Archive for the ‘Peace Corps’ Category

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My Short-Lived Movie Career

January 29, 2016

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The Methodist Youth Hostel on Adriatico Street in Manila, a compound of small ordinary-looking buildings, had become the place that most Peace Corps Volunteers would stay when in from the provinces. Both its location close to Peace Corps Headquarters and cheap rates made it ideal. Even with its shared bathrooms and barrack-style sleeping quarters, it was a luxury compared to most of our in-country abodes. Little did I know that this was to be the unlikely site of the beginning of my short-lived movie career.

One seemingly ordinary Friday in March of 1972 found me spending a weekend there along with a fellow volunteer, Bob Johnson. Bob had the semblance of a California surfer from his blonde Beach Boy hair to his laid-back demeanor, except that he happened to be from Brooklyn. We went through training together in the same group back in the states but saw each other infrequently since we had been assigned to different islands. This accidental reunion presented a welcome opportunity to catch up a bit. We had no idea what was in store for us.

The producers of the many B movies that were being made in the Philippines at the time apparently knew that this was the spot where young Americans tended to lodge. Whenever the need for extras of this type arose, this would be their first stop.

One such gentleman showed up on that Friday and spotted Bob and me. He asked us if we would be interested in making a little money by being in a movie. Having nothing in particular scheduled, we looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Why not?”

At that time we had absolutely no idea what the movie was about, what kind of roles we would be playing, and most of all that this was to be the now-famous Tom Selleck’s film debut.

The movie folks drove us to the location in Manila where the scene we were to be in was being filmed. We soon arrived at Intramuros, a landmark of great historical significance. Built by the Spaniards during their colonial reign, the cave-like fort became infamous for its use as a Japanese prison during WW II.

And what were we going to be doing on this hallowed ground? Filming an R-rated scene for a trashy movie about devil worship!

The title of this cinema masterpiece was Daughters of Satan. Our one and only scene consisted of the flogging of one of the Daughters whose path had strayed from the coven, thus leading to her punishment. Bound spread-eagle and topless, she was faced with the choice of returning to her Satanic family or the prospect of some vile form of torture and death.

Bob and I played the roles of the “enforcer” warlocks. We sat on either side of the stone throne of the head witch who conducted the malevolent proceedings. And what an odd pair of warlocks we were! Bob was well over six feet tall, fair, and built somewhat like a lumberjack. I was dark, scrawny, bearded, and five-foot-eight.

Type cast?

Type cast?

We were dressed as we normally would have been: jeans, T-shirts, and flip-flops, not very warlock-like in my opinion. No matter. As the gathered coven, mostly Filipino extras trying hard to look evil despite their excitement at being in such close proximity to the naked bosom of a starlet, chanted “flog her, flog her,” Bob and I looked on, glaring with our sternest Satanic stares. My appearance was brief; after the opening part of the scene, there are but fleeting glimpses of me partly hidden in the shadows behind the flogging scaffold. I personally believe my best shots were left on the proverbial cutting room floor. I don’t recall exactly how many times the scene had to be repeated, but it turned out to be a lengthy affair with much waiting around in the tropical heat between takes.

At the end of the shooting we were asked to make up stage names (mine was Donald Wilborn, the best I could come up with under the hasty circumstances) and then paid seventy-five dollars for our troubles (not bad considering that equaled our Peace Corps salary for a month). Since he didn’t appear in our scene, we never did get the chance to actually meet Selleck.

Bob and I went back to the hostel with unanticipated money in our pockets and an unusual tale to tell. We finished up our Peace Corps lives over the next few months and then returned to the United States later that summer. Bob got married and moved away, and unfortunately I lost touch with him.

As time passed and I resumed my stateside life, I didn’t give much thought to this strange episode, at least not until one ordinary summer evening back home in Bergenfield.

My friends Johnny, Rob, and Chuck sat around the kitchen table at my house, once again reenacting the old “So, what do you want to do tonight?” routine from the classic film Marty. As I perused the movie listings, there I saw it: Daughters of Satan! Playing that very night at a theater in Englewood, the next town over!

We excitedly piled into the car and headed to the final showing of the night. Johnny tried to talk the older disinterested-looking woman at the ticket window into letting us in for free since one of the “stars” of the movie was in our party, but she only looked at us askance and asked if we wanted to buy tickets or not. My scene flew by in a couple of minutes, but we all had quite a hoot anyway.

Decades passed until Daughters of Satan unexpectedly resurfaced again.

Lunchtime in the faculty room at Pierrepont School evoked conversations amongst my friends and colleagues during which virtually anything could — and usually did — come up, including stories exchanged of our varied and often wacky experiences. I related the account of the making of my warlock scene, and it thereafter became kind of a running joke, culminating in two unique Christmas presents.

One year it came in the form of an original movie poster — amazingly procured online after all these years  — in which I can be seen, an illustrated extra looking for all the world like a young Charles Manson to the far left of the half-naked starlet who was, of course, the main attraction.

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Another year not long after, I received a DVD copy of the movie produced in England, of all places. I henceforth had the ability to view this awful piece of cinema in the privacy of my own home whenever I so chose. Normally it just sits in its dust-covered glory in the bottom of a cabinet, but I do admit that I take a peek at my sixty seconds of “fame” every so often. But otherwise, Daughters of Satan has fittingly faded away into the twilight of the distant past.

Unless, of course, Selleck calls to do a sequel.

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Slow Train

May 9, 2015

 

Welcome to the Philippines National Railroad!

Welcome to the Philippines National Railroad!

Americans are quite spoiled when it comes to transportation. We expect to get places quickly and efficiently, and any delays that confront us (rush hour traffic, signal problems on the train) are usually met with a great deal of impatience. The majority of us take it as one of our inalienable rights to be able to go anywhere at any time without restriction.

During my time living overseas as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I discovered that this is most definitely not the case in the developing world. Ease of individual mobility is by no means a given, and the very notion of quick and efficient travel is rendered absurd by the conditions in these places.

In the Philippines where I lived for two years, expecting to wait for great amounts of time to get somewhere was a way of life, especially if traveling by train. The railroad line through the Bicol Province where I lived had been built back in 1938. It was a rudimentary single track system that had not changed much since its completion. However, in a Third World country that lacked a widespread modern road system, it served as the principal means of overland transportation, one that I had to depend upon to fulfill my duties. The lone track traversed the bottom section of the capital L that formed the main island of Luzon. Small towns dotted the rail line as it made its way southeast towards the provincial capital of Naga City. The town in which I lived, Pamplona, was on that line, and that pretty much fated my use of this means of travel. And thus the waiting began.

I needed to make periodic trips to Manila, and these could be accomplished in three ways: plane, bus, or train. Clearly the plane was the fastest of the three. However, because of the prohibitive cost (especially considering my $75 monthly salary) and logistical problems getting to the tiny local airport in Pili, this became the least preferable of the three. The bus ride involved a torturous journey of twenty-plus hours on a crowded old open-air bus over poor bumpy roads in tropical heat and torrential downpours. I tried this only once.

The "airport" at Pili; yet another reason to take the train.

The “airport” at Pili; yet another reason to take the train.

Actually, a fourth means of transport existed, a homemade contraption called a “skate” that operated all along the train track. Run by entrepreneurial daredevils, it consisted of a small wooden platform mounted on wheels (usually skate wheels, hence the name) with a hand pump propulsion system. As these rickety vehicles rolled down the line, each vegetation-lined low-visibility curve held the possibility of a surprise encounter with bandits, or worse yet, an oncoming locomotive. Needless to say, I avoided these like the plague.

That left the train. On the positive side, the ride was smoother than that of the bus and afforded better protection from the elements, and it had a vastly lower ticket price than the plane. On the other hand, it did have quite a few drawbacks. The railroad cars were old, not air-conditioned, and extremely crowded with people, packages, and assorted small livestock, especially in the economy class cars where we traveled. The “toilet” consisted of a hole in the floor through which one could watch the railroad ties pass as one heeded nature’s call. Worst of all, the delays were both brutally long and inevitable.

The causes of the delays varied, including anything from storms to mudslides to water buffalo blocking the tracks to derailments. But the single track line itself caused the majority of these delays. When the northbound train left Naga City, it had a scheduled time and station where it would pull off on a side rail to let the train from Manila go by. However, all too often the southbound train, thinking its timing off, would pull over further up the line waiting for the Manila-bound train to pass first. This left both trains sitting, sometimes for hours on end, waiting for the other to go by. Since the relatively primitive communications system usually malfunctioned, neither side would be aware of the situation until some local on a skate would happen along and clue the station in. Then, the train would move out at a snail’s pace (as opposed to its normal donkey’s pace) in case of faulty information. This resulted in a trip of about 230 miles taking up to twenty hours, a stupefying pace of twelve miles an hour.

Greg, my teaching partner and good friend, lived farther up the line in a small town named Ragay. We teamed up to deliver workshops to far-flung school districts in the province. Most of these required train travel. Greg and I developed expertise at timing our arrivals at mutually accessible stations so we could travel together. The two of us became somewhat of a local legend through our “traveling road show” along the train line, particularly when we became the main tourist attraction during our delays in remote towns.

"Americano! Americano!"

“Americano! Americano!”

At each station stop, vendors, many of them children, hawked all manner of goods to please the weary traveler. One could purchase water by the bottle (as in refilled coke bottle) or the glass, cigarettes individually, and portable climate control units (otherwise known as fans). All manner of snack foods were available from peanuts to fruit to the local delicacy called balut (a fertilized duck egg, embryo within, for your dining pleasure). Best of all, following a night of fitful and sweaty dozing, we’d pull into Lucena City at dawn, and the coffee vendors would enter the cars selling the black, sweet, syrupy concoction which by then seemed to us like the nectar of the gods. It woke us up and made the world right again.

"Hey, Joe, you buy egg?"

“Hey, Joe, you buy egg?”

Two of these countless train rides stand out in particular, though. The first started out as a comedy of errors for Greg and I which, fortunately, the kind hand of fate managed to salvage. When our second December in-country approached, we hatched a plan to use our accumulated leave time to travel to Hong Kong. As part of our Christmas present to ourselves, we splurged on airfare for a flight to Manila.

First we each planned to take the train from our respective towns to Pili, the stop after Naga City, and then meet at the airfield. We had provided plenty of extra time, knowing the trains as we did, but forgot to factor in the hordes of other people who would also be traveling for the holiday. My train ran so late that when I arrived at Naga, it made no sense to even attempt to catch the plane. I plopped myself down on the platform amidst the swell of humanity around me and resigned myself to facing the odyssey of a solitary train ride to Manila.

In the meantime, unbeknownst to me, Greg chugged along on an even later train than mine. He too disembarked in Naga knowing he couldn’t make the flight and figured he’d simply go to Manila by train. As Greg made his way through the crowd, he saw me, hunched over sitting on my luggage, looking as dejected as him! He told me he couldn’t remember ever being so happy to see my shaggy face. The normal lengthy, delay-filled trek ensued, but our trip to Hong Kong more than made up for all the misery we experienced on the journey there.

The other happened to be my final train trip of my two-year stay in the Philippines. On the designated day of my departure, I walked to the small Pamplona station as the evening light faded carrying all of my belongings in a duffel bag, surrounded by an entourage of friends, local dignitaries, and teachers. The scheduled seven o’clock train would have me whisked out of their lives as suddenly as I had arrived two years earlier. As the appointed time approached, we exchanged many emotional farewells. Seven o’clock arrived; the train, however, did not. Nervous jokes about Filipino time followed along with more emotional farewells, but still no train. As time ticked on, the entourage melted away one by one into the sultry tropical night until I was left standing alone with my nanay, who by now felt a bit uncomfortable at the unceremonious sendoff and tired as it now approached ten o’clock, well past her bedtime.

“It’s okay, Nanay, I can wait by myself,” I assured her. “You go home to sleep now.”

She agreed, gave me a motherly kiss goodbye, and left me in the dim light of the lone lantern. Soon another light appeared in the distance. The train had finally arrived. When it came to a halt, I hauled my bag up, found a seat, and then watched as my home away from home faded into the moonlit rice paddies. I was on my way home.

This particular train, a local, made every stop, so I prepared myself for a long night. It must have been around midnight when the train lurched to a stop in Hondagua. By now the car had been filled to standing room only capacity. Just then, at the door by where I sat, a terrible scene unfolded. A father struggled through the entrance carrying his teenaged son wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket followed by his tearful mother. I overheard another man accompanying them relate what had happened. During a dispute of some sort, an older teen had stabbed him in the side. The dark color of the blood prompted speculation that the wound had involved his kidney. Getting him to a hospital quickly would be paramount, but there was no hospital in Hondagua, and the only way to get to one was the train. This train. The slowest of the slow.

As the train began to move, the father stood helplessly in the aisle laden with that tender burden in his arms. I got up and offered him my seat. Ordinarily because of our perceived difference in stations in life, he would have refused, but he sat with a grateful look in his eyes. Hours passed, though it seemed like an eternity, and finally the train arrived in Lucena City where medical help would be found, though I feared the worst, for the ghastly pallor of the boy didn’t bode well. I spent the remainder of the ride reflecting on all the differences that the accident of one’s place of birth could cause in one’s existence and the dire consequences — such as the one I had just witnessed — that could result.

After my return to the United States, I continued riding the rails, both locally in New Jersey and New York as well as on subsequent travels through Europe, but it was nothing like those train trips of the Philippines. Though they were slow and difficult, I appreciate them now, for they taught me about how my capacity to endure discomfort and adversity is much greater than what I had thought possible. In the end, I came away with a much greater appreciation for what I have here, minor delays and all. But most of all, I they taught me patience.

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Coming Home

May 14, 2014
My old Pamplona home

my other home and family

Faith has come home. To her original home, that is. The one in Florida, the one where she grew up with her family and friends and familiar surroundings. But being a Peace Corps Volunteer means you always have another home, one with new family and friends and totally different surroundings that also have become familiar. It is one where you may never be again, but one which will always remain part of your being, a “temporary and forever home” as Faith so perfectly put it. Her other home is in Thailand. Mine is in the Philippines.

In what I hope was not her final entry in her wonderful blog, Faith wrote a piece called “Goodbye, Hello and Goodbye Again” in which she expressed her feelings about coming home. Reading it brought a powerful swell of emotional recognition. It has been six weeks now for her. It has been forty-two years for me, but what Faith had to say stirred my soul because such homecomings are unforgettable, full of the joy of reconnection but also the disorienting impact of readjustment. This is a goodbye and a hello that is both singular and indelible.

Faith wrote that “Thailand is already a little blurry — the way an object looks in your rear view mirror when it’s raining.” I understand. It can be disconcerting that such a profoundly life-changing experience can seem so distant so quickly, almost surreal. It can be worrisome that this other existence can seem diminished by a return to the original one which also seems somehow altered. You’re home now, but there’s a strange sense of turbulence, of displacement. “
Somehow Thailand was already behind me. The realization that the distance between myself and them, between my family here and my life there was so extremely vast rippled within me the way you can almost feel a strong thunderstorm vibrating in your chest.”

I understand.

I wanted to reassure Faith. I wanted her to know that despite time and distance this other existence will always be a part of her. I don’t think I need to, though. She seems to already instinctively know this, for she wrote “It’s in me and it will always be, whether I’m in Florida or Washington. Whether it’s right now and I’m a 26 year old looking for the next adventure or whether it’s in the future and I’m celebrating my 88th birthday. I’ll look back and recall that one split second in my life when I lived in Thailand. When I would ride my bike past rolling, green rice fields to the bright, pink school where I spoke Thai and taught in English. I’ll remember it as the time that I discovered just how little I knew and embraced just how much I was about to learn.”

And learn one does — about the world beyond your first home, beyond your safe haven of the known. About how different life is for so many others on this planet — so elemental and challenging and demanding yet strangely fulfilling. Perhaps even more significantly you learn about the self that lies dormant within you, waiting for an unexpected and unique opportunity such as this to blossom, to discover abilities you didn’t know you possessed as well as to confront those shortcomings and insecurities that can be easily masked in a place of comfort. And Faith indeed learned. “There is so much that I experienced while in the soft embrace of Thailand’s stunning sunsets. For 27 months that steady, fast, and strong flow of the Mekong River mirrored the energy that was constantly brewing inside of me…each and every day I woke up and chose to be an open recipient of all that surrounded me. And in that I was able to see all my weakness and all my strengths.”

Faith is on the cusp of another goodbye — a move in July to Seattle, Washington. I wish her well. I know this amazing young woman has many more fulfilling chapters to come in her life and perhaps many more homes. But the home she had in that small village beside the Mekong River will live on within her as my home amidst the rice paddies of Pamplona still does. How could it not? “I farmed — felt the moist mud between fingers as I planted rice. I ate sticky rice and even bugs. I collected snails from a pond and then cooked them in a frying pan. I attended weddings and I cried at funerals. I met my little Thai sister, Nong View, and then buried her one year later. I came to teach my coteachers and my students English and ended up being schooled about life.” These experiences imbed themselves deep within regardless of what follows.

Faith intends to try to go back some day to revisit her other home, a thought that I had sometimes entertained. Often I’d have dreams — ones that felt so real — that found me walking once again down the dirt road at night to my small town past banana trees aglow with fireflies. I wondered what it would have been like to return, to see how all those missing years had changed the people and places I had known so well, to see how they remembered me. My path did not lead that way; perhaps Faith’s will. I look forward to reading about that journey if it does occur.

Though I’m not 88 quite yet, I still look back to the one split second of my life in my other home in the Philippines. Sometimes it seems unreal, another lifetime in some distant past. Other times it seems like yesterday. I look back at my fading photos and the images come clear once again. The feel of the humid tropical air just after the daily rainstorm, the sweet smell of the sampaguita blooming wildly, the perpetual sound of laughter from the children in the muddy streets, the savory taste of adobo and lechon and pancit — all of them still resonate in my very cells. Faith said she cries now when she looks at her photos. As time goes by, I believe the sadness of separation they recall will be replaced by the deep-seated gratification that having this other home is a timeless gift, one that will continue to reveal its value and wonder with each passing year.

memory of laughter

a lasting memory

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Maluto (The Grain of Life)

May 18, 2013

the grain of life

Growing up in the United States, the child of an Italian-American mother and an English/Scandanavian-American father, rice did not make very frequent appearances at our kitchen table. Perhaps once a month we were treated to Chinese take-home — always the same, chicken chow mein — which we would eat with white rice from the little cardboard container. Other than that, my meals consisted of a constant cycle of potatoes and pasta. Though I had a peripheral awareness through reading and school of the importance of rice in the diet of the world, it was not until I arrived in the Philippines as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1970 that my understanding became real. There I was confronted with both how critical and beloved this food staple was to a substantial percentage of the population of the planet.

I lived with a family in the small town of Pamplona in the heart of a rice farming area in the center of the province of Camarines Sur. For the next two years, rice — maluto — became a part of my life. Breakfast. Lunch. Merienda. Supper. And no more of that nondescript bland stuff from China Garden in Bergenfield. A multitude of dishes previously unheard of paraded before me in an astounding display of versatility and delectability. Bibingka. Biko. Puso. Suman. Not to mention Lumpia and Pancit that were made from rice flour. However, my involvement with rice soon went far beyond mealtime when the oldest son of my host family, an intelligent and charismatic young man, introduced me to the world of rice farming. Willie was one of a new generation of farmers, a graduate of the University of the Philippines with a degree in Agriculture, and I became inspired.

After a few months of what I considered fruitless toil in the school system, my idealistic impatience had caused disenchantment with the slow pace of change in an educational bureaucracy seemingly bogged down by the ingrained habits of entrenched educators. I wanted to do something more helpful, something with more immediate and tangible results. I filed a request to participate in an upcoming rice training program and surprisingly got the okay from the powers-that-be. So in January of 1971, off I went to learn about growing this grain of life.

I joined up with Peace Corps Group 40 at Baybay National Agricultural and Vocational School in Siniloan, Laguna Province. The location was significant because of its proximity to Los Banos, the home of the prestigious International Rice Research Institute, the epicenter of the worldwide movement to increase rice production through the creation of new varieties. Their goal was to shorten the growing period while at the same time increasing the yield. This sounded like a quick and innovative solution to the problem of food production in a burgeoning population, but there was more to the story that I had yet to discover.

Peace Corps Group 40 Rice Training (me, top right, 2nd from the end)

Peace Corps Group 40 Rice Training (me, top row, 2nd from the right)

I’ll never forget the very first task in the initial session of the Rice Production Training Program. The eager and supposedly worldly collection of college-educated Americans was led to a long table on which sat a lineup of trays with small plants growing in them. The instructor gave us simple directions.

“Okay, now, look at the plants and write down the tray number of the one with the rice plants.”

I had absolutely no idea what I should be looking for. The only rice I had ever seen came with the chow mein in the container. I looked around me and saw that my companions were all similarly stumped. Most of us selected what turned out to be a weed. Quite a humbling experience for us all, but a necessary one to drive home a salient point: we had to start from square one. We would be entering a world in which farmers had worked their whole lives equipped with knowledge passed down for countless generations. If we were to help them, we’d better know what the hell we were talking about. And now was the time to start learning.

The following two weeks were crammed with sessions in the classroom and application in the paddies. We learned about the problems of growing rice in the tropics: the diseases, insect pests, weeds, and weather conditions. We were introduced to all the varieties of rice from the indigenous native ones that had been traditionally grown throughout the archipelago to the modern ones being developed at IRRI. We studied morphology and growth stages, land preparation and testing of seed viability, incubation and transplantation methods, pesticide and fertilizer types and how to calibrate their proper use, water management and irrigation practices. I had never studied as hard as an undergraduate in college. There was so much to learn in such a short period of time, but the commitment of the staff and the shared perseverance of my fellow volunteers made the task possible. We went out into the paddies to get a taste of the realities of rice cultivation. Knee deep in mud, the snorting of the water buffalo as accompaniment, we manned the plow in the time-honored way and became immersed in this ancient way of agriculture, for this is what we would encounter once back in the countryside. The modern farming methods had not yet arrived there, and we were to be the heralds of this brave new world.

Practice in the paddy with the ubiquitous water buffalo.

Practice in the paddy with the ubiquitous water buffalo.

After finishing the course work, we had our final evaluation. I scored an 87 and qualified for my Katibayan Ng Pagtatapos — my Certificate of Completion. I value it as much as any diploma I have ever received. Armed with a notebook full of information and a great sense of responsibility and anticipation, I returned to Pamplona. As I watched the rice paddies go by through the window of the train, I saw them now through new eyes. What had once been merely the constant backdrop for this exotic tropical land now took on a significance of pressing import. And I wondered if I could actually make a difference with my newfound knowledge.

certificate

Once back, I implored my brother Willie to take me to the farms so I could get right to work. I didn’t quite understand his wry grin when he suggested that I “relax na lang,” but he eventually relented after my persistent badgering. We went to the farm of a weathered old-timer who had worked this land since before anyone could remember. He grew the traditional rice called Peta, an old variety that grew very tall with droopy leaves. Its growing season lasted 140 days, significantly longer than the new IRRI varieties, and yielded less rice. Willie walked about checking the crop, chatting respectfully with the group of locals who had gathered there. A bottle of gin materialized as it usually did in such gatherings, and a single glass was passed around. Then Willie signaled me that it was time to go.

“But Willie, what about trying to get them to change? They could probably almost double their production with IR20 or IR22! Think of how much better off they all would be!”

He smiled, but his face was serious.

“I know you are anxious to see changes, and so am I, but these can only come slowly. There are things you must understand about these farmers. They are used to the old ways. Yes, this rice takes longer to be ready for harvest, and yes, the harvest is smaller. But they also know many things the scientists do not.”

“Like what?” I was curious to see how Willie, educated and an advocate of agronomic development, could possibly defend these antiquated practices.

“Well, you learned about the new rice varieties, no? How they need much fertilizer and pesticide and the equipment to use them? These people have no money to do this. It is the rich farmers who can use this. Right now this will only continue the imbalance of those who have and those who do not.”

I stood there stunned by what he said, not because he was wrong, but because I hadn’t even considered what should have been such an obvious thing.

“Besides,” he continued, “these old varieties are strong. They can stand up to the disease and insects on their own. They have learned to do so over the many centuries they have grown here. They do not require the effort the new varieties do. The farmers like this.”

A meek “Oh” was all I could muster in response.

“Also, the taste.”

“The taste? What do you mean?”

“They don’t like the taste of the new rice.”

It sounded so simple but was profound. Rice was the heart and soul of the food of these people. Taste is paramount in importance to what one eats. I had never even thought about this aspect.

I felt discouraged but accepted that Willie and those farmers were far wiser than I. I redirected my efforts to my original education assignment, but this foray into the realm of rice had not been for naught. I had learned much of value even if I would not be an agent of agricultural transformation. I gained an everlasting appreciation for the life of those who work the land and insights into the interconnectedness of the food that is grown with the needs of the society and the expectations of the culture. My awareness grew of the pivotal struggle that existed in so much of the world of the small group of haves versus the masses of have-nots, and this further shaped my political sensibilities. I also was able to use my new knowledge of the land and farming to help a small group of social-minded nuns working in a poor community in Naga, the Provincial capital. I became a liaison between them and non-profit organizations in Manila to obtain seeds and equipment to help them expand their community garden on which the children in their care depended. I stopped by to pitch in with the actual gardening work whenever I could.

In the many years that have since passed, it appears from what I’ve read that the Rice Revolution, once only a promise, has taken hold, though I don’t know if this is true for the poor tenant farmers like the ones I had encountered. I look at the photos online of the rice farmers at work in Thailand taken by a new Peace Corps friend, and I am reminded of my time in the fields of the Philippines. Faith also often posts pictures of Thai tables filled with local delicacies that make me long for my own days of sticky rice. Faith said that she is “in constant awe of the farmers who spent their days working so hard in the heat of Thailand, day after day.” Though my current dinner table still contains pasta and potatoes, rice has gained an increasingly large place, and each time I see it, I remember that awe too, and I am glad for that.

the paddies that feed the people

the paddies that feed the people

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Finding Faith

March 2, 2013

Faith is a word. It is defined as a strong or unshakeable belief in something, especially when there is no proof. Some people have a great deal of faith, and some have little or none. One can have faith in other people, in a religious belief, in government, or in a principle. In many ways faith is a concept that is not so easily defined for it is something that resides within the heart.

Faith is also a person. In this case it is a remarkable young woman who is currently serving in the Peace Corps in Thailand. I have never met Faith, but she has been a revelation for me. She has helped me to regain some of my faith.

I encountered Faith early during the course of my latest obsession, Project 365. This is a website on which participants post a photograph each day for a year. These photos may be of anything, though most tend to reflect the ordinary stuff of the daily life of the person. As I browsed through them one day, I came across photographs that transfixed me. They carried me back four decades into my own past.

They were photographs of a world I had once inhabited, the world of the Peace Corps Volunteer. This is a world like no other, an invigorating, frustrating, magical, frightful, and absolutely incomparable procession of experiences and adventures that alter your life and your view of the world, and she brought it all back to me.

Faith’s photos of her life in Thailand remind me so much of mine in the Philippines all those years ago. The ones of the rice paddies and the colorfully decorated three-wheeled motorbikes. The ones of the once-unfamiliar foods that become a normal part of your being. The ones of the old women waiting by the side of the road and the long narrow boats plying their way down the rivers. The ones of the school activities both familiar and new, and most of all the smiling faces of the children.

But even more impressive than the images are Faith’s words. The caption to one photo entitled “good morning world” read: “What silence looks like. Sometimes in the early morning, you can walk down the stairs that lead to the Mekong River and stand and not hear anything. Slowly the village starts to come to life, the monks start drumming at the nearby Temple, the birds start singing, the kids are getting ready for school, and the ‘yais’ (elderly women) are making their way, slowly, to the Temple to feed the monks. There are a few moments, though, when the silence is all you can hear.”

These words mesmerized me and transported me to that riverside in the silence of that morning, and to the riverside of another day when I once listened to the silence in a far-away land. I looked back spellbound through Faith’s first year in Thailand, and it stirred my soul.

Faith shared something she wrote in her blog. It is a brilliant and beautiful piece called “It’s like waking up.” In it she speaks to those back home, those friends and family to whom she wants so badly to communicate the heart of her experience, not just the highlights and the moments captured in a picture, but something deeper, something far more meaningful. I remember this well, too, in the letters I mailed, numerous at first, then dwindling under the weight of the impossibility of sharing what Faith so perfectly describes as “what is boiling below,” failing to say what I really wanted and needed to say.

Faith found these words, though, words that I could never quite arrive at. She said, “We struggle to share the confusion, anger, perplexing loneliness that comes and goes and the peculiar struggle that comes with it all. We find out early on the handful of people back home who actually want to know about those things. For everyone else, we talk about the baffling school system, the sweet kids, the gentle grandmothers, and the quaint villages. We talk about the things that are easy to describe and easy to relate to. We talk about the uncomplicated things. Not that those things are not real, it’s just not all there is.”

She spoke too of how those of us who go through this, no matter where or when, no matter what age or gender or background, all understand, all have  a bond that unites us in this understanding of what it is below. We get it. But Faith is not discouraged in spite of her struggle to communicate the essence of this most singular experience to others. Anything but. She ended her piece with the following:

“Whatever is happening, it is good. It feels like I’m waking up from a long, restless sleep. I’m reading more, listening more, observing more, running more, eating right, taking care of my body, as well as my mind and soul. It only took 24 years, but I’m finally awake. My understandings are shifting, my perspectives are sharpening and I’m seeing what is around me with a clarity I’ve never felt before. Clarity doesn’t mean knowing something or anything completely or thoroughly. There’s no way that can be. It means knowing that despite how much I do or learn, there is always something else waiting underneath that for me to absorb. Through this lens, the following is clear to me: this life is precious. So let it take you, let the days surround you and let the minutes define you as you recognize that those minutes and those days, they are all you really have. They will fly by you, so don’t waste them. Work to understand, and learn to accept. Laugh and love those around you. Try today — try right now — to be the person you always said you would be. Make no excuses. Practice patience. Don’t wait, there’s really no time for that…”

And it is exactly this that restores my faith. Though I do not know this young woman, I have come to believe in her. In spite of her own doubts and fears, she has retained a faith in her life — indeed in life itself with all its possibilities along the unknown path that lies before her, before us all. Reading her words and seeing the images of her time in the Peace Corps, I feel a goodness in my heart replacing some of the pessimism that has crept in as I’ve grown older. Someone I’ve never even met has rekindled some of my lost hope for the prospects of real self-reflection and altruism in a time of seemingly rampant and superficial egocentrism. In this modern world where we are bombarded by stories of the Snookis and Lyndsay Lohans of this society, where so many seem so lost so much of the time, I am reassured, for I found Faith.

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Slow

August 29, 2012

Welcome to the Philippines National Railroad.

Americans are quite spoiled when it comes to transportation. We expect to get places quickly and efficiently, and though there may be some delays (rush hour traffic, signal problems on the train), they are usually looked upon as merely sources of annoyance that can and should be addressed in some way. In addition, as an automobile-oriented society, the majority of us take it as one of our inalienable rights to be able to hop into our cars at any time and go anywhere without restriction.

During my time living overseas as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I discovered that this is most definitely not the case in the developing world. Ease of individual mobility is by no means a given, and the very notion of quick and efficient travel is rendered absurd by the conditions in these places.

In the Philippines where I lived for two years, expecting to wait for great amounts of time to get somewhere was a way of life, especially if traveling by train. The railroad line through the Bicol Province where I lived had been built back in 1938. It was a rudimentary single track system that had not changed much since its completion. However, in a Third World country that lacked a widespread modern road system, it served as the principal means of overland transportation, one that I had to depend upon to fulfill my duties. The lone track traversed the bottom section of the capital L that formed the  main island of Luzon. Small towns dotted the rail line as it made its way southeast towards the provincial capital of Naga City, including Pamplona, the town in which I lived, and that pretty much fated my use of this means of travel. And thus the waiting began.

I needed to make periodic trips to Manila, and these could be accomplished in three ways: plane, bus, or train. Clearly the plane was the fastest of the three. However, because of the prohibitive cost (especially considering my $75 monthly salary) and logistical problems getting to the tiny local airport in Pili, this became the least preferable of the three. The bus ride involved a torturous journey of twenty-plus hours on a crowded old open-air bus over poor bumpy roads in tropical heat and torrential downpours. I tried this only once.

The “airport” at Pili; yet another reason to take the train.

Actually, a fourth means of transport existed, a homemade contraption called a “skate” that operated all along the train track. Run by entrepreneurial daredevils, it consisted of a small wooden platform mounted on wheels (usually skate wheels, hence the name) with a pole power propulsion system. Imagine a gondola on rails minus the charm. As these rickety vehicles rolled down the line, each vegetation-lined low visibility curve held the possibility of a surprise encounter with bandits, or worse yet, an oncoming locomotive. Needless to say, I avoided these like the plague.

That left the train. On the positive side, the ride was smoother than that of the bus and afforded better protection from the elements, and it had a vastly lower ticket price than the plane. On the other hand, it did have quite a few drawbacks. The railroad cars were old, not air-conditioned, and extremely crowded with people, packages, and assorted small livestock, especially in the economy class cars where we traveled. The “toilet” consisted of a hole in the floor through which one could watch the railroad ties pass as one heeded nature’s call. Worst of all, the delays were both brutally long and inevitable.

The causes of the delays varied, including anything from storms to mudslides to water buffalo blocking the tracks to derailments. But the single track line itself caused the  majority of these delays. When the northbound train left Naga City, it had a scheduled time and station where it would pull off on a side rail to let the train from Manila go by. However, all too often the southbound train, thinking its timing off, would pull over further up the line waiting for the Manila-bound train to pass first. This left both trains sitting, sometimes for hours on end, waiting for the other to go by. Since the relatively primitive communications system usually malfunctioned, neither side would be aware of the situation until some local on a skate would happen along and clue the station in. Then, the train would move out at a snail’s pace (as opposed to its normal donkey’s pace) in case of faulty information. This resulted in a trip of about 230 miles taking up to twenty hours, a stupefying pace of twelve miles an hour.

Greg, my teaching partner and good friend, lived farther up the line in a small town named Ragay. We teamed up to deliver workshops to far-flung school districts in the province. Most of these required train travel. Greg and I developed expertise at timing our arrivals at mutually accessible stations so we could travel together. The two of us became somewhat of a local legend through our “traveling road show” along the train line, particularly when we became the main tourist attraction during our delays in remote towns.

“Americano! Americano!”

At each station stop, vendors, many of them children, hawked all manner of goods to please the weary traveler. One could purchase water by the bottle (as in refilled coke bottle) or the glass, cigarettes individually, and portable climate control units (otherwise known as fans). All manner of snack foods were available from peanuts to fruit to the local delicacy called balut (a fertilized duck egg, embryo within, for your dining pleasure). Best of all, following a night of fitful and sweaty dozing, we’d pull into Lucena City at dawn, and the coffee vendors would enter the cars selling the black, sweet, syrupy concoction which by then seemed to us like the nectar of the gods. It woke us up and made the world right again.

“Hey, Joe, you buy egg?”

Two of these countless train rides stand out in particular, though. The first started out as a comedy of errors for Greg and I which, fortunately, the kind hand of fate managed to salvage. When our second December in-country approached, we hatched a plan to use our accumulated leave time to travel to Hong Kong. As part of our Christmas present to ourselves, we splurged on airfare for a flight to Manila. First we each planned to take the train from our respective towns to Pili, the stop after Naga City, and then meet at the airfield. We had provided plenty of extra time, knowing the trains as we did, but forgot to factor in the hordes of other people who would also be traveling for the holiday. My train ran so late that when I arrived at Naga, it made no sense to even attempt to catch the plane. I plopped myself down on the platform amidst the swell of humanity around me and resigned myself to facing the odyssey of a solitary train ride to Manila. In the meantime, unbeknownst to me, Greg chugged along on an even later train than mine. He too disembarked in Naga knowing he couldn’t make the flight and figured he’d simply go to Manila by train. As Greg made his way through the crowd, he saw me, hunched over sitting on my luggage, looking as dejected as him! He told me he couldn’t remember ever being so happy to see my shaggy face. The normal lengthy, delay-filled trek ensued, but our trip to Hong Kong more than made up for all the misery we experienced that time.

The other happened to be my final train trip of my two-year stay in the Philippines. On the evening of my departure, I walked to the small Pamplona station as the evening light faded carrying all of my belongings in a duffel bag, surrounded by an entourage of friends, local dignitaries, and teachers. The scheduled train had me being whisked out of their lives at seven o’clock as suddenly as I had arrived two years earlier. As the appointed time approached, we exchanged many emotional farewells. Seven o’clock arrived; the train, however, did not. Nervous jokes about Filipino time followed along with more emotional farewells, but still no train. As time ticked on, the entourage melted away one by one into the sultry tropical night until I was left standing alone with my nanay, who by now felt a bit uncomfortable at the unceremonious sendoff and tired as it now approached ten o’clock, well past her bedtime.

“It’s okay, Nanay, I can wait by myself,” I assured her. “You go home to sleep now.”

She agreed, gave me a motherly kiss goodbye, and left me in the dim light of the lone lantern. Soon another light appeared in the distance. The train had finally arrived. When it came to a halt, I hauled my bag up, found a seat, and then watched as my home away from home faded into the moonlit rice paddies. I was on my way home.

This particular train, a local, made every stop, so I prepared myself for a long night. It must have been around midnight when the train lurched to a stop in Hondagua. By now the car had been filled to standing room only capacity. Just then, at the door by where I sat, a terrible scene unfolded. A father struggled through the entrance carrying his teenaged son wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket followed by his tearful mother. I overheard another passenger relate what had happened. During a dispute of some sort, an older teen had stabbed him in the side. The dark color of the blood prompted speculation that the wound had involved his kidney. Getting him to a hospital quickly would be paramount, but there was no hospital in Hondagua, and the only way to get to one was the train. This train. The slowest of the slow.

As the train began to move, the father stood helplessly in the aisle laden with his tender burden in his arms. I got up and offered him my seat. Ordinarily because of our perceived difference in stations in life, he would have refused, but he sat with a grateful look in his eyes. Hours passed, though it seemed like an eternity, and finally the train arrived in Lucena City where medical help would be found, though I feared the worst, for the ghastly pallor of the boy didn’t bode well. I spent the remainder of the ride reflecting on all the differences that the accident of one’s place of birth could cause in one’s existence and the dire consequences — such as the one I had just witnessed — that could result.

After my return to the United States, I continued riding the rails, both locally in New Jersey and New York as well as on subsequent travels through Europe, but it was nothing like those train trips of the Philippines. Though they were slow and difficult, I appreciate them now, for they taught me about how one’s capacity to endure discomfort and adversity is much greater than what I had thought possible. In the end, I came away with a much greater appreciation for all that I have here, minor delays and all. But most of all, patience.

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The John Dumm Connection

July 15, 2012

Most of our lives have been influenced by certain individuals we have met along the way that have had a disproportionate impact on us. Where and when this will occur is unpredictable, but the effects can be significant and the memories long-lasting. When I was a sophomore in college, I had the good fortune to meet three such individuals. This trio of upperclassmen who lived in my dorm became a personal holy trinity during a critical developmental period of my adult self.

One of these was a senior named John Dumm. He happened to be friends with the other two, all of whom I considered to be intellectual giants walking amongst the rest of us empty-headed oafs. They read books by Sartre and Camus and Mailer. They watched Fellini and Godard movies. They spoke thoughtfully and seemed to know quite a bit about nearly everything. All three wove parts of their essence into my existence in different ways, but a unique connection with John Dumm occurred through a whim of fate.

After John graduated, he joined the Peace Corps, something I had thought of doing since high school though I never before knew anyone who actually did. He wrote me letters from the far side of the world — I had never received mail from a foreign country before, either — and that further fanned the flames of my inspiration. I admired him greatly for his leap into this idealistic adventure, and it seemed quite exotic to have this connection to it.

I subsequently followed through on my own Peace Corps dream, and in the early spring of my senior year I received my acceptance letter. I would be heading off to Micronesia, a small island nation somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. However, not long after, I found a second notification in my mailbox. My country of assignment had been changed.  My new destination would be the Philippines.

The Philippines?! That’s where John Dumm was! Of all the countries in the world with Peace Corps involvement, what were the odds of that happening?

My path to the Philippines took me through several months of training, first in Vermont, then Montreal, and finally in-country. The last phase took place in Manila, and I began my inquiries into the whereabouts of John. He  lived a seemingly surreptitious gypsy existence with frequent changes of location, and in an archipelago of hundreds of islands, he could be virtually anywhere. My investigation reached a dead-end, and I resigned myself to my only hope, that of an accidental encounter.

When the sessions in Manila concluded, each group of volunteers shipped out to the province in which they’d be living and working for a final period of orientation. My destination was Camarines Sur at the southern end of the main island of Luzon, the province of my eventual assignment. After meeting our provincial director and the local officials with whom we’d be working, we broke up into small groups of four or five to spend a weekend in the field with a current volunteer who would give us insights on what our lives would be like for the next two years. I would be going to a remote island off the tip of Luzon called Catanduanes.

“So, who will we be staying with?” I asked Fran, our director.

“A very interesting guy by the name of John Dumm,“ he replied. My double-take must have been quite emphatic for he immediately inquired, “Do you know him?”

“Know him! You bet I know him!”

ferry to Catanduanes

The next morning the five of us so assigned boarded the small ferry for the ride to Catanduanes. Everyone’s anticipation level was high, but none more so than mine. As the ferry slowly approached the arrival dock in the port of Virac, I could see John standing at the end of the pier. He expected some newcomers but didn’t know about my presence in the group. The boat was secured and the gangplank lowered. I strolled off the ferry and with my best nonchalant act greeted John.

“Hey there. How’ve you been?”

“What!” he exclaimed, “Daborn?! You’ve got to be kidding me! What the heck are you doing here?”

“Well, the same as you, I hope.”

Much catching up over more than a few beers followed as John regaled us with stories both of his recollections of our shared lives at college and his current endeavors in the Peace Corps. Because he lived in a small place in a rather remote area of the island that made travel difficult, we stayed at the lone and rather rustic hotel in Virac. Or at least that’s what he told us; other possible covert reasons fueled my imagination for months to come.

Over the next year our paths crossed several more times, though not in Catanduanes. John’s exceptional abilities propelled him into a succession of innovative positions within the Peace Corps Philippines hierarchy. I usually ran into him in Manila while he was between trips to far-flung places. There were always the tales of his adventures, and I looked forward to them for he was a master storyteller.

When his tour of duty ended, he made a legendary return home, buying a motorcycle in Jolo in the Muslim-controlled southern end of the islands and making a dubiously legal exit to Indonesia by boat. He biked through Asia and North Africa and up into Europe. He survived a crash and attributed his rapid recovery to the restorative sun and salt water of the Mediterranean. As word of his trip reached me, I marveled at this modern-day Marco Polo with great enthusiasm and envy, for I hadn’t the courage to undertake such a journey myself.

Unfortunately, as too often happens, I lost track of one of the important influences in my life. My bumbling attempts to locate him through Googlesque methods always came up empty. However, since fate unexpectedly brought us together once before, it is not out of the realm of possibility to think that some day, when I least expect it, it could very well happen again. I’ll be sure to let you know.