Wednesday, August 18, 2010

269 is the new 267

Tomorrow I’ll be heading to Cavite, near Manila, to help with the Initial Orientation for Peace Corps Philippines Batch 269. Although I chose to apply to be a resource volunteer for their arrival, I’m actually a bit apprehensive about the whole thing for a few reasons.
I’m leery about “preparing” trainees for their service because it’s entirely probable, and I think unavoidable, that doing so will create unfulfilled expectations. On Facebook and blogs I’ve already seen current volunteers give the new batch advice that is entirely context-specific and does not apply to every volunteer’s situation. The first thing I’d like to tell Batch 269 is: Anything and everything we, the current volunteers, tell you might be entirely irrelevant to your experience in the Philippines. It’s very easy to oversimplify this country and assume that Filipinos are one homogenous lump, but the longer I stay here the more I see how untrue and how unfair and prejudiced a viewpoint this is. Although I know much more than I did two years ago, sometimes I feel as if I “know” less – because so many of my initial impressions and the things people told me have been exploded.

In applying for IO, I also fought against my disinclination to participate in Peace Corps events. For some I’ve had no choice – we have mandatory conferences and other events – and some voluntary events I’ve attended mainly as a break from the daily grind (or daily lack-of-grind, as is sometimes the case), but this will be the first event I’ve actually applied for. I realize that technically I work for Peace Corps, but as much as possible I try to transfer “ownership” of that service to my host country agency. I don’t think it’s good for most volunteers to have a very close relationship with Peace Corps as an organization, because that not only strengthens the possibility of politicizing their connection to their community partners, it also turns their attention away from their actual service. I recognize that this doesn’t apply to everyone, and some volunteers play important roles in developing Peace Corps as an organization that more fully pursues legitimate goals. But in my case, most of the people I work with didn’t sign on to partner with Peace Corps, and it’s unfair to them if I’m often away for PC events.

On a more nostalgic note, I expect IO to be at least slightly surreal. I’ve been out of the Philippines only once since I arrived as part of Batch 267 in August 2008. I’ve mostly avoided getting to know volunteers from Batch 268 – none of them have sites near mine, and I figure the most those relationships would likely amount to is mutual grousing. We have enough of that in our batch as it is. This’ll be the first time in over two years that I will be around a large group of unfamiliar Americans, and I may well react by cowering in my room for the duration of the conference.

Most likely not. But I do think IO will reveal some unpleasant truths about my own mindset when I entered the country. Sometimes it’s honestly hard to remember what I was thinking when our plane from Los Angeles touched down in Manila; I made a conscious effort beforehand to avoid expectations – I did almost zero research on the Philippines, assuming that I would really know nothing until I got here, and maybe not even then – but I could never make my mind a complete blank about something as important (well, important to me) as two years of my life. Stupid newbie mistakes I have no problem with. Better to make them than not, really. But I’m not looking forward to any realizations about the assumptions I may have had when I was in 269’s place – or the ones that have endured even into the present.

My lack of contact with non-Filipinos has also given me a curiosity to hear, well, “foreign” opinions and ideas, and I’m sure the new batch has some interesting ones. When I look at the past two years, I’ve really been in consistent contact with very few people outside of my immediate community; aside from my family, I haven’t kept up any kind of frequent correspondence with anyone in the States. And even within the bubble of Peace Corps I see most other volunteers only on a very sporadic basis. Which has been fine – I certainly didn’t come to the Philippines to hang out with fellow countrymen – but it means that I’ve lacked exposure to outside viewpoints. And once you’ve spent more than twenty months talking with the same few people, conversations tend to repeat.

I’m trying to recall my own first few days in-country, and a lot of the details are fuzzy. I remember sitting through a lot of sessions that I would realize later were entirely unnecessary. I recall feeling lost in the Mall of Asia. (This hasn’t changed. I still get lost there.) I remember when the staff of our IO venue made us an American-style meal for our last dinner before we left for our training sites; a tinikling dance performance; a very few conversations; teaching Mao one night to some of my fellow trainees. And my travel bag disintegrating in the Manila airport before my flight to Iloilo, and tying it together with belts. And the first jeepney ride to the place where we met our host families, and my first walk around our wonderful little training community, and meeting my little sister Pau-Pau.


I guess there are lots of little memories buried here and there, but I’ll wait until I’m closer to the end of my service to dredge them up. It’s not over yet.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Marshmallow diamond crusades

Recently, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates got together and decided to shame America’s billionaires into pledging at least half of their wealth to charitable causes. The website set up for their initiative, The Giving Pledge, lists 38 billionaires who have already signed on to give up a majority of their money during their lives or at their deaths.

It sounds almost like a new era in American philanthropy. A century and more ago, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller’s huge monetary endowments were perhaps anomalies, aberrant blips in the honored timeline of estate-building.

Realistically, of course, even today those 38 pledges represent only a small fraction of the billionaires in the US. And after reading through their pledge letters – which are available on the Giving Pledge website – I see that many of them had made up their minds to give away large amounts of their wealth even before Buffett and Gates made their public drive. Whether The Giving Pledge represents a sea change is very much yet to be determined.

Still, the pledge letters made for interesting reading. A few were amusing in their sheer disconnectedness; one signee praised himself for having “only three luxuries: My Atherton, CA., home, a San Francisco luxury apartment 600 feet above sea level and a luxurious home on Pineapple Hill in Kapalua, Maui.” Which I guess is pretty Spartan for someone who can, at least, afford to spend $30 a second until this time next year.

Some were more promising. Many of them hit on the same basic tenets:
  • Estate-building is a waste and undermines American principles of independence and self-reliance.
  • It is the responsibility of the rich to share their wealth.
  • The discrepancy between the rich and poor, in the US and around the world, is largely due to chance, not an extraordinary personal effort on the part of the former.
  • Modern philanthropy demands not just handing out money, but using funds to create sustainable and responsible projects that address real problems.
This last is the real key, and it raises the most questions. This is Big Money, and many of the donors are using it to address Big Issues like health and education – areas that pretty objectively need money in order to progress. Bill Gates talks about the need for vaccine research; Eli and Edythe Broad focus much of their pledge letter on the problems facing the American public education system. Some of the focal points are personal: Jon Huntsman waxes poetic on cancer research, fallout from the death of his own mother to cancer.
All that sounds great. Regardless of whether personal agendas lurk behind these pledges, the issues are real and solutions elusive.

But some of the pledges are more troublesome. Thomas Monaghan promises his wealth to Catholic education. It’s his money and he’s free to do what he wants with it – but some might take issue with his stated desire to “share this truth with others.” Some of the other billionaires whose concerns include education plan to give or have already given huge endowments to institutions of higher education. Perhaps this money will go to areas of real need. But I recently looked up my own college, Pepperdine University, and saw that they had just completed renovating large chunks of a campus that was already functional and quite beautiful. While I was still a student, a debate raged about (possibly only apocryphal) large sums of money being shelled out for palm trees. I will be honest, I’ve never quite understood donating money for frivolous purposes to an institution that already took a lot of it from you. Perhaps I’m only being skeptical.  But these billionaires have already made clear their intentions, and if for no other reason than to balance out the PR benefits they reap from their public philanthropy, skepticism is a healthy thing now.

The fact is that agendas exist – and often they’re wrapped in the most passionate packaging. I saw this often at Pepperdine, which put a serious emphasis on the value of service: the school’s motto is “Freely ye received; freely give.” And people gave, but too often it was only to fulfill their own vision of an ideal world. Like marshmallows with diamonds concealed inside, the products of their spinning were sugary, palatable cocoons around what ended up being, in the end, only their own irreducible nuggets of truth. I’m talking about the people who somehow assumed, from their cushy thrones in Malibu, that they knew what poor Africans needed. Or the ones who, to much self-produced fanfare, supported trendy upperclass initiatives that in turn tossed a pittance in the charity urn. Or the privileged many who applauded social causes from afar, while ignoring the drain their new cars and jewelry and jet-set mentality placed on resources that, well, they didn’t really have to worry about themselves.

And Pepperdine, like any community, had its honest, socially-concerned people who didn’t assume they knew anything about the causes: people committed to learning before doing, the ones who didn’t publicize their intentions with vague taglines about “justice” or “change." (Ah, that’s a common one: the change-the-world mindset. How often does that result in “change” becoming a vague end in itself? How many of these do-gooders couldn’t articulate that “change” from the beginning of their crusade? You can change a lot and not improve anything.) No matter how paradoxical the following sentence seems, I’ll write it anyway: I learned a lot about social causes from my time in Malibu. There were good people mixed in with the hypocrites and the deluded.

And so, I’m sure, it is with these billionaires. Giving is good when intentions, knowledge and plans are too. And the essential idea of The Giving Pledge, shoving these promises onto the public stage, should ideally not only influence others to give, but also focus public scrutiny on the pledges that have been made. Transparency is a good thing; its sometime offspring, accountability, is even better.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Monarch of Mabini Street

It’s true that he never remembers my name. I can hardly blame him; what purpose could there be in memorizing the name of a occasional foreign visitor who never gives him money or food? Still I give him a hard time about it, because I always remember his, and I like to pretend that my friendship means more than a few pesos or calories.

JR is a “so young,” one of those kids whose age should reflect a life of long schooldays, free weekends and jackstones. So young to be down and out. And sometimes he’s a "too young,” as if there is an age requirement for panhandling. Maybe at twenty he can settle respectably into a begging life, but for now JR is just too young for this.

But I’ve seen younger. There are hunchbacks in Iloilo who can’t be older than five, and they’re out plying the streets on a daily basis, turning their infirmity into food if they’re lucky. Nicole is maybe eight and not a hunchback, but she already speaks in a low, inflectionless croak which never fails to disturb me, because I can’t imagine the trauma that would cause a child to sound so counter to her sweet-tongued fellows. Though I still see her around Iloilo on occasion, she doesn’t recognize me anymore. The memories of the food bestowed and impromptu English lessons conducted have faded, and rightfully so. They weren’t that important to a kid whose life revolves around begging.

And of course there are the grimy, rash-ridden infants swaddled in dirty cloths and held up by mothers to ferry passengers as proof of their destitution as well as their priorities – help my baby, not me. The babies are too youngs, but really they’re not, because it’s their newly minted status that makes them valuable. Makes them marketable.

Unlike them, JR roams his street independently, except when his kid sister is in tow. I can’t remember her name. Manila has hundreds of thousands of street kids, and it’s easy to let them fade into the scenery, allow their dirt-smeared faces to morph into nothing more than an extension of the blighted urban landscape. I’ve asked her name, certainly, several times, and right now I’ve got that itch in the back of my head that means a bit of information is just out of my memory’s reach. It’ll have to stay there. I don’t remember.

Not that JR himself is particularly memorable. He never does anything interesting. I high-five him as I pass along Mabini Street on my way to the Malate Robinson’s Mall. Sometimes he doesn’t bother asking me for money. I prefer that because I don’t like turning him down, and I always turn him down. I tell myself that I’ll buy him food someday, but I’m always hurrying somewhere or etc., etc. Excuses are easy.

Once he wasn’t just begging. He saw me walking from the north and quickly displayed his little box of gum: today he was a salesman. I wondered where he got the gum. Maybe he has a parent who roams a separate street and scraped together enough pesos to try a new tactic with his or her son. Perhaps this block of Mabini Street was once the domain of JR’s mother or father, and the few squares of cracked concrete are his royal inheritance.

But I don’t believe it. I can’t envision a parent, much less two, for JR and his sister, or a home in which they can take shelter from night chills and typhoons. Especially on this one day, the day with the gum, when he looked and acted every bit the self-made man. The proud entrepreneur. I like to believe that I saw a glint in his eye that day which said I’ve got it all figured out. At twelve years old, or ten, or whatever. I want to think he’ll always be all right, this old man of Manila, whether or not he’s got a family and a home. Because he’s a smart kid and streetwise.

That looks ridiculous even as I write it. I didn’t buy any gum.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Act Three: Romblon in the Bronx

(I’m lump-summing my vacation days and taking a three-week-plus trip around Luzon and the Visayas. Instead of synthesizing it all and writing a complete travelogue, I’m taking the easy way out and just posting notes I jotted down along the way. They’re grouped by location and are not necessarily chronological.

Part Three: lovely Romblon province and my return to Iloilo. Contains no Bronx.)

After seeing that Romblon town is little like I imagined I realize that actually it’s just as I expected – pretty and everything lowkey, graded streets leading up to lush hills and a coastal road hugging cliffs to the west. A very clear contrast between the reaction of people in the town center (indifferent) and those just outside (curious and unfailingly friendly). An overzealous mother has already offered her daughter to me (“She likes you,” “She doesn’t know me” – my standard smile not missing a beat of the familiar rhythm) but my favorite part of the day was the formal and practiced “Good afternoon, sir” from a passing schoolgirl walking home with a shyer buddy.

A startling moment in the ferry CR last night when I turned my head and caught a blazing orange sunset through the open porthole – and if the door’d had a more reliable lock I might have stayed a few minutes to catch the light sink below the ocean horizon. But my presence on the ferry from Batangas (which came complete with three bagged roosters courtesy of the rider directly in front of me) was already conspicuous and I wanted to give them no extra reasons to snigger at the outsider.

Of the towns I‘ve visited on this trip – and possibly of all the towns I’ve been to in the Philippines – Romblon is already my favorite. I had coffee at a (more or less) seaside cafe this morning, the Romblon Deli, and watched the locals go about their business. After a long stroll along the coast I’m lying now on the sand in some unmarked cove – there’s a little island jutting out of the water just offshore and I’m dying to explore it, but swimming out would mean leaving my stuff behind on the shore and I’m not about to risk that. In any case, it’s still pleasant to look at. The coast here is more like El Nido than Siquijor or Pagudpud, with islands drifting offshore in every direction. As a result, the water is calm and flat – fairly rocky too – and the islands create a beautiful panorama.

Just finished The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse, a bad popculture novel in the sorry tradition of most music writing since the 60s. Preying unapologetically on played-out celebrity caricatures – the phrase “pulled a Federline” grated particularly – and culture/trivia nuggets notable only in their blandness and general irrelevance to the story, the author builds a case of edginess betrayed by its own desperation. Nothing fits, nothing surprises and, worst of all to a book that attempts to be a comedy, nothing is funny. Books whose back covers purport them to be collections of contrived and absurd characters and situations…. are usually faithful to those synopses.

30-second exposure; the spots are the lights of Romblon town at night
But I have read some good books during this trip. Herzog was the first work I’ve read by Saul Bellow, and is excellently written even if its messages are somewhat doubtful. Brick Lane by Monica Ali manages the rare trick of undermining expectations without going through silly contortions to do so. Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos is infuriating and thought-provoking. I could never get into Nabokov’s Pnin, though, and Cup of Gold – Steinbeck’s first novel – had none of the depth of his masterful later work. In-between the new stuff I also reread Big Sur, my favorite by Kerouac: it’s a book that dredges the depths of human paranoia perhaps better than anything else I’ve ever read. I found The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay on a book-exchange shelf here in Romblon town and I’m fighting the urge to add its bulk to my luggage; much as I love it, I have my own copy at home and it won’t be that long before I can read it again.

Add to the list of things I won’t miss about the Philippines: ratty possibly rabid dogs aggressively guarding the best bits of beach.

And to the things I will miss: outrigger bangkas, whether they’re puttering along cutting through the sea or moored in the harbor with a troupe of kids fishing off the pontoons. Maybe nothing is more Filipino Modern than the jeepney, but give me the ropes and bamboo of a bobbing bangka for a symbol.

Left Romblon town this morning with a real twinge of regret – even walking to the port I half-hoped the boat had already left and I could spend another day relaxing along the waterfront with coffee from the Book Cafe. Seems a bit daft, I suppose, to be leaving a place I like for somewhere else, especially when I probably won’t be able to visit Romblon again – but then, I won’t be able to visit other places at all if I forgo them now, and somehow that seems the greater error.

I literally don’t know where my ferry is headed. I’m pretty certain of the island, but it could be docking at any town thereof. Now, that’s fine. Two years ago it would not have been so.

Kind of a lovely damp ferry ride this morning and at the end a big barracuda hauled up by the crew to much fanfare – nothing but grey drizzle on all sides until the coast loomed up out of the mist. And the owner of my current accommodation hosted a Peace Corps volunteer back in the 80s.

It’s all just regional bias, I’m sure, but I can’t help but feel confirmed in my preference for the Visayas over Luzon. Even though I enjoyed much of my trip up north, the central islands have a different feel. Maybe it’s just because they’re broken up by water, but they feel more varied. Luzon was one identical town after another, particularly in its interior – I missed the ferries, the trying to figure out how to get from one place to another without a simple bus solution. And the Visayas are frequently and undeniably gorgeous.
Bought my ticket for Japan on Friday – or rather, Chris did at my request. Cebu Pacific of course chose the one stretch of time during which I’m far from a booking office to start (and end) their promos. So I’m flying to Osaka on November 9 and spending all the money I saved with the promo ticket on an extra day in Japan, since the tickets for Nov. 10 were already sold out. (But compared to what I would have spent on a Northwest ticket straight to Tokyo on November 11, I saved over $200.)

And now I’m back again at my little house in Iloilo, with three months of service ahead of me and lots of weird, fun, exasperating and interesting experiences behind. Some bits of my long trip flew by too quickly, and other times an hour seemed stretched into ten; the amount of time I spent traveling by bus, ferry, bangka, jeepney and tricycle would be ridiculous were I to sum it all up. (I did, and it is.) But “ridiculous” is just an observation, not a judgment. Of course in some ways it’s certainly a relief to be back at site, where I can already feel the tendrils of routine winding around my life. As is generally the case, though, I picked up a lot on my way up and down the country.