Negros Oriental
November 1, 2011
I get a text from my first host family, whom I haven’t seen in a year, inviting me to accompany them to their local memorial cemetery to honor their family members buried there. This is an annual tradition in the Philippines on All Saints Day.

I first accompanied them there when I was living with them during my three months of training. I remember how both eerie and fascinating the experience was. Where else can you see thousands of people, food, candles, souvenier barkers, tents, and lavish parties spread across a cemetery at nighttime. I half expected the gravestones to be unearthed, the caskets to open wide, and a Thriller reenactment break out with real zombies.

When I show up at their house, 8-year-old Denzel, who was waiting by the gate, streaks inside to alert everyone that I’ve arrived. Then he sprints back out to greet me. He’s taller and filled out, his innocent baby face fading into distant memory and showing hints of what he’ll look like as an adult. Which is then offset by his Spiderman costume.

The house and big yard are unchanged. Mom Arding has the same warm smile and greets me with a kiss. Her daughter Realyn comes down and we pick up right where we left off — her favorite book and movie and her razor wit, off of which I loved to riff. I present them with a box of brownies from Goldilocks, which they squeal at. “Let’s bring them with us!” Arding exclaims.

Then they all ask at once: “What happened to you — you’ve lost so much weight!” and I sink into a funk. I thought I’d been gaining it back. Apparently not.

Then they add, “Oh no, what happened to your tooth!” And my depression is complete. To lift my spirits, I have crypts and headstones and talk of death to look forward to the rest of the evening.

All in all, it was great to see everyone again, and we make plans to see each other next month for the town fiesta.

Negros Oriental
November 2-13, 2011
On the way to school one morning, a toothless old man at a roadside diner near the highway calls out to me. I walk over and he says he heard there was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer living in town. Am I him? I sit down and we talk for a few minutes. A rapt audience of locals smiles and laughs at our exchanges. I love this town.

I feel exceedingly tired the next few days. No energy. I’m exhausted all the time and just want to sleep. I have bouts of diarrhea. I go to the free clinic in town to see the doctor, but she’s left for the day. I pop a few Tamiflu pills from my Peace Corps medical kit, and they seem to do the trick. Those pills are awesome. They seem to knock out immediately whatever ails me with no side effects.

A volunteer tells me he cooked spaghetti in his rice cooker, and my ears prick up. “What? You can cook other things in a rice cooker? I thought that’s all it could do was rice.”

“Dude, you can cook anything in them. One girl cooks brownies in hers.”


I still have boxes of brownie and cinammon crumb cake mixes from a care package that I haven’t been able to make yet because I don’t have an oven. If I can cook other things in my rice cooker, my world will expand at Big Bang speed.

Our principal announces at school that the Department of Education has deemed November National Reading Month. We’re instructed to arrange reading contests in the middle of the month for our first-year Remedial Reading students.

Unfortunately, I’ll be attending the Peace Corps Mid-Service Training on the 14th through 22nd in Manila. As I’m the unofficial head of the reading program, the timetable is moved up so I can take part. Instead of one week to plan, I now have two days. I’m put in charge of the Spelling Bee and Quiz Bee events. Other teachers will do the Storytelling, Readathon, and slogan contests while I’m in Manila.

I work on my spelling words and quiz questions in between classes and at home. The first night I work straight through to sunrise, finally collapsing to bed at 6 a.m. I text my counterpart, saying I won’t be in that day. I wake up at 1 and pick up where I left off.

I’ve never done a spelling bee before and don’t know if my words are too easy or too hard. Adding to the difficulty is that our students range from nonreaders to superb readers. Who do I target the test to? Same with the Quiz Bee questions. They’re all grammar and vocabulary and comprehension items. I don’t want to make them too difficult, but at the same time it’s a contest so it must be challenging. And then there are all the rules to create. And an introduction to write.

I take a break my second night to attend a teacher’s grandson’s birthday party. The whole neighborhood turns out. I meet the former town police chief, a tall athletic-looking guy who’s very polite. The grandfather of the birthday boy, one of my closest  tennis partners, confides to me that his greatest dream is to be mayor. The next election is  2013, and he’s been laying the groundwork. He’s well-known in the community, has countless friends, and his work sends him around to many barangays and small enclaves in the hinterlands.

“John,” he whispers after several shots of rum, “can you imagine me as the mayor? Can you see me doing that? Be honest, please.”

He doesn’t look the part or act like an elected official because he’s forever joking and goofing around, but I don’t tell him that. “Before I answer, tell me why you want to be mayor. What do you want to do?”

He doesn’t hesitate. “I want to stop the corruption.”

I tell him, “I can see you winning if you promote yourself as an honest, simple man who wants to end corruption once and for all. People are praying for someone to do this. If they believe you’re sincere about it, you could generate a huge following.”

I say I’m sorry I won’t be around in 2013 to see what happens, but I’ll keep in touch after I’m gone and hope to follow his progress.

I go home and the cowboys next door invite me to join them. They’re in a lively mood and we talk about sports and women and whatnot. Another man joins us whom I haven’t seen before. He speaks excellent English and knows a lot about the States. We talk about the Dodgers and Angels, whom he follows religiously, Mark Munoz, the Filipino UFC fighter, the Lakers, and various Hollywood stars.

I ask about his family, and he says he’s married to the mayor. My jaw drops. 

“Do you want to meet her?” he says. “She’s in the van across the street.”

Moments later the mayor herself crosses the street, and the cowboys reverently clear a place for her. I’ve met her on a number of occasions, but only formally. The first time was on a courtesy call with my counterpart, principal, and host family on my first day in town. The second time was when I presented her with a letter of thanks for putting me up for free in the tourist hotel following my host family crisis. And then on several other occasions at official functions when we just shook hands or said hello.

But this time I have a one-on-one with her and her husband. She surprises me by telling her husband all about me and what I’ve been doing at the school. I relate to her how moved I was at our Teacher’s Retreat when she broke down during her speech. She told us that day about her life of poverty growing up, about her being a working student, and about how much her teachers inspired her to study and succeed and to rise out of the life she had.

She mentions our night class and how dedicated those students are to persevere despite difficult circumstances. I tell her I consider those students my heroes, which is why I’ve always been close to our night class and help whenever I’m asked.

“That’s a wonderful thing to hear,” her husband says. He wishes me well and adds that he grew up in my neighborhood. Not only does he know all the cowboys but my landlord’s his aunt. They say goodnight and return to the van and their bodyguards, who are waiting in the vehicle.

The next morning I show my quizzes to my original school counterpart, and she says they’re too difficult and should be multiple choice to make them easier. I take the material home and work on them again until 9 p.m.

The day of the contests, I inspect the library where the events will take place. My counterpart has set everything up perfectly. At 1:00 I gather the student contestants from the seven competing classrooms and we tromp over to the main campus library.

Each class has its own placeholder and flag on the tables, and the students take their places. A scoreboard has been prepared listing each class. Senior student volunteers are ready to compile the results. The Quiz Bee will be first.

Just as I start to begin, my original counterpart takes the microphone and abruptly changes  the rules and format that I’d worked on for days. My concept was to mimic “Jeopardy” by having student teams raise their flags the instant they had an answer, which would be given orally. The contest would be about speed and drama. My counterpart wants it to be done in writing, with everyone having 30 seconds to answer. Neutral judges will take their written answers and determine their accuracy.

Confusion reigns for several minutes as my co-teacher and others defend me. I want no part of this skirmish and watch silently as my students stare open-mouthed at the chaos. I’m royally pissed, but this isn’t a battle I want to pick with my original counterpart, with whom I’ve always enjoyed a close partnership, and certainly not in public or in front of my students. In the end, my counterpart wins the argument and returns the microphone to me.

The contest proceeds with no further interruptions. After the first round, the top academic class among all first-year students is safely in the lead to no one’s surprise. The co-teacher who defended me teaches this class with me, and she confided earlier that she had nightmares about her students losing to the worst class, which is comprised of primarily poor or nonreaders.

Her fears are confirmed when all the lower classes pull even with hers after the second round. At one point, she leaps to her feet and glares at her three contestants after they miss an easy question.

One round to go. The final five questions and the most difficult. Each will be worth 3 points. It’s a real nail-biter at the finish, and my co-teacher’s class narrowly edges out the third worst class in the school 19-17.

In the Spelling Bee that follows, the first 10 words will be easy, the next 10 medium-difficult, and the final 10 difficult. But by the fifth easy question, four out of the seven contestants have been eliminated. I jump ahead to the medium-difficult words, and the contest is over two words later. My co-teacher’s top student wins, making her class first in the two opening contests. She will have no more nightmares.

Just as the contest ends, a commotion occurs at the library entrance. The school guard waves to me excitedly as three large men drag an enormous box into the lobby. The container is from Dave Kinnoin, my acquaintaince back home who earlier donated two big boxes of books for our reading students. Afterward, he’d asked what else he could send us, and I told him we could also use some magazines.

I try to move the box, but it doesn’t budge. Several big students try to lift it and they can’t either. It must weigh a ton. How did those guys ever get it off the truck? My co-teacher and I are excited to see what’s inside, so I find the school custodian who gathers two long, thick bamboo poles and drags them to the library. There, with the assistance of a half dozen boys, we get the behemoth package onto the two poles. Then, resembling an ancient Egyptian litter, the six bearers lift the monstrosity on their shoulders and set out across the main campus, across the street, and into the second campus.

To say the procession causes a stir is an understatement. Students gawk at the strange caravan and the large mysterious box that we’re transporting. What could possibly warrant such importance? Such ceremony?

Students skitter into the second campus Faculty Room to see the unveiling. A few knife slashes reveal the booty. My donor had hinted that he was me sending magazines “and a few surprises.” The surprises comprise most of the box — soup, apple cider, lemonade, chocolate drinks, cashews, peanut butter, aluminum foil, sandwich bags, Leatherman tools, even a Transformers backpack  and skateboard!

Under that is a pirate’s booty of magazines that seem endless — Vanity Fairs, New Yorkers, Harpers, Peoples, Times, National Geographics, Sports Illustrateds. All brand new! There won’t be a day left in my service without having something to read. I’m overjoyed. And everything I finish will go back to the main school library.

The students crowd around and fight for magazines to look at. Right now they just like to look at the pictures. Some day, I hope, they’ll move on to the articles.

The following week I participate in a one-day Leadership Camp for students at Amlan High School, which is a huge success. But it’s exhausting and much too stressful for me. I facilitate two sessions, which took a lot of preparation. I was dreading my sessions all week and all day during the camp. And I do poorly in both. I decide that this will be my last participation in any camp unless it’s something I really, really want to do.

November 14-25, 2011
I fly to Manila for our last Peace Corps training conference. We’re at the halfway point of our service, traditionally the lowest point emotionally in the average volunteer’s Peace Corps experience, and the conference is meant to remind us that we’re not alone and why we came here, what we’ve accomplished, and how to make our last year an even better one. We’re also here for our annual health and dental exams, so a lot will be going on.

It’s overwhelming to reunite with the entire Batch 269 again, the majority of whom I haven’t seen since we first arrived a year ago. I quickly realize that the typical PCV conversation at most get-togethers (“So, how’s it going at your site?”) is so timeworn and yesterday that no one bothers to ask anymore. I room with B.J. again as we did during staging, and we catch up. He’s in a steady relationship and is thinking of remaining in the Philippines after his service to teach English.

After a couple of days I sense a different atmosphere among the volunteers. Even though I’m older than almost everyone, I always felt I belonged before and was welcomed at whatever table or group I attached myself to. Not so this time. I feel strangely isolated from the group. Each day it’s like I’m on the outside looking in.

I attend a tremendous session by a group called Read Aloud. It’s a voluntary organization run by the Rotary Club that immerses students into reading unlike anything I’ve come across before. All my fellow Dumaguete volunteers in the room look at each other and go, “Let’s do this!” Rotary will donate funds to fly the Read Aloud people here, they’ll train our teachers in the methodology, and then we and our teachers will implement the program in our Reading and English classes.

B.J. also pitches a Batch 269 Yearbook idea at the conference, which goes over big, and I volunteer to be on the committee. This looks like it could be a wonderful project.

When the training is over, a bunch of volunteers and I decide to spend a day exploring the famous Taal Volcano nearby. A world study recently rated its odds of erupting at a mere 16 to 1, one of the most volatile on the planet. So naturally we decide to go!

We drop off our luggage at a mall and take a jeepney to the town. There we hop on a small rickety boat that barely holds us, and set off across a lake to the island where the volcano is. All we see on the water are small lush tropical islands, none of which looks like a cone-shaped volcano. Maybe it already blew its top.

When we land, we step into tourist trap quicksand. Everyone wants and expects a tip for the slightest thing. We’re hounded into taking horses up the mountain.

“We’d rather walk.”

“Horse much easier! Walking too hard! Too dusty!”

We’re pressured into buying masks to protect us from the dust. Each of us is assigned a personal “guide” to walk with us and our horse. Each guide asks us for a tip halfway up the mountain. At the top we’re guilt-tricked into buying our guides expensive soft drinks.

Halfway up the trail, I’m glad I got a horse. I only brought dress shoes and the trek to the top would have been sweltering and rugged and exhausting. My guide and I meander through lush forests, narrow gorges, and a winding path to the top overlooking nearby islands and occasional shafts of steam oozing out of rocks.

The view from the top is even more dramatic. The crater is filled with water, its shore multi-hued from sulfur and its interior walls vent steam like dragon’s breath. A tiny tuft of an island sets on the water inside the caldera.

We hike to the highest point overlooking a sheer drop. The rocks up here are ochre and warm to the touch. Steam billows out from behind one massive boulder, and when I place my hand over it, I get singed. Duh.

On the way down, it starts to rain and we get soaked, but it just adds to the adventure. I tip my guide 100 pesos, and she’s happy. The other PCVs tip theirs 20 or 50 and get dirty looks. I sit on the prow of the boat on the return trip, and we wrap ourselves in yellow ponchos provided for us. I stand up as the rain plasters me, spread my arms, and shout, “I”m king of the world!” James Cameron would be proud.

At the shore, a woman approaches us and says we owe her 500 pesos each for being our “travel guide.” We tell her to get lost. She shrugs and says okay. What an operation.

We return to Manila at night and spend the weekend at the Pension playing games, shopping at Robinsons, and eating pizza, schwarmma, Vietnamese dumplings, and chocolate. One night a bunch of us take in the Hobbit Bar, which is staffed by dwarves. I wonder if Ireland has Manny Pacquiao bars.

I spend Monday and Tuesday getting my health and dental exams. I also see a dermatologist (moles removed), an opthalmologist (glaucoma check), and an endodontist (to prepare my broken tooth).

When I next look around, there are only six of us left at the Pension — all the other members of Batch 269 having returned to their sites. One of the survivors, though, is leaving the Peace Corps on Monday because her grandmother, who raised her, is dying. Another one may have a heart problem that the medical office discovered during her medical exam. Another has a hernia and a kidney stone and is awaiting surgery. Bottom line: none of us will be able to make it back to our sites in time for the Thanksgiving parties awaiting us (at my site, two former Peace Corps volunteers who returned to finish their projects on their own dime are throwing a real Thanksgiving for all volunteers in the area — turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, yams, etc. I’ll miss that plus my town’s annual fiesta celebration.

So the six of us go to Robinsons, buy a shopping cart of food, and return to Pension, whose kitchen staff graciously allows us to use their facilities to cook a makeshift Thanksgiving dinner. Our menu: rice-cheese-broccoli casserole, mashed potatoes, cheese and crackers, salad, and wine. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the Peace Corps, it’s how to make do with what you have.

I fly out of Manila with mixed feelings. I’ve had almost two weeks of whirlwind emotions and reunions and health issues and inspiration and new friends and renewed vigor and a promise from the Peace Corps staff that based on past experience, “Your second year will FLY by!”

I certainly hope so. I’m at the lowest point I’ve been so far. One cause of my doldrums may be because I haven’t taken any vacation days yet, and we get 24 a year. So my goal this coming year will be to get away as much as possible.

That shouldn’t be hard to do. I have magazines now. I have books. I have brownie mix. There are lots more volcanoes. And it’s pretty hard not to trip over a deserted white sand beach. I’ll send you a postcard.