Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Painting with light

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(All the photos in this post were taken by my kids and I haven’t edited them in any way.)

I’m three weeks into my first photography class. Teaching photography is one of the things I was hoping I’d be able to do since I first started working at site, and through a series of (to my mind) rather unlikely events, my center ended up with two new Canon D1000 SLRs in time for the New Year.

Rule One: Nobody touches these cameras except myself and my students. I’ve made that abundantly clear, because I know my coworkers will be tempted to use them to document events – but if you don’t know how to use manual controls, an SLR isn’t much better than a point-and-shoot. So far nobody has violated Rule One, probably because they’re frightened by my fierce possessiveness.

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My plan is to conduct six-week courses for small groups of kids. My first batch is four – two girls sharing a camera and two boys doing the same – aged fourteen to sixteen. They’re somewhat pasaway (naughty) and I have constant trouble getting them to come to class of their own volition. It’s not that they don’t want to come – they’re all interested in learning photography – but they have little sense of their own responsibilities. Last class I laid down the law and told them that from now on I wouldn’t bother fetching them at their family houses anymore: they either show up on their own or they don’t.

They’re good kids, really. I would have the same trouble with any youth in this culture – and schools constantly do have the same trouble - and I anticipated this problem, along with many others. And they’re aware of it: one of my girls cheekily told me the other day that “We’re very pasaway, but we’ll always be special to you because we were the first batch.” And it’s true.

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That girl also happens to be my most promising student. All of them are making strides, but so far she is the only one whose eyes have changed. I can tell that she’s not just clicking the button; she has started looking for that thing that everybody in the world is chasing after – the elusive element, the only thing that matters, that we’re sure we can catch somehow if we just open the shutter at exactly the right moment.

But everybody has already made a lot of progress. They have to, with such a constricted schedule; six weeks is not really enough for learning manual photography, but thanks to a limited number of cameras and lots of interest among my many youths, I can’t really extend it any longer.

I have two class sessions a week. One focuses on technical aspects of photography – basically, learning (in basic terms) how a camera works and how to use it. So far the kids have learned manual focusing, adjusting shutter speed and some of the aspects of flash photography. I’m slowly building up to teaching them how to balance a manual exposure; tomorrow’s class is on aperture, and it will probably be the most difficult session for them. It’s a hard thing to explain clearly even to English speakers. The last two weeks will be all about full manual exposures.

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The other session concentrates on the artistic aspects of photography. They pick this stuff up pretty easily because it’s very visual. Maybe too easily – I find myself constantly stressing that every picture they take does not need a leading line, does not absolutely have to have a conscious balance, does not require a textured element of color that aligns perfectly with the Rule of Thirds. It’s great for them to recognize these things in their photos and in the environment around them – a camera is just a tool for recording something interesting you see or could imagine in the world, after all – but sometimes they see loose guidelines as rigid rules, which tends to result in stilted, self-conscious photos.

With that in mind, I’m trying to give them lots of extra opportunities to practice. As I mentioned previously, they documented the visit of the band Sponge Cola, as well as another guest visitor (nobody famous this time). I also accompanied them to a fireworks show during Iloilo’s Dinagyang festival last weekend, where we set up a tripod and the kids snapped the crackers and fountains.

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Undoubtedly their favorite activity so far has been our “painting with light” session, wherein we sequestered ourselves in a pitch-black alcove and drew patterns in the air with flashlights. In this way it’s pretty easy to make lovely pictures like the one at the beginning of this post. Not much expertise is involved here, but beauty needs no excuse for being. They also enjoyed ghosting themselves by setting a slow shutter and changing positions to achieve a double (or triple) exposure.

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I still need to work some bad habits out of them, though, number one being their affinity for taking snapshots of people doing the same standard poses over and over. I don’t really understand it – why is it so important to take a thousand identical photos of yourself and your buddies? – but they can do that on their own time, not mine. For a lesson on black and white photos, I assigned them to do a self-portrait without actually taking any pictures of themselves. I told them to photograph things that are important to them, that evoke their emotions, that explain something about themselves. Instead I got dozens of pictures of their friends rocking pogi poses and peace signs. Every single class I warn them “No posing-posing!”

But they always manage to sneak some in anyway.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Week 75, in which I meet rock stars and become a godfather

What if I told you I met The Strokes? Pretty impressive, right? What if I said The Strokes came to my center and had a meet ‘n’ greet with my adoring kids, and afterwards I hung out in their guest house, directing the official documentarians for the event – who happened to be my photography students? Well, replace “The Strokes” with “Sponge Cola” and all of that is true.

Granted, nobody outside of the Philippines is likely to have heard of Sponge Cola, but within the country they’re apparently a big deal. Last week they played a concert in Aklan, followed by another in Bacolod. In-between times they had a sleep at my workplace, which seems baffling unless you understand that my center is always on the lookout for big-name endorsers.

Unfortunately their visit was actually pretty tepid. They arrived late and tired, having endured an oh-so-exhausting four-hour trip from Aklan in a private van, no doubt with all the booze, blow and Choco Mucho they could desire. My kids met them at the entrance and led them to our stage, where they didn’t do much except sit while people took photos. I think everyone was hoping they’d be willing to give a little private concert, but no go.

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Afterwards they retired to our guest house, where they had a (only slightly) more dignified reception from staff and a youth representative. This was the best part, because while a crowd of kids crowded around the door trying desperately to catch a glimpse of the godlike beings, I smoothly ushered my photography students inside so they could record the blessed evening. (One of the lessons I’m trying to pass on to them is that a nice camera and conviction will get you a backstage pass to any event in this country.)

Then ol’ Sponge Cola ordered some alcohol, which is forbidden at my center except apparently for VIPs, and we left them alone. They left early the next morning to little fanfare. As they pulled away I gave them a salute which I hoped looked ironical.

And the reason I happened to be around so early that morning is that I was preparing to attend a baptism of a little girl named Carla, to whom I was going to be a ninong, a godfather. Carla is the daughter of one of my coworkers. She’s chubby and blows impressive spit bubbles.

The way I found out I was going to be a godfather was the same way I find out most things here - from a third party. A few of my other coworkers informed me about four days earlier that the mother wanted to ask me but was too shy to make the request directly, so they did it for her. I like this coworker so I accepted, although I was well aware that the main reasons for the request were my nationality and white skin. Many Peace Corps volunteers get the same privilege.

It was a mass baptism, both in terms of procedure and numbers: Carla’s nametag proclaimed her baby #68. The two priests each treated their half of the church as a one-man assembly line, making four passes down the aisles to do various crossings, blessings and waterings.

Wisely, the baptismal mass had been scheduled for the same day as the local fiesta, and afterwards we gorged ourselves at my coworker’s house. Some of my kids accompanied us and we whiled away a long afternoon with discussions about why Philippine mangoes are better than the ones we get in the US, arguments about gender-specific English adjectives, and a brief history lesson on the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Business as usual.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Gasoline Zen and the Kaleidoscope Radio Show

It is an oddly misleading feeling of freedom people get from the so-called Open Road. Few things are more constricting than a sleek path of black asphalt: laws tell us we can move only in one direction, within a narrow corridor only a few feet wide; we must obey colored lights and printed impersonal signs, keep between certain speeds, respect flashing beacons and blaring sirens. Painted lines dictate our lives in strict, inflexible terms. And through it all, we are strapped into a dramatically enclosed space in which nothing changes except the succession of tinny pop tunes piped in from outside.

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I once tried to explain American car culture to my Filipino coworkers, and failed miserably. It’s almost a masochistic practice, an exercise in self-flagellation, exposing yourself – as well as others - to a thousand annoyances and risks. It’s an expensive, environmentally damaging, dangerous game of connect-the-dots. I’ve often said that I would be happy to live in a city where I could forgo a car and avail of public transportation. That’s sort of a lie.

I could certainly survive on public means. Here in the Philippines, the jeepney system works, if not efficiently than at least adequately. And I certainly hope public transit will gradually replace the gridlock and waste of millions of private vehicles; transforming, say, Manhattan by banning private cars and developing the buses and subways would be an intriguing experiment. And public transportation is simply more interesting: the display of unpolished humanity on an underground train will always be more watchable than the family of five in the SUV idling next to you at the stoplight.

Yet I’m afraid there will always be an irresistible draw to that limbo between leaving and arriving. I feel it even in the Philippines, in buses and long jeepney rides, the scenery unrolling endlessly beyond an open window or grimy glass: a sense that for the next hour or nine, you’ll be displaced from the real world.To an extent, you can experience everything but are subject to nothing – because you’re moving on, and moving on, and even when you stop it’s only to puff up tires, feed stomachs and gas tanks, and prepare for further velocity.

But riding can’t replace driving. You’re in control, but at the best moments it can seem like you’re not in control and nobody else is either, you’re just moving along – or the road is carrying you along – and every speck of dust on the windshield is perfectly in its place, every fat cow and lazy vulture is living its exact purpose ecstatically and without reserve. Maybe you have nothing and no-one with you, but there isn’t anything you need aside from a flat road and flatter forty-ounce Coke.

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One of the primary reasons I loved living in California was the drive I was privileged to make from Malibu to Los Angeles. It wasn’t a long drive, maybe twenty miles, but it’s something I’ll remember far better and with much deeper fondness than my classes, my professors and just about everyone I knew on the West Coast. US Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, is a dream on the edge of the world: it winds down the rocky coast past famous beaches, scrubby hills and loopy sun-worshippers to the outskirts of Santa Monica, where a little ramp named Moomat Ahiko cradles cars as they take their tentative steps from the sands to the city. One of the greatest pleasures of my time in California was this drive, mountains on my left and ocean on the right, speeding towards nothing for the pure golden joy of the waves crashing yards away while the yowling of Bob Dylan filled the little red car. I sing when I drive, and on those days along PCH, I sang loud.

Going north from Malibu the scenery is ever more spectacular, running along long rocky wave-tossed beaches and climbing up fantastic sheer cliffs. Before the highway hits the Monterey peninsula it rises through the redwooded caverns of Big Sur – where the only thing higher than the trees is the price of gas – and then descends down into Steinbeck’s rusty Cannery Row dreams, shiny and polished but undeniably raffish yet. And onward still, up to San Francisco – the current limit of my own wandering, unfortunately – and beyond.

For sheer knockout beauty, I can’t imagine a better roadway than PCH. And it’s engaging as well – boredom isn’t an issue when your wheels are three feet from a hundred-foot drop. But there’s another kind of driving, one that is in some ways the total opposite: when for twelve hours nothing breaks the blank canvas of the day except hot dry stops at gas stations and the car seems stuck humming through an endless circuit of slow-rolling hills. To the west there’s the ocean, and to the east green fields and forests; but in-between, the more complete desolation of the desert stretches blotchy, dusty and stark in every direction.

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Despite the spare gorgeousness of the American southwest, I could never live there. There’s something intensely claustrophobic about the sheer size of the landscape, a sameness that makes me feel decidedly stuck. It’s younger than the oceans, but it seems much more elderly; when I think of the sea, it’s easy to imagine spry young jellyfish squelching their hopeful way through the shadowy depths, but when I picture the desert all that comes to mind are motionless lizards and evaporation. For hundreds of miles nothing changes, nothing moves, and colors are coordinated in a thousand shades of beige – in contrast to which the rest of the continent, even Kansas, looks resplendent and varied. (I like wearing sepia-tinted sunglasses when I drive, because when I take them off the world looks so suddenly rich and alive with color.) But all that nothingness outside provides an ideal environment for a state of unadulterated driving peace within. If Siddhartha Gautama lived in the modern world, he’d have gained enlightenment in the middle of Arizona rather than under the bodhi tree.

Everything fades: the sand, the other sand, the signs advertising The Thing and other campy roadside tourist traps. Even the radio complies, spinning round its frequencies smoothly, silently and without stopping, the flashing station numbers the only dynamic thing in existence – seeking, always seeking in a calculated, hypnotic orbit, taking on bursting colors and erupting into trippy patterns, breaking free from the confines of the car to dance out among the cacti and steppes; until finally, reluctantly, it picks up a ragged Spanish mariachi wafting over from Mexicali, and the universe snaps back to attention. The driver raises his eyes to find the gas light on, the headlights off despite a decidedly nightlike tint to the earth, and the odometer having added sixty-eight miles in a wink.

In those trances, it’s easy to blur a few thousand miles together, to lose all the little fragments that make a drive or roadtrip memorable: living from Safeway to Safeway, toll roulette, the unavoidable Trip Theme Song. The stops, for one night or several: the Green Tortoise in San Francisco, a deserted and probably condemned Super 8 in Los Angeles, the hostel in Georgetown where I was almost denied a space for not being foreign and ended up sharing a room with a group of very confused Japanese travelers.

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That night I hopped on the metro and rode down to the National Mall, where tourists milled among the pale monuments. The rest of the city was dead and shut up tight, but the empty streets beckoned, and the next day I pulled back onto the Beltway. This was at the tail end of a 5000-mile trip, with many points in-between, but essentially from nowhere to anywhere: just another drive past fireworks stands, a thousand cookie-cutter fast food joints, and a giant hoary peach perched on a golf tee somewhere in the Georgian wilderness.

Through it all the imagination speeds along on 87-grade gasoline and 50¢ plastic-wrapped crumbly glue cakes from some BP station east of Las Cruces, siphoning up the fine dust of the American wasteland. The road is headed nowhere but the mirror ocean on the other side. And that is perfect.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

American mythology

Stereotypes between cultures are unavoidable. Physical and ideological distance ensure that sometimes the only things we believe about others are what we hear second- or third-hand: from a visiting friend, from travel books jotted down by paid informants, from bits scrounged from the daily news and extrapolated into what we assume is a complete portrait.

The list of Filipino stereotypes is long, and the frustrations of living here sometimes lead me to unfairly consult that list – despite the fact that I’ve already been forced to amend, conditionalize and strike out items with regularity. It would be hypocritical to slam Filipinos for having their own American caricature. But that doesn’t make it much less frustrating when I hear someone who has never visited the US or known an American insist, for the fiftieth time, that Americans don’t care about family, or that America has no poor people.

The generalizations I’m listing here are not the result of singular events: they’re all stereotypes I’ve heard over and over from Filipinos, not just in my home province but everywhere I’ve traveled. There is some grain of truth to all of them, absolutely, but the certainty with which Filipinos assert them leads me to wonder where they all got their information: are these things listed in the textbooks they use in schools? (After seeing some of the books they do use, actually, I wouldn’t be surprised.) Their constancy is remarkable, and often Filipinos’ faith in them is unshakable.

1) Americans eat almost exclusively bread, especially for breakfast. Not so serious, this one. The conversation always goes like this: a Filipino will ask me whether Americans eat rice. I say “Yes, but not every day.” The Filipino nods with a knowing air and responds “Yes. Americans eat only bread.” I humorously and respectfully correct them, explaining that Americans eat many different kinds of food, and unlike Filipinos we have no single staple, no rice analogue. They nod uncertainly, then ask if Americans also eat other unique Filipino foods, like fish.

2) At the age of eighteen, Americans become independent and are immediately and irrevocably cut off from their families. This one is difficult to correct, first because there is obviously some truth to it – Americans are legally considered adults at age eighteen – and because it’s hard to undermine a notion that, superficially at least, I’m helping perpetuate. Since I left high school I’ve spent the majority of my time in Malibu, two thousand miles away from home, or nine thousand miles away in the Philippines. It’s maybe understandable for Filipinos to see that as a lack of regard for family ties. After all, many Filipinos live with their extended families for their entire lives: spending two years living among strangers must seem not only crazy, but a little bit disturbing.

Trying to explain the subtleties of American familial relationships, in balance with that somewhat-true stereotype of individual independence, is complicated. It has pointed out my own cultural shortsightedness: in America I never really thought too much about why Americans often wish to start their own lives, live in their own houses. It was just what was expected and what I assumed. But since being here I’ve realized that it’s an issue that touches on a lot of cultural quirks, among them the long-established American ideal of self-reliance and the right to privacy. Presenting all this as the real reason for Americans “abandoning” their families, rather than being the result of a sort of quasi-legalistic rule that everybody simply follows, has not been a particularly effective tactic for me, especially with the language barrier.

Probably the single most common question I’ve gotten from Filipinos regarding my Peace Corps service is some iteration of the following: “Isn’t it hard being away from your family?” Another popular one is “Aren’t you scared living on your own?”

3) Elderly Americans are by default shunted off to sad, depressing retirement homes, where nobody comes to visit them. They are ignored by their children and die slow, lonely deaths. I can’t claim that there are no problems with the way the elderly are sometimes treated in the US. But again, for many Filipinos this forced cloistering is believed to be the standard for the American aged. This one is particularly frustrating because I can provide evidence against it, and it simply doesn’t matter. When I tell Filipinos that my own grandmother died a few months ago, and that for the last years of her life one or more of her daughters was always present to care for her, they’re impressed. Why? Because my family is “the exception.” It’s okay for them to believe me, because I’m right there saying it to their faces, and they know me and trust me (I think). But they can’t extend that willingness to other Americans. They know the truth, and one exception isn’t enough to convince them otherwise.

Again, I don’t understand the shadowy pipelines that channel this erroneous information to (it sometimes seems) all Filipinos, and I wish I did. Living in a culture that is much more homogeneous than what I left in the US has been endlessly fascinating and educational. And difficult – I will never catch on to all the invisible communication that fills the air here, and I’ll always have that twinge of embarrassment when I have to admit that I don’t know how to do something that people here learn from birth. I don’t want to overstate the diversity of the United States – yes, there may be people from everywhere, doing everything, but we certainly have our own proud lockstep traditions – and I’m very, very far from being a patriot, but I think my experience here will definitely lend me a new appreciation for and interest in the country’s twisted, tangled and blended cultural threads.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Last boat to Boracay

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I think the hard-drinking tradition of New Year’s Eve is the result of an unconscious human desire, or need, to believe in the positive possibilities of our inexorably unraveling time on earth. It’s a smart dichotomy: 2010 comes in a burst of fire and color, the future riding into the skies on bottle rockets and Roman candle flares, while 2009 is puking its guts out in the bushes. Faith in the year to come is assured.

I spent my New Year in Boracay – my first and most likely last trip to that storied isle. Boracay is the premier tourist location in the Philippines. It’s a tiny island off the northwestern tip of Panay blessed with a long, long white-sand beach (named… White Beach) and lovely clear water. Since appearing on the map in the 1970s, it has been developed to the point that its front beach is now a dense cluster of resorts, hotels, restaurants and other establishments necessary for tourists to ignore that they’re in a foreign country.

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Perhaps that is overly negative. Overall, my trip to Boracay was good. The beach really is beautiful, if somewhat characterless, and the pastel-fondant high-rises that plague touristy coastal areas of the US – I’m thinking Florida here – are mercifully absent. There is a lot of delicious (and Peace Corps-budget-unfriendly) food, many open-air cafes with views of the ocean, and you can go barefoot everywhere.

But the place teems with loud, rude foreigners. At one Thai cafe, I stared daggers at the four Europeans – they sounded German, but I can’t be sure – who summoned their waitress through loud, drawn-out clapping. They were arrogant, obnoxious and demanding, and I felt terrible for the Filipina who had to wait on them – especially in a country where tipping isn’t the norm. (In this instance I did leave her a tip - as a hedge against her hating all outsiders.)

There were many Peace Corps volunteers present, and though we were split into numerous residential groups, somehow it often seemed impossible not to get sucked into one faction or another. And I have nothing against spending some time with other volunteers – I was staying with four who mercifully took me under their wing after my first and second lodging plans fell through – but sometimes it was just too much: too many voices and twice as many eyes. I enjoyed hanging out, but in general I was happiest rambling White Beach or Bulabog (the back beach, not as pretty but also not as packed and developed), watching the local boats pursue their morning catch and mumbling monologues to the seaweed.

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I took a few pictures, but it was overcast for much of my stay. And notice that every picture I’m posting here looks out over the ocean – none look inland. It’s because of that lamentable inevitability of the paradise despoiled. It’s an issue that has been harped on endlessly by travel writers, likely because it’s true. On one side of the coin, natural beauty and local innocence; on the other, well, the coin itself. It’s hypocritical to slam greed as a negative transforming force when I’m also contributing to the transformation - the only way to keep beautiful places pristine is to keep everyone away, and I’m unwilling to stay away, so I’m nothing but a grasping foreign devil myself.

I wasn’t thinking in quite these terms while I waited on the front beach for the countdown into 2010. It’s rather incongruous how the celebration of a worldwide event, a spectacle participated in by billions of people, can focus your mind ever inward: I was pondering, not the end of one decade and the start of another, but the beginning my last year in Peace Corps. Instead of the shadows around me I was thinking about people back in my own country. And after the noise and the toasts and the embraces, I left the crowd and sat alone on a dark patch of beach, and I could almost see my hopes for the new year silhouetted against the place where the ocean met the sky.

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Sunburned Christmas

I spent Christmas alone on a tiny speck with nothing but sea a hundred kilometers in any direction. It was wonderful.

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Cuyo Island Christmas was almost a last-minute decision, coming only after I reluctantly discarded plans to visit Romblon (too much travel) and Sugar Beach in Sipalay (no lodging vacancies). It was the result of a chance encounter with another volunteer in Iloilo City only a few days before Christmas: Julie was planning to take a two-night ferry to Puerto Princesa in Palawan along with her brother and sister-in-law, and she mentioned that her boat had a stopover in a place called Cuyo. And so, after a little research, some confusion with tickets – I noticed on the 24th that my ticket was for the 21st; “Just come an hour early,” assured the Milagrosa rep – and fourteen hours spent alternately sweltering in my boat’s lower economy deck and freezing in Julie’s aircon compartment, we pulled into Cuyo Island’s little port on Christmas morning.

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The Cuyo Islands are a small archipelago in the north Sulu Sea. The principal island – the only one of any girth – is also called Cuyo Island, and its main hamlet is Cuyo town; it is a small spit of land roughly midway between Panay and Palawan. Aside from the municipality of Cuyo, there’s another “town,” two pensions, and one resort run by a rather unpleasant European. Lonely Planet says nothing whatsoever about Cuyo Island, and its only distinctions are that it is a prime spot for windsurfing, was the filming location for the Filipino film Ploning, and – on one of the miniscule landmasses scattered around Cuyo Island itself – is the home of Amanpulo, one of the most exclusive resorts in the Philippines. I showed up just hoping I could find an empty bed, since I couldn’t find the phone numbers of any possible lodgings.

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Finding a place to stay took all of five minutes. Nikki’s Pension (“and Fast Food”) is a serviceable place located on the front beach. It’s cheap – PHP200 a night; for perspective, one night at Amanpulo could buy me around 250 nights at Nikki’s - and run by a lovely Filipino couple, Ate Nida and Kuya Steve. The downside was that it was also the chosen lodging of several older, unsavory Westerners and their Filipina “companions.” Allan, an American, detailed to me his plans to buy a tract of land on a nearby island and start a small resort; he was very complimentary about Peace Corps, telling me he wished his own son had joined the organization instead of the military. Unfortunately, he lost credibility when he referred to the young Filipina he had in tow as his “personal assistant.”

Allan, Kuya Steve assured me, was one of the better ones. He groused about Jim, a fat, balding man of unknown origin I thankfully never met, who revved up his ragged motorcycle in front of the pension, startling Steve from his naps. Jim apparently became incensed when Steve, a gentle, soft-spoken fellow, suggested he might want to muffle his bike so as not to awaken the entire town. “Ah, very arrogant,” said Steve.

I asked Steve if they often saw foreigners on Cuyo, and he affirmed that they did – and sometimes they were even young. I certainly didn’t see any evidence of that type; aside from the brief white invasion during the five-hour layover of Julie and her companions, I was the island’s token backpacker for the weekend.

And so of course I garnered attention from almost everyone on the rock. There was something subtly different about the people on Cuyo, though: unlike most Filipinos, their attention didn’t stress me out. Somehow they managed to be friendly and welcoming without being overwhelming. One factor I noticed was that it was very easy for me to speak to them in dialect, which was odd, since I speak Ilonggo and the people on Cuyo didn’t. Tagalog’s their tongue, and also something they called “Cuyonon,” which I suspect is essentially Tagalog with some local flair.

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The difference was that they didn’t take my speaking Ilonggo as a joke, like many adult Filipinos do – they didn’t treat it as a frivolous amusement, and I found that carrying on conversations, or half-conversations really, was easy and gratifying. No raucous laughter, no barkadas yelling a thousand questions at me all at once, no mocking my accent. They tried to understand me and I tried to understand them, and we got along smashingly.

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Particularly the kids. Within hours of landing, a group of beach rats led by Mark Anthony, a clever young wag with bulging eyes and a deformed hand, had befriended me, and we hung out a bit every day of my visit.

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One morning I heard the boys talking from under the cover of a beached bangka. I glanced into the boat and there were three boys, including Mark Anthony, sitting on the benches. I thought I had glimpsed a wisp of smoke wafting up, and I sternly asked the boys if they had been smoking. They denied it vehemently. Later I caught them red-handed and, unabashed, they posed for a photo like three young, brown James Deans.

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Immediately afterward I announced that I would be taking the photo to show the police. That spooked them; they tossed the cigarettes and pleaded with me. “Ryan,” Mark Anthony said seriously, “Don’t go to the police, okay? We threw them away already.” I agreed to let them slide this time, but I let them know I would keep the photo just in case.

My whole trip was laid-back and easy. During their stopover, Julie and her crew joined me in exploring the town – an expedition that didn’t use up much of the sun. We partook of a Filipino-cuisine Christmas lunch, chatted up the locals, and pretty soon I was seeing them off at the port.

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And for the next couple days I was blatantly and gloriously alone. It was, simply, exactly what I had wanted when I was trying to find a place to go for Christmas – somewhere away from anywhere, somewhere nobody knew me. A place where I could replace all the disappointed memories of Christmas the year before – when I bought my host family gifts on the odd chance that they had gotten me something as well (they hadn’t), and had spent most of the holiday either biking desperately away from my town or being reminded, through the spectacular blandness of the day, of what I was missing back home.

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I hiked all over the island one day, walking from end to end and prompting an angry sunburn as well as bloody cuts. (Early in my service, I was very diligent about applying sunscreen. Now I tend to undertake long bike rides and hikes under the vague and easy delusion that there will simply be shade along the way.) I climbed into an abandoned, rusty boat and read a book on the history of salt. I scraped my knees bloody kneeling in the sand taking photos of sandcrabs, and harassed seabirds to get them to fly in front of the setting sun.

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I ate cheap and walked until my legs felt like rubber and my feet like wood. I sweated from the heat of the sun and shivered in the chill of the water. I hobnobbed and enjoyed it. (Me: “What was your job at Amanpulo?” Filipina: “Being cute!”) I swear by the time I left, half the town had met me. I met a gregarious Filipino who had lived in Iloilo and gave me old business cards of his associates – including van drivers, a traffic inspector, and a dentist. He was involved in shipping, loved signing packaging forms that would be read in other countries, and wanted nothing so fervently as to have his name spread around the world: so for you, Raul Fabiantes, here’s me doing my part.

Cuyo is very little and has very little. Although it is a pretty island, for beauty it can’t measure up to a thousand other places in the Philippines, and in terms of cosmopolitan appeal it places somewhere below Wiggins, Mississippi. But it doesn’t matter: one of my fondest reminiscences of this whole experience will no doubt be the Christmas I spent bloodying myself on rocks and briars and getting scorched by a merciless sun that knows no winter.

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When I reluctantly walked to the port to catch my boat back to Iloilo, Mark Anthony was waiting on the pier to bid me farewell; and while I watched the beach recede as the setting sun painted it with gold and rust, I thought this tiny place floating in the middle of nowhere was a little bit dreamlike and a little bit wise: it had known exactly when to appear for me, what to offer and what to shyly withhold, and when to retreat into the gathering dusk, rosy and lovely, until the darkness left me with only sea air and soft memories.

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