BACK TO BACOLOD
May 1-15 2011
Bacolod and Manila
I find a new group to play tennis with: old, raggedy, out of shape. That’s the good news. The bad news is they’re killers, much better than the other group. I feel like I’m thrown into a shark pit every time I step onto the court.

Fortunately, I’m paired with Domy in my first game. Domy, aka “The Idol” and “The Drunken Master,” is 65, a former member of the Coast Guard, can’t move at all, jet-black dyed hair, and drinks Red Bull between points. But his shots are lethal, which he places effortlessly anywhere he wants. He was a regional champion in his teens and his fame on the court — even now — is renowned across Negros Oriental.  

He’s also a nice guy who invites me to his house afterward where I meet his wife and children. We’re served a feast and talk about our lives for two hours. He says, “I like you. You’re interesting. You can come over anytime. I need company.”

It’s time for our dual Inter-Service Training and Professional Development Management conferences in Bacolod. I hop on a bus and join a couple of volunteers for the six-hour journey north. The first three days will consist of Peace Corps English training sessions, which I’m looking forward to because several workshops will be on remedial reading. On the next three days, our counterparts will join us for in-depth sessions on how to organize a school project.

The conference is by far the best I’ve attended since my arrival (other than IO when everything was so emotional). The reading sessions are dense, and I take copious notes. I learn a ton of new games and energizers for students.

I and the other Peer Support Network volunteers are introduced like NBA players except with funny introductions. When it’s my turn, the announcer says: “At 6 feet, weighing a lot less than when he first arrived, starting English teacher for Sibulan National High School, and the only 62-year-old in Negros Oriental who is NOT a D.O.M….John Wood!”

It gets a big laugh. Later, a volunteer tells me that the last line nearly topples Charles, the Peace Corps second-in-command, off his chair, causing the Director to  learn over and mouth, “What’s a D.O.M.?” That causes him to laugh even more because then he has to explain what it means (Dirty Old Man, which is what most old white foreigners here are, sad to say). Then it’s the Director’s turn to double over.

My new counterpart is wonderful, and we have a great time in our sessions. She’s one of the first-year teachers I’ll be working with this year on the Remedial Reading Program we’re debuting. She’s full of ideas, enthusiastic, funny, and makes friends with the Filipino counterparts and volunteers.

One volunteer whom I haven’t seen in six months takes me aside. She tells me another volunteer and her were talking about PCVs who’ve left for various reasons, and the other volunteer told her, “Oh, I really hope John Wood makes it.”

She said, “I just wanted you to know that you have a big support group here — Team John!” She’s such a sweet young woman for telling me that.

At the end of the conference, one of the Peace Corps doctors takes me aside and says that my recent eye problems and headaches have concerend them enough to fly me to Manila after the conference so I can see a glaucoma specialist. Yea, I won’t have to take that six-hour bus ride back; I can fly back from the capital. Plus spend a few days in Manila.

This is the best solution for me because if laser surgery is recommended, they could do it here instead of flying me home, and any follow-ups or complications could be handed in-country.

Two days before the conference finishes, all volunteers and counterparts are ordered by the Peace Corps’ training manager to appear in the ballroom for an emergency announcement, and rumors fly about what it could mean. She remains tight-lipped about what it’s about. But from her unusually stern expression and mood, I sense it’s something bad. Did a volunteer somewhere in the country die? Did something happen at Peace Corps HQ in Washington? Is Peace Corps Philippines closing shop?

When we all assemble, we’re reminded about our conduct and how our behavior reflects on the Peace Corps. She tells us that last night a member of our conference group brought a prostitute into the hotel. Our jaws collectively drop. Volunteers have done some foolish things, but this would be beyond stupid. She reminds us that volunteers… AND COUNTERPARTS… are expected to uphold a positive image and that such behavior is not acceptable. It’s very clear what happened: the offender was a male counterpart. Since counterparts aren’t members of the Peace Corps, they can’t be “sent home” for such transgressions. In fact, they’re not informed of Peace Corps conduct policies beforehand. In all likelihood, the individual is sitting in the room with us. I gaze at the dozen male counterparts sitting with their volunteer partners. None show any signs of discomfort, guilt, or shame. I’ve never seen our training manager so angry.

On the lighter side, the conference staff, in order to stimulate participation by the attendees, walks around every day handing out play money to tables whenever anyone asks a question or makes a comment during the conference. And if a counterpart does so, the money is doubled. The table that collects the most money at the end of the conference is promised a “big goodie bag.” Rumors abound that whatever money we collect, we’ll get that amount in pesos to bring back to our schools.

After the first couple of sessions, the competition mutates from silly and fun to deadly serious, with three tables clearly intent on winning the prize. Ours is one of them. One of the biggest cash awards during each day is 500, which is awarded to the table that seats itself  first before the first session of the day and the first session after lunch.

Our table (each table seats six) secretly agrees to be in our seats 20 minutes before the next session, cutting short our lunch. We win easily. The members of the strongest competitor glower at us from across the room, and I fear we’ve unleashed  a monster. I’m right. From then on, every seating resembles a nuclear arms race with each table showing up earlier and earlier until we’re practically eating our breakfasts and lunches at our tables. The staff gets wind of this and prohibits any group from eating meals at their work tables.

That doesn’t deter us. The next day, four of us are at our table 25 minutes before the session begins, but our closest competitor also has four. From across the room their leader furiously texts her remaining two members. I do the same: “Get downstairs NOW!” But it’s too late. The other table’s two missing volunteers burst into the ballroom moments later and triumphantly whoop it up. Their 500 award puts them into the lead with one day to go.

But we have an ace up our sleeve. We’ll present our energizer on the last day, which is worth 1,000. That plus our table participation will make it close.

It’s not. We end up winning by more than 1,000. What we get isn’t real cash (“Are you out of your minds?” a staffer tells us when we tell him about the rumor) but school supplies to take back to our schools, which is okay. Plus a big bag of chocolates. We divvy them up.

I’m too tired to go out dancing with everybody after the conference ends and hit the sack early. But most of the volunteers hit the town. The next morning several are seriously hung over, with one female vomiting on the bus, at the airport, on the plane, and all the next day.

At the Pension Hotel in Manila, I reunite with a married volunteer couple who had flown back to the States for back surgery. Their stay was delayed, requiring them to reapply to the Peace Corps all over again — health exams, dental exams, etc.

We all missed them so much. I bring them up-to-date on the conferences they missed and the volunteers who’ve gone home, and they’re shocked and saddened to hear some of the stories. I’m given a big Louisiana Cajun spice bottle for my rice that they brought from home for me.

In Manila I gorge myself on pancakes and waffles, pizzas and milkshakes, and watch the Pacquiao fight at Robinsons. During my last two days, a mammoth thunderstorm ravages the city, and the Pension loses power.

I visit the glaucoma specialist on pins and needles. What’s in store for me? What will he say? What is my true condition? He ends up being a savior. “You don’t need surgery,” he calms me. “You don’t need the extra eyedrops your Dumaguete doctor prescribed. Your condition isn’t as serious as you were told. You’re in no danger of blindness in the near future, and if it ever happens, it will be a slow, long process, not immediate.”

I vow to never return to that Dumaguete opthalmologist. The Peace Corps medical office concurs. I’m to fly to Manila every 3-4 months to have this doctor check me. Yea, more milkshakes and pizzas! Oh yes, and I gain five pounds while in Manila.

ENROLLMENT
Sibulan
May 16-30, 2011
Back home, I apply for library books from Books for Peace and several other donors that serve Peace Corps volunteers worldwide. Our reading textbooks will arrive several months after school starts, but it’s better than nothing.

I resume my tennis, and we retire to the Korean sari-sari store afterward to drink Red Bulls and rum. Domy ogles a young girl buying ice cream, and another player, Edmund, a Navy vet, winks at me: “Old carabao likes young grass.” Then adds, “Young vines climb old trees.” I nearly fall off my chair.

The school swarms with incoming students on the first day of enrollment. Tables and chairs are set up all around the campus at different staging areas. All the first-year students will be tested on reading proficiency to see which ones will be placed in our new Remedial Reading Program.

My task is to give the Oral Reading test, marking down errors in pronunciation, repetition, omissions, etc. Most students commit multiple errors, so I suspect we’ll have many students in the reading classes. Four can’t read one word. Not one. How did they graduate from elementary school?

I’m out of food so I head to Dumaguete and Robinsons. I overdo it, and discover at the checkout counter that I bought too much. The boxboy is forced to put everything in a huge box that he wraps up with twine so I can carry it. But how? I also have my backpack and a new pair of tennis shoes I bought. The store employees stare at me. The guards roll their eyes. The customers tsk-tsk. I’m an idiot foreigner.

I somehow drag- lurch the box outside to the tryke area and find a driver to take me to the mini-van terminal, which is a madhouse with tons of passengers waiting. I have to wait for several vans before the crowd shrinks enough for me to fit my box into one of them. All the way home I worry about how I’m going to get the box out because the van is packed solid with passengers. Fortunately, half the vehicle empties out before I reach home, and I’m able to slide the monster box out easily. Never again!

A typhoon hits the Philippines. Although it’s concentrated up north, we get heavy rains for days where we are. Amidst a downpour one day, a large LBC express mail truck lumbers into the campus, and the teachers all rush to the doorway. “Are those the books you ordered from Peace Corps?” They’re all excited. No, my books won’t arrive for months, I tell them. It’s probably a pouch from HQ (I’m the only one who gets LBC packages at the school).

It turns out to be the care package from my nephew and sister instead! I eagerly sign all the papers, and they drag out a box the size of a VW (slight exaggeration) and lug it into the Faculty Room. “Open it! Open it” the teachers cry. I do.

Wow.

In individual protective clear bags are more than 20 thriller novels, a set of John Grisham books, three of the newest issues of Vanity Fair, six boxes of Raisin Bran, six boxes of fudge brownie mix, pancake mix, and lots of other goodies, including animal crackers. I’m in lechon heaven.

The Grisham novels are black hardbacks with no covers. “Oh, are those Bibles?” one teacher asks optimistically. I give her a look. She cracks up, knowing my opinion of organized religion.

Next day is the 14th birthday of Jedmay, my last host family’s oldest daughter. Their other daughter, Jerlyn, has been asking for days if I’m coming and what time I’m coming, and is it absolutely sure I’m coming. She even accompanies the tryke driver to make sure I get on. I really miss her and all the kids.

What a great day it proves to be. Everyone’s there. Neighbors and family members and of course the cowboys. We have a huge feast and the cowboys drag me outside to drink with them. We talk for hours about my tour of Vietnam, the Japanese war, the Bush wars, and legalization of marijuana.

On the week before school begins, the teachers are told that the Faculty Room will no longer exist. It will be converted to a classroom. All the teachers’ desks will be moved to their homerooms. Teachers aides without homerooms will have to find a place to go. The scuttlebutt is that the reason for the move is that the principal was upset at all the chika-chika that went on in the Faculty Room. Nice one. The chika-chika now ramps up tenfold.

My newest counterpart finds a space in her Faculty Room for me at the second campus, and I transport my child-size desk and plastic chair there. This will be better because I like the teachers and students in the second campus better.

Next week is the start of school, which none of our batch has experienced yet (we all arrived at our permanent sites in mid-November, halfway through the school year). I’m excited because I’ll be able to follow my students from the first day of school to graduation. I’ll be able to watch them progress and know them better.

I’ll also get to work with younger students this year — first- and second-year kids. Hopefully I’ll be able to interest them in English at an earlier age and nip any mistakes they’ve picked up. And our long-awaited Remedial Reading Program will debut. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll discover what kind of teacher I really am.

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