GRADUATION DAZE
Sibulan
April 1-8, 2011
Everyone heads for the Quadrangle in the center of town for the first in a series of intermidable graduation rehearsals. Everything is performance art in the Philippines. The most banal event requires days of rehearsals, stupendous stage decorations, catered food, and a major evening of entertainment.
 
I’m convinced that before anyone in this country has a bowel movement, they conduct three rehearsals, a 35-minute introduction of dignitaries who will witness the occasion, gold medals for the biggest, smelliest, and loudest, an elaborately printed certificate commemorating the effort, and a 45-minute speech extolling what the moment portends for the future. But I kid.
 

I am seated on the stage next to the keynote speaker, a 21-year-old young man who was the school’s valedictorian in 2006. Now he’s a cum laude graduate of Silliman University, the most prestigious college in the province. His younger brother, he tells me, was also valedictorian at Sibulan after he was. They were the last boys to do it. It’s gratifying to see that male students can do more here than gel their hair into the shape of obscure lawn ornaments.

To Sir…with love.

The second graduation is bigger than the first and lasts just as long, just over three hours. The introduction of the keynote speaker seems to last an hour by itself. But I’m impressed. I had met the speaker several months ago at a wedding in the small town of Dauin, about an hour south of Sibulan. A tall, straight-backed charismatic man, he is president of Negros Oriental State University, a dead ringer for Muhammad Ali, and renowned as a dramatic orator who uses no notes. He doesn’t disappoint.

After the ceremony, the teachers are led down the middle of the graduates and we slap hands with the students. I notice the boy with the holes in his teeth who’s waited seven years to graduate, and we hug. I’m really happy for him. The girls wave at me and call out, “Goodbye, sir!”

Goodbye? Then it hits me. I realize for the first time that this may be the last time I’ll see most of these kids. I’m so used to seeing them around town, in the market, at the park, passing in pedicabs, that I assume they’ll still be in Sibulan. Some will. But many will be off to college or get jobs or go overseas or get married. Where they definitely won’t be anymore is at school. A heavy sense of loss overcomes me, and I walk out of the Quadrangle silent and introspective.

The next day I do it all over again at the Night School graduation. Only 50 students are graduating, but the ceremony still drags on for 3+ hours. At the dinner afterward, I sit next to Gem, the keynote speaker. A former student helper for the Night School director for three years, she was a night student for two years, then transferred to the day school. After graduation, she went to Silliman where she graduated with honors. She hopes to complete her master’s and Ph.D. In the meantime, she’s looking for a job, which she can’t find. That’s the sad part of Filipino life. Even if you rise above all the hardships and poverty and excel in high school and college with honors, good luck finding a job.

BLIND LEADING THE BLIND
Sibulan
April 9-17, 2011
On Sunday I go to the 7th Day Adventist court to play tennis but no one’s there, so the ball boy and I trek to the elementary school where another group often plays. These guys are even better than the Adventist group. They invite me to join them for drinks and “fellowship” at the Korean sari-sari store next to the Internet cafe I always patronize. I don’t like the Korean much because he always follows inches behind me whenever I enter his store.

They joke with me, saying they suspect I’m really CIA. I whisper that they should suspect the Korean instead, who nods his inscrutable smile from across the room. The others exchange looks and I leave contented.

I send my Library Improvement Plan to the principal and cross my fingers that 1) he likes it, and 2) he’s not offended or threatened that I proposed it. It’s a detailed plan on the state of the library, which is sorry, with plans on how to revitalize it, how to make it a community hub, and how to generate funds from businesses and organizations.

A couple of days later, my counterpart informs me that the principal wants a year-long plan for our Remedial Reading Program. As she will be away for the next couple of months, I’ll be in charge. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s time for my quarterly eye pressure check. I’ve had glaucoma for 20 years and 95% of both optic nerves are gone. Blindness is always just around the corner, but I’ve always managed to avoid dwelling on the possibility. Funny. The big things in life rarely bother me; it’s the trivial, mundane things that drive me insane. Like when a Ceres bus attendant charges me 41 pesos for a 10 peso ride.

My eye pressures are shocking — the highest they’ve been in decades. It’s so bad the opthalmalogist tests me twice. She confirms the news. My normal pressure is 11 or 12. My right eye is now 22. I sit there in stunned silence. She tells me once the optic nerve goes, blindness is swift. I always assumed that if it ever happened, it would be a slow progress. She says I misunderstood. The deterioration of the optic nerves is slow. But once they go, so does your sight. With my sight literally hanging by a couple of fibers (she shows me the photos), I don’t know what to say.

My trip back home is stark. I hear nothing. I look at no one. The world outside does not exist. I implode into my own personal terror. Like impending death, there are times when you have no other choice but to face it, confront it, accept it. I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about this possibility until I was in my 70s or later. Not anymore. I try to imagine my life sightless. How would I live? How would I judge the Miss Universe Pageant? How would I know if I’m opening a can of peaches or magenta paint?

Then again, some things could actually improve. No more judging women by their looks; they’d all be hotties. No longer would my sister’s filthy apartment bum me out. Or ants in my rice. Or “The Biggest Loser.” Conan’s hair would no longer frighten me. Cleft-palate ads would no longer catch me by surprise.

The doctor gives me a third eyedrop to take. I now need an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all the dosages. She brings up laser surgery. My opthalmalogist back home had mentioned that possibility, too. It relieves the pressure without the need of so many eyedrops and can prevent you from forgetting dosages. I research the procedure on the Internet and discover that the complications are numerous and postoperative care can take weeks and weeks. 

I weigh the options. I could have it done here, but my doctor in Dumaguete is quite elderly and stumbles and shakes when she takes my pressure. I wouldn’t want her pointing a laser into my eyes. How do you say “Oops!” in Cebuano?

The doctor in the States would be ideal, and having her do it would allow me to return home for a while, but 1) the Peace Corps may not approve of the procedure or the flight home, and 2) even if they do, the procedure could develop any number of postop complications that could necessitate my being there beyond the 45-day window that Peace Corps allows for home medical stays. I could risk being medically separated. Or I could risk not seeing again.

HOT TIME IN THE SUMMER
Sibulan
April 18-30, 2011
The heat and humidity just keep rising. Like the old color-coded terror alert levels that the Department of Homeland Security used to issue back home, I think the Philippines should announce the Humidity Advisory Level each week. Rather than designating each level by color, though, I suggest they use shower or bucket icons, with 1 being Low and 4 being Severe. Today, for example, is a 4-shower day, meaning I’m going to need 4 showers to make it through the day.

Let’s see, what’s for dinner tonight?

If you haven’t noticed by now, my Peace Corps service is starting to wear thin. Maybe it’s the summer doldrums. (What is a doldrum anyway? What kind of word is that? Has anyone seen one?) Maybe it’s the heat. Maybe it’s the eight months I’ve been here. Whatever the reason, I’m afraid that the initial excitement and intrigue of being a Peace Corps volunteer is starting to wear off. Let me count the ways:

  • The food. It was fun and interesting at first. Pork adobo! Lechon! Mangos! Now all I notice is fat, fish heads, durian, and purple ice cream. America’s Top Chef contestants should be required to make Filipino fare palatable.
  • The weather. In the beginning, the perpetual blue skies, puffy clouds, and occasional showers were heaven on earth. Now that’s all mutated into Lawrence of Arabia heat; impending thunderclouds the size of Montana; and daily monsoon, volcano, typhoon, mudslide, and tsunami alerts.
  • Accents. The distinctive Filipino accent seemed like the sing-song of sparrows when I first arrived. Now every elongated “e” and “o” and “i” sounds like a hairdresser’s pointed purple  thumbnail scraping down  a blackboard.
  • TV. When I signed up for cable, I was overjoyed to see one channel devoted just to basketball, plus HBO and several movie and sports channels. What I actually get are PBA games (think women’s basketball done poorly), HBO movies with all the skin censored, obscure movies from India, billiards, and evangelists that breathe more hell-fire than a Komodo dragon doused with lighter fluid.
  • Brown skin. Is there anything more alluring or smooth than the skin of Filipinos? Is there any physical quality that sets them apart from others? So why do they all universally abhor it? Women spend half their lives under their umbrellas to keep their skin white and spend their meager money on bogus skin-whitening lotions. Men wrap their heads with towels or drape jackets over themselves when motorcycling, resembling banditos zooming away from a crime scene. Workers toiling in the streets or on  rooftops in sweltering heat cover themselves with sweaters and hoodies so as not to get darker. That’s like an Eskimo walking around the ice flow in a thong to get a tan.  

Yeah, I think it’s starting to get to me. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not going anywhere. I’m just skidding through a hairpin turn of lowered expectations for the time being. Once I avoid the killer Ceres bus on my tail and the Bozo the Clown squeak-horn of the tryke in front of me, I’ll be okay. In the meantime, just call me Mr. Adjustment.

A FedEx care package for me arrives at school, and I eagerly take it home and rip the bloody thing apart like a lion on a wildebeest. The motherlode! Fudge brownies, black beans, chili, pancake mix, Raisin Bran! It’s from my podmates at my old job, the Josephson Institute of Ethics, living up to their name. I’m in hog heaven.

My improvised kitchen next to the wet bar.

I love my porch.

The next day is unbearably hot. It’s so bad it saps all my energy. I have a monumental headache and sleep most of the day. At night the cowboys next door erupt in a fight. When I poke my head outside, one is holding another back. Dogs bark viciously down the street. We’re not in Hell, but we can see it from here.

I watch Letterman on TV and listen half-awake to an interview with Selena Gomez. She says it’s her 18th birthday and she’s still living with her parents. He asks what’s up with that? And I’m instantly awake. This is being broadcast across the Philippines. Any Filipino watching the program has to be shocked, angered, and confused. Why would anyone ask such a question? What could possibly cause such a thought to even occur? Nobody in this country leaves their family. Certainly not when they’re 18.

And yet to me, Letterman’s remark is the obvious question any American would ask. A subtle yet diamond-clear example of how different America’s individualistic culture is than the Philippines’ collective society.

I play badminton with my new street kids and before we play, they crowd around me and pepper me with questions: Do I know New York? Chicago? Las Vegas? Have I been to Hong Kong Disneyland? No, but I’ve been to the original one in L.A.

They can’t wrap their heads around that. To them, Hong Kong’s version is the only one.

“Have you ever seen snow?” Yes, it’s one hour from my house. But it’s so cold and messy, you wouldn’t like it.

“Is there a Santa Claus?” Yes. We used to follow radio reports on Christmas Eve of where he and his sled were last sighted. We would put out a cookie and a glass of milk for him — and they were always gone the next morning. You can even see him at malls, sit on his lap, and tell him what toys you want.

That last one throws them. I watch as their little brains ravenously compute the possibilities. I realize I may have opened a Pandora’s box of depressing realities. That’s confirmed a moment later when one boy utters softly, “Santa never comes here. We just get something from our mom.”

“Do you have a lolo?” (grandfather) “No, he doesn’t!” another boy shoves him. “He’s old.” Thanks kid. No, they’re both gone. So are my parents.

“My father died,” says the boy who said Santa never visits him. “But I didn’t cry because it’s gay.”

I tell him it’s okay to cry about big things. And on it goes: “Have you seen a dinosaur?” Only in museums. “Have you been to a zoo?” Yes, including the best one of all — Africa.

This week is the Catholic equivalent of Super Bowl week: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. On TV, the evangelists are literally frothing at the mouth. Parades across the country show Filipinos dressed as Romans whipping Jesuses carrying crosses. Others show crucifixion reenactments, some with real nails.

My health clinic friend texts me and asks for another loan, assuming I’m in a charitable mood with the holidays and all. I decide to nip this in the bud before he gets the idea I’m his personal banker. My Regional Manager Lynn had advised me earlier not to loan money to anyone and certainly not to give to some but not others. If you tell one you can’t, then give to someone else, you could get a reputation as a liar.

My travel article, “A Veteran Returns to Vietnam,” is about to go to print. I sold it to Westways, the Triple A magazine, before I joined the Peace Corps, and the editor sends me a copy to proof. I’m reminded of PCV Ryan whose Vietnam vet father recently visited him and his wife Trisha at their site. The three of them then took a vacation to Vietnam, Ryan’s father’s first time back since the war. Just as I was, the father was stunned at the warm reception by the Vietnamese, especially in Hanoi where you would least expect it. Vietnam is one of my favorite countries in the world in terms of beauty, bargains, friendliness, and food. Of all the countries I’ve visited, I rank the Philippines #1 in friendliness with Vietnam just behind it at #2. To illustrate, here’s a short excerpt from the article:

I’d read that Saigon’s Ben Thanh Market was the largest souvenir emporium in town, so I flagged down a random motorcyclist (the cheapest way to get around town). Inside the block-size indoor market, a cacophony of vendors hawked their wares along a warren of Alice in Wonderland passageways. The real action was in the “wet” portion where every imaginable food was offered, particularly if you like it live and wriggling: eels, frogs, snakes, crabs, and fish.

I passed a gaggle of toothless women having a rip-roaring time chopping off fish heads. I greeted them with “Good afternoon, ladies” in my timeworn Vietnamese, and the place erupted—the same way it used to in the war. Waving their arms, they barraged me with questions: “What your name? Where you from? You married?”

One woman walked up brazenly and pinched me playfully in the side. Howls of laughter. I was having such a good time, nodding yes to whatever they were saying, causing cries of delight each time, that I didn’t realize that amongst the hilarity they were trying to communicate something really, really important.

Finally, another woman got up and linked the first woman’s arms with mine—and I got it. I mimicked taking a ring out of my pocket, took her left hand in mine, and placed the imaginary ring on her finger. The place exploded.

Bowing gracefully, I blew her a kiss, waved them all goodbye, and hightailed it around a corner amid shrieking laughter. Lesson: Always wear a wedding ring at Ben Thanh lest women brandishing cleavers lure you into an arranged marriage.

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