Contributions to date:
April 5th $20,014
RENDEZVOUS IN THE PHILIPPINES -- FEB 5-19, 2004
I really do love and appreciate that many thousands of people are aware of and consequently have become a part of my relationship with Tony and his family. But certainly not everyone is going to have the time or inclination to read every word of this wandering account of our recent two-week visit. It's not well-organized, it feels far from complete, and there are about a half-dozen story threads that I consider significant, but didn't even touch. Still, there is a lot here -- 10,000 words. You might just scan the headings for something that might interest you. Thanks for reading any of it -- having an audience has opened up my life in intoxicating ways, and I do not ever take it for granted. I thank you, and I'm sure that Tony does too.
NINOY AQUINO INTL AIRPORT
MEETING BILL GATES
YOU SHOULD'VE SEEN THIS PLACE BEFORE IT WAS RUINED!
TONY'S REAL FATHER
S0, JUST HOW IS TONY?
TREKKING TO BATAAD
THE RICE-GROWING LAND
LEAVING THE MOUNTAINS
THE LAST DAY
NINOY AQUINO INTL AIRPORT -- Feb 6, 2004 -- 4 a.m.
I spotted Tony's smiling face about four rows deep among the boisterous mob behind the crowd control barrier outside Customs. He looked relaxed and confident and pretty much the same as he'd looked the last time I'd seen him, at the San Francisco airport in July 2001. He wasn't wearing his cowboy hat this time, and he didn't look exhausted, but it was the same old Tony, with the same bemused smile...
We hugged, and he introduced me to the three people with him -- his daughter Lyn, his son-in-law Paul, and Tony's cousin Jun who lives in Manila. Within moments we were all loaded into a van that Tony had arranged, riding through the warm, early morning darkness. Tony and I sat next to each other, relaxed, comfortable, not talking much, not feeling a need to talk, just glad to be with each other again after two and a half years, and knowing that we had many days ahead to talk. He asked about my family, told me that everyone in his family was fine, and said we would spend the day resting at Jun's house in the Manila neighborhood of Makati before catching the 10 p.m. bus to the mountains.
Jun is Tony's first cousin, an easygoing, merchant seaman who likes to read books. Jun's wife Tess served three huge meals during my 12-hour stay. Several years ago Jun and Tess bought a home in Manila using their savings plus everything they could borrow from friends and family. Jun is away 6-8 months at a time, sailing the world, a bit lonely (his second child was born during his most recent absence), but very happy for the job and the income. (The Philippine economy is kept afloat by remittances from Filipinos working abroad. Jun says they are referred to as "The Heroes of the Modern Age" and there are special lanes to speed them through immigration.)
Jun and Tess live in a modest two-bedroom home in a crowded neighborhood, with their two toddlers and Tess's elderly parents and two of Tess's teenaged relatives from the provinces. A couple of hours after Tony and I and our entourage arrived from the airport, another cousin of Tess's arrived from the provinces with several huge boxes full of possessions. She had a job lined up, but would stay with Jun and Tess until she found a place of her own. That was the Filipino way, Jun told me.
Between the huge meals and my two short naps we took walks around the neighborhood. Jun's home was just a couple of blocks from a river, and we visited a riverside park that the government had recently established. I noticed makeshift shanties on the far side of the river and people and dogs and chickens moving slowly among them. Poverty. It had been nearly a decade since I'd had an up-close look at this side of life. Jun said that most of the people who lived in this slum were "from the provinces," and that when they arrived in Manila and found a roof, even a roof like the ones above these wood-scraps-and-cardboard shacks, others from their villages would soon show up and move in with them. What were their daily lives like? I asked Jun. "I think they probably go to construction sites and hope to find odd jobs," he said, and then Jun squinted and looked across the river to study the slum and its dwellers. After several moments of silent long-distance staring, Jun, who spends most of his year on the high seas, said, "Actually, I have no idea what their lives are like."
MEETING BILL GATES -- and finding that I am he
That evening when it was time to go to the bus station Jun hailed two taxicabs -- smallish but brand-new and spotlessly clean. We stuffed my backpack and a huge box I'd brought for Tony's family (inside: an air mattress, sleeping bag, 150 Trader Joe's premium chocolate bars, and more) into the trunks and lashed them down with bungee cords. Our drivers were safe, cautious, and courteous, and the trip across Manila took at least 25 minutes.
The combined bill for both taxis came to 220 pesos -- exactly $4 -- unbelievably cheap to me. Climb into any single taxi in San Francisco and sit there without even moving for a couple of minutes and the meter will read $4. So, feeling like I was getting something virtually for free, I gave the two drivers a 500-peso note ($9), thanked them, and told them to please split it and keep the change. They were very happy, but behind me I heard involuntary gasps coming from the Filipinos in our party. Tony later told me that he explained my stunning extravagance to the others as a function of cab-driver-solidarity -- he knew that wasn't exactly the case, but in a country where $4 is a day's wages for most of the populace he couldn't explain away my foolishness any better.
The next morning, at the end of our 10-hour bus ride, I stepped off the bus in Banaue to meet the rest of Tony's family for the first time. We were all pretty curious about each other. I could also feel the eyes of everyone at the station on me. "So THAT'S Tony's friend!" And when 20 minutes later we all climbed out of a jeepney near the Viewpoint (Tony's small neighborhood is known as "the Viewpoint"), just a three-minute walk from their home, I could feel dozens more eyes on me. "So THAT'S the guy who invited Tony to America, who helped him build the guesthouse!"
It occurred to me -- it would have occurred to anyone in that situation -- that I was a bit like Bill Gates in their eyes. I and the other parents whose kids attend my daughter's kindergarten-through-fifth-grade elementary school here in Oakland, California, are all wishing for a windfall of several million dollars to allow us to add an intermediate school. Should Bill Gates pay us a visit some morning, he could, should he decide he wanted to, arrange such a thing before lunchtime, even before recess, probably even before morning circle was finished. And in Banaue I could have -- I really could have, should I have decided I wanted to -- put any one of Tony's neighbors on an airplane, could have built them a new house. And they all knew that.
For most of my life I've been struggling just to get by. But to go to the Philippines and be reminded that I am actually filthy friggin rich in the grand scheme... This is a reality one can actually forget or come to disbelieve when one hasn't been out of the country in nine years, as I hadn't been. And to again see the on-the-ground reality of life, as lived by some of the 3 billion earthlings who live on less than $2/day... I'm not sure I've sorted this out or ever will... But I appreciate the refresher course...
YOU SHOULD'VE SEEN THIS PLACE BEFORE IT WAS RUINED!
In the mid-1980s Sigourney Weaver came to the Viewpoint to use the staggering view of the valley below as background scenery for the movie "The Year of Living Dangerously." When I met visited Banaue in 1988 (and met Tony) the two-and-a-half mile stretch of road from "downtown" Banaue to the Viewpoint had been unpaved. About a decade ago electricity arrived at the Viewpoint, and within the past few years the road was paved. There are noticeably more houses along the road now -- back in 1988 there were a few clusters of buildings along a mostly empty road, but today there are a few un-built-upon stretches among a mostly unbroken line of shops and homes. But the rice terraces are timeless, and the views of them are still world class, and any first-time visitor (and most returnees) will still find Banaue precious.
While we were talking about all the changes, I told Tony a story about the first evening of the month I spent in Afghanistan in 1974. My traveling companion, Bird, and I were invited by the manager of our "hotel" above the "bus station" in the "city" of Herat to come up to the rooftop and ingest our first Afghani sunset. As we sat there -- a couple of fresh 22-year olds, hearing calls to prayer being yodeled from the tops of centuries-old minarets, and watching the sky blossom like a field of poppies -- we were joined by Herat's only other tourist that night, an American merchant marine who seemed to me hopelessly ancient. He was 33 years old.
"Isn't Afghanistan something?" I gushed.
But this guy had been everywhere, seen everything, and in a gruff gravelly voice that I'll never forget, he said something that became a catch-phrase for Bird and I for the duration of our mind-bending month: "Agh, you should've been here two years ago before this place was RUINED!"
And now, in February 2004, 43-year-old Tony and grizzled 52- year-old Brad had a catch phrase for their two-week visit. "Agh, you should've been here two years ago before this place was RUINED!"
I did not find Banaue or the Philippines ruined. Quite the opposite. I found the place cheap, interesting, and very welcoming. The virtual dearth of other travelers, while a tragedy for the local populace, made the trip easier, more special for me. In 1988 I regarded the Philippines as a kind of secret that wouldn't last for long, and in 2004 I wondered how it had managed to stay under the Traveler radar. It's a version of the same thing I felt in Afghanistan, 1974: Someday this place is going to be crawling with travelers! And while Afghanistan is indeed crawling with visitors these days, the changes in Banaue seem relatively few and minor.
But I'd have had to have been blind to not notice the proliferation of cell phones. Text messaging via cell phones famously helped the opposition force a change of government in Manila several years ago -- leaders of street protests would issue commands, protesters would forward them via text messaging to everyone in their address menus, and thousands of marchers would outmaneuver the government's soldiers and police.
Two years ago cell phones reached Banaue, and now it seems that at least half the population has one. On the night bus from Manila to Banaue I counted seven of the 12 people seated closest to me, including Tony, punching text messages into their phones -- at midnight! And I laughed at the echo in my mind: "Ah, you should've been here two years ago before this place was RUINED!"
During my week in the Banaue valley I became aware of an unintended consequence of my relationship with Tony. Some of the people in his village, while appreciating the little bit of attention that Tony's and my saga has brought to their small corner of the world, are a little jealous. The Banaue resident who has been on an airplane is a rare breed. Most have never made the long bus ride to Manila. Lots and lots of them could use a break. Why Tony? Why not one of them? And which of us in that situation wouldn't entertain a little envy?
While we had been traveling across America together I had warned Tony that he would encounter jealousy when he went home. At first he disagreed with me, but as we talked he came to recognize the possibility. His response: "That's o.k. For my entire life people have looked down on me. If people now want to be jealous, that's o.k. I'm ready for that change."
It's a small town, and people do talk -- and more. A letter I sent to Tony recently, in which I talked about the impending arrival of some money I was sending him (the letter spelled out the figures and the details), had clearly been tampered with (opened and read) before it reached Tony. And the next letter I sent him -- which might presumably have held cash or a check -- in fact never reached him. (Fortunately I sent the money as a wire transfer.)
Also, on this website I have occasionally been explicit about the amounts of money I've sent Tony. This news filters back to Banaue, it seems. Recently Tony and his family were cut out of some of the local political spoils in which they would have normally expected to be included. The explanation given Tony: "But you have two fathers..."
TONY'S REAL FATHER
I quickly developed a tender spot for Tony's gentle father, Pedro, who lives with his wife -- Tony's mother, Flora -- about 150 yards down the ridge from Tony's house. Both of them are 67 years old. When Pedro was three years old his spear-wielding father was killed by a Japanese soldier's bullet. "I do not know the face of my father," Pedro told me with wet eyes. His father's brother raised Pedro.
American soldiers came to Banaue and dispatched the Japanese, and Pedro has an understandable affection for Americans. After the war he was sent to schools -- the only time in his life that he has worn shoes (not that he can't afford them, just that they are unnecessary in his life). In school Pedro learned excellent English (many of the Filipinos of his generation speak excellent English), and it was easier for me to talk with Pedro than with anyone else in Tony's family -- except perhaps Tony. (I liked Tony's mom, too, but my language limitations were a problem.)
One morning I followed Pedro to his hut, and watched his bare feet grip the mud on the trail as though they were hands, while I floundered and slid along behind him. At his hut he showed me a rock the size of a prize-winning watermelon and told me its story it. "Last year I told your friend -- my son -- that I wanted something to remember you and the great things you have done for him and his family. Tony took some of the money that you sent him and we got eight men and went down to the river and chose this rock and carried it up here to my hut using a sling. We hired a stonemason who spent eight days chiseling this mortar, and now every day when I pound my grain with this pestle, I think of you. Not only do I remember the great adventure you have given my son, and the help you have given with the guesthouse, but this new stone mortar is much better than this old wooden one. It is easier to pound grain in a stone mortar than in a wooden one -- the grain crushes more easily. Also the wooden ones wear out in a few years, but this stone one will outlast my great-grandchildren. I have something permanent to remember you by, Brad."
Pedro and I spent several long periods talking, both at his hut and at Tony's place. Pedro was very interested in my becoming a Christian, something I'm not particularly keen on, but it didn't get in the way of our mutual fondness, I don't believe. In fact it opened the door to many interesting discussions. Pedro said that he had been a 'pagan' for much of his life and had worshipped a catalogue of different gods that had been handed down to him from his ancestors, but many years ago he had experienced a shift, a new birth, and now he considers Jesus Christ to be his personal savior.
I found it ironic to travel from a nominally Christian place (America) to a place where headhunting was the norm just 60 years ago (Banaue) and to be proselytized by a man whose father had been killed by soldiers from a place whose people worshipped an emperor (Japan). When I mentioned this irony to Tony he recalled his reaction to Harbin Hot Springs, the clothing-optional community we visited in America. Tony had found it ironic to come from a supposedly primitive place (Banaue) to a supposedly sophisticated place (California) and encounter men and women swimming, sunbathing, just plain walking around together in a state of naked innocence.
But back to Pedro. Pedro and Flora raised ten children and have more than 40 grandchildren, four of whom now live in their hut with them, being raised as Pedro's and Flora's children, as their mother was recently killed in an accident. Pedro and Flora grow almost all their own food on the land right outside the door of their hut. They work barefoot in the rice paddies every single day -- "A day without work is not a day," Pedro told me. Pine trees that Pedro planted more than forty years ago are now ready to be harvested by his children and grandchildren. He has been elected to three terms on the local governing council, where his wisdom is sought and respected. Tony doesn't share Pedro's interest in Christianity, or in religion in general, but he always values his father's calm and sage input. Tony wanted and received his father's blessing before coming to America -- I don't think he'd have come without it.
The point: I was deeply touched by hanging out with Pedro. I saw him and his lifestyle as a window to centuries past. When I contrast Pedro's life with my own I do not find mine superior in any way -- except, perhaps, in the abundance of opportunities and choices that are available as a result of the accident of my birth. But are these opportunities actually worth as much as I often like to think they are? It's a hard call. We in the West often dream of the simplicity and contentedness and the sense of acceptance that, it seems to me, ooze from Pedro's life.
I'm not saying I want to work rice paddies, but I'm also not trying to talk anyone out of it. Certainly not Pedro. I came to think of him as a role model, a respected elder.
The guesthouse is up and running. It's attractive, clean, cozy, with two stories and a world-class view. The bottom floor has two bedrooms, a living room (where Tony's family and I and many neighbors spent a lot of time hanging out telling stories), a kitchen (with refrigerator, sink, and small gas stove) and the house's Western-style bathroom. The upper floor has two bedrooms, a large family room (the family sometimes watches videos on a video CD player kept here), and a balcony overlooking thousands of rice terraces and "downtown" Banaue, two miles distant. There is electricity to the house. No phone line. No hot water.
Tony's family lives mostly in the two downstairs bedrooms. (Usually some of his children sleep out in the family's former home, the "native hut" just a few steps from the guesthouse.) Sometimes one or two of the kids will sleep in the second bedroom upstairs, but the guesthouse's prime bedroom, the one where I slept, is reserved strictly for visitors. All of the beds in the house have firm foam mattresses, and I slept quite comfortably during my stay.
Each day I sat on the balcony right outside my room and read ("What Should I Do With My Life?" by Po Bronson, and "Guns, Germs, and Steel," by Jared Diamond) or wrote in my notebook or watched the life of the rice terraces slowly unfold throughout each day. The balcony is also where I ate all of the delicious meals Rita (and other family members, including Tony) prepared for me. My favorite was a hot cheese and vegetable fritata, but there were also lots of bacon and eggs and coffee and rice and chicken and sandwiches -- I was very well cared for. During the week I spent in Banaue Tony did his best to not allow me to spend any money on anything. He wanted to be the host -- I had had my turn in America -- and I respected and enjoyed that.
The guesthouse has seen only a handful of guests so far -- perhaps 15-20, including me -- and I think, and certainly hope, that that's simply got to change over the next few years. (I've always hoped my book would bring Tony visitors. Hundreds of people have said they will visit someday, but few have so far. (Last week Tony told me on the phone that an American backpacker from Seattle had shown up at his door the day before carrying a copy of "Take Me With You" and had asked Tony to sign it -- as the guy had been preparing to leave the States his mother had stuck the book in his pack and asked him to get it signed.)
After the absolutely frantic pace of life in America, I found it an abrupt change of pace to suddenly be in a place where absolutely nothing was required of me, where most everything was new and unfamiliar, where I didn't speak the main language of the house and didn't at all fit the family's routines, and where I was not just a curiosity but a very well-to-do curiosity.
On the day after I arrived, a Monday, 60 people including the mayor of Banaue showed up for a party to welcome me. A pig had been delivered to Tony's house the previous evening, and on Monday morning Tony's brother killed and butchered it, and soon platters of pig meat were arranged on a banquet table alongside platters of rice and potatoes and salads and desserts. The mayor and many of the folks of my generation spoke good English and I was able to sit and chat freely and get to know quite a bit of local gossip before evening came along and everyone went home. It was a warm and wonderful party with lots of laughter, much of it inspired by a harmless French tourist who wandered by, was invited in, stayed for the duration, and perhaps underestimated the potency of homemade rice wine.
But for a large part of my week in Banaue I felt like a fish out of water. Lots of visitors stopped by the house during my stay, and there were hours of small talk, most of it repeated several times a day. It made me empathize with Tony's experience here in America, where I threw a wave of parties and media people at him, and he had to deal with them all in English, his third tongue after Ifugoa and Tagalog.
I did enjoy one long afternoon of sitting around with Tony and his entire family and several relatives, while Tony and I told stories or answered questions about our time in America (Tony would translate both ways whenever necessary). Even more, I enjoyed hearing his family talk about what it had been like for them to have their father/husband/son/relative go off to -- my God! -- America! -- in an airplane! -- and come back looking like a new person (one of his daughter's said: "I did not recognize him!") and telling stories about not just riding in an airplane but actually PILOTING one and driving a taxicab across the country for 16 days and being on television and the BBC and on the front pages of newspapers and being invited to the embassy where he danced the Ifugao tribal dance onstage, alone, for the ambassador... If Tony hadn't brought home hours of video to prove all of these stories they'd have thought he'd gone entirely mad!
We also talked about the incident in 1988 when Tony was mugged and nearly died, and how Rita had gone to the local Seventh Day Adventist missionary, Marc Scalzi, and had told Marc that Tony was unconscious and clinging to life at a local clinic and what she needed was for someone with a vehicle to drive Tony to Manila, immediately, or Tony was going to die! And Marc, bless his heart, said three Ifugao words -- "We go now!" -- and off they went in his pickup truck, and if Marc hadn't done that not one of us would have been sitting in that guesthouse living room telling such wild yarns...
During the week Tony and I did find several chances to sneak off together, and we relished those. We went to town a couple of times and had lunch on the deck of a restaurant where we could look back up the valley and with our naked eyes just barely see the guesthouse two miles away. We went hiking together among the local rice terraces one afternoon. And we went off for a 30-hour trek to the peaceful town of Bataad, where we spent the night. And along the way we managed to get said all the things we needed to get said, all the things that can't be communicated by telephone.
S0, JUST HOW IS TONY?
Tony's just fine now, thank you. He's healthy, his whole family is healthy. He has his problems, like everyone has their problems. But all in all he's just fine. The prosthetic eye he received in America is functioning flawlessly; the dental work he received in America looked so good it made me jealous. (The other day my daughter asked me, "Dad, why didn't your parents get you braces?")
Visiting America was a wonderful, fantastic thing for Tony, but it wasn't easy for him to go back home and slip into his old life. He remembers: "When I arrived back a lot of people came to my house and said, 'Oh, you are a celebrity -- I have seen you on TV.' But I have been back two and a half years now, and people don't talk about it any more. To come to America and be treated so well was overwhelming. To have the VIP treatment -- it is rare to happen to anyone, especially an ordinary Filipino person like me. Now I think, 'Oh, that was a great thing that happened.' But I'm still the same person."
Was it fun being famous for a while?
"Fun, but hard also. Some people here in Banaue tell me I should have said different things when I was on the radio and TV. They say they could have done better -- but it is difficult! You can sit in your house and think, 'If I am on TV, I will know what to say.' But it is different when you are actually doing it. Some other people tell me that they appreciate what I have done -- they say I did a good job of representing Banaue and the Philippines -- and that makes me feel good, proud."
But coming back to Banaue was in fact so difficult for Tony that after about three months he began a months-long escapade with alcohol that, he says, almost killed him. This was something I had been afraid might happen -- and it wasn't something I wanted to be responsible for. After I heard him sounding tipsy on the phone a couple of times I wrote him a blunt letter. He must have been ready for someone to call him on his drinking, because he read my letter and he simply stopped! Twenty months ago he quit drinking one day and hasn't had a drink since. For the first three months he missed it -- missed it badly -- but since then his sobriety has become a source of strength and pride for him.
As we walked around Banaue at least half a dozen of the people to whom he introduced me started off the conversation this way:
"Did you hear Tony stopped drinking? We are all very happy. It is much better for him. How many months now, Tony?"
It seemed to be a point of pride not just for Tony, but for much of his community. His family is obviously relieved and proud of him -- they all talk about it openly -- and Tony considers his sobriety one of his biggest accomplishments. He said that shortly before he received my letter he woke up one morning after a binge, unable to recall the previous couple of days, and thought: "So this is how I am going to die!" He said he thought he was ready to die, but he worried about what would become of his family. Yes, he was ready for my letter. His "former drinking partner" thinks that I must have given Tony "some medicine" that would allow him to stop: there can be no other explanation -- no one just stops drinking.
But Tony did. And I'm proud of him, too. And greatly relieved. What a tragedy that could have been.
But now he's free to concentrate on his other big problem -- how to take care of his family. I came to realize that not ten minutes go by when he is not worried about this. He's got seven kids now -- 21, 19, 16, 13, 10, 2, and 10 months -- the last two unplanned. How to get all of them launched into their lives?
Prior to this trip, I had never met any of Tony's family members. I had spoken with Rita by telephone a couple of times and knew that she had a gentle, easy, manner, and now I know that it is accompanied by a world-class smile. Tony's oldest daughter, Lori, 21, married, held my hand tightly for the first ten minutes after I got off the bus. Lyn, 19, is in her second year of nursing school in Baguio, 60 miles from home, and has dreams as big as mine when I was 19. Franz, 16, drove me around in a trike several times -- he seems as uninterested in school as I was at 16. Gladys, 13, seems to love school and does very well at it. Rowel, 10, didn't talk much to me, but he was always watching, and whenever I shot him a look he would wink at me and scurry away. Two-and-a-half-year old Bradley, my namesake, is going to grow up to be a fine young man, I'm sure, but right now he's a handful -- it must have been God's plan to have the other five kids mature a bit before letting Bradley came along, as three or four people are needed to keep an eye on him at all times. And 10-month old Scott (named after Scott Sims, the pilot who handed Tony the controls of a four-seater airplane over California's Central Valley back in 2001) is probably glad that there are so many other kids around to protect him from Bradley.
During the past 15 years I have spent a lot of time imagining Tony's family, and they must have spent a lot of time wondering about me. During my stay with them, I often found them looking at me as though I were an apparition. Once, when we were all sitting around the living room talking, I commented to Tony that it seemed to me like they had a pretty good life here in Banaue. His daughter Lynn (she understands English better than she speaks it) immediately said something to Tony in Tagalog.
"What'd she say?" I asked him.
"She said, 'Thanks to you!'"
I'm confident that they all were as happy to get to know me as I was to get to know them.
TREKKING TO BATAAD
In the middle of the week Tony and I went off to the nearby (20 kilometers) village of Bataad -- we rode most of the way in a trike but hiked the last two hours. For old times sake we fought briefly over my backpack (the same one I had in 1988), but mostly Tony allowed me to carry it.
Bataad is famous for its "natural amphitheater" setting, with rice terraces climbing the sides of a surrounding bowl of mountains, and most of the huts situated at the bowl's bottom. When Tony and I visited in 1988 Bataad had three small lodges. As a result of the region's tourist boom during the mid-1990s, there are now seven large lodges in Bataad. But tourism has been crippled by the post-9/11 downturn (although there has been neither terrorism nor even suspicion of terrorism in this part of the Philippines). On the recent night that Tony and I spent in Bataad, I was the village's lone visitor. We ate dinner with the forlorn owner of a lodge overlooking the valley, the only diners in a restaurant with 50 seats.
My one-dollar a night room (again, the best in the house) had a priceless view. When I threw open the windows (no screens, no bugs), there was nothing but air between me and the village below.
I had to close the window around 1 a.m., as there was much crowing throughout the entire night. After I had lain there for too long, annoyed, I suddenly realized that I had finally cracked the poultry code, had become absolutely fluent -- I understood EXACTLY what was being communicated.
"I'm a ROOO-STER!"
One would scream the challenge, the next would scream it back.
"I'm a ROOO-STER!"
And another would take it up.
"I'm a ROOO-STER!
That was it. Uncomplicated. Text messaging for poultry. In the morning I shared my enlightenment with Tony, and suddenly our trip had another catchphrase: "I'm a ROOO-STER!" It's not cockle-doodle-doo at all -- it never was. Next time you're in poultry country, listen. Tell me if I'm wrong.
(Later during that same night I realized that I had also come to understand Dog. Once it became intelligible to me, I had no idea why I had never caught on before. "ImaDOG! DOG-DOG-DOG-DOG-DOG! ImaDOG!" Nothing more than that. "ImaDOG! DOG-DOG-DOG-DOG-DOG! ImaDOG! DOG!"
Every now and then someone asks me for a travel tip. Here's one: Earplugs!
THE RICE-GROWING LAND
Since Tony's visit to America my thinking on our relationship has, of course, gone through several evolutions. Having come to know Tony, and having shared such a huge adventure with him, I now find myself connected to him in ways that I hadn't anticipated.
Whether it is logical or not, I now feel a responsibility for his wellbeing. This is not simply a result of the fact that I, with considerably pre-meditation, reached into his life and mucked around a bit, showing him things that he would otherwise never have seen, knowing full-well that my actions would most likely spark new awarenesses and desires in him.
And these days I find it hard to sit on one side of the ocean, with an embarrassment of opportunities available to me, while knowing that most of these opportunities are unavailable to my new brother on the other side of the ocean. Any day that I want to I can take my credit card and passport to the airport and fly to see him -- Tony can't do this, and he may never have that ability in his life. But the Pacific is not the most formidable barrier involved -- that would be the gulf of opportunity that divides our lives, divides our planet.
Three billion of us live in relative comfort, while 3 billion others live on less than $2 a day. I do recognize that it is not -- apparently -- within my power to address the entire global social contract, but I have also come to recognize that there are situations in my own life that I in fact can address. And I've decided to share what I can with Tony.
In December 2003 I wired Tony money to buy a one-hectare rice field (the size of two football fields). When I did so, I told him that my intention was to try to help make it possible for him and his family to become self-sufficient and move beyond the hand-to-mouth existence they have known for so long. In the Philippines this existence is known as living "on the blade" -- and Tony tells me that almost everyone he knows lives this way. Tony wants self-sufficiency, wants to move into a life of less worry, more ease (who doesn't?), and he was extremely grateful for the money.
When I sent it, I cautioned him that I didn't really know what was best for his life. If buying rice-growing land made sense, by all means I thought he should do that. But if he knew of some better use for the money, something that would allow him and his family a better chance at self-sufficiency, I thought he should use the money for that. He would surely know what made the most sense in his life. And I really don't want to be making decisions about his life -- I simply want to try to help -- if "help" is actually a possibility, and I like to think that it is.
So in February when I arrived he told me the story of the money. He has loaned the entire amount to a local businessman who over the next seven months is paying Tony more money in interest than Tony could have made in one year if he had bought and worked the rice field. The businessman put up the deed to a one-hectare rice field as collateral, and they had a lawyer draw up a contract. (Tony showed me the deed and the contract, and I met and very much liked the businessman). If the businessman defaults (seems unlikely), Tony owns the land. In the meantime, Tony has time to work the five smaller plots he already owns, and to continue his work as a local guide, and to do his best to promote his guesthouse as a business.
I think it's a great development. And it's not the end of the story. Just one more chapter in a story to be continued...
I sent Tony home from America with a bunch of money that we both thought he would use to buy a trike, one of the small motorcycles with sidecar that is the most basic form of transportation in Banaue. Many people have asked me about the trike. Here's the story: The guesthouse that I and several friends helped Tony build wound up costing a lot more than he had originally anticipated. In the middle of the construction Tony took the trike money and poured it into the house. Maybe someday there will be a trike, maybe not. Right now: Not.
LEAVING THE MOUNTAINS
The weather in Banaue was colder and wetter than I imagined it. The sky cooperated splendidly on the day of the welcome-Brad party, and it also cleared during the 30 hours of Tony's and my overnight trek to Bataad, but the rest of my time in the mountains was rainy and cloudy and chilly. On my first day Tony and I climbed a hill near his house in a drizzle and I slipped and fell and muddied my sweater and pants, and although Rita had them clean by the next morning it still took five or six days for them to dry -- and even then I had to "wear" the final dampness out of them. And that's the day I said to Tony, "Let's think about you and me flying down to Boracay."
Boracay is perhaps the Philippines' most famous beach. I first heard about it 20 years ago, in Hong Kong, when I'd met several deeply tanned backpackers who had just come from Boracay and were singing its praises: beautiful, cheap, a tropical Shangri-lah. And after a week in the chilly mountains it was time to bolt -- after all, what fun is a trip with no beach break? Tony liked the idea a lot -- for many years he, too, had been hearing travelers rhapsodize Boracay.
By the time our departure was imminent I had started to grow quite comfortable in Banaue. I had become a semi-regular at the Viewpoint billiards hall, where Tony's 16-year old son, Franz, beat me nine times out of ten (as would any half-decent pool player). When I would ride from the Viewpoint to downtown in a trike I found myself signaling the driver to stop so I could offer a ride to one of the dozens of Viewpoint residents I had come to recognize. I was starting to feel like a local.
But I wasn't a local -- and no matter how familiar and comfortable I was coming to feel with Tony, his family, and his neighbors, I wasn't even in the same galaxy as they were -- and on my last morning this fact was rather dramatically underscored for me.
Over the past year or so I have been straight-up with Tony about my desires to see him and his family become self-sufficient and not so dependent on money coming from me -- it would be better for them, and, being bluntly selfish about it, it would allow me to quit feeling responsible for them. I never wanted that, and still don't. I think of Tony as my equal, my brother, and it's weird being the one with all the resources. Still, I chose this situation freely -- none of this is TONY'S 'fault' -- he's just living his life. And I'm just living mine, and one of the things I'd like it to see in my life is for Tony and his family to be self-sufficient. He knows my feelings. He too would love to be self-sufficient -- wouldn't we all?
On our last morning in Banaue, as I was drinking coffee on the balcony and watching the fog and clouds that hung over the rice terraces being slowly brightened by an invisible rising sun, Tony came out to join me and, after some chit chat, got to the point. "Brad, I have been talking with Rita, and we just don't think that I can afford to go to Boracay with you."
Oh, no! I fell all over myself apologizing. Of course, of course, of course, I would pay for every peso of our trip to Boracay. It would be positively obscene for it to be any other way, and even though we'd never spoken a word about this I had assumed that everyone understood this as an obvious ground rule. How unthinkable it would be for someone with a pocketful of cash and credit cards to invite someone with seven kids and a spotty income to go off for a few days that would cost him, at the very least, the equivalent of a month's tuition/room/board for his daughter's college education.
"Oh no, Tony! I'll pay for everything. Of course. Of course! I'm sorry. I should have said so. I am so sorry."
He brightened immediately. "Oh, thank you! I didn't know how to say that. I really do want to see Boracay. I will tell Rita -- she will be very happy, too."
Every year the staff and many of the parents at my daughter's school choose a book to read and study. This year we chose "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" by Beverly Tatum. Tatum talks about how the privileged class in a society takes their privileges for granted, and how that can be absolutely maddening to the less privileged, less powerful. I recalled this part of the book while I finished my coffee -- not at all proudly.
(Later, down in Boracay, I had another look at class and assumed privilege. A Filipino doorman opened a door for me and offered me a gracious and hearty "Welcome, sir!" But although Tony and I were quite obviously together, the doorman did not look at or speak to Tony. This scenario happened at least twenty times during our two weeks. This time I brought the subject up. "I'm sorry they keep saying hello to me and ignoring you," I told Tony. "It's o.k." he said. "It is not YOUR fault." But it bothered both of us.)
On my last day in Banaue -- Valentine's Day -- I joined Tony and several of his family members and neighbors for a midday picnic at a scenic lake twenty minutes from the Viewpoint by trike. Early that morning, in the guesthouse living room, Tony and his two-year old, Bradley, had held a chicken immobile, upside down, and while I watched, Tony's son-in-law Paul slit the chicken's throat and let its blood drain into a bowl. A few hours later, at noon, the whole group was sitting beside the lake, eating chicken and rice, and just... hanging out. I was starting to gain the knack of just sitting, without having to say anything, as I can around my own family.
I thought: If I were to move here for, say, one year, I could write a book about this majestic place. I'd been introduced to lots of local dignitaries (business leaders, missionaries, the mayor, the local Peace Corps volunteer) and lots of local characters (Tony's former drinking partner, his wood carving contacts, his neighbors, the pool hall regulars, the trike drivers). I was becoming conversant in the gossip -- the scandals, the tragedies, the murders, the swindles, the systematic corruption, the jealousies. I had learned a fair amount about the rice culture and about Banaue history and politics (there is an election in May). And I saw how I could weave all of this into a book...
But that book will probably have to wait for another lifetime. Or perhaps you want to go there and write it? Be my guest. I'd love to read it. By three o'clock Tony and I were on a bus out of town, and, really, who knows when I'll be back...?
Immediately after the Welcome-Brad party, Tony's daughter Lyn had returned to her classes at the nursing college in the mountain city of Baguio. Baguio is only about 60 air miles from Tony's home, but the terrain is so rugged that the quickest, most practical way to get there is to take a bus from Banaue down to the lowlands and then back up into the mountains along another route, to Baguio. Ten hours. Tony and I had promised Lyn that before I returned to America we would come to visit her. Now, as we boarded the ten-hour bus to Baguio, our plan was to spend the night with Lyn, then ride another ten-hour bus to Manila and catch a one-hour flight south to Boracay.
Tony and I departed Banaue at three o'clock in the afternoon, and within two hours I had written in my notebook something to the effect that "for the rest of my life I want to from time to time find myself on This Bus -- the proverbial cramped, uncomfortable, dirty and dirt-cheap, developing country bus, complete with chortling poultry ("I'm a ROOSTER!")." The lowlands were tee-shirt warm, with brilliant green rice fields and palm trees stretching to the horizons, giving my mind room to slip off its spool and run amok. Every now and then we'd pass through a quiet, tiny village, or a town full of jeepneys and motorcycles and hordes of smiling pedestrians and hundreds of small shops all selling the same things, and I felt confident in assuming that 99 percent of the residents of these villages and towns were going to live from birth to death without ever seriously thinking of, or having a realistic opportunity of, relocating. And without ever having a two-week trip to anywhere.
Being on the Bus is grounding for me, grinding into chaff every pretentious notion I have of myself. On the Bus we're all the same -- tired, dreamy, lost in thought, hoping we don't crash, hoping to be successful in whatever mission our bus ride is a part of.
Every now and then Tony and I would lean across the aisle toward each other to remark on the fires burning on distant ridgetops or the light slanting through the palms or the brilliance of the rice fields or a humorous billboard, or to offer to share a snack or a memory. Tony told me that when he returned from America and was riding the bus from Manila back up to Banaue, he felt like he was a completely different person from the one who had ridden in the other direction just one month earlier. That very morning he'd seen a story about himself on the front page of the country's biggest newspaper. Everyone on the bus has also read the story. A Banaue politician, a man who Tony said had never previously given him the time of day, maneuvered to sit near Tony in order to solicit Tony's worldview and other opinions...
We arrived in Baguio late that night, camped out in Lyn's tiny apartment (she insisted on giving up her bed for me -- I didn't even pretend to resist -- she slept on the floor). The next morning I suggested that instead of climbing onto another 10-hour bus ride that perhaps Tony and I should catch a cab out to the airport and see if there were any flights available. (I appreciate the Bus, but enough is enough.) "First," I said, "let me take us all out to breakfast -- anywhere you would like" -- and fifteen minutes later we were seated at a McDonald's, eating Big Macs and sausage Egg McMuffins. Lyn said McDonald's was her favorite place, but she couldn't afford to eat there on her student budget.
We flagged a cab to the airport. Tony and I in the back, Lyn up front. A couple of moments passed before the driver sought my eyes in the mirror and asked, in English: "Sir, where did you meet your friends?"
I began: "Tony is a trek guide in Banaue, and fifteen years ago..."
The driver cut me off: "You're the cab driver from America! I saw you guys on TV!" After Tony arrived back from America, a film crew from one of the Philippines' biggest TV shows had come to visit him in Banaue, and had trekked to Bataad with him, cameras rolling, and people all over the Philippines saw the show and heard Tony talk about his time in America.
It was quite a heady surprise for both Tony and I to be recognized in this far place by a complete stranger with an excellent memory -- he remembered minute details of the show, 30 months old by now -- and we had a most pleasant ride to the airport. Our driver was 28 years old, married with two kids. He had three siblings, "but," he said, "only one of us got lucky. My sister is in Washington, D.C. right now. A nurse. She sends lots of money to my parents."
Two last seats were available on the day's only flight to Manila -- (there were also two last seats available on a connecting midday Manila-to-Boracay flight -- last minute Baguio-Manila-Boracay-Manila tickets, more than three hours of total flight time, cost me less than $300 for the two of us) -- and soon Tony and I were airborne. As we sailed over the mountains where he had grown up and which he had never seen from the air Tony's face was pressed to the window. Sometime later, over the lowlands, I asked, "What were you thinking?"
He said, "I was wondering if someday Rita will be able to see these mountains from the air. And the kids."
I had felt funny about having blown into Baguio and having spent so little time with Lyn -- who has never flown, who has never seen the ocean -- and then having blown out again on an airplane to spend a few days on a tropical beach. She didn't say so, but it was easy to see that Lyn, 19, would have loved to have been coming with us instead of going back to her tiny apartment to study for an exam.
"Yes," Tony said. "She would love to see the beach. She would love to fly in an airplane. If you have never done those things, you will always want to. This is very exciting for me -- another great experience, thank you, Brad -- I like it very much -- but it was hard for me to see how Lyn felt."
I told him: "I felt bad about leaving the rest of your family back in Banaue, too. Are they a bit jealous, too?"
"Yes, I think so," Tony said. "When I told Rita we were going to Boracay, it took her some little bit of time before she said, 'I am happy for you.' I think it is a little bit difficult for her. It would be difficult for me, too."
The enchanting little island is only about five miles long and one mile wide. We landed at an airstrip on a larger, neighboring island, and after a 20-minute ferry ride were dropped into the warm surf and left to wade ashore -- McArthur-like -- onto a classical four-kilometer stretch of sugary white sand backed by thousands of waving green coconut palms. Tall hills rose in the island's center. Surf sounds soothed instantly.
An employee of the local hotel association -- Jason, a gentle man with a laminated ID card dangling from his neck -- had ridden over on the ferry with us. When he offered to show us a variety of lodging possibilities I accepted. He then held a short conversation with Tony in Tagalog. I heard Jason ask: "Xmxmxmx TV? Xmxmxmxmxmxm TREK GUIDE xmxmxmxmx BANAUE xmxmxmxm TAXICAB xmxmxmxmxm AMERICA?"
Tony replied: "NO, NO xmxmxmxmx NO, NO."
Later, when we were settling in to our third floor (top-floor) of our beachfront hotel room (ocean audible and visible through the palm trees outside our room, $26/night) I asked him: "Had Jason seen us on TV?"
"I told him that was someone else."
"The people here, if they think you are famous, they will kidnap you."
I couldn't keep myself from laughing.
Tony said: "It is different here. These people are not the same like in Banaue. They will kidnap you."
"Hmnnn...," I said. "I don't think so."
"I have heard," Tony said. "I have read -- they will kidnap you!"
"Maybe not Jason, but he will have friends he can tell. You don't know the Philippines."
And I let it drop.
WE SPENT FOUR DAYS walking the long beach, napping or reading in the heat of the afternoon, and riding bicycles around the islands. Tony sent text messages back to Banaue every few minutes. We found a cheap restaurant that served both "my" food and "his" food and we became twice-or-thrice-a-day regulars. We went for catamaran rides at sunset, and one afternoon I coaxed Tony into the first kayak ride of his life.
After dinner on each of our four nights we found our way to a beachside bar, where a band of absolutely excellent and passionate Boracay locals played Eagles/Cat Stevens/Bob Dylan/Bob Seeger/REM ("Losing my religion...") until well past midnight... They had their amps and drums set up on the sand, just 20 feet from the sighing surf, and for hour after hour they entertained a crowd of more than 100 British, German, Swiss, Korean, Taiwanese, and Filipinos. I saw few Americans. I saw few backpackers (I assume most have them have discovered some quieter, cheaper beach during the more than twenty years since Boracay was discovered. "Agh, you should've been here two years ago before this place was RUINED!" But as I danced in my chair, feeling 22 instead of 52, I looked around at the crowd, the palm trees, the sand, the little lapping waves, the stars, and thought: "I want to be on The Bus every once in a while and I want to be on This Beach every once in a while, too, for the rest of my life. This is my heritage. This, too, is my family."
That first night, Tony leaned over during "Hotel California" and said: "Big Macs in Baguio for breakfast. Beach music in Boracay before bed."
THE LAST DAY
I hadn't seen a newspaper in two weeks, but at breakfast our waiter dropped the morning paper onto our table. Inside I found an article about some $680 million that Marcos had hidden in a Swiss bank account, but which was now, after more than a decade of legal battles, about to be returned to the Philippine people. The Swiss were dragging their feet, however, expressing fears that the money would never reach the people to whom all parties had agreed it should go -- the poor -- but would instead wind up in the pockets of the current Philippine cleptocracy.
"Six hundred and eighty million!" Tony said. "No one like me will ever see even one peso. There are many people poorer than me, and they will not see even one peso, either."
I just hate to think that's true. I just hate to think that things will never change. But there was not rebuttal. He was probably right.
"Well, that makes me feel better about doing it my way," I said. "I bring my share over here and give it right to someone who I know can use it. (I'd budgeted $1250 for my two weeks. I had spent like a sailor, but still had more than half of it left, and that morning I'd handed the remainder Tony.) This way I know where it goes, and I get to have a little fun doing it."
Tony said, "Is better, I think."
WE RODE THE TWO o'clock ferry back to the larger island, and at the airstrip we ran into Jason, the hotel association representative who had helped us find a room four days earlier. Now Jason and Tony had a boisterous conversation about Boracay -- Tony told Jason he hoped to bring Rita and all the kids back someday. Between text messages home ("Brad and I are on a catamaran now..." "We are riding mountain bikes across the island, and just now stopped for a cold drink beside the beach...") he had fallen in love with Boracay.
When he and Jason had finished their conversation, Jason shook our hands and wished up good-bye. While Tony and I were lining up to go through security and onto our plane, I said: "If he's going to kidnap us he's only got about 45 minutes left."
Tony reached out and grabbed my biceps and choked on his own unrestrainable laughter. I'm a big back-slapper, but Tony isn't -- it simply doesn't seem to be a Filipino characteristic -- and in the middle of his guffawing I noted his grip on my arm. He'd never before with me done something like this, this casual physical contact -- not in America, not in the Philippines. I took it as a mark of how comfortable and confident we've become with each other. Brothers. For life. Even when he had recovered and released my arm, he still didn't say anything. He was too tickled to speak.
For the first few minutes of our flight Tony stared at the window, watching Boracay disappear and the wide blue ocean slide in underneath us. Then he dozed off.
An hour later we stood outside the domestic airport in Manila and gave each other a great big hug, and said good-bye, and then walked toward our two separate taxis -- Tony was heading to the bus terminal for a ten-hour ride to Banaue, and I was heading to the international airport for a ten-hour flight to San Francisco.
"Brad!" I heard him call. With one foot already inside my taxi, I stopped and looked back. Tony was poised with one foot inside his taxi, and he was smiling. He had timed this perfectly, and he was proud of it.
"Don't let them kidnap you!" he shrieked, and before I could respond he ducked into his cab. Grinning hugely behind his shades, I noticed.
A few weeks ago, in a much, much shorter posting, I wrote about a confusing sense of disappointment I felt after my trip. After some consideration I got to the source of it -- I realized that I had gone to the Philippines with a hidden hope -- I had hoped for some closure, had hoped to hear that the things I had done for Tony and his family had transformed their lives into a can't-miss happily-ever-after fairy tale. I had subconsciously and completely unrealistically hoped that I would hear what a wonderful guy I had been, and how my gifts had solved every problem they had ever had or ever might have. Instead I had realized the seemingly infinite nature of their needs. And I had seen how my interactions with Tony had given everyone in his family, and perhaps lots of people in his community, a whiff of the opportunities that most everyone reading this can take absolutely for granted. And I had been unsettled by it. As I think I should be. It is getting more and more difficult for those of us in the developed countries to assume that our great privileges can always be taken for granted. And it is in our own best interests -- collectively and individually -- to do what we can in whatever sphere of influence we have to see that the goodies on this planet get distributed more evenly.
As soon as I identified what was behind my feeling of disappointment it vanished. This trip was a flat out success. Really, what kind of idiot would complain about a two-week trip to an interesting place halfway around the globe during which he did not get even briefly sick and was not mugged but was instead treated like a prince?
April 8, 2004
You can read Brad's dispatches from the month-long taxicab trip across America in the MONEY of 2001 by clicking here.