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At Home in the Barrio

A Volunteer in 1964 stands with her visiting father in the Philippine village.

When I arrived in the Philippines, another Trainee and I were assigned to a small barrio six hours by bus from Manila. Our new home was a tiny fishing village.

A battered box in one corner of my attic contains an assortment of items from another world; jars with rusty lids full of sea shells and white sand, fans woven from buri leaves, bamboo clothes pins, a small pair of slippers made of wood and plastic, a red flowered remnant of a curtain, all mementos of my two years in a tiny barrio in the Philippines.

I joined the Peace Corps in the summer of 1963, fresh out of college. For three months of training in Hawaii, I studied the Tagalog language, Philippine culture, politics, current events, math, science and English teaching methodology. With my fellow Trainees, I dug trenches, cut grass for building traditional nipa houses, met with staff psychiatrists, and hitch-hiked to black sand beaches and the erupting Kilauea volcano. When I arrived in the Philippines, another Trainee and I were assigned to a small barrio six hours by bus from Manila. Our new home was a tiny fishing village.

Following a six month stay with a local family, we moved into a house on the edge of the barrio, a place some said was haunted with aswang, or spirits. Our house stood on low pillars made from the trunks of palm trees and had a roof of thatched palm shingles fastened down with bamboo. Behind it, was a tangle of banana and papaya trees, flowering creepers, and tall, swaying coconut palms. At night we lay in our cots and listened to the hollow sounds of paddles against wooden outriggers and low voices as men set out across the water for a night of fishing, their lanterns dotting the bay. In the morning we awoke to roosters crowing, twig brooms sweeping courtyards and the bread seller calling, “Pan de Sal!” his warm loaves nestled in a basket lined with paper on the front of his bicycle.

Pam Cohelan Benson and her Peace Corps roommate in their barrio, circa 1964.
Pamela Cohelan Benson and her Peace Corps roommate in their barrio.

Few people in the barrio spoke English and we had many opportunities to use our Tagalog. Each morning I traveled by bus to teach in a school ten kilometers away while my roommate remained to teach in the school in our home barrio. At the end of the day, we’d return to our house, prepare a meal and try to make sense of our new life and work in this place that didn’t appear on most maps. In retrospect I see that we alternated between immersing ourselves in the culture and holding it at bay, afraid, I suppose, of losing our identity.

We remained intensely aware of our own country and culture. After all, we had left the summer Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and we had only been in our barrio a few short months when President Kennedy, our inspiration, was murdered. Some evenings, we could hear the Beatles singing through static on our battery-powered radio. On the weekends, we sometimes prepared an American recipe from our dog-eared paperback cookbook. When our portable oven got too hot, we lifted it off the kerosene burner and set it on the kitchen floor. In this way, we produced many loaves of banana bread and once, a miraculous lemon soufflé.

If one of us ventured a solitary walk down the beach, we were soon followed by throngs of village children. We quickly learned that the most difficult things we had given up as young women were our independence and privacy. Each morning as I walked to the bus stop, I would hear these questions: Sa’an ka pupunta? Sino ang kasama mo?” (Where are you going? Who is your companion?”)

We slept on metal cots draped with mosquito netting carefully tucked around a thin mattress. If an arm or toe touched the netting during the steamy night, we awoke with itchy welts and hoped that the large pink pills we swallowed every Sunday would suppress the possible malaria. A village carpenter had made us a long table and two benches, as well as a bookcase. A hammock hung across one corner, creating a place to catch a breeze, doze or read a book. We made pillows and covered them in bright fabric to match our red, flowered curtains.

Our water was stored in an empty oil drum in the corner of our kitchen. Every afternoon a young boy brought us water from the artesian well near the school. The large, square cans hung from wires suspended on either end of a bamboo pole he carried over his shoulders. His wide bare feet took quick steps as he moved carefully under the filled-to-the-brim weight. A bucket of water dipped with a tin can provided a shower. When heated, half a bucket washed our dishes. Boiled for ten minutes it made our tea or coffee; stored in an earthen ware crock our cool drinking water. We used it carefully, wasting little.

Most of the villagers lived a subsistence existence. A tiny tindahan (small store) in the front of the fish packer’s home sold a stock of commonly needed items. Large wide-mouthed jars held candy, cigarettes, aspirin, and band-aids. Small tins of tomato sauce formed pyramids on the back shelf and under the counter rice and sugar were stored, measured and sold in paper cones made from old newsprint or student copybooks. Bunches of two and three bananas hung across a string above the counter.

Pam Cohelan Benson's Peace Corps Philippines house.
Pam's home while in Peace Corps

One hot, still Sunday afternoon when the tide had sucked out and the village dozed, we noticed two figures on the reef, collecting snails and other sea creatures trapped in tidal pools. We made our way across the slippery rocks to where they were–a woman with long grey hair and a young boy. We did not know them. The woman smiled, revealing stained teeth, and gestured to their basket of delicacies. In the evening, the boy appeared at our door holding an enamel cup covered with a cracked saucer. It contained a delicious seafood soup for our supper, made from the afternoon’s harvest. The generosity and kindness of our barrio knew no bounds and this act of kindness from strangers who had so little became a symbol we would not forget.

For two years we lived in the barrio, sharing the joys as well as the sorrows of the lives of those around us. Our counterparts taught us as much as we taught them. We planned lessons together, attended in-service training sessions and once demonstrated how to make a model of the solar system using local limes. We talked endlessly about questions of teaching and learning. By far the most important lesson I learned as a young Peace Corps teacher collaborating with a counterpart in a Philippines classroom, was that if you’re not taking pleasure in your work, and if your students aren’t looking forward to your class, your effectiveness as an educator is questionable.

When our time in the Philippines came to a close, my roommate and I gave away all our possessions–books, clothes, furniture, kitchen utensils–and filled our trunks with mementos that spoke of that much simpler life we’d been living. She went on to make her life in Sweden and we do not see each other often. When we do, we easily pick up where we left off. She is an important piece in my life’s puzzle for she knew me when I first tried my wings in a place far from home and family.

“The sky is sharply orange...I wonder with what significance I will remember these nights and dawns,” I wrote in my journal a few weeks before my departure in the summer of 1965.

My answer is that, like so many others, I was changed forever by my life and work in the Philippines. I married another Peace Corps Volunteer who I met in India during my long trip home. We lived and worked abroad for the next 25 years. Our children grew up listening to our Peace Corps stories. More than forty years after my service, I returned to Peace Corps Headquarters to work in support of programs in the Europe, Mediterranean, and Asia Region.

I still have a wrinkled photo of the little house that made my home in the Philippines. Several years after we left, it was blown away in a typhoon. Flowering vines must now weave over the old foundation and local children surely tell stories of the aswang that inhabit the place.