“Since the first time I came to these islands, whenever I am away from the Philippines the only thing I can think of is…the Philippines.” Nick reached over and put his large hand on Sean’s shoulder. Looking Sean straight in the eye, cracking a smile and giving a gruff, deep, Alabama chuckle Nick asked him, “When I’m in the Philippines, you know what I think about all the time?” Nick’s chuckle grew louder and lower, and just when Sean was about to answer, Nick blurted out, “The Philippines!” And again, with more passion, “The Philippines” stretching the last syllable; tightening the squint of his eyes; and, flexing the smile muscles in his lips to raise the pitch of his answer. “The Philipppiiiiinnnneezzz!!!”
That day in late July was only the first of many times that Sean would hear Nick blurt his trademark declaration. Over the following months, Sean would hear him avow his partiality for living in the Philippines during many a barstool conversation. But at that moment, Sean was feeling his own deep love for the Philippines. He was beginning his fifth month in the country and although there had been a few rough times, those were far from his thoughts. This was a magical moment, sitting on Beachcomber’s veranda sipping beers and laughing with Nick while the evening sky began a blend of brilliant colors. They listened to the shrieks from a flock of hungry birds feeding on the insects awakening to the dusk while several banka boats coasted into the lagoon to dock for the night. From the bar’s terrace they could watch the lively scene of children playing on the pier and women barbequing pork and chicken in the shade of an open-air hut. The smell of barbequed pork whetted their appetites. Everyone was smiling or laughing. The sun was setting on the other end of the island painting the thin clouds that streaked the sky iridescent pink and orange and red.
Sean looked at the small island of Gilutongan in the distance. That was his temporary home…his island… at least he had begun to refer to it that way. His island looked so tranquil from the distance. The poverty, hunger and sickness—all invisible at that magic moment. Sean’s gaze scanned the horizon counting the various islands, Olango, Bohol, Caohagan and then to the North where the Camotes’ silhouette was visible in the evening light. Enjoying an ecstatic moment, Sean could not resist trying to verbalize his transitory serenity, “You know, watching the sunset here…well, I just think I could live here forever and die happy.”
“Well, just don’t die hungry.” Nick joked, “Let’s go get some of that barbeque.”
As they walked off, Sean could not help but envy Nick. He saw Nick as a man living his dream. Sean revered Nick silently in his thoughts, “At his bar, Nick is king. The customers are his friends, the employees his extended family, and the view from the deck his paradise. Nick, this jovial guy in his fifties, is living his dream and savoring every moment of it. But Nick is not just savoring it for himself, he shares his dream and his good fortune. Nick is always willing to share whatever he has with others, whether it is knowledge, skill, food or money.” Sean was beginning to understand Nick’s real dream.
As they sat and ate the sticks of barbequed pork, Nick explained to Sean how he had drifted onto the island of his dreams. “Ya know I lived most of my life just thinking about money and doing just ‘bout anything to make a buck. But a buck was never enough. I always wanted more. If I had two, I wanted four; if I had four, I wanted eight. Then it got so the money wasn’t even enough. There were times I screwed people over and even got a kick out of it. There was a time— before I came to the Philippines—when I wasn’t just satisfied with my success, I needed to see my rivals fail. I wanted to see people on the verge of tears because I had beat them out of a contract or an account. But then that is just the advertising business in Los Angeles—cut throat. Then in the early 90s, I came here and saw just how hard some of these people have it, but they still smile and enjoy life. That’s when I got to thinking about my own happiness. I was feeling like I was missing something in all that fast-paced LA life.
“Funny thing…one day I was just sitting in a bar in Cebu, looking out on the dirty street, when I saw this old Filipino guy collecting paper and junk on a cart he was hauling around. He put every ounce of energy into pushing that cart, and for what? If he was havin’ a good day he maybe could pull in a dollar for all his sweat. Then I saw his t-shirt that had the Nike slogan ‘Just do it.’ I laughed because it was funny in a way. Ya know when I was working in advertising I knew the guy that came up with that slogan. He thought it up in like ten minutes or less and became a zillionaire from it. He was joking around about his job saying ‘just screw it’ and then he came up with the slogan. No shit! Ten minutes of work bought him a house and sent his kids to college.
“But then here is this old broken down little Filipino man pushing a cart full of garbage around and he has never even owned a pair of shoes ‘cept for those rubber sandals. I pointed at his shirt and he just smiled and said ‘Michael Jordan, Do it!’ Hell, he’d have to work 5 years to afford a pair of Nikes. Well that is when I got to thinking that there was something seriously wrong with my job and my life. I started feeling like I had been selling people false dreams all my life with all those catchy, funny ads I had come up with. Those magazine ads and the television commercials that I wrote…tellin’ people how to have whiter teeth or get a ‘looker of a lady’ if they buy this car or be healthier if they use that margarine. Man, none of that was real. None of it! Boy, I’m tellin’ you, when I saw that old man with that dirty, soiled Nike T-shirt, I think I realized it for the first time. I realized I needed to get out of the advertising biz.
“Now, as fate would have it, I met Mandy, my wife, the very next day…”
Nick went on and explained how he had had a minor motorcycle accident after leaving the bar in Cebu and ended up in the hospital for a few days with a broken foot and some bruised ribs. There was a boy in the bed next to him who had also been injured in an accident. Although the boy’s mother stayed at the hospital to assist her son, she assumed the responsibility for pampering and nursing Nick back to health as well. Nick confessed to being smitten by the woman very quickly. Since at that time he had no children of his own, he figured a single mother with two children was a great way to start a family. He proposed to her within a week, returned to LA, quit his job, rented out his condo and flew back to Cebu for their wedding ceremony.
Sean was only partially listening to Nick’s lengthy account of how he and Mandy met, wed and grew to a family with twelve children by taking in street kids and having a few of their own. Sean was more focused on his own situation. He had come to the Philippines as a volunteer with good intentions, but recently there had been disappointments. Disappointments that were pushing him to the verge of disillusionment. Hence, Sean was beginning to feel something changing inside his heart. Soon he would start to question himself and his intentions. Soon he would reevaluate his dreams and ambitions. However, for that evening, Sean was satisfied having some time away from “his” island and enjoying the night on Mactan, the island of his new friend, Nick.
Copyright © 2012 by Brian J. English