BACK TO SCHOOL
November 26-December 7, 2011
Negros Oriental
I return to my neighborbood after two weeks in Manila, and some are surprised to see me; they thought I’d gone home. One student writes on my Facebook page: “Sir John, I was so happy when you came to class! I think you go back to America! When you come to school this morning, I very happy!” I have to work on her English.

How sweet. I apologize to her and vow not to leave town again without letting her and my other students know where I’m going and when I’ll return. I reunite with my tennis group again, and after our games, we retire to the park where we set up tables and order food and drinks. We make plans for a Christmas party on December 17.

I stroll over to the bottled water dispensary across the street and flirt with the owner. She works there from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. most days. She’s a single mom with four kids. I can’t get over the hardships that people deal with here on a daily basis.

The Japanese tourist who occasionally drinks with us zips by on his motorcycle, and we flag him down. He comes back, orders a Red Bull, pulls up a chair next to me, and we resume our attempt to solve the world’s problems. As usual, he’s hardest on his own country, with the U.S. a close second. When the topic segues into America’s questionable forays abroad in recent years, he apologizes for not saying “what I really think. I hope you understand, John-san.”

I do. He’s being exceedingly polite. So I take up the slack by telling him what I think of our policies overseas. When I’m done, he leans over and says, “You are very special American. I never meet anyone who is as honest as you about your country.”

The next morning my regional manager calls me and says Peace Corps is holding its annual emergency drill. We were told during training that this would occur sometime during our service. Well, today’s the day. I am to report to my “consolidation point” immediately, stay there overnight, and return in the morning. 

Seven us show up at the hotel where we’ll be staying. The other two are on vacation. We pile in three to a room, have lunch, and play cards. We get email messages showing our per diem for the overnight stay — 2,000 pesos! That’s about $45, way more than the hotel and food will cost us. So we all go out that night and splurge for a massage at the best spa in town. Ahhh. When’s the next practice drill!

FOUNDER’S DAY
December 8-14, 2011
Negros Oriental
When I finally return to school, I’m informed that during the next week, all school days will be half day to allow students to practice their performances for the Founder’s Day celebrations on December 12 and 13. Once again, cheerdancing and beauty contestants take precedence over education.

The next day all teachers are summoned to the library for a meeting. After an hour delay, it finally begins. Instead of an important announcement, we’re introduced to a spokesman from a local bank, who tries for the next two hours to get us to switch to his bank. I just shake my head. Another day away from our students and classrooms for a sales pitch. When I text what happened to a volunteer, she relates similar stories. Our frustration with the educational system is reaching the critical stage.

I teach most of my classes by myself the next several days because my co-teachers are supervising practice with students for their competitions. Other students and staff work feverishly to prepare banners and props. Makeup artists scurry back and forth with gowns and costumes and makeup kits. Teams festoon parade floats with palm fronds, ribbons, and tropical flowers. The whole town’s gearing up.

Two days before the celebration, there’s no school at all to allow the students to practice their routines at the Quadrangle. One coach with a bullhorn berates one squad for lollygaging through their movements.

On December 12, the mayor reviews the school’s military students, who present a precision drill. Then the contests begin. First is the singing contest, followed by folk dance routines, and then the modern dance troupes.

During the competitions, a cute teacher I’ve seen from time to time from one of our satellite schools taps me on the shoulder and says, “Sir John, would you move your seat? I’d like you to meet someone.”

I look in the direction she’s pointing and see a decrepit old white man sitting alone. Fabulous. Let’s put the two white geezers together. Not wanting to be rude, I reluctantly move my chair over next to the man.

He seems as surprised and uncomfortable as I am. He says something that I can’t make out. I introduce myself, and he mumbles something back. He talks so softly and quickly, I can’t hear a word he says, and have to practically sit in his lap to catch what he’s saying. Which makes it look like I’m hard of hearing. Marvelous. We’re both confirming everyone’s stereotype of us. I finally ascertain that he’s English, which is part of the problem. His accent is as thick as his hairpiece.

Our conversation, what there is of it, consists of him mumbling something, me nodding politely, neither communicating whatsoever. Which is fine by me. I finally break down and ask him what he does here and does he have a family. He says he’s married “but not really, if you know what I mean.” Wink wink, nudge nudge.

“That’s her over there,” he says, pointing a Scrooge-like finger toward the cute young teacher from the satellite school. I shake my head at the woman. A bony elbow digs into my side. “A 36-year age difference, eh!” he winks, and one white furry caterpillar eyebrow arches its back.

I suddenly feel very, very old and dirty. I excuse myself and trudge home, wondering where I was and how I could have missed it when the world turned upside down. 

I take a long nap, then shower, change, and return to the Quadrangle for the alumni dinner and dance. Last year was quite an affair, and I remember how I sweated profusely all night as I danced, photos of me looking like a mummy melting. This time I take a small towel and a bottle of water.

I sit with a male teacher and coach who’s become one of my friends at school, and we send someone to the market to buy some rum. As it turns out, we need it. From 7 to 11, there are nonstop speeches, prayers, more speeches, more prayers, and an uncomfortable video showing literally every ugly feature of our campus followed by a plea for money from the alumni. One responds, offering to donate a truckload of gravel. My friend and I look at each other. Gravel? We wonder what the donor’s intention is — to cover up the school with it?

The food is brought in, and within minutes, it’s all gone. Several people wander around with only a couple of spoonfuls on their plates. No more rice. No more chicken. People are furious. A whole phalanx of teachers with whom I’d been hoping to dance storm out in a huff. All the while, my friend and I down shot after shot.

At last the music starts, and finally the fun begins. We more than make up for lost time. I’m one of the last to leave the dance floor at 1 a.m. As I walk back alone in the pitch black night, a group of rowdy-looking young men wish me good evening, but in the mocking way teens often do.

The next day, I learn that a huge gang fight had erupted right across the street from us in the park during our event, with police breaking it up, then refusing to chase them because the kids were armed. That would never have stopped the LAPD or NYPD. Then I wonder if the youths I’d met afterward had been part of the melee. I may have narrowly escaped an incident.

Everyone’s in the park the next morning at 8 for the big parade. The park is full of costumes and bands and floats and police and officials. It’s scorching hot and I’m already lathered in perspiration. We set off. Everyone loves a parade, but it’s special to be in one. 

We head out of the park, walk a few blocks along the highway, then turn left into the barangay. People are lined up on both sides of the street, holding infants. Everyone waves, and I wave back like I’m a bigshot. I see kids I know. “Sir John!” they squeal. We pass an elementary school, which is in session, but the school has let the kids out of their classrooms to watch the parade. I leave the procession to give them high-fives, and the kids all run up to touch my hand.

There’s no shade along the long route, and everyone’s soaked by the time we limp back into the Quadrangle. I’m seated with the other teachers on stage to watch the final day’s events: the “mass dem” (50-100 students doing massive choreographed routines to music) and cheerdance, which are smaller groups doing dance numbers. As usual, the seniors dominate the trophies.

In the evening, I’m back once again to watch the Miss High School beauty pageant. As usual, it’s a mammoth production, especially the grand entrance, when one contestant is carried in on a  litter, another in an enormous clam shell.

The day after Founder’s Day is declared — what a surprise — a non-school day. Official reason: “Everyone’s resting.” So I rest. When in Rome…

DEVASTATION
December 15-17, 2011

Negros Oriental
I head to Manila to repair my broken tooth in the front of my mouth. My crown is ready, and I’m fitted with what’s called a Maryland Bridge. Picture a crown with tiny wings attached to it. The wings are cemented onto the back of the teeth beside where my missing tooth is. When I walk out, I no longer look like Blackbeard. I’ll miss all the pirate jokes back at school, but only for a minute. It looks great but doesn’t feel sturdy. I figure the odds of the bridge holding up until COS (close of service) is less than 50-50, but I’ll take anything at this point.

I read newspaper accounts of an impending typhoon heading toward the Philippines. Unlike most big storms that hit the islands, which shoot straight north and slam into Luzon, this one is veering sideways, straight toward the Visayas region where I live. It should be hitting the area right about now. If it’s really bad, my return flight could be grounded, but I won’t know until I get to the airport.

Sure enough, my departure is delayed. I wait at the gate as other flights are transferred to our gate and depart before us. Finally, the announcement to board is given. Hooray. The storm must not be that bad or have already passed the Visayas.

My seatmate is a cheerful Malaysian man, and he’s surprised to learn I’m from the States. “I was just talking to an American family at the gate. Ah! Here they are now. Hello again!” he waves to three people, a father, mother, and daughter, who make their way down the aisle.

They stop in front of our row. “I think our seats are in this row,” the mother says to the man. I look  at my ticket, and I’m in the right seat. He looks at his and grunts. “Oh, sorry.”

He gets up and sits in the row in front of me, and the mother and father slip into the seats next to me, their daughter in the row beside me. “So, where are you from?” the mother asks. When I say California, she says they’re from there, too.

“Do you live in Dumaguete?”

“Six kilometers north of it. I’m a Peace Corps volunteer.”

Her eyes widen. “Our daughter’s a volunteer, too.” We both look at each other. Her face looks really familiar.

“You’re Evelyn’s mom!” I gasp. I’d heard her parents were coming for the holidays. What are the odds we’d get seats next to each other on the same plane.

I text Evelyn: “You’ll never guess who’s sitting next to me on the plane from Manila.”

“You’re kidding!!” she texts back immediately. “They made the plane!!” She didn’t expect they would be coming until much later, so she tells me to tell them she’s on the way to the airport to pick them up. Little does she know what awaits her on the highway.

Her family’s initial flight had been cancelled because of the typhoon and they’d managed to squeeze on board my flight at the last minute on standby. They ask about my service, and my experiences mirror their daughter’s. I ask where they’re going to visit while they’re here. They mention a resort on the island of Siquijor, and I shake my head at yet another coincidence. I’m going there, too. Where are they staying? Naturally, it’s the same resort. But we’ll be there a week apart.

When the plane starts its descent, I ready them for the landing, which for first-timers, can be quite nerve-wracking. The Dumaguete airport is tiny and the runway extends literally to the water’s edge. Every plane from Manila I’ve been on comes in over the water, and you never see the land until the instant your wheels touch. I remember the first time I came in, I kept looking out the window and seeing nothing but water as we lowered to 500 feet, 300 feet, 100 feet. No land anywhere. We’re going into the drink. We came right down on the water and touched — on the tarmac.

This time the plane comes in over land, and I get worried all over again. I look down at any landmarks and see nothing familiar. Where are we? Why is the plane doing this? I wonder if we’ve been diverted to another airport because of the typhoon.

Once again we come in low, low, lower — no airport or runway in sight — and just when we’re about to take off the roofs of an acre of tenement slums, we touch down on the runway.

Jacques is waiting for them instead of Evelyn. She texted him and said the highway from her site was flooded and traffic wasn’t moving and could he pick them up and take them to his place instead?

She gets there before they leave, however, and they reunite with shouts and hugs. Fortunately, the route back to my site is clear. I learn later that several bridges on the way to Dumaguete had overflowed and turned into a mini-tsunami, carrying away untold houses. Hundreds are missing. 

When I return home, I find my street and rented house untouched, but I have no power or water. Dozens of families left homeless by the storm are holed up at the Quadrangle. I walk down to see them and am stunned at how normal everyone looks. On the stage, a makeshift shelter has been set up. Mothers pace the stage bouncing infants in their arms. They smile when they see me. A handful of kids greet me with laughter. Such indomitable Filipino spirit and resilience. It’s the hallmark of their culture.

I ask what happened. They say they lost their house and everything in it. Some lost their pets. They didn’t even escape with their sandals. On the steps of the municipal hall, I watch our harried-looking vice-mayor in shorts and T-shirt conferring with aides. Ten minutes later, bottled water and a packet of sandals from the market are sent over. The kids and adults scramble to grab a pair, throwing them on the ground to measure their sizes. Many are left without a pair. Another trip to the market is ordered.

Gradually, news reaches me of teachers and staff at my school. The principal’s house was flooded and he’s currently holed up with his family in his office. My counterpart’s house was inundated with mud and is temporarily living with relatives. An elderly teacher, stuck in her house alone, watched in horror as mud breached her house and the water rose to her waist. Fortunately, the flood went no higher. My third host family, the one near the beach, scrambled to save their valuables as the river of debris roared out of the rice paddy behind their house and into their property.

Here and in northern Mindanao, more than 1,000 died. A YouTube video of the Dumaguete flood waters shows the destruction graphically. View it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKvIdfzdI6Q

I stop at Nick’s house to see how he is, and he and his wife are leaving to go to Dumaguete to borrow some water from a relative. I tell them the highway to town is flooded and backed up and they may not get through. They say they have no choice. In spite of that, he invites me that evening to the tennis club’s Christmas party! Some things never change.

I return home and read under candlelight. Then it starts to pour. Really hard. Just what we need, more rain. The sound and force of a Filipino deluge is unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Imagine a hundred riot police fire hoses paired with a dozen movie set wind tunnels. 

No one’s going to the party tonight, but I’m wrong. Nick texts me that he’s ready to go. He’s got to be kidding! It’s not raining cats and dogs, it’s raining cows and caribous. The party is potluck, so I scrape together some leftover spaghetti, grab my umbrella, flick on my cellphone flashlight, and head out into the monsoon. The sky is pitch black, the street a river. I meet Nick at his gate, and he’s waiting in shorts and sandals. Unreal. We slosh through the downpour for a couple of blocks to the party. 

To my surprise, everybody’s there, sitting on the host’s marble porch under flickering candlight, drinking beer, and arguing over the big story of the moment — the impending impeachment of one of the country’s Supreme Court justices — while the host’s wife and helpers prepare our potluck dishes. 

When the rain finally stops, we move our chairs out to the soggy lawn, and to my surprise, the tennis club asks if I’d be willing to be its next president. I assume they’re joking, but they’re serious. It’s a rotational assignment and they’ve all served before, so being a newcomer, I’m next…if I want it. One of the players, Mario, says he’ll be my vice president and will help me. As many of the players are leaders in the community, I ask if there’s any interest in the club getting involved in charity work, and they seem open to it. I accept.

JOY TO THE WORLD
December 18-25, 2011
Negros Oriental
Despite the community’s devastation, the Christmas spirit prevails. On my first day back to school, the students are all dressed up in their finest clothes for their annual class Christmas party. I stick my head into each classroom and see heaps of wrapped gifts, dishes of food, and stereo sound systems. Even though many of the students suffered losses in the flood, I see no sadness or worry on anyone’s face. They all greet me with “Merry Christmas, Sir! Come join us!”

I spend the day taking part in games, judging contests, sampling treats, and dancing when the music comes on in the afternoon. In one class, their best dancer challenges me to a “showdown,” in which each dancer performs solo, then the other tries to top him. The contest draws a big crowd, and the windows around the classroom are stuffed with faces. Camera flashbulbs blink on like fireflies.

At the end of the day, my male teacher friend waves me into his office and we share a bottle of rum. We debate the Supreme Court justice crisis. The situation in a nutshell: the previous president, Arroyo, who is now being indicted on numerous corruption charges, appointed a whole raft of questionable justices during her reign, the last one at literally the last minute of her term. That one, Corona, has been a particular thorn in the side of President Aquino. The president wants him impeached, and the justice says the president’s action is unlawful and threatens the Constitution, calling his actions dictatorial.

My friend then drops a bombshell. He confides that he has friends high up in the military. And the buzz is that the military is eyeing this crisis closely. Very closely. They favor Corona and the rule of law. Bottom line: a coup de etat would not be entirely out of the question. 

Then he leans over, lowers his voice, and asks, “Is it possible that your CIA, wanting to prevent a military junta in the Philippines and to keep your close ally stable, might secretly ignite an Abu Sayaf uprising in Mindanao to deflect the criticism surrounding Aquino?” Good grief.

We go into Dumaguete to his favorite videoke bar and sing and eat and drink until the wee hours. He tells me at the end of the evening that he’s known a number of Peace Corps volunteers, but I’m the only one who’s become his friend.

The next day is the teachers’ Christmas party. As we sit outside in our main campus courtyard, old Vietnam-era Huey helicopters buzz overhead. Word is that Aquino is visiting the area to survey the flood damage. Maybe he’ll drop by for lunch, see the condition of our school, and declare it a national emergency, too.

On Christmas morning, I Skype with my family for the first time. They do their big shebang on Christmas Eve, so it’s perfect timing. Everyone is dressed up, and I can literally smell the turkey and taste the egg nog. It’s like I’m right there in the room with them.

MY FIRST VACATION!
December 26, 2011-January 2, 2012
Siquijor and Paniabonan, Mabinay
On a cold, windswept, drizzly morning, I climb aboard the Fast Ferry at Dumaguete for the hour-long trip to neighboring Siquijor island where I’ll stay at the Villa Marmarine beach resort for five days. The sky is slate gray with clouds the color of bruised plums. The sea is choppy and rolling, and it takes some effort just to climb aboard the bouncing craft. The vessel is crammed solid, with no overhead compartments for passengers’ bags. So everyone dumps their backpacks and luggage in a huge pile in the aisle.

We’re off like a rocket, and the boat slams into the whitecaps, soars into the air, slams back, careens sideways, slams forward, and repeats. For one hour. One woman next to me bolts from her seat and I never see her again. I munch on crackers to reduce the acidity in my stomach, but even so I feel dizzy and on the verge of sickness.

When we finally arrive, I careen drunkingly off the pitching boat and see several passengers upchucking over the side of the pier. Light rain pelts my face. Perhaps I chose the wrong time and place to lay on a beach for a week. 

The resort is right on the beach. A wide deck overlooks the sand and leaning coconut trees. A large party of 20 are just leaving as I arrive, and the staff is scurrying around serving them complimentary farewell coconut drinks and saying their elaborate goodbyes, a ritual I will experience myself in a few days. 

I’m given a welcome mango shake and escorted to the Big Room, a huge space with five beds. The manager apologizes for the extra-large room and says my assigned Guest Room won’t be vacated until tomorrow. I’ll only be charged the Guest Room rate (700 pesos/night; about $16). 

Practically the entire staff is comprised of college students, all given college scholarships by the owner, Toshito Harada, who treats them like his own family. They live, work, and study there. He also donates computers and other equipment to schools in the area.

During the day the young women wear wraparound pareus. At night, they don kimonos. Mr. Harada teaches them how to speak Japanese and Japanese dances in their spare time. In the afternoons, everyone, including guests if they want, take part in tennis tournaments on the resort’s clay court.

One guest tells me, “If Mr. Harada wanted to run for governor of the island, he would win easily. He is much loved and respected here.” 

The weather is dismal. Fierce winds and gun-metal skies. But it’s warm enough to sit on the deck and read or eat. On the beach are hammocks and lounge chairs, and the sand is fine white powder. Still woozy from the boat, I take a nap and retire early.

The next day the weather is slightly better and I walk to the end of the beach in both directions. When I return, I meet the principal of one of the island’s high schools. He says he’s wanted a Peace Corps volunteer at his school for a long time but never gotten one. He agrees with me that the education system is flawed because pressure is put on principals, teachers, and schools to pass every student whether they’re ready to or not. 

“I buck the system and fail students who don’t measure up,” he says. “Because of that, I’m suspect. But I refuse to change.”

I tell him of a speech I gave to students (courtesy of  PCV B.J. Stolbov) about the importance of learning English and how it can change one’s life. When I describe how the students’ jaws drop whenever I give this talk, he invites me to be his commencement speaker in March at the end of the school year. 

 The next couple of days are spent touring the island. I hire Christopher, a driver recommended to me by Evelyn, who stayed at the resort with her family the week before. We visit a mangrove sanctuary (so-so), a butterfly sanctuary (a waste), and the national park, the highest point on the island (a total waste).

Back at the resort, I meet a Canadian who’s touring Asia and we swap stories of our various adventures abroad. Another guest is staying here alone, an unsmiling older gentleman who looks lonely, and I invite him to join us. Big mistake. He’s either a Polish man living in Sweden or a Swedish man living in Poland, I forget. But he’s very depressing and disagreeable and we’re relieved when he finally wanders away from the table.

A couple at the next table overhears our conversation and introduces themselves. They were Peace Corps teachers in Ukraine a few years ago. They met during training and are now married. They now teach in Korea and love it. Their experience in Ukraine mirrors that of the Philippines. Ukrainian schools are in very poor condition (no heat in the classrooms; the students shiver and freeze during the lessons). Outdated Soviet textbooks. School staff don’t care if the students learn.

The following day Christopher and I tour the island, and I snorkel at the Coco Grove Beach Resort (it’s okay but no Apo Island) and cliff dive into turquoise waters at Salagdoong Beach Resort (awesome).

On December 31, I and another family rise at 5 a.m. for transport to the pier for our return trip to Dumaguete. The entire staff wake up, too, and wave goodbye even though the poor kids are half asleep, not stopping until we’re out of sight. Mr. Harada and several other students drive us in a van to the pier, carry our bags to the boat, and wait in the cold drizzly rain until we’re literally on board, waving the entire time. They do the same for every single guest. What a wonderful experience it was staying at that special place.

Back home, I shower, repack, and have a quick breakfast before I’m off once again, this time to a mountain village two hours north where I will have the most unique experience yet in country. But first some background.

Many months ago, during the 6-hour bus trip home from Bacolod after the Counterparts Conference, a young woman got on the bus halfway through the trip and sat next to me. We struck up a conversation. She said she was looking for work as a helper and could I help her. I was living with my host family at the time and said they were very poor and already had two helpers. But we exchanged numbers. Maybe I’d need one in the future or someone I know may need one.

Her name was Daisy Mae. I didn’t hear from her again until a couple of weeks before my vacation. She texted me and said she was now living in my town and working for a family there. We met at the church and walked along the beach for a couple of hours catching up. She was hungry, so I heated up some leftover spaghetti at my place during which she told me her life story.

Hers is a sad testament to life in the Philippines. Her family, who lives in a decrepit shack in the tiny mountain village of Paniabonan, is large (seven children ranging from 3 to 19) and destitute. No one works except Daisy Mae, who provides everything for them. To accomplish that, she must work up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, as a helper (one of her “duties” is to massage the family’s husband!). She told me over and over again that it’s her duty to sacrifice her life for her family so that they will prosper, knowing she will never do so. She is exceedingly religious and feels God will repay her some day.

During our brief visit, it was obvious that she was emotionally and physically exhausted and I couldn’t imagine her being able to work much longer under these conditions. She has no personal life, although she briefly met an old foreigner on the Internet, who flew to the Philippines to meet her and immediately demanded sex. When she refused, he returned home. They haven’t corresponded for five years, although she clings to the hope that he may one day have a change of heart. The more likely scenario is that he passed away. He had serious heart problems and would be 71 today.

Daisy Mae invites me to visit her village on New Year’s Eve to stay with her family and live with “the monkey people” for a few days. It doesn’t promise to be a particularly pleasant or comfortable experience. I barely know the girl and wonder what my purpose there would be. And what would the family think of a foreigner staying with them? Would they think I’m courting their daughter? But the opportunity to stay with a traditional mountain family and to share my culture with them sounds appealing. It’s the ideal Peace Corps experience. I tell her I’ll come. She’s overjoyed.

So at 9 a.m. I show up at the Ceres Liner terminal. Daisy Mae waves to me from the bus doorway. She and one of her sisters, Kim-Kim, got there at 7 to ensure they got seats. Kim-Kim lives with her lola in Amlan. I plump down between them, and moments later we’re off.

And moments after that, Kim-Kim makes it clear where the weekend is going. “What is your destiny?” she asks coyly. “I think my destiny is…you.”

Uh-oh.

I learn later that Daisy Mae had told her sister about how “sweet, polite, and respectful” I was when I invited her to my house and that I hadn’t tried to take advantage of her. That may be why Kim-Kim is coming on strong. Or maybe the girls have conspired to team-woo me. The road to Paniabonan, it seems, which is littered with potholes and construction, may be treacherous in more ways than one. 

We get off at the closest main town, Mabinay, then take a tryke up the mountains. From there we get out and trek through sugar plantations and muddy trails. It’s cool up here, not like my sweltering site.

We enter a wide field, and Daisy Mae shouts at the top of her lungs, “Momma! Momma!” She hasn’t been home in six months and is trembling with excitement to see her family and friends again. We burst through the last suger cane and step through a rickety wooden gate.

A lovely garden encircles a large dilapidated wooden shack that’s barely propped up on bent and broken timber poles. Behind it is a simple outhouse. Farther back is a deep well with a rope-bucket pulley where they get their water.

The family pours out of the house, jumping down the rickety wooden steps. Violeta, their mother, is as sweet as yams with a perpetual smile on her face. She and her daughters hug and laugh and twirl each other around. Next come John David, 3, a cute kid who’s always smiling and never once had a tantrum during my stay; Charlotte, 8, who’s continually alert to help out or do chores; John Mark, 11, a quiet boy with sea urchin hair who’s always joking; Metchelyn, 14, an intense girl who speaks excellent English when she decides to and whom I judge to be the smartest of the bunch; and Nikki, 19, who hasn’t been in school for a while because of heart problems.

The last to emerge is Feliciano, their father, a tiny, wiry man who’s severely shy and speaks rarely. I’m welcomed like royalty. Food and drinks are hurriedly prepared and my bag is whisked away. “Sit, sit, sit!” I’m told, and Kim-Kim bends down and removes my shoes and socks.

The house consists of a small living room with bamboo furniture, a small TV whose screen is perpetually snowy from bad reception, a large poster of the Last Supper, and a couple of family photos tacked to the nipa wall. Behind the sala are two small empty bedrooms, and a wet kitchen with a charcoal pot in the back. Whenever anything is cooked, the house instantly fills with thick smoke. The floors are bamboo slats. Everytime I walk, I fear I’m going to step through the floor, and once I do. Two roosters are tied up right under the house so when they crow, they’re as loud as bullhorns.    

After the commotion dies down, Daisy Mae sits beside me and says her father is ashamed that I was brought there. “Why?” I ask.

“He’s embarrassed that you’re seeing his house. He’s outside,” she says. “Why don’t you sit with him.”

I go outside, and her father is cooking chicken parts on a small charcoal burner in the grass. On a wooden stool is a half-finished bottle of Tanduhay. He smiles awkwardly and motions for me to sit and have a glass. I pour a glass and we sit silently. He says nothing. I learn later that he, like his wife, doesn’t speak English but he understands a little. I ask him a few simple questions and tell him a little about myself in my limited Cebuano, and he nods appreciatively. I can see he’s struggling to reply but cannot. He seems like a kind man.

During the day, a procession of friends and relatives drop by to see Daisy Mae and Kim-Kim again and to wish the family a Happy New Year. When I’m introduced, Daisy Mae never fails to point out that “She’s single! Ah, that one, too!”

Kim-Kim hasn’t once left my side either, and it dawns on me that part of Daisy Mae’s purpose in inviting me may have been to hook me up with someone in her village, whether it’s her sister or a cousin or a friend. Foreigners are rarely seen up here, and everyone’s in dire straits, so hooking up with a foreigner way out here would be akin to winning the Lotto.

In the evening we attend Mass at the town’s small, simple church. The atmosphere reminds me of the courtroom scene in To Kill a Mockingbird. Simple people in simple clothes sitting on simple wooden benches in a poor country church. It’s as if I’ve gone back in time. My presence causes a stir, the staring and gawking never waning.

The priest is young and funny, cracking up the worshippers several times. It seems like a very casual, close-knit community. I meet him later and he says that’s his style; everyone knows each other and he wants to make his church feel like an extension of everyone’s family.

We return home and sing videoke until 2:30 in the morning. By then the mother, father, and youngest child have retired to one of the bedrooms. I’m given the other one, and the younger kids are pressed into service to prepare my bedding: a thin rattan mat, three pillows, and a cloth spread. Everyone else spreads out on the floor of the sala or on the bamboo furniture.

My first night is a rough one to say the least. The floor is rock hard, the roosters are active, the air is frigid, the blanket is thin. I wake up stiff, sore, cold, and tired.

The next day is a whirlwind of visits to friends and relatives. Kim-Kim never leaves my side; I’m clearly her trophy. I lose count of how many people I’m introduced to, but one thing is remarkably apparent. Nearly all the women I meet are knock-down beautiful. And all are available. I’ve only seen one other place in the world to match it (which I intend to keep secret). This little-known mountain village is a diamond mine for bachelors.

One woman in her thirties makes an impresson on me that remains long afterward. She’s in a quasi-relationship with an American from Alaska. They’re just friends, she insists. They met online and he’s visited her once, but it hasn’t progressed since then. I’m impressed with her quiet demeanor, her character, her simple grace. She exudes such inner peace and purity that she practically glows. She describes how devoted she would be to her husband, how little she cares about money or material things, and how she would never live anywhere but in her country. At the Mass, I watch her kneel in repose. She tells me she’s ashamed to have chosen the dress she did because some parishioners may think it risque. It’s a pretty dress with a little back showing, but nothing more. It would be considered conservative back home. I’m impressed with this woman. She’s someone who would be a good, loyal wife.

On the first day of the new year, Daisy Mae, Kim-Kim, and I go to a resort nearby. It’s full of pretty lakes and brooks and gardens and canoes and we stroll the grounds. In the end, I have a heart-to-heart talk with Kim-Kim and say that although I’m flattered by her attention, I’m not interested in courtship. The girl seems sweet, but it’s clear what she’s feeling is nothing more than a teen crush at best or a conspiracy at worst. Either way, it’s important that I not lead her on.

She doesn’t want to hear it, insisting that age makes no difference to her, that I seem young to her, that she doesn’t care what other people think, and that she doesn’t care about my money. Not wanting to get into an argument, I leave it at that for the time being.

Daisy Mae says her father is afraid that foreigners think Filipinos want them only for their money. Yesterday I gave Daisy Mae a couple hundred pesos to replace her cellphone battery, and her father got angry at her, assuming she’d asked me for the cash. When she told him I’d offered to pay for it, he calmed down.

She tells me about their upbringing. Her mother and father are extremely religious, and her mother helps out at the church most days. The children aren’t allowed to play at other kid’s houses; their friends must come to their house. The girls can never go out on a date alone. I ask them where they go for fun, what they do on weekends.

“We stay home. We want to be here. Why would we want to go anywhere else?” I find that hard to believe, but when we come back to the house, everyone’s there. Although none of the seven children have any toys to play with, they’re all in the living room watching their snowy TV as happy as clams. They sing videoke, watch rented movies, talk, or laugh. I observe them for any signs of boredom, sadness, resentment, or sibling rivalry. Zero. It’s astonishing. The warmth and love permeates every inch of their house. They have found a secret that the world is craving for.

Daisy Mae tells a story of one time in town when she was with her friends. A boy came up and patted her on the butt to say hi, and she squealed in delight, having not seen him in a while. Her father happened to be in town and witnessed the boy touch her. He ordered her to go home immediately. At home, he slapped her.

“When that boy touched you, you did nothing!” he spat. “You said nothing. You don’t respect yourself. And now he’ll never respect you.” She never forgot that.

That night the two sisters and I go back to the church for a private choir party. Kim-Kim is a member of the choir, so I’m allowed to come as her guest. As we traipse up to the church with all of her friends milling around outside, she whispers urgently, “Johnny, hold me!”

I hold her hand one last time, but I feel like a heel. Later, she says her friends came up to her and said, “You and the American looked so sweet on each other.” I kick myself for giving in to her ego.

Tonight’s event is the Dreamgirl Pageant, a spoof on beauty pageants. Four male choirboys dress up like women and participate in an authentic beauty pageant, complete with gown, casual wear, talent, and interview portions. It’s hilarious. Even the priest gets involved, donning a wig at one point.

Afterward we go to party after party in the community. I really love everyone in this town. Everybody knows everybody or is related to someone.

The next morning, I take a bath out back by the well, then pack my things. We take pictures and say our goodbyes. Daisy Mae, Kim-Kim, Nikki (who will stay with Kim-Kim in Amlan), and I take a tryke back to Mabinay and wait for a Ceres Liner. We wait and wait. Each bus coming from Bacolod is packed solid, with even the aisle stuffed with standing passengers. We let each one go, hoping the next one will have more room. They don’t. Soon it’s dark and we’re hungry. We decide to go back to their home and try again tomorrow. I buy the family chicken and soft drinks, and we trudge back through the suger cane to their house. 

“We’re baaaack!” Daisy Mae announces when we walk into the garden. She rushes to tell her father that I offered to pay for the dinner so he won’t get upset. Another night on the cold, hard floor. I get no sleep at all this time.

The girls take their time leaving the house the next morning, and I get stressed and upset. I want to be home. I don’t want to spend half the day at the Ceres terminal again. When we get to Mabinay, however, that’s what we do. Bus after bus is crammed again. The crowd waiting to get onto the buses has grown so much that I fear we may not get back for days. One of the priests-in-training from the church is waiting for a bus, and he makes some calls to see if we can rent a van to take us back. No luck.

Finally, a bus pulls in, and the mob surges toward it. Desperate now, they pull themselves up to the windows and crawl in. It’s a dangerous situation. Just as the last squeeze in, we get lucky. Another bus pulls up. Our small group is all that’s left and we rush forward and scramble onboard. There are even a couple of empty seats.

We take turns standing and sitting, sleeping when we can. Kim-Kim and Nikki get off first in Amlan, and we agree to keep in touch. Daisy Mae gets off just north of my town to visit a girlfriend whom she wants to recruit to be a helper with her at work.

I come home, clean the house, and catch up on emails. As I brush my teeth that night, my tooth drops out. 

Back to being a pirate again. Aaargh!

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