Poet and environmental advocate Gawani Domogo-Gaongen. Photograph by Andre Drilon
Culture Spotlight

Sagada’s best-kept secret is a triple threat: a poet, activist, and restaurateur

In the northern edge of the country, In the tourist town of Sagada, Mountain Province, Gawani Domogo-Gaongen is striving to practice her zero waste philosophy and pass it on to visitors of her vegetarian cafe, Gaia. By her poetry, she is zeroing in on her culture and heritage by writing in the local Kankana-ey language.
Ces Oreña-Drilon | Mar 30 2019

It must be “tadhana.” Had it not been for the hit movie, “That Thing called Tadhana,” released in 2015 (and now having a second life on Netflix), it might have taken Filipinos a while to discover vegetarian restaurant Gaia in Sagada, run by poet and environmental advocate Gawani Domogo-Gaongen. “It got a lot of Filipinos to try our restaurant. They were surprised that it’s vegetarian. Pero, well, I liked the movie kasi syempre i-prinomote niya yung public transport and syempre, prinomote din niya din kami. A lot of people were willing to try us just because we were in the movie.”

One thing Gawani won’t compromise is her effort to achieve zero waste in her restaurant’s operations. "As much as possible we generate the least waste in order to feed these people."

Before the film (which featured the lead actors having a meal at the restaurant),  Gaia’s clientele were mostly foreign tourists. Gawani laughs over the disappointment of first- time goers, “Ay! Vegetarian!” “Nye! Vegetarian.” She has since added one meat dish to the menu. “We adjusted this year and added meat but it has to be organic. We found a supplier and he’s a friend of mine. So, yehey!” The new addition is a come-on for others who might not venture to try Gaia’s plant-based offerings, “Because at least if they’re with a group and there’s a meat eater in a group, at least may option siya to come in. Kasi minsan if there’s one meat eater who doesn’t want the menu, siya yung nasusunod. Some are willing to try and it’s also an opportunity to introduce our food. We tell them, ‘We have protein but it’s plant-based. Baka gusto niyo i-try yung sandwiches namin. Peanut butter-banana sandwich for example. So, extra challenge convincing people. But it’s okay. It’s part of the operations.”

Eco-friendly Gaia Café with a view.

But there is one thing Gawani won’t compromise. And that is her effort to achieve zero waste in her restaurant’s operations. “We’re very conscious of our wastes, our use of ingredients, we make sure na preventive. As much as possible, the least waste we can generate in order to feed these guests. So we do a lot of recycling and segregation. We do bottle bricks. Yung isang part ng construction namin, we dumped like five years of bottles to fill in and it worked kasi it’s lightweight and it fills in the space for the cement to come sa level nitong café na ito. A portion of the cafe extension was made from water bottles converted into bottle bricks or eco bricks. “That’s the last resort kasi syempre kumbaga hindi na talaga ma-recycle, tapos talagang nag-cut down na kami para lang konti yung waste namin that we have to take care of later. We advocate as much as possible—no straws. So when a guest asked us, ‘Bakit po wala kayong straw?’ I tell them, it’s 30 minutes of your convenience for 500 years of, you know, of the earth’s.”

Gawani supports aspiring entrepreneurs and artists by showcasing their products at Gaia.

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Gawani’s home is just next to Gaia and she cares for a pig to consume their kitchen waters. “Essential yung pig sa operations, ang laki din ng nako-consume niya, halos yung mga vegetable scrap.”

This “waste not, want not” philosophy was ingrained in Gawani by her parents. Her mother is a community doctor while her father was an Anglican priest and bank manager, “That combination of spiritual and material was deeply ingrained in me. And my mom, sumama siya dun sa first trainings nila Odette Alcantara sa Zero Waste in the 1990s pa. So yun yung ginawa niya sa amin while growing up. She was strict with our garbage. ‘Pag pupunta kami sa labas and I dispose sa public bin, sabi niya, ‘You know very well that’s going to the river. Bring it home nalang.’ Yes, my upbringing was a very big influence.”

Spring Rolls, Vegetarian Adobo, and Crispy Tofu Steak, each with a side of Salad Mix with sesame honey mustard dressing and unpolished rice.

“I always tell my staff, “We’re making money but at the same time be conscious, while we’re doing that, [na] hindi tayo nakakasakit ng kalikasan. Even with the food we serve, as much as possible we want to support farmers’ direct relationship. We’re texting directly the farmers, suppliers, we’re getting home-based bakers and makers of peanut butter, yung tofu namin comes from the next town.” Her suppliers are also encouraged to use reusable packaging. “Halimbawa sa tofu, before it came in 1 kilo packaging, pero sabi namin, ‘It just goes to our kitchen. Can you please put it into one container? And we’ll return it nalang.’ It worked naman. Syempre, medyo hassle, ‘Nasaan na yung container niya? I left them with this person in town.’ Mga ganun. But it reduces the waste so much.”

There is an organic association of Sagada farmers that supplies Gaia’s vegetables but the supply isn’t nearly enough. She is also encouraging their increased production but it is a challenge. “We’ll pay your price if that’s organic. So far there are people who are responding. Like our strawberries, but it comes from kilo to kilo lang. Masaya naman kami with that. Although syempre meron naman talagang hindi and we don’t push it, kung ano lang yung masaya. At tsaka syempre, we’ll support that which goes to our desires, parang ganun,”  she shrugs philosophically.

The Gaia Sandwich features a veggie burger patty with homemade ketchup and mayonnaise in a wheat bun, with a bottle of local Cerveza Sagada beer.

With the increasing arrival of tourists in this once-sleepy town, Gawani’s advocacy has even become more urgent. The beauty of its surroundings is being spoiled by too much concrete and cars. The draw of Sagada for her is nature, “And kaya nga sana ma-encourage yung walking, minimizing wastes. A lot of people say Sagada makes them reflect. Meron pa ngang iba [who say]  ‘It’s very spiritual.’ I hope a lot of those who come here experience that. And although all of the indigenous rituals are highly restricted basta through their guide man lang they get to find out how different the culture is, here, and at the same time, how similar it is with the rest of the country and the world.


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It is this heritage which she attempts to capture in her poetry. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts or NCCA awarded Gawani a writer’s prize for her collection of poetry written in Kankana-ey, the local language. The prize includes a writing grant with an end to publish her collection. “For the NCCA grant, I actually talked about the traditional Sagada calendar where half of the months in the year are based on the names of migratory birds. The connection ng migratory birds coming from somewhere then they come here and they lend their names to the season. So that is a lot about the indigenous culture here, the concept of the collective existence of inayan -yung community observed and imposed na rules. I did a lot of research in order to write, it’s just also a journey back to my roots.”

Gawani reading her poem in the local language of Kanakana-ey.

We ask for a reading and she obliges. Behind her, the shimmering terraces of rice paddies. The poem she chose is about water as she explains, “The indigenous belief in water [is that] walang nagmamay-ari ng tubig, so it is mentioned and prayed upon whenever we have rituals. Kung saan nakahanap ng tubig yung origin ng community, ganun yung stories ng pinagmulan nila. Tapos, sabi dito para lang tayong “takan”. Takan kasi sa amin is yung piece na bamboo that you put in water on a spring para you can access. Na lahat tayo parang ganun, lahat ng tubig dadaan lang sa atin, it just passes.”

The poetry she hopes will build on the writings of the likes of historian William Henry Scott. “Nobody would read through a five page (article) lalo na sa mga young people and that is what I aim for, in writing para it would become more accessible and short.”

Click on the arrow for slideshow

Easily the most pleasant setting for a meal in Sagada. 

Inside is a fireplace and a library where guests can read books. 

Strawberry and banana smoothies. 

Gawani supports aspiring entrepreneurs and artists by showcasing their products at Gaia. 

Recycled old shoes converted to plant pots at the door of the resto. 

The pristine view from the restaurant. 

Tha Gaia Sandwich. 

Homemade malunggay and squash chips with cashew sour cream dip. 

Gawani is still thinking of the medium to get her poetry out to the public, “Maybe make it into a portable something or DIY printing.”

It’s a challenge because she wants to capture the Sagada culture that is tightly woven to the rhythm of nature, “That was what I talked about at length. Imagine, yung timing nung migratory birds and the synchronicity of everything else, many things all over the world have to be in place in order for this rhythm to go on.”

It’s a rhythm that Gawani hopes she can continue preserving for as long as it takes, through her enterprise, way of life and poetry.


Photographs by Andre Drilon