Clouds drift outside the front door of the house. Wind blows through the windows so that the house sings and whistles. Rain pours and collects in a cistern, able to sustain the family that lives here year-round.
Inside, a fire warms the walls erected from the clay and grass in the surroundings, mixed with sand from the lowlands. The owner of the house himself prepared the mixture, experimenting with ratios until he hit the winning combination: one part clay to five parts sand, with generous sprinklings of saw dust and rice husk, and layers of emulsion for waterproofing.
In the kitchen, the woman of the house kneads dough to bake in the oven. Her eldest daughter churns butter to go with the bread; her youngest arranges a fistful of wild flowers in a recycled glass bottle the color of cobalt.
Fate brought Jonilyn Balao and Zelimir Strugar together on the evening he walked into a bar atop Session Road and ordered a beer. It was actually her bar, which she co-owned with friends. “The first time we met, I drunk accidentally from her beer,” says Zeli, who was born in Croatia and whose family migrated to Germany. “Maybe a good beer commercial.”
Beer turned out to be just one of many shared passions. Together, the couple dug and built the foundation of their home, fortifying it with their solid life philosophy of living in harmony with nature. A fine arts graduate of U.P. Baguio, Joni says their house “is very healthy to live in and not expensive to build.” A medical student who volunteered for two years at a Baguio hospital, Zeli sees his home in the Philippines as “an experimental model, an educational project, as well as an art project.”
This experimental model cobbles together aspects of life philosophies that have inspired Joni and Zeli: the organic design of Austrian artist Hundertwasser, who once staged a nude demonstration against sterile architecture; the Gaia House charter which espouses green living; and Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual philosophy, among others.
Without meaning to be, this family is a model family for alternative living in the 21st century. They make their own fertilizer and pesticide from flowers. They segregate garbage and have their own compost pit. They bathe in rainwater, cook with it, and filter it for drinking.
The upside, aside from the cost, is that the family does not contribute plastic bottles, miniature or gallon-size, to any landfill anywhere in the country. Nor is any fuel burned or emitted into the atmosphere for their water supply, which is more than can be said for a vast portion of Baguio, which relies on water delivery trucks. Never mind the countless others across the archipelago whose thirst for bottled water seems unquenchable.
Mindful of their environment, the couple built their home according to the natural contours of the land. “On two terrazze,” as Zeli says in his European-accented English. Built slightly into a hill for protection, the house follows the gentle incline of the slope, and rests on two levels.
They chose the spot “based on intuition.” Everyday, the couple came to Joni’s grandmother’s property along a ridge overlooking the valley of La Trinidad, Benguet, to listen to the wind and to watch the sun arc and sink. They came on stormy days, too, to see how the land absorbed the rain. It was an organic process of not sticking to a rigid plan, but listening to the earth and to nature to devise their plan.
Eight-sided, the house has no ceilings, but is partitioned by clay walls and shielded by one roof. One never feels crowded in it because the roof is so high. A tent above the kitchen table lends an intimate, cozy feel to the space. A bathroom with a view of a spider-web-like skylight at the apex of the house seven meters above makes one feel the opposite of sheltered.
The spirit of the house is one of freedom and liberation. Come or go. Step out if you like. Get outside of your head and into your body on a hike. Find your pace. Meditate. The misty air will clear your mind and unclog pathways for insights to pour in, from the heart and for the spirit. This is a place where human beings thrive.
Each member of the Balao-Strugar family is living proof of this, beginning with their flushed, ruddy complexions. Zeli is a man fortified from the physical work of building his home from the ground up. Joni is a woman liberated by the planting and the hiking that she does to reconnect with herself in moments of solitude outdoors. Their daughters Sarah and Martha help with the household chores, and play outside, on the carpeting of wild grass, or with their dogs Lupo, a German Shepherd-Black Labrador mix, and Dinka, a petite Spitz.
The sisters attend a public school down the hill, and walk or take the jeepney to class in the morning. They speak German, English, Ilokano, and Tagalog. They are self-sufficient, grounded, highly intelligent, and sociable, as comfortable conversing and playing with grown-ups as they are children their own age. They sport a rugged, feminine look in tune with life in the highlands: thick cotton dresses with tights or pants underneath for extra warmth and layering. They wear their hair long and free, like the wind that blows through it as they play among the trees planted by their parents.
When the couple started building their home here eleven years ago, the terrain was pretty much bald. Joni planted bamboo, alnus, pine, coffee, and guava trees. Those trees are now as old as their first-born Sarah.
Sarah is proud of the clay house, and the fact that so much of what’s in it and around it is the same age as she, starting with the giant bamboo harvested from the hills of Loakan and used as foundation poles. She is the lucky one who gets to live in a loft of her own with a warm bed from the oven whose metal chimney extends from the ground floor up. She is the one who gets to dream in a mosquito net of midnight blue, flecked with golden stars and moons.
Little Martha is the family clown. For their family portrait, she borrowed her father’s eyeglasses and wore them as her own, cracking up her parents and her Ate Sarah. By day, she plays with the puppies of Dinka and takes on the role of family deejay. At night, she sleeps with her parents in a cloudy gray-white tent with a delicate paper dragon from Hong Kong flying over it.
Creativity runs through the clay house in splashes large and small. A mural depicting Baguio icon and artist Santiago Bose greets visitors at the entrance, painted by the couple’s good friend Sonny Balanga. A handcrafted curtain with patches of Cordillera fabric sewn in the shape of an eight-sided star dresses a window. In the kitchen, a watercolor by Joni compliments open shelves of ceramic plates and mugs in tomato red, sky blue, and Kermit green. The plates bear the stamp of Waechtersbach, a small town in Germany which was home to the Balao-Strugars for a few years.
Joni says she and the children are happy to be home in the Philippines. If they were in Europe, they would be living in an apartment, comparatively cramped indoors as well as out, without a garden that could possibly compare to what they have now.
Zeli agrees that life in the mountains of Benguet would be ideal for a few more years. He plans to build their business: a distillery which produces schnaps from fruit and herbs such as guava, yakun, strawberries, pineapple, lemongrass, and ginger following the European tradition of using only natural ingredients.
The food at their table is natural, too. On the day we visit, Joni bakes homemade bread with fennel seeds, and serves spaghetti with a surprisingly satisfying sauce of sayote, tomatoes, onions, and garlic. Slices of cucumbers and beets soaked in olive oil, salt, and vinegar make scrumptious salads. Lunch is followed by smooth Arabica coffee, grown outside and roasted in their kitchen, and a slow-cooked tapioca and strawberry pudding so tasty that everyone has seconds.
By late afternoon, flushed and smiley from having tasted all the eight available flavors of schnaps, we lock up the house and share a ride into town. With the children in tow, bundled in scarves and rain jackets, and feeling pretty good about life, we head to an art opening with the family that epitomizes the art of living simply, and living well.
This story originally appeared in Rogue’s November 2009 issue, available on the Rogue Magazine app for iPad.