September 27-30, 2010
All of us in Negros Oriental are  herded sleepily into a bus at dawn under a downpour and driven six hours north through lush, misty mountains, fields of sugar plantations, and forests of coconut trees to the other end of the island. We’re to spend a week in the northern city of Bacolod where we’ll find out where our permanent sites will be for the next two years and where we’ll meet our new school supervisors, co-teachers, and host families.

Everyone sleeps on the bus but me because I’m fascinated by the drop-dead scenery, nonstop smiles, and waves from people alongside the road, houses and shops, and farmers in rice paddies.

We check into a resort hotel and are ushered into the Grand Ballroom where all the top brass from PC headquarters greet us. After announcements, they get right to it. A gigantic map of the Visayas region is displayed. As our names are called, our permanent sites are announced.

Mine is Sibulan, a small town just 6 km north of my training site in Dumaguete.  I’m overjoyed. I wanted to stay in the same area, which is gorgeous, but in a smaller place than Dumaguete. I’m close enough to visit the Dumaguete students I’ve come to cherish.

Our permanent sites revealed at last.

My cluster mates are sent all over the Visayas — some to Cebu, some to Leyte, and one to the dream island of Siqiuor (he won the lottery; everyone wanted to be assigned there). Four or five are in Dumaguete area, so I won’t be alone.

In the afternoon, we enter the Ballroom again and see a host of new faces scattered around the room. Our future school supervisors. As the Peace Corps always does, they design a unique and moving way to bring us together. We’re to go around, table to table, and try to find our supervisor. But we have to speak Visaya.

We all laugh and stumble around the room, awkwardly introducing ourselves to as many people as we can. It’s a hectic and fun way to find our future boss.  I finally find mine, a wonderful woman with a quick smile, caring disposition, and sharp wit. We hit it off immediately.

For the rest of the week, we’re partners, sitting together at meals, participating in the myriad of training activities and brainstorming sessions the Peace Corps has prepared for us. They’re designed to throw us into the pan, to work together, and to get to know each other. After the week, I like her even more.

Our most difficult task together is to plan a six-month calendar. I’m up for anything and check off “yes” to everything. She’s more realistic, continually asking me: “Will this be a burden?” “Are you sure?”  I finally see the light and rein in my enthusiasm.

There are plenty of bars and discos around the resort, and the trainees don’t miss the opportunity to party after hours. After a couple of appearances at the local disco, one trainee takes me aside and says, “The chika-chika (gossip) going around is that you’re the best dancer in Batch 269 (the entire group of 145 trainees who arrived in-country together). My head is so big, I have trouble wedging into my room that night.

September 30-October 4, 2010
Early-morning bus ride to Sibulan. I’m fortunate that it’s just a bus ride. Other trainees have to get on planes, then boats, then bus rides to their new sites. We get off in the quaint town of Sibulan. I don’t know what to expect.

The two of us hop onto a pedicab and go straight to Sibulan National High School. Its student population (1,100) is large although not as big as Dumaguete City High School where I’ve been training (2,000). Other than that, the two schools couldn’t be more different. As we step off the pedicab, I can’t help but notice that the ocean is right across the street. I think I’m going to like it here.

I meet the principal, a jovial man in his early 40s with a perpetual smile and wink in his eye, and my new co-teacher, a quiet woman in her 30s whom I’m told later is the first master teacher in the history of the town. Then a handsome man in his 40s steps forward and politely shakes my hand. He’s my host father (or brother, as he’s younger than me).

He’s a principal at a nearby high school and speaks near-perfect English. He’s taken the next few days off work to be with me. I feel incredibly humbled at the warmth and welcome everyone has heaped on me.

I’m taken on a whirlwind tour of the school where I meet a blizzard of names and faces. The students have been expecting me, too, and give me intense, curious glances and “Good morning, sir!” greetings.

The school is all cement with a paved central courtyard and huge covered stage. It’s crammed into the tiny town like an afterthought. In fact, it’s other half is across the street behind another line of shops. This is a city compacted into town-size proportions.

My host father takes me on a stroll around town. Everything in Sibulan is five minutes from everything else — the market, the school, the mayor’s office, the police station, the barangay captain’s office, the post office, the bank, the public park, the ocean. I’m ecstatic. No more pedicabs!

The Sibulan beach and pier to Cebu.

We turn down a sleepy street alive with scurrying, smelly things: stray dogs, loose chickens, haughty roosters, tethered goats, and grunting hogs until we come to a rickety wooden gate, a rickety bridge, and a narrow alley. The second doorway is my new home. I’m immediately warned to stay away by the house pet, a beautiful little copper terrier tied to a small doghouse who tries desperately to get to my throat. Nice doggie.

The house is a two-story structure of cement with a tin roof. (Uh-oh. I hope it never rains, which is a preposterous wish.) Inside, I’m welcomed by my host brother’s wife, an attractive woman in her early 30s, their 9-year-old son, who’s shy and dances around me awkwardly, and their female live-in student, who serves as the family helper. Many poor students in the Philippines must live and work in other’s houses to support themselves and their families.

The house is much smaller than mine in Dumaguete. No yard, no grass or trees. Its small living room is filled with the boy’s scholastic awards — one is four feet high still wrapped in it’s original plastic. The kitchen is cramped, and the only bathroom is just a curtain away from the kitchen table. It has no toilet seat, so I’m going to have to test my bad knee with squatting. And no shower, so it’s bucket baths for the next two years. Upstairs are three small rooms — mine, the boy’s, and the helper’s.

We have a big feast, then retire to the living room to watch TV and talk. My host father loves to expound on a myriad of topics and I understand how his son won so many awards. That night, and every night, the parents sleep on the couch and the floor downstairs (it’s cooler there), and the boy joins them.

The next day I return to the school and am ushered into the office where I’m told I’m not to leave because the school is preparing a ceremony for me. Oh, and by the way, we’d like you to give a speech.

Excuse me? I’m to give a what? Yes, if you won’t mind.

As I hurriedly begin scratching out something, I notice outside the window a handful of students practicing a dance routine and band members warming up their instruments. Around them are hand-painted banners with my name on them. What in the world are they planning?

After an hour, they finally tell me I can come out. When I emerge into the courtyard, I gasp to see the entire school gathered in a massive circle. A sign on the stage reads: “Welcome Mr. John Wood.” Two rows of students are lined up in the middle of the courtyard waving flags. As I walk through them to the stage, an enormous cheer from the entire student body envelopes me. I’m speechless.

I’m handed the “program” for the day. There will be speeches, dances, singers, the band, a chorus, on and on. My God. I’m me, not Manny Pacquioua.

At one point, a line of students parades in front of me holding the large banners I’d glimpsed before. One says, “Mr. John Wood, you’re 100% in our hearts!” Then a student prances up on stage dressed like…me. He’s wearing slacks, a button-down shirt, a tie, glasses, and a sign around his neck: “Mr. John Wood.” I nearly fall of my seat.

The conclusion is the topper. The entire school rushes up to the stage like concert fans and proceed to sing the traditional Filipino welcoming song to visitors: “Welcome to Our Family.” It’s so moving, I nearly weep.

I cannot, ever, let these wonderful kids down. My next two years just took on a whole new perspective and commitment.

The next day I make a series of courtesy calls (a must in Filipino society and especially for Peace Corps volunteers) to the mayor, the vice mayor, the district superintendent, the barangay captain, etc. I’ll have to work with them for the next two years on funding and projects. It’s critical to form relationships, or “linkages”, in this culture. Nothing gets done without them.

The principal, co-teacher, supervisor, and I are surprised by the vice mayor, a tall, enthusiastic man who’s interested and impressed by the Peace Corps. He immediately proposes an entire reading/speech lab for the school. The principal is stunned. We were just paying him a visit; all of a sudden we’re getting the okay for an entire new program. We mumble thanks and agree to get back to him with plans.

I learn later from my host father that the vice mayor wasn’t just being polite. He’s extremely popular in the province because he gets things done and has links to many influential people.

The family gets up at dawn the next day to let me see the sunrise on the beach. Then my host father and I go to church for a funeral of one of his friends. But it’s the wrong church. Just as we’re about to leave, the mayor notices us. She’s in the choir and asks my host father (who’s also in the choir) to join her. No one turns down a mayor, so we end up sitting for the entire Mass. An old woman in the choir glares at me the whole time when I don’t kneel or cross myself. It won’t be the last time, lady.

I say my goodbyes to my family, and we make plans for my move-in in mid-November.

October 4-31, 2010
Back in Dumaguete, our training classes resume. As we near the end, our teaching and language classes intensify. We’ll have our language test (a 15-minute one-on-one interview) the first week of November and must attain a mid-intermediate level or higher. If we don’t, we’ll have to hire a tutor and be retested later.  I’m barely a mid-beginner. To help us, the language teachers of the other clusters visit us each week and give us mock interviews. Will it be enough?

One night, some trainees and I visit the local disco. As we’re sipping cheap rum and minding our own business, a tipsy German wanders over and asks if we’re tourists.

“No, we’re from the Peace Corps.”

His friendly demeanor instantly mutates. “So you’re CIA!”

“Uh…no, we’re Peace Corps.”

“Yes, you are! Don’t say you’re not.”

“No, really. We’re from the Peace Corps.”

He stomps away. Then stomps back. “Even if you don’t think you’re CIA, if you’re in the Peace Corps, you are CIA!”

Not wishing to trigger a bar fight, and possibly be thrown out of the Peace Corps, I say, “OK, you’re right. Congratulations. You’re the first one to figure it out. Yes, we’re CIA.”

That placates him, and he disappears into the crowd.

The next weekend, several of us spend a day at Zamboaguita Beach where we snorkel and relax. As we leave, some kids in the water, who couldn’t be more than 10, call out and ask us our names and where we’re from. Then they wave goodbye and say, “Thank you for coming to the Philippines!” That pretty well sums up this wonderful country and its people.

We’re told we must perform for Dumaguete City High School on our final day there. We choose to dance Shakira’s “Waka-Waka” song, which was the theme song for the World Cup in South Africa. It’s currently the most popular song in the Philippines.

On the day of the ceremony, the school gives us a huge farewell. Similar to Sibulan, they have dances, singers, speeches, a play, and a huge feast in the middle of the gym. Our performance elicits screams from the students and a demand for an encore. On the second dance, we grab students and teachers from the audience. When I run into the stands, the students shriek and scatter in all directions and the teachers hide under their tables. Hilarious.

Dancing the "Waka-Waka" for our Dumaguete High farewell.

Then, drenched in sweat, I give our farewell speech to the school.

Speaking at the farewell ceremony.

Afterward, I hear that the principal was concerned about me performing because of my age. Some visiting Peace Corps staff from Manila were also observing and said the same thing. My instructor, God love her, told them, “You don’t know John. He may surprise you.”

Afterward, she said they were all shaking their heads. “Boy were we wrong.” That made my month.

The end of the month is the annual Buglasan Festival where all the communities in Negros Oriental compete in an endless series of contests. This year the festival’s in Dumaguete. We attend the biggest event, the Showdown, in which every community gives a performance about their town. They’re nothing less than

Buglasan Festival.

spectacular, with dancers, costumes, floats, and acrobatics. It reminds me of Rio’s Carnival (well, kinda).

On the day I present my final teaching practice lesson, a surprise visitor drops in — none other than the Director of the Philippines Peace Corps. To say I’m jittery is an understatement. But she helps my mood when she delivers a box of Mrs. Fields cookies from Manila.

Later that day, she visits us at our school where we’re finishing the last touches on our community project — a world map mural on their front gate wall with the Philippines highlighted.

We did it -- our World Map project finally done!

Next month is crucial. We’ll return to Bacolod for another conference where we’ll bond with our new co-teachers. Then we’ll take our language test. And finally we’ll be sworn in by the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines. After that, we’ll transfer to our permanent site. Training seems like it’s lasted a year. I can’t believe all that’s happened. But it’s only been three brief months.

What could possibly be in store for us the next two years?