Posts Tagged ‘Philippines’

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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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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.

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The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love

October 1, 2011

teaching ESL in a barrio school

“We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier … the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes….”  John F. Kennedy, 1960

The Peace Corps turned 50 this year, a momentous event in my estimation for an enterprise many thought would never last past its first year. Since its birth in 1961, two hundred thousand Americans have served in 139 countries around the world. I am proud to say that I am one of them.

The organization was in its ninth year of existence when I joined in 1970 and was undergoing some growing pains, as was I in my twenty-first year of existence, so we were a good match. It was a perfect direction for me in which to go to channel both my idealism and sense of adventure.

The seeds were sown when I was in high school. I had admired the feeling of the era of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot even if I didn’t fully understand it, but reading a novel about the Peace Corps entitled The Zinzin Road by Fletcher Knebel crystallized much of my amorphous desire to do good in the world. In my senior year of college, I sent out my application, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In March of 1970 I received a letter from Joseph Blatchford, the director at the time, telling me I had been accepted to become a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher in Micronesia. I could barely contain my excitement. I rushed off to the nearest atlas to see where I would be spending the next two years of my life. However, in April my assignment was changed to the Philippines, a place I knew a bit more about since my father had served there as a soldier in World War II.

When I told my parents what I had done and where I was going, they were somewhat befuddled. After all, they hadn’t sent me to college to go off on some crazy escapade. What about getting a job and starting a career? In my view, there was plenty of time for that, and they reluctantly accepted my decision.

I must say, I had not given thorough consideration to what I’d be leaving behind: my home, family, friends, and girlfriend, not to mention electricity, running water, a refrigerator full of food, changing seasons, reliable transportation, and a relatively predictable existence. I had no idea of what to expect, and yet I relished that very idea.

After some difficult good-byes, I reported to the staging point in Philadelphia in June. Our group then left for our tropical assignment training site — in Vermont, of all places. The next three months would be spent in intensive language instruction (mine was Bicol), cultural training, and applying teaching techniques to our unique task. Since I was to be an ESL teacher / teacher-trainer, the third month was spent in Montreal, Canada, practicing English teaching skills on the French-speaking populace who were in the midst of an anti-English movement.

We bussed to New York City the weekend before the long flight to Manila, and I took the opportunity to go home for a final farewell. The night before departing, I was informed that I had to shave off my beard. “It’s too radical looking,” I was told. “No Castro look-alikes will be allowed on the plane.” The next morning I headed out — beardless — with the rest of Philippines Group 39 to Kennedy airport, appropriately enough, to board the then-new 747.

Punctuated by an overnight stop in Tokyo, our journey ended at Manila airport, and we stepped out into our first blast of tropical heat. What followed was a whirlwind of orientations, meetings, and in-country training. Finally our group split up and ventured forth to our assignments.

The ensuing two years were an invigorating, frustrating, magical, frightful, and absolutely incomparable procession of experiences and adventures that resulted in a critical period of growth for me and friendships that have lasted until this day. I can not even begin to put into words how valuable this part of my life was. It altered my view of the world, my country, and myself, and the effect of this experience is a singular and essential part of who I am.

I did not intend to sound like a recruiter, though I would certainly encourage those who find the idea intriguing to seriously look into it. It is a life-changing experience in several ways. That there are countless individuals in those 139 countries around our planet who have changed for the better because of the Peace Corps presence in their lives is without question. Perhaps an even greater change, though, occurred in the two hundred thousand of us who were volunteers in this visionary program.

There is an old Chinese proverb that says the journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. I firmly believe that each of us that serves helps further the cause of education, health, justice, and peace in this world by those single steps. We aren’t there yet, but as long as there are people who are willing to believe in the possibility, however remote it may sometimes seem, I shall hold onto hope.

the future

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Little Darlin’

September 26, 2011

Music is a constant part of our modern lives. The radio is on in the car or the kitchen. Records, then tapes, CDs, and now MP3s are played everywhere. Even elevators and shopping malls contribute to the perpetual immersion. In this backdrop of music, certain songs tend to become connected to events in our  lives, embedded forever as part of our personal history in our brains. That song which brings back the summer when you first met him or her. The one when you broke up, the one from your  wedding. The one that makes you think of a special time or place in your life.

Little Darlin,’ the door-wop song made famous by the Diamonds in 1957, is one of those songs for me. I heard it while visiting a friend’s shore house this past weekend. Immediately my thoughts traveled back to that night in Catanduanes.

Catanduanes?

the bustling isle of Catanduanes

Yes, Catanduanes. Catanduanes is one of the thousands of islands that make up the Philippines, this particular one located in relative isolation off the bottom tip of Luzon. It has two claims to fame. The first is its small rocky guardian islands honeycombed with caves in the volcanic rock, reputedly providing hiding places for pirates in years gone by. The other is that it’s smack in the path of fierce typhoons that sweep up through the Pacific. But for me its unique distinction was being the unlikely site of a reunion with a revered college friend.

John Dumm was two years ahead of me at Seton Hall and a member of a small group of intelligentsia in my dorm whom I admired and came to know. After John graduated, he joined the Peace Corps. He was stationed on the other side of the world in the Philippines. We communicated a few times by mail while I was still in school.

As fate would have it, when I graduated and pursued my own Peace Corps dream, I was assigned to the Philippines as well. Despite the incredible coincidence (the Peace Corps was in 59 countries at the time), it seemed rather far-fetched to imagine our paths would cross there. I wasn’t even sure anymore exactly where in the country he currently was located.

As part of our initial in-country training, the new volunteers were sent out in small groups to visit an experienced volunteer to garner some insights into our new lives in the tropics.

“You’re going to ferry over to Catanduanes,” said our Provincial Director. “There’s a volunteer there who has been working on designing typhoon-proof schools, and I think you’ll learn a lot from him. His name’s John Dumm.”

Eureka! What were the chances!

PCV Sharon and fellow ferry passenger

John only knew that five of us newcomers were on our way, so when he saw me walking down the ramp from the ferry amidst the baskets of fruit and squawking chickens, surprise was the order of the day. After introductions to the other new volunteers, we spent time catching up over lunch in Virac, the port at which we landed.

Since John lived in a small house in the countryside, it had been arranged for us to stay in a hotel  in Virac, the capital of the province. Now, Virac is not exactly a cosmopolitan haven for nightlife. As a matter of fact, there was none, not the ideal place for a group of twenty-one year olds in search of a good time after an arduous  journey. But wait, you say, weren’t you in a hotel? Wasn’t this a capital city? Well, yes and yes, but in a backwater area of a third world country, so the reality didn’t quite live up to the terminology.

Therefore, we found ourselves on the verandah of the “hotel” with several chairs, a few bare light bulbs (having electricity at all was the one luxury afforded us), and, luckily, a large supply of San Miguel beer. There was also a record player with, for some unknown reason, only one record, an old American 45 RPM single. It happened to be an old favorite of mine from the 50’s, “Little Darling.”

As the night wore on and the San Miguel bottles emptied, “Little Darling” played on, over and over and over again. It was at first a bad joke, but as the hours marched on, it became a soundtrack to this surreal tropical night. By the time the refreshments had been exhausted and we stumbled to our beds, the song had woven itself into our psyches as though it were a thread in our very being.

So if you see me at a lounge or at a party with a faraway glazed look in my eyes and a strange bemused smirk and you hear, “Eye, yi-eye-eye-eye, Yi-eye-eye-eye, Ya-ya-ya-ahh, Little darlin’ (bop-bop-bop shoo-wah-wah), oh, little darlin’ (bop-bop-bop shoo-wah-wah), Oh-oh-oh where a-are you?” it is probably best just to leave me alone for a while. And maybe go get me a bottle of San Miguel.