You know the type. They work long hours, attending meetings, making presentations, always “on”. They take work home, and actually work on it. They never call in sick, taking only quarter-days for funerals of immediate family members. They have “me time” they use to chat about “best practice” and “continuous improvement” with bankers, lawyers, and accountants over a single glass of wine that lasts an entire evening.
I have never been that type.
Once a year, they go on vacation, usually to a resort surrounded by guards and barbed-wire, sometimes they call it “Aruba”. Then — and only then — they get deathly ill, spending the entire week covered with hives of indeterminate provenance, shivering in an overheated hotel room.
I had never been that type, either. Continue reading 06. The Commission
Like everywhere in the universe, water is very important in the Philippines, not least because the Philippines consists of seven thousand one hundred seven islands completely surrounded by the stuff. What’s more, we’re in the rainy season, when water comes down from the sky an ocean at a time in any of the twenty tropical storms that swamp the place annually. To the delight of mosquitos and rice farmers alike, the rains pool nicely, slowly seeping into the rich volcanic soils, engendering life itself. Also, death.
You see, despite water being all around, up and down, little of it is safe to drink. You know those hundreds of billions of dollars spent by NASA, the European Space Agency, Russia’s Roscosmos, and the China National Space Administration trying to find water on Mars and the moons of Saturn and under your grandmother’s mattress? I’m beginning to think it wasn’t purely a scientific undertaking. If you can’t find drinkable water here, there’s a problem. A very big problem. Continue reading 05. …And Not a Drop to Drink
Orientation Day Two started much the same as Day One, except we took water with us on our jog. Trotting towards Quezon Circle, we stumbled upon the offices of our host organisation, the place we would be working for nine months following orientation week. It was a modest piece of real estate shared by several non-government organisations (NGO’s), fronted by a sheet metal door, padlocked shut this Sunday morning. Less than a hundred meters away was a Dunkin’ Donuts, also padlocked shut, as mind-boggling as that seems. Starbucks and Seattle’s Best were open just across the street — but we resolved to return for some Dunky when they opened at eight.
Quezon Circle was a madhouse. Just outside, the innermost traffic lane was closed for the exclusive use of lycra-clad cyclists, who whizzed and whirled past in a continuous pack three or four across. Inside, Christian leaders of numerous sects prepared their respective performance stages for services, while hundreds of families in their Sunday best competed for parking and filed in. The boxers and joggers still held sway in the respective districts, but now a thousand rogue Zumba-philes pulsed and gyrated to the throbbing strains of their goddesses’ guidance. Continue reading 04. Getting Down to Business
“Are you sure you don’t want to take a water bottle?” Frank pressed.
“It is six o’clock in the morning; we’re going for a 30 minute jog. How thirsty could I possibly get?”
My answer should have been “Of course. How silly of me” It wasn’t. Our first morning in Quezon City we headed out at sunrise into oppressive heat and humidity without water. Ten minutes I was on the verge of fainting.
We had found our way into the central park of Quezon Circle, the only green coloured map splotch within miles. Quezon Circle revealed itself to be an ellipse, a half-mile at its longest, surrounded by ten lanes of gasoline-powered traffic swirling counter-clockwise. If you were not in possession of a motor vehicle — a helicopter would do nicely — human access was possible only through the lone pedestrian tunnel from Quezon City Hall to the south.
Let’s see: I just said “center” (not centre), “miles” (not kilometres), “gasoline” (not petrol), “counter-clockwise” (not anti-clockwise), and referred to a park that requires automobile to access. The American influences are obvious here. Continue reading 03. Customer Service
The human mind is an amazing thing, particularly in times of stress. Usually, I thrive on stress, at my best when there’s way too much to do. There is a limit to this, though. In the weeks prior to my departure for Manila, I reached it.
In preparation for the flight I had reduced the sum of my worldly possessions to thirty kilos (66 pounds) in four bags (two checked, two carry-on), the Philippines Airlines baggage allowance. One might think that would simplify life, but my brain’s reaction was to render me incapable of remembering where I put anything. Worse, I became unable to complete any task without starting three others, a parabolic formula for a panic attack. I spent two full weeks frantically turning in circles, scanning tabletops, patting pants pockets, rummaging through manifold zippered baggage compartments, desperately trying to find whatever it was I had put down moments earlier when I instructed myself “Remember you put it there.”
All packed, Frank and I ended up well over the weight allowance. In what is sure to be the first of many such ploys, we played the volunteer card at baggage drop, grovelling for forgiveness of what would have been a $224 excess baggage charge. It worked a charm. Never underestimate the effectiveness of a good grovel. Continue reading 02. Mind Games
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. Continue reading 01. Giving It Away
I enjoy birthday parties more than most people. Considering that I don’t enjoy birthday parties very much, this is noteworthy commentary on our society. Granted, it is entirely possible that a link exists between my conduct in achieving birthday party enjoyment and others’ failure to attain such mirth, but you’ll have to ask them. I can’t recall a thing.
Recently a friend from Vancouver announced she’d be coming to Australia to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. I knew at once there would be no avoiding this event. Fiftieth birthdays mark a worthy and notable milestone, a serious business. Continue reading 03. Serious Business