STAGING
Philadelphia
August 18-20, 2010

Mark and Sarah are in the airport hotel shuttle area weighted down with enormous mountaineering backpacks and a trumpet. Can only be fellow Peace Corps volunteers. I introduce myself. Sarah is recounting her recent service in Kurdistan during which everyone was evacuated when the country fell into civil unrest. This is her second tour as a volunteer. I’m immediately drawn into the PC world.

The hotel lobby resembles an airport gate during a wave of cancellations with bodies and luggage strewn everywhere. Within hours I’ve met dozens of faces and have begun to form friendships. I count only a handful of older volunteers. I meet BJ, a former chef, novelist, street musician, and tai chi instructor and Larry, a writer and professional tennis instructor. A cluster of us head to a nearby restaurant and share our hopes, fears, and reasons for joining. I’m stunned, but also gratified, to learn that most teaching volunteers like me have very little experience teaching. I don’t feel so alone.

The next day is a series of slides and discussions and activities outlining what will happen in the next few days and months. We’re an enormous group – 145 – one of the largest batches to go to the Philippines. We’re Batch #269, the 269th group since 1961 to serve in that country.

ORIENTATION
Island Cove Resort, Manila
August 21-27, 2010
A huge sign welcomes us at the resort. In the lobby, dozens of Filipino hotel and PC staffers await us with the warmest smiles and greetings one could imagine. I’ll have two roommates during Orientation. I’m overjoyed to room with BJ, and we form a close bond.

The next week is a blur of 8-hour days filled with introductions of PC staffers, both American and Filipino, and lectures on what our two-year service will consist of. We’re given health kits filled with every conceivable medication, our own life vests, the first of a long series of shots, and begin taking our malaria pills. Flashbacks of Army boot camp.

We listen to discussions about Filipino culture, Filipino education, Filipino history and politics (we’re never to comment on the latter, even if asked). Volunteers who are halfway through their service (Batch #268) visit us and provide assistance during Orientation. Special men-only and women-only sessions are held with these Volunteers, and they answer questions about dating, sex, customs, etc. My hopes are dashed when they tell me that older male PC volunteers are basically out of luck in this area, discouraged from dating because the locals will assume we’re older sex tourists, who are common here.

We get one fun day amidst the hectic schedule. A beach trip is planned where we learn how to operate our life vests and maneuver in and out of typical Filipino fishing boats. The rest of the day is spent playing volleyball and Frisbee and swimming.

Everything is building up to the big announcement of where we’ll each be assigned during our three-month Training. It’s all everyone is talking about: which area of the Philippines is the best? The island of Luzon to the north where Tagalog is spoken and where travel between cities can be laborious 12-hour trips. The islands of Visayas in the middle where it’s reputed to be the most tropical and beautiful, but you must fly or take ferries between islands. Way down south in Palawan, which is also beautiful but isolated from the rest of the country. Or Olangapo. Or Cebu.

The big day arrives. The excitement and electricity in the ballroom is almost unbearable, even among the huge Filipino PC staff. We’ve become so close with many of them; we’ve become a large family. Finally music plays, followed by “Let’s get ready to rumble!” Everyone roars.

Luzon is the first area announced. Slides are shown above the big screen as the first clusters of volunteers are named. As each person’s name is called, he or she runs up and everyone applauds. It’s the most emotional of all the emotional moments so far, of which there have been many. The names and regions are called, many of whom are historic and familiar: Leyte, Subic, Bataan. Where will I go?

BJ gets Subic, which he wanted badly, and I’m so happy for him. He’s interested in one of the older volunteers, and she’s also among the Subic group. He sees me, and we hug.

I’m one of the last to be called. My location is the city of Dumaguete on the island of Negros in the Visayas region. I don’t know anything about the area except that it’s supposed to be spectacular scenery, maybe the most beautiful spot in the country.

When I go up to the podium to read the next volunteer’s name, I can’t help myself and address the packed  ballroom: “First of all, I’d like to thank the Academy…” Huge laugh. Mygroup cluster, whom I’ll train intensely with for the next three months, consists of six volunteers. In all, there are three other clusters of teachers also assigned there.

BJ and Ryan and I have a farewell drink at the hotel bar and I retire early. I must be up at 3 am for the flight to Visayas. My 3 months of training are about to begin.

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