Saturday, November 28, 2009

Forever will we climb the monkey bars


The saddest characteristic of children is that they become adults. This transformation is unfortunate but doggedly pervasive: few manage to avoid it altogether. Grass-stained shirts become neatly pressed suits, once-colorful breakfast cereal turns monochrome, and the important businesses of exploring and experimenting are overshadowed by clocks and little bits of paper with the portraits of dead people.

We celebrate this transformation with birthdays, bar mitzvahs, coming-of-age celebrations. In the Philippines, an eighteenth-birthday debut is, for girls, a major event. In the US we mark the years with privileges: driving at sixteen, voting at eighteen – and at twenty-one, the right to imbibe alcohol, which ironically is probably the only means some people have to return to a more fantastic time of immaturity and ignorance.

Except children aren’t immature, they’re just more honest than adults: they laugh when they want to laugh, cry when they feel like crying. It’s adults who are mixed up, who hide things: we laugh when we really want to cry.


Neither are kids ignorant. What we take for granted, they’re only just discovering – and discovering with a sense of wonder that their elders have long since misplaced in their alphabetized filing cabinets. Ask me about the Grand Canyon and I will give you this description: “It’s so big and beautiful, and if you fall down to the bottom, you might die.” I stole that line from a five-year old girl, a preschooler. I’ve never heard a better synopsis.

Kids have their responsibilities, just like adults. They’re the ones who make sure new insects get thoroughly examined. They test rain puddles for surface tension and viscosity. Their experiments on centripetal motion are unparalleled, though usually conducted on old rusting playground equipment. The differences between their work and that of adults are these: kids like their jobs, they’re usually really good at them, and, beyond perhaps some name-calling and rock-throwing, they rarely intentionally hurt others to achieve their ends.

I try to emulate kids sometimes. I don’t keep a planner, because I tell myself that if I have to write down my daily schedule and responsibilities in order to remember them, then my life has become too structured, too complicated, and I need to simplify. But then Peace Corps gets on my case about forgetting my third straight monthly call-in, and I meekly apologize and add a reminder on my cell phone.

That’s what being an adult is: placating other adults. (I know this because I’m already twenty-four and, to quote Bill Watterson’s Calvin, a lifetime of experience has left me bitter and cynical.) We’re all nervous, tightly-wound bundles of civility, afraid to say what we think – unless we have enough money to make other people care about what we think; and then what we think is usually something devised to make ourselves more money.

I tiptoe around other adults every day, making sure there’s a thick insulation of polite falsities and forced smiles between us. I think I’ve learned to comport myself rather well, which is very distressing to me. I can feel the kids’ disapproving stares: What is he thinking, I imagine them wondering. We know he sings goofy songs and throws our sandals in trees and acts like a general fool around us. Why the act?

I hate to perform. I hate singing, dancing, acting, even just speaking in front of an audience. I think my center is, finally, beginning to realize this, likely because I’ve told several of my coworkers exactly so in as many words. They don’t understand it. Neither do they understand that I’m acting all the time around them. Maybe that’s why I’m so opposed to public performance: I’m already doing it - no need to double up.

Sometimes, though, we do drop the act. Maybe we suddenly realize that a lonely tree really needs climbing, or that work can wait because we just saw an awesome stickbug crawling into a bush. Imagine the contribution to world cuisine if we actually went through with all the food experiments that go through our heads. These are small steps; when the Swing Long Jump becomes an Olympic event, we will have arrived at last at a happier, more enlightened time.


As for me, I’ll continue singing my goofy songs for the kids, but I’ll maintain my adult act as well. So society dictates, and my mind isn’t free enough to break free of its chains. But if the world were to suddenly end, I hope I would not be caught sitting in an office - how depressing to have one’s last vision be lines in a ledger or cells in a spreadsheet. Let me spend my final moments instead dangling upside-down on bright red monkey bars, feeling the glorious dizzying headrush while my cell phone, wallet, keys, all the reminders of a sterile, cold adulthood fall out of my pockets to be swallowed by the living earth below.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Shooting up in wharf-town

Wharves are tailor-made for photographers. They have everything you could want in a picture: gorgeous vivid rust, cheeky wharf rats and the sea.

The general decrepitude of wharves is one of their main draws. Everything is coarser and more tactile here: the flaking paint on a boat’s prow, the jagged oxidized red metal of poles that look ready to snap in two. Even the ocean is more textured, cut into furrows by the wakes of passing ferries and tugs.

Wharves are far from the boring smoothness, the glossy plastic facade of wealth. Mansions are flat and lifeless – I certainly learned that from living in Malibu. But wharves have a character of movement and change: a dynamism riding on the salty sea air.













Thursday, November 12, 2009

I remember this

My boat is sliding through dirty brown water towards the port of Cebu. It is early and the air is already hot; smog hangs over the city, smudging the distant cars traversing the bridge to Mactan Island. I’m wide awake after fourteen hours of sea breezes and rocking waves. We are leaning on the railing, a hundred Filipinos and I, watching the people below. They are begging from their little bangkas, their outrigger boats. They hold out their hands, asking for food or money; women with tangled wild hair leave their children sleeping in the prows and dive smoothly for the coins shining in the morning sun. It is a small flotilla assaulting our ferry; the boats carve out their territory and the men and women banter back and forth, all the while keeping an eye out for the glint of metal. They pick out my white face at once, though we are thirty feet above the ocean.

And this: I’m sitting on a rocky outcropping in Palawan. I’ve been here for hours, staring out at the islands, watching the angry clouds gather and disperse and gather again. It rains and rains. The ledge I’m sitting under only protects me partly from the storm. I was supposed to take a boat out to those islands today, but I’m here instead, waiting out the sun. On the mainland I know there are expatriates and travelers exploring the shores, but nobody disturbs my offshore rock except a lone Filipino fisherman, and I can believe there is no El Nido town, no Palawan, nothing except the volcanic hills sprouting out of the ocean in front of me.

And this, a memory repeated and layered, blurred at the margins, vague and variable but essentially true: warm darkness, the smell of smoke. Voices flying into one another, clamoring, jabbering, laughing. Someone has an out-of-tune guitar and half the words to a Bob Marley song. Our lights are stars and the burning ends of cigarettes. Nothing is distinct, nothing is solid, and the tropical night weighs on my eyes.

I have the quick images, the snapshots: an old woman’s beautiful toothless smile, sugarcane burning, ten thousand floating tsinelas in Manila Bay. Yellow mango, green mango. Roadside sari-saris, ten in a row, identical: Norma Store, Nonong Store, Stela Store. Slum kids diving into oil-strewn wharf water. Rattling rusty buses. A trisikel driver with one eye and hunchbacked children begging for pesos. Scars. Brown skin, dark eyes, startled looks.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Reading in the Philippines is a tricky business sometimes. As an essentially solitary activity, reading is often a catalyst for concern on the part of friendly Filipinos who worry that their American friends are sad and lonely because they’re tucked into a corner, nose in a book. (The same goes for Americans who are not dancing at a party or bar – they must be depressed.) It’s a wonderful expression of the Filipino mindset of concern for guests and friends, but sometimes it makes reading impossible – especially when you don’t want to offend Filipinos by showing a preference for books over their company.

Another concern is the price of books. New ones often approach the cost of books in the US – say P350 for a pocket paperback, the equivalent of about 7USD. That amount can buy ten meals at a local carinderia. Luckily there are used bookstores at many malls, and that’s where I do most of my book shopping. Several other volunteers on or near my island are avid readers and we exchange books once in a while. Sometimes the pickings are indeed slim (I was once greatly tempted to buy the Hanson biography Mmmbop to the Top to complement Ice by Ice, the Vanilla Ice autobio), but after more than a year I’ve got stacks of interesting books in my house. A good thing, since the only books I brought from home were five by Kerouac (Big Sur, On the Road, Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels and Tristessa). Aside from these – which are all fantastic – the following are a few of the best I’ve read in the past fifteen months.

A Long Way Gone (Ishmael Beah) – an autobiographical account of Beah’s experience as a child soldier in West Africa and his reintegration into society. It reminds me of a true-life Beasts of No Nation – simply written, starkly nightmarish.

Whiteman (Tony D’Souza) – also set in Africa; tells the story of a young American volunteer trying to figure out the customs of an unfamiliar society. Sound familiar? I kept coming across strangely resonant elements in the book, which is billed as a novel. And sure enough, I looked up D’Souza’s background afterwards and it turns out he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cote d’Ivoire.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Haruki Murakami)Blind Willow is a compelling collection of enigmatic, creative short stories that (for the most part) thankfully manage to sidestep the pointless, tiresome weirdness-for-the-sake-of-weirdness that plagued a previous Murakami collection, The Elephant Vanishes.

The Road (Cormac McCarthy) – a postapocalyptic journey through burning America that is, unusually, neither nostalgic nor silly. The Road has gotten a boatload of acclaim since its release, and it is quite warranted.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson) – one of those books I should have read long ago, Thompson’s drug-fueled journey hurtles through Sin City in prose that miraculously keeps pace with the author’s fevered brain.

Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource (Marq Villiers) – a scientific study of the movement of water throughout the world – its uses, misuses, and the consequences of a growing population on a finite resource already strained in many parts of the globe. Much fascinating talk about cubic-meters-per-second and aquifer depletion, as well as a lot of information on historical water projects, like the water-theft that allowed (and allows) Los Angeles to rise from desert.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Dai Sijie) – two citizens of Mao’s communist China face reeducation on a remote mountain during the Cultural Revolution. Sijie is somewhat of an authority on the subject, having been reeducated himself in the 1970s.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (Alexandra Fuller) – the author tells about her British-expat childhood and youth in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia. It’s a story about two things: her ill-starred, alcoholic, unstable mother, and the white separatism that resulted, for Fuller, in an African life displaced from everything African.

These are all great reads, but sometimes it’s more fun to talk about the books that were disappointing or just plain awful. Who could predict that Fell in Love with a Band (Chris Handyside), the epic tale of the White Stripes’ rise to prominence, would be just as mediocre as, well, all the other music writing in the world? Or that Paperback Original (Will Rhode) could actually be even more generic and mundane than the cover’s synopsis, which is: “When the traveling ends, and the drugs wear off, the writing must begin”? (I use this book as a mousepad.)

The worst are the letdowns by authors I admire. It’s hard to believe that Tim O’Brien, creator of the staggeringly fantastic The Things They Carried (in my mind perhaps the second-best book about war I’ve ever read, after Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms), could pen a sludgy, gimmicky mess like In the Lake of the Woods. And even after reading the wonderful Breakfast of Champions, Bluebeard, Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, the scattered-to-oblivion God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater almost makes me question the genius of Kurt Vonnegut. Almost.


The Best

A Separate Reality (Carlos Castaneda)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson)

A Long Way Gone (Ishmael Beah)

Mother Tongue (Bill Bryson)

Whiteman (Tony D’Souza)

Bluebeard (Kurt Vonnegut)

Ice by Ice (Vanilla Ice)

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Haruki Murakami)

The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource (Marq Villiers)

Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut)

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Dai Sijie)

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (Alexandra Fuller)


The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)

July, July (Tim O’Brien)

Don’t Stop the Carnival (Herman Wouk)

Chang and Eng (Darin Strauss)

A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson)

The Lost Continent (Bill Bryson)

Hooking Up (Tom Wolfe)

Mr. China (Tim Clissold)

China Boy (Gus Lee)

Vanity of Duluoz (Jack Kerouac)

Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese (Mike Nelson)

Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste (Lester Bangs)

Nickel and Dimed (Barbara Ehrenreich)

The Liars’ Club (Mary Karr)

Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynne Truss)

The Awakening (Kate Chopin)

Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York’s World Trade Center (Eric Darton)

12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time (Mark Jacobson)

Ella Minnow Pea (Mark Dunn)

Two Years in the Melting Pot (Liu Zongren)

Spit in the Ocean #7: All About Kesey (Ed McClanahan, ed.)

Native Son (Richard Wright)

Kim (Rudyard Kipling)

The Audacity of Hope (Barack Obama)

Breadfruit (Celestine Hitiura Vaite)

Falling Off the Map (Pico Iyer)

Notes from a Small Island (Bill Bryson)

My Freshman Year (Rebekah Nathan)

Selling Ben Cheever (Ben Cheever)

The Key (Junichiro Tanizaki)

The Quiet American (Graham Greene)

Light in August (William Faulkner)

My Sky Blue Trades (Sven Birkerts)

Motoring with Mohammed (Eric Hansen)

Geisha, a Life (Mineko Iwasaki)

No good

The Binding Chair (Kathryn Harrison)

Fell in Love with a Band (Chris Handyside)

Shalimar the Clown (Salman Rushdie)

Man’s Fate (Andre Malroux)

Native Speaker (Chang-Rae Lee)

Among Warriors (Pamela Logan)

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (Kurt Vonnegut)

Paperback Original (Will Rhode)

Boy Island (Camden Joy)

In the Lake of the Woods (Tim O’Brien)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

“Times cannot erase the friendship that your heart recorded”

The past week has been somewhat of a flurry of activity – I’ve accompanied my kids to a song and dance competition, a children’s rights activity day (for Children’s Month, October), a Halloween party at my center, and a little celebration for my birthday on November 1.

I’ve seen dozens and dozens of dance performances since I’ve been here, and I’ll see countless more before my time is up. This one was slightly different, however – rather than bog-standard hip-hop performances, this one showcased traditional dances And by traditional, I mean “highly influenced by and on occasion taken directly from the Americans and Spanish.” My own kids performed an intricate dance involving the synchronized movements of dancers between moving bamboo logs. There’s a name for the dance but I can’t recall it at the moment. It’s very impressive when done right.

Later I asked my coworker a question about the performance. I knew the dance was from pre-colonial times; “So why, if the dance is supposed to be traditional,” I asked, “do the dancers use makeup to whiten their skin?”


She couldn’t answer. Another coworker pointed out another incongruity: the Iloilo Dinagyang festival is supposed to celebrate the Philippines’ native history, but they also use the occasion to venerate Catholic saints. This kind of cultural mixing is everywhere in this country, and more often then not no attempt is made to reconcile or even explain it. Many Filipinos, despite professing a devotion to Christianity, also believe in mystic healing and supernatural beings. (Their “aswang” are particularly grotesque; Filipinos often call them “witches", but they’re a far cry from the wart-nosed old ladies of the Western imagination. They have the form of beautiful women, but from the waist down they have no bodies, just entrails streaming along as they fly. They have long tongues which they extend down the throats of pregnant women to eat their babies, which, if you pass by the anatomical impossibilities here, is pretty spooky. Other popular creatures include kapri, which are tree-like beings, and “white ladies,” who – well, actually I don’t know what the white ladies are supposed to do. I think they just make token appearances outside windows late at night.)

Moving on. The Children’s Month activity was long, long, long, but kids from my center got a chance to perform for kids from other places, which is always good. Our youth band was mostly a miss thanks to faulty sound equipment, but nobody seemed to particularly care.


Our Halloween party, which was actually the day before Halloween, was loud and crowded, and I left early because I was dead tired and sick of people screaming at me over the music to take their picture. As soon as I take out my camera here, the clamoring begins. It’s constant, as if your ears are being buzzed by something loud, shrill and obnoxious, like The B-52s.

On Halloween I went to the city and blew a week’s worth of food money to buy candy for my kids, all hundred-plus of them. I barely made it to my center before bedtime; I was waylaid by an extravagantly drunk neighbor who insisted I come over for a drink and chicken slathered in ketchup.

On my birthday – my sixth straight, I realized, away from home – I was surprised by a little celebration my kids and a coworker had arranged. It was nice, mostly because it involved no dance numbers, no speeches, and no surprise announcements that I would be responsible for providing entertainment. We spent the afternoon eating, taking pictures and playing games. One of my girls drew a portrait of me as a gift and several others wrote me letters. They contain such nuggets of wisdom and half-English as the following:

  • “Always remember that times cannot erase the friendship that your heart recorded.”
  • “We hope that you do not change your attitude because I like to be fun with you. Sorry if my writing is so ugly.”
  • “Many learnings I’ve learned to you because I like American People.”
  • “Thank you 4 being one of my arch enemy. Hehehe”  

 The only problem with the day was a typical one: miscommunication. The celebration only involved a dozen or so kids, and it seems that some of those not participating – children and coworkers - assumed I had arranged the whole thing and neglected to invite them. Ay, dyos ko.