Gingerbread in Tanza, Cavite (near Manila)
The last days of 1991. I was visiting 'my' Filipino family again, some 15 miles from Manila. Back in 1989 I had met Doctor Del Rosario, an elderly dentist, inside a slightly run-down McDonald's in downtown Manila. Ok, McDonald's can surely not score on the 'gourmet food'-scale, yet even in the seediest corners of the world they serve soft drinks which will not hurt you overly much, and for the 'spill water' you can find a reasonably clean and vermin-free rest-room with European-style toilets. Would be kind of awkward to pick up the one or other odd bug crawling into your pants while sitting on the crapper.
Three years before that, I had 'hit' Manila right after the military coup attempt, being probably the only tourist in Metro Manila then. After conversing with the 'Doc' for some 20 minutes, he had invited me to come along 'and see his home and family!' – 'Wow, beautiful!' – 'Well, are you not afraid?' he asked with a knowing smile. 'Doc, YOU are an intelligent man and if you had planned to hijack some unsuspecting tourists you would decidedly not have selected a run-down McDonald's to strike up a conversation with a random chaotic traveller – using an appealing lady as a bait in some appropriate corner would have given you catches by the dozen!' Well we shared a hearty laugh about that and set out, by bus and jeepney (Pinoy minibus) to Tanza, Cavite. This led to me celebrating Christmas and New Year with his family thrice, being greeted with 'Welcome home!' when I reappeared again. That is a way to see and experience a foreign country and its people in quite a different way and much deeper than a mere 'tourist' ever could.
One of the Doc's brothers was almost as poor as the proverbial churchmouse. Off his not-too generous pension, he and his wife were living, and a son (with a bad case of asthma just gobbling up expensive medicine!) plus a daughter and her not-too-industrious husband plus a granddaughter. Anyway, I used to go fishing with Pepe and one of his friends whom I spontaneously named 'Pirate' because he really looked the thing, could have appeared in any retake of 'Treasure Island' without the slightest touch of makeup. BTW, that nickname did stick to him in the fishing village, really! We did go out into Manila Bay on an ancient outrigger that even had an engine – from just after the word war (the first, I presume!), fishing with simple tackle, line just wound up on a wooden contraption, using small shrimps for bait. Wonderful! When necessary the 'Pirate' had a very creative way to stop the motor – that thingy was purring along, slightly recessed at the very tail of the boat – and he just stretched out his leg and rammed his big toe into the engine's air intake – immediate silence! When I saw that for the first time I laughed so hard I almost fell overboard…
I could spin long yarns now about those fishing trips, but that would be another story. One time we had caught two decent-sized groupers, 'Lapu-Lapu' the pinoy call them, and Pepe proudly rode his bike to the local fish market where he sold them for approximately five dollars, nice fish for a restaurant or hotel kitchen. He was really pleased as punch about that 'windfall'! Only then did I realize how scarce money really came by in his household.
Sipping some tea with Pepe and his wife Flor (nice dear old granny with a slightly weak ticker) I had brought along some freshly baked gingerbread, from an original German recipe, easy to make as I had carried along the assorted spices and the special hartshorn raising agent, small packages which do not take up much space. Sugar and honey and flour and eggs can be bought anywhere in the world to complete that very heavy dough. One of the Doc's neighbours had let me use his brand-new US-imported electric kitchen range for the baking, grateful for a handful of the resulting fresh gingerbread cookies. Wow they were all tickled pink seeing a male tourist doing some – successful and tasty – baking!
Then Flor showed me how she – sometimes – managed to do some baking, her greatest hobby. She had a sort of flimsy iron box with an thermometer which she positioned above an ancient petrol cooker. That thingy must have been a major fire hazard even when it was new, eons ago – even more so now, being patched together with pieces of wire and stabilized by the good will of God. Her little granddaughter kept gambolling around, really cherishing some gingerbread. Never had tasted that before, sure!
The following night, I had a bad dream, very intense, almost like a vision, devastatingly clear and realistic, unfortunately – I dreamed that the refractory petrol cooker had exploded and cruelly burned granny Flor and her grandchild. I could almost smell the burned flesh and just could not drive the dream's memories of twisted charred bodies out of my mind.
During breakfast, I brought that point up with 'Doc', telling him I would like to buy a safer cooker for his brother. He advised me that that would imply to get two gas bottles (for switching), after that investment the fuel itself would not be more expensive for Pepe than the customary petrol. Sure it is wiser to check local conditions in such a case in order not to generate further problems with a well-meant action. Took a bus to Manila in search of decent gas cookers.
The offers I found were extremely unsatisfactory. Relatively expensive yet on closer inspection really crudely assembled, obvious when I checked rather hidden corners of those contraptions – full of hastily welded connections and razor-sharp ridges. No thanks, this factory-new junk was so bad the industrious Chinese would not sell it in their own country, they exported it to the Phillies…
Had a look into a large department store. Hey, there was a special sale, kitchen appliances of all things! And they did offer a beautiful well-made gas range, 'La Germania' – for something like 180 dollars. Oops, I had envisioned something smaller. Yet being back in Germany and hearing from the Doc that his brother's darn petrol cooker had finally exploded and crisped Pepe's family would be unbearable. So well, I politely asked to speak to the store's manager. It was a lady and I told her I was really interested in buying the gas range plus accessories yet the thing was too big and heavy to carry along on a bus and if I did hire a taxi driver to bring me and the appliance to Tanza, some 15 miles, then the taxi fare would be almost as expensive as the hardware! Could she help me there?
Wow did she get a chuckle out of that, saying I seemed to know her country and her people real well already! Sure they had cars and drivers who could do all that for a reasonable (Philippino) price. Unfortunately she could not provide the gas bottles and the regulator as these were unavailable in the department store because of their implied fire hazard, understandably. The driver would help me pick these things up on the way. Said and done!
The young taxi driver even helped me getting the gas range onto the back of the pick-up taxi. And out we set into Manila's traffic chaos! When I told the driver the 'full story' of this gas range – he spoke excellent English, had a business BA – he almost tailgated a jeepney in front of us, such a surprise it was to him. Thought it was a great and very extraordinary idea. And he was very enthusiastic to support me regarding my purchase of two gas bottles plus the regulator and hoses, somewhere in a side road.
Pepe and Flor were not at home, but his daughter and his neighbours knew me well enough so the taxi driver helped me to carry the big surprise into Flor's kitchen. He even gave me a short ride back to the Doc, had to convince him to accept a decent tip – first he said he had so thoroughly enjoyed doing that delivery that a tip was superfluous.
About an hour later I grabbed a bike and rode to meet Pepe and Flor. There was a big impromptu festivity in his street, neighbours and friends and family, celebrating that gas range. Pepe and Flor were sitting in their middle, somewhat subdued, saying things like 'This is so big we can not accept'. Well, I gave granny Flor a big hug and told them about my dream-vision, about how devastatingly it would hurt me when anything such happened to them. And now she could make true her old dream of baking with a true good gas oven, her secret wish for years! Sure I could and would not do such a thing more than once yet sometimes it is the only and right course to follow what your heart tells you to do!
The next morning, I used up my last batch of spices and hartshorn to really celebrate baking original gingerbread in their small house on a beach road in Tanza, Cavite. Flor's granddaughter just loved to help and knead the dough and shape the cookies and place them into granny's new oven and see them rise and then bake. Not forgetting to taste a good-sized sample, finally.
Not for one moment did I ever regret that action. Was exactly the right thing to do. Those two old birds thanked me again two days later when I left for Hong Kong and Singapore. They were too poor to give me anything but they would sure pray for me.
Twelve days later, I stumbled into my wonderful wife of almost 21 years now, in Bangkok. Probably really a case of positive Karma, somehow. Thanks to some 'Lapu-Lapu', a not-so nice vision and my clear decision to do something against that possibility, just fortunate that I had the gingerbread spices along…