detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Friday, November 12, 2004


: . The Newcomer and the Oldtimer by José Montero y Vidal (continued)
II


Pandacan River: Manila, P. I./Rio de Pandacan: Manila. University of Michigan. Special Collections Library.


At seven o'clock the following morning, Don Genaro Fonseca entered the house of Don Joaquín Alvaredo. He did not notice the latter, who said, "We have been waiting for you. Breakfast is ready."
They entered the dining room, where the family and other persons were introduced to him.
"This is my wife, that is my daughter, Nena, and another daughter over there is Chata," Alvaredo said, pointing to them.
Nena and Chata, which names in Manila are used to designate the eldest and the most beautiful of daughters, were very pretty young girls. The first was eighteen and the second was fifteen years old.
"We are frank here, my friend. Sit down and have breakfast," Alvaredo added.
The chocolate was served. On the table were plates filled with ensaimadas, bizcochos, red and white poto, zuman-latic, and bibimca, rice cakes that Filipinos eat with chocolate.
"Did you try the poto?" Nena asked Fonseca.
"You will like the zuman better," Chata said.
"Let him try everything!" Alvaredo said in a loud voice. "You should get used to the food in this country."
Fonseca tasted the zuman, bibimca, and poto, but did not like them. He chose the ensaimadas instead.
"I am not surprised. He will like them later. Since I am a matanda in the Philippines, I am used to everything."
"What does 'matanda' mean?"
"Matanda, my friend, means old or an oldtimer in the country."
After breakfast, they got into the carriages that had been prepared for them. Then they proceeded to Pandacan, a happy town about two kilometers from Manila.
"First, we take a bath," Alvaredo told Fonseca. "Next we eat mangoes, which are fun to eat while bathing, and then let's dance and have fun. That is exactly the way to celebrate the thirtieth year of my stay in these islands."
The schedule was followed as planned. They arrived at a beautiful concrete house with a galvanized iron roof located near an estero, or canal. The ladies did not forget the gogo, a plant that froths like soap and which, surprisingly enough, cleanses the hair. The gentlemen refreshed themselves by using tabo, or small buckets more commonly used than the bathtub. Later, the dancing began.
The men, employees, soldiers, and parents of the excursionists were all young and jolly. There were a dozen enchanting young girls, Spanish Manilans, who were very charming and who, following their whims and caprices, wore resplendent mestiza gowns. They dried their hair by letting it hang loose, showing off the luster of their beautiful black tresses.
The gentlemen had put on their brightly colored camisas de piña, untucked, as was the fashion then. They made Fonseca don the same attire. They danced nonstop the whole morning to the music of the orchestra composed of native musicians who played Philippine music masterfully.
At noon, they took a break from their favorite pastime to recover their spent energy. The table, set for thirty guests, was made of beautiful solid narra, a kind of wood that abounds in the archipelago. Of the dishes served, the morisqueta, or very white rice boiled in water, was the favorite. Even Spanish children prefer it to bread.
In the Philippines, it is customary to place on the table all the dishes that make up the meal from the first to the last. Fonseca found this strange.
"Will you eat morisqueta?" several young people asked him. "I will try it, but I don't think I will like it. It must be tasteless."
"Mix it with food and put sauce on it." "
No, I don't like it. I prefer bread," he said after tasting it.
"You will get used to it, my friend," said Alvaredo. "You are still vago."
"I don't think so."
"That was what I said then. And for a long time now, I have preferred this to bread. If you only knew how convenient it is for those who lack teeth. When you become bored, you will learn how to chew buyo."1
"For God's sakes, please stop! The buyo is the most repugnant thing that exists," Fonseca exclaimed, almost throwing up.
"It is disgusting to the eyes, I agree, but it fortifies the stomach and strengthens the gums. The tidy indias clean their teeth with the bark of the bonga, that's why they have very white teeth."
"Yes, but I bet my neck I will never chew the buyo."
"That's exactly what I used to say, and I have chewed it. Dear friend, much later you will chew it, even the sapa."2
"You must be joking, Don Joaquín."
"You will tell me about that when you start falling in love with indias. It is an amazing phenomenon worthy of deeper scrutiny. They're not really pretty nor are they flirts, but they have driven more than one Spaniard crazy."
"They couldn't be from my own land."
"You still have the blood of Spain; let it turn to horchata, and tell me later."
"Do you want me to serve you this, niña Chata?" an elderly woman asked Alvaredo's daughter.
"Usted cuidado," she replied.
"There are two things that annoy me," Fonseca exclaimed.
"I hear a man who is seventy years old being called Niño Quicoy, an old woman Niña Carmen, and usted cuidado at. all times. Would you be kind enough to explain to me what it means?"
"Of course. We say 'Niño' as an affectionate familiar address, as is customary in the country. 'Usted cuidado' is an admirable phrase. It expresses consent but is also a threat or an indifference to the fulfillment of a duty. It has other meanings as well."
"It is truly eloquent."
"You will get to know other expressions that will catch your attention. And do you like the country?"
"I have to be honest. At this very moment, I enjoy your pleasant company, your admirable frankness, and the kindness of these beautiful girls. But judging from the inconveniences in the country, I find life here detestable."
"Let's see, tell us about it," said Alvaredo, who as a matanda delighted in reminiscing about his impressions when he was vago. At the same time, he wanted to explain to his visitor certain strange things, which all the new arrivals in the country wonder so much about.
"In the first place," Fonseca answered, "they talk of the danger of dysentery."
"That's not exactly true. During my long stay in the country I had the chance to experience what I am now going to tell you. Dysentery usually attacks only those who do not practice good hygiene, those who commit great excesses, and a few who have the propensity to contract the illness. Even so, it does not occur frequently. There is a remedy that can cure it. Go back to Europe on time because only a few recover from it."
"They also say that every year, the country suffers from horrible gales called baguio."
"That is correct. They often cause great damage on sea and land, but they also clean the atmosphere, thus preventing many illnesses. Because of them the climate of the Philippines is very healthy, so the destruction is compensated for by the benefits they bring."
"And what about the fires that make whole towns disappear in an instant?" Fonseca asked.
Alvaredo replied, "They usually occur where the bahai3 is made of nipa. The natives rebuild them in two weeks at little cost; the streets improve as a result of the new dwellings. Consequently, the fires are to a certain extent beneficial because they improve the view."
"And what about those collas when torrential rains last for months, do you find them amusing?"
"Not really; but they are a blessing to the fields and they cool the temperature, a pleasant thing here, where summer is perpetual. Besides, one can use a coach. Who in the Philippines does not always have a peso in the pocket for these setbacks?"
"The mosquitoes irritate me."
"Put a mosquito net over the bed and they won't bother you."
"The heat suffocates me."
"That's because you are not yet adjusted to life in the country. In the Philippines, one does not go out during the hot hours unless he rides a coach. It costs very little to maintain one. Stay at home clad in Chinese attire, which is the most comfortable wear; take a bath every day; always have a paipai handy, and recline comfortably in the butaca. Since fresh breezes blow continually and the houses are big and well ventilated, one does not feel the heat much."
"And the skin rash?"
"To avoid it, do not overeat the rich fruit called manga. The rash disappears when you bathe in rainwater and the last recourse is the cane scraper that you will see in my house."
"And what about the servants who do the opposite of everything you say?"
"Learn to talk to them in the sui generis language, which we call here español de cocina, or broken Spanish, repeating what you want to say three times. You will see how well they understand you.
"But one needs the patience of Job."
"Once you get adjusted, you will have it. Here it is indispensable to take things very calmly and not argue anymore. Imitate the indio who is the most patient person I have ever known."
The young people enjoyed listening to the vago's complaints and the matanda's explanations. Some time after they had finished drinking coffee, Niña Chata said to Fonseca, "Come on, stop asking questions and let us dance. Remember that I promised to dance the habanera with you."
"Let's dance! Let's dance!" shouted everybody as they stood up.
Suddenly the house began to shake; shouts of joy turned to sounds of terror, and faces turned pale. They hastily went down to the basement, sheltered under the door arches, mumbling prayers continuously, afraid the house would collapse on their heads at any moment. The musicians and the native servants, with their faces on the floor, could not utter any word except, "Earthquake! Earthquake!" It was the matanda who was the most scared. Only Fonseca, who went down the stairs slowly, remained calm. He was laughing at Alvaredo, as if indifferent to the danger that caused everyone so much fear.
Fonseca shouted at Alvaredo, "Didn't you say that all phenomena in this country were blessings? What about earthquakes?"

1A species of climbing plant with big leaves. Lime is spread on a leaf, a piece of betel nut is placed in the middle and then rolled. The natives chew buyo at any time of the day.
2Residue of the masticated betel nut which the indias offer to their lovers to chew to prove their affection.
3House, hut in Tagalog, pronounced as bajai.

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