Newt Heaven

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California Newt (Source: WikiCommons)

To go somewhere without a plan is to open yourself to the unexpected, and to allow yourself to delight in it. Itineraries, schedules, appointments all have the rigidity of expectations; whereas stepping outside your door with a blank slate offers the freedom of limitless opportunity.

This was the thought in my mind as I stared into what my cousin Eli and I dubbed “Newt Heaven”, a water and weed choked depression in the midst of a World War II era bunker nestled in the hills of the Marin Headlands. A dozen newts idly paddled in the 10-foot diameter concrete hole, suspended peacefully in the brackish sun-warmed water where 80 years ago a massive 16-millimeter gun requiring two dozen soldiers to load and fire had pointed toward the Pacific.

But now the bunker was ruled by newts, whom in the midst of the hot sun baking the drought-dry chaparral adorning the hillsides could only – we concluded – have viewed the 5 foot deep pool of water as habitat perfection. Eli and I had left Muir Beach shrouded in fog a few hours ago, stopping only to marvel at the dew-soaked spiderwebs dotting the trailside bushes. The startlingly bone-white webs were everywhere, made visible this morning by the diamond drops of water highlighting them. Most contained a centerpiece that at first looked like packaged morsels waiting to be eaten, but upon closer inspection we realized were simply small leaves that had been incorporated into each spider’s web. The webs’ craftsmanship and symmetry were eye-arresting, and made more-so by the fact that neither Eli and I had seen them before – had they always been there and we just never noticed? Were we destroying these lustrous designs unknowingly when we trampled through on sunny afternoons?

These are the idle questions that time and no particular purpose can afford you. In the first half of our ambling trip to the Golden Gate bridge, the others we talked to seemed to share the same unhurried sense of idleness – a middle-aged woman stopped her run to inform us about her route and how nice the day was, while a tattooed young man wandered near Newt Heaven languorously searched for some rocks worth climbing. At a bone-dry bunker – Newt Hell, obviously – a man in a dark room played a haunting flute, taking advantage of the tunnel’s beautiful acoustics. And perhaps playing a tribute to the newts that had perished in the bunker during their own war against sun and drought.

But on the road down to the bridge, the serenity of our unhindered excursion faded as we neared our destination. Cars zoomed by, and tourists crowded the few parking spaces along the road, snapping pictures and selfies. Two dirty backpackers flashed us the peace sign but kept clomping up the road, eschewing the safer dirt trail. One car stopped for a single hurried photo, then motored on while another in the next lot honked long and hard at the car in front of them that was flummoxed by the lack of places to park. Even the boats entering San Francisco Bay were in a hurry – one insistently tugging a large barge about five times its size under the bridge and into the bay, another a sleek long tanker quickly disappeared into the fog coming in from the Pacific. On the way back we fought our way in the car through tourists packing the streets of Sausalito, and the unwieldy tangle of cars in Tam Junction. But none of those things registered – stuck in my head was the inescapable picture of all those peaceful newts floating in heaven, without a care in the world.

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Coming Home

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Before stepping foot in a foreign country you’re asked why, and although the visa entry card choices are meaningless, empty designations such as “tourism” or “business”; they at least force you to self-identify a purpose. Even if it’s a made-up, or poorly thought out one. But, oddly enough, when you return home nobody asks or cares.

If I were asked my current purpose for coming home, I’m not sure what I would say. Except perhaps to stutter out that after nine months of living in the Philippines it was time to move on. Homecomings are supposed to be joyful, cinematic occasions where a triumphant return is punctuated by tearful reunions and regaling adoring friends and family with entertaining travel anecdotes. But in real life homecomings seem to happen not with a bang, but a whimper. The build-up is always sweet – anticipation, heightened by a longing for the familiarity of home embedded as deep in our neural pathways as any other basic physical need. But coming home seems to always be a letdown. A punctured deflation of the fantasy we construct in our heads of how nice everything will be when we return – a desire so pervasive it often compels us to forget the issues that prodded us to leave in the first place.

It seems not accidental that travel writing so rarely focuses on the return home part of the journey. When mentioned at all, the act of being home again is usually presented as a contrast to the recently completed adventure, or as a vague background to the required post-travel rumination of how one’s experience fit (or didn’t) preconceived notions about the world. Or worst of all as a passive setting for the realization that “it’s all about the journey” or some other hackneyed sentiment. Coming home is almost never viewed or described as its own journey, fraught with awkward encounters, emotions, and human frailties – domestic demons some of which are only uncovered because of one’s absence. For me, in many respects coming home is harder than leaving.

Once, an U.S. immigrations official, noticing the two-year absence stamped in my passport, smiled and said “welcome back home” – a tiny gesture which normally wouldn’t have meant much, but one which after 28 months abroad unexpectedly filled my eyes with tears. This time, after nine months away from American soil, the official waves me on and is already looking behind me as I say thank you. Past the baggage claim and customs a couple of kids run up to greet one of the businessmen, and a girl gives a brief, perfunctory hug to a young man. I heft my bags and walk past everyone to the bus stop.

I suppose the cynical reason why homecomings are given short shrift is because travel writing wants to get you there, not necessarily take you back. Or perhaps it is hesitance to tread on T. Wolfe’s “You can never go home” pedestal. But the reality is the majority of travelers always go home, and find it and themselves comfortingly unchanged. Daily life has a way of instantly cradling you back into its repetitive and boring embrace, which we somewhat shamefully embrace back, relieved that things haven’t changed.

Mr. Wolfe of course wasn’t referring to a two-week jaunt to Paris, or a week loitering on the beaches of Baja. But the self-discovering journey that led to his famous line is what we imagine and yearn for when planning real travel, and not just work holidays. However that deep realization requires not just the intervening years of wandering, but also coming home and reflecting one’s internal change onto the canvas of what was before.

At the bus station I easily spot a familiar truck, and for the first time in almost a year give my brother a hug. The first few days back are a blur. Maybe it’s the antibiotics, or the cold I immediately contract less than a day after landing. Or maybe it’s something else, but there is a fog of cognitive dissonance as I stay in slow motion while everyone revolves around me in a hyperspeed blur of work, children, yoga classes, camping trips, charity events. Everyone says so nice to see you, promises to get together, and then realizes how busy they are. I can barely handle the simple chores of re-activating my cell phone, and making a doctor’s appointment.

After months of being an outsider in a foreign culture, it’s weird to be afloat in your own society, tenuously tethered to people who go about their lives in a manner completely incongruous to how you’ve lived yours. Homecoming requires a shift in perspective, an assessment of if things back at home really have changed, and if so how much. As well as a window of opportunity for the returned to take their lessons learned along the way, try to forcibly meld them to the familiar life they are returning to, and find out which of their fantasies they will continue to hold onto and which ideals dreamt up in foreign lands will be lost into the iron ether of reality.

As fast-paced American life races by and around me, with foreign eyes I scour everything for changes, and find very few. Friends catch me up on the presidential race, which had begun in my absence yet requires only a few minutes to summarize. A few people mention the thawing of relations with Cuba. No one mentions Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. I ask friends about their lives, and they shrug and point to their families, their houses, their jobs. They ask me about the Philippines, and I give equally unsatisfactory answers.

In the age of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook it is perhaps getting harder and harder for us to deeply describe our lives, goals, dreams, ambitions. My friends, family, and I struggle to articulate to each other what has changed in the past year – besides babies and weddings. Does life really move so slow? Yet we chuckle in astonishment that memories we dredge up are now ten, fifteen years old.

It is so tempting for us to fall back into our old routines and patterns, to pretend nothing has changed. To get an office job, and apartment – go back to the quick days full of enervating work and hurried social life. The drawbacks to such as life are large and many, yet the limited meaning it presents is known, comfortable, and with at least a sense (though likely false) of personal control. The allure of slipping back into the safety of a shared society and culture provides an anesthetizing effect like that of slipping on an old shoe perfectly melded to your foot; after hobbling around in a new one all week. On the other hand to continue drifting offered no comfort, no security – just continued isolation, separation from the shared camaraderie of culture and society. Yet – I have to keep reminding myself – the freedom induced by that separation is exactly why I travel in the first place.

Race and Racism in South Africa and Mozambique

My introduction to South African race relations was an unexpected one. On the crowded plane from Frankfurt to Johannesburg, I switched seats so the older gentleman in my row could sit in the aisle and stretch his recently replaced hip. His sweet-faced, grandmotherly wife thanked me profusely in a clipped South African accent, and as we fell into the standard pre-flight chit-chat I learned about their kids in England that they visit every year, the recent surgery the husband had, and how these long flights were horrible.

But when I asked her for recommendations in Johannesburg her face turned dark. “You don’t want to stay there”, she said firmly. She explained to me that it’s a dirty, crowded city and where I really should go is to Cape Town where she and her husband had a house. “Besides,” she dropped her voice and nodded to the black man in the row in front of us. “It’s all those types in Johannesburg. Lazy, ignorant people”. I was floored. The words came out of this sweet old woman without hesitation, in the same matter-of-fact tone that she had used talking about how awful overnight flights are. Most of what I knew about apartheid came from my high school world history class and the movie Invictus – and both seemed to indicate it had ended. As the plane sped away from Germany towards Africa, I wondered which version of Africa I was heading toward.

*          *          *

My hostel in Kensington, a stately suburb situated on top of a small rise overlooking downtown, was equally close to Ghandi’s Johannesburg house and the cave hideout of the infamous Foster Gang. As I strolled through the neighborhood to combat jetlag, house after house presented stern iron gates, barred windows, and either bored private security guards or angry dogs lunging aggressively on their chains. Barely anyone was on the streets.

When I asked the hostel security guard how I could take public transportation downtown in order to catch the bus to the apartheid museum, he looked at me in surprise. Patiently he explained that the minibuses (confusingly called “taxis”) were dangerous. Not to mention the downtown area itself, “especially for tourists like you” – meaning white people. He advised me to take a private cab like everyone else. I nodded in serious understanding, then blithely ignored him and headed to the bus stop.

As twelve pairs of eyes watched me climb on the minibus, I became acutely conscious of being the only white person on board. Inscrutable stares accompanied me as I made my way to the empty seat in the back. However the young man next to me kindly provided advice as to where I should get off and find the tourist bus stop, then cheerfully warned me that the area was dangerous, especially at night.

Downtown Johannesburg looked like any other city center, albeit a little run-down. Scores of tie and slack-adorned professionals navigated to and from coffee shops, food courts, retail stores, and large office buildings. Interspersed with the shiny gleam of active commerce were broken windows, abandoned cars, and bodies sleeping in alleys. I made my way past malls bursting with clothing, watches, bags and other paraphernalia; and eventually found the bus stop.

A group of tough-looking kids approached me, but their scowls instantly melted away when they found out I was from the United States. They excitedly asked me about rap and basketball, and helpfully told me to not worry, the bus would be on time. As I waited they buzzed around me, washing and guarding the parked cars that lined the streets, cavorting and behaving like the cocky teenagers they were. When the bus pulled up, they pointed to make sure I got it and waved goodbye.

At the immaculate, beautifully designed apartheid museum I spent five hours wandering amongst the exhibits, which painfully and clearly spelled out the systematic control and racism that black South Africans had struggled against and finally overcome, after great cost. Unlike my high school class or Invictus, the museum acknowledged that despite the victory there was a still a long way to go to achieve equality. It was so educational and engaging that when the closing announcement rang out I realized I had missed the last bus back to downtown.

Standing forlornly at the bus stop outside the museum, I cheered up when I saw a tourist bus miraculously turn the corner and pull up. The driver informed me he was simply taking the bus back to the parking lot, hesitated in the face of my obvious need, then reluctantly told me to hop aboard.

He let me off near the bus terminal, and pointed to where I should go to find my taxi stop. The day’s fading light hastened my step as even I didn’t have to be told that this was not the right place to be at night. But I was easily directed to the long line waiting for the minibuses, and had no problem returning to the hostel where the worker laughed with incredulity when I told him I had no problem. “You’re lucky, man” he shook his head at me.

*          *          *

Surprisingly it was in Mozambique where I first saw the vestiges of South Africa’s apartheid laid out in front of me. After a week in the capital Maputo, I headed to the southern beach town Ponta do Ouro joining a group of American doctoral residents working month-long shifts in Maputo’s local public hospital as part of a medical exchange program.

Ponta do Ouro lies within spitting distance of the South African-Mozambiquen border, and is a popular destination for tourists and the wealthy from both countries. Upon arrival we were dumped in a disappointingly drab and dusty hub of market stalls and cobbled-together open shacks serving as bars and restaurants. But over a small rise the crowd and noise of the open-air bar and food-stands called barracas faded away; and gleaming restaurants, hotels and dive shops spread out in front of us, interspersed with lush greenery that crept to a crescent white sandy beach. By the time we settled into our beautiful rental house and wandered out to look for food, all the tourist restaurants had shut down for the evening. Stiff from the four hour ride, we stumbled back to the barracas where a swaying drunken man brought out food different than what we had ordered, but it was warm and greasy and enough for the six of us.

After three days of diving and carousing with the American doctors, they left to return to their hospital rounds. I decided to stay another few days, shifting to a cheap hostel and back to my meager travel budget. By then I had noticed that practically all businesses were owned by white South Africans, and staffed by black Mozambiquens. The separation was everywhere, and more blatant and obvious than anything I had seen in my few short days in South Africa. It was glaringly evident in the restaurants, where black staff served white tourists; and in the advertisements around town for diving, dolphin watching, and “drunken atv-ing”, in which all participants I saw were white.

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At a local dive shop, as I tried on gear and chatted with a group of young South Africans enjoying their gap year before university, the white South African dive shop owner wasted no time in confiding to us that the locals were “lazy, stupid and helpless”. He soon after interrupted all conversation in the room to explode at the black Mozambiquen helping us with our scuba gear, yelling at him “to get rid of [the malfunctioning tank] and shove it up your arse”. It was an ugly scene, and a quite unnecessary public shaming and display of anger in front of the mostly white South Africans and us foreigners – to say the least ridiculous, as the assistant could not have known that the tank was faulty.

After diving I wandered around the town’s mostly deserted beach and empty houses. In the evening, long after shade and darkness stole over the white sands I saw them walking out of the tourist area – maids, security guards, waiters and the like passing out of town like ghosts and fading into the houses and shacks in the outerlying hills and areas further from the beach and ocean views which seemed exclusive to the white-owned houses and restaurants. It was at the barracas where the local Mozambiquens owned little stores and stalls, ate, and socialized that I caught glimpses of life. While tourists quietly ate and sipped cocktails on terraced roofs overlooking the ocean, a couple hundred yards away yet separated by a hill and a hundred years the locals blared music, drank and caroused out of the sight and minds of the tourists.

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The quiet, predominantly white part of Ponta do Ouro.

The morning I left Ponta do Ouro was perhaps my favorite part of the trip. I arrived at the barracas at 8 am to try and catch a ride to Ketembe. As I waited the square came to life: locals stopped in the bakery to buy fresh morning bread, women and men greeted each other and chatted smiling and laughing, in no hurry to get to their jobs serving tourists and without the weary heaviness I saw upon them at night as they returned to their houses. In the soft morning light kids accompanied their parents, or each other on the way to school. Women balancing bulky loads on their heads began to set up their identical wares in their stalls. A man still drunk from the previous night pleaded with those he knew to buy him some bread, and shortly after a bag of several small loaves was placed in his hands. It was a natural, effusive happiness that didn’t exist a hundred yards away in the tourist part of town, and it was so much more beautiful than the ugliness there that I had a thought to take pictures of the square slowly filling with life and laughter. But to introduce a camera would have introduced separation, and so I just waited for the van and observed the real Ponta do Ouro.

After an hour, a friendly Mozambiquen also going to the border herded me into a chapa, which within 20 minutes got stuck in the sand. After getting towed out by a passing truck, we left the chapa to hop on the truck as my new friend knew the driver. It turned out to be a good, albeit bumpy and dusty decision, as we later passed the same driver stuck again.

Erasing the rare, quick victory of making it to the border was a dispiritingly long wait for the chapa to Ketembe to fill up. As people slowly trickled in, we counted the remaining number of seats to be filled – seven when I arrived, and the same number three hours later. Eventually after five hours of waiting, the VW bus-sized van was full with 16 passengers, luggage filling all other space and overflowing off the roof, and two drivers. At every bump on the dirt trail charitably called a road the seat in front of me dug painfully into my knees. It wasn’t until a few hours into the trip that I even realized I was the only white person on board. I alternated between staring out the window at the African countryside passing by and the huge golf ball-sized protubescence on the shoulder of the passenger ahead of me, a few inches away from my face. There was ample time to reflect upon the last few days: to consider the kindness of the Johannesburg bus driver, the car-washing teenagers, the young man in the minibus who gave me directions and looked worried for me. The Mozambiquen student who helped get me to the border to catch the chapa that I currently sat in. They contrasted sharply with the white South African dive shop owner and grandmother on the plane, so open in their ugly racism and haughty privilege. And the group of young South Africans I met diving, whose constant ribbing of their one black member skirted the line of privileged condescension, lay somewhere in between.

As the chapa rolled on through the dry African countryside, the passengers were quiet at first, minus an occasional phonecall that everyone listened to one-sided. But after several hours many began to chat with each other, commiserating about the ugly, tough journey. Five hours in, the chatter turned into loud, pointed discussion on why the trip was taking so long. “I think something is wrong with the motor”, the woman next to me said, directly her voice toward the driver whose back remained square to us despite the accusations. “That’s why he can’t go as fast”.

At all three police checkpoints, the whole group collectively quieted in hopes that they would not ask for documents, nor ask to inspect bags in order to angle for a bribe. It would extend an already long journey, and it appeared that one middle-aged woman was traveling without her documents – a crime in Mozambique, and what could be a big problem for her not to mention an indeterminate delay and hassle for everyone else if she were caught.

But we luckily made it safely through all checkpoints, and as the African sun set, looking luminous and beautiful, dry plains sped by my window. It was fully dark when we arrived at Ketembe, and I hopped onto the ferry resigned to another long wait. But relatively soon after we pushed off to Maputo, and I walked into my friend’s apartment twelve hours after I left Ponta do Ouro that morning. My friend told me that in their private hired car, the standard mode of tourist transport to Ponta do Ouro, he and the other doctors had made the entire return trip in three hours.

I told him about the real Ponta do Ouro, getting stuck in the sand, dodging police checkpoints, the friends I had made, and what I learned about race in Africa – all in all, a fair trade for an extra nine hours.

Freight Ship Comes to Town

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When Aldo, a relative of my Peruvian host family, asked me if I wanted to serve as translator aboard a 20,000 ton Chinese cargo ship docked off Puerto Malabrigo’s coast and carefully stressed the potential dangers, I didn’t hesitate at all before saying “yes”. Living two years in a sleepy town on the northern Peruvian coast unfortunately tends to have that sort of effect on you. Aldo told me we’d board his friend’s small lancha “soon” and head out to the mammoth vessel that had been forced to drop anchor a mile or so off shore; and having lived in Peru for over a year at that point, in typical Peruvian fashion I assumed it wouldn’t be for awhile.

But it actually was relatively soon after that aboard a small, 20-foot ship equipped with an outboard motor and not much else, Aldo’s normally jovial face abruptly turned serious in the mercurial Peruvian tendency to amazingly shift full-blown from one emotion to the other. “Eesac”, Aldo said with soft spanish accent and his liquid brown eyes arresting mine, “escuchame, es muy peligroso la subida al barco (listen to me, boarding the ship is very dangerous)”. He brought one hand up and held it vertical, then the other and said “este” – he shook his left hand – “es el barco, y esta” – he shook his right hand – “es nuestra lancha”. Because the cargo ship is so much bigger than our vessel, Aldo explained, we’ll need to get as close as possible to their side and then they’ll throw down a rope ladder. The tricky part was climbing on the rail of our ship, and then grabbing the ladder that was hanging off their edge. “Si te caigas, (if you fall)” said Aldo, “then you get caught between the two boats …” he clapped his hands sharply together to crush the imaginary person. As we approached the gigantic cargo ship, Aldo then figured it’d be the proper time to tell me that he had witnessed someone die in that same exact manner he just described.

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Typical cargo ship loading tonnes of fishmeal from Puerto Malabrigo destined for Asia, Europe, and other continents.

We got to the tanker and pulled along its immense side. I had been on a large cruise ship before, but docilely trotting up a large gangplank to a ship docked and tied up to a pier was very different than trying to catch a rope ladder dangling between two ships that have dropped loose anchor in the ocean, with one easily 10 times the size of the other. As our pilot hesitantly pulled near but not alongside the behemoth next to us, Aldo threw curses at him to bring the ship closer.

I could tell Aldo was worried as he surveyed the situation. Ocean swells were making both ships pitch and heave, and earlier he told me he had almost called off the trip due to the restless wave conditions. The two boats rubbed their sides together, and then broke apart in tune with the swells. The first guy went to the rail and shakily stood up, while several men stood on the deck behind him with their hands up to catch him if he fell backwards. As Aldo made painfully clear, if this man fell forward without grabbing the ladder, there would be no one to catch him and he would get crushed between the two ships as they alternately crashed together and broke apart. The man coolly waited until the ladder leaned close, grabbed it, and immediately began climbing; just as the two ship sides crashed together a little below where his feet had landed on the ladder.

Aldo went second, and despite his generous gut nimbly scrambled up after the first man. Next came my turn, and a multitude of hands grabbed me and quickly boosted me on the ship rail, steadying me from behind. The immense side of the cargo ship loomed dozens of feet above and yawed toward me, and as it approached the inescapable thought entered my head wondering if this were the situation and place that would produce my untimely death. My heart hammering, and adrenaline shooting through me, I stepped to the rope ladder, set my right foot on a rung, leaned forward off the rail and grabbed for dear life the rungs facing me. Immense relief flooded through me as I clutched onto the ladder for half a second – then I remembered I needed to climb as quickly as possible and so I immediately began to do so. I didn’t look back the whole way up, and at the top Aldo grabbed my arms from the deck and pulled me up with a relieved grin on his face. I then finally turned and look down on our small ship below, and saw a wide gap of frothy ocean now between the two ships, as our ship gunned away from the cargo freight to wait at a safe distance from the large tanker for our return.

Several Asian crew members escorted us through the ship to the captain without saying a word. We walked down long bare iron corridors, up several rusty flights of stairs, and I marveled at the immense iron labyrinth contained in this ship, of which we were only seeing the outer levels. Finally our guides brought us in front of a door, and knocked.

Aldo had told me we’d be talking to the captain, to get a list of provisions he and his crew needed before their vessel left. Aldo brought me along because, as he explained, often times the ship captains barely speak spanish and so he thought perhaps my english would come in handy.

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Fishmeal factories in Puerto Malabrigo, processing anchoveta and other fish to make fishmeal to sell to foreign countries.

The dirty figure who we came before in a small room filled with blinking old machinery was not at all who I had envisioned speaking with. I thought at first perhaps it wasn’t the captain, that maybe this was their person in charge of provisioning; however Aldo respectfully called the man captain, and small man stared back at us, expressionless.

Aldo, seemingly nervous, rattled off in his poorly-accented english a list of what was available in town for purchase – rice, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and the like and the captain said “yes” or “no” and ordered by the kilo while looking at his own sheet. A few times they got stuck on a word, and Aldo turned to me while the captain obviously irritated would repeat the word several times. However most times I couldn’t understand a single word of the captain’s so-called “english”, and was unable to help. I realized later that at no point did we explain to the captain that I spoke english, so for all I knew he could have still been trying to communicate with us in poor spanish. But fortunately Aldo had brought pictures of foods that the two resorted to several times when it was clear neither knew what the other wanted.

After what seemed like a very brief and overall very halting attempt to speak with us, the captain finally waved us away, with one last request. “What?” I asked, leaning forward and the captain repeated it again to me, louder and angrier. I looked at Aldo, unsure of what to say to the captain’s request and since now the meaning was clear in either language – so Aldo didn’t need translation. He stepped forward and shook the captain’s hand. “Prostitutas?” he said, now his face expressionless. “No problem.”

We followed the Chinese shipmen all the way back through the long metal corridors and down several flights of stairs to where we had climbed up. The sky was rapidly darkening, and I could see in the fading light why Aldo had been so nervous and wanted to hurry along their negotiations. We waited a few minutes for our small boat to pull up along the cargo ship, and then hurriedly climbed down the rope ladder while we could still see. When one person reached the level of our small Peruvian boat, the last part of the ordeal consisted of looking over your shoulder while your body faced the immense side of the cargo ship, and then when the ocean pitch brought the railing close you had to half-jump and half-fall back on the rail, where a crowd of hands were there waiting to catch you and reel you in quickly off the railing. As my heart slowly stop palpitating during the boat ride back to shore, Aldo told me that ship captains sometimes requested the strangest things. For instance, he said, he learned to give Asian boat captains (cargo ships from Europe, North America, and Asia all came to the small town of Puerto Malabrigo, Peru to purchase and load tons of fishmeal that then made its way to other factories for processing into pet food) gifts of dried seahorses, because they considered it an aphrodisiac. “De verdad (it’s true),” promised Aldo in response to my practiced look of skepticism that often came after the latest outrageous story told to me by a Peruvian. “They put it in their bottles of alcohol and drink it. I swear!”

I disembarked on the pier happy to be alive and not crushed between boats or drowned, happy to be on solid land, and wondering what the hell just happened … was Aldo really going to deliver some of the local prostitutes? The town did have a whorehouse – Puerto Malabrigo is a port town after all. If so, how would they make it up the rope ladder? How much was Aldo charging for any of this?

These questions nagged at me for days after my adventure. A few days before the tanker was scheduled to leave, Aldo went back out to deliver the supplies to the ship. He didn’t ask me to go, and I didn’t ask to go with him.

Journey to Sibuyan

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Dawn while waiting for the boat at the San Augustin pier.

Most of the Peace Corps Response Volunteers had an hour or two journey to get to their assigned sites from Manila. There are numerous cheap flights to the various regional capitals in the Philippines, and even to the outer islands the flights are generally about an hour and cost less than $100.

But that was not the case for myself or Derik, my site-mate. We were both assigned to work in Sibuyan Island, a smaller island in the Romblon province largely covered by the protected area of Mt. Guiting-Guiting Natural Park.I began to get an idea of how remote and isolated Sibuyan is during my first two weeks in Manila since every Filipino that I met, when I told them where I would be working, invariably shook their head and said they had never heard of the island. I went to three bookstores, and none of them even had as much as a map of Sibuyan.

There is no airport near Sibuyan, so the day after the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines swore us in officially as Peace Corps Volunteers Derik and I began the long journey to our new home. Accompanying us was Rebecca – a forester working at Guiting-Guiting.

I’d like to say the trip to Sibuyan was a magical journey reclining on the upper deck of a modern ship smoothly cutting through glassy Philippine waters. But in reality it was not an easy nor a fun ride: first off was a 3 hour bus ride from Manila south to Batangas, where I then had to wait about another three hours for the first of two ferries I would have to take. Once all the heavy cargo had been loaded and we finally were able to climb aboard theboat, there were rows and rows of bunk beds in a large room enclosed room. When we found our assigned bed the open room seemed spacious, but within an hour almost all the beds were occupied and luggage spilled into the floors and walkways everywhere making it hard to even move around.

After losing to a Filipino kid in Scrabble (who was on the phone the whole time he was kicking my butt), I tried to get some sleep and had just about dropped off when the boat made the 3 a.m. landing at Odiongan which was our stop. Many of the Filipinos exploded into action once we docked, grabbing their bags and racing out the boat to try and catch the jeepneys and few transportation options.

Fortunately for us, a contact had arranged for a police jeepney to come get us so we piled our luggage in and got a ride to the Department of Environment & Natural Resources (DENR) office, where they gave Derik and I a room with a bunkbed and we collapsed into sleep around 4 a.m.

A few hours later around 8 a.m. began about 3 hours of introductions – to the about 20 or so DENR staff in the office, and various others who were eager to meet the new ‘kanos working for the natural park in Sibuyan. In between meetings, we strolled to the market and looked over the fruits, vegetables and fish many of which were unfamiliar to me.

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Meeting Department of Environment & Natural Resources (DENR) staff at the regional office in Odiongan.

Lastly, we met the governor’s executive assistant/daughter for lunch; who kindly gave us a tour of Odiongan and some of the large projects the governor has accomplished (renovated and expanded hospital, a new conventions center with a beautiful view). Trina provided transportation for us to San Augustin, where we spent the night. It was about a two hour drive through some beautiful countryside of green rice fields interspersed with tropical forest – a trip which I probably would have appreciated more if I hadn’t been so exhausted.

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Arriving at Romblon – which is the name of the city, the island, and the province.

At 6 am the next day we hopped on our second ferry, and had a short ride to Romblon City (on the island of Romblon, which is also the name of the province just to make it extra confusing) where we hopped off the ferry and went to the police station to introduce ourselves to the regional police director; who kindly offered us coffee, asked a few questions about what we were doing here, then told two officers to drive us back to the ferry where we scarfed down a quick breakfast then got back on the boat with only about a two hour journey to Sibuyan remaining.

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The port at Romblon – the last stop on the loooong journey to Sibuyan Island.

As we waited to begin the last stretch of our 48 hour journey, several Filipinos threw coins off the boat into the water where several boys waited to dive down and catch the coins before they disappeared below. Visible schools of fish appeared below in the aquamarine water, and tropical forest encircled the Romblon City port where the boat waited and Sibuyanos greeted each other and upon hearing I would be working in Sibuyan came up and introduced themselves to me.

Finally the ferry departed Romblon City, and chugged around the island heading toward Sibuyan. Romblon is known as the marble capital of the Philippines, and as we passed the island Rebecca pointed out to me scars on the hillside left from quarrying the rock. The ferry chugged across the deepwater ocean channel (a few hundred meters in depth) we made our way to the place known as “the Galapagos of Asia”. The Philippines as a country is one of the most biodiverse in the world, if not the most – I’ve seen it called “the hotspot of biodiversity hotspots” in scientific literature. Part of the reason for this is because at various times in the geologic history of the islands as sea levels rose and fell the islands became connected and then isolated, which allowed alternate waves of speciation during the times of isolation and influxes of new species and genes during times of land bridge connections.

However Sibuyan Island, as far as researchers can tell, was never connected to other land masses due to the deepwater channel that we were currently crossing over in the ferry. And because it remained isolated, it has a large number of endemic species that cannot be found anywhere else in the Philippines or the world. The small island about twice the size of Santa Cruz Island that I was heading toward boasts over a hundred species of trees and perhaps the densest forest in the Philippines. It has over a hundred species of birds, with the majority of them endemic and residential year round. It has several larger “charismatic megafauna” including a local primate the long-tailed macaque, a native wild boar, a species of civet cat (civet coffee anyone?) not to mention the wide array of marine biodiversity.

And that’s just the natural wealth of Sibuyan. Even before I arrived I had heard intriguing stories of the indigenous tribes on Sibuyan that I’d be working with, a World War II plane that was shot down and crashed somewhere on the mountain, of the tragic ferry accident offshore that killed hundreds of people, of the odd German enclave on the island.

But the most exciting part to me by far is the fact that there are undoubtedly species yet to be identified on the island. And discovering and documenting the species of Sibuyan Island is what I will be spending my next nine months working on.

Typhoon Ruby

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It’s understandable that in a country of over 7 thousand islands Filipinos in the capital city haven’t heard of many of the smaller ones. But Sibuyan Island seems like a different level of remoteness. Trying to find some information about the island I was assigned to before I was deployed, I went to a bookstore in the most well-known mall of Manila (which is a city built around malls and shopping): the mall of Asia. This mall is supposedly the 10th largest in the world, has an ice-skating rink, it has 6 movie theatres, and a ferris wheel. It also has the rare sight of a shiny (albeit small) bookstore, where I searched in vain for any information relating to Sibuyan Island. I asked the staff to look up Sibuyan by name in their database, and had to spell out the name for them, only to find that they had no materials listed. Even finding just a simple map was impossible, as the Romblon province is not a very high tourist destination therefore the bookstore had no provincial maps in stock.

During the two weeks of training I spent in Manila before going to my assigned site of Sibuyan, almost all the Filipinos I met asked me what I was doing in the Philippines. When I replied that I would be working for 9 months as a biologist on Sibuyan Island, every single Filipino I talked to then asked puzzledly “where is Sibuyan Island?”.

So given the lack of forewarning of previous typhoons, and the remote nature of Sibuyan Island; it was an absolute shock to see the small Sibuyan Island’s name listed on the national news agency as directly in Ruby’s path 24 hours before the super typhoon was expected to landfall on my island.

About 48 hours before Typhoon Ruby (local name: Hagupit) reached the Philippine Area of Jurisdiction, it was already all over the news. Despite the 17 typhoons that had already hit the besieged country this year (which has a pending volcanic eruption to boot), Ruby gained attention because it was predicted to be a “super typhoon”, and make initial landfall over the same area that the last super typhoon hit – Typhoon Yolanda which left over 6 thousand dead and a large wake of destruction in its path.

Having spent 4 months living in the Philippines, at first Ruby took on the same abstract meaning as the previous 17 typhoons that hit the Philippines during my time here. That is to say, I barely noticed it. Living in a protected area office at the edge of the forest, on a small isolated island that is just one of the 7 thousand plus that comprise the Philippines means that quite a few national and of course global events pass by without notice. It took an email from the United States to inform me that a ferry sunk not far from where I was in the central Philippines. Or that a massive earthquake rocked Indonesia, with tsunami implications for Filipinos in the outer islands.

Previous typhoons I only heard about from locals as the storms were dumping rain over me. One day a few months ago I commented on the nasty weather as I headed back from some fieldwork on the other side of Sibuyan Island, and I was informed by my coworker that the rain stinging our faces was actually Typhoon Mario. Of course being that the park office where I lived had no newspaper, no internet, and a few television channels available only in Tagalog, a language I do not understand or speak; I didn’t know of Mario until he was (lightly) hitting me.

Ruby was different, in that even a few days before landfall it was the talk of the small town near the protected area where I go several times a week to purchase food and supplies. Although the Philippine Islands receive on average about 20 – 30 typhoons per year, a super typhoon does not come along every day. And so like news in any small town, Typhoon Ruby was on the lips of the women in the marketplace, the men trudging to work, and generally brought up in normal everyday conversation, discussed by those just trying to chat and pass the time, which is pretty much everybody in Sibuyan. A few days before landfall the Peace Corps activated their emergency response plan, which called for all 160 Peace Corps Volunteers to consolidate in designated “safe areas” … except for myself and the other volunteer on Sibuyan, we were told to stay put instead of meeting up with the rest of the volunteers in the provincial capital.

The projected path of the typhoon varied according to which model you consulted. The European model said one thing, the national Filipino agency PAGASA said another. But either way the typhoon was expected to pass through the province I live in – Romblon, which is one of the most remote and poorest provinces in the Philippines.

The instant I saw that Sibuyan was directly in Ruby’s path, the super-typhoon ceased to be an abstract object and became imminently real and threatening. I canceled a planned trip to the other side of the island to a town fiesta that I had been invited to. I went back to the town market for the third time in three days to get a few more days supply of food. I kept everything plugged in and charged for the inevitable power outage.

The protected area office was designated as the local evacuation center, and so over 24 hour before the expected landfall in Sibuyan a few families had already arrived. They were neighbors that I knew, who live crammed into very simple wooden shacks perched at the edge of their rice fields. I doubted their houses could even withstand a normal typhoon, let alone an extreme one centered on Sibuyan.

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The park opened up the visitor’s building as the local evacuation center, and about 50 people in the surrounding area left their homes to wait out the typhoon here.

As more families evacuated to our shelter, reports showed Ruby slowing down and it’s expected landfall time in Sibuyan kept getting pushed back from initially Saturday morning, to Saturday night, to Sunday morning then Sunday night and finally early Monday morning.

This meant lots of waiting. The people passed the time cooking the coffee and large sack of rice that the local government dropped off for evacuees, chatting, and sleeping. I was a little more bored and less sanguine about the whole affair. I walked back and forth through the rain between the Visitor’s Center where the evacuees were and the house I was staying in with a few other park employees. Twice I biked through the rain and wind to the coast in order to see how high the waves and storm surge were. But mostly we just sat around, “like waiting to be punched” as one of my coworkers described it. Rebecca, a forester at the park office who had woken up at 3:30 am to cook food to bring to the evacuation center for herself and her children, commented that this was the first time she had ever been evacuated.

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The view near the coast during the typhoon.

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Dinner by candlelight with Mheann and Derik while waiting out the storm.

In the end, we were lucky as cooler monsoon winds from the northwest weakened and pushed Typhoon Ruby north of Sibuyan where it was downgraded to a tropical storm. We received about 36 hours of constant rain, and some wind gusts but the storm was weaker than some previous ones I had already experienced here. By 7:30 am almost all of the estimated 50 evacuees who spent the night at the protected area office had already left to return to their homes. By the afternoon the power was back on and the road to town was passable, and aside from a few fallen trees there was no evidence of any damage aside from a little flooding in the low-lying areas. When we went to town to get some fresh food, the people of Sibuyan Island were saying goodbye to family and friends who stayed over for the typhoon, cleaning their houses, laboring in their rice fields, sweeping fallen branches and leaves from the road, cooking hot meals, and continuing on with their lives.

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The aftermath of the typhoon – flooded roads and houses, but luckily very little damage.

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Two Weeks of Training in Manila

One of the few things I knew about the Philippines before I left the U.S. was that it is located in the “Ring of Fire” – however it wasn’t until I arrived that I began to understand the implications of the term, and what it means to millions of Filipinos living in a place of flux and chaos. According to most rankings, the Philippines is one of the world leaders in natural disasters. The over 7,000 islands are interspersed with volcanoes, many of them still active – currently the 100 year eruption clock is ticking for Mount Mayon, it is currently sitting at alert level 2 and the Peace Corps security chief forwarded an notice to all intrepid volunteers to remain at least 6 kilometers from the volcano. The Philippines is tectonically active as well, with more earthquakes than California.

Our Peace Corps training on national disaster safety started off by listing the over 10 types of natural and man-made disasters found in the Philippines, and there were several recent examples: Just days after I arrived to Manila an electrical fire – caused by too many people illegally tapping into the electricity grid – burned down 30 houses in Quezon City, about an hour from where I was lodged. A train derailed a few days after and injured several dozens of people. There is a local dialect word for a nine-day rain that they count as a separate type of natural disaster.

But last November an earthquake, then one of the strongest typhoons ever recorded hit the southeastern Philippine islands. The majority of the Peace Corps Response Volunteers that I arrived with specialize in disaster relief and are here to help communities recover, rebuild, and become more resilient to the inevitable future disasters.

We were told that the Philippines receive about 20 typhoons on average per year, and so far this year 10 typhoons have already landed within the Philippines national boundaries (many typhoons however pass over ocean and sparsely populated areas). The one that devastated the Philippines was Yolanda, meaning that according to the alphabetical naming system it was the 25th typhoon of the year.

Even before I set foot in the Philippines I had already met my first typhoon, as shortly after lifting off from Tokyo en route to Manila our captain announced that due to a typhoon hitting southeastern Japan our plane would have to deviate from its programmed route and head north to avoid the storm.

“I think this is maybe why our Filipino culture is so friendly and happy,” one of our Filipino trainers told us, laughing rather hard. “Because we receive so many disasters it’s best to just laugh and be happy”. The phrase encapsulating this fatalistic, que sera sera mentality in Tagalog is “bahala na”.

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John Borja gives everyone some good advice on the screen during a training session on safety and security.

As I stepped off the plane in Manila and looked for the other Peace Corps Response Volunteers – a group of 8 others whom I didn’t know at all but whom I would be getting to know very well by the end of our training – I had a much different feeling than I did 9 years ago when I stepped off the plane in Peru to begin my first Peace Corps stint.

But unfortunately much of the training approach was the same. While the local training staff was excellent, our eight days of training passed by in a jet-lagged and powerpoint-induced haze. The increasingly insipid and banal Peace Corps training sessions spent more time covering security and medical (albeit in their government-induced fear of liability – perhaps for good reason – instead of informing us about language and cultural customs that would help us get our work done. For example we incredibly had only about 3 hours of language and culture training before being shipped out to our sites to begin working with our counterparts to achieve our assigned project objectives. And we learned more about the Peace Corps approach to monitoring and tracking volunteers than we did about our actual projects and sites.

But all you can do is make the best of it. Halfway through our training we piled into vans at 8:30 am to drive to a beach 2 hours south of Manila in order to spend five minutes showing the Peace Corps that we could indeed get back into a boat with a life jacket if need be. However our program manager prepared and cooked an incredible meal for us of tender barbequed pork, fish, pancit (a rice noodle dish common in the Philippines), and fresh mangoes; and we were able to enjoy a blissful hour away from Manila and presentations.

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We drove 2 hours to get to the beach for a 5 minute water safety training … best day of training ever.

Over the eight days of training undoubtedly the best part was getting to know the eight other Peace Corps Response volunteers; who all were smart, well-traveled, savvy individuals who had experienced quite a bit in their lives before coming to the Philippines. The one thing that training does right – albeit unintentionally – is build a support network between the volunteers. Simply spending nearly 24 hours together is enough to create a team bonding dynamic, and our group of nine veteran volunteers commiserated through boring training sessions and over beers outside of the office. Our self-created after-hour informal sessions consisting of trading war stories and experiences, discussing international aid theory and approach, allaying each others’ fears and concerns, and learning and taking heart from each other may be worth more than all of the Peace Corps training sessions alone. Because when you struggle in your site, get disheartened, feel isolated and misunderstood, it is not the Peace Corps training manual that you turn to. It is your friends, family and support network.

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Peace Corps Response Volunteers – “the gang of nine”, plus Milo and Sheila the program coordinators.