“Mabuhay (May You Live/Welcome)!” (23 Feb-23 Mar, 2008) A tanned, poverty-stricken teenager seemingly swigged gasoline from a Coke bottle before blowing it onto his torch. Flare! Bleached, upper class, middle-aged women grabbed my Midwestern tush and giggled while their husbands adoringly rested their arms around me as we belted out videoke ballads. “Oh!” There was read more..
A tanned, poverty-stricken teenager seemingly swigged gasoline from a Coke bottle before blowing it onto his torch. Flare! Bleached, upper class, middle-aged women grabbed my Midwestern tush and giggled while their husbands adoringly rested their arms around me as we belted out videoke ballads. “Oh!” There was a hushed murmur as it was announced that I would swallow balut (duck embryo) followed by a rapturous applause as a 25-year-old me – the new “Mr. Baracay” (Beach) – was as revered as he was rhapsodized in the intensely hospitable pent-house revelry of the Philippines, where music, dance, and laughter – within the confines of class and status – were the uniting dynamisms. “Aaadams! Aaadams! Aaadams!”
Sleep-deprived and stupefied, five of us southwestern Michiganders made up a “group study exchange” team as we were ushered hither and thither throughout the provinces of Bicol, Batangas, Laguna, and Quezon (with a spectacular stint speaking in front of hundreds of heavy-hitters in Manila superseded by carousing on a yacht overlooking the city surpassed by salacious strip club-hopping) promoting “good will, world peace, and understanding” for one momentous month. The baby of the bunch, it was the first time I’d dramatically stepped outside of my culture, and my provincial sensibilities took in parties where everyone tried to marry us off between sing-along ditties and snapping good-humored pictures, were stimulated during presentation-giving that encouraged everyone to photograph and videotape us, and got ego-catered to while walking in processions where we observed thousands of locals just gawking – cell phones on the ready. An idealized young white American (gay) man, one minute I was interviewing sex workers in the shanties, and the other I was sitting with the squatters in the landfills, only to educate children being treated for typhoid after the latest typhoon. God! Then off to be escorted by eight security officers (every day, trying to dismiss myself of those bodyguards!) up a mountain that tucked away terrorists, on to chat with devotedly Catholic transgender teens on park benches, before having a university virtually shut down to perform for us for hours with personalized banners and lavish fanfare.
Under what appeared to me as a pretense of sharing my expertise in HIV prevention and sexuality education, giving impromptu lectures to high school students, meeting unofficially with hidden-away queer groups, and being hosted by gay doctors I playfully kept at arm’s length, I was in a state of blissful submission. Daily whisked past devastating poverty, befriended by the elite, and briefly touching on everything beyond and in between, what coalesced and came about was a profound recognition that the world was worth witnessing! Stuck in Kalamazoo, stagnating while waiting for inspiration for grad school, this eureka moment had me acknowledge a standing desire to MOVE! My sensation-starved sense of self had been seeking the extraordinary in the ordinary, and now I had but a cloudy consciousness of a push to be pulled to unearth the everyday in the exceptional.
That fateful trip to the “Pearl of the Orient” transformed the trajectory of my life, and I have rarely talked about it. It was penetrating, and may still go unprocessed for some time. A chance for change, it cracked the door of possibility open. Every day was compacted with outrages and absurdities and causes for celebration. From the simple joy of morning mango juice dripping down my chin to the grandeur of fishing for tilapia inside the crater of a volcano next to the volcano within – it was a testament to the splendors that lay ahead, and how resolutely life could be grabbed by the balls. Something within had exploded, and it could never be subdued.
In surrendering to what was perplexing, I discovered how so alike we all are. And the miracle in turn was in going back home and re-realizing the remarkable in the run-of-the-mill. And the passed down privilege I had that permitted me to straight-up forge ahead with what fulfilled me. I was too unsophisticated and egocentric to embrace the cohesion of the internal and external, but was compelled by so much that was unprecedented elsewhere. (It was this wonderment-cum-wanderlust that would find me wayfaring over 30 countries in the years to come. Stay tuned…)
(While beholden to it because it bettered my life, I also strongly support the life-changing work of Rotary International. Consider getting involved at rotary.org.)
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