Friday, February 3, 2012

Getting Real with a Grain of Salt

Enough, Joseph America. Stop ragging on a culture you do not own, like a guest who drinks most of the wine or scarfs up all the guacamole dip or pisses in the fountain.

By the way, avocados in California, USA, are very different than the sweetish flat-tasting pasty ones here. They are smaller and firmer and greener, richer of flavor in a way I cannot possibly describe.  The Haas variety has a firm bumpy skin that peels off easily when the fruit is soft and ripe. Guacamole is a Mexican dish of mashed up Avocado and salsa sauce. You dip your tortilla chip into it whilst sipping a margarita and mashing up to your sweetie. Mexican restaurants are generally loud and cheery with bright lights, bright colors, drunken laughter, a bar in the corner and sometimes three amigos strumming guitars and crooning as they circulate about the place. Or sometimes the places are dark holes with really good food that starts with the chips and guacamole, like that place on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles with tables the size of phone booths.

I have not had a good Mexican meal in 4 years. I ate once at this place in Subic ingeniously named "The Café" and ordered a giant taco. I think it was karabao meat, and there was no guacamole, and, come to think of it, no margarita. But, boy was there a lot of taco.

But I digress.

Grain of Salt
I eat better in the Philippines than I did in the U.S. One exception is when I was a kid and my mother cooked what we grew on the farm: beef, corn, potatoes, beans, strawberries, apples. Asparagus. My brother once ate 13 ears of corn, American size, at one meal. I quit at 11. Mom just kept throwing another batch into the boiler as fast as Dad could shuck them of their green clothes. Her sweet and tart cherry pies and sugary cinnamon rolls provided the necessary carbs for a young boy's athletic endeavors. Mom wins over the Philippines, but the Philippines is a close second.

One of the delightful surprises for me when I settled here was my wife's skill around the skillet. I suppose it is an advantage that when you are a poor kid, you are used in many ways. One of uses to which my wife was applied during her high school years was helping one aunt who ran an eatery and another who ran a bakery. She is proudest of her menudo, which has just the right chili bite with the sweet surprise of raisins or pineapple here and there, the veggies cooked just right (not sloppy overcooked or tough undercooked), and a list of ingredients that shall forever remain hidden in her head.

She cooks a thick-noodle pancit that I can't stop eating, so she knows to cook enough for three, plus the rest of the family and helpers. I look at that dish, colorful and rich with vegetables and pork and the noodles, just right (not slippery with oil or sloppy overcooked or stiff and undercooked), and my body feels the goodness of the vitamins and energy coursing through it.

She knows better than to heap lots of fats at me, for my doctor can count cholesterol too well, but occasionally she fries up a pork chop with the rim of fat singed crispy brown. My God, that rim of crispy salty fat is better than a Snickers.

I eat rice two meals a day, sometimes three. There is always a topping because she knows I don't like rice plain. So the ginger-pork dish has lots of juice, as does the fresh fish, cooked several ways. Chop suey, of course. Mongo peas with cabbage. And about a dozen other plates that come at me as surprises. Always tasty. Always nutritious. Always fresh.

Most people where I live don't have refrigerators. Half of the houses have no electricity. Most of the husbands work the terraced rice fields, or labor during the off-season. Quite a few work in construction, mostly masonry and welding. They get their rice in exchange for their field work, grow a lot of vegetables - a lot of starchy roots that I don't like - have the necessary chickens and pigs for the occasional cheap or celebratory meat , and find their way into town now and then for wet market treats. Fish vendors wander through regularly, selling the morning's catch.

There is a harmony to all of this.

Several neighbors, knowing that we are starting work on our garden, skimmed through their own yards to give us fresh cuttings as gifts. One gave us an entire bamboo stump wrapped with orchids. We received four small cocao trees when I asked for one. We got two large palms which we potted and put in the foyer. Several clusters of yellow dancing ladies, which I particularly enjoy, have been pasted to a clump of bamboo stumps out the side door. I have to learn the rest of the plants, about a dozen different varieties.

So when I write here that Filipinos are wholly engaged with self, understand that I am proved completely wrong in many ways.

And when I complain about hard-headed Filipinos, know that there are millions of obtuse and hard-headed Americans, as well. Sometimes the best education in the world can't overcome the blindness that associates with personal, emotional investment in one's decisions. I mean, Newt Gingrich, presidential material? Or Occupy protestors who throw smoke bombs into the White House yard and battle Oakland's police and destroy government offices? These are patriotic, high-principled freedom fighters?

I write about the Philippines because my culture rubs against the very different culture here, and static sparks fly. That's all. It is just energy. I grab some, like Ben Franklin with a kite and extra set of keys.

In the evenings, I occasionally walk with my son and wife along the long road leading up the hillside to the barangay proper. A cluster of homes sits on a ridge about, oh, 1,000 feet above the ocean. The road follows that long ridge, probably lava runoff from millions of years ago, up the mountain in a gentle curve. Uphill are the mountains, green and stately and usually draped in misty clouds. You can hear the river crashing down the steep slopes, we are that close. The waterfalls are a local tourist attraction. They are hidden by the green trees and it takes about an hour to hike to the biggest.  Another range of mountains rises to the south above the bamboo groves in which our house hides. To the north and west are beautifully terraced rice fields, now green and rich with growing grain, stepping all the way down toward the ocean, which arches in a semi-circle below.  The ocean is blue or gray, and sometimes at sunset flashes silver before everything turns red and orange and pink. More mountains are far off beyond the rice fields, completing the U of tall mountainous green that frames our Eden.

Off in the distance at the open part of the U is the city proper, from up here, small and absent the noise and bustle you find if you are downtown. The pier and boats tied up there look like toys. Further beyond are smaller green islands fresh out of a fairy tale book; also the huge tip of Northern Leyte and unseen beyond that maybe a gigantic Chinese aircraft carrier.

It is flat out gorgeous here. Please take most of my carping observations with the grain of salt intended, and enclosed above. They glimpses isolated and apart from the whole of the Philippine experience.

On the ground, locally, real time, my world is an elegant island, in harmony apart from the eccentricities I write about. It is gorgeous and rich with life, Philippine style.


  1. Joe,

    I see that you are now appreciating what makes Filipino culture great. This is actually the norm and what you see in imperial Manila is the exception because they have sold out their values in exchange for western materialism.

    Oh and one more thing, I heard that Hungarian mortgages are dominated in Swiss Francs. So as the Euro has been sliding against the CHF lately, the mortgage debt of Hungarians have been growing while the value of their homes are falling. Talk about getting screwed in the ass twice! Well what do you expect from Hungary, a country full of losers.

  2. Proud (of what) Pinoy:

    I looked around in the Philippines from the "smoky mounties" to the squatter areas also where the carga tapas workers live and fishing villages and more. I have seen enough poverty there to have a nightmare. If I were you I would be embarrassed about the extreme poverty that you have in your country. Before you try to celebrate any superiority over any European country face realty. You have nothing to celebrate! The standard of living not even come close to even what former communist countries had in the Eastern block during the worst times That is pretty depressing isn't it?
    What would you call me if I were Italian? A guinea?
    What if I were a German? A sauerkraut? You would have a brilliant come back line wouldn't you. Cant you do better than that?


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