Yuletide Stories From The Philippines
By Don Beaudreau
It is 1969 and I am a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer teaching English on a remote island in the southern Philippines. It is a beautiful place, this tropical island called Jolo, despite the centuries of warfare between Muslims and Christians for dominance of the island.
On this day I am on a hike with a half dozen of my male students. We have reached the top of the mountain that overlooks the town and the bay. It is called the “Crying Mountain,” because it is where the rains first appear on the island every afternoon during the rainy season.
We discover a little, thatched hut. There are pigs and chickens in the yard. A young Muslim man greets us from the doorway and invites us inside. When we enter, we see a teenage girl nursing a baby at her breast. She greets us, too, and asks us to take a seat on the straw mats covering the floor of their modest home. Then the couple begins to ask me questions. They want to know where I am from, and what I am doing on the island. After a little while, the baby finishes with its feeding, and the young woman holds the infant out to me, offering it.
“Please, take him,” she tells me, her tears beginning to flow.
Having held very few babies, I feel awkward about doing as she asks. “No . . . no, thank you,” I say, not knowing how else to respond.
She says something in her native dialect that I do not understand. She is very upset. One of my students tells me, “She is sad that you do not want to take the baby.”
“I can see that,” I say. So, I change my mind and accept the woman’s offer, hoping beyond hope that I do not drop the precious thing before I can return him to his mother.
The woman suddenly brightens. “Yes,” she speaks to me in English again, “you will be a good father for my son.”
Suddenly I am confused and wonder if I have heard her correctly.
She continues. “You will take him to America with you. He will have a better life there.” Then she abruptly gets up and walks out of her house.
I am astounded by what has just happened and do not know how to respond. My students come to my rescue and tell the father that I could not possibly accept such a wonderful gift as much as I might want to; that in America, things are done differently, etc. etc. etc. We thank the man for his hospitality and rapidly leave. My students joke with me about my almost becoming a father!
Two decades later I am in the Philippines as a member of a human rights “fact-finding” group. One day we visit the notorious area on the outskirts of Manila known as “Smokey Mountain,” where the city’s trash is dumped and burned. The fire and smoke are always evident. And so are the squatter families who live on top of this refuse. There are thousands of human beings who call this place “home.” Their hovels are built from the detritus of others. The children play among the trash. The old people smile at us. And the babies stare at as us—filthy, malnourished, and infested with parasites. Many of them cry. And many of them die.
As I walk through this hell-on-earth I am overwhelmed with grief. I am reminded of that baby boy and his family who were living on top of the crying mountain of Jolo. “Please take him,” his mother begged me. “You will be a good father for my son.”
So many things happened during that two-week human rights trip, including my trip home. While waiting at the Manila airport for my plane, I met a young American man who is returning from his tour of duty on a ship in the Persian Gulf. We decide to have our seats changed so that we can sit together. A 16-hour flight through a typhoon over the Pacific is a way to learn a lot about a person. And about yourself, too.
My 22-year-old friend has been allowed to fly home earlier than the rest of his shipmates because he has become a father—for the first time. His daughter had been born a month before, and her daddy is ecstatic about meeting her. But he is upset that the impending war had prevented him from being with his wife for the birth of their child.
I think of how lucky I was to witness my daughters being born and I sympathize with the soldier’s situation. And the more and more he talks about how thrilled he is to be a dad, the more and more sentimental I become.
In fact, I am so happy for him, that I begin to tell every flight attendant who passes by that he is returning from the Middle East conflict and will see his daughter for the first time, a story which nets him two free bottles of champagne and me, one. (Well, it didn’t hurt to tell them that I was his father. I certainly felt like it and could hardly wait to see the kid myself!)
So, the more we drank champagne, the less we notice the typhoon, and the gushier we become—even if he is a Marine! And even though we are still over the Pacific, two hours from touchdown, my surrogate son decides it is time for him to clean up so that he will look presentable to his wife and kid. So off he goes to the restroom with his carry-on bag. He comes back all spiffed up and ready to celebrate one of the biggest events in his life.
The plane lands and we wait to get through a very long immigration and customs line. As I observe his eagerness to get through this process, I feel that I am watching a kid who is just dying to open Christmas presents but is told he must wait until the right time.
But finally, the Marine is free and he rushes through the door to claim his fatherhood. I am right behind him and it becomes my overwhelming joy to take the very first photograph of him with his daughter. No painting ever created of the Madonna and Child is as meaningful to me as the photograph of that Marine, his sweet little girl and his beautiful wife.
And I think of all the advantages this child will have, unlike the little one I met on top of that crying mountain so many years before, or the many children I saw living on top of that other “mountain,” that trash heap called “Smokey.”
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