BOOK REVIEW

Not your usual travelogue

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OF the many political books of Roland Simbulan this one, The World is a Classroom: Reflections of a Fellow Traveller, strikes us at a glance as a light book, a travelogue no less of the author’s visits to selected countries (out of thirty-five) as a much sought after speaker / resource person in his career as a professor/ administrator/ regent at the University of the Philippines.

A “fellow traveler” may mean an ordinary tourist or, in political parlance, one who is a sympathizer or a believer of an organization or a cause. As I know him, Roland Simbulan is much more than the latter since he has devoted his student and professorial years in struggle towards national democracy and socialism.

Hence, most of the essays dwell on the history and political economy of the country he has visited. His sharp observations focus on the people on the streets, their cultural and artistic life, their efforts to make their environment livable, and attain independence and national pride. His views on Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea, and Libya are instructive – countries that have had to reckon with destructive wars and western imperialism.

There are touches of nostalgia in his accounts of Canberra in Australia which he calls “his second home” where the family lived while his father Dante Simbulan worked for his Ph.D; or his fellowship years in New York City describing the people in Lower East Side parks and cafes and the fabled Greenwich Village close to where he lived while studying at NYU; or the Old Towne in Alexandria, Virginia, with its 18th century houses and neighborhoods preserved.


He reveled at the “embarrassment of riches” for the researcher that he was for one summer in the U.S. – the libraries, archives, museums, and government agencies where U.S. domestic and foreign policies — for better or for worse–were forged since American independence.

In Spain, he saw how the socialist government has made health care universal – giving much more GDP points than is required by the World Health Organization. In Libya he noted the “Islamic socialism” that benefitted most of the people under the monarchial Gaddafi who pulled them out of poverty using the nationalized oil resources. He remembered at a royal reception looking for a washroom inside the huge tent (there was none) and was shown outside the vast Sahara desert where he could relieve himself under the “light of the moon and the stars.”

In Cuba he praised the achievements since the Cubans led by Fidel Castro toppled the Batista regime and built a socialist society prioritizing education, health care, and social services despite the more than 60 years of U.S. blockade and harassment. While he also projected the near absolute “socialist” character of North Korea, he was critical of the personality cult invested in their leaders.

What struck me was his paean to Ho Chi Minh who forged Vietnam as an independent nation against all odds – particularly the genocidal war of aggression waged by a superpower, a war that made many peoples take stock of themselves and waged their own struggles for national liberation.

A turning point in his travels would be meeting two nuclear scientists, one from the Soviet Union, and the other from Japan, who were instrumental in developing their respective nuclear industries. Both of them ironically became victims of radiation in Chernobyl and Fukushima. Roland Simbulan then realized that all the more his advocacy for a nuclear free world must be pursued.

Simbulan writes in a particularly lucid style and readily catches the interest of the reader. This is a book highly recommended.

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