62: Why Do I Rave So About This Island?

6 April

Dear girls,

Why do I rave so about this island?

I’ll tell you of a typical day here–typical, that is, if you were a civilian, instead of military rules. The Captain and I, and the jeep driver, had to go out and find a laundry that would do all our khaki for the Battalion. We wash the rest of the stuff, but have no irons with which to do up khaki–and as the regular laundries are all full of servicemen’s orders, we knew we would have to go to some out-of-the-way place. We went 60 miles, by a long and torturous, but good road to the other side of the island. To a little town, spread out along the coast, cut off by a mountain range from the rest of the world. Sleepy and quiet–hound dogs sleeping in the street in front of the one hotel. In the center of town the biggest banyan tree in the whole island–covering a whole block and a half, but never more that 25 feet tall.

banyan

Little native kids diving for coins that you throw off the wharf–they seem to be half fish, live in the water & sun all day, and clothes are quite optional for boys & girls until they are ten or twelve.

Outrigger canoes moored to the coconut palms that lean out over the sea–the town Tong Society clubhouse, hung all over the outside with bright mandarin red boards, painted with yellow characters, and venerable old Chinese men sitting and smoking on the porch.

The whole spirit of the place is warm and friendly–the people we see about laundry, though they can’t take it, are willing to sit down and laugh and joke with us indefinitely. We finally found Mr. Rodriguez–we were told before we saw him to pronounce it “Rodricks,” because he liked to have it sound American–he’s the personnel manager of the plantation, which is the main business of the town. He looks the part–leather riding boots, starched khaki, jodhpurs, snow white shirt, and a big straw sombrero–deeply tanned face.

When we told him our problem, he said that he might be able to get the “women at the camp”–whose husbands work in the fields, to do it for us–break it up into a half-dozen lots–but it would take time to arrange. The Captain wisely offered the bait that of course we would take him around in our jeep–a child-like gleam in Mr. Rodriguez’s eye, and he gaily hopped in.

He’s Portuguese, but he also speaks Jap, Chinese, Filipino, and English–they all think he’s wonderful. We went to one Jap household, a little old Jap lady and her husband were sitting cross-legged on a grass mat on the floor having tea–we went in, sat down and had tea with them. And half the time gestures and smiles obviated the need for Mr. R’s interpreting.

We went to a Filipino household, and finally the mother agreed to take the laundry–but only after much palaver. Her three young daughters chatted gaily with us. The eldest was getting married in a few days–we happened to have liberty then, so she invited us to the party.

When we got there it had already been going on for 12 hours–her family had built a shack–just a frame with a floor out in the middle of what in New England would be the town common. Didn’t look much like one–a stretch of bare brown earth, packed hard by the hordes of barefooted children, and shaded by varieties of these fantastic flowering trees.

The shack was shingled with palm leaves that glowed green fire when the sunlight hit them–the pillars inside were twined with orchids and ropes of flowers that looked like tiger lilies. 50 or 60 people were inside, dancing to the native orchestra–sometimes the native dance, and sometimes “Melican style.” We hadn’t entered the door before the bridegoom’s brother grabbed us, piloted us over to a table, and heaped our plates with Filipino food–some of it delicious, like all foreigners they do wonderful things with crisp vegetables and sauces–but some of it was highly spiced with a curry-like substance that I didn’t like. There were drinks–some sort of punch, but it must have been mild, for no one was drunk.

There seemed to be hundreds of children underfoot–everybody was dressed up for the occasion–the bride in an appropriate peach-colored frock–she looked like a full blown little peach herself–everything about her fairly popping with ripeness, hips, breasts, lips, all 4’10” of her. Almost none of their heads reached my chest, so dancing was a bit of a problem.

We didn’t stay more than a few hours, but the party went on. Apparently they eat, then dance, then eat until everybody is exhausted and goes home–and the poor bride and groom have to stay until the last wedding guest has been sped on his way. We left just at dark, as the moon was beginning to rise–the heavy scent of the night–blooming cereus filled the air–we didn’t say much during the long jeep ride back to camp.

You must see it, girls–if I have fallen this much in love with it, homesick as I am, you can imagine what it would be like on a vacation with nothing to do but appreciate it. Of course, part of it is the tremendous thrill of seeing the sights that you’ve read about for so long–but the natural beauty is the mainstay of its appeal–partly the feeling of richness and fertility, and partly the grandeur of the mountains and the sea.

All my love,
Phil

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