Friday, 26 October 2012

A mini-short story: Pan de sal, candles and the cemetery of my youth

A boy tends to the grave of his relative.

 A man cleaning the tomb at a Metro Manila public cemetery.


WHATEVER salesmanship I acquired over the years, the skill buildup began during my boyhood days. 

That was the time when my mother first launched me onto the village streets one early summer dawn to sell that all-time favorite breakfast bread called pan de sal.

The idea was both to our liking, so I had no problem waking up at 3am to walk the two-kilometer sandy road towards the "panaderia" in Mambulao from my home in Parang.

A short lidded kerosene can that served as my bread carrier dangled from a cloth strap hanging from around my neck. That can carried two-peso worth of pan de sal, which I had to get rid of before 7am.

Those early dawn walks were fun because I puffed the chilly morning breeze with my elder cousins and neighborhood playmates that were already in the business as early as three summers ago. 

The panaderia in Mambulao was owned by what I thought to be a 500-pounder Chinese bread maker from Macau. 

So behind his back, we called the Boss-Chief "Macau". 

But the old man was generous for he offered us strong black coffee and pan de sal freshly retrieved from his giant and cavernous "bakawan pogon" (wood oven).

It was my first summer vacation from school, having just done away with Grade 1 and in our village in Parang, all those who finished Grade I had to sell pan de sal every summer, a tradition that went on for many more years until the invasion of hot pan de sal ovens turned the whole scenario upside down.

Selling the stuff was quite addicting despite its being a tiresome job, what with the long walk I had to make to cover the entire village still snoring under the blanket while shouting at the top of my voice: Tiiinnaaapaaayyyy …. Pan de saaaaalll …! 

But the 20 centavos I earned for every peso worth of bread sold was worth my troubles. 

During those days, our five centavos bought two pieces of large and warm pan de sal and our president then was Ramon Magsaysay, who was at that time four months into the second year of his term.

So the seven-mornings-a-week grind went through the whole summer vacation and was repeated every school break till I finished Grade 6.

In between selling pan de sal and playing in the dusty village road under the afternoon sun, my mom also pushed me into selling other foodstuff -- from "bibingka" to "maruya" to hotcake and "puto-kutsinta". 

One thing with my mother, she could do all the stuff, a cooking skill she learned from her sister-in-law and neighbor - my late Nana Ising (bless her soul), a mother and wife running a hard-up family. 

In later years, I came to understand why mom and I had to work hard to earn every centavo we could: my father's wages from the Philippine Iron Mines (PIM) in Larap were not that big to feed our growing family.

SO, WHEN my buddies one day told me they were going to sell candles at the  cemetery in Parang and asked me if I was interested, I immediately went for it, told my mother about it, and asked her to loan me two pesos for my candle venture. 

She obliged without further questions. 

However, she advised me to keep myself safe from cemetery snakes which she felt had become more aggressive and had multiplied several times over in between the yearly observance of "Araw ng mga Patay" and "Araw ng mga Kaluluwa" - two important religious events in the Philippines.

Selling candles was a tricky business. 

This I found out during the first hour after hitting the road to the Parang cemetery located just a stone’s throw away from the town high school – the Jose Panganiban High School.

The sight of men who were carrying all sorts of candles in various forms and colors was intimidating enough. 

How many times did I look at my wares just to heave a heavy sigh. I was only carrying two-peso worth of the cheapest plain-looking white candles in two sizes - medium and small.

A cousin of mine, our late Kuya Cesar (bless his soul) and eldest son of Nana Ising who also sold candles, gave me a tip on how to close a deal with the graveyard-bound women: aside from offering them candles, he said, why not offer them as well my services to remove all sorts of rubbish on their loved one's grave -- at a discount? 

Replying "why not?", I immediately saw my mother's picture being projected against a wall inside my head, warning me against the snakes that could have made home with the grave's occupant.

But anyway, I rushed home and when I came back to the cemetery I carried a foot-long bolo safely tucked under my belt - just in case somebody hired me for a cleanup job.
Competition was tough at the graveyard. 

Being a greenhorn I knew I won't survive the skirmishes, so I decided to get out of the war zone and walked half-kilometer away to intercept would-be clients from Mambulao poblacion, offering them candles and convincing them to let me tidy up their departed one's mound. 

The trick did it! Just before my would-be client and me could pass under the graveyard gate arch, I would snatch the deal.

THE VILLAGE cemetery was not new to me. I knew where to find the biggest tomb that functioned like a bachelor's flat because it had three tenants in it; or the one where a Japanese soldier was buried but was later forgotten by his countrymen after years of laying on top of his tomb ripe bananas, apples, and tall bottles of Kikkoman soy sauce as offerings. 

I remember snatching a bottle of soy sauce soon after the Japanese mourners left the graveyard while my friends helped themselves to the red apples and bananas. 

Seeing my loot at home, my mother was quite horrified that it took her a month before she mustered the courage of finding it out for herself how Kikkoman tasted.

In this cemetery, there was only a sprinkling of tombs spread out far in between alongside simple dug-up graves that disappeared under thick grass and bush after being abandoned for the rest of the year.

Every Saturday, I walked across this place on my way to a fast-flowing crystal-clear brook (sapa) at the foot of a nearby coconut tree-covered mountain. 

Here, in this “labahan sa sapa” popularly known in Parang as “kina Legaspi”, the owner of the farm being the Legaspi family, my mother and her neighbor-friends leisurely washed clothes as they updated themselves on the latest gossip swirling around the neighborhood. 

Doing the laundry with our faucet back home was an ordeal for my mother.

And during those days before I entered Grade 1, that cemetery served as our playground - "our" meant me and my buddies who had grown tired playing rough games in the village streets or spearing crabs and fish in the nearby seashore reefs during low tide.

The cemetery suited our kind of games – the "baril-barilan" (war game) and hide-and-seek - because there were no mothers who would chase us with a long stick in hand for making so much noise with our mouth explosions as we waged our acoustic war under their houses or right under their noses.

But personally, I had a particular liking for that cemetery. It was my favorite hunting ground for birds that built nests and made the tall "talahib" and bushes their home.

With my favorite slingshot, I was legend for terrorizing the birds, specially the "Ibong Simbahan" and the tiny brown "maya" (rice bird) that fed in the nearby rice fields just waiting for harvest. 

Never did it occur to me that I had to deal with graveyard snakes! So when my mother mentioned about them the first time, I just actually shrugged it off. No big deal.

SOMETIMES, my client's grave was a bit too wide for me to get rid of it quickly but which I couldn't refuse because of the deal that would mean his or her buying a third of my candles after the clearing job was done. 

Of course, don't ever forget the generous fee I expected for my labor.

So, I was forced to hire a buddy - also a candle boy - to help me out with the job with the promise that he would get half of my contract price. 

Often times, the way I bullied my way into a customer to clinch a sale had ran me into a fight with another bully vendor, but it couldn't be helped because hassles like this came with the job. 

Making sales was more important than getting civil with my lousy rivals.

So before the day would be over, I would have gone back to the Chinese store in Mambulao several times over to replenish my stuff which increased in volume as I rolled over the proceeds from my sales along with my investment, plus the fees I made from cleaning up somebody else's mess. 

Indeed, it was a yearly event that I had marked in my mental calendar for many years to come.

It was a "poor-man's cemetery" as I came to know later because only those from our village in Parang who had died were sent here and they were usually fishermen, farmers, and mining laborers. 

Those from well-off families went to the other cemetery nestled at the foot of a mountain on the other side of Mambulao some five kilometers from where I had lived.

LAST APRIL, almost 56 years ago since I sold my first candles one All Souls Day, I returned to my boyhood village in Parang, Jose Panganiban, CamNorte Norte for a quick visit and trip down memory lane. 

Driving off to the next village to see some old friends, my siblings and I happened by the cemetery of my youth. 

The landscape had changed, no longer the place it used to be - tranquil and rustic, a place where all you could hear was the chirping of the birds nestling in the bush and the rustle of the breeze against the leaves and your hair. 

What I just saw jarred the nostalgia that became part of my restless childhood.

Squatter shanties of all shapes and make had taken over all space imaginable and were now standing side by side with the grave mounds and tombs, or whatever that became of them after being trampled upon by the invaders.
It made me wonder if the living were talking to the dead. 

But co-existing with the living 24 hours a day must have been a punishing ordeal for those who were supposed to be resting in peace, a reason for the snakes to flee because I knew too well they hated uncivilized and permanent neighbors such as human beings.

MANY YEARS ago when I was starting to raise a family with my first wife, I applied as medical representative at Johnson & Johnson then based in Makati. 

I went through all the written exams and interviews with high marks save for one crucial item. 

I'd been exposed in my aptitude test that I would never make a good salesman. 

Just to think that all those years of my training in selling just went down the drain. 

So I ended up working as a journalist without really knowing even up to now if I really had an aptitude for this bloody racket.

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1 comment:

  1. Its a good feeling to walk down memory lane...