Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Riding RAGBRAI and Carbohydrate Induced Comas

The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa or RAGBRAI for short began on Sunday accompanied with temperatures over one hundred degrees for the ten thousand registered riders and assorted five thousand who crash the party. The ride is traditionally held during the last full week of July and goes from Missouri River to Mississippi River, which is an average of 500 miles. Iowa gets a bad rap for being a flat state and unless you have ridden across on a bicycle, you would probably agree. Those of us, who have ridden across on a bicycle, know that this isn't even close to the truth.

I have ridden on every mile of two RAGBRAI's in the past and it really isn't as hard as it seems riding anywhere from 60 to 100 miles a day. We usually get up at the crack of dawn to get some miles under our belt before the heat of morning sets in for good. After five or ten miles, we usually stop at a roadside stand for a stack of pancakes and then it is back on the road. All around us, in front of us and behind us are hundreds of riders stretching from horizon to horizon so there is plenty of company and entertainment. It is these people who keep your mind away from the agony located in your butt and legs as you peddle along talking and taking in the sights.

All along the route, food tents liberally dot the roadsides and about every ten miles or so, there is another town where some sort of entertainment is playing and plenty of libations are sold to cool the thirst. Roadside ditches are lined with sheets of plastic and turned into pools for soaking tired bodies. Huge stock tanks full of ice are loaded to the gills with watermelons, sodas and beers. Some towns graciously open up their public pools to the general masses for what always ends up in plenty of nudity and belly flop contests or both. There are always the ever-present beer gardens set up in drifts of plastic cups of those who have been there before you. There is always live music, talent shows, and plenty of water related activities design to keep you wet and cool. Nobody rides through these towns without stopping and nobody rides slowly. The standard procedure is to stop, get off and walk your bike through town so that you don't wreck while gawking at the carnival like atmosphere.

If we had timed things right, we would get into the overnight host town by about one o'clock to beat the worst of the heat. The group I rode with usually wrote the town's chamber of commerce ahead of time looking for host families who would allow us to sleep in their back yards or better yet, spare air conditioned rooms. This would help us avoid the overcrowded general campground and better suited our early morning bicycling farmer lifestyle. We would set up our gear and then set out to find the all you can eat pasta dinner that some church group always seemed to be serving out of a church basement. There, we would eat mountainous plates of spaghetti chased with loaves of French bread until our spandex biking shorts were stretched to the limit. Then it was back to the shaded tent or air condition room floor to take a siesta and to wait out the heat of the day in a carbohydrate induced coma.

In the evenings, we would usually hop on our bikes and ride around town checking out the entertainment and sometimes partake in it. Up to fifteen thousand bikers and a few thousand onlookers would also have the same idea so it was usually a wild time. Sometimes you would find a nude slip and slide set up on some grassy hill, dancing going on in the park or a pie-eating contest going down on main street. For some, usually the people who didn't get started riding that morning until around noon, the party is just getting started. For those who started early, when the sun goes down and the coolness of the evening begins, we disappear to our shelters in preparation for the next day.

For seven days, these same scenes are repeated over and over. Riding, pancakes, more riding, punctuated by frequent stops for food and water, more riding, bicycling nudist sighting, more riding and finally pulling into the overnight town, spandex busting spaghetti dinners, carbohydrate induced comas, more walking around town, more fun and libations, sleep of the dead, and repeat. Five hundred miles later, you coast down the final hill to the Mississippi River to dip the front tire of the bicycle into the river completing a journey that began with a rear wheel dipped into the Missouri River. Day two was yesterday and as you read this, day three is almost over for some and just starting for others. So if you are driving through and get stopped for several hours while thousands of bicyclists ride by in the hundred-degree heat, it isn't that all of Iowa has gone crazy, it is only RAGBRAI.

Friday, July 8, 2005

Joe Philippines - 9: Going Back Home

Typhoon Harurot was the worst typhoon to hit the Philippines in the last five years and the outer bands of it as it departed for Hong Kong were still lashing out at us as I made my way to the airport. Huge rollers coming in from the South China Sea would hit the barrier wall separating the ocean from the van I was riding in not twenty feet away. The resulting twenty-foot wave carried on heavy winds would engulf the road, our van and all other traffic even just a few feet away, giving the illusion that we were just a bubble in a washing machine. Though we were underwater about once every ten seconds, are driver kept going and only turned the windshield wipers up to medium speed as if it were all a mere annoyance. Such is life on a typhoon prone island.

I felt lucky to even be in Manila because the storm started lashing out in earnest just as we were leaving Sagada in the northern mountains of the Philippines for the long (through the night nonetheless) journey to the Manila airport. Once in lower elevations, while stopped for a breather, we would learn that Sagada, Baguio City, and other towns we had just passed through were now flooded and most of the roads, including the very one we were on, were shut down due to mudslides. Based off the time estimates, I figured that I had made it through with an hour to spare. For once, I was glad that we had set off in the middle of the night.

During the last few days of my stay in the Philippines, I had caught a monster of a cold. The shock to my body of living in a completely foreign land than what I was used to and being exposed to new and apparently very virulent strains of the cold virus had weakened my immune system and I was now starting to pay for it. My head felt like it contained roughly twenty pounds of snot and it was all backed up in my sinus cavities muting my hearing, making my eyes water, and my throat feel like I had just swallowed some hot coals. My body was chilled so I knew I was running a low grade fever and this really worried me. Hong Kong was now in the midst of the SARS epidemic and I had to fly right through it on my way home. If a fever flushed man sweating bullets and running a fever walked up to you the security officer in the airport, would you let him go or quarantine him like what they had been doing?

We arrived at the airport and I got my luggage out of the car as I made my goodbyes. My wife was catching a later flight to London and I was going to America so I was going solo. I handed all of my remaining pesos and most of my dollars to my mother-in-law and told her to spend if frivousely on herself and made my way to the first security checkpoint. Earlier during my trip, I had commented on how beautiful the handmade brooms or walis of Baguio City were and my wife's family had responded by buying me a half dozen of them. Having no other way to transport them back, I had bought a roll of duct tape and had wrapped them completely from business end to handle so that the end result looked like two or three rifles that had been taped together with some foreigners name and address written in magic marker. At the time it had looked good but now standing in front of some security guards who looked as if they would rather do a full rectal cavity search as look at you, I was having second thoughts. But an hour later and two searches, the non-invasive kind, I was at my gate and waiting to board my plane but not without having to stop a pay an official 'leaving tax' that the airport charges that completely wiped out my money leaving me penniless.

Not long after, I find myself sitting in the plane at the end of the runway looking out the window and seeing nothing but lots of rain blowing sideways to the ground. The plane was shaking in the strong gusts and I figured I was going to be stranded here for the night, now with no money. But after an hour, the winds paused and the rains slackened enough that our pilot lost no time. Almost a full three seconds after he told us to prepare for takeoff, it was full throttle as we launched the plane out over the sea and the departing Typhoon Harurot. We flew right over it since we were both making our way towards Hong Kong and it was a rough flight, the roughest in my lifetime of flying. Almost as soon as we cleared the typhoon and the flight leveled out, it was time to descend down into Hong Kong for a smooth landing. I was positive it would be smooth sailing from here.

The Manila ticket agent had only issued me the ticket to Hong Kong saying that I had to get the rest of my flight tickets issued when I arrived there. I thought this was odd and when I was standing there trying to explain it to a Hong Kong help desk lady who was telling me that I should have gotten my tickets in Manila, I knew I had been right. The women of Hong Kong are very demur and it is unbecoming of a lady to talk loudly so with my ears plugged with snot, I was having to strain to hear her speak through the thick glass window separating us. To make matters worse, the day before I had left for the Philippines, my direct flight from Chicago, O'Hare to Hong Kong had been canceled and rescheduled on two flights meeting in Los Angles and I had nothing to show this other than my original itinerary number from my e-ticket. After almost two hours of trying to explain things and the clerk leaving twice to walk all the way across the airport through customs and security to talk with the ticketing agents, she finally came back with my tickets and I was free to proceed.

My flight had been delayed an hour, so my three hour and twenty minute layover had now been reduced to only twenty minutes. I thought about having to spend the night without money in the Hong Kong airport and began to run. Then I came to a screeching stop. There was another checkpoint up ahead where security was taking everyone's temperature with forehead thermometers to look for fevers that indicate a possible SARS infection. Crap. Frantically I look around and see an empty glass of ice sitting at a nearby table and I grab a few ice cubes from it and smear them across my forehead. I wipe the melted water and feverish sweat from my forehead and walk up to the guard with my coolest, I'm completely normal and feeling good smile that I could muster as he checked my temperature and waved me on. Not looking a gift horse in the mouth, I took off running and made the last and final boarding to my flight.

The cabin of the airplane was like a sauna when I walked in and the pilot was saying something over the intercom about the air conditioning wasn't working properly but please bear with them. As the attendants went through their speech on safety, I started popping pills and dosing myself with cold medicine in an effort to make the fourteen-hour flight somewhat bearable to my flying companions sitting around me. The plane soon took off and once again, flew right over the incoming Typhoon Harurot in a worse bought of turbulence yet. Within minutes, six people in a five-seat vicinity of where I was sitting had filled up their airsickness bags and the sweltering air reeked of puke. I however, with my head banging against the side of the cabin in my window seat, was now within the power of the cold medication and drugs and was feeling just fine. So fine in fact, that I slept the next twelve hours without even waking to wipe the drool from my chin. The rest of the flight went smoothly including the eight hour layover in the middle of the night at O'Hare in Chicago thanks to the earlier mentioned rescheduled flights, which meant that I missed the last flight out and had to wait until morning and the next flight. I spent that time sometimes wandering the vast (and empty) terminals of O'Hare and alternately trying to get some more sleep on the chairs at a vacant gate while an automated voice came on the intercom every fifteen minutes and told me to keep track of my luggage at all times.

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Joe Philippines - 8: Beaches and Bottled Water

With a quite word spoken in a foreign language that I didn't understand, I was instantly awake and this time the cobwebs hadn't yet taken hold of my brain. Most likely this was because it wasn't yet two in the morning and I hadn't yet fallen into a deep sleep. We were getting up early to begin a long nighttime journey to our destination and as it would turn out it would be the first of several during my stay in the Philippines. With an enormous population crammed into such a small land area and with only a few roads shared not only by vehicles but by bicycles, pedestrians, chickens, dogs, carabao, waterfalls, mudslides and cavernous potholes, Filipinos often get up before they go to sleep to get to where they were going to avoid everyone else who also have the very same idea.

In our case, we were headed to a beach on the South China Sea for a picnic lunch and to spend the day relaxing. We got loaded up into the van with our trusty hired driver and headed into the inky blackness down the mountain. Nearing five o'clock in the morning, we pulled into a town somewhere in the lowlands and because we hadn't been to church in almost thirty-six hours, which was probably a new record for the highly religious Philippines, we found a church and attended mass. Surprisingly, the church was full of sleepy eyed Filipinos who like me, were on some long odyssey somewhere and just needed a place to sleep for an hour while someone soothingly chanted in Latin. After the service, they all excitingly lined up and filed up a steep flight of stairs behind the alter to touch the back of the Virgin Mary's dress. I don't know the significance but judging on the line waiting, it must be something important.

Outside the church, we found a nearby tent with tables lined up underneath and got some steaming bowls of arroz caldo, which is a meat stew of sorts, served over rice. For me, the taste was so good that it was my more religious experience of the morning. But like all good things, we were soon finished and back in the van to continue our journey. I asked the driver how much further it was to the beach completely forgetting that Filipinos are notorious for underestimating the time. The driver told me that it was only two hours away and exactly four hours later we pulled up to the beach.

We quickly unpacked enough food to feed the entire Filipino national army and set to eating it like shipwrecked sailors who didn't trust anyone around the food. After I had eaten my share and then some, I began to look around my surroundings a bit. Our lunch was in a bamboo hut not ten feet from the crashing surf and the beach was perhaps only five feet deep at this point. At least in this part of the Philippines, we had to pay to use this 'private' beach and facilities, which I found surprising for a nation with 7000+ islands and thousands of miles of coastline. But we paid for the use of this private beach that we also shared with a couple local fisherman fishing thirty feet out from shore using casting nets. After the fisherman was gone and the food was digested enough that I felt I wouldn't cramp up and sink like a stone, I went swimming in the ocean for the first time in my life. The power of the waves amazed me and the salty taste of the sea assaulted my taste buds whenever I shipped a little water. In the end, I kept thinking about stingrays, sharks and other creatures of the Filipino waters and I elected to relax in the shade of the palms and soak in my surroundings with perhaps a little bit more food.

All too soon it seemed, we were packing up the van for the long drive back, I presume to beat the rush of millions of other vacationing Filipinos who were thinking the very same thing. It was a long, tiresome journey so when we stopped at a roadside stand for another bowl of arroz caldo on our way up the mountain, I was more than ready for a rest. Our drive and I ordered bottled water with our meals and in my tired state, I didn't notice that the seal had been broken. Only after we got home a couple hours later and the cramps started hitting both of us, did I find out that the owner of the food stand had probably bottled the water herself just that morning from the stream that ran not ten feet from the back of the building. It was an important traveling lesson learned and later as I was emptying out the contents of my stomach, I had time to contemplate the fact that even our native Filipino driver got sick from the local water so it was no wonder that I was ill.

I took some of the drugs that I had brought on this trip for just this sort of occurrence and retired to my bunker underneath the house. Unfortunately, I soon learned that it was my mother-in-law's birthday and my presence for the cake eating part of the celebration was mandatory. I struggled up the stairs set into the side of the steep ravine to the main level and forced myself to down a piece of cake and carry on conversations that I can no longer remember. At the first sign of the party winding down, I made my way back down to the bunker and crawled onto my cot, praying for the medicine to kick in soon. My wife came down and rubbed some minty smelling ointment all over my chest, forehead, hands and feet that was supposed to make me feel better and then left me alone to my stomach cramps and delirium as the medicines fought to regain control of my body. Sometime around midnight after much sweating and trips to the bathroom, the medicines successfully won the battle and I slept peacefully the rest of the night.

Tuesday, July 5, 2005

Joe Philippines - 7: Blessed by a Smooth Operator

I woke up to the sounds of a hundred half starved dogs barking and one thousand roosters trying to do their best to wake me up. They succeeded but after spending 48 hours flying and driving half way around the world with no sleep, it took me a minute to realize where here was. Finally the cobwebs in my brain started to release their grip and I realized that here, was four stories down in a bunker of a room in Baguio City, Philippines.

The partially renovated house where I was staying consisted of five stories tenaciously clinging to the side of an extremely steep ravine wall high up in the mountains of northern Philippines. The main level had just been completed on the roof of the existing structure (to raise it to the same level as the nearby road) along with an attic beneath a steeply pitched roof. Below the main level stood the gutted remains of the old main level, beneath that was my concrete bunker, and beneath that was yet another level that was rented out to another Filipino family. Climbing from my bunker room up to the main level meant taking a flight of stairs outside the house that had been built into the ravine wall at such an angle, that I could reach out and touch the stairs at head level as I was walking up them. In other words, it was more like a concrete ladder than a staircase.

I greeted my mother-in-law and family and ate a quick breakfast of sauteed hotdogs and cold cereal (much to my wife's embarrassment) because my mother-in-law thought that was what all Americans ate for breakfast. I have to admit they were the best tasting sauteed hotdogs I have ever eaten but not the ethnic local food that I had been looking forward too. They would soon come to learn that I was willing to try about anything and for the rest of my stay, I enjoyed many local foods cooked by my hosts. Being that it was a Sunday in one of the most religious countries on this earth, we were soon walking up the mountain to the local mass and then hurrying right back home for a reason that was yet unknown to me.

Once back home, my hosts immediately started chopping, dicing, cutting, slicing and cooking mountains of food and I doing what anyone would do in a room full of women all armed with knives, tried to stay out of the way. They soon put me to work running a large antique (by American standards) floor polisher that looked brand new out of the box and I polished all the floors of the house. I was able to corner my wife on one of her trips outside the kitchen area without her knife and learned that the reason for all this flurry of activity was not in celebration of my recent arrival as I might of hoped but because the newly completed house renovation (the upper two levels anyway) were going to be blessed by a priest while everyone, specifically my wife from London who provided most of the financing for the renovations, were here to attend.

At noon, the local priest dressed in his vestments and two assistants carrying armfuls of bottled holy water, arrived at the door. Candles were quickly passed out and lit among the witnesses and the priest said a quick prayer. Assistant number one handed him an uncapped bottle of holy water and the priest stepped into the living room area that was lined with us witnesses. I expected the priest to pour some of the water on his hand and touch things he wanted to bless but on hindsight, I should have realized that method would have left vast portions of the house unblessed. Instead, the priest like a racecar driver who was now in victory lane after winning the race, raised the bottle over his head and shook it dousing everything and everyone in the immediate vicinity with holy water. The floors were wet, the ceiling dripping, the walls, books, pictures, people and literally everything were drenched in holy water. The priest traded the empty for another full bottle from one of his two assistants and proceeded through the house with machine gun efficiency drowning everything in his path. If satin had been present, he was no longer. Finally the last bottle of holy water ran out on the lowest level of the house and the machine gun blessing by the priest clicked on a few empty chambers/bottles and the blessing ended.
I looked around the room through my newly blessed glasses still dripping of holy water and saw that all the candles were still miraculously still lit. All the human candleholders were grinning from ear to ear and laughing, including the priest. I began to suspect that maybe this had all been some fabulously executed prank by the priest to see just how wet he could get everything and everyone and still not have them angry at him. As I wiped the holy water off my glass, I was thinking that the priest would have to douse holy water by fire hose if he hoped to make this crowd angry. I got my glasses cleaned and back in place in time to see the priest leading the charge toward the tables heaped with recently blessed food. Dang, this priest was a really smooth operator!

Friday, July 1, 2005

Joe Philippines - 6: Blanketed Bundle of Bones

We had traveled to the famous Banaue rice terraces, over some of the worst roads I have been over in my lifetime. The driver who looked all of fourteen, didn't inspire a lot of confidence as he made his way between Baguio City and small village near the rice terraces over some of the most twisting mountain roads that left my stomach in roils. Dust choked the air until you almost needed a spoon to get it inside your lungs and once there, the rough bouncing of the jeepney bounced it right back out, never letting you hang onto even the slightest bit of it. The roaring of the straining engine soon quieted even the most avid chatterbox and I had spent lots of time on the ride, reflecting in my inner quiet and gazing in wonderment at the absolute beauty of northern Luzon. The Filipinos with me had no time for that because they were trying to punch out text messages while bracing on two or three sides of the jeepney at once to get enough stability to punch the tiny buttons of the cell phones with any sort of accuracy.

Eventually we make it to the small village, which was nestled in rugged mountains full of steep canyons and terraced rice fields, some of which are older than the Egyptian pyramids. In fact, entire mountains had been terraced with the tops leveled off so that they actually looked like pyramids except composed of dirt and rice instead of stone. The village is what would be referred to in the American West as a one horse town but in without the horse. Besides a half dozen other jeepneys scattered around mostly at the local watering holes, the main forms of transportation are by foot or bicycle.
We stopped at a hotel situated at the top of a mountain that had very narrow and steep footpath leading down the mountain to rice terraces further below. A local told us that we could hike right down to the rice terraces and even see 'the bones' whatever that meant so we started down. Even though the only effort I was doing was to stay upright so that I didn't stumble and roll right off the mountain, I was soon covered in sweat in the moist morning air. Part way down we came to a native village and the trail we were on went right down between two rows of traditional nipa huts. Nipa huts are basically bamboo huts built up on stilts to keep the rodents out of home and provide much needed air circulation in the humid climate. The residents of the village were out and about, some doing laundry at a nearby spring and others grinding rice into flour using large mortar and pestles. I was a little timid at first about walking right down the middle of their home but there was no choice with a rock face on the uphill side and cliff on the downhill side. The residents didn't mind because I think they get a lot of tourists coming from the hotel at the top of the mountain and trail and the second reason I soon learned.

At the far side of the village as we continued to follow the trail on down the mountain, a small native girl came running out from the nipa hut village and lead us down the trail. Once we arrived to the rice terraces, she led us down narrow paths that ran along the terraced walls of the individual terraces, some of them ten feet or more in height. We carefully poked around, took pictures and me coming from a farming background, couldn't resist the urge to shuck a head of wheat and eat the rice kernels just like I would oats or wheat. The kernels were still hard and doughy and needed a bit more time before harvest.

Because of the steep nature of the terraced fields, there are no roads or paths in which to move equipment or vehicles, so all work done in the fields is done by hand from planting to harvest. All seeds and harvested by crop are hauled on the backs of the farmers and as we began to make our way up the steep trail to the nipa hut village, I began to really appreciate that fact. The young native girl scampered right up but my wife and I along with our German friend were soon sucking air in big greedy gulps as we slowly made our way up.
Soaked in sweat and struggling for enough air intake, we stopped for a breather when we got back to the village. It soon became clear that the native girl expected money for her guide services so I have her the pesos that I had in my pocket. The girl's mother came over and I thought was going to chide her daughter for going off with a bunch of strangers but instead asked us if we were here to see the bones. After a few questions, I found out the 'rest of the story'.

The bones that she was offering to show us for some money were the bones of her grandfather. In her village, when someone died, they were wrapped up and after a seven-day celebration, were buried for seven years. At the end of the seven years, the bones were exhumed from the ground and boiled to remove any extraneous bits of hair or flesh and then wrapped in a colorful blanket. Seven more days of celebration would commence and then the blanket of bones would be tucked into a corner of the nipa hut in which the surviving relative lived and there it would stay for another seven years. After the second set of seven years, the bones are traditionally buried for good but in this case, the woman had decided that she could make money by showing them off. She set the bright red-blanketed bundle down on the ground at our feet and I could hear the bones make a distinctive hollow noise that I could only associate with bones though I have never heard the sound before in my life.

I looked down at the bundle fascinated by the story that went with them but not really caring to see the bones. Not wanting to offend the natives and maybe end up in a matching bundle of brightly wrapped bones, I looked at me wife and she was shaking her head know much to my relief. We politely declined, thanked her for telling us the story, and headed out of the village and up the long steep trail to the hotel at the top. It was a long time before the sound of those bones hitting together left my mind.