Dumaguete City High School
September 2-9, 2010
My five volunteer clustermates and I arrive at Dumaguete City High School for the first time. We’re taken to the principal’s office where the six teachers assigned to us are waiting. Our Peace Corps teaching instructor reveals to each teacher his or her volunteer. I get Sir M, a short, stocky middle-aged man with spiked hair and squinty Oddjob eyes — the perfect heavy for a Bond movie.

But appearances can be deceiving. He turns out to be one of the most moral individuals I’ve ever met. He originally wanted to be a priest, but circumstances altered that calling. Now he preaches in his classroom.

There’s no separation of church and state (or schools) in the Philippines. Pictures of Jesus are prevalent throughout the school and classrooms. Every class begins with an original prayer composed by a student.

I loved my Dumaguete High kids.

I observe two of Sir M’s classes, third-year students, and he often deviates from his lesson plan to impart moral lessons. His love and concern for his students’ welfare is striking. “You may not have become a priest,” I tell him, “but you preach in your classroom. Your students have become your congregation.” He likes that.

His classes are enormous: 50+ students. Before each class, he introduces me lavishly, telling his classes that “We are blessed today to have with us a Peace Corps volunteer, Sir John Wood.” The students are all smiles, wonder, and enthusiasm.

His first lesson is on essay writing. It so happens that the essay is about a typical California kitchen. When I tell him during a break that I’m from California, he resumes his lesson by asking me to tell the class how a California kitchen differs from a Filipino one. They’re all wide-eyed with their mouths open. They hurl questions at me. The second class is the same. Before this day, teaching in front of a classroom was my biggest worry. Now I can’t wait to teach.

The next weekend, several volunteers and I spend a day at a nearby beach resort–a postcard paradise with warm, rolling water, leaning coconut trees, and views of three nearby islands including forbidden Mindanao where we’re prohibited from going to due to the terrorist groups there. The next day, I lose my camera while leaving a pedicab. I discover it too late. All my pictures are lost.

One reason why Philippines service is called the Posh Corps.

Sir M is sick on my next scheduled observation. The principal allows me to address the students alone but not to teach (we’re not allowed to teach alone unless we have a teaching credential). So I let them ask me questions about the U.S., myself, my family and friends, whatever. The classes get wildly into it. “What’s the most beautiful place in America?” (Yosemite.) I ask them, “What’s your favorite movie?” (Titanic.)

The second class asks if I can dance. Not thinking, I say yes. “Sample! Sample!” I do one move and they scream so loud, the next town had to have heard it. I ask if they can dance, and they all point to a boy in the back. “Show me! Show me!” He promptly gets up and does the moonwalk perfectly. At the end, one girl asks me, “Why are you so handsome?” I decide this is my favorite class.

Speaking to homeless children.

September 9-21, 2010
I feel bad after class. I’m weak, have a fever, and have no appetite. The next day I’m worse and have a splitting headache that nothing in my Peace Corps medical kit relieves. When I take my temperature, it’s over 102.

On September 11, my temperature is worse, and I text the Peace Corps medical office in Manila. I’m told to go to the local hospital with my language instructor. I’m barely able to walk, but I drag myself outside. Blood is drawn in the emergency room, and my platelets are way below normal. The Manila office arranges a flight to Manila that afternoon. 

I can’t imagine getting on an airplane in my condition. I pack for two days as instructed and say goodbye to my host family. I tell my 6-year-old host brother, whose birthday is the same as mine (September 13) that I hope I’ll be back in time for our double fiesta.

In Manila, they rush me to Makati Medical Center, probably the finest hospital in the country. Everyone is waiting for me. I’m whisked to a private room and immediately given a battery of tests by a bevy of pretty nurses in crisp uniforms. My room has hot showers, flush toilets, and cable TV. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.

Initial diagnosis: typhoid fever or dengue.

I’m hooked up to an IV drip. It’s like being attached 24/7 to a coat hanger that holds your life in its hands, if it had hands. I hate and fear it. I’m hit with nonstop diarrhea, which dehydrates me severely. But every time I even think of drinking anything, I get nauseous. It’s clear that I won’t make it back in time for my birthday.

Peace Corps volunteers in Manila drop by to visit me and bring me goodies (ice cream, homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and books). I’ll never forget them.

I develop complications: a nonstop cough that’s so bad I can’t sleep, swollen feet, and severe back pain. I’m given X-rays, a CAT scan, ultrasound, and am seen by a pulmonologist. I’m humbled and overwhelmed by the care provided by the Peace Corps.

On my birthday, my doctor confirms that I have dengue or “breakbone fever,” one of the most excruciating diseases in the world. Luckily, pain is not present in my case. You get it from a dengue mosquito. Currently, many parts of the Philippines are suffering a dengue epidemic: more than 8,000 cases and 500 deaths.

Tests results come back. My coughing is due to water around my heart and in my chest and lungs. I also have pneumonia. My swollen feet is due to “venous failure” in my calves. There’s no cure. I must elevate my legs as often as possible and not sit or stand for long periods. Round the clock Tylenol takes care of my back pain.

I request American food, but it’s nearly as bad as the Filipino food. My IV is finally removed and I’m free to roam around my “cell” unfettered. I sneak downstairs and sample lobby fastfood restaurants (Pizza Hut and Dairy Queen).

I learn another volunteer from Dumaguete was admitted to the hospital just after I was, also with dengue. She’s just down the hall from me, and we visit each other. I’m starting to feel better, getting my appetite back, and I start jogging and doing push-ups. A nun drops by, and I wonder if it’s a courtesy call or my last rites. She never smiles but practices the Visaya language with me. I’m instructed to say three hail Marys for ever error (just kidding).

Although I’m feeling great, my blood platelets are still plummeting. Normal platelets are 150,000 to 400,000. Mine have dropped to 60,000. Any lower, my doctor tells me, and I’ll need a blood transfusion. I worry all night that the Peace Corps may decide, “OK, enough. We’ve decided to send you home because you’re just not physically able to withstand two years of service in the Philippines.” I debate whether or not to cancel my property management contract before anyone moves into my condo. If it’s rented and I’m sent home, where will I stay?

The next day, my platelets remain at 60,000. And the next. My doctor says I’ve plateaued. My platelets should rocket back up now. I’m on the road to recovery, but the Peace Corps won’t release me until my count reaches 100,000.

Next day it’s 79,000, and I get a pass to leave the hospital. I walk a mile through gleaming skyscrapers and glitzy hotels in downtown Manila, then take a cab back. The following day, my count is 100,000, and so is the other volunteer’s. A flight is arranged for us the next morning.

My host family is waiting for me back in Dumaguete, and I’m served my favorite dish, pork adobo. “You’ve lost weight!” my host mother exclaims. I finally give my 6-year-old host brother his birthday gift, a Spiderman T-shirt and mug (which he wears and drinks from constantly now).

September 22-30, 2010
I’m shocked on my first day back to class at how far my clustermates have advanced in the week I was away and how much I’ve forgotten. Major depression and worry. I’m also concerned because I haven’t been able to tell anyone back home of what happened to me yet. I send a blanket e-mail to everyone and am struck by the volume of the heartfelt responses.

My language instructor gives me extra lessons after class one-on-one, and I gradually climb back. Our Language Assessment Test is only a month-and-a-half away. Will I catch up in time?

When I return to Sir M’s classes, the students swarm me and ask where I’ve been. They don’t know. In order to protect the confidentiality of volunteers, the Peace Corps only told the school that I was “in Manila.” It’s up to me to tell them or not. I do and they’re shocked. They wish me well, say they missed me, and we proceed to joke around as before. I missed them the most.  I show a group of girls pictures of my son Alex. They practically swoon: “Omigod! He is my next boyfriend!”

In a couple of days, we’ll all be bused six hours north for a weeklong conference where we’ll learn where our permanent sites and schools will be and meet our new host families. This is huge. It’s where we’ll live and who we’ll be working and possibly living with for the next two years. Our anticipation and anxiety are off the charts.