Cavite City's central market is much like that in any other provincial town in the Philippines. There are fixed stalls and roving vendors, and heaps and mounds of fresh, picturesque produce.
Because Cavite City (about an hour and half south of Manila) sits on the coast, its market is heavy on products from the sea, including shellfish,
dried and smoked fish, fermented fish products like patis (Philippine fish sauce) and baggoong (Philippine bplaa raa),
and sea salt.
And this market - also like any other, anywhere - has a cast of characters. These feisty ladies are selling small catches - just a pan full of crab.
And these men are, well, hanging out.
We've seen it all before, at markets all over southeast Asia.
But wait - not this.
At the market's entrance gathers a whispering crowd of men and women under a pandawan (canopy).
They're not exchanging juicy gossip. They're engaging in bulungan (bidding in whispers), a traditional Philippine market practice that, as we understand it, is slowly dying out. Cavite City doesn't hold the patent on bulungan; it's practiced elsewhere in the archipelago. But it's no longer as common as it once was.
'Alimag! Alimag!' ('Blue crab! Blue crab!')
A muscular, heavily tattoed gent in a white mesh basketball uniform stands over a plastic crate of shellfish. He's been paid 30 pesos (less than a dollar) by the fishermen who brought in this catch to 'advertise' the auction - which he does by cupping his hands around his mouth and shouting at the top of his lungs.
Last call pulls in a small crowd of ladies in t-shirts and broomstick skirts - vendors, buying to stock their individual stalls. There's also housewives and husbands looking to pad their households' daily menus. They gather in a tight circle and eye the shellfish. Some fisherman allow their catches to be sold by the kilo, but this one wants his crab to be purchased as a piece. So it's essential that potential buyers take care when estimating the crate's weight.
The auctioneer goes one-by-one, leaning in close so that bidders can whisper their price.
She writes down each bid on a piece of paper
before moving on to the next bidder.
When all the bids are in the auctioneer shows the highest one to the fisherman. He accepts it with a nod, or refuses it with a shake of his head. If the latter, our friend in the basketball jersey announces a new round.
'Bulungan ulit tayo!' (We're bidding again!)
Once a high bid has been accepted and the sale completed, the auctioneer hands a slip of paper with the sale price written on it to the fisherman, and a duplicate to a 'cashier' sitting at a table to one side of the tent. Fishermen with more than one 'catch' to offer collect their money after all their fish and seafood have been sold. Buyers proceed directly to the table to pay for their prize.
The auctioneer, then, is essentially a middleman, responsible for keeping accounts and moving product from seller to buyer. A large basket of prawns of varying sizes goes for 550 pesos and will be sold from a stall at the market for, on average, 350 pesos a kilo.
Small catches are sold from a wooden table at the front of the tent. A bag of squid here, half a pail of sardines there. Here, the auctions are advertised by the auctioneer.
On this Monday morning most of the action is taking place at the front of the tent.
'Very poor catch today. It's almost a full moon,' observes a bystander.
One bid, two,
The last bidder's the winner, and then it's over to the cashier to settle up.
'It's best to bid by the kilo when you can,' the man below tells us, because in such a case the bidder is taking a chance on quality only, not on quantity. It is larger fish that are most often sold this way (it's up to the fisherman to decide).
How to know if one's price isn't wildly over or under the mark?
'Watch and listen,' he says. Though bids are secret during the auction, the winner is expected to shout his bid when it's over. All said, experience is the best teacher.
'If you have seen a basket of prawns many times, you can look at the next one and know exactly how many pieces it holds.'
Bulungan at the Cavite City market, everyday from early morning till 11am.