Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Creating good fortune

OF THE many Filipino traditions welcoming a new year, one of the most enduring is readying 13 round fruits on the last night of the old year.

Combining the shape of coins and the bounty of nature, the fruit collection is believed to augur prosperity and good fortune.

For Alegria housewife Okit Patriarca, a fruit bowl she received as a Christmas present is already brimming with the auspicious "lucky" fruits days before January 1. To avoid the high prices of the market, she relied on her backyard garden and neighbors' gifts to fill her bowl.

"There's no harm in following what old folks believe," says Okit.

Her sister, public school teacher Nene Baylosis, thinks differently. "The (13 fruits) is a useless superstition," she dismisses in Cebuano. "What's more important is hard work and thrift."

Since coming home to teach at the upland barangay of Guadalupe in Alegria, Nene has continued her mother's practice of running a retail store, breeding livestock, raising corn and other crops for consumption and commerce, and volunteering for community events.

Learning from the past

Nene's visitor from Cebu City, Edgar Heredias, is quick to point out the significance of the fireflies that flock around a "dalanghita (native orange)" tree growing close to Nene's store. In the inky darkness of a foggy night in the uplands of Alegria, the fireflies look like strings of gold wreathing the tree, which holds out a few late fruits.

"According to old tales, a household is lucky if it has a tree that attracts fireflies," notes Edgar, observing aloud that while the nearby trees are dark, the dalanghita tree seems to glow in the dark. "Since this tree is growing close to Nene's store, her store will draw unlimited customers."

Then Edgar laughs, as if dismissing his own words as mere whimsy. A Toledo native who found work in Cebu City as a shellcraft designer and worker in the 1990s, he now runs a small store, with his wife's help, in their neighborhood at Sitio Kanipaan in Basak-Pardo.

A skilled worker who could fashion seashells and stones into fancy earrings dangling elephants and turtles for export during his prime years, Edgar had to give way to younger workers when his eyesight made it difficult to drill fine holes and attach thin wires.

He pooled his savings to buy household basics that his neighbors need. Since their community sleeps late, he also closes his store late, hoping to draw late-night customers. But like Nene, he follows the rule of prudence, not serving customers who knock after he has closed. He says that it might be roughnecks wanting to borrow drinks or robbers posing as buyers.

But if the late-night visitor identifies himself and turns out to be a neighbor needing medicine, Edgar says that he has not refused to open his window. He pools his store's profits with the earnings of his children, who are all working. Though living together in Kanipaan means maximizing cramped conditions, this sharing of resources has enabled Edgar, his children and in-laws to cope with life's vagaries.

Retooling for the future

A trip down the south of Cebu confirms the pervasiveness of "palihi (fortune-making)" traditions that echo farming practices. Instead of costly fireworks and other noise-makers, a banana plant, complete with a full "bulig" (stalk) bearing several banana clusters, adorn many a threshold. This practice is supposed to signify a year of plenty for both homeowners and visitors.

But for Edgar's son, Richard, and his cousin Joel Martil, their childhood in Bayugan I in Agusan del Sur left them with an unforgettable symbol of bounty and generosity: an "abuhan" (hearth) that never went cold.

According to Joel, his grandmother, Isabel Bongo, always had a fire burning at all hours because she invited anyone, even strangers, to stop by their home, eat and take a rest. The cousins remembered it was their duty to stoke the fire, an unnecessary act as firewood was unlimited, from felled hardwood.

Even as he remembers that their playing was rarely interrupted because hardwood, especially "tugas" (molave) can burn for hours, even days, Richard can still picture how the last standing forest near their ancestral home dwindled with every kaingin to clear land for more homes and rice fields.

Today, the forest and their grandparents, as well as their way of living, have passed. But industry, perseverance and family bayanihan continue to serve well Joel and Richard, privately employed in Mandaue City.

While there may be no harm in continuing some traditions, what remains ageless and reliable is human striving. On the last Saturday of the old year, Okit, husband Domi and son Franklin take the family tricycle to Badian to look over a "trisikad (foot-pedaled cycle)" that's for sale. Taken aback that the price has risen to P7,500 from last year's P5,000, the couple mull it over: can they make this investment work for them?

* Published as Sun.Star Cebu's Dec. 29, 2008 editorial

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