At a conference earlier this year I met the director of another children’s center up in Luzon. He had a bit of experience with Peace Corps volunteers and something about them puzzled him. “Ryan,” he said, “let me ask you a question. Why do Peace Corps volunteers always have their backpacks with them?”
My answer was that PCVs generally have to carry at least three things with them always: water, a payong (umbrella), and a book. That’s a generalization, of course, though I wouldn’t be surprised if many volunteers aside from myself carried around just those items. And more - things accumulate in those pockets. Right now I also have some medications, a list of addresses for people in the States, a leftover plane ticket stub to Honolulu, bug spray, American and Chinese coins, my glasses case, an old camera and a three-months-gone issue of Newsweek from Peace Corps that I’ve been savoring in small doses.
On my trips to the city I usually substitute my laptop case for my backpack. Items gather there too; aside from the usual computer paraphernalia, right now in my case one can find:
Five slips of paper with wifi codes from various establishments
- One DVD of foreign movies and one CD, The Grey Album (a mashup of Jay-Z and the Beatles), given to me by another volunteer who shares my love for the Fab Four
- One band-aid
- Un-Aspirin, pseudoephedrine and Benadryl (for flights, mostly)
- $4.88 in American coins
- 1 Philippine peso
- Various communications from Peace Corps
- A map of “metro” Iloilo and Guimaras
- A sticker that proclaims “Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime”
- A shipping receipt from three and a half months ago
- A small, worn slip of paper that dates back to the California days, on which an unknown author has inscribed:
DIE SlowlyPABLO NERUDA
And in my wallet: receipts, coupons never redeemed and checks never cashed, a post-it with the names of Korean restaurants in Iloilo and the email addresses of a Korean friend who promised to show me around Seoul if I ever make it up her way, various official cards from Peace Corps and Philippine agencies, scribbled email addresses of people I’ve forgotten ever meeting, a cigarette foil with the penciled address of a barangay captain I met once in my plaza who swore he had assassins after him, a hospital laboratory report from the day before Christmas assuring me that I was NEGATIVE FOR INTESTINAL PARASITES, dicycloverine Hcl, a phone card I obtained six years ago for a trip to Mexico, and a boat ticket from Manila – the boat I never took – which, on the back, has a list of insurance benefits for travelers injured en route. “Total and irremediable paralysis” and “Loss of both hands at or above the wrists” grants the insured a payment of P40,000. “Loss of all toes of both feet” scores only P6000, or about $120.
I have no chairs, no TV, no table, no fridge. The only things I keep in my front room are my bike and a broken set of garden clippers. I’m low on some things – like most of what you’d expect to find in a normal house – but drowning in others. Throughout the rest of my house are more wifi slips, sales and travel receipts, a cell phone case shaped like a dog on which the name PATRICK is embroidered, a palm-tree souvenir from Boracay, a certificate and medallion shaped like a catfish given to me for judging a dance competition, a wooden mask granted in appreciation for helping to conduct a life skills training, lots of broken things (umbrellas, watch, sunglasses, three sets of headphones), and cards from mayors, governors, chiefs of police and one especially gregarious taxi driver.
I have remembrances given to me by various Filipinos: a glass paperweight with painted dolphins, keychains with rooster or Spongebob Squarepants themes, friendship bracelets, a tiny handkerchief with two bears printed on it along with the wise sayings “You approach people with a tenderheart” and “luck seems to come from out of nowhere,” farewell letters from my first host family in Bacolod, pictures of robots drawn for me by children, a Winnie-the-Pooh badge, and two of my kids’ neatly-labeled fingerprints. Lurking somewhere in digital existence are 4500 or so photos of people, places and steamed duck fetuses.
There is a map of the Philippines over my bed and one of metro Los Angeles on the opposite wall. Near my front window is a flip calendar locked perpetually in January 2009. Hanging in various places are shirts, towels, an old package of spaghetti, and one sock.
A lot of the junk in my house is just that, junk - stuff I haven’t deployed to the trash yet. But there are lots of memories floating among the flotsam – things that remind me of all the good, sad and strange things that have happened the past fourteen months. A few things I’ve jettisoned, burned, given away to people who don’t have any bad associations with them. But many, many more I’ve kept.
I have, as a going-away present from a girl in Bacolod, a little notebook with a picture of a cartoon bear and “BEAR” written below it. Accompanying it is a letter telling me that “i gave you this small notebook with a picture of bear because i want, you always remember me through the picture of bear in exchange of your goodness and kindness while you living here and being a friendly person here.”
When I bid farewell to this country, I may or may not be packing the “small notebook with a picture of bear.” But I will extract all the intangible things that are imbedded in the picture of bear, find places for them in my luggage and pockets, and carry them with me wherever I go next.