Rites of May

This is my column today, May 4, 2014.

While on official business in the South towards the weekend, I chanced upon a Flores de Mayo activity inside a church one afternoon. The sight of kids streaming into the churchyard bearing flowers to be offered to the Virgin at the altar brought back powerful memories of many May afternoons spent in my hometown in Leyte where Flores de Mayo activities were an annual preoccupation that marked summer along with flying kites, climbing trees, making halo-halo with ice crushed manually using a kuskusan, and watching the grownups make fools of themselves in the various “benefit dances” (public disco that were supposed to be fund raising events) held in street corners at night. 
I thought of how my young nephews and nieces in Manila are spending their summer this year alternately sitting in front of the television set, the x-box machine, or their laptops.  Their parents - and this harassed uncle – are forced to intervene by introducing supposedly more productive pursuits that inevitably cost money such as trips to the beach or the mall.  When we were kids, we never ran out of activities during summer.  In fact, there was not enough time to do the many things we wanted to do.
First there was the Flores de Mayo.  In my hometown, this was not just a religious activity; this was a cultural tradition that got passed on through generations.  Each district put up a kapilya (makeshift chapel) on a roadside and families took turns being sponsors of the day for the whole month.  Being a sponsor meant being in charge of “decorating” the kapilya and yes, feeding the children merienda after the novena.  Decorating the kapilya was always an experiment in creativity – people used curtains, palm fronds, trees and branches, and yes, flowers.  Sometimes, the kapilya looked like an altar worthy of veneration; other times it would resemble a temple in the middle of a jungle.  The merienda was likewise a hit or miss proposition; part of the thrill was anticipation – sometimes, it was a feast of local kakanin, other times, it was just candies.
An important part of the novena was the offering of flowers to the Virgin and the shower of petals towards the end when everyone sang “Adios”.  Children would scour the whole town every afternoon picking flowers that they would offer to the Virgin and preparing small boxes of petals and cut leaves for the adios.  Kids being kids, the whole congregation would often break into fits of giggling when some naughty kid would sneak in ground leaves of plants that emitted foul odour forcing everyone to cover their noses and avoid being showered with the offending debris while trying to sing farewell to the Virgin. 
The grownups would also descend at the kapilya to partake of merienda and for shots of tuba (local coconut wine) but only after the novena.  And once everyone had their fill of the merienda, the procession to bring the wooden cross and the image of the Virgin to the residence of the next day’s sponsor would commence.  The procession was a display of homemade lanterns and spirited and often off-key singing of Dios ti salvi, Maria....  The districts had their own groupings for the Flores de Mayo but various community organizations likewise put up their own.  In particular, the bachelors and bachelorettes in our hometown engaged in a friendly competition as to which group had a more organized and more colourful Flores de Mayo and the nightly novenas did not only culminate in a festival of homemade delicacies and colourful processions, but often in “benefit dances” some featuring live bands which they called “combos.”  The whole town would therefore come alive at night as the various processions crisscrossed and intersected at various junctions.
Summer was also kite flying season.  We were fortunate to grow up in a town that faced the Pacific Ocean and powerful winds blew eastward all day long.  Back then, we made our own kites.  Sometimes, we pooled resources to make bigger kites – one time I remembered we succeeded in building a kite as big as a truck although it was a real challenge getting the darn thing airborne.  When I was a child, the competition focused on which created the loudest droning noise, which one could hold as many “letters” (strips of paper that were sent airborne through the string), etc.  Today, I understand the competition has become more brutal, with kites being made to fight with each other airborne and the winner ending up owning the losing kite. 
Summer was also time to learn some skills.  In my hometown, this meant swimming (the beach was within walking distance and we usually started our day by spending an hour or two there), strumming the guitar, or some native crafts such as learning how to build a bamboo toy gun with ground wet paper as bullets.  We also spent afternoons climbing santol, mango, star apple, or balimbing trees.  On weekends, or when we had extra time, we would ride our bikes to someone’s grandparents’ coconut farm and we would feast on young coconuts.  This was how I learned to climb tall coconut trees, open them, and yes, fashion spoons and scoopers out of coconut husks.
Every summer, an aunt who had a sizable rice plantation would sponsor a pinipig (rice crispy) party and we would all bring tents and sleeping bags to her farm.  After dinner, they would harvest rice, burn the stalks to roast the palay, and then pound the grains manually using a giant mortar and pestle.  The result would be crispy and fragrant pinipig.  We would pour carabao’s milk over the pinipig, add sugar, and enjoy the delightful concoction while swapping horror stories and watching fireflies dance around the trees.
Today, I understand families guard their trees and sell the fruits, there hardly any coconut trees left thanks to the super typhoon, and pinipig is bought ready to eat from stores.  Our kids learn culture through our stories, and sometimes, vicariously.


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