From entrepreneurs looking for deals to veterans seeking closure to travelers discovering the next new paradise, everyone’s heading back to ‘Nam these days.

With its mountain tribes and misty bays, its pristine beaches, its verdant countryside, its rivers and deltas teeming with commerce and romance, and its cities and towns alive with culture and electricity, Vietnam is colonial France wrapped around an American flag atop an Asian dragon inside the pages of a Graham Greene novel.

Contributor John Wood served in the Army there during the Vietnam conflict. He returned recently to answer this question for us: How can a visitor best get the full Vietnam experience? “It’s not in a cramped bus, a rickety train, or a wheezing Russian plane,” he says. “Get around the way the locals do: by cyclo, boat, raft, bike, and foot.”

Cyclo Confessions
One of the best ways to mingle with the people — among the most gregarious in the world — is to hop on a cyclo (pronounced “seek-low”), a three-wheeled rickshaw attached to the front of a bicycle. Because the vehicles move slowly, you can observe the people and street life in much greater detail than if whizzing by in a taxi. In addition, many cyclo drivers are former South Vietnamese soldiers who speak English, so you’ll be deluged with questions about America.

Water Wanderings
To visit Hanoi and not take the obligatory side trip to explore the eighth wonder of the world, Halong Bay, would be like going to Las Vegas and not setting foot inside a casino. The crystal-clear gulf contains literally thousands of skyscraper-sized limestone caves, islands, and karst sculptures that look like they were carved by Wes Craven.

Or you can hire a boat and tour the pagodas and Royal Mausoleums along the Perfume River in Hue. While you’re inspecting one of the temples, your boatman will buy chicken, fish, and vegetables in town, cook them on your boat, and serve them as you re-board. At night, don’t forget to return to the waterfront for a moonlight cruise where beautiful Vietnamese girls will serenade you with ancient love ballads.

In Saigon, rise at dawn, take a cyclo to Kim Café, down a hearty breakfast of strawberry French toast, bacon, and hot chocolate, and sign up for a two-day floating tour of the Mekong Delta.

When you reach the bustling river hub of Can Tho, board a long boat for a glide into its exotic world of floating markets and stunning vistas. One moment you’re in Tahiti; the next, Africa; the next, the Amazon.

And everyone on or along the river will wave and smile. “Many people, upon seeing us, would scramble around shouting and rush down underneath to the hull of their boats, bring up an infant, and wave one of the baby’s hands at us,” John said. “Along the river banks, children would scream ‘Hellooo!’ and run after us until they could not run another step, waving all the time. And they wouldn’t stop waving until we were out of sight. We stopped a couple of times to visit people’s homes, and tiny tots would just come up, take our hands, and walk with us. And people wonder why I live Vietnam so.”

Rafting Rapture
Two vivid rafting memories: About 70 miles south of Hanoi near the town of Hoa Lu, beetlenut-chewing mama-sans will scissor-oar you in tiny skiffs down Hoang Long River, one of the most jaw-dropping waterways in the world because you meander through neon-green rice paddies and caves among the same limestone outcrops that distinguish Halong Bay.

And in Can Tho one evening, John and a German foursome were walking along the waterfront when a swarm of female sampan owners beckoned them for a river ride. They didn’t see the point since the night was pitch black. But they eventually agreed on a half-hour trip (75 cents each).

“It was one of those marvelous moments you least expect,” John said. “We lay back against the side of the boat, lost in our own thoughts, and swayed to the strokes of the oars. A cool breeze wafted over us. It was so dark and quiet that every star and sound was amplified. Dogs barked at one another from opposite sides of the river. A karaoke tune echoed from some distant bar. Kids did cannonballs into the river somewhere far back in the jungle. Fishermen floated by silently laying their nets. And the Big Dipper popped out the of sky as brightly as if someone had switched it on.”

Bicycle Bravado
“Excuse me, sir.”

John braked his bike and turned around. Poised on a bicycle on the dirt road a few feet away was a silhouette so stunning, he didn’t believe it at first: a lovely young woman in jeans, T-shirt, and long hair below her waist that snapped in the breeze like a horse’s tail.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“America.”

“Oh joy! I was wondering, could I ride with you? I would enjoy an opportunity to practice my English.”

John had heard that the women of Hue are the prettiest and friendliest in Vietnam, but he didn’t think it would take less than an hour after arriving to confirm it.

Another ideal place to bike is Hanoi because of its many lakes and shady, tree-lined boulevards. The social heart of the city is Hoan Kiem Lake, where residents practice tai chi in the foggy mornings and play badminton in the cool afternoons.

But the best spot in Vietnam to bike is through the historic waterfront of Hoi An, a composite of Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, French, and Portuguese influence that will have you gaping at every pastel-colored building, funky art gallery, and postcard-framed alleyway.

Walking Wonderland
Saigon is a walker’s dream. If you want to relive history, head down fabled Dong Khoi Street. Known as Rue Catinat during the French colonial period, it was the Champs Élysées of its day, sporting the latest French fashions. In the ’60s it was renamed Tu Do street and became one of the most infamous red light districts in Asia. Today it’s a great place to window shop and eat.

Another great stroll is along the harbor. John ambled along the waterfront one afternoon and came upon two women adorned in ao dais, the traditional Vietnamese dress. They posed for a picture, a conversation ensued, and within moments, a crowd had formed. One young boy offered to translate, cyclo drivers rushed over from their pedicabs to ask questions, and elderly couples looked on in amusement. Eventually the entire throng moved across the street to take over a restaurant for an afternoon of animated conversation.

His most memorable saunter, however, took place inside the mammoth Ben Thanh Market. The main action is in the market’s rear, or “wet” portion, where every imaginable food is offered — especially if you like it live and wriggling.

“As I passed through, I noticed a gaggle of women having a rip-roaring time chopping off fish heads,” John said. “I’d never associated chopping off fish heads with a rip-roaring time before, but these women were having one.”

He  said hello in Vietnamese, and that was all it took to make him the subject of a howling tug-of-war that soon encompassed the entire fish market.

“I vaguely remember somebody dragging a middle-aged woman from the crowd and introducing her to me at some point,” John recalled. “But I was having such a grand time, nodding yes to whatever they were saying and causing cries of delight each time, that I didn’t realize until it was too late that the conversation had become more urgent and strident. And that all of a sudden they were really, really trying to communicate something very, very important to me.”

Two women finally got up, linked each other’s arms, and pointed to John and the middle-aged woman. When John finally realized what was happening, he bowed gracefully, mimicked taking a ring out of his pocket, took the woman’s left hand in his, and pretended to place the ring on her finger. The place erupted.

“I blew her a kiss, waved them all goodbye,” John said, “then hightailed it down the nearest labyrinth of stalls to a hail of laughter.”

Lesson: Always wear a wedding ring while shopping at Ben Thanh lest you be lassoed into an arranged marriage.

*     *     *

Rudy Maxa’s Traveler (February 2001)

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It’s a little past seven in the morning, and I’m awakened by the familiar screech of an exotic bird in the back house and by beeps from the first motorbikes on the street outside my second-floor apartment window.

Before I shuffle down the hall to make tea, I open the shutter windows to let in the breeze and the crackling sounds and steaming aromas of the neighborhood street stalls as their owners prepare for the morning breakfast rush hour.

I spy Bich across the street sweeping the sidewalk in front of her noodle shop, and she waves to me as she has every morning since my arrival. Mr. Phuc, the senile owner of the apartment, who always beckons me over with the same query — “Do you speak French?” — is already sitting on the sidewalk watching the city go by. I’ve been in Hanoi only four days, but I feel as if I’ve been a resident for years. If you want to live like Graham Greene, this is the way to do it.

It all began when I heard about a unique travel company called Untours that immerses you in local cultures in apartments instead of transporting you from hotel to hotel and from site to site on a tour bus. Here are a few vignettes from my diary on how I lived like a local for two weeks in the quiet, tranquil city of Hanoi and the wild, wild East metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City while saving beaucoup bucks in the bargain.

Day 1
I’m greeted at Hanoi’s airport by Markus, my Untours co-host, and we weave through a swirling current of bicycles and motorbike traffic and pull up in front of a two-story French colonial building that opens onto a bustling hive of street activity. Inside is my other host, a smiling dynamo named Ky, who presents me with a welcome bouquet of flowers.

A quick tour of my unit reveals a spacious, two-bedroom apartment with high ceilings, wrought-iron windows with wooden shutters, dark bamboo furniture, and ceiling fans (or optional air-conditioning for those who are romantically challenged and have never seen the movie The Lover).

Pluses are a refrigerator stocked with bottled water and colas, maid service, a mosquito net, a bicycle, a safe, a bowl of bizarre-looking fruits that look like props from Star Wars, and your own mobile phone with preprogrammed numbers of your hosts and local services. Minuses are weak shower-water pressure with intermittent hot water, a washing machine but no dryer, and a hot-plate instead of an oven (although, to be fair, the tour company never felt travelers would do much cooking because cheap and delicious food is available literally outside the door).

After unpacking, I check out the neighborhood. Within a block are two pho stalls (which serve hearty beef noodle soup for about 50 cents), three com stalls (which serve rice; a meat, fish, or fowl dish; a vegetable; and tea for the same price), two cafés, an ice cream and soda shop, a karaoke restaurant, two liquor stores, two laundry/dry cleaners, a film processing lab, and a market.

Day 2
I have many options. Do I want to do the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, or Ho Chi Minh’s house? Do I want to bike along the tree-lined boulevards and admire the architecture of the French Quarter? Do I want to take a wistful walk around one of the city’s many lakes?

Day 3
My mobile phone rings. It’s Markus. “John, a bunch of us are meeting for dinner tonight. Wanna tag along?” I end up spending a captivating evening with expats from Cuba, Canada, and the U.K. on the rooftop of a seafood restaurant overlooking the Red River, and later migrate to the popular R&R Tavern. I’m beginning to like “living” here. Who needs a hotel concierge when your apartment comes with hosts, friends, neighbors, and adventures?

Day 4
I chill out at the apartment today, and in the evening take in the surprisingly delightful show at the Municipal Water Puppet Theater (tickets are a ridiculous $2, or $4 if you want a cassette of the accompanying traditional folk music, which you do).

Days 5 & 6
Road trip! It’s time to get out of Hanoi for a couple of days and see the countryside. I opt for a $22 two-day trip to Mai Chau, where I hike knee-deep through soggy rice paddies with the workers in the fields during the day and eat and sleep in a traditional stilt house with ethnic Thai people at night.

Day 7
On my last day in Hanoi I cruise the Old Quarter for bargains. I pick out a handsome hand-carved pipe for $6, a water puppet for $5, and a handwoven fabric from a northern hill tribe for $10. Then Ky invites me to his home for a farewell dinner, and we crown the evening at Hanoi’s hottest place, Highway 4, which lets you sample up to 33 traditional rice and fruit liquors in its opium den-like room.

Day 8
After a two-hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as everyone in the South still calls it), I’m greeted at the airport by Bach, my host, and am transported into town. Our taxi pulls into a tiny ally/driveway across the street from a lovely tree-shaded park. My Saigon accommodation is one-story and more contemporary in style and facilities than in Hanoi. Double doors open into sizable living/dining rooms decorated with luscious lacquer murals that you can purchase if you want. Pluses: The TV comes with cable, and the bathrooms sport brand-new toilets and showers. Minuses: None.

Unlike the street-life environment of Hanoi, these units are more secluded. And yet I’m actually closer to everything here. Within a block of the gate are three of Saigon’s premier tourist attractions: the Reunification Palace, the Notre Dame Cathedral, and the stunning French colonial General Post Office.

There’s a knock on the door, and I meet Paul and Elizabeth, my next-door neighbors who’ve taken an Untours trip before to Europe. They give thumbs-up to the apartments and host support here. In Europe, Untours travelers sometimes stay in guest cottages with live-in hosts. Their most pleasant surprises so far, and mine too, are how proudly and fiercely capitalistic this Communist nation is and how low the crime rate is.

Day 9
I skip my cereal and baguette this morning and hop on a 70-cent motorbike to one of the tourist cafés in the expat section of town. At Kim Café I splurge on banana pancakes, a Spanish omelette, and hot chocolate for $2.50, then shop along Dong Khoi Street, the city’s bargain mecca. I don’t find many deals, though. I nix two overpriced $25 silk shirts from Khaisilk (horrors, a store that won’t haggle!), reject a pricey Buddha painting a few doors down, then finally get lucky at Nguyen Hue Street’s Thieves Market by walking off with seven bootleg CDs for 70 cents apiece.

Day 10
I’m introduced to Mrs. Khanh, the charming co-owner of the apartment complex, who invites me and Mr. Giao, the artist whose paintings and murals grace the apartments, and his wife Thuy, a legendary writer/reporter, to dinner at Rex Hotel where they tell me their startling life stories, which they politely request afterward that I not reveal for political reasons. If you meet them, which you should, listen to their tales; they would make an HBO miniseries.

Days 11 & 12
It’s out of the city again for a languid two-day bus and boat trip deep into the Mekong Delta, an exotic world of floating markets, river traffic, and drop-dead scenery — one of the world’s great marvels at $20.

Day 13
On my next-to-last day I meet Ed, a 62-year-old American expat, fish exporter, ex-con, and a character right out of The Sopranos, who offers to show me Saigon at night. “But only if you can hang with me; not too many people can.” We start at the classy Saigon Saigon Bar atop the Caravelle Hotel, get down and funky at Apocalypse Now, swing over to the Speed disco, and wind up at my favorite, Vasco’s, a classy two-story garden bar with a band and an upscale mix of expats, tourists, and locals. As the last watering hole closes down, Ed slaps me on the back, says I’m all right, and makes me promise to look him up the next time I’m in town.

I amble down the street as a light mist tears my eyes and wake up a cyclo driver under a lamppost. On the slow ride back to my apartment, my mood is bittersweet. Just as I was starting to feel at home here, it’s time to leave. I’m going to miss this magical land of smiling faces. Nowhere in the world, with the exception of the Philippines, have I been embraced so sincerely as an American, which is unfathomable considering our tumultuous past. I make a resolution. Many veterans are returning for closure. I’ve come back to open my heart. There are friends I made who are too dear not to see again and magnanimity bestowed that was too bountiful not to give back in kind.

*     *     *

Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel (March/April 2002)

CLOSE OF SERVICE CONFERENCE
October 1-5, 2012
Manila
No terrorist strike occurs at our unguarded pension hotel during the night, but the danger is still palpable in the area. I’m grateful when I finally check out and a flotilla of white taxicabs pull up to transport all remaining volunteers of Batch 269 (the 269th group of volunteers to serve in the Philippines since 1961) to the more protected Peace Corps headquarters outside the danger zone.

We’re here for our final conference before heading home. Of our original batch of 149 — one of the largest groups in the country’s history — 102 have made it to the end. That’s still a sizable number, but the fallout is above the global Peace Corps average of about 30 percent.

Everyone spends the next few hours padding up and down the hallway popping our heads inside offices to get clearance from each department. I return my Peace Corps life vest to the office that issued it, and they initialize it on my Close of Service (COS) conference checklist. There are 30-40 items to be checked off before we can leave the country. I complete only a few tasks on day one, but that’s okay. After the conference, most of us will return to our sites for our final week(s) and then return to Manila to complete our checklists before we fly home.

In the afternoon, all the regional managers gather us and announce that our buses have arrived to transport us to the much-awaited dinner and pool party. We erupt in cheers and applause. The venue was originally the U.S. Embassy along Manila Bay, but the terrorist threat nixed that. Rumors have been flying all day if the party would be held at all, and if so, where. Because of security, we’re not told where we’re going until we’re inside the buses: it’s the ambassador’s residence. Cool.

Well, sort of. If I were a terrorist, my top two American targets in Manila would be 1) the U.S. Embassy, and 2) the U.S. ambassador. However, if I received a tip that 102 Peace Corps volunteers were celebrating at the Ambassador’s digs, his place would move up to #1. Marvelous. Let’s party!

The ambassador’s house is stunning, sprawling, and ambassador-less. “He’s away,” we’re told succinctly. Not the most comforting thing to hear under the circumstances. The interior of the mansion is off limits, too. “The ambassador doesn’t want anything broken.” It seems our batch’s rowdy reputation has preceded us.

Whatever. We all head to the bar. The drinks are strong, the food is Tex-Mex, and the pool is warm. The new Peace Corps deputy country director plops down next to me on the outdoor patio, and she’s a breeze of fresh air. Laid-back, likable, like I’ve known her for years. Actually, it’s the other way around. She’s done her homework and knows a lot about me. She’s a writer, too, and still fiddles with it. We talk shop for 40 minutes before the country director summons her.

Moments later we’re all hustled back to our buses for the two-hour trip to our conference site, which will finally be out of the radar of the bad guys. As we pull away from the residence, I take my first deep breath of the evening.

The resort is high in the mountains, so our three days are rainy, chilly, and encircled by eerie, thick fog straight out of a Stephen King novel. As most of the volunteers are young, the conference sessions are geared toward them: how to prepare a killer resume, how to ace a job interview, how to take advantage of Peace Corps graduate degree assistance.

Highlights are seeing volunteers for the first time since our initial staging conference two years ago. Most of them have have lost weight, so I don’t feel so bad. My favorite things are the hilarious Internet videos about Peace Corps life that are shown between sessions. So true, and so funny. If any of you are contemplating applying to the Peace Corps, view these clips first before you decide!

So You Want to Join Peace Corps – YouTube

Pacific Love (Unofficial Peace Corps Anthem) – Poop in a Hole – YouTube

I miss the final night of the conference because I have to be back in Manila that evening to make my early morning flight back to my school the next morning. I say a few hurried goodbyes and grab a Jeepney heading back toward the capital. A young woman across from me happens to be getting off at the same stop and helps me off. The bus I need to take on the final leg pulls up seconds later, and I hop on just in time, grabbing the only seat left on the crowded  transport.

The man next to me is a ship captain, and I ask him about his job. After about 40 minutes of this, he suddenly blurts out, “I hate America.” I ask him why, and he describes what happens whenever he docks his ship at a U.S. port. “They’re so strict. They board us at the international water line, inspect every room, every crew member, every piece of cargo. They’re armed and treat us like animals, like we’re guilty. No other country does this. I hate coming to America.”

I ask if U.S. authorities have always done this. “Never before. Only after 9/11.” I say nothing. If he doesn’t understand our need to stiffen our security since that tragic day, then my pointing it out won’t enlighten him. Other than that, he’s pleasant, funny, exceedingly friendly and gracious, and helps me get off at the precise stop, reminding me and the driver miles before we get there and every hundred yards until the bus stops to let me off.

GOING OUT A CHAMPION…SORT OF
October 6-7, 2012
Negros Oriental
I arrive home to thunder and rain. I’m tired, cold, and not feeling well. I sleep most of the day and don’t go to school. I need to conserve my strength because the next day, Saturday, promises to be a big one. It’s the birthday of the mother of the Mabinay family I’ve grown to love, and everyone’s coming to Dumaguete for the party, to which I’m invited. In the evening, my tennis club at the 7th Day Adventist church will kick off a tournament in my honor. The turnout, I’m told, is the largest they’ve ever had.

I wake up in the morning to pounding rain that’s turned the street into a river. It doesn’t look like there’ll be a tennis tournament. When the rain eases, I dart through the thicket of banana trees across the street – my shortcut to the highway – and flag down an easy ride into town.

I meet Kim, the second oldest family member, at the bus station, and we hop on a trike to her sister’s new house. Her older sister Daisy, 24, married a 72-year-old American just three weeks before, and I’m not looking forward to meeting him.

When I step through the gate, all the family rushes out to meet me. The kids flit around me like fireflies, wanting to be close to me like always. I love them dearly. I hug the birthday mom and shake the father’s hand. He smiles and nods. Neither he nor his wife speaks English, which is as rare in the Philippines as a dog on a leash.

Daisy’s new house is a sparkling two-story townhome. I walk inside, and she’s cleaning as usual. The family’s only breadwinner for much of her life, she’s preparing the final touches to the feast. A large table in the middle of the room already groans with a half dozen dishes.

Sitting on a bamboo bench against the wall is what appears to be a carcass of a deceased elderly man who must have succumbed horribly because a rictus of a snarl is frozen into its waxy countenance. Then the form stirs, and I realize it’s not dead; it’s Daisy’s beloved.

I introduce myself, and his snarl turns into a scowl, which apparently is his default expression. With a Missouri accent as thick as glutinous rice, he unleashes a diatribe against everything Filipino: the heat, the food, the stench. Ants, drunks, dogs. Traffic, rain, trash. Laziness, corruption, bureaucracy. Assuming I’m an ally to whom he can share his prejudices, he throws around “these people” more times than a KKK social.

His biggest complaint is Daisy and her family. “I sol’ everthing to come here, and she and her family already done spent a third of it. Ever week it’s a hundred fer this, a hundred fer that. Livin’ here was s’posed to be cheap. Ain’t so. Don’t know where it all goes.”

I thought Peace Corps life was tough, but this guy makes me want to jump off a cliff. A cute stray dog slips into the room, and he tries to kick it but  nearly falls down. I use the opportunity to extricate myself from his vehemence.

“Daisy,” I take her aside firmly, “take your family and your husband’s remaining money away right now and flee into the hills. It’ll be weeks before your husband stops bitching and realizes you’ve split.”

I don’t say that, of course. I say, “Who’s the plantation owner who wondered into your house and soiled your furniture? Want me to get rid of him?”

Actually, I don’t say that either. What I say is, “Great to see you. Nice place. What’s for dinner?”

I dole out a stack of board games I’d promised to bring the kids, and they swarm over them like Snickers bars, which I’d foolishly not thought to bring as well. Kim, who still has hopes of landing me as the second foreigner in the family, slips me a letter and some new photos of her.

The meal is sumptuous, Mr. Daisy continues his rant about Filipinos as if the nine Filipinos in the room aren’t there, and I keep urging my watch to speed up and get to 5 p.m. so I can get out of here. Finally the time comes, and I say goodbye to everyone for the last time, hug the birthday mom, promise to return someday, and walk back to the highway with Kim. We hug, and I catch an easy ride back home.

I trudge through the drizzle to the church tennis court to see if the tournament’s still on for tomorrow. The pastor greets me. “God willing, sir, the rain will pass tonight, and we’ll be able to play tomorrow,” he says.

He  shows me the tournament banner with my name on it, which is stretched across the court entrance facing the road. “People have been calling all day asking if it’s still on,” he says. “Everyone’s excited. Many others have signed up.”

He drives me home and says he’ll call me in the morning to tell me if the tournament’s on or not.

That evening I’m awakened by vicious barking and growling. A gang of neighboring street dogs has decided to stroll down our street on this particular night, precipitating a battle royal with the local clan that lasts for hours. I shut my bedroom door and put in my earplugs to drown out the uproar.

Although this mutes the dogs, it also muffles my cellphone’s ringtone the next morning when the pastor calls me at 6:00 to tell me the tournament is starting. I’m still asleep three-and-a-half hours later when I’m finally awakened by pounding and shouting at my gate. Rushing to the window, I see the pastor laughing at me from the other side of the gate. The sky is cloudless, bright, and sunny. I splash water on my face, throw on my tennis togs, grab my bag, and jump into his van.

When we arrive, several matches have concluded, and a large crowd has gathered to watch the festivities. I’m told my partner in the intermediate bracket will be Bernie, a Phil-Am (half-Filipino, half-American) who’s as tall as me. We’ve teamed before and usually win because of our height and reach. He won first place in the church’s previous tournament with another partner.

He’s the health and communications officer of the church and travels throughout Negros Oriental to speak to school and community groups about nutrition, non-smoking, exercise, and stress-free living. He helped prod our mayor to institute a nonsmoking policy for our town.

We easily win our first two matches, although I’m hit twice by the ball, the latter a bullet to my right eye. The force knocks me over, and everyone rushes over to see if I’m all right. I’m lucky; a quarter-inch to the left would have impacted my eyeball. My eye turns black immediately, and I press a Coke bottle to my face the rest of the afternoon.

Food is brought out, the pastor leads us in prayer and asks me to say a few words. I thank everyone for accepting me into their church family even though I’m not a churchgoer. I tell the pastor how much his calm demeanor and inner peace epitomizes his church’s philosophy. I say that their Filipino culture of caring, sharing, and friendliness has so inspired and affected me that I want to bring it back home and share it with as many people as I can. I present the pastor with a Peace Corps polo shirt, and he’s really surprised. “I didn’t expect this at all.”

When I sit down, Bernie tells me my speech was remarkable. Others come over and thank me for what I said. Still others ask if they could reprint the speech in the church publication. When Bernie and I take the court for our third and semifinal match, the crowd gives us a rousing cheer. I’ve never had a crowd root for me before in my entire life. They want me to win on my last day with them.

I take Bernie aside and joke that I’ve been hit twice and we’ve won twice, so for us to win, the ball must strike me a third time. Sure enough, in the second game an errant shot by one of our opponents caroms off the church building and pops me in the back of my head. The crowd hushes in alarm.

Instead of wincing in pain or getting angry, I jump up with joy. “That’s three!” I shout to Bernie. “We can’t lose now.” The crowd roars. We win easily, thanks to three backhand lobs of mine that miraculously hit the corner line each time. As we leave the court, even the referee runs across the court to congratulate me.

As Bernie and I retire to our chairs to watch the other semifinal matches, the referee walks by and whispers, “By the way, I helped you a little with those line calls,” then bellows and slaps my back as if he was just joking. Or was he?

An attractive wife of one of the players leans over and purrs slyly, “So, Sir John, are you bringing a Filipina home with you to America?”

“No, unfortunately,” I say. “Those who liked me were too young and those I liked were either married or not my type.”

“Hmm, I know someone who’s available. Would you be interested in meeting her?”

“I think it’s a little late now. I’m going home in a couple of weeks.”

She gives me a funny look, as if to say, “Are you sure?” Then I get it. The little devil. “She’s here, isn’t she?”

She leans back. Sitting beside her is a plain-looking woman in her forties who looks up at me humbly. The next thing I know, the player’s wife has vanished.

The poor woman is so nervous, she can barely speak, and when she does, her English is rudimentary at best. She’s never been married but has a son. She not only works in the church’s high school canteen but lives in the tiny compartment with her son. Good grief. I politely keep her company until the last match concludes.

Our opponents in the championship match will be the pair we played first, a husband and wife team. Hooray. The wife is consistent, but her husband’s a beginner. But there’s a catch. The husband can’t play in the final because he has to be in Cebu tomorrow. So another player will take his place. He’s no other than the partner who teamed with Bernie last year when they won the championship. All the final matches will be played tomorrow. Our only hope is if I get hit by the ball again.

MY LAST WEEK AT SCHOOL
October 8-13, 2012
Negros Oriental
On my first day back after ten days, my first-year students crowd around me. “Sir! What happened to your eye?”

My eye looks like I swiped boot polish underneath it. “I got into a bar fight in Manila.”

They gasp. “Manny Pacquiao was there. He said something that I didn’t like, we exchanged words, and then it escalated. I got a black eye, but he’s missing some teeth. Watch the news tonight. It’s all everyone’s talking about.”

The kids stare at me aghast. They’re so cute and gullible. I finally let them off the hook and admit the boring truth.

I take a seat in the back as my co-teacher gives them a listening assignment. She plays a love song, and they’re asked to describe how it made them feel.

Krishna raises her hand and walks to the front of the room. “I love my parents and my family, but when I heard this song, I only think of Sir John.” She pauses, then starts to sob softly.

“He’s only with us short time, but we all love him and will remember him and will miss him and I don’t want him to go and will never see him again…” then she breaks down. And so do others. She hurries back to her seat and covers her face in her hands.

Every student swivels around to see my reaction. I also have tears in my eyes. Krishna’s words take me by surprise. I love these kids so dearly. When the class is over, I go over and put my arms around her. “I’ll never forget what you said, Krishna. Thank you.” My goodness, how am I going to get through this week?

I meet with counterpart Esther in the afternoon to discuss the reading contests tomorrow and my farewell ceremony on Friday. She hands me the contest program, and I see my name’s been printed next to “inspirational message.”

“Sir John,” she says, “can you give an inspirational speech to the school tomorrow before the reading contests?”

This is how it’s often done in the Philippines. I’m actually lucky; I’m being notified 24 hours in advance. Usually, speakers are told they’re to speak only moments before.

“Yes, I’d be happy to,” I sigh. There goes my evening. Composing speeches always takes me a long time.

“And for your ceremony on Friday, could you and Mr. Tinio sing a duet again? Everyone wants to see the two of you perform again.”

I groan silently. I suffered so much stress the first time that I vowed to never do it again. I tell her I’ll speak to Nesty and get back to her, but I have no intention of singing – whether our names are printed on the program or not.

At home I work on my speech for a couple of hours, then go to the tennis court. Bernie and I will play first, and he’s already warming up. I play out of sorts, spray the ball everywhere, and no one hits me with the ball. We lose badly. I feel sorry for Bernie but more for the audience, who cheered for us on every point. They really wanted me to take a trophy back to America.

The next day I host the English Quiz Bee and Spelling Bee, and my co-teacher Susan is ecstatic when our two classes – first- and second-year – win first place.

In the afternoon, I tell Nesty that Esther wants us to sing another duet for my farewell ceremony. Hoping and expecting he’ll grumble and say not again, he surprises me. “Really? They want us back? Okay, let’s do it. Maybe we’ll go on tour afterward.”

My shoulders slump. Well, maybe it won’t be so bad. My only real disaster before was my solo. Our duet was a smash. We had fun together, and we’re both hams. Maybe our magic can work again. We brainstorm songs. We both like Kenny Rogers, his voice matching ours. We choose “Lady” and “She Believes in Me.”

Then we try to add something funny like we did the first time. I suggest we ask teachers to heckle us during the performance. He likes it, but what would they say? I remember the two Muppet characters who always did that. The two old coots in the balcony who always berated the acts with lines like “Can you sing far, far away?”

“We don’t know that song,” Kermit or Miss Piggy would reply.

“It’s not a song. We just want you to sing far, far away! Haha!”

“Yeah, can you also sing somewhere else? Hoo-hoo!”

He loves it, so that will be our act.

The next day when I come to school, Dona takes me aside and says, “Jerlin’s in the hospital. She may have dengue.”

My blood turns to ice. Dengue can be lethal to the elderly and the young. Jerlin, 10, is the youngest daughter of my last host family. I love her. Her family must be deathly worried. Then I sit down. Her birthday is this Saturday, the 13th, my last day in town before I leave for good and fly to Manila. It was going to be a huge party. That won’t happen now. Ironically, I was in the hospital with dengue on my birthday, too, the 13th of September.

The next day I practice packing for my flight home and discover I need one more piece of luggage. I go to Dumaguete, pay all my remaining bills through the month, buy the luggage, and return. I spend the rest of the morning packing. Everything fits. What’s left over I sort for the raffle I’ll hold for the teachers tomorrow.

When I go to school, my name is emblazoned on the wall of the covered court. They’re preparing for my farewell ceremony. I rehearse with Nesty, and we’re more than ready. I go to the second campus to get my co-teacher Susan, who will accompany me to the hospital to see  Jerlin.

When I approach her second-year classroom, she rushes out and waves her arms for me to go back. “Don’t come down here!” she smiles. Moments later I learn why. The class is rehearsing their song for my ceremony. As I wait in the Faculty Room, I hear the students sing from the other side of the wall. The song they’ve chosen is “To  Sir, With Love,” a love ballad to a teacher. I bend over and tear up. It’s the song I wanted the students to sing to me the most.

Susan comes out and tells me to go on ahead. Their practice will continue for a while longer. I go to the hospital.  Jerlin’s room is a mammoth ward with 20 beds crammed into in the vast space. All of the patients are children with similar symptoms. I hug Jerlin. She’s weak. One arm is hooked to an IV, and all the fingertips on her other hand are covered with cotton bandages where blood’s been taken.

“She’s been looking out the window for you for the last hour,” her mother Bombeth, a P.E. teacher at the school, says. “When we checked in, only five other beds were in the room. Now look at them all. Many have dengue. An epidemic has hit the area. There are so many stricken, they’re turning patients away.”

“And her?” I ask tentatively.

“They don’t know yet. She has all the symptoms. Her white platelet count dropped like it does with dengue, but only a little bit. We’ll know in a day or two.”

Jerlin’s sister Jedmay arrives. She’s a third-year student at my school. I give them both gifts: a board game for Jerlin’s birthday, and the Hunger Games book set for Jedmay, who ‘s a voracious reader. When Jed reads the note on my card, she hugs me. “I’m speechless at what you wrote,” she says emotionally. They both ask me to autograph their gifts.

I get a text from the pastor reminding me of our dinner at his house tonight. Huh? I recall him saying that he wanted me over for dinner sometime before I left, but no plans had been made. I apologize to everyone and rush out. I promise Jerlin I’ll see her again on Saturday. When I hug her, she can’t bear to look at me.

My town’s been hit with a brownout, and I can’t see where I am. It starts to rain again. I trudge through the mist to the church, but everything’s dark and nobody’s there. The pastor must have given up. I traipse back home, thaw out some fish, and make rice.

When I check my phone, I see three messages by the pastor. “We’re waiting for you, Sir John. Food is ready.” I throw on my clothes again and trek all the way back through the rain to the church, which is still dark. This time I knock on the door. A couple of minutes later someone comes to the door.

“He’s not here, sir,” the caretaker says. “Try his house. It’s across the street.”

I go to the house and knock on the door, and the pastor opens it, a big broad grin on his face. “So you found us! Come in!”

A banquet of food’s been laid out for me. I meet his lovely wife and daughter, and we sit down to eat. I ask the pastor about his life. He was only 22 when he applied to be a pastor. He hadn’t been ordained yet, which is normally a prerequisite, but as the church didn’t have a pastor at the time, the church elders allowed him to act as one temporarily until an ordained pastor arrived. In his first months, he organized a youth camp and a number of community programs that were very popular. By the time an ordained pastor was found, the church opted to keep the young man instead. He’s been here ever since.

He drives me home in the rain. When he stops at my house, he tells me, “Sir John, your work here in our country and in our town – and your purity of spirit and conduct – is like that of Christ. By your manner and example, you’ve spread the word on how to live a good and admirable life. I’m honored to have known you.”

I don’t know what to say. I sit mute as rain droplets roll down the windshield. I thank him softly and go inside.

Friday morning. My last day at school. My last day with my teachers. My last day with my students. I leave the house unsteadily. My heart is heavy. I feel lost. I don’t want to go through this. I don’t want to go home. I can’t leave these wonderful people. But I need to and have to.

Maybe this day will be the catharsis I need to cleanse my emotions, which are off the chart at the moment. The school van arrives to transport my belongings to the campus for the raffle. I hesitate before getting in. Please. Please. May this day not break my heart irreparably.

The first thing I see when I enter the second campus is my first-year students practicing a dance for me. At the other end of the campus, my second-year students boom out their chorus of “To Sir, With Love.”

The first-year students see me, let out a cry, and surround me. “Ohhh, Sir, don’t leave, Sir! We love you, Sir!” They give me a group hug. I clutch them tightly to me, letting the moment sear my memory so I don’t forget it.

“Will you sing today, Sir?” one girl pleads. Yes, I tell her. “Oh, we will cry when you sing to us! Today will be so sad.”

I tell them I have something for each of them and lead them back to their classroom. I take out a bag and spread its contents on the teacher’s table. They’re wallet-size portraits of me that I took in a studio last month. The kids scramble over them, fighting for them.

They proudly show them off. One girl puts hers in her cellphone cover. Another one puts it on her I.D. holder. When the second-year students finish their practice and emerge from their classroom, I bring over the remaining photos and hand them out, too. They demand I autograph theirs, so I do. When the first-year students see me doing that, they rush over and ask me to sign theirs as well.

At 11:30 I go to the main campus, where the main campus teachers have planned a special lunch for me. A long table fills the entire room, overflowing with food. All the teachers come in, greet me, and take their places around the table. They begin with a prayer, and the teacher who leads it breaks down halfway through. Another teacher finishes it for her. I give a short speech recounting my fondest memories of them during my first year. Mr. Tinio thanks me for serving at their school and says no one will forget me.

At 2:45 I hurry to the nearest Internet café to print out my airplane ticket. On the way, the principal zips by me on his motorcycles on the way to school. When he sees me, his eyes bug out, and he skitters to a stop. “Sir John, where are you going?”

When I tell him, he says, “The ceremony is at 3. Don’t be late. The vice-mayor is coming.” I assure him I’ll make it in time. He zooms off.

A few minutes before 3, I enter the main campus lugging my teachers’ gifts, my speech, and my camera. Rows of chairs full of students fill the central courtyard. The stage is a flurry of activity. Esther sees me and looks relieved. I barely sit down when the vice mayor strides up and shakes my hand.

The campus rapidly fills up as classrooms empty and the third- and fourth-year students sit around the courtyard. The first- and second-year students file in from the other campus and take what spots are left. The national anthem is recited, a prayer is sung, and introductions are given.

The principal speaks first, and I’m touched by his sentiments. He tells the audience I could have done a lot of things in my retirement, but I chose a course of service with the Peace Corps to help the students at their school. A scholar of American poetry, he concludes his tribute by reading “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. At the end, he turns to me and says, “Sir John, this last verse is particularly relevant to you.”

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood,
And I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The vice-mayor speaks next, addressing the audience in Visayan. A teacher beside me translates: “He’s comparing you to a mentor of his, a professor…The mentor, by his example, changed the mayor’s life and inspired him to enter public service…He’s telling the students that you’ve become a mentor to them as well…One day they too will remember you for helping them and inspiring them to succeed in life.”

As he concludes, I see the Fernandezians, what my second-year students call themselves, massing near the stage. Classrooms are named for their class advisor, and the students’ advisor is my co-teacher Susan Fernandez. I shake the mayor’s hand as he takes his seat, and the students line up on stage and launch into “To Sir, With Love.” I keep it together until the end, when they all approach me with cards, scrapbooks, flowers, and gifts. I fall into their arms.

Next are the first-year students, the Calbogians. They’re so cute and offer a song and dance of their own.

Finally it’s the teachers’ turn. A dozen of them come up on stage and sing, “Please Don’t Go.” My supervisor, Geremia, bawls throughout, as do Susan and several others.

Susan presents me with a mug with pictures of us on it. Jedmay follows, telling the crowd about my short time living with her family and how our after-dinner conversations opened up her mind and brought her out of her shell. “They’re memories I’ll never forget,” she says. She hugs me hard afterward and is in tears.

Finally it’s Mr. Tinio’s and my encore. We stride to the podium to excited applause. I wave to my first-year students, the Calbogians, and we knock the socks off of “She Believes in Me.”

When I ask for requests, Susan jumps up on cue, “Can you sing… far, far away?” The crowd cracks up.

“Oh, you’re insulting us? That’s not nice. Any more requests?”

Our second heckler stands up. “Yes, can you sing…somewhere else?”

Mr. Tinio grabs the microphone. “That’s disrespectful! Just for that, we’ll sing another song!”

We sing “Lady” and leave to cheers. After the ceremony, all the teachers head to the classroom where my belongings are raffled off: clothes, food, appliances, books, backpacks.

At the school exit, I hug my students for the last time, and everyone’s sobbing. All except me. I want to, but for some reason my tears refuse to come.

As I walk home, I run into Edna, one of my favorite teachers who retired recently. She hugs me like I’m her long-lost son. I’m so happy to see her before I leave. She says she’ll see me off at the airport.

At night, Dona knocks on my gate and gives me hot soup and a polo shirt with the school logo. She’s crying. Unable to speak, she gets back on her motorcycle and races off.

Saturday morning. I pay my last month’s rent plus a couple hundred pesos for a piece of cabinet glass that I broke, then give my longtime caretaker an envelope containing 5,000 pesos (a little over $100) for always watering and pruning the outdoor plants and shrubbery, mopping the muddy dog tracks from the porch, cleaning the throw rugs, and arranging for plumbers whenever I needed help.

I return to the hospital. Jerlin doesn’t have dengue, but they won’t let her leave until her fever goes down, which it stubbornly refuses to. She looks much better. Most of the patients in the ward have gone. Jedmay arrives and is already on page 91 of Hunger Games. “You were right,” she says, “I can’t put it down.”

I give a framed collage of our times together and a Peace Corps polo to their mother Bombeth, and she apologizes for not being able to be there for my ceremony. I bid my final farewell to each member of the family and leave.

When I arrive back home, I stroll over to the cowboys next door, who are drunk as usual. I thank them for protecting my place during my stay and wish them all well. One of them, Willie, says, “Everyone in the barangay knows who you are, Sir John. Everyone. Students tell me they like you. Thank you.”

RINGING THE BELL
October 14-18, 2012
Manila and Home
On the morning of my departure, I get up early and clean the house. I hear a voice outside. It’s Jeanalyn, the local Peace Corps scholar who invited me to speak to her business students last month.

“I wanted to say goodbye, Sir John,” she says outside the gate. I let her in. She presents me with a handsome plaque and scrapbook of all of my pictures with the scholars. A wonderful remembrance. We hug, she hops on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle, and they speed off.

Minutes later another knock on the gate. It’s the pastor. He wishes me the best, saying he wanted to see me one more time. His presence is a comfort. My caretaker strolls out and sits with us. Then Esther rolls up in her van. With her is the principal. They help me load my five bags into the vehicle. We take pictures, and I say goodbye to the pastor and caretaker.

On the way to the airport, a handful of Fernandezians text Esther to say they’re at the airport. Susan, Edna, and Dona are also there. When we arrive, I greet everyone and check in. When I’m done, I go back outside. Everyone’s waiting under the shade of a tree. The students are quiet and withdrawn. One of them, Vanessa, texted me the night before saying she’s sorry for being so bad to me her first year (she was). She’s been a completely different person this year. I go over to her and tell her I forgive her, and she bursts into tears.

Finally, it’s time. I gulp down my emotions and wrap my arms around each one of them. Dona holds me hard for a long time, her face buried into my shoulder. That’s when I come closest to losing it.

Susan grabs me with tears pouring down her cheek. Edna holds my arm and doesn’t let go all the way back to the terminal and inside the check-in area. Susan follows her. She grasps me one last time at the door. “John, you’re my best friend. My prayers will always be with you!”

I wave to them as I go inside the waiting area. I find an isolated spot in a corner, sink into a chair, and try to keep myself from falling apart. Such a wonderful, implausible experience. Such a heart-rending, painful one. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But I’m blessed to have undergone it.

In Manila, I check into the pension hotel for the last time and meet up with the other 30 or so volunteers who, like me, are leaving one month early. Five will be on my flight. I go to the Peace Corps office and continue my exit checklist, completing most of the items by the end of the day. One of my favorite volunteers, Gage, who will marry a Filipina next month, talks and drinks with me until 2 a.m. We invent a new game: Who can describe a movie in the fewest clues:

shower, knife = Psycho
lovers, iceberg = Titanic
girl, demon = The Exorcist

I return to the office the next day for my final task, the exit interview with the deputy country director. When I arrive, her secretary asks if our 9 o’clock meeting can be moved back to 10:30 because the Presidential debate will be shown in the reception area for all volunteers and staff. Yes! I didn’t think I was going to see any of the debates before I came home.

The room is 99% in favor of Obama, and all the women groan, gasp, or shake their heads whenever Romney speaks about women, abortion, or women’s rights. The reaction is an early indication on how the election will play out.

When the deputy director and I finally sit down, a clanging bell down the hall interrupts us. Is it a fire? She’s not concerned; in fact, she’s beaming. “There’s the bell! C’mon!”

“What’s the bell?”

“It means someone’s saying goodbye. His or her Peace Corps service is over. It’s a tradition we started. Isn’t it a wonderful idea?”

I can’t disagree. As we step out of the room, Peace Corps staff pour out of their offices all the way down the hall. In the center, where the reception area and flags are located, four volunteers are saying their final goodbyes. They hug individual staff members, wipe away a few tears, and then leave the office for the last time. I thought all my emotional farewells were over. I’ll be doing this tomorrow.

Back in the room, I rave to to the deputy director about my site, my school, and my teachers. “They want another volunteer. Anyone you send there in the future, trust me, will bless you for the assignment.”

She asks what I’m most proud of. “Immersing myself into the community,” I answer without a beat. “I loved my town and the people in it. I rarely left it. My priority during my service was to be a goodwill ambassador and to leave a positive impression of America and Americans. I think I did that.”

When I tell her how much the students improved their English whenever we spent time outside the classroom, she gets very interested and takes me to the Education Sector manager’s office so she can hear my method.

I wait with several other volunteers until our final papers are signed by the country director. When the forms are brought to us, that’s it. We’re now officially RPCVs: Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. We get up and head for the exit. The guard has gotten the word and is waiting for us. When we near the flags, he rings the bell.

Everyone rushes out of their offices. Our superlative medical team, our fatherly security and safety officer, our admin wizardess, the greatest librarian, my sweet regional manager, our education and training mavens. Eloi, Ferdie, John, Lani, Sheila, Lynn, Joji, Boni, Stella, Monette, Edmund, Ginny.

Back at the pension, I’m pleasantly surprised to run into my old friend Lonnie from Batch 270. We have dinner downtown and see Argo (clues: Hollywood, rescue). My last night of sleep in the Philippines is fitful. All night I try to shift my focus away from the Philippines. To my family. My friends. My favorite American food. My Mini. My music. Time to turn east. Back to where it all began.

But my brain won’t let me. It won’t allow me to go home. Not yet. It grips me tight. To my students, my teachers, my friends, my community. “This is where you belong,” it whispers to me.

I rise at 3:30 and lug my bags downstairs. The others leaving with me straggle down one by one. We hail three taxis and convoy to the airport. We’re stunned by how efficient Delta is. We’re whisked through check-in and security smoothly. Yea! No more Cebu Pacific!

When the aircraft lifts off the tarmac, I feel no emotion. After experiencing so much joy and sadness the past few days, my feelings have dried up at the very apex of my journey. I’m not sad about leaving the Philippines. I’m not  missing the Peace Corps. I’m not excited about coming home. I’m numb. I’m simply on an airplane going from one place to another. My mind is coping. Healing. I let it. I watch a movie.

Somewhere over the Pacific, my emotional frigidity begins to thaw. I’m going back to the place that works. I’m returning to the land where I belong. I’m reconnecting to my culture whose magnetism the rest of the world has been unable to withstand for centuries.

I look around me. The passengers are a melting pot. How many are U.S. citizens? How many are coming for the first time? How many are visiting family members who’ve opted to live in America rather than their homeland? The gravitational tug of America is universal, and I feel my long-lost patriotism coming back. It had gone asleep the past two decades, but as we near Hawaii, those prickly twinges of feeling start to return.

I’m proud of what I did, but I’m more proud of my country whose idea it was it the first place — in the words of biographer/historian Doris Kearns Goodwin — to produce “an enduring legacy of service in the cause of peace, a timeless symbol of America’s most honorable ideals and aspirations.”

Sargent Shriver, who founded the Peace Corps, called volunteers patriots who “represent our society by what they are, what they do, and the spirit in which they do it.”

I’m also reminded of the late British writer Christopher Hitchens, who explained to a BBC anchor that his move to the States was because the “planetary pull of America” had become irresistible. I close my eyes and smile. I let it tow me in.

When I touch down in L.A., I don’t clap or shout. If I feel anything, it’s subtle. Like a warm softness enfolding me. I’m where I belong. The Peace Corps tells us our return home may be our toughest cultural adjustment of all. I can’t imagine that. I walk out. The first person I see is my sister. I’m home. What adjustment?

BROKEN PROMISE
September 2, 2012
Negros Oriental
The day after I received the painting estimate for the tennis court, I show up at the court for my regular Sunday play. I greet everyone as usual but can’t bring myself to look anyone in the eye. I sit apart from the others at the end of the bench. My insides are a cauldron of turmoil. I want to be anywhere but here. Today is the day I must tell everyone that I won’t be funding their tennis court.

The cast-iron sky augurs rain so I hope only a few players will show up to make my apology easier, but everyone’s here. They’re laughing and joking as usual, and the first two doubles pairs take to the court as if nothing’s out of the ordinary. I expected them all to ask me if I’ve made my decision, but nobody mentions it. The issue isn’t on their minds at all.

After play, we retire as usual to the park, borrowing chairs and tables from the Korean market owner across the street. Losers buy the beer. Others pick up skewers of BBQ chicken, peanuts, or street food from vendors to share with the team.

I’m not hungry. In my tennis bag is my Peace Corps Handbook outlining why volunteers are prohibited from using personal money to fund community projects. It gets me off the hook for paying for the paint for the tennis court, but it won’t absolve me for promising the team I’d do it. I initially said okay because the first estimate was $200. The final estimate then ballooned to nearly $1,000.

I wait for a lull in the conversation and stand up. “I have an announcement everyone,” I say. Everyone looks up from their beer. I see from their eyes that they realize I’ve made my decision.

“Before I say what I’m going to say about the tennis court, I want to apologize to all of you, and especially to your president,” I say, looking directly at the newly elected officer, a stern man who’s never warmed up to me.

“When I was first asked about funding for the tennis court, I said I’d pay for it, which caused a lot of excitement,” I tell them. “Unfortunately, I spoke before thinking. Since then, I learned that not only is such a gift against Peace Corps policy but it could have caused serious consequences at my school. My school needs a lot of repairs, some to my own classrooms. Those repairs are only half of what your bill is for painting a tennis court. How could I justify to them why I gave so much to repaint a court when I could have repaired two classrooms for the same price?”

Several players nod their heads. The president, however, cocks his. “But Sir John, we never asked you for the money. We asked if you knew someone at home who could help fund it.”

“You’re right. That’s why this whole thing’s my fault. I promised to fund it myself without knowing that I couldn’t and shouldn’t. For that, I owe you all an apology. I won’t be able to pay for the paint, and I’m sorry for raising your hopes.”

Silence. Awkward glances. Shrugs. Finally, someone says, “That’s okay, John. No problem. It’s nice that you apologized. And to the president. That’s good. It’s all right. We understand.”

I let out a big breath of air. Everyone picks up their previous conversations. The president orders more beer. Laughter resumes. That’s it.

Except for Edmund. One of my closest friends, who still wins championships at the age of 73, leans over and says, “This means, of course, that there will be no tournament for you.”

They’d promised to hold a farewell tournament in my honor before I left.

“The reason for the tournament was to dedicate the new court with your name on it. But since there’s no money for the paint, there won’t be a tournament.”

I’m a little taken aback. I assumed the tournament was always a go, whether or not the painting was done. Probably just sour beans. But I understand. I’m the one who cooked them.

AMERICAN IDOL…NOT!
September 4, 2012
Negros Oriental
Today is a big day. Teacher’s Month will officially launch with a Mass at church followed by a parade. It’s also Teacher’s Day in which students give their favorite teachers cards or presents. And it’s my farewell ceremony in front of the school and municipality.

If I was nervous in front of the tennis team last night, I’m petrified today. I’m scheduled to sing a solo (“Leaving on a Jet Plane”), sing a duet (“The Girl Is Mine”), perform a dance number (“Billie Jean”), and give a farewell speech to the students, partly in their native dialect.

In the morning I meet with my duet costars — Nesty, Cleo, a gay male teacher aide, and a pretty fourth-year student – for our final rehearsal.  We nail it. I’m certain we’ll be a smash. The song is simple, I don’t have many lines, and we’ve planned some surprises that are sure to get laughs.

The dancers and I still haven’t been able to rehearse together, however. We were supposed to meet up on Sunday but that’s traditionally family day, plus it was raining, so none of the dancers’ parents allowed them to leave their houses. I do meet with Axel the choreographer, a fourth-year student, who briefly runs me through the number.

The dancers will come out first and do their routine. At a certain flourish by Michael Jackson in the song, I’m to enter. The dancers will part, allowing me to pass through them to the front of the stage. There I’ll do a freestyle solo for a minute or so. When I’m done, I’ll point to the dancers and we’ll all finish the number together. Simple, but without a rehearsal to smooth out the movements, anything can happen.

The rest of the morning I practice my solo song. I know it by heart, but this morning it inexplicably falls apart. There are only four simple verses, but I keep mixing them up. The words are right, but my brain puts them in the wrong places. It’s fighting me, and I don’t know why.

This goes on for two hours. I pace and gasp and pull out my remaining hair. Teachers ask what’s wrong and I ignore them. I repeat the song in my head over and over again, trying to shove the lyrics back where they belong, but my brain won’t let me. It’s like a street dog whose stolen a bone and won’t let me have it back. 

Finally I cease worrying about it. I know what can happen if I obsess too much on my lines. My only other performance in front of an audience was in high school when I had to interview a chicken in the play “The Egg and I.” I only had ten lines, but my part didn’t occur until the end of the two-hour play.

Naturally, I spent those two hours pacing backstage and repeating my lines and praying that I wouldn’t forget them because my parents were in the audience, my teachers were in the audience, my friends were in the audience, my crushes were in the audience, and my bullies were in the audience. I kept imagining what would happen if I forgot my lines.

Not surprisingly, when I finally walked on stage two hours later, I froze. Have you ever been electrocuted? I have. In my backyard. We were playing badminton, the ground was wet, I was standing in a puddle, and I grasped the light pole. I felt nothing. There was no pain. One moment I was watching the game, the next I was standing rigid, unable to move. All my motor functions had shut down. The only senses that worked were my speech and hearing because I was screaming like a gutted pig.

I experienced the same sensation on stage. I knew my lines, but my voice box had lost power. My teacher urgently voiced the words a few feet away offstage. I couldn’t utter them. When the audience began to stir, I finally snapped out of it and my lines tumbled out.

So I put the song out of my mind. Maybe if I don’t worry about it so much, my brain will do the same and the lyrics will magically return to their correct place by the time I step on stage.

I buy some oranges for the priest and have them wrapped and join the teachers at the Mass. The entire school is there. The students are surprised to see me because I’m not a churchgoer, but I want to attend this final one before I go home. Afterward, everyone pours into the street and the parade begins. I walk with the teachers behind the students. We circle the town, then finish inside the outdoor Quadrangle.

The Teacher’s Day events are enjoyable, with dances, songs, and speeches. Every teacher is introduced and sits on stage. Then students line up to present them with gifts. The line for some stretches all the way across the pavilion. I’m not one of the regular teachers, so I wait to be called. When the announcer signals me, she’s frantic.

“It’s your dance number, Sir John!”

Huh?

“Why aren’t you backstage!”

Huh?

I wasn’t able to attend the run-through of the program last week, so I’m not aware of the order of each event. I grab my dress shirt I bought over the weekend for the occasion and rush backstage. Lined up are my dancers, all ready to go. They each give me the same “So there you are!” expression. Sorry girls. I quickly strip off my Peace Corps polo and put on my shirt. The music starts, and the dancers disappear.

I wait for my cue. Correction. I try to remember what my cue is. Axel played it for me only once. It’s about 20 or 30 seconds into the song. After a half a minute, I hear what sounds like a big musical crescendo and Michael’s voice. That must be it. I rush out on stage to the squeals of hundreds of students.

And run smack into the back line of the dancers.

They’re supposed to part to let me through! Instead, they’re still in the midst of their number. I’ve come in at the wrong time. I look like a fool standing there, the crowd whooping as they see me, but I’m unable to move. Should I return backstage? Absolutely not. But standing here like a moron is worse. I hide behind a tree prop instead. If anyone’s videoing this, I hope they burn the original.

Finally I hear Michael’s voice and a sudden rise in the beat, and the dancers part. I enter again, passing through them effortlessly. In front of me are screaming girls, flashbulbs, and a sea of faces. I’m a rock star!

I have no plan of what to do because I can’t memorize intricate dance steps. I can only improvise and go where the beat takes me. Judging by the crowd, I seem to be doing all right. All the teachers are on their feet taking pictures, even the principal.

Finally I’ve had enough and gesture to the dancers, who rush forward and resume their steps. We try to get students to join us, but nobody does. The music fades away, and the dancers run backstage. When I start to follow, the announcer grabs my arm and tells me to stay.

A single chair is placed in the middle of the stage. I’m told to sit in it. Instead of students coming up to greet me, a beautiful girl in a skintight purple gown does. Holding a microphone, she proceeds to sing a tribute to me. I’m sweating bricks, so a student thankfully rushes up and fans me. Three other singers follow with different song tributes.

When they’re done, it’s time for my song tribute to the students. My solo.

I’m handed the microphone. I walk up to the front of the stage, mentally playing back the first three lines so I’ll get off to a good start. The lines I remember, but for the first time the melody escapes me. What the hell! I can’t hear the tune in my head. The “Leaving on a Jet Plane” chorus is different than the verses. All I can think of is the tune to my duet, “The Girl Is Mine.” I panic and step back from the stage. C’mon, c’mon…how does the song start?

The audience is restless. The teachers are all looking at each other. The announcer whispers if I’m all right. I nod. She reminds me that it’s my turn to sing. I nod.  She asks if I have background music. I shake my head. She gasps. I’ve chosen no background music because I want to sing the song slowly at my own pace.

Well, I can’t stand up here forever. Maybe if I start, it’ll come to me. I have no choice. So I begin the first line, “All my bags are packed…” What comes out isn’t what John Denver recorded; it’s more  like a Bavarian funeral dirge.

When I start the second line, “I’m ready to go…,” suddenly the melody clicks and I thankfully leave Bavaria. I do okay until the second verse when my brain snatches its bone back. For the rest of the song I transpose lines numerous times.

Twice, in desperation, I have to take out my cheat sheet that I prepared beforehand, but doing so just makes it worse. Teachers throw me the correct lines a couple of times. I think I omit one entire chorus but I’m not sure. By the end, I’m so unnerved, ashamed, humiliated, and angry that the emotional release I wanted so much to finish with is ditched because I just want to get the fucker over with.

As I stomp backstage, head down, the announcer grabs my arm again. My duet is next. Good Lord.

Fortunately, this is the highlight of the day. The act goes over flawlessly, and the crowd really gets into it as Nesty and I take turns pouring our heart out for our dream girl, only to watch in disbelief as the gay teacher aide picks her up and leads her offstage. As we shout at each other for losing her, the gorgeous student strolls past us in short-shorts, gives us both the eye, and sashays offstage. We stare at her for a beat, then pick up the chase once again, running after her singing “That girl is mine…No, no, no, she’s mine…Yes, she’s mine.”

The culmination is my farewell speech to the students. I close it by addressing them in Visaya:

Your smiling faces, enthusiasm, and eagerness to learn have been an inspiration to me for these two years.
Ang inyong mapahiyumong panagway, kadasig, ug dakong tinguha sa pagkat-on nahimong akong inspiration sulod sa duha ka tuig.

I cannot tell you how much joy you gave me each day in the classroom.
Dili ko makasulti ninyo unsa ka dakong kalipay ang inyong gihatag nako sa matag adlaw sa klasehanan.

I hope and pray that each of you will achieve your dream and that you will remember that I was a brief part of your life.
Ako nanghinaut ug nagampo nga ang matag-usa ka ninyo makakab-ot sa inyong mga damgo ug nga kamo makahinundum nga ako nahimong hamubo nga parte sa inyong kinabuhi.

Because I will never forget you as long as I live.
Tungod kay ako dili makalimot kaninyo samtang ako may kinabuhi pa.

Each line triggers applause from the audience. I close with a quote from the Philippines’ greatest hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, about his beloved country:

I have always loved my poor country
and I am sure that I should love her until death.
Happen what may, I shall die blessing her
and desiring the dawn of her redemption.

I break down near the end because Rizal’s emotions mirror mine. I’m told later that many students and teachers wept along with me. When I finally step away from the podium, the students rush onstage and give me cards and flowers and letters.

Nesty and I retire to the Korean market afterward for much-needed drinks. For the first time in two weeks, I relax. The weight of the performances are finally off of my back. I vow to never to it again.

FILIPINO PET PEEVE #37
September 5,
2012
Negros Oriental
There are three types of ants that I’ve observed in my house, all of which I don’t hesitate to nuke because they piss me off. The first are microscopic ants that get into everything because they’re so small that only particle physicists can detect them. I loathe these cretins because they like to flaunt how easily they can crawl into literally crevice in my premises. I’m quite certain that when the Peace Corps proctologist reaches into my inner sanctum at my final health exam, he will mutter, “Well, lookee here, guess what I found.” Bastards.

The second are regular black ants, who don’t do anything out of the ordinary, but they’re ants and they’re trespassing, so I kill them.

The third are hyper-frantic black ants that move at the speed of light, are super paranoid, and have serious munchies. Ants on crack! They streak around like their pants are on fire. Ants on fire! They scatter in all directions like bats out of hell. Ants from hell! Once they start, they’re harder to stop than a Lewis Black rant. Ants on a rant! Up close, they resemble tiny Usain Bolts with antennas. Ants set new world record! Death to them all.

BEST-EVER BIRTHDAY PART II
September 6-13, 2012
Negros Oriental
I’m so mentally exhausted the day after my performances that I call in sick and rest. The following day I buy farewell cards, gift bags, and wrapping paper for my favorite teachers’ presents.

Jody, one of the Peace Corps scholars who will coordinate the Check My School assessment of our school, invites me to speak to 100 business students at Foundation University, and I accept. The topic is something I’ve written about before: how to dress for success, how to create a winning resume, how to ace a job interview, and how to get the life you want.

I pay a visit to my first host family in Dumaguete to say my final goodbyes. Unfortunately, young Denzel, whom I was so fond of during my stay and with whom I often hiked through the coconut forests near his home, was taken back by his mother a few months ago and now lives in Manila.

His mother, my host mother’s niece, had him when she was 15 and abandoned him for almost ten years. My host mother Arding and her daughter Realyn took him in. But they’re concerned because they’ve lost communication with Denzel’s mother and don’t know where he is or if he’s all right. They fear his mother may have gone back to drugs and alcohol.

“I miss him,” Arding tells me.

They cook my favorite dish, carbonara, which takes all afternoon to prepare. During that time, we reminisce. After dinner, I present them with a framed collage of our times together that I cobbled together from my digital photos. Arding says it will have a permanent place on her mantle. We take pictures, hug, and I depart for the last time.

As I step into my 7:40 a.m. English class on the morning of my birthday,  my second-year students shower me with confetti, and I’m led to a chair in the middle of the room. All the desks and chairs have been moved against the walls. For the next hour I’m entertained by a wave of singers, dancers, lullabies, serenades, testimonials, cards, and gifts of fruit. When I join them dancing, students from other classes run over to see “Sir John” get his groove on again.

When it’s my turn to speak, I tell them that when I was asked what classroom level I wanted during my last year, I requested their class “because you’ve been my favorite students during my service. You’re the class I’ve been with the longest – all of last year and the first half of this year.”

I tell them that I love each one of them, that I learned how to teach because of them, that I’ll never forget our lunchtime talks outside the Faculty Room, and that I look at each of them as if they’re my own children. I tell them that my one regret is that I won’t see them graduate. I tell them that I want to follow their lives on Facebook and email wherever they go because I want to know what happens to them – where they go to college, what jobs they get, who they marry, when they have kids.

When I finish, every student, boy and girl, is crying, their  faces buried in their handkerchiefs. My teacher is wiping tears away. I’m choked up, too. I don’t know how I get through it.

When the class is over and I go outside, I see another surprise. My last host mother, Bombeth, has put up a large “Happy Birthday, John Wood” sign on the bulletin board in the middle of the campus. The board is overflowing with handwritten messages, cards, notes, and well wishes.  

Last year I wrote that it was my favorite birthday ever. This one tops it.

FINAL PREPARATIONS
September 14-30, 2012
Negros Oriental
I polish my Foundation University speech, my farewell speech to the teachers, and my English Quiz Bee and Spelling Bee contests. I wrap the rest of my presents and compose personal notes to each recipient.

One day at lunch I have a long talk with Susan, my favorite coteacher. She confesses that she never wanted to be a teacher. Her wish was to work in business. But her husband talked her into teaching because it paid more than office work.

“If you had a chance to do it over again, would you have still followed your husband’s advice?” I ask.

She shakes her head vigorously. “I grew to love teaching and became good at it,” she tells me. “And I love the students. But I wouldn’t do it again.”

Then she drops a bombshell: “I’m going to retire early, at 55.” That’s only a couple of years away. I’m surprised.

“If you’d gone into business,” I say, “you would’ve been as good or better than you are as a teacher. I can see you as a manager or director of an office. You’d be efficient and approachable. Your door would always be open. You’d be one of the staff, not apart from them or above them.”

I present my business speech at Foundation University on a dark, gloomy, rainy day. I don’t want to wear my nice clothes as I slog through the mud and rain to the university because the first part of my speech is about how to dress for success. So I pack my good clothes in a bag and wear jeans and tennis shoes to the campus, then change there.

The school is hidden from view, tucked away on a side street away from the main highway where all the other universities in Dumaguete are located. I love the campus. It’s a vast expanse of green lawns, lovely buildings, tons of trees, and small shaded nooks and enclaves for studying or snacks or just contemplation. The auditorium is packed when I arrive, and I chat beforehand with the student council and staff members who organized the event.

I begin my presentation with an introspective activity in which the students close their eyes and are brought together with their future selves for a short conversation. The results are often a revelation to many and can be emotional.

It falls flat. No visible reactions. No one offers to share his or her experience. All I get are blank stares. The rest of my presentation is so-so. My material is good but the presentation is weak. That’s why writers write. We should never be allowed to speak.

My first-year students the next day are nearly in a panic that I’m going home in a few weeks. Some are already crying. I vow to eat lunch with them every day until I depart.

My counterpart tells me that she’s chosen five candidates for Peace Corps scholarships and asks if I’ll endorse them on their applications. I agree and spend one lunch interviewing them so I know why I’m referring them. All of them are in the top 10% of their class, are financially in need, and have performed community service. We barely make the deadline the day before I fly to Manila for my final medical/dental exams and our last official Peace Corps gathering: the Close of Service conference.

Everyone’s looking forward to it because it will be the last time many of us will ever see each other again. Because of that, our emotions will be a raw. Our original batch of 144 has now shrunk to 102. We’re the survivors. I’m proud that I made it to the end.

I’m eager to learn what to expect when I return to the States and how to reenter my culture all over again, which the Peace Corps says is often the most difficult adjustment.

A big typhoon is pulling away from northern Philippines as I arrive, but instead of thunderstorms and flooding, what greets me are clear skies and cool breezes. I get a dorm room with my old buddies, B.J., Brad, Steve, and Alex. I feel warm and content. I’m with friends. I’m away from my site for a much-needed break. I have ten days of top cuisine, hot showers, clean sheets, and precious camaraderie ahead of me.

Over dinner, Brad, who’s in his mid-twenties, tells me that his year-long girlfriend is subtly giving him an ultimatum: in six months (precisely the week when Brad’s extended service will end), she and her mother are planning to go to Ireland to start two-year contracts as overseas foreign workers. Hint, hint.

“She’s putting pressure on me to pop the question,” Brad says. “I really like her, but I don’t know if I’m ready to settle down yet. If I don’t marry her, though, I’ll always wonder if I should have. I don’t want that to haunt me. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

My medical exam the next day is uneventful, which is the best possible result. I have a sore, swollen thumb that I may have gotten from tennis, but the Peace Corps doctor says it’s probably the start of arthritis. “An X-ray wouldn’t show anything,” he says.

My weight loss also doesn’t concern him. “You’ll probably gain your weight back when you get home,” he says. “If you return to your regular American diet, you should slowly inch back up toward your normal weight. Just don’t try to gain it back quickly with high-protein diet supplements. They can harm your kidney, especially at your age.”

At my dental exam in the afternoon, the Peace Corps dentist says I brush too hard and the action has caused my gums to recede and exposed the nerves of some teeth. So when I come back to Manila for my final out-processing on October 14, she wants to repair the abrasions. She also says my temporary tooth is loose and will need to be re-cemented.

The following day my eye doctor says my eye pressure is 8 in both eyes, the lowest they’ve been in years. Awesome.

I return to the Pension hotel where we all stay and enter a marathon Monopoly Deal card game that doesn’t end until 3 a.m. Gossip is rampant. One PCV complained of a lump on her breast and two exams were conflicting. When she wanted a third opinion done in the U.S., the Peace Corps refused. So she flew home to get it. They found breast cancer. She was medically separated and is receiving treatment.

A second woman hurt her ankle, was treated and released. Later she developed massive blood clots near the wound and also had to be medically separated. She surprises everyone by arriving at Pension. “I wanted to see you all before you left for home!” she says.

She also came back to finish her project and to say goodbye to everyone at her site whom she’d been unable to reach because she was sent home so quickly. She’s currently looking for work in Palawan where she served.

A third woman from the batch before ours, who finished her service last year, committed suicide by jumping off a ten-story building in Portland. Those who knew her swear she wasn’t the type to do such a thing. The news leaves us all shaken and disturbed.

On September 30th, the day before our COS conference is to officially kick off with a sunset pool party at the U.S. Embassy along stunning Manila Bay (which I’m happy to report has been greatly repaired since the tsunami destroyed much of it last year), the Peace Corps alerts us that a major terrorist threat against American citizens in Pasay City, where the Embassy is located, has been uncovered. The Pension, where all 102 of us are housed, is a few blocks from the Embassy.

My sleep is fitful. Half my brain tries to sleep; the other half monitors the street sounds below my window.

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.

SMOKING MAD
July 1-2, 2012
Negros Oriental
On the way home one day, Carla, one of the most popular math teachers, takes me aside. “I have a secret,” she says softly. “You can’t tell anyone. Promise?”

“Of course,” I answer.

“Isabella got married.”

This is huge news. Isabella, a longtime math teacher here, has endured a difficult and protracted courtship with a foreigner for many years. Carla is a teacher aide, not a full-time teacher. As a result, she’s been teaching here for several years, waiting patiently for a math teacher slot to open up. Because all of our math teachers are years, if not decades, away from retirement, Carla’s best shot was for the foreigner to pop the question and whisk Isabella away to Finland with him.

Which, apparently, is what happened.

“I’m so happy for you,” I say.

“Thank you,” she says, “but her position won’t officially open up until she formally resigns. And she hasn’t done that yet. Because of all the troubles they’ve had, she might keep her options open in case the marriage doesn’t work and she has to come back.”

“So where does that leave you?”

“In limbo. But at least things are looking better than before.”

I’m happy for Carla. And optimistic. She deserves a permanent slot here. Of the 20-plus teachers whom I observed during my first few months, she was in my top five.

The next day at school, I walk across the street from the school entrance to the small shop that sells school supplies to the students. As I approach, two male students see me coming and slink away suspiciously. Both have just lit up a cigarette.

I walk up to the shop and spot three glass cups on the counter next to the manila paper, Pentel pens, and notebooks. In each cup are a handful of single cigarettes. Adults buy packs; students can afford only singles.

I look at the salesgirl, who looks like a dog caught with its muzzle in a cookie jar. “Did you just sell cigarettes to those students?” I ask her in disbelief.

She hesitates, then nods.

“Do you know it’s illegal to sell cigarettes to students?”

Frightened, she says nothing. Behind her, a middle-aged woman, probably the owner, listens but goes on with her work.

I lose it. “I’m a teacher at this school,” I address both of them, my voice rising. “I care about my students. You don’t. You just want their money, and you’re willing to give them cancer to get it. Would you sell cigarettes to your own children?”

They say nothing. “I’m going to the police to report you. I hope they arrest you and shut down your store.”

Finally the owner speaks up. “Okay, okay, go now!”

I’m fuming when I reach the police station just down the street. The two policemen at the station speak excellent English. They tell me they’ll remind the shops in front of the school not to sell cigarettes to minors. That won’t cut it.

“If I may, sir, I would prefer to make a formal charge.” They’re very polite and do so. As I recount what happened, the two ask me questions about myself. They’re surprised that I’m living here and teaching at the high school, even more so when I tell them I’m a volunteer and work for no salary.

When the officer finishes his report, he shows it to me to see if it’s accurate. It is, and I sign it. They assure me they’ll observe the shop from now on.

When I return to the school, I tell the salesgirl that I just made a police report and they will be monitored. I notice the glass cups containing the cigarettes have been moved off the countertop.

As a result of the report, I’m late to my English class. I apologize to my coteacher and students and explain why I was late. I warn them about the shop and preach for a few minutes about the dangers of smoking.

The next day on my way to school, I see boys lined up in front of the school supply shop buying more cigarettes. The difference is, the salesgirl is now selling them from under the counter. I start to go over there but check myself. I’ve done my good deed. I don’t want to cross the line and make a scene that I may regret.

THE MIRACLE OF ENGLISH
July 3-17, 2012
Negros Oriental
At lunch several students from my second-year class join me at the Faculty Room bench where I’m sitting and they ask me a ton of questions. They ask where I live and can they visit me sometime. I say sure.

“Today, sir?”

It’s not one of my tennis nights, so I say okay. “I have card games, board games, cable TV, and badminton racquets. You won’t be bored.”

They run back to their room excited.

I finish preparing the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? game that we’re going to hold later this month for them. All the questions will be on English grammar, vocabulary, and spelling. We’re going to give prizes (a Scrabble game, a Transformers backpack, and a Transformers skateboard donated by my friend Dave Kinnoin) for any student who answers one of the top three questions worth 250,000, 500,000, or 1,000,000 “pesos.”

About ten students from the class follow me home that afternoon. They marvel at my house, all the books and magazines, and the cans of soup I got in my last care package. Half of them grab the badminton racquets and dart outside. The others want to play the Life Adventures board game. I open a jar of chocolate trail mix, and they finish it off in no time. Afterward, we take pictures on the porch, and they wave goodbye.

One tiny girl from the neighborhood remains, her mouth smeared with so much chocolate I fear she’ll have the world’s worst tummy ache afterward. She asks if I have any more chocolates.

“No, honey, I’m sorry I don’t.”

She ponders that. “Where are they?”

“In America. My family sent them to me.”

Light in her eyes. “Can you go to America and bring them here?”

The next morning, as I walk past a private elementary school on the way into town, several kids on the second floor greet me by name as usual.

A boy on the first floor, who can’t be older than 7, calls out, “Hey, you have a lot of fans, dude!”

At lunch that day, the second-year students crowd around me again on the table outside the Faculty Room. They ask about the Vietnam War and what it was like. The best student in class, who’s always said she wants to be an accountant, surprises me by confiding that her real dream is to be on a SWAT team. I tell her you only go around once in life, so go for it.

Then I add: “Just don’t try to be rich. That’s unattainable for 96% of the world’s population. Instead, try to find what you really want to do in your life. Then never give up until you achieve it.”

We meet every day at the same place and talk about everything. I bring in magazines and share interesting stories and pictures. We play Uno and Pictionary. They’re so eager to speak and ask questions that their initial shyness and self-consciousness around me evaporates.

After a week, one girl tells me that she didn’t used to be good at English, but when she talks to me, she feels fluent.

The Peace Corps calls and says my request for early termination has been approved. Volunteers are allowed to leave one month early if they have no ongoing projects and their site approves it. I’m ecstatic. The last day in my town will now be October 13. I’ll fly to Manila on October 14; undergo four days of processing, final health/dental exams, exit interviews, etc.; then fly home on October 19.

In my fourth-year developmental reading class, we read a story called “The Class President” about a highly contested high school class election. It’s hard to motivate fourth-year students, but they really get into this story.

When they finish, we hold our own election. Five students are nominated, and we give each candidate a week to prepare. Their supporters are to make posters, buttons, or slogans, and the candidates have to prepare a speech. Then they’ll have a debate, and everyone will vote with real ballots and a ballot box.

When the students leave the classroom, a few hold up mock posters that they’ve already scribbled. One candidate’s followers chant a rhyming slogan on the way out. I watch as they spread across the campus, hollering the names of their candidates over the din.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is a huge hit. We’re given two hours for the contest. The atmosphere is so electric while we’re setting up that I’m afraid the students may ignite.

As my coteacher and I expected, no one reaches the top three levels. But to our surprise, all of the top students flame out early. I chalk that up to nerves, the big prizes, and all the hype leading up to the game.

The highest tier reached is 50,000, and we award that student 100 pesos.

The next week, five practice teachers (fourth-year English majors from nearby Silliman University) visit our school to begin 10 weeks of observations and coteaching.

One young woman is assigned to my first-year English class. She blends in well and knows her stuff, and literally takes over the class her second day when our coteacher doesn’t show up and we have to plan the lesson on the fly.

THE NUTRITION MONTH MYTH
July 18-31, 2012
Negros Oriental
The month of July is designated Nutrition Month in schools across the country. During this annual celebration, students compete in contests ranging from posters to slogans to essays to cooking. The event has always riled me because although schools go all-out to promote good nutrition during the observance, what many practice is the opposite.

Our school operates two daily on-campus canteens that sell snacks to students. They do a thriving business. Other than one or two exceptions, however, the products contain not only zero nutrition but border on being harmful: Coke, Sprite, chips, cookies, candy, gum, donuts.

I remember the high school I taught at in Thailand prior to coming to the Peace Corps. The school had no campus canteens, but lining the street outside the school grounds were dozens of food stalls selling the same junk food. The kids swarmed them at all hours.

When I was in the Army in the Sixties and visited Thailand, everyone in the country was slender; nobody was overweight. But when I was at the Thai school in 2009, more than 50 percent of the kids were obese.

Whenever I suggest that our school offer more nutritious snacks for the students – carrots, yogurt, apples, bananas, mangos, Yakult drinks, nuts, milk, fruit juice, etc. – I just trigger laughter.

“Nutritious food is expensive,” they tell me. “Families can only give their kids a handful of pesos a day, and that has to cover lunch, snacks, and transportation.”

Unfortunately, that’s true. More than half the population of the Philippines lives on just 50 pesos a day. Poverty affects everything.

But what if they could offer healthy foods at reduced prices? Surely many growers, producers, and town markets, who’ve never been able to get their products through school administration doors before, would jump at the chance to sell their foods in bulk to schools. By doing so, they could cut sweet deals to make  their foods affordable.

This is by no means a Filipino problem. Back home, it’s an even more serious issue as youth obesity has skyrocketed in recent decades. Whenever progressive schools have tried to replace their daily menu of pizza, hamburgers, tacos, and ice cream with healthier food, the reaction has usually been chaos.

The students revolt and refuse to eat the healthier stuff. The cafeterias lose money, the administration eventually caves, and the junk returns.

I say to hell with spoiled students, ignorant parents, wishy-washy administrators, and greedy junk purveyors. Give kids healthy food at prices they can afford. If they scream and protest, tough. If their parents demand a return to the status quo, ignore them. If Coke and Sprite and Nestle and other fat and cholesterol dealers threaten to sue, refer them to the media.

In time, the issue will die down, the kids will accept the new diet, their weight will drop, and their health will soar.

Now look at what I’ve done — worked myself into a lather. I have only two more months here. Is that enough time to germinate this idea into a campaign? Or am I hopelessly naive about how things really work in my town? 

Let’s find out, shall we?

MY FINAL SCHOOL YEAR BEGINS
June 4, 2012
Negros Oriental
It’s the first day of my last school year in the Philippines. It’s with a combination of excitement, sadness, exhaustion, and anticipation that I step through the campus entrance gate under a white-gold sun. Neither I nor any of my original batch of volunteers, except for the handful who will extend their service for another year, will see any of our new students graduate because we will depart this beautiful, unforgettable country after the first semester.

It’s sad knowing that we won’t be able to know which of our new students will have improved and by how much by the end of the year, to congratulate them on graduation day for their achievements, or to know which ones moved on to college or landed good jobs.

When we all arrived in August of 2010, we spent our first three months in training and didn’t step into our first classrooms at our permanent sites until November, halfway through that school year. Although we were able to see our students graduate that year, we missed greeting them in the beginning or witnessing their ups and downs and progress throughout the year.

Neither scenario is satisfactory from a teacher’s point of view, but if I had to choose, I would prefer my present situation: getting the students in the first half of the year rather than the last.

Not helping matters is that my first two weeks are chaotic and disorganized, with class times, rooms, and coteachers changed again and again. But the wait is worth it. By the time the smoke clears, I’m assigned to only section A classes (the best students) in year one, two, and four. And all of my coteachers are the ones I wanted.

BUT FIRST, A WEIGHTY MATTER
June 5-10, 2012
Negros Oriental

At school one day, several teachers at lunch comment about my weight. “Sir John, you’ve lost more pounds. Are you okay?”

I know I look awful. I’ve resembled a skeleton since Halloween, but I hadn’t noticed any further deterioration. That’s understandable; it’s hard to tell how much worse you’ve gotten if you always look the worst.

I borrow a teacher’s weight scale and step on it. I can’t believe my eyes: 120 pounds. Cheap scale. Old and dusty. Can’t be accurate. I’ve been in the low 140s for several months now (my normal weight is 165-170), but I couldn’t have lost 20 more pounds.

I hurry over to the local health clinic next to the Municipal Hall because they have a more professional scale, the kind where you slide weights across its top to read your weight. This one reads 135. Assuming this is accurate, it still means I’ve lost 10 more pounds.

All my adult life, my weight has remained fixed. No matter how much I ate, my fast metabolism burned it off. No matter how sick I got, I rarely lost weight, or if I did, I gained it right back.

What has caused such a sudden weight loss? I was sick when I returned from my Southeast Asia vacation in April and suffered weeks of on-and-off diarrhea and dehydration. Could I have picked up a parasite or amoeba that took up residence in my intestines? I was also depressed for weeks, so much so that I seriously contemplated leaving the Peace Corps. And my appetite this year has gradually deteriorated. Just the other day I had a bowl of cereal in the morning and a bowl of yogurt in the evening. And that was plenty. I felt no hunger pangs.

Normally I text the Peace Corps whenever I have a medical problem. This time I hesitate. I’ve had so many health issues during my service, I fear this one could be the last straw. Especially if it turns out to be serious. I do a Google search for “causes of unexplained weight loss” and three scary possibilities pop up: Addison’s Disease, Celiac Disease, or Cancer. The symptoms of each match mine precisely.

The Peace Corps could decide “That’s enough” and medically separate (terminate) me. When volunteers are separated, the process is immediate; you have only a few days to pack and fly to Manila for your flight home. Virtually no time to say goodbye to your school, students, friends, host families, barkadas, etc. Already multiple farewell parties and ceremonies are being planned for my scheduled October departure. To have to leave without saying goodbye to everyone is too tragic to imagine.

When I discuss this possibility with my teachers over lunch, one – who was also my last host mother — pleads with me not to call the Peace Corps. “You have to finish your term, John. You mustn’t be sent home. If that happens without you saying goodbye to anyone, no one will understand why you didn’t do it. That would be your legacy, what everyone will remember. Also, Jedmay and Jerlin [her daughters] will be so sad that you didn’t say farewell or give them a chance to say goodbye to you.”

I’m torn. Weighing above all is the knowledge that if I don’t inform the Peace Corps of my condition and leave the Philippines — and my condition turns out to be a serious or life-threatening condition — there would be no record of it with the Peace Corps so they may not be responsible for my continued treatment. I may have to foot the entire bill. I decide it’s better and smarter to tell the Peace Corps about my latest development and hope that they don’t send me home.

I text the Manila office, and they refer me to a doctor at my local hospital. When I see her, she wants me admitted immediately so tests can be taken. This doesn’t bode well. Not just for my health and future in the Peace Corps but because our town’s annual fiesta is just a few days away, with many parties planned. As I’m the Peace Corps celebrity, I’m expected to make an appearance at every house. My worrying probably lops off another two pounds.

Not knowing how long I’ll be at the hospital, I pack for a week. All private rooms are taken, so I’m taken in a wheelchair to the general ward.

On that note, I want to know which moron thought up this hospital policy, which seems to be common practice around the world. I can walk quite well, thank you, but having an orderly weave you through the lobby, hallways, and elevators like an invalid is humiliating.

In the elevator, an elderly woman looks down at me, gives me a sad, caring look, and crosses herself. I want to jump up and say, “No, no, what are you doing! I’m not dying. Look, see, I’m as healthy as a wheat-grassaholic. I’m only in this stupid chair because some idiot in Accounting thinks it reduces claims against the hospital. Hey, if I’ve got a broken leg, then wheeling me around makes sense. But I’m here because I’m losing weight, so give me a milkshake.”

But I digress.

When we pull into the room, it’s full of beds, patients, and a dozen kasamas — spouses, family members, or friends who stay with patients, get food or medicines for them, and keep them company. The room hushes as we enter, and everyone stares at me. Foreigners have money. They get private rooms. They don’t stay in the ward. I imagine they’re wondering what misalignment of planets or unforgivable administrative snafu has transported this poor unfortunate foreigner to the hospital’s darkest corner.

I think it’s cool. I greet them in Visayan, and their confused expressions blink into smiles. I get settled, prop up my bed, stretch out, and read a book. After 30 minutes, I’ve blended into the background and no longer prompt stares.

In the afternoon, a young Filipino named Ruel, a son of one of the patients, wanders over and asks what I’m in for. Funny, that’s what prisoners are asked. He must feel sorry for me being alone and having no kasama. He ends up spending a couple of hours with me. We talk about everything. He’s very religious and asks me what I believe. I tell him, and we agree to disagree.

Ruel once had dreams of traveling abroad but no longer does. He was a working student and hoped for a college degree, too, but his family can’t afford it. He struggles to get by now fixing cars part-time. He has a girlfriend who lives an hour away, but he doesn’t want to marry her until he’s financially stable. He doesn’t know when or if that will be. Sad story #344 since I’ve been here. I hope the young man escapes the pervasive poverty that settles over this land like a perpetual bank of fog.

During the next few hours, a succession of nurses, each one more attractive than the last, take my vital signs, draw blood, and take me for X-rays. In the afternoon, my doctor tours the ward and says she’ll try to get me a private room.

She must have clout because two hours later, a male nurse bearing the ubiquitous wheelchair stops at my bed and says he’ll take me to my room. I consider telling him I’ll go only if I can walk, but he might refuse. I sigh, bid farewell to Ruel and the other patients and kasamas with whom I’ve had the brief pleasure of knowing, and allow myself to be wheeled out. As we exit, I exhibit my most peppy, alert, upbeat, and healthy posture and expression. It doesn’t work. Everyone in the hallways and elevator looks at me forelornly, or worse, avoids my gaze altogether. Staring at imminent death could rub off on you. Philippine Superstition #118. 

My private room is spacious with air-conditioning, a flat-screen TV, cable,  a hot-water shower, a flush toilet, a view, and an American menu. Soon my own kasamas arrive. Akesa, from my original training cluster, bikes over from Dumaguete to drop off a cheese pizza. How sweet. One of my English coteachers, Susan, and her husband Bong-Bong, bring apples and oranges. Real oranges! The first ones I’ve seen in-country. They tell me everyone at school is worried that I may miss the town fiesta next week.

I sleep well, despite being awakened after midnight and at 5 a.m. by a nurse taking my blood pressure and asking how many times I peed and “pooed” since the last time, how much, etc. But she’s so pretty I don’t care. She also needs to take my temperature, but she says the hospital doesn’t have a thermometer, so I must buy it. Excuse me? How can a hospital not have a thermometer? I tell her to buy one and put it on my bill. Strange.

My doctor sees me in the morning and says I have no evidence of amoebas or parasites, but I am anemic. She prescribes a vitamin with iron and an appetite stimulant. The American menu is wonderful, but they don’t bring silverware with it so I have to use my hands. How can a hospital not have silverware? Strange.

I get up to take a shower, but there’s no soap, towels, or toilet paper. How can a hospital not have… Never mind.

Teachers Susan and Donna visit me and bring hot soup and silverware. Yea! Then I give them money to go to a nearby department store, and they bring back fresh mangos, French bread, chocolate cupcakes, candy bars, soap, and toilet paper. Hey, I like this kasama tradition! Hear that, America?

The next day my doctor says my final test – thyroid – is normal and tells me my face has filled out a bit. I tell her I’m eating more. In fact, I’m ravenous. The pills must be working. She says my excessive diarrhea probably caused the weight loss and that I can be discharged today. Hooray. I’ll be able to attend the town fiesta after all.

MY FAVORITE CLASS
June 11-30, 2012
Negros Oriental

My first-year Section A class students are such an overwhelming delight that I can’t wait to see the kids every day. I’ve never felt this way toward a class before. I loved my fourth-year Section A class my first year here, but that was mostly because they were so brilliant and competitive. This class is just out of elementary school, so the kids are not only smart and bright but cute and playful and ask a million questions. It’s like a roomful of puppies.

One day I propose a debate as an energizer. They nearly jump out of their seats. I divide the class into two teams, and coincidentally, the two best debaters are on opposing sides. One of the girls says she wants to be a lawyer. I soon find out why.

I ask them to debate which is more valuable to society – computers or cellphones? Schools or hospitals? Forks or spoons? They’re so loud and argue their positions with such fervor that students in the main campus across the street could probably vote on who won. A crowd of students line outside our windows to gape at us. When I finally leave the classroom, I gasp to the students outside, “What a class!”

My first fiesta party is at Domy’s, one of my tennis partners and a former tennis legend in Negros Oriental. It’s a catered affair, and the food is some of the best I’ve had since being in-country. I end up sitting next to the vice president of Negros Oriental State University, and we talk about the education system for a good hour. She’s in favor of the decision to add two more years to the Philippines high school curriculum to finally bring it up to date with the rest of the world. She says she’s very strict with students who aren’t ready for college, and agrees that many students in the country “are schooled but not educated.” I like her a lot.

Next I head for teacher Loida’s party at the beach. I sit with a dozen Filipino men who joke and tease me endlessly. They’re all tennis players and urge me to join them. They’re a great, funny bunch and I really want to until they tell me they play at 4 a.m. before they go to work.

They offer me a glass of the local homemade coconut wine, tuba. It’s in a dirty plastic jug and looks like old, brown dishwater. I pause. I’ve heard about this traditional native concoction. Some say it has a kick like a donkey; others say its ingredients are questionable and could put you on your back for a week. The last thing I want is another scourge of the runs.

My eagerness to ingratiate myself with my newfound friends overrules my apprehension, and I nod okay. One guy pours it into a used shot glass and gestures for me to down it in one gulp. No chance to taste it first. I knock it back. The brew is so-so and has virtually no alcoholic content. I fail to grasp the appeal. Thankfully, I experience no ill effects afterward.

The next day I head for teacher Dona’s party a few blocks from my house. It’s pouring rain, and her directions are unclear. I end up walking in the wrong direction for a quarter mile alongside a deserted field. When I’m unable to reach her on my phone, I hop on an easy ride and go to teacher Susan’s house downtown. As usual, everyone’s singing videoke in the front yard. I sample some of the food, sing a few songs, but I’m unusually tired and go home early.

On the third and last day of the fiesta, I take a trike to teacher Bombeth’s house, where I lived for a month and a half almost two years ago. I bring a card game (Uno) and a board game (Sorry) that my friend Dave sent me in his latest care package. The kids love them, and we play well into the evening. My former host father, Wong-Wong, who’s a councilor for his barangay, says he wants to run for barangay captain next year. He’s very popular in his community and could very well win it.

When classes resume after the fiesta, Loida tells me that a few months ago one of the men at her fiesta party, a politician, was shot three times by a local clan because his campaign to help the poor threatened to defeat the clan candidate in the election. At the trial, a witness testified against the defendant. He was found murdered days later.

The politician now travels everywhere with six bodyguards, including to and from his early-morning tennis matches. He had none with him on the night of the party, however. When I ask Loida why, she says, “Don’t worry, Sir John. My house is safe. They would never shoot him there.” Really? How does she know?

I have an interesting Remedial Reading class with my favorite first-year students. The story I give them to read is about students running for class president. In the story, one student hands out chocolates to her classmates, hoping they’ll vote for her. I ask my class if this is right. They say no. They understand that it’s a form of political corruption.

When I ask them if it was okay for the students in the story to accept the chocolates, they unanimously say yes. When I ask why, one says, “I’ll take the chocolate, but that doesn’t mean I’ll vote for her.”

I explain to them that corruption can only flourish when those who are offered bribes accept them. People who take such gifts are as guilty as those who give them. The students’ jaws drop; they’d never heard that side of the story. With corruption so ingrained in this society, I feel good afterward. Maybe I’ve planted a valuable seed in some minds.

When I return from class, the teachers are chattering like hens. The rumor is that our librarian’s been arrested. She’s charged with slander and verbal child abuse. A single mother, she’s quite poor. I let her do my laundry when I first arrived at school after she pleaded with me to help her. I subsequently moved that chore to a local laundry, which does it cheaper and better. How will she be able to support her family now if she’s in prison?

The next day when I wash my hands at the sink in my first-year Section A class, the kids surround me and ask me what I like to eat, about my life, where I live, my family. I show them my son Alex’s picture and they all swoon (the girls at him, the boys at Alex’s girlfriend). They ask if I can eat lunch with them tomorrow. I say of course.

The next day all the teachers visit the librarian in jail, and I take over one of Susan’s second-year classes during her absence. It turns out to be a nightmare. The class is overflowing, with 63 students. Mostly boys. Most are older and rowdy and unresponsive. I recognize more than a few from my worst classrooms last year. The class is totally unresponsive to anything I try to do for the entire hour.

Later, when the teachers return, I tell Susan to please not put me in that classroom again. She laughs and apologizes and promises not to do it again. “I want to tell the students what you said. They need to know they were bad, and I’m angry at them for doing that to you.”

The librarian is convicted, the teachers tell me, because “she was too proud” to apologize to the family of the girl whom she allegedly abused verbally. “But she doesn’t mind,” one teacher says. “She’s the star of the jail! With all of her makeup and jewelry, and her white skin and red hair, she’s a celebrity there.” Her pride, however, earns her a six-month to two-year sentence.

In the afternoon, I use my new Remedial Reading textbooks for the first time since they arrived from Books for Peace in the summer. The students are so responsive that several beg me to extend the class so they can finish the first story! I would have never thought such a thing was possible.

I eat lunch with my first-year students for the first time, and they’re all over me, laughing and fighting over themselves to ask questions. They’re amazed that I’m not eating rice. They’re amazed that there’s no U.S. law that forces 18-year-olds out of their family’s house. They’re amazed that there are “gays like you in America.”

Say what?

“Sorry, Sir. I meant that there are gays in your country who are white, like you.”

Run that by me again?

“Um, that there are gays who are white, Sir.”

After lunch, one girl comes up and says, “You’re a very good teacher, Sir. You’re the best because you explain things so well and always make it interesting. I’ll miss you when you leave. No one teaches us like you!” 

What a class. What a country.