DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES
Sibulan
March 1-7, 2011
I invite the teachers in the Faculty Room to come over to my new house for lunch (they’ve been hinting for days that they want to see it). I buy Cokes and ice cream, and they bring rice and chicken and veggies.

The cowboys hang outside, not knowing what to make of six women piling out of a pedicab and trotting into my house in the middle of the day. I tell them I’m searching for a Filipina wife and these are my first candidates: the Six Desperate Housewives.

As one teacher sweeps the porch after the party, she jokes that the neighbors may think I’ve hired one of them as a maid: the Six Desperate Helpers.

Later that evening I return from the Internet cafe and stop and chat with the cowboys. As always, they offer me a glass of Tanduay and Coke and a sample of their latest Fear Factor appetizers. Tonight it’s a bowl of I-Don’t-Want-to-Know and a leg from the loser in a recent cockfight. Without thinking, I gnaw on the limb, which is tougher than a potholder, and take a few spoonfuls of I-Don’t-Want-to-Know, a sour soup in which chunks of what look like soap float in it.

I spend the rest of the night hugging the toilet bowl and vowing to never sample the cowboys’ offerings again. What gushes out of me tastes like battery acid mixed with kerosene and stays in my gullet for days. Later I learn that fighting roosters are injected with steroids and other chemicals.

As I walk  home from school the next day, a boy rushes out of the mini-market holding the umbrella that I thought I’d lost several days ago at the Internet cafe. I’m touched by his honesty and perseverance. He must have been keeping his eyes out for me every day. Only in the Philippines.

The cowboys hail me as I come home and offer me chicken’s feet. No thanks, I say, I’m on an anti-Drano diet at the moment (I don’t really say that).

I change clothes, grab my badminton rackets, and jog over to my old neighborhood. All the same street kids and adults are hanging out as usual. They explode when they see me. “Sir John! Sir John!” We promptly pick up where we left off by losing my last remaining birdie on someone’s roof.

No problem. We borrow a bamboo ladder from a neighbor, carry it back, and Super Mario, the tiny kid who’s become the neighborhood expert in retrieving birdies from the most impossible places, scrambles up the ladder, across the roof, and plucks it.

The host son from my difficult family spots me from the end of the block and runs down to greet me. He asks why I haven’t come back to say hi. I guess he didn’t get the memo. I tell him I haven’t been back because his father told me he hated me. Probably not the most tactful thing I could have said.

The next day at school I talk with a tall, goofy-looking kid with holes in his two front teeth whom I’ve become fond of. He’s been in high school for seven years and hopes this is the year he finally graduates. His life is, like so many students, a hardship story. He has no father, had to work one year in Manila as a machinist to support his family, and works at another job from 4-7 a.m. every morning before school. He asks me if he should work abroad. He says his motto is to be happy no matter what, and he’s one of the funniest and happiest students on campus, but the reality is evident underneath his eyes, which reveal the truth.

The next weekend I hang out with my favorite volunteer and former training classmate in Dumaguete where I meet a 70-plus married couple who served in the Philippines a few years ago. They’ve returned on their own dime to finish their projects and to sponsor a few kids to whom they got attached while here. They invite me to speak at a local orphanage they’re involved with and I accept.

We learn that another volunteer was just sent home. Sad story. He worked with fishermen in coastal resource management and one day got an emergency call that a dolphin had washed up onshore and needed assistance ASAP. There was no transportation, so his Filipina supervisor, who should have known better, told him to hop on the back of her motorcycle.

When he reminded her that he wasn’t allowed to be on motorcycles, she said, “I’m your supervisor. It’s okay this one time. Let’s go.”

They reached the dolphin in time to save it and all would have been fine except that his supervisor told his regional manager what they’d done, including their emergency dash on her motorcycle. The regional manager called the volunteer, told him to pack his bags, and to come to Manila for immediate outprocessing.

At the tennis court, one of the players says I teach his two daughters. “They told me you’re a good teacher, funny,” he says, and that makes my day. He says his daughters speak perfect English because he got them a CD that teaches learners how to speak English with an American accent. I make a note to get that for our Speech Lab.

I talk to teachers at the second campus, my favorite place, and discover two are passionate about reading comprehension and improving our sorry library. They want a bookshelf in every classroom with its own dictionary, thesaurus, almanac, etc. They’ll be valuable allies in my upcoming projects.

Coming home, I wave to the cowboys, who are huddled around  Beerbelly extolling a recent fling with a 16-year-old street girl. They segue by asking if I’ve found a girlfriend yet. I say no. Would you be interested in the girl that Beerbelly…

“No thanks,” I say, reminding them for the umpteenth time that volunteers have to uphold a certain image in the community.

One man leans over and whispers, “We understand. Would it be okay if we brought her over at 1 a.m. through your back door? Then nobody would know.” It was at that point that I pay my respects and excuse myself.

I play tennis the following night at the 7th Day Adventist Church down the road from my house and notice an elegant woman watching from the sidelines. I finish my game, go over to my towel and water, and strike up a conversation. After seven months of convincing myself that there are no eligible women in town, here is one in spades. She speaks fluent English, is in her early 40s, is a chemistry professor , and has the kind of beauty that resonates inside as well as out. And no ring on her finger.

We talk some more. She gets up to leave, and so do I. Just as I’m about to make my play, rusty as it is, the pastor of the church comes over and introduces me to her — his wife. They get on their motorcycle, wave cheerfully to me, and rumble down the road. And with them, my hopes.

The ball boy at the court is one of my 4th year students, the ex-gang member who earlier asked my assistance in providing shelter at my host family’s house. I walk back with him, my mind still on the woman. He’s feeling down, too. He may not graduate and can’t afford summer school because he needs to work. He hints, as he does often, that he needs money.

He asks to see my house. I take him over to it and he asks a lot of questions: “Do you live alone? What do you have inside? Do you have a TV? Do you have a computer?” I get uncomfortable and don’t trust him.

HOW NOT TO TEACH
Sibulan
March 7-14, 2011
It’s the end of the school year frenzy when everyone’s taking the final test of the year that may determine if they’ll pass or fail, advance to the next grade level, or repeat. Teachers from faraway barangays are brought in to monitor the classrooms and administer the tests while our teachers are sent to their schools to do the same. Rumors abound that one province showed the test answers to their students beforehand, guaranteeing their scores would be number one.

As I pass through the park on the way home, a group of 4th year students calls me over. “Is it true,” one girl asks tentatively, “that abortion is legal in America and that most American girls have one?” I explain that our national law allows abortions but that states can alter the law.

We discuss who has the right over a woman’s body — the government, the state, the church, or the woman. I pose various scenarios to her: should a woman who is raped be allowed to have an abortion? What about if the birth might endanger the woman’s life? The student, an ardent Catholic, said she would have the baby no matter what.

“Even if you were raped?” I press gently.

“Yes,” she says. “It’s God’s plan.”

I look at her. “It’s God’s plan for a woman to be raped?”

“Oh no, no, it’s His plan for her to have the baby.”

During the last week of classes, the 4th year students have mock job interviews, and I’m designated as the “boss” interviewing them. They bring their dress clothes to school and line up outside my office all day. The poor kids are so nervous because this is the first time many have experienced a job interview.

A few visibly shake during the ordeal. A few can’t speak English at all. Cannot answer one question. How did they make it to 4th year? How did they graduate? One girl bursts into tears when my questioning veers into her home life, which turns out to be, as so often the case, a tragic one.

The most unforgettable ambition I hear is that of a boy applying to be a “chicken killer.” When I ask what that means, he says he wants to work in a place that kills chickens for market. And why do you want to do that? “Because I like to kill chickens.”

I finish a book about teaching that I got from Peace Corps, and it’s a revelation. According to the book, nearly everything we’re doing at school is wrong. My teachers are always tired and hoarse. The book says: “If you’re tired, you’re teaching the wrong way.Your students are the ones who should be exhausted.”

The book says poor teachers “cover” lessons, give a quiz, and move on to the next lesson no matter what the quiz scores are. Good teachers ensure that their students “master” their lessons before they move on. We do the former.

When I ask a few teachers if the book is right, they agree. “But we can’t reteach; there’s no time,” one says. “We must keep to the curriculum schedule.” No wonder so many students fail the big tests or are held back.

LUNCH SHOWDOWN
Sibulan
March 15-19, 2011
In between tennis sets the next day, I chat with the 7th Day Adventist pastor (there are two; this is not the husband of the woman I pine for) about religion and health. Later I talk to one of the my regular partners who confides in a low voice that he was once an Adventist but left because of its teachings. “History shows that crucifixions never occurred in the time of Christ,” he says. “They first appeared 500 years after. And Jesus wasn’t his real name either.”

I tell him I have problems with the Bible, too. He whispers, “Good, now I have an ally here.”

Now that I’m no longer living with a host family and eating meals prepared for me, I can fix whatever I want. For lunch, I usually opt for a sandwich (tuna, chicken, or peanut butter & jelly), Pringles, and a banana. This causes enormous disruption in the Faculty Room.

“Where’s your rice? Where’s your meat? Sandwiches are for snacks, Sir John, not lunch!” They tut-tut and shake their heads and generally get their knickers in a twist.

It finally comes to a head one day when one teacher literally pushes my plate away, pours half of her lunch (rice, vegetables, fish) onto a separate plate, and places it in front of me, commanding me to “Eat!” Ignoring my bottle of water also, she pours a glass of Coke  and says, “Drink!”

With everyone watching, I stare at the plate and the glass, debating what to do. I feel hurt, angry, shamed, and humiliated. Not wanting to ruin the relationships I’ve built up with the staff with whom I will work for the next two years, I eat silently.

The next day I go home for lunch. They seem surprised the first few times I do this. I want to clear the air and tell them my reasons for eating apart but fear my tact-deprived personality might make the situation worse.

THESE LITTLE PIGGIES WENT TO MANILA
Subic Bay, Manila, Sibulan
March 20-31, 2011
About a month after I arrived in-country, I noticed the tip of my middle toe on my right foot was numb. When I scratched it, I could barely feel it. Maybe it was new shoes, new sandals, a reaction to the weather, a million things. But not diabetes because tests for that always come up negative.

The last few months I’ve noticed the three middle toes on both feet feel numb, too. I feel the numbness all the time. So, after putting it off for as long as a man can do, I finally give Peace Corps Medical a call, seeing as I’m about to fly there for my Peer Support Network training in Manila. Maybe they can check me out while I’m there.

It pours the next day. Amidst the deluge, I’m surprised to hear a helicopter zoom above us through the downpour. Who would fly in such weather? The next day we find out who. The New People’s Army, a rebel Communist group, attacked government troops just two hours away from Sibulan that day and military choppers were rushed to the scene. Peace Corps assures me they’re too far away to be any danger.

Teachers tell me they’re in the mountains and hinterlands and to be careful traveling there. And that I should never, ever, transport myself with the military as they’re the NPA’s primary targets. And that I am never, ever, to refer to them by name in public because you never know who’s listening. When referring to them, you must say “New Person Around” or “No Permanent Address” instead of NPA.

I fly to Manila, drop off my bags at the Peace Corps office, and take a jeepney to the Mall of Asia where I gorge on a Subway and a handful of Mrs. Fields brownies, which gives me a stomach ache that’s sooo worth it.  The next morning 17 volunteers (the 13 new Peer Support Network volunteers and the four remaining ones from the previous batch) pile into a bus for Subic Bay a couple of hours away for a three-day whirlwind of sessions and role plays on how to listen and respond to trainees/volunteers who are dealing with crises related to their service.

In my first role play, I take a “call” from a volunteer who’s depressed, sleeps all the time, and has no energy to do anything. I ask a lot of questions and determine that he needs to be referred to the Medical team. Wrong. He’s just feeling down, my observer tells me. Don’t be too quick to rush to judgment. In his case, I should have acted as a friend (“Let’s talk again next week and see if anything improves”). I was trying to resolve the situation immediately.

After the conference, a Peace Corps doctor pulls me aside and says my flight home has been rebooked so they can run tests on my toes. I am to see a neurologist tomorrow.

The neurologist suspects something in my back may be pressing on the nerves going to my toes, but I have no back pain. She schedules an EMG, a nerve test in which what looks like a electric cord is placed on my legs and feet in various places, causing each touched area to jerk, sometimes violently but painlessly, to see how my nerves respond. The test reveals “moderate to moderately severe blockage of the nerves.” An MRI is scheduled and my flight’s rebooked again. That’s okay with me — more time in Manila!

I luxuriate with my first-ever two-hour massage, stroll down the seaside at sunset, and visit Rizal Park where the greatest Filipino hero, Jose Rizal, is buried and where another monument honors Lapo-Lapo, the warrier chief credited with killing Magellan. I end the day revisiting the fabled Manila Hotel where I stayed briefly during the Army. It looks grander than I remembered it. Previous guests have been John F. Kennedy, the Beatles, Douglas MacArthur, and, of course, me.

On my final day in Manila, I get an MRI and then head for the airport. I’ll be told the results — and the Peace Corps’ and neurologist’s findings and recommendations later. I fear my only option will be surgery. Do I want to risk that or can I live with the numbness for the rest of my life? Another volunteer recently went home for back surgery and had to reapply all over again to return to the Philippines. She still hasn’t returned.

When I return home, the cowboys want to hear all about my trip. Most have never been to Manila or even out of the Visayas region, and they listen raptly to my descriptions of the malls, the traffic, the prices, the food, the women. The grandson of my landlord sits down next to me and whispers something to me.

“Sir, can you buy a ticket to Manila for me?”

I lean forward, thinking I heard wrong. He repeats it. His face looks stricken, frozen in a rictus of hopelessness. He tells me his story. His family is broken; his mother and some sisters moved to Manila eight years ago, leaving him and a brother and uncle in Sibulan. He has no job and cannot visit her. His mother and sisters have fallen on hard times in Manila and can’t visit him.

“Please, sir, can you help me?”

I try to explain that I have no money for a ticket, that the Peace Corps has prohibited us from giving money to locals (untrue, but making the PC the bad guy is always a good strategy, we were told, to get out of tricky situations). I explain that if I had the money and bought him a ticket, the word would get out and I would be beseiged with requests from others. His blank expression tells me he doesn’t care. I excuse myself.

I unlock my gate and enter my porch when I see him peering over the gate. “Please!…Please!…PLEASE!” he begs. I have never seen a more forlorn face.

I apologize again and go inside. I suffer with guilt for the next hour, then my shame turns to fear. He’s my landlord’s grandson. He may have access to a key. Is he really as desperate as he looks? Now I have to worry about another person breaking into my place.

On the weekend I get a text from the male nurse at the local health clinic,  one of several staff members with whom I routinely chat. He asks if I can do him a favor. He says his daughter’s graduation is Wednesday, he has no money for a gift, and won’t get paid until Wednesday. Could I loan him some money so he can get her a gift. He’ll pay me back Wednesday.

I feel more confident loaning him something (only 500 pesos, it turns out, about $15) than the other boy because I’ve gotten to know him and he seems mature and level-headed and not desperate. But I worry that I may be setting a precedent that I may regret later.

On Sunday I go into Dumaguete for a small dinner party with a volunteer and see her new pad. Its layout is narrow, resembling a long hallway with rooms off to the side and a kitchen at the end. It looks brand new and she’s done a lot with it.

She tells me about the recent Language Camp I missed (because I had to extend my stay in Manila). Apparently it was quite a show. No, not the language lessons, the drama behind the scenes. One volunteer was sent home, two more are on the bubble, a fourth is being investigated for misbehavior, and accusations are flying about who snitched on them.

I know the fourth one, someone I hope will clean up his act (if the stories about him are true). He’s a good guy whose admirable life goal — a career with the foreign service — hinges on completing his PC service in good standing.

The episodes remind me yet again that we’re all here for a purpose. That we’re representing our country. That the image we project will last far longer that our brief stay here. Sometimes you simply have to put your personal desires aside for the greater good.

Easier said than done. Because each month, as I can readily attest, the temptations — and needs — mount.

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