THE NEWBIES ARRIVE
July 3-8, 2011

Manila
My directions to the Initial Orientation site 40 kilometers south of Manila are a mishmash of scribbles and cross-outs and arrows and question marks. It looks like the first draft of Lewis & Clark’s expedition. As my sense of direction is just a notch above a snowflake’s in a blizzard, I’m understandably anxious about not only reaching the venue in time but finding it at all.

When I first saw the directions, I e-mailed HQ and asked why I couldn’t just take a cab from the airport straight to the venue. “Because that’ll cost you about 1,000 pesos” (about $23). “Follow the directions and you’ll pay about 150 pesos” (about $3.50).

Oh.

I jump on a cab at Manila airport and tell the driver to take me to Baclaran and to let me off at Max Chicken on Roxas Boulevard. Expecting hysterical laughter, I’m stunned when he nods and pulls away from the curb. He knows the place!

Twenty minutes later, we pull into a bustling sidewalk bazaar and inch our way through throngs of sellers and buyers and food stalls to a giant overpass where I’m to cross to the other side of the highway and pick up a bus going to Tagaytay, wherever that is.

The highway is jam-packed and barely moving. A line of buses slowly approaches. The gods are with me. The third one says TAGAYTAY. I hop aboard and tell the ticket guy, as instructed in my directions, that I need to get off at “Eleven R-R,” which stands for I.I.R.R., the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction, where the IO conference will be held.

My batch’s IO was held at Island Cove resort in Cavite, near Manila. I loved that place with its rickety bridge leading to the floating water island restaurant. According to the Peace Corps staff, though, they’re very high on this new place, thanks to a former volunteer who’s connected to it and is trying to resurrect it after years of neglect. Hmm, that doesn’t sound promising. And its name doesn’t exactly scream “resort” either.

The bus trip takes a good two hours through Manila’s snail-like traffic until the ticket guy finally hails me and says my stop is next. As the bus departs, I’m left standing on the side of the highway. Across the road is a small IIRR sign, a guard post, and a long, winding road that disappears into a thick forest.

It’s cool here, not like in Manila. I see pine trees in the distance, the first ones I’ve seen. I see oak trees. I see African flame trees. I see a thick-trunked mammoth that looks like the Swiss Family Robinson tree in Disneyland. Where am I?

The guard makes a call, and five minutes later a car meanders up the road and picks me up. I’m led to a row of cabin-like structures nestled in a thick grove of conifers. Is this the Philippines? It looks like Yosemite. Birds caw with sounds I’ve never heard before. A sweet aroma wafts through the foliage. The description of the site says it’s a 50-hectare property among a canopy of exotic trees, plants, and nature trails, perfect for seminars, conferences, or trainings. I think the new batch is going to like it here.

I unpack, have lunch in the cafeteria-style Canteen, and relax as the rest of the staff, the trainers, and Resource Volunteers arrive. “Take a nap,” I’m told. “Batch 270 isn’t scheduled to arrive until after midnight.”

During the day I reunite with Fe, my language instructor during training, and Myles, my education trainer. I hug Christy, Jufer, and others whom I haven’t seen in months. Everyone’s excited. We all can’t wait to see the new batch get off the buses like we did nearly 11 months ago, bleary-eyed from the international flight and anxious about what lay ahead.

This batch was originally supposed to dwarf even our 145-man group with more than 200 trainees. A brand new sector of service was going to be added — health — requiring HQ to add new staff to handle the expansion. But the slashed budget from Washington nixed all of that. The result: the new batch will number just 61. Or make that 59, we’re informed at dinner. Two trainees never got on the plane. 

At 11:30, a messenger knocks on my door. “Their plane arrived early. They’re on the way here. Please report to the lobby.”

Almost lost in the excitement is the fact that also arriving at the same time from America  is another very special person — our new country director. Denny Roberston was a volunteer in the Philippines before and speaks my dialect, Cebuano. I’ll have to be on my toes.

The welcome reception of staff, trainers, and volunteers seems woefully small compared to the grand welcome we got when we arrived. Because our group was much larger, more staff was required. I feel sorry that the new batch will get only a fraction of the smiles we did. We’ll have to make up for that.

Shortly after midnight, headlight beams dart through the blackness, and a van pulls into the complex. It’s the country director. We all come forward to greet him. Despite the early hour, he’s all smiles, and he greets us each individually with a few words. My first impression of his bald pate and fit physique is that if he wasn’t our country director, he’d be an astronaut.

Thirty minutes later, more shafts of light snake through the trees, and the crunch of heavy tires on gravel alert us that they’re finally here. The buses are enormous, and heads crane down at us from the windows. A few minutes later, the first stragglers make their way toward us.

Batch 270 arriving at IO as their service officially begins.

 

Mabuhay!

 
 I recognize Richard and Lonnie as they approach. Both corresponded with me before their arrival. Both are older men like myself and had wanted some insight on what it’s like for gray hairs in the Philippines. Richard served twice before in Venezuela and Columbia, once with his former wife, so this will be his third tour. Lonnie, a Kentucky lawyer and former undercover officer whose wife, a judge, remains home, greets me with a thick downhome accent and a smile as wide as a plank of barbecue ribs.
 
As a Resource Volunteer, my job is to get to know the trainees and answer their myriad of questions during the conference. (“Pop lots of throat lozenges,” I’m advised by Justin, one of the two Returned Peace Corps Volunteers at the conference who extended their service  for a third year and who knows such things.)
 
There are seven Resource Volunteers here in all, and we were briefed beforehand on our responsibilities. HQ wants us to be an active and professional-looking presence. We’re to mingle with PCTs, eat with them, hang out with them, and walk among their tables during all of the sessions, not stand against the walls.
 
The first few days bring back memories of my IO. Everyone’s most apprehensive about 1) what their host families will be like, 2) will they learn the language, and 3) where their sites will be. 
 
I get to know them quickly. As Justin warned, my throat is soon raw from answering so many questions and I have to request a pack of lozenges from Dr. Eloi. This is a much sharper group than ours. One young man will be a U.S. Senator one day, I’m convinced. He has all the makings of an extraordinary leader. There are more older people than in our batch, and all are impressive. Each day I’m impressed with everyone’s maturity, devotion, and character.
 
During John Borja’s security lecture, I and the other Resource Volunteers secretly mingle among the trainees and slip cards into their pockets that say “cellphone” or “iPod” or “wallet” to demonstrate how easily someone can reach into their pockets without them aware. Gotcha!
 
At the end of the first day, all the Peace Corps staff, Filipino trainers, and Resource Volunteers gather in a meeting room to hash out the day’s events. This is a first for me to see how a conference operates from the staff’s perspective. The day’s evaluation forms are passed around and we see which sessions worked and didn’t and why. We discuss a couple that got lots of complaints and recommendations are proposed on how to prevent the snafus from occurring again.
 
Then we come to the part I wasn’t expecting. “Any red flags?” we’re asked. Meaning is any trainee demonstrating warning signs: questionable behavior, inappropriate conduct, signs of depression, difficulty adjusting, lack of participation, etc. Wow. Had we been observed this closely during our IO? Any red flags still fluttering in my file back at HQ?
 
Several names come up, and the trainees are discussed at length. It’s agreed that three will be taken aside tomorrow and spoken to. 
 
On the last day of IO, the day when the PCTs’ training sites will be announced, an elaborate game similar to “The Amazing Race” is concocted to lead the trainees to where they’ll learn their site location. But the game is too complicated and  many trainees get frustrated trying to find their clues. At this point they’re frothing at the mouth, like we were, to learn where they’re going. Just tell us, damn it.
 
The three locations are Benguet in Luzon, Baatan in Luzon, and Bohol in the Visayas.
 
On my last day, Justin tells me the traffic back to Manila is supposed to be murderous, so we decide to leave earlier than originally planned for the airport. He’s flying back to Bacolod, me to Dumaguete. As we say our goodbyes, many trainees get out of their seats to come over — Ali, Chris, Renee, Amy, Richard, Micah, Constance, Lonnie, and on and on.  Hugs, handshakes, and tears all around. Did I say this was a great group?
 
Myles even comes over sweetly and says that she’s glad I was named a Resource Volunteer. She says many PCVs and PCTs told her nice things about me and liked my stories and advice.
 
On the flight home, I think back on the week. I easily conclude that it was my most enjoyable week of service to date. I shake my head at how close I became to this group in such a short time. Why is that? Probably because my role was more of a mentor than a peer. And that radically changes the dynamic. I care deeply for each and every one of them and want to know what happens to them. The sad part is knowing that I may not see many of them again. Unless they’re assigned near me or unless I run into them again at a conference or at Pension or at the HQ office, this could be the last time I see the majority of them. And I don’t want to think about that.
 

270's Lonnie, Chris, and Steven observe a session.

A new cluster introducing themselves. This one's lucky. They get Fe, my former LCF.

The big announcement -- where their training site will be.

 
 
BACK TO SCHOOL
July 9-31, 2011
Sibulan
The first thing the teachers in the faculty room say upon my return is not “Hi John, welcome back!” or “Sir John, how was your conference?” but “Did you bring us anything?” I pull out a box of brownies that I bought at the airport, and I’m a hero the rest of the day.
 
Waiting for me at my desk is the latest issue of Westways, the magazine of the Automobile Association of America. Inside is an article I sold before coming to the Philippines. It’s about the first return trip I took to Vietnam as a veteran. One of my co-teachers reads it, and when she’s done, I notice she’s crying.
 
“I used to hate the Vietnamese,” she says with bile in her throat. “Because of the things I read about the war and the movies I saw.” She looks up at me. “But you changed my mind.” She dabs her eyes with a handkerchief. “I don’t hate them anymore.”
 
What she says means a lot to me. It validates some of the e-mails I’ve gotten from veterans and Vietnamese who saw my piece and had similar reactions. I just wish more people could visit that country and see the transformation for themselves. I so love that place. You can read a slightly edited version of that piece, “A Vet Returns to Vietnam,” on this blog or at https://jwmanila.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/a-vet-returns-to-vietnam/.  
 
My remedial reading classes resume. Most students are breezing through the colored levels as they move up their Progress Charts. But a handful in each classroom lag behind. I decide to hold private consultations with them to see if I can pinpoint the reasons they’re having difficulty.
 
After a few days of one-on-ones, it’s clear that the students doing poorly are not such bad readers. Theysimply don’t know some of the vocabulary words in the instructions or the stories. Instead of asking me or my co-teacher what the unknown words are, they guess. My co-teachers and I remind each class to ask us if they don’t understand words. But the problem persists. No one asks us anything.
 
So we decide to teach a vocabulary lesson before the students advance to each new color level, targeting words that may pose a problem for the slower students. We’ll see if this solves the problem.
 
On a day I call the “full moon day,” crazy things happen at school. In one of my classes, three boys get into a fist fight, which is as rare in the Philippines as divorce court. Then a tiny, sniffling boy is hauled into the faculty room with his mother to explain why he tried to solicit sex from a teacher after watching porn in an Internet cafe. Then another boy is caught selling what looks like weed to students for 50 pesos. Upon closer inspection, it doesn’t look like marijuana, so on top of it he’s a swindler. The boy just slinks in his seat and surveys the student body staring at him like he owns the place. He warns us that his dad’s a cop, so we can’t touch him, but he’s lying. “That one’s a future criminal,” I tell my counterpart, and she says I’m right.
 
Nick from tennis hails me fom his porch one day as I walk home, and we talk for hours over rum and crackers. Then his wife comes home, and we have dinner. He extolls the two years he lived with a former Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-80s. They used to do everything together and go everywhere. In those days, volunteers could drive and own motorcycles. The volunteer gave his to Nick when he left.
 
He clearly cherishes those years and says he’s sad because the volunteer never contacted him again. I tell him I’ll try to locate him. I find a few names matching his volunteer’s in the same town and send them e-mails. But I hear nothing. 
 
The next time I play tennis with the group, I apologize to them all for storming off the court the last time I played. They remember. They shrug it off, saying it’s okay, but I can tell it’s not. I tell them it was thoughless and inconsiderate of me. I wasn’t mad at them but at myself for my poor play and was frustrated and embarrassed. I promise them I’ll never do it again.
 
“So you were wrong?” one player asks.
 
“Yes, I was.” 
 
He nods, and that’s it. That’s what they wanted to hear. “When we play and win, we drink afterward,” he says. “When we play and lose, we drink afterward.” In other words, there’s no point in getting angry. We play for fun.
 
Nick goes to the market and buys a sack of small fish, which he and another commence to debone for the next hour. Then he mixes the raw fish with onions and vinegar and spices and we slurp it up. It looks and feels gross going down but it’s good. Another player buys cheek meat from a pig, which I try and vow to never do again.
 
I’m asked to judge a student poster contest about breastfeeding (the latest health campaign in the Philippines). I start to ask if there’ll be a model but think better of it. The instructions to the students says, “Obscenity is strongly discouraged!” This was added because a previous school poster contest on the topic revealed ample breasts and few babies. The posters were pulled from the campus. This followed a national scandal in which billboards of a male model wearing underwear were pulled from the country. Mark Wahlberg, stay away from the Philippines. 
 
All the Dumaguete volunteers are invited to be judges for a talent show audition at the local orphanage, Little Children of the Philippines. Most of the acts are so-so, although two wow us. The Most Wanted Crew, a dance troupe of about a dozen guys, do acrobatics and hip-hop cheerleading moves in perfect unison. We love them. As we do the Wonder Kids — think five miniature Michael Jacksons. We’ll return in two weeks to judge the finals.
 
The next week my regional manager informs me that the Consul General of the U.S. Embassy will be in Dumaguete tomorrow and wants to meet all of the Peace Corps volunteers in the area. The next day we gather at Bethel House on the boulevard where we had our language test (not a fond memory for me), and in walks Dennis Quaid, who inexplicably introduces himself as the Consul General. Guy could be a dead ringer. We have a pleasant chat for 45 minutes. He asks each of us about our backgrounds, where we’re assigned, what our jobs are, and how our service has been so far.  
 
I hurry back to Sibulan and jump on a tryke to Camanting Beach where the entire school staff  is honoring our retiring District Supervisor, a sweet woman whom I’ve met and chatted with on numerous occasions. The day’s classes all had shortened periods so the teachers could make the party by 3:00.
 
It’s a very moving day with video tributes, serenades, speeches, gifts, and a huge feast. I’m invited to sit with her and her husband at the head table. It all culminates with a release of balloons on the sand as we sing a final farewell to her.
 
Trudging back on the sand, the supervisor takes me aside and we talk for a few moments. I remember fondly our many conversations because she always sat me down and questioned me about the education system in America.
 
She shocks me by saying she remembered me telling her once about how U.S. schools never cancel classes for special events, which happens routinely in the Philippines. “Because of what my Peace Corps volunteer said,” she winks, “I authorized shortened classes and half-day sessions in the district from then on.”
 
That can’t possibly be right. She must have been teasing. Our shortened-day schedules have been a longtime practice, haven’t they? I vow to find out.
 
As we start to file out after the party, two male teachers whom I’m not close to wave me over and invite me to sit with them, pointing to a bottle of Tanduhay rum in front of them. Huh?
 
The pair were among the notorious band of teachers who refused to let me observe them during my first month at the school. Their mini-revolt forced the principal to order them to do so by memo. Their animosity toward me during those two uncomfortable sessions was palpable. Their offer now  to sit with me is an opportunity I can’t turn down. A peace offering?
 
Over the next two hours, we really open up to each other. They tell me they thought I was too reserved and didn’t want to hang out with them. I tell them I thought they didn’t like me and resented my being there. We talk of our families, our spouses, myths and facts about America, my Army career, and the Peace Corps. I dub us the Three Musketeers, and we all laugh.
 
One invites me to be his assistant coach of the school’s newly formed women’s basketball team, sweetening the offer with a promise of my very own desk in his P.E. office. I’ve always been wary of offers that seem too good to be true and am not sure if his words are true.
 
I remember months ago during a meeting in the library of all the teachers and staff when he stood up in front of everyone and announced that I should be allowed to accompany him to help monitor a regional test being given at a school in a far-off barangay in the mountains. I felt honored that he wanted me to accompany him and accepted on the spot. Only later did I learn he’d had no intention of taking me there and was putting me on.
 
So I accept his offer but inwardly think “I’ll believe it when I see it, pal.” 
 
At our final toast, they say, “We’re glad we can now be honest and open with each other.” We’ll see.
 
On Sunday I return to Little Children of the Philippines for the Talent Show finals. Since I missed the second day of auditions, my fellow volunteers fill me in on who I missed. One little boy, they tell me, was phenomenal and will perform in the show today.
 
“He’s tiny, about 10 or 12, and he sang “Delilah” with the deepest, richest voice. We couldn’t believe it was coming from him. The only problem was he just stood there. He had no stage presence. He’ll have to have that to win today.”
 
The show begins, and the so-so acts are still so-so and the Wonder Kids and the Most Wanted Crew stir the crowd once again. And then the little boy walks out. I’ve never seen Justin Beiber’s famous YouTube video that introduced him to the world and launched his career, but I aim to watch it now after what I witness next.
 
After the first low, melodious words issue from his lips, the audience is in hysterics and we have difficulty hearing him. My God, this little tyke sounds like Tom Jones. But it isn’t until he hops gracefully off the stage like Sammy Davis, trailing the microphone cord like Wayne Newton, spreading his arms like a mini-Sinatra, that the other judges who saw him before nearly fall off their chairs.
 
“Look at him! He’s moving, he’s posing, he playing to the crowd! When did he learn that?” 
 
Whatever he’d picked up in the last two weeks, whatever advice he’d gotten, he milks it. For the next few minutes, I’m speechless. Are we looking at the next Charise, the next Pia, the next Filipinos Got Talent, the next American Idol contestant? And then it hits me: this kid’s an orphan. What agent, manager, or producer wouldn’t pounce on that fact, knowing how this kid’s rags-to-riches story could wring the hearts of fans?
 
He wins in a landslide, and we’re tickled to see that when his name is announced, he jumps into the air and bounds across the stage not like a seasoned pro but a little kid. When I see him after the show, I ask if he’s ever had a music coach or a voice coach. He doesn’t even know what I’m talking about. Amazing. The other volunteers and I vow to try to get our video of him into the hands of somebody in the music business here or, at the very least, put his performance on YouTube.
 
Remember this name: Francis Ian Aninon. View his performance at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrTWNLc5xf8.
 
The next week of school is an emotional one. In one reading class, a girl who’s a poor reader and with whom I’ve sat with on a couple of sessions, breaks down after learning she once again made too many errors. She so wanted to do better that day. I watch her wipe away her tears and sit down with her. I assure her that I know she’s trying hard and that she will improve; it will just take time. I promise to sit with her the next time and we’ll read the story and answer the questions together. She nods silently. I really feel for her.
 
The next day I walk into my Section A class (the top students in the first year), and it’s like getting an instant adrenaline hit. They’re almost frothing at the mouth to get to their stories. I and my co-teacher just watch in wonder as they feverishly read as many stories read as they can in the allotted time. Some cry out when they finish their first colored level. Jumping up and down, they grab their Progress Charts and run and up show them to me. They scamper back to their seats and stare at their charts, running their fingers across the colored level, starting at it in awe at what they accomplished. I leave the class beaming. These are the moments that show me why teaching can be such an unbelievable profession.
 
As I leave the campus, I pass by the Night Class and wave to the teachers, students, and staff as always. But this time they urgently motion for me to come into the faculty room. A feast is in session. A chair is pulled up, a plate is set before me, and moments later I’m sampling a potpourri of homemade Filipino dishes.
 
I learn that in a few moments the Night Class will hold the culmination ceremony for its weeklong Nutrition campaign. Someone taps me on the shoulder and asks if there is a possibility of me saying a few words to the Night Class about a subject very dear to them.
 
“Sure. Anything for you guys. What might that be?”
 
“Breastfeeding.”
 
A glob of rice goes down the wrong way, and I nearly choke, smirking devilishly at her joke. Then I blink when I see she’s serious.
 
It’s not often that my name is mentioned alongside that of breastfeeding (like say, once in 62 years), let alone being invited to speak on the subject.
 
“And when might you need me to talk about it?”
 
She glances nervously at her watch. “Just as soon as you’re done. Sorry this is so impromptu. You will be our…keynote speaker.”
 
Now I get it. Their original speaker must have been either struck by a Ceres bus in the last 20 minutes or realized that speaking to a group of high school students about breasts would be as chaotic as discussing virgins with a classroom of suicide bomber wannabes.
 
Actually it’s not that bad. Fortunately, I attended a two-hour breastfeeding lecture at the Quadrangle the previous day and learned many interesting facts about breastfeeding that I’ve totally forgotten.
 
What I mostly tell the students, however, who are packed into a large classroom and spill out into bleachers outside, is my close attachment to the Night Class. I tell them they’re model students. Many, if not all, are working students who toil at person’s homes as helpers and cooks and cleaners and launderers and then have to go to school at night. Many are older, in their 20s, 30s, or 40s. Many live in the hinterlands up in the mountains. Many are far below the poverty line. Yet they’re passionate about getting an education. I praise them for their perseverance, for overcoming untold personal hardship to seek a better life. “You are an inspiration to this community.”
 
Gasps from the audience. Teachers nod emphatically. Someone comes up to shake my hand. Pictures are taken. The room erupts in applause.
 
Then I close by talking about two of my favorite topics: breasts. What better way to end the month?
 
 
 
 
       
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
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