I’m thoroughly enjoying life in Davao City on one of the Southernmost islands of the Philippine archipelago, Mindanao. It is election time and our candidates are (General) Fidel Ramos for president and Rodrigo Duterte for a second term as local mayor. We mustn’t interfere in foreign elections so the policy is softly, softly, catchy monkey. That’s enough about Monday to Friday, what about the weekends?
Why not escape from the city for a few days? Why not indeed. The countryside around the city was often ‘critical’ meaning it was under the control of various violent anti government factions. There was a help line you could phone to check out trips. The advice was reliable but the phone lines weren’t.
The roads were reasonable but not always made up and sometimes bridges were missing, still under construction or had been sabotaged. There were road blocks en route. A careful eye had to be kept on cap badges and epaulets as some Philippine army units were more reliable than others.
The main road followed the coast and then swung inland to a big city called Digos. Heard of Manny Pac-Man Pacquiao? We’re getting close to his part of the world. There were some very good Philippino boxers. Some of them had black US servicemen fathers and Philippino mothers which made them, pound for pound, very compact, muscular and agile. They had the genes and, given the social conditions they were born into, were also as hard as nails. You’ve all heard of Pac-Man but let’s give a big shout out to Mansueto Velasco who won a silver medal at the Atlanta Olympics in the flyweight division. All done on a shoe string.
Travelling inland from Digos we reach my weekend retreat. Depending on how the lie of the insurgency lay, I would stay with a bodyguard at a school or convent in the township or at a nearby farm with a chaperone and my own sidearm. In the silence of the countryside it was possible to hear the fighting in the distance and in a surprisingly short period of time you learn what direction it’s moving in and how far away it is, allowing plenty of time, if needs be, to slip away. Bear in mind that this can be luck rather than judgement and luck can run out.
The farms grew rice, sugar cane, tropical fruits, coconuts, pineapples and the like and also mango. There were fish farms too on flooded land. Mango farming means wrapping the fruit in newspaper while they’re still on the tree and sleeping beside the trees with a gun while your companion sits up all night shooting at thieves.
There were orchid farms too. The orchids are started off pinned to wood underneath a mesh to keep the worst of the sun and heat off them.
And coconuts from palm trees, no matter how clever you think you are you can’t get up a palm tree as fast as a local and they don’t even need shoes, let alone a ladder.
I was told that coconut milk was very good for traveller’s tummy. Drinking it didn’t make any difference at all so my advice to you, dear reader, should that be a place that the winds of travel take you to, is to try washing your bottom in it after every movement.
The farms tended to be fairly small with modest nippa hut accommodation up on stilts. You sleep on a mat on the floor and wash and drink from a pump well nearby. However families often had more than one farm and family members would move about from place to place as needs be.
A note on the diet. It was very healthy. Lots of fresh tropical fruit, white meat and taboos about smoking and drinking, especially for women.
After church on Sunday morning it was off to the cock fighting. The actual fighting pit was a small dusty circle with enough room for the fighting cocks, their owners and an MC with a bullhorn. The fighting area was protected by high barbed wire and mesh fences, to deter over enthusiastic connoisseurs from invading the pitch. Beyond the mesh was steep wooden terracing packed with spectators. Above them an improvised wooden roof, with wires all over the place, providing electric lighting and showers of sparks. This created a deafening enclosure. The noise was over powering. One or two spectators might have admired the athleticism and courage of a well presented fighting cock, but the other 100% were there to gamble. The chant was ‘isco’, meaning ‘take a bet off me’. I thought it was ‘let’s go’ so joined in the chant and accidentally accepted wagers from everybody I’d made eye contact with. An expensive five minutes.
There was a busy tic-tac as well and bundles of notes being thrown across the pit. Children ran through the crowds, placing bets and running money for timid gentlemen who were too shy to do it for themselves. In other words you never quite knew who’s money was going where, which made it difficult to know weather the odds could be trusted or even meant anything at all.
It seemed a shame not to join in. My five minutes as a bookie had gone horribly wrong but entry barriers for owners were very low. You just had to buy half a dozen eggs, keep them warm and then dispose of the half of them that hatched as hens. The cockerels are very aggressive and need to be caged individually. To give them a bit of practice and a bit of a run out they can be shown to each other with leather pads tied across the natural spurs on the back of their feet.
When competing those leather pads are replaced by long stainless steel spurs tied to the back of the heel.
During a bout the cockerels are shown to each other and held. They pull themselves up to their full height, fluff out their ruffs and lean forward raising a claw. Upon a signal both cockerels are released and jump and flair at each other using their claws, spurs and beaks as weapons. The stronger will pin the weaker to the ground. A bout only lasts a couple of minutes with the cockerels fighting to the death. The winner receives the prize money, the loser provides a chicken tea.
There are all sorts of bizarre secret potions used to fortify a cock (behave). The natives being very superstitious, I thought I’d have an advantage over them by working out a scientific way of feeding and fortifying my cockerels. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that and my stable struggled. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, which didn’t help, and which added to an already confused and less than transparent gaming market. In fact, my cockerels did so badly that I started to bet on their opponents, which proved controversial. When I pointed out that all the other owners selectively did the same, I accidentally sinned against the omerta of the cock pit and caused even more controversy.
Fortunately what happens in the cock pit stays at the cock pit so the rest of my weekends weren’t spoilt.
One final word on the sport. I may be a little bit old fashioned, but if pressed I would have to say it was no place for a lady, or a female of any description, come to think of it. There was quite an aggressive atmosphere and nearly everybody had a gun. Those that didn’t tended to have home made hand grenades.
So while I was at the cock pit the ladies would prepare a Sunday meal. When I was in Manila the liberal metropolitan sophisticates told me that out in the provinces the locals ate dog. Expecting a giggle or a resigned sigh at the ignorance of city folk, I asked for roast dog in the village, only to be met with,
‘Rare or medium?’
So dog it was. There was a scruffy little dog that used to hang around the farm. It had lost the use of it’s hind legs so it dragged itself about on it’s front. It was a cheerful little thing, despite it’s fur hanging off too. It was supposed to be a rat catcher but it never caught any rats. After my roast dog meal I never saw it again so I think it’s a fair bet to say that I ate it.
There is one more important character that you have to be introduced to before I review roast dog (and it’s consequences).
There was an old lady, an ‘Aunty’ who had visions. The locals were very superstitious and it was important to take these visions seriously.
Aunty had a dream in which I was taken ill. Dear reader, I didn’t mock her or even disagree with her, I didn’t have to, all it needed for the ether of the place to be displaced was for me to continue to be fit and healthy. With that glorious thing called hindsight, I should have pretended a bad headache or ‘man dengue fever’ and had half a day in bed, instead of church and cock fighting. But I didn’t.
Alarm bells should have started to ring when I noticed Aunty preparing my roast dog Sunday dinner. One of the good things about even a modest home in the tropics was the furniture. If you wanted a tropical hardwood dining room table, just wander into the jungle and chop one down. So I was sat at such an impressive dark wooden mahogany table, holding my fork and spoon when Aunty presented my plate with (although it was before such a thing had been invented) a Google’s top ten search results of all the things you’re not supposed to eat in the tropics. The dog was nicely done but it was accompanied by, amongst other things, unwashed side salad, a glass of cloudy drinking water and a jug of cloudy ice. You may say,
‘By Jove that’s caviar’.
I say they’re insect eggs, from a street gutter, just below a water buffalo’s bottom. And then there was a pile of ice cream of indescribable colour, could have been tartan?
It would have been very impolite not to eat the lot.
Dog is a light coloured but fairly firm meat, a bit like a big, tough, old rabbit. The ribs are sparse but edible. It is grilled on a metal frame above a charcoal fire, and has a nice but not strong taste. Having said that, I suppose it depends upon the dog.
Long before I’d politely emptied my plate something was starting to stir down below.
On the bus back to the city the pain was becoming unbearable, both the cramps in my stomach and the cramp in my clenching buttocks. By a genuine intervention of miraculous divine will, I managed to hang on all the way back to my accommodations. I consider this the greatest achievement in my personal or professional life.
I won’t describe the actual emptying, suffice it to say that afterwards there was a mustard coloured mushroom cloud above the toilet. As it cleared I could see what looked like a white polythene bag in the bowl which was very difficult to flush away. I honestly think I passed the lining of my stomach. I didn’t eat again for a couple of weeks.
The jungle drums took the news back to Aunty, the ether was restored, and all was well in the village. After that I was always fed on well cooked pork or chicken. Incidentally, quarter chicken means just that, they chop it in four with a machete and put it on the grill. Likewise with pork. Consumer advice: don’t bolt your food, you will choke to death on the bones.
Likewise, if you enjoy your meal, it might be worth not asking what it is. I had a delicious stew at a roadside cafe where it was the only thing on the menu. I asked for seconds and then ate my companion’s (who’d turned green). I then made the mistake of asking what it was,
‘Spinal cord soup, mister’.
‘What’s the difference between ordinary roe and the special roe I‘ve just eaten, plz miss?’
‘Special roe has been bathed in semen, mister.’
And finally, a note of caution, just because you ordered an egg and it look likes an egg doesn’t mean it contains boring things like white and a yoke. The first time you take a top off and see a big embryo inside twitching and winking at you, it can come as a bit of a shock.
To be continued….
© Always Worth Saying 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file