“Have you come to buy our kalabasa?” the woman asked as we reached the end of the rough road.
“We have come to climb the mountain,” I replied, much to her disappointment.
My friends and I were on a pre-Christmas road trip from Manila to Pangasinan. Hikers all, we were looking for a new mountain to climb, and a small topographic protuberance piqued our interest: the 376-meter Mount Amorong in the town of Umingan.
The expressways have made northbound travel much faster; it took us just three hours to reach Rosales. The breezy drive came to a halt, however, when we entered a rough “farm-to-market” road to reach what we hoped was the mountain’s trailhead in Barangay Luna Este. Fortunately, the locals confirmed our hopes, and assured us we could bring our vehicle — a regular sedan — up to the bagsakan: the point where they “drop” their produce.
It was at the bagsakan where we met the woman, Mary Rose, accompanied by her infant son, surrounded by sacks of kalabasa (squash). Like many in her village, she had been waiting for buyers to purchase their harvest, but so far, no one has arrived.
I asked her how much she sold her kalabasa.
“It used to be P10 per kilo, but now they say it’s just worth P5, or even P4. What can we do? We farmers are at the mercy of the buyers,” she said.
We tried to hide our awareness of Manila prices for kalabasa (P50-80 per kilo), fearing that such information will frustrate Mary Rose even more. But she was acutely aware of it: “We see in the television that prices are rising. Why are we made to sell for so low?”
It was Tatay Godong, Mary Rose’s father-in-law, who guided us up Mount Amorong. Though born in Abra, he had spent much of his life in Luna Este, and he gladly answered our questions about the mountain. Relaying the elders’ lore, he told us that it used to be densely forested, but the trees are mostly gone now, while the monkeys and wild boars have fled to the mountains of Nueva Vizcaya.
The conversation always went back to the kalabasa, because we encountered the so-called “cash crop” throughout the hike, with many of its fruits left to rot by the trail. “We should call it ‘kalabasa mountain’” Christian, the youngest in our group, said.
“You must have a lot of recipes for it,” his uncle Tony, an architect, remarked, and Tatay Godong agreed. A common one is a version of dinengdeng: kalabasa flowers with onion and bagoong, accompanied with as much rice as they could afford.
“Rice is still the major source of protein for many Filipinos,” Cha, a nutritionist, would later point out, adding that the saltiness of the bagoong likely made up for the lack of meat or fish in their diet.
After two hours of exploring the mountain, we reached its summit: a grassy ridge with views of the Cordilleras. Even there, the kalabasa vines crept, although we also saw the remains of a forest, blocking our hoped-for view of the caldera underneath.
“It takes around P5,000 to buy seeds, the abono (fertilizer), and the pangdamo (herbicide) — not including the labor,” Tatay Godong shared as we rested by the ridge. “Then you’re lucky to get 5 tons in three months.” At P5 per kilo, that’s P25,000.
“But there are debts that have to be paid, and we still have to spend for the next planting,” he added quickly. “And what if there’s a typhoon like ‘Ondoy’? Everything would be gone.”
The descent was straightforward, made refreshing by the December winds, and would have been unremarkable were it not for what we saw at the end of the hike: a truck at the bagsakan! Mary Rose was looking on as the men loaded the truck with their harvest.
When I asked how much they were buying it for, she whispered: P6. Six pesos! Not four as they had feared, or five as they had expected. Maybe not P10 as it ought to be, but P6 will do. At least it will give them enough to pay off their debts, and buy essentials. Perhaps there will be enough for a small Christmas feast….
We, too, bought some kalabasa — enough to fill the car trunk. And then, soon after exchanging holiday greetings, we bade Mary Rose and Tatay Godong goodbye, because, like the produce they worked hard to grow, we still had a long way to go.
Follow @gideonlasco on Twitter. Send feedback to [email protected]
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.