My First Day as a PCV: A Memory Piece

A short bus ride transported the new volunteers from the Legazpi International Airport to the Peace Corps office for the Bicol region. Bicol encompasses the southernmost part of the island of Luzon, Republic of the Philippines, and is characterized in travel brochures by its perfectly symmetrical volcano, Mount Mayon. We arrived at the tidy office, located in a quiet residential district about a mile from downtown Legazpi, and were greeted by a festive marching band, complete with uniforms and drum majors, marching up the other side of the circular driveway. Midway between the band and our thoroughly-surprised group of new volunteers was Fran Sharp, the regional director, his wonderful secretary, Helen Bolinas, and several other volunteers who stood in the office’s doorway beneath a huge sign welcoming “Group 38.”

The training for our 2-year stay in the Philippines had been in Pepeekeo, Hawaii, not far from the coastal city of Hilo on the quiet northeast side of the island. 98 of us had completed 3 months of language and culture training in a repurposed school complex, and we were now ready to assume pre-arranged jobs in local schools. The 1970 Philippine education program actually trained in 3 separate locations as part of an experiment in the early 70’s to determine the best environment for successful service. The other training groups were in Brattleboro, Vermont, and a third trained in country. The Hawaii training site was selected because a high percentage of Filipinos live in Hawaii, and the climate closely resembled that of the Philippines.

Our arrival party in-country was joyous, and we were treated to local delicacies and briefed on our job assignments. This training program was also unique in that all of us had spent some time in professional teaching prior to volunteering. Many other Peace Corps programs accepted BA-generalists and trained them for whatever job a country requested. Our program differed in that we were already “trained” professionals and many of us were assigned to “pilot” schools in order to centralize staff development workshops throughout the district. We were still a bit jet-lagged from our long flight, and the brief medical layover in Manila was a cultural anomaly most of us were happy to leave. So, after our festive welcome, we checked into Legazpi’s Hotel Rex until housing issues were resolved in our assigned locations.

My assignment was in Tabaco, Albay, a port town about 45 minutes by bus from Legazpi, and sandwiched between the shadow of the fabulous active volcano, Mt. Mayon and the Lagonoy Gulf. Some volunteers were assigned in other provinces farther from Legazpi and had departed the afternoon of the festa. My situation was unique, however, in that far fewer volunteers quit during training (this was during the Vietnam war and, while Peace Corps was not recognized as satisfying one’s military service, most volunteers were granted deferments). Because group 38 sent so many teachers into the Philippines, the regional reps were obliged to scurry around locating jobs for us idealistic souls, and my job was one of those. Peace Corps Washington makes considerable effort to respect the request of a host country agency rather than persuade them to accept an over-abundance of volunteers and then find jobs for them. In my case, it was rather easy since the rep found me a job as a replacement for another volunteer who had recently completed her 2 years. It was arranged that I would accompany the rep for a short visit and then return to Legazpi on local transportation, collect my “locker” (a large trunk into which we packed all gear and goodies to last us through our assignment) and return the following day to settle into my new home.

Below is an edited section of the original post about my first day in my assignment. This version was completed as part of an OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) class taken in Winter, 2019, at the Medford campus. 

Are you ready for the beginning of an epic journey?” Fran Sharp challenged me as I downed my coffee that Tuesday morning in October, 1970. He’d left the government-issued Jeep Wagoneer outside the Peace Corps regional office in Legazpi City, Philippines, and ran in to grab me and his briefcase.

Fran was professionally attired in khaki slacks and the loose fiber-based Barong Tagalog shirt worn in the sultry tropical weather. It hung well on his lean body yet clashed with the orange Caterpillar ball cap he wore to cover his thinning hair. My journey—our journey, actually—was not a destination, per se, but the beginning of an 18-month assignment as a Peace Corps education volunteer.

Our agenda that day included meeting with the district superintendent of southern Luzon, the largest of thousands comprising the Philippine Islands. Although the bright equatorial sun required eye protection most days, we’d been advised of a “tropical depression” heading toward the Philippines from the southeast and packed umbrellas—rain garments being uncomfortable in the omnipresent humidity.

A combination of rain, flooding, and limited resources kept these heavily-trafficked roads in a constant state of repair, and Fran was experienced navigating the green Jeep. In addition to water-filled potholes were thousands of tiny frog corpses, flattened casualties of the lust for warm asphalt.

The entire province of Albay, of which Tabaco is the provincial capital, includes the nearly perfect inverted cone of Mount Mayon, a semi-active volcano. Approximately 25 kilometers separate Legazpi City from Tabaco, and our route crossed several bridges over drainages and rivers as we circumnavigated the base of the steaming mountain. Everything flows down its steep slopes into the peaceful Bay of Legazpi and Fran Sharp, the quintessential guide and former Peace Corps Volunteer himself, pointed out important landmarks, accessible snorkeling islands, and more than a few historic ruins commemorating previous eruptions of this cantankerous volcano.

We arrived at the district office with time to spare and made the obligatory visits and introductions. Fran departed with the understanding that I would catch a local bus back to Legazpi later that afternoon. Whereas the school visit would be conducted entirely in English, the return trip would allow me the opportunity to practice my Bicol language skills taught during our 3-month training in Hilo, Hawaii.

What Fran and the school administrators didn’t know, however, was that the approaching weather system had been upgraded to that of a tropical storm, with winds ranging as high as 65 km/h. While touring the school where I would be assigned, the light rain became heavier and the coastal breeze developed into regular, forceful gusts. After lunch, Mr. Santos Bocaya, principal of the elementary school where I would be volunteering, gave me a brief tour around Tabaco that ended at the bus terminal for my return to Legazpi City.

There was considerable commotion as people scurried about among the brightly-painted vehicles. The prince of the fleet, the daily shuttle to Legazpi, stood apart, its doors closed and roof-top rack empty. Our fear of ensuing trouble was confirmed with the announcement that the bridge in the coastal village of Malilipot had washed out. That made my return to the regional office—to my yet unpacked bags and temporary accommodations—impossible.

As the wind and rain intensified, the temperature plummeted, rendering my tropical garments inappropriate and my borrowed umbrella worthless. Mr. Bocaya thoughtfully invited me to spend the night as his guest and, wearing borrowed clothing, we munched on snacks and sodas with his wife and children in the living room of their newly constructed wooden home. Although still early, the sky had darkened and the storm was elevated to typhoon status with gusts reaching 120 km/h. This was serious enough to destroy all but permanently constructed buildings. These winds churned the Lagonoy Gulf, of which Tabaco was the main port, into a violent sea that ravaged the shorelines and modest nipa houses of fishing families. Nipa is related to the palm plant and is combined with bamboo to make crude, but dry, accommodations. In a typhoon, the fragile structures didn’t stand a chance, and those remaining to seek shelter from the storm shared a similar fate.

The typhoon, the Asian equivalency of a hurricane, raged well into the night with gusts being clocked at 275 km/h—an incredible 170 miles per hour. Coconuts were flying horizontally, occasionally striking the siding with a paralyzing thud. Suddenly, in one extraordinary gust, the house’s new roof creaked, shuddered, and simply disappeared. I recall being showered with blasts of wet, stinging rain while gazing upward into dark, dancing shadows of a bizarre choreography.

The accompanying roar was what brought us to our senses. We were stunned and everyone was shouting, running, senseless. Rain poured in, shock morphed into terror, and the entire family and I scrambled into the stone outbuilding that served as a backup kitchen and his mother’s tiny apartment.

A single candle, with hardly a flicker, spoke volumes and it was there I spent the first night in my Peace Corps assignment, sharing a roughly-hewn plank table as our bed with the Bocaya children while their parents huddled on the floor beneath us. It was ridiculously cold and we used each other’s bodies to keep warm.

In a letter to my parents dated 12/13/70, I wrote:

Yes, it was scary, but the thought that my life was in danger never occurred to me. It was only the next morning that I realized how bad things were. Really tragic; we went to the city hall and since it also had lost its roof, the morning’s drizzle was falling through onto the already 15 or so corpses lying there in state, awaiting identification.

The following morning, with Typhoon “Sening” well on its way into the North China Sea, Mr. Bocaya and I surveyed the extensive damage. The school was a wreck. Buildings were leveled, roofs ripped off, and the contents of classrooms were heaped into corners and churned as if placed in an oversized blender. Most pathetic was the ruined 3-classroom building recently constructed with WWII reparation funds from Japan. Ironically, it was to that same building that many residents from those collapsed nipa houses rushed for safety.

The structures were called “Marcos” schools, named after the Philippine President, and were constructed with concrete cinder blocks. As money from Manila changed hands, so did the ratio of concrete to sand change during the manufacturing of those blocks. With less cement holding the blocks together, their strength was compromised.

Add to all this a classic illustration of flight basics. The reason the building collapsed was because its galvanized iron roofing was bolted to the steel rafters, rather than using quick-release fasteners. Gale-force winds easily lifted the roof as if it was a glider and the brick walls, lacking the integrity to withstand the incredible force, imploded onto the refugees huddled inside.

Throughout the province, scores died from flying debris, collapsing homes, falling trees, and floods. From my perspective, nothing was more tragic—and preventable—than the loss of those villagers in buildings weakened by heartless pockets lined at their expense. The image of those victims, lying grotesquely in rows at the makeshift morgue in city hall, will last with me forever.

How’s that for a first day on the job? My Peace Corps experience provided me far more than I could ever have imagined. Interestingly, 40 years later, my sister served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jordan and, thankfully, her first day wasn’t nearly as terrifying.