From unwitting places, art springs. This I fathomed early, once upon another lifetime. It came to me in the form of nothing more than a nuisance, a pesky mosquito that sucked the vigour out of me. It has everything to do with Saturdays as a well-deserved freedom from school work and the silver lining that comes when you’re forced to do otherwise.
If you happen to exist in a third world country, like I did, expect the worst. For my freshman year in college, I did 11 subjects in each semester and was in class from 7:30 in the morning to late afternoon, with the exception of Thursday. Imagine my bottomless wrath when we started our CWTS (Civic Welfare Training Services) each Saturday morning. First some background. The CWTS is a compulsory national program aimed at freshman college students in the Republic of the Philippines (RP). It replaced the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps), which was a brutal military training program for the men held under the searing heat of the sun. Technically, it ain’t volunteering The compulsory blurb may serve as exhibit A. It mainly involved doing things that volunteers normally do, like “planting a tree to be free”, bringing goods to the less-fortunate or simply interacting with them and listening to their stories. At the most extreme, it necessitated repainting chapels or even helping in the erection of shacks. Furthermore, the coordinators volunteered their services to the respective communities in which they endeavour to advance.
For someone who’s in class for close to thirty hours, this was madness. Waking up every day at sunrise was bad enough and now this. To say that I was pissed beyond reason in the beginning was a gross understatement. Every Saturday, for one semester, after discussing what to do in class, we rode the jeepney (the primary mode of public transport in the RP) to a sleepy sea-side barangay (a sort of village or community) in the outskirts of our city. Our designated community was a place in serious need of a renaissance. The so-called “houses” were made from wood – not your traditional long-life oak but something more like plywood. Hang on, that applied to a select few who had the means to buy that material. For everyone else, it was something closer to straw, called nipa. The residents were pitiful. It was all so glaringly obvious: the clothes they wore, the long faces they presented, the food they ate. For them, any chance of a bright future with a technicoloured sunset coming to life over the dancing clouds had been snuffed out a very long time ago.
I wasn’t very friendly at first, despite seeing with my own cynical eyes the way they existed. I’ve seen much worse before in that godforsaken land. The local channels did a quite vivid if unnecessary job of chronicling the malnourished kids prowling the mountains of rubbish for anything edible or saleable. It took a while, but after each Saturday I started to warm to the idea. It started with a few words, “hi” and “G’day”, until I actually enjoyed being jolted to a rude awakening by my wicked alarm clock. I ceased to mind the pesky mosquitoes, who seemed to fancy my royal blood.
The community was a quiet place that witnessed the metamorphosis of a helping hand. I was nothing more than an angry passenger during the first few weeks, never thinking of the greater good of impoverished people. If they were the proverbial person hanging onto a cliff face by a thread, I would have thrust out my hand to help – but without any warmth or initiative. It is amazing to see how just one semester can go a long way to make us appreciate what we so often take for granted. I am used to living life in a hurry – with everything decided by the next ride or hour. But seeing the deplorable conditions of my next door neighbours truly made me pause in my reckless running around the Earth’s tracks. After all, there is a world that needs saving and their suffering, unlike our business, does not cease for a moment in time.
As I survey the leaves around me, the shapeless clouds above me that give me company, I come to realise how far I’ve come. A word from someone who’s been there: if you want to come close to realising the meaning of life, you’ll have to know how it feels to sacrifice something you wouldn’t exchange for the world, to give something precious to someone and expect absolutely nothing in return. Then and only then will you come to see that what we truly need is each other, whatever our situation may be.