A Day Trip To Remember

Step by step the old woman climbed the steep dirt path out of the valley to the ridge high above. Plodding. Rhythmic. Purposeful. On her back I could see she carried a stalk of bananas, still green and no doubt destined for the market on the side of the mountain road where I stood watching. She was so far away when I first spotted her it was several minutes before she came close enough for me to see that she was indeed a woman and an old one at that; so very, very old.

The kind of old that only harsh work in a harsh land can wear into every wrinkled pore and every scrap of leathery skin not covered by her conical hat or her brightly coloured cotton scarf. The scarf wound around her face and fell over frail seeming shoulders, yet shoulders strong enough to support the head held high and proud under the weight of her load. A load she carried with grace if not ease, purposefully and poised.

Manang, as one respectfully addresses all older Cebuana women, walked to a space between two equally old and thin farmer’s wives and squatted. As she did so the banana stalk slid easily to the ground in front of her and, relieved of her burden, her tongue was seemingly loosened and she began to chat with her neighbours. As she spoke she placed a hand rolled cigar in her mouth and lit it, all the while still speaking. She spoke with the familiarity of someone who had more than likely lived between the same two women all her life. She might have been born in a nipa hut between theirs and quite possibly would die in one between them as well, and be buried in almost mirror like circumstances. Often, that was how it was in the distant mountain provinces.

Where we stood seemed to be far from the modernity of 21st century Cebu City, yet we had driven for less than half an hour once we had climbed past the city limits. Thirty minutes winding our way up into the clouds that cloaked the central mountainous spine of our island home. Cebu is approximately 200 kilometres long and no wider than 60 kilometres for flying crows. Once you left the city behind, it took only moments for you to drive back in time to another era, an older, simpler Cebu.

In the mountains most people have lamps made from tin cans and fuelled them with kerosene bought and carried home in old coca cola bottles. Electricity was something enjoyed by city people and those who lived along the snaking mountain road. Something modern, expensive and unnecessary. For the few who could afford a television the ridges and valleys made it difficult to receive a signal. If, somehow, they owned a refrigerator they would never be able to afford to run it or fill it with food that needed keeping cold. Not that mountain folk ever had anything that needed keeping longer than it would survive with a plate laid over the top of it to keep the flies off.

The sari-sari store on the roadside had electricity and ice available for purchase, large blocks that needed to be chipped into more manageable chunks by the side of the road before being carried away. They’ll charge cell phone batteries for a peso and sell you new ‘load’ for your cell phone. That was the one item of current technology everybody seemed to have. A cell phone. Even my old Manang the banana seller. She was ‘texting’ some unseen acquaintance as I looked across at her one last time before getting back into the car. Texting with one claw like fist while rolling another cigar with the other. And speaking to her neighbours on each side at the same time all the while.

We drove on, further up the twisting concrete two lane highway. Large trucks loomed around each corner, always making me wonder if they would fall apart before they came abreast of us or just as they passed by. Either way we would have to pick our way through the debris trail they would strew. Somehow despite their visceral dilapidation they always seemed to pass by leaving us and the road ahead unscathed and open to navigation. The lasting image of them etched into my memory was the grinning, laughing driver and his offsider, yelling smart comments to the two ‘Dongs’ riding shotgun high on the loaded bed of the truck. Did any of them ever fall off?

I thought we had reached the summit of the mountainous spine several times as  there would be a flat stretch for a few hundred metres but then the road would climb again. Time after time I thought we had reached the start of the descent to the west coast but just before the very top we pulled into a gravel car park behind four roadside stalls, more like shanties than sit down restaurants, clouds of dust and echoes of tyre-crunched gravel overtaking the open windows. There hadn’t been a place to eat for kilometres, then all of a sudden four in the one spot in typical Filipino fashion.

To my “Kano” eye they all looked identical. Identically shabby and ramshackle. To those non-Amerikano’s in our group they were four very different establishments. The construction, of coconut lumber, wriggly tin and Coke Signs, differed only slightly in patina and wording on the signs. “Ging-Ging’s Carenderia”, “Inday’s Carenderia”, “Three Sisters Carenderia” and “Apple’s Carenderia”. Our host went directly to the one without the apostrophe.

The “Three Sisters Carenderia” was furnished identically to the others. A look to either side takes in all four restaurants at once as they were not only open to the road but there was no partitioning between them. Only the roof rafters seemed to delineate the boundaries of each bistro. The area along the roadside held five tables, all formica with plastic patio chairs, eight to a table in two rows, one of two and the inside row of three tables. Ditto the other carenderias. Running across the width of the dining area at elbow height all the way to the street there was a wooden rail, broken only by a gap wide enough for two Filipinas to pass as they served food and collected plates. The rear half of the dining area held another four tables and similar complement of eight plastic patio chairs per table, only these tables were clothed. Plastic sheeting was thumb tacked down, giving the back tables a silver service look no doubt the front ones envied. A quick glance to left and right revealed the other three carenderias were identically shod, somewhat spooky for visitors not familiar with local habits.

Along the back wall was a bench with a sink and single tap, a two burner cooker umbilicalled to a large gas bottle beneath the bench and at the end of the bench where the aisle from the front exhausted itself, a Coke fridge. The layout of the Coca Cola products mirrored that of the other three fridges, which I had come by now to expect and starting to find strangely comforting. I guess the local Coke rep insures his repeat business with a small investment in refrigeration and signwriting, a common occurrence throughout the islands.

Travellers soon become accustomed to seeing klatches of shops and stores advertising either Coke and the leading beer San Miguel or Pepsi and San Miguel’s main rival, Beer na Beer. Every store similarly branded, never two side by side sporting opposing logos. The Pepsi and Beer na Beer stores are usually a peso or two cheaper overall, and the vintage of the sign is often the only accurate means by which you can gauge how well a store may be stocked. New sign, new store, still have original stock. Old sign, no stock left, no money left to buy new stock either. Filipino micro money management at work.

After our tour guides and the restaurant owners hugged and greeted each other like long lost relatives we were given a table of honour in the rear section. Here we could survey the rest of the restaurant, the other restaurants and the mountain  traffic without getting covered in the grey dust that seemed to waft in with every passing vehicle. By the time the dust had found its way to where we sat it had grown tired of its flight and settled closer and closer to the concrete floor. This meant we could breathe and eat dust free even if we would walk out with grey shoes each weighing more than when we walked in.

Our meal was pre-ordained. BBQ ‘Lechon Baboy,’ the local delicacy we would call roast pork. In true Filipino style the pig just cooked was left to cool while our portions were carved from the now cold carcase they had spit roasted earlier. Waving the flies away just long enough to cut off what were no doubt the juiciest morsels, our hosts produced several plates of cold, greasy pork with an inane grin and a superfluous flourish. As we looked at each other, politely gesturing the other to take the first serving, plates of steaming rice were walked past our table as if to remind us that there might be something served with the meat, but it wouldn’t be hot rice. The steaming rice disappeared outside, presumably to cool just as several cold banana leaf packages of rice were sliced open and placed on the table. Looking for but not finding any utensils, I reminded myself that traditionally Filipinos eat with their fingers.

Mixing the rice in the banana leaf parcel with some soy sauce and then some greasy pork, we managed to grin, nod and generally convey how impressed we were with their cooking. Each village or ‘barangay’ will have one or two men who consider themselves experts in Lechon, each will have his own recipe to flavour the pig. Every recipe will be exactly the same but don’t you ever let on. These men might kill you for laughing at their karaoke singing, the mind boggles what would happen to someone less than salutary about their cooking.  With forks and spoons widespread in the Philippines today, why the locals prefer their roast pork eaten cold is beyond me. A morsel eaten while the beast is still hot is truly a gastronomic gift. Bring along your own apple sauce and the meal is better than any of its ilk back home. Even the absence of vegetable dishes can be forgiven if you can sample the Lechon while it is hot.

The meal over, the bill is tallied according to how much Lechon was consumed by the kilo, plus a few peso for the rice in the cute banana leaf parcels and the soft drinks that were as warm as the pork was cold. Another polite argument over who should pay and since our host invited us and I am the ‘Kano’, they graciously allow me the privilege. Outside we pause to take in the mountainside nearby that claimed the plane and the life of President Magsaysay so many decades ago, then take our own lives in our hands and return to the road.

As we pass the market place I look for my banana seller. Now only one of her two companions remain where she had squatted before, her collection of vegetables for sale reduced to a small offering of onions. As we stop to let out a jeepney packed to the rafters and beyond, I can see back down the steep valley side. There she is. Still walking with poise and grace, taking every step deliberately yet with an obvious ease born of many years of familiarity.

I smile as I see she has a large, red plastic basin on her head. It looks piled with bags and packages. She sold her bananas and bought what she needs from the proceeds and now she is wending her way homeward. How far has she to travel before she can rest?  The bottom of the valley? Over the next ridge?  I’ll never know but I hope it isn’t far. I feel the urge to leave the vehicle and run down the trail after her, find out how far she has to walk by walking with her, perhaps carrying her red basin and other goods. I feel a twinge of something silly stirring. What if she is fitter than I am?  Twice my age and a fraction of my size yet so used to this life and this land I would tire and fail my ego within a ridge or two.

We drive on, the road winding down the range, the traffic getting closer and more densely packed as we return to the city. The noise and heat return in equal measures, vying for my senses and arguing over who has right of way. The sun sets as we reach home and thank our hosts for the day. A day, where for a few hours at least, we were immersed in a different way of living. A day we spent at the market in the mountains.

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