What we had was the ‘siyam-siyam’
What we experienced in the last two weeks is what the old folks call “siyam-siyam” (literally, “nine-nine”)—nine days and nine nights of continuous rains. Though it brings untold misery in the cities, it is what rice farmers in the provinces wait for. The farmers do not begin to plow their fields until the “siyam-siyam.” Traditionally, it signals the official start of the rainy season.
The rains soak the fields that have been baked dry and hard by the long hot summer. The soaking softens the soil, and the farmers can now begin to plow and harrow their fields. Palay seedlings have to be planted by hand in mud in backbreaking toil immortalized in the song: “Magtanim hindi biro/maghapon nakayuko (Planting rice is never fun/bent from morn till the set of sun).”
This deluge, however, came late. Many fields have already been planted. The fields of early planters are ready to harvest and the floods could have damaged the crops. Ripe palay rots or sprouts in floodwaters. Farmers, therefore, have to time their planting just right.
During floods, some farmers, with the help of neighbors, harvest their rice crops prematurely. The palay is not yet ripe but at least a part of the crop can be saved.
The news in the Inquirer yesterday that the heavy rains had caused fishponds in Pampanga to overflow and the fish to escape reminded me of the floods in my hometown of Malabon, then the fishpond capital. Our housing compound there was like an island, surrounded by fishponds that were fed with seawater by the Catmon River, a tributary of the Tinejeros-Tullahan River.
During heavy rains, the water in the river, especially during high tide, would slowly rise to spilling level. The water in the fishpond, fed by rainwater flowing from the land all around them, would also rise. A bank of the river, weakened by the holes that crabs had burrowed, would cave in, allowing river water to rush into the fishpond. Soon, the water would spill over to the adjoining lots and streets.
With the water went the fish, and it would be a free-for-all in the neighborhood.
Children and adults chased the escaped fish in their backyards and in the streets, using all sorts of gear to catch them: nets, three-pronged spears, bamboo traps called “salakab” and even pieces of firewood with which the people clubbed the bigger fish on the head. Children chased the fish in the shallow water with their bare hands.
Our house on the island had a basement. When the pond overflowed into our yard, the water—and the fish—also entered the basement. When the flood ebbed days later, the fish were left behind in the basement, and we could hear them splashing there. We fed them leftover rice. The bangus, which are vegetarian, we fed “lablab” (algae or moss) from the ponds. Whenever we were short of fish for our meals, we would catch some in the basement.
At other times, before the ponds reached spilling level, fish we called “liwalo” and others “martiniko,” using their spiny fins, climbed the banks against the flow of the water as if they were swimming against the current of a rushing stream. We would sit by the window and watch them inch up the banks to our backyard and swim in the shallow water there. Later, we would go down and catch them with bamboo traps or our bare hands. We would put them in stone jars called “tapayan,” feed them leftover rice and fish, and catch and cook them as viands when needed.
The liwalo or martiniko is about six to eight inches long, with firm flesh. Broiled over hot coals, it exuded such an aroma that made one hungry. Eaten hot with steaming rice and soup, with either vinegar or fish sauce, it is a most enjoyable meal during cold rainy days.
The floods that brought fish into backyards made for a time of plenty and joy for the neighborhood residents, and a time of sorrow for the fishpond owners who would lose their investments.
Living in the middle of and beside fishponds, you would never want for food. It was easy to catch small fish with a hook and line using tiny bits of fish or shrimp as bait. Indeed, fishing was a form of play for the children. One of the favorite pastimes of the boys and girls in our neighborhood was picnicking on what we could catch and gather. The boys would catch the fish, the girls would gather the vegetables and tamarind fruits for the “sinigang.” The boys would gather dry firewood, and the girls would cook the rice and “sinigang.” We would arrange banana leaves on the ground, spread the rice, fish and vegetables on them, then gather around and eat what to us then were the most delicious meals in the world.
Old women preferred to catch frogs instead of fish. The frogs hid under the grass growing on the banks of the ponds. The women used earthworms as bait. The fishing lines had no hooks. For some reason, the frogs refused to let go of the bait even when they were hoisted into the air. For the same strange reason, they would let go once they were dropped inside cloth bags carried by the women.
In the old days, around September was the time of the crabs in the river and fishponds. The crabs were small and we called them “pehe” but they were generally known as “talangka.” They swam in great numbers in the Catmon River and we would sit on the wooden bridge over the river and dangle pieces of meat or fish innards to them at the end of lines from short fishing poles. The lines also had no hooks. Like the frogs, the crabs would grab the bait with their claws and wouldn’t let go until they were dropped into cans from where they could not climb out.
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