Stories from the Corps

 
 

This is me and my mother, Rowena.

While she's not as talkative as my grandmother Carmen was, my mom can get going. And one of the topics on which I have heard ample anecdotes throughout my life is her time volunteering for the Peace Corps as a student right out of college in the Philippines.

mama peace corps group copy.jpg

My mother attended the University of the Philippines. After graduation, she volunteered for the Peace Corps as a language instructor, based in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan island. She taught American soldiers and sailors the Cebuano and Tagalog languages, and taught Vietnamese refugees English. She island-hopped between camps in tiny, seatless planes that would always freak my grandmother out. She has had paranormal experiences on orchid farms, and gone swimming in underground cave rivers beneath islands of shrieking monkeys and macaws. The man seated to the right of her in the above photo was a prolific dancer from the Ifugao tribe. When I came across this photo, she told me this, and looked as if she were still remembering his performances for his friends and colleagues in the Corps, over 30 years later.

 refugeecamps.net, Puerto Princesa

refugeecamps.net, Puerto Princesa

The details of these stories never waver even after all this time and telling. I could probably recite them myself at this point, but I am not tired of hearing or watching her tell them. Many stories revolve around joyful or funny moments; others tell of times she was afraid. Part of why stories become so ingrained in us is because of their emotional content and effects - how they made us feel never leaves us.

I wish I could walk through the places she describes with her; this is the only way these stories would become more real to me than they are already. I also wish there were some way for me to find the people she lived these memories with and put her back in touch with them, but alas, social media is less appealing to her than a rotting corpse.

I think anyone who knows my very prim and meticulous mother today would fall over if they heard any of these stories. If anyone found out or asked, she'd probably downplay it or not go into too much detail, whereas to me it seems as if the only thing she leaves out is where the trash went. It's all speculation, but perhaps years of being a single mother to an only child, only daughter, living in a new country and working endlessly in unglamorous office jobs to provide for her, and taking care of her own aging parents going through the same thing takes a toll on your adventurousness.

Her storytelling has contributed immensely to my love of reading and writing, and of traveling and language, even though she doesn't participate much in those things herself anymore. When I do, and bring back photos and trinkets and stories, she gets to sit back and listen for once, and sometimes that seems enough.