Monday, January 24, 2011

Come for the food, stay for everything else.

I saw the sign for the Philippine Cuisine Express on my way to see the manatees and their calves being celebrated at their own 24th annual festival (they knowing nothing of the streets so filled with old sorts and craft peddling and pulled pork eating and all of it in their name). I even made a point of turning my car around, just to see that it was what I thought it was, in fact, and that it was open for business. And it was. I made one of those mental notes to stop by on my way back and left it alone.

It was never meant to be The adventure, this place, but rather a layer of it. An add-to, like the stopping for a billboard-promised free cup of freshly squeezed OJ and peek at a dusty, 13-foot taxidermy project of an alligator, balancing precariously on his hind legs. If this were a song, say, this was supposed to be a verse in it and nothing more. The meat, the meaning, the chorus—all of that was supposed to lie elsewhere.  

It was one of those accidental acts of clambering towards some sense of the familiar, a late lunchtime reach back into my past. All I wanted was perhaps some chicken adobo, a spot of rice and maybe a piece of cassava cake. Lucky for me, it was some kind of all-you-can eat Filipino cuisine on Saturday and, though the pickings were relatively slim (Jose, the husband and cook, was away) and, though I was their only customer at that point (they having to clear a table of notebooks and such to herald my arrival), I got pretty much all the food I’d been after.

I watched in some kind of amazement as a woman sitting at a table, one who wasn’t real set on getting up any time soon, called after her son and own mother in various Tagalog commands, getting after them to prepare my plate, according to my specifications. I felt bad for both being directed, really, as they went about responding so dutifully and silently, and not without some element of sadness (him) and weariness (her). Stick around long enough, though, and you get the story. I learned that Donna, the woman directing the operation, had breast cancer and it had progressed at a fairly rapid state. In fact, she wasn’t supposed to last past the first of this year.

That changed the perspective some. Everything changes when there’s a life on the line.

This was the reason she had a handful of friends around, each so reluctant to leave, some even taking turns singing love songs on the karaoke machine set up in the adjoining store filled with various Asian foodstuffs, both frozen and not. If something was to happen and they weren’t around to lend a helping hand, see, their consciences would eat at them. It’s what I’m told. Hanging around, then, becomes some kind of preventative measure.

In some sense, they seemed to be waiting for her to die. In another, they were on the eager end of helping out, as long as she was alive.  

But this isn’t a sad story, not by a very long shot. When you’re the lone hungry Caucasian in the place who knows to ask for his adobo by name, the questions soon follow, in rapid-fire succession, no less, whether you like it or not. In short order, they know you lived in their country, can get by speaking a lot of their favorite words along with them and that you know the same neighborhoods. Before you realize it, you’re reminiscing along with them, all about the mother country. Food, locales, actors, musicians. You’d think it was a chore to bring all of these remembrances back to the surface, it being a whole 15 years or more since I’d lived there, but they come, just not perfectly. You can’t recall an actor’s name, but a joke he told is in there. You may not recall a certain fruit, but you can describe its taste and how it looked, felt.

You’re a kababayan of sorts, a countryman. You’re accepted as one of their own.

Soon, the focus is no longer on eating. I’m learning the stories of these women, these nurses and shop owner and beyond. I’m being introduced and maintaining two and three conversations at once. I’m cajoled into singing a couple songs in Tagalog on the karaoke machine and am even applauded (it a nicety more than it is deserved). We start to take turns passing the microphone around. All the while, scattered customers come in, walking away with their frozen milkfish, their hot sauce, their six packs of San Miguel.

What might have taken 30 minutes stretches into over four hours of making new friends out of would-be strangers. There’s a sense of family here. Afternoon’s turned into dusk. Numbers are exchanged and I’ve a takeout menu and instructions to call ahead for the sticky rice I so want to eat the next time I stop in. I’ve got a plastic bag with coco jam and tamarind candy and more inside.

They know I’ll be back, just as well as I do. This is a new destination that may fast morph into a habit.

I’m reminded of a saying I haven’t heard in a very long time, one gained and used while in the Philippines: “Walang plastik.” Translated literally, it means, well, “no plastic.” Easy enough. The meaning behind it is that, once you’ve made a friend in the Philippines, the general idea is they’ll never turn on you. Ever. It’s not in their nature. Pretense and superficiality go out the window. They are who they say they are. They will help you when you need the helping.

Another question gets asked before I make the trek home.

“How about your heart? Did you leave it there?”

The question just gets a smile and a ‘maybe’ as an answer. After an afternoon like this one, I’m not entirely sure.

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