Tuesday, August 18, 2009

They said, How long can you hang around? I said a year, maybe two.

Just until my skin turns brown and then I’m going home… (Joni Mitchell)

Last time I was in Manila, several volunteers from the batch before mine were preparing to complete their Close of Service (COS) and return home or move on to further Southeast Asian hijinks (including taking a long-delayed nibble of Mindanao, the forbidden fruit of the Peace Corps Philippines program). What struck me most was the total lack of fanfare, the abruptness of their departures. They packed their things into taxis and left.

Having just passed the one-year mark myself, I’m starting to feel like the lack of a big wrap-up, a summation of Life in the Peace Corps, is totally appropriate. I’m less than halfway finished with my own service and the experience already is too big to judge.

I did ask one departing volunteer to rate his service on a 1-10 scale. “Maybe a four,” he replied.

I don’t think I could rate my own as a number. I could use some words - “hot,” “weird,” “frustrating,” “rewarding,” “this fake cheese is disgusting” – but that’s sort of like saying “I went to the beach and there was this one pointy wave and another kind of flat wave” and regarding that as a sufficient description of the ocean.

The truth is that sometimes the best part of my day, provided that the insects aren’t swarming that particular night, is getting into bed after a cold bucket bath, knowing that I have a few precious hours to relax, time I don’t have to spend thinking about work.

But then – sometimes the worst part of my routine is leaving my center at night, saying goodbye to my kids when really I would love to stay and talk to them and try to figure them out.

I go to Iloilo City on the weekends to escape from my town and my center – yet it’s often the highlight of my day to run into someone from my community while I’m there.

Lots of things have changed. Some things have become less important – things like Time and Distance, which are both highly variable in Filipino culture. “Wait a while” is a common English phrase Filipinos use to signify a wait of any possible length, from a few seconds to days. Units of measurement, like kilometers, become elastic, subject to each person’s particular sense of truth.

Sometimes I’ll get one of those little reverse culture shocks, the vague sense that I’m perceiving something from the past but can’t quite recognize it. Recently I stayed at a pension that had showers with handles for both hot and cold water. I stared at them for at least a minute, trying to remember whether hot water was usually on the left or the right. I couldn’t do it – I had to try them out to be sure. Lots of things are familiar here, but there are plenty of differences - and sometimes the changes seep in slowly enough that I’m not even aware they’re happening until I get one of these little shocks.

In the end – or even now, twelve months in – nothing I write can be more than a store of notes, a collection of funny or sad stories, hopefully more of the former. There are no scales to measure my experience against what might have been otherwise, or what might be in the next year in another place.

It’s just what I’m doing, you know?

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