BEWARE OF AMAZING AMERICANS
October 1-13, 2011
My first day back at school sans tooth is thankfully uneventful. The students don’t seem to care (or are too polite to say anything), and one of my co-teachers says if I hadn’t told her what happened, she wouldn’t have noticed. The space between my nose and upper lip is long, she says, which helps cover up part of the gap.
My tennis game has become bipolar. One day Rafael Nadal, the next day Stephen Hawking. I lick my wounds with my barkada after one game with Tanduay and pineapple juice. Later we retire to a videoke bar, play some pool, and make Manilow and Sinatra proud as I watch my two partners flirt with a lovely waitress who’s had affairs with both. She’s married now to a Filipino living in States, but is available. It’s complicated.
The next weekend I play at the 7th Day Adventist court and meet a new pastor who cracks jokes nonstop. We partner up for one game and win despite his dozen double faults.
“I haven’t played in six months,” he says in his defense.
“And you haven’t served in six years,” I reply. Big laugh.
He asks what I did before I retired and joined the Peace Corps. I tell him I was an editor for Modern Maturity, the membership magazine of the American Association of Retired Persons, an organization for people over 50. “After I left, they changed the magazine’s name to just AARP.”
He blinks once and says, “I know why they changed — because of you.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because AARP also stands for Amazing American in the Republic of the Philippines!”
Huge laugh. I double over in surprise and delight. I like this guy.
The next day the head of the Night Class hails me and says she was scheduled to give the inspirational message at the Quadrangle that afternoon for the culmination program honoring Science and Math Month, but the mayor wants to see her so she can’t do it.
She bats her eyes at me. “Do you think you could…?”
Groan. Yet another impromptu speech request. SOP in the Philippines. I reluctantly agree because I love the Night Class students and staff and support their devotion under the most trying conditions.
So once again I find myself furiously composing a speech that will be presented before the entire school and community in less than 30 minutes on two topics of which I’ve been woefully ignorant for much of my life as I try to impart a serious message to our students while looking like SpongeBob SquarePants. Hey, we were told the Peace Corps would be challenging.
I urge the student body to help prevent brain drain by not taking their science and mathematics knowledge and skills overseas, as so many of their countrymen do for economic reasons. Instead, I plead, use your talents to help solve the perplexing issues facing the nation here at home.
Two days later, we’re informed that the school day will be cut in half for a ceremony honoring two retiring teachers. At 1:00 all teachers and staff pile into vans. Thirty minutes later, we arrive at a beach resort in Amlan. Surprise! It’s really our annual teacher’s retreat.
Our principal is giddy, running around: “I fooled everyone! I fooled you all!”
We clown around by the pool overlooking the ocean and take goofy pictures that we’ll regret later until the mayor, vice mayor, PTA president, and other dignitaries arrive. Whereupon we’re whisked upstairs into a cramped, airless room where the speeches commence.
The two retiring teachers give emotional goodbyes, photo collages are shown of their careers, a moving video retrospective of last year is played, and the mayor recalls her poor upbringing and how teachers inspired her to better her life and then she breaks down.
The floodgates really open after that when we’re told to light a candle and give it to someone who inspired us last year. I take one over to my main co-teacher and thank her. Two teachers, in turn, hand me one.
The final event is the awarding of door prizes. I don’t want to boast beforehand, so I say nothing, but it’s a known fact that I’m unusually gifted when it comes to raffles. Gambling? Forget it. Lotto? No chance. But hold a raffle, a drawing for a free trip to Hawaii, or ask me to guess how many jellybeans are in a bowl, and you can take it to the bank that I’m going to walk away with the prize.
As most of the teachers are women, the gifts (pedicures, skin care products, facials) are predominantly female-oriented. No matter. I’ve never had a pedicure. I pick a number from the hat.
All the numbers except the grand prize are called and mine (#1) hasn’t been called yet. But I have no illusions that it won’t. The women squeeze up to the stage and eagerly bounce up and down in anticipation. Relax, girls. This ain’t yer night.
“Number…ONE!” the emcee shouts, and I nonchalantly walk up and accept what fate has rewarded me — a complete spa treatment at the top salon in Dumaguete. The looks on the teachers’ faces are not ones I wish to have etched in my memory. I can almost read their lips: “The rightful prize that I worked long and hard for all year not only goes to a man but that rich American Peace Corps teacher from America. I hate him and hope he falls into a caribou dung heap.” Okay, maybe I’m reading a bit much from their lips but I’m in the ballpark.
I don’t take long in making amends. In the van going back, I announce to everyone that there will be another drawing. I write a number on the back of my gift envelope and invite everyone who didn’t get a prize to guess the number. I’ll never forget the look on the face of the woman who wins it.
For my generosity, as I step off the vehicle, another teacher gives me the 50 peso haircut she won at the dingy one-chair salon just outside the school.
The next day I decide to cash it in. I’ve always been curious about the proprietor, a somewhat attractive middle-aged woman. I’ve barely closed the door when I’m already her new best friend. Sitting me down, she proceeds to unashamedly tell me her life story, which is a page-turner.
Seems she’s been married twice and separated twice in a country that outlaws divorce. Her first wedding, she says, was a shotgun marriage…literally. She claims that her sisters were kidnapped by a Muslim by gunpoint, who threatened to kill them if the salon owner didn’t marry him. She did and they had two children. It’s complicated.
“Be careful around that woman,” one of the teachers at school warns me when I recount the woman’s story. “Her family is one big question mark.”
“One of her brothers is suspected of murder and robbery.”
The teacher asks me if the woman wanted to know anything personal about me. Did she? “Before I’d even sat down, she asked if I was single and where I lived. She was kinda flirtatious.”
“I hope you didn’t tell her much,” she says. “That’s a standard technique. She first opened up about her life, right? That’s to gain your trust. Then she casually asks about your life. You feel obligated to respond the same way. It’s a clever way to find out where someone lives, when he’s home, who else lives there, and so on.”
That worries me, and I try to remember what I told the woman. I can’t recall. Maybe I’ve already been targeted and am being staked out. Or maybe it’s nothing. In either case, I won’t be returning.
The next day I ask my principal’s permission to let five of our students out of school for two days to attend a 50th Peace Corps Anniversary Leadership Training program at Silliman University, which is being organized by Evelyn and Akesa in Dumaguete.
The principal okays it, but my counterpart tells me the best students won’t be able to participate because they’re all participating in the Press Con and Buglasan Folk Dance competitions on those dates. Our Student Council advisor nominates the next best candidates from among the 3rd and 4th year classes, and my main co-teacher names the best from the 1st and 2nd year classes. I’m excited to see how well they’ll do in the training. Go Sibulan!
Jerlin, the youngest daughter of my last host family, is having her 9th birthday party next week so during an afternoon break I go to Dumaguete to get her a present. I return in time for my 4 o’clock class. When it’s over, I discover the teachers have locked me out of the Faculty Room yet again, leaving all my things inside.
I’m furious. It’s the fourth time they’ve forgotten that I have a 4-5 class. Fuming, I seriously contemplate breaking down the door or at the very least breaking the lock off with a boulder. But the room contains the entire stock of snacks and cold drinks for the second campus, from which the teachers make a nice profit. If I break the lock, I’d be responsible if any of the items are taken.
So I do the next best thing. I go around the back of the building to the stinky alley behind the Faculty Room. A pungent smell of urine greets me. Luckily, there’s a gap in the iron window grills that have been boarded up with scraps of wood, wire, and bamboo. I gently pry it apart, grab a bamboo pole on the ground, and hook it into an arm of my backpack resting on top of a filing cabinet. I lift the pole high, and the pack slides down toward me. I yank it through the narrow opening. My umbrella and eyeglasses are irretrievable for the time being, and I have to leave them.
At home, after I calm down, I draw a birthday card for Jerlin of her house and backyard and beach and rice fields and mountains and friends and pitbulls and Tanduay-drinking cowboys and pingpong-playing adults and chika-chikaing women and…okay, I get a little carried away. But she made the same kind of card for my birthday, so I owe her the same effort. Plus it’s gobs of fun.
At the party, the whole neighborhood shows up. The house and backyard are decorated and a large tarp covers the outdoor garage. Food is everywhere. Kids and dogs scamper around like escapees from an orphanage and dog pound. I play with the kids until it gets dark.
As I have to fly out the next morning for Manila to see the Peace Corps dentist about my tooth, I leave the party early and trek back in the darkness to Sibulan.
When I approach my house, the cowboys are drinking loudly and invite me to join them. They shout and argue and carry on, directing most of their insults and jokes at me, which I can’t understand. But I get the gist. What they’re doing appears to be similar to “the dozens” back in the States: trying to top each other with the creativity of their insults.
The ringleader confides to me after each side-splitting putdown, “We’re only joking. We don’t mean it,” and then holds out his hand — and insults me. “When you with us,” he says as his words slur together, “nothing happen to you.”
Then they hit me up me for money for “one more” bottle of rum. Seeing me hesitate, one says, “Loan only, loan only.” But I know it isn’t.
I finally go home, pack, and fall into bed.
A TYPHOON’S WRATH
October 14-15, 2011
In Manila, I head to the Peace Corps office straight from the airport. I drop off the 25 books I borrowed from previous trips and grab another bundle. My dental appointment isn’t until 3 p.m. so I stroll out to my favorite place, the massive seawall along Roxas Boulevard overlooking Manila Bay. I’d heard that it had been damaged by Typhoon Pedring a couple of weeks before.
I’m stunned by what I see. The once beautiful promenade stretching from the Manila Yacht Club to the U.S. Embassy, built in the Sixties, resembles a war zone. Every 100 feet enormous U-shaped maws have been gouged out of the foundation. Other areas look as if a bomb dropped on them. Mammoth chunks of concrete lie toppled in heaps in the water like ancient discarded ruins, the sea washing over them possessively. Pieces of sidewalk, tiles, and sheets of smooth plating are scattered everywhere. Tons of sandbags are piled up to keep the ocean from inflicting further catastrophe. The street people who used to sleep and hang out along the wall are all gone.
Thankfully, only 750 meters of the total seawall length of 2 kilometers were damaged. Still, the reconstruction is estimated to cost upwards of P30 million. This time it will be deeper with a modern and durable design built to withstand even fiercer typhoons. The height of the wall will remain at 16 inches to allow tourists to sit on it and motorists to see Manila Bay’s fabled sunsets while driving.
My dental X-rays reveal my tooth didn’t simply fall out as I’d thought; it broke off. My root and part of the tooth still remain, although none are visible. The Peace Corps dentist recommends a restoration and a new crown, which will be done during the Mid-Service Training in Manila next month.
I spend the rest of the afternoon touring the grounds of the ancient Spanish town and fort of Intramuros nearby, then stop in to see where I stayed 43 years ago while on Army leave — the venerable Manila Hotel. What a grand old dame she was and still is. Her guest list reads like a special issue of Vanity Fair: Hemingway, MacArthur, Elvis, JFK, the Beatles, Michael Jackson.
October 20-21, 2011
Silliman University, Dumaguete
At 7 a.m. in front of my school I gather the five students who’ve been chosen to represent Sibulan National High School for the Peace Corps Leadership Training. The 3rd and 4th year students are new faces to me as they’re from the main campus and I’m not teaching those grades this year. They in turn haven’t met the 1st and 2nd year students.
After introductions, we hop into an easy ride van for the 20 minute ride into Dumaguete. None of the students have ever seen Silliman University, where the training will be held. I hope seeing the beautiful sprawling grounds and learning of the institution’s heritage will inspire them to want to go there.
We’re the first group to arrive. Silliman, which has a long history of Peace Corps teaching volunteers, graciously gives us their large multipurpose room for the training for free. My kids sit in the first row and get to know each other while I greet the other volunteers who’ve come in from all over the Visayas to help out during the two-day conference — Dan, Heather, Alex, Stacey, Mindi, Jay, Ginna plus my other Dumaguete PCVs: Akesa, Evelyn, Jacque, Alana, and David.
Gradually, students from the other participating high schools trickle in: Amlan, Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental, and the youth shelter Little Children of the Philippines.
The program is flawless, with sessions on team-building, mentoring, facilitating, and leadership. The kids are into it, and plenty of games break up the sessions. After merienda, everyone heads outside to the lawn for team-building games (sack races, find the bacon) that the kids love. But my students are starving (“the bread for merienda isn’t enough, sir!”) and ask permission to get a pizza off campus.
After lunch we break them up into different categories of livelihood projects. They choose one category to learn: how to make magazine-paper earrings, bead bracelets, or jewelry bracelets or how to juggle, dance salsa, or sing. Tomorrow they’ll teach their skill to more than 100 street children. It’s win-win. Our kids learn how to lead and teach others. The street children learn crafts and skills that can earn them pocket money.
Three of my kids immediately rush over to the dancing station, as do three Amlan students. Jacques, the facilitator, notices that most of the students are lined up at only a few stations. “We need eight kids at each station, so some of you will have to move to another area. If you don’t move, I will move you.”
My three dancing kids groan and hold themselves so tight so you couldn’t pry them apart with a crowbar. Nobody else in the dancing category leaves either. So Jacques comes over. By now my kids are literally crouched on the ground squeezing themseves, their knuckles white as they grasp one another. Jacques picks one of the Amlan girls, who’s so crestfallen I’m afraid she’s going to cry. She’s taken to the bead-making area. For the rest of the day, I notice her gazing longingly toward the dancing stage.
Alex, Stacey, and I help teach the dancers a variety of salsa moves, and by the end of the session, they’re all adept at the steps. The question is, how will they fare when they have to teach the moves tomorrow?
Next day is nothing short or amazing. Dignitaries arrive first. The president of Negros Oriental University shows up. So does Akesa’s former host family, who’ve hosted 16 volunteers since 1991, which must be a record. And Bud and Stella, retired Dumaguete volunteers from a few years ago who returned to continue the project they founded.
Then the street kids arrive, more than 50 of them, ranging from little children to teens. They fill the place with energy. Too bad the first part of the program is a history of the Peace Corps, which puts most of them into yawn mode. But it fascinates me. Evelyn did a great job breaking down the number of volunteers in the Philippines by decade, then the number in Negros Oriental.
After lunch, like a proud father, I watch my kids blossom as they take what they learned the previous day and tenderly teach the little tykes how to salsa. I beam as each successive group of LCP kids starts out inept but at the end leaves the stage knowing each move cold.
By the end of the day, all the LCP kids, who rotated throughout the day to each station, have mastered a handful of livelihood projects. Dozens sport magazine earrings from their ears and beaded bracelets and ankle jewelry that they made themselves. They look like miniature Masai warriors.
I ride home with my students and tell them how so very proud I am of them and how proud their school is.
APPLE’S NEW iFISH DEBUTS
October 22, 2011
All of us feel like celebrating so Apo Island’s the unanimous choice. It’s one of the most renowned scuba and snorkeling sites in the region. This will be my first time, so I’m excited.
It pours the night before, and I fear the day will be washed out. But when I wake up, the sun’s shining with no hint of clouds. I throw a bunch of stuff in my backpack, jump on an easy ride, and show up at Akesa’s door at 7:45. Everyone’s just waking up.
An hour later we walk a few blocks to the dive operator’s residence where our equipment is laid out. We get on vans, and in 30 minutes are at the shore. The dive operator owns his own boat, a gigantic catamaran yacht. Beyond it is Apo, a tall tuft of olive green not far away. It’s a small island — you can walk around it in 20 minutes — with only about 100 inhabitants. But a trillion fish.
The catamaran races across the water like a cigarette boat. What the hell’s he got under the hood? We’re there in less than 45 minutes. We don’t land, just anchor offshore. As the scuba divers squeeze into their gear and wetsuits, the rest of us dive off the boat with our snorkels. Odd that we’re not issued fins. I’ve never snorkeled anywhere without fins included in the price.
As advertised, the fish and coral are amazing. But getting back to the boat is exhausting. The current is strong and against me all the way back. With no fins, my arms do most of the work and after a few minutes I’m floundering. The waves are rolling, too, and twice sea water swells over the top of my snorkel tube and I swallow mouthfuls.
I finally reach the boat gasping and arm-weary, both legs seizing up. Lunch is gratefully waiting for us — chicken in spicy sauce, pancit, and rice.
After lunch, we pull up anchor and move to a different location where the coral is supposed to be even more spectacular. I feel rested and jump in. What I see is a Manhattan skyline of reefs. At the top of each skyscraper hover hundreds of fish doing nothing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fish do nothing. They either explore, feed, fight, flee, swim, or copulate. Maybe these are Hover Fish. Is there such a species? Whatever they’re doing, they’re up to no good from the looks of them.
They kind of remind me of students I see at the park. Just hanging around. Looking for trouble. Now I get it. These are juvenile delinquent fish. School dropouts. The Carps and the Blues.
Just then a four-foot long silver belt with a malevolent eye and nasty teeth drifts past me at eye level, not 20 feet away. A barracuda! First one I’ve ever seen. It’s the Fonz protecting his hood. I decide to vacate the area.
The coral is so fascinating I explore it for a good hour. The farther I go, the more colorful the fish. And then I see it. I stop paddling. I gape in wonder. The exhileration is overwhelming, part awe, part disbelief, part blessed. Like the first person in line at an Apple store to get the new iPad.
I’m the first one to see the new iFish. I know it’s an iFish because only Apple could have designed it. Its body is black satin set off by a tiny solitary mustard fin. The base of its tail is a tuft of cotton with a candy-cane pink tassel. Its two major fins, which flutter like silk curtains, are transparent with kimono violet pinstripes trimmed in onyx. Thank you, Steve.
Going back to the boat is harder than the first time. The sea is choppy now, and the current stronger. I swim for 10 minutes and the boat is no closer. I start to get worried. No one else is around. I could swim to shore, which is close, but I would have no way to contact the boat.
I try backstroke, sidestroke, nothing seems to relieve my aching arms. Each time I pause to rest, I drift back and lose whatever distance I gained. Finally, I just hunker down, stare straight down at the coral, and plunge my arms into the water nonstop. I concentrate on the sea floor and watch the coral gradually pass below me foot by agonizing foot.
I’m making headway. I look up every minute to see where the boat is, and each time it’s a little closer. My arms and legs are screaming, but I’ll deal with them later. Have to get to the boat. Have to keep swimming. Have to move forward one foot at a time.
The last ten yards to the wooden step ladder hanging off the boat takes what seems like 30 minutes. It’s just out of reach. I’m totally exhausted. Sputtering and choking water. Can’t move my arms are legs. The ladder’s still three yards away. The current silently tugs me back. I churn forward. The water won’t let me. The ladder swings close to me, then away from me. Close to me, away from me.
At last I grasp the bottom rung of the ladder. The sea gives me one final yank, but I hold on. I swing a foot up to the ladder. I feel like an old man for the first time in my life. Hey dude, you’re just snorkeling! What’s with the life-and-death drama? Get up the fucking ladder already.
When I finally plump down inside the boat, I’m sore from head to toe. By the time we arrive at the third anchoring, most of the snorkelers, includng me, have had enough. I sleep 12 hours that night and move minimally the next day.
October 23-31, 2011
I wake up one morning to discover a Facebook Alert on my computer notifying me that my son’s girlfriend has designated me on her profile page as her “father-in-law.”
Hmmm. Did something rather profound just happen back home?
I shoot off an e-mail to Alex and gently inquire if what I think happened just happened.
He replies, “News to me. I would have told you if it had happened! I’ll find out and get back to you.”
The next day I get another surprise about a young man in my neighborhood, one of the jobless cowboys next door and the grandson of the caretaker of my rented house. I last wrote about him a few months ago.
He was the one, after I’d returned from a Peace Corps trip to Manila, who pleaded with me one afternoon to buy him a ticket to Manila so he could reunite with his father and family members whom he hadn’t seen in almost ten years.
His request was during a crazy period when several people in the barangay simultaneously hit me up for money. I politely refused the young, dark man who was uneducated and had no skills, no job, and no ambition from what I could tell. He followed me to my gate and grasped the bars tightly.
“Please, sir. Please!” he begged as tears flowed from his eyes.
I said no again and went inside quickly, feeling as low as someone can feel. I only saw him once after that and figured he’d moved away, gotten a job, or whatever.
The woman I pay my rent to arrives and we have a pleasant conversation as usual. Then she asks if I heard what happened to the caretaker’s grandson.
No, I said. I haven’t seen him the last few months.
“He want to Manila,” she says. “His father finally paid the airfare for him to come.”
“Really?” I said. “That’s wonderful. He wanted to go so badly. I’m glad he finally–”
“Last Saturday he was stabbed. Body dumped in the street. Wasn’t found until four days later. Nobody knows who did it. Probably over some girl. He liked the ladies.”
I sit there stunned. I can still see his face. He was probably in his early 20s. Healthy. Never talked much, rarely smiled. But always went out of his way to say hi to me, even the last time I saw him when I passed him on the street on the way to school.
I felt good afterward because he’d smiled sincerely at me. He appeared to harbor no resentment for me declining to help him out earlier. I’d assumed after that tearful incident he would hold a grudge about it. I was wrong.
I hoped that his life would turn around soon and assumed that the happiness that had eluded him for so long would eventually catch up to him. I was wrong about that, too.