Lessons from Watermelons
My first encounter with a watermelon was not at all ideal. It was on the kitchen counter. I wasn’t tall enough to see the top of the counter itself, so I could only make out the upper curve of something large and green. It was a quiet afternoon, no parents or yayas in sight, no one to ask what that thing was. Standing on the farther wall for a better glimpse or jumping up and down still didn’t give me the whole picture. I positioned a kitchen bench beside the counter and clambered up on it.
There it was against the splashboard—a huge blimp, an arm’s length of smooth yellowgreen with rounded ends. It felt cool to the touch and made a somewhat hollow sound when I tapped on it. But I could barely reach it. There was a whetstone against it so I took that out with the idea of rolling the thing towards me for closer inspection. I gave it a flick and it came. It didn’t stop.
It hit me in the chest and for a moment, cradling it, I thought the situation could be saved. But the weight was too much and it knocked me off the bench, I knocked the kitchen table over, the watermelon rolled over me and went splat on the floor. Mom appeared out of nowhere, mad as hell to see the orange juicy mess and madder still at my explanation: “It attacked me!” Years later, this experience helped me fully understand Newton’s Laws of Motion.
The watermelons of my youth came in different shapes and colors. Aside from the typical green striped sphere, there were egg-shaped ones and the aforementioned blimps, with and without the stripes. The innards were usually red, though there were yellow, orange, white, and pink ones. But they all had those hard flat drop-shaped seeds.
There was entertainment to be had eating watermelons with seeds especially during boring summer vacation days. Sitting in our tiled terrace, we had contests like who could spit a seed the farthest or spit out the most in a given time. The egg timer was commandeered for this event. Our ulterior motive was to lose it in the garden so the cook wouldn’t make soft-boiled eggs that all of us kids hated.
One day we had the idea of making butong pakwan. We put all the seeds we could spit out in one afternoon’s watermelon merienda on a baking tray. Actually it didn’t amount to much, barely a cupful. This was doused with salt and left in the garden to dry. We were saved from the gross results by fowl means. The birds and Mom’s free-range chickens got to them first.
Today’s almost-seedless watermelon hybrids are more convenient to eat (although the small soft seeds sometimes get stuck in one’s teeth). So where does butong pakwan come from? There are watermelons specially bred to have the most seeds and the least meat possible. It does not bear dwelling on how they shell the butong pakwan for special mooncakes.
Like mooncakes, watermelons used to be available only in season. Visiting my father’s friend’s watermelon farm one summer was a revelation. As if to make up for the dry dusty brown landscape, watermelons were everywhere promising juicy coolness in refreshingly green globes. My father’s friend said we could take home as many as we could carry at one time. But first we needed to know how to tell if the fruit was ripe.
No amount of knocking on the shell is going to indicate that. Watermelons have to be picked ripe, as they aren’t going to ripen on their own off the vine. Rather than have a bunch of people thumping them in a field prior to harvesting, watermelons signal when they are ready. The fruit is attached to the main trunk by a short fat stem. Directly opposite the fruit’s stem on the trunk is a thin, leafless shoot. Once this shoot dries up, the watermelon across it is ripe for the picking.
That a watermelon is going to tell anyone ‘eat me now’ is a wonder. It is also a wonder if one can carry more than two at a time. Perhaps equally wondrous is that we brought home 22 watermelons, which caused the back of the car to droop, which my father had to explain to the policeman who stopped us.
Is there a food or home-making magazine that hasn’t featured carving a watermelon into a decorative container? It’s relatively simple to do and can spark many creative ideas. One of these is carving them into jack-o-lanterns, which my cousins and I did one summer. This was before Hallmark introduced Hallowe’en as a commercial holiday.
Between trying to outdo each other in the ‘scariest face’ category and our varied sculpting abilities, we managed to scoop out and carve seven watermelons into the most disgustingly gruesome jack-o-lanterns ever. Just before sundown, we put lit candles in them and lined them up on the adobe fence facing the street. We were delighted with the startled reactions of passers-by and even more gratified when a small crowd began to gather. The noise attracted the attention of the neighbors, and the lady who lived across called the barrio captain. The commotion also roused our terriers who added to the ruckus by barking.
Anyone who has Jack Russells will know that these dogs can jump. Ours routinely jumped on and over the fence. And so they did now, scattering people and lighted watermelons onto the road. A neighbor driving up the street veered to avoid humans, canines, and burning fruit, and crashed into his gate that was just then being opened by the maid.
The expected recriminations and punishment followed but I have never been sure what the moral of this story is. Mom had the adobe wall topped with cyclone wire fencing, which subsequently supported lush bougainvillea vines.
Not all watermelon encounters need be so calamitous. There is just something inherently cheerful and comic about watermelons that make them susceptible to misadventures. One wouldn’t serve them at a funeral. God forbid anything else dreadful should happen on that occasion. But they seem to fit right in with kids, family get-togethers, and summer.
And the beach. Is there anything so fine as eating a wedge of cold watermelon sprinkled with coarse salt while sitting waist-deep in the clear blue waters of a white sand beach? So watermelons were a staple at picnics in Catbalogan, Samar, my father’s seaside hometown.
One summer, my cousins had some Manila friends over for a couple of weeks. This meant beach party every day and dance party every night. As a change of pace, a cousin suggested we bring the visitors hand-line fishing, then go on to one of the islands for a picnic lunch. A large motorized banca, good for 20 people, with a little cabin and a tolda (a removable tarpaulin roof) was hired for the fishing party. We also borrowed one of my uncle’s smaller bancas to load the picnic fixings and to bring those, like me, who didn’t want to go fishing straight to the beach.
After dropping us off, the fishing cousins had the little boat go back to where the big banca was anchored in deep water. With the superior nonchalance of ‘natives’, they wanted to show the Manileños how leisure fishing should be done. Six of them had transferred to the small banca, disported themselves in various prone positions like basking seals, with the hand-lines looped around ankles, toes, and even ears. By contrast, the visitors were taking the sport seriously. Decked out in life-jackets, liberally coated with sunblock, they quietly sat and concentrated on feeling the slightest twitch on the line that meant a nibbling fish.
A large splash and some shouting caught our attention as we idled on the sand. This was followed by laughter. We could see the boats rather far apart and way off, halfway to the horizon. Then the laughter turned to cries for help. On the big boat we could see silhouettes standing and gesticulating. There was no one in the small boat and it was drifting on the current out to open sea. We could barely make out heads and other stuff floating on the water. One of the ‘natives’ had decided to reach out or get up for something and unbalanced the banca. This dumped everyone and everything into the sea. The banca righted itself because of the outriggers, but unmanned and somehow unanchored, it went floating out of reach. I can’t speak for the swimming abilities of my cousins but the big boat was pretty far off from them, too. We could see the boatman throwing them lines and nets, and the island’s bantay had set out in his even smaller banca to help.
In the end, human assistance was of no avail. My cousins paddled for half an hour up to the beach, soaked, tired, egos bruised, each clutching a watermelon that had floated them to shore.
Story and Illustrations by Bettina Muñoz