I left Hong Kong on forty-eight hours notice. Clearance came from headquarters at the last minute. The discount Filipino airline refused to take my bag, so my colleague had to drag a trumpet and wad of dirty laundry back to her apartment. Manila has the most poorly designed airport I have ever seen but they aired NBA games by the gates so I call it an even break. Just before my flight to Davao I procured a mocha and settled. I reminisced about the mocha I drank the first time I visited القدس الشرقية (East Jerusalem). This one was not like that one but I could still dream. The flight from Manila to Davao was worse than driving in the mountains ~ the cabin pressure fluctuated wildly.
For two hours I sat at the airport bus stop, drinking orange juices and reading. Security finally came and asked if I needed help. I shrugged and said “uh, yes. I thought my friend might come but he did not.” My colleague and I never clarified if he was coming to get me, nor exchanged phone numbers, nor had I copied the convention center’s address. I wondered if I had reached the proverbial dead-end but I decided to sit and wait for new variables. The airport guards recommended I go to the Mall and use the internet.
“I knew you would figure it out –“,said my colleague, “I had things to do.”
The next day I was packed into a van with two Filipinos, one Filipina, two Indonesians, and an Indian named Jerome from Delhi, all of us bound for the municipality of Tulunan. We drove several hours from Davao city for a field course with local leaders about ‘Zones of Life’ or ‘The Peace Zones’. These were revealed to be now-mostly-stagnant ideas that emerged in some displaced barangaysA during a martial law period in the late eighties. I wrote a four page long amateur analysis (none of which is here).
What matters for this blog is that I was the only white person and I had a sinus infection that turned my snot the color of lemon pudding. My body started talking to me. That is how I came to be in Hong Kong: my body told me I needed to swim. Now my ailing body decided it wanted فلافل )falafel) and قهوا عربي (Arabic Coffee); it was given white rice and Nescafe. I take pride in eating well so I shoved the Philippine cuisine down my gullet in earnest. At one barangay they had a desert called “puto” that was fluffy and slightly fermented. My stomach decided this was just enough like bread. I inhaled puto like a starving man. The village ladies were so pleased, they sent extra home. Puto is now dead to me.
“John Puto!” my Indonesian friends became fond of crowing. They like nicknames. Sago, Okie (aka “Captain Okie”) and I shared the same foam pad for the last two nights of the field excursion. Everyone had their own space but there was a communal serenity in sensing two other people in my sleep-space. Sago played with his laptop just before bed one night. He glanced from the screen to me and smiled one of his white, toothy, Malay-Indonesian smiles and said “Look, John; it’s my son!” He was watching short videos of his wife and baby, playing with traditional instruments. “Ah, John. Maybe someday you, yes? Have a son?”
Oh Sago… you sweetheart.
As I said, I came to swim. A group of us made the multi-leg journey to a series of waterfalls that weekend, starting by jeepnee and ending on motorcycle, with a ferry-ride in between. Now there were two white guys, one Indonesian lady, and some odd Filipinos. I mean odd in the most complimentary way: they spent ten minutes making jokes about how “coke” is often mispronounced as “cock”. Far from being offended, our bubbly Indonesian Muslim friend thought this was hilarious. She surprised me when she emerged from the showers sans-headscarf and bare-shouldered. Granted, she had spandex leggings that reached her shins but she expanded my thinking about Muslim swimming attire. Culture and religion are dynamic. Then again, this lady is a dynamic force in and of herself!
We scrambled over rocks, trying different pools and taking the occasional tumble over a waterfall. I relished every moment my feet where not anchored to the ground. While I was wallowing and tumbling through the water like an otter, I lost my vestment: a small anchor-necklace given to me at missionary commissioning. I was disappointed but not crest-fallen.
“That’s too bad you lost it,” said my colleague, lighting another cigarette.
“It’s just a thing – this doesn’t change my commitment.”
“Of course not.”
“It would be better as a tattoo anyway.”
It may have been on the way there or the way back, I cannot recall, but my colleague and I became absorbed talking at the convenience store. We forgot to queue and cut some people in line. “Now all those people will go home,” said one of our Filipino friends, “and talk about how rude the Americans were…” Initially I was bristly about that comment: I had just spent the past eight months in a culture where no one ever queues. Later, though, I apologized to my Filipino friend and thanked him for making me aware. In hindsight, it was pretty low of me to shift the weight of that onto Palestine and Jordan
Yet in Palestine and Jordan I am not “Joe”. From time to time, as we two white guys walked down the street, people would yell “hey Joe” at us. He explained to me that white men in the Philippines are doing one of three things in this order:
1) looking for women to marry or otherwise use
2) serving a tour of duty with the US military (G.I. Joes… get it?)
3) …being aide workers.
I could not climb in a taxi without someone asking if my wife or girlfriend was from Davao. That I was visiting two male coworkers was, judging by their glances, absurd. Yet being called Joe really wormed under my skin because I fundamentally hate the idea of an ubiquitous military, reaching its poison-barbed tentacles around countries and into the lives of their people
Naturally, the next week I met an ex-embassy guard. His name is Sam, he’s from the heartland, he’s getting a master’s at GMU, and I love his guts. Yup. When asked to name something that made him laugh he responded “penguins”. I joined Sam and his undergrad cohorts at the canteen by the swimming pool (I was soaking wet) and he learned about my temperance rule. I drink only what is offered to me in hospitality.
Soon it was my birthday + Sam is a generous man. Actually, no one was hurt: I put a hard-cap on my rule. At the beginning of that night, we mustered as many undergrads as were not sick (lemon pudding? No thank you…) and headed for a nice establishment. There was a band in the background playing classic rock, people were dancing, and the air was not too hot. By the end of the evening, I was sitting with Sam and a Canadian, Matt, who joined us later; we were all talking about our experiences in the Holy Land and the rights of indigenous peoples everywhere. It was one of my all-time greatest birthdays.
It was hard to regret my trip to Asia, sitting in the lobby of the Amman airport. A man approached me and offered me a taxi ride into the city. I said I needed some coffee first. We walked together to the coffee stand and, this time, the joe was in my hand (not me). Sipping those first, precious drops I could not help but ask myself “what more could I possibly want but to be looking at these jebels and drinking REAL coffee again?”
“To go swimming.”
Oh. Right. Desert.
A: Barangays are a unit of local government, similar to a township in the mid-West United States.