A few days earlier, while we had been lying around in Jen’s family home, trying to keep cool on another evening sticky with humidity, an episode of Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho came on TV which happened to showcase food in Iloilo. I watched with interest, and a desire to learn more about the city. Much of the narration went over my head, and I asked Jen to translate passages here and there, but I got the gist.
Ms. Soho highlighted Barangay La Paz and the origins of La Paz Batchoy, a meaty noodle dish whose origins seemed hotly debated, and Madge Cafe within La Paz market, a coffee shop that had been open for seventy five years. An ancient lola came on screen and told of how she had drunk their kape every day for decades. When the reporter asked how she had lived so long, both Jen and I knew what she would answer, and giggling, blurted it out with her: kape!
Their processes also looked interesting; the baristas in the cafe put on a show for the cameras, pouring their boiling coffee from eye level, and filtering their dark, native arabica beans through a colador (a long, netted strainer,) as it swished and spilled in streams into the mugs. I had to see this place.
And so we did.
Our eyes took a little while to adjust to the darkness of La Paz market after venturing in from the streets baking in the bright sun. It was mid-afternoon, on a mid-week day, in mid-summer. No wonder the market seemed a little dead, with a few stall owners standing lonely behind their tables, their distant silhouettes lazily fanning themselves.
When we got to the café, we found it half-full, and easy to get a table. Without writing anything down, the waitress took our orders for coffee and puto, a steamed rice cake, and brought it over five minutes later. The coffee was made simple and rich, using Filipino beans, and really hit the spot, despite the scorching heat we had endured while walking around. Here, feeling the timely swish of an overhead fan, I gladly took in caffeine and warmed my insides. Jen watched on as the barista performed the same fancy moves as we had seen on TV. Chyrel nibbled the puto and passed on to me. On the wall hung newspaper clippings about the coffee shop and all the VIPs that had visited, from politicians, to celebrities. I looked around for the ancient lola we had seen on TV, but she had probably been and gone.
I liked this place. I liked how it had been in business for generations. I liked they reused their waste bottles and empty metal cans for decoration, and used other cans as ‘takeaway cups’ for iced coffee. This history, and regard for recycling, is very rare in any coffee shop in the Philippines, where new chain shops are opening up every day, doling out substandard brews in un-recycleable ‘paper’ cups, and the hipster coffee shops in trendy neighbourhoods are out of the price range of the average Pinoy. I could see why this place is special to locals. I wouldn’t experience another café like this for the rest of the trip.
We ate La Paz Batchoy at Deco’s, but being out in the heat again had suppressed my appetite, especially for a dish where the steaming, comforting broth was the main draw, so I split my bowl with Jen.
After eating, we walked around the area, past family shops selling all manner of items, from groceries and discount clothes, to cheap electronics and fake Pokemon cards.
Walking around with these two, the stares on the street that would normally be directed at me, passed onto them. We walked by an inasal stand as a man was chowing down. Upon seeing Chyrel (and I kid you not), the man, mid-mouthful, turned an entire 360 degrees to watch her pass by him, and held his gaze and she walked down the street. His eyeballs may as well have bulged out of their sockets and dropped to the floor like a vintage cartoon character. Some Pinoys aren’t subtle with their staring, but I had never seen something so blatant before.
It reminded me of earlier that morning. As we had been having Breakfast in the Injap Tower restaurant, Jen had gone up to the buffet to get more food, and, with her blue hair and robe given to her by F when we had been in Manila, seemed to catch the attention of one of the waiting staff. As Jen sccoped food onto her plate, this girl took out her phone and seemed to be recording Jen, before pointing her out to her male colleague, who joined her in staring. After a minute, looked over her shoulder, and caught me eyeing them, at which point she whispered to her colleague who did the same, meeting my eye.
I had the urge to wave…
Iloilo museum is essentially comprised of one room. At the lower end, a children’s art workshop was in progress, and many of the kids looked up from their work to observe us as we walked in. The rest of the room housed the exhibits.
We were met by an enthusiastic lola, who gave us a tour speaking in both energetic English, and Hiligaynon (to Jen, as neither Chyrel or I could understand their dialect). She had been a school teacher: “Thirty one years in service,” she told us, and she reeled off information clearly and confidently as she took us around. Being only one room, the tour didn’t last long, but I appreciated her input, and we were left to browse at our leisure.
As usual, there were many religious exhibits, such as an ivory carving of Christ on the cross, blackened by the flames of an altar, but I was more interested in Iloilo’s pre-colonial days. The Museum itself appeared to be hazy on the subject, telling the tale of Iloilo’s creation by Malay Datus who had travelled over from Borneo in the year 1250, but admitting that it is probably a folktale. As with much of the archipelago’s history, not much is known for certain from before the Spanish came, but evidence of inter-island and international trade had been unearthed, revealing the Ilonggos’ extensive trading with the Chinese and other Asians.
Of course, many of the artefacts were also dedicated to the Philippine Revolution, Philippine-American War, and the Second World War. Weapons and clothes donned by Filipino generals hoping to liberate their country from over three hundred years of Spanish control lay in glass cases. Guns and Samurai swords left by Japanese soldiers, sat rusting, tame and harmless. In the middle of the room, a large triangular glass case of Japanese-issued Philippine centavos sat, completely worthless. ‘Mickey Mouse Money’, as our knowledgable lola described it. The museum was as much a museum of the country’s colonised past, as it was about Iloilo itself; a room filled with evidence of the Filipino’s fighting to be, finally, free, and acknowledged by the world. After 333 years of Spanish colonisation, and 47 years of American rule, the Philippines finally recognised as an independent nation in 1946.
After finishing our tour we decided it was time to leave. As Jen was in the bathroom, Chyrel and I waited outside alongside some children who had been attending the art workshop, hands and clothes splashed in coloured paint.
“Which country are you from,” one of the children asked Chyrel, and pulled a blank expression when she told him she was from the Philippines, too, as if this hadn’t been the answer he’d hoped for.
It always surprised me that people thought these two weren’t Filipino. I lost track of how many times Jen got asked if she were Chinese, Korean, or Japanese – she even had a group of kids screaming ‘Anyeonghaseyo! (‘Hello’, in Korean) down the street to her one morning when we were in Legaspi. Some Pinoys can jump to the conclusion that anything out of their perceived norm, whether it’s fashion or a particular feature, must be foreign.
The knowledgable lola asked us to sign the guestbook on the way out, and I was pleased to see quite a few international visitors, including others from Britain. It may be a modest museum, but its modest collection tells an interesting story.
* Header photography by J.Sevilla