Tuesday, December 3, 2013

18 and 19 March 1999, The Philippines, Operation Smile

18 March 1999

The ride home, back to the estate where we are staying, is beautiful. Our keepers feel security is a big concern in our locale, so our travels are always by group and with escorts. The team keeps three vans constantly busy. They cart us to the Dr. Jose Rizal Hospital in the morning and relay us back at dusk. Most of us were released early this evening to attend a banquet in our honor given by a local politico and Operation Smile sponsor. I managed to remain alert enough to get some bearings of the surrounding area.

The hospital is in a walled compound. The stretch between hospital and the Kalapayan Estate teems with people and business and life. The ride is about ten miles, much of it on dirt roads with no stop signs, traffic lights, or street signs. During heavy traffic times there are traffic directors who stand valiantly in the major intersections, trying to direct the flow. I don’t see any posted speed limits. Our drivers go as fast as possible. There is much traffic and no apparent road rage. I’ve been in several situations that, had they occurred, say, near Exit 16 on the Interstate 95 corridor in Connecticut, tempers would ignite, most participants would give or receive the bird, and more dangerous driving would erupt. Disorder is rampant here but, despite the constant crush and confusion, there is a politeness of sorts.

There are trucks, some buses, a few cars, but mostly jeepneys and tricycles. Tricycles are motorized bicycles with sidecars. They serve as taxis. Most are slapdash affairs, dented, beat-up, and covered with road dust. They weave in and out of traffic with slapstick abandon and even bump up onto sidewalks in congested spots to get where they want to go.

Jeepneys are Filipino SUVs. I think they are some bastardized version of American military vehicles. About the size of a Chevy Suburban, there are two doors up front for driver and passenger, and an opening in the back with bench seats for paying riders to clamber in, pay the fare, and hold on. Most display signs and an array of lights across the top of the windshield alongside several long decorative horns. Shiny stainless steel is the embellishment of choice. There are babe-mobiles decorated with curvy silhouettes and holy-rollers plastered with bloody crosses. All of the jeepneys are named: “Saved by the Light,” “Sexy Cool,” “Purple Heart,” and “Hot Love.” They are the main form of local transportation. People grab hold of railings next to the back door and swing themselves in, then pass their fare from person to person up to the driver. I would love to get the chance to ride in one.    


A typical Jeepney

Our commute circuits by a mango plantation, a university hospital with a sign out front reading, “This is a No Smoke-Belching Area,” a technical school, a McDonald’s. Children walk along the roadside in crisp Catholic school uniforms – plaid jumpers, starched collars, handkerchiefs over mouths, arms linked with one another, book bags, and backpacks.

We pass rows and rows of corrugated-steel-topped shacks – open-sided, dirt-floored, with flickering blue TV lights visible in the advancing darkness. We pass a rice peddler, a coconut peddler with a large wide-bladed knife, a blind man by the side of the road. I see women with cloth bags and infants slung over their hips, thin men in sagging shorts with lit cigarettes dangling from their lips. I find myself searching through the faces in the crowd, waiting for people to turn around so I can see what they look like. There is such a mix here: Asian, Spanish, South Sea Island, and more.

A cock fighting stadium sits within walking distance of the Kalapayan Estate. It is the size of a bowling alley with open sides along the roof line. We get held up in traffic there and through the open windows I hear roars and bellows and whistles of derision. In a half-minute’s delay we vicariously experience the contest taking place inside.


We pass an open sewer and turn into the entryway of the estate.   

19 March 1999, first light

I am up early by some quirky rhythm my brain is adhering to. I’m still tired and could use more rest, but here I am, synapses popping away, my legs restless and ready to move. The dawn sun is slanting through our curtains and I’ve got at least a half hour before our gun-toting stewards announce over the speaker system in monotone English, “Good morning. Kalapayan Estate. Members of Operation Smile. Time to get up. Good morning. Kalapayan Estate . . .”

Okay, the Kalapayan Estate: an oasis, literally. We are holed up here in beauty and luxury, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. I prepared for Spartan. I brought rolls of toilet paper and antibacterial hand wash. I figured if I don’t find a shower, hell, no one else would be finding one either. Dorothy, a post-op nurse experienced in Op Smile missions, claims we are most lucky. I agree.

I share this room with two others: Karlene, the child life worker and Isabel – or Izzy as she likes it, one of the floor nurses. Each of us is assigned her own bed and closet. The room is more efficiency apartment than hotel room. There is a small kitchen area with no running water but a table and chairs with enough room to organize our papers and equipment. There is running water in the bathroom although we must request our hosts to turn on the hot water for us every evening. Floor-to-ceiling drapes cover the double sliding glass doors to our balcony. Yes – a balcony. From it I survey extensive gardens, a pool, fountain, and servants’ quarters.

I’m told Operation Smile was given the use of this facility by a wealthy trucking baron. He purchased the property for his wife to grow a garden and he constructed this apartment-style structure with accompanying penthouse as a venture to house business travelers.

His wife is an astonishing gardener. There are orchids trailing everywhere and different varieties of palms and pines and ginger and more I don’t recognize at all. There are seating arrangements and cabanas scattered throughout begging for a bestseller and a lazy afternoon. In the center of the compound is the Olympic-size pool. I’m not sure how big an Olympic-size pool is supposed to be. This one might be bigger. There are dramatic water features, night lighting, wide lap-lanes, and, in the far corner, an elevated man-made island suspended above the water on cement pillars. The structure has a roof and railings and a ramp across the water along with steps down into the water. Aside from some dispersed tables and chairs, every available patch capable of holding a bit of earth is lush with vegetation. Our team has fallen into a routine of meeting here after we all straggle back from the hospital.

We are pampered by the staff. They are more servant than chambermaid, a collection of eager teenage boys take care of our needs. Every night we return from the hospital and find our rooms immaculate and all of our possessions repositioned. Some of the team was concerned about this invasion. It is disconcerting. There is much worry about possible theft but nothing is established as missing as of yet. My belongings, I brought clothes and toiletries but took up the most luggage space with trinkets and stickers and toys to give away, are thoroughly rearranged each day but I’m not missing anything. The one change of earrings and bracelet I brought with me remains on the night table by my bed. The few valuables I carry, passport and money, are within my sight at all times so I’m not worried. I think they are curious and not wayward enough to hide it.

What I find most charming here are the geckos. As I lie in bed now I can spy two frozen in place on the ceiling. I shepherd them gently out of the shower each morning. I surprised one on the wall when I returned to the room last night. It darted off with electric speed. They all peacefully co-exist with the human population here. I suspect they offer pest control. I observe no alarm or significant reaction from the locals. One of my medical student translators at the hospital, Janine, tells me most homes consider it good fortune if a “house lizard” takes up residence with them. These, I think, are bigger – more substantial, than the finger-length green geckos dangling above my head right now.

My call. Time to start this day.

19 March 99, 6:05 PM

Back from the volcano, grimy and hot but not feeling as scattered as before. Yesterday and the day before were overwhelming, so much, too much. Today was better. I remembered to breathe. I maintained a handle on some things. There was solid interaction, beneficial exchange. I found a rhythm of sorts. Yesterday I found my pace but it was within so much chaos, so much action and sensory input, such a stream of faces and no bearings, no point of intuition about what I should say, what I could say, how they will handle and absorb it. Am I making sense here? Did I make sense there? I am not sure.

I know I worked as hard as I ever have in my life, incredibly hard and then harder. Quietly, patiently in the brutal midday sun, the families waited for a chance. I caught glimpses of the crowd out of the side window. The sisters who run the hospital distributed numbers so no one needed to stand in line but you could see the urgency, the reluctance to escape the heat even through flying dust and blazing pavement.



This is Leo and his Mom. See the worry and love on her face.

Our in-country host, an orthodontist from Manila named Joy, went from room to room begging us to continue despite the crowds, despite the impossibility of ever offering help to all these people. She broke down in tears in my room when I told her I would go on as long as my translators were willing and the doctors kept sending me patients.

I saw humanity flow before me, one face after another. Even now I don’t recall it in a continuous thread but flash after flash. Children, frightened and clutching their anxious mothers, babies with faces gaping open to the world, fathers wiping tears from dusty cheeks, toddlers with teeth splayed out – unable to talk but smiling, pointing to the sticker they want, looking straight through me with pearl brown eyes – haughty teenagers with Reeboks and Nike t-shirts, dirty feet, history in their eyes – a story I know just a little about: how they are toughened by their lives, how there was no protection. They all nod to me in understanding or speak as best they can, covering the ugliness of their mouth with the habit of their hand, their sotto voice.  

When I am through with my questions and explanations they say they understand. They have no questions. This is translated to me by Sheila or Romille or Pam, my translators for the day. I know these people have at least one burning question for which I don’t hold the answer: What is my future with you?

Today was better, much better, but draining in a way I don’t experience in my normal life. I will regroup and pull myself together for tomorrow. I worry so many will be turned away. The best outcome, the ages the surgeons prioritize for surgery, is somewhere from one-and-a-half- to four-years-old. If an open palate is closed this early, or if a lip is joined together, the prognosis, especially for speech, is a better one. The teenagers who moved past me today, many of them hidden from life, withheld from school, and kept by their families in shame, what is my future with them? 

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