Ruben Dican adjusts the television, as everyone waits. A picture comes into focus. It’s Bryant Gumbel. There’s a shot of United Flight 175 ramming the south tower. Then it’s run again. And again. It is Sept. 12, and 22 men, women and children sit, rapt, at the end of the earth. They’ve never actually seen a skyscraper. Or a Bryant Gumbel. Or a plane, other than the tiny ones that infrequently alight on a grassy strip near the volcano.
Yet they watch. An older man peers out from behind a door. Children, past their bedtime, sit on the floor in a daze. Their parents study the flickering images, perplexed. Are those people living in the same world as we are?
Twenty-five years ago, the inhabitants of Babuyan Claro, a tiny, unapproachable island that lies a hundred miles of churning Pacific north of the Philippine mainland, were animistic and without written language. Called the Ibatan, they lived in almost total isolation for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, a quirk of ocean currents, geography and fate. In just over two decades, since the arrival of a pair of headstrong, freewheeling missionaries, they have raced up man’s 5,000-year developmental arc, embracing monotheism, free enterprise and CNN. They have evaluated each step with the fresh, appraising eyes of the arriviste.
Familiar accouterments have lately fallen into place: knockoffs of Fila shorts and Nike T-shirts (worn lovingly into faded crepe) have been acquired from passing fishing boats; new babies are being called Joe and Russell, Americanizing the mostly Iberian names that spread across native populations when the Spanish colonized this region in the 1600’s; the metallic light of the television flickers tonight across a rare, upstairs room in the island’s nicest home, a simple two-story box with carved mahogany trellises, cement floors and running water from faucets.
Since the 40-year-old Ruben Dican, the wealthiest man on the four-mile wide atoll, got a satellite dish a few weeks ago, his house has become the local megaplex. A quietly cheerful man who has grown portly on an island where life’s rigors keep almost everyone slim, Ruben is one of the few English speakers here. Since most of the 54-channel selection is from the United States, he must also act as a translator of strange words and even stranger images.
”It feels like we are rushing forward, trying to decide what to keep of the modern world and what to throw away, while not losing hold of what has given us life and happiness for all time,” he says, softly, in his halting, precise English, before his attention is drawn away by Lisa Beamer, who is talking about the last call from her husband, Todd, before he fought the hijackers. Everyone watches.
”It seems so real, the pictures,” Ruben murmurs, ”sometimes more real than our own lives.” It was nothing more than a coincidence that I was on my way to Babuyan to examine the accelerated development of its society on the very day that the United States was attacked. Later, when I returned home, I learned that the shock and bewilderment the Ibatan registered was not so different from what was felt in a lot of other places. I also came to understand that what I found on the island, away from the television set, was a kind of microcosm of what the world was suddenly fighting over — not simply West versus East or Judeo-Christian versus Islam, but the very idea of modernity and what constitutes human progress.
Many on Babuyan still remember the ”before time,” when there was a settled egalitarianism rather than every-man-for-himself enterprise, when no one here knew that the Ibatan were poor in a world of vast wealth. Within their tiny civilization of 1,400 people, you can see so clearly the effects of modernity and measure what is gained against what has been lost. And in the person of Ruben Dican, the richest and most modernized figure on the island, you can see the struggle to manage a problem that is new to them, but quite familiar to the rest of the world: the divide between haves and have-nots.
The story of the Ibatan starts in the late 1860’s, when a nameless, Malay-Polynesian tribe was swept off course in a typhoon and steered their outrigger toward a single point of hope, a 4,000-foot volcano poking up from the horizon. They discovered an island enveloped by treacherous rocks. It’s a place you wreck onto, which is what they did, seven of them, demolishing their vessel and becoming castaways. Exploring the dense jungles, with wild pigs, pythons, monitor lizards and strange, large-footed chickens, they found remnants of ancient structures and burial urns, with bones and artifacts.
From these relics, the Ibatan would develop their own brand of mysticism: the island, they came to believe, was occupied by a community of ”invisibles,” wise, unseen inhabitants who were custodians of the flora and fauna, the winds and tides. From this vision grew a theology, replete with ritual offerings, shamanic cures and burial rites, all directed toward the ideal of machitonos, the Ibatan word for ”balance” or ”harmony.”
A few other shipwrecks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries added hybrid vigor to the gene pool, and a discrete language evolved, with several names for each of six winds, shaded terms for hundreds of varieties of plants and no words for war, envy, jealousy, property, buy, sell or own.
The Ibatan passed the decades in a kind of serenity. Though they did dispense with a few unlucky visitors, they were otherwise peaceful. They wore clothes of pounded bark and found herbal remedies in python gallbladders. Their world evolved with a gentle, premodern rhythm — until the day, in 1977, when a 29-year-old missionary named Rundell Maree slipped off a boat into the water, carrying his shortwave radio overhead, and scraped his way across the rocks toward shore.
Rundell had come to advance the mandate of the Wycliffe Bible Translators, also known as SIL International (derived from its original name, Summer Institute of Linguistics). The organization sends missionaries trained in linguistics to the most remote corners of the world, places that do not yet have written language, a concept first developed by the Sumerians more than 5,000 years ago. Their mission is to construct a written language from an ancient spoken tongue, teach the indigenous population to read, translate the entire New Testament (and portions of the Old) into the people’s ”mother tongue” and then give copies to one and all. They say this is the best way to spread God’s word.
But that was a long way off for Rundell. First, he had to just coexist with the Ibatan, a task he approached with characteristic Western confidence. He fancied himself a survivor and citizen of the world, having moved through childhood from his birthplace in Rhodesia, to England, Canada, then Bible college and a graduate theology degree in California, before catching the itinerant crosswind of a missionary’s life.
He was the only Caucasian most islanders had ever seen, and in his first two years on the island, he was run ragged, poisoned, almost killed by malaria and made a ”plaything” by the Ibatan. As he tried to learn the language — using an elegant system developed by SIL’s founders — the Ibatan, now numbering about 600, joyously substituted common words with the names of body parts. Trying to find a lost hammer, for instance, Rundell would ask if anyone had seen his penis, that he’d lost it somewhere. Ibatan would roll on the ground in hysterics, ask him, ”How big is it?” and then add new words. The subtext, though, was all too serious: some elders saw him as a threat and wanted him dead.
At the moment Rundell was ready to abandon the project and his sanity, he caught a 10-year-old boy trying to scam him out of pads and pencils. Under interrogation, the boy explained how the Ibatan had made a fool of him.
Rundell broke down, a moment he remembers vividly even after the passage of two decades. ”I’m not a fool,” he said to the boy. ”There are things I can teach you, amazing things, about a world beyond your imagination, about a God that will love you no matter what. But you must help me. We must be friends. Do you understand?”
That boy, whose name was Frank Simon, did understand. ”I can teach you what you need to know to survive here,” the boy said. But there was one condition: ”Someday, I want to go over the horizon in a boat. You’ll help me do that, right?”
”Yes,” Rundell said, seeing a first glimpse of his future. ”Yes, I will.”
It was a bargain, and each would hold up his end: Rundell learned the ways of the Ibatan; Frank, a youngster with endless questions, learned much about the world and heard the story of Christ. A period of heady optimism and activity unfurled, as, year by year, the cornerstones of the ”developed” world were laid on Babuyan. Rundell was joined on the island by his wife, Judi, a Chinese-American, and their baby daughter. (A second daughter was born on the island.) The family settled into a hut made of rattan and split palms. Curious Ibatan, mostly teenagers, nosed in, many of them soon learning to read and write the Roman alphabet that had now been woven into a representation of their native language.
The arrival of written language, scholars say, creates an architecture for a civilization to become ”sticky,” making it possible to transmit knowledge more effectively, in greater volume and detail, and to build on advances. Rundell and Judi began their own vanity press with titles like ”Stories Concerning Us Here on Babuyan” — a collection of folk tales — and ”Atlas Book,” with drawings and text that showed where the island sat in relation to the Philippines, the wider Pacific, the world . . . and where earth sits within the solar system. Judi created a cookbook, which, along with recipes for preparing indigenous crops and grains, described the uses of flour, something never seen on the island. Soon enough, one of the women had sent her husband out to barter with a passing Taiwanese fishing junk; the next day, a sack of white powder appeared on the Marees’ doorstep.
Rundell, meanwhile, had two-man handsaws delivered by a plane so that the men could more effectively cut the island’s precious nara trees and make boards. A school was built, and sturdier houses began to appear, one of which belonged to the Marees. In their own dwelling, they set up a medical clinic, which consisted of Rundell using the text ”Where There Is No Doctor” and whatever medicines he could scrounge on infrequent trips to the mainland.
Three boys emerged as a kind of ”bridge generation.” There was Frank, the young Ruben Dican and his young uncle Orlando Thomas. Together they helped Rundell on one of his first and most significant transformational projects: the building of a water system. At that time, the island was still what anthropologists call a ”spring culture,” where everyone gathered at a few large springs to fill buckets and discuss everything each day. So the building of a rudimentary system of sisterns and pipes — a baby step toward modernity — represented a significant disruption of traditional Ibatan culture.
Indeed, as the water flowed, Christianity began to take root. In the early 1980’s, Rundell took a few Ibatan for short stints to a rural SIL center in the northern province of the Philippines, where they helped with translation of the New Testament. They tended to be young, in their late teens or early 20’s, and this group, including a core trio of Frank, Ruben and Orlando, were among the first ”believers.”
This new nondenominational Christian faith, based on an intimate, humanized deity who would love each believer unconditionally, appealed to converts as an alternative to the mystical, earthbound complexities of the ”invisibles.” Being worthy of this God’s love seemed to offer a new sensation of self-worth. People were suffused with the Judeo-Christian octane of individual destiny, a perfect fit with the new ideas about education, business and personal behavior that Rundell and Judi were also introducing.
Ruben and Orlando, and their soon-to-be wives, Miriam and Nancy, were sent to college on the mainland by the Marees. The missionaries, for their part, were supported by a far-flung group of about 75 regular contributors, who wrote checks from kitchen tables, church pews and offices around the world. These contributions averaged about $32,000 a year, and the couple, with their two growing daughters, spent modestly on themselves and gave away the rest.
Frank, however, would take nothing from Rundell, neither compensation for Bible translating nor grants for education. ”He always looked at me as a peer, an equal,” Rundell says. ”He said he didn’t want money to be part of our relationship.”
Rather than go off to school, Frank became the island’s innovator and explorer, its Magellan. When nearly all the houses on the island were destroyed in a typhoon in 1987, it was Frank who decided they needed to build a great boat. The island’s fleet of outriggers was limited in size by what could be lifted over the rocks and brought to safety inland. But Frank went ahead and designed a 50-foot ship; he and Rundell built it; and then they sailed it 210 miles to the mainland and back with cement, wood and other supplies. Hundreds of Ibatan men carried the vessel to an inland lagoon as another storm approached. Soon, a separate medical clinic was built, and the Marees were living in the island’s first cement house; a cement church followed, as well as the squat, solid A-frame of a new school.
In 1992, Frank sailed off in his outrigger and pantomimed his way onto a Taiwanese fishing junk. He spent six months as a fisherman, then six months in jail once the boat docked and he was found to have no immigration papers. When he returned to Babuyan a year later, two things occurred; his mildly felonious sojourn became a career path for other young men; and using the Taiwanese he learned in prison, he negotiated deals on a shortwave with passing junks, offering fresh water, fruit and fish that the Ibatan were specialists in catching. Soon, 40 Ibatan outriggers fanned out to fill orders on the fly.
By the mid-90’s, a modern beat was becoming audible: frenzied daytime hustling matched, on evenings and weekends, with repentant prayer. The population grew fast (as it will in places where there is no electricity), and by 1995, there were 1,000 Ibatan, 400 of whom were devout Christians, a community of fervent Puritan ethicists that would make Max Weber take notice. And Marx too. With growing disparities in income, possessions and the sizes of homes came class division: an upper class, living around a town center by the water, anchored by a small cooperative store; and the rest, mostly living in the mountain jungles, feeling their first tug of envy and resentment.
At the uppermost strata were a dozen or so Ibatan whose education the Marees underwrote, led by Ruben and his wife, Miriam. By the 90’s, both had become emblems of what de Tocqueville called bourgeoisie virtue, studying furiously for their teaching certification exams, tirelessly educating the island’s children, ever resourceful and frugal. Here, in what teachers everywhere would consider a perfect world, they became the highest-paid people on the island, earning a combined 20,000 pesos a month (about $400) from the Philippine Department of Education. On Babuyan, this is a fortune, and it enabled Ruben and Miriam to build their grand, fenced two-story house, with the island’s first indoor kitchen.
While Frank provided the bursts of ingenuity, Ruben, supported by his government salary, established the kind of sustained, patient enterprises upon which economies are built. After Judi taught Miriam accounting skills, she and Ruben effectively ran the island’s main cooperative, a 15-foot-square cement box with basic dry goods and packaged foods. Ruben became the island’s banker, lending money for all needs; the head of its power company, stringing wire from his diesel-powered generator to lighthouses; its ice company, selling ice from his diesel-powered freezer; and its communications system, checking radio reports for the weather and making emergency calls. Step by step, he became a civic man and contributor to the community, a centrist, a moderate, in all things, but with an eye always on a kind of enlightened self-interest wherein people’s needs and wants could be served . . . at an attractive margin.
Meanwhile, the sensitive Orlando, who from his youth assisted Rundell in the medical clinic, became a teacher as well. But from the start, Orlando asked hard questions, often from the sidelines, about what was suitable and what was not, for the Ibatan. With his educational advantages, he moved into the realm of service, ministering to the sick on weekends, as well as helping Rundell and Judi in their translation of the Bible and the creation of an Ibatan dictionary. In his spare time, he wrote songs and poems. He poked fun at Ruben’s growing portliness — Yes, yes, there goes a wealthy man”; and Frank’s yearning: ”My friend will only rest when he has no choice. . . . ” Like Ruben’s, Orlando’s role on the island represented the arrival of specialization, a crucial step in human development — it took hold in the Fertile Crescent 7,000 years ago — in which a few elites are paid by society for their unique skills, freeing them from physical labor. It’s a principle upon which diversified, developed economies surely rest. Though the Philippine government had dropped a few teachers on the island in the 1960’s, they were mostly there on what seemed like extended vacations, occasionally drilling some children in perfunctory recitations of Tagalog, the national language. None had ever bothered to learn the local tongue. Ruben and Orlando, local boys who got credentials and came home, became the first genuine elites, wearing hats, it often seemed, for an entire professional class.
Frank, for his part, pushed forward without a formal education. Despite his brilliance and grasp of several regional languages, he chose to remain on a lower rung of the ladder with most of the Ibatan. Each day, he struggled to support his young family with a patchwork of subsistence farming and grand schemes, always at the pitiless whims of weather and tides. By 1996, the beginning of the new Babuyan was nearly at an end. Rundell and Judi drew close to finishing the Ibatan Bible, a 1,000-page translation of the New Testament, plus Genesis, into Ibatan. The project had stretched across 20 years and was now ready for final proofreading. When it was done, there was great fanfare. Rundell and Judi’s extended families, friends and supporters arrived from the United States and Canada, along with SIL leaders and Philippine officials, for the dedication of the completed book. There were 350 copies passed out to the Ibatan. The parties and prayers lasted a week.
With their daughters now off to college and their specific SIL mission completed, Rundell and Judi prepared to leave for their next project. Everyone gathered on the landing strip to see them off. A daily conversation across time and cultures, lasting 20 years, was about to end. Songs were sung, and Orlando, Ruben and all the others hugged Rundell and Judi amid tears. And Frank, fighting back a sensation of being left behind, watched the plane vanish through a point in the sky, far above the horizon.
It is nearly five years later. Ruben rides the island’s only bike down the dirt main street. He parks it near a banyan tree where burial urns were found more than 130 years ago, an ancient, twisted presence long thought to be the home of ”invisibles.”
The tree, its trunk recently burned out by vandals, now overlooks the cooperative store that Ruben helps run. It has become the town’s gathering place. Supplies for the store are transported from the mainland by a boat he owns, the island’s largest. His mercantile energies are visible everywhere: a man planing wood in the town square, cradling his portable electric planer like a newborn baby, says that Ruben bought it for him, and he’s paying it off, bit by bit. Ruben says he is expecting a new, diesel-powered five-kilowatt generator, meaning more houses will soon have light. ”It helps make the days longer, the nights shorter and less boring than just sitting in the dark telling stories,” he says. He steps back to let a man on a water buffalo pass. ”Yes, my bike is better,” he says, shaking his head at the beast. ”No question, this is progress.” He pats the handlebars and smiles. ”Eventually, everyone will agree.”
I am here with Rundell and Judi, on one of their longest visits since their mission was formally completed. Judi, a woman of tireless precision, is gathering data for a book on the geneaology of the island, dating to 1860. Rundell, who now helps oversee the Philippine region for SIL, is mostly on a sightseeing mission, comparing the ”then” with the ”now.” The islanders had long anticipated our arrival; they had even heard about me, a Jewish reporter from the United States, and they joyously greeted us at the airfield and accompanied us into the village.
Ruben has ”become like Santa Claus, with one new thing after another,” says Rundell, unpacking suitcases in the bedroom of their old house, which has since been converted into a library. ”Even Orlando is being sucked in.”
Ruben’s electricity has carried a growing current of visual images. He first got a television, a small one, three years ago, and attached it to a VCR. There are now four VCR’s on the island, with some of his competitors charging guests to view bootleg tapes procured from passing boats. As a church elder, Ruben has tried to exert quality control over what is shown. A recent hit at his house was ”Ben-Hur,” the 1959 classic with Charlton Heston as a he-man Jewish slave and chariot champion during the time of Christ. ”We thought the Jews were the world’s toughest people,” Ruben tells me that evening, as he switches away from CNN to a station from Manila. ”Everyone thought you’d be bigger.”
A weekly, hourlong Philippine drama begins. After a car chase and some shooting, the protagonists, a handsome pair, end up in bed. The Ibatan men snicker, then, taking their cue from the women, quickly hush. Everyone slips into a kind of group trance, sitting absolutely still, as the couple roll beneath the sheets and the music swells. Orlando is here, sitting a few feet away with his appraising look. He says he worries that these images ”will make us feel dissatisfied with our life here. This will be very bad and wrong. But it’s so hard to turn away.”
Ruben, seeking a midcourse of enlightened self-interest, shrugs. ”Maybe it will make people strive more. To get to this life they see. Maybe that won’t be so bad.”
The next morning, Rundell, Judi and I go for a walk in the jungle with Frank, who brings along his 18-month-old son, Joe. We are in search of the oldest people on the island so that Judi can interview them for her book. Along the way, Frank tells us how the children, learning about the larger world, are growing away from adults. Once, he says, ”you could leave money out and not worry about it. Now the teenagers steal it to buy what they can, to watch videos at someone’s house or buy cigarettes or liquor.” The island’s second liquor store was recently opened across from the school by a Filipino teacher who got his posting on the island as a political favor. The first one is run by Frank’s older brother.
After walking an hour in the midmorning heat, we come across Joaquin, an ancient, loinclothed man in a tiny hut, chewing on areca nut, a local narcotic. Judi, after a few questions, determines Joaquin was born in 1917, probably in May. The man, it turns out, is Frank’s great-uncle, his grandmother’s brother. This is not too surprising — almost everyone on the island is related. Frank, holding his son, gently eases under the grassy eaves of the hut’s doorway, and with her digital camera, Judi takes a picture of the three of them, crossing four generations, for the book.
It is striking how far their paths have diverged in such a short period. Frank spends his days worrying about the yield of his rice crop, businesses he might start and how he’ll ever manage to send his son to college. Joaquin is concerned about feeling in harmony with the ”invisibles” and spearing wild pigs. After the photo is taken, they chat briefly about relatives. The old man, squatting on the floor of his hut, looks quizzically at Frank, who is dressed in a polo shirt, and says, ”It does not look like we are related.”
After we leave Joaquin, Frank seems reflective. Rundell pokes at him to get a sense of why. ”Written language gave us a way to capture our history and compare ourselves to people everywhere,” Frank says after a moment. ”Now that we have a past, I find that I think only of the future. I always feel a clock ticking and time rushing by. But Joaquin, he lives always in the present. He hears no clock. Once, that’s the way we all were.”
A few mornings later, an exhausted Orlando, up too late watching television, studies the sky. He takes in a wisp of cloud passing low, and raises an eyebrow: ”Usually, monsoon doesn’t come this early, but that wind . . . it is the wind that brings it.”
Ruben arrives, and together they analyze the breeze, its altitude, speed and precedents for monsoon season — five months of almost nonstop rain and wind — to start this early. At moments like this, they are most visibly ”a bridge generation,” at the very forefront of change, yet still employing the skills of ”the before time.” They will be the last generation of islanders, most likely, to know all six Ibatan names of the wind.
The rain begins to arrive in large drops. Children crack off shiny leaves of elephant cabbage from the jungle foliage and disappear under a laughing green canopy that twists up the mountain. Orlando possesses a precious luxury, an umbrella, and he and I crowd under it as the full, humbling ferocity of nature pours down.
”If we stick together, work together, we can get all that we need right here,” Orlando says. ”This is what I tell people. If we stay close, the umbrella is big enough for us all to stay dry.” As it turns out, monsoon season is not arriving. All we have is a typhoon, with 100-mile-an-hour winds. As the storm approaches, the Ibatan go into a frenzy, tying down boats and securing the foundations of huts. Since early morning, Frank has been furiously racing through his rice terraces, trying to harvest whatever he can. Men and women scramble madly in fields on all sides of him. Despite his creativity and sense of personal destiny, Frank is still bound to moments of profound helplessness and humility. The timing of the typhoon is inauspicious: the rice needs a few more weeks to ripen.
Ruben is not worried about rice, and he retreats to the front porch of his safe, solid house, in a cluster of nara trees just across from the school. He talks about the struggle with nature, about the amazing resourcefulness of the old Ibatan to survive here during typhoons and volcanic eruptions. Then, smiling brightly at me, he says, ”If you have nothing better to do, why don’t we go watch TV?” He turns on the generator, saunters across the tiled porch floor, past a tiny plastic chirping bird, with motion sensor, that you might find in a souvenir shop on Sunset Boulevard, and upstairs to the TV.
George Bush’s address before Congress is just coming on, and we watch intently, listening to the speech and the thunderous applause. ”That’s what it is always about, deep down,” Ruben says. ”About the haves and the have-nots. Whether they will admit it or not, bin Laden’s followers are jealous of America.” He pauses. ”It is not easy having a lot when others have so little. I know.” Ruben’s view on how a wealthy man, like a wealthy country, avoids ill will, is pragmatic: he charges next to nothing for ice and electricity — and nothing for watching his satellite TV — offers modest terms for people who owe him money and contributes heavily to the common projects. When his boat fortunately arrived at dawn this morning, loaded with enough supplies to fill his cooperative through monsoon, Ruben made sure, as is his custom, to dive into the surf for the hardest job: dragging the small skiff out and back between the rocky shore and the boat to haul the goods to shore. An hour later, after 60 men had helped lift the 40-foot outrigger from the water, Ruben, wet and exhausted, murmured, ”It’s important that I do the worst work and the hardest, so they know I’m not different from any of them.”
But, with each day, class exerts its divisions. Ruben’s education and use of capital have freed him from the shared burdens of the Ibatan and from the shared purpose that flows from it. Safe and warm, he flips from Bush’s speech to the National Geographic channel, a favorite of his, as the typhoon begins to roar.
For five straight days, everyone is trapped indoors, until the rain and winds recede and the Ibatan emerge to take stock. The banana trees have been decapitated, but most of the coconut trees have held. Quite a few grass huts and some wooden houses will need repair. The island is awash in mudslides.
Ruben, with Orlando at his side, ventures over to Frank’s house, near the shoreline. Like most of the Ibatan, he has lost his rice crop, which means he will have to sell the nine pigs he has acquired over the past few years, essentially his life savings, so that his family has enough to eat through the monsoon season.
His latest idea — an ice-making cooperative to freeze fish and sell ice to the growing number of large fishing boats in the nearby waters — is now out of reach. He was planning to sell the excess of his rice crop and a few pigs for seed capital. This is hard for Frank, the eternal optimist, to swallow. ”Again, for me it’s about survival,” he says, forcing a smile as his wife looks on.
The next morning everyone gathers at church, the crowd flowing out the doorway and standing in a light Sunday mist. Rundell, naturally, is the guest preacher this morning, and he dives confidently into Matthew 25, called ”the Parable of Talents.” He summons a little girl, a teenage boy and a man to the stage and has them try to lift different-size rocks. Eventually, after much laughter, each picks up a rock suited to his or her strength, allowing Rundell to intone about how ”God does not judge us based how many talents each of us have, but what you do with whatever talents you are given.” The service closes with Frank on guitar and Ruben playing a portable organ he just bought, as the Ibatan let loose with a thunderous rendering of an old Baptist chant, ”Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.”
A few days later, when the landing strip is dry enough for a plane to land, Rundell radios the mainland for a pickup the following morning. As darkness falls, he invites Frank, Ruben and Orlando to his house, and we gather at the table. They talk easily, chiding, laughing, challenging one another’s sense of what’s needed and what’s possible. Rundell leaps up to the blackboard and starts scribbling notes, assessing, first, the progress that has been made; the church is vibrant, the education up to sixth grade is strong. (After that, if parents want their children to continue their education, they have to be sent off the island to boarding academies, which are too expensive for most Ibatan.) Commerce is growing, if slowly. More than half the houses have running water, and electricity is spreading.
Then the conversation shifts to the thing most needed, and Rundell starts drawing the outlines of a high school. For half an hour, they talk fast, imagining it, free form, until the drawing has a gym, a science lab, a home-economics center, a library, ”with more books than we have chickens on this island,” Orlando says. Looking wistfully at the chalk marks, they smile and fall silent. One trap for the Ibatan, as for so many across a world connected by sound and image, is becoming overwhelmed with yearning. In the bracing first months of a new globalism, one thing seems plain: people need to feel some sense of forward motion, or hope collapses. It is dangerous to dream of things that are so far out of reach, and the school they have just conjured on the chalkboard is precisely that — a fantasy.
”What about the bridge?” Frank pipes up. Everyone knows about the bridge, and Rundell erases the school and starts drawing horizontal lines. The problem: a dry bed running from high on Mount Babuyan to the ocean turns into a swift river during monsoon. The children from half the island have to cross a rickety wooden bridge to get to school. It’s hazardous. Parents have complained. Some kids have stopped attending.
Everyone, including Rundell, is a self-taught engineer — they’ve had to be — and there’s rapid, purposeful talk of how to build a cement bridge, another first for the island. Orlando stops the proceedings. ”The long metal rods inside the cement. There’s no boat big enough on the island to transport them here.” He’s right. Hiring a large boat for the long trip to Babuyan Claro would be too expensive.
”There’s one way,” Frank finally says, and out it flows: after the typhoon, many people will be selling their pigs or cows to buy rice, and the livestock brokers, with the largest boats that ever come near here, are probably preparing a visit. Their boats are not only big; they have flat bottoms that allow them to get very close to the shore, making it easier to load and unload unwieldy cargo. ”We need to come together, so everyone selling livestock can negotiate as one” and stipulate that the boats bring the rods on their way out, he says. ”This way, we can also get a better overall price for our livestock and contribute the extra to whatever modest transportation costs there’ll be for the rods.”
Orlando, the voice of careful consideration, nods a few times. ”It just might work,” he says. Ruben quickly sketches out a swift plan for implementation and negotiating position. Frank just smiles. He has taken his woe and found, at its dark core, a kernel of possibility. A plan. A way for everyone to move forward, to taste a bit of sweet progress in its purest form. And, for an instant, I was certain that on this windy night a guy named Frank saved the world.
Even if it was just one bridge.
(Reprinted with permission)