Sunday, September 26, 2010

Encounters from outside the bubble

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This is Manuel. He lives on a beached boat in El Nido, Palawan, because his sister’s husband doesn’t want him in their house. Anybody could see that Manuel is a little, well, cracked: he rambled on (in surprisingly good English) about the history of the United States, asserting several times with misplaced pride that “I am an American.” He told me about his past history as a boxer, which – despite the sagging, aged body I saw – I can believe. My Encounter with Manuel was in August 2009.

In some ways, Peace Corps is a uniquely individual endeavor. Putting aside your Twitter and your Facebook and your international texting, in most ways a volunteer is still cut off from everyone and everything Back Home. You may still be able to find many of the same things – Starbucks is here, and toilet paper, and loads of English – but you’re still in an unfamiliar country. No matter what impression the westernized aspects of the Philippines may give to visitors, rest assured that it isn’t the West.

Of course we don’t fit in, and that means that there’s a certain aura of isolation around foreigners. For me, that aura is necessary: the social aspects of Filipino society can be overwhelming for me and I often need the insulation. But if the bubble is impermeable, and nothing can get in or out – what, then, is the point?

Hence the Encounters: the times when, instead of the outsider breezing by on a cloud and awing the natives, a mutual connection is made. Sometimes Encounters come few and far apart, sometimes they are positive and sometimes negative. Sometimes, as with Manuel, they’re just interesting and slightly bizarre. But in the end, they are among the experiences that have meant the most to me in my time here.

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Raul Fabiantes. I’ve mentioned him before: he’s the Cuyonon who loves having his name propagated around the world through his shipping post. I crossed paths with him and his friends several times during my Christmas stay on Cuyo. They brought me inside a nearby fish-processing facility and showed me the isda and kasag and prawns; they entreated me to stay longer, add them on Facebook and give out my phone number. “Indi pwede,”  I said. I can’t. “My phone number is only for work.”

Raul used to live in my province and his contacts ranged from van drivers to a particular dentist. He urged me to avail of these contacts and I promised I would try. (And I did try: I looked around for his driver buddy at Tagbak terminal before a trip to Caticlan, but apparently he had already moved on to other prospects.)

But Peace Corps isn’t a travel agency, and two years in-country means that volunteers are forced (well, ideally) to integrate into their communities. That means that we have the opportunity to form connections that reach beyond the flash-relationships typical to travelers.

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Kate (aliases: Katherine, Kit-Kit, Kit): one of the smartest people I know, and she was only eleven when I met her. Kate lives in Bacolod on the island of Negros. I had the good fortune of spending three months in her barangay during our training. Kate’s English was excellent, but much more than that, she always had a clever way to explain something I didn’t understand. She helped teach me how to wash my clothes by hand, play countless hand-clap games and patintero, and was one of my constant companions around the neighborhood. She helped me with my Ilonggo and told me stories about aswang and other creatures.

Kate, of course, was much more than an Encounter. She was my early guide to the Philippines and one of my first friends. Unfailingly considerate but frequently mischievous, dirt-poor but brilliant, Kate helped make my first months in-country memorable. It has been almost two years since I lived in her neighborhood, and although I imagine she has changed considerably since then, my vision of her is the same: board-thin, intense black eyes piercing everything around, husky voice laughing at some silly joke.

I’ve had too many Encounters to remember offhand. There was Dimple, the Bacolod girl who bought me Chinese food during the wild Masskara festival; Alicia, the resident old crazy woman in our training barangay, who spoke good English and asked if she could kiss me (I politely declined); the fantastic Filipino Peace Corps staff, who definitely deserve a post of their own.

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And Grimace, the Bacolod boy whose PCV-coined pseudonym derived from his strained but absolutely adorable attempts to grin.

Filipino kindness has been a constant presence since I touched down in August 2008. It’s true that sometimes all the attention can be stressful, but it has also formed perhaps the core of my experience in the Philippines. I’ll remember a lot from my service, but more than anything I’ll recall those times that I call my Encounters – and those, of course, that became more than Encounters.

(Reposted with other "meeting locals" articles at HeadingThere.)

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