Saturday, July 27, 2013

When time is ripe

THE BOY knew a lot about choosing fruits.

Before leaving Pangasinan, the husband and I stopped by a wet market to find if the fruits were better and cheaper than in Metro Manila.

More used to supermarkets, I trailed after him, the better judge of goods and the better negotiator.

For me, one banana is as good as another banana. We cruised among the front-row sellers before he judged that Parañaque-sold bananas cheaper by P3. None of the bananas he inspected had rounded ends, a sign of maturity (“guwang”).

Why is “guwang” a virtue for bananas but not “gurang” for people? I asked, eyeing with interest some packs of garlic-flavored chichacorn.

He said that if a fruit was picked when it was mature, it tasted differently from one that was picked before its time. Some prematurely picked (“linghod”) fruits never even ripen or cannot be eaten.

After haggling and settling with a vendor for three bags of chichacorn, I hurried to where the husband and a young vendor seemed to be shaking and listening to emerald green avocados.

If “guwang,” you should hear the seed rattling inside the avocado, the husband explained.

I picked up and shook one oval fruit, thinking it was like a maracas without a handle. The seed rolled inside that green leather-like case.

After weighing and bagging avocados, the young vendor picked mangoes from a basket. The husband had apparently remembered his appointments and my afternoon class because Selecting Fruits 101 was over and he was just waiting to pay.

Tall but slight in frame, the young man took to heart the husband’s instruction to select the best. He picked, discarded and bagged mangoes after looking at the point where the fruit’s stem had been.

Though I yearned to ask aloud why one listens to avocados but examines the rear end of a mango, I could only watch in silence as they closed the deal. In the ride back to Metro Manila, I asked the husband why he chose to buy from this vendor and not from the others.

The boy offered a good price, he said. He has an honest face.

I remember how, after weighing our purchases, the young man added one free fruit inside the bag. Although he did not shake or examine the butt anymore of the “pakapin,” I noticed that the fruit he gave us in good will was as smooth and plump as the ones we paid for. He did not give something that would just have been thrown away.

At this time of the year, the north of Luzon is a tapestry of emerald green rice fields stretching as interminably as the eye can roam.

Modern highways unroll past scenery of idyll so classic, they resemble stereotypes of bucolic paradise: tiny human figures bent in planting rice, carabao and farmer plowing the fields, shingles of water bearing green stubble that prefigure the fat golden promise of future yield.

I arrived too early for class. The campus bears the visible preparations made for the University of the Philippines (UP) College Admission Test (Upcat).

Conducted in UP campuses by next weekend, the Upcat is the first hurdle to be faced by thousands of high school seniors, as well as their families. The aspiration to have a UP education has as much to do with the rising cost of college education as the prestige of studying in the highest-ranked Philippine university included in the 2013 Top 300 Asian universities list of the London-based education and career network Quacquarelli Symonds.

Our society values education. College will secure your future, I tell any young person.

Yet, remembering a young man “reading” fruits through hearing and sight and a landscape so unchanged in beauty and iniquity, I wonder when, for many, the time will be ripe through education in this country.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 28, 2013 issue of the editorial page Sunday column, “Matamata”

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Raised on rice

WHEN the price of rice shot up, I felt the pinch more keenly than the weekly stings of oil price adjustments.

As a commuter in Metro Manila, I’m still cocooned by the steady rate of fares. The rice-and-vegetable set was the usual P35 at the Kapampangan-run canteen where I ate breakfast at UP Diliman the other day.

Yet I’m anticipating the expected when we return to the market this weekend. Regular milled rice increased by P2 per kilo in Cebu and Metro Manila, reported Elias O. Baquero in Sun.Star Cebu last July 16, 2013.

The authorities say the price fluctuations are typical of the lean season from July to September. They will go after those who hoard and profit.

If I am sensitive to the current uncertainty, it is because rice is my comfort food.
I like my rice “pughad,” soft but dry, each grain standing out from, not merging with its neighbor. I can put away leftovers of unknown vintage and dubious provenance for as long as I have rice.

For nine months, my merienda was “dukot,” the grains that harden into the shape of the bottom of the pot when the rice has been left to cook a little too long.

This crust of hardened rice is fed usually to the family aspin (“asong Pinoy”). Boiled in water and sugar, “dukot” becomes “tinughong,” a hot, sweet drink to break the interlude between lunch and dinner.

But I preferred to drench my “dukot” in the “una (broth)” of the “inun-unan,” fish cooked in vinegar and reheated so many times, the soup becomes murky from fish juice and fish brains. This afternoon snack was my shortcut to the C-section delivery of a 10-pounder son.

When I went around the uplands in Central Visayas, I realized that I’ve always eaten like a peasant: shoveling down mounds of milled corn with pinches of viand for flavor.

Eating more carbohydrates means not going hungry for a longer time, a necessity among those who cannot afford to eat light and eat frequently.

In the uplands, for the first time, I discovered the novelty of rice as “pusô (cooked
in a packet made from woven coconut fronds)” eaten with corn grits as a treat, usually when one went to the weekly “tabo (market)“.

The countryside taught me never to take rice for granted. To leave a clean plate was a reminder I did not need. One did not pick at one’s food because people were starving in China or India. People are starving here.

So every grain of rice is precious. Rice that accidentally ends on the floor is swept and thrown outdoors for birds or chickens to peck. One does not step on rice to avoid “gaba (misfortune)”.

When one eats with one’s hands, one spreads the fingers like a claw, taps the plate once or twice to loosen the rice stuck between fingers, and scoops to finish the remaining grains. Nothing is wasted.

By contrast, in the dining courts of malls, a lot of rice is left on plates. In the surfeit of food and drinks, one cup of rice is too much to finish. Or people feel they are truly on a diet when they just poke at their rice.

During fiesta in May, my yaya’s family makes a thousand “pusô.” Each “binaki (frog-like)” and “kasing-kasing (heart-like)” packet of rice is bigger and more solid than a grown man’s fist. One “pusô” can take down a man-sized appetite.

According to Yaya, cooking rice for feasts is tricky. The “pusô” does not just prevent the overcooking of rice into “dukot” that cannot be served to guests. “Pusô” is also dandy as “bring-house” provisions with which to send off your guests, many of whom walked a long distance to join your fiesta.

Plain and bland, rice is the palette that sets off to perfection all flavors but one. I once thought rice taken with anything sweet could only be for desert.

My uncle, Bicol-born, said that his grandparents subsisted by pouring “dalisay,” the first strain of pure “gata (coconut milk)” squeezed from grated coconut, no water added, on newly cooked rice. Rock salt completed the meal.

Recently, this uncle, a capable cook, served a platter of sirloin steaks for lunch. After putting away the slabs, my uncle, an Australian immigrant, leaned back and sighed for mashed potato.

I wished for the usual half cup. Nothing can be more “dalisay” than this.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 21, 2013 issue of the editorial page Sunday column, “Matamata”

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Make room for moms

BUT where are the mothers?

No one has declared it a consumer bonanza yet but June-July is the season for super sales. In this megapolis, these months mean the malls are more crowded than ever, choked with bargain hunters and commuters like me who use these cities-within- cities as transit points for the MRT and other terminals.

The strange thing is that, despite the screaming discounts and droves of humanity, I have yet to come across a mother nursing at breastfeeding stations or any spot in the malls I’ve been to.

Perhaps babies go hungry at schedules I’m no longer attuned to. Or nursing moms may be the new refugees.

Many malls have few benches or niches where a person can sit and rest, let alone relax and get the milk flowing for a thirsty infant. Republic Act No. 10028 or the “Expanded Breastfeeding Promotion Act” provides incentives to institutions that set up a breastfeeding facility. Yet, for now, car parks still outnumber lactation centers.

A mall in Las Piñas has an excess of virtue. Outside its breastfeeding room is a long list of regulations, which would daunt anyone except the most desperate of mothers faced with the hungriest of babies. Did mall management miss the point that such a facility should be comfortable and human-friendly?

Curious if malls in this city do indeed sell everything, I inquired from three retailers about nursing capes or breastfeeding ponchos. These blankets provide a nursing mother some privacy in settings where strangers are present.

Apparently, if I have the money, I can get Zara for babies in this city of a thousand and one malls. Yet, not one of the three retailers I inquired from had in their extensive baby-friendly line a piece of cloth that hangs like a circus tent around a breastfeeding mom. Will it take a fashionista to make nursing in public as hot a trend as showing your boxer briefs or bra straps?

While public space is still a long way from being breastfeeding-friendly, the online portal is more inclusive. A recent email from fellow journalist and marathon veteran Haide Acuña introduced me to the Cebu Breastfeeding Club.

Also known as La Leche League, the club describes itself as a “support group for mothers who breastfeed and moms-to-be who plan on feeding their young with only the best food for babies”.

Their Facebook page contains announcements about regular Saturday meetings that are open to the public. Tips on breastfeeding techniques, complementary feeding and troubleshooting, among other concerns, are shared by fellow moms and lactation specialists.

From the photos posted on Facebook, I see a heartwarming mix of female and male faces. When I went around six Cebu City health centers for a special report on exclusive breastfeeding, which Sun.Star Cebu published last May 20-21, 2013, husbands and partners rarely accompanied mothers and their babies on Well Baby days at health centers.

Yet, according to public health midwives and barangay health workers, fathers, grandparents and in-laws influence greatly the decision of the mother to breastfeed or not.

Haide also emailed that mothers with babies in a neonatal intensive care unit can post messages on the La Leche League Facebook page if they need other mothers to donate milk for their premature babies.

For August, declared by law as breastfeeding month, a flashmob might be organized at a local mall, wrote Haide. I had to go online to find out what this nursing whatchamacallit was: according to Wikipedia, a flashmob is a sudden assembly organized to perform an odd and pointless act in public before quickly dispersing.

The same source notes that when a plan and purpose are behind such a demonstration, the more apt term is “smart mob”.

I started nursing the first of my boys in 1993. The term “flashmob” was coined in 2003. It’s good to know some things don’t change while some do.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 14, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday editorial page column

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Burden of femininity

THE CLUTCH. After months of living in this city, I recognize the movement even before it is fully executed.

In crowds— lining up in the downpour for their turn to board, running for buses or jeepneys during rush hour, standing in an MRT train jammed with commuters—women carry their bags differently from men.

The crossbody bag and the knapsack are the preferred male accessories. These are strapped to their bodies, secured in front. Do men ever buy groceries on their way home? Perhaps they do. I just don’t see them with the multiple bags that weigh women down.

Even in Makati, where the trendy or imported is a sort of uniform among professionals, female commuters seem always to carry at least two bags.
How do thieves know which bag to slash for valuables? A classmate muttered his mystification after narrating how his sister got her bag slashed while inside the women’s compartment at the MRT.

My theory: women give themselves away when they do The Clutch. When a stranger moves closer to a woman, she invariably grips closer the bag that must contain money or gadgets. The rest of her burdens she allows to dangle. Yet, these loads tie her down, distract her.

When I’ve had to move closer to a man, I rarely see him react with The Clutch. Men give you The Eye, a quick assessment to dismiss or stare down the possible threat.

Are females conditioned to be defensive, not aggressive, when threatened?

In an online forum, a woman purchased a local bag because she was afraid her Louis Vuitton tote would get slashed in the MRT. A purse by this local manufacturer runs to thousands of pesos, compared to the tens of thousands of pesos that the foreign logo fetches. For this lady, the solution to bag slashing was a local, cheaper substitute. What instincts! To put a commodity before personal safety.

Why not leave the designer bags home if these are magnets for criminal elements? Or carry packages in newspapers or flour sacks? That would perhaps be possible only for men, who have a knack for never seeming to carry any package. To crisscross this city of sunny mornings and wet afternoons, people live in their bags.

There is a French attempt to solve this modern quandary. According to, Societe General, one of France’s biggest banks, offers a $250-insurance plan to female clients who lose their designer bags to snatchers.

This handbag insurance is called “Pour Elle,” which means “For her”. The services of locksmiths, electricians and other handymen can also be availed of by cardholders who want, according to the bank, to “adhere to their femininity”.

Societe General has been criticized for being sexist. Nonsense, retorted the bank. A small number of men are “Pour Elle” clients. It cannot be ascertained from the website if it is actually the men or their women (wives, lovers, mothers, sisters) who avail of the card services.

In a Third World setting, insuring a glorified sack is surreal. A card that will recompense one’s loss, even if in the realm of sinful excesses, does not even scratch the surface of the problem: why are women cast as perennial victims? Why do women see themselves as victims first?

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 7, 2013 issue of the editorial page column, “Matamata”