In early March, restaurateur Annabel Lichaytoo Tanco hied off to Mount Banahaw, Quezon, to oversee the renovation of a lodging. Located in Sta. Lucia, Dolores, at the foot of the mountain, the place was being prepared as an accommodation for groups of tourists and pilgrims. Suddenly, the nationwide lockdown was declared which enforced the closure of provincial borders. With only a week’s supply of clothes, Tanco decided to stay in Mount Banahaw, a famous religious pilgrimage site.
Having lived by herself in a Makati condominium, she was apprehensive at first about isolation. “Banahaw is COVID-free. Here, my place is beside a community where people pray a lot,” she says.
Tanco has been a spiritual seeker, having experienced ashram life in upstate New York, and is a longtime meditation practitioner. She was fascinated by socioentrepreneur Jeannie Javelosa’s stories of Banahaw’s mysticism. It is known as a sanctuary where good spirits dwell. Since the Spanish era, many religious communities have been attracted to the gentle slopes, the waterfalls, the natural springs and forests that they considered hallowed grounds.
Javelosa was setting up a project, the Banahaw Circle Nature Retreat, with the late healer Dr. Bibiano “Boy” Fajardo and his family. Javelosa was looking for partners to run the place. Last year, she showed Tanco the retreat center which Fajardo had built. Tanco was immediately enchanted by the property, which spans nearly a hectare.
The lodging is a study in contrasts—of openness in some areas and coziness in the rooms. Fajardo showed respect for nature with the use of boulders and wood from the site, revealing the beauty of their rough textures. Inside, one would feel as if inside a cave as the floors and the walls are covered with stone.
The house has sitting areas that reach out toward the trees. Aside from rustic private rooms, the late healer put up a dormitory of 15 beds with curtain dividers for privacy. At this writing, the lodging is still undergoing refurbishment.
A monk’s life
Seeing its potential, Tanco offered to repair the building, add modern fixtures and supervise the hospitality department.
“For several months, I was fixing up the place, not realizing that it was a preparation for quarantine,” says Tanco.
She has been enjoying the shelter-in-place situation, going outside only for certain activities. She compares her life of the past five months to that of a monk, away from the pressure and pollution of urban life and immersed in meditation and nature.
Tanco, who is founder and CEO of Bizu Groupe, the bakery-restaurant chain and a catering company, has been running her businesses from the mountain. She has been focusing on Happy Garden Café, a restaurant which advocates healthy meals and juices.
Living in Mount Banahaw opened new possibilities. Tanco started a corporate social responsibility program for her company by working with farmers and teaching locals livelihood skills.
The mineral-rich soil and elevation make the land ideal for agriculture. She encouraged farmers to increase their yield for crops such as chayote, string beans, calamansi, okra, avocados, ginger, sweet potato, fiddlehead ferns, greens and gourds.
Initially the farmers said that nobody would buy their surplus crops. Tanco committed to buy them and sell them at Happy Garden Café in Makati. The truck would leave at Friday night and deliver the produce to the restaurant for the weekend. Many customers could also order the Banahaw vegetables online. “These are products of natural farming,” she says.
Tanco also bought excess coconut sport (macapuno), which she grated into sweetmeat. She modernized the native delicacy with salted caramel and adorned it with a banana leaf ribbon.
Girding for the upcoming Banahaw Circle Nature Retreat, Tanco has been training the locals on cooking healthy meals, table setting and housekeeping, hotel style. A local seamstress sews the tablecloths and the napkins.
One of Tanco’s greatest joys is to experiment with available foods. “I’ve been ‘Bizu-fying’ the locals by teaching them how to mix local ingredients with Western products,” she says.
She marvels at the forest snails which are four times the size of the kuhol. They are cooked like French-style escargot, with lemon butter caper sauce. She taught the locals how to make a sandwich using eggplant omelet (tortang talong) with gruyere cheese, fiddlehead fern and ciabatta from Bizu, or pan de sal with eggplant omelet, mozzarella and banana.
There are other potential dishes for the lodging menu: a salad of blanched chilli and sweet potato leaves with Portuguese sardines or a medley of local salted egg, sautéed shrimps, onions and harissa paste. The traditional braised milkfish (sinaing na bangus) with vinegar and kamias is given a modern touch by removing the head and flavoring it with olive oil, dried laurel leaves, carrots, Indian mango and chilli. It is cooked with banana leaves for extra flavor.
Tanco wakes up at 5 a.m., to the cacophony of bird sounds and the views of clouds swirling in the sky. A glass of green juice made from fresh turmeric, black pepper, saging na saba, chilli leaves, sweet potato leaves, fresh tomatoes, kamias and its leaves, moringa and calamansi, gives her the energy for her mountain treks while boosting her immune system.
Mornings are spent in long meditation and Sun Salutations in the garden, surrounded by native orchids and fruit trees. The scents of pine and citrus from the palo santo, a mystical tree, uplift her soul and enable her to have deep experiences in solitude.
She then visits the forest to gather sweet potatoes which, Tanco claims, are the sweetest in the country, and the ginger, the most potent. She plucks rambutan and dragon fruit at their plumpest. On other days, she would climb up the cave chapels to meditate or meet up with the many religious communities in the area. One of Tanco’s highlight experiences was an encounter with the Suprema, the female head of the Ciudad Mistica de Dios, a nationalistic religious group.
After lunch, she would take a nap, a luxury she never had in her city life. She reads, catches up with friends over video calls and attends Zoom meetings.
Dinner is prepared when friends come over. Otherwise, she’d have her green juice all by herself. She would then watch the clouds drifting by to uncover the moon while listening to the sounds of the crickets and the owls. In Mount Banahaw, Tanco could sleep without the aid of melatonin.
During general community quarantine, Tanco would return to the city to clean up the condo, conduct some business and restock some supplies. She notes that the city is assailed with the flurry of work and perpetual anxiety. Thus, she escapes to return to simplicity in the province.
“Being in Mount Banahaw in quarantine is like incubation,” she says. The silence is the balm for her soul. —CONTRIBUTED
Mount Banahaw vegetables are available on weekends at Happy Garden Café at 36 Jupiter St., Bel-Air Makati; Shirley, tel. 0967-2631922.