Monday, January 16, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: A Visit To the Wet Market

Blood was running across the floor in red rivers and bits of fat and flesh floated along like abandoned boats. The remains were hung up by the legs from steel hooks hung from the ceiling, sliced open to expose the red flesh and protruding bones still sheathed in pale skin. The head had been removed from the torso and was now sitting on a table five feet away tilted back and looking up the sky as if contemplating the universe. The tongue slightly protruding from the mouth still agape and the glassy eyes told a different story. The ears had been piled on another table where fleshy ribs and other pieces were stacked seemingly random about yet other tables. Even the tails had been removed and hung up for all the world to see, including one American who was experiencing a Filipino wet market for only the second time in his life.

On my first trip to the Philippines I had gone to a much smaller version of the wet market in a much poorer part of town and thus had left my large 35mm camera at home. This time, I was shopping this Christmas Eve afternoon with my Tita Daisy for the necessary ingredients for our midnight feast after mass. On the menu was pork to lace onto bamboo sticks for a barbecue, fish, shrimp and anything else that looked good. Daisy was to do the wheeling and dealing for the food and I was to carry it home for her and perhaps take some pictures with my sleek new digital camera that I could palm and slip into my shirt pocket unnoticed.

The market we went to this time was the main wet market which is the term given to the meat market for what I assume for the bloody floors. It was an open-air affair located on the ground floor of what felt like a parking garage with a concrete roof and floors. Small stands perhaps six feet square jammed almost every available space leaving only the slimmest of aisles for hundreds of meat seeking shoppers to navigate. The stands had a horizontal tabletop crammed with cuts of meat in various stages of processing. Overhead, groaning racks were loaded with still more cuts of meat and an old scale that looked as if it had probably last been calibrated sometime in the summer of ’69.

Sharing the aisle in front of the stand was often a large section of log turned up end and manned by a large knife wielding Filipino whose job was to further process any meats according to the customer’s specifications. When customers weren’t demanding the time of the butcher, they often were hacking a rack of ribs from the torso or chopping the head off a freshly drained hog perhaps minutes dead.

Tita Daisy set off through the packed aisles slipping here and there as she inspected racks of meat for signs of freshness that I couldn’t recognize. Several times I nearly lost her from me sight and would have to scramble to keep up, ducking the cleaver wielding butchers intent on chopping their meat in the very same aisle I was walking down. Every time I did catch up with her she would have a couple plastic bags from various stores full of some cuts of meat or whole fish which she would hand me before setting off in another direction.

Meat in the Philippines doesn’t come in sanitized Styrofoam containers that have been shrink wrapped and labeled with dates and other information. Instead, vendors save up plastic bags from previous shopping and add your chopped meat inside, perhaps tying it in a knot. I collected these bags from Daisy and carried them in one hand with my wallet, camera, and other hand in my front pocket to prevent the numerous pickpockets around from emptying me of my pesos. Plus it allowed me to secretly take a picture here and there in the market with one hand and without being too obvious of a target.

After what felt like an hour of wandering the various bloody aisles of meat, we had found everything and headed back through the streets crowded with vegetable and fruit vendors. Each vender has commandeered a ten feet square section of sidewalk or street curb where they had a blanket or piece of cardboard laid out heaped tall with their wares. The funny thing for me is that the next ten vendors will have what appears to be identical produce as the ones before and they all appear to be selling it for more or less the same price. How does one decide which vendor to buy from?

By now, I was carrying some forty pounds of meat and produce in a dozen plastic bags with handles wrapped tightly around my hand. My arm was aching and I wasn’t looking forward to the long jeepney ride home but Daisy hailed a taxicab and I was able to unload the pile into the back seat for the ride home. Twenty minutes and $1.50 later, we were carrying our purchases inside and beginning the preparations for the midnight Christmas Day feast still about fourteen hours away.

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