Saturday, June 04, 2011

Roadside spells

AS an eternal passenger, only one thing interests me about highways and roads.

It often falls on me to look for signs and landmarks to assist the person behind the wheel.

Unlike this person, though, whose priority is to get to some place at a certain time, I’m happy enough to be distracted by roadside views, “being here” taking precedence over “getting there”.

In this country, a chief roadside attraction are the signs that do more than advertise business names; they show the Filipino flair for creativity with English, as well as humor and double entendre.

Along Gen. Maxilom St. in Cebu is a row of grill joints that always look tawdry and decrepit in daylight. Its chief attraction for me is a signboard that shows a danciferous sow gyrating below the words, “Belly Idol”.

For a people who love to imitate what’s imported, trendy or successful, we hold the adjective, “original,” in so high esteem, we usually precede its usage with the article, “the,” creating a kind of informal title to confer the stamp or seal of excellence, if not originality.

Witness, for instance, the uncontrolled proliferation of these unabashedly contradictory roadside claims: “The Original Siomai sa…,” “The Original Chicharon of …,” etc.

I used to be jaded about these assertions of excellence by way of first privilege. I decided that my selection of the entrepreneur to patronize would be determined not by whether one’s ancestor was the first in the town to discover the sinful secrets of a pockmarked pod of cacao, but rather by the choice in the business name to display a properly spelled “The Original,” instead of the modernized awfulness of “D’Original”.

However, a trip to Los Baños reconfigured my perceptions.

If you ever find yourself driving along the national highway in Barangay Anos at Los Baños, Laguna, do persevere past the glut of roadside bakeries blandishing monotonous signs of “The Original Buko Pie” to ferret out a similar-looking stand with a similar-sounding claim.

Despite the predictable branding and packaging, Orient, The ORIGINAL Buko Pie Bakeshop, stands out in the highway stretch because of the parked vehicles and people waiting for the bakery to pop open the ovens.

I cannot vouch for the espasol, uraro and banana bread—intriguing-sounding but unfortunately, untasted—but just smelling the goodness wafted from a steaming buko pie explains why people would wait for 20 or even 30 minutes. (After the first mouthful of the fat strips of naturally sweet-tasting buko, not candied, jellied or frozen, you might even take another 2-hour trip from Manila to expressly catch the next batch.)

While cities rely on sky-high billboards and outdoor movie screens to entice traffic, roadside displays of local produce or crafts serve as the best one-stop museums/craftshop/info centers of towns and cities outside urban centers.

The stretch of the national highway leading away from the center of Los Baños to Anos is lined with stalls selling all kinds and colors of pool toys, floats and other inflatables, as well as swimming apparel. Having a fog-wreathed Mt. Makiling tower above these seaside sights stumped me until it was explained that the favorite local recreation is provided by hot and cold springs, already popular in Anos since the Spanish era.

While other fog-draped celebrities—Taal Lake and Volcano—dominate the first-time visitor’s experience of Tagaytay, its roadside vendors, selling wooden sculpture and furniture, bananas, pineapple, jackfruit and other farm produce, were more than eye-catching.

The bananas seemed to be of one type. Small and narrow, each fruit resembled curled children’s fingers. Only when I was back in Manila did I find out the name of the bananas: señorita, a variety that’s incomparably sweet and filling.

When I do taste señorita these days, it comes from my grandmother’s farm. I’ve been told that few farmers cultivate this because it’s less commercial than the fat and hefty-priced cardaba, lakatan, latundan, bangan and bulongan.

Though I missed tasting the señoritas of Tagaytay, it feels good to know, from a roadside glimpse, that the rare and passing still thrive somewhere somehow.
( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 5, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

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