Christmas Eve marked the six-month point of our nine-month volunteer assignments; three months to go. New to the country, the language, the culture, the laws, the economy and the people we work with, we knew nine months was not a lot of time to get much of anything accomplished. As such, Frank and I have been proceeding on the expectation that we would apply for an assignment extension, maybe to a full year, or maybe as long as a year-and-a-half. I am advised the assignment extension approval process takes around two months, so decision time is nigh.
One factor in our decision-making process is that our St Kilda home is leased for a year, and our tenants have an option for another six months, so if we go home earlier than that, we may have nowhere to go home to. Recently it occurred to me that is less a problem than an opportunity. With our home rented and paying for itself (and then some), it is a chance for some very leisurely travel to places cheaper than Australia. That covers pretty much everywhere, save San Francisco (and I am dubious anyone can save San Francisco in the cost-of-living sweeps). A month – maybe two? – in Cape Town, Split, San Juan, Marrakesh, Santiago, Mykonos?
But first, we’d really like to feel our work has made a meaningful contribution here. We aren’t expecting much – but it would be nice to be able to point to some accomplishment before we leave. “We helped set up that business” would do. Right now, all I can say is “For a sideshow freak, I got a lot of applause.”
It seems every time our projects build a little momentum, something happens to bring things to a grinding halt, with the effect of having to start all over again, or nearly so. Certainly my little knee operation wiped out two or three months of our work. Taking a week to travel around the Philippines with visiting friends was a much-needed breath of fresh air, but on return we are re-visiting issues we had resolved a month earlier.
Such setbacks are troubling not only because of the need for a re-do, but also because the setbacks raise concern as to whether our contributions are sustainable. There are strategies to deal with that – get others in to fill the gaps, probably more volunteers – but the solutions seem more theoretical and academic than practical and effective.
Regardless, it seems like a sure thing that if we leave three months from now, we might as well have not come, at least from a benefits perspective. That is a mighty strong argument for extending. Yet, I have to ask whether anything will be different if we stick around another six months, or another year for that matter. Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to that.
What is clear is that if our presence here is not going to make any difference, there are far more pleasant places to await death than Metro Manila. Indeed, I get the real sense this place is sucking the life out of me. Obviously, hobbling around slowly recovering from a knee injury isn’t helping, but I am gaining weight, ache constantly, and almost always have a headache, a cold, an upset stomach, or worse. Every day I stay, the smog, noise, food, traffic, and lack of exercise is taking three days off my life expectancy. Then again, life expectancy is overrated.
I have expressed these concerns to my host organization supervisor and co-workers, all of whom have urged us to extend as long as possible. That is gratifying; it is nice to be wanted. Nevertheless, given the “herding cats” nature of the work we do, they cannot promise much insofar as results within any timeframe.
Where does this leave us? In the next thirty days, Frank and I will take a guess at what can get done in the next three, six, nine and twelve months. Then we will decide whether it is worth that much more of our lives. We didn’t come here to save the Philippines, just make a contribution. If there is a reasonable chance of any meaningful benefit, we’ll stick it out. If not, we’ll pack our bags.
At the moment, we are pondering these things a thousand kilometers from the Philippines, in Taiwan for the Christmas break. I’ll be writing about that over the next weeks or so. Then, in January, it is decision time.