Fabulous Philippines > Yesterdays in the Philippines > Chapter 4(d)


The Manila Fire Department. How Thatch Dealers Boom the the Market. Cost of Living.




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April 28th.

Manila fare, like Manila life, is not unwholesome, but it lacks variety, and one rather tires, now and then, of soup, chicken, beefsteak, and toothpicks -- four staples. But fortunately for us who like variety, though unhappily for five or six hundred other people, there occurred a vast conflagration yesterday afternoon that sent about five or six hundred houses sailing off through the air in the form of smoke.

As we were getting ready to leave the office for the day, clouds of smoke suddenly began to rise over the iron house-roofs to the eastward, and we knew that one of Manila's semi-annual holocaustic celebrations was in progress. The church bells began to ring, and all sorts of people and carriages started toward the centre of interest,

The Manila Fire Department consists of about six hand-engines and a few hose carts, and if a fire gets started it generally burns along until an open field, a river, or a thick mass of banana trees stops its progress. The English houses, to be sure, have recently gotten out from home one of their small steam "garden-pumps," and many of the young Britons have had weekly practice in manipulating its various parts. When the alarm for the fire rang you might have seen several servants, employed in their respective homes by the members of the new Volunteer Fire Department, slowly wondering toward the shed where the engines were kept, with some nicely folded red shirts, coats with brass buttons, helmets with Matterhorn-like summits, and axes that shone from lack of work. These youths did not seem to be in any hurry, and it turned out that when they reached the engine house, when their masters had togged up sufficiently well to impress the spectators, and when the engine finally got to the fire, the building had been translated into their new and rather more ethereal form.

The fire was two miles, more or less, from the centre of the town. The Volunteer Fire Brigade had to haul the engine the entire distance, as they feared that if the usual carabao oxen were hitched on, the speed over the pavements would be too great. After reaching the centre of action, an hour was spent in waiting for the man who brought some spare coal in a wheelbarrow and in choosing a location which would not be uncomfrtable for the brigade. Consequently, the "London Garden Pump" was stationed to windward of the fire, on a side where it could not possibly spread any farther, and thus all stray flames and smoke were avoided. A hose was stuck down into the creek, and steam turned on. A stream of water about large enough to be clearly visible with a microscope suddenly jumped forth into the middle of the street, wetting the spectators. Somebody had forgotten to attach the extra pieces of hose that were to lead down to the fire, and steam had to be turned off. After everything was ready to get into business, a tramcar came along, and it wasn't allowable to stop its progress by putting a hose across the track, even if there was a fire. And so it went from grave to gay, the swell brigade furnishing the humorous part of the otherwise rather sad spectacle.

A Philippine fire is like any other, except that with the many nipa houses it does its work quickly and well, and in this instance the whole affair lasted but a couple of hours. Hundreds of families moved out into the wet rice-fields, with all their chattels, and there were many curious-looking groups. In saving various articles of furniture and other valuables, the fighting cock, as usual, was consideredthe most important, and it was interesting to watched the natives trudging along with scared faces, holding a rooster by the legs in one hand and a baby or two in the other. Pigs, chickens,and dogs seemed to come next in value, and after them ice-chest and images of the Virgin Mary. The sun went down on a strange spectacle, and it was hard not to pity all the crowd that were thus rudely thrown out of their habitations, Myriads of spectators there were and myriads of carriages, of all ages and sizes, some loaded with chattles ready to take flight, and others waiting to be. At dusk, however, all danger was over; the mobs departed north,east, south, and west; the brigade carefully brushed the dust off their boots and shirts, and the poor burned-out unfotunates looked with moistened eyes on the ruins of their homes.

The wags go far enough to say that the dealers in thatch are responsible for many of the big fires both in the capital and in the villages and that , when times are bad or prices for thatch low, they arrange to "bull" the market by means of a conflagration. A lamp is tipped over -- a thousand houses go up in smoke, and as go the houses so rise the prices for nipa thatch.

The second series of pony races occurred during the middle days of this month, at the racetrack down below our bungalow, and all Manila again came rolling up through the dust to see the performances of the smart ponies. The events were a repetition of those which took place in March, except that in many respects the running time was better and the races far more close and interesting.

Some of the old stagers are beginning to complain of the heat. We take afternoon tea now and then, as is customary in all the business houses, with some of our friends, in an office on the other side of the building. Yesterday afternoon a thermometer placed outside of our window registered 125º F., I suspect this was owing to some of the reflected heat coming from the iron roofs. Inside the room the mercury stood at 97º F., but we drank our hot tea and enjoyed the coolness which resulted from consequent perspiration

I have now been settled in Manila long enough to find out what it cost to live, and the general cheapness of existence is more appaling than I first thought. Our house is a good one, with all the comforts of home, and is surrounded by an acre or two of land. We have stables for our horses and outbuildings for the families of our servants. At the end of the month all expenditures for house rent, food, wages, light and sundries are posted together and divided by three, and with everything included my monthly share comes to twenty-nine gold dollars -- less than one of our American cart wheels -- per diem.

Where in the States could you rent a suburban house and lot, keep half a dozen servants, pay your meat bill, your drink bill , and your rent all for less than a single dollar a day! You can scarcely drive a dozen blocks in a hansom or buy a pound of Mailard's for that money at home and yet, in Manila, that one coin shelters you from the weather, ministers to the inner man, and keeps the parlor in order.

Our cook for instance, gets forty cents each morning to supply our table with dinner enough for four people, and for five cents extra he will decorate the cloth with orchid and put peas in the soup. To think of being able to get up a six-course dinner, including usually a whole chicken, besides a roast with vegetables, salad, dessert, fruit, and coffee, for such a sum seems ridiculous in the extreme.

The methods of marketing are almost as noteworthy as the low prices for "raw materials." All meats must be eaten on the same day it is killed since here in the tropics even ice fails to preserve fish, flesh, or fowl. As a result, while the beef and mutton are killed in the early morning -- a few hours before the market opens -- the smaller fry, such as chicken and game, are sold alive. From six to ten on any morning the natives and Chinese cooks from many families may be seen bargaining for the day's supply among the nest of stalls in the market. After filling their baskets numbers of them mount the little tramcar for the return trips to their kitchens and proceed to pluck the feathers off the live chickens or birds as they jog along on the front or rear platform. By the time they have arrived home the poor creatures are stripped of foliage, and, keenly suffering, are pegged down to the floor of the kitchen to await their fate. The when the creaking of the front gate annouces the return of the master, it is time enough to wring the necks of the unfortunates and shove them into the boiling-pot or roasting-pan that seems but to accentuate a certain toughness which fresh-killed meat possesses.

The washing bill, again, is one's clothes hamper, and for two gold dollars per month I can turn over to my laundryman -- who comes in the country once a week -- as much or as little as I please. Two full suits of white sheeting clothes a day for thirty days make one item of no mean dimensions, and yet the lavandero turns up each week with his basketfull, perfectly satisfied with his remuneration. Then, too, he washes well, and although, when I see him standing knee-deep in the river whanging my trousers from over his head down onto a flat stone, I fear for seams and buttons, nothing appears to suffer. And although he builds a small bonfire in a brass flat-iron that looks like a warming-pan and runs it over my white coats all blazing as it is, the result is excellent, and one's linen seems better laundered than in the mills that grind away at home.

As servants, these boys of ours could teach much to some of their more civilized brethren from Ireland or Nova Scotia now holding away in American families. They take bossing well, and actually expect to have their heads punched if things go wrong. They don't put their arms akimbo and march out of the house if we mildly suggest that the quality of ants in the cake or the water-pitcher is not up to standard, and actually make one feel at liberty to require anything of them.

And speaking of ants, these little creatures are everywhere ready to eat your house or your dinner right from under you. The legs of the dinning table, the ice chest and the sideboard must be islanded in cups of kerosene, and even the feet to one's bed must undergo the same treatment, in order that the occupant may awake in the morning to find something of himself left. Cockroaches are almost equally fierce, and endowed with wings, these creatures, sometimes four inches long, go sailing out the window as you close your eyes and try to step on them. They prowl around at night, with sort of clicking sound, seeking something to devour, and are apparently just as satisfied to eat the glue out of a book-cover as they are to feed on the rims to one's cuffs or shirt-collars, moist with perspiration.

What the ants don't swarm over the cockroaches examine, and what they reject seems to be taken in charge by the heavy green mould that beards one's shoes, valise, and tweed suits at the slightest suggestion of wet weather.


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