The first thing to notice was the utter smallness of the door. Bordered by a frame of dark, distressed wood, it reveals a sizeable patch of dim light when opened—one so completely removed from its surroundings so that it appeared as if it were hovering. Behind that square of light are white granite walls and wooden floors enclosed by painted ceilings. Arrays of glass jars, tea cups, and random trinkets atop black wooden cabinets lined the room—the dimness of which was disturbed by the dozen or more little lamps and strings of light that speckled the entirety of the space.
Maginhawa Street in Quezon City has been a popular food trip destination for quite some time now. Known for its endless stream of cuisine options, it has become something of a collective quirk of the north. While the innumerable food establishments may become fatiguing for some city slickers that frequent the stretch, there is a small café that has yet to be explored. Maintaining a certain enigma, it’s a place that serves as an entryway into a multi-sensory dining experience quite like no other.
Diving into nothingness
“I talk a lot,” says Jetro Rafael, the owner of Van Gogh is Bipolar, as he pours us a cup of what he likes to call ‘Buddha’s holy water’.
This was true but no one seemed to mind. In fact, no one seemed to notice. Speech and silence took on reversed roles, for there was a hypnotic quality to his speech: the hushed tone, the unconscious shifts in topic, the scatter-brained eloquence of it. We lean against the edges of our chairs, eager to hear what he had to say about food and the search for one’s “authentic self”.
Eight years ago, Jetro was in a completely different state of mind. Having just been clinically diagnosed with Bipolar 1, a manic-depressive disorder which causes hormonal imbalance characterized by episodes of extreme highs and lows, he struggled to come into terms with his diagnosis. Often times, Jetro found himself experiencing strong feelings of resentment towards himself, causing him to think of ending his life more than once.
During one of his lowest periods, Jetro recalls feeling as if he was “diving into nothingness,” as waves of numbness seemed to engulf his whole being. Standing on the topmost floor of a building, he was pretty much set to end his life when the most peculiar event occurred. “Something unexplainable happened,” he says. “It’s as if there was a light that turned on inside me.” He had decided he would give life one more chance, but on his own terms.
Jetro gets up from his chair and makes his way towards one of the cupboards holding a huge pile of hats, ones he collected from his travels around the world. “Wear a hat!” he exclaims. “In Van Gogh, we’re encouraged to wear a hat.”
Looking around the room, with its eclectic mix of furniture and art adorned walls, one can’t help but feel visually stimulated which Jetro explains is a part of the whole experience. He gives us a short tour of his space, from his courtyard garden all the way to his photography room where guests are encouraged to write their darkest secrets. The overall atmosphere, which some may describe as charmingly bizarre, provides an experience that tantalizes guests far beyond their taste buds. However, long before it was converted into a restaurant, the unit didn’t just serve as Jetro’s home but also his healing sanctuary.
In the wake of a crystallizing moment, Jetro gave himself a month in which he could do all the things he always wanted to do and free himself from the shackles of society’s expectations. “I wanted my own place where I could be myself,” he says. Eventually, he came across the location where Van Gogh is Bipolar stands today. He hasn’t left since.
A diet for crazy people
Coping with his diagnosis, Jetro decided to heal himself instead of undergoing medical treatment. One way was through researching ingredients known for their mood-altering properties as alternatives to the usual medication prescribed. He discovered that certain ingredients could impact and enhance one’s mood. “If you really study the history of food, it’s really used as natural medicine. It’s really created to heal our bodies,” he says. Using these ingredients, he created his own diet. He calls it the “cuckoo diet”, a diet for crazy people.
The thing about Jetro was that he was aware of it all: The 100,000 biochemical reactions that happens in the quiet of the human body, the 20,000 cells it grows. This hyper-awareness of the micro stuff, this visceral understanding of substances and how they impacted the body—it was something else. It’s almost as if he’s seen these very things happen, as if he was a regular witness of cell-building and destruction.
“Just try to visualize it. Once you see it, you wouldn’t want to eat fries and canned goods and processed food anymore! You wouldn’t want to pollute your body,” says Jetro.
Blessed by the curse of knowledge that junk food has the potential impact of a time bomb, how could he have chosen to wallow in passivity? Here it was, right at his fingertips, an answer to chronic illnesses, degenerative diseases, to crippling apprehension and self-doubt.
It seemed that knowing made all the difference.
“It changed my life. Before, I couldn’t even go out of my room. I was almost immobile. So this is why, this is why I’m so passionate about food. It’s because I know.”
It’s also the toilet
In the sweltering heat of a Wednesday afternoon, the peculiarity of Van Gogh is Bipolar is encapsulated with the following words: “That’s the photography room. It’s also the toilet.” As its name suggested, it was assumed out of sheer reason that the photography room must have been a place for developing photos. The absolute darkness of the room and the pictures that covered its walls were proof enough for this. But a closer look at the walls and the recesses of the space revealed neon doodles and, surely enough, a toilet. “So you see, just to be in the toilet is already an experience,” Jetro says.
Indeed, it was an experience to be in it.
This might sound like a crass joke. A poorly-conceived euphemism. Yet here is where it becomes obvious: the fact that human excreta, urine, and photographs co-existed at certain points in a day in the same chamber was not an attempt at eccentricity or at quirkiness. He didn’t care for endorsements, so this wasn’t some ironic marketing ploy. It was a manifestation of one of his beliefs: that the saturation of assigned meanings and socio-cultural baggage that burdened both objects and human beings is the enemy. It is what he has overcome. Every day, he makes conscious decisions. He decides what has meaning and what doesn’t. He decides what to worship.
“I’ve stripped off all these concepts and beliefs, all these cultures, and pre-conceived ideas. We know what is true, what is authentic. We all know this.”
Dwelling on the future
The hot, bright yellow liquid had found its way to the glass top of the table, some of it slowly seeping into the underside of the surface so that it almost dowsed the twenty or so hand-written notes tucked underneath. Jetro, then, rummages for tissue paper, handing us wads of it and wiping the table himself. He was still on the subject of saturation and excess, expressing his distaste for grand gastronomic trends and the perpetuation thereof through popular media.
“We are unaware, we are blocking out the truth. We are sleeping. We’re brainwashed by what we see on TV, by what we read on newspapers, on magazines, what we see on the internet, on all these blogs.”
This narrative of his had been humming along nicely for a few minutes, and spilled tea was not about to disrupt its smooth run. The music played louder now, the quick chant of percussion building up to a frenzy as our talk neared its denouement. Allusions to the future were then made: What exactly was it that he planned to do in the future?
Admiring the hidden simplicity of the question, instead of expressing jadedness at the deep gravity of it, he says:
“There’s no past, there’s no future, it’s just this unfolding moment. I don’t really dwell on the future. Right now, this is my bigger plan–talking to the two of you. This is also how–if you ask me–we can change all this stigma. It has to start with little acts of kindness, with the three of us talking right now.”