by O. Langer
The ferry to Cebu is late.
Every seat in the large waiting room is taken. Those not sat are stood either against the back wall or in the aisles. There’s a white noise of chatter. Behind microphones, by the doorway the tourists will pass through to embark, are acoustic guitars, a mandolin, a tambourine and a drum. In front is a donation box. Few will put in. The hum of talk won’t abate when the performance starts.
I first get a glimpse of the blind band in amongst the throng, trudging through it, each member with an arm locked in a helper’s for guidance. All are dressed in the ferry company uniform of yellow polo and red shorts, and wearing sunglasses. Though one is a young man, the songs he’ll sing this evening are hits from long before he was born. Massachusetts, by the Bee Gees, is one.
Massachusetts was conceived in 1967 during the Summer of Love, as an antithesis to flower power anthems Let’s Go to San Francisco and San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair), in that the protagonist had been to San Francisco to join the hippies but was now homesick. An idea of the lights having gone out in Massachusetts (the refrain) was to suggest that everyone had gone to San Francisco. It’s a strikingly tender, fragile and pensive lament.
And the lights all went out in Massachusetts
And Massachusetts is one place I have seen
Back to Bohol, and as the young man sings, I notice a coincidence. Read back the lyric above, as applied to the musicians having lost their sight.
You see? Bohol is their Massachusetts.
It’s a powerful moment. Suddenly, the song is elevated: it’s now all the more heartbreaking. Here they are, blind in paradise.
Rewind four years, and I’m in the interview for the job in PR I’ll quit to go to Korea, with the Director of Corporate Affairs. He asks me: “What is your biggest weakness?”
My first thought is how absurd it is to have to state why I shouldn’t get the job. I could name a thousand reasons I’m not the perfect candidate. Here’s one: I resent having to work. I can’t say that. I can’t declare Excel’s all Greek to me. He doesn’t want full disclosure. No, with this flaw, I’ll have illustrated I’m self-aware and demonstrated deference – important in the workplace. It’s a game. If I’m clever, it won’t even really be a failing.
I think hard. What might he deem an asset?
He sees I’m drawing a blank, and tries to help: “For me, it’s that I struggle to see any option as 100% the way to go. I’m wary with all decisions.”
Clever. He could have said he’s indecisive, but instead he sold it as a leadership quality: tyranny is the removal of nuance – and he’s no tyrant.
He decides to move on. But it’s at that moment I finally answer: “I’m cynical.”
Am I? Even if not, feigning so was a cynical move.
He smiles, and says: “It’s not a weakness.” He’s impressed. I’ll fit in well.
I don’t. Eventually – coincidentally at the time of the Arab Spring – I overthrow my life. It’s time to live abroad.
It’s months after Bohol that it hits me: had I been duped? What were the band hiding behind the shades? Blindness, … or sight? It dawns on me that it’s probably a scam. I’d seen the light: I was had!
At Cebu airport, a year later, I catch sight of another blind band through the opening from a door left ajar, sat around waiting to be ushered to stage. Once again, I’m an audience of one. Only, this time, I’m not observing the band perform. They think they’re safely alone, free to use all their faculties. But are they blind or not? Had my Massachusetts moment been an illusion? Was I wise to have been cynical? Clever, yes; but wise?
Is cynicism a strength or weakness?
I study them from afar, and I get my answer.
Hidden among the 85 million people and the 7,100 islands of the Philippines are an estimated half a million people who are blind, and many more who are visually impaired to a lesser degree.
By far, the leading cause of blindness among adults in the Philippines is cataract, accounting for around 400,000 cases. The treatment for cataract is simple and effective but is not readily available or affordable for those living in the rural areas.
Perhaps up to one hundred children lose their sight every week in the Philippines. Almost half of these cases are either treatable or preventable. Poor nutrition, measles, and premature birth are among the leading causes of preventable blindness in children. Early detection and treatment are the keys to saving the sight of these children.