Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Life in five pockets

If you’re American, and you work with Filipino children, they will ask you for stuff. Stuff like your computer, and your camera, and your bicycle; stuff like your money; stuff like your clothing (which they will not wear), your books (which they will not read), and your umbrella (which they will not use, because the spines are rusted and broken and the fabric flaps free). And if you’re a Peace Corps volunteer, they will ask for your backpack.


So far I’ve managed to avoid bequeathing my backpack to anyone by claiming that it has sentimental value. “Ah,” the Filipino will nod understandingly, “Sentimental value. Okay, then you give me your cell phone.”

Filipinos in my part of the country are polite and kind. Built into the dialect of my province are softeners which are used to blunt the edges of requests and statements: even the intonation plays a big part in suffusing speech with gentleness. But it goes beyond that: Ilonggos are so polite that they even soften Thank Yous (Salamat gid haa!). I guess plain expressions of gratitude are simply too harsh.

So this asking-for-stuff is a bit jarring, and also troublesome: at times it is very obviously a manifestation of the rich-American stereotype. But putting that aside for now, sharing and giving is also a part of the culture here, so much so that young children at my center will give up legitimately-gained sweets to their less fortunate fellows voluntarily. And the same is expected of me: I’ve learned to offer food automatically, not just to friends but to new acquaintances, strangers on buses, and even at times other Americans.

Sometimes fulfilling requests is no problem at all. One girl at my center asked me for my worn-out tsinelas (sandals) as a token of remembrance. She had me write my name on them. Weird but touching.

Other times, granting those requests is either not really possible or somewhat unreasonable. Turning down requests for stuff requires a bit more finesse than a blunt denial: there always has to be some excuse. Ah, I already promised that to someone else. This is remembrance from my friend in the States. Peace Corps bought this for me so I’m not allowed to give it away. And the good old sentimental-value ploy, which I’ve used on more than one occasion.

But in my backpack’s case, it’s actually becoming less of a ploy and more of a truism as time rolls on. It really is a venerable beast, having carried my textbooks through high school, towels and sunscreen through college (and some books then too), and everything imaginable during the Peace Corps stint.


I’ve abused it to no small degree in the past decade or so, but it has only started showing its age recently. One shoulder strap has started to rip apart, and the foam cushioning is protruding; the inside lining is fraying and thinning; the zippers sometimes don’t perform their job with utmost integrity. It has been discolored and darkened by years of dust, sweat and uncapped highlighters. Last year I thought I had finally killed it when an entire bottle of bike oil burst inside one of the main compartments, but many soakings and washings later the ordeal was just one more scar on its tough flesh.

On a typical day it carries my laptop, a reading book and a notebook, my water bottle, an umbrella and some odds and ends. Right now it’s toting both of my passports, some coupons for Greenwich Pizza (not recommended), a few stray medications, a locker lock for pension houses, numerous ticket stubs for planes and ferries, and a whistle of obscure origin. A green length of yarn decorates the hangloop on top; every volunteer in my batch used these bits of yarn to brand their luggage before our departure from Los Angeles. And my Peace Corps patch is linked to the main zipper – an oddly blatant bit of self-identification, that, but I can’t imagine detaching it now.


A backpack might be just a backpack, but context dictates usage. I’ve become adept at the one-shoulder swingoff to prove to mall security guards that I’m carrying no firearms or explosives, and also to the front-carry position that allows my payong to cover it more effectively during downpours. I guard it possessively on crowded metro rides in Manila. On short journeys, it’s just roomy enough to fit a change of clothes, laptop or books and DSLR – anymore more and I can almost hear the seams begging for mercy.

Of course, a backpack isn’t actually just a backpack. I could wax poetic on everything a backpack, knapsack or bag-on-a-stick represents, but Kerouac already said it for another generation, and if anything his words are even truer today with our increasingly inescapable modernity. “I promised myself that I would begin a new life,” he wrote in The Dharma Bums, “All over the West, and the mountains in the East, and the desert, I’ll tramp with a rucksack and make it the pure way.” And in Big Sur:
I think of the marvelous belongings in my rucksack like my 25 cent plastic shaker with which I’ve just made the muffin batter but also I’ve used it in the past to drink hot tea, wine, coffee, whisky… And other belongings so valuable compared to the worthlessness of expensive things I’d bought and never used…
Obviously what I just wrote about my laptop and camera is proof enough that I’m not exactly a practicing disciple of Kerouackian asceticism. Neither, strictly speaking, was Kerouac. But things fetter, and more things fetter more, and slinging on a backpack with body and mind otherwise free is a pretty good compromise.

I know that my backpack’s end, or at least its retirement, is probably not too far off. I’m fine with that. It has served me well and faithfully, has outlasted most of my other belongings and even friendships, and it still doggedly shows up to work every day. A rest is well-deserved.


Schellhase said...

Great post. I've also had my backpack since high school, and I'm attached to it too.

Ryan Murphy said...

I guess my next big decision will be whether to keep it around for the memories or just let it go with dignity.