“Wala kang kasama? Gusto mo samahan kita?” he called out in a language I thought I had left behind. He hollered again in the middle of the open-air fish market with lines of freezers and coolers that easily fit in hundreds of kilos of bounty staring back with glassy, unseeing eyes. Dawn air was just settling in but the market in Kota Kinabalu seemed like it had woken up even before the first sign of daylight.
Crouching on the floor along with other Malay vendors, a man with mismatched slippers caught my eye. He smirked and lit a cigarette, blowing smoke into the somber sky.
“Marunong ka mag.Tagalog?” I approached. His face coughed up a blank. The question was repeated, in English this time.
“Oh, we leahn. Plenty of Filipinos here.” he replied. He went on, reciting phrases foreign to him, saying in between puffs, “Anong pangalan mo?”, “Saan ka pupunta?”, “Ikaw lang mag-isa?” while tossing different types of fish in a single cooler.
True enough, there would be many encounters with kin during the trip. The attendant at the money changer, a Zamboangena, transacted in Bisaya. Salesladies from grocery stores laughed when they overheard snippets of our conversations in vernacular. There were several more from this wet market too – natives from Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-tawi – many of whom came via the easiest route, a two-day open sea cross from Zamboanga to Sandakan, the second-largest town in Sabah after KK.
Mismatched Slippers called them “fresh catch”. Some were just a few days old, speaking very little, listening to the fast pitched exchange of Malay so different to the hard drop of syllables at home. Those who spoke to me though were more confident, easily switching from Filipino to Malay, shifting from one language to the other unconsciously. Two identities trapped in a single body.
A fresh catch had just arrived at the port connected to the market’s open deck, their scales still glistening, ready to be deboned, descaled. I had to stop Mismatched Slippers and hurried off to take shots of children from nearby islands lugging buckets of fish from multi-colored flatboats.
“Oi, Mahal Kita!” he called out, and to demonstrate, got two parrotfish from the cooler beside him, letting their lips meet.
The Sunday Market in Gaya Street
To some extent, you find more affinity with countrymen when in foreign soil. There’s instant rapport in being siblings of displacement. In foreign land, one is acutely more aware of differences, and consequently, similarities of language, humor, shared features. To someone who has never lived in any place else, diaspora, this kind of scattering, is a source of constant fascination.
I envied them mostly. In my mind, the displaced had more depth, more layers to add to their beings, or perhaps it was the erratic sentiment of having never really belonged in the land where I was born. The concept of being in a new place seemed parallel to being reincarnated to a new life.
Had these people come from the starting point of wanting to leave home or wanting to find it, I wondered. The struggle is how to eloquently ask “Why did you come here?” that will garner more than a circumstantial “Because I had to.”
On my first day, I asked a Davaoena that very question. When she found out I was a tourist, not a worker, something in her did not want to answer.
It is market day in Sabah. The companion and I walked past the fisherman’s wharf, a platform with fish sculptures that transformed into a lover’s lane after daylight. We were on our way to the Sunday market in Gaya Street.
This was the same route from the night before. Then, it had been full of plastic tables and stalls selling “Special Durian” for eight ringgit, Goreng Kuih Lobah or squid in egg for six and different variations of cold tea with seaweed, aloe vera, fungus and chrysanthemum for three. Everything was a bargain, but mostly because one ringgit sounded so much cheaper than 14 pesos.
A flyer was posted on a bus stop from a management agency calling on “Warga Filipina”. Further along, right of The Guardian’s office, was Café Kinabalu, the start of the Sunday market.
In the first stall were Muslim women selling plantains, curry puffs, tapioca and khihbom, a bright pink version of the Chinese masi. They passed our questions on to each other, afraid to name specifics, bak kua, hokkien mee, mee goreng, as if they themselves heard the words through a foreigner’s ears, and in the deliberate slowness of spelling them out, syllabicating them, they sounded foreign even in their own tongue. But motivated by hunger, we passed the language barrier through gestures and grunts. Finally, they managed to sell to us a set of glutinous rice for ten ringgit.
There is no such thing as sectioning in a market like this. There was space for everything, it seemed, however unplanned the space may be. Freshly-ground coffee in transparent plastic bags stood just beside the cages of puppies and gerbils. Custards, doughnuts and chocolate éclairs were displayed next to the florescent-colored mini cacti. A Muslim musician played native music cross-legged on his display of drums and gongs and just across, a stall blared out the remnants of a bygone era, a soundtrack from old Chinese soap operas.
Merely looking at the deluge of baubles and figuring out function to fit form was a strain. We rested in the middle and found a tent that sold soya milk and tofu. After an exchange of grunts with the Chinese owner, her attendant, quietly listening at the back, asked “Pinoy mo?” She was.
Silken tofu, a version of taho, was called monggos, Dora said. She served us with a bowlful and twice the amount of syrup she would normally put. Monggos, unlike the local taho, had boiled soya beans as heavy topping, which made for a filling breakfast. Dora offered chairs behind the stall and we chatted in length to the chagrin of her employer.
The Sunday market was mostly made up of Chinese hawkers, she said. There were a sprinkle of Malay, Indian and Indonesian too, but they were mostly minority. Everything sold here were for tourists. We prodded Dora with question after question, excited by the ease of language, its tones, and the understood meanings that fall in between pauses. Just the week before, Dora joked, there was a big batch of Filipino tourists who asked just as many questions as we did.
Dora was apprehensive about disclosing particulars, only giving out her first name even when we asked for her last. She never revealed where she was from, how she got there, whom she was with. She only revealed that she hasn’t gone home yet. She will if she saves enough. When we requested if we could have a photo taken with her, she begged off on that too, quite apprehensive to be seen.
“TNT?” the companion whispered. We returned her plastic bowls, bade her goodbye, and wished her well.
Further along, “How about you take picture of us?” a Chinese white-haired grandfather in his undershirt requested as he slipped his hand over my shoulder. The wife, perhaps used to his antics, rolled her eyes and offered “Want to eat? Noodles good.” Lined with plastic tables from end to end, their shop was full even as early as seven in the morning.
On their display counter was a sign, a quote from a certain Master Cheng Yen, “Smile – if we want others to smile at us, we need to smile first.” We moved on with a smile plastered on, quite sure that we had just met the Master, and that he stood watch to scrutinize if we followed his mantra.
Unbeknownst to my companion, I came to the Sunday market with a mission. Find authentic teh tarik, and see the full exhibition of the light brown liquid being pulled back and forth on air by an expert vendor, forming the layer of foam it was so known for. That shouldn’t be too hard. The national drink of Malaysia was sure to be in every street corner.
I never found one. What I got instead was cold Chinese coffee tea from the handsome chiseled-faced second-generation owner of Legend Coffee House who allowed us to take a shortcut from their backend entrance to give a hurried depiction of kitchens and homes in Kota Kinabalu, small, with a chaotic efficiency.
His looks though didn’t save the coffee. The taste of teh tarik hung in the air, a flavor profile I had yet to taste but was sure I was going to like. Anything else was a disappointment. To enjoy secret markets perhaps, come with no specific prospects at all. The inconsistency of products that come in one Sunday and are gone the next, will dishearten. Come instead with nothing in mind and find in the end necessary irrelevances.
There were oversized sweet peas hanging on metal beams whose name sounded like patay, all types of meat topped with chili sambal sauce, coconut rice, rainbow line cakes, and animals that would still be turned into edibles – ducklings, chicks, rabbits.
There were also artisans and performers. A man of Indian descent practicing Chinese calligraphy on strips of pink paper and bookmark templates was surrounded by a long line of customers. Without looking up, he handed a flyer that said he, Huang Poh Lo, “Man below the Wind”, was the “only certified Chinese calligrapher” in KK.
The underlying organization amidst the haphazardness of markets seems to be the best antidote to the capitalized transactions of malls. In malls, everything is well-lit, clean and arranged with scientific expertise by a visual merchandiser for the “buying convenience” of the customer. No need to talk to anyone if you don’t want to. The product is there in idiot-free packages that can easily be brought to the counter as the final step to anonymity. Any form of intimation then seems to be more of an inconvenience in a building designed for anyone to come alone, and be fine with it.
Kota Kinabalu’s newest mall, Suria Sabah, seems to give out the same vibe and yet, I’m happy to see that there are more people in pocket, inconvenient places such as this that may very well bring an unsolicited remark or two.
In this market, the vegetables are strewn about, the clothes are stockpiled on top of one another and the merchants converse intimately, stuck more in tête-à-têtes with each other, that selling and sales become superfluous, just something to do with Sunday mornings.
If by chance you get to disturb them out of the affectations of their private worlds, the conversation will never be purely about the merchandise. It will most likely be followed by questioning eyes followed by a more direct “Where do you come from?” and “What are you doing here” a far cry from mall attendants who are instructed to be friendly but never overfamiliar. In street markets, there is no such thing as overfamiliarity, if you want a good bargain.
It is also, for many Filipinos I think, a connection to the familiar chaos of home in a city where the bus system is so efficient, it eradicates the use of most taxis, tricycles, motorbikes and all “road hazards” altogether. Streets are clean, not pristinely, but well enough that a person who has grown up with debris will start to miss its absence.
While bargaining on some handmade soap, it started to rain, a confusing combination of sunshine and drizzle; the kind that scattered people in different streams: front, back, inside shops, unto tents. The confusion was a slow seduction. And because all things that draw in also suspend time, we were still playing with Indonesian singing tops when the realization hit that we were 30 minutes late for another Gaya, this time an island.
Racing through Two Islands
“We were going to leave you.” said our companions who had been waiting in the bus all along. Part of me wished they did. But Sapi and Gaya offered a novelty that a collector of experiences couldn’t resist – the ability to race through two islands in one go.
What was charming on the onset about Sapi, the landing point of the two islands, was that it was a marine-protected area despite being just ten minutes away from mainland KK. Whatever commercial potential it might have had was placed on hold because fish needed to make more babies.
Just swim a few meters from the shore, and several hundreds of fish could easily be seen even when just snorkeling, attested the companion.
I was too busy consuming teh tarik, a canned version from a convenience store, to wander on to sea. An award-winning travel photographer was giving me free tips on my left while a business turned lifestyle writer was exuding the need for writers to be flexible on my right.
From our spot under a century-old tree, safe from the inconsistent play of heat and rain, we spotted Muslims taking a swim swathed in their hijabs. Koreans shaded themselves in their jackets, ankle-length skirts and oversized umbrellas. Europeans and Americans, on the other hand, seemed to be wary of umbrellas and utilized the sun in all their glorious undressed-ness.
The thought that Sapi was a contrast to the noise in the mainland was perhaps a thought stranded on the romance of islands. On weekends such as this, it seemed the whole of Kota Kinabalu (along with their karaokes and iPhones) had come to Sapi, and in its need to please, it transformed itself into a wonderland of sorts, offering activities – sea walking, snorkeling, banana boating, parasailing – sugar rush endeavors meant to give novelty seekers a temporary high.
Its highlight is an island to island zipline from Gaya, its bigger sister island, back to Sapi. On other days, Gaya was uninhibited. The only sign of tourism was a receiving area and some tents propped by the mountaineers in charge of the line.
On weekends though, tourists looking for curated danger are given the chance to cross over, hiking up to the starting point, clad in safety gear and harnesses. An iguana popped his head out of a bush in greeting and just as quickly disappeared into the dense forest.
The steel ramp was about 50 meters above sea level. In the near distance was the rainbow parachute of tourists parasailing below. I looked at them as my focal point and jumped off first.
The ride between the two islands was short, too short really, that a shout, in fear or victory, would have been premature. For a while though, there was the kick of being in two places at once, suspended meters above electric blue.
Ticking off the “must-do” for the day, the rest of the afternoon was spent checking out nooks, parts where the rest of the population don’t converge, an abandoned supply shack, a rocky cove covered by trees. Smelling lunch perhaps, a wild boar, its face caked with mud, lunged out of a rock bed on to the shore. Its narrow snout combed the beach for leftovers. It looked in my direction for a moment, its almost transparent pupils a sharp contrast to its black irises. It was unhurried in its movements, as if it weren’t scrounging but assessing its property, and was wondering why we were in it. It mesmerized me, as if it had come from another world, unperturbed by all the noise, until locals from a nearby picnic table banged plates and utensils to shoo it away. It walked back to the dense trees just as dignified as it came.
The day after, in the Southern part of Borneo, there was a wild boar’s head and its chopped parts displayed on a wooden table beside an ice cream store. It was a delicacy, I was told. The meat was gummy but had a unique smoky flavor. It was expensive too, close to 40 ringgit per kilo, about 600 pesos. Wild boars were a rare find, the attendant said.
Fortunately, lunch at Sapi wasn’t pork. During my whole stay in Kota Kinabalu, it seldom was. It was a combination of squid and beef grilled by Zamboangenos, and because we wanted to talk to them, we got second servings and stood around, telling jokes in native tongue. A companion volunteered to take over their jobs for a moment, if only for a chance to chat up the boys from Zamboanga. They’ve been working here for a good two, three, four, five years. Not one of them has gone home.
After lunch, the wind picked up, cancelling all sea activities save for one that utilized gales instead of veer away from them. I had never tried parasailing before. It was no surprise that the boatmen were natives from Zamboanga. We followed them in their custom parasail boats, its back flat, apt for takeoff and landing.
“Let me drive.” I told the navigator, scooting in beside him, spotting a chance to chat. Aim for the island, he instructed. Easy enough in open sea. There was nothing to hit. I started with the usual barrage of questions. How many years have you been here, where did you come from, how long do you still plan to stay? Finally, I asked, “Nagunsa man ka diri?”
I may have been waiting for a certain answer all along – a reflection of my own. I wanted him to say that there was poetry in distance, evolution in discomfort, new lives to live that can only be done away from the imagined boundaries of a homeland.
He only says “Kailangan man.” Because I had to.
This may be the only answer all of us may have the capacity to give. Who knows really why we feel compelled to leave, and to what extent is it by need or choice? One cannot question where he is leaving to without tugging on questions of where he left. Leaving even seems to build its identity from an omnipresent home, a world of both belongingness and isolation, even as we still question where home is. We may all be, no matter where we are, just fishes out of water.
This trip was sponsored by Cebu Pacific. Cebu Pacific flies thrice to Kota Kinabalu via Manila weekly. Catch Cebu Pacific’s flights to Kota Kinabalu on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.