February 17, 2003 - Gypsy Journal: In June and July 2001, I went to the Philippines to visit my friend Noah and revisit "The Peace Corps Experience." (Part 2)

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In June and July 2001, I went to the Philippines to visit my friend Noah and revisit "The Peace Corps Experience." (Part 2)

In June and July 2001, I went to the Philippines to visit my friend Noah and revisit "The Peace Corps Experience." (Part 2)

The Typhoon Subsides

Sunday - 1 Jul 2001
Pandan Town , Antique Province - Philippines

The Typhoon Subsides

We joked and laughed and squinted into the wind. Then the rain started pelting again, and we yelped and ran for cover.

Back inside, Noah gleaned some facts from the radio: it’s a Signal One typhoon, the mildest incarnation of the five-part scale. I could imagine a storm being worse than this, I guess, but my imagination stops at Signal Three. What a Signal Five typhoon would be like, I have no earthly clue. It must be horrendous, and must strip the islands clean of anything on them. Despite the low classification, the winds in excess of 150 k.p.h. have earned this storm the classification of “supertyphoon.” Also, there are the first reports of casualties: two men from Pandan died when their fishing boat capsized several miles out. The radio also reminded us that today is July 4th, American Independence Day. No fireworks for us tonight.

Cabin fever had set in full by the end of the second day. 48 hours is a long time to spend in a bamboo cabin with your friend, a sleeping dog, a piss-ant cat, and a woman scorned. I tried to relieve my inner tension by doing push-ups in the storage room. It helped for a while. The electricity was still out, and the routine of sitting, reading, writing, talking, eating, and sleeping had begun to chafe.

In the late afternoon, the rain eased again, and I elected to take a walk. Noah had taken a break from his efforts at attempting to indirectly convince Zita to leave, and had gone to a meeting; Zita herself was writing in her sullen notebook. I donned my raincoat and whistled up Pawikan the dog. The gate to Noah’s yard had been sealed shut by the accumulation of wave-borne debris outside, so we had to squeeze through to exit. Off on a stroll through the typhoon!

The sea had receded a bit, and the beach was again revealed to us to walk on. The sand was dark and firm, the mountains obscured by the gray mist and clouds. As they had been for days, all the coconut palms and nipa fronds along the beach were bent inland, as winds continued to blast in unceasing from the south. But precipitation was light, and Pawikan and I enjoyed the stroll west along the coast of Pandan Bay.

There were some terns with forked tails in the air above the waves. How these birds were managing to fly in this wind was beyond my comprehension: I could only just manage to walk!

We reached a gravel bar where a river flowed into the bay. Huge clots of vegetation were bobbing down the swollen river, more mast for the re-depositing powers of the sea. I threw a stick for Pawikan, but he showed no interest. We turned around and began to meander back.

Almost immediately, a new squall blew in. I was pelted with horizontal rain that stung my skin like gravel pellets. I was exceptionally thankful I had my raincoat with me, and I pulled the hood sideways over the right side of my face. I began running, and Pawikan needed no further cue. The dog ran much faster than I was able to go, and periodically he hid behind palm trunks and clusters of nipa. When I caught up to his position, he would sprint for the next shelter. Shelter doesn’t mean having a roof above your head, at least not here: it means having an object between you and the sea! The equation for the Philippines is: Horizontal rain = horizontal shelter.

I got back to the house feeling really good, exhilarated by my small adventure. I took an extended shower and dried off and felt clean and exercised and contented. An evening cadre of guests gathered in Noah’s house: Boy, Zita, neighbor Linda, Bimbot the veterinarian, Noah himself, me, and the wet Pawikan, who was enjoying a scratch from his owner. The grayness outside faded to black, and another day had ended. Still the storm continued; I was exasperated: this was so unlike the summer afternoon thunderstorms that I have been used to in DC and Virginia.

At some point, Noah and Zita talked and reconciled their silent conflict. We bought some San Miguel and stayed up a while, listening to the BBC. Zita had cheered up, and again I was shocked to see the 180-degree change in her personality. She was again an extrovert, calling the beer by nicknames like “SMB” and “Vitamin B1.” We had a good time together, the three of us, more relaxed than in days. The storm reflected the change, and though it could only be described as “a dark and stormy night,” the roar has abated from freight train to mere Mack truck.

Heading Out For A Hike

Like a fever, on the third day the typhoon broke. I went out to the beach at dawn, and found myself one among many. Up and down the beach, people were out surveying the damage. One woman was scavenging through the detritus. For my part, bolstered by strong coffee, I surveyed the shore. The ocean certainly looked calmer than it had the previous day. The breakers were still a mass of froth, but less of it than before. The waves still reached high on the beach, but not as high: there were four meters of “breathing room” between the edge of the ocean and Noah’s house.

For breakfast, we walked into town. One of the vendors at the market sells bananas fried in coconut oil. They are warm and sweet, crispy and pasty. The bananas are served on a sliver of bamboo, like a Popsicle stick. They had become my new favorite snack. We also bought some rolls and pastries from the bakery. As we wander around eating, we see the first scraps of blue sky above. Good news; I loosen the collar of my jacket. On the way back to the house, we walked along the beach, dodging waves. A lesser frigatebird hung in the air above the trees.

Noah had arranged with Boy to have Zita go stay with them. Boy arrived, glad to have a guest for his wife to talk to. He pulled Zita on his motorcycle, and they headed off to Libertad. We were thankful to have her gone. Instead of luxuriating in the extra space in the nipa hut, we opt to go for a hike, the sporadic tinkle of rain seems like Paradise to our typhoon-weary souls.

We grab some snacks, some canned tuna and crackers, fill our water bottles, whistle to the dog. Out on the main road, we flag down a trike that is headed south. Noah climbs into the front part and pulls Pawikan into his lap. I tuck myself into the tiny back space, and watch the muddy road slide by and we chortle past rice paddies and copses of palm and banana trees. I am feeling a cold coming on, and my stuffed sinuses distort my sense of balance. I slam my head repeatedly on the roof of the metal sidecar, as the road offers unpredictable potholes and washed gullies.

We have the trike driver drop us off near the home of Nursing, a burly Filipino hunter who collects information on the forests for Noah’s organization. Nursing is at home, sitting with his relatives and neighbors under a corrugated tin roof. We duck under to join them. Several of the old men and women are drinking tuba, the Filipino moonshine of fermented coconut juice. We try a little, but I choose only a token sip, since I am already mildly ill. I can see specks of dirt floating in the grayish liquid.

Noah gives Nursing a copy of National Geographic: earlier in the month, the two of them had helped to guide a Geographic photographer on an expedition to photograph hornbills in the forest. They converse in Kinaraya as Nursing examines the colorful magazine. All around us is dirt, and children and chickens and dogs are covered in mud. They all stare at Noah and I. I feel conspicuous. Even the damned chickens are staring! After three days indoors, sequestered with a small crowd in the tiny nipa hut, this public scrutiny seems extreme. I smile and nod, and fake another sip of the noxious tuba. We bid farewell, and set off. Our next stop is similar: another hunter and his family. To get to their house, we must walk a balance-beam of mud between two adjacent rice paddies. If I slip and lose my balance, I will be submerged in two feet of liquid mud and baby rice plants. Frogs squeal as they launch themselves from our path, little amphibious trajectories in damp air. We fold ourselves through the door of the second hut, and I am introduced to another family, children, dogs, and curious elderly neighbors again in conspicuous attendance. One little boy stands with snot running down his chin. He wears only a stained tee-shirt. Noah makes a gift to the hunter of a Lonely Planet Tagalog-English phrasebook. Who knows if this will ever be of use to them: I guess that’s not the point.

Hiking, Serendipity, Beer Truck Lift back to Town

After our respects have been paid, we set off into the woods. A squall of rain moves in, and we run for cover. Noah pushed open a door to a house and yelled to me, “I know these people!” I follow. There were a woman and a girl in there, and they looked shocked. I hoped that Noah knew what he was doing. Noah explained to them that he knows Junior, husband to the woman, father to the little girl. They agreed to let us wait out the rain in their living room. Again, the floor was merely dirt, and a pig snorted from the next room. Noah found a pencil to offer as a gift to the daughter, exhorting her to use it in school. Time passed, the rain continued. I began to feel more and more like I was intruding. I suggested that we leave, and Noah agreed.

The rain was less now, but the mud was thick along the path that we follow up into the forest and hills.

My shoes were sodden: essentially hiking in a stream of brown goo. Carabou shit mixed with the native soil, a volcanic clay mud. It all sloshed in my beat-up old sneakers. We were rewarded with a fine view the higher we hiked: Pandan Bay stretched in vast crescent from our vantage north. Ahead of us, were hills and trees, and the potential of mysterious birds. We encountered a man hauling some wood down from above: a poacher or a subsistence gatherer or just a regular guy getting some firewood, depending on your definition.

The rainforest up into the mountains was thick and mysterious. Undrained of its fantastic biological potential, this forest emitted odd shrieks and hums. We crossed several crude fences. At one, we stopped and had our snack, and decided to head back downhill. The weather cleared, and we hiked back down via a different route. We found a tree weighed down with the nests of several ant hives. These were the vicious ants that will swarm upon anything that disturbs their nests. I was glad that we spotted them before upsetting their branches. The nests are each the size of a loaf of bread, stitched together of green leaves with a white fibrous-looking glue. Once safely past, I felt the inclinations of the meddling teenager in me rise, mischievous towards the stinging insects. I pick up a stick. “Hey, Noah, watch this.” I poked the nests to rile up their denizens. They POURED out in an incredibly rapid stream. We backed away and chuckled. But first and foremost, we backed away: these ants emit an alarm pheromone that recruits others to the fray. Further down, we found ourselves picking our way through a terraced rice paddy. There, an old man hailed us, and began talking to Noah in formal, well-enunciated Old Visayan language. Noah was barely able to understand the archaic accent, but politely listened, and offered me rough translations. Like a modern Yankee talking to an Irish septuagenarian, he could only manage a general gist of the monologue. The old man had bright blue eyes, very intense as he gesticulated and apparently told us about the Bible.

He led us the rest of the way down to the road, presenting us to a motley clan of family and hangers-on gathered by the roadside. They were at first shocked at the appearance of these two strange white men from out of the forest, but they relaxed significantly and even laughed when Noah began charming them with his well-practiced Kinaraya. The old man now looked sheepish, and he backed away to the rear of the crowd. The women in the crowd expressed a fear of snakes, telling us that they would never venture into the forests. Noah responded with an ecological tact, explaining to deaf ears how even snakes have an important place in the forest ecosystem. Somebody produced a bottle of Tanduay, the Filipino rum, admonishing us to drink. We declined, and took that as our cue to cut short the conversation and get moving.

Getting back to Pandan turned from a sketchy proposition into a glorious moment, when we hailed a beer delivery truck for a ride. We presented a great tableau: Two white guys and a muddy dog balanced atop seventy crates of San Miguel bottles, lurching on a flatbed truck on a muddy road, surrounded by the glory of the rice paddies and banana trees and the rainforest and the ocean, and indeed the whole fine world. I felt so good just then; it was my crowning moment for the afternoon, the whole muddy hike worth it just to be in this bizarre movement en route back to Pandan and hot food. I felt like we were in the Macy’s Day Parade; certainly enough heads turned to watch our progress as we rattled by.

Back in Pandan village, we met up with Boy and had a bowl of noodles at a restaurant with him. The salty soup was excellent, and at Boy’s suggestion, I ordered mine “special.” This turned out to mean that it came with an egg dropped into the middle of the bowl. For dessert, I insisted on another banana fried in coconut oil from the market vendors.

Leaving Borocay at Sunset.


We finally did make it to the adjacent island of Borocay soon thereafter. Because Borocay differs so much from its larger neighbor, it’s worth relating a few details of that daytrip here. Struck with the realization that we had little else to do one afternoon, we hopped in the “Owner-type” and drove 45 minutes to Caticlan. In Caticlan, we parked the jeep. Noah paid someone to watch it. Then we climbed aboard a water-taxi, which was a long boat with outriggers of bamboo. The topography was different here, with chunky limestone coming right down to the beach, in some places hollowed into caves by the tides. Noah told me that Borocay itself was riddled with caverns, home to one of the largest populations of fruit bats in the world. The boat took us quickly across the water, and at a little cove we waded ashore.

Tourism has ruined this island, or has done 90% of that job. It was hideous facsimile of Asian beachness, tacky and commercial in a Vegas-like strip along the beach, but hiding a desperate squalor a few meters away. Behind the curtain of shops, bars, and restaurants, there was a sub-caste of workers living in foul mud. Noah told me of how a golf course was going to be built here, and how an incredible amount of people were brought in to do the work. The golf course deal fell through, and these thousands of people were left there, with no income and nothing to eat. The island’s famous bat population, resident in the caves, became the mainstay of the local diet. The number of bats plummeted for years, and only after it was thoroughly decimated, did the island achieve its current status as a fashionable get-away. Sadly, the garish tourism may be the bats’ best hope for survival: so long as the resort prospers, the island’s workers may have enough money to buy other foods.

We found an Internet café, and connected briefly with the outer world. I was feeling slow, and so was my connection. We didn’t have time to dawdle, though, because we had to be sure to catch the last boat back to Panay before nightfall. We grabbed some coffee and some whole wheat bread (unavailable on Panay) and hightailed it back to the cove.

The sun fell as we were riding back across the water. Noah made friends again, with perfect strangers, by virtue of his ability to speak the language. I heard him explaining who he was and where he lived and why he was working there. The other passengers on board were all very curious. We gave a ride to two of the passengers on our way back, one of whom, a woman peanut-seller. She gave us each a bag of sugar-coated peanuts as thanks for the lift.

That night Noah and I cooked a fantastic meal. The main course was tuna marinated in pineapple juice, garlic, and soy sauce. We also had a big pot of mussels, and that diminished loaf of whole-wheat bread. A swim in the ocean after dinner had to be curtailed when we drifted into a school of “sea ants” which began biting us. I have no idea what a “sea ant” is: it was dark, and I have never heard of such a creature before. It hurt, that’s all I know. I left the ocean after the second one nipped me.

The Research Station

Sunday - 1 Jul 2001
The Rainforest , Northwest Panay Peninsula - Philippines

Hiking Up to the Research Station

The next morning it was certain that the typhoon had passed. The dawn was a terrific sunrise at 5:15am. The sky was totally orange, horizon to horizon, highlighted with small horizontal dashes of pink. In the foreground, the black silhouettes of palm trees and fruit bats in flight.

I wasn’t feeling at my best, but since the weather was finally suitable, we made a plan with the two other Peace Corps Volunteers, Jessie and Tasha, to hike up to the rainforest research station.

The organization that the three Peace Corps volunteers work for, BioCon, was started with the assistance of a German conservation group, the Frankfurt Zoological Society. FZS maintains a research station high in the interior forest of the island. It is staffed continually by a German, Stefan, and his Ethiopian wife, AmSally. Also often present is June, a Filipino jack-of-all-trades, who keeps the place in good repair and impresses scientists with his common-sense knowledge of the forest.

Filipino porters bring supplies up to the station every couple of days, via an arduous forest track. BioCon’s captive dulungans (the more endangered of the two hornbill species) are all kept up at the research station, in hopes of keeping them more habituated to their native habitat. Half of the supplies are for the birds, and half for Stefan and AmSally and whoever else is up at the research station.

We picked Jesse and Tasha up, and then drove back up to Cubay. We left the jeep in the care of Lolo and Lola, and then began our trek into the forest. The trail begins at the Bulanao River (running only one way that morning). Almost immediately, my feet were wet. The trail meanders widely, seemingly without regard for the presence of the river. We crossed and recrossed it several times. The water was cool and clear, refreshing, and I had none of the trepidation that I did with our slog through the manure-&-mud trail that we had hiked a couple of days previously.

As with our Malumpati nest-hole check-up expedition, we hike through several grades of human-influenced forest before we got into the interior, to the ancient and undisturbed “primary” forest. We did a lot of climbing upwards. Despite the lack of perspective on our surroundings because we were immersed in the forest, it was evident that we were gaining a lot of elevation, at least several thousand feet.

I was tired and nursing a cold, and found the hiking more arduous than usual. The cold led to a decreased sense of balance, and twice I slipped and fell. First, I fell down a small cliff, about five feet or so, and stopped myself from plummeting further by jamming my hand into the sharp limestone. While this worked to stop my drop, it also split my thumbnail and scratched up my arm. The second time, I was traversing a downed tree-trunk, several feet above the trail. My feet slid sideways out from under me, and my hip came down hard on the wood. Then, because the trunk was round, my body rolled off and I fell on my other hip a few feet lower, on the ground.

The trail led higher and higher into the green. Eventually, it fed into a dry streambed, which was wider and made for easier walking. Noah called it The Highway. We crunched along four abreast, surveying that amazing place. Primary rainforest is an astonishing sight, alive and varied and ragged and mysterious. Surrounding the Highway were giant cycads, plants that are like ferns on steroids. There were elegant curtain-rooted trees all around, draped in vines and mosses. The by-now-familiar crimson forest crabs were here, too, clicking their claws as we passed them by. We heard some tarictics calling up ahead, but couldn’t see them despite pausing for ten minutes to search. We also explored a short cave, and surprised a group of eight fruit bats that were roosting there. Hanging above us, they stared down with charming dog-like faces.

Fruit bat, like the ones we saw in the caves.

Adventures in the Rainforest

When we finally got to the research station, we had been hiking for five hours. I met Stefan and AmSally and June. Stefan seemed a classically reticent German. AmSally was gorgeous, a Ethiopian fashion queen whose Teutonic hubby had hauled her to the middle of nowhere for two years. June was quiet and reserved, but with a ready smile. Both Noah and Jesse told me, “This guy is amazing.”

I was exhausted: between my head cold, the rigorous trek, and the injuries sustained in my two falls, my body was thoroughly worn out. There was respite at the station though: they served us a fine lunch, and then I took a shower. Philippine resourcefulness had combined with German engineering in the construction of an ingenious outdoor shower. Water from a cold spring was funneled into a bamboo aqueduct, and transported to the station from distant parts of the forest. At the station, the flow could be channeled either into a sink area, or to the shower. The shower stall was made of bamboo as well (as indeed was the entire research station). It was spacious and floored in round gravel pebbles. Above, the water flowed into an empty bleach bottle that had holes punched in the bottom. It was an effective showerhead, and I was delighted to clean up after the long hike.

I took a nap until sunset, ate dinner, and fell immediately asleep again. It should give some indication of how tired I was to reveal that despite my arachnophobia, I readily fell asleep in a room that also hosted a spider the size of a dinner plate.

We spent two nights at the research station. The following morning, a mild hike brought Noah, Jesse, June, and I to a logged clearing, where we field-tested a new Global Positioning System (GPS) unit. It didn’t work at all. Along the way, we heard wild tarictics and wild dulungans, and even (rarest of the rare) a wild and distant Panay bleeding-heart pigeon. We also saw a large black snake, which June told us was “aggressive” and “crazy.” Noah and I ran into a patch of biting ants, he sustaining a dozen bites, myself only five or so. We waited a while in the clearing, hoping for a GPS satellite to pass overhead. Noah had roasted some peanuts with thyme and garlic and salt, and we snacked on these. There was a small herd of illegal cows grazing in this illegally-logged clearing, and a small lean-to revealed the unseen presence of those who worked here. I felt uneasy in the middle of the clearing, exposed. We found an empty shotgun shell near the shelter. Was there someone out there watching us from beyond the screen of trees? Someone with a shotgun? My companions exhibited none of my fears, and so I left them unspoken. If three men far more habituated to the Philippines than I was saw no reason for alarm, then why should I?

We gave up with the GPS and hiked back. We hit a nice rhythm on the return trip, no one talking, just forest-stepping our way along, avoiding roots and rocks (and snakes) on the ground and ducking below vines and thorns and ant-nests above.

Noah pointed out some of the nest-boxes that he had constructed and hung high in the rainforest canopy. These nest-boxes were an experiment, an attempt to see if the hornbill population would increase if the number of decent nesting sites increased. Each box was the size of a small refrigerator, wrought from a section of hollow tree-trunk capped at both ends, and a hole precisely the right size drilled in the side. They were decorated in bark and moss, to blend in. I had trouble spotting it when Noah pointed the first one out.

I think that it gives an indication of our calorie deprivation that we ate chunks of pineapple smeared in peanut butter for breakfast when we got back. An hour later, our appetites were still raging when AmSally cooked a delicious curry of jackfruit, coconut milk, and ginger.

We tried to climb a few trees that afternoon with the technical climbing gear, ostensibly to check on some nest-boxes, but really just to entertain ourselves. I was curious to see what the forest looked like from fifty feet up. Alas, we never made it into the canopy. Our expedition was an ill-fated exercise in futility and frustration. To begin with, we needed to locate the target nest-boxes. Despite the fact that Noah had put them up there in the first place, they proved elusive. He had done a good job camouflaging them. When we finally found one, we went to pull up the climbing rope with a small guide line. The guide line snapped, and we were left trying to toss the line, weighted with a rock, over a branch. Noah had a slingshot for this purpose, but our aim was off. With each miss, we had to gather up the expended line, disentangling it from what seemed like half of the branches in the forest. Every other throw, the rock would come free and sail off into the irretrievable distance. We would then have to hunt for a new rock. It was frustrating, but no one did worse with the set-backs than Noah. I think he really wanted to get up into the trees. He was on the verge of snapping. We broke the tension with some tried-&-true crude American humor. Joking about bodily functions eased the stress, and when we finally gave up and headed back to the station, our good moods had returned.

We hiked out of the rainforest the next morning, setting off in a light rain. We took a different trail for our return trip, skirting along the top of a ridge instead of enfolded by trees at the nadir of the valley. This route afforded some stunning views of the surrounding mountains and the broad curve of the sea below. I felt much healthier, and was able to keep up to the quicker pace.

Back to Manila

Sunday - 1 Jul 2001
Metro Manila , Luzon - Philippines

Back to Manila

A few days later, I left the island of Panay. Noah and I left a neighbor in charge of the nipa hut, and we took a fantastically crowded bus to Kalibo. This time, though, we were riding “first class”: that is, INSIDE the bus rather than clinging to the roof. Once in Kalibo, we made some impromptu travel arrangements and caught our Cebu Pacific flight with about a minute and a half to spare. On board, the stewardesses entertained us by facilitating a serious of games of skill. The contest involved tossing small hoops onto a peg. Whichever passenger scored the most ringers, won a Cebu Pacific umbrella. Runner-up took home a tee-shirt.

Finally, there were a few final days in hyper-urban Manila before leaving. My perspective had changed during my time on Panay. The more rural southern island had a more relaxed atmosphere to complement its ecological bounty. Manila, by comparison, was deficient in both charm and natural wonder.

I had not felt this revulsion as completely when I first arrived in Manila several weeks previously. Then, of course, my context for comparison had been Washington, DC. Used to urbanity, the basic substrate of the Philippine capital had not shaken me so deeply. Now I was arriving with a fresh view, knowing what wonders this spot had once held. I could see trash and broken slag where there had once been lianas and hornbills.

It’s a shame Manila has been as ruined as it is. From the shards of glass atop the pitted road to the tangle of electrical wires crisscrossing overhead, and the filmy pollution that pervades all the area in between, Manila has gone to hell. It’s really a rough town, full of stereotypical Third World squalor.

I went to one of the enormous shopping malls, dazed by an onslaught of color and patterns and Tagalog exhortations to buy. I was dropping off some film to be developed, but I’ll admit to basest sightseeing as well. Little differences, things you would never see in an American shopping mall: A cart selling squid balls. A Dunkin Donuts located next to a storefront church. A pimp offering up nice Filipina girls.

Walking back to the Pension, I passed the Manila Zoo, which is walled in concrete four meters high, painted with crude images of African beasts. An unholy smell came wafting over the top: dead zebra perhaps. Noah had warned me not to go into that Zoo if I wanted to maintain any kind of positive outlook on the world. The conditions of the humans in Manila are duplicated among the captive menagerie. Disease and claustrophobia prevail.

Down the street further, I found a tableau of pure comedy: A police cruiser, run halfway up onto the curb, propped up with boulders of cement where three of its wheels were missing. The hubs were rusted and bare. A series of scrapes and dents left the side panel and bumper with a lacerated appearance. The empty car still bore the proud motto of the Police Department on its skewed door: “Manila’s Finest.” It had been abandoned in front of a red and white “No Parking” sign.

I read the newspapers. One carried the news that the leader of the Filipino Muslim separatist group, Abu Sayyef, had been captured by the National Army. I wonder at retaliatory strikes by the guerillas against Americans. If they beheaded a tourist before, what will they do now? I also read of a vicious crackdown by police on smugglers at the Port. Instead of arresting the perpetrators, they shot them. A front-page photo shows in the foreground two officers, slinging a body along. In the background, a truck with a neat row of bulletholes stitched across the windshield. Brutal justice, I thought.

Sitting in the coffeehouse on the day before I leave, I pass the newspaper on to Noah. It’s been great to be here with him these past few weeks. I’ve spent more time with him on this trip then I have ever before, or possibly ever will again. Most of that has been quite positive, and his indefatigable spirit has carried me along with its energy to adventures I might never have attempted by myself. This is the way to visit a new place: with a guide who knows the land, but who also knows your own cultural needs.

I walk the streets, browsing the open air markets, photographing the colorful fish and fruits, avoiding the crowds, nodding at the endless litany of “Hey Joe!”

The pollution of the streets disgusts me. Used as I have become to staring into the rainforest for the minutest visual sign of birds and insects, I am picking up details of the litter that I wish I weren’t. A milky liquid sits foul and stagnant in the undrained gutters. I step carefully to avoid upsetting a pile of chicken carcasses and what appear to be rusted umbrella parts. Next to it is a puddle where it smells as if men have been pissing all night. Further, someone has laid a wet turd in a Styrofoam container. The placement of the feces where an entrée ought to be turns my stomach. Making sure of my footing, I look up. Past the crosshatching of wires, past the haze of auto exhaust, there are puffy cumulus clouds high up there. Hope, after all.

And again I notice, there’s a security guard for every doorway in Manila. What will these people do for work if their domestic terrorism situation is resolved? There are certainly plenty who have no job and no hope even today. Like any city, Manila carries a stylish population of chic ladies in skirts and short hair, men wearing sunglasses and sideburns. But the number of homeless is staggering. Destitute and wearing scraps of trash, these poor people sleep on the sidewalks, with pedestrians walking by inches from their faces, day and night. It’s a horrible way for a man or a woman to live.

More rumblings about the ravaged city

The brutality continues. In comparing the Philippines to other Asian countries that I have visited, like Thailand, I see some striking differences. The Thais seem to have a much more deeply-rooted sense of pride, whereas the Filipinos do not. A base machismo is all that is mustered. Thailand, for instance, bans the import of pornography and the export of Buddha images: it has values, standards. The Philippines wages war on terrorists that spring forth from its own people. Every elected official in the Philippines seems to be battling charges of corruption. Here in Manila, huge piles of trash disfigure the sidewalks and luxury hotels print up their advertisement signs on the backs of old rice-sacks. Tinny disco music ripped off from another culture prevails in the clubs and on taxicab radios.

The individual people that I met in the Philippines were often lovely, of course: Lolo and Lola, for instance, so generous and genuine. But the country as a whole seems to be fractured and nonfunctional. Compared to the smooth operation of beatific Thailand, the Philippines seems to have its head up its arse.

The obvious ineffectualness of the government is masked by a bully’s swagger. Big talk from a culture with deep insecurities. Headlines in the newspaper on another day gloat how another nine smuggling suspects were killed at the Manila Port. The Philippines seem almost adolescent as a nation: gawky, awkward, unaware of its place in the world. Over-reaction is the status quo. I cannot help but compare it to Thailand: calm and confident, time-tested and never colonized, sitting contemplatively like the Buddha himself.

The Philippines has three doses of national identity crisis that they cope with. First, there are the problems with its disparate nature as an archipelago nation. Too many cultures, too difficult to bring pervasive unity to 7000 separate islands using close to 200 languages. Neighboring Indonesia suffers this even worse: an amalgam of islands and cultures even more fractious than the Philippines.

Second, there is the legacy imposed by the Spanish when Magellan first claimed the islands in 1521. The Spanish left the Philippines with Catholicism and the legacy of a national identity, of unification. Even the name of the country is derived from King Philip II of Spain.

Third, the US itself is responsible for a period of colonization, from 1898 to 1946. I attribute to my own nation the roots of the sleaze and money-grubbing, corner-cutting, anything-for-a-price attitude. When volatile ideas come into contact with unvaccinated cultures, strange evolutions result.

I believe that is what has led to the bizarre dichotomy visible in downtown Manila today: towering shopping malls larger than the villages of Pandan and Cubay combined, surrounded by a gray urban wasteland of broken buildings, broken police-cars, and the broken people who pin their few remaining hopes on the potential of their nation.

The End

That's it for this trip. Thanks for taking the time to read it all.

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Philippines; COS - Mongolia; Return to our Country of Service



By maritez (84-105-89-104.cable.quicknet.nl - on Thursday, April 26, 2007 - 7:54 pm: Edit Post

i am maritez mendez,,i will ask a favor to inform me about Leo Anthony Libby II...coz i know he is a member of Peace Corps.........i really missed him.......please

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