Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: A Christmas Story

For several hours that afternoon, my job was slicing up the meat meant for the barbeque grill with the world's dullest set of knives and getting it marinating. Once it had marinated properly, I spent a couple backbreaking hours shoving the slices of meat onto sharpened bamboo sticks. But I wasn’t alone and had good company as everyone was preparing for the big feast that was to happen in less than six hours. Piles of vegetables were chopped, fish prepared, and several other dishes were readied so that upon our arrival home from the midnight mass, the feast could be prepared in the shortest amount of time. Eventually everything was prepared as much as possible and my wife and I snuck up stairs to catch a short nap on “the rack” before the mass.

Dark had taken over the Philippines except for the sparse firework explosion when I awoke three hours later to the rustling downstairs as people prepared for mass. Because Filipino houses don’t have insulation of any kind, sound travels easily. We too started getting ready and then hopped into the family van since at a mere 64 degrees, it was deemed too cold to watch the 100 yards to the church. The van made it about 30 of those yards before stalling out and refusing to return to life so at risk of hypothermia, we emptied out and walked the remaining 70 yards.

The midnight mass starts at ten o’clock and until recently used to last until midnight, hence the name. But Filipinos evidently protested that it didn’t leave them enough time to prepare their feasts when they got home so the local church condensed the service to just an hour and a half. Fifteen minutes into the beautiful service, I found myself looking at my watch to see how much longer I was going to have to sit on the painfully hard pews that had little in the way of ergonomics for tall white guys. My butt felt as if I had just been caned which made it difficult to pay attention to the recreation of the nativity story by the local children. The only good thing about the pain was that it took my mind off the numbing 64 degree chill during the walk home, me in a light jacket and my hosts bundled in heavy coats, stocking caps, scarves and mittens.

The walk home was downhill (in a very steep sense) and the thought of food spurred everyone so that we were soon home and setting about with last minute food preparations. I went to help light the charcoal grill only to find out that no charcoal supplies had been laid in reserve and we were clean out. Now in America at 11:30 on Christmas Eve, you would be SOL or shit out of luck but not in the Philippines. My wife’s younger adopted brother and I first went to the sari-sari store two houses down which is the Filipino version of the convenience store at a gas station. Since there is a sari-sari store about every other house, you never have to go far. They were out so we ended up going to a neighbor two houses up the street in the other direction where we were able to obtain a huge bag of charcoal. Not the uniformly pressed very condensed charcoal that we use here in the states but honest to goodness charred pieces of wood. Normally it would take a cart to haul it back to house but in the spirit of getting some good BBQ into my starving stomach sooner rather than later, I hoisted the 60 lb sack on my shoulder and climbed the 20 feet down to street level and carried it the 20 feet back to our house.

Soon, the grill was sizzling with grilling pork as the men stood around talking about guy things in Tagalog while the women made the final preparations inside and talked women talk in Tagalog. I felt just like I was at an American BBQ except that I only understood about every fifth word. Just enough to get the gist of what was being said and laugh at the appropriate times. Now Filipinos are typically fashionably late in every aspect in their lives but when it comes to celebrations, they are always early. So at five until midnight, it was close enough to Christmas morning for them that we said the prayer and commenced to eating, even though the meat was still grilling. I don't think Jesus would have minded. There are only two rules for celebrations in the Philippines. First you must prepare enough food to feed a small army that has been fasting for a month and two, everyone must eat as it food is going out of style. Both were accomplished.

An hour later, empty bamboo sticks had been denuded of their meaty contents and empty bowls and liters of pop filled the table. Dishes were gathered and washed while non-family members bid their goodbyes and set off into the early morning to some other household where they might snag some leftover food or perhaps receive a present. Perhaps pared down to a dozen family members, we retired to the living room and began to pass out the presents to various people. My wife and I had sent a balikbayan box full of gifts a month and a half earlier plus had brought a huge suitcase full of gifts so it was a very merry Christmas for my wife’s family. Simple gifts of shampoo, Pringles, t-shirts and merchandise from name brand stores here in the U.S. were big hits and much appreciated by everyone. Because finances prevent most of my hosts from buying lots of gifts, my wife and I didn’t receive any which allowed me plenty of time to wander around in the periphery dodging wrapping debris and take plenty of pictures. My gift was just being in their presence and being accepted as one of their own. For that, I was very happy.

Finally at a little after two in the morning and less than an hour before the neighbors chicken would begin his trial wakeup calls, everyone gathered up their gifts and made for the various beds throughout the house. I was able to sleep until about eight when “the rack” forced me to get up or suffer a permanently seized back. The five hours of sleep took just the edge off my senses, which as it ended up was probably for the best since a few hours later I would be fearing for my life.

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