Forming Islands in the Philippines
One of the Philippine creation myths speaks of a lightning bolt blasting rock and dropping islands from the sky to form the vast archipelago. Another myth suggests that the Filipino people emerged from a piece bamboo before fanning out across the island chain. It is no myth that life in the Philippines can feel scattered and vast. Its history is a tangled mix of native roots and colonial influences. The cultural and geographic diversity can feel as if each of the thousands of islands is a different country. Getting on a bus and driving a few hours north out of the capital city of Manila leaves newly-arrived visitors whispering “Is this still the Philippines?” The range of experience is mythic, and it is what has made it a storied nation for Peace Corps volunteers.
In 2009, my wife and I started writing what continues to become our volunteer story. At times it has felt as if we magically stepped outside ourselves and watched two Americans stumbled through a new life of adventure - the integration adventure or the development work adventure. We have spanned an experience that started with briefings in a San Francisco hotel and led to us to a community where everyone watches and smiles at us, checking to make sure we are still happy living in the Philippines. We have collected archipelagos of experience and tried to divide them into separate islands. But the tide of culture waxes and wanes, and we become overwhelmed trying to make sense of it all. We are forced to draw big lessons from little experiences, and sometimes it’s best to learn in the context of a single week. Here is this week’s archipelago of experience:
Today was the beginning of the first semester with lessons about extreme heat and illegal divorces.
The transformer outside the classrooms blew out again, and we were left fan-less, sopping sweat from our brows with handkerchiefs. During the afternoon, I tried to convince a class of future teachers that they were being forged into great teachers by suffering through the power outage. Body odor, sweat stained shirts, and glazed eyes told me that my inspirational call on the glory of teaching had fallen on deaf ears.
In the afternoon, I played tennis. My tennis partner asked if I wanted to divorce him and play with someone else after an embarrassing defeat. Answering his own question, he said, “Too bad. Divorce is still against the law here. As of this week, the Philippines is the last country in the world where divorce is against the law. Did you know that?” I told him I did but that divorce was still legal in the US, so I could still find a new partner. We all laughed. Thunder clapped, and we rushed home in advance of another rainy season downpour.
Today was a typhoon of teaching. I taught classes all day at the college and then taught public speaking during the evening to 8 dancers at my wife’s center for abandoned and neglected youth.
At lunch, fellow teachers peppered me with questions about a Reproductive Health bill working its way through the Senate in Manila. The Catholic Church threatened to excommunicate the President if the bill passed. Teachers grumbled about oppressive poverty and population explosion but were divided on whether the bill would help. I learned again how tame debate can seem in the faculty room with everyone speaking in veiled language. I learn to be a better listener on days like today; I strain to hear the deep-seated frustrations of a nation facing tremendous social and environmental challenges.
Wednesday I was stuck in bed with a hurt back. Staying home is easy because we live in a forested area. It is quiet, and with the electric fan on level three, you can nurse a hurt back and drown out the sound of the chickens, goats, cats and dogs outside your bedroom window. I listened to neighbors scratch the ground with their brooms and share stories during the cooler hours of the day. The Filipino word for neighbor translates as my house sibling, which is fitting as our neighbors are so close to one another.
My students were openly crying today. I asked them to talk about the impact of education in their lives. Again and again I listened to stories from teenagers like Marlon. He was the oldest of eight siblings and was expected to support his family as soon as he was of working age. His parents could not provide him with any financial assistance, so now he is paying his way through school on scholarships and odd jobs. He broke down as he spoke of the shame he feels washing his friends’ clothes at the men’s dormitory for a few pesos. The prospect of earning a teacher’s wage is a future glory that will help him provide some financial stability for himself and his family.
Peace Corps sent me a text message this afternoon to say that a tropical storm had formed near us. We were asked to prepare for rain and flooding. My umbrella was stolen at lunch. One of the teachers tried to cheer me up by telling me that three of her umbrellas had been stolen since she started teaching. I put up signs offering a 100 peso reward. Everyone in the faculty room was laughing at me. A teacher took me aside and laughingly said, “This is the Philippines. You’ll never see your umbrella again.” I rode my bike home in the rain. On the ride home the wind pulled red flowers down from the trees of fire, painting large sections of the road red.
Another week ended, and I didn’t stop once to write things down. I should have. I should have taken out a journal and captured all the little moments. I could store them for that day when I return to the US and tell all the stories of the Philippines, but as I look back on a single week, I realize how daunting it all seems. How does one choose the perfect island in a sea of experience?
In two weeks my wife and I will board a plane with 8 Filipino teenagers and return the United States for a two-week visit to Washington DC. The teenagers will dance on the National Mall during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Not one of them has flown before. They are thrilled with anticipation. And we have worked with them for years; they are the precious stones we polish each week in creating our story, our island. We won’t have to say anything when they take the stage. They will tell our story. They will tip tap and clap to the rhythm of all the Mondays and Fridays that have blurred into our two-years here. It will be a mythic experience watching islands form for our American friends.