I’m writing this on the plane from Bacolod, where I have spent that last 10 months, to Manila. [Note: I got back 4 days ago, and only now am getting around to posting this] Tomorrow I’ll get on another flight to Tokyo, then another to Detroit, and one more back to Boston to the home of my birth. It is a good opportunity to write a stream-of-consciousness piece on leaving.
I’ve called Bacolod my home for the better part of a year. True, I’ve used the Philippines as a hub for the rest of Southeast Asia, but Bacolod has been my home for seven of those ten months. When I return home from Bangkok or Saigon or Hong Kong, it isn’t to Boston. Home has been Bacolod. That is no longer the case, and that fact creates mixed emotions. But first, some background that place.
The Philippines is an archipelago with 7,100 islands. Negros is located in the middle of the country, in a region called the Visayas, which also includes Cebu, Panay, Leyte, and Samar. It is the divided into two provinces – Negros Occidental, of which Bacolod is the capital, and Negros Oriental. It is called the Land of Sugar because it produces the majority of the sugarcane in the country. In Bacolod, if you want to support local commerce, just pour out a couple of sugar packets. Negros is also beautiful. An active volcano, Mt. Kanla-on, stands prominently inland from the coastal city of Bacolod. Get outside the city and you sink into miles and miles of sugarcane, standing about two meters high and very green. When you aren’t surrounded by sugarcane, you might be looking out at lime green rice fields, low and vast. Look to your right on the cliffside road to Dumaguete, the capital of Negros Oriental, and you see the coastline – blue meets green as you drive the dividing line.
When you hear people talk about Negros – Filipinos and ex-pats alike – you hear the same words used to describe the lifestyle of its residents. “Simple,” “laid back,” “mellow,” and “easy-going,” are a few telling adjectives. People work and live off the land, either on the side or as their primary means of income. The hang-ups of the big city, the pollution, the traffic, and the hustle and bustle of Manila and Cebu don’t exist in Bacolod. This attribute manifests itself in people’s demeanor and mentality. People are hardworking and industrious, but life is simple here, and, as far as I can tell, people are happy. People like to sing, like to dance, like to drink, and like to eat. It is great.
Originally, I was only supposed to spend three months here before going to Vietnam to work with another microfinance institution with Kiva. I decided to remain here when NWTF asked if I wanted to stay. I took a month off to see Thailand and Burma before returning home to Bacolod, where I stayed for another three months, before traveling the Philippines. Three months is too short to build a life anywhere. Seven months is perhaps too little, but I managed to do it. I played in a soccer league two nights a week. Filipinos like to eat and drink, which always put me in good company. My coworkers were a bunch of smart and hard-drinking microfinance practitioners who, for the most part, are all heart in their chosen professions. There are three types of young ex-pats here: German kids fresh out of high school doing a year of service before college, Australians working with their equivalent of USAID, and Peace Corps volunteers. I was the odd independent, but had friends everywhere. I had an apartment and a girlfriend who I met playing in the same soccer league. All of these things have made leaving very difficult.
Again, three months is too short to build a life. It is too little time to develop relationships and settle into a place. Just when you are getting to really know people, you have to leave. But I stayed and, as a result, made a lot of friends from all over the place. In the Philippines, everyone speaks English. It is a lot easier to have meaningful conversation here than in other countries, like Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Thailand, or most of the rest of the world for that matter. One of my closer Filipino friends here told me he usually tries not to get close to visitors because, at the end of the day, they are just going to leave anyways. I was the longest volunteer NWTF has ever had, which made it easier for me to integrate. I went to people’s houses for dinner, went to the bar after work, and took long trips together. I made friends with people, but, at the end of the day, I still have to say goodbye.
When I traveled through the Philippines for a month chasing reefs and wrecks, I’d routinely spend three days on a boat diving with people. In Coron, my companions were an American working in Manila for a power-generation company, two young Germans – a high school biology teacher and a recently minted professor of comparative theology – and two Italians – a global financial analyst for an Italian bank and a physical therapist. Six hours on the boat, three more underwater, and dinner and drinks when we were back on land. Once I’d completed the three-day dive cycle, I jumped on a plane to Manila and then down to Cebu. At the end, I had to say goodbye.
Having to say goodbye is the downside of living short-term. It is the downside of investing in relationships, for both parties. But the upsides – meeting smart and interesting new people, mostly from countries and cultures other than your own, and hopefully maintaining those friendships for years – far outweigh the negatives.