Sunday, August 31, 2008

Food trip

THE FIRST thing you leave behind when you travel to the country is your fraternity of adjectives.

When you step off the bus into a town that gazes back at you with the stolid gaze of unseeing, you can’t reach out for the customary comforts: “exotic” does not describe the scenery, only the public toilet no one has tried to flush for years; “hospitable” suits the mosquitoes that hum around you just as the market’s only vendor shuts her stall just a little after twilight to cook dinner at home.

But Ernest Hemingway questioned the use of adjectives in life. Who am I to argue with a man who traveled hard and wrote lean?

I bring baon instead.

Translated into Filipino terms, brown-bagging is an honored tradition of not just bringing one’s lunch to work. A trip to the countryside, a day in the beach, the quest to find the precinct to cast one’s vote, recuperation in the hospital—the Filipino’s life is replete with situations that require a long wait, the Deity’s disposal, and standby food ready to be brought out of a bag.

My generation was hardwired from birth to anticipate food scarcity, avoid diarrhea and cut down on “eating out” costs by cooking at home and packing provisions in plastic (recyclable, not “disposable”) containers, pots and pans or the suddenly stylish banana leaves.

When my 89-year-old grandmother recently replaced the car she took to travel up north or go round south, she examined models with one crucial consideration: is there space to hold a cooler?

Men are quick to roll their eyes at female fussiness. They are the first, though, to pop the tab of a cola drink chilled since 4 a.m. and after a road trip has logged a dizzying number of digits on the odometer. When you are in the middle of nowhere, staring at roadside softdrink bottles glowing with the extra-terrestrial pink or nuke orange of gasoline, female compulsiveness can emit excellent, even life-saving, vibes.

Provincial tours have changed much. Now, anyone can sign up for a group tour, step out into nowhere, and be met by festive bands, gyrating root crops and tables groaning with local “specialties” that would not be shy on a cosmopolitan grocery shelf.

Alas, my lack of fortune relegates me to the bus-riding, adjective-swapping masses. And after years of brown-bagging, I have to concede to my husband’s wisdom: being open to the unexpected is a lot easier than lugging along a kitchen, with a collapsible table or two.

Human optimism, though, has thresholds of elasticity. Walking into the Alegria highway market, hours after the weekly tabo packed up, there was only a single stall still open. The store owner was playing with her grandchild, already in pajamas.

All that stared back at our rampaging appetites were a few forlorn pieces of humba. I resigned myself to death from cardiac attack, which is at least quick.

But after our friend Ronie asked hopefully about other choices, Luciana “Nanay” Gomez Borda volunteered that she still had a fish head left in the fridge. An hour later, the 60-year-old barangay councilor, volunteer fish warden and cave guide who had risen at 3 a.m. to prepare for the tabo crowd invited us to sit down for spicy stew, crunchy vegetables and stories that drifted and lingered in the darkened, quiet market.

Long after the fish head was sucked dry and tales wound up at their origin, Nanay thanked us for the stories although, in truth, we groped for words when she said guests did not pay for dinner.

Much as I revere Hemingway, adjectives have some use during travel. Use “exotic” for places that open to strangers; “hospitable” for sustenance that goes beyond the momentary.

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Aug. 17, 2008 issue

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