Before I Forget

Poetry, quakes, fires, revolution—and Café by the Ruins

The Baguio landmark celebrated its 35th year, with artists, writers, and poets in attendance

Café by the Ruins
Installation by Bumbo Villanueva at Cafe by the Ruins' celebration
Café by the Ruins

Portrait gallery of the Cafe stalwarts with miniature paintings by Kelly Ramos

No one thought that the 35-year-old Café by the Ruins in Baguio (across from the City Hall, I would instruct the cabbie when I was a new resident there) would last this long, not even a fellow restaurateur who gave Adelaida Lim only six months for her and her friends’ venture to make a dent in their adopted city.

Adelaida Lim (right) dining al fresco with poet Merci Javier Dulawan

But last it has, even taking Laida by surprise. She said, “I never imagined it would even last a year, but people kept coming to eat the food we served and hang out with us. The café, which started as a warung (in Indonesia, a type of small family-owned business, a small retail outlet, eatery or café) went through three cogon roofs, each one higher than the previous one, until the mostly wood structure burned down in barely 20 minutes. Then we realized the Cafe was 30 years in operation.”

It reached its coral jubilee this March, announcing to all that it was closed for “a private event” on the 22nd. The invitation read that the celebration would start at 7 a.m.. But no one gets up at that unholy hour in this cool city, except photographer Tommy Hafalla and some shamans who led the slaughtering of the sacrificial black pig and the reading of its insides to see if all bodes well for the café, its founders and loyal patrons.

Photographer Tommy Hafalla doubles as bartender

Tommy was a reassuring sight as he also manned the bar, serving Jack Daniel’s and other inebriations while the gong players and dancers played around the outdoor dap-ay (Google definition: a circle-shaped outdoor place built using rocks with a bonfire area at the center, traditionally used by old male folks to discuss issues involving the community), danced outdoors and indoors. The sound was heady and inviting. Soon the seated guests also rose and joined in, led by the exuberant Mitos Benitez Yñiguez of Hill Station.

‘I never imagined it would even last a year, but people kept coming to eat the food we served and hang out with us,’ said co-founder Adelaida Lim

Gong players included such esteemed visual artists as Willy Magtibay, Leonard Aguinaldo, and Bumbo Villanueva, who arranged a floral deity just outside the café proper where visitors could lay their wishes, hopes, and dreams.

Among the gong beaters were visual artist Leonard Aguinaldo and theater director Karlo Altomonte.

As we motored to town in time for lunch, my husband Rolly Fernandez and I made bets on what would be served. I was excited to taste the pig, the fattier the better, he the boiled kamote, both staples of a Cordillera feast.

Café by the Ruins

Boiled kamote and bananas

Laida said, “The cañao lunch was the whole hog: grilled liver and belly pulutan dipped in crushed chili and salt or toyo as preferred, boiled pork, pising (a dish of gabi leaves—no coconut milk, though) boiled kamote, and gabi. Of course, there was pork adobo. The menu was the usual Cordillera cañao fare, modified for urban tastes. Perry Manaril, the artist who designed the café’s lamps, made the sisig from the pig’s face or maskara.”

When she talks charmingly and seductively of food, I imagine her as our very own Alice Waters, taking the cudgels for slow food, supporting local farmers and livestock raisers and revolutionizing how we think about food (and now, about weaving and textiles, too).

She and partners Suzanne “Sue” Llamado and the late Baboo Mondoñedo are the Mama Earth types to whom feeding an entire community, even a city in distress after the 1990 killer earthquake, seems a cinch. Their fund-raising capability is admirable. Baboo told of how a heap of cash donations measuring about half a foot high was entrusted to her in 1990 as the café turned into an emergency soup kitchen, feeding those displaced from their homes and who couldn’t cook a hot meal. Among the things the café served then was minestrone soup, a perplexing taste to the machos in the queue who wanted something more substantial. Soon the meat and rice meals rolled out of the kitchen.

Rolly is a beef eater who’s less partial to pork (a Seventh Day Adventist upbringing), but soon as I put down my purse, I made a beeline for the buffet table and heaped my enamel plate with red rice and grilled pieces of fatty pork. We all ate with our hands, even National Artists Bencab, another café partner, and Kidlat Tahimik, who wore flowers in his hair.

Cafe founders National Artist BenCab and Louie Llamado

Café by the Ruins

Kidlat Tahimik

The second generation of café bosses was there, particularly Celestina “Tann” Arvisu, who emceed the afternoon’s poetry reading and who declared in her Facebook: “Thirty-five years of Café by the Ruins. That’s a long, long, long time. Food and friendship, love and loss, calamities and recoveries. Basta, we’ve been through a regeneration of cells five times over.”

The late Baboo Mondoñedo told of how a heap of cash donations for the Baguio earthquake, measuring about half a foot high, was entrusted to her in 1990 as the café turned into an emergency soup kitchen

Asked to pick her favorite from the menu, Laida said, “Food is my favorite dish. I just love eating, and I’ll try almost anything, but for me the best are the tried and tested comfort foods like adobo and sinigang. When fish roe appears in the market, that’s my fave for the season.”

The café is also the fave hangout of artists, writers, particularly poets from the Baguio Writers Group. The group is often called upon to read, recite, or perform the members’ poems at different occasions, all for a glorious meal. Feed a poet or a painter, they’re yours for life. Even Laida thought that there should be more poetry readings in the café’s calendar.

Café by the Ruins

“Tattoo” by Eliza Consul

The poems read were not only paeans to the café that has sustained starving artists, but also odes to a city that could sometimes take its homegrown talents for granted.

Allan Cariño, BWG president, in his Poem Written in a Waiting Shed, warned of how:
You cannot have all of a place or time like a treasure hoard
or hold the mountain in its hungry weather
in your hand and take it away in your pocket
or know what the person
the one that you love beside you in the waiting shed
is thinking truly then and there.

Journalist Frank Cimatu, averse to reading his own verses, had Dana Cosio Mercado read his, complete with trembling fingers:

Poet-journalist Frank Cimatu

Now drivers know where to bring you
When you just say “Ruins”
But the same rush chokes me whenever I enter
The café under the cogon roof.
I have dreamt of the Ruins thrice,
Always the burnt one, not Dua or this new one.
In the first, I was supposed to meet you at the table
In the end with the window, it was raining and I forgot something
So I have to go home but I couldn’t come back:
Another anxiety dream where I even forgot to order.
Another was a post-coital dream where I
Had a bite of kamote bread dashed by fish roe pate
The faint saltiness like your saltiness
With bougainvillea petals falling on the pinikpikan.

Yours truly offered a chant for that famous kamote bread, a hankering for which I had for weeks until the anniversary date had me panic buying a supply of four loaves.

i am not content with a loaf,
i purchase with my hard-earned
pesetas three or four loaves to be
paired with butter, jam, fish roe
or decadent liver pate

what pleasure it is to chew a slice or two
& pair the bread with a cuppa joe
freshly brewed like the city’s clime
on a Wednesday morn such as this

camote, camote, camote,
sweet bread of my youth,
middle age & late sixties,
may the bakery never run out
of thee, may these mountains keep
nurturing the roots of this sweetest
of potatoes.

Multilingual poet and translator Merci Javier-Dulawan spoke of the café’s significance to her life, addressing it like an intimate friend:

Binusog mo ako
Ng masaganang mga pagkain
At binuksan mo ang pinto ng maraming pagkakataong naghihintay sa akin.

Ikaw ang naging tagpuan
Ikaw ang naging taguan
Dinanas mo rin marahil
Ang halos lahat ng aking naranasan…

Habang kaya pang namnamin ng diwa ko’t dila
Ang mainit na sabaw ng karneng Kordilyera
At bawat itim na butil ng kanin
Ng bigas sa bulubundukin
At kaya pang ubusin ang natitirang patak ng alak na pula
Na magmumula sa iyong natatanging kopita.

Since it’s summer already and bush fires are common in the dry parts of the mountain, poet-activist Luchie B. Maranan expressed the surge of hope despite a cycle of devastations:

I gazed at smoke billowing, spiraling up the sky from a distant mountain
Green turning brown turning gray turning black, signaling that summer has begun
Defying the month of preventing fire.
It raged ’til evening
Fanned by the gathering winds,
Scarring and defacing a mountainside.
Folks will wait for birth of new undergrowth,
as cycles of the earth will find a way,
And they shall have new lessons then again…

But summer soothes this city well
That heals from deep wounds.
We who are left bereft, bothered and bewildered turn to our chosen brew
And break bread in the worst and best times
And ponder this city of confused seasons.
We are seasoned survivors who sing
We are weathered wanderers who write
We are lovers of this city that hurts and heals
It is our home of perpetual affliction and affection.

I quote young poet’s Kabunyan Palaganas’ love poem, written on the run in a manner of speaking, as he explored his and his beloved’s tastes in the public market:

Café by the Ruins

Young poet Kabunyan Palaganas reads from his cell phone

Sasamahan kitang maglakad sa palengke
at nang makilala kita sa timpla ng iyong sikmura:

Kung ako’y dadalhin mo
sa pwesto ng kape,
Aba e, matutuklasan ko
kung paano ka magtimpla ng gising—
Kung ano ang iyong pipiliing piling
ang bango ng arabikang Benguet o
o ang dagitab ng robustang Kalinga?

Ilulubog ko ang aking daliri
sa mga sako ng bigas
at kikilitiin ang mga butil
habang ika’y pumipili
kung sinandomeng o dinorado
jasmine o japonica,
red rice, brown rice,
NFA o angelica

Sa gulayan pagmamasdan ko
kung ano
ang mga nakasanayan mong gulay
at kung ika’y maselan ba
o bukas sumubok
ng mga di mo pa natitikman

at ang paborito mong sahog,
karne ng baboy o ng baka?
manok o isda?
dito sa palengke,
kikilalanin kita sa iyong panlasa

Sa merkado ng rekado
ay ilalantad mo ang lihim ng timpla
ng iyong nanay at tatay, o lolo at lola
ng sibuyas, bawang, at luya
ng laurel at paminta
at ang sari-saring sangkap
na iyong kinagagalak
noong ika’y paslit pa

Sasamahan kitang maglakad sa palengke
at nang maunawaan ko
ang timbang ng iyong pitaka
kung ang kaya mong bilhin
ay pang isang buwan, linggo,
o pang mamaya na
at kung ang dala mo’y masyadong mabigat
ang pagbuhat ay pwede rin
nating hatiin
tulad ng paghati sa gawain—
ayon sa kinakailangan
at ayon rin sa kakayanin;
ako na’ng magluluto
basta’t ikaw ang maghahain

Café by the Ruins

‘Mayanas and Morning’ by Kizel Cotiw-an

Café by the Ruins

‘Garbage’ by Sirk Deuda, part of the Cafe’s anniversary show

About author


She is a freelance journalist. The pandemic has turned her into a homebody.

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