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Chocolates and crocodiles

When the rain pours and makes the Pasig river swell, I notice that the normally dark and stagnant water turns a shade lighter, and the stench momentarily wafts away.  When the Pasig throws up all the garbage stupid people have thrown into her I realize we never get the message. There was a time, judging from my mother’s childhood memories, when people could swim or wash clothes along the riverbanks, a lost time before the Second World War when the Pasig was clean and clear enough to sustain fish. The Pasig I see today seems so deadly that one drop from it can kill an elephant. However, there is a positive side to everything, including pollution. After reading early Spanish accounts of the Pasig I realized that perhaps the only good thing pollution has done to the Pasig was to rid the river of crocodiles.

According to the 17th-century Jesuit Pedro Chirino, there were so many crocodiles in the Pasig, it was as dangerous as the Nile in Eygpt. The famous scene of the crocodile in the fish trap in Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” was probably drawn from his experience or stories he heard about crocodiles in his time. The late Lamberto V. Avellana, National Artist for Film [and husband to National Artist Daisy Avellana] once told me about his film version of the Noli that was never completed. The way he narrated the treatment he wanted for particular chapters was an indication that he could have shot the most realistic version of the struggle between Elias, Ibarra and the crocodile. Avellana didn’t want to have Elias rolling about in a swimming pool with a cardboard crocodile like those made during the fiesta of Santa Marta who is venerated by towns down the Pasig.  Avellana wanted a realistic water scene, not some tried-and-tested trick from a Tarzan movie. He wanted to shoot in a real river, with a certified box-office action star, and a live but toothless crocodile drugged for extra measure. Naturally, all actors who read the script backed out, and when Avellana asked Fernando Poe Sr. to try it out he replied with a crisp expletive too colorful to print here.

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Back to Fr. Chirino and his report on the Philippines in 1600. Here we find a reference to a newly converted Filipino chief who tackled a crocodile in the river armed with nothing but his bravery and a knife. He escaped with mere scrapes on his leg and scratches on his head but the vanquished crocodile measured 36 feet in length from its monstrous head to the tip of its tail. It had a breadth, at its widest, over six feet. We do not know what tape measure Fr. Chirino used on that crocodile since he mentioned a “smaller” one that was fifteen feet long! When this “small” crocodile was killed and ripped open it revealed its lunch and dinner menu that consisted of an assortment of bones, including 15 human heads! Next time I hear someone complain about crocodile skin bags, belts, and wallets, I should remind them of Chirino’s crocodiles.

The inclement weather kept me indoors with a cup of hot chocolate that also reminded me of the two types mentioned in the “Noli Me Tangere”: chocolate eh and chocolate ah. These would have been forgotten by our generation if they weren’t placed on the menu of the iconic Café Adriatico and all of the LJC restaurants. Rizal said that the quality of hot chocolate was measured by its thickness and the amount of water placed in it. Depending on your importance to the parish priest or your social standing you were served one or the other. Chocolate eh was espeso and served to important guests while the Chocolate ah was the aguado or diluted watery chocolate served ordinary guests or callers. When Rizal wrote his novel in the late 19th century, chocolate was already allowed men of the cloth. In previous centuries chocolate was considered a stimulant. Fr. Horacio de la Costa in his work “Jesuits in the Philippines” mentioned that chocolate was not allowed because it was considered an aphrodisiac.

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We miss references to food in Rizal’s novels because teachers tend to focus on nationalistic symbols and imagery that may not have been intended by Rizal. The food references reveal much about Rizal’s taste and how Filipinos in his time ate. In the picnic chapter there is a reference to different beverages: Capitana Tica claims nothing can compare with salabat (ginger tea) taken early in the morning before leaving for mass. Salabat and puto (rice cake) were said to fortify prayer. Coffee was an alternative that according to Sinang induced happy thoughts and lifted the spirits. Tea with galletas (cookies) was supposed to tranquilize brooding people. Chocolate was best taken at breakfast, and not very late in the day.

An American traveller in Manila at the turn of the 20th century described the breakfast at his hotel as follows: “consisted of a cup of thick chocolate, a clammy roll, and a sort of seed-cake without any hole in it. How to drink the chocolate, which was thick as molasses, seemed to be the chief question,  but I rightly concluded that the seed-cake was put there to sop it out of the cup, after the fashion of blotting paper.”

Crocodiles are now found in zoos, and hot breakfast chocolate of the instant or three-in-one kind is not what it used to be.

Comments are welcome in my Facebook Fan Page.

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Chocolates, Crocodiles, History, Looking Back, Noli Me Tangere, opinion, Pasig River
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