Get set for a good hard luck story. “Hard luck story” was an understatement. By then a number of things compounded our problems: a gibbon, no money, and a telegraph strike back home. It didn’t help that we were in a big city. German which we didn’t know, studying it would later save us.
But the city of Vienna, which was to become our home, had to be taken on foot. We didn’t have enough money to ride the tram; we could’ve easily ended up without a place to stay. Physically, we had to carry our suitcases between places; I would go ahead scouting for something, leaving Peg, gibbon, and our things in a park for hours at a time. There was nothing else we could do, so to speak, after being evicted.
We thought we were set in a hotel room until Peg started a job she had lined up. The contacts she had made in her German class had paid off. There had been more than luck involved in our job search and taking German was where we started. We had not counted on the hotel manger suddenly telling us we had to move because “a tour group had the whole place booked up.” Pleading our case, explaining we were on a tight budget, did no good, so we were forced to take the next cheapest thing available at about $1.20 more per night. The increase was barely acceptable when we were quickly running out of money. The value of the money we had increased accordingly, and I still planned to pay for my German lessons from the money we had left. Then before we could unpack, an employee of our new hotel came up and told us they didn’t allow pets in their “house.” We felt this was unfair. Our problem with it was that they had seen the gibbon when we checked in and moving again would involve another long walk.
The next place was more expensive ($4.80 per night) and an hour’s walk from our German lessons. It really shot our budget. We tried to move again, after a week, back to the cheaper hotel. We checked out, walking all that way with our heavy bags. (“You wouldn’t believe the distances we walk these days. This ain’t no small town!”) We should’ve known. We didn’t see a problem coming: that they had a problem with the gibbon from the get-go. We were desperate and didn’t see it. We were desperate without enough food. We had money back in the states, but we were desperate because we hadn’t counted on there being a damn telegraph strike. With desperation came random folly.
He clearly did things to shock us, since he was supposed to have been our mentor and teacher. Indeed, he brought himself down to our level by doing what he did. He didn’t have to impress us; he was, at the time, someone who had gone to the Philippines before we did. He had had a successful two-year stint there, precisely because he knew how communicate. And he could relax and never worry about what people thought of him. Instead, he went to the opposite extreme. An observer had to hope he would show some restraint and wouldn’t totally destroy decorum. And he didn’t really ever cross that line. He would come close but never actually stick his finger up his nose. Instead, he would place his finger beside his nose and, without saying a word, dare someone to make something of it. It would be his way of humbling poor souls who fell for his act.
Let’s call him Roger. Someone very recognizable in his baseball cap. All show, no! Yes, he knew what he was doing, with convictions that matched, a particular passion for service, and an example of the very best that America had/has to offer. And throughout the Peace Corps, there were/are many like him.
The single-minded purpose of the veteran volunteer had been to teach. Roger would never flinch when faced with something impossible. (I wanted to use the word disgusting.) A science teacher, he was always experimenting, in the same way he tinkered with our minds. In a more subtle manner, he would listen to us and could anticipate our impulses, those when acted on shrinks were watching for. The possibility of being deselected during those early days of Peace Corp training was always hanging over everyone’s head: one bad rating from a peer would do it. Roger knew this better than we did; so it was good to have him around, doing things had we been him that would’ve led to our deselection. How disheartening the long flight home from Hawaii would’ve been.
As a writer, I have known a sense of insecurity: it was to know I would have to do something else to survive. And inside me I held onto the belief that one-day I would be able to earn a living writing, when in the world and throughout history there were those who did that. But I don’t think I believed enough in myself to do it. New media, the development of the Internet for one, offer new opportunities, as well as my belief in practice. Practice at least means improvement, and writing a blog has given me an opportunity to improve. So the prospect of someday earning money from my writing lives on. This, however, is not something that preoccupies me.
Not someone who was focused on making money, I was a man satisfied, as a writer, with improving. As long as there was something meaningful to do or some adventure, I could pursue writing without making money. But writing was as close to being a necessity for me as anything else. An excuse perhaps, but said with sincerity: fulfilling even without the attachment of money.
To understand me, then, you would have to match my imagination with naivete. It is also important to recognize that I have never been afraid to risk everything for an adrenaline high (it’s a good thing that I never took up alcohol or drugs). So when I heard a British acquaintance in the Sulus (he later stayed with us in Manila) say he walked through Khyber Pass not once but twice, I visualized myself walking through it backwards. To later drive through the pass was thrilling. But bicycling through the jungle of Sumatra, with the tigers and the related experience of primitive fear, was my attempt at following my acquaintance’s footsteps (he hiked across Borneo)…though I couldn’t duplicate his adventures (you never can). And, in spite of making very little money from my writing, I have few regrets about how I’ve lived my life. And I’m still writing.
To not have seen the Taj Mahal when we had the chance is now to me one of my biggest regrets. It is a story of a missed opportunity, as our train passed close by Agra or from New Delhi we could’ve easily taken a special train there. But we used as an excuse we can always go back. It illustrated a pattern for us; we had missed other spectacular things in similar fashion: there is no telling how many of them we missed. And to have a guidebook, and sometimes even a map, would’ve helped.
A unique sight…the splendor of a greater hornbill flying through a forest canopy…we took it for granted when we first saw the bird on Sumatra. That was how we allowed assumption to give us an excuse to move on. It seems now as if we could’ve watched the bird all day long, but then we thought we would see many of them. Our story is we rushed through that virgin forest thinking we had entered a vast one, when in reality we wouldn’t go through another forest like that again. That was the only greater hornbill we saw. Peg always said it was a lesser hornbill, a debate that lasted, back and forth, for days.
A Methodist minister gave us the keys to his hilltop chalet; going there was like traveling back to the world of the colonials. This was in Malaysia. It was high, but it was impossible to tell how high because mist covered the hilltop the whole time we were there. Maxwell Hill, beautiful, breathtaking, but a place for once we couldn’t pass through. And in the midst of flowers, this hilltop, splendid with paths and views we still couldn’t fully appreciate it. It was too cold and with the mist…., but we didn’t miss an opportunity this time. We didn’t miss it because there was no road beyond there, and the only way out was the way we had come.
These experiences, perhaps because we missed so much, or perhaps because we traveled for so long, now serve as a lesson. But I suppose at the time it showed our state of mind, or at least mine.
It seemed to me as if I were standing there naked and knew that I was thousands of miles away from home. It was also difficult to escape the fact that I was a Caucasian. It was still unknown to the marchers my nationality, unless one of them happened to have been a student of mine or a faculty member in my department. But standing there, on the campus of the University of the Philippines, I found it very hard to remain a bystander.
And really, looking at that war in the fall of 1969, it would’ve been difficult for me to be for it. It was still unknown to me that I would have a high school buddy die in it, a death that would seem unnecessary or at least, in light of our loss of the war, hard to reconcile. It later would appear to me to be a time that touched my heart more than any other. I would later say things about that war and the men who came back from it that I truly regretted, and when answers were never that simple.
They were demonstrating, and had I been at home, I might’ve joined them with undeniable passion and the lack of caution. Now I see I could’ve easily been that friend who died but my draft board didn’t catch up with me in time. And their effort didn’t stop with them trying to send me for my physical to a place I couldn’t have possibly gone. Their mistake saved me. Deferments helped by delaying it enough to allow my escape. Okay, it spoke of unfairness. It extended to many men my age who, for whatever reasons, didn’t go. Unlike World War II, there wasn’t a clear reason for going. The stakes weren’t the same; Vietnam wasn’t Europe; genocide in Cambodia hadn’t happened yet. From the Philippine perspective, or at least on that campus then, Americans were the aggressors. Randy Ford, the quiet American, familiar in light of Philippine history and the nearby military bases they wanted closed, so helpless had their anger turned on him, teaching there then, couldn’t have escaped had he wanted to. But why would they turn on him?
Destinations, and they all seemed to be a time for resting. Denpasar (Bali), most of it spent catching up on our reading. Whiling away time hunkered down in a hotel room with a stack of novels suited us more than sightseeing and beach combing. By then we’d had a fill of people. Kids begging for money, the first kids to do so in Indonesia, had clearly dampened our Bali experience. Getting to Denpasar on our bicycles had been enough commentary on the island for us. But the Hinduism there, with all its color and ritual, often enlivened our senses: the picture-post-card scene, the music, the flowers, the scents, in combination, made it all worth while.
But we all go to different places for different reasons. We take to destinations our journey; and what we do there is, or should be based on our needs. Because we exhausted ourselves, really, to get somewhere like Bali, we needed to sometimes stop. And our destinations, the sights, sounds, scents of the place, became less important than our renewal.
It came to us that the “change-of-air stations” in Malaysia such as Cameroon Highlands or Maxwell Hill were for sleeping. We had no coats; we weren’t used to the “cold:” after the heat of tropics a change of air gave us an excuse to burrow ourselves under the covers and read. For days on end, we read. The colonial world had it right when they retreated in mass to their stations: just as Peg’s family would retreat each summer to the cabin in the mountains of Southern New Mexico, where they took long hikes for relaxation and picked wild strawberries for jello. But back to Bali, where fatigue had stripped us of romance and where reality set in: preferring to read to doing anything else, when we had an exotic world just outside our door, a world people from everywhere flew to see. It was right there, when it could’ve been so far away.
It is the fondness of repeating the same stories, the excitement of reliving them, that leads me back to places I’ve been. It is always easier to tell the same stories than explain why something happened the way it did. The most memorable stories are usually about close calls and hardship. I feel we’ve been lucky…to have traveled when it was much safer than it is today…to have gone through some of the world’s hottest spots. But, such was our luck, we were always taken care of by the people we encountered. Danger, however, was sometimes there, and it may have been near more often than we realized.
Whatever the risks were, they were not of the nature that kept us from going anywhere. Hostility, threats, the possibility of violence if you like, had us retreat a time or two. There was always that gut feeling attached to it. We always knew when we were in the wrong place; we could immediately sense it. And even when a drunken soldier in a food shop in Jolo (in the Sulus) confronted us, there was something instinctual that told us how to handle it.
There were the police, the police of the police in Djakarta, with their machine guns placed on top of buildings. There was the tank, stationed in the forested no-man’s-land between Malaysia and Thailand, and armed solders who accompanied our bus through another kind of no-man’s-land on the road between Udon Thani and Chiang Mai…and other times when dealing with the unknown, such as the fear of tigers in Sumatra, and not knowing if we would make it to a safe place before dark. There was a stranger who attached himself to us in Communist Bulgaria and the whole time railed against his government: were we being set up? These were incidents when at the very least we felt less than secure, but were we really ever in danger? Our imaginations were always active: the idea that machine-guns, a tank, and armed soldiers (not to mention the machine guns and sandbags around Vientiane) foretold the possibility of danger. And there was opposite feelings about remote places, the most remote, and the more remote the place the safer we felt because of the kind of welcome that we always received. We were always well taken care of.