Posted with permission from Deborah Brink Worhmann firstname.lastname@example.org Reunion with Peace Corps family brings its own peace Twenty years ago, Yhan Yhan was the little girl next door where I lived in the village of Ponong, as a Peace Corps volunteer. She was often sent to knock on my door to make sure I wasn't lonely, but I hadn't been in touch with her since I left the Philippines. "Are you the one who spent two years in my village of Ponong, around 1989?" she wrote. I replied, and soon a few other friends from the small island of Siquijor (sik-e-hor) found me on Facebook — including my "little" host-brother, Dandy Viernes, now 30 and a computer engineer in Cebu. Those two inspired me to make the long journey to see them again. I had left the Philippines suddenly, not by choice or under the best of circumstances, and I wondered. "Will I ever see the Philippines again? Would I be too shocked? Would it be too awkward — maybe even traumatic?" I was excited to return — though nervous, too. In 1990, all the people living on the Filipino island of Siquijor shared one telephone. To call home I had to travel to the town of Maria and stand in line. To collect the mail, every six weeks I rode a pump boat, the Don Martin, for several hours across the Bohol Sea. For those two years, I never grew comfortable with the "Hey Joes!" and the staring I met when dallying in the city, but I eased into village life in Ponong, a barrio of Larena, living with a family. The house had no electricity, and I bathed and did laundry in the shared water hole up the road, often accompanied by children following or leading me somewhere. Assigned to the Department of Agriculture, I encouraged farmers, women and 4-H kids to plant mahogany and mango. Along with other volunteers, I organized and worked with doctors from around the Philippines who came to mend cleft lips and palates at the local hospital. I also spent plenty of time hanging around, sometimes feeling lonely. I learned to eat with my hands, and my Filipino family eventually allowed me to help out in the kitchen — though I never could cook rice gracefully over a fire. I struggled with the new language and noticed how the people of the village worked together to plant their fields but also how families squabbled, much like those I knew from my own childhood. I lost my innocence, so to speak, as a girl from eternally green lands. A Northwest native, in the Philippines I saw firsthand the devastation of tropical trees cut carelessly, fragile soil lost into the sea. From then on, I'd always be concerned about how we tend the land and how people get fed. The more I learned, the more I realized how little I actually understood. For the next 20 years I kept in contact with some other volunteers from the Philippines, some Filipino friends, and sporadically with Auntie Goria Viernes, my host mother. As my Visayan language skills faded, I felt shy to write in only English, and my work and family life distracted me. Now, the long reach of social networking invited me back to Siquijor island, to my Peace Corp days, and especially to the family and friends in Ponong. After about 16 hours of travel from SeaTac to the Cebu airport, not only Dandy but Auntie Goria and Daisy, her only daughter, stood smiling as my husband, Ludger, and I carried our luggage into the dense heat. I knew it would be OK when both women embraced me. Dandy awkwardly allowed me to give him a hug, and I gazed at this solemn and sturdy man who hardly resembled the lanky 10-year-old boy I'd adored. They led us to a shiny Isuzu SUV, and I knew their lives had changed dramatically. All those years ago, we'd relied on our feet, jeepneys and tricycles (motorcycles with a sidecar) to get us around. Now, even in the village, the family owns several motorcycles plus two other vehicles, one for Daisy's stores. Selling motorcycle parts and repair, she employs most of the family. When we landed on Siquijor the next day, I could hardly remember the word for "Thank you," Salamat. As I met old friends and toured the island, more Visayan words and sentences returned to me. I met the children of children I had wandered with. Older people told me stories and reminded me of what I'd said or done. One told me about when fish bones got stuck in my throat, and Mama Femia told me to let kitty paws stroke them loose. "You then went and wrote it in your journal so you wouldn't forget." Many explained, apologetically, how the Gemilina tree I had planted near the house was cut down when they widened the road. Since I'm the only volunteer they'd ever known in the village, it seemed easier for them to remember details of me than it was for me to unearth my memories. After a few days living in the same house where I'd eaten most meals for two years, I felt like it hadn't been long at all. Four of Auntie Goria's six children still live in her house in Ponong. Besides Daisy and Dandy, there are Darrel, Doine, Denis, and Dexter. Three of these sons are married with kids, and the other announced his engagement the day we left. The house itself is bigger and better equipped: a tiled kitchen with gas stove, two indoor bathrooms, TV for entertainment and a downstairs apartment plus the small bedroom where we stayed during our 10-day visit. A covered porch replaces the bamboo bench where, 20 years ago, we had often gathered in the evenings. In the Philippines, remembering and honoring ancestors is very important, and the family invited us to visit my host-father, Uncle Donesio. His casket was entombed above ground, and the family has built a fence around it to keep animals out. After much chit-chatting, Auntie Goria lit candles, and we stood for some moments in silence. "Do you want to see Elgin?" Daisy then asked. "She's over here." Elgin had owned the land where the community nursery stood. We then visited Elmer, Mama Femia, Lola Columba, Uncle Berto Viernes and others, climbing over one tomb, hopping to the next. Some names were carefully engraved into the stone, others etched with a rock. This journey back to Ponong and Siquijor gave me a closing I never had. Back in July of 1990, a volunteer somewhere in the country had been kidnapped. While he was never hurt, the U.S. government had responded to the threat by pulling us all out. I would have stayed for three more months and thrown a big party. Leaving so suddenly jarred me. My host family didn't quite know how to react, and one brother accompanied me on my final overnight voyage to the island of Cebu for my flight to Manila. We were then evacuated to Hawaii for processing — not where most of us wanted to be. My youthful resilience led me back to Hong Kong and several months of exploring Southeast Asia. Even my father, never a big fan of my Peace Corp choice, encouraged me to stay longer. I was so exhausted, I finally cashed in my ticket to Indonesia and went home, rather sad. Now, two decades later, we did throw a party — a birthday party for Denis and me, both July babies. It felt great to finally buy the pig. They used every bit to create their favorite Filipino specialties, and the finale, an 86-pound roasted pig with tail and ears intact, was the centerpiece that evening. Daisy bought two chocolate cakes, and Paraquin, the cook and adopted son, prepared spaghetti. Many neighbors and friends of the family came to eat and drink and visit. Along with the Visayan words, I felt aspects of myself come to life. I felt grateful meeting Yhan and her two little boys, teaching Doine's teenage daughter some guitar chords, and meeting the twin girls whom I'd known as children, Ako and Amay, along with their sons. "We thought we'd never see you again," Darrel said. "You're welcome any time," Doini reminded us. It's unlikely they will visit Washington. One friend, however, Elgin's oldest son named Jun Cayongcong, visits Portland, Seattle, and Tacoma. He works on ships, now a second officer, along with many Filipino men. Someday soon, we hope to take him out for dinner when he is in port.