The head of the prop crew was sick, so Lino Brocka (who later became a famous Filipino movie director), Peggy and I went to a barrio to get props. (The play was set around the turn of the 20th Century. The tools they used then for planting and grinding rice were no longer in use in Manila, but people in small, rural barrios still used them). We only went about an hour’s ride (in a slow, very bouncy truck) from Manila, but it was the farthest we’d been from the city and the first time we’d been to a barrio. The people had paved roads and electricity, but the atmosphere was slower and more peaceful, and the people seemed friendlier. Although the road was very narrow, women all up and down the road had laid their rice to dry on big pieces of cloth, which took up one lane of the road, and we had to drive very slowly in order to dodge the drying rice. We saw several carts pulled by carabaos, and horse drawn kalisas far out numbered gas-powered vehicles. We hoped that at some point we’d get to spend enough time in a barrio so that we could see more than just superficial differences. And we hoped we’d get an opportunity after Christmas and after the show closed.
Because the Spanish once ruled the Philippines, people follow the idea that Christmas lasts until Three Kings Day. And for many people, Three Kings Day … and not Christmas Day … is the climax of the season. Thus, it seemed strange to us to still see people carrying around gifts with Christmas wrapping twelve days after we opened ours … but it was just as legitimate then as it was on Christmas day. All Christmas decorations on homes remained up, and radio stations were still broadcasting Christmas season advertising, while we longed for the season to be over.
Another Christmas season custom there that Peggy and I had a hard time getting used to was the asking for money. There were always lots of beggars on the streets, but we didn’t believe in encouraging such a life, so we practically never gave anything. But around Christmas all sorts of people came around wishing us a merry Christmas … and wanting money in return. Children (and sometimes adults) formed little bands, which serenaded outside homes. In return, they expected to be given anywhere from 50 cents to 5 pesos, depending on the size of the group and the wealth of the donor. The garbage collectors (who certainly never collected our garbage) came to our door saying, “I’m asking for a Merry Christmas.” Just answering “Merry Christmas” did nothing to get rid of them. (The garbage men even had the nerve to come in a group, and then to come back one by one.) Most Filipinos had godchildren (Peggy’s Tagalog teacher’s husband had 30), and during the holidays they all came around expecting to be handed money! “What a racket!” was how we responded to it all.
On the 25th we went to the home of Peggy’s Tagalog teacher for Christmas dinner. The food was quite elaborate, with four or five meat dishes. While we were there, all sorts of relatives and in-laws came and went, but the crowd was really quite small compared with what we saw a little while later. Enri (our landlady) had a heart attack almost a month before then, and she had been staying at the home where she had the attack. So, on the way home from Christmas dinner we stopped to see Enri. Only we could hardly get through to Enr’s room because of all the people: there must’ve been 40 or 50 guest. And others had already left, and still others were yet to come. The household was quite wealthy, so they could easily afford to feed such a crowd, but we understood that some poor families (especially in the smaller barrios) went into debt almost a year’s salary to entertain in grand style at Christmas time or for barrio fiesta.
18. Linda, our maid, was working out quite well. We had a misunderstanding and she thought we were supposed to pay her 5 pesos a month more than what we thought, but we just paid her the extra and everybody was happy. Filipino culture doesn’t permit much direct criticism. If you have a gripe, you go to a third person, who will carry the complaint to the person involved. This, as you can imagine, can cause changes to come about very slowly … if at all. Although Linda accepted criticism very well, Peggy couldn’t correct her as she would if she were our employee in the United States. If Peggy wanted a change … unless she felt it was major enough to get Enri or her maid to be a third party … she had to find a way to tell her without saying anything directly. So for weeks, Linda re-made our bed everyday, tucking the sheet in on four sides. But when Peggy kept making it tucking in only at the bottom, she finally caught on and started re-making it once or twice a week instead of every day.
Linda was really a top-notch cook, and we were satisfied with her. She mostly made soup and rice, with a little bit of meat sometimes. She did make our favorite Filipino dish, lumpia, very well, and she began experimenting with new things every now and then. In a letter home Peggy described Filipino food in this way: “Filipino food is mostly to use mother’s words … ‘the more bland oriental type.’ They use a lot of noodles or rice and lot of vegetables. I really like some of the dishes, and some just don’t appeal to me.” Filipino dishes varied considerably from one area of the country to another. Manila cooking showed a lot of Chinese and American influence, but we didn’t know what food was like in other places. .
Peggy and Randy Ford