The Ifugaos are known for their patience, but considerable time had elapsed and Nina wanted to know what Berto was about. She had no idea where to start looking for him, but she thought that if she went from hamlet to hamlet, she would find him eventually. The bus she was riding on tumbled along, but the strawberries in the basket on her lap travelled well. It was foolish of her to make this trip, but she wanted to see what the big city was like, and she wanted to sell her strawberries.
The bus left in the middle of the morning from Ifugao province, passing through Nueva Viscaya where Nina watched farmers harvesting rice in their flat fields, a tri-annual event unlike the Ifugao indigenous variety. At Nueva Ecija, along a part of the road, Nina recognised the trees lining the narrow thoroughfare; its leaves, when burnt, emit an odour that paralyses mosquitoes. And finally through Bulacan they went, the birthplace of the Philippine Constitution, the first province outside of Manila, the gateway to the north. They arrived at the terminal in the late afternoon.
She got off the bus and the other passengers moved hurriedly by, looking tired and anxious to be home. She walked slowly towards the main street. There were many jeepneys and so many pedestrians. “Have you some betel nuts?” she asked in greeting to a man who bumped into her. He shrugged his shoulders and continued to walk on.
Across the street, a thin woman sat on a stool with a large rattan tray of vegetables at her feet. A little girl was playing jackstones by her side. Nina crossed over and looked eagerly at what she was selling. There were eggplants, tomatoes, okra, papayas, bananas, mangoes, and kangkong. She saw no competition there for her strawberries.
“Bili na! Bili na!” The vendor entreated passers-by.
The thin woman regarded the tall pretty girl in front of her. Nina had her hair tied in a bun, exposing her finely tanned neck. She was wearing a white blouse, much like a school blouse, and a hand-woven skirt that reached below her knees. She wore dainty slippers on her feet. The basket she was carrying was finely woven, unlike the commercialised receptacles one finds in the market.
“You’ve come from the provinces, haven’t you?” she asked Nina.
Nina looked up. She smiled. “Have you some betel nuts?”
“Do you know how to speak Tagalog?”
“Yes, I do. I learnt it in school. My name is Nina. May I sit with you to sell my strawberries?”
“Of course, you may. But it’s getting late; I think we’ll have to call it a day soon. Are you staying near here?”
Nina sat down beside her. She removed the piece of cloth covering the strawberries and placed the basket beside the tray of vegetables. “A friend named Berto lives here in Manila. I should be staying at the agamang of his hamlet,” she replied.
“There are no hamlets here, Nina. Where does Berto live?”
“I don’t know.”
The thin woman looked at Nina. “How old are you, Nina?” she asked.
“I am fourteen. Why?”
“You’re tall for your age. How many live in your hamlet?”
“Well, there’s Grandfather and Grandmother, Father and Mother, one brother, several aunts and uncles, a lot of cousins, distant relations, some very close friends of the family, some other families and their kin…we should be about fifty. There are other hamlets that have more.”
“Here in Manila, we are several millions. I think you had best come home with me. Tomorrow we shall decide what to do.”
“But there are other scattered hamlets in the mountains. In Ifugao, we are about 80,000 in all.”
“How much are your strawberries?” Both women looked up at the young man who stood in front of them. Nina had made a quick calculation in her head while in the bus. She named an amount and the young man bought them all. The thin woman provided him with a paper bag to take his purchase.
“Well, that’s a steep price, but I seldom see strawberries in the market,” he said. “I am fortunate to find them. Thank you. Will you be here again?”
“Oh, yes!” Nina answered. “Well, at least I hope so.”
“See you, then,” said the captivated man with an eye for beauty.
“I am so very lucky!” Nina exclaimed. She put the money in a rattan pouch, and tucked it into a fold of her wrap-around skirt. The thin woman smiled. The little girl beside her had stopped playing jackstones; it was, by now, too dark to see the star-shaped jacks. Her mother started putting away the vendibles and the little girl got up to help her. She held the plastic bag open as the unsold vegetables were placed inside it.
“We live in Tondo,” the thin woman told Nina. “We have to take a jeepney home. I come and sell my vegetables here because there are a lot of people coming and going. The bus terminal area is a good place. By the way, call me Aling Sita.”
Nina had picked up one of the bags and the rattan tray. The little girl carried the small stool her mother had been sitting on. They walked to a jeepney stop across the street.
“Do you have a vegetable garden, Aling Sita?”
“No, I don’t, Nina. But there are farmers just outside of Manila who come to the city with a small van of vegetables. We buy from them at wholesale price and we resell what we can buy. I don’t have to pay rent for a vegetable stall at the market, but still, we don’t earn much. It’s enough though, to put food on the table for the day.”
A gaily-decorated jeepney stopped alongside them. Some passengers got off and the men who had arrived before them gallantly motioned for the three to go in first. The jeepney was full, but the young men held on to the side rails at the back. Aling Sita tried to make conversation, but with the noise of the loud engine and the traffic, she decided to remain quiet. It was just as well because Nina’s mind was elsewhere. She was hatching great plans for her newfound business. She thought of all the strawberries that she was going to plant when she would return. She thought of diversifying. She would add other products in her basket. How would she carry all that on the bus? Well, she thought, Dulmog could help her.
The jeepney had stopped, and Aling Sita and her daughter stood up to descend. Nina was still daydreaming. “Nina!” Aling Sita called out.
It was very dark along the mud path. The only light came from candles and kerosene lamps in the rows of billboards and corrugated aluminium-walled shanties. There were puddles here and there that shone in the dim lamplight. They passed one house with a small television wired to a generator. There were people watching the program from inside the house and others watching from outside, standing at the window and the open door. Nina followed Aling Sita, keeping her eyes on the ground because she didn’t want to step into one of those smelly pools of stagnant liquids.
They arrived at a wooden shanty, with steps that were made of bamboo halves. Nina entered the room, which was bare except for a table and two benches. A small kerosene lamp was on the table. On the wall were a crucifix and a rosary dangling from it. Thumbtacked under it was a picture of the Virgin Mary.
Aling Sita placed the vegetable bags in one corner of the room and went to her kitchen. There was a white metallic basin for a sink and a large plastic water container with a spigot. Nina could see a single charcoal stove, a pan and a pot hanging on hooks, a few plates, and peanut butter glasses. A young boy was sitting at the table counting coins and beside him were a few unsold newspapers.
“Is your father home?” Aling Sita asked her son.
“I think he’s next door watching television,” the boy said.
“May I help you with dinner?” Nina asked.
“Oh yes, please. Take the kangkong over there and cut them up. We will have some fried fish and rice.”
While they cooked, the little girl had set the table. The boy handed his earnings to his mother and went outside in the lamp-lighted street to play with a basketball. Outside the house, people walked by talking loudly. Apparently, the television show had just finished. The father came home with a friend.
“Sita!” the husband said in a loud voice. “Please add another plate on the table. Fred is joining us for dinner.”
Aling Sita and Nina came out of the kitchen. “Gino, this is Nina. She comes from Ifugao. She’ll be staying with us for the night.”
“Hello, Nina. Welcome to my castle. Please feel at home,” Gino said.
Fred looked at Nina and undressed her with his eyes. “Hello, Nina,” said Fred. “Will you be staying long in Manila?”
“I don’t know. I am looking for my friend, Berto. If I cannot find him, I will go back home.”
“Nina came to sell strawberries in Manila,” Aling Sita said.
Gino returned from the kitchen with a bottle of cheap rum and two glasses. Aling Sita went back to her cooking. “So you are looking for a job?” Fred asked Nina.
“Not really,” Nina answered. “I just want to sell some fruit and vegetables in the city.”
“Come and sit with us,” Gino motioned Nina to the table.
“That won’t earn you much,” Fred remarked. “I know something you can do that will make you a lot of money. You can be a maid or a waitress, serving drinks at a bar. You can make a lot of money abroad doing that.”
“Where is abroad?”
“Come with me tomorrow and I’ll show you. I’ll take care of all the documents. Gino here is a construction worker and I’m arranging for him to get a job in Saudi Arabia. Isn’t that right, Gino?”
“Don’t talk too loud, Fred. Sita doesn’t know it yet, and I don’t think she’ll be too happy if we drop it on her lap like that. You see, it will mean that we shall be separated. I won’t be able to support them abroad; but at least here life is cheaper, so I’ll be leaving her behind with the children. I’ll have to break it to her gently.”
Nina went back to the kitchen, leaving the two men to discuss their plans. The fried sardines smelled good to Nina. She was hungry. Aling Sita was slicing some tomatoes and onions, and quartering a red egg. She sprinkled this salad with some native vinegar. She handed Nina the dish of fish and a bowl of rice to put on the table. She took the sautéed kangkong and the salad.
“Call your brother,” Aling Sita told the little girl.
They sat down, and Aling Sita murmured a little prayer of gratitude for their meal. Nina watched as they sat with their heads bowed and eyes closed.
“How was your day?” Aling Sita asked her husband.
Gino looked at Fred. “Sita, I have good news and bad news,” he began. “First, the bad news. The owners of the building under construction ran out of money. We are being laid off at the end of the month.”
Aling Sita had gone through so much financial hardships, she was not at all surprised by more problems of the same kind. She would have to have her little girl selling cigarettes in the street.
“I thought you city people were clever,” Nina remarked. “So, how could they have run out of money?”
“You see,” Gino replied, “the company directors first distribute among themselves the money they borrowed from the bank –this money allocated for building construction. Then they end up not having enough, so they sacrifice construction material quality or borrow more money from investors. When these don’t solve the money shortage, we’re the ones who suffer.”
“What’s the good news?” Aling Sita asked.
“Well, Fred can find me a job working abroad.”
“How much will you make?”
“About 30, 000 pesos a month.”
Aling Sita coughed in surprise. Gino was making less than a tenth of that. She thought of her children who could go to school, instead of working in order to make ends meet. She thought of the clothes she could buy for them, instead of the rags they were wearing now. She thought of moving to a better area of Manila. She thought of having a nice home. She thought of many things.
“When can you start?” Aling Sita asked.
Fred laughed. “First I have to take care of the paperwork,” Fred said. “I’ll do the same for Nina. There’s nothing to it. Both of you will be able to leave in a few weeks.”
Nina had been eating and observing this exchange. She watched Aling Sita’s reaction to the news of Gino going abroad. She concluded that it might not be a bad thing, this going abroad.
“You can stay with us,” Aling Sita told Nina. “I don’t think you will find your friend Berto.”