Sunday, May 19, 2013

Under the Banana Tree

It’s raining in New York today—a steady, chilly flurry of fine raindrops that glues piles of sodden leaves to the sidewalks and collects in sloshing gutter-pools. It’s an in-between rain, heavy enough to discourage foot traffic but not so heavy that Sunday errands are completely abandoned.

Sunny days remind me of California—of blue skies and ocean swells and a smog-line on the horizon. Rainy days remind me of the Philippines.

Pagudpud rainstorm
Three and a half years ago I had my first rainy season—my first experience of rain without end, of cataracts drumming down endlessly on aluminum roofs, of trisikad wheels cutting furrows through riverine streets. I shivered through cold bucket baths and spent evenings on the porch of my host family’s home, watching the water pinball down the branches of the neighbor’s rambutan tree. I played Go Fish with Kate and Meryl and Nina while the little ones, Pan-Pan and Pau-Pau and Ann-Ann, tottered around on mud-splattered feet. There was also a game called Popcorn, a slightly more sophisticated version of Duck Duck Goose, and since I was clumsy and slow I was usually the goose.

Later, when I had my own house, I’d awake to the blissful sounds of rain and throw my doors and windows open. I lived on the back alley of my subdivision, and behind my house stretched acres of empty fields—lush, green, raw fields. I had a banana tree whose golden fruit mysteriously vanished while I was at work—its enormous elephant-ear leaves drooped seductively over my fence, attracting scavengers. During the rains I sat in my doorway and watched rivulets streaming from those leaves. Stood under them, dry, feeling the coolness of the bagyo air.

I miss it. I miss it.

Who’s living in my house now? Has the subdivision expanded? Does it have an internet café yet? Does my favorite panaderia, Solo Bakeshop, still exist, and does it still sell delicious chocolate ripple bars for twelve pesos apiece? Are Honey, Rona and Jo-Ann still around?

When I think about the Philippines and what has changed there since I left, it’s often in terms of tiny details. The jeepney fare (6.50php base in 2010). The hand-painted sign for “Sesame Street,” the road on which my second host family lived in their big yellow house. The sugar-strewn fingers of fried dough that I picked up on market days, doling them out as I ran into people I knew in the vendor stalls. And who is the mayor of my little town these days? Whose face glowers out at the people from distasteful municipal banners?

I recall the oddest things at seemingly random times. A boy at my center once told me a tale about how a giant bird had chased him, picked him up in its talons and carried him aloft. (This is what Filipinos called “story-telling a lie.”) I hadn’t thought about it in months, but it came back to me yesterday apropos of nothing.

I used to follow many PCV blogs, keeping tabs on what others were doing, where they were living, whether their towns seemed worth a visit. Now many of the blogs have gone silent, and I’ve fallen out of correspondence with most of the people behind them aside from a Facebook post here and there. It happens, and I expected it, and I’m probably among the worst of our 69 original batchmates in terms of keeping in touch. But on occasion I wonder what this PCV from Batch 267 is up to, and whether she still thinks about our first Thanksgiving in Guimaras, or if that fellow trainee from Bacolod still stays in contact with his crazy host family.

The celebrations—birthdays, Masskara, barangay fiestas. Hanging out at Dulgie's. The things we ate (and didn’t eat). Visiting each other’s worksites for leadership camps, sports tournaments, and to sit as judges for essay competitions. Long bus rides across mountain ranges and up coastlines. Worrying health symptoms that we were sure meant malaria or dengue or dropsy. Stretches of deflating boredom and failure and moments of hysterical confusion.

Now, in New York, I sneer at Filipino street food prettified into gourmet cuisine (with exorbitant charges for kamayan nights, as if eating with the hands is a privilege). It’s all Pinoy-inspired or Pinoy fusion. Where can I get a fifteen-cent grilled chicken intestine alongside a plate of white rice with soy sauce and kalamansi?

IMG_1663 -2
Of course, three interceding years have smoothed the rough edges of Peace Corps life. It’s much easier to recall the scintillating blue of Siquijor's waters than the crushing disappointment of a project gone awry, or the struggle with dialects, or the poverty that we were always just one government-sponsored jet ride from escaping.

But in New York it’s still raining, and so I remember.

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