Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bunggo ulo

There are many times when I’ve put in a full day at work and, at the end, felt like I’ve wasted my time and everybody else’s. My own deficiencies as a pretend social worker – inexperience in organizing, ignorance of local customs and regulations, and my preference for solitary work – exacerbates the often lax and unpressured workplace atmosphere, with the result being… nothing. I guess tedium feels the same wherever you are in the world.

A nifty quality of tedium, though, is that it’s pretty inherently forgettable. When I look over my shoulder, I don’t really see the mountain of hours I’ve spent doing nothing, or at least nothing worthwhile. One unproductive day mixes into all the others and the memories that bubble to the surface of this blend are the new, the unusual, and the downright bizarre. Peace Corps might not be a better choice than anything else, but it’s sure different.

Twenty months ago a Filipina prostitute asked me if she could have my nose. She giggled. Days before that, at the beginning of our street exposure in Cebu City, I had enjoyed what is still the best meal I’ve had in the Philippines – monggo beans and rice – eaten with bare hands filthy from playing with lice- and germ-ridden street children.

In Granada we had our own pseudo-street child, Pembrose, held in common by all the trainees. Daily she would appear in dirty, ripped clothing, hanging around the plaza, unemployed and unconcerned with all those formal aspects of life we take for granted – a young epicurean – materializing one day with a ridiculous great Siberian earflap hat perched on her tangled hair, shining gorgeous darkblack eyes blinking just below. Once, and only once, I saw her in a school uniform – the solitary evidence I have that she had a family, a routine, something beyond the sweet freedoms of childhood.


My time in the Philippines has been guided and marked by children like Pembrose and children nothing like Pembrose. In Siquijor, circa 2009, a local girl burst out into laughter at the sight of an overweight, pasty-white foreigner emerging onto the beach from his cottage: “Tambok,” she cried out delightedly, indicating his corpulence. She’s the one in the profile image of this blog, squatting on the sand, a westernized but still part-self image, not quite ready to yield the beach to the hordes of outsiders and thank god for that.

And I’m crammed into a van packed with youth from my center, spilling over onto one another, and for some reason a monstrous pocky langka rolls around on the floor as the vehicle rocks and jerks, slamming the jackfruit into my legs. Before the jackfruit we had picked up a load of coconuts – but maybe that was a separate trip – long rides flow together; was this the one where we stopped at Sampaguita Gardens, the bizarre Precious Moments-themed park incongruously carved into rural Aklan, complete with a tour of the brand creator’s house, opium lounge still in place? Or was this the trip during which I found myself farcically acting out a biblical tableau with several Filipino youth in a shrine etched into the side of a mountain?

When I look back, the way is lined with shadowy figures whose names and faces I’ve forgotten, but also those whose images I retain, sharp and probably sharper for memory’s caprice: the beautiful old woman, wrinkled like an elephant’s folds, big crooked brown nose and down a few teeth, who always called out a greeting to me on the hot Granada mornings. Another Granada figure: the bandana’d bearded Filipino, looking like a modern lost pirate, careening around the streets on a peaceful drunk. (“He’s a little crazy because he’s drinking,” one local girl explains to me.) There’s the crabby grandmother of my second host family, who watched the Filipino “Deal or No Deal” with something approaching spiritual zeal. She died two weeks ago.

At my first wake, I listened while friends of the deceased, a teenage girl killed in an auto accident, described her as “sexy.” Her rubbery body lay a few feet away, the thick layers of white makeup visible through the glass casket window making a last sad attempt to fool the world into thinking she was paler than the reality. And my first and only funeral – here or anywhere – where just before I snapped a final photo of the tomb niche being sealed, the dead woman’s brother turned to look directly into my lens.

Capiz funeral

On another gloomy day, this one in Manila, I looked out at the overcast bay, famous for its pollution-enhanced sunsets. A young Filipino engaged me in conversation, telling me he was from elsewhere but moved to Manila for work. I asked him what his work was. “I am a prostitute,” he said. Hard to escape reality in the metropolis.
Other times reality is easily pushed aside, as with my vivid warped chloroquine dreams of alien bodysnatchers, the whole scene laid out like a TV series with an episode guide floating in the corner of my consciousness (along with other volunteers, I had to travel to the aliens’ planet via biplane to defeat their warlord); and other dreams curiously like real life – or like life, anyway, since whatever Peace Corps may be, it’s not so much real. I swim upwards out of sleep…

… Break the surface and I’m treading water at Alubihod Beach on Guimaras, a pair of eyes looking at me from several feet and four hundred miles away. When I dive down again I’m immersed in the clear waters of Boracay, to which I had told myself I wouldn’t go again. But there over my shoulder is the still-sharp shade of my second trip to the island, smirking at my weakness but nodding in understanding nonetheless.

Boracay is a social island, a Peace Corps-gathering island, a place where you try to believe that you’re living that shared communal experience with other volunteers. That you can feel each other. That you’re all in it together. And you can share stories, and share food, and share apartments and beds, but worldviews are worldviews, and what you can’t share is another person’s eyes. Which is wonderful at times and sad at others.

I speak Ilonggo improperly anyway, so I’m okay with pushing aside scruples and appropriating a phrase now and then for my own purposes. Bunggo ulo: it’s the contradictory experiences, the pushes and pulls of a life teetering on the edge of a foreign culture and – too rarely – falling into it. Forgetting oneself, only to remember in time and marvel at the strange, rich misplaced interval. You feel it – bunggo ulo! – in the fierce vibrating tension between the sari-sari and the megamall, the chicken-intestine-on-a-stick and the chicken pesto pasta, between the rice fields and the choked highways.

And most of all you feel this bunggo ulo, this head-collision, in the uncertainty: of your presence, of the rightness of your self-appointed task. The collision makes you dizzy. Which isn’t bad: it should.

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