Contributions to date:
January 29th $19,289
The incoming emails asking about my two-week trip to the Philippines and news of Tony are starting to stack up now. I did not feel alone on this trip -- I felt that there were thousands of people along with me. And I thank you for your interest -- it means a lot to me.
I've been back for several days. One week ago this afternoon I was lying on a blanket on the sand of the Philippine Island of Boracay, recieving a five-dollar, one-hour massage in a grove of palm trees just a few yards from the surf, wearing nothing but a swim suit. A couple of nights later I read a bed time story to my daughter here in Oakland, kissed her and my wife good night, and -- feeling completely discombobulated, feeling like I was someone else's stunt double -- I carried the trash and the recycling out to the curb in front of our house, wearing five layers of clothing. And wondering: What is this sense of disappointment that I feel?
I've written thousands of words about the trip (I'm not going to include them all here, perhaps a lot more next week, after my slides have come back from the processor and I've got some pictures to post on the website), and I NEEDED to write all of them in order to try to make sense of the trip.
Overall it was absolutely great. Tony and his family are fine, healthy -- no one even had a runny nose while I was there -- and financially they're as well off as they've ever been. The personal ease that Tony and I established during our long taxicab ride across America was right there again with us from the moment I stepped off the plane in Manila and we headed for the mountains. It was great to see the rice terraces of Banaue again -- they're really unforgettable. And the guesthouse is beautiful (although it has seen precious few visitors). I slept well on a firm foam mattress, and took my coffee and breakfasts (and all the other delicious meals that Tony's family cooked for me) on the balcony overlooking the thousands of terraces and the distant town. On the second morning Tony's brother killed and hacked up a pig and sixty guests came to help eat it and to celebrate my visit. A couple of days later Tony and I went for an overnight trek to the village of Bataad, where we'd spent a night 15 years earlier. (In Take Me With You I wrote about a different village, but not about Bataad. Fifteen years ago Bataad had three small lodges. But in the mid-late 1990s the region experienced a tourist boom, and now there are seven big lodges in Bataad. An indication of the impact that 9/11 has had is that two weeks ago I was Bataad's ONLY tourist! Tony and I and a chagrined lodge owner ate by ourselves in a restaurant with 50 chairs.)
I shared many warm and poignant and laughter-filled moments with Tony and his family and friends in Banaue. I was starting to feel like a local, starting to know the gossip, starting to recognize the people in shops and on the streets. But except for the day of the party and the 24 hours we spent trekking, the weather was mostly rainy and chilly. After eight days we bolted -- Tony and I headed off to the Philippine island of Boracay, where we spent the last four days of my visit. Boracay is a cheap tropical paradise of the flip-flops/shorts/mango shakes variety. Very warm, very relaxing, very friendly. Tony and I rode mountain bikes around the island, took long walks through cool palm groves and along the beach, rode catamarans, and one afternoon I coaxed him into his first kayak ride. There are no real sunsets in the steep mountains where Tony lives, so he delighted along with me at the natural light show playing on the horizon every evening. And every night a great band played Cat Stevens/Eagles/REM/Bob Dylan songs on the beach.
All great, right? So why the disappointment? It's taken me several days and all those thousands of words I wrote to figure it out. I think.
Before the trip I told myself I was just going over there to pay a simple social call on a friend with whom I'd shared the most incredible experience of my life, but the truth is I had a hidden agenda -- and I didn't even know it until I got back: I WENT IN SEARCH OF A HAPPY ENDING. For years I've felt responsible for having reached into Tony's life and mucked around a bit, and now I wanted to know that it was all o.k. I wanted to hear that he and his family were fine and that they loved all the things I (and many of you) have been able to provide in their lives (all of this was most emphatically confirmed), but I was also hoping to hear that their needs were all met and now they were going to live happily ever after. I didn't hear that.
Tony and Rita have seven kids now, ranging from 21 years to 10 months. The oldest has finished three years of college. The second oldest is in her second year. The $200 per month tuition/room/board eats up roughly half the family's income. Things are tight. Life is a struggle. There is no end in sight, and certainly not the classic happy ending I went looking for. Books have happy endings, movies have happy endings, but life is a never-ending series of challenges. (On Boracay we passed signs advertising "Happy Hour." Tony, who 20 months ago stopped drinking alcohol, said: "You and me -- we don't need. We have have MANY happy hours.") I came to believe that ten minutes do not pass in Tony's life without him worrying about his family's future. Sure the trip to America was nice, the new guesthouse is great, and of course he appreciates the money I sent for a new rice field (a story for another time, maybe next week), but they don't add up to a happy ending. There are no happy endings. He (and his family) have gotten a whiff of the opportunities that we in the West take so casually for granted -- and it's unsettling for them. One thing I had confirmed for me: we have a LOT to be grateful for in our Western lives, and it's almost impossible to stay aware of that fact. The best way I know to get a refresher: travel to a developing country.
But back to the happy ending. Why should I have expected or wished to encounter one in the Philippines? Good question. I don't know anyone alive who has achieved a happy ending. And I've never known anyone who died without having experienced continual challenge. Life is a struggle for every single person I know, me included. Nonetheless, I went to the Philippines hoping. Hoping I'd hear that I'd done enough, that there was nothing more I could do for Tony and his family. That I'd been wonderful, but my help was no longer needed. Hah!
"No happy ending" feels like an important lesson for me to learn, and may well have practical applications in my life. But it'll take some time for me to digest and implement. A trip's impact can not be absorbed immediately. It takes a while. And in about five minutes it's time for me to go pick up my daughter from school.
As soon as possible, next week I hope, I'll share some of the chunkier details of the trip. Some of the laughs and the pertinent information. And I'll get some pictures posted. For now, please know that Tony and his family are fine and we had a great visit together.
And as always, thanks for being a part of my life.
You can read Brad's dispatches from the month-long taxicab trip across America in the MONEY of 2001 by clicking here.