Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Joe Philippines Part 2

Dawn was slowly starting to arrive as we neared the mountains of the northern Philippines. I had been riding in this mini van for almost six hours at this point and thought I was going to grow roots into the seat. We started up the mountain and the van immediately slowed down to a slow crawl. I had thoughts of getting out and walking beside the van to stretch my legs but thought it might be insulting to the owner of the van to have me walking beside it while the pedal was pressed to the floor.

Off to the left was a shear drop off into the river below and to the right was the blunt face of a cliff with not much room in between where we were. I decided to lighten the mood by sarcastically asking if this was the type of vehicle that we always read about in the American newspapers that were plunging off cliffs killing the occupants. Instead of a knowing laughs, my hosts merely nodded and pointed to the upcoming curve and told me that a van had plunged off there last week. My stomach dropped as I fell back into silence. Later on I would actually see a wrecker truck winching the twisted remains of a vehicle from the side of the mountain and piling up the pieces along side the road.

The van I was in was one of those noseless vehicles where access to the engine was in between the driver and passenger seats. Soon smoke began to curl up through the crack in the access panel but nobody seemed to care since the windows were already down. Peering through the smoke filling the interior of the van, I noticed that there was also smoke ahead outside of the van. Only when we got closer did I realize that I was actually seeing huge clouds of steam. On small pull offs on both sides of the roads, vehicles were lined up. On the other side of the road, the vehicles heading down the mountain were all stopped and people were hosing down their brakes at a natural spring creating huge clouds of steam as the water hit the red hot rotors. On my side of the road where the vehicles heading up the mountain were pulled off, the drivers were filling up the radiators from the same spring also releasing clouds of hot steam. There was also a good business for oil and our driver added two quarts to the engine and topped the radiator with water before we headed onward leaving the steam clouds behind.

The trip up the mountain ground on and at times it seemed impossible to tell if we were heading forwards or backwards due to the slow speed of travel. But the driver kept at it only stopping twice more for radiator water and once for more oil which must have underwent a complete oil transfusion by the time we reached the top. The road followed the river up the mountain occasionally driving under a waterfall or crossing a rivulet coming into the main river channel. The sun was well in the air when by the time we reached the top and we entered the town proper.

Baguio City, Philippines which has a population of a quarter of a million people, was sprawled out on the mountain ridges, peaks and valleys all before me. I would later learn from experience, that there isn't a straight or flat road in all of Baguio. If you were standing on any street, you were by default standing on a curve and the road was heading uphill or downhill. At one particular point, the road only six or so feet wide, went uphill following a knife ridge that dropped off almost straight down on both sides. Every time I passed this point heading uphill, all I could see out the windows was sky and lots of it giving the impression that one was in some sort of mini van airplane that was taking off at the pace of a slow walk.

Finally, we reached the home of my fiance's parents attached to the side of a cliff. From the road that passed by ten feet in front of the house, it was only about 20 paces to the far side of the house where from the balcony at road level, I could look down some 50 feet into the valley below. At least the floors were flat.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Joe Philippines Part 1

The air went from a controlled stale cold to heavy dampness that instantly clung to my entire body like a dirty fir coat two sizes too small as I stepped outside the airport doors. A smell not entirely different from that of a roomful of wet dogs assaulted my nose. A crowd of people speaking in a different language all jostled to get near me first and sell me a service or trinket that I did not understand or want. "Hey Joe," they would say before they rambled into a broken thickly accented English sales pitch of some sort. In my tired jet lagged state, it might as well have been Arabic for all that I could understand. Welcome to the Philippines I said to myself as I worked my way out of the crowd and started looking for my fiance.

My first trip down the sidewalk was unsuccessful in finding her so I turned around and worked my way through the crowd of Filipino drivers and trinket sales people who had followed me still trying their best to part me from my money. Back at the doors, I turned around and again worked my way through the crowd of people and finally spotted my fiance back at the other end of the sidewalk. I quickly made my way to her and as soon as I gave her a hug, the crowd around me parted. They knew that being in the presence of another Filipino automatically ensured that they weren't going to part any money from me so they made off for other targets walking out the airport doors.

Introductions were quickly made and I was ushered into a modified minivan with about ten of her closest relatives. All the seats behind the drivers had been stripped out and replaced with two button like benches that faced each other and had about a twelve inch aisle between them. Everyone sat facing each other and due to the lack of foot room, your feet were placed on the facing bench between two people whose feet were on either side of you. The thin mattress soon let the hardness of the wood through until my butt felt like it was composed of bricks. Off we sped onto the streets of Manila and into the night.

Looking out the window, I quickly realized that rules of driving were very different here than back in America. For example, road signs or lane markings, if you can find any, are more suggestions than rules. If there wasn't any on coming traffic, the entire road width was used up by cars, jeepneys, motor trikes, caribou, people, chickens, dogs, goats, or whatever happened to be heading in your general directions. When oncoming traffic appears, everyone jockeyed to more or less get back into the general vicinity of their half of the road. Meanwhile, the driver swerved around slower vehicles, caribou, people, potholes the size of houses, piles of dirt, rocks, abandoned vehicles, or people drying and threshing their crops on the road surface. The only real rule that seemed to be followed was that you the driver had to be the most aggressive of all the drivers.

In the Philippines, the most important part of a vehicle is not the steering wheels, the tires, or even a motor. If you are to drive in the Philippines, the only real thing that is a vehicle must have is a horn. You have to have a horn. Horns are used for passing a slower moving vehicle, person, animal, or inanimate object. Horns are to let people know they can pass you. Horns are used to warn oncoming traffic that you are passing on the outside of a blind curve. Horns are used in the Philippines as their second official language of communication and for awhile, I thought horns were used merely for the pleasure of having a horn. But I soon learned that when they honked in the middle of a deserted highway in the earliest hours of the morning, they were merely warding off evil spirits, not honking for the joy of it.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Snowfall on Big Bluff

I have spent a lot of time in the Boston mountains in NW Arkansas which are the oldest mountain range in the United States and the only ones to run east/west instead of north/south. They are the biggest secret beautiful place in the Midwest. The Buffalo River National Park lies in the heart of these mountain ranges and is the jewel in the setting. I first started going down there over two decades ago for the whitewater but soon expanded to mountain biking and hiking, the latter which remains me favorite thing to do still to this day. I have hiked hundreds of miles of trails but one will always remain my favorite and that it the one to Big Bluff.

I always start out at the trailhead just one hundred yards down the road from my parent's cabin. The trail follows a network of old homesteading roads as they wind around farms that left years ago. The fields have grown up in pine trees which is how they can be distinguished from the surrounding native hardwood forests. Eventually the trail comes to a saddle of a mountain where you can go one of two ways, down to a place called Jim's Bluff or down the Goat Trail. The Goat Trail contours around the side of Big Bluff and eventually crosses the face of it about 300 vertical feet above the Buffalo River below. There is probably another 200 vertical feet of the bluff up above the ledge to the top of Big Bluff. The ledge is actually a hollow carved into the side of the bluff many eons of years ago by the river and is six to ten feet across in most places though it does narrow down to two or three feet in a couple spots. About halfway across, there is a deeper hollow with nice rock shelves to sit on and a commanding view of the river both up and downstream. It is hear that is the destination of my hike and where I love to come and forget about life for awhile.

One moonlit evening, I was sitting at this place watching the stars when clouds moved in obscuring most of the light. Soon it started snowing in big wet flakes that captured just enough light to be seen within ten feet of where I was sitting. I would look up and single out one big flake as it appeared out of the darkness, falling, falling until it once again disappeared into the darkness below me falling on down to the river. All sounds were masked with this blanket of snow and absolute silence enveloped me. Very rarely does one sit in absolute silence where you can't hear a single sound but when you do, the silence can be overpowering. I sat on the rock ledge shivering in cold but too caught up in the beauty of the moment to move.

I began to compare my life to that of the snowflake. Had I just appeared out of the darkness only to disappear again in the years to come? If you sum up all my years are they only ten feet in the great bluff of life? Answers weren't coming but I really didn't care because for those ten short feet, the life of the snowflake was beautiful. I hope my life can be just as beautiful to those observing it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

A Trip Into the Twilight Zone

I'm a driver. I love to hop in the car on a Saturday with my camera and just head out with nothing specific in mind for my destination. Or on my way back from somewhere and I have nothing urgent to be doing, I'll veer off the beaten path and explore a road that I have never been down. I love to roll down the windows, turn on the CD player with a good disc, and just cruise. Sometimes you strike out and other times you find something interesting. But once, I stepped out into the Twilight Zone.

The Leonids were at their peak and I was experimenting with a homemade time release rig that I had put together for my camera since I didn't have the money to spend on a cable release model. So I decided to get up at dark thirty in the morning and head north of town to see what kind of pictures I could capture. At the time I lived in Davenport, which is fairly big city, and I had to travel quite a ways to escape the light pollution. I had gone about fifteen or so miles and was looking for a good lightless spot when a thick fog started rolling in.

I was soon lost in a sea of fog without any idea of where I was. I knew that eventually I would drive out to someplace I could recognize so I wasn't too worried. After about a half hour, the fog was pierced by the glow of a gas station sign and I pulled in to grab a donut and some juice since dawn would be arriving shortly. There were three other vehicles, one at the gas pump, on near the door and one around the side. I parked near the one by the door leaving it some room since the hood was up and I thought somebody might be working on it. As I walked around the car towards the lighted door, I did indeed someone underneath the hood pouring antifreeze into the radiator. His face was lost in shadows underneath the bill of his cap but the head followed me all the way to the door. Chills ran up my spine and I quick stepped it into the warmth and light inside.

Inside as I made my way to the coolers, I noticed a young man and woman both dressed in clothes that looked like they had been wearing for several years. Their hair was a greasy black and hung down to the smalls of their backs. Both has on dirty baseball caps pulled down almost as low on the foreheads as their baggy pants were around their waists. They were walking up and down the aisles but looking at nothing but the floor about ten feet in front of them. I kept an eye on them as I got some orange juice and a couple donuts especially whenever they walked down the aisle I was in and never did they stop and look at something. They just kept on shuffling around aimlessly.

I walked up to the cashier who was the only one not wearing a baseball cap. He had large bags under some very tired looking eyes and when he spoke my total, I could see he was missing quite a few teeth. I was positive that he was one of the two hillbillies right out of the movie Deliverance. I was seriously starting to get creeped out. When I got my change, I started for the door when the cashier started mumbling something and then laughed. I pushed the door open and speed walked to my car while the shadow faced man again watched me the entire time.

I threw my donuts and juice in the passenger seat not caring if they landed frosting side up or down and started the engine. I didn't worry about the seatbelt, I just threw the car in gear and got the hell out of Dodge. As the lights faded in the rearview mirror, I kept checking to see if headlights would leave and start following me but they never did. After a couple minutes I regained my composure enough to put on my seatbelt and salvage the donuts. I stumbled across a highway that I knew about ten minutes later and headed south toward the city and the safety of my apartment.

A couple months later on my way home from a business trip, I cruised out in that area looking for the gas station while it was in broad daylight. I drove all the roads but never could find it though I am certain I was in the right area. I have kept thinking that it was all in my head and that the dark foggy night just amplified my senses to give me that creepy feeling. But deeper in the recesses of my brain, I can't help but wonder if for a moment, I really did take a trip into the Twilight Zone.