- 01. Giving It Away
- 02. Mind Games
- 03. Customer Service
- 04. Getting Down to Business
- 05. …And Not a Drop to Drink
- 06. The Commission
- 07. Service!
- 08. Instant Celebrity
- 09. The Pinoy Diet
- 10. Life As We Know It
- 11. Doctors’ Borders
- 12. Poor, Poorer, Poorest
- 13. Half Empty
- 14. Me and My Leg
- 15. Always Be With You
- 16. Going Underground
- 17. Decisions, Decisions
- 18. I Shall Depart
- 19. A Volcano within a Volcano
- 20. A Nod and a Smile
- 21. Not Fighting City Hall
- 22. Stasis in Places
- 23. Fond Farewells
- 24. Parting Shots
It was bound to happen eventually. I can’t remember when it started, not even the year. Heck, I can’t even be sure about the decade. I know Frank and I attended a Peace Corps information session at the then-new Tip O’Neil Federal Building just before they started to tear down the old Boston Garden next door. There were a hundred or so potential volunteers there.
The Peace Corps recruitment people gave a presentation that was hell-bent on convincing each of us we did not want to volunteer. It was clear they couldn’t guarantee a particular kind of work, or location, or our safety, or that a couple might be assigned together. They assured us that our skills were unlikely to be in demand, the beneficiaries of our toil would be resentful, the living conditions would be meagre, possibly miserable, and the results imperceptible. They mentioned a slight chance that we’d be seen as agents of the CIA. I am sure they had our best interests in mind. Yet it occurred to me the more of us that signed up, the more work these public servants might have to do.
We left less than enthused. But then, we were in no financial condition to take a year off for volunteer work anyway. Nevertheless, I was awakened to the Orwellian bureaucracy that ruled the world of do-gooders.
It took twenty years, it isn’t with the Peace Corps, and there were a few false starts, but happen it did. Here we are in Quezon City, Philippines, volunteering for the next nine months.
Eighteen months earlier, Frank and I walked away from our secure and well-paid positions as hapless bureaucrats in government. Nobody in their right mind gives up a position like that in their mid-fifties unless they are financially prepared for retirement — or having some kind of moral-emotional re-evaluation (a.k.a., a nervous breakdown). I like to think our rash decision to quit resulted from my keen analysis revealing we were financially ready for retirement. It is entirely possible, though, that a subconscious moral-emotional re-evaluation led to my imputation of irrationally favourable assumptions regarding future events in my retirement analysis. Only time will tell. Regardless, the “right mind” question remains an open one.
It may be that bloggers who are not in their right minds write more interesting blogs. If so, you should hope I am completely nuts, as I intend to blog about this experience for the duration.
A pre-emptive apology, if I may: I will be intentionally vague about the organisations through or for we are volunteering. Some of these organisations are “highly risk-averse”, which means they are unable to admit to being paralysed by the threat of embarrassment. Thus their policies regarding volunteer blogging are downright schizophrenic. One organisation has a Code of Conduct that prohibits it quite broadly and explicitly, yet program recruitment depends on it, and the staff encourages it. Reading between the lines, I extract that the organisations need some distance between themselves and any potential embarrassment, whatever form that may take. So while I won’t avoid writing about embarrassing things, I will provide the distance of anonymity they require.
Generally, the hard work and service provided by the Australian organisation that recruited and coordinated our overseas mobilisation was impressive. As with any entity dependent on government funding, their policies and procedures were somewhere between Byzantine and Kafka-esque. The staff guided us through, step-by-step, carefully abiding by procedural mandates that prohibited recognition of the obvious outcomes, making the process manageable, if tedious and stressful.
Frank and I developed four criteria to identify acceptable volunteer assignments:
- Criteria 1: English must be widely spoken, preferably as an official language. While I am pretty good at picking up the basics of a new language, we are not fluent in any other language. Being somewhere English is spoken will help us adjust, as well as actually get things done.
- Criteria 2: There must be a reasonable economy. Essentially, this means I expect never to want to be more than few kilometres from a shop selling Diet Coke and potato chips. I am a city slicker, and doubt I would survive, much less enjoy, a more remote posting.
- Criteria 3: Homosexuality cannot be punishable by death or dismemberment, either legally or culturally. Legality itself isn’t necessarily an issue, as many places have such laws which are largely ignored. .I spent the first twenty-two years of my life completely closeted, so can re-adjust my discretion levels as required. After all, this isn’t about me, at least not entirely.
- Criteria 4: There needed to be an assignment for each of us. While it was possible for one of us to come along as a “supported dependent” where the other had an assignment, international visa protocols are such that a “trailing spouse” (as they are called in the lingo) is prohibited from doing any work or study or even volunteering. In short, the concern was that the trailing spouse would go stir-crazy, and drive the other nuts, too. Our thirty-plus year relationship might survive such stress, but I had no interest in finding out.
Prior to leaving Melbourne, the need for this last criteria was driven home in spades. Frank and I met with a returned volunteer who had worked with the same host organisation with whom we are assigned. The very first question Frank asked was “Why did you volunteer?”
Without hesitation he replied “My fiancé’ and I wanted to have one more adventure before we settled down to start a family. She came along as a supported dependent.”
“How nice!” Frank exuded. “Now that you’re back, how’s that coming along?”
“We broke up in the Philippines. She was very unhappy.”
It took some time to meet the criteria. In January, 2016, after months of looking, we identified an assignment in Metro Manila that seemed tailored made to my skills and experience, if not my preferences. There was another post which we thought Frank might be good for, although that seemed more of a stretch. So we applied.
In February, I got my assignment, but Frank was unsuccessful, as we feared might happen. The recruitment folks were encouraging, though, saying that an assignment perfect for Frank would be posted for application in March. On that basis I accepted my assignment, and started the long process of medical checks, police checks, psychological checks, immunisations, and general form-filling-out towards mobilising on my assignment in June.
In March, Frank applied for the assignment they had suggested, as well as another with the same host organisation that sounded even better suited for him. Come April, he was told he could choose which of the two he wanted to go forward with. He chose that latter, better suited position, which he got. So he began the rigmarole in preparation for a June mobilisation. .
Then, in May, the Philippines had an election. Two weeks later, the Philippines government department with whom I was to volunteer pulled the plug on my assignment. Suddenly, Frank had an assignment, but I didn’t.
To their credit, the recruitment organisation worked tirelessly (albeit obliquely) to find or create another assignment for me. They put there in-country manager on the phone canvassing for possibilities. They reconfigured Frank’s assignment so he qualified to bring me along as a supported dependent, although that lacked appeal for reasons already discussed. They invited me along to the week-long all-expenses-paid training session even though I technically had no official assignment or standing. Not satisfied to leave it with them, I also applied for another assignment — the still-open position Frank had been told to apply for. The silver lining of this was that it seemed a better assignment than the one I had lost.
The pre-departure training in Adelaide the last week of May went a long way towards making the whole thing very real. We met forty other volunteers headed the world over, including two others headed for the Philippines. We met several other former volunteers who had served in the Philippines. This was doable, whether or not I had an assignment. We decided to commit to going together, even with me as a supported dependent.
June was a nerve-wracking month. We tried to rent our house furnished, but failed to find tenants. We needed that income to cover the mortgage, so to appeal to the much larger unfurnished rental market we had to move out. We gave away much to charity, but still put years of accumulated crap in storage.
Two weeks before departure, I got the assignment I applied for. Frank and I would be working together in Quezon City (part of Metro Manila). One day before departure, I got my visa. Whew.
At nine o’clock in the morning of June twenty-forth, Philippines Airlines flight 210 backed away from the gate at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport, headed for Manila with Frank and I aboard. As I said, it was bound to happen eventually.
It is worth mentioning at this point that I do not view my volunteering as a thing of great altruism. Frank has it in mind that we are “giving back”. I point out that giving back may not be a good thing, depending on what you took in the first place. I have received some gushing praise about sacrifice which I find embarrassing, inaccurate and naive.
The truth is that I don’t expect to accomplish much. Even the program recruiters and the host organisation are realistically reserved about expectations. The bureaucracy provides an assignment description describing how I will free the downtrodden from bondage, part a sea (perhaps red), return from the mount with commandments in hand, and wander the desert before leading the chosen to the promised land. Back on planet Earth, though, the whole production is about creating human connections and understanding — and that’s about it.
This dovetails nicely with my intention to have a blast getting to know the Philippines, its people and culture. For me, this is about adventure, new experiences and challenging assumptions. Unlike the supposed beneficiaries of my volunteerism, I am pretty much guaranteed to get out of this what I am after. I have a hard time calling that “giving back”.
That said, if we happen to house a few indigent families along the way, or create some desperately needed jobs by happenstance, great! I’ll do my best to help, but I’m not counting on it. In fact, in my experience do-gooders such as myself are more likely to be a distraction than a help. Make no mistake, I plan to work like hell. But in the spirit of “Do no harm”, I will first stay out of the way, second, make some new friends, and then, only then, “contribute”, when and if possible.