Ask any schoolchild for his favourite period in school, and it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that the answer would be recess. It is probably the only time in school when all children are allowed to be exactly who they are, without being shushed and told to be quiet. The elementary school of Sto. Nino was no exception, and with about a thousand children enrolled in any given year, recess was a very noisy, chaotic and fun. The twenty-minute break we had halfway through the morning classes were a time for bathroom breaks, to catch up with friends, play a short game of whatever, eat or just sit around doing nothing.
During the dry season when the main quadrangle was nothing but a huge patch of dry grass, a quick game of habulan, or tag, was almost a given, and the walkways around it was almost impassable from the several games of luksong tinik or luksong baka, both variations of a game of hurdles, along with luksong lubid or jump-rope. The tropical heat and humidity were always guarantee that the children would be returning to their classrooms sweaty and flushed with the sun and probably quite wound up from the exertion.
In the rainy season when the square was continually flooded and overgrown with wild grass, things were a little less frenetic especially if it was raining. Those days the children are usually jammed shoulder-to-shoulder under the awnings along the classroom corridors, chattering like noisy little birds when not playing jack en poy (paper and scissors). Some of the more adventurous children could oftentimes be found wading their way across the square to catch giant tutubi, dragonflies that used to swarm the grassy patch in such abundance that you only needed to stretch out a hand and was sure to catch one.
The major destination within the school compound, for those who were lucky enough to get a daily cash baon or allowance was the canteen, as everyone called the school cafeteria. Relatively cheap snacks could always be had, if one got there early enough and before the supplies ran out. On cool rainy days one is almost certain to get a bowl of goto, rice soup with curdled pig’s blood in meat broth flavoured with kasuba, the local saffron which was cooked in humungous aluminum vats by the teachers. In the summer months when goto would have been just too hot, the menu switched to small plates of pancit, vermicelli noodles with vegetables and soy sauce for seasoning. If one was lucky enough to have the money, there was always soda pop to drink: lukewarm Bayani soft drinks in either orange or root beer. And hot dog buns slathered with Star margarine, which went very well with any of those items listed: dunked in the goto, filled with the pancit or eaten with the soft drink. The prices were all the same for any item: five centavos each, roughly about one-twentieth of a cent in today’s dollars. But even at those prices, many children were unable to afford them, and occasionally if one was feeling generous and had enough money, would treat a friend or share the bowl of soup.
My mother’s cousin Tiyo Leon who had an ice cream cart, was the only outside vendor allowed inside the school grounds. On hot dry days, there would always be a small group of children waiting their turn to buy some. Many bought them in small wafer cones, but my favourite was to get a hotdog bun and have it filled with the ice cream. The cold ice cream would immediately freeze the margarine in the bun, giving it a deliciously satisfying crunchy bite. But this was a special treat, as my father, knowing that we would do it all the time given the chance, always strongly admonished his children not to take advantage of my uncle’s generosity, for he always refused to take our money. Regardless, my sisters or I would usually stand several feet away from his cart, knowing that he would sooner or later see us standing there with the empty hotdog bun and whistle for us to come over for our treat. One familiar sutsot, or hiss from him, and soon we will be in frozen dessert heaven!
There were, naturally, plentiful food stands around the school area just past the gates, but it was always forbidden to venture outside during recess, and in fact, the gates were usually locked. There might be some enterprising vendors who would park themselves close enough to the back gates, but I suppose inevitably the sales just weren’t sufficient enough for them to make it worth their while. One patient hold out was an old woman who sold espasol, sweet rice cakes dusted with flour. All year long she could be found at the same spot, as if she never left it for one minute. She always looked the same: old and dark from standing in the sun all year round, rather frail looking, and with only one tooth in her mouth. She always had the same weather-beaten and faded dress on, and an old black umbrella was all the protection she had from either the intense heat or the torrential rains. But she must have been from healthy stock, as despite the draining high temperature or inclement weather, I do not remember not seeing her standing there. Every now and again, her espasol would taste kind of funny and off, maasim (sour): she would rationalize its being spoiled by saying she was experimenting with the taste and added kalamansi (green citrus) juice to the mixture. And we believed her and ate with gusto those little spoiled squares, none the wiser but for the stomachaches that followed later.
It seemed that the more exotic treats lie beyond our reach: so close yet inaccessible in the food stands just outside of those locked school gates. As soon as the bell rings signaling the end of the school day, hundreds of students come pouring out of the classrooms, their meager daily allowance in hand, ready to let loose for their fill of stuff not available in the school canteen. There were always women selling iced cool drinks from large garapon (glass jars) like shredded milon (cantaloupe) in sweet ice water, gulaman at sago or buko juice (coconut meat in its own water). The food stall right across the road from school offered a whole cornucopia of food selection: goto and pancit, pricier than what the canteen sells them for, but chockfull of vegetables and slivers of meat, tokwa at baboy (crisp fried tofu and pork in vinegar), the perfect side dish for goto, hamburger buns filled with menudo (ground pork or beef sautéed in onions and coloured deep orange with achuete), and pineapple slices, sweet kamote (yellow yams) or saging na saba (plantain bananas) in brown sugar syrup with crushed ice.
However what I always yearned for, but was so afraid to buy were the ones strictly forbidden to us by Ate Ely, so afraid she was of us catching dysentery: unripe green mangoes or slices of singkamas (jicama) that came with a side of alamang (fermented tiny shrimps) for dipping. To this day, just the mention of the sour green mangoes still make me salivate, but in that dusty roadside stand under the midday sun teeming with flies, perhaps my sister was right and had saved us from unwanted hospital visits.
Or perhaps not, for we were all young with ravenous appetites and seemingly iron-clad stomachs, and thought we were immune to all the germs and diseases residing in those sloppily prepared but tempting looking food. So we ate and had our fill, but occasionally had to run as fast as our short legs can carry us the last two or three blocks towards home, focused on nothing else but the sudden urgent need for the bathroom.
© August 2007