Not long ago, I held an online creative writing class with a handful of awesome co-learners, eager to start honing their skills. The class was called Travel Writing: Cathedrals & Cream Soda, and one of our most enthusiastic writers was a charming gal from Canada named Christine. Well, she didn’t stay in Canada for long; the class began the same time she and her husband moved to Manila to start a small business – a coffee shop – for the purpose of mission funding and mobilization. (You can watch their latest Vimeo update HERE.) Read her story below to follow the adventures of navigating the Philippines and the insights that inevitably come from living in any new place.
by: Christine Rollings
I step into the elevator still deciding which market I should visit. I haven’t explored either one near our building quite yet. I think for a moment and press a button — “G.” Ground Floor. The exit determines my course.
It has taken me a few weeks to become comfortable with the simple task of shopping for food. We have a few grocery stores nearby that prove the shopping process to be a more familiar activity than others since we arrived in the Philippines six weeks ago. There are differences, of course—quinoa is just too expensive to justify… it’s cheaper to buy a whole chicken than sliced… and when you do buy one (a whole chicken), you need tell them if you plan to fry it or make adobo. With this being a quest in its own right, shopping at an open-air market seemed like the next natural step in my food/culture adjustment. A familiar task in an unfamiliar situation.
I head toward Shangri-La, the big upscale mall just a trike ride and a short walk from our condo. (Tricycles or “trikes” are a form of public transportation in the Philippines. The driver sits on a motorbike while the passengers sit in an attached sidecar or on the back of the driver’s bike.) It takes a total of around 10 minutes to get there, depending on how long you have to wait to cross the busy lanes of traffic or how many people you have to wade through to even get to the street. But every Saturday, in the distance between where the trike driver drops you off and where the mall entrance is, there’s an outdoor market.
So far I’ve only walked by this market on my way to do something important. I walk by it on my way to dinner, or I walk by it on my way to the grocery story that’s housed within the mall. I’ve noticed the fruit and handmade bracelets from the sidewalk, but I have never set foot in the grassy area where it sits.
I pay my trike driver and walk along the sidewalk toward the grass. I notice the people around me and observe that I’m the hare to their tortoise. The slower way of life is one that I haven’t gotten used to yet, my stride causing me to stand out as much as my skin-color. Here, there’s nowhere to get to fast and it’s too hot to try. I achingly slow my pace.
With this calm rhythm, I approach the mangos. I spot the fruit stand from a few steps away, and the mangos draw me like a mosquito to a porch light late on a summer’s evening. I hover over them as the seller looks on. She’s in her mid-40s, comfortably dressed in her market-wear, and stern. Her eyes follow me as I lift my head to join her gaze.
“How much?” I ask, motioning to the forbidden fruit.
“Two-hundred pesos a kilo.”
The trance is broken as my mind runs a mile a minute to determine if this is a fair price. I can’t remember how much they cost at the grocery store. If I were in my hometown…
If I were in my hometown, I would have walked out my front door, down the front porch, onto the driveway, and into my car. I would have driven the ten minutes to the grocery store, windows down and music up, and I probably would have gone faster than I should. I would have pulled into a parking spot at the only grocery store in town, as close to the door as I could get, tossed my keys in my purse and locked the door as I swiftly shut it. I would have grabbed a grocery cart and walked purposefully toward the fruit section, looked at the price and known the value of that “S” with a line through it.
Here, I do the math in my head: two-hundred divided by thirty-three, approximately, is somewhere around six. Six Canadian dollars per kilogram. And in the US dollar that’s… why do I carry so many currencies in my head? My actions prove faster than my comprehension of thought as my head is nodding before I finish my math equation.
“Six mangos, please.”
The woman grabs a plastic bag and hesitates over the fruit. “Are they for today or tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow,” I respond, grateful that we can do our transaction in English. I know the word for “six” and perhaps I should find out the word for “mango.”
She chooses six mangos that will be at their best the next day and I’m thankful for it. She pulls out her calculator and reveals my total:
“Two-hundred and five. But two-hundred is fine.”
I pull out the only bill I have in my wallet and hand it to her: a one-thousand peso note. If I were in my hometown, a bill with this many zeros would never be in my wallet. She counts out my change and hands me a stack of colorful cash. Just as I begin to acknowledge the woman’s kindness for taking five pesos off my bill, I realize: I could have bartered. I could have asked for a lower price. I could have pretended to walk away. A wave of shame washes over me as the bag of mangos suddenly feels like a bag of rocks. If I were in my hometown, I couldn’t have bartered. In my hometown, the price would have been locked into what it says on the standard sign hanging above the pile of fruit. If I were in my hometown…
Tears begin to form in my eyes and their presence surprises me. They’re just mangos, after all. But they’re not just mangos; they’re reminders that I don’t know the system, that something so simple as buying produce is a task that needs to be learned, to be practiced, to be mastered.
But my list is longer than mangos; so I decide to make my way around the market, explore what else this small green has to offer. I wipe my eyes as they catch glimpse of a booth with a familiar aura: industrial decor, wood signs – coffee. My heart leaps with excitement, a coffee stand at the market? I approach cautiously (will I be able to communicate?) and quickly feel my guard lowering as I ask the man behind the table if he sells bags of whole bean coffee.
“Of course! Just roasted last week.”
He’s wearing a t-shirt and dark, skinny jeans and he speaks fantastic English. We’re comfortable in our communication as I ask more questions and get more of his story – the coffee is all grown, processed, and roasted here in the Philippines. They sell at the market and export to individuals in North America and Australia. They want to set up a coffee shop in New Jersey. I can picture it. If I were in my hometown, New Jersey would only be a short drive away. As this man shares his vision with me, I picture a street in Hoboken and imagine the industrial design and wood sign in a storefront window along its busy streets.
I listen, smile, and accept the bag of beans as well as the free cup of brewed coffee he hands me. I think of how this makes up for the overpriced mangos. I thank the man and walk away, this time with confidence and joy. After a quick glance around me, I notice that even though there is nothing left on my list that I can buy here, there is a tent selling books over in the far corner. Determined, I walk toward the other side of the green. What other treasures can I find today?
I can barely walk by a used bookstore without stroking the spines, skimming the titles, and buying just one. The moment I approach the market table, my eyes land on half of The Chronicles of Narnia books. They jump to a book by Willa Cather and then dart to Anna Karenina. Ah, familiar. I run my fingers along the covers, as if playing a familiar tune on the piano. Without a second thought I pick up a familiar name with an unfamiliar title: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, by Roald Dahl. I notice a woman standing near watching me, ready to take my payment. In my excitement, I hadn’t noticed her until I begin to take out the one hundred pesos I would need to make this book mine. Again, the thought to barter escaped me. This time I didn’t care.
Adjustment takes time. I try to make sense of the new, attempted to fit it into what I already know. I am constantly comparing and contrasting and seeking to understand and live in this new reality. Simple things become complex; complex things become a mystery. But even in the unfamiliar, there are snapshots of normal, tastes of what I know. There are things to learn, like slowing my stride or bartering for fruit, and new realities to embrace. New does not mean wrong, it simple means that my understanding of the world continues to grow and that I should embrace it by buying mangos more often.