Ripples Following Ripples ~ BATAAN REVISITED

While in the US, I’d re-established contact with Victor ~ we’d lost touch with some years before ~ and he invited me to visit him in Manila. So, thinking to go on to the US again from there, I went to the Phils in November ’99. Victor met me at the airport and took me home, where I was made comfortable. I had several old acquaintances to renew.

I met Tomas and Avelina again, of course, and spent a couple of days with them. Victor took me along to an ARE meeting, where I gave a short talk, and met Bet. When she learned that I wished to visit the Camp at Bataan, she offered to take me, and arranged a driver to go with us.

The sky was overcast as we left Manila for what had been called PRPC or Philippines Refugee Processing Center (an odd name that always made me think of a food-cannery; no wonder many refugees felt they were mere commodities or statistics on paper, without real identities!) Being Sunday, the traffic wasn’t so heavy, and it didn’t take us as long to escape the vortex of the city as it would have done on other days; Manila is so congested that it is choking on its own emissions. It took us 3½ hours to get there, as parts of the road were still in bad shape from the damage caused by the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991.

When we arrived at the check-point, we were held up for some minutes while the guards checked with the Administration Build-ing. Satisfied we had a legitimate reason for visiting the Camp, we were allowed in “to visit the temples only”; we got the impres-sion that there must be some secret activities going on there, though what they might have been, we could only guess at.

Proceeding from the check-point, it was as if I’d never been there before, as there were no refugee billets in sight, like there used to be, but only thick overgrowth, and trees where none had been. Somewhat confused, I gave the driver halting directions, until we found a familiar road that led to the temple in Neighborhood 7, but it was only with some difficulty that we were able to discern the temple-gateway through the tangled vegetation; in just a few short years, the jungle had taken over completely.

Forcing our way through the gateway, we could then see the Kwan Yin image behind a clump of bamboo I had planted during my last visit in 1987; it had not been vandalized, but remained as it was when the Camp closed in 1994, its hand raised in perpet-ual blessing. A marble plaque stood beside it, engraved with the words: DON’T WORRY; IT WILL PASS ~ EVERYTHING DOES. My last gift to the Camp, I’d had this made and placed there to remind people to hold on and not give way to despair; my hope was that they might think of these words as Kwan Yin’s and draw consolation and courage there from.

Wary of snakes, we pushed through the weeds and brambles to the image, standing beside the dried-up pond wherein water-lilies used to bloom, and took some photos. Alas, I mused, the artist who had so skillfully crafted this image, a humble and softly-spoken man, had died of a heart-attack in California some years after resettling there. When he was creating it, I asked him not to put his name on it, and he agreed; I said it wasn’t necessary for people to know who made it, but just for it to be there, symboliz-ing hope; there were no names in the temple, except one on a stele that had been erected later in memory of a man who had died when he fell from the roof while working there.

On one side was the grove of mango-trees under which many a refugee had sought shelter from the sun, and on the other were the ruins of the temple we had established in ‘80-’81, and which was later named Chua Van Hanh; the roof had gone without a trace, probably to serve other uses in the nearby town of Morong. All that remained were a few termite-riddled pillars that crumbled to the touch, and the Buddha-image gazing impassively on the desolation.

It would have been too much of an effort to force our way through the weeds and thorns to where we might look out over the stream and forest behind the temple, so we didn’t even try. We did, how-ever, come upon two cement seats I had set up, with the inscrip-tions on their tops still legible; one of them read: "The Law of Life is Change ….." One seat had cracked in the middle, and a seed had germinated therein, giving rise to a flourishing sapling.

We proceeded up through the Camp, passing the place where the Catholic Church had stood; this, too, had gone, but the image of Mary, atop a globe of the Earth, remained. The Camp hospital was there, closed but intact. Next was the Admin Building, with some activity inside; what it is now used for, I didn’t ascertain. Then there was the ICMC building, where the basic-English edu-cation of the refugees had its nerve-center. Nearby, too, was the Camp Post Office, which I’d nick-named the ‘Lost Office’ because of the large amounts of mail that used to go ‘missing’ there; there are always people to take advantage of any situation to enrich themselves, seemingly unable to put themselves into the posi-tions of those they exploit; what we would not like others to do to us, we are quite willing to do to others.

Up then, past Freedom Plaza and the refugee-boats that had been brought from the coast nearby rotting away, those who had escaped from Vietnam in them long settled in other lands; one was little bigger than a rowing-boat, without cover; how brave or foolhardy were the people who had risked everything to cross the sea in that! Many thousands ~ how many, will never be known ~ perished in their quest. Life must have been so hard in their homeland for them to embark upon such a hazardous venture!

Following the road onwards, it was hard to imagine that 18,000 people at a time had lived here; their billets had gone without trace, bulldozed, I was told, some years back. The Camp had been divided into ten neighborhoods, each neighborhood having thirty buildings, with ten billets each, each billet accommodating six people or more; there they cooked, ate, slept, studied, wor-ried, argued, fought, played, sang, loved, planned, prayed, dreamed, and made do with what they had. During the time I spent there, over 100,000 people from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos passed through, most spending about six months there, but some getting stuck and having to wait much longer; there were others, too, who never left the Camp, but were resettled, sooner than they expected or wanted, in what came to be known as Neighborhood 11: the cemetery.

The temple at the top end of the Camp, near Nbhd Two, was in better shape than the other one; at least, the roof was still on, but the fibro-cement walls, on which the Cambodians had painted scenes from the life of the Buddha, had been smashed; some fragments remained, hanging on the framework. This temple, more than the lower one, bore the marks of my hands, as I had done a lot of work on it myself, and constructed it more sturdily; the octagonal window-frames, that I’d decorated with bodhi-leaves, were still there. The main painting of the Buddha behind the altar had been partly-destroyed and wore campaign-posters of some politician; one Buddha-image had been decapitated.

In vain I searched for the hut I’d built and lived in, but was unable to find even the cement floor. I looked, too, for two coconut trees that had grown from nuts left over from some festival we had in 1980, expecting them to be quite tall now, but they had also gone. The Bodhi-tree, however, which I’d brought as a tiny sap-ling plucked from a wall in a temple on the island of Cebu in 1979, and planted in the Camp in 1980, was now big and tall; this was the tree that had been inexplicably cut down by Monk X shortly after I had left the Camp, and resulted in the Cambodians taking over the temple from the Vietnamese, but had regrown and was in the process of wrapping itself around and absorbing a small shrine the Cambodians had erected against it.

A Buddha-image ~ made by the Vietnamese when they estab-lished the first temple there in 1980, soon after the Camp opened ~ sat in a shed at one side of the temple, together with a larger-than-life image made later by the Cambodians.

Around the trees in what had been the temple-compound were stones we had positioned to serve as seats that termites couldn’t eat; it was hard to imagine that this area had once been clean and neat. We had a picnic here, from the food Bet had brought.

I climbed the hill behind the temple, hoping to look down on where the Camp had been, but this was not possible owing to the trees and shrubbery that enshrouded everything. It did not, how-ever, prevent memories from flooding back into my mind. I ‘saw’ many old faces there, and thought of their stories, each of them unique; I wondered where they all were.

Four years of my life were spent in this Camp, watching people come and go, some with little more than the clothes they were wearing. Some few I saw again in places like the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Denmark, Norway and Australia; they changed the world wherever they went, and in turn were changed.

Life goes on, flows on, like a river, usually with no sense of direc-tion, not knowing where it came from, where it is, nor where it is going. We think we are in control of our lives, but are not, and even small things, unexpected and sudden, can change us con-siderably. If we learned to look at life as an adventure, instead of clinging to it with fearful self-concern, we could enjoy it much more than we do. If, too, we would give up the idea or desire that everything should be nice, and tried to see the good in it instead, we would learn more than we do. There is always white in the black. I met people in that Camp (and in other Camps), who were quite happy there; not all were sad. I also met people later, in the lands where they had resettled, who said that they would like to be back in the Refugee Camps, where life was simple and un-complicated. Some even said that their time there was the happi-est part of their lives.

Victor invited me to join him on a trip to Baguio in the mountains, but I was soon to regret accepting, as much of the road was still unrepaired after the volcano’s eruption, and the air-con in their van wasn’t working, so it was hot and uncomfortable; I consid-ered taking the bus for the return journey, but didn’t do so.

Back in Manila, I went to visit Rita, the cake-lady, at her home, and found her greatly aged. She and Victor had disagreed years before over money she’d borrowed from him; unable or unwilling to repay him, she claimed he’d given it to her. Shakespeare’s ad-vice is good to remember: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”.

I queued up at the US embassy and applied for a visa that would allow me to stay in the US longer than 3 months; I was given one valid for ten years!

Sister Biao Chin, the nun who had so generously supported me before, wanted me to take over the running of two temples which had fallen to her to look after when their resident monks had died; one of them had 108 rooms! “What?” I said, “I’d be forever clean-ing!” She was quite insistent, however, and it was hard to say no. Just then, however, I got an email from someone in Melbourne with a message from Tuan’s wife, Van. She had discovered that he’d been having an affair, and was broken up about it; she asked me to return to help, saying I was the only one who could. This was a good excuse to escape from Manila.

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