June 02, 2008

Ernest Escaler's payback

Something Like Life
May 23, 2008

WHETHER it was just dumb luck or the result of some divine intervention, my friends and I found ourselves touring Ernest L. Escaler’s farm in Silang, Cavite, one Saturday afternoon in April. Unbeknown to us then, his name would hit the headlines again a few days after, for a six-year-old case that implicated him with some characters in the shady landscape of politics.

I first knew of Escaler as an investment banker and businessman behind Gourmet’s Café, which in the ’90s introduced the concept of fresh salad ingredients and savory pasta dishes to a wider audience. Gourmet’s branch in Greenbelt was the one I particularly patronized, regularly ordering its delectable olive crostinis to take home as my midnight snack while watching late-night TV.

I also knew he was a big benefactor of the various religious communities in Tagaytay, and a Marian devotee who regularly makes pilgrimages to Lourdes.

I heard him inquire who we were from Missus, my svelte ex-boss whose rather portly husband we were joking around with as we were leaving the Gourmet deli. (Mister was explaining how he had sprained his toe on his wife’s dumbbell, which was why he was hobbling around the deli on a cane...tsk, tsk). Escaler graciously invited us to see his farm and a place he called “The Sanctuary,” and although we initially hesitated (we needed to return ASAP to a seminar we had been playing hooky from), we eventually agreed to the tour after Missus told us how beautiful the place was. True enough, touring the farm and The Sanctuary was one of the best afternoons we had spent in a while.

It would be another month before my friends and I made our way back to Silang, this time for a sit-down interview with Escaler, who had agreed to talk about his company, Gourmet Farms Inc., which makes all those yummy pasta sauces, dips and dressings under the Kitchen Exclusives brand, my favorite Gourmet’s premium coffee blend, and sells fresh salad greens vacuum-packed and triple-washed. I also wanted to find out why he had built The Sanctuary.

(Businessman Ernest L. Escaler is happy to see his pet ducks.)

(Okay, truth to tell, I really wanted to see if he would give his side of the Mark Jimenez-Nani Perez-Coutts Bank account story. But other than calling himself “collateral damage,” and jokingly answering my question about his present state of mind — “harassed!” — Escaler declined to go on record on what had actually transpired between him and those two, and the real reason behind the $2-million deposit in the now-infamous bank account.)

Mildly put, The Sanctuary is breathtaking. It is a small patch of land within Escaler’s lush 8-hectare estate, where people can commune with nature and with their God. “I always wanted to put up a retreat place but never thought what kind it would be. Having been trained in the Jesuit education, we’re used to going on retreats.”

Every January 23, his birthday, Escaler explains, he would go on a retreat with the Pink Sisters in their convent in Tagaytay. “I spend the day there in silence, just reading the Bible. Then I said, ‘Hmmm, I think I should make a place available so people can be silent and get out of the noise in this world,’ because how else can you hear what God has in mind for you unless you’re absolutely quiet?” Before his next birthday rolled around in 2007, The Sanctuary had been completed.

It is a calming place where one can contemplate and take stock of one’s life amid the quiet rustling of leaves and gentle breezes from the adjacent farm, while watching ducks paddle around their pond.

The main feature of The Sanctuary is a gorgeous white chapel which remarkably looks like the upper half of a lighthouse. I thought it was a good metaphor for God’s Word lighting the way for people who seek His guidance and love.

The chapel houses many of Escaler’s antique collection of Filipino and Balinese craftsmanship. We marveled at the Balinese windows that framed the space behind the altar, as well as the bust carving of Jesus Christ crowned with thorns. “These are my collections over the last 22 years....Eventually, I said, when I build my dream house, these are what I would like to use. So they’ve been sitting there in the warehouse for the last 10 years.”

But more than the architecture and design, it is the spiritual healing that is said to take place in The Sanctuary that makes it worthwhile to visit.

“There was this guy, he got married, went on honeymoon with his wife, when they came back, his wife went to the doctor for a checkup to see if she was pregnant. She was diagnosed with stage-four cancer. Before the year was over, she died. So you can imagine how traumatized the guy was,” Escaler narrates.

To escape from his pain, every Christmas the man would go out of the country and didn’t want to be with family. One of his friends finally told him about The Sanctuary and he asked permission to stay there for Christmas. The man was told he would be left all alone for the Christmas holiday because the staff had to go on a break. “He was totally alone, in the dark. He just spent the whole Christmas Eve crying daw and after that, he said it was the best Christmas of his life! So what do you call that? Is that healing?”

He tells us other instances of healing, and I can understand why the place has such an effect on people. After spending an afternoon there, I didn’t want to leave and just wanted to continue being enveloped in its tranquillity. We came away from the experience feeling light, relaxed and happy.

Aside from the spiritual "detox", The Sanctuary also offers three-day physical detox treatments supervised by Escaler himself. Clients are fed special concoctions of fruits and vegetables, followed by doses of Epsom salts given at intervals, and, finally, a citrus-olive oil drink. So as not to offend our, ahem, readers’ sensibilities, we shall omit the grislier details of the procedure. It was quite surreal, though, to talk about the many dimensions of poo with someone we hardly knew, this after we had just finished lunch.

“ Unlike the pricier (sometimes costing as much as P20,000 a pop) and bland, almost distasteful detox treatments offered at some high-end spas, the treatment at The Sanctuary not only costs a mere P5,000 but also “may lasa. We use salt and pepper, all the bad stuff,” Escaler jests. The detox is preferably conducted in groups of five to six persons.

Because of the serene and picture-perfect surroundings, The Sanctuary also makes for a stunning venue for weddings, commitment ceremonies, or wedding anniversaries, although he says that, technically, one can’t hold real church weddings in the chapel as it is not a parish. “We advice you get secretly married in your parish, sign your papers, then we can have a re-enactment here. You don’t have to tell your guests it’s a re-enactment. Pero walang pirma-pirma.” Escaler says the weddings help subsidize the cost of hosting nuns and priests who frequent the place for their own spiritual needs.

It’s really a place I felt, for all the success in my life, it’s a thanksgiving for all the benefits...I call it my payback to God. That’s why we don’t like to advertise, it’s not a commercial thing. And so He calls who He wants to talk to. That’s my inspiration. It’s a place where people can find refuge, that’s why I call it The Sanctuary...away from the world into a communication with God.”

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday, in the Life section of the BusinessMirror.)

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