The public market makes me search my soul

The public market makes me search my soul


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PORT MOODY, CANADA–The Dumaguete Public Market is a hub of buyers and sellers even in the early morning. It was not even 6 o’clock yet.

As I walked from my hotel to the nearby market, I would run across a busy crowd, the sellers hurriedly setting up their goods, or bringing in more, while the early morning buyers were as busy selecting their items, or checking out the newly-arranged goods and the prices. The exchange of goods and merchandise and the payment would run briskly. Even as early as dawn.

Haggling is an art at the public market. I was told to bargain by as much as 50 percent of the going price.

But I have no heart to deprive a poor vendor of a few pesos of his profit. We don’t bargain down the prices at the mall; why should we play “the price is right” game with private, often struggling, small-time market vendors?

Everyone is intent in making a quick sale. Especially when the sellers occupy a temporary spot in the marketplace, like the fish wholesalers who bring in buckets of fish, fingerlings, squid, and other fresh catch from the sea. They display their goods by the southeast entrance to the market. They need to be out of that area before 8 a.m. when more customers want to get into the market. These wholesalers cannot impede market traffic.

A policeman often does his first round promptly at 8 a.m. to ensure the fishermen and their business cohorts move to the designated stalls inside the wet market, or be done and gone.

The buyers are mostly middlemen who, in turn, sell their early purchases to vendors in neighboring towns, and in wet markets in the outskirts of Dumaguete.

Many buckets of fresh catch are quickly hauled onto the open elongated trunks of pickup trucks, and converted transport jeepneys almost haphazardly parallel parking by the sidewalk of Colon Street. I could sense the immediacy in the chaos.

I moved on to the Painitan where I had been longing for my breakfast of puto, budbod sa Tanjay, and a teeny-weeny cup of thick tsokolate. My desserts came wrapped in coco-greased banana leaves, looking like oily green teepees. I lustfully drenched my glutinous rice desserts, on little saucers, with the dark brown goodness. My mouth was starting to water.

Shoulder to shoulder with other Painitan patrons, perching on a shaky short wooden bench, I surveyed the opposite side of the market. Vendors were setting up their makeshift stalls, hanging bags of sundry on metal hooks and screens. Others were hurriedly but efficiently displaying their merchandise to sell on bukag and bilaw and plastic buckets and trays. I could sense hope for a good sale in the faces of the merchants. And in the buyers’ faces, too.

After my decadent breakfast, I tailgated a few early morning customers to the open wet meat area. A few were selling their cuts on the sidewalk, while others were following the City regulation of selling pork and beef only at designated stalls.

It seemed that “anything goes” early in the morning, although I was sure vendors ought to be doing business in designated stalls and sections of the market. Yet, I could sense there’s still some order and observed protocols amidst the apparent chaos.

I meandered to the fish stalls. Fish of various kinds, sizes, and prices lie in piles and rows on white tiled counters. Shrimps, crabs, lato (sea grapes), and other creatures of the sea were displayed in shallow plastic buckets, too. The fish and other seafood glistened as water was periodically poured on them, to make them look fresh. The water would drip onto the cement floor, creating little puddles here and there and everywhere. I shudder.

Oh, a sight of colorful uyap a stall away diverted my attention. I asked the vendor if I can take a picture of the fermented treat. She gave me a hesitant nod, but I had already taken a few photos anyway. She smirked. I apologized, claiming that I had never seen such colorful and such large heap of uyap before. I was actually trying to pardon myself of my impatience, but she took it as a compliment. Good.

I have enough of the wet market section.

During my late childhood and early adulthood, the tiangge (public market) was my favorite stomping ground. I could easily identify myself with the poor and struggling masses. Although I didn’t look much like most of the people there, yet I felt I was one of them. I belonged in the public market.

But now, decades later, I barely can stand being in the tiangge for more than a few minutes. The smell of the goods and the sellers and the buyers makes me feel uncomfortable. The sight of the wet floors reminds me of a trough, and I would feel like I’m in one, in this once-beloved marketplace. I couldn’t wait to get out.

Then a shot of guilt suddenly hit me. I deluded myself that I am still a pang-masa tiangge boy. (I used to sleep on a banig on the floor of our sari-sari store by a public market during my last two years of elementary and first two years of high school.)

My misplaced hoity-toity, snooty self now hit hard on my sensibility, if not my social conscience. I tried to remove this great unease from my consciousness.

Anyway, I searched for the eatery section, hoping to meet again the couple who fed me many suppers when I was an always-famished hyperactive high schooler.

I couldn’t find the eatery section. Nang Tining and Nong Badong must be very old by now. They must have retired. I honestly miss that generous couple.

I headed for the closest exit of the market, the one with the least dirty puddles. I wound down instead in the flowers section. I picked up three white roses, at P15 a bloom. I offered a P100 bill, and told the elderly vendor to keep the change. My heart felt warm to see her wrinkled face break into a wide smile. But then I got embarrassed that she thanked me so profusely.

I had planned to offer the white roses at the Campanaryo of the nearby Catholic Cathedral. But my hurried yet aimless steps led me instead to the comforts of my sanitized air-conditioned hotel room.

I felt conflicted. My eyes started to water. I couldn’t help it, I started bawling, like one little tiangge boy who has become a retired citizen lost in the comforts and luxuries of the western world where I really don’t want to belong….

Sansen Lee Vendiola



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