A Life Changing Journey

Author: 
Nancy Cummings

The Journey Begins

What triggered my decision to join the Peace Corps?  I graduated from high school in 1956. I had been accepted to Pasadena Playhouse so I could pursue my dream of being in the theatre.  At the last moment, I changed my mind and accompanied my best friend to Texas Christian University.  This didn’t pan out for either of us, and I returned to Las Vegas and began taking classes at Nevada Southern University.  By the time I’d heard about the Peace Corps,  I had attended three different universities with no degree to show for it.  My big dream of becoming a highly successful character actress wasn’t going anywhere.  I was certainly at sixes and sevens.  Perhaps that was it, or perhaps it was the idealist in me—maybe it was JFK’s charisma—a combination of all three, I suspect.

Accepted for the initial training at Penn State University, I returned home, waiting for the fateful telegram.  When it came, and I had been accepted into the Peace Corps, feelings of elation, trepidation and downright fear engulfed me.  Clouds of doubt began to form.  I was ready to change my mind.  Soul searching conversations with my mother finally convinced me to gamble on the unknown and just do it.  I did it, and so began a life-changing journey.

How vividly I recall the day we landed in Manila.  I remember lines of smiling, hand shaking people who greeted us.   After several speeches we were herded onto buses, headed for final training at Los Baños.  In spite of the pouring rain, people stood along the road, cheering and welcoming us.  Upon arrival we immersed ourselves in classes and intensive language training.  Several of us teamed up with the local theatre folks and staged the play No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre.  I was cast as Inez, the lesbian.  That had to enhance my reputation with the locals.

The Los Baños experience seemed like a “Never Never Land" between what we left behind and what was to come.  We were all eager and anxious to get to our assignments. In a letter home to my mother I wrote:  “We still have lots of questions about our assignments, what we’ll be doing—our specific duties.  I don’t think that has been made very clear to us.“   As a number of us would soon discover, it wasn’t all that clear to the Filipinos either.

Training completed, all of us going to Southern Luzon boarded the Bicol express train.  There were two classes, first and ordinary, the difference being that first class seats were softer and reclined.   Other than that, the odors, the insects, the clutter were the same.  There were many friendly Filipinos on the train who were naturally curious about us.  I met a Filipino dentist whose goal was to marry an American.  I was literally proposed to halfway through the trip.  One of the railroad policemen took an interest in me.  I was tired.  He found me an empty seat where I could stretch out.  He sat opposite me, running people off so I could sleep.  Well, the darned seat collapsed and I rolled off, landing on my behind.  Needless to say, I brought some comic relief to those around me.  Everyone had a good laugh.

Volunteers got off the train along the way.  The last of us proceeded to Legaspi City, the end of the line.  That night, staying with a Filipino family, I was unable to sleep.  I felt pangs of excitement and anxiety.  Did I know enough about the culture?  Was I a strong enough individual to take it?  Time would determine.

Settling down in Bulusan

My housemate Charlotte Hough and I arrived in Bulusan and waited several days before our house was ready.  The house, constructed of nipa and wood, was on stilts.  Moving day was a spectacle.  Hordes of curious people watched us unpack our U.S. government household supply box.  One item that caused amazed glances was a spray can of bug killer. People were very curious about our toilet, considered a luxury.  After you used it, you filled a bucket with water, poured it down the toilet, and the contents flowed into the river and out to sea.

As it grew darker, I hauled out the Coleman lantern.  However, there was no white gas in town.  So we used regular gas.  After almost losing half a finger and breaking a few fingernails, I finally got the lantern assembled.  Then I lit a match.  Ssst-Blam.  Lighting that match and turning the jet on too early resulted in singed eyebrows and burned fingers.  We soon discovered that the lamp and the Coleman stove were bad news because we couldn’t get the right fuel for them.  The Coleman stove was replaced by four huge stones and coconut husk fuel that became the source for all of our cooking.

Other times we would discover that stuff the U.S. government thought we should have just didn’t work out in the barrios.  I remember the time we went to the Embassy in Manila to get kerosene lamps for some of the indigent families in our village.  We were told kerosene lamps were considered passé and had been relegated to storage.  Fortunately, we were able to find a “friend” in the Embassy who managed to acquire lamps for us to take back to our families.

Getting settled in our house was a milestone.  Now, we were ready to get to work.  After numerous delays, the principal of the central school finally worked out a schedule for us.  I set out that first day, my spirits high, full of good intentions, looking forward to working with everyone.   When I arrived, the principal was not there. No one seemed to know what I was to do.  I warmed a seat for a while and finally went home.  The next day I went back and was assigned teaching English to 5th and 6th graders.  One of the teachers in particular seemed to resent me—one who had influence over the others.  He tried to embarrass me several times.  This lasted about two weeks.  I decided to pull up stakes and began making the rounds of the barrios, looking for a place where I would be welcome.

To complicate things with the central school, there was an issue with the distribution of CARE milk.  Children were paying three centavos a glass for it when it was available.  Much of it was stored and rotting away.   Charlotte and I began mixing the milk ourselves and giving it to all the children in the community.  We expressed our concerns to CARE staff.  Basically we were told that they couldn’t do anything about it since the milk was distributed through the Philippine Bureau of Public Schools.

Another issue with CARE was related to our community garden project.  During training, CARE officials elaborated upon resources they had available to us, including garden kits. Our plan was to get the community involved in establishing and maintaining a garden.   The food we grew would be distributed to our indigent families.   We requested the kit, and received the following reply from the Assistant Chief of Missions: 

“Regarding your letter requesting garden tools, we offer the following:  We interpret your request as a personal one.  I am sure you understand that a person in the United States who donates money does not expect that the money will be used for equipment for the personal needs of Americans abroad.  I am afraid we cannot be of assistance to you.” 

We did not take kindly to this curt reply, and wrote a response that did not mince words.  It worked.  We received a kit, and had our garden. 

In the meantime, we established a nursery school.  It started with 10 children and grew to 40.  We established a relationship with the wealthy family that had a private high school and I began teaching English classes for them.

It didn’t take me long to find what became the “perfect fit” for me.  It was the Barrio San Roque at the foot of the Bulusan volcano.  My first day was unforgettable.  At 6 a.m., I boarded the rickety bus along with other teachers commuting from Bulusan every day.  It was full of people chickens, coconuts, and reeking with the smell of fish and petroleum.  One of the teachers told me the bus comes through anywhere from 6:45 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. depending upon the engine, the tires or the number of glasses of tuba (the local palm wine) the bus driver had consumed the night before.

The bus rattled and creaked up around the coastline providing breathtaking views of the beaches and the ocean.  Soon after the ocean was hidden from view and a lush, mountainous area overgrown with tropical plants, flowers and palm trees took its place.  The main part of the school was an old wooden structure.  To one side of it were some prefabricated buildings and out in the back was a nipa hut, which served as my first classroom.

In a letter home, I described my first impression of the children.

“They are really something—naïve and innocent, their faces the faces of the poor and underprivileged, but also the faces of the gentle and the humble, most of all they are the faces of the eager, the willing.  They swarmed about me, many not having seen an American before.  They are simply dressed, most are barefoot.  I noticed swollen bellies and open sores on some of them.  And the teachers—eight of them—dedicating their lives to these children.  One is a product of the Thomasite missionaries.   One of the teachers told me how grateful they were because I had come to work with them.  At the end of the day I thought to myself how grateful I was to these people for having accepted me with such open arms.”

 I had found my school in San Roque, and our daily life in Bulusan continued.  Some of my most vivid memories include:

  • The wonderful relationship Charlotte and I had with our neighbors, Inoysidro and Oyaloly, and their nine children.
  • Lubing, our 16 year old hired helper who transformed from a cowering, shy, fearful soul into to an assertive, confident young woman.
  • The night I woke up to get a cup of water in the kitchen and reached for the clay pot.  Something wriggled through my hand, something alive.  I screamed and Inoysidro came racing over.  There, writhing though the slats was a huge python.  Inoysidro felled it with several strikes of his bolo.
  • The night thousands of ants invaded and completely covered our house.  With the assistance of many neighbors, we burned them off with kerosene—a miracle the house didn’t catch fire and burn.
  • The infection in my foot.  It produced gooey pus filled cankerous sores that soon spread to my legs and face.  I went to a doctor in Legaspi City.   He told me I had yaws and put me on sulfa drugs and penicillin.
  • The cholera epidemic that hit the area causing the death of many children.
  • The day Ari came to live with us.  Ari lived in a nipa hut with his parents and 12 siblings.  His father died and his mother went to Manila leaving the children to live with relatives.  One day he appeared at the kitchen door with his few belongings and literally moved in with us.  Ari was kind and generous, but fierce as well.  He had a beautiful smile, a voice like raw silk, and very bad breath, which improved when I took him to a dentist for the first time in his life.  When I asked him how old he was, he said he thought he’d had six or seven summers.  One regret—I tried to adopt Ari, but at the time, it was an almost impossible undertaking for a single woman.  I should have persevered.
  • The story of Juan.   Juan was the village waif.  He’d fallen from the roof of the municipal building when he was very young.  People said this was why he “couldn’t talk right”.  Neglected by his family, he wandered around begging and stealing.  Ari began bringing Juan to the house. He responded immediately to being fed and getting some attention. I did have to teach him that stealing from me was not a wise thing.    One afternoon I heard a great commotion. Ari came running in the house yelling that Juan was in trouble.  We went down the street where a crowd of people was gathered laughing, shouting and throwing stones at something.  The something was Juan.   He was huddled in a ball holding his head in his hands, sobbing plaintively.  I was furious, I screamed at everyone to stop.  I raced over to Juan and picked him up. He was as limp as a rag doll.  I carried him to the house, Ari following behind, shouting at the crowd.  Ari shut the door, went over to Juan and said, “Don’t cry, we are your kaibigans (your friends).  No one will hurt you here.”
  • The realization that prejudice is universal.  Once I told my neighbor how beautiful her daughter Nina was.  Her reply was “Oh, that can’t be, she is my darkest child”.  I spent a month in Manila teaching at the National School for the Deaf and the Blind.  My students were all deaf and/or blind.  They were so excited when I arranged to take them to the American Embassy pool for swimming lessons.  We had two certified swimming instructors, and the kids were extremely grateful and so well behaved.  After our second visit, the head of the school informed me that we could no longer use the Embassy pool.  There had been complaints about all those Filipino kids using “their pool.”   My first reaction was a feeling of indignation.  Then a sense of sadness overtook me as I tried to figure out how I was going to explain this to my kids.

A summer in the Muslim heartland

My summer project took me to the Sulu Sea and the island of Jolo, a predominantly Muslim area.  I lived with the Valbuena family and taught speech and drama at Notre Dame de Jolo College run by American Oblate Catholic Fathers.  My Filipino friends up north were shocked to hear where I was going.  They were convinced I would be harmed. 

Getting there took us to Mindanao where we changed planes, and got on a rickety old thing that was bound for Jolo, but couldn’t land because it was raining so hard.  I was really scared.  We finally landed in a rice field and one of the priests, Father Billman met us. The first question he asked was “Do you bowl?”

Jolo was hardly what I had expected after all I’d heard from people up North.  It was a busy, bustling city full of industrious and progressive people.  The beaches were the most pristine, spectacular ones I’d ever seen.  You could wade several feet, look down and see incredible fish and vibrant colors.  Getting to the beach was interesting.  We experienced an ambush one time.  Fortunately, we were in the priest’s jeep, and we were allowed to pass. Another time, an armed guard accompanied me when I went down to the beach.  I asked why, and was told it was just a temporary precaution.  I befriended a number of Moslem families, and was fortunate to become the godmother to a Moslem child.   I directed my drama students in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.  It was a fascinating experience working with these young college students in this extraordinary part of the world.

Saying farewell in Bulusan

I returned to Bulusan after the summer in Jolo and picked up where I had left off.  Time flew by. The end of the second school year was almost over.  My last few days in Bulusan were unforgettable.  The realization of the inevitable, my leave taking began to envelop us all.  We’d all been through so much together, especially Ari, Lubing and I. 

San Roque graduation day finally arrived.  The ceremony began late in the afternoon, and was very long.  Afterwards dinner was served. Then my seventh graders performed my play, The Golden Goose.  The kids were great.  By this time it was getting dark.  The crowd moved out into the field behind the school and formed a huge circle.   A table and chair were set up in the middle of the circle.  I was asked to sit at the table.  Then, my wonderful barrio families began paying tribute to me—songs were sung, dances were danced-poems were read.  A hand written proclamation was read, making me an adopted daughter of San Roque.  Every family had signed it.  Then people came forward laden with hand made gifts, eggs and chickens—all gifts from the heart.  Then the circle of people joined hands and began singing Auld Lang Syne.  I rose from my chair and walked towards my seventh graders—I broke into the circle and grasped the hands of two of my students.  I needed to be part of the circle, not separate from it.

By the time it was over and I was on my way back to Bulusan, it was after 2 a.m.  Ari and Lubing were there waiting for me.  Ari took me by the hand and led me to his little room where he slept.  He pointed to his woven mat and said “No more here”.  I replied, “No more after tonight.”   He quietly stooped over, grasped the corner of his mat and pulled it into the room where Lubing and I slept.  He said “In here with you and Lubing.  It’s the last time.”  He lay himself down on the mat, said the little prayer I had taught him, and cried himself to sleep.

I was up at 6:30 the next morning.  Soon after, my house was full of people.  My students from San Roque had taken the first bus down the mountain to be with me that morning.  It was good that they were there.  I needed them to cook the 70 eggs I had acquired the night before.  My students cooked a huge batch of scrambled eggs—fixed lots of coffee and toast and fed those who came to say goodbye.  I scurried around the house to see if I had left anything.  Finally the bus arrived.    The house emptied as everyone rushed to the bus to wave me off.  Suddenly I was left all alone.  I looked around and for a precious second I reflected upon all that had happened here.  Tears came to my eyes.  Then the voices of Lubing, Ari and some of my students broke the spell and I hurried out to catch the bus.

 Afterword

When I began working on my essay, I pulled out all my old letters and my diary.   While reading the diary, I kept anticipating descriptions of deep, profound statements and philosophical thoughts that defined my experience. Well, that didn’t happen.  My diary was pretty mundane.  It was an account of daily life, repetitive, and frankly, a bit tedious at times.  I realized the deep reflective and the philosophical aspects of my experiences were not necessarily written down in my diary.  Those occurred in all night intense discussions and debates with my Peace Corps colleagues.  They occurred the many times Charlotte and I sat up late at night pondering and sharing some of our deepest fears, doubts and frustrations as well as our successes and accomplishments.  They occurred in personal and confidential letters we sent to one another, and in the letters I sent home to my mother.

What the diary does reflect, however, is the revelation that the human condition, the life we live in our own environments has its parallels in every culture.  No matter where one is, despite the living conditions---there are commonalities.  We must eat and drink. We experience the same range of human emotions whether we live in a nipa hut or a two story brick home. We laugh, we love, we cry, we have our ups, we have our downs.  That’s what happened to me in the Philippines living in the barrio, and it was the case when I returned home to the United States.  As a matter of fact, often times when I returned home and someone asked me about my experience, I would reply that “I had some of my highest highs and lowest lows as a Peace Corp Volunteer.

Shortly after returning to the States, I became a new bride married to a Navy pilot.  We moved to Hanford, California in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley.  I found a position working for the Armona Union Elementary School District as the Director of their new Language Enrichment Program.  The classroom space was a converted WWII barracks.  My students were children of migratory farm workers, low-income children and those with physical and/or emotional disabilities.  I recall that first day.  I gathered the children together and what did I see?  I saw a rag tag group of kids, some in clean, but threadbare clothing, some paying more attention to the smell of freshly baked bread coming from the cafeteria than they were to me.  I was to find out later that many came to school without having had any breakfast.  A remark made by my principal came to mind.  It seems that none of the teachers wanted to be relegated to the converted barracks. They were also not interested in this new position that would have to deal with such a hodge podge of challenging children.  When the principal introduced me to the teachers, he said, “I have every confidence in Nancy and her taking on this new position.  She can do it; she has served in the Peace Corps.”  I was to discover in the next two years that the Peace Corps had prepared me well for my challenging new position at Armona.  From that point on, my ensuing career became an extension of my Peace Corps experience.

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