Saturday, June 20, 2009

BTO: Quiet sanctuary

Business Times - 20 Jun 2009


Quiet sanctuary

When Julia Gabriel wants to destress and recharge, she simply boards the ferry to Batam, where her villa by the sea awaits her. By Cheah Ui-Hoon

A CERTAIN 'type' of passenger takes the ferry from Tanah Merah terminal to Nongsapura, Batam, especially on weekdays. The women have permed or dyed hair and wear colourful tops with a sheen to them, while the men are generally dressed casually, down to their slippered feet. These passengers usually speak in dialect if not Mandarin, and tend to be over 50. Your typical Singaporean 'uncle' or 'auntie', in local parlance.

Then there's Julia Gabriel, with her blonde hair now shorn, wearing comfortably loose clothes like an airy linen shirt and pants. Her age may match the typical Nongasupura-bound passenger demographic - but that's where the similarity ends. When the boat docks at Batam, she heads for the island itself instead of transferring to another boat - the one that goes 'to nowhere'.

'At weekends you still get a few expatriates or Westerners who go over to Turi Beach Resort, but if I come on weekdays, I could be the only one who actually steps on the island,' she says.

The British-born Ms Gabriel, founder director of her eponymous drama and speech centre, has had a beach home on Batam for more than 10 years now - and it remains her favourite getaway. 'I was visiting friends who stayed here 12 years ago, and within half an hour I knew I wanted a villa too,' she says, recounting her decision to buy a term membership at Nongsa Village Resort Club.

The 'club' is a private community of 100 traditional Indonesian wooden villas, nestled against a hill, next to the sea, just minutes from Turi Beach Resort, which is a sister property.

Ms Gabriel's two-storey villa is perched on a hill, where she gets a good view of the sea from the bedrooms on the second level. On the first level of the wooden house on stilts, in typical Malay style, the walls are lined with windows that are all flung open so you get the sea breeze flowing through.

From the time her children were young, the family has been making weekend trips to the Batam villa - which proved most popular with the kids' friends. Now that her son is in England, and her daughter in Australia, Ms Gabriel continues to make weekly visits, sometimes with friends, but often by herself to recharge. 'It's my sanctuary where I come to find 'balance' and be whole,' she says. 'I'm surrounded by nature and it's a place for me to relax and chill.'

She has furnished the villa with teak Indonesian furniture from Bali and Jakarta, from benches to day beds. She also has a few paintings picked up from Brazil, like minimalist abstracts of the sea and marine life. Other nice touches that give the villa an old-world tropical feel are the black ceiling fans she has put up, and the country-style pendants and wall lights - the type with filigree metal designs. 'My contractor salvaged these from a restaurant that was being renovated in Singapore,' she says.

She recently refurbished the kitchen to add cupboard and counter top space. The round dining table in the part of the house between the kitchen and the living room is a 'hot spot' you easily gravitate to, as you feel like you are sitting in a tree-house by the sea. When she has to work on her laptop, Ms Gabriel's 'study' is a smaller round table in a corner of that room, right next to the railing and the forest at the fringe, because hers is the last house in the stretch.

Although residents are allowed to modify their villas, the biggest change she has made is to put a wooden deck in the space below the house to convert it into an 'open-air' basement. 'That's where I do my yoga and get my massages,' she says. She makes a point to have a healthy and balanced lifestyle these days, as she turned vegetarian about 20 years ago. 'I wasn't very strict before. I'm more so these days and I've gone organic as well,' she adds, explaining how she recovered from ovarian cancer last year.

So it's organic vegetables and the occasional fish, but no meat. 'I feel healthier than ever, and I think part of the reason I handled the chemotherapy well and recovered is having a positive frame of mind,' she says. That, and lots of lemongrass and ginger drinks, she adds. In fact, she views her cancer episode quite positively. 'Maybe I had been racing around too much and I needed to slow down.'

Her regular routine in Batam is to wake up at 6am then walk for an hour, before heading out for a meditation and yoga session at the end of the long jetty over the sea. Breakfast is at 8pm and she only starts working from 10am - if she has to. Even back in Singapore, she is up at the crack of dawn, but makes sure her first appointment of the day isn't earlier than 10.30am.

'If I don't have a meditation session in the morning, the day doesn't feel right. I don't stay as calm,' she says. 'It's important to look after myself these days. I thought it was selfish before, but now I think it's essential.'

As much as possible, she tries to spend three days in Batam and four in Singapore - when not travelling in the region to train teachers at Julia Gabriel centres in Delhi, Shanghai, Manila, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. She doesn't run the day-to-day operations these days, but oversees the creative development of the school and the curriculum.

Ms Gabriel, who grew up in Singapore, returned here in the 1980s and set up the Julia Gabriel Centre for Learning in 1991, which makes it 18 years old. 'We have former students enrolling their children with us now,' says Ms Gabriel, who was married to a Singaporean but is now divorced.

The centre made its first overseas foray to Delhi in 1997, and this was followed by Jakarta and Shanghai. This year, a Manila centre will open. They're all joint venture projects with carefully picked partners, says Ms Gabriel.

For her holidays, she prefers the mountains. She goes on a trek organised by her yoga teacher every year or so. Her last trek was in the Indian Himalayas in April, and the next trek is planned for next year. 'There's nothing more exhilarating than being in the peaks,' she says.

But to slow down and recharge on a regular basis, it's the seaview villa at Batam. 'It's like living in a spa,' Ms Gabriel quips, as we try to figure out if the ting-tonging gamelan music is coming from her CD player or drifting from her Canadian film director neighbour's home.

Although having a second home on Batam sounds far, it's only a two-hour journey, door to door, between Singapore and Batam, she says.

So on some days, Ms Gabriel will leave Batam on the first ferry in the morning rather than on the last one of the day. A good idea because that way, she need not share the ferry ride with despondent passengers - the ones who went for out-of-pocket entertainment and didn't actually set foot on Batam island.

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