Sunday, January 26, 2014

Chalky and Unpalatable...
Unscrupulous road-side vendor tactics.

30th of December 2006

Written in: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Composition: Recalling something from 7 years ago, aided by notes.
Previous Post: Spot Was Here

By the roadside of every provincial highway in the Philippines, you can buy most of what the region has to offer in terms of food and food products on roadside stalls. In fact, this can make for a very memorable trip.

As I wrote in another post:
"A great indication of the cultural diversity of the Philippines lies in the wide variety of food you can sample, [Tita May] said. Each province has their own specialty dish. Failing that, each region will do a popular dish somewhat differently - perhaps having a minor cultural twist on the way things are garnished or presented.

Then, there too are the food products. Each province has their own special thing to offer. And perhaps this is best illustrated to the unitiated when travelling over land.

Indeed, I experienced this for myself the first two weeks I spent in the Philippines.

When driving from Manila to Northwestern Luzon, the flat plains of the Tagalog and Capampangan region make way for the linguistically ambiguous province of Tarlac. There you will notice streetside vendors selling freshwater crabs. Their signs inviting you to sample these still-moving crustaceans. After Tarlac is Pangasinan, where the common thing to see being sold roadside is bottled bagoong, salt, and other salted products. Then there's La Union, where you don't even have to see their specialty - you will instead smell it, for in this coastal province the roadside is dotted with stalls selling dried salted fish.

As Tita May put it herself, travelling the Philippines and experiencing firsthand its cultural diversity is such a departure to the North American Continent's practice of driving thousands of miles to another state - only to eat at the same boring McDonald's or some other burger franchise."
For the road leading to Tagaytay ridge, it's all about

Continued...'s all about fruits and fruit products: Casoy (Cashew), Pineapple, Langka (Jackfruit), Coconut, Rambutan, Banana, a LOT of citrus fruits, different kinds of Melon... and many many others I cannot now name. 

However, my experience with roadside vendors during my trip to Tagaytay with my Mom's brother, Uncle Luis Jr. - or Tito 'Boy' - and Family, remains memorable for all the wrong reasons.

We stopped by a roadside stall so Tito Boy could buy all kinds of fruit. He haggled as per the usual custom there, and like a well traveled DAR executive, at home in any region of the Philippines, he was doing alright. I, on the other hand, suck at haggling - which is why it's a mystery to me why I tried my hand with trying to buy Langka. What's even weirder, when I think about it now, is that there was a langka tree in my Dad's Family's place, in Santa Maria, Bulacan.

Yup. Totally stupid of me. I basically walked into a losing proposition. Voluntarily!

To be fair to me, Uncle Tito's langka tree was still very young at the time and it didn't yet bear fruit as massive or as sweet as the ones in the Southern Tagalog region, so I thought I'd give my hosts back in Bulacan a good pasalubong.

As per these roadside stalls' modus operandi, there were no prices listed on the fruits - at least there was no price for the massive langka I was eyeing. You have to ask. And when I asked, the price quoted to me was excessively high... something insane, like nearly a grand? I haggled to bring it down a bit. Mr. Vendor would push back, but I would push harder and I think I managed to bring it down to... probably a couple of hundred? It's such a massive fruit too that I thought this was alright. I was so proud of myself.

This is when things got weird.

The vendor said that if I wanted, I can buy just half of the fruit - that they will cut it for me. I thought this was ok, since I calculated that we, as a family of seven (My Uncle and Aunt, four kids, plus myself) in Bulacan, would be even hard pressed to finish off this somewhat strong smelling but oh so delicious fruit.

But after Mr. Vendor split the fruit, the number we agreed to suddenly changed, or rather: He pretended we had been talking about half a fruit all this time.

Worse for me, he had already split it, so I couldn't just walk away. It also was the perfect time for him to turn the tables. He then pulled the victim card and protested that he was just this poor vendor and I was a guy who rolled in a car (which wasn't even mine, since I was just hitching a ride... but, it didn't matter), how could I take advantage of him. Bla bla bla.

In the end, I didn't put up much of a fight. I paid full for half a fruit.

I think they smelled it on me - my foreignness, I mean. That, or they just victimize everyone who seems like a sucker, and/or someone who does not have the stomach for an argument. What can I say? I didn't know their ways, I had just been in-country for a month and my family was overly protective. I had been with my Tita Mona, cousin Marco's Mom, in Santa Maria's Palengke after my first few days back from Ilocos, but I merely carried her stuff as she went shopping.

More importantly, I am a polite Canadian traveler. It's a long story, but I'm always trying to manage - in my books - an image of well-mannered, observant, neutrality. I am always careful never to seem like I am judging the place, bullying the locals, or inadvertently mocking the customs, or maybe even trying to use my being a 'Westerner' to any advantage whatsoever. never throw my 'weight' around the Philippines. There is the cliche of the Ugly American*, and that was something I wanted to avoid at all costs. Mr. Vendor's turning of the tables was what got me in the end.

Strange thing is that I wouldn't have been swindled had Tito Boy not been distracted by a pushy vendor of turrones de casoy - a sweet candied cashew treat inside an edible wrapping. Her pushiness was weird, however. She was aggressive in that, she basically accosted Tito Boy. But it was not 'high pressure sales' in terms of lauding the greatness of her products, but rather, once again, portraying herself as a victim of circumstance.

"Maawa na kayo sir" ("Oh sir, have pity on me!), was the one lament I heard from this purveyor of homemade sweets**. That was her sales pitch: "Have pity on me, I just need a sale", as though she was anyone else's responsibility but her own. As though it's OUR fault that no one saw her product as worth buying.

I would now like to digress a bit by saying: This is why I believe in a society with some degree of social safety nets. This is why I believe in Canada. Because if you actually level the playing field by helping out those born into crushing poverty or those who have recently been dealt a bad hand by life's circumstances by providing some social services - like free K-12 education, subsidized housing for low-income families, food banks, health care, welfare, and even training and employment programs for the really, truly disadvantaged, etc. - then you can honestly tell someone, "Perhaps you should find a different line of work if it's not going too well for you". Because why force it if you're not cut out for the free market? 

See, in my opinion, this is what right wingers, Faux News, and people who masturbate to Ayn Rand miss: For all the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mantra they promote, they fail to factor in that what the welfare state actually really wishes to achieve, is a culture of independence and empowerment - to actually enable someone to pull themselves by their bootstraps! 

The opposite of this is the truly free "you're on  your own" unregulated side of the Philippine underground economy of tinderos and tinderas. And all that cutthroat, kill or be killed culture of matira matibay produces, in my opinion, is a culture of victimhood among the losers.  Worse: It often comes with a sales pitch of GUILT - they will guilt-trip the hell out of you if they perceive that, in some way, you are doing better in life. So, for me, I believe in social safety nets where, if you lose, or were dealt a bad hand, you can always bounce back. I just can't handle all that everyday sales pitch of guilt.

"Have pity on me, I just need a sale".

Of course, Tito Boy ended up buying  the pleading vendor's turrones de casoy. I mean, what do you say to that?

Back in Meycauayan, when we sampled them, we were disappointed to find out that it was of poor quality. The wrapping was too thick in order to make up for the tiny treat inside, which itself was chalky and unpalatable.

 Just like the whole buying experience. Damned unpalatable.

 Related Post: Meycauayan, Laguna, and then... Tagaytay!
                           White Privilege in the Philippines

Next Post: A Public Outburst

* Ugly American = Yeah, I'm Canadian. But it doesn't matter. The point is, any Westerner there can act like the cliche Ugly American - despite perhaps being technically an Ugly Canadian, Ugly German, Ugly Russian, or Ugly Brit and Ugly Aussie. 

** Vendor = She was independent from any of the stalls, as far as I know - just one of those roaming, on-foot vendors often found in the Philippines.

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