MANILA IMMERSION
March 1-6, 2012
Manila
I wake up early for my flight to Manila. I’m going to help train the new Batch 270 Peer Support Network members for four days. I’m scheduled to present three sessions. Two will be with partners. The third, a three-hour PowerPoint, I’ll do myself. Then I’ll help assist a session on diversity for the batch on the first day of their IST conference. I’m stressed out.

I’m also sick. I wake up with aches, pains, headache, diarrhea, and dizziness. I drag myself onto the plane, go to the Peace Corps office, and we bus to Island Cove resort. I shiver all through the afternoon sessions. At dinner, the food looks wonderful, but I have no appetite, and what I swallow makes me nauseous. I’m trembling and shivering so much, my fork hand barely makes it to my mouth. I excuse myself and go to my room. It’s ice cold. I try to adjust the air con but can’t find the control box. That’s impossible. All hotel rooms have an adjustment monitor for the AC. But I scour every inch of the room and find nothing.

I go to the hotel desk and they send someone to adjust it. When they arrive, they take two steps into the room and find the box. It’s right there on the wall, next to the bathroom, at eye level, where it always is. A blind man couldn’t miss it. I realize how out of it I am. I thank them red-faced and turn the air down. Then I climb into bed with all my clothes on, including socks and sweater. I’m still freezing.

I return to the hotel desk and request a couple of blankets. They tell me each one will cost 60 pesos. I’ve never heard of such a thing. I don’t want to buy the damn things. But I’m desperate so I pay. I return to the room, jump back into bed, and cover myself with the thick blankets. I’m still cold, but it’s better than before.

My flu turns into the stomach flu that night, and I spend half the night in the bathroom. How will I make it through my presentations tomorrow?

Dr. Ferdie gives me some pills in the morning, which knock out most of the symptoms. My appetite returns, and I eat well at lunch. My three-hour presentation stinks as usual, but I get through it. In the afternoon, the meds have worn off and my body crashes. I hop back into bed.

My third day is better and my two sessions with my partners go very well. At dinner, a bunch of us share the oddest questions that Filipinos have asked us during our service. A black volunteer recalls a bunch of kids who crowded around her once and started giggling uncontrollably. Everyone seemed to be goading one of the children to approach her. Finally the girl ran up, grabbed the volunteer’s hand, and licked it. Then she scampered back to her friends, who shrieked with laughter.

Startled, the volunteer asked why she had done that. The girl was embarrassed and it took a while for her to get up the nerve to reply. Finally, she said, “Because you look and smell like chocolate, ma’am.”

The volunteer remembered that she’d applied cocoa butter cream on her skin that morning. The aroma and her dark skin must have prompted the children’s imagination and curiosity.

Another volunteer remembers being asked by a student: “Do you have dragons in America?”

“Dragons aren’t real,” he told the boy.

“Yes they are, sir! I saw them on TV. They live on an island.”

“Those are called Komodo dragons. They’re not real dragons; they’re lizards. They don’t fly and breathe fire.”

“Oh.”

The last volunteer says he was sitting outside with his host family one night staring at the sky and the stars when his host mother turned to him and said, “Isn’t it beautiful. Do you have a moon in your country?”

I meet the Batch 270 volunteers as they arrive at the resort and reunite with them. I was one of the resource volunteers who helped assist during their Initial Orientation when they first arrived in country, and I’ve stayed in touch with several of them.

At dinner, a number of CYF volunteers (Children, Youth, and Family), who work with disadvantaged youth, street kids, abused women, former prostitutes, etc., describe the most difficult aspect of their three-month training: Street Immersion. In this activity, the trainees are taken downtown in their training city and “immersed” into the most shocking aspects of street life in the Philippines.

They recall to me the horror of seeing infants sleeping on cold concrete sidewalks; small children begging, smoking, or stealing; mothers selling their daughters to foreigners; monster-creepy 70-plus pedophiles strolling hand-in-hand with 11-year-olds. Then they’re taken into a mall and shown where the hookers hang out, many of whom are school-age youths in school uniforms. If anyone ogles the girls, a pimp instantly appears from the shadows offering the girls to them: “All virgins—never been kissed, never been touched!”

“But look around us — security guards are everywhere,” one trainee says he angrily hissed to his trainer. “They have to see what we’re seeing. Why don’t they stop it?”

“Of course they see it, but the pimps pay them off.”

“What about the police or local officials then? Aren’t they always campaigning against human trafficking?”

“They’re given free girls.”

Street Immersions are the hardest things they’ve had to endure during their service.

On my last day I go to Robinson’s and order my usual chocolate chip milkshake at Flapjacks and people-watch for an hour. Or, more accurately, pimp- and hooker-watch. Just as I’d been told, they’re everywhere. Funny how you don’t notice them when you’re not thinking about them. But the moment you look for them, they’re as obvious as a trail of ants in your cupboard.

I spot four ferret-faced women in dresses shorter than I’m accustomed to seeing even in Manila pacing in front of the entrance, chain smoking as if they’re on death row, which a few of them may be. Nobody approaches them. Nearby are two tall emaciated young men who may be their pimps. After 30 minutes, as if by signal, each girl drifts away from the entrance and casually circles the plaza, trying to make eye contact with men at the outdoor tables. I’m an older guy sitting alone, so I’m their mark.

I ignore their piercing stares, but they’re so intense and unending that I pay and go inside the mall. Two obvious girls are camped in front of the first escalator going up. I have to pass between them to ascend, and one of the girls whispers, “Looking for someone?”

As I ride up the escalator, I look back down. Not 20 feet away from the girls strolls an immense security guard, or soldier, I’m not sure which. They’re given eye tests, so he’s not blind. 

A few months ago, the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines was crucified by the press and reprimanded by the palace for saying that 40% of all tourists to the Philippines come for sex. If anything, his figure was conservative. It’s clear that despite the government’s official condemnation of the practice and in spite of local municipalities’ professed attempts to crack down on prostitution, enforcement here is as rare as a mouse deer sighting.    

END OF SCHOOL
March 7-31, 2012
Negros Oriental
I take a city bus from the resort into Manila and stay the night at the Pension hotel where all volunteers stay. The next morning I take a cab to the airport. When I get in, I ask the driver if he’s using his meter. He says yes. After 100 yards, he turns around and says, “300 pesos to airport?”

I’m furious. The normal fare is about 150 pesos. “No, I said use the meter.”

He asks if he can use the overpass, which requires a 35 peso toll. I suspect this route may be longer and thus more pesos for him. He assures me it will save time during the mid-day traffic. He may be right. Or he may be conning me again. I grunt okay.

We arrive at the airport and the meter fare is 175. I glare at him and give him a 100 and two 50s and ask for 25 in change. He’ll get no tip from me. Not surprisingly, he says he has no change. I ask for one of the 50s back and start counting out 25 pesos in change. I give it to him. He says he gave me two 50s back, and I owe him 50 more. I shake my head at his nerve. So far he’s tried to cheat me three times.

Finally I lose it. “You’re a thief,” I tell him. “You cheat foreigners  because you think we’re ignorant. Why not be honest? Why spend your life ripping off others who will think badly of the Philippines because of people like you?”

I start to write down his cab number and ID information on the back of his seat and tell him if he wants to file a complaint for the 50 pesos, I’m more than willing to speak to the policeman at the gate and tell the officer how many times he tried to cheat me. He waves his arm, “Okay, okay, go. Forget it! Go!

Back home, I play tennis with my barkada and we drink afterward, then go to Mia’s, a videoke bar hidden deep into a dark forest road. There I meet two older Swede residents and their Filipina wives. One of the Swedes, Bo, owns the joint. Both men, who have the driest sense of humor I’ve seen in a long time, utter one outrageous statement after the other with completely blank expressions. When one of the wives starts to sing, both men silently hand out paper napkins to the other tables to plug their ears with. The whole room sits there with enormous paper wads hanging out of our ears. I haven’t laughed this hard in months.

Another foreigner joins us. He’s an American, Bo whispers to me, “He’s the son of Senator John Kerry, who ran for president in your country. He’s sailed around the world and now lives here with his Filipina wife.”

The man looks just like Kerry, but I’m sure he’s not his son. John Kerry’s son would not live in this town. We’re introduced, and he puts that rumor to rest. When he learns I’m a Peace Corps volunteer and hears all of the strict policies in place to monitor our safety and behavior, he shakes his head. “Good God, I could never live under such restrictions. Why do you put up with it?”

I explain that the policies are to keep us safe and to remind us to uphold a positive image of Americans while here. He still doesn’t get it.

The next day at school, I learn that one of the students in my second-year class is missing, possibly kidnapped by her aunt and uncle. A few days ago she’d come to my coteacher in distress, saying her uncle had molested her. The teacher took her into her home for two nights, then returned her to her family. Her parents work abroad so she lives with her grandmother, uncle, and aunt.

She isn’t in school his morning, and my coteacher and another teacher fear the worst. They hop on a motorcycle and speed to her house. They find her locked in her room, but the three adults refuse to let her out. The teachers tell them if the student is not in class within an hour, they’ll go to the police and report them for kidnapping and molestation.

The girl doesn’t come back. So the teachers report the incident. The police, the barangay captain, and a representative from the Department of Social Welfare go to the girl’s home and take the family into custody. The girl returns to class.

In the afternoon, two 13-year-old girls fight on campus, causing a huge commotion. Seems they were texting rumors about each other, one accusing the other of stripping at one of the local bars. Bizarre day.

The teachers’ favorite place to hang out during free time is around the red plastic Coca-Cola table and benches outside our Faculty Room. That’s where we are when the conversation veers toward me and the head of the night school. They joke that we would be an “interesting” couple (which immediately becomes a contender for Understatement of the Year) and that we should pursue it while the iron, so to speak, is hot.

The woman and I take the idea and run with it, with me doing most of the running. She says she only wants one thing from me — my bank account. I tell her I want only one thing from her — a hefty insurance policy in case she suffers an “accidental” death shortly after the ceremony.

We sign a mock marriage certificate, witnessed by all, and make plans for our honeymoon. A party is coming up next week, and one teacher says she’ll invite a priest. I laugh…nervously.

I play tennis for the first time in what seems like months, and my new racket is a godsend. I win all three sets. As I walk home, I pass the neighborhood where I occasionally play badminton with street kids and see a street celebration in progress. I mosey over and meet my apple vendor from the market, whose daughter got married that day.

The next week I work on next year’s lesson plans for the Remedial Reading program with our new donated textbooks from Books for Peace. What a difference these books make! Each one comes with a half dozen teacher’s manuals packed with step-by-step activities.

As I pour over the books, my coteacher comes up and says that the number-one student in the first year lost her father that morning. He’d felt chest pains and went to the hospital, but the line was so long to see a doctor that he decided to go home. He collapsed while crossing the street and died. He was 35, the family’s only breadwinner.

The student is the same one I wrote about earlier whose mother has lymphoma and needs a blood transfusion. The mother has a very rare blood type. Her daughter has the same type but can’t give it to her because minors are prohibited from donating blood. I don’t know how that family will make it now. The daughter isn’t at school today, but her older brother is, although he’s crying most of the time.

My counterpart asks if I’ll play the part of the “employer” for her fourth-year students in mock job interviews that they must undergo before graduation.

On the morning of the interviews, the students, all dressed up in business attire, makeup, styled hair, and drenched in cheap perfume/cologne, cautiously enter my office looking as frightened as pigs at a slaughterhouse.

A few do quite well, and to those who don’t I offer polite feedback. Later that afternoon, back in their school uniforms, a couple pass me and thank me for interviewing them.

After school, I stop at the small travel agency in town and buy plane tickets for B.J. and me for our vacation to Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It’s only a week away, and we’re  as giddy and desperate for a change of scenery as two proctology interns.

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