Monday, January 10, 2011

My Tropical Christmas - The Big Picture

How did you spend the Christmas Holidays?

I spent mine on the other side of the planet.

Paranaque City. Metro Manila. Philippines.

I live in El Paso, Texas, USA. Everything about Manila is different. Everything. Literally EVERYTHING.

Completely different. My one month Christmas Holiday was total cultural emersion.

Did I say everything was different? Well, there is one exception. Both Manila and El Paso are predominantly of the Catholic Faith. I take that back. El Paso is Catholic. Manila is ... how do I say this diplomatically... Manila is over the top.

More on that later. But for now let me just reiterate:

Everything is different.


RoseMary and I spent the last month with her family in Metro Manila. Although we have been married over five years, this was the first time I visited her homeland. I had met her mother and siblings before, but I was able to meet her father, various aunts, uncles, cousins and old friends.

They are all lovely people, and I love each and every one of them.

I was not raised by the most festive family in the world, and this particular part of Texas is very reserved on Holidays. One of the most violent cities in the world is right across the border from El Paso, and mere minutes from my house – and I have a hunch that fact tends to keep everybody indoors at night. I am sad to say that our downtown area, which should be alive with parties on festive holidays, is not much more than a glorified flea market, and the only lights on the empty city streets come from Crazy Eddie’s 24 Hour Bail Bonds. Manila, by contrast, keeps the celebrations, traditions and festivities of Christmas alive, in their own tropical way. I could never really get used to hearing Bing Crosby singing White Christmas from a blaring church loudspeaker in the middle of the Tropics. I once asked RoseMary’s mother if she thought it felt strange with European traditions like a giant bearded man from the Arctic wearing a red overcoat and sneaking down chimneys, which, by the way, do not exist in the Tropics.

“No. It is a tradition.”

Tradition. More on that later.

Then there was the New Year. Since there are no fireworks regulations in Manila, at least none that anybody seemed to pay attention to, the whole area sounds like a war zone on New Year Eve. Of course, there are the conventional fireworks that everyone sets off in the streets, but some people simply resort to stuffing 3-inch PVC pipes with explosive material just to see who can make the most noise. Of course the next day’s news reporters are waiting at the area hospitals to be the first to report children with burned and missing hands and arms, and local traffic must dodge the newly created impact craters.

I am not used to such festivities. By and large – I loved it. Except for…. Well… more on that later.

And the food. THE FOOD. The Tropics of the Philippines meant one major thing to me – overwhelming fecundity and abundance. I never imagined the varieties of fish and fruit which exists, overflowing on nearly every storefront, every market stall, literally every street corner.

While in Philippines, I ate like royalty. Nearly everything I ate, I am certain, would be considered peasant food consisting as it did of simple rice, fish and other staple dishes. Yet, I was amazed and the ingenuity of these people, who could turn even the most mundane tropical food into a meal of savory creativity.

I will miss the morning cry of vendors, strolling the streets with buckets of fresh fish for sale. “ISDA! ISDA! ISDA!” Food – fresh, delicious, inexpensive food was everywhere.

Regarding tropical foods, RoseMary’s mother is a masterful chef, and she made sure that I ate a variety of native foods. Here is a partial list:

Saging na saba
Saging na saba
Senyorita na saging

Chorizo Bilbao
Ox tripe
Grilled tuna belly
Pork sisig
Black gulaman
Razon’s halo-halo
Chow King’s halo-halo
Keso de bola
Ginataang kubol
Pansit bihon
Halabos na hipon
Grilled tilapia
Barbecyu na baboy
Lechon sisig
Bungus relyeno
Philippine peanut brittle
Ubeng halayo
Banana fritters
Fried talapia
Lechon paksiw
Sinigang na hopon
Sinigang na baboy
Sinigang na lapu-lapu
And last but not least, food from the two most popular Philippine fastfood joints,
Yello Cab Pizza and Jollibee fried chicken and speghetti!!

Phew. I think I even remember how to cook some of this stuff. I paid particular attention to how RoseMary’s mother made the bangus relyeno, and I will try to make it on my own once I get up enough nerve.

I spent 3 ½ weeks in metro Manila, and did my best to keep my eyes and ears open, ask questions, and just observe and learn. Do you know how certain events in your life are so profound that they make you view life with a new perspective, and potentially change your life to some small extent? This trip did that to me. It may have changed my life. Time will tell.

I have many more stories to tell. Some are wonderful. Some are not. I loved many things about Philippines. Some things drove me crazy. I learned many things about the world, about people and about myself in the process. I will share some of my adventures and my lessons here in the days and weeks ahead.


DagoodS said...

Looking forward to more

Zoe said...

Welcome back HeIsSailing. Your two new posts are very interesting and I loved getting a look into another world and their custums/traditions. Ditto what DagoodS said. :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm posting here b/c i'm trying to avoid the troll. I admire rosemary and the stregth of your marriage is a true testament of love. My husband and i have changed alot through this journey. He remains a committed christian, but now aligning to the progressive/emergent tradition. Our marriage has grown stronger as this has probably been the hardest trial, and we both relate to a larger range of people now. Lac