Sariaya: Traveling to a Cornucopia of Memories
Mahalia L. Shoup
It has been more than a decade since I visited my hometown. For the extended period of this self-imposed exile, the longing to go back to the place of my childhood constantly haunts me in dreams. In my daydreams, my mind travels back to a rustic town—the image is both fuzzy and faint but the sights, smells, and the feel of it still remain. How could I forget my childhood? These innocent memories become a place of refuge when I feel isolated and alienated in this foreign country. I look at my wrinkled hands and wonder where has time gone and reach for the hope that one day I can go back. I stare at the face in the mirror and search the eyes of a once raring teenager driven by wanderlust, wanting to leave her land and her heritage. I surf the web looking for stories written in my language, staring at pictures of places similar to mine in order to recall home through the narrative of another. Yet, in all my longing for the art, literature, food, and language of my land, nothing satisfies. So, I constantly recreate, relive, and meditate on my lost childhood and forgotten culture through writing.
I arrive in Sariaya and the steeple of the colonial St. Francis de Assisi church greets me. If I linger for a second on the outskirts of town, the routine ringing and harmonious chimes of the bell tower will beckon me to enter and embrace the textures of an enchanted day. The road is narrow which is typical of rural towns in the Philippines. The municipality is split by the Maharlika Road going from east to west. Sariaya is about four hours south of the national capital, Manila City. The town perimeter mimics the shape of the volcanic mountain of Banahaw bordering the north side of the triangular town. The tip of the triangle sits right on top of the mountain and takes up a large part of the volcano´s crater. Back in the 1800s, when Mt. Banahaw last erupted, a considerable amount of lava flow etched the face of the soft earth leaving a rocky Sadjaya River that now runs from the top of a mountain and opens up to the ocean of Tayabas Bay. On the north side is a mystical mountain laden with hot springs and hidden waterfalls, home to local hermits and witch doctors called Mangkukulam; on the south, the town is piggy backed by a bay—a cornucopia of endless sea produce. It is the perfect location where the mountain breeze cools the humid tropical mornings and the fine sea breeze blows inland during the night.
I live near the church. Each morning when the bell resounds through the sleepy town, roosters perch on top of coops, roofs, and Indian Mango trees to sing with the bell—calling and sighing with the Catholic devotees and early street vendors. The luscious smell of the Pan de Sal in the stone hearths of local pastry shops sweetens the streets and invites for breakfast. My mother hands me five pesos and I head down to our neighborhood bakery with a hand-painted sign that says Pasalubong at Panaderia. The set-up inside is simple. Hand-woven baskets display the many sizes and shapes of breads which are still steaming from the ovens. The walls are bare with exposed concrete. There is an oily film and charred smears that curtain the walls coming from the constant burning of the stone oven in the middle. As early as five, a few customers are already milling about, inspecting the bread, and negotiating with the baker on the prices and discounts on the morning´s merchandise. Each person will be carrying out a bulging paper bag full of hot fresh buns. I grab a small brown bag and fill it with hand-sized rolls and pay for three tablespoons of margarine. My mouth waters with the thoughts of blistering bread rolls infused with yellow margarine rolled onto raw brown sugar. Dad will have a pint of goat´s milk ready on the table while Mother labors at the wood burning stove for Dad´s packed lunch.
Mornings are never lazy or laid-back in our small town. After Dad leaves for the rice mill and lime plantation, the sun´s first blush will usher the many vendors to peddle their wares on the streets. The earliest vendor will sell Taho. Mang Aldo inhales deep into his diaphragm and exhales a loud TA-HUUU! Soon as he reaches a certain part of the neighborhood, he stands by a corner, lays down his yoke setting two large aluminum buckets on the ground, and waits. In a minute, young children carrying empty drinking glasses and a few coins will flank the man. He opens his cans filled with silken tofu prepared like custard, ladles a scoop of tapioca, and drenches the custard inside the glass with dark caramel syrup. Just as the Taho man leaves the vicinity, I hear a loud cry coming from an old lady´s voice selling Tamales and the sound of the small wheels of the grocery stroller hit the cracked pavement. This time I beg Mother to spare me a few centavos for the indigenized version of the Mexican tamal. The old lady stops in front of our door and I burst out panting for the steamed delicacy wrapped in banana leaves. She smiles and promises to return as soon as she makes a batch with chorizos. I sit on our door step and slowly peel the balmy leaves open. The rapture of smelling the delicate scent of toasted white and brown ground rice, ground peanuts, and coconut milk topped with strips of chicken sends me into a hysterical euphoria.
If a newcomer visits the kitchens of our neighborhood and opens a refrigerator, all he will see is a pitcher of water. Mother is a typical house manager as she cooks her food fresh from the wet market. At around ten in the morning, there is a mass exodus of housewives dragging children along towards the open-air market. The grocery store concept is yet to be introduced into this small community. Today, Mother is busy organizing and cleaning the home for tomorrow´s town fiesta so, she sends me to the market by myself. The market is a five-minute ride by tricycle—a motorcycle with a side-car used as public transportation—or a fifteen minute walk from home. I decide to travel on foot. After my legs feel rubbery, I see the familiar bedlam of the public market and the scent of muck, rotten fish, and overripe vegetables strengthens my weakened knees. Going through the list of things and foods to buy, I pace down to the vegetable section pressing and feeling for the firmest tomatoes. The carrots are short and stumpy but overall healthy looking. I pick three pieces and pay for two as the woman agrees with my negotiations. In the Filipino economics of marketer-vendor relationship, there is an uncodified and understood suki system. This yields my Mother great savings as she frequents only a handful of vendors. At the mention of Mother´s name, I am amused at the almost robotic and predictable gestures in these sales people who would dispense an extra piece or lower the price of the merchandise depending upon previous arrangements which may have been set generations ago. Loyalty is the most reliable coupon in a Filipino market. A few strides to another stall results in a pageantry of products that will try to provoke buyers. The stalls are small and they typically have a medley of hanging sachets of pre-packed salt, pepper, MSGs, and an assortment of products from shampoos to laundry detergents. Up front, cardboard boxes and bamboo containers hold dried fish or seasonal produce. Food supplies can be highly erratic as most produce depends on the harvest of local farmers and seasonality of the fish catch. Within each alcove, a vendor with a black fanny pack around the waist sports flimsy plastic bags tucked between fingers for when a patron picks one or two things in a hurry.
Different food categories are segregated into different parts of the market. It is called the wet market because the fresh fish delivered every morning with packed ice inside corroded metal buckets melt and drip as the temperature rises to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit by noon. I do not mind sloshing through the brown mire to see Mother´s fishmonger. She recognizes me from afar and yells Lapu-lapu. She points to an orange grouper with bright, lustrous blue speckles. I case the fish and notice that its eyes are still clear indicating its freshness. We bargain on the price. Soon enough, my bag is filled with a ten-pounder. Mother plans to cook Escabeche for our city relatives arriving tonight to celebrate the fiesta. Along the way, I purchase red and green bell peppers and an inch of fresh aromatic ginger to garnish the sweet and sour fish for supper. The list also includes dried squid and sun-dried scad, I set off to the drier part of the marketplace and buy a kilo each.
Later, I help Mother julienne the carrots, bell peppers, and ginger. The fire needs to be constantly encouraged and tended with wood. Mother´s vegetable vendor knocks at our kitchen and hands her a bag-full of fiddle-head ferns. She instructs me to go to a corner of our backyard to dig up her garlic and gather wild mushrooms. I obey promptly. When I go back to the kitchen, the agreeable smell of newly caught grouper deep fried in oil welcomes me. Soon, the sound of leaves scraping the walking path outside the kitchen becomes louder, signaling Dad´s arrival. He is carrying two cut bamboo trees as tall as our coconut tree at our backyard. He kisses Mother on the cheeks after he places the bamboo in front of the kitchen door. He summons me to help him tie colorful confectioneries made from coconut, sugar, and eggs. It is like trimming a Christmas tree, only this is a tall bamboo right from our farm. Tomorrow he will dig a hole and bury the base of these bamboo trees in the ground next to our front gate and wait for the procession of the idol of San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of abundant harvest.
Mother calls us both to the old lunch table. She sets the table with basket plates lined with banana leaves, steaming hot white rice right out of our rice mill, garlic fried fiddle-head ferns, and grilled dried squid. She offers me a small bowl of squeezed lime seasoned with sea salt and crushed cayenne pepper. By dusk, the hurried city folks arrive. Mother suggests we all drink her piping hot cocoa made of Tablea from the market. My cousins squeal with delight at the sight of the burnt sienna liquid; we close our eyes while smelling the pungent odor dancing above our heads. The next day the anticipation of the large procession with almost a thousand devotees following the walk creates a sense of electricity just beneath our skins. Every year, the procession brings people with large burlap sacks ready to ransack the colorful Bagakays which are harvest vegetables displayed and hung from bamboo trees placed outside houses. It is believed that eating this blessed produce will call forth the strength and spirit of hard work to face another year of tilling the fields. It is also believed that the generous participation of a homeowner brings fertile soil and the luck of an immediate strong crop.
It has been a decade since the last San Isidro Festival. It has been more than a decade since I drank Mother´s Tablea concoction. I fondly recall my many visits to the public market and the savory smell of the Pan de Sal in the mornings. There are mornings when I wake up with the image of the moss-covered fence, still clutching a glutted offering of wild vegetables. There are many nights that I imagine the sea breeze caressing my cheeks. It has been far too long, far too wide a distance from my homeland and I travel constantly to the place that gave birth to me by allowing these memories to remain etched in my consciousness.