February 1-4, 2011
Rain punishes us. Living under a tin roof can turn even a light drizzle into a nightmare. How best to describe the sound of rain hitting a tin roof? Imagine a cargo plane unloading a ton of ball bearings on your house — followed by a wave of ten more planes.
Everyone in the family is sneezing and coughing, and I soon join them. On Saturday, we suffer a rare brownout. Fortunately, the sun breaks through the gray gloom in afternoon. When it does, I grab two of the family kids and we set off to explore the rice paddy and jungle behind the house.
We traipse along narrow elevated footpaths through the rice marshes (one misstep and you’re knee-deep in mud), whose tall feathery stalks reach up to our waists. Above us float colorful paper bags attached to ropes, which swirl in the wind, turning the bags into fluttering scarecrows.
Moments after leaving the rice field, we step into the dark, shadowy realm of jungle foliage and are immediately lost, which was our primary goal. Nothing says adventure more to our little troupe than trying to find our way out of a labyrinth of coconut, nipa, banana, and mango trees. We discover a sparkling brook and follow it deep into the trees, cross a rickety bamboo “hanging bridge,” and pass pineapple and flower gardens so saturated with colors that I actually hear my digital camera wheeze as it tries to capture them all.
We top off the day by swimming in the ocean. We swim out to a floating nipa hut 30 yards offshore that’s moored to a boulder in the sand. We climb aboard the “shipwrecked clubhouse” and hold on for dear life as the waves thrash us about.
Monday is my last day with my teaching counterpart. For the next month and a half, I’ll co-teach with my supervisor and her senior students, including Section A, the best students in the school, the ones who invited me to their Christmas classroom party last December.
The students I’ve been teaching all give me emotional farewells. In one class, they sing a song and give speeches. As I leave, one girl slips a handwritten note into my hand. It’s a sweet letter thanking me for being her teacher.
In my second class, a boy brings his guitar and serenades me with a couple of songs, then the class joins in with Cat Stevens’s “Father and Son.” Two lines in the song are poignant: “I must go away” and “I’m old but I’m happy.” I choke up when I tell them although I’m old, they’ve made me very happy, too. Another girl follows me outside and gives me a note similar to the first one.
The third class gives speeches about me (how I did things they’ll never forget, how I helped make them think, how I’m a nice person who t00k the time to get to know them).
The last class plays “Deal or No Deal” for me, including three sexily dressed girls carrying small boxes (the “attache cases”). In the first one is a mirror, so I’m required to describe myself. In the second box is a cellphone with a recorded thank-you message from the class. In the third box is a card asking my opinion of the class, which I readily give them.
A couple of days later I get a text message from the Director of the Peace Corps in the Philippines. “No emergency,” she writes, “but please call me today.”
Uh-oh. That can only mean bad news. My first thought is something’s happened to someone at home, but the director’s “no emergency” rules that out. It must be about me. Probably the host family crisis I just extricated myself from. She probably wants to know what happened. I mentally review the events and prepare for her likely questions.
When I reach her, she greets me pleasantly, then gets right to the point. “Do you know a Howard Piller?”
“Yes,” I say, not understanding. “He’s my best friend back home. Why?”
“Well, it seems he’s quite worried about you. He called Peace Corps headquarters in Washington inquiring about you. And they contacted me. Is everything all right?”
I sigh. My last blog ended with the host family cliffhanger and my uncertain future. He must have assumed the worst. The fact that I haven’t e-mailed anyone since then can’t have helped.
I tell the Director that I haven’t written him in a while and promise to do so ASAP. “I’m sorry to have involved you in this matter.”
“No problem,” she says. “It gives me an opportunity to chat with you.” Which we do for a few minutes. She’s about to transfer from the Philippines to become the Peace Corps Director in her native country, Haiti, and I wish her well.
When the call ends, I feel relief that the call wasn’t anything serious. More importantly, I’m thankful that the safety and security procedures of the Peace Corps are as advertised. During training, the PC staff continually drummed into us how thorough and immediate they would be should an emergency arise. After this firsthand experience, I feel more safe, secure, and confident that headquarters will respond if necessary.
BLOOD ON THE SAND
February 5-6, 2011
It’s my host family’s mom’s birthday, so the house is full of visitors, friends, and relatives. As the men prepare the pots and kettles for the meats, the women tackle the salads and desserts. I’m assigned a salad. When I’m done, I stroll down the road to escape the noise, smoke, and chaos. The youngest host daughter and her friends scamper up to me.
“Where are you going, Uncle John?”
I shrug, not really knowing, and they suggest the beach. When we walk out onto the sand, a couple of young boys follows us, hurling insults at the girls. The daughter gets angry. When I ask what they said, she says they called her very bad things.
They continue to harass her, and the girl breaks down. I’ve never seen her so upset. She chases the oldest boy all the way down the beach. When she returns, she’s so distressed, she can barely walk, needing a piece of wood to assist her. I had no idea how frail and sensitive she was. We trudge back, the day ruined.
An explosion of snarls erupts right behind us. I swing around and, to my horror, see Ron-Ron, the friendly neighborhood mutt that the kids painted spots on, causing it to look like a hyena, being mauled by what look like a half dozen dogs, including two enormous pit bulls the color of scuffed cowhide.
My heart turns to ice. Are these the same pit bulls that have terrorized the community, killing countless stray dogs including my host family’s pet? The owners have never been prosecuted and the dogs have never been put down. The owners simply pay the victims’ families 1,000 pesos for their loss (about $25). One of the first things my host family warned me when I moved in was to beware of these dogs and to flee if I ever encountered them.
I shout at the girls and boys to run home immediately, but they ignore me, climbing on top of a wall of an abandoned structure on the beach for a better look at the mayhem.
Ron-Ron is making such excruciatingly pitiful sounds that I feel compelled to do something, anything, to stop its suffering. I see some adults running up, but they won’t get here in time. I pick up a long piece of bamboo on the sand and with all my strength slam it on top of the nearest animal’s back. Nothing. I hit it again and again. Nothing. Turning the bamboo on its side, I take a few steps back and then run forward, ramming its point into the dog’s flank. It yelps and scampers away.
One of the pit bulls faces me, its jaws clamped deep into Ron-Ron’s throat. Without thinking, I do the same, ramming it between its eyes. To my surprise, it, too, releases its death grip.
The next moment is one I will never forget. The huge head rears up and fastens its dead pink eyes on me. I freeze, realizing that my fate could rest on what happens next. I may have just triggered a pack reaction that could turn their blood lust on me.
This is unbelievably dangerous. My mind races through my options should that happen. There are none. My well-being and Peace Corps future flash before me. I endured dengue. How will I explain another hospitalization? How many rabies shots did the medical officer tell us we would have to take if we were ever bit by a dog? What kind of judgment will I demonstrate to HQ by this foolish action?
To my utter relief the the pit bull looks down and clamps its jaws on Ron-Ron again. I back away as the group running up the beach finally reaches the scene and grabs the collars of the pit bulls and tries to pull them off, but the monsters don’t budge.
Ron-Ron then lets out a long, unearthly howl unlike any sound I’ve ever heard. The pack has spread-eagled him — three dogs are pulling his hind legs and the others are pulling him by the head, neck, and ears. From the awful sounds Ron-Ron’s making, they’re close to literally tearing the poor thing apart. I’m sickened and furious with indecision and impotence.
Finally the bulls are pulled off by what I suspect are their owners, one of whom is covered in tattoos. The other dogs scatter. I’m amazed to see Ron-Ron get up and do the same.
Enraged, I turn my wrath on the owners. I know who you are, I shout. You’re a menace to the community. I’m going to call the police. What are you thinking, letting your killer dogs run loose on the beach? What if they come upon a child? They say nothing.
Neighbors crowd outside Chu-Chu’s house the rest of the day checking on Ron-Ron’s fate. She’s the mutt’s owner, or as much of an owner as one can be here. Pets here aren’t really pets as they are in the States. They’re strays who latch onto particular families or houses like feral cats, so the “owner” develops no real closeness to them. For that reason, veterinarians or vet hospitals are out of the question whenever a stray gets hurt or sick, not only because there’s no real connection to the animal but because the cost is so prohibitive, especially in rural towns like this one.
Nevertheless, Chu-Chu’s relatives dress the dog’s wounds as best they can and concoct a home remedy of herbs and salves to try and reduce the pain. But it doesn’t seem to be doing much good. Ron-Ron is panting furiously under a tree in the front yard, whimpering continuously. He’s not expected to last the night. That evening I tremble with anger, frustration, and an overload of adrenaline as Ron-Ron’s agonizing shrieks on the beach haunt my sleep.
When I visit Chu-Chu the next morning, Ron-Ron is nowhere to be seen. “Is he…?” I ask.
She motions to the back. “Still alive, but hiding.” It’s gone away to die.
I tell her the pit bulls were probably the same ones that struck before. What does she plan to do about it? She shrugs her shoulders. Will you go to the police? Shrug. Should the pit bulls be put to sleep? Shrug. Will you demand restitution from the owners? Shrug.
One of the hardest things for foreigners to understand and accept in the Philippines is bahala na, which loosely translates as “fatalistic passiveness.” My conversation with Chu-Chu echoes numerous others I’ve had with locals on similar situations. Back home, action in a case like this would be swift. Choices that aggrieved consumers have back home seem more plentiful than here. But Chu-Chu doesn’t want to hear them. There’s nothing to be done; that’s life. You’re wasting your time getting worked up about it. I back off and, with gritted teeth, let it go.
VALENTINES AND THE PROM
February 7-18, 2011
I write personal thank-you letters to the principal and mayor for their help in obtaining emergency housing for me during my host family crisis. I especially thank the mayor for allowing me to stay at the Travelers Inn for two weeks at no cost.
When I arrive at the Municipal Hall, I’m directed to go upstairs to the mayor’s office on the second floor. A man sitting in a chair outside the office says I can go right in. I’m taken aback. I expected a crowd waiting outside the office and a team of harried assistants making appointments for weeks in the future. I open the door and see the mayor speaking to a man seated in a chair in front of her desk. The man outside the office motions for me to sit in the chair next to her desk. I do so. The man speaking with the mayor finishes his business a moment later, and the mayor smiles and gestures for me to sit in the chair the other man was just in.
The mayor is an attractive but stoic woman in her late 30s with short hair who thanks me for coming. I hand her my letter and thank her for helping me. I’m not sure she understands or recalls the incident, but she reads the letter politely.
“God bless,” she sighs when she finishes. And that’s it. I thank her again and depart. It’s not often you get an audience with your mayor this easily or quickly. Sometimes it pays to live in a small town.
I’m introduced to a new fish in my lunch bag the next day: cuttlefish. The only time I’ve heard of cuttlefish was on a National Geographic special. They’re an unusual fish — a cross between a squid and an octopus. Their distinguishing characteristic is their ability to change color to camouflage themselves from predators or to enhance courtship.
In the TV special, one smaller-than-normal male cuttlefish was having no luck finding a mate so it cleverly changed its color to resemble a female. This immediately lured all the males away from the females to check “her” out. The scrawny cuttlefish then changed its color back to a male and scuttled over to the solitary females where it cuttled to its heart’s content.
Eating one, I discover, is an exercise in jaw aerobics: chew, chew, chew. And then when you finally break off a piece in your mouth, it has no taste. One teacher aptly described it disdainfully as “bubblegum fish.” I politely request my host family to leave cuttlefish off my lunch menu from then on.
The next Saturday my host father’s uncle arrives for a visit so the house is full of visitors. The same day, my host mother’s aunt dies, followed by Chu-Chu’s mother. Poor Chu-Chu. The road is full of well-wishers and vehicles as the community visits and/or pays its respects. Through it all, word is that Ron-Ron is still alive, although no one’s seen him.
On Valentine’s Day, a student I don’t know well comes up to me nervously, nudged forward by several girlfriends, and she hands me a large Valentine’s card. Inside is her picture, a printed section devoted to me, and “I Love You!” scrawled across it in English and Visaya. I thank her, it’s very sweet, but I feel uncomfortable. The best way to handle such situations, I decide, is to not give her or other students any encouragement.
After a week of of student rehearsals in the town Quadrangle for the upcoming Junior-Senior Prom, the big night has finally arrived. Following the final run-through, I go home early and take a nap. A night of dancing is ahead for everyone.
At 5, I hop on a tryke to town, and when it pulls up, the Quadrangle resembles the Red Carpet on Oscar Night, except that I step out of a dilapidated pedicab instead of a limo. Three hundred and fifty juniors and seniors in their best borrowed gowns and jackets mill around taking pictures. The girls look gorgeous and grown up — from ducklings to swans. The boys, well, they look goofy in their five-sizes-too-big jackets, badly tied ties, and spiked sea urchin hair.
Although they’re all couples, few are with their partners; the boys hang with each other in large groups, the girls stand around either solitary or in pairs or quartets. Bulbs flash nonstop.
Finally the gate swings open, the couples pair up, and the opening procession begins. The Quadrangle has been specially designed for the occasion. Colorfully decorated tables and chairs encircle the enclosure and the stage is bedecked in balloons, foliage, and a large cupid.
The host for the evening, my counterpart, takes me aside and asks if I want to be one of the judges for Prom King and Queen. I don’t need any arm-twisting and immediately jump to the task.
I take my seat at the center VIP guest table with the mayor, the town priest, and the principal. The food is great and there’s lots of it. After the speeches, the disco balls above the Quadrangle blink on, “Waka-Waka” thunders through the sound system, and a rainbow of sparkling gowns and white jackets fill the floor.
Within minutes, I’m dragged into the middle of them including a series of “showdowns” with male students, which is a popular craze in the Philippines. One dancer does a move and his opponent tries to match it. The tall boy who took me on at his classroom’s Christmas party does so again, and we mimic each other move by move. A draw.
Then a tiny guy in a nice tweed jacket jumps into the fray, and he’s a whirling dervish. It’s on! A huge crowd of students surrounds us. The kids, many of whom have never seen me dance or imagined that I could, go wild and root for me, but it’s no contest as the kid moonwalks, spins on the floor, and otherwise destroys me. I back off and applaud him.
Near the end of the evening I experience an uncomfortable moment. The teachers form a circle and everyone takes turns dancing solo in the middle. When my turn comes, one teacher pushes me into the center and shouts, “You dance, they follow! You’re the nigger!”
Say what? I must have heard wrong, but then I hear him shout to the others: “Follow the nigger! Follow the nigger!”
I’m speechless. Although I’m white, I’m shocked and offended. I feel like saying something, but everyone’s having such a good time that I don’t want to ruin the evening.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard the N-word used at school. The other instances have been by students who routinely use the derogatory term as well as “Negro” when describing black people. Each time I’ve made it a point to calmly correct them, as I and my co-teachers do when students mispronounce a word.
When I tell them the meaning of such words, the students in every instance are always stunned and ashamed. From what I’ve observed, I believe the usage of these words is primarily due to ignorance, not maliciousness.
February 19-28, 2011
As I near the end of my host family stay at the beach, my negotiations with the Hong Kong bartender, who owns the furnished house near the school where my principal once lived, intensifies. I reach her by phone and plead my case: I’m 62, not a young partygoer, so the place will be kept immaculate. I’ll be the only tenant, so wear and tear will be minimal. I’ll bring in guaranteed rent for two years. And my rent allowance is fixed by the Peace Corps, so any extra money I have to pay will come out of my meager PC funds.
She says she’s aware of the Peace Corps and the hardships we endure and relents, lowering the rent to 4,000/mo. I can manage that. I send the housing checklist and pictures of the place to Manila, as instructed, and cross my fingers.
The next day, my house is approved.
Joey, the pedicab driver who sings like Marvin Gaye at the local videoke and has taken me and my host daughter to school nearly every day since I’ve lived at the beach, fits my ten packages, bags, and pieces of luggage into his tryke, and we set off for my new pad. A few blocks down he road, I’m overwhelmed to see, trotting alongside the road looking like nothing happened, Ron-Ron.
When I arrive at my new place, a half dozen shirtless men lounge around a sari-sari store one house down from mine. Their faces are rough. All are serious candidates for the Biggest Potbelly Contest. But they’re friendly. They mosey over and introduce themselves.
After I unpack, I join them back in the street. We talk sports over Tanduhay rum, pig intestines (not bad), and goat brains (I decline). This is a scruffy, hardscrabble bunch that I don’t much relate to. But they’re my neighbors and I vow to fit in. When they invite me to a friend’s wake, I accept, and there I meet some old friends in the community including the church’s organist and a choir member who looks like a cross between Nancy Kwan and Leslie Caron but is unfortunately married. A gaggle of women I sit with promise to scour the town for prospective wives.
Going back, I get lost in the dark and run into students drinking on the street who hail me: “Sir John! Where you going?” I decide this isn’t the time to correct their English, so I hang with them for a while, and one politely helps me find the right street back home.
The next day, I stock up on food and essentials at the market, and when I return I chat with the sari-sari cowboys for a bit. One says his son knows me; I used to play badminton with him when I lived at my first host family. He says his son also plays tennis and needs a partner. Do I play? My jaw drops. Do I? Does Ethel Kennedy own a black dress? Am I available this afternoon? he asks. I haven’t played in six months and am starving for tennis.
That afternoon his boy and I walk down a winding road to a beautiful court overlooking a brook, rice fields, and coconut trees. We hit the ball a while, and the child, who’s in elementary school, is quite advanced. Adults start to drift in, and I’m invited to join them in a doubles match. I’m horribly rusty, but I’m relieved to see that my skill level is the same as theirs. I play for two hours and meet several more friends.
I know where I’ll be every Sunday from now on.