August 8, 2018
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Bernadette “Berna” Romulo Puyat talks to Lifestyle Asia about being widowed at a young age, the beauty of the Philippines, and her new job as the Secretary of Tourism

A personal tragedy that happened to Bernadette Romulo Puyat turned out to be a silver lining in an otherwise sad circumstance. The recently appointed secretary to the Department of Tourism became a widow 12 years ago. Her husband Dave Puyat collapsed on the football field a few days before a planned family holiday. He was 42 years old.

Berna and Dave had known each other from high school. After they got married, the Puyats had two children, Maia and Vito, who were then 10 and nine years old respectively. It was for them that the young mother mustered strength and kept the tears back for an extended period. “For the first two years, I wasn’t crying,” she recalls. “I thought, since I was young, I wouldn’t grieve. I started to work. Grief hits when you least expect. When I started to cry, I didn’t want to leave the house. I had butterflies in my stomach and a heaviness on my chest. It was horrible. It’s not normal to lose husband at a young age.”

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Berna Romulo Puyat, Secretary of Tourism (Photograph courtesy of Hub Pacheco)
Berna Romulo Puyat, Secretary of Tourism (Photograph courtesy of Hub Pacheco)

Widow Connection

There were other upheavals she had to deal with. Besides having to cope with the loss of her husband, she also had a new boss. The change in administration from Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to Benigno Aquino III meant new management at the Department of Agriculture, where she was working as undersecretary. “Secretary Proseso Alacala assigned me to focus on women development in agriculture. Under the law, we have this Magna Carta that says five percent of the budget must go to programs, projects and activities of women.

“I was put in charge of women farmers, the youth and indigenous tribe. I had only been handling credit,” she speaks in unmeasured cadence. “I thought farmers would have a hard time connecting to me because of how I looked.” The certified city girl is fair-skinned and not inclined to the outdoors and the heat. She feared a disconnect.

Despite apprehensions and her assessed limitations, Berna addressed the task head on, meeting farm folks around the country. “To do the job well, I needed to talk to the farmers. I visited over a hundred farms in the most far-flung areas that didn’t even have signal.”

She went among them without identifying her position or title, only saying that she was from the DA. The urbanite joined the women farmers in planting and harvesting, talking while they worked together in the fields. Initially, she was regarded with curiosity. “When they found out I was a widow, they cried for me. For women, it’s family first. We think of how to feed our children, how to get them to school. They knew the same was also my priority,” she shares. “The irony is that the worse thing that happened in my life was the very thing that connected me to the farmers.”

Eating Raw Pig

Her visits were immersions into the life and culture of the people. She walked the length and breadth of the footpaths in Mount Kanlaon to harvest robusta beans with the coffee farmers. She stepped into the muddy rice paddies in Kalinga and worked with the planters. Berna participated in a watery tug-of-war ritual of the indigenous people in Cordillera, dressed as one of them. She drank with tribes in Bukidnon, even if she was allergic to alcohol. She ate the ritual food they served, mindful not to gag when she scooped a half cooked pig that had been slaughtered for the occasion and served the eyes of an animal that she downed with vodka.

“Drinking the alcohol symbolized maturity,” she explains. “Eating the eyes was for seeing the future. Water is for clarity.” She lets off a little laugh. “They told me to eat the heart of a chicken for my love life. They said it was lonely to grow old alone.”

Berna put it all into perspective. “The only way to understand what the farmers need is to go through what they are going through. But they need to accept you first before you can help them. They even need to give their permission before participating in the rituals.”

Where Few Have Trodden

During some of the sorties, she would accommodate requests from other to join her. Berna brought those whom she felt could help uplift and improve the situation of the farmers, with a caveat that they cannot complain because of spartan accommodations and rustic conditions. Designer Len Cabili joined her when she went to visit weavers of Mindanao to explore possibilities for her apparel inspired by Filipino tribal wear. Asia’s best female chef Margarita Fores also accompanied her on some provincial trips, getting into the rice paddies to plant with the farmers. The experience moved Gaita to tears when she understood firsthand the physical difficulties and tediousness of the process that went into growing the local staple. The realization not only raised her regard for the rice farmers; she offered to give them better rates with the elimination of middlemen.

Berna enthuses how Gaita has gone out of her way to source local ingredients and integrate them into the food she prepares, creating a market for produce like adlai and other crop otherwise unknown but possessing high nutritional value. “When you have a Gaita Fores doing this, others follow and start using the ingredients, too.”

“I was going around the country primarily to do my work well and got to see places that were like beautiful paintings,” she says. “The Philippines is breathtaking. I would stop the car just to take photos. There were no tourists in several of those places I saw. The food was fantastic. In some islands, there were only foreigners in the resorts. It’s like the foreigners discovered these spots before our countrymen. I love Boracay, Bohol and our beaches but because of my work in agri, I got to go to other places people don’t normally go to.”

She recalls saying in 2012, “How lucky the Department of Tourism Secretary is because our country is so easy to promote with all the natural beauty.”

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Berna Romulo Puyat, Secretary of Tourism (Photograph courtesy of Hub Pacheco)
Berna Romulo Puyat, Secretary of Tourism (Photograph courtesy of Hub Pacheco)

Invisible Daughter

Flash forward six years since that remark. The DA undersecretary is appointed as Secretary of Tourism. Four days into the job, her phone has not stopped. Calls and text messages have deluged her. Berna, who has always worked under the radar, now has to respond to media request for interviews and television appearances. She received white papers that needed investigating, which she conducted quietly, producing results immediately. Not into public shaming, she had private meetings to address persons with issues.

“I’m an introvert,” she says. “I am the kind of person who likes to stay home, read, meet with my small circle of friends.” The self-confessed nerd narrates how as a child, she would be buried in her books and kept mostly to her room. Once, her mother’s best friend saw her walking into the kitchen and asked who she was. “Even my mom’s best friend didn’t know I existed,” she laughed.

The BS Economics cum laude graduate wanted to be a teacher because it would allow her to spend time with her two children. She taught in the UP School of Economics for 14 years after completing a master’s degree. “You cannot teach without a masters in economics,” she says. “I’m really a nerd. If you study, you’ll get the grades.” She made the grade, the equivalent of a magna cum laude, to get an invitation to pursue a doctoral degree. “You need a magna cum laude standing to be invited to pursue a PhD but I was going to get married so I didn’t push through with it.”

Millennials Onboard

The confluence of events in Berna’s life appears to prepare her for the responsibilities she now has as secretary of the Department of Tourism. Her experience in DA translates into the agri-tourism thrust she will undertake. Visitors can come to the farms or ranches and experience it like Gaita Fores and Len Cabili did.

Having known of the rituals around the country first hand, she is also looking into heritage tourism. “We have among the best beaches in the world, and the beaches will always be there, but experiencing the culture and tradition of the tribes is wonderful, too.

“It is important to show the variety of what we have in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao to boost tourism but without sacrificing the environment. When I went to Batanes, I saw candy wrappers in the mountains. I believe in sustainable tourism. We need to take care of our environment.

“I am a slow food advocate. I believe in good, clean and fair, good and clean food, fair market for consumers but preservation of the environment. Work with restaurants to support local farmers to lower our carbon footprints.”

She is tapping millennials to partner-participate in promoting the country. She mentions responsible businessmen who have offered their help. Berna has consulted government officials, past and present whose advice and wisdom she values. She counts the goodwill of her network to help in realizing the plans for showing the best of the Philippines through public-private partnerships.

The petite, youthful head of DOT says, “I am also a tourist. When you think of yourself as a tourist, you consider things like access to medical services, facility of travel, basics like comfort rooms. What I want to see is what I want to implement.” The earnestness in her eyes leaves little room for doubt that hers are no empty words and that the world will know these islands more than before.

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