HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated June 23, 2013 – 12:00am
The afterglow still lingers.
I just came home from an overnight stay at Puerto Princesa to have dinner with 10 people I did not know.
I’ve been doing this crazy thing for sometime now: Spending time with people I have never met. I posted an announcement on Twitter about three weeks ago inviting complete strangers to dinner. I asked all those interested to write me an e-mail and that I would randomly choose among those who would respond. I stated two conditions: one was that they were strangers to me. In other words, to qualify, a participant had to be a person whom I had never met. The other was, he/she should not be a stalker. Admittedly, the second is a pretty useless rule since there is no way I would know if a person was a dangerous stalker or not. I just thought I would mention it to dissuade certain kinds of people from spoiling good dinner and conversation over wine.
I received more than 220 letters in four days. I scanned each one quickly and immediately excluded some who either came across as too depressing and needy, based on how they presented themselves, or had some agenda that seemed to suggest to me that their conversation might not sit well with others.
There were more women who responded as was the case in the other Passion Night dinners I had done. I chose 10 people randomly and posted their names on my Tumblr blog and gave them four days to confirm. To my surprise, not all responded considering each one went out of his/her way to write a letter to join. I had to randomly choose again about two more times because some could not make it. Finally, I felt I had completed my list at eight participants. I bent the rules with the last two slots and gave them to my nephew Sandro and his wife Sheng who was celebrating her birthday.
Last Saturday, June 15, with 10 guests from Manila in tow, I flew them to Puero Princesa via Zest Air. It was quite a sight to meet each stranger with a big smile on his/her face as they approached me by the departure entrance at the domestic airport. I could sense clearly both an anticipation and thrill at being part of this wild adventure of flying somewhere with strangers for a dinner in a Palawan restaurant, not to mention sharing rooms afterward.
When we got to Puerto Princesa, we checked in at the Aquari Suites. And since we still had about two hours before the 6:30 dinner, we went to Baker’s Hill, a cute little park 15 minutes out of the city where we took some pictures. We also passed by Mitra’s Ranch which is just a minute away to relish the panoramic view of Honda Bay.
After a while, we left for La Terrasse restaurant where we were warmly greeted by owner Ditchay Roxas, whom I had met for the first time but had been corresponding with. Maan Hontiveros, CEO of Air Asia who was so enthusiastic about the idea of Passion Night when I presented it to her, connected the two of us to get the project going. Two more people from Puerto Princesa joined us. One was Matt Mendoza, an actor whom I had not seen in some 14 years. In the last election, he was the councilor of Palawan who got the most votes. The other was Lui Oliva, a longtime resident of Puerto Princesa who runs his own seafood restaurant called Ka Lui.
We started with hors d‘oeuvres — smoked fish pâté on mini Russian pancakes (mini blinis), crispy duck rolled in Mandarine crepe, La Terrasse seafood ceviche. These broke the ice in a big way. The food immediately elicited glowing comments from everyone. The crispy duck was a runaway favorite. Soon dinner was served. The bouillabaisse soup, the salad composed of mixed mesclun greens with smoked bacon and alfalfa sprouts, followed by the main course which was a choice of crispy rolled pork belly served with pumpkin puree and sautéed greens and poached fish fillet à la Niçoise were just scrumptiously fantastic. Ditchay proudly explained to us that the salads were homegrown, and the ducks and chicken she served were native and free ranged. The fish was legally caught. The whole approach of her resto was to serve, as best as she can, food that’s organically grown and tastefully presented and served.
As much as the dinner was delicious, what engaged us most was the conversation. In a situation where mostly no one really knew anyone else, I was quite surprised that people were candid, open and willing to share their hopes, fears, their thoughts on politics, religion, and most interesting of all, their personal histories including life highlights and personal pains and whatever else was important to them.
A fun-loving young man shared his ongoing battle with colorectal cancer. A 41-year-old woman talked about having lived a life of abject poverty and abuse in her early childhood and overcoming it without bitterness. Two young mothers shared their wishes for their children and families. One young writer wished for a singing career. Another writer wanted to write about her grandparents’ lives as farmers, which she felt should not be forgotten in this modern age. Another young lady shared her passion about helping young children. A young man wanted to see more of the world and experience it.
A young lady from out of town talked about her passion for nursing. A married young man talked about achieving financial independence that would free his time to be with his family more. Matt Mendoza talked about making sure he would be very present as a father raising his young kids. Lui talked about his life as a UN peacekeeper serving at one time in Bosnia, Ethiopia, East Timor and other war-torn places. Ditchay shared with us her views on many things — food, living together with her partner of 30 years, loving oneself, tourism in Palawan, the state of the environment. I talked about zen, authors I liked, my dreams for the future, my family and my own life as a creative.
Everyone was very attentive to each other’s stories. I noticed everyone opening up and baring personal issues, and feeling affirmed even if they were in the company of loving strangers. As bold as this may seem, I noticed there is some comfort in being open to people you don’t really know. No wonder people open up to bartenders, and some taxi drivers tell their life stories to their transient passengers.
That night, there were no emotional ties that ran deep to make people wary of being judged. In fact, there were no previous histories shared at all. There was only the present moment where we all found ourselves thrown in some strange circumstance that not just allowed but encouraged people to drop their guard and allow medium to large amounts of personal vulnerability to be exposed.
This is the fourth time I have done Passion Night. The first three times were in Manila. Two of them were dinners in my house and one of them was held at Lanelle Abueva’s Crescent Moon restaurant in Antipolo. Each time felt unique, exciting in that out-and-out crazy kind of way. This fourth experience was still as amazing as the rest with the added element of being out of town and therefore making everyone a bit braver and more open to sharing. We had gone this far and had set aside time and effort at being here. What a waste it would have been if we had simply surrendered to shyness.
As in every batch, new friendships were immediately formed. There is already talk of getting together soon among them. That is simply great.
To Sandro, Sheng, Geraldine, Mariel, JC, Zion, Cate, Kat, Aileen, BVRose, Ditchay, Lui, and Matt: thank you for being there. To Zest Air, La Terrasse and Aquari Travelers Suites, thank you for being open and game enough to sponsor this crazy idea.
It can only do the world good if more people did crazy, fun things like this. It is mindboggling to realize that indeed everyone has a great story to share if people would really just make time to listen.