The price of mangoes

The price of mangoes

There is a sprawling mango tree that looms over my backyard, but it belongs to my neighbor. Every January, it sprouts clusters of tiny white flowers, signaling the coming of mango season. These hint that I will soon be waking up in a smoke-filled bedroom from our neighbor’s annual pausok. Here, some people burn dried leaves and sticks, and direct billows of smoke towards a fruit tree. It is meant to drive off pests, while the ashes are raked into the roots as fertilizer.

Nearly suffocated, I jump out of bed, stumble out into the backyard, and drag my stepladder against the wall separating our lots. I climb up and peer through the dark acrid smoke spilling out from the other side.

Lolo Del,” I yell at the old man whose hearing gets worse each year. I may be angry, yet I still address him as Lolo—Grandfather.

“Can you please put the fire out? We can’t breathe!”

“I just started,” he yells back, sweeping more leaves into the fire.

“Please, put it out. We have somebody with asthma.”

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, it’s fine.”

“Things are different now. It’s all houses. There’s nowhere for the smoke to go.”

I shout all my lines without thinking. This is the same conversation we’ve been having for years.

“This gets rid of the mosquitoes, so we won’t have dengue,” he says.

“That’s not true, po. Besides, there is a city ordinance—”

“It’s for the mangoes!”

Indian mangoes, we call them, from the Indian stock taken to the Philippines in some distant past. Unlike the larger, golden native mango varieties, these are best eaten manibalang—green, crunchy, tart with a hint of sweetness. Not ripe, just right. My mother relishes them with spicy bagoong, a salty fermented shrimp paste. Some of my neighbors eat them plain, a plate of mango slivers in their laps as they hang out and chat outside their houses. Some of them sprinkle it with salt. My partner adds a twist by throwing in some pepper. I, always the oddball, prefer them yellow, sweet, and so ripe, the soft meat is starting to fall apart.

The tree that gives us these mangoes is Lolo Del’s by right, as it’s rooted in his backyard. After he moved in 20 years ago, he gave my family permission to take as much fruit as we want from our side. Since the tree trunk rests against the wall separating our lots, half of the branches extend to my property. But a fringe of these mango-laden branches reaches my wall flanking the property of another neighbor, the Mendozas. The mangoes are ready for picking when the tree starts to pelt our yard and roof with its fruit. The entire season is punctuated with the sound of heavy fruit hitting soil, concrete, and meta—and measured footsteps on the creaky roof.

Usually, it’s just the pitter-patter of cat feet. But there’s also Mendoza feet. Those find their way over our adjoining wall and, without permission, tread on my old, brittle roof.

This particular neighbor’s idea of being neighborly is to gather mangoes from my side of the tree. Oddly, whenever I catch them trespassing, I always justify myself when I tell them not to do it again. I say termites have been eating away at my rafters, or their footsteps might further warp my metal roofing, or they might fall and it would be my responsibility. They nod and agree. But weeks later, they’re back.

I’ve considered reporting the matter to the village guard or the barangay tanod, the local authorities, but that’s an escalation. Yes, I’d be legally correct. But it’s not how we do things here. I’d have to tread carefully, in case the Mendozas retaliate in some way. Besides, what if they keep climbing over to my roof anyway?

I needed something stronger than a slap on the wrist or a blotter report, something with social consequences to enforce better behavior. They need to know that by walking on my roof, they are losing face in the neighborhood.

But I have to get the other neighbors on my side in the first place.

“You don’t know how to talk to your neighbors,” my partner observed after another episode of Lolo Del’s annual fumigation.

She was right. I’ve lived here all my life and yet I’ve never managed the high-context style of conversation everyone here is so adept at. When they say, “You’re getting fatter!” it is not an insult, it just means “Hello, I haven’t seen you in a while!” When they ask “Can I have some oregano?” they mean, “I want to ask a more personal question.” My problem is that I do not pick up on the subtext everyone else understands.

She suggested I change my approach. I may not pick up subtext, but I can pick fruit.

Along our backyard wall, facing the mango tree, grow my two langka trees. Known elsewhere as jackfruit, the langka has the same fruiting season as the mango. Langka fruits can be huge—one can feed an entire family of ten for days. Unripe, it can be cooked with coconut milk as a savory dish. When it becomes a rich, ripe yellow, it is sweet enough to be eaten on its own, or is added to turon—soft, fragrant langka meat rolled with bananas and sugar in thin rice wrappers, then deep-fried.

Lolo Del might have an overabundance of mangoes, but he doesn’t have langka. So when the langka ripened last year, I walked around to his street to bring him a fruit as big as my Beagle.

I was the last person the old man expected at his gate, bearing gifts. This time, we had a different conversation. He said that langka is his favorite fruit.

“I’m sorry about the smoke,” he said. “I’m old and it’s hard to change my ways. But I will. I won’t do my pausok anymore.”

“I’m sorry if I’ve been rude about it,” I said. “It’s never bothered us before, but the houses are so close together now. They’re built so high too. There’s nowhere for the smoke to go.”

“You’re right. It’s hotter now, too.”

“At least our backyard stays cool because of your mango tree.”

He sighed deeply. He isn’t fond of mangoes, he confessed. The tree is so prolific, he couldn’t give away the fruits fast enough. Every week he pays someone to clean up rotting fruit fallen among the leaves on the ground.

“Sometimes, I just want to cut it down,” he said. “But I don’t have the right. It was already growing when we moved in, so it’s a gift from God. Still, it brings me so many problems.”

“I won’t mind it if you cut it down. It solves my problem, too,” I said. “At least the Mendozas won’t be up on my roof all the time.”

“I see them up there sometimes,” Lolo Del said. “But I always thought they’d asked you first.”

Though I regularly gave away the mangoes to my nearest neighbors, after my genial chat with Lolo Del, I expanded “distribution.” I started giving mangoes to neighbors farther down the street, to a family who had just moved in, to my best friend’s parents in the next village. In exchange, I’d get updates on what my neighbors were up to, how their health was, and news about their relatives abroad. I was connecting with my neighbors in a way I never did in the three decades I’ve been here. I could run for mayor, my partner joked.

Even the Mendozas, I added to my route. I hadn’t bothered to share my harvest with them before, thinking they had enough mangoes growing on their side. Perhaps if I gave them more fruit, they wouldn’t climb my roof anymore.

But I was mistaken. The Mendozas became more brazen. They found nothing wrong with crossing over and climbing up my water tank—just a short jump and they’d land by my back door. Once, I caught strangers walking on my roof. When I called out to them from the yard, Mang Ernie, the Mendoza patriarch, raised himself up and peeked from behind our shared wall. Those guys were his cousins, he explained.

“If you need more mangoes, I’ll get them for you,” I said. “Just please don’t get on the roof. I don’t know these men!”

“I just wanted to share the mangoes with them,” he said.

“I understand but there are termites on the wood frames and I can’t afford to have them fixed if one of you breaks them.”

“You’re so modest, of course you can afford to fix it,” he smiled, expecting I’d be flattered. He then pointed at the empty flower pots behind me and said, “By the way, if you’re not using those, can I have them?”

This March, one Saturday morning, I heard the familiar creak and rattle of a person treading a metal roof.

I dashed to the kitchen and saw an unfamiliar man gathering mangoes from the Mendozas’ roof. The kitchen door was open halfway, so I sneaked behind it and watched him for a while through the slit between the door hinges. If he crossed our wall, I’d run out and tell him off…or something, I thought.

I was planning my move when I heard a water faucet being turned, water splashing, and then:

“Hoy! I don’t know you, who are you?” It was Lolo Del up on his water tank, about to do its regular cleanup.

Alma, one of the Mendoza women, came up from behind their side of the wall. “Lolo Del, we didn’t see you there! May we have some mangoes?”

“Sure. But be careful. Does Celine know you’re there? Where is she?”

“I don’t see her,” Alma said. Then, she pointed to the man on the roof. “This is my cousin, Nando.”

“Just don’t finish all the mangoes,” Lolo Del said. “Most of them aren’t ready yet. It’s not good for the tree if you take them all. And leave some for Celine.”

“Okay, Lolo.”

Throughout this exchange I stayed hidden. Lolo Del’s tank must have been extra clean that week, because he stayed on his post longer than usual. I realized he was also keeping eye on Nando, a stranger to both of us. We were two guards at our common border. I relaxed.

Then, Nando stepped onto the platform that led to my water tank.

“Hoy!” Lolo Del yelled. “Get down from there! It’s noon already. You’ve been there for how long? I already told you not to take all the mangoes. Why, are you going to sell them?”

Nando said nothing, stepped backwards, and retreated into the Mendozas’ veranda. I heard whispered conversation from behind the wall but couldn’t make out the words. I came out from hiding and waved at Lolo Del, who remained by his water tank. He waved back at me, smiling, before he finally got down.

The Mendozas are starting to pay the full price of the mangoes.