vital areas, but as tourist draws as well. Here in Gubat, patches of mangroves grow in the poblacion barangays of Panganiban and Pinontingan, and down south in Rizal and Ariman. But the substantial part of the town’s mangrove forest thrives on the coast of the northern barangays of Cogon, Tiris, Paco and Bagacay.

We skirt the area one late morning with the town mayor Deogracias Ramos, who points out his favorite childhood hangout, a lagoon ensconced in the forest called Nabat-an. The leaves of the mangroves glitter in the sun, and the roots are a network of entanglements as if strange stitching that hems the earth to the sea. Once in a while, we espy fishermen bobbing in the water and disappearing as they go after shells, crabs or octopi.

In Bagacay, there is a bed of sea grass, where people gather sikad-sikad and tuwad-tuwad, edible little conches. In a clump of mangroves called Dua na Pulo, fishermen know they can get octopus. In Cogon, Handawan Island, perhaps a sand bar, perhaps a part of the main land cut off by a stream of water, is an excursion destination. By the shore of Cogon, there is a forlorn hut and a goat farm, where the townsfolk get their goats for their kalderetas. Here, an old boatman can take one across to the mangrove forest for three pesos. Rowing slowly, he appears like Charon, ferrying people to the shadier realm of the mangroves for them to collect shells or gather firewood.

There has been deforestation, the mayor admits, mainly because people obtained their firewood from the mangrove forests. But this has been outlawed now, he says, and reforestation is being done. Another old man started the effort, he narrates, asking him for permission to plant mangrove seedlings. Although puzzled, he gave permission. In time, the singular effort grew into a private and municipal collaboration. Now, the mayor envisions building a walkway through the forest where people can watch birds.

The Tiris River
At Tiris, the Tiris River pours into the Gubat Bay in a swirl of blue and green colors. Launching from the seawall of the poblacion with a swarm of dragonflies like pale russet confetti that refuses to fall, we enter the river via the sea. We wind through fish corrals (here called bonoan or baklad) containing turos, bataway (siganid), asohos (whitting), agingayon (coat fish) and katambak (snapper). Behind us, the imposing Mount Bulusan keep cover in a veil of clouds tasseled with claret light. Occasionally, we pass by huts, curious children and fleeting birds. Further inland, the river, part of the Tingting River of San Ignacio, becomes quieter we can hear our breathing. Dusk gathers around the nipa palms.

The Tiris Bridge traverses the small river. In September, a fluvial parade for the feast of Our Lady of Penafrancia starts by the bridge and ends at the sea. Here also, one can see fireflies at night festooning the trees and grass. They get multitudinous further inland. In Donsol, they started a river cruise to watch fireflies to complement the whale shark interaction attraction. The same thing can be done here in Tiris River.

Around the town center
As night falls, the saud is coming into life. Saud is the traditional market day, and here in Gubat it happens on a Friday.

Although there is a public market along the main road of Manook Street, an austere concrete building that tries to establish a sense of stability and constancy, the saud is livelier and more colorful, like a circus coming to town, an age-old mercantile and social activity common to the towns of Sorsogon set on different days that, however makeshift, endures despite time and the permanent structure of the market place.

By late afternoon of Thursday, the merchants and vendors arrive, setting up their places. People from the upland barangays bring down their crops and crafts. People from other towns come in jeepneys laden with fruits and rice.

Enterprising house owners rent out papag, bamboo cots, to place the merchandise on. As if by instinct or unwritten law, the vendors know their places and keep them that way. Soon the stalls wind around three blocks near the town church in Balud del Norte. One stall drowns in heaps of tomatoes while another carries ingredients for the Bicol signature dish pinangat—taro leaves, chilies, coconuts.

On ordinary days, a walk around the town center can be interesting. The town center or poblacion is composed of Balud del Sur, Balud del Norte, Cota na Dako, Luna-Candol, Mandarigma, Manook, Panganiban, Paradijon and Pinontingan.

The poblacion is protected from the sea by a seawall where clusters of huts closely huddle together. The seawall ends jutting into the sea. People call it Pier because it looks like a wharf. But really it is a promenade lined with lampposts, where people stroll and relax, breathing in the sea air. In summer, children fly kites. In the afternoon, when the sea recede exposing rocks and seaweeds and a landscape like that of the moon, people go down and gather sikad-sikad and tuwad-tuwad.

Around the town, the Gubat branch of the Bicol University is on Diaz Street. Part of it is the old Spanish presidencia, the oldest structure in the town. Although the church is relatively new, the Catholic cemetery or campo santo in the neighboring Cogon is old.

Across the church, the building of the Gubat Saint Anthony Cooperative stands. It operates a hostel on the third floor. During my stay, I am regularly wakened by the tolling of the church bells early in the morning.

The potters' district of Paradijon
Old structures in Gubat may be few but many traditions and industries are old.

Roaming the town center, I chance upon the potters’ area of Paradijon. Walking up the narrow alleys, I see houses with rows of freshly made pots ready for drying and firing. One can chance upon an old woman patting a pot into shape, or a boy shaping a vase.

Families here used to make pots, toys, vases and stoves, mainly to supply Samar, the Visayan island south of Sorsogon. Now, mostly pots and vases are made for landscaping companies. At a sari-sari store, a woman displays photographs of lawn ornaments of storks and fairy-tale characters crafted by her son. In Paradijon, there are 23 families engaged in the cottage industry, constituting 1.75 percent of the town population, one of the lowest among the industries.

The Liyang caves
The western flank of Gubat rises into hills and mountains. Ten kilometers from the town proper, the dirt road becomes rough as we snake our way up Bentuco, one of the southernmost barangays. We see abaca and pili trees among tall grasses. They give way to coconuts in the sitio of Patong, perhaps one of highest points in the town. The ground is covered with tufts of grass, titivated with little wild flowers and anahaw plants with leaves that spread like spiky fans. Pass the trees, the view opens up to hills and forests and sky, nacreous in color now. Then the ground slopes into what looks like a gorge, veiled with thick vegetation. Somewhere down there is a little cave called Liyang.

It has rained a little, a sparse shower to cool the warm skin and dampen the hair. It also made the path slick and tricky to tread. The grass hides now the slyness of the earth. We descend with anahaw leaves as umbrellas and canes made from branches of wayward trees. Our feet grope for small humps on the ground to hold on to, but we slip from time to time. Sometimes, we have to get off the beaten path and walk on the grassy side as not to slip. It seems the cave refuses to be reached and entered easy.

Along the way, we meet a woman, fresh from a bath, her wraparound and hair dripping with water. She smiles and deftly climbs up, her legs and feet knowing the contours and slopes of her path. We, all men, bungle about.

After a while, the path becomes a small stream of clear water, trickling down boulders, the sound like the faintest of giggles. But where is the cave? Liyang? The sound of name now seems to mean demureness and sensuality at the same time.

The veil of vegetation reveals Liyang. It is not a grand yawning affair. It is a large slit on the earth, a crack where clear and cold water flows out, collecting on a small pool then flows out again among the grass, over pebbles.

We muddy the pool as we cross to the mouth, which bears the scars of boorish visitors, who has inscribed their being there on the moist walls. The cave is dark and narrow, and we have to form a single line to enter. No one has thought of bringing a flashlight. The dark engulfs us little by little. It is like entering a womb. Our feet splatter through the running water flowing out of the cave. It gets narrower the farther we go. The walls and dark seem to close in, and we turn back. Now moist, we squint at the light when we get out and bungle like newborns.

This is not the only cave in Gubat. There is one in Paco and another in Togawe. Both are also called Liyang. I find out that liyang is “cave” in the local language Waray Sorsogon. In Bagacay, there are caves that are unnamed. They will more likely to be Liyang also in time.

The Villareal Grotto
Driving westward towards the sea, passing the barangays of Togawe and Benguet, the land becomes rice paddies. On the map, the west end of Villareal is wedged between Buenavista and Rizal, keeping it from reaching the sea. Instead, Villareal vibrates with viridity and tries to reach upwards.

Carpeted with green, a hill rises at the barangay proper, made into a shrine in 1989. Eighty-two concrete steps lead one to an artificial grotto sheltering an image of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by a small garden, and further on to the top of the hill. No message-bearing apparitions or events of religious significance happened here. It confounds me why they built a shrine of this size here. At the top of the hill I find my reason.

The hill affords one a commanding view. The barangay hall and the school hug the foot of the hill. Children scamper across the bright turf. Around them are the rice fields, an exuberance of green, kept in place by the southern and northern hills converging at this point of view with the sapphire sea peeking through where the hills decline and the eternal sky covering the rest: a glimpse of the divine.

The abaca industry and other agricultural-industrial attractions
Under the enduring sky, people attend to mundane matters: planting and harvesting, cooking food, making implements, buying and selling. In Paradijon, families shape pots from the earth. On the sea, fishermen haul in their catch. At the mouth of the Ariman River, they catch crab fries, the size and color of dog ticks, to be sold to growers and fish pond owners. At the edges of rice fields, farmers dig palawan roots to cook in light sugary syrup. At a number of homes, women weave abaca fibers into slippers and placemats.

In the Bicol region, items made of abaca are a well-known regional product. Many visitors make it a point to buy the durable abaca slippers. In Gubat, the local government made abaca crafts its premiere product and supports the attendant cultivation of abaca.

Being an agricultural town, there are no large industries to speak of in Gubat. Industrial activities here involve a more personal touch. However humble, the products are made special by the labor involved, with the hands fashioning materials gathered from the earth and forests, and by being imbued with native sensibilities. These cottage industries include pottery, shell craft, candy making, mat weaving, making thatches from nipa, making bags from mago, furniture making, nito crafts and pili nut candy making.

More than a thousand people make ornaments, knickknacks and items for the home from shells, making shell craft the biggest activity among them. Some stalls selling shell products dot the road on the way to Rizal Beach. But abaca seems to be a special product for Gubat.

A traditional material, the use of abaca has declined over years particularly when synthetic fibers were introduced. But Mayor Ramos is optimistic that abaca products will be a big thing and tries to revive the industry.

About 200 meters above sea level, in the watershed area of Bentuco, the local government’s Abaca Rehabilitation and Development Program is under way. Among grass, coconuts and pili trees, abaca trees, so much like bananas, thrust their leaves. Municipal agricultural technician Roy Las Pinas oversees the farm, planted with native varieties like tipon-tipon, hilagnoy and kurisan.

During the 1980s, a major pestilence attacked most of the abaca farms in Gubat, he informs. Now, they are hoping that their efforts will approximate or even surpass the abaca heyday. There are now about 80 hectares planted to abaca in the whole of Gubat, Las Pinas approximates.

In the sitio of Cabaluan, about five hectares are allocated for an abaca nursery. About two to three hectares have been planted, and they are eyeing about two hectares more for expansion. In two years, the abaca is mature enough to be harvested. Here, among the mature abacas, a shed is set up for educating farmers on abaca cultivation and care from nursery establishment to disease eradication.

Beside the field school, a stripping machine occasionally roars into action, shredding the bark into fibers. The fibers go to houses for handicraft. The byproduct bacbac, the outer sheaths, are dried and sold to consolidators.

Three medium-size trees can produce one kilo of fiber, which can be sold for thirty pesos a kilogram, and a hectare can produce about 400 kilograms of fiber, Las Pinas calculates.

Presently, there are 238 farmers engaged in abaca production. Their wives and other womenfolk make handicrafts as secondary activity, something to augment the family income. Their handiwork makes it to the neighboring province of Albay and to Manila, and as far as the United States, Europe, Mexico, Australia and Japan. They make the items per order, which total about five to ten thousand pieces a month.

The women come bringing in their products and laying them on the table, a colorful array: bags, hats, slippers, baskets, placemats, trays, boxes, Christmas decors and souvenir items. Some are in the natural color of the fiber: light brown and beige. Some are dyed in magenta, green, blue, crimson and yellow. We touch the objects, the fibers giving off their natural sheen. While munching on the raw kernels of freshly picked pilis, I marvel on the process of it all and the oft-ignored magic of everyday things and what the hands can do.

Forty-four-year-old housewife Evangeline Pollesian can transform the stems of a hardy vine into plates in a couple of hours or so. The adroitness is like magic, the firm fingers bending the stems and interlocking them into each other in a swift manner. Ten pieces for the whole afternoon if you work fast, she says of her ability. Each plate she sells for six pesos. She and Rosario Gabiaso, age 53, are nito weavers. Hailing from the barangay of Dita, they are among the 1,257 nito weavers, about 32 percent of the population, of Gubat.

Nowadays, they are having hard time finding nito vines, which grows wild in the forests, in their area. That morning they have to go to the adjacent town of Bacon to gather nito. This afternoon, they are extracting fibers from coconut husks and weaving them into twines at the Gubat Agri-industries Corporation or GAICO in the neighboring barangay of Jupi. She and Rosario are doing these when not weaving nito. And GAICO welcomes them and encourages people from the surrounding communities to work for them.

The one-year-old business venture also aims to help communities by giving them opportunities to earn extra income. GAICO manufactures coconut-based products from geo-textile to home furnishings to virgin coconut oil.

Top honcho Joey Escoto saw the abundance of coconut trees, which are left untapped in the area, thus inspiring him to establish GAICO. He now buys coconut husks from farmers, giving them additional little income. The factory looks like a hilly terrain of coconut husks, which will be eventually shredded and formed into twines. It employs ten people, and about twenty to thirty households in seven barangays indirectly work for them. GAICO gives them equipments and raw material to work on in their homes.

The shredding machine quiets down. A light rain falls on the nutty-brown hills of dry coconut husks. It is nearing dusk and I smell the faint scent of coconut oil, the kind that entices the palate.

Back at the mayor’s home, we wait for dinner. The dinners and lunches here are always delectable and intriguing feasts, another journey superbly guided by host-friends Ditas Ramos and Rowena Fajardo, and prepared by Ditas and their cook Amen.

The mayor is having a haircut at the front yard, by the road, just across the municipal hall. Intimidating at first glance, he now seems like a kid, locks of silver hair falling on the ground like snow. Maybe he is dreaming of his favorite spot, a bunker under a tree on a lot where he is building a house he will retire to he once told me.

The snack of timatim arrives. The round cassava cake’s immaculately white color contrasts with the deep green of its banana leaf wrapper. A morsel melts in my mouth and I dream of the soft earth. I remember the dishes made of crabs, coconut, crayfishes, parrot fishes, conches, rice and horseradish tree leaves. Their flavors on my tongue form Gubat in my mind—the hills, the fields, the sea, the sky—as my body shakes off the tiredness of traversing it. There are many ways of going into Gubat, and many times with enchantment, raw and rustic.

Getting There
Lying on the eastern coast of the province of Sorsogon, Gubat is 621 kilometers south of Manila, 80 from Legazpi City and 19 from the capital town of Sorsogon. It is bounded on the north by Bacon and Prieto Diaz, on the west by Sorsogon and Castilla, on the south by Barcelona and on the east by Gubat Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
The RS and CUL bus lines with terminals at the back of the Ali Mall in Araneta Center, Cubao, Quezon City, regularly ply the Cubao-Gubat route. Other buses that go further south like Matnog or Bulusan may pass by Gubat. One can also go to Legazpi City in Albay and take a bus to Gubat.
Air Philippines fly to Legazpi City regularly. From Legazpi, take a bus going to Gubat. Travel takes about an hour and a half.

Where to Stay
There are a few resorts along Rizal Beach. One of these is the Veramaris Resort.
The standard rooms are priced at PhP990 (air-conditioned), PhP770 (non air-conditioned), PhP1,090 (air-conditioned, with cable TV) and PhP870 (non air-conditioned, with cable TV). The family rooms (which can accommodate up to five persons) are priced at PhP1,650 (air-conditioned), PhP1,320 (non air-conditioned), PhP1,750 (air-conditioned, with cable TV) and PhP1,450 (non air-conditioned, with cable TV). There is a charge of PhP200 for extra person.
To contact the resort, call Atty. Desiree G. De Vera, manager, at (056) 211-2457 in Sorsogon; Vivien G. De Vera at (02) 827-7826 in Manila; or Dr. Gloria G. De Vera at (056) 311-1825 or (056) 311-1824 in Gubat. One can email
The only place available for travelers in the town proper is the Gubat Saint Anthony Cooperative or GSAC, which operates a hostel on the third floor of its building. Located at the corner of Luna and Quezon Streets, the GSAC has ten rooms, some able to accommodate six to 10 persons, and charges about PhP800 per person per night. One may call (056) 311-1264 or (056) 311-0430, telefax (056) 311-1763 or email

Contact Information
For more information, one may contact Rowena Fajardo of the local government unit of Gubat through telephone numbers (056) 311-1061, (056) 311-0435 and (056) 311-7962. For very informative and reliable guide through the town, Ditas B. Ramos remains to be the town’s best and runs the Countryside Adven-Tours. Contact her through telephone numbers 02-632-7418 (in Manila) and 056-311-1280 and 056-311-1216 (in Gubat), or email