Friday, January 30, 2009

Quake

This morning as I sat in bed fiddling on the computer, I had the sensation that someone was on the other side of my wall, inexplicably pushing at it and thus rocking my entire bedroom. Then I realized that it was an earthquake. So, that was my first real one, a tremor in elementary school notwithstanding, and it rather felt like my bed was possessed and gearing up to take me flying across Leyte like a deformed magic carpet. Quick texts to Connie and Cassie confirmed the phenomenon.

So, Leyte, I’ve heard you were the apex of Filipino natural disasters. Typhoons and earthquakes we’ve taken in stride, if muttering complaints; will you soon present us with landslides and a sudden increase in the snake population, as promised?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hail

This is a momentous day to be an American. It’s a momentous day to be an American of color. I’m sure for most African Americans, today’s emotion is too big to contain on virtual pages or in black and white print. I can’t articulate the feeling of my heart expanding in my chest thinking about how staggering this election has been; I can’t imagine the impact this has on those who lived through and participated during Dr. King’s civil rights era, people who never thought they would live to see today. But today is not about the color of our skin, or even civil rights, which, despite the optimism of the hour, remain issues unresolved. Today is about the United States redeeming itself, rebuilding its potential to be as it should be: a country of freedom and opportunity. It’s about becoming the best it can be and encouraging its citizens to do the same.

Before I began my Peace Corps application, I struggled with the moral dilemma of going abroad and representing a country whose recent governmental policies betrayed my personal ethics. Atrocities like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib as well as the slow but sure chipping away of the various rights of women, immigrants, people of color, the LGBT community and every other private citizen were too troubling to ignore in the decision to serve a country and government which had implemented such violations of human rights, even if that country was my country. In the end, I decided that the spirit of the Peace Corps itself is separate from the agendas of any current or past political policy. Despite its myriad flaws, the ideal Peace Corps nonetheless represents to me a vision of America’s place in the world as one of benevolence, aid and good will. To be a Peace Corps Volunteer at this moment in time, during the transition from despair to hope, is to be suddenly representing a country rising from the ruins of the past eight years.

I had a hard day today. Nothing in particular happened, but the weight of hundreds of the standard PCV frustrations weigh more heavily on some days than others. Today I thought I would burst from the pressure of it, but as I watch 2 million of my countrymen gather at our capital to celebrate a new hour in America’s history, while I am half a world away, serving her in my small way, and I cannot regret being a Peace Corps Volunteer, the daughter of a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, no matter how puffy the mosquito bites on my ankles get or how much my permanently sodden (only) pair of shoes smell.

On September 11th, 2001, I was in math class in tenth grade in Hamburg High School. I remember every subsequent period of the day, and I remember the immediate impact of our nation’s biggest open wound. There was fear and anger and anguish, not the quiet unity of devastation that the media reported. For so long, it seemed that was my place in history. Like my father remembered President Kennedy’s assassination, I remember the burning Twin Towers, and I and my peers were briefly called Generation 9/11 by magazines needing buzzwords. Then seven years later, with sixtysome of my fellow soon-to-be volunteers, I watched President Elect Barack Obama step onto the stage in Chicago to announce his victory, and I knew I would remember November 4th, 2008 with the vast world of difference in emotion than I remember September 11th, but with no less gravity. Today President Obama takes office against seemingly insurmountable odds and the rather unattainable expectations of an economically and emotionally devastated nation, and I’ll remember January 20th, 2009 too. Should my children and grandchildren ever ask which dates around which history and my life pivoted, I will not hesitate.

I went to bed and woke up a little past midnight to catch the inauguration ceremony and President Obama’s speech. I felt like when Aretha Franklin sang, she turned those unnamed and unnamable emotions into powerful music and projected it into world for everyone watching and listening to feel with her. And instead of waxing lyrical on a speech I am in awe of, I will just say hey! He referenced the Philippines!

Welcome, President Obama. We have been waiting for you for as long as American soil has had memory.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Illness Near and Far

The most miserable illness, perhaps, is the illness far from home.

Since early December, I have been battling various incarnations of a malady that has been since dubbed bronchitis with reactive airway; whether or not that’s the right diagnosis now seems moot and rather belated. I spent the holidays sequestered in my bed, coughing and choking with violent force, rather than celebrating. On New Year’s Day, instead of frolicking in the typhoon with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers in Padre Burgos, I was admitted to the hospital because my cough had caused me to stop breathing and subsequently my hands to stop following my directives and my face to feel as if it had stopped existing. Connie, kasama extraordinaire, trundled down from Inopacan in the pouring rain to keep me company and make sure I was getting the proper care. A few days later, well enough that sitting upright or walking around a little didn’t threaten to cause me to lose consciousness, I flew to Manila to see the Peace Corps doctors and their colleague in a Manila hospital.

Ultimately by the time I got to Manila, I had gotten over the worst of my illness and there was little to be done other than to prescribe more medicines. The doctor in the hospital told me I would improve slowly and over a long period of time because the climate and air quality are somehow not conducive to quick recovery. However, the Sunday I left for Manila, I woke up with pain in my back and side that has been unexplained and has slowly gotten more and more crippling. I think I may have broken a rib coughing like Megan did once, in which case there’s nothing to be done except take pain medication and hope it goes away. Last night the pain hit a new level, and if this were a pulled muscle as speculated by the doctor in Manila, I don’t think the pain would be getting worse. I can’t say as I know for sure at all what it is, but any movement is agony and when I cough I feel like something sharp is about to puncture my organs.

Anyway, I stayed in Manila for six days. When I first arrived, I was very intimidated because it’s Manila. And I’m pretty much from Leyte. The contrast is staggering: urban jungle vs. actual mountainous jungle. I texted May Lynn, unsure of how close her site is to Manila, but it turns out she was passing through anyway and she met me at the pension and offered to be my kasama. So that Sunday, and the Monday following when I had my doctor’s appointment, May Lynn accompanied me. She showed me around Manila a little bit and we spent a really positive, rejuvenating time together. Being gravely ill for a month can exaggerate all your problems, magnify them and force you to wallow in the negative. Coming to Manila and having May Lynn there, then Marga, then a whole bunch of people from my batch who arrived for an HIV/AIDS workshop, ended up being something I really needed, if only to feel connected again.

On Tuesday, May Lynn had to get back to her site and I had another appointment. Marga from 266, whom we’d known from our Dumaguete days, happened to be in Manila for her own care and took up briefly May Lynn’s kasama duties. She took me to Greenbelt, a really posh mall in the nice part of Manila, and we ate Thai food lunch and talked about the traveling we’d done. Later, loads of people from my batch descended upon the pension, and many, not being Dumaguete people themselves, had never had the pleasure of Marga’s company. She was a big hit.

The first night we were all there, we went as a group to eat dinner at a shwarma restaurant. Megan and Karen and I, admittedly acting rather stupidly considering we were now in the big bad city, not Dumaguete and not Leyte, were passing around Megan’s phone when a man pried it from Karen’s hand. Megan, like someone with a brain, got the hell out of there, but Karen and I, clearly more na├»ve and provincial, stared at the guy like “why did you just take our phone and why don’t you give it back?” The moment seemed to stretch until he made a gesture as if to stab us, so we finally got a clue and turned tail to hurry away. Dan and John and some of the other girls were ahead of us, so we ran to catch up with them and feel a little bit more secure, in a sexist, helpless girl way. It was a jarring moment, and a frightening and sobering one, but it was also a lesson learned and a retrospectively entertaining story.

Over the next two days, I alternately did nothing and went to various appointments while my companions attended their conference. I had wanted to go to museums Marga had recommended, but I was exhausted from pain and illness and activity and never got around to it. In the evenings we got dinner and spent time together, which for my part was much needed and much appreciated. I really do miss people when I’m here; it can be isolating and lonely, made infinitely worse by illness. My last night in Manila, Thursday night, Syd, Dan and I ate dinner with May, our language instructor from training, her adorable daughter and her friend. May and her daughter are arguably the cutest people on the planet, and sometimes I feel like Lenny around cute things so I have to try not to squeeze anything to death. We went to the Mall of Asia, the biggest mall in Asia, the biggest mall I’ve ever seen, the most overwhelming shopping center I have ever been freaked out by, and ate a fine sushi dinner. Throughout my time in Leyte, since first entering service, I have not had a problem with gluten, which is a credit to my host family. Two months in, I had begun to think of it more in the theoretical rather than the immediate. Imagine my surprise about half an hour after a dinner I thought had been safe when I felt the familiar unpleasant twinges of a gluten contamination. In the Mall of Asia. The biggest mall in the entire continent of Asia. A crowded mall the size of my hometown. Well. Readers can imagine subsequent events without my expounding upon them.

On Friday, it was time for me to head back to Leyte. I said goodbye to those who hadn’t already left (some had early morning flights and so I missed them) and made my way to the airport before 10am. I arrived in Tacloban around 1.30, Mrs. Collins’s package of books which I had picked up in the Peace Corps office was the first off the conveyor belt at the airport, and I got on an overpriced jeepney headed for the transport terminal in Tacloban. I waited there until 3 to leave, hungry and unaware that I would be waiting so long, and finally made it back to Hilongos around 6. I spent a leisurely Saturday recovering from travel and yesterday, Sunday, I went to Sogod to visit Cassie and Sheryll, whose company I had been missing for a while.

Turns out, in Bato, I got the worst jeepney driver known to man. I'm fairly sure that I had seventeen heart attacks on the way to Sogod, not to mention the half hour when the jeepney broke down in the middle of nowhere and men had gathered round the jeepney making lewd gestures with their hands in their shorts, where I didn’t know if I was going to make it to either Sogod or back to Hilongos. But, we did manage to careen into Sogod, finally, at noon, my heart hammering in my chest.

I spent the day with Cassie and Sheryll in engrossing conversation and ate one bowl of halo halo. We also decided we have reached the point in our service where it is possible to get cold, and I was bundled to high heaven even though I was in the Philippines. Leyte, it seems, is colder than the rest of the Visayas, and never actually stops raining. Here I note that it’s not the rainy season, but I have not seen a full day go by without a downpour that shakes the foundation. And apparently that’s just how Leyte is. Perhaps this is a contributing factor to the high early termination rate of previous batches’ Leyte volunteers. Anyway, seeing Cassie and Sheryll was also rejuvenating, and I have resolved that in order to keep my sanity, I must see my fellow volunteers more often, even if it involves a lot of travel time and a brain damaged jeepney driver. It is so easy for Connie and I to see each other that I think we become complacent and lazy and end up only seeing each other. Not that I object to seeing her at all, on the contrary, I love seeing her, but it would be good for both of us to see others as well. Which sounds a lot gayer than I intended. I make no apologies. In any case, early in service like this, other volunteers can be our lifelines, and it stands to reason that the more lifelines we have, the stronger we can become in our resolve to stay, to be good volunteers, to complete service and, let’s face it, not to fall apart in the face of illness and turmoil and constant irritants. Next stop, if I can finagle it: Naval with Megan.

So, I’m still sick and missing the familiarity of home during my sickness. I’m still working through some issues I’m having with being here. When I think that there is no way I could possibly stay, I remind myself how much I wanted this, how hard I worked for it, how much I want what comes at the end of it personally, professionally and academically, how much I care about the people I serve alongside, and, possibly most importantly, how little I have to go home to.

In other news, Uncle Ed has died. He did not make it to 2009, but he did make it to age 90. He was my father’s uncle, my grandpa’s brother, and the general consensus in the family was one of little affection for him despite what he provided for us materially. I wonder if he led a lonely life, being a curmudgeon and a miser, and I wonder if it ever occurred to him that if he was neither he could be happier or have more meaningful relationships with the people around him. In any case, I am sorry for my grandpa, because no matter how he acted, Uncle Ed was his brother and my grandpa spent almost eighty-nine years knowing the man. That’s the thing about siblings, I think: your parents die, friends, companions and spouses come and go, your children grow up and leave you, and in the end who you will always have are your siblings. You are always bound to them by common experience, invisible bonds, and at the end of a long life they will have been your only true constant stars. Siblings, even if sometimes you can’t remember if they have a name other than That Dick, are gifts. Uncle Ken, my grandpa’s younger brother, will be giving the eulogy at St. Pete’s this Monday at 10am if anyone who read this in Hamburg is interested in great oration.

So, goodbye Uncle Ed. Thanks for the education. You finally broke out of that nursing home for good.