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Day in the Life: Spending a Day with a Taho Vendor

May 2, 2017

Most chaps would be sound asleep (or, depending on how you work, just about to sleep) at the sacred hour that is 3 am. But for Kuya Jonathan—a longtime vendor of taho in and around the University of the Philippines Diliman campus—it is the go signal to get out of bed and start his day. Without having had breakfast, he makes his way to the “pabrika”, or the factory—a seemingly small space that resembles a house from the outside, bound by a netted gate—where the soy pudding, the syrup, and sago are prepared. It is dark and quite chilly in the wee hours of the morning; and while we struggle in an attempt to suppress our yawns, Kuya Jonathan moves briskly and energetically as he, along with other taho vendors, collects his daily allocation of taho ingredients.

Kuya Jonathan starts his day with a trip to the pabrika, or factory, where the taho ingredients are prepared, and over the years has gotten used to having the 50-kilo buckets on his shoulders.

We are not allowed inside, but he emerges with the two filled-up aluminum buckets over his shoulder. “Mga 50 kilo ho [siya kabigat] (‘It is around 50 kilos in weight’)”, he tells us—sans any physical signs of struggling. In spite of his relatively stoic character at the beginning, his positive demeanor reveals itself as he happily accommodates us, offering us seats as he does a final check of his supply for the day. After some 10-20 minutes, we formally embark on the taho-peddling journey.

Kuya Jonathan has been selling the soy-based snack for eight years now. As the father to three children (one son and two daughters), he needed to find a way to make a living to be able to support his family. Despite thinking it would be easy, it was no walk in the park in the beginning. “Hirap na hirap po ako noong una (‘I found it very difficult’),” he shares, referring to the difficulty of carrying around buckets practically the same weight as his own human body. But with time he found himself getting used to its weight (“Wala lang po ‘to (‘It’s nothing’)”) and being thankful he is given the opportunity to interact with different people.

The early morning chill does not stop Kuya Jonathan from accomplishing the job.

Past a long walk which takes us up an overpass, we ride a jeepney and make our way to his first stop: a transportation junction where he picks a spot and stands by, ready to warm the stomachs of hungry commuters at 5am. Most of the time is spent waiting for customers—a test of patience for many, but Kuya Jonathan keeps a steady, determined face. One commuter decked in office wear (who, based on her chirpy tone and familiarity as she greets Kuya Jonathan, we assume to be a regular) pays for a 20-peso cup, which she sips as she hails a jeepney. Another vendor of assorted candies and biscuits gets her own cup before retreating to her own station right behind us.

The soy snack warms the stomachs of early-morning commuters and fellow vendors looking for breakfast on the go.

We stay there for a good hour before crossing another overpass and walking toward the other end of the junction, where we stay for another hour or so. More waiting. But we witness the sheer number of people who rely on taho to fill them up on the go. And why not? It is warm (which helps counter the early-morning chill), mildly sweet, and affordable enough to be bought with spare change (each cup going for 10, 20, and 30 for small, medium, and large servings, respectively). Our own stomachs rumbling, we purchase 20-peso cupfuls to guzzle as we go—and it does the job of keeping us awake on 3 hours of sleep.

Selling taho is primarily a waiting game for Kuya, but he stands by patiently, ready to offer a warm cup to those in need.

Kuya Jonathan skillfully balances the two buckets as we take a long walk into the campus of UP Diliman.

The sunlight rolls in by 6 a.m. and we head to our next stop: the campus of UP Diliman, where he spends most of the day selling. Kuya Jonathan does not follow a set route, instead basing it on where he feels there will be more people at that period of time. This morning in particular, he stays near Quezon Hall (home to the infamous Oblation statue—or, well, a replica of it), where a number of joggers and cyclists drop by for some post-workout refueling action. “I love taho in the morning,” shares a jogger who sips a cup while stretching his feet. “Daming protein (‘it has a lot of protein’), and it’s super cheap.” Some customers order right from their car windows; and students, too, will occasionally stop by to get a cup as they walk to their first classes.

The soy-based snack is a hit with joggers, cyclists, and students looking to fuel up in the morning.

By about 10 or 11 in the morning, Kuya Jonathan will have sold a good amount of his morning supply. He heads back to the pabrika to have lunch, take a rest, and get a refill of the ingredients—which ensures that the soy to be sold in the afternoon is fresh. We reunite at the campus by 2pm and he continues to sell for the rest of the afternoon, fueling the bodies (and minds) of the some of the nation’s brightest scholars—a must, given the typically heavy curriculum and workload many an isko and iska must face as students of the country’s premier university.

Kuya has been selling taho since he was 22, and says the street snack has long been a popular choice among the student community.

While customers are not as plentiful in the early afternoon, the scene comes alive by about 4 or 5 pm. The late afternoon scene is not dissimilar to a street festival as students commemorate the end of the school day by rounding up their friends and orgmates and going on so-called “food trips”, where they bond over plates of fishballs, buns filled with dirty ice cream, and of course, cups of taho. It is by this time he gets a good amount of customers—although Kuya himself is not the most talkative vendor around, the soy-based snack proves to be a popular merienda with students, professors, and security guards alike lining up for their own servings.

On a good day, he tells us, Kuya can make up to 400-500 pesos worth of profit. “Iba-iba ho talaga (‘It really varies’).” But one of the challenges of the job he must deal with is the uncertainty of finishing his supply. “Kapag maswerte kami mga alas-kuwatro pa lang ubos na [‘yung taho] (‘If we’re lucky, we can sell all the taho by 4pm’). Iba-iba po. Minsan hindi talaga nauubos. Swerte-swertehan lang. (‘It varies and sometimes we can’t sell everything. It’s just a matter of luck.’)

Kuya wraps up his shift relatively early this day, but looks forward to reuniting with his loved ones at home.

Due to the weather conditions, Kuya decided to end his shift by around 6pm—right as the sun was about to set—on most days however, he will continue to sell up 7 or 8 in the evening. Tired, but contented, he puts the buckets back on his shoulders, walks back to the junction, and hails a jeepney to his humble abode—where his wife and children anticipate his return, and this may well be the real highlight of his day.

Opo, nakakapagod po (Yes, it’s tiring),” he admits, wiping off sweat from his forehead. “‘Di rin gaano . . . [kalaki] ‘yung kita (our earnings are not that big).” Asked what keeps him going, he answers: “‘Yung pamilya ko po (‘My family’).”. With the goal of being able to buy their own home and raise his children successfully, Kuya endures the body aches and carries on serving cupfuls of the sweet soy-based snack. Kuya Jonathan officially hits the sack by 9 or 10pm—just enough time to catch on some much-needed sleep as he silently anticipates the next day to come.

Patricia Baes SEE AUTHOR Patricia Baes Trish thinks too much about everything—truth, existence.....and what’s on her plate. Her ongoing quest for a better relationship with food has led to a passion for cooking, gastronomy, and a newfound interest in its politics. She is a cheapskate in other aspects of her life, preferring to use her savings on specialty vinegars and degustation menus. While she admits to eating out too much, cooking and baking remain her first love, and she's always looking for quirky new ways to use up seasonal produce. Thanks to her obsession with (unnecessarily) making everything from scratch, she is now desperate to clear her fridge full of homemade condiments. She dreams of perfecting the art of making soufflé with her crappy toaster oven.
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