We Filipinos are Mild Drinkers
This story is dedicated to all drunken bloggers.
WE FILIPINOS ARE MILD DRINKERS
By: Alejandro R. Roces
We Filipinos are mild drinkers. We drink only for three good reasons. We drink when we are sad. We drink when we are very happy. And we drink for any other reason.
In 1945, the Liberation Forces landed in the Philippines. We Filipinos were very glad to see the Americans back, not so much because they were Americans but because they were not Japanese.
In our barrio, drunk Americans became a common site. A favorite story in the barrio then was that of a Yank soldier who stumbled with a bottle of whiskey in his pocket. According to the story, the first thing the G.I. did was to feel his pocket. Finding it was wet, he alarmingly looked at his hands: then, with a sigh of relief, he exclaimed: “Thank God, it is blood! I thought it was my whiskey!”
My first acquaintance with groggy GIs began one late afternoon. I was plowing our rice field with our carabao named Carpio. Disabled tanks and shot-down planes still cluttered the fields. I was barefooted and stripped to the waist. My hempen trousers were rolled up to my knees. My bolo was at my side.
An American soldier was walking on the highway. When he saw me, he headed toward me. I stopped plowing and waited for him. I noticed he was carrying a half-pint bottle of whiskey. Whiskey bottles seemed part of the American uniform.
“Hello, Joe” I said. “Any bars in this town?” he asked. That was usually the first question American soldiers asked when they visited our barrio. “I’m sorry, Joe,” I replied. “There are no bars in this barrio.” “Oh well! You know where I could buy more whiskey?” “No Joe, I am sorry. We do not drink whiskey.” “Here have a swig. You have been working too hard.” he said, offering me his half-filled bottle. “No, thank you, Joe.” I said. “We Filipinos are mild drinkers.” “Well, don’t you drink at all?” “Yes, Joe, I drink but not whiskey.” “What the hell do you drink?” “I drink lambanog” “Jungle juice, eh?” “I guess that is what the GIs call it.” “You know where I could buy some?” “I have some you could have, but I do not think you will like it.” “I’ll like it all right. Don’t worry about that. I have drunk everything — whiskey, rum, brandy, tequila, gin, champagne, saki, vodka.” He mentioned many more that I cannot spell. “Say, you sure drink a lot, don’t you?” “I not only drink a lot, I drink anything. I drank Channel no. 5 when I was in France. In New Guinea, I got soused on William’s Shaving Lotion. When I was laid up in a hospital I got pie-eyed with medical alcohol. On my way here in a transport I got soused on torpedo juice. You ain’t kidding when you say I drink a lot. So let’s have some of that jungle juice, eh?” I unhitched Carpio from the plow and massaged the back of his neck. “You sure loved that animal, don’t you?” Joe remarked. “I should.” I said. “It does half of my work.” “Why don’t you get two of them?” I made no answer.
After kneading the neck of the bull. I led him to the mud hole. Joe followed me. The beast lay in the mud and was going: “Whoooooooosh! Whooooooosh!”
Flies and other insects flew from its back and hovered in the air. A warm miasmic smell rose from the mire. When the first American troops invaded the Philippines in 1898, carabaos used to chase the Yankee soldiers off the fields. Now even the lowly water buffalo recognizes the American as a friend.
I scooped the turbid water and splashed it on his back. He rolled over and was soon covered with slime. An expression of perfect contentment came into his eyes. Then he swished his tail and Joe and I had to move back to keep from getting spattered. Presently I turned to Joe and said: “Let us go.” We then left Carpio in the plash and proceeded toward my house. Joe was curiously looking around. “This place is full of coconut palms.” he said. “Don’t you have coconut trees in America “No.” he replied. “Back in God’s country we have the pine tree.” “What is it like?” “Oh, it is tall and stately. It goes straight up to the sky like a skyscraper. It symbolizes the States.” “Well.” I said, “the coconut tree represents the Philippines. It stands up to the sky, but then its leaves sway down to earth as if remembering the land that gave it life.”
In a short while we arrived in my nipa hut. I took the bamboo ladder and leaned it against a spiny tree. Then I climbed the ladder and picked some kalamansi. “What is that?” Joe asked. “Philippine lemon,” I answered. “We will need this for our drinks.” “Oh chasers.” “That is it Joe. That is what the soldiers called it.” I filled my pockets with kalamansi and then went down. I went to the garden well and washed the mud from my legs. Then we climbed up into my hut. The rubescent sun was fast sinking against a roseate sky. Dusk came with the setting of the sun. So I filled a coconut shell with oil, dipped a timsin wick in the fluid, then lighted the wick. It produced a wavering, dull yellow light. I unstrapped my bolo and hung it on the wall. “Please sit down Joe.” I said. “Where?” Joe asked looking around. “Right there.” I said, pointing to the floor.
Joe sat down on the floor. I sliced the kalamansi in halves, took some rough salt and laid it on the foot high table. Then I took my bottle of lambanog from the kitchen and handed it to Joe. Joe removed the dalino stopper from the bottle, sniffed the contents, and then said: “It smells OK. What is the stuff made of?” “That is from the coco palm, Joe.” I said. “Oh, is this jungle juice?” “No Joe, that drink is not from the fruit. That is tapped from the tree itself.” “I see.” Joe said.
Lambanog is a potation procured from the coconut bud, with pulverize mangrove bark thrown in to forfend spontaneous combination. It has many uses. We use it as a remedy for snake bites, as a counter-active for malaria chills, as an insecticide and for tanning carabao hide. If you imbibe enough of it, your senses amalgamate and you get to hear three-dimensional rondalla music in color.
“Would you like some water to mix with your drink?” I asked Joe. “Nope” Joe said, holding his palm before me. “There are two things that all red-blooded Americans love naked. One of them is his drink.”
Joe punctuated this statement with a knowing look.
I poured some lambanog into two polished coconut shells and gave one of the shells to Joe. I diluted my drink with some of Joe’s whiskey. It became milky. We were both seated on the floor. I poured some of my drink on the bamboo floor. It went through the slits to the ground below.
“Hey what are you doing?” Joe asked. “throwing good liquor away?” “No Joe” I said. “It is the custom here always to give back to the earth a little of what we have taken from the earth.
“Well” he said, raising his shell, “here’s to the end of the war!” “Here is to the end of the war” I said, also lifting my drink. I quaffed my drink down and followed it with a slice of kalamansi dipped in unrefined salt. It made my stomach all sunshine. Joe lushed his drink but reacted in a peculiar way. His eyes popped out like a frog and his hand clutched his throat. He looked as if he swallowed a centipede. “Quick, a chaser!” he said. I gave him a slice of kalamansi dipped in coarse salt. He squirted it to his mouth. But it was too late. The kalamansi did not help him. I don’t think even a fire extinguisher could have helped him. “What is wrong Joe?” I asked. “Nothing.” he said. “The first shot always affects me this way.” He was panting hard and tears were rolling down his cheeks. “Well the first drink always acts like a mine sweeper,” I said. “but this second one will be smooth. I filled his shell for the second time. Again I attenuated my drink with Joe’s whiskey. I gave Joe his bowl. I noticed that he was beaded with perspiration. He had unbottoned his collar and loosened his tie. Joe took his stuff but did not seem very anxious. I lifted my shell and said: “Here is to America!” I was trying to be a perfect host. “Here is to America!” Joe said.
We both consumed our cordials. Joe again reacted in a funny way. His neck stretched out like a turtle’s. And now he was panting like a carabao gone amok. He grasped his tie, threw it to one side, and said: “Oh Christ, for a while i thought it was my tongue!” After this he started to tinker with his teeth. “What is wrong Joe?” I asked, still trying to be the host of hosts. “Plenty! This damned stuff has loosened my bridgework.”
As Joe exhaled, a moth flying around the thickening flame fell dead. He stared at the dead moth and said: “And they talk of DDT.” “Well, how about another draw?” I asked. “It is what we came here for.” “No thanks.” he said, “I’m through.” “Surely, you will not refuse my hospitality?” “OK. Just one more.”I poured the juice in the shells and again thinned mine with whiskey. I handed Joe his drink. “Here’s to the Philippines!” he said. Joe sipped his drink. I could not see very clearly in the quivering light, but I could have sworn that I saw smoke come out of his ears. “This stuff must be radioactive!” he said. He threw the remains of his toddy on the wall and yelled: “Blaze goddamn you, blaze!” Then just as I was beginning to get thirsty, Joe began to act in a very unaccountable manner. He fell into the delusion that I was a Japanese. Warning me not to try to escape, he demanded my unconditional surrender. He wanted to know why I had bombed Pearl Harbor and committed so many atrocities when Americans had never done them any harm. I had a difficult time trying to convince him that I was anything but a Nipponese and that I had never dropped bombs on Pearl Harbor or anywhere else, for that matter. In short, that I was what I was – Just a poor Filipino boy trying to get along.
I tried offering him another drink. He declined, saying that he could not be bribed with sake but that he was going to make things easy for me at the War Crimes Commission if I fixed him up with some geisha. He said he was privy to all the war atrocities that I had perpetrated, but he was a personal friend of General Douglas MacArthur, I need not worry. He had no racial prejudice, he said, and insisted on proving this point with a Japanese josan.
Then, desperately impatient for his kimono girl, he grabbed my arm, pulled me toward him, and offered me black market goods in exchange — cigarettes, chocolates, canned goods and jeeps.
It was at this stage that Mother walked into the house. Mother was ten years older than the century. And even in the glimmer, she bore no resemblance to a geisha. Nevertheless, Joe mistook her for one. With great effort he got up on his feet and wobbled toward Mother. Mother ran out of the house screaming with Joe in hot pursuit. She unofficially broke several Olympic records that evening. They located her twenty minutes later. Some say she was still running amain when they found her.
Her screams alarmed the entire barrio. Everyone came out armed with rifles, pistols, spears, bolos and knives. They all thought that Japanese interlopers had penetrated the village. Joe narrowly escaped being shot for a straggler. He staggered from side to side then his legs turned to noodles and he collapsed on the ground — flat as a starfish.
Our wassail was over. It just just goes to show you that one man’s drink is another man’s poison.
I knew that the soldiers had to be back in their garrison at a given hour. And since Joe had been a compotator, I felt it my obligation to take him back to camp. Our drinking together was like a bloodless compact.
I tried to lift him; it was like hefting a carabao. Four friends had to help me carry Joe. The white man had become the brown man’s burden! IN VINO VERITAS! We placed him on a carabao-drawn sled. I took my bolo from the house, strapped it on my waist, and proceeded to take Joe back.
After two hours, I arrived at the plane field. I found out which tent he belonged to and took him there. His friends helped me to take him to his cot. They were glad to see their bottle-fatigued buddy back.
Everyone thanked me for taking him home. As I was leaving, one of his friends called me and said: “Hey you! How about a can of beer before you go?”
“No thanks.” I said, “We Filipinos are mild drinkers.”