RANDOM CONVERSATIONS
August 1-4, 2012
Negros Oriental
A Peace Corps Trainee from another batch that arrived after me calls me to thank me for my essay in his Peace Corps Welcome Handbook. I vaguely remember being asked a long time ago to write something about my teaching, but I have no recollection of what I sent in.

Writers are so insecure and get so few compliments that whenever someone lauds us on something, even if we think what we wrote was dreck, what do we do? We reread it to confirm how brilliant it really was. Silly. Since I don’t have a copy of what I sent, I’ll have to wait until my Close of Service conference to get hold of that batch’s handbook. I’m hopeless. 

He asks if I have any tips on teaching English, and I tell him I’ve found there’s only one successful way to teach a language, which I unfortunately didn’t discover until my last few months in country. The secret is that the magic happens outside the classroom, not inside.

Students learn very little in a structured classroom environment. What happens in a typical class? The teacher introduces a new lesson: adverbs, subject-verb agreement, figures of speech, whatever. The students write in their notebooks the new rule. Then the teacher drills them, calling on terrified individuals to stand up and recite the correct answer in front of everyone. If they give the wrong answer, it usually triggers a chorus of derision from their peers. Result: The tension ramps up tenfold for the remaining students.

When the teacher thinks they’ve finally got it, a test is given. If most of the students fail, which is not surprising considering the circumstances described above, their scores are more often than not noted indifferently on their records. The teacher gives the class an assignment based on the lesson and dismisses the class. The teacher’s work is done.

The next day the teacher collects the assignments, is shocked at their failing scores, and berates the class for not studying or retaining the material. “What am I going to do?” the teacher asks them. “What are you coming to school for? Am I just wasting my time?” The students cower in their seats. The teacher calms down and introduces the next lesson. Repeat.

This way doesn’t work. No time is ever devoted to speaking conversational English. You can’t learn a language by memorizing. You learn it by conversing. I tell the trainee on the phone  that I happened upon this “secret” by chance. I started hanging out with my students in front of my Faculty Room each day between classes or at lunchtime. Our daily conversations blossomed into larger turnouts each day. We just sit around and talk about anything under the sun.

Soon I noticed subtle changes: They started using American slang. They started asking me questions. They started pronouncing words like a native speaker. (Most Filipinos tend to pronounce every syllable with a long sound: “Scissors” is pronounced See-zohrs. “Information” is Een-for-may-shone.)

A casual conversation is light years away from speaking in front of a class and a teacher. When we talk during lunch, I’m not their teacher; I’m their friend. I’m not correcting or judging them. I simply want to know what they think about…ghosts or the Philippines Olympic team or their favorite singer. With us, there’s no pressure to perform or to memorize or to say it correctly.

If they say something that’s grammatically incorrect but I understand it, I let it slide. I only step in if I don’t get their meaning at all. Halting them whenever they err would ruin the mood and inhibit them from sharing in the future. I want our sessions to be stress-free, curious, fascinating, fun, and free-flowing.

The joy of seeing a dozen students run across the campus for an opportunity to practice their English is indescribable. “Sir!” they shout. “Are you free? Can we talk?”

When I recount this to the trainee, he says I’ve made his day, in fact his whole month. He says he’ll try it when he gets to his permanent site and starts to teach on his own. He calls the next day to say he told his clustermates about the strategy, and they’re eager to try it, too.

At lunch, I order a chili cheeseburger across the street from the school. As I wait, a well-dressed Filipino man offers me half of his corn on the cob. He’s the former head of hotel management for a chain of Manila hotels. Now in semi-retirement, he owns his own hotel in Dumaguete. We talk about the Peace Corps, teaching, the cultural differences between our two countries, the challenges in attracting tourists to the Philippines, and my inability to find a Filipina wife.

The chance meeting confirms the ease with which one can strike up a conversation with perfect strangers here. I’m continually astonished by this. For me, because I’m withdrawn and socially inept, starting a conversation with a stranger is about as pleasant as swallowing a carton of bleach. The Philippines doesn’t produce many products at the moment that the world craves, so maybe they should look into marketing friendliness. They would be the world leader overnight.

Two nights later I play tennis at the 7th Day Adventist court. At one point the pastor stops play and gathers me and all the players together for an announcement. “I want to make it official. On Saturday, October 6, before our Peace Corps friend returns to America, we would like to hold a John Wood Tennis Cup Tournament in his honor. There will be food, trophies, and a large banner proclaiming the event. Is that OK with you, Sir John?” His smile beams as brightly as the sunset that bronzes the horizon.

I’m humbled. “That’s too generous of you, Pastor,” I mumble. “I don’t know what to say.”

“You can say yes.”

“All right, then…yes.”

The Pastor, a calm exemplar of inner peace and good nature, lays a hand on my shoulder. “If you ever return to Sibulan in the future, you have a home here. You can stay at the church for free until you get settled.” Then he says he wants to be my playing partner this evening, a rare honor as he’s one of the best players.

Although I avoid most organized religions because of a host of reasons, I’ve observed the members of this church for nearly two years with particular fondness. 

For one, they’re not as fervent about my salvation as members of other churches are. Those of other denominations give the impression that they must know if I’m “in the family” or outside it. Not so here. 

For another, their church’s strong emphasis on health and well-being is refreshing and nothing I hear from other churches. One of my regular playing partners is the church’s Health and Communications officer. He travels around Negros Oriental every week giving seminars on how to improve nutrition, exercise, diet, and mental health.

Not surprisingly, 7th Day Adventists are among the three longest-living people on earth along with Sardinians in Italy and Okinawans in Japan. According to the National Geographic Society, they “produce a high rate of centenarians, suffer a fraction of the diseases that commonly kill people in other parts of the developed world, and enjoy more healthy years of life.”

This is a denomination whose emphasis seems to be more on caring than converting. What a concept! After nearly two years of playing with the pastor, the church staff, and dozens of congregants, not one of them has asked if I want to join their church. Other than one person who gave me the church’s monthly newsletter to read, they’ve politely and respectfully accepted me as one of them.

And now, for them to plan a farewell ceremony is overwhelming. From my American perspective, I try to understand it but cannot. All I can conclude is that such graciousness stems from their church’s philosophy, their members’ goodness, and their Filipino culture. Not a bad combination.

CANTEEN UPDATE
August 4, 2012
Negros Oriental
One afternoon when all the teachers are chatting in the Faculty Room, I present my idea: What if we replace some of the unhealthy snacks we sell to our students with healthier choices? 

“Like what?” one asks.

“Like yogurt, apples, bananas, milk…”

They look at me like I’m nuts, which is ironic because nuts would be another possibility.

“Healthy food is expensive,” another says. “Students won’t buy it because they can’t.”

“Not if we buy them in bulk,” I reply. “I talked to some people at the town market. The apple guy quoted me a bulk price that’s much lower than his single-apple price. Think how much more business they’d make, how much more money the farmers would make. We could make our kids healthier and boost the local economy at the same time.”

They stare at me balefully. “Interesting idea,” one finally says. “We’ll take it under advisement.”

She actually said that. She must have gotten that kiss of death phrase from a movie. I’m toast, which ironically would be yet another…

The next day I try my hand at the main campus Canteen, which is handled differently than our second-campus Canteen. Ours, a much smaller operation, is run by the teachers, with the profits going back to them. The school runs the main campus Canteen, which uses the money to help defray the costs of school events.

“It’s riskier for us here to change our menu,” she tells me, “because we have to make as much profit as we can to help the school. If we introduce some of the…products…you suggest and the students don’t like them, we could lose a lot. The principal wouldn’t like that.”

“Or the kids may love them, in which case you’ll make more money than you do now. The principal would like that.”

She smiles but shakes her head. “You don’t know our students. They’re unfamiliar with yogurt. They don’t like raw bananas. They’re really going to choose milk over Sprite?”

But she doesn’t drop the “advisement” word. Instead, to my surprise, she says she’ll try and introduce a few products to see how they sell. I’m hopeful.

“ALEX IS VERY SICK”
August 4-7, 2012
Negros Oriental
One night when I get home, I get an e-mail from my son’s girlfriend: “Alex wanted me to tell you that he’s very sick. Diarrhea, vomiting, fever, no appetite. He finally went to the UCLA Medical Center Emergency Room, and they said he had to be admitted immediately. So far they don’t know what’s wrong. They did ultrasound of his stomach and lots of other tests today, and we’re waiting for the results. I’ll let you know when we find out.” 

My heart stops. Alex has always had a sensitive stomach, but this sounds more serious. Naturally, I imagine the worst. I consider the possibilities. All the “what if’s.” I mentally prepare myself if I need to go home quickly. What’s the Peace Corps policy on medical emergencies? I take out my handbook and review it: Leave is authorized for only the following family medical emergencies:

  • terminal illness
  • critical, life-threatening illness or injury
  • onset of para/quadriplegia
  • situation in which the personal presence of the volunteer is required to make new living or care arrangements for an ill or injured family member
  • death

Alex is my stepson, so is that covered? The handbook says: “Family medical emergency means a medical emergency directly affecting a member of the volunteer’s immediate family, i.e., a parent, spouse, sibling, child, or grandchild. This definition includes step-relatives.”

Whew. The final question is, if I have to go home, would the Peace Corps medically separate me (I wouldn’t be eligible to return to finish my service), or would I be allowed to return assuming Alex’s condition improves?

That will probably depend on what the tests find. If I’m to be medically separated, I would have to leave immediately. That means all my farewell ceremonies, goodbyes, and gifts that I’ve planned would be cancelled.

I anxiously await the news for the next 48 hours. Worry consumes me. I want to be there at his bedside, but his bed is halfway around the world. I feel impotent not being able to even talk or write him. I’m mentally and physically exhausted. I call in sick the next day.

Finally, another e-mail. Alex is feeling much better and has been discharged. All the tests were negative except one. It was positive for Rickettsia, a rare type of flea or tick bite that can unleash serious typhus-like symptoms.

We set up a Skype call the next day, and Alex looks good except that he’s lost weight. He says he’s eating a lot more now than before. “Before, I’d eat a big breakfast and another big meal at night. Now I eat four or five times a day with smaller portions. I like it more. I’ll gain my weight back in no time, Dad.”

He also says that the experience changed him. “I was really worried. I thought the worst. I might be dying. I don’t know. I feel like I care about things more now. And people. I’m more thankful for what I have. I used to have a temper and drive crazy and was into materialistic stuff. You remember all the Nike shoes, right? I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to be nicer. I want to help people. It’s funny; I’m kinda glad this happened in a way.”

I don’t think I’ve ever heard more beautiful words. Then he tops them. “I’ve also decided it’s time for me to propose to Amanda. I think we’re finally ready. And I want to do it right: Ask her father for her hand. And her grandfather. But I’ll wait for you to come home. I’d never do it without you here.”

Wow. My chest is pounding so hard, I may need to go to Emergency.

“IT’S MORE FUN ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PLANET”
August 8-14, 2012
Negros Oriental
Peace Corps texts us that another typhoon is heading close to us before it veers toward Taiwan. Doesn’t seem like it will get that close to the Philippines. But it will bring rain to the region. We in the Visayas get some but not much.

The next day the headlines are shocking: Most of Manila is underwater. A million people are homeless. All the squatters who lived in hovels along the river, who’d been displaced last year when a typhoon slammed directly into the capital, have been displaced once again. But this time it’s far more serious.

TV images show the water up to people’s necks. In the middle of the capital. Imagine Washington, D.C., with water up to Abraham Lincoln’s lap at the Lincoln Memorial. How could this happen? No winds hit the city. No tsunami overflowed the banks. It was just three days of rain. If that’s all it takes to drown a major city, then something’s wrong.

“It’s all the trash and garbage that people throw into the river and sewers,” someone tells me. “It’s partly our culture and partly the neglect of the government which doesn’t educate us, warn us, clean the rivers or sewers, or monitor such conditions.”

Susan, my co-teacher, is frantic because her daughter, their only child, is in a college dorm in Manila and is stranded. Everyone has fled to the second floor because the water has buried the first floor.

“Do you have water?” Susan shouts over the phone. “Who’s with you?”

She’s on and off the phone all day. It’s not until the afternoon that her daughter finally seems okay, but they have to wade through chest-high water to get anywhere.  

I recall the angry aftermath and recriminations that followed Hurricane Katrina when New Orleans was practically destroyed. I hope a similar wave of outrage and calls for action follow this incident so it doesn’t happen again. 

I start compiling student names for Peace Corps Scholarships for this year and the coming years. I’m working with several former Peace Corps Scholars on the process. I canvas a number of teachers to get names of students of who meet the qualifications: they must be fourth-year students or recent graduates, they must be in the top 10% of their class, they must do community service work, and they must be financially in need.

One of my second-year students would be ideal two years from now. Academically, she’s number one in the school among first-year students, and she’s in a dire financial situation. Her father died last year, and her mother is sick and doesn’t work. The only family money comes from an uncle who’s also supporting the girl’s older brother and sister, the latter who’s in college. It’s not enough.

Another female candidate is in the fourth year. I recognize her when I meet her. She won the school’s beauty contest last year. She’s also a top student, her family’s in financial straits, and she’s active in a number of school activities. When I explain the scholarship to her, she’s stunned. Breathless, she thanks me over and over.

That evening I accompany several teachers to Dumaguete, where I treat them to a movie. The Bourne Legacy is all the rage because a lot of it takes place in the Philippines. The director even made an appearance in Manila recently to promote the movie. Everyone is proud that the country is finally in a big Hollywood movie, and they can’t wait to see it on the big screen.

Unfortunately, the first time the country is mentioned is when the hero needs a rare medicine to survive. When he asks where he can get it, he’s told Manila. He covers his head and moans, “The Philippines! That’s on the other side of the planet!” The audience collectively groans.

The audience’s spirits momentarily lift moments later when the actor’s plane touches down and the words “Manila, Philippines” flash across the screen. They giggle when the actor passes through customs and the Filipino customs officer checks him out sternly.

But the perceived insult to their country remains after the final credits roll. In fact, it’s all anyone talks about on the way home. “Is that what the rest of the world thinks of us?” one teacher laments.

I try to calm them. “The comment was about distance, not your country,” I say. “If the movie started out in the Philippines, and the hero had to fly to the U.S. for the medicine, he would’ve said the same thing: ‘America! That’s on the other side of the planet!'”

They don’t buy it. It was an insult. And they don’t like the movie anymore. I try one last time to cheer them up in on the way home. I tell them, “Your tourism slogan is ‘It’s more fun in the Philippines!’ I think they should change it now to ‘It’s more fun on the other side of the planet!'”

That breaks them up, and it becomes the running gag at school for the rest of the month.

The next day I announce to the teachers in our Faculty Room that on October 13 — my last day in town before I fly to Manila for final processing — I’ll hold a raffle at my house for all my possessions that I won’t be taking home: housewares, food, books, backpacks, clothes, linen, toiletries, etc.

My calendar is rapidly filling up during my final two months with farewell parties, tennis tournaments, host family reunions, Peace Corps conferences, medical checkups, and school events. Loida, one of my closest teachers in the Faculty Room, tells me that her husband will honor me by cooking “Soup #5” for me before I go. What’s that, I ask?

“It’s a traditional dish served at farewells,” she says. Then she adds the kicker. “It contains penises of five different animals: horse, bull, goat, pig, and carabao.”

I stare at her. I look at the other teachers. I don’t think she’s not fooling.

“This is a joke, right?” I squeak. “Pleeease tell me you’re not serious.”

“It’s really very good,” one says, trying to reassure me. They all nod as one, albeit with pity in their eyes.

Here I was, so proud of myself for avoiding all efforts during my service to get me to taste arguably the No. 1 and 2 most abominable foods in the Philippines — balut (half-developed chicken fetus) and durian (nauseatingly stinky fruit) — and here, less than 60 days before I’m to exit the country, I’ve just been deftly painted into the inescapable corner called “tradition” and forced to sample what has now easily leaped into No. 1 position.

“Will the entire…you know…of each animal be floating in the soup?” I ask. “If so, er, what size bowl are we talking about?” Beads of sweat pat-pat-pat onto my desktop.

“No, no, don’t worry,” Loida says softly. “They’ll be cubed. You won’t know which piece is from which animal.”

Oh, I feel so much better now.

“It’s all very tasty, believe me,” she says for the tenth time. This from a woman who thinks guinamos (fermented fish dip) is a delicacy.

I open a Sprite. I stare at it. I wonder if I shove my straw deep into my right nostril enough times, will it induce convulsions severe enough to have me medically separated. Then I’d avoid the custom without offending anyone. Or maybe Loida’s husband will miraculously come to his senses and replace the traditional farewell feast with a Porterhouse steak instead. Or maybe the soup isn’t a friendly gesture at all but a Filipino insult: “Yeah, good riddance, prick. If you ever return, next time we’ll shove all five ingredients up your piehole. Have a nice trip, dickweed.”

I realize I’m hallucinating. I toss my straw in the trash and sip the Sprite slowly. Then I lie down and try to nap by thinking of sheep jumping over a fence. What leap over instead are peckers the size of Palawan.

A VISIT TO ROTARY
August 15, 2012
Negros Oriental
We’re gearing up for the district meets in English and athletics. Everyone is practicing before, during, and after school. The daughter of my last host family is bummed because she forgot her lines during her oratorical presentation. Later, a top second-year student in my class breaks down twice — once after forgetting her lines during her performance and again after learning that all the other students in her class who entered the contests advanced to the next round — except her.

On Friday, I finally do what I’ve been putting off for months. I promised my principal months ago that I would visit the local Rotary Club and ask if they could adopt our school or one of our classrooms.

Much of our school is dilapidated and in need of repair. Ceilings leak and are falling apart, roofs are damaged and corroded, window grills on classroom windows are rusted or broken. We have a PowerPoint presentation on what needs to be done, which I could bring if the Club shows any interest.

Rotary is heavily invested in community service, so it seems like a win-win proposition. Except for the fact that 1) I’m not a Rotary member, 2) I don’t know anyone at Rotary, 3) I don’t know what happens at a typical meeting, 4) I abhor asking friends for money, let alone strangers, 5) I’ll be by myself, and 6) I’m a nervous wreck.

I show up at the hotel in downtown Dumaguete at 7:30 p.m. A staffer in the parking lot directs me to the top of the outdoor stairs that lead to a lone door. I climb the steps, stop, take a deep breath, and open it  to reveal a cramped and narrow room. Peering at me along a long table is a roomful of faces. At the far end, emblazoned in neon on the facing wall, is the Rotary symbol. Below it at the head table sit three men. Conversation stops.  

I suddenly have to pee very, very badly.

I enter and mumble good evening in my best Visayan. They answer “Good evening” in perfect English.

To say a pregnant pause followed would be an understatement. Mercifully, someone finally breaks the silence. “May we help you? Are you here for new membership?”

“Well yes…I mean no…that is, not exactly. I just came here tonight to introduce myself…and perhaps make a proposal.”

“What sort of proposal,” asks another.

Big mistake. Why did I say that? Damn it. My pitch is supposed to come later, much later. If I blurt out my whole spiel five seconds after walking through the door, I’ll be dismissed as a crass yokel and be politely condescended to for the rest of the evening, or worse, escorted immediately out of the meeting by the sergeant-of-arms and wished a good evening. In perfect English.

I snap back to reality. They’re still waiting for me to reply.

I introduce myself, explain that I teach English for the U.S. Peace Corps, and have come here to see if a relationship between my school and their club could be developed.

Silence.

“Rotary Clubs are known throughout the world for their philanthropic projects in the communities in which they serve,” I forge on. “Has your club ever considered adopting a school or classroom before?”

A man in front of me scrunches his nose. “We’re adopting a preschool now. Small, 20 children. We help them out with  supplies, maintenance, small repairs, that sort of thing.” His nose scrunches again. “We’re not equipped to handle any school larger than that.”

I nod. So I guess that’s it. I shuffle my feet, trying to figure out the most polite and least awkward way to exit, when the same man gestures for me to sit. “Please, you’re welcome here. We’d enjoy your company.”

I sit down, and another man across the room says, “You’re from Peace Corps? Do you spell that P-I-S-S? Haha!”

Several members guffaw. My fear of being labeled a crass yokel instantly evaporates.

A waiter appears and asks what I’d like. “It’s on us,” another says. “All drinks are paid for at meetings.” A plate of nuts is pushed toward me. An older man next to me taps my shoulder and says, “A Peace Corps volunteer lived with my family in the late Sixties. Stayed with us the whole two years. We were very fond of him. Where are you assigned?”

It’s like the room has adopted me. I feel ashamed for feeling so nervous. Within minutes I’m trading jokes, exchanging numbers, and feeling that I belong. What surprises me most is that everyone speaks English to one another. It’s not because I’m here. I can tell by now when people are politely doing that. This is different. A dozen separate conversations are going on around the room, and all are in English. In my two years in country, I’ve never witnessed this. The printed program on the table in front of me is in English. The Rotary Club booklet of songs is printed in English.

The meeting’s finally called to order. In English. And it’s conducted that way until the conclusion. The meeting is brief. We stand for a prayer and one member sings the national anthem. A few business matters are discussed. Then we sing. One member selects three songs from the songbook. Moments later we’re singing “Hello Dolly.” It’s corny, but I like it.

When the time arrives during for “Introduction of New Guests,” I’m asked to introduce myself. The president invites me to come up to the head table and speak from there. I explain again who I am and why I’ve come, and everyone nods politely. Remembering what the member told me earlier about the club being unable to take on any project as big as a high school, I chicken out and don’t try and “close the sale,” as my dad used to say. He was the top salesman at his company his entire career. He’d be ashamed if he were here.

I sit back down, feeling awful, and the meeting adjourns. Expecting everyone to file out and leave, I notice nobody’s going anywhere. A jolly-faced, heavy-set older man who’d arrived late tells me the rest of the evening is fellowship. He calls himself Johnny and says he was the Peace Corps-designated doctor for all volunteers in the Dumaguete area many years ago. I tell him my nickname as a kid was Johnny, so we instantly bond.

We talk about the Olympics and tennis; he’s an avid player. Another member asks him about a medical condition, and Johnny gives him detailed advice. Sensing my cue, I tell him about my bout with dengue shortly after I arrived, my drastic weight loss from the illness, and my inability since then to gain it back.

He looks at me and says, “Stay just the way you are. Thin people are healthier. If you try to bulk up with supplements or fatty foods, you could cause more problems. You look very healthy to me. If I were you, I wouldn’t change a thing. You’ll live longer.”

AN UNWISE DONATION
August 16-26, 2012
Negros Oriental
I play tennis on Saturday, and afterward we retire to the park for our own form of fellowship. The topic tonight is the court. The paint has faded, it’s cracking, and it’s slippery. It needs a better brand of paint that’s more rubberized and less slippery. One player, a manager of a local bank, asks if I know anyone in the U.S. who could donate paint for the project.

Asking my friends to bone up money for people they don’t know “on the other side of the planet” would be anathema to me. And most of my friends aren’t well-to-do or give to charity, at least as far as I know. I wonder if I could get a  grant to fund this.

Probably not. First, I have less than two months left in country. Not enough time to do a full-on community assessment; apply for funding; get approvals from the municipal government, DepEd, and the Peace Corps; link with other community organizations to team up on the project; complete all the paperwork; etc.

Second, this isn’t the sort of project that the Peace Corps would normally fund. Those are for more substantial community projects that benefit hundreds or thousands of people. The only people this would benefit would be the club’s 20 or so members. (The terms “club” and “members” being questionable due to the fact that the group’s organization is as loose as my tennis shorts. Case in point: The court’s lights have been off for five years because the members forgot to pay the monthly electric bill. As a result, the club is more than 5,000 pesos in arrears.)

Third, I don’t think my teammates need their court repainted. They want it to be. Big difference.

And fourth, it’s not like the money’s going to build a community library, found an orphanage, or help disaster relief victims. 

Still, I foolishly ask how much the project will cost.

“About $200.”

I think for a moment. I care for these guys and will never forget how easily and willingly they accepted me into their group and made me an honorary member of their board (the term “board” being questionable because a typical meeting comes to order around a circle of  plastic chairs in the middle of the town park amidst a chorus of clinking Red Horse bottles and the slurping of braised chicken entrails).

I hear myself saying, “Hell, I could take care of that.”

The look on the banker’s face is priceless. “Really? You would do that for us?”

“Sure,” I say, digging my hole deeper. “It would be my farewell gift to all of you.”

He immediately calls for silence and tells everyone he has an announcement. “John just told me that he‘s willing to donate the money for the paint.”

The group breaks into applause, and everyone comes over to thank me. When they return to their chairs, I stand up. “I’ll never forget how you welcomed me into your group. I’ve always felt accepted. This will be my way of thanking you for being my friends.”

The president of the club stands beside me and says, “I propose that the court be named after John Wood with a permanent inscription placed on the court surface.” 

The members unanimously agree (the term “unanimously” being questionable because several members are already arguing over the kind of paint to be be used, another is peeing against a nearby fig  tree, and three others have crossed the road to get more peanuts and beer).

The next day as I’m leaving my house for school, my neighbor across the street says hello. I stop and talk to him for a few minutes and ask how he’s doing. He says that his neighbor, who lives just a hundred meters up the road — the same path I take twice a week to the 7th Day Adventist court to play tennis —  died the day before. From dengue.

“Her daughter also has it and isn’t expected to live.”

I stare at him in shock. Dengue — here? In my backyard? Again?

The man says he’s going to have to start burning trash in his backyard to drive the mosquitos away. He lives in a tiny wooden shack with his two young sons. Their windows aren’t screened.

He says it’s sad because no one can afford to go to the hospital if dengue strikes. The family down the street is caring for the surviving girl at home. 

“They shouldn’t do that,” I say. “She needs round-the-clock care. Her white blood cell count has to be carefully monitored. If it drops too much, she’ll need a transfusion. Why don’t they take the child to Provincial Hospital? It’s free.”

“The hospital’s free, but not the medications or tests. They can’t afford those.” 

I grit my teeth. Poverty is as overwhelming here as the humidity. It sucks the lifeblood out of every living being every minute of every day.

That evening I play tennis and mention the death of the woman to one of the players. He tells me that a friend of his in town — a different woman — also died over the weekend from dengue. In fact, he’ll attend the funeral after the game.

I shiver. Is another epidemic on the way like the one that swept the Visayas shortly after my arrival and struck me and another volunteer down? I hope not.

The next weekend when I show up at the tennis court, the banker tells me that the estimate for the paint, plus labor, is a bit more than originally estimated.

“How much more?”

“About $1,000 more.”

When no words immediately come to my mind, he fills the silence by explaining that the paint they want is more expensive than regular house paint because it’s a rubberized epoxy that isn’t slippery like our current court.

What have I gotten myself into? I don’t want to pay that kind of money, but I don’t want to break my promise either.

“This changes things,” I tell him. “Give me the breakdown of the estimated expenditures. I’ll have to think about it.”

I walk home that night confused and upset. Peace Corps volunteers dream during their service of leaving behind a legacy. How many get  something named after them? But that’s my ego talking. I won’t be getting it because I earned it; it’ll be because I bought it.

I don’t sleep well that night. The next day, a national holiday, I show up at the court at 7 a.m. The tennis team said they would play in the morning, then go to a friend’s house for breakfast. But no one’s here. I wait for 20 minutes and one other player shows. The two of us hit the ball around for a while, then play singles. It’s a long tussle, going into tiebreak and then a long tiebreak. A few points from the end, I lunge off the court to stab at the ball and slip and roll my ankle. I cry out and take a hard tumble.

When I get up, I’m sore but can continue. And I made the shot. But two points later, I succumb when my weak backhand no longer has the oomph to get the ball over the net.

Back home that afternoon, my foot swells up. My injury was caused by the slipperiness of the court. Maybe I should donate the money. It won’t make that much of a dent in my savings account. And I can write it off to charity. I await the paint estimate. But nobody from the team brings it to my house as promised.

I show up at the tennis court the next day but don’t play because my foot’s still sore. Still no paint estimate. Nobody seems to be taking this seriously despite continually reminding me that their estimate is done and ready and will be given to me ASAP.

Not my problem. They don’t realize, or seem to care, how precarious their project is and how closely I’m observing them. If it’s taking this long to hand me a copy, and they all know my number and where I live, how long will it take to complete the project? Or will it be completed at all?

“MAYBE A DUET…AND A DANCE NUMBER?”
August 27-31, 2012
Negros Oriental
It’s getting close to my final departure, so I spend a day at the mall getting gifts for special people. I sit for a studio portrait and add the image to some other photos  to make collages for my counterparts and host families. They come out fantastic. I make wallet-size photos for my students, who made me promise to give them a remembrance of me. The only thing left now is to order some Peace Corps polos for some teachers, and I’ll be set.

When I return to school after the holidays, my main counterpart makes it official: the school will throw a farewell ceremony in my honor on Monday, September 3, to coincide with National Teacher’s Day.

“Sorry it’s not closer to your departure, Sir John,” she says. “But there are so many things coming up in October — trainings, the Provincial Meet, and travel plans of the principal — it was the only available time we had.”

It will be held at the Quadrangle in the center of town for the entire school and the public. Students will perform, then give personal tributes to me. “Then you’ll give your Visayan speech to the students. Does that sound okay?”

I thank her. It sounds wonderful.    

Then she asks a favor. “Would you be willing to also…perform during the ceremony? Maybe a duet and a dance number?”

Say again?

“Nesty said he’ll do the duet with you,” she says. “You’ve sung together before, haven’t you?”

Big Baby and I have frequented videokes and sampled brandy on more than one occasion. Although he’s a massive hulk of a man, he has a sweet, high, honey-toned voice, which contrasts nicely with my mid-level, off-key, wolverine-mating sound. We should be able to find a duet that complements both our voices.

I meet the choreographer, one of my former pupils, and the five dancers he’s selected to accompany me. They’re a good group. I suggest we do “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, and they’re all up for it. The choreographer has some ideas on how to do the number, and it sounds good. We agree to meet on Saturday to rehearse.

That’s the good news. The bad news is I’ve never sung on a stage or in front of an audience before; I can’t memorize ten vocabulary words, let alone an entire song; and I’ll have less than a week to rehearse both the songs and the dance number.

Here I thought my last month and a half was going to be a breeze. It’s now fraught with perils. I stay up until one o’clock scouring the Net for songs and finally select four duets on my laptop to show him tomorrow.

After school, Nesty and I retire to the computer room where there’s wi-fi, and I reveal the songs. The first is “Two of a Kind,” a Fifties oldie sung by Bobby Darin and Johnny Mercer. It’s about two friends who are like a team. Just like us. He doesn’t know it and doesn’t like it.

The second is “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” a big number by Elton John and George Michael. He’s a little intimidated by the bigness and power of it. On second thought, so am I.

The third is “The Girl Is Mine,” which was a big Michael Jackson-Paul McCartney hit. He loves it. A short, simple song about two guys vying for a girl’s affection. We both stop and look at each other, thinking the same thing. Ever since I arrived here, everyone’s been trying to get me to hook up with Cleo, a particularly attractive teacher on campus. She could be “the girl.”

I never pursued her because she was engaged the whole time, and this year she’ll finally marry her beau. But she’s fun and playful (we danced the suggestive newspaper dance at the first Alumni Dinner and Dance my first year, so she’s not shy). My partner assures me she’ll do it. (He’s right; the next day she says yes.) 

The fourth is “Endless Love,” the soaring love duet between Lionel Ritchie and Diana Ross. I’ll be Lionel, he’ll be Diana. He’ll don a wig, and we’ll sing it straight. Guaranteed to bring the house down. To my delight, he agrees.

We practice for the next hour and do well except that I’m having trouble with Michael’s part. His lines are too high for me. So we switch roles, and McCartney’s role works better.

When I show up for rehearsal the next day, Nesty has an idea. He wants to ditch “Endless Love.” In its place, he suggests I sing a solo to the school that’s more appropriate since I’ll be going home soon afterward: “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver.

I know the tune but not the words. When I hear them, I tear up. My God, this is it. Except how will I get through it? I’ll be thinking of everyone I’m leaving behind as I sing it. I’ll be a blubbering mess.

THE SADDEST HAPPINESS
August 28, 2012
Negros Oriental
I’m startled by a loud pounding on my gate and shouts of “Johnny! Johnny! Hello, guess who?”

It’s Daisy and her sister from Mabinay. They’re from the mountain family I’ve visited a couple of times and grown close to. I haven’t seen them in months. I let them in, happy to see their faces again. Daisy’s usual hyper energy bounces her off the walls for the first 10 minutes. Her shy, quieter, younger sister and I watch until Daisy’s energy finally runs its course.

Then she revives herself. “Look, Johnny!” she says and holds out her hand to me. On her ring finger are two wedding bands, one a large diamond. 

“I’m married, Johnny! I finally did it. You didn’t believe I would find a husband, remember? But I did. Look, oh I’m so happy!”

I look at her and her sister. I’ve often argued with Daisy over her dream of finding a rich, old foreigner to save her and her family. I’ve cautioned her about seeking an arrangement for money instead of someone to love. But I fear that’s what’s she’s done.

“Please don’t tell me it’s that 72-year-old guy who’s been married three times, the last one to your cousin, which lasted six months. The one who flew to the Philippines to meet you and promptly demanded sex in a seedy hotel. Tell me that’s not the one.”

“Yes, Johnny, he returned! You said he never would, but he did. He sold everything and moved here. We got married last Friday by a judge in Dumaguete. We now live in a house, with my sister. Wow, I can’t believe it!”

She takes a picture of them from her purse and hands it to me. As I suspect, the guy is Creep City; his smile a threatening smirk. He looks like one of those decrepit old men who troll for young girls on the Boulevard or at Robinsons. What has this young woman done? And how stupid can this buzzard be? I look at her younger sister, who still hasn’t spoken a word. “What do you think? Do you like him?”

Her face freezes for two long seconds, then slowly, infinitesimally, breaks apart like a champagne flute bursting into a galaxy of shards in slow-motion photography. The pieces suddenly reverse themselves and rush back back together, mutating into a scowl. But just before they lock in place, she flips the ugliness into a beaming countenance, as bright and  false as a beauty pageant contestant whose entire life dream of being crowned a winner finally reaches its pinnacle — as she’s named fourth runner-up. 

“Yes,” she confesses as softly as a hummingbird.

Meryl Streep couldn’t have nailed that on her best day.

She tells me how much she takes care of him. The codger has a serious heart condition, among other things. In return, he hates everything about her and wants to change everything she does. He won’t visit her family in the mountains because  “the road winds too much,” hates the heat and humidity, and  leaves the AC on 24/7 even when they leave town.

He doesn’t know it yet, but the family is expecting him to pay for college for Daisy and her three oldest siblings. And oh yes, her family in the mountains really needs a new house.

I give it a month. Unfortunately, Daisy beats me to it, inviting me to meet her hubby the following weekend. I’d rather have a colonoscopy performed with a cheese grater. I tell her I have another engagement.

FAREWELL PREPARATIONS
August 29-31, 2012
Negros Oriental
One afternoon, my first-year class rushes over and asks if I could spend time with them for a while (classes have been suspended, but the students aren’t allowed to leave the campus until five).

I say sure, and the next couple of hours we camp out in the middle of their classroom. They sit around me, and we talk about everything on their minds.

We discuss religion (“Why aren’t you Catholic, sir?”) and my high school days. I tell them to imagine a classroom that has five white students, five blacks, five Mexicans, five Asians, five Irish, five Italians, five Arabs, five French-Canadians, five Caribbean islanders, and five South and Central Americans. “That’s a typical American high school classroom.”

Their eyes bug out. Justin muses, “In our classrooms, sir, everyone is Filipino. It’s boring sometimes.”

They ask why all Americans are rich, and for the umpteenth time I try to dispel that myth. We compare the cost of living in the U.S. with that in the Philippines. They surprise me by telling me how much 50 centavos (a half a peso) bought back when their parents were their age. I tell them how little $1.00 in the U.S. can buy today.

Krishna and Jo-Ann say they’ll miss me and will cry when I leave. Jo-Ann says she was never good in English “until your class.” She’s better now, she says.

Krishna blushes and smiles shyly, “I’ve got a secret.” She says she’s never liked her Section A class, which comprises the best students in first year. “It’s so competitive. So much pressure, sir! I don’t like it.”

She wanted to transfer to another section so it would be less stressful and more fun. “But then…I wouldn’t be in your class anymore. I didn’t want to leave you, sir.”

So she decided to stay until I go back to the States. “I’m so glad I did that.” 

I take her hand. “I’ll always remember what you said, Krishna. Always. Thank you.” Ooh boy. This is why people go into teaching.

Nesty and I practice our duet on Friday, three days before the big event. We sing the song so many times that our voices start to give out. We drink cups of hot tea, which helps. We’re better than when we started, but neither of us knows his part by heart yet. We’re both plagued by one passage or another that keep tripping us up.

The next day, D-Day minus 2, Nesty and I meet at the school and practice for the first time with “the girl.” She has some great ideas on when and where each of will enter and exit, and then says, “What if a handsome young man enters the stage at the end of the song and takes me away from both of you?” I can just see it. The audience will explode. We love it.

“And what if,” I say, continuing the flow, “after you and he go off, another pretty girl enters — and Nesty and I pick up where we left off: ‘That girl is mine…No, she’s mine…’?”

And so it’s decided. By the end of the session, we’ve both mastered the song and are jumping at the bit to perform it. They leave, and I remain to wait for my dancers. As I do, a tremendous downpour sops the school. The dancers never show. I wait until the drenching stops, then walk home. I don’t have any of the dancers’ numbers so we’re not going to be able to practice until the morning of the ceremony.

After I get home, three members of the tennis team pull up in front of my house. They have the estimate for painting the tennis court: 41,000 pesos, a few bucks short of $1,000. They’re hopeful and expect the green light. Their faces fall when I tell them I’m still not sure.

“I need to sleep on it,” I say. “I’ll give you my decision at the court tomorrow.” They leave perplexed.

That night I think long and hard at all the pros and cons. All of a sudden I realize something I’d never considered before. I sit up. I shake my head at my naivete. The classroom of my dearest first-year students and my closest co-teacher has been in serious need of repairs since the day I arrived. The same classroom I’d gone to the Rotary about. The estimate to fix their ceiling is 25,000 pesos. What would my teacher, students, and school administration have thought if they’d found out I donated almost twice that amount from my own pocket to beautify a tennis court at a nearby elementary school where I have absolutely no relationship?

Not only that, I could have jinxed every subsequent Peace Corps volunteer who might have had the misfortune to be assigned to my municipality because he or she would have been expected to pony up in similar fashion. “What — you can’t? Do you expect us to believe that? PCV Wood gave us three times that much when he was here.”

I get out my Peace Corps Handbook to see if it addresses the situation. I’m in luck. In the Community Projects chapter under “Project Assistance,” it states: “It is important that Peace Corps volunteers are viewed as community developers and not acquire a reputation as a ‘cash cow’ – providing free gifts, money, and things to a community…Volunteers should not advance personal funds or Peace Corps allowances to community projects…This is counter to Peace Corps’ mission of sustainable community development.”

And that’s my decision. If I’d caved in to the pressure and my misguided philanthropic brain freeze, I could have seriously jeopardized my entire two-year service. My greatest fear was that just before my two years of service ended, I would do something inappropriate or scandalous that would erase every good thing I’d accomplished before.

Amazing how close I just came to doing that.

And if that isn’t enough, looming before me in the next 48 hours are my decision and apology to the president of the tennis club and my three performances in front of the school. No way any of that could end up badly.

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