A View From The Edge

first published in Manila Bulletin, 2005

RJ Ledesma’s wholistic approach to property development is turning things around.

A scenic view of Taal Volcano from Tagaytay.

A scenic view of Taal Volcano from Tagaytay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If one didn’t know RJ Ledesma any better, you’d think he was on something. Able to juggle more jobs than you’d think would be humanly possible, there’s something almost super-powered about his multi-tasking abilities. Maybe it has something to do with his enthusiasm for comic books, or the regular power-yoga sessions he attends, or his great devotion to the church and active participation in parish activities. Businessman, TV personality, new age guru, and devout Catholic, RJ somehow manages to keep all his balls up in the air while most people would simply keel over from both mental and physical exhaustion. Whatever keeps RJ up and running, he should package and sell it. And in a way, that’s what he’s trying to do. As one of his many occupations, RJ is also the Executive Vice President of Ledesco, one of the country’s pioneering real estate companies. Of all their projects, the one closest to RJ’s heart, his “baby” so to speak, is the Taal View Heights Nature Villas and the adjacent Buena Vista Nature Park & Country Club, a 26 hectare property in Talisay, Batangas, part of Metro Tagaytay. The development distinctly incorporates elements drawn from RJ’s varied interests and passions, thus making him the perfect front-man for the project.

We discovered a surprisingly speedy route to Tagaytay via the new STAR highway and before long our ears began to pop due to the lower air pressure and high altitude. Having reached the site, the unhindered view of Taal’s majesty is enough to win most people over. But with RJ, a tour of the location turns into something much more than the usual ocular inspection. “We want it to be a multi-sensory experience. You have the tactile experience by actually coming here. And then the auditory experience. You hear the wind, and also the water elements,” he explains.

No doubt made easier by his eclectic social circle, RJ actively attracts talented people to his projects. Pointing to the wooden figures accenting the grounds, he reveals that all the bamboo and arches were hand-sculpted by Amin El-Bahraoui, a very creative half German-half Moroccan sculptor who grew up in Cebu and has done a lot of work in Germany. “He just took all the driftwood in the area, started working on them and came up with all these sculptures. He uses the same paint that you find in old German churches”.

RJ also enlisted the services of green architect Pablo Suarez, who has studied indigenous architecture, feng shui, and other traditional architectural ideologies. Their philosophy is that these ancient principles continue to work up to this day because there’s an inherent soundness to them. “This area has particularly good Feng Shui because in front of you is a body of water,” RJ explains. “Water is a strong source of Qi. At the same time behind you are the mountains and they protect you from the bad elements. So as the good Qi emanates from the water, it is trapped here because of the mountains at the back. So that’s probably one of the reasons why people feel better and more energetic here.”

RJ and his team strove to preserve the innate beauty and energy of the landscape by retaining its ruggedness. “Some designers do it the easy way by flattening the area, so that they don’t have to build terraces or make use of the slope. But we tried as much as possible to use the existing contours. We always try to acknowledge the slope, the view and the wind. We agreed that all the greenery within the vicinity should be retained,” states Mr. Suarez. RJ backs this up with, “Nature doesn’t create straight lines. So all our lines are curved, uneven, organic. It’s appropriate because we’re promoting the organic lifestyle.”

Rene L. Ledesma, Sr., RJ’s father, feels that he is blessed to have a son who is as innovative and motivated about property development as RJ. Among the profit-driven realm of real estate, where the lowest common denominator commonly reigns, the Ledesmas stand out due to their high principles and forethought. “We are part of nature and we are part of this cultural area. We are not only located near Tagaytay, which is very beautiful and popular with tourists, but also historically rich Talisay. Apolinario Mabini was born there, and it is also where the Katipuneros were based for a time. And in nearby Taal you can still see 16th to 17th century architecture among their houses and churches. Much of the architecture of the buildings in our development is inspired by this area. We are doing all this out of respect for the culture and history of the region. We realize that as developers, we are also Filipinos who have to try to live up to our cultural heritage. We are borrowing from the vernacular of the place and making Filipino architecture come alive,” he states.

UNESCO awardee Augusto Villalon acts as the development’s cultural heritage planner and he intends to put up a showcase Filipino heritage home on the site. “Filipino architecture has been around for a really long time. It works very well for our climate and geography. It satisfies our environmental, cultural and spiritual needs. Mainly because it is a kind of architectural envelope that makes the Filipino more comfortable. We’re not as comfortable wearing super western clothes and living in outrageous western environments,” the master architect articulates.

Other developments sprouting all over Tagaytay feature a mishmash of architectural styles from around the world, from Swiss chalets and American log cabins to Mediterranean Villas. This housing hodgepodge results in a rather disharmonious landscape. Pretty soon, if development progresses unchecked, without any guidelines, Tagaytay will end up looking less like the natural and cultural Filipino wonder that it is and more like a tacky version of a Disney theme park or Las Vegas. Taal View Heights is one of the very few developments with a set of strict architectural and ecological guidelines to ensure that the community as a whole succeeds both aesthetically and environmentally.

As a real estate firm, Ledesco’s respect and sensitivity for the land’s natural and cultural assets serves as an example for others. In a country where both the public and private sector can hardly be bothered to consider such esoteric matters as land conservancy, RJ boldly wears his convictions on his sleeve. And he reveals himself to be something of an undercover conservationist, a guerilla defending the land from inside the industry that seems bent on destroying it. “Property development is a legacy business, whatever you build you leave behind for the coming generations. It doesn’t mean that if you develop property you can’t also be ecologically sustainable and culturally aware. It’s not a mutually exclusive thing. Although many have tried to keep it separate or even abhor it. We embrace it,” he affirms. These are fighting words to say the least, and not what you’d expect to hear from your typical developer. We’re fortunate though that RJ is zany enough to think outside the box, but canny enough to pull it off.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

Clean and Mean: Scrubbing Isn’t For Sissies

(first published in Blubook Magazine, 2003)

Aside from hunger, thirst, and lust, one other basic human desire is the need to feel clean, smell good, and look presentable. This aspiration might be slightly more pronounced within the Filipino race. We may litter, pollute, and befoul our fair land indiscriminately, but when it comes to personal hygiene, you can’t fault us Pinoys. We’re just cleaner and we smell better than everyone else, and nobody can tell us any different. This almost obsessive-compulsive fixation with bodily sanitation is more typically attributed to the female component of our population. All the better for them to win beauty contests, and seduce less hygienically-endowed foreigners. But the Filipino male was never really a sloppy creature to begin with. And as the divisions between gender roles start to blur, and personal care corporations begin embarking on a thorough rethink of their product lines, Juan dela Cruz is faced with the opportunity to be true to his roots and embrace his inner hygienochondriac. Spotless, sweatless, and shower-fresh, that’s the ideal.

Filipinos have always been a vain lot, gender notwithstanding, but the dividing line between run-of-the-mill Pinoy vanity and the new enlightened narcissism lies across the shower curtain. Whether one’s wash-weapons of choice, a.k.a “pang-hilod”, are pumice stones (rubbed smooth by the waters of the Cagayan River), loofah pads (grown organically among the fields of Cavite) or bath lilies (manufactured in the factories of China), we Filipinos are not afraid to rub our skins raw in the name of a smoother, fairer libag-free complexion. Micro-abrasions be damned! As a people, we have a long tradition of obsessively sloughing off dead skin cells. One of our ancient legends, that of Lam-ang, deals with how the otherwise macho warrior, unable to withstand the knowledge that his pores were clogged and dirty, scrubbed himself clean in a stream, thus in a stroke of mythical biogenesis, populating our waters with a rich supply of aquatic fauna. When you look at it from an anthropological perspective, exfoliation is but a natural extension of the grand old Filipino tradition of eXtreme! Cleansing, clearly demonstrated by our penchant for laundering clothes by pounding them with heavy wooden paddles in the middle of white-water rapids, or voluntarily signing up for intensive monthly medical facials. There’s really nothing sissified about it. If you’re gonna get all cleaned up anyway, why not wash on the wild side? What could be more macho than scouring your hide with a rock?

But there are still hold-outs in the push to extend the range of beauty products for men. Marketers tend to butch up the process by using manly, terse words in naming their goods. Strong action-packed verbs like “scrub” and “sandblast”, or hard-edged ingredient names like “shell grits” and “tree bark” are preferred. Some also try get away with it by deceptively promoting their products as shaving aids. Because only manly men are supposed to have enough facial hair to make shaving a big deal, so the more shaving products you need, the manlier you are.
And so men’s grooming is going mainstream. And what does this mean for the old guard preeners and primpers? They have to ride the bleeding-edge and embrace even more unorthodox modes of vanity in order to stay ahead of the increasingly more dapper herd. They must go alternative, hardcore, left-field, or risk being labelled as “regular guys”. So what sets apart a dedicated dandy from a mere dabbler in the finer points of manhood? A “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” cast member from a temporary testosterone suppressor? Real metrosexuals exfoliate. But soon even that might not be enough. There’s only so much research and inspiration one can gather from within one’s own shower. If you’re a die-hard exfoliator and not content with what the supermarket skin product aisle and your own two hands have to offer, then it’s only natural to take things to the next level. Get cleansed by a professional.

I decided to go straight to the source, the temple of bodily indulgence, pamper central – a spa. Incognito, I hied off to the Nurture Spa for a “body treatment”. The spa promotes itself as “an oasis of peace and tranquility tucked away amidst the coffee orchards of Tagaytay, designed to be a refuge from the stress and tension of urban life”. I chose to submit myself to the Exfoliating Scrub Massage, which was billed as “a pampering treatment combination of a luxurious exfoliating treatment designed to rid the body of dead and dry skin cells to even our skin color and aromatherapy massage in one”. This was after going through a “relaxing 30 minute Turkish steam bath”. Those with a phobia of being manhandled by strangers might read the words “full body exfoliating massage” and envision being kneaded into ribbons by a sadist-for-hire wearing sandpaper-coated gloves. I interpreted it as “research for the remaining 1,000 words you need to finish your article”. This may all sound a little intimidating, and even scary to the uninitiated. But for the past few weeks or so I had become intimate with the intense processes one must undergo in the pursuit of smooth, spotless skin. And I was ready.

So I change into the requisite spa attire, a petite pan-asian batik kimono and shorts ensemble, and into the Turkish bath I go. The Turks came up with this hybrid of a garrote and an isolation pod probably to intimidate invading Christians and other heathens. To add to the torture chamber vibe, I’m supposed to strip to my batik shorts, which are barely decent to start with. My attendant asks me to take of the kimono with my back to her while halfway inside the bath and hand it off to her for safekeeping. This feat of dexterity executed, I’m then left to steam like so much dimsum. You’re supposed to cook in the thing for 15 or so minutes. To flush out impurities they say. And to tenderize the flesh I think. It’s all so very Iron Chef. I steam and sweat, pant and breathe in the (not very aromatic) fumes. The attendant comes in to check on me in the middle of the steaming to ask if the temperature isn’t too high. To be honest, it slightly is, but of course I don’t tell her that. I also don’t tell her that I’ve been cheating by venting off the too-hot steam from time to time. Just when I was starting to feel courageously martyr-like, it was over. So with the tenderizing done, we were now off to apply the marinade.

Restricted to a draped room, lying on a massage bed, nothing much on, staring down into a faux-natural flower arrangement floating in a wooden bowl, no escape from the new-agey neo-classical muzak pervading the soundscape, this is not a process you’d recommend to the average young male with a standard case of Attention Deficit Disorder. Suffering from a mild form of the condition myself, I couldn’t help but squirm a bit from all the enforced relaxation. It all seemed like a way subtler, more insidious version of the classic Frankie Goes To Hollywood song (which you really ought to know, if you’ve been reading this far).

Cover of "Candyman 2 - Farewell to the Fl...

Cover of Candyman 2 - Farewell to the Flesh

There are a few other squeamish moments you have to get over first before going all Candyman 2 and saying Farewell to the Flesh. This includes the realization that you’re wearing a silly-looking batik-shorts-and-kimono combo that’s way too small for you. Unlike say, other Asians like the Japanese or Koreans, we Pinoy guys are generally not as comfortable in our birthday suits when in public. Thus the apprehension that comes with having to take off your clothes in front of complete strangers, and of the opposite gender to boot. And finally there’s the moment when you become conscious that a strange lady is scrubbing your butt. And just when you start getting used to it, she then starts inching up your groin. Just making sure you get thoroughly cleansed, of course. Having some other person washing your body for you feels unnervingly regressive. It’s like being given sponge baths by your mom as a kid all over again. Mom’s rates for her services were never this high though. In fairness to the spa personnel, they conducted themselves very professionally while seeing and touching things that would make the typical convent-bred colegiala blush. Based on what I could still discern by the fading light of day, the scrubbing compound was made up of these tiny dark brown specks which could have been ground walnut shells, kiwifruit seeds, or bits of asphalt as far as I knew. The actual scrubbing process was commendably thorough and soothing. One experiences a sensation I imagine as being not too far removed from getting licked all over by the warm, moist, and raspy tongues of two Siberian tigers. And because of the open-air nature of the spa, there was nothing to stop the chilly Tagaytay breeze from wafting all over your recently-rubbed-raw skin. It’s a strangely enjoyable chilly thrill, that is, if you get off from getting all goose-bumpy. So depending on your masochistic tendencies, there is some degree of discomfort involved, but it’s mostly overwhelmed by all the other pleasurable sensations. The process over, I felt like a whole slew of adjectives beginning with the letter S – smooth, supple, soft, sarap!

So until they can train a team of Siberian tigers well enough to be able to give full body tongue lickings without being tempted to take a bite off my kimono-clad butt, I think a spa treatment will do just fine for me to get my kicks. Some guy friends have asked why I would want to do all this silly stuff to myself. The simple answer is because it feels good and it’s actually good for you. It’s like taking in your recommended weekly dose of fiber, but externally. You’re ridding yourself of cellular debris, taking care of your holistic well-being, improving circulation, balancing your energies, and all that other pseudoscientific jazz. You know it won’t hurt, and it feels better than expected. And there’s nothing silly about the price. Let the big boys buy their toys, real men book their treatments.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

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