Friday, July 13, 2007

Pagkain, or On Food

Filpinos eat meat. I never met a vegetarian one, although I heard about a Filipino chef in New York who claimed to be a vegetarian, except that (like a good Filipino) he ate pork. In spite of, or perhaps because of, my waning appetite due to some stomach bug that has been plaguing me, my relatives have been searching for things that I can eat. The latest solution is to present me with the most “exotic foods” they can find. I called for a limit of one “exotic food” introduction per week. This week it was chicken feet. In some ways, it is the analogue to pizza in the US, because deep fried chicken feet is the bread and butter of college students here. For three pesos you can get two feet. For two more pesos you can get puso, a little ball of rice tucked in basket-woven coconut husks. So for five pesos, about the equivalent of eight cents, is a New York “slice.” Next week it will be BBQ’ed one-day old chicks. For fifty-one pesos (about one dollar) you can get eight hatchlings nestled into a hot dog container. I think the idea is to work up to monkey brains or dog. After seeing Un Chien Delicieuse, I feel that dog has “been done” and I have to ante up with the monkey brains.

I’ve been getting a lot of herbal healing tips here as well. After a previous summer in the Philippines where I counted over one hundred bites, I had armed myself with all these organic anti-mosquito balms and sprays with me. One day I found my little second cousin being smothered all over with wild honey that came from my mother’s village. The baby started licking as furiously as he could, retaining a sticky brown glow on his face, like a bad self-tanner. The parents said that it helped with the child’s very sensitive skin. And sure enough, the angry welts left by bug bites disappeared. Furthermore, for some strange reason, despite the fact that it was honey, nectar of the gods and bugs alike, no insect seemed attracted to the honey. I immediately began dabbing it all over me. Whoa. If there was an infomercial for this stuff, I would be one of those gushing satisfied customers. Wild honey is an anti-itch balm, an anti-inflammatory, and probably a good pimple antidote as well. The other thing someone tried to convince me of is the super-miraculous healing effect of squash. Both my cousin and his wife said they had to use glasses at one time. So they went on serving a day regimen of squash. Sure enough, as the tale goes, their eyes improved and they no longer require any corrective lenses. I took the challenge on, and am gamely eating squash pudding every day, sometimes twice a day, for one month.

Stevie Wonder, "He's Misstra Know it All," Innervisions

And on the Seventh Day....

Friday the 13th marks the seventh day I have been in the Philippines. I suppose you could say it marks a Sabbath of sorts, but then it feels like that everyday here. The most popular non-sequitur you can overhear on the streets of the Philippines are “thank you Lord Jesus.” I wrote about the night of my arrival, because an arrival in darkness left a lasting impression on me.


I arrived from Japan into Cebu-Mactan in the evening. I shared a plane with about a million Japanese tourists, and sat next to one with quite possibly the most odoriferous feet I’ve ever been graced to spend four hours of my life with. Cebu is a major resort area, and my friend Jun’s assertion that it is a popular vacation destination for Japanese was confirmed beyond a smelly doubt. When I cleared customs, which magically happened in a matter of two minutes, I burst out into a melee of people gesticulating wildly with signs – which to my initial dismay were all in Japanese. I scanned the faces looking for my cousin, and instead of him my eyes fell on the lone sign in English,

“Welcome to Cebu”


(The misspelling of my name is accurate, or accurate in its inaccuracy.) I sheepishly approach the gentle looking man holding the sign. He has a placid countenance and features that recall a Chinese heritage. In spite of the tropical heat and humidity, he is wearing a heavy cotton, pale yellow, and starched collar shirt tucked into precisely creased and pressed pants. The man’s voice is as gentle as his face, “Are yew, Chrees-tee-na?’ Each syllable is so carefully enunciated and drawn out, as if he had been practicing this moment for weeks. When I answer in the affirmative, he follows a little more easily with, “Sir Jojo (my cousin’s nickname) is at the resort and they are waiting for you there.”

I remember Bonifacio “Jojo” Gomez, Jr. as a teenager when I first visited my mother’s tiny fishing village some twenty years ago. He was the least shy of the lot and seemed more thrilled than cowed by my (comparatively) brassy American personality. We played chess on the porch of a nipa hut, or house on stilts. We roamed around the neighborhood while a dozen kids followed us. I was that novelty not known by my name, but as “the American,” as if I were some new zoo specimen. He took me to the beach at low tide, where I squished around with the starfish and collected all the seashells my little hands could carry, until the adults would yell that high tide was about to commence and in the rush I would drop all my booty back into an ocean literally foaming at the mouth. My mom sent him to college. Now he is “Sir Jojo,” a fledging businessman on the move with hired drivers, a fleet of cars, and a resort waiting for me.

The gentle-faced driver’s name is Liomar. He could have said that Jojo was waiting for me on the moon and I would have been nonplussed. My jet-lag was so severe as to dull even the most basic sense of reality. In any case, before heading to the resort, it turns out we had to pick up a couple other people; business associates coming in by ship from other islands. So I stepped from a surprisingly lukewarm if still humid Philippine night air into a white van that might as well have been a refrigerator on wheels.

The Philippines is infamous for its traffic patterns, or more precisely the lack thereof. I look at my notes from that first night in Cebu, scribbles clumsily penned in a darkened car, wherein I had written: “The images on the car window seem more like projections of a seedy dream.” I remember the parable of seeing the world through a car window that Slavoj Zizek referred to in his book Looking Awry. In short, the world of images exists not as a projection onto a scrim, betokening a Real outside the cave (or in my case the car), but that without the notion of “window” itself, the Real reveals itself as the perception of transparency itself. When you roll down the window, the neat categories of “inside” and “outside” are replaced by the threat of an encroaching void. Roll the window back up, and sanity is restored. Even though I began to shiver in my box with a window, for that hour I was resolute in keeping the distinction between interior and exterior. In retrospect it was probably the anxiety of what seemed like a thousand hours of travel that inspired the dread I felt as we circulated through the inner streets of Cebu. The more likely culprit was the play of light and dark. It disturbed me to think that the streets appeared to me perfectly lit for a Wong Kar-Wai film noir. Coming from Tokyo, where Tanizaki’s shadows have disappeared by the searchlight of capitalism’s flourescent glare, they have come to roost in a country with, as yet, dubious utility services.

Liomar was a native and knew the short-cuts through small alleys that impossibly doubled as two-lane roads. Trucks, colorfully outfitted jeepneys, cars, motorbikes, tricycles, bicycles, pedestrians, and dogs jumbled and swarmed about on the same narrow pathways, more often unpaved, unmarked and lacking signage or signal than not. Children barely old enough for pre-school went down the rows of cars, one by one, simply peering back into the car windows, their eyes speaking a silent request. But what constituted the most haunting series of images on my television, I mean, window, was the endless and unvarying dimly lit stalls. Each seemed to me like a little diorama box, and might as well have been made out of the same rugged materials. The outer shell of these shacks were incongruously fitted corrugated steel sheets with cardboard or discarded billboards slapped on into an industrial-material patchwork. The first floor often functioned as a small business enterprise, with children peering over the second story, bored or hypnotized by the activity below. There are three basic choices of business, as unvarying in their products as the rain. 1) Food stalls. 2) Lotto windows. 3) Auto Repair yards. The food stalls are the most common, as befits the culture of nonstop eating here. As we neared the docks, there was an almost unbroken line of tables, upon which skewers of meat were arranged into incredible bouquets. The centerpiece of these meat gardens was a flaming beacon. Imagine this garden of flaming flesh stretching out for several kilometers on a dark night. In my little hermetically sealed box, I waited to step out of the car.

Of course, that is a description of the first two hours. Since that first night, I have been party to a pastor blessing the purchase of new cars; had a lot of time to reflect on the nature of envy; and clumsily placed bets on the weekly neighborhood cockfight. And, in lock-step timing with my curiousity regarding the politics of audio transmission, the local paper announced yesterday that a satellite of Bombo Radio in Bogo City, just a half hour north of where I am, has received a bomb threat. The accused party are supporters of a congressional candidate who lost in the recent national election. The radio satellite is owned by the winning candidate. The accused haven’t exactly denied it, but cryptically responded, “If we were going to bomb the place, we would have done it before the election to shut them up.” Such is politics in the democratic Republic of the Philippines. I’ll be going up to the station next week. I hope to organize these latest notes into some kind of palatable narrative soon.

In a postscript to this set of notes, I’m assigning a song to each entry. I have this tendency to listen to a song almost obsessively for a few days, and then move on to another. I’ve found out that I share this with other filipinos, who are inveterate karaoke fanatics, and can be found singing the same song over and over again. I wonder if the song has any correlation to what I’m immediately experiencing or writing about. If nothing else, I’ll have a summer soundtrack by the time I return.

“How Soon is Now” – The Smiths, from “A Hatful of Hollow,” 1985