by B.J. Stolbov
It was a dark and cool morning. I was up before dawn. Quietly, I put on my boots and my hat. Then, accompanied by my protective guard dogs, Julius and Brutus, and my intrepid, knife-wielding guide, Samuel, we started out into the jungle in search of the elusive wild banana blossom.
The hills rolled away like brown buffaloes. Sighing as if still asleep, the trees drooped in the morning stillness. Birds flittered from tree to tree. Except for the sound of the distant chickens, a sound as pervasive as breathing itself, it was unusually quiet. The morning was calm. Not a breath of air moved. The dew was still thick on the tall grass. My view, from close to far, was green, jungle green, dark green, light green, middle green, green and green, everything was green. And I was searching for anything that wasn’t green. I was looking for yellow bananas and below that the most colorful plant in the jungle, the rare wild banana blossom. A banana blossom is a beautiful specimen. It is a deep reddish-purple and shaped like a huge upside-down rosebud.
Bananas, in the wild, come in many varieties, shapes, sizes, and colors. The Saba is a thick banana. It is much like the plantain in the supermarket that everyone looks at but no one seems to know what to do with. The Saba is used for boiling into soups and stews, or just boiled, peeled, and eaten cold much like a potato. It is also boiled in sugar water to make a delicious dessert called banana glaze. It can also be deep-fried and rolled in sugar to make banana-que. Lakatan and Latundans are both sweet, eating banana, with the Lakatan being the sweetest-tasting banana I have ever eaten, especially when it is freshly picked. Empress bananas are the tiniest bananas, about the size of the palm of your hand and can be eaten in about two or three tasty bites. The long, yellow, perfect banana that you see in the supermarket is called a Cavendish. It is probably originally from near here. But your perfect banana, domesticated and grown on enormous plantations throughout the tropics, is no longer a wild banana.
It had been a hard time here in the Philippines for wild bananas. A few weeks ago, a typhoon had come in low and strong and had knocked down almost all the banana plants. Banana plants, when mature, are about 10 to 12 feet tall, with long flopping leaves like the ears of an elephant, and a stalk that looks like a thick bamboo, but feels like a large asparagus. Unlike the wiry bamboo, the banana plant does not sway safely in a fierce wind. More like an old asparagus stalk on a cutting board, banana stalks snap.
We had to get going fast because another typhoon was coming. At this time of year, typhoons of various sizes and strengths are always either coming or going. This one, the 18th of the typhoon season, was threatening to be the worst. We had to find a standing banana plant and its blossom before the wind destroyed all that was left.
With my bolo (a large machete-like knife), I chopped through the chest-high cassava plants, while unnamed entangling vines around my ankles tried to pull me down to the insect-infested ground. It was hard going. The sun was now peeking over the hilltops. The temperature was noticeably rising. The sweat was soaking my back and my arms. I gripped the bolo with my wet palms and pushed onward, deeper into the thick jungle.
There, up ahead, through a tangle of vines and cassava branches were five, no six, maybe seven banana plants, gathered as if in a herd. Brooding in a dark ravine near a trickling stream, they stayed nearly in a circle. Somehow, they had miraculously survived the storms and the hungry natives. There, in the middle, on the leader, the mother plant of this colony of outcasts, hung a bunch of small green bananas. And below those bananas, sullen and silent, held on by a stem that looked like a spine with scoliosis, was my prey.
Brutus and Julius, my trusted guard dogs, unable or unwilling to go through the undergrowth, stayed back, sniffing each other. Samuel, my protective guide, watched out for intrusive natives and focused my camera for exciting action shots as I hacked my way through the jungle. With insects flying menacingly around me and crawling up and down and around my neck and arms and hands, and my hat pulled down to protect me from the scorching tropical sun, I wasn’t going to let anything stop me. I was going to bring back a banana blossom for dinner or die (hopefully not) trying.
I was closing in on the unsuspecting banana blossom. I could see my prey up ahead and the blood was rushing to my head, and my heart was pounding hard, and my hunter’s testosterone was rushing to my, well, y’know. Holding my dangerously sharp bolo in front and above me for protection, I slashed through the thick bush, pushing through the face-slapping branches. I was dogged, I was indomitable, I was determined, and I was going to get me a banana blossom, and a great adventure story to tell my amazed, seated friends. It was going to be the banana blossom or me.
I was in reach now. It wasn’t going to get away from me. It wasn’t going to escape me. What I hadn’t expected was that large, red warrior ants covered the blossom. I would just have to be brave. I reached up, it was just beyond my fingertips, and I wish I was taller; still I reached up as high as I could and with the deftness of a medieval executioner with one fatal swift stroke, I cut down the banana blossom.
While still fresh in my hands, I brought the killed banana blossom home, where washed and cleaned, its outer surface peeled, then its soft inner core grated, mixed with egg, flour and bread crumbs, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and, at last, it was shaped into patties, placed gently into a frying pan, and fried in oil by my cook. At the end, fresh banana blossom patties taste like squash croquettes or fritters. At dinner, we dipped the patties into a mixture of toyo (soy sauce) and kalamansi (lime) and ate them voraciously with rice and a glass of chilled local pineapple wine.
Later that evening, with my sated and grateful friends and family beside me, I, sore from my exertion, weary, healing from my scratches and bruises, exhausted, tested but triumphant, rested from my ordeal, relaxed on the couch, and watched the evening telebabad (soap opera) on our big-screen cable TV.
The mighty hunter finally gets to enjoy his victory!
B.J. Stolbov is a writer, poet, essayist, novelist, short story writer, travel writer, technical writer/editor, and improving photographer. He lives and works in the Philippines, and travels and explores throughout Southeast Asia. He eats, drinks, and writes about almost anything. B.J. teaches writing and English, and is available for writing and teaching positions. Please feel free to contact him at BJStolbov@gmail.com.