A MAYOR’S KINDNESS
January 1-15, 2011
Thanks to whirlwind negotiations between my principal and the mayor during the final hours of my host family stay, I’m able to attain emergency lodging at the Travelers Inn across the street from my high school. The Inn is run by Sibulan’s Department of Tourism, which operates a small tourist office on the ground floor a block from the pier where tourists are transported across the strait to and from the island of Cebu.
Above the office are six rooms that rent to stranded travelers for upwards of 500 pesos a night. Because the rooms are rarely used, the mayor allows me to have one until I can find another host family, which Peace Corps HQ tells me I must live with during the last month of my permanent site break-in period.
My windowless room, the size of a moderate walk-in closet, is barely big enough for the single bed. No desk, chair, closet, or bathroom (I will share one with other tenants down the hall). But it has air-conditioning, cable TV, and a 30-foot walk to school. And the mayor has graciously allowed me to stay at no cost.
The one drawback is that I’ll have to fend for myself for food among the dozens of amoeba-infested street stalls that cling to the pier and school like barnacles.
This is the wettest and coolest time of the year, and it’s the only time in my life I’ve welcomed rain because it’s a blessed relief from the interminable humidity the rest of the year. The sky is dark pewter, the sea heaves and pounds against the town’s meager sea wall, and white caps dollop the waves like marshmallows.
When school starts again, I’m surprised that the teachers haven’t heard what happened to me. The chika-chika network must have been on vacation, too. But by mid-day, everyone knows. I’m gladdened when they rally around me. They all note with concern how much more weight I lost during my ordeal, and when I weigh myself, I’m shocked to see they’re right — I’m down to 145 (from 170 when I arrived in-country).
They all ply me with snacks during the day and inquire Howard Cosell-like about what I’m eating at home, on weekends, why I’m not gaining weight, and why I’m not eating MORE RICE. I’m thrilled having so many moms around me. In my classes, the students welcome me back,too, with 50 smiles and eager faces every day. The school has become my bulwark as I always knew it would.
On my first day back, I stay so late in the campus computer room answering e-mails that I’m the last one to leave. The next morning the principal takes me aside and angrily informs me that I left the air-conditioning on. The school guard had to call him at home at 10 p.m. and have him come down to open the office and turn the appliances off.
I’m stricken. The last person I want to upset is him after all his help getting me my temporary quarters. What’s wrong with me? I should be looking out for this school as if it and all of its equipment were mine. I’m so selfish. The principal backed me up during my host family situation even though he’s close to the host father. Now I’ve put serious doubts in his mind about my side of the story. He will no doubt observe me more closely from now on.
I compound matters by losing my glasses for most of the day — in his office. His mother is the one who calmly points them out to me as she gets on the back of the motorcycle driven by none other than the principal who stares silently at me through his thick sunglasses. Strike 2.
A wonderful e-mail from a friend inspires me to launch an activity with my students. The message asks teachers to have their students write names of all their classmates. Under each name they list as many nice things as they can about that person. The teacher then compiles the comments for each student and returns them.
I do this with my two senior classes. They’re miffed about why they have to do it, but I promise they’ll appreciate it later. I spend the weekend pulling the lists together. When I hand them out the following Monday, the students are overwhelmed at what their peers said about them. One girl comes up to me and says she never, ever knew that others felt that way about her. She’s almost speechless with joy. [Thanks, Ken.]
I bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to school the next day for lunch, and the Faculty Room freaks out.
“Where is your rice?”
“Where is your viand (meat)?”
“Where are your vegetables?”
They can’t conceive of varying their diet. It must be rice, rice, rice every meal, no exceptions. The only variable being the meat and vegetable to accompany it. If they add another carbohydrate (bread, rolls, noodles, etc.), rice is still served.
I’m reminded of the day when I watched a teacher cut open a thick piece of French bread, pack it with a heavy wad of rice, and chomp away. A carb attack waiting to happen.
I joke with them that I’m adjusting to their food better than they would to mine, and one teacher wryly replies, “Maybe, but I’d be more than willing to give it a try.”
I learn that one teacher has agreed to house me for my final month of host family commitment, but her place is 2-3 km from town past the airport. The Peace Corps may not approve a location that far away. But I like the teacher and her family.
After that I’ll have to move again into an apartment, so I’m far from finished with moving. As a result, I spend a day in Dumaguete pricing furniture and appliances for my future apartment. I’ve saved a ton of pesos the last four months for this eventuality, but after seeing the prices, it may not be enough.
I’ve made friends at the local free clinic in town, thanks to my recent illnesses, and I routinely drop by to say hi. One nurse tells me she wanted to be an engineer until the day she saved a drowning boy at the beach with CPR. After that, she knew her calling was to be a nurse.
A Peace Corps volunteer from Dumaguete visits me, and I give her the five-cent Sibulan grand tour. We trek along the beach and update each other on our situations. She’s having issues with her host family, too. She’s often ill, and she suspects it’s because her host mother’s food preparation is less than hygienic. The last straw was when she found rat droppings on her clothes in her bedroom. Her U.S. family has promised to send her $100 a month to help pay for her future apartment. She’ll get a beach house with that.
The principal informs me that the teacher who offered to host me for my final month won’t be ready to do so in time. The good news is he found another teacher who agreed to house me. I know this teacher; we got funky on the dance floor at the Teachers & Alumni Party in December. He tells me the family is a large one, though — mother, father, 3-year-old boy, 8-year-old girl, and 13-year-old girl.
My Peace Corps regional manager visits Sibulan and she and I, along with the principal and my co-teacher, inspect the house. But before we do, my co-teacher, a maternal sweetheart who looks after me constantly, takes me aside and gently advises me to do whatever it takes this time to adjust to the new family. “Make every effort to fit in,” she pleads. “We have no other options after this.” I promise her I will.
My knees are shaking when we arrive. During my month-long stay here, I’ll be under the microscope by practically everyone:
- The new family, who knows I left my previous family — a prestigious one in the community — under a cloud of suspicion, acrimony, and controversy
- The principal, who knows the previous family well and has undoubtedly heard their version of events and will be keen to see if what they said about me was true
- The teachers, who’ve heard rumors of strife surrounding me and are probably wondering if the volunteer they got is a golden goose or an albatross
- The mayor, who allowed me to stay at the Travelers Inn despite her close relationship with my previous host father (they both sing in the church choir) and may be doubting her decision
My first view of the place is nothing less than awe-inspiring. Directly across the street is the beach. Directly behind the house is Bali: a sweeping rice paddy the color of ripe limes, a Tarzan jungle nestled around it, and a violet mountain swaddled in mist towering above it all. My first thought: If this lot were in L.A., it would sell for $12.5 mil.
Oh yeah, they’re putting in a ping pong table in the garage, a badminton court in the backyard, and aircon and cable in my room.
Camangting Beach, Sibulan
January 15 – February 1, 2011
The week before my move, I develop severe gas pains and bloating and worry that the recent stress has brought on an ulcer. On the day of my move, I spend the day in a Dumaguete hospital where I’m prescribed a handful of pills. When I finally arrive at the house in the late afternoon, the street explodes with kids when “The American” steps out of the pedicab. The youngest daughter and all her friends, whom I learn later were waiting hours for me to arrive, tear down the road and surround me.
For the next week, I get the same reception each time I arrive: a half dozen kids running down the street toward my tryke shouting and jumping in the air, “Uncle John! Uncle John! Uncle John’s home!”
That evening, my new host father, whose rotund belly and shaved head remind me of Buddha, invites me to join him and the neighborhood “cowboys” at the ramshackle assortment of bamboo benches across the road for some Tanduay Rhum, songs, and stories. I’m in bliss.
The pills do the trick, and my ulcer-like symptoms vanish as quickly as they appeared. Amazing how good food and good vibes will cure just about anything.
The principal tells me a furnished house near the school is vacant. He once stayed there for three months himself, so he knows the place. We check it out, and I’m bowled over by its size, cleanliness, and furnishings. It’s full of soft couches, a wet bar, an enormous TV, a videoke machine, two bedrooms, and a sprawling kitchen. In front is a heavily secured wall and a wide porch.
The caretaker calls the owner, a female bartender in Hong Kong, who tells me I can rent it for 10,000 pesos/month. Say what? My Peace Corps budget is 3,000. I knew it was too good to be true.
The next day the owner offers me the front portion of the house (living room, bar, bedroom, bathroom) for 5,000 pesos. The principal tells me he lived there under the same arrangement, moving a hotplate and fridge into the bar for a makeshift kitchen.
Negotiations are continuing.