ANDALUCIA, the sun-kissed region of Spain’s southern coast, is home to flamenco, matadors, bullfights, tapas and Moorish architecture.
Thus, it comes as a huge surprise to his friends and wife, whose roots are from Spain, when retired Ambassador Ignacio Sagaz bid good-bye to that historic and ancient Iberian home and opted to live in the Philippines in 2012, immediately after his retirement from their country’s diplomatic service.
Sagaz’s friends in the diplomatic community thought he was out of his mind. Even his wife, whose grandfather was a true-blue Spaniard, wanted to live in Spain, but Sagaz prevailed.
He wanted to be among Filipinos, simply because, as he explained, we smile a lot.
My wife is actually more inclined to stay in Spain, it was I who decided to live here, he says during the interview at his plush Makati City condominium that is surrounded by a chock-full of antiques, sculptures, paintings, ceramic vases, brass gongs, furniture and other objecs d’art.
His vote for the Philippines
Unlike in other countries that you lived, one month later, they do not remember you. In the Philippines, until now, they remember me. They see me in the streets. They greet me, and I have kept many of my friends all this time, Sagaz said.
He said that in Madrid, where he lived for many years, he found himself alone in the diplomatic community, because, as he explained, when I was in, they were out; and when I was out, they were in.
He added: So it is very difficult to continue living like that, because your schedules do not coincide. So, when I came here, immediately I picked up friendship with them, as if I never left. For me that was very, very gratifying, Sagaz said.
Seated in a sofa and wearing what could be a black silk Chinese Tang suit jacket and a pair of matching black loafers without socks, Sagaz exudes the air of gentility as he unfolds his colorful life.
And one thing I like, despite the many, many problems that besieged the Philippines, is the excellent disposition of the people. Everything they do, in spite of the personal problems, and they have many, is the service with a smile, Sagaz bemused.
You do not have to tell them, because they do it naturally. They are very helpful and, for me, that is very, very important, Sagaz added.
When he uprooted, the avid art collector brought with him all his worldly belongings that included a sizable amount of antiques, gathered from 40 years as a peripatetic diplomat.
It is enough to fill more than four apartments like this, he said.
His colorful past
Sagaz was originally from Andalucia, near Granada, known for its exquisite architecture dating back to the Moorish occupation of Spain.
Remember the Queen’s admonition to his son? Do not cry like a woman for that which you could not defend as a man.
That was Sultan Muhammad being scolded by his mother following the fall of Granada to the Christians in January 1492, ending more than 700 years of Muslim rule.
Granada contains the beautiful Alhambra palace, a gem of Islamic architecture, the loss of which is mourned in the Muslim world; but like Sultan Muhammad, Sagaz chose to leave it behind.
He said he was educated in the Central University in Madrid. Upon graduation, he got into the foreign service.
It was there where he met his wife Aurora, who was then studying in Spain. Sagaz speaks proudly of his wife, whom he said studied in Russia and the Sorbonne, once lived in New York and speaks six languages.
Since both belong to the diplomatic community, they eventually tied the knot and have been blessed with a daughter, now living in Australia.
His first posting was Canberra, then on to Rio de Janeiro, where his daughter was born, back to Madrid, and was then appointed consul general in Casa Blanca, Morocco. From there, he moved to the Philippines in 1991 until 1993 as deputy head of mission.
During his first tour of duty in the country, he befriended then-President Fidel V. Ramos and his sister, Ambassador Leticia Shahani. He was also friends with then- Foreign Secretary Roberto Romulo. Sagaz said he remains friends with all of them.
He was yanked out of Manila and brought back to Madrid, then in Vietnam, and back again to Madrid to become director of the academy. He was then posted to Bangkok, Myanmar, Lao PDR, and then back again to the Philippines in 2007 for his last assignment prior to retirement.
The art collector
In the course of his nomadic-like existence, Sagaz was able to collect a sizable amount of antiques, which he claims would be enough to fill four apartments, like the one he is presently occupying.
It comes from being in the profession of a transhumant, like Medieval people who moved from one place to another, like a pilgrim, he explained.
Sagaz said he started collecting early in his career, plucking a likely painting, sculpture, carpet or anything that takes his fancy, including a heavy piece of masonry with intricate carvings that now adorns his home.
He said what is on display are just a small part of his collections, since most of them are in storage.
I do not know what to do with them. It is enough to furnish three or more apartments. My friends keep telling me you should chose the things you want and the things you do not want, and try to auction those you do not want, he said.
He added: I want them all, of course, but they do not fit in the apartment. It is physically impossible. Maybe one day I will just get rid of them and auction some of them.
Sagaz said he would eventually hire an expert to have his collection catalogued, while professing ignorance to their actual monetary value. He said that their sentimental value is more important.
It has accompanied me all through the years. They are my roots. I am always uprooted, so what consists of my real roots are the furniture that is around me, he said.
Among the collections in his home were a Russian samovar, originally intended for dispensing tea from Morocco, which was converted into a lamp. There was also a palm-size octagonal piece of bone from Vietnam, with a compass in the middle, adorned with intricate animal carvings.
There were also an opium brass pipe from Vietnam, Khmer statues, Chinese Ming vases, a Korean traveling chest and another medicine chest from China.
On the walls of his home are colorful paintings from Thailand and a brass gong, which Sagaz claims when struck echoes with a spiritual sound.
There was also a pre-Christian vase from Syria, a sculpture from Thailand, and a clutch of wooden saints carved in the country. He also has a Bible from Myanmar written in gold, a huge mirror adorning one wall from Vietnam, and a metal cartola, a plate-like thing where letters are placed before they are brought to the master of the house.
However, his favorite is an emperor’s chair from one of five kingdoms of Vietnam.
I bought it in an antique store. It is legal to export, and I took advantage of that, he said. There were also two Ming dynasty portraits of the emperor and empress in silk; carpets from Afghanistan, Morocco and Spain; and a rock-like object that was split in two, showing the semiprecious amethyst from Brazil.
All of these remind me of some parts of my life. That is my background. I am very happy that I can savor them. I keep them all, Sagaz said. Although not keen on buying the more expensive kinds of antiques, he said they sometimes discover a diamond in the rough, and his wife, who has an eye for things valuable, was able to purchase very expensive items at a small cost.
Maybe the merchants are not well aware of their true value, he noted.
Living the experience
I am privileged that most of the things I do are on foot, Sagaz boasts.
He said the consulate is just around the corner; the Spanish Embassy is a two-minute walk; the bank is eight minutes away, the supermarket is 10 minutes from their home; and the Makati Medical Center is only 15 minutes away.
He does the marketing, which he said, in Morocco, is strictly confined to men.
He goes to the Makati tiangge every Saturday and Sunday, where he meets familiar individuals who would pepper him with questions if he fails to appear or to skip one weekend.
They will ask, ‘Oh I didn’t see you last Saturday, what happened to you?’ So, that for me, is very, very rewarding. It makes my life very nice and easy and complete, Sagaz said.
When not traveling around the world with his wife and daughter, he stays at home and keeps busy by exercising and swimming, playing tennis, and going to the gym doing aerobics.
Sagaz had gone around the country, too, and was in Boracay in 1975, when practically nobody in the country was aware of it, except for some Europeans, who spread the word about the beach’s powdery sand.
Boracay was pristine, no electricity, no water, a couple of very small resorts, Sagaz said.
He said his in-laws lived in Bacolod then, including his wife’s Spanish grandfather, and from there, drove over by car across Panay Island after taking the boat to Iloilo.
He said the lack of planning is hampering the further growth of Boracay.
The urban planning of Boracay has not been the best. Unfortunately, the situation there is stifled, Sagaz said.
He felt sad that the same absence of urban planning seems to be true at the Bonifacio Global City and other urban centers in the country.
I mean, you see more buildings, people, cars, the same roads, so that makes it mathematically impossible to move around. Unless something is done, we are going to explode. That is very sad, because that lowers the quality of life very fast, Sagaz said.