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True or false

I’ve written many times about the area of the Quiapo Church (more correctly, the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene) and its many magical worlds, particularly the “Quiapo Medical Center,” which we assign to Level 4 students in the UP College of Medicine to explore, so they can get a glimpse of folk medicine.

Of course, there is no “real” Quiapo Medical Center in the sense of a building or institution. Instead, we have the church, the plaza and the side streets. People think immediately of medicinal plants, but, through the years, the vendors have diversified their wares.

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“Medicinal plants” is a misnomer because we have both flora and fauna, as well as all kinds of minerals, from tawas (potassium aluminum sulfate) to incense. Then you have the amulets, charms, scapulars and all kinds of religious images and objects, and so much more—but I’m not going to give the entire range of this outdoor supermarket.

My latest foray to Quiapo last Saturday was indeed to prepare for a lecture on the Quiapo Medical Center, but the trip produced some surprises.

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The only time I had for the Quiapo trip was right before the lecture, and I knew I only had about half an hour to go around and pick up stuff. I got the driver to park on the other side of Quezon Avenue and, with my 8-year-old daughter — she’s the adventurer and scientist in the family — went into the underpass. It’s a place I used to call the armpit of Manila, but it really has become much cleaner, and safer, through the years.

‘Totoong Hula’

The first stall that caught my attention had a sign that read “Totoong Hula.” I laughed aloud, my first reaction being: What an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Real fortune-telling
versus fake ones?

But then maybe it made some sense. You pay someone to forecast your future, knowing deep down it’s, well, all guesswork, which is “hula” in the sense of guessing. You want it, of course, to be true (“totoo”), and anyone who has gone through a fortune-teller knows they will, inevitably, have elements of “truth” in what they tell you.

As my daughter and I walked past the stalls, I realized the underpass wasn’t just a way to get to Quiapo Medical Center. It was a satellite clinic, especially with the “Totoong Hula.” What I didn’t see, but suspect they’re still around, were other forms of “totoong hula”: lotto and sweepstakes sellers, long part of the urban landscape.

Going to Quiapo can and should be a form of walking meditation. If you use the LRT, you need to walk up the station to catch the train, then get off and walk down at Carriedo station. Or if you take a bus or jeep, you get off near one of the pedestrian overpasses, walk up and cross over to the other side.

The underpass is my preferred route because there’s so much to see inside, underground, and as you leave the underpass, you see the basilica looming in the horizon.

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I was still thinking of the “Totoong Hula” as I moved around Plaza Miranda, in front of the church. I was doing things almost mechanically, knowing what to buy. My shopping bag filled up right away with “pito-pito” (seven leaves of seven plants), and various plants for bathing after child delivery to prevent “binat,” which translates as relapse but refers more to body aches and pains.

Quiapo is full of remedies for all kinds of maladies, but these usually involve pains, real or imagined. Often enough, they’re emotional pains that need comforting, or more drastic action. You can buy black candles, shaped like humans, which you burn upside down. “Pangkonsensiya” — to gnaw away at the conscience of the person who wronged you.

Lately, the vendors have started offering maroon candles which you burn to wish someone well. Maroon is the color of the Nazarene … and also of UP.

I picked up other stuff and looked, unsuccessfully, for the fortune-tellers. They used to be in front of the mall with mainland Chinese vendors selling cell phones, paste jewelry and accessories.

It was two years ago, I think, when a dealer showed me a power bank stamped Samsung and claiming 20,000 mAh (milliampere per hour) of reserve power. Preparing to bargain, I asked the businessman, in Chinese, how much it was, and was shocked at how cheap it was. I looked him in the eye and asked, again in Chinese, if it was “real,” meaning “totoong” Samsung.

He laughed: “jen jen jia jia”—true true, false false.

“Totoong Hula” may as well have been “jen jen jia jia.”

I got amulets and a Saint Benedict’s medal for P50—“Class A,” the vendor said, meaning it wasn’t the original. I couldn’t find crocodile penises, which used to be a best-selling aphrodisiac. Everyone kept referring me to “Igorot,” one of the vendors, but when I finally found her, she said she had run out of the item, too. A vendor near her stall asked if I wanted to get elephant penises instead.

“Totoo?” I challenged her, and she cackled, “Totoo!”

Surreal

I knew I had to get back to the car, but my daughter wanted a doughnut and I obliged, thus discovering that the fortune-tellers were now clustered near the Dunkin’ Donuts shop.

With her munching on her doughnut and me lugging the plants and amulets and candles, we took a shortcut through the church out to Quezon Avenue. I wanted to go to the Raon overpass, which is another satellite clinic—let’s call it the urology section—but realized it was too far away. So I stopped by one last stall to ask for “pampabalik ng regla” — something to restore menstruation, but said to be a euphemism for abortifacients.

I will tell you categorically that these do not work as abortifacients. The vendors have the Western drugs that do work, but which can still be problematic (including, yes, fake ones).

The vendor gave me a bottle labeled “Gamot para sa Binat.” I said, no, I need “pampabalik ng regla.” She whispered in Filipino, “This is it. The label is a front,” using the English term.

The surreal day hadn’t ended. On the way to Escolta, right after crossing Quezon Bridge, my driver took a wrong turn into a lane supposedly only for public utility vehicles and was accosted by a traffic aide, who for about five minutes was intent about issuing a ticket. My driver tried to wiggle his way out, explaining he was not from Manila. The aide said he was issuing the ticket for a lesser offense, the fine being only P500 instead of P2,000. My driver whined, begging to be allowed to just pay the fine.

“Ay hindi puwede,” the traffic aide countered, going into a long explanation about how they were not “that way.” But because he kept declaring his honesty, I knew he was on the take. The script was beginning to get tedious.

He finally let us go.

“Totoong Hula.” “Jen jen jia jia.” It isn’t just Quiapo that’s surreal.

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TAGS: medicinal plants, Michael L. Tan, Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene, Pinoy Kasi, Quiapo Church, Quiapo fortune tellers, Quiapo vendors
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