Hanging his scrub suit should have been the last thing to cross his mind. And he had, at one point in his life, every reason to do so.

Fidel Perez had just lost a sister, who had been very kind and supportive of him. Add to that the pressure of looking – and keeping – a well-paying job to raise a growing family.

From the outset, Perez, a Medical Technology graduate and a licensed professional, didn’t have to worry. After all, the 50-year-old Batangas native who had worked in Germany with his sister for quite some time, was raking in hefty bundles as a laboratory scientist at a hospital in Saudi Arabia.

Three years later, however, Fidel unceremoniously did what few Filipinos of his ken and stature would dare do – leave the stables of diaspora for good and start all over again. As what?

“An ice cream vendor,” Fidel confidently answers, recalling how he willfully gave up a promising career as a medical technologist abroad to reunite with his family back home and take over his aging father’s ice cream business.

Since then, it became Fidel’s bread and butter amid the usually scorching heat at the UST grounds, his entrepreneurial hub of sorts for 15 years now upon returning to the country in 1993.

Behind the cart

The sun was already setting but Fidel still had his hands full selling ice cream at the Quadricentennial Park.

Students who huddle at Fidel’s ice cream cart at that instance hardly care about the man behind the much sought-after frozen delights, a staple in UST’s culture.

But unknown to many, the guy was once a college student just like most of his patrons. He spent long hours in the laboratory and studied organisms under a microscope en route to earning a degree and license as a registered medical technologist.

“I took med tech because of my sister who worked as a midwife in a hospital in Germany,” Fidel said in Filipino. “I thought I could also work there someday.”

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After graduation, he worked in a government-owned laboratory, particularly in its water analysis division back in the 1970’s. The meager salary forced him to find work elsewhere.

Fidel, like many others, then tried to seek greener pastures abroad. With the help of his sister, he went to Germany hoping that he could share the same luck with her in the hospital. But what was supposed to be a fulfilling journey turned out to be a tragic one after his sister died while giving birth in 1986.

“I will always remember her because she greatly helped me in almost everything,” he said.

He also went to Saudi Arabia where he ran laboratory examinations in a hospital. But he came back after three years to take over his father’s ice cream business. Consequently, Fidel gave up a promising career in Medical Technology and sell ice cream instead.

The job of an ice cream vendor comes with its own daily routine. Fidel wakes up as early as 3 a.m. daily to start making his home-made treats. Mango, cheese, chocolate, and sometimes, cookies and cream are just a few of the flavors available in his cart.

Once the ice cream freezes, he would leave the house and set on a 15-minute trip, pushing his cart, and heading straight to UST. Business officially starts at 8 a.m.

Ironically, this down-to-earth vendor has to avoid raiding his own “sweets” because of diabetes. He said that it was only months earlier that he learned of his illness which he had developed over the years.

“Thankfully, my illness doesn’t hinder me from my work unless I get too tired,” he said.

His daily income ranges from P500 to P700 which he admits is not enough to sustain his family’s needs. He, however, was able to send his four children to school despite his modest disposition. Fortunately, two of the children helped in their education’s expenses by becoming working scholars. His wife also helps in their finances by running a store.

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“My wife maintains a little store in our house,” Fidel said. “The both of us work hard for their education.”

It helps that Fidel’s cart not only attracts the students’ taste buds but also their eyes as well.

It is painted with the name “University of Santo Tomas” in red and yellow, as well as other shapes in a splash of carnival colors. A pair of round, tired, wooden wheels whose rims are covered by black rubber serve as the base of the decades-old cart.

The metal case of the cart, which Fidel wipes from time to time with a rug, houses a separate storage for the cones and money. It has also three uniquely-shaped metal pieces on top of the frozen chamber. Opening it would give one a tickling chill as the cold mist escapes to the outside air, not to mention the sight of sweet, cream-colored treats resting at the bottom of three separate holes of the chamber can make one’s mouth water.

Sweet challenges

I asked Fidel if I could help him sell ice cream just for the experience.

At first, I started handing him over sugar cones that he immediately took since a slow hand meant the ice cream would easily melt, not to mention the customers waiting in line.

I tried to hook him into a conversation while he was scooping ice cream but was always cut by students who stopped by.

Moments later, a group of students came by and Fidel allowed me to scoop ice cream for them. I held the cone with one hand while I opened the frozen chamber, dug through the pastel-colored ice cream with the scooper, and scooped it down to the cone with another. Most of the students were dumbfounded at first and shifted their eyes to Fidel as if asking him of my authority. But Fidel just smiled. As if to show a silent confirmation the students finally handed me their payment.

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But selling ice cream was no piece of cake. My legs started to hurt after a few hours of standing up. I even thought of sitting down but I stayed on my feet since I deemed it to be unprofessional.

“There are times when I have to stand the whole time to accommodate as many customers as I can,” Fidel said. “Sometimes I bring my cart under the tree to shade myself from the heat.”

An avid reader, Fidel also carries a newspaper with him to fight off boredom at noon especially when customers hardly buy ice cream from him.

He is still contented with selling ice cream despite its tiresome aspects. He said he would not go back to med-tech practice anymore even if he were given a chance. He believes that hard work would see him through and give his family a better life.

“I am already accustomed to this job,” he said. “Selling ice cream is something that I would bring with me until the end.”

Fidel considers his decade-and-a-half stay in UST as a blessing.

“UST has helped me a lot because I don’t have to pay anything while selling ice cream,” he said.

The sky was already dark and the park was radiant with lights. The ice cream was running out and so were the customers flocking to his stand. But before Fidel called it a day, he encouraged me to keep valuing my education since it would inevitably help in life.

“Always make education your priority,” he said. “Life would be less meaningful without it.”

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