I felt myself fortunate to be one of the few volunteers assigned to a town where the national language was also the local dialect. I was excited about learning Tagalog because I visualized sitting on the bus each day and overhearing the revolutionary thoughts I expected to be permeating the region. I imagined a world of anger over presumed injustices at the village level. While I never became as fluent as I would have liked, I learned enough Tagalog to permit me to get the drift of conversations during my daily bus rides. They surprised me. I heard the men talking about their rice fields, broken tools, sports, and women. When I listened to women, I heard about children, prices in the market, and gossip about friends. I never overheard a single revolutionary thought from anybody on the bus.
The rural world of the Philippines was not what I had naively anticipated, but I learned many other lessons during these two years about the Philippines and about my own ability to cope in a culturally unfamiliar environment.
Rhetoric and Determination
As a college senior in 1961 with only the vaguest of plans for the immediate future, I went down to the Peace Corps’ temporary headquarters in Washington during spring break to inquire about the new organization. I learned from the official who met me that the Peace Corps had no interest in people like me because I offered no skills. I had two negative strikes: I had studied a useless subject like international relations and had gone to an Ivy League school. The official explained that the Peace Corps would be interested in experienced teachers, health workers, farmers, and technical specialists, preferably from heartland schools, not generalists like me.
The tentative rejection forced me to reconsider my approach. I became intent on making my way into the Peace Corps, not only because of the opportunity to understand more about a Third World country by working in one, but also to see first hand how this new US program might be launched. I checked into the plans for the first Peace Corps programs and recall that they were going to be located in Tanzania, Ghana, Santa Lucia and the Philippines. All were of a technical nature, except the Philippine program, which was to be in the field of education. Since I had focused my undergraduate attention on Asia, the Philippines sounded like a perfect fit. When I filled out the Peace Corps application, I acknowledged my lack of experience, but wrote that I was interested in teaching and slanted all my answers appropriately without specifying any country of interest.
After graduation I returned home to Minnesota and waited. My parents couldn’t believe I had no plans beyond an optimistic assumption that I would be joining the Peace Corps. They told me I needed to get serious, find a job, etc. They reminded me that having paid for my college education, they expected me to do something productive. I shouldn’t waste my time and their investment on something like the Peace Corps. In the middle of July, I received an acceptance notification for the Philippines project with a starting date for training in two weeks. My parents’ cool reaction warmed after one of the Minneapolis newspapers interviewed me, ran a long story about me as one of the first volunteers from Minnesota, and their friends began complimenting them on my “achievement.”
I was happy to have been selected, but as soon as I arrived at the training program at Penn State, I became anxious about the hovering threat of selection-out. From the beginning, we knew some of us would be deemed unsuitable, but the criteria were as vague as the future jobs. Each of us sat for what seemed like a couple of hours with a psychologist, answering questions about our backgrounds, beliefs and motivations. I remember being worried when I was one of the few called back for a second interview. Although I never learned what might have been the concern, I suspected that bells had gone off when I told the psychologist I expected I might learn more from the Filipinos than they would learn from me. My interviewer questioned my idealism and made lots of notes. In the end, I was accepted, but about 25 members of the group washed out at the training stage. It was a traumatic experience for all of us because we had no sense about the selection standards.
Many of us questioned from the beginning what were we doing at Penn State, a school with no apparent connection with any part of Asia? Perhaps, we speculated, Peace Corps headquarters wanted the appearance of training programs at universities with strong technical reputations rather than those “soft” places in warmer locations because the Peace Corps legislation was still wending its way through Congress. Penn State had one or two faculty members with Philippine experience who assisted with our training, but it was tough for everyone because of the vagueness of our future jobs. The Penn State training provided basic courses in teaching math, science and English at the elementary school level, but with a focus on the latest American techniques rather than the reality of the school environment in the Philippines. For the cultural context, Penn State assembled a group of Filipinos studying at other American institutions, but these students were from elite Filipino families studying at elite American graduate schools. They were smart and congenial, but they provided little knowledge about rural Filipino life.
Finding Myself in Two Mining Towns in Camarines Norte
Our house seemed the product of the past prosperity. Set on stilts in a fenced-in compound above a more modest lower house, it had separate bedrooms for each of us, paneled walls, glass windows, a tin roof and an indoor flush toilet. Pooling our money, we hired a teen-age boy to handle the marketing and cooking and a teen-age girl to do our laundry once a week. Paracale had electricity, but it only operated for four hours in the evenings and regularly blacked out. The town also had a community water system, but the pressure was so weak that people dug holes in the street beneath the underground pipes, rigged up spigots, and carried the water in buckets back to their homes. One member of our household, Emery Bontrager, who had grown up in rural Kansas, put an old oil drum on our roof and a pump in our sink. At night when the water pressure was at its maximum, we could pump enough water into the drum for the needs of the next day. When we demonstrated Emery’s achievement to our neighbors, they acknowledged his ingenuity, but showed no interest in trying to duplicate it at their homes. Life was good in Paracale, but we learned from this experience that the innovations of youthful outsiders were of limited interest to the local community.
While the four of us each had assignments to schools in separate communities, we spent most of our free time together in Paracale during the first year. After many months of participating as a group in community activities and socializing with the same people, we were surprised how frequently we were called by the wrong name. When we queried our new friends about the confusion, we were told, “All you Americans look the same.” We were stunned because even though none of us was unusually tall or short, thin or fat, we thought we all looked quite different from the other. Emery was probably the tallest and thinnest with sharp features and sandy, brown hair. Tom Carlton from Los Angeles was shorter with wavy, blond hair, Don Cecchi from New York City had jet-black hair, and my hair was reddish-brown. We didn’t think we looked anything alike, but realized that just as we had trouble-distinguishing Filipinos from each other at the beginning, they had similar problems with us. Identifying characteristics were culturally determined. In addition to size and shape, we had grown up using the colors of hair and eyes as distinguishing features. In Paracale, by contrast, where almost everyone had more or less the same dark hair and dark eyes, it seemed that skin tones (shades of brown) and nose shapes were the important factors; thus, by local standards, we all had very light skin and very sharp noses—no distinguishing characteristics.
My school was in Jose Panganiban, a separate municipality about fifteen miles away, which required I catch a bus each morning, ride for about 20 minutes, and transfer to another bus for the final 20 minute ride to my school. I was initially pleased to have the long commute because the buses were noisy with conversations and I would be able to learn what was on the minds of my fellow passengers.
Jose Panganiban, named after a local figure from the independence movement, was larger than Paracale. It had about 5000 residents and supported two to three times that population in surrounding rural barrios. Although the economy of most towns in the Bicol region was based on farming or fishing (or both), Jose Panganiban, like Paracale, had originally been a gold mining center, but after the gold ran out in about the 1920s, it had become the support center for the largest iron mine in the Philippines at Larap, a company town of about 9000 people eight miles down the road. Whereas Paracale was a grid of nearly rectangular streets with fenced in yards and trees in a picture postcard setting on the ocean, Jose Panganiban was densely packed with tinderbox houses, gritty, and distinctly third world urban. One match and the whole town might disappear.
The town sat on a narrow strip of flat land between a dirty, shallow bay and a steep hillside. The urban area was about one mile long and two streets wide. All of the houses on the bay side stood on stilts above the muddy flats, permitting the tides to carry the daily dumping of garbage out to sea. People commonly kept their pigs below their houses that they built above the high water mark. The elementary school hugged the hillside; it consisted of some fifteen buildings, each with two or three classrooms, some made of concrete blocks and others of nipa thatch. They were all located at different levels so that each building had a clear view of the town and bay below. Narrow paths, which became muddy and slippery when it rained, wound up the hill connecting the classrooms. The high school was just outside the center of town on reclaimed land at the head of the bay.
Before arriving in our villages, we realized that each of us would have to craft our own roles. While we were formally classified as teachers’ aides, the exact meaning was as vague at the end of training as it had been at the beginning. We were supposed to work in the classrooms, but couldn’t replace the teachers, presumably because of labor issues. Administrative disorganization at the Peace Corps staff level in Manila permitted loose interpretation of this amorphous concept. If we preferred to work outside the schools on community development, we could. If we didn’t want to do anything but goof off, we could get away with this too—and some of us did. The Filipinos were much too polite to complain. At the same time, if we couldn’t figure out what to do, there was nobody to help. One of the older volunteers in the province was assigned the task of also being a volunteer leader, but he had his own teaching “job,” never visited my school, and never tried to offer more than administrative support. The Peace Corps assigned a staff member to work in the Bicol region, but he lived more than a day’s drive away and rarely visited. The Peace Corps staff in Manila was consumed with the training and assignment of several subsequent batches of volunteers shortly after we arrived in the provinces. As far as I was concerned I was on my own.
I stuck with the schools and the idea of trying to define a teaching role. Looking back, I realize this was particularly important for me because of the comments I’d heard in Washington about the unsuitability of liberal arts graduates when I first inquired about Peace Corps. I had to prove to myself—and to anyone who might come to check—that I could do the job.
Rather than working with just one class of students or just one subject area, I eventually worked out an arrangement with the town’s elementary and high schools that I would maximize my contact with small groups of students of all ages. The elementary school had about six sections of each grade; the high school was about half the size. A couple times each week I took over different classrooms for about an hour each, working in the elementary school Monday through Thursday and in the High School on Friday. I taught beginning English to first graders, mathematics skills to third graders, science to sixth graders, literature to the first year high school students and current events and history to the fourth year seniors. The teachers seemed pleased with my participation, mostly because it gave them a break in their work day. After school hours, I advised the high school students on the production of the yearbook, directed a school play, coached a speech team and joined the other teachers to learn folk dances for upcoming festivals.
I realized rather quickly that as a teacher I needed to be active and animated to keep the kids’ attention. Remembering little about the teaching techniques we learned at Penn State, I kept trying to recall how it had been when I was in elementary and high school; what I liked; and what seemed to work. When teaching science, I tried to think of experiments that would demonstrate scientific principles. This was a new concept for many of the students whose past science classes had relied on rote memorization. In math class, I figured out games to teach concepts like multiplication. I don’t think any Peace Corps staff members visited me in my school during the first year. I never learned whether my principal or my Filipino colleagues thought I was doing a good job because they never said anything. I realized such comments were unlikely because 1) that would be impolite, 2) I was an amusing source of local prestige, and 3) I was an American—and Americans presumably knew all the answers.
The kids were a mixture of the smart and not so smart, a few relatively well-off but the majority hard core poor. The kids whose parents had full time jobs at the iron mine had their own elementary and secondary schools in Larap. The kids who attended the schools in Jose Panganiban had parents who might have once worked at the mine or wanted to work there. In addition to a few families of fishermen, municipal officials and teachers, the permanent residents of Jose Panganiban sold things in the market, ran shops and eating stalls, provided legal and medical services, did day labor, and even worked in local whorehouses. A large number of people, however, appeared to be out of work, perhaps the wannabes for jobs at the mines. It was a much poorer and more transitory town than either Larap or Paracale.
By the beginning of the second academic year, I wanted to find a place to stay in Jose Panganiban during the week so that I might participate more easily in after school and evening activities. While several school officials offered me space in their homes, I wanted my own room and my independence. Finding a place was not easy because of the town’s overcrowded, ramshackle conditions. It was not until January 1963 that I found a small room (8’ x 10’) for $3.50 a month above a pharmacy in the home of a woman whose children had moved away. To my surprise, particularly since the room was on the second floor, the bathroom I shared down the hall always had running water. It was one of the nicest bathrooms I’d seen in the province. I heard that the owner’s connections permitted a direct link to the town reservoir, but I never figured out the plumbing or the politics of this luxury. I picked up some bread at the local bakery for breakfast, ate lunch with the principal from the elementary school, and took dinner as a boarder in a home a few doors from my new residence. From that point on, I spent four or five nights a week in Jose Panganiban and returned to Paracale only on weekends or for special events. Despite the town’s poverty and general lack of sanitation, I was healthy, enjoying my life and feeling productive in my work.
Given the limited Peace Corps monthly stipend, I travelled extensively in the Philippines. Looking back, I don’t know how I might have afforded it. I tried to go to Manila for the weekend once every six weeks or so, usually on the 12-hour overnight bus, but occasionally via the non-stop flight from Larap when I could scrape together the money. On holidays I travelled down to other towns in the Bicol, up to Mountain Province, into the Visayan region and down to Mindanao. During my first summer, I worked at the agricultural college at Los Baños in a program that was training Filipino community development leaders. During my second summer, I got an internship with the Agency for International Development in Manila, where I studied non-American assistance programs. Many of my colleagues found reasons to transfer to other locations, sometimes as a result of summer travel and work experiences, but I never gave any thought to leaving my school. I wanted to remain in Jose Panganiban and complete the second year with the local community of students and teachers.
Reflections on the Local Education Scene
In spite of the schooling, the education system was creating functional illiterates. The students began learning English in first grade. By third grade all classes were taught in English. English language education may have been the key to world communications, but it was irrelevant to the average rural resident who might never leave the province. Incentives were minimal in most villages to send children to the next level of schooling in town. While education was free, there were endless school fees, voluntary contributions, and transportation considerations. Even if the kids continued until sixth grade before returning to their village lives, they would quickly forget their English, which meant the math and science they might have studied in English were also gone. In addition, their classes in Tagalog had been rudimentary. This system changed afterwards, but at the time the Philippines was attempting to educate large numbers of children who reverted to functional illiteracy within a short time after finishing their education.
As a result of all the flaws in the educational system, many elementary level students in towns like Jose Panganiban were teenagers. Few of them went on to high school, but they were often eager to learn as fifth and sixth graders. This age difference could have its advantages.
One year a group of fifth and sixth graders wanted to have a football team to join the provincial competition, but none of the other males wanted to be their coach. Not having a clue how to play the game I’d always called soccer, I found a book, read up on the rules, and became the football coach. My coaching focused on simple fitness drills, passing the ball rather than hogging it oneself, and discussions about the effects of smoking and drinking. Since the average age of our team was three or four years older than the boys on the other teams—and nearly twice the size, we had an easy time winning the local and provincial championship. I was proud of the team and told them that their success showed what interest and dedication could achieve.
Reflections on My Impact as a Volunteer
I have no idea what my impact might have been on the community or on the individuals with whom I worked. Some of the other volunteers became involved in construction projects, largely, I thought at the time, out of frustration with their teaching assignments. When they departed, however, they left behind something concrete and measurable. I left nothing that could be photographed or memorialized.
Several of the teachers said they admired some of my teaching methods and said they would try similar activities, but I have no idea how much of this was polite talk with their American guest. On more than one occasion I made egregious factual errors in classes, shocking the teachers who occasionally observed me. I was always pleased to acknowledge my mistakes and tell the teachers that their vision of infallible Americans was seriously flawed. Americans make mistakes like everyone else. I remained friends with some of the teachers and the principal of my elementary school for many years after my departure.
Did I have an effect on the students? I like to think that I did, particularly on the older ones who seemed to be absorbing more from the classroom and who were better able to communicate their views, but I lost contact with all of them. One of my former students found me some 25 years later and wrote about important impact that I had on his decision to become a journalist in Manila. It was a nice tribute, but I always presumed it to be an isolated episode.
Reflections of the Philippines after 35 Years
First and foremost the sheer number of Filipinos struck me. The population had nearly tripled from about 28 million in the early 1960s to more than 70 million in the 1990s. Villages I had known well seemed overwhelmed by a flood of people, but there was little corresponding evidence in Camarines Norte of an increase in jobs or opportunities outside the traditional sectors—farming, fishing, mining and government work. Teachers said they had to cope with as many as fifty students in a classroom. A depressing number of friends said their children had gone off to Manila to study, work, and probably never to return because there were no jobs at home.
Second, poverty was pervasive. The percentage of poor people seemed to have grown larger as the population soared. This was particularly evident in Manila where the gated communities of Makati and the surrounding shantytowns aptly demonstrated the gap between the very rich and the very poor. Towns like Paracale and Jose Panganiban were largely collections of run-down concrete buildings, unpainted wooden dwellings and shacks make of scrap material. Residents may have had electricity more regularly and owned television sets, but life for the average Filipino remained difficult.
Third, the road network was still abysmal. The main streets in Manila and other big towns seemed to follow the same routes as 35 years earlier, but were infinitely more congested. The “superhighway” to the south did not extend beyond Laguna Province, the next province to the south of Manila. While the National Highway through the next province, Quezon, was now a two lane ribbon of concrete, the quality deteriorated once it reached Camarines Norte, where the reconstructed road looked like a series of local projects smoothed by hand implements. The road connecting Paracale and Jose Panganiban was “under construction” and took more than twice the travel time it had taken in the 1960s.
Fourth, the forests of tropical hardwoods that had lined the roads in the more remote stretches of Quezon Province and Camarines Norte had all but disappeared. If they’d been replaced by anything, it was the coconut palm, a symbol of times past when Philippine copra was seen as the economic future (rather than the oil palm which had been planted at the same time in former rainforests of Malaysia) .
Having seen the changes that had occurred over the previous 35 years elsewhere in the region, particularly in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, it was distressing to see the Philippines falling increasingly behind its neighbors.
By the end of my first year, I had abandoned any thought that I was going to overhear revolutionary thoughts riding on a bus. This made my decision to relocate to the town of my school the second year much easier. I may not have heard any revolutionary plotting, but I learned a lot about the difficulties of life for the average Filipino in a town like Jose Panganiban. I had trouble living on my equivalent of $55 per month, a salary similar to that of my fellow teachers. All I needed to do with my monthly stipend was take care of myself; they needed to provide for large families, support distant relatives, pay for health care and school fees, put kids through college, and have a reserve for emergencies. And as I reminded myself more than once, the teachers were part of the middle class. Others had it much tougher.
Although I didn’t fully realize it as I was getting ready to depart in June 1963, the experiences in the Philippines shaped both my outlook and attitude toward life in general and the rest of the world in profound ways. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, five lessons stand out.
First, I liked living overseas. I had enjoyed my life in the Philippines and looked forward to living outside the US again. In subsequent years I’ve had the opportunity to live in Malaysia, Vietnam, Congo, Mali, Iceland, and Italy. I approached the new life in each country with the same enthusiasm I had felt when I went to the Philippines—though with more preparation and hopefully less naïveté about what I might find. In each, I tried to learn the local language, understand cultural practices, interact with local people, and appreciate the society for what it had to offer. People often asked in recent years what had been my favorite country. I have no answer because I enjoyed each for what it had to offer and never made comparisons. Life in all of them had provided daily adventures in the unknown.
Second, I didn’t mind the third world travel and eating experiences. I learned that I could not only reach my destination with less than first class accommodations, but I also enjoyed it because it offered more memorable experiences and more opportunities to meet interesting people. I had also eaten in so many awful restaurants, particularly when travelling on Filipino buses that my stomach seemed fortified for just about anything so long as it was cooked. When I left the Philippines, I did not fly out of Manila like my fellow volunteers, but departed on a smuggling boat plying the waters between the Sulu Archipelago and North Borneo. It was probably stupid, but I didn’t worry about it at the time. In subsequent years I’ve traveled to many remote corners of the world, sometimes under dangerous conditions. Whether driving from the Texas border to the Panama Canal, riding a scooter along the rice paddies of Vietnam during the war, flying in missionary planes to remote villages in the Congo (then Zaire), I’ve rarely had much concern about failing to reach my destination.
Third, I learned I could develop expertise on issues I’d never formally studied if I applied myself. Figuring out how to become an effective teacher in the Philippine school system had taken time, but having achieved it, I had confidence when asked to accept subsequent challenges in unfamiliar fields. Over the course of my diplomatic career, I have been asked every two of three years to become involved in unfamiliar subjects. Within one ten year period, I moved from working on food security issues in Africa to combating international terrorism, then to dealing with Information Age issues, strengthening American counter narcotics initiatives, and negotiating a base agreement for the Defense Department. I looked upon learning each new issue with varying degrees of enthusiasm, worked hard to master the subject, and believe the changing focus kept me intellectually more alert.
Fourth, statistics may provide important data, but they tell an incomplete part of the story. The Philippines had been my first experience with bureaucracies trying to keep track of numbers and changes—students, ages, textbooks, oral hygiene, etc. I saw that the statistics were only as good as the input, which varied from rigorous to slapdash. Collating these numbers at the provincial and national level may have provided data, but the numbers were often meaningless. In subsequent years, whenever I’ve read statistical information, particularly from third world environments—and often from the so-called developed world as well, I have been skeptical about their significance.
Fifth, and probably most importantly, change comes at a slower pace than most Americans are prepared to accept. The intense knowledge that I had gained about the tough life Filipinos faced in a small town like Jose Panganiban helped me acquire a better big picture perspective about the gap between big cities and small villages. Visiting rural communities in Vietnam, Congo, and Mali in subsequent years, while living in a capital city, I felt that my Peace Corps experience in the Philippines not only gave me a better sense of the difficulties with rural development, but more importantly why development programs rarely worked as we expected them in these other third world societies. While the Philippines—like every country—is unique, its culture of third world poverty offered many similarities to other places and presented many of the same obstacles to change.
This article was published originally in Answering Kennedy’s Call: Pioneering the Peace Corps in the Philippines, Editors: Parker W. Borg, Maureen J. Carroll, Patricia MacDermot Kasdan, Stephen W. Wells, Peace Corps Writers of Oakland, California, a component of PeaceCorpsWorldwide.org. 2011. It is republished by permission of the author.