We’re in Laoag city. Walking to the market this morning, the air’s warmth hugs my body. It’s eight a.m. and the sun’s rays are delicate but assuring. Getting anywhere requires the utmost alertness of the senses since the vehicular and pedestrian traffic are off the hook and sometimes indistinguishable one from the other. People just hang off the sides of buses, bikes and jeepneys, jumping on and off as they please. To cross the street is to risk being run down by a swarm of tricycles or a big truck carrying boxes of fruit or cases of glass bottles of coca cola.
We miraculously manage to arrive at the market. All of us. In one piece. As soon as we go into the tent we are enthusiastically approached by several vendors with menus all boasting a number of dishes I have never heard of. These women are brilliant; all four of us buy an empanada and watch as one woman’s experienced hands roll out the bright orange dough and stuff it with fresh papaya, mango, local longanisa and then crack an egg into it.
As our empanadas sizzle in the deep fryer we fidget with a box-like machine that apparently produces coffee. I jam a five peso piece into the money slot and a small paper cup pops out of the bottom of the box which then fills the cup with a murky liquid that looks just like river water. I shyly ask the empanada lady if this is normal. She shyly tells me to “taste” as though if I liked it she would confirm its normality but if I didn’t she would do what she could to remedy the situation, obviously eager to please. After I awkwardly and apologetically reject the river water, she makes me a new coffee. It’s sticky and sweet.
By this time the empanadas are hot and crisp. We sit down at a table with a red gingham plastic tablecloth, which is promptly equipped with local vinegar and banana ketchup. I douse my empanada in vinegar and crunch into it; the egg is yokey, the fruit sweet and the longanisa spicy and rich. I’m in the Philippines and I’ve just bitten into the beginning of a two month long oriental adventure.