Casa Ala Cabana

(first published in Manila Bulletin, 2003)

They began seeing each other when he was a rookie in the PBL, and she was a young business student. As a player in the Triple-V PBL team, which was managed by Pia’s family, Dwight was often invited to company events, such as restaurant openings, anniversaries, and parties. Some of those parties were held in the cabana by the pool of the Villavicencio home, the setting for many happy memories of the young couple’s romance. Little did they know then that they would end up building a home on the very same cabana. Now a veteran cager of the PBA, and managing director of the Kamayan, Saisaki, and Dads restaurant chain respectively, Dwight and Pia Lago are busy preparing for their third Christmas as a family.

Cheerful garlands of Christmas fruits and flowers frame each of the large glass sliding doors that serve as entryways into the house’s main living area. Boxes of ornaments lay scattered around the room, all set to adorn the happy home.

“The first Christmas that I decorated our house, I had help from a friend with Designer Blooms. Every year since then we’ve just been getting more stuff from them and adding to what we already had last year. So each year is just a bit grander than the last,” Pia says with pride.

Today has been set aside for the family to start decorating their Christmas tree. However, it appears that Riana, the Lago’s darling three year old daughter, has already held her own dry run for the event.

“Every year, right after Halloween, we start setting up the Christmas décor, including the tree,” Pia explains. “Last year, Riana wanted to have her own little tree, just the right size for her to hang ornaments on. When she first got it, we asked her what she would like to put on top of her tree. We thought she’d ask for a star, or an angel. But no, she wanted a golden butterfly. It was a bit difficult finding one, but we did. And there it is now.”

“I love my golden butterfly,” Riana pipes in.

“Every year she gets to reach higher on the big tree though, and help more with decorating it. But her tree comes first,” says Pia. As the family goes about filling out the tree with glittery santas, snowmen, fiddles and bells, Riana scampers about purposefully and manages to hold her own with the decorating duties.

Dwight declares, “This month we’ll also be celebrating Thanksgiving. My family from the states will be coming over here. It’ll be a little funny having Thanksgiving dinner in a house decorated for Christmas, but I think it helps make the house look warmer and cosier. I think it’s wonderful how it all turned out, especially with this room,” he says, indicating their sizeable sala.

Pia says, “Our ‘sala’, if you can call it that, is somewhat hard to decorate simply because it’s just so big. This entire space used to be the original cabana and so it was meant to be large enough to hold parties in, in fact, this was where I held my debut.”

“The space is great for entertaining,” Dwight agrees. “When we have guests over we end up playing a lot of games. If it’s just my guy friends, I plug in the Playstation. But for family or mixed groups we play anything from board games to parlor games. Once, we had a lot of fun role-playing with a murder mystery game over dinner. This Thanksgiving and Christmas we’re already planning how to make things more fun for all our guests.”

“I’ve come to realize that our living room is unusually large. Over in the States, most people don’t have a room like this, or a “sala” as we call it here in the Philippines,” Dwight adds. “There’s just a family room where the TV and sofa usually is, maybe a hall to receive guests in, and a separate dining room. But we have to use all of this one big space for all those functions. It’s a bit of a problem, to be honest. We still haven’t figured out how to utilize it best. Maybe you have some ideas?” asks Dwight half-seriously.

Reserving our suggestions for later, we note that the living room is almost huge enough to play basketball in. It’s furnished with an appealing mix of carved Chinese teak and bright floral prints, not exactly a conventional combination.

Pia describes how things came together design-wise. “We just retained the furniture that was already there from when it was still a cabana and added our own personal touches. I thought that it would be a waste not to use what we already had, but we also wanted to bring in some things to make it look like our home.”

“We like to decorate with objects that remind us of our travels,” elaborates Dwight. “We got the painting of elephants in Thailand because elephants are a really big deal over there. And we got the painting of Balinese dancers in Indonesia because they represent the place so well.” He evidently appreciates these two pieces of folk art more than the three small Goyas hanging on one wall, remnants of the cabana days. What’s important is that they picked them out for themselves, even if they were painted by unknown artists. “The paintings, chairs and cabinets are somewhat Asian in style, but the couches and some of the knickknacks are Western. So the overall style is kind of eclectic,” he states.

What Dwight and Pia have yet to remark on however, is that throughout the Lago home, one person’s influence is front and center. Above everything, the house has obviously been set up to cater to Riana’s whims and desires. The lawn is sprinkled with her toys, and two whole rooms are devoted to her use, one for play, and one for sleep.

“If we have another baby, maybe in a year or so, we plan to convert Riana’s playroom into the new baby’s room,” Dwight muses.

As one would expect for a little Lago, Riana even has her own mini basketball hoop. Surprisingly though, it’s the only hoop in the house. Dwight expresses his own puzzlement at this noticeable deficiency, “I guess it’s really ironic how we don’t have a basketball court. Maybe one day I’ll put up a hoop by the pool.”

This brings the conversation to the grounds of the house, otherwise known as Riana’s private playground. “I originally thought of building another wall between the main house and the cabana, but Dwight didn’t want to sacrifice the lawn space,” Pia says.

“We wanted Rhiana to have a lot of space to run around. I believe that having a lot of running space is very important for kids,” explains Dwight.

“It was also Dwight’s idea to use buho, bamboo slats, to cover up the wall behind the pool. It used to be plain cement, now it looks a lot better,” affirms Pia.

“I saw them being used as a wall in another house and thought it was a good idea,” Dwight explains. “The old pool used to be huge, to build the house we had to take up a big portion of it. When it was done, we fixed up the garden and placed some lawn chairs. The landscaping is interesting because it was designed by Dr. Nelson, who is in charge of maintaining the aquariums in the restaurants, and he was really serious about which plants should go together. Now we like having barbecues outside by the pool.”

The Lagos didn’t always have this much space at their disposal. “When we got married, we first lived in a condominium in San Juan,” Pia recounts. “But then Dwight’s parents from the States decided to visit for a while and we couldn’t find a place good enough for them to stay.”

“So we decided to let them use the condo while we stayed here at Pia’s house,” Dwight adds.

“They ended up staying for six months. And then we had gotten used to living here. And then of course, I got pregnant with Rhiana,” relates Pia.

“Putting up the house here was the most practical decision. We realized we would be better off in a lot of ways. No more worrying about elevators, fire escapes, or where to have your laundry done. And it’s a lot more secure inside the village. Not to mention all the extra space for the garden and lawn. A condo is okay if you’re starting out as a couple, but for a family, it’s best to have a house,” Dwight declares.

And from the most unlikely foundations, it has turned out to be a lovely home. Emerging as a charming depiction of the Lago family, Dwight’s easy-going nature combines with Pia’s practical sensibilities to form a haven of warmth and joy. “All I really wanted was a comfortable sofa and a recliner,” states Dwight good-naturedly. “Everything else is Pia’s doing.”

Pia counters diplomatically, “I left the den to him, it’s his space and he can do anything he wants with it.”

“It’s nothing much to look at now, mostly things stored in boxes,” explains Dwight. “But I plan to put up all my basketball memorabilia one day, all my jerseys, trophies. From all the way back to my La Salle days up to San Miguel.” A stack of neatly labelled boxes stands testament to this work-in-progress.

“The kitchen is the one room I was very particular about,” Pia asserts. “I made sure it was built to my satisfaction. It’s because I like to cook, so I expect to spend a lot of time and do a lot of work in the kitchen.” This comes as no big surprise since Pia shares her family’s passion for the art and business of food.

“Our second home includes all the restaurants that I help run with my family. Almost every day, Riana accompanies me after school as I go about the restaurants,” says Pia. “Sometimes, Dwight tags along as well,” she teases, thus revealing how her family sticks together, in business or in health. The Lagos might have put together a quirky house, but their partnership is plainly harmonious. He might be a bit more laid-back and she a little more high-strung. But like the best of relationships, it’s a complementary pairing, as balanced as a spinning basketball or a three-course meal.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

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