CULTURE SHOCK
April 21-May 4, 2012
Negros Oriental
When I return from my vacation, physical and emotional malaise overwhelm me. My stomach isn’t right: bloating, gas, diarrhea, nausea, a feeling of being full all the time. Eating becomes a severe trial. Everything I ingest leaves an awful aftertaste. If I have a bowl of soup, I never want to have soup again. If I have cereal, the thought of ever having cereal again makes me ill.

I have zero energy. I sleep 10-12 hours a night and nap during the day. I have little appetite. I lose more weight. My travel companion, B.J., texts me that he’s having similar reactions. Did we both pick up an amoeba while overseas? If so, why didn’t we experience any symptoms there?

But worse than my physical condition is my mental state. My emotions are all over the place. Everything I see in the Philippines suddenly disgusts me. It’s as if the entire place has deteriorated overnight. Every cultural anomaly that I’d long ago gotten used to now saddens me, shocks me, infuriates me. What’s happening? I plummet into a massive depression from which I can’t escape.

And then I realize what’s going on. During my vacation, we continually compared the cultures, behaviors, and people of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to those of the Philippines. It was impossible not to. The contrast was striking. I expected there would be a few cultural differences but nothing radical. They were radical.

What I found was that each of those countries, although as poor or more so than the Philippines, is far more advanced in almost every category. As a result, when I returned to my site, every cultural difference that I’d gotten used to suddenly offended me greatly. I’d been here so long that I no longer saw the forest for the trees.

“The rest of the world has passed you by!” I wanted to shout to everyone I saw.

“What am I doing here?” I asked myself. “What am I accomplishing? Who am I fooling?” Nothing’s going to change.

I’d lost my perspective about the community I’d once wrapped my arms around. It was as if I had to readjust all over again like I did when I first arrived here. What’s the point of sticking around for my last six months just to endure more barking dogs, sewer stench, tasteless food, sweltering humidity, burning trash, urinating men, toothless drunks, and fighting cocks when my presence is clearly going to make no difference to anyone’s long-term well-being? I wanted out. I seriously considered Early Termination.

For the next few weeks, I mutate into a grouchy, intolerant, arrogant foreigner. Deep down, I know what’s happening to me. Here are all of these nice people, arguably the friendliest in all the world, doing all they can to help me and welcome me and invite me and care for me – and I’m judging them harshly and counting the days until I’m gone. Guilt signs a partnership agreement with my depression and they officially merge.

I make a few feeble attempts to get back into the community. A local dentist re-cements my errant tooth. I return to school and pass out my pasalubong souvenirs to the teachers. I receive a much-needed box of See’s chocolates from my son. They melted into a brown mass of goo during the long trip over, but they still taste divine.

A few days later I receive two gigantic care packages, one from Dave Kinnoin, who earlier sent me a couple of packages of books and magazines for the school and goodies for me. The other box is from my nephew Larry, whose niece gathered about 30-40 young adult novels for my students.

My coteachers invite me to a beach picnic, but I end up sitting by myself most of the day because no one will speak English and I long ago lost my ability to learn Visayan.

I join my tennis barkada for a tournament at neighboring Siquijor island over the weekend. We get on a boat at 6 a.m. and cross the channel. The host team from the town of Maria meets us at the pier and vans us to the court. At 8 a.m. the first matches — and the drinking — begin. My team drinks while they play, they bet while they play, and drink and bet when they’re not playing.

I’m introduced to the opposing team as well as local dignitaries. The hospitality and food are first-rate. But I’m still suffering from stomach problems and eat and drink minimally. As I did at the beach picnic, I end up spending most of the day and night sitting by myself because my inability to speak the local language separates me from everyone. My depression returns with a vengeance.  Although I win all three of my matches, my mood is dark. I want to be anywhere else. 

After the tournament, half the team wants to party in town. I join them, hoping that will improve my spirits. We drive across the island to an outdoor concert that’s in high gear. The plaza is packed, and everyone appears to be wasted. So many people are passed out on the ground, they resemble corpses. Zombies stagger up to me and pull my clothes, mumbling incoherently. Police haul the unconscious away on their shoulders. The stench of vomit wafts through the cigarette smoke like a knife. This doesn’t bode well.

Our driver, instead of waiting for us as promised, disappears for several hours, and we discover that he went to the other side of the island to pick up his sister. He doesn’t return until 4:30 in the morning. In the meantime, my tennis partners never stop drinking and are no longer able to communicate. I try to fall asleep on a bench but can’t because the zombies keep pestering me. I want to crumble this entire weekend into a ball and toss it into a wastebasket.

Finally our driver shows up, and we drive back to our resort. Naturally, we don’t have a hotel room. We have one dorm room for the whole team. Twenty mattresses are spread across the floor. The snoring is the decibel level of a herd of buffalo, but at least it drowns out the roosters and barking dogs. Naturally, it has one shower that barely trickles water out of its rusty spout and no soap. I fall exhausted and sticky and sweaty onto the last mattress. Three hours later, I’m awakened and told we’re leaving.

No, not the island. We”re going to the local team captain’s house. We arrive and sit around in the backyard while food is prepared. Everyone immediately orders beers. I look at them aghast. I can’t help myself. “What? It’s 9 in the morning! You’re drinking again?”

They drink nonstop through the morning and into the afternoon. I excuse myself and sack out on a sofa inside. They wake me at 1 and we head for the pier. But the boat won’t leave until 4. So what does everyone do? Order more beer! I’ve died and this is Hell. 

When I get home that evening, I take a LONG shower and sleep for 12 hours. All of my stomach problems return in spades. My depression and guilt and self-loathing amp up several notches. I seriously consider asking my regional manager what the procedure is for Early Termination. 

But I don’t. Maybe things will get better. It has to. I’ll get through this. But when? I’m so physically and mentally feeble right now, I don’t know if I can endure any more pain and discomfort and confusion. We were told early on that the Peace Corps would test us. That we would discover what we’re truly made of. It’s motto: “How far will you go?” is meant to be read literally and figuratively. This is my moment.

A FAMILY REUNION
May 5-6, 2012
Poniabunan, Mabinay
As if it was preordained, the wonderful mountain family that lives north of me in Mabinay whom I visited several months ago texts me and invites me to visit them for the weekend. I jump at the chance. This may be just what I need.

I bring some gifts from my trip, hop on a bus, and am overjoyed to see everyone waiting for me on the side of the dusty road two hours later. The little kids jump and down at the sight of me and lead me through the tall grass fields across a lemon-lime meadow toward their rickety shack.

The rest of the nine-member family are waiting for me. Daisy, the second-oldest daughter, leads me to the backyard excitedly. There rests the foundation for a new house their father is building. Their oldest daughter, who lives in the States, just sent them 5,000 pesos to help construct a new house. Hardly enough, but it’s a start.

I give Daisy and Kim handwoven purses from Cambodia, a Swiss Army Knife to their father, and a set of dominoes for the family. The kids, who own no toys, scramble to play with the pieces and never stop until I leave the next day.

I immediately feel at home again. Other than my last host family, which I’ve grown the closest to since coming here, this simple mountain family is the dearest people I’ve met. Joining them today is a young boy, one of their cousins who lives an hour away, who heard I was staying for the weekend and asked to stay here too so he could “see the foreigner.” Apparently, I’m the first one he’s ever met. He never takes his eyes off me the entire weekend.

I snuck 100 pesos into each of the girl’s purses, so they offer to use the money to buy chicken and make chicken adobo for dinner. Word immediately gets out that “the foreigner is back” and soon visitors coincidentally drop by. We take pictures, sing videoke, and play dominoes until it’s time for bed. They remember how sore I was sleeping on the hard wooden floor the first time I stayed here, so they’ve prepared a mound of blankets and pillows for me this time. I sleep like a baby.

The next day I hear there’s a swimming pool at a nearby resort and offer to treat everyone to a day at the pool. I’m stunned when everyone tells me they’ve never swam in a swimming pool before. The pool has a giant water slide, and we’re the only ones there. It’s as if the kids have died and gone to heaven. I teach them Marco Polo, and we wear out the slide. It’s one of my best days of my service. The joy on their faces that day will remain with me forever.

During my stay, I subtly inquire about the woman I met on my first trip, the one who made such an impression on me. I hint that I’d like to pay her a visit while I’m here. The older sister tells me that she’s away this weekend, is still seeing her foreign boyfriend, doesn’t work, lives at home, and used to be a lesbian. Hmmm, a bit over the top. 

She and her family have hoped from the beginning that I would hook up with their other daughter, who just graduated from high school. I made it clear from the beginning that that would not happen but they continue to hold out hope. During the weekend, that daughter and I have a long talk outside and I urge her to date boys her age. She says she’s afraid of them, doesn’t like them, and doesn’t trust them. “You’re my soulmate,” she pleads.

I explain to her that when she finally meets a nice young man, all of her feelings about me will be forgotten. I make plans for the family to come visit me during our annual festival in mid-June. The next day, everyone walks me to the road until I catch a bus back home. I’m content during my trip back. My spirits have been renewed. A few days later, they get another boost.

A MAGICAL CLASSROOM
May 8-23, 2012
Bacong
I’m awakened early by a banging on my gate. I go outside and see my neighbor two houses down. He’d asked me weeks ago if I would be willing to teach English during the summer at his father’s orphanage. His father is the pastor there.

“He’s here now,” he says, pointing to a silver truck parked beside the road. “He would like to meet you.”

I come outside and introduce myself to Pastor Chui, a rotund, cheerful Buddha-faced man with a hearty belly laugh. He offers to show me the place if I’m free. I say okay. The Little Friends Children’s Home is in Bacong, about 9 kilometers away. It houses about 25 kids from elementary to college age. It has male and female dorms, a kitchen, gardens, animals, a water well, a basketball court, a church, a covered court, all in a lovely tropical setting.

When we arrive, a few kids peek their heads out of doorways, and two of the youngest ones run out boldly and stare and smile at me, then never leave my side. I’m immediately smitten.  The kids here, I’m told, are not real orphans who were given away at birth. Many still have a mother or father or grandparent in the picture who for various reasons cannot support them.

I meet the social worker who works there and she assembles all the kids in the covered court. They’re a lovely bunch. I introduce myself and have them do the same. They all speak English well, and many say they love to read. (I now know who I will donate my grandniece’s books to.)

They ask if I could teach the kids English during the summer. I tell them I’d be delighted. That weekend I devise my lesson plans. I’ll visit them on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for two hours each day. The first hour will be an English lesson (parts of speech, vocabulary, etc.) and the second hour will be English games (Jeopardy, Madlibs, etc.).

The next few weeks fly by. My spirits return. I help out during enrollment at my school, giving oral reading tests to incoming students in the mornings, and in the afternoons I head out to Bacong. The first day I arrive, everyone is waiting for me in the covered court. A blackboard has been set up. Chalk is ready. Students are in their seats with notebooks and pens. I’m impressed.

This is the first time I’ve taught a lesson by myself since I’ve been in country. Volunteers aren’t allowed to teach alone; we must coteach. That’s not just Peace Corps policy; it’s also the Department of Education’s. I’ve taken over classes before at school when coteachers were absent, but I don’t teach a lesson during those times; usually I just play games with the students. This will be the first time I’ll actually do a lesson by myself. Since this is outside my Peace Corps job, I can do so.

The students are very responsive, full of fun and smiles and laughter. Afterward, they cling to me and ask questions and don’t let me leave. Then they walk me all the way down the road to the highway until I catch my bus. Each day when I arrive and text the social worker that “I’m walking up the hill,” a pack of kids darts out of the trees and sprints all the way down the road to greet me, yanking my backpack from my shoulders and fighting to see who gets to carry it for me. How can one not fall in love with such kids?

My depression lifts. My stomach returns to normal. My energy is renewed. After weeks of physical healing, rest, self-reflection, reassessing why I came here, and the warmth of so many good people, I come to realize that no matter how much I may fault Filipinos for the way they do or don’t do things, proposing “improvement” or expecting them to do things “our way” is unrealistic and inappropriate. I’d forgotten that our task is to learn as much – or more — from Filipinos as we’re teaching them.

Accepting host country behavior doesn’t mean liking or approving or adopting it. It means accepting the inevitability and logic of it. It means trusting that the behavior is appropriate for their culture no matter how strange the behavior would be in ours. By and large, cultures don’t behave in ways that defy logic. Whatever we may think of the reasons behind particular behaviors, chances are they make sense to them. Only by seeing that Filipinos are just like us in certain respects can we accept that they might also be different.

I realize that while there are aspects of Filipino culture that I will always find troubling, some locals will likewise be offended by certain parts of our culture. In all my time in the Philippines, however, not one Filipino has commented negatively to me about my aversion to organized religion, about the way our society pushes kids out of the house when they turn 18, puts parents into nursing homes, gets involved in wars around the world, etc. Whenever such delicate topics have been broached, Filipinos as one have bent over backward to change the topic, turn it into a positive, or say nothing.

What eventually changes my outlook are the smiles I get every day from friends, children, and strangers. The strength and sensitivity and sweetness and empathy that Pinoys instinctively express during my recovery so uplift my spirits and renew my love and bond with the Filipino culture that I realize that I’m thankful to be here and vow to complete my service.

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We’re looking forward to Bangkok. Thailand is noted for its silk, and B.J. wants to buy his girlfriend lots of it. We’d originally planned to venture north to Chiang Mai, see the elephants, and trek through the hill tribes, but we’ve run out of time.

We take an overnight bus from Vientiane, Laos, to Bangkok. Even though the bus is an enormous double-decker, we’re crammed inside.

B.J. and I share a bus compartment with eight others. The space features eight comfortable seats in the front, two tables in the center, and bench seats in the rear. Six young German males sit together in one corner, all sporting bushy Viking beards. A quiet Austrian couple dozes in the back. A Finnish woman who looks just like tennis pro Maria Sharapova sits next to B.J. I stretch out on the bench next to an elderly Brit who within seconds becomes the Most Hated Man in the Room.

Drunk, arrogant, and disshelved in a ratty T-shirt, bathing suit, flip-flops, and Einstein finger-in-the-socket hair, he proclaims in a booming voice what the world is coming to and how we’re all responsible and demands that we debate him. Some do, and he haughtily belittles each one who deigns to disagree with him. Gratefully, we stop an hour later at the border crossing, and everyone gets out to get our visas processed. When he finally staggers out of the room, everyone in the compartment lets out a collective sigh of relief and a flood of “OMGs!”

After our visas are stamped, we return to the compartment. This time we ignore the Englishman. Thankfully, he gets the message and remains silent for the rest of the 12-hour trip. A couple of times I feel sorry for him and consider bringing him into a conversation, but I fear the other passengers would toss me out of the moving vehicle.

We arrive in the capital early the next morning and take a taxi to Wendy House, located down a long, narrow alley. The staff is very friendly and lets us check into our room hours before the normal check-in time. We chose the guesthouse because it’s in the heart of downtown near all the shops, skyscrapers, Skytrain, and Metro.

After washing up, we hit the big malls. The kingdom of Thailand isn’t close to being a third-world country anymore, and Bangkok has become one of the world’s international hubs. Big, modern, clean, and sophisticated, it boasts nonpareil cuisine, hip fashions, renowned massage, temples on steroids, exotic boroughs, neon, noise, and lots of skin. Bangkok ain’t shy.

We find no silk in the first two mega malls we hit, which is like saying we found no water in the first two oceans we sailed across. But I don’t care. The women are stunningly beautiful, and the current fashion trend is microskirts.

When we return to our guesthouse at the end of the day, I’m wiped out and decide to treat myself to a Thai massage at the small spa across the street. Unlike the common Swedish massage, which uses oil and is more soothing and gentle, Thai massage incorporates stretching, bending, and cracking, with elbows and knees pressing against places you didn’t think you had. It isn’t painful; on the contrary, it’s remarkably relaxing. Afterward, I feel like a hundred bucks.

It doesn’t hurt that my masseuse is cute, playful, and flirtatious. It’s near closing time at the spa, and there are no more customers in the place, so I hang around a while and banter with her and the rest of the girls, who are a ton of fun. It seems they all want to go out. They ask if I like to dance. Do I like to dance? Does Ethel Kennedy own a black dress? 

They all squeal and change into their street clothes, and we hop into a cab and head downtown. To my amazement, they take me to the Nana Hotel, which used to be one of the most notorious establishments in all of Bangkok, and lead me into an intimate nightclub at the end of the lobby.

We’re practically the only ones there and take over a banquette facing the stage where a live band is singing “Money, Money, Money.” Poon, my masseuse, can’t speak English, doesn’t drink, and is too shy to dance, and all of the other girls suddenly decide they don’t want to dance either, so not much happens. Our main entertainment is gawking at two exhibitionists who for the next hour proceed to do on the dance floor what most people would reserve for the bedroom. I’m not in Laos anymore. 

The girls are hungry, but they don’t want me to spend any more money, so we grab some food from a street vendor outside. They drop me off at Wendy House, and I crawl into bed at 2 a.m.

The next day B.J. and I head for the Chao Phraya River, the city’s most glorious and breathtaking landmark. Once called the “Venice of the East,” the river and its endless network of canals was a superhighway of goods and people, and its residents were known as water lords. We begin our day at the National Museum of Royal Barges.

Thailand’s fabled Royal Barges, which transport royalty during significant cultural and religious events, have been a hallmark of Thai culture and history for nearly 700 years. At the National Museum, eight important barges, including all four Royal Barges, are displayed. I’ve seen pictures of these mammoth floating dragon boats and want to see them close up.

The problem is getting to the museum. It proves to be one of the most confounding  tourist wild goose chases I’ve ever come across. We’re told to walk to a particular intersection, turn right, and “look for the sign,” then cross the bridge. We see no sign and no bridge and begin asking shopowners.

“That way,” they point.

We keep walking and at each intersection are told to keep going. But the only thing in front of us is a highway ramp rising far above us. The sun is beating down cruelly. We grumble and slog up the hill. At the top we look down and see water but no structure large enough to hold the Royal Barges. We walk all the way down the other side of the ramp to the bottom and cross the road there. We ask again. They point down a dark alley.

We peer down the narrow pathway. It’s a garbage-strewn crevice in the back of someone’s house. Scrawled on a tiny sign at the far end is “Royal Barge Museum” and an arrow. This has to be a joke. We follow the arrow, which leads us down another endless dirt walkway. We pass people eating lunch, watching TV, washing clothes, burning trash. We’re invading their homes. Scrawny dogs and chickens dart about. Kids with no pants stare up at us.

Another sign directs us down through more rubbish heaps and more backyards. For 30 minutes we follow a half dozen other rabbit holes. All the time the neighbors just smile as if tourists invading their space happens all the time. It’s unfathomable that this is the only way to get to the famous National Museum of Royal Barges. It’s like making tourists traipse through the back alleys of the worst area of Washington, D.C., to reach the Washington Monument.

All of a sudden, we turn a corner and there it is. We pay an admission fee (more if we want to take pictures). That’s when I lose it. We have to pay more if we want to take pictures? This has now ascended into Monty Pythonesque territory.

The barges themselves are spectacular, intricately carved, gilded in gold leaf, massive in size, and each as long as a football field. After I’ve seen my fill, I purposely linger because I dread having to make our way out of this maze again.

We somehow retrace our steps back to the river and buy an all-day pass, which allows us to hop on and off any watercraft along the Chao Phraya River. Free river travel guides highlight what can be found at each pier stop (Chinatown, Little India, garment district, wat temples, etc.). 

The river is broad, brown, and surging with activity. Tugboats pull barges laden with timber. Gilded wats and stupas soar above the trees, their orange and green roof tiles, mosaic pillars, and marble piments gleaming in the sunlight. Orange-robed monks clamor aboard next to us, and we head down the river.

We get off at Chinatown and explore its inner denizens for silk bargains (no luck). The chaos is loud and frantic. We have to watch where we’re going because things come at us from every direction. Merchants stream back and forth lugging carts, unloading boxes, stacking shoeboxes, delivering snakes, hauling clothing racks, shouting, haggling, laughing. Motorbikes scoot through the crowds with inches to spare. I inhale the history. I have no doubt this tiny spot is virtually unchanged from what it was like a thousand years ago, sans motorbikes.

After Chinatown, we mosey a few blocks and enter Little India, where a palette of vivid colors assaults our senses. This is Fabric Land, with shop after shop selling every imaginable cloth and color and price of fabrics. I ask one man if he sells silk shirts off the rack, and the turbaned proprietor glares at me as if I called his wife ugly.  

After dinner at an Indian restaurant, we jump back on the next boat plying the river and step off at the next pier. A short walk and we’re greeted by tuxedoed bellmen at the Oriental Hotel, whose guestbook boasts Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maughn, and too many world leaders to count. We head outside to one of my favorite spots in all of Asia, the Riverside Terrace. I order a Hemingway daiquiri, B.J. gets a mai tai, and we watch the river go by as an apricot sun settles over a wat temple in the distance.

 

We return to our guesthouse, take a nap, and pack for our trip home. It’s hard to believe our whirlwind trip is over. It seems like we’ve been here for months yet it also feels like it flew by. We take the Skytrain to the airport, avoiding the hellacious Bangkok traffic, and board our 1 a.m plane. Just as we’re about to take off, the pilot informs us that the preflight inspection discovered that the front wheel was cut during the previous landing and must be replaced before we can take off.

Thirty minutes later he comes on again and tells us there has been difficulty finding a tire at this early hour, so we have to deplane and return to the gate area. I curse. That means I’m probably going to miss my connecting flight from Manila to Dumaguete.

Two hours later we board the aircraft again and finally take off. We arrive 30 minutes before my connecting flight is due to depart. I race to the baggage area, wait for my bag, say a hurried goodbye to B.J., and sprint across the airport to the check-in counters. I’m told there’s no chance of getting on board. I must rebook my flight.

Tired and exhausted, I tromp over to the rebooking area and am told the next available flight to Dumaguete is 3 p.m. It’s now 7:20 in the morning. I groan. Rebooking will also cost me 4,500 pesos, the clerk informs me. 

“I don’t think so,” I say as politely as I can under the circumstances. “I missed my flight due to a wheel that had to be replaced. It was the airline’s fault, not mine.”

She disappears and comes back 30 minutes later. “We apologize for the misunderstanding, sir. You’re now booked on the 10:45 flight. No charge. Would you like window or aisle?”

I order waffles at the airport Pancake House, and as I bite into my first spoonful, my temporary tooth falls out again. Well, at least it didn’t happen on the first day of our trip.

When I reach the gate for my morning flight, the entire wing of the airport is crammed with passengers. On the intercom, continual messages announce such-and-such a flight has been delayed. My flight is one of them. I don’t finally board my 10:45 flight until 3.

When I finally arrive home, the Philippines humidity, which wasn’t present in any of the countries we visited, hits me like a Pacquiao right cross. I go to bed at the ungodly hour of 8 and sleep 12 hours. When I wake up, I’m very ill, with every Peace Corps malady hitting me at once. It passes momentarily, and I try to play tennis. I get through one set before I have to go home. On the way, I crumple and vomit in the street.

I don’t feel right the next day, the day after, or the following week, but no one thing is severe enough to warrant calling PCMO or going to the hospital. I keep thinking it’s just temporary, my body’s acclimating back to Philippines weather and food, and it will go away, but it doesn’t.

What happens in the next couple of weeks will evolve into the most serious crisis I will face to date as a Peace Corps volunteer.

LUANG PRABANG
April 12-13, 2012
Laos
The Siem Reap airport is a tiny design gem with beautiful shops and decor and sunlight. Our flight to Luang Prabang in northern Laos is very efficient and quick, with a stunning approach over steep mountains and muddy rivers that coil through the emerald countryside like serpents.  

The visa formalities, unlike in Vietnam, are a snap, taking no more than five minutes. All the officials laugh and smile at everyone. When I misplace my passport photo for my visa, the customs officer smiles. “We will just scan it.” Laos is a Communist country, and B.J. and I were apprehensive about how strict the officials would be. No worries.

Laos, one of the poorest nations on earth, is a land of saffron-robed monks, misty valleys, stunning karst ridges, ethnic tribes, and too many elephants to count. We can’t wait.

The Kinnaly House in Luang Prabang, two blocks from the riverfront, was rated tops on the Internet, but it’s the least impressive of anyplace on our trip, both in terms of accommodations and service. Still, we can’t complain about the price: $18 a night.

We unload our bags and stroll into town. Luang Prabang, a UNESCO-protected peninsula of golden-sheened wats, crumbling French villas, and Scandinavian cafes, was once inaccessible. Today it’s been called everything from a Shangri La to the Pearl of the Orient to “the most beguiling ancient city in Southeast Asia.”

We stroll along the sleepy main drag, which follows a U-shape bounded by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers below us. Crayon-colored longtail boats plow the river. Shops and outdoor cafes line the road, affording stunning views.

A view from a cafe in Luang Prabang.

  

An idyllic moment to paint or meditate.

We stop and order a drink and watch a tangerine sun descend between two towering peaks in the distance as fisherman float across the water. This is a storybook land come to life. We cross the street and have dinner at Tamarind, which boasts a “Mod-Lao” cuisine. I order water buffalo steak, sticky rice, greens, and dipping sauces. We share a sampling platter of bamboo dip, stuffed lemongrass, herbs, and chilli pastes. I’m still thinking about it. Our best meal of the trip.

The next day B.J. gets up early and strolls the town while I sleep late. I rise, have mango pancakes on the riverfront, and rent a bike. I follow a long procession of people heading toward a stadium and carnival area. It’s the start of the Lao New Year, and the fun is about to start. How little do I realize just how much fun it will be.

Lao New Year is the most widely celebrated festival in Laos. It happens in mid-April, the hottest time of the year and the start of the monsoon season, lasting three days. Houses and villages are cleaned on the first day, and perfume, water, and flowers are prepared. The second day of the festival is the “day of no day,” a day that falls in neither the old year or the new year. The last day marks the start of the new year.

Water is used for washing homes, Buddha images, monks, and soaking friends and passers-by, with emphasis on the latter. The rituals actually serve an important role in Laotian culture — they aren’t only wishing a long and healthy life for themselves but wishing the same for others.

When I get back, B.J. is back in the room, and we watch with trepidation from the lobby what’s happening in the street. An endless line of cars, trucks, and motorcycles inch their way down the path while  hundreds of people with hoses, buckets, and water guns assault them.

I look at B.J. Our shopping and sightseeing plans for the day just evaporated. “If you can’t beat ’em…” We go upstairs, change into our bathing trunks, and wade into the chaos.

We’re drenched to the bone within seconds. In the stifling heat, it’s actually welcome. It’s hard not to throw yourself into the melee, and we do. We hook up with a rowdy group holding fort on one corner. Across the street an even more malevolent group charges us continually and we repel them back as best we can. It doesn’t matter who’s winning or losing; it’s a ton of fun. When huge open-bed trucks filled with party-goers approach, our teams forget our mutual rivalry and turn our attention to the intruders, descending on them with vengeance.

“Do you feel lucky…punk? Well, do ya?” A soaked B.J. gives a soggy Eastwood impression.

 The melee continues until well after dark. When it finally subsides and we feel safe enough to venture out with dry clothes, we head for the Night Market along the main street. Hundreds of Hmong women have set up stalls beneath tents lit by bulbs that glow magically like strings of red lanterns. It’s the best selection of handmade souvenirs we find during our trip.

VANG VIENG
April 14, 2012
Laos
We say farewell to lovely Luang Prabang and take a bus six hours south to the riverside village of Vang Vieng along the Nam Song River. We’ve come here because of the fabled mist-shrouded karst mountains.

The road takes us high, high, and higher into enormous mountain forests, dolloped with dirty, dusty wooden towns that look like Wild West throwbacks. Even way up here, our bus is pelted by kids with water guns and buckets. They remind us that we have two more days of this to look forward to.

Vang Vieng is in the midst of a water holocaust when we arrive, and it looks like the revelry has destroyed the place. Only later do we discover that that’s the way it looks all the time.

The city was first settled in 1353 as a staging post between Luang Prabang and the capital Vientiane. The town expanded during the Vietnam War when the U.S. developed an Air Force base and runway that was used by Air America.

We read that the town has lost much of its original charm due to drunken tourists, unsafe water sports, and happy mushroom shakes. The New Zealand Herald wrote, “If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng.” Last year, 22 tourists died on the river while inner tubing. Inner tubing? Good grief.

When we venture out, we’re confronted by a dirty, seedy, crumbling street inhabited by a melange of what look like Rastafarians, Jesus impersonators, expats, backpackers, mercenaries, and escaped criminals. And all are armed — with Rambo-size water cannons. I hope that’s all they’re packing.

We avoid the mayhem and slip down to the water. There we behold why Vang Vieng is such a stunning place — after you evict all the tourists. A rickety wooden footbridge, barely erect on wobbly heron-thin poles, spans the Nam Song River puttering with fishermen and kayaks.

A quiet moment in Vang Vieng.

Above the glassy water, multihued balloons silently float over us. Across the water is a limestone karst mountain range that must have been transplanted from Jurassic Park, its layers of towering ridges eroded over millions of years into fantastic shapes. A Chinese water color.

If you treasure sunsets, come to Laos.

VIENTIANE
April 15, 2012
Laos
We decide to head for the capital the next day. Over the years, Vientiane has been occupied by the Vietnamese, Burmese, Siamese, and Khmers. In the 19th century, the French colonized the country and turned the city into one of Indochina’s grand metropolises. In the early 1960s it teemed with CIA agents and Russian spies. 

Eleven of us jam into a van for the four-hour drive to the capital. It’s one of the worst rides of my life. The first three hours are hell, as the road is nothing but potholes and rocks. We’re slammed and bumped and rocked nonstop. I keep expecting our vehicle to break down, but it miraculously holds together. During the last hour, as we near the capital, the road is semi-passable. We arrive in the afternoon to, surprise, water fights. In the capital, the frenzy seems to be ramped up tenfold with seemingly every block a war zone.

Our guesthouse, Mali Namphu, is wonderful, with a large room, a stunning garden courtyard, and impeccable service. B.J. is beat and takes a nap, not wishing to get wet again. I throw on my bathing trunks and head down to the riverfront. 

I find the Mekong, but the water level is so low that it looks like a dry riverbed. And nothing is built along the riverbank. No hotels, cafes, shops. No trees or shade. Nobody’s strolling. The sun is bearing down fiercely, so I hurry away to where music is blaring.

A concert is in progress. A live band is in full swing, sprinklers on the stage are soaking the crowd, and everyone’s jumping and dancing. I join in and dance myself ragged for an hour, then stagger away. The water fights are much wilder here than in the provinces.

I come across an off-the-wall group dancing atop trucks, atop trash cans, rolling and spinning in the puddles like street acrobats. It looks like an audition for Step Up 4. These kids are smoking. I join them, and we rock and splash the street for the next three hours. Soon people are leaping off their trucks to join us. We grow in size until we’ve morphed into a Soul Train street party, Laotian style.

It’s a fitting end to a wet and wild Laotian holiday. We enjoy our short glimpse of this mysterious country. Its beauty is unrivaled but unfortunately so is its poverty. It’s doing better these days due to its burgeoning tourist industry, but the resulting influx of foreigners has begun to erode many of its charms. No telling what the future holds for this tiny nation of 7 million.

Next and final stop: Thailand.

PHNOM PENH
April 6-7, 2012
Cambodia

Approaching the harbor of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, by boat is impressive to say the least. An Angkor Wat-like structure greets visitors atop a massive ramp and sprawling riverfront boulevard. The closer you get, the more imposing the effect becomes. We’ve arrived at a magical, mythical place.

B.J. and I grab a tuk-tuk, which I will go on the record and say is the most luxurious, most spacious, most attractive, and most comfortable mode of cheap transportation in all of Asia. Why don’t other Southeast Asia countries throw out their ugly rusty metal farting exhaustmobiles and invest in these charming vehicles?

Note the anti-bagsnatching net!

The one we get looks like a combination stagecoach, Cinderella carriage, buggy, and surry with with a fringe on top with a motorcycle pulling it instead of a horse. Sparkling clean with leather seats, intricate chrome grillwork along the sides, polished wood armrests, expansive interior, high ceiling, lace curtains, and pockets for passengers’ water bottles or maps. Filipino trikes look absolutely Neantherthal compared to these models.

The condition of our tuk-tuk, we discover, is not the exception. Every tuk-tuk we see during our next six days in Cambodia is as immaculate as this one. And not one is the same. Each one is lovingly cared for. Whoever’s in charge of Cambodian tourism should get a medal. I love the place already, and I’ve only been here five minutes.

On the way to our hotel, we weave through the heart of downtown. We pass parks, statues, plazas, wide boulevards, museums, outdoor cafes, clubs, boutique shops. Everything’s clean, people smile, music is playing, and it’s all happening along the riverfront that seems to stretch forever.

We check into the Boddhi Tree guesthouse, nap, take showers, and eat at the guesthouse’s restaurant, which was rated among the best in the entire city. It’s better than advertised. After dinner, B.J. rests while I head downtown. I step into the Riverfront Bistro, take a seat at the enormous round bar, and marvel at the funky decor, a potpourri of Khmer art, neon, Angkor images, posters, sculptures, sexy waitresses, and mysterious expats. A live band plays in a rear alcove among pool tables. What a town. It will become my favorite watering hole in Asia.

The next day B.J. and I stroll around town, shopping for bargains. A polite man introduces himself to me at the riverfront and asks if I can help him and his wife fill out a U.S. immigration application form. I do so, and they thank me profusely and buy me a bottle of water.

We try to see some of the city’s landmarks but they’re all closed. Seems a conference of Southeast Asian leaders, including Philippines’s president, is in Phnom Penh, and the dignitaries are out and about touring the city. All the museums and places of interest are off limits to the general public.

BATTAMBANG
April 8, 2012
Cambodia

Our travel guidebook recommends a stopover here on the way to Siem Reap because of its quaint setting along the river, its French Colonial architecture, and the idyllic boat trip from there to Siem Reap.

The bus ride into Battambang is long and tiring, and when we arrive, I am not impressed. The town boasts a sleepy river, but its designers must have fallen asleep at the switch. All the establishments along the riverfront are industrial (cellphone shops, tire repair, electronics, hardware, etc.). All the town’s hotels, bars, and restaurants are tucked into small side streets and alleys with no views of the river. What were the city leaders thinking?

But B.J. loves the place. He didn’t care much for Phnom Penh because it was overrun by tourists and expats. Here there are fewer, the place is quieter, and the cafes seem more intimate. We have a nice dinner and are told by our hotel not to take the slow boat trip Siem Reap as we’d planned because the water level is down now. “That means the boat will go even slower than normal to get there,” the woman at the desk tells us. “At least ten hours. Better to take a bus. You’ll get there in four.” We buy our bus tickets and retire for the night.

SIEM REAP
April 9, 2012
Cambodia

The bus to Siem Reap, the launching point to the famed temples of Angkor Wat, takes only three-and-a-half hours. Our guesthouse, the Villa Siem Reap, lives up to its ratings in Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor. We’re greeted effusively by a half dozen staff members and given welcome drinks.

After lunch in their garden cafe, we arrange for an all-day guide ($35) and tuk-tuk driver ($15) to take us to the temples tomorrow. The rest of the day we shop downtown. Cambodia accepts only U.S. dollars except for small purchases where the local currency is okay; ATMs dispense dollars. Hooray.

Downtown Siem Reap is flooded with tourists, which makes B.J. grumpy. But I like the action. If you want a how-to guide on how to promote tourism in your town, come to Siem Reap. Every hotel and guesthouse has free booklets on nightlife, restaurants, tours, side trips with detailed maps. The streets and neighborhoods are clearly marked with neon gates: “Pub Street” is where all the bars and restaurants are. “The Alley” is where Cambodian food and shops are located. “The Night Market” is where you can find handicrafts, silks, and souvenirs. The vendors’ booths stretch endlessly, and I mean endlessly.

I shop for hours, picking up handwoven purses and cellphone holders for my female coteachers and cool Angkor Wat keychains (each with nail cutter and can opener) for my male coteachers and tennis barkadas

Siem Reap has everything, from 8-hand massages to fish massages. The latter is a trip. You take off your shoes, sit on the edge of a large fish tank, and dangle your feet in the water for 30 minutes ($3). The fish all converge on your feet and nibble off the dead skin. It tickles, the fish get full, your dead skin is removed, and you have something with which to amaze and disgust your coworkers. Win-win!

ANGKOR WAT
April 10, 2012
Cambodia
Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world, is the heart and soul and pride of the country. Its image is on Cambodia’s currency, national flag, and practically every place you look.

One of the first Western visitors to the temple was António da Madalena, a Portuguese monk who visited in 1586. He said: “It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.”

Later, in the mid-19th century, French explorer Henri Mouhot wrote: “One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo—might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”

The next morning we meet our guide, Seak, who’s dressed in khaki and an orange and yellow Khmer scarf and a winning smile. He speaks fluent English, and seems raring to go. With him is a tuk-tuk driver who will transport us from temple to temple during the day.

 We set off. The drive to the temples takes us through a beautiful tree-shrouded lane and flower-scented pathways. The road is full of bicycles and tuk-tuks, all heading the same way. Some are coming back, having gone early to catch the temple at sunrise.

The first indication that we’re getting close is a mammoth lake on our right side. It seems as wide as the Mekong. Seak chuckles when I ask what lake it is.

“This is not a lake, sir. It is the moat surrounding Angkor Wat.” Good Lord. How big can this thing be?

The moat surrounding Angkor Wat.

We reach the corner of the moat, and peer down the length of the next side. There, halfway across, running down the middle of the moat, is a bridge stretching hundreds of yards. It ‘s filled with people. All are shuffling toward the eighth wonder of the world, a charcoal black edifice of towering magnificence.  

The temple layout represents Mount Meru, the mythical home of the gods. The central towers symbolize the five peaks of the mountain, and the walls and moat symbolize the surrounding mountain ranges and ocean.

Built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city, the monument is constructed out of more than 5 million tons of sandstone, as much as Khafre’s pyramid in Egypt. One modern engineer estimated it would take 300 years to complete Angkor Wat today. In truth, the entire complex was finished in 40.

Angkor Wat

The next few hours are a blur of head-shaking bewilderment at the vastness of the grounds and tunnels, the size of the walls and towers, the maze-like labyrinth of passageways and stairwells, the detailed carvings of statues and bas-relief friezes that stretch up and down and across seemingly every square inch of this endless architectural marvel.

One breathtaking panorama after another.

By lunchtime, our heads are spinning from information and sensory overload. Seak is a superlative guide, explaining every detail and sprinkling his data with anecdotes and personal political views. Cambodians fear the Vietnamese, he confides to us, because they’re “powerful and aggressive.” Cambodians hate the Thais, he says, because of all the wars between the two in the past. Siem Reap means “defeated Siam” (the previous name for Thailand), which I don’t imagine makes Thai tourists very comfortable.

TA PROHM
April 10, 2012
Cambodia
After lunch we head for Ta Prohm, the temple complex I’m salivating to behold, the one I have a serious Indiana Jones for.You’ve seen it on the cover of National Geographic. You’ve seen it in Tomb Raider. Looking probably the way most Angkor temples did when the first European explorers laid eyes on them, the monument has been almost completely overrun by the jungle.

Mother Nature always has home-court advantage.

When we approach the temple,  however, it looks nothing like I imagined. First of all, there’s no jungle. It’s more like a quiet forest glade. Few trees. No thick foliage. No howling birds. No swinging monkeys. And what “overruns” the place are just a few scattered trees, albeit gargantuan, whose bleached white roots, as thick as Nile alligators and as long as a Peace Corps tapeworm, wrap around and through every orifice of the structure like tentacles, literally bursting it apart in a thousand places, leaving ancient rubble strewn around as if from an explosion.

I lean down and pick one up. “Don’t even think of taking that antiquity home with you,” Seak winks. “They will check every inch of your bags at the airport. They know exactly what these stones look like.” I put it back.   

Seak says that experts disagree on which trees they are. The larger roots are either from the silk-cotton tree or thitpok; the smaller roots are from the strangler fig or Gold Apple.

B.J. whispers to me, “Root canals.” Funny.

This bas-relief figure refuses to disappear.

When I ask Seak why the authorities let nature run wild here and not at the other temples. He says that after the fall of the Khmer empire in the 15th century, this one was abandoned and neglected for centuries. When efforts to conserve and restore the Angkor temples began in the early 20th century, it was decided to leave Ta Prohm as it was as a “concession to the general taste for the picturesque.”

According to Angkor scholar Maurice Glaize, Ta Prohm was singled out because it was “one of the most imposing [temples] and the one which had best merged with the jungle, but not yet to the point of becoming a part of it.”

That said, a lot of work has been done to stabilize the ruins, to permit access, and to maintain its “condition of apparent neglect.”

We see plenty of that. All around us, crews are gathering and labeling the broken sandstone blocks that have crumbled from the jungle’s onslaught. Cranes are in place, areas are cordoned off. It looks like a construction site, not an islolated “temple of doom” springing out of a thick jungle as I’d hoped. Oh well.

ANGKOR THOM — BAYON
April 10, 2012
Cambodia
Seak has saved the best for last, he tells us: the massive Angkor Thom fortified city, ten times the size of Angkor Wat.

“Gee, I’ve always wanted to see Angkor Tom’s Cabin,” B.J. says sotto voice.

“What’s that?” Seak asks.

“Uh, nothing, sir,” I say, digging an elbow into B.J.’s ribs. 

At its height, this city boasted one million people (compared to London’s 50,000 at the time). It has five spectacular entrance gates, each 20 meters high, atop which loom the massive face of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

One of the entrance gates leading into Angkor Thom.

Within the gates are several temples, but the one Seak is leading us to is the Bayon, an eerie homage to Cambodia’s legendary king, Jayavarman VII. Its 54 towers are festooned with 216 enormous stone faces of Avalokiteshvara that coincidentally resemble the king himself, who glares down on us from every conceivable angle. Eek, let me outta here.

“Whew,” the head face sculptor said. “One Avalokiteshvara down. Only 215 to go!”

Our guide knew just where to pose me.

For camera buffs, Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and the Bayon are the Big Three in terms of photogenic opportunities and OMG moments. Despite the tourists, though B.J. and I continually marvel at how often we seem to have the places solely to ourselves, allowing us to get clear, unobstructed views of anything we want.

SIEM REAP
April 11, 2012
Cambodia
B.J. takes a Cambodian cooking class the next morning while I buy our plane tickets to Laos and shop. In the afternoon, we return to finish up what we didn’t see at Angkor Thom, but the remaining ruins — the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King — don’t have the wow factor of the first day.

To me, Cambodia is my favorite country on the trip so far. But we have two more to go. And both of us feel that Laos may be the sleeper of the bunch. Neither of us have been there before, and we’re eagerly looking forward to what we’ve heard is jaw-dropping landscapes rivaling that of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Guilin in China.

Next stop: Laos.

FLOATING DOWN THE MEKONG
April 2-5, 2012
Saigon, Mekong Delta, Can Tho, Chau Duc
I’m off for a three-week sojourn through Southeast Asia with B.J. Stolbov from Querino in northern Luzon. Our itinerary:

First Leg –Vietnam (April 2-5). Sightsee Saigon for a day, then take a three-day tour of Mekong Delta. Take boat into Cambodia.

Second Leg — Cambodia (April 6-11). Tour capital Phnom Penh for two days, then bus north to Battambang for a day. Get back on the Mekong to Siem Reap. Explore Angkor Wat for three days.

Third Leg — Laos (April 12 -15). Fly to Luang Prabang and spend two days. Bus south to Vang Vieng for one day. Bus to capital Vientiane for one day.

Final Leg — Thailand (April 16 – 20). Overnight bus to Bangkok. Spend four days touring capital.

Our flight out of Manila departs just after midnight, and we get into Saigon in the wee hours. On the way in, we’re fascinated by thousands of brilliantly illuminated shapes below us that look like enormous jigsaw puzzle pieces. No shape is the same. They stretch as far as the eye can see.

“What the hell are they?” I ask B.J. We can’t tell if the objects are on land or on water. It’s pitch dark outside, yet the things appear to be illuminated from above, and they’re uniformly lit — the farthest ones just as bright as the nearest ones.

When we land, we ask a flight attendant if we can ask the pilot what the objects were. They open the cockpit door, and the pilot tells us he was curious about them, too. They were on the water, though.

“They might be fish traps,” he guesses. “Bright lights attract fish and crabs. The traps probably have their own light source.” Mystery solved.

At the airport, all the foreign passengers are herded into a special area to get our visas, which is a slow and laborious process. This must be done before we can get our luggage. As we wait, we see passengers from other flights arriving and getting their luggage, and other flights following them. Who’s watching our luggage? The other passengers on our flight are getting nervous, too. After an hour and a half, we’re all visibly concerned. By now, all the flights for the night have landed and the airport is quiet and deserted. I mentally review what I packed in my checked bag. Chances are slim that our bags will still be out there. If I lose everything, what will I need to buy to replace what’s lost?

Finally, our visas are issued, and we all race to the baggage counter area.

Not a bag in sight. Not a person around.

We finally find someone and ask where our bags could be. She asks the name of our airline. Cebu Pacific. She points all the way down to the end of the immense hall. We hurry toward the dark cavernous corner of the building. There, sitting all alone, like two lost cowering puppies, are our bags. How they weren’t snatched during all that time, with no security around, is a small miracle.

We wake up an old woman sleeping in the lobby of Madam Cuc’s guesthouse, and she staggers around half asleep trying to find our key and paperwork, which the day staff had thankfully prepared ahead of time. We get to our room, which is enormous and decorated in rich red woods, and instantly fall asleep.

The lobby the next morning is throbbing with backpackers and German tourists. We’re served breakfast (free with the room) and plan our day. Neither of us want to see anything related to the war (War Museum, Cu Chi Tunnels) that have unfortunately become tourist attractions.

Instead, I want to show B.J. some of the landmarks during the war that I remember fondly from that period (the Rex Hotel, where journalists David Halberstam and others listened to the daily misinformation briefings by U.S. generals on how “easily” we were winning the war, which the reporters soon dubbed “the Five o’clock Follies”;  the Caravelle Hotel, where the scribes drank and hung out; the Hotel Continental, where the generals stayed and which I used as a backdrop for a scene in one of my novels; and the opulent Opera House and Post Office downtown that are marvels of French Colonial architecture and among the last vestiges of the French debacle that preceded ours.

But we get lost. We end up spending half the day taking wrong turns and following errant directions before we finally get to where we want to go. And when we do, I’m disappointed. Sinh Cafe, where I used to hang out with expats on previous visits, is gone; it’s now a travel agency. Kim Cafe, however, remains, still serving banana pancakes and Spanish omelettes.

When a uniformed bellman at the Hotel Continental opens its brass and glass doors to us, I’m stunned when I step into what was once one of the most magnificent lobbies in the world. It’s now the size of a living room. On one corner wing of the hotel, which was once a tea area surrounded by grand sculptures and artwork, is now an upscale restaurant. On the other wing of the lobby where once were sofas and chairs and waitresses draped in black and gold ao dais tinkling bells announcing messages for guests, is now a series of high-end shops. I’m seriously bummed. Whoever owns the place now believes that money trumps tradition.

Saigon has definitely changed since the last time I was here. Some good, some bad. No more begging children. Where have those cute little pests gone? No more bicycles on the streets either. Everyone rides a motorcycle now. People are well-dressed, clean, neat. But in shop after shop, they’re uniformly surly, impatient, and irritated whenever we approach them. Smiles from passersby, once common, are rare. What happened to this once charming, friendly city?

When we wander into a mall to windowshop for cheap trinkets, all we see are Gucci, Dior, Prada, Armani.

“Get me out of here,” B.J. grumbles. “I came to see Vietnam, not Rodeo Drive.”

We pass a high school getting out, and a flood of girls in cotton-white ao dais, the most alluring female garment in the world — glide past us, their long tunics and long hair flapping in the breeze like an oil painting. Thank goodness that hasn’t changed.

Not wanting to get lost going back to the hotel, we take a taxi. The driver, a young, well-dressed man, greets us warmly and asks where we’re from. When we tell him we’re from California, he says, “Many Vietnamese live in California.”

I mention that one of Saigon’s former leaders, Nguyen Cao Ky, now lives in California. 

Not the wisest thing to have said. 

His smile vanishes. He starts talking about the war, and as he does, his mood mutates. “It was horrible,” he says of the war, staring hard at me through the rear-view mirror. “Many people die. Many family destroy. Do you visit Cu Chi Tunnels?” he asks us.

We say no.

Cu Chi is an area near Saigon where the Viet Cong built an intricate series of underground tunnels during the war. The tunnels hid them from the South Vietnamese and U.S. troops. From the tunnels, they were able to strike our positions and then disappear. The tunnels were self-supporting and included living quarters, kitchens, even hospitals. They were also booby-trapped in case anyone tried to flush them out. That onerous duty fell to the “tunnel rats,” soldiers small enough to fit into the narrow compartments.  

“My father was VC,” the driver declares, watching my reaction. “He fight in tunnels.” His eyes begin to water. “He die in tunnel,” he announces. “I never see my father.”

The cab is silent. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say. In all my travels to Vietnam, this is the first time anyone has brought up the war, the first time anyone has done so in a negative way, and the first time anyone from the other side has done so. I always feared this kind of exchange might happen one day, most likely in Hanoi, but it never did. After many return visits without a hint of anger or resentment from anyone, I had put that possibility out of my mind because it was clear that the Vietnamese people had done so.

So I’m surprised to have been confronted so forcefully and emotionally. And in Saigon. And from a driver who deals with Americans on a daily basis.

I can tell B.J. is as uncomfortable as I am. I’m relieved when the driver finally pulls up in front of our guesthouse. We pay him and get out. I consider saying something, but “I’m sorry” doesn’t seem appropriate enough.

I make a mental note not to mention Nguyen Cao Ky again.

The next day we sign up for a three-day tour down the Mekong Delta, a glorious rice bowl of floating markets, river traffic, lush vegetation, and drop-dead scenery. The region encompasses 15,000 square miles of southwestern Vietnam and produces about half of the country’s rice output. Vietnam is currently the largest exporter of rice globally, growing more rice than Korea and Japan combined.

Our group is a good one: a delightful retired English couple with whom everyone falls in love; Lola, a flirty young Italian woman who keeps us laughing; Dominick, a quiet young German whom we assume will hook up with Lola but never does; and an American businessman who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic in the 1990s.

We swap stories about the Peace Corps. He’s shocked that we’re all issued cellphones these days. He shakes his head at the size of our batch (149); his was a dozen.

The Mekong, which the Vietnamese call the River of Nine Dragons because of its nine “tails” or tributaries that flow through the Delta, is the world’s 12th longest river. Running through seven countries — Tibet, Myanmar, China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam — it’s as wide as a Nebraska plain and as brown as a mocha frappe.

We get onto a long boat and head down the swiftly moving current. We stop off at Unicorn Island in the middle of the river and transfer to canoes where we paddle through lush nipa marshes. We stop for lunch during which Vietnamese singers and musicians serenade us and teach us how to pluck their odd, single-string instruments.

We reach Can Tho, the epicenter of the Delta, by late afternoon. Everyone marvels at the city’s charming design. It’s clean and big, the highlight being a remarkable riverfront boulevard that begs to be strolled. We do so, stopping along the way at dozens of boutique shops to haggle for handmade souvenirs.

At dinner, B.J. and I learn from our travel mates that we avoided a typhoon that ravaged southern Vietnam a couple of days before we arrived. Most of  our companions were unable to leave their hotel rooms during the onslaught.

The next morning we head out early to witness the cacophony of Cai Rang, the largest floating market in Vietnam, where boats and barges and canoes and longtail boats weave among themselves selling their wares. Spiked atop a pole on the bow of each watercraft is the item it’s selling. If you want watermelons, look for a watermelon on top of someone’s pole. 

The market is a zoo in more ways than one, with as many tourist boats vying for space in the channel as merchant boats. I cringe as boat after boat of tourists surround the vendors and buyers, gawking at them and snapping their pictures as if they’re cute animals on a safari. I try to imagine how I would feel if crowds of tourists surrounded my desk every day at work and snapped pictures at everything I did.

We get on a bus and head north to Chau Duc on the border of Vietnam and Cambodia and check in to a floating hotel on the river for the night. The town is dead, there’s nothing to see, and the people unfriendly. The next morning we get back on the river for a slow, boring six-hour slog to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. We’d heard this river route was the most languid and romantic way to enter the capital. Whoever wrote that should be shot. There’s nothing to see, virtually no river traffic, and the banks of the river seem a mile away. 

Still, even though our Vietnam visit peters out at the end, B.J. is happy. “The Mekong is my favorite place. The people, the river, the  food, the scenery. I definitely want to come back.”

Next stop: Cambodia and the grandeur of Angkor Wat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’re given free girls.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JEOPARDY
February 1-5, 2012
Negros Oriental
After my success with Mad Libs last month, I spend a couple of days preparing a Jeopardy game for my classes. My categories are Parts of Speech, Spelling, Vocabulary, and Sentence Structure. Students can select topics worth 100, 200, 300, or 400 points, with the most difficult questions worth the most points.

Classes are divided into four teams. I arrange the questions and answers in reverse Jeopardy format: I give them a question, they provide the answer. My co-teacher Susan and I feel it would be too difficult for them to play Jeopardy the regular way by giving them the answer and making them provide a question.

The exercise ends up being even more successful than Mad Libs. Our section A class is all over it, the competition fierce. Students stand up, give the sign of the cross, and plunge ahead — choosing the easiest 100-point spelling questions. C’mon kids, you’re smarter than that. Show some backbone, take some chances. Who wants to win?

The first student who dips his toe into the realm of difficulty (Parts of Speech, 300 points), gets a question about pronouns, and his team collectively groans. For an instant I honestly think the poor boy’s going to faint. He promptly loses 300 points for his team, who berate him nastily. Great, now no one else will step up.

But I’m wrong. The next team’s best student chooses Parts of Speech for 400 and nails it. Game on!

My co-teacher loves but also hates it. She loves the game but is shocked at some of her best students’ answers. I read a sentence to one boy and ask what kind of sentence it is (Answer: complete or declarative). He thinks a while and then proclaims confidently, “Sedimentary.” Susan  nearly has a coronary.

The next day we give them a spelling test. Afterward, we ask them to use the words in sentences. When that elicits yawns, I up the ante. “Who can use two of the words in a sentence?” Instantly their competitive juices start to flow and hands are raised. “What about three? Who can top that with four?” And so on. By the end of the class, the winning student uses seven of the words in perhaps the most ridiculous sentence ever concocted. A good exercise to add to any of your spelling bees in the future. 

The next day all the district supervisors return to our school and monitor classes. My 7:40 class is observed by two of them, and our lesson goes very well. My counterpart had photocopied a lesson for the class about how to distinguish “Fact from Opinion” in text, especially advertising.

I meet with them later in the principal’s office and ask if there’s any truth to the commonly held perception (that I and other volunteers have observed and overheard from teachers and principals) that DepEd pressures schools, principals, and teachers into passing students, whether they’ve mastered their subjects or not.

I’m told there’s no such pressure. “We want them to pass, but legitimately” one supervisor tells me. “If their scores aren’t good enough, teachers must reteach them.”

I reply that some teachers say there’s no time to reteach. “They tell me the curriculum is so tight that there’s no time to repeat lessons.”

“That isn’t true,” another supervisor says. “There’s time allotted in every teacher’s schedule for make-up time. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, many teachers have free time during each day when they don’t have classes. That time is theirs to do grades, prepare lesson plans, or other tasks.”

When I relay this information to my teachers, they agree except for the available time. “Yes, we have free time, but the students don’t. Or if they do (because a teacher’s absent), it’s unplanned so their free time may not coincide with ours. And not all students who need remedial teaching are available at the same time.”

So the issue persists.

A new fingerprint identification machine is installed on campus to more closely monitor the comings and goings of teachers. We must now check in by placing our finger on the machine every time we arrive and depart, even during lunch. The teachers are fuming. I think it’s cool. I’m not timing in; I’m breaking into a DefCon5 level fortress on a Mission Impossible assigment. Okay, okay, but it works for me.

Posters are placed around campus spotlighting the top ten students in the third year, and one student’s name surprises me. She’s the oldest daughter of my previous host family. She’d once been a top student at the city’s best high school, Science High, but her grades slipped and she was no longer eligible to attend there. So she transferred here.

I take her aside and tell her I’m so proud of her. She’s speechless. 

“What happened?” I ask.

She beams at me and says, “I-I don’t know. I guess I’ve been inspired.” Good for her. Whatever did it seems to have rejuvenated her. Earlier this semester, my counterpart, who supervises the school paper and our entries in the national Press Com contest, told me that she’s the best writer in the school. When I relay that to her, she says she hadn’t heard that and is very moved.

When I compliment her mom, one of our MAPEH teachers, for her daughter’s accomplishment, she shakes her head with thankfulness. “I know, it’s wonderful, isn’t it?”

Later, that day, she tells me her daughter came up to her excited and said, “Uncle John congratulated me!”

During lunch, I’m sitting with other teachers munching a banana when one of my co-teachers greets us, stares at me quizzically, and says, “What are you doing?”

I look around. Then back at her. Then down at the banana. Then back at her. Got no clue.

“You’re eating that…raw?!” 

Never heard that one before. Apparently, the particular variety I’m eating — the short, thick, stubby kind — is only cooked or boiled by Filipinos. I don’t like boiled bananas because cooking them leaches out most of the sweetness. I munch away. A banana’s a banana.

That evening the wind blows like nothing I’ve heard before. Then rain splatters my house like a swarm of locusts. I peek outside to see if frogs are pouring over the wall. Not yet. I scrounge around the house looking for a Bible but can’t find one. Might be a good time to review the Book of Revelation.

Little do I know how close we came.

THE BIG ONE
February 6-7, 2012
Negros Oriental
The next day, February 6, teachers and I are sitting on the bench outside our Faculty Room a few minutes before lunchtime when a series of jolts vibrates the bench.

I’m an old hand at this sensation, once living in Japan for a year and in California most of my life.

“Earthquake. Get up. Get the kids outside,” I hear myself saying. The teachers scramble to classrooms, from which frightened students are already starting to pour.

In the courtyard, a MAPEH dance lesson is in session. The teacher instantly and correctly instructs her class to crouch on the ground and cover their heads.

I walk down the courtyard, waving students out of their classrooms. One bunch of students cowers just outside their doorway, afraid to go into the open. I motion to them to get away from the building.

The shaking isn’t violent. It’s a slow roller, like being on a boat in the ocean. But  it’s not stopping. My head swims dizzily.

Back at the bench, teachers are holding hands, heads down. Students everywhere are crying. Everyone’s crossing themselves. The campus is eerily quiet. We wait for it to subside.

But it doesn’t.

After several minutes, it seems, I mutter, “It’s still going on!”

The next hour is a blur of emotions. One teacher streaks across the campus, sheer terror on her face, shouting in Visayan. The only word I understand is “tsunami.” That’s the magic word. Instantly, students bolt toward the exits, shrieking and shouting and crying and clutching themselves. 

The pier and ocean are just over the wall at the end of the courtyard. I mentally size up a thick-trunked tree in front of me. Would it withstand such a wave? Would I have time to reach its middle branches before the tsunami reached me? I shake my head at such foolishness.

The rolling finally quits. Students start to leave in droves. We let them go. Parents arrive and whisk their kids out quickly.

I have a headache and feel seasick. But we appear to be in no danger. The buildings didn’t crumble, the ground didn’t crack open, trees didn’t come down. It felt like a 5.0 quake to me; such temblors usually do minor damage, if any. But that’s in the States. Here in the provinces, with shoddily constructed nipa shacks and buildings, especially those along the rivers and in mudslide-prone hillsides, even a 4.o quake can be lethal.

Thirty minutes later, the school is deserted. We slowly file out of the campus, but not before stopping at the fingerprint monitoring station. A few laugh at the long, nervous line of frightened teachers waiting impatiently to press their fingers on the machine. Would we still be expected to check out if buildings were tumbling down around us? Several teachers say to hell with the monitor and book it.

One teacher says she heard the river in Dumaguete that overflowed in the recent typhoon is flooding the outlying areas again. Another rumor is that a tsunami will hit our shore at 4 o’clock. My pedicab rider on the way home says the quake was 9.8. I want to tell him that if that were true, none of the buildings around us would be here and the two of us wouldn’t be having this conversation. Fear has supplanted reason.

When I get home, the only damage my house incurred was that my Super Crunchy Skippy Peanut Butter fell on its side. I wonder if Peace Corps will reimburse me for the dent.

Aftershocks continue the rest of the day. Peace Corps sends all Visayan volunteers update alerts throughout the afternoon and evening. No need to evacuate, we’re told. The tsunami alert level is just 2, which means the sea may elevate slightly and become rough but there will be no tsunami. That’s no help to Kim, one of the family members with whom I stayed with on my trip Mabinay last month.

She texts me saying she’s afraid and can’t stop crying. She’s never felt an earthquake before. I try to calm her down with multiple texts but she remains in a panic state. I run out of load texting her and trudge down the block to get some. The store is closed. Can’t be. They close at nine and it’s only six. I walk into town and find every place boarded up.

“Tsunami’s coming,” I’m told again and again. “Everyone’s with their families or at church.”

I finally find one shop open, but they have no more load. “Everyone’s texting their families,” the proprietor says. “Next shop might have some.” It does and I head back home, texting Kim along the way. I pass the house of Nick, one of my tennis partners, who invites me in. We share some Tanduhay and some snacks and talk about the quake.

As we do, a sudden aftershock rocks the house and everyone hurries outside and holds hands while the street dogs bark at Mother Nature and spooked cats dart across the street in all directions .

Back home, emails and texts flood in from PCVs across the country asking if I’m okay. My Peace Corps warden (a local volunteer in charge of monitoring everyone in the area in times of emergency) asks if I’m okay. Even Peace Corps in Washington, D.C., emails me, requesting my immediate status and whereabouts.

By now it’s official: according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, the quake was magnitude 6.9. Ground zero was the town of Tayasan, 90 kilometers north of me.

When I tell a Luzon volunteer, B.J. Stolbov, that it felt no more than a 5, he emails back: “That’s so Californian — 6.9, no big deal!”

My counterpart texts me: no school tomorrow. Classes will be suspended at all public elementary and secondary schools in Central Visayas until every school building is inspected for safety. Wow, that could take a while.

More than 40 people died. The quake damaged bridges, highways, public buildings, churches. It triggered landslides (burying 90 houses in two villages), toppled power and communications lines, and caused massive evacuations throughout the region. Rains, aftershocks, and unstable conditions in the mountainous areas hampered rescue efforts for days. More than 1,400 aftershocks rock the area afterward.
 
If that isn’t enough, Negros Occidental Governor Alfredo Marañon Jr. calls on the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology to monitor the volcanic activity on Mt. Kanlaon. It seems that water in nearby towns has suddenly turned brown. Mt. Kanlaon is north of me, but far away.
 
 
“THIS MAY STING A LITTLE”
February 7-13, 2012
Negros Oriental
I finally resume playing tennis after month layoff and try out my new racket. It’s fantastic, and I play better than I expected. But when I get home, the ball of my left foot is gigantic. I can’t understand why. I hadn’t stumbled or hurt myself during play, and I feel no pain. Yet it’s massively swollen.
 
Then I remember. During my vacation in Siquijor just after Christmas, I recall feeling a slight sting while snorkeling and seeing a tiny black barb on the ball of my foot afterward. But I couldn’t get it out of my foot and there was no pain so I forgot about it.
 
During the last week, though, I began to feel a numbing sensation at the ball of my foot. I’ve had numbness in my feet during my service, and I was found to have a nerve problem in that leg. So again I disregarded it.
 
But I can’t ignore the swelling this time. I text PCMO in Manila, and they tell me to go to Silliman Medical Center in Dumaguete. I go to the Emergency Room where they extract a vial of blood and pus. “There was a lot of fluid in there,” the surgeon says, “so we’re going to have to do minor surgery to remove the barb and clean out the area.”
 
After nurses ready me for the procedure, the doctor says those all-too-familiar words: “This may sting a little.” Funny, that’s what the sea urchin said.
 
What follows is beyond the meaning of the word “sting.” I think I count six shots in and around my big toe before I begin whimpering. Or praying. Or begging. I don’t remember which. Near the end of the ordeal, I think I tell him to forget the anesthesia and just cut me open. “Anything but another shot.”
 
He finds the sea urchin barb, plus a lot of blood clots. “Do you have a history of clotting?” No. “Have you had trauma to the area recently?” I tell him that on that day in Siquijor I had to step over a lot of sharp rocks trying to get out of the surf.
 
He packs the inside of the ball of my foot with what looks like a balloon that he says will collect and drain the blood, then he wraps it all up with gauze and tape. 
 
When I finally sit up, my foot looks  — and feels — like he’s crammed a softball inside it. It hurts like a mother and it makes walking nearly impossible. Somehow, I stuff it all into my shoe and hobble outside to a trike, then an easy ride, then a pedicab to my door.
 
The next day I return to the hospital to have the packing removed. It feels better afterward but I won’t be playing tennis for a while. 
 
SCHOOL REOPENS
February 14-17, 2012
Negros Oriental
The city inspects our school and declares one classroom too damaged to be used again due to cracks in its foundation. It will have to be destroyed once we get the funds to do so. Classes that were held there will now be conducted in the library.
 
My teachers are amused by my foot injury. “Don’t you know the local remedy for a sea urchin sting?” one says. I’m afraid to ask.
 
“Squeeze calamansi juice on it, and the stinger will dissolve.”
 
“You’re kidding me, right?”
 
“Or pee on it. The vinegar is what does it.”
 
Another one adds, “But it has to be female urine. Male pee won’t do it.”
 
Now I’m sure they’re kidding. I think. Either way, I shake my head. I could have saved myself a lot of pain and inconvenience — and the Peace Corps a lot of money — if I’d just asked the Peace Corps medical office or a neighbor how to treat a sea urchin sting.
 
My foot hurts like hell all day, and I hop around like a hare with an ingrown toenail, but my mood soars when students flood me with valentines. One says: “Celebrate how truly special you are and how unique you are and loved by everybody.”
 
To help decrease the number of students who drop out, which is a serious and growing problem in the Philippines, our school announces it will initiate an Open School program next year. Students who must work to support their family or harvest crops will be able to come to school just one day a week. They’ll work on module projects that will supplant classroom time but will encompass the same curricula.
 
The principal invites me to attend the meeting as he wants me to be on the committee next year. During lunch, I speak with the District Education Supervisor and bend her ear about some of my frustrations with the education system. She’s very interested in what I have to say.
 
I tell her that many students in my English classes are given passing grades when they clearly can’t speak or write. Elementary school kids graduate who can’t read a word, and high school kids graduate who can’t speak a word. Students who continually cut classes are rarely monitored or disciplined. 
 
The supervisor surprises me by saying we should do everything in our power to keep students in school and to pass them. “If they’re not mastering their lessons, change your methods,” she advises. “Give them easier lessons and shorter tests to build up their confidence.”
 
“But what about elementary schools who pass on their poorest students to us, and high schools who pass on clearly unqualified students to college? Isn’t it our mission to encourage literacy? Letting students into the world who are functionally illiterate won’t help society.”
 
She smiles at me. “How many languages were you required to learn when you were in high school?”
 
I think back. English, of course. And Spanish, but that was an elective.
 
Students here must master three languages, she explains. And recently the emphasis is more on Tagalog, our national language, than on English. “We should have compassion and understanding for what our students are accomplishing. They’re trying as hard as they can with limited resources and often difficult or broken family situations. And remember, many students just aren’t good in languages. Instead, they might be very good in carpentry or math or the arts. Not everyone can excel in every subject.”
 
She says that one time she, like me, believed everyone must speak English well to succeed in the world. Then she went to Thailand and couldn’t converse with anyone. “I was completely lost. Nothing I’d learned helped me. I couldn’t even order food or ask directions.” She smiles ruefully at the memory. “After that, I realized one doesn’t have to be fluent in English to succeed.”
 
I tell her that  my real disappointment so far is that I have yet to achieve any noteworthy Peace Corps accomplishment that I’d dreamed of doing when I applied. She tells me not to frustrate myself. “You’re doing a lot.”
 
She asks if I heard about the man who wanted to change the world and discovered he could not. So he tried to change his country. He could not. Next he tried to change his province. He failed. Then he tried to change his barangay. He couldn’t even do that. Finally, he realized he had to change himself.
 
She looks at me. “Adjust your priorities, John. Make your mark on the kids you can.”
 
I thank her very much for her time and kindness, and we part cordially. When I leave, I feel inspired, rejuvenated, and humbled.
 
That afternoon, my counterpart, another English teacher, and I are summoned to the principal’s office. We don’t know what it’s about, but when we arrive, the principal is stern-faced. He asks me and the other teacher if we administered the oral reading assessments the week before to elementary students who were pre-enrolling for next year’s incoming class. We say that we did.
 
He asks to see our assessment score sheets. We retrieve them and return. “Is it true that you assessed three students from the local elementary school as being non-readers?” We nod yes.
 
“Well, it seems that one of the student’s parents is threatening to make a formal complaint. She claims her daughter can read quite well. She says we slandered her daughter.”
 
The other teacher and I look at each other, and I can see she’s clearly frightened by the possibility of a formal accusation. I wonder, too, how the Peace Corps might react if I’m drawn into a legal mess. I may have to alert my Regional Manager of that possibility.
 
Nonetheless, the teacher and I are adamant that our scores accurately reflected the reading level of the three students in question. We tell him the charge of slander is ludicrous. The students could not read the short paragraph they were given. Each one struggled over every word for 10 to 20 seconds, then grossly mispronounced it. We didn’t let them them finish reading, cutting short their ordeal after several minutes. Otherwise we would have been there all day.
 
We show the principal their score sheets. “Both of us listened to the students as they read, and both of us confirmed their level. The average number of mistakes for most students was 4 or 5. As you can see, each of these three students accumulated more than 40 errors, and they only finished half the paragraph.”
 
Still, he’s not convinced. “I want to see the scores from their reading comprehension and vocabulary assessments as well,” he says. “We need to gather as much evidence as possible in case a complaint is made. Our conclusion must be ironclad, without question.”
 
I offer a simple solution: bring the parents, the students, their teachers, and their principals together and give the students the oral reading test again in front of them. “That would be the easiest and clearest way to confirm our findings.” 
 
Two days later, my counterpart informs me that she spoke with the mother who threatened to sue the school for slander. After explaining to the parent the test rubric we used, which was developed by the Department of Education, and revealing her child’s score,which was confirmed by both myself, a native English teacher, and the other teacher (the region’s #1 English teacher last year), the woman changed her mind.
 
“She has no more  interest in pursuing the matter,” my counterpart smiles at me. “So you don’t have to worry, Sir John.”
 
UNANSWERED PRAYERS
February 24-29, 2012
Negros Oriental
I come to school and don’t see Susan, my favorite coteacher, in the Faculty Room. I ask one of the other teachers if she’s sick; she suffers from allergies and when they break out, her face swells up and the pills she must take make her drowzy and unable to come to school. I assume that’s what happened. I’m wrong.
 
“She’s at the hospital,” the teacher says. “Her daughter was hit by a gravel truck this morning crossing the street. She’s in a coma. It’s up to prayers now.”
 
I stand there speechless. The teacher has only one child, a daughter. The girl was just about to graduate from Silliman University, the second-most prestigious institution in the country. She was the pride of the family and the hope for their future. I can’t imagine how the teacher will recover from this. Their daughter was their life.
 
I’m in a daze the rest of the morning. I wander over to the main campus and inform my counterpart of the tragedy. She’s stunned. I break the news to the other teachers in the Faculty Room. They’re horrified. As we talk, I notice boxes and boxes line the walls, and two teachers are sorting their contents, which look very familiar. I walk up for a closer look.
 
 
They’re my new textbooks donated by Books for Peace! The ones I ordered two months ago! There are 11 large boxes in all. I look at the books; they’re all brand new. Wow, the students will be so happy. Finally, we have textbooks for our Remedial Reading program. We can now develop a long-range, detailed curriculum with actual lesson plans and activities. I’m so excited I want to tell Susan…then remember she’s at the hospital praying for a miracle.
 
My good news announcement must take a back seat to fate. I return to the second campus and am informed that the child wasn’t the teacher’s daughter but her grandniece. Everyone is relieved. I hurry back to the main campus and inform everyone to whom I’d broken the news earlier that it wasn’t her daughter.
 
Later that afternoon, we learn that the family’s prayers were not answered.
 
I teach Susan’s classes solo that afternoon and play Jeopardy again, which they love. Although their joy fills their rooms, I dread what I’m going to have to tell them, which will end the laughter. At the end of each class, I calm them down and inform them of the news. I ask them to bow their heads for a moment of silence in honor of their teacher who’s mourning at that moment. They’re very emotional afterward and crowd around me asking what happened and how she’s doing.
 
Tonight is the Junior-Senior Prom, and I show up at 7:30 with a bottle of rum and a bottle of wine. The president of the PTA waves me over and asks me to keep him company. He’s dedicated to the school and to his job. He’s also one of the funniest and most pleasant persons to be around. 
 
I marvel at how grown-up all the students look. They look so young and innocent in their school uniforms by day. Tonight they’re draped in Cinderella gowns and suits and ties. The girls have all been professionally made up by stylists. The boys have gelled their hair into wet pomades that swirl into points like licorice ice cream.
 
 
I spot my host mother’s daughter, and I barely recognize her. She’s absolutely stunning with a long pink dress, hair rolled up on top of her head like a majestic crown. 
 
We all wait for the speeches to end so the dancing (and drinking) can start. I dance with the teachers, and the students invite me to join their dancing circles. It’s well after midnight before I make it back home.
 
My PCV friend B.J., who’s been teaching in Cebu with Tudlo Mindanao, boats over to Negros Oriental to spend a couple of days with me. I meet him at the Dumaguete pier and take him to Kri, which serves the best burger in the Visayas, hands down.
 
B.J. excuses himself to go the restroom and passes through a private party in the next room to get to it. When he returns, he says someone wants to meet me. Seems that when he was walking back through the room, he introduced himself to a woman at the party and struck up a conversation.
 
“Who is she?” I ask.
 
“President of Foundation University (one of the largest in Dumaguete, which is renowned as a college town, boasting 18 private and public colleges and universities, including Silliman). She’s looking for someone to teach writing next quarter. Naturally, I recommended you.”
 
Thanks a lot, B.J. As if I don’t have enough on my plate. But I join the party and introduce myself to the president, a professional-looking woman in a starched red-and-white striped blouse and charcoal slacks. She’s been to California and even knows my small town. We chat about education and English.
 
She’s looking for someone, preferably a native speaker, to teach writing for a special class that will commence in June. I try to beg off, saying I’m already swamped with my work at the high school.
 
“Of course. But this class will be in the evening. Would that be possible?”
 
I reply that my Peace Corps service ends in November, halfway through the school year.
 
“Oh, that’s all right. We operate on the quarter system,” she says politely. “So you would be able to finish the quarter with no disruption.”
 
She has an answer to everything. I can’t think of anything else to say, so I ask for her card and we shake hands. I’m flattered to be asked, and it would be interesting to teach college students. But I’m exhausted much of the time now. I can’t imagine having to go into Dumaguete every night and teaching again. I would have no free time.
 
I’ll have to contact my regional manager, who I hope will tell me we’re not allowed to take on outside teaching assignments.
 
As it’s too late to take an easy ride back to Sibulan, B.J. and I go to the Ceres Liner bus terminal for a ride home. We’re met by a scowl from the terminal ticket manager. “You’re just going to Sibulan?” he asks incredulously. “Take a trike.” Which rhymes with and means the same thing as “Take a hike.”
 
We’re forced to hop on a trike back for 100 pesos; the regular easy ride fare is 10. I vow not to take a Ceres Liner again.
 
There’s a vigil in progress across the street when we arrive (a 94-year-old neighbor passed away a couple of days ago), and a huge crowd of people are sitting on chairs on the lawn and mingling in the street. I introduce B.J. to the family, and we view the body, eat some snacks, and chat with the neighbors.
 
B.J. sacks out on the couch, and in the morning I fix french toast and milkshakes and we tour the town. I take him to the pier, my school, the park, and over to the tennis court to meet my barkada who are  finishing playing.
 
We spend the rest of the afternoon planning the itinerary for our Southeast Asia tour we’ll embark on in early April (Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). In the evening I take him back to Dumaguete where we have dinner, check out the boulevard, and return to the pier.
 
My coteacher resumes work on Monday and seems in good spirits, although she hasn’t had much sleep. They had a vigil at her house for several days and she didn’t get to sleep until 3 a.m. each night. Her students greet her sweetly and softly.
 
Welcome back, Susan.