In the Time of COVID. Day 114
July 10, 2020.
Pension Natividad, Manila 1999
Every world capital has the equivalent of Pension Natividad. It is just under a mile south of the US Embassy and three miles north of The Embassy Compound. We, along with our 16 year old son, traveled to the Philippines in 1999 to visit our daughter who was in her second year as a Peace Corps Volunteer. She met us at the Manila airport and we checked in to the pension.
Pension Natividad is a favorite of foreign national workers and NGO staff as well as Peace Corps volunteers due to it’s proximity to Embassy Row. Expats from many nations with VISA, Passport and Import-Export Issues stay there. At any given time there may be a hundred or more lodgers in rooms and dormitories. The grounds are walled and the hotel approach and car park are gated with security guards on station 24-7. The rent is ridiculously affordable and includes breakfast.
The Philippine archipelago has over 7000 islands yet most all official international business is conducted in Manila. The pension serves as a reliable general delivery address, meet up, package storage and all around port-in-a-storm for budget minded foreign nationals. While we stayed there, at least two dozen PC volunteers were in residence for staff training, R and R, or health clinic visits.
We met Judith at breakfast one morning. The dining hall was full but there was an unused chair at our table. She asked if she could join us and at first glance she seemed to be some PC’s visiting grandmother. Her hair was plain and dishwater grey, and she dressed in a fashion-less skirt and blouse, reminiscent of a nun who had set her habit aside for plain clothes in the 1960’s. But Judith wasn’t a nun. She was a retired teacher and Peace Corps volunteer.
That morning, once she discovered we were teachers, she shared her story with us. She’d spent 35 years in the public school trenches in Lexington, Kentucky, mostly as a grade school teacher but she’d advanced to curriculum specialist and staff development trainer. After retirement it hadn’t been long before she was widowed. Her house was quiet, and full of ghostly reminders of happier years. She’d met her husband Norman at Teacher’s College and they had a good life but had no children. They had dreamed of travel but never made the commitment. They dreamed of volunteerism but the demands of their careers kept them rooted to the children of Lexington.
Idleness chewed at her. She decided to enquire about the Peace Corps. Most volunteers are fresh out of college and are starry eyed optimists thirsting for adventure and seeking to serve mankind. But there are older volunteers as well. Judith’s experiences were ideally suited to a program the Peace Corps promotes. At the age of 69 she signed on for a year and was sent to the Philippines. She worked out of the Headquarters in the Manila compound, stayed at the Pension Natividad and traveled out for weeks at a time to remote regions and school districts leading curriculum development and staff training workshops. She’d just signed on for a second year. Judith was fulfilling a dream she and Norman had only fantasized. Meeting Judith was a chance occurrence that gave us hope for our futures.
An air of gaiety usually pervaded the dining hall and bistro tables since most of the lodgers were young and spent isolated months in remote postings. Being in the capital gave them an opportunity to let their hair down. At all hours, drunken, off key singers populated the nearby Karaoke bars. Getting drunk and singing loud Kenny Rodgers, Elvis and John Denver songs was the Philippine pastime. Casual romances were common, some brief, others lasting. Some with other volunteers, some with locals.
We stayed in Manila for a week. Our daughter had business at the PC HQ and supply purchases and shipping arrangements to make. She wanted to explore Manila, home to 10 million people. There are historical reminders of “The Battle of Manila” and the Japanese occupation, and the earlier struggle for independence from US colonization and before that, hundreds of years of Spanish rule. A vast gulf exists between the ultra-rich and the teaming masses living at subsistence level.
I wanted to tour Corregidor but I’m the only one in the family with that much passion for history. We passed the fabled WW II battlement off our starboard bow as we left Manila Bay on the Super Ferry bound for Puerto Princesa and Palawan Island.
Our week at the pension brought us in contact with Rodney. I’m not sure he was lodging there. All week he swooped down on tables like an insistent Magpie. He discretely finished plates left behind. He attempted to engage people in conversation. He was slender, dark haired, in his late 30’s, a white American dressed in the same t-shirt and pants everyday. Eventually he landed at our table. We wonder, even now, if his story was true or wether it was a hustle. My street radar sensed the latter. He’d come on hard times, he said. He’d married a young Filipina (photo shown of the two of them, but she was never with him). When they approached the embassy for her VISA, it was put on hold, he said. Also, there was an endless line outside the gate. It queued each morning before dawn and thousands of people stood, patiently trying to get those coveted travel papers that allow entrance to the US.
He’d engaged an attorney, he said. That expense and the wait had eaten up their travel money. He no longer had sufficient funds to buy the two one-way tickets to the states. (At that time two tickets to LA cost at least $1,800). I’ve been hustled a time or two, but what are you going to do? What if his predicament was real? I think we handed over $10. He was obsequious in his thanks. The loss of the ten didn’t effect us one way or the other, and he worked his hustle with a fever. My sense was that he was high and dry in Manila, didn’t have a wife, and this was how he got by. Maybe he couldn’t return to the States. Maybe I was cynical but maybe he was telling the truth. I still wonder how many similar pensions he visited each day. It was a subsistence hustle.
Finally we loaded into a Jeepney for the trip to the ferry terminal. Along the way we passed Smokey Mountain in Tondo, Manila, a combination 2 million metric ton landfill and slum built upon the landfill. It was home to more than 30,000 people who made their living picking through the garbage and who had built dwellings using the refuse. Some years later, I had a student, Kate, in Paso Robles CA who after graduation, went to midwife school in the Philippines and worked and lived at Smokey Mountain for some years. I have seen some slums and barrios in my travels but none the like of Smokey Mountain.
We boarded the ferry, were shown our rooms. Not long after clearing Manila Bay and heading south into The South China Sea, a monsoon blew up and the ferry pitched wildly from side to side all night, but that is another story.