Fabulous Philippines > Yesterdays in the Philippines > Chapter 2(a)

Shopping at the "Botica Inglesa". The Chit System. Celebrating New Year's Eve. Manila Cooking Arrangements. Floors and Windows. Peculiarities of the Tram-car Service. Roosters Everywhere.

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Chapter 2

January 7th.

My third Sunday in Manila is a cool breezy day, with fresh winds blowing down from the mountains. The weather has lately been as temperate as one could wish, and has corresponded to some of our soft spring conditions. From noon until three o'clock has usually seemed warm, but the mornings have made walking pleasant, the afternoons have given opportunities for tennis, and the evenings have hinted that an overcoat would not be amiss. One could hardly ask for any more comfortable place to live in than Manila as it stands today, and although sanitary appliances are most primitive, the city seems to be healthy and without noisome pestilence.

During the holiday season, just over, foreign business has been suspended and everyone socially inclined. Shopping has been in vogue, and on one of my expeditions for photographic materials I was introduced to the "Botica Inglesa," or English chemist's shop, which seems to be the largest variety store in town. Here it is possible to buy anything from a glass of soda to a full-fledged lawn mower, including all the intermediates that reach from toothbrushes to photographic cameras.

And speaking of shopping brings me to the "chit" system, which has been such a curse to the Far East. In making purchases, no one pays cash for anything, since the heavy Mexican dollars -- which are the only currency of the islands -- are too heavy to lug around in the thin suits made of white sheeting. One simply signs an "I.O.U." for the amount of the bill in any shop that he may choose to patronize, and thinks no more about it till the end of the month all the "chits" which bear his name are sent around for collection.

Result: one never feels as if he were spending anything until the first day of the incoming month ushers in host of these big or little reminders. If your chits at one single shop run into large amounts, the collector generally brings along with him a coolie or a wheelbarrow with which to lug away the weight of dollars that you pour into his hands, and when two or three collectors come in together the office reminds one of a money changer's. Counterfeit money is so prevalent that one after the other of your callers bites the silver or drops it on the floor to detect lead, and to listen to the resulting sound is not to feel complimented by their opinion of your integrity. So it goes, many of the shopkeepers being swindled out of their dues by debtors who choose to skip off rather to pay, and waking up at the end of the month to find their supposed profit existing only in the chits whose signers have skedaddled to Hong Kong or Singapore.

New Year's Eve was celebrated with due hilarity and elaborate provisions. The club bill of fare was remarkable, and when it is realized there are no stoves in Manila, the wonder is that the cooking is so complex. A Manila stove is no more nor less than a good-sized earthen jar, shaped something like an old shoe. The vamp of the shoe represents the hearth; the opening in front, the place for putting on the small sticks of wood; and the enclosing upper, the rim on which rest the single big pot of kettle. In a well regulated kitchen, there may be a dozen of these stoves, one for each course, and their cost being only a peseta, it is a simple matter to keep a few extra ones on hand in a bread closet. And so, as one goes though the streets where native huts predominate, he sees a family meal being cooked in sections, and is forced to admire the complexity of the greasy dishes that are evolved from so simple a contrivance.

As the Manila cooking arrangements are rude, so I suspect are the pantry's dishwashing opportunities. I really should hesitate to enter even our club kitchen, for certain dim suggestions which are conveyed to the senses from spoon and forks, and certain plate surfaces that would calm troubled waters if hung from a ship's side, all hint at unappetizing sights. All in all, the less one sees of native cooking, in transitu, the greater will one's appetite be.

I had expected an early introduction to earthquakes, but none has occured so far, and I am almost tempted to get reckless. Soon after my arrival I was inclined to put my chemical bottles in a box of sawdust, empty part of the water out of my pitcher, and pack my watch in cotton wool in anticipation of some nocturnal disturbance. For the old stagers who saw the city fall to pieces back in the '80's deem it their duty to alarm the new arrival, and almost turn pale when a heavy dray rools by over the cobblestones in the street near the club, or make ready to fly out of doors at the first suspicion of vibration.

A word or two more about the floors in Manila houses. I don't suppose there is a softwood tree in the islands and as a result one sees some very interesting hardwood productions. The floors come under this category. Rough-hewn as they are -- out of huge hand-sawed hardwood planks -- they are models. By certain processes of polishing with banana leaves and greasy rags, they are made to shine like genius itself, and give such a clean, cool air to the houses that one is compelled to regard them with admiration. In fact, there is a certain charm in Manila about many specimens of handwork that one encounters everywhere. The stilted regularities -- as our good professor used to say -- of machine-made articles are frequently conspicuous by their absence, and instead one sees the inequalities, the lack of exact repetition, the informality of lines that are not just perpendicular or horizontal, all of which make up the charm of work that is handmade, that reflects the movements of a living arm and mind rather than those of a wheel or a lever.

The curious windows that are everywhere are likewise instructive. Like the blinds, they slide on grooves on the railings of the balconies, and serve to shut out the weather from the interior. They consist of frames containing a multitude of small latticework squares, into which are paced thin, flat, translucent seashells, which admit light, but are not look-throughable. We have all heard of shell roads, but never of shell windows, and one misses the presence of glass until he has got accustomed to a Manila house, whose sliding sides are one vast window that is rarely closed.

Manila streets, outside of the city proper, are smooth, hard, and well shaded by the arching bamboos. They are already providing attractive to the bicycle, which, though very expensive out here at the antipodes, is growing in favor, especially among the wealthier half-castes, or mestizos.

Tramcar service is slow but pretty generally good. The car is a thing by itself, as is the one lean pony that pulls it. It takes one man to drive and one to work the whip, and if the wind blows too hard, service is generally suspended. The conductor carries a small valise suspended from his neck, and whistles through his lips "uphill" to stop, and "downhill" as the starting sign. The usual notice, "Smoking allowed on the three rear seats only," is absent, for everyone smokes, even the conductor, who generally drops the ash off a 15-for-a-cent cigarette into your lap as he hands you a receipt for your dos centavos. The chief rule of the road says:

"This car has seats for twelve persons, and places for eight on the platform. Passengers are requested to stand in equal numbers only on both platforms, to prevent derailment."

And so if there are four "fares" on the front and six on the back platform, somebody has to stumble forward to equalize the weight. No one is allowed to stand inside, and if the car contains its quota of passengers, the driver hangs out the sign, "Lleno" (full). and doesn't stop even for the Archbishop It is just as well, perhaps, to sit at the front end of the car if you are afraid of smallpox, for the other morning a Philippine mamma brushed into a seat holding a scantily clothed babe well covered with evidences of that disease. One sympathizes with the single pony that does the pulling as he sees thirty people beside the car in his load, and it is no uncommon thing on a slight rise or sharp turn for all hands to get off and help the vehicle over the difficulty. The driver holds the whip by the wrong end and lets the heavy one come down with double force on the terribly tough hide of the motive power. Aside from tramcars some of these little beasts, however, are possessed of great speed, and with a reckless cochero in charge, it is no uncommon sight to see three or four turnouts come tearing down the street abreast, full tilt, clearing the road, killing dogs and roosters, and making one's hair stand on end.

Speaking of roosters, they are the native dog in the Philippines. The inhabitants pet and coddle them, smooth down their plumage, clean their combs, or pull out their tail-feathers to make them fight, to their heart's content, and it is a fact that these cackling glass eaters really seem to show affection for their proprietors, in as great measure as they exhibit hatred for their brothers. Every native has his fighting cock, which is reared with the greatest care until he has shown sufficient prowess to entitle him to an entrance into the cockpit. In case of fire, the rooster is the first thing rescued and removed to a place of safety, for babies -- common luxuries in the Philippines -- are a secondary consideration and more easily duplicated than the feathered biped. It is almost impossible to walk along any street in the suburban park of the town without seeing dozens of natives trudging along with roosters under their arms, which are being talk to and petted to distraction. At every other little roadside hut, an impromptu battle will be going on between two of equal or unequal merit, the two proprietors holding their respective roosters by the tails in order that they may not come into too close quarters. The cockpits, where gatherings are held on Thursdays and Sundays, are large enclosures covered with a roof of thatch sewed onto a framework of bamboo; they are open on all sides, and banked up with tiers of rude seats that surround a sawdust ring in the center. Outside the gates to the flimsy structure sit a motley crowd of women, young and old, selling eatables whose dark, greasy texture beggars description, while here and there in the open spaces a couple of natives will be giving their respective roosters a sort of preliminary trial with each other. As the show goes on inside, shouts and applause resound at every opportunity, and at the close of the performance a multitude of two-wheeled gigs carry off the victors with their spoils, while the losers trudge home through the dust on foot.

Other familiar street scenes consist of Chinese barbers, who carry around a chair, a pair of scissors, and an razor wherever they go, and stop to give you a haircut at any part of the block; or Chinese ear-cleaners, who scoop out of those organs some of the unprintable epithets hurled by one native at another. Cascades of slops not uncommonly descend into the street as one walks along beneath a slightly overhanging second story of some of the houses, and one is impressed, if not wet, by this favorite method of laying the street dust.

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