Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: Wedding Day

Although the main purpose of our trip had been to see the extended family of my wife, it was also a charitable mission. The last time that I had visited the Philippines, my soon to be brother-in-law was dating a girl and wanted to marry her the following year. However, tradition dictates that two siblings from the same family can't get married in the same year. I haven't been able to locate the source of that tradition but I'm guessing it was made up by the parents of several sons similar in age. For another tradition requires that the groom's parents pay for the wedding unlike the bride's parents here in the states. That is why if we have a son, we will follow American traditions and if a daughter Filipino traditions, the best of both worlds... literally. But I digress.

Perhaps because a year is a long time to get married when you are in love, things happened and soon a baby was on the way. To make a long story shorter, the expectant parents elected for a civil wedding to make things official and promised parents on both sides that a church wedding would happen the following year when tradition allowed. The months came and went but the wedding was never planned. The child was born and still the wedding kept being delayed, mostly for financial reasons but I also feel there was now a lack of urgency so no desire remained to push through with it. Another long story shortened, in order to baptize the child in a Catholic church, the parents needed to be wed in a Catholic church and so my wife and I made her brother an offer. We would pay for the wedding provided they have it when we were there in December and they would do all the planning. After months with the offer on the table, they accepted a couple weeks before we flew out for Manila.

So for a week since our arrival, not only had we been making up for time lost with relatives or celebrating Christmas, but we had been planning for a wedding and today on the sunny 29th of December, it was going to happen. I had been warned repeatedly that we were to leave for the church on the military base precisely at seven in the morning but I was an old hat at these things and knew that was just wishful thinking. Nonetheless, I was up with the broken rooster and was ready to go about a quarter 'til seven with no one else even remotely close to making it out the door. An hour later we were in a taxi heading towards the base to get the church decorated before the wedding.

We made a quick stop in the center of Baguio to meet another taxi, which had been hired to bring us the wedding cake, and to combine both taxis into one for the ride out to the base. After another tense greeting between the well-armed soldiers and myself, we were let through and made it up to the chapel. I won't bore you with the details but let me say we did start only twenty minutes late, which by Filipino standards was well ahead of schedule. The only major snafu was one of the primary sponsors was a no show and because I happen to own a traditional Filipino wedding shirt called a barong tagalog and had brought it, I filled in for the missing sponsor. The only difference between that and a guest was that I got to sit in the front row and sign my name on a bunch of official looking documents.
After the ceremony however, my status as primary sponsor became, shall I say, better. The wedding reception was held in a large banquet hall that had been secured by my mother-in-law and her status on the base for free with the exception of the food. Rows of tables had been set up, decorated to the nines with fine china and table service with a head table or what they call the Presidents table up front for the married couple and primary sponsors. Now normally when I go to weddings, I am always in the section for all those folks the married couple doesn't know what to do with. I end up talking with someone's great aunt's best friend or the cousin of a coworker of the groom, which inevitably means I am always the last to eat. At one large wedding in my past, by the time we made it up to get our food, the band was already playing, the bride and groom dancing, and they had run out of the meat. I ended up with a salad, some soggy vegetables and a bowl full of dinner rolls. This wedding was different. I along with the other seven primary sponsors had personal waiters to attend to our every need including serving us with our own ornately arranged platters of food. Without a doubt, the best wedding I have ever been too.

My wife and I both were beat at this point from getting the wedding in order since we ended up doing a lot of the planning anyway. But it was over and we were relieved and it was just about one in the afternoon. So what does a Filipino do after a big wedding and a noonday reception? Why go home for another party and another feast! So tired as we were, we ate and celebrated the day away with the bride and groom until they had to leave for the bride's family with... you guessed it, another party and feast awaiting them. Some women will maybe out grow their wedding dress in a few years but in the Philippines, I'm guessing it was getting pretty snug by the end of the day. Finally after my extended belly could hold no more and my tired eyes could not fight gravity, we made our way upstairs to our room and amidst the fireworks (still warming up for New Years Eve) bursting in bright flashes of light and rolling thunderous booms all up and down the mountains of Baguio City, we fell asleep.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Our 19th Week Ultrasound Video: The Movie!

Greetings all,

I promised you that I would see about posting a small portion of our ultrasound video on here for you to see and this weekend, I was able to deliver upon that promise. I spliced, cut, and created a video just under a minute and a half long showing our baby. Amazingly enough, it is in real time and yes the baby is actually moving that much and that fast. I'm going to ask the doctor about just imbedding a transmitter in it at birth so I can keep track because the baby looks like a fast one. At the risk of getting political, after viewing this, I challenge anyone to believe that this doesn't constitute life. The soundtrack is perhaps one of my favorite songs, as cheesy as it may sound, to all those who want to know a little bit more about me.

In the Beginning

(Click On Thumbnail For Video)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: Amoebiasis!

After we got back from the ride from hell, my wife still wasn't feeling well so she went to lie down in her mother's bedroom. I think at this point everyone thought it was morning sickness that had been exacerbated by motion sickness from the wild van ride. However, an hour later a different story presented itself and I began to have my doubts. My younger brother-in-law came up to me and said that my wife was requesting a Tylenol so when I entered the room, I was expecting a wife with a headache. Instead, I found her broken out into a cold sweat, doubled over in pain and shivering violently. I knew something was wrong. It was too late to go to the doctor so I dosed her with the Tylenol and sat by her side until the fever broke and she fell into a troubled sleep. We made plans for her mother to take her to the doctor the next morning and since she was downstairs and our bedroom was upstairs, I left her there for the night under the watchful eye of her mother and went to bed... alone.

First thing in the morning I went down to check on my wife and saw that she was still very ill. I wanted to go to the doctor with her but my presence would be sure to increase the price by a factor of two or three so reluctantly I bid her and her mother goodbye as they caught a taxi to the hospital. I instead traveled to a local tourist spot to see about picking up some souvenirs for friends and family back home but my heart never got into it. I got back home shortly after lunch and ended up worriedly waiting for my wife to get home around six thirty that evening. The good news was that she had caught a treatable disease called amoebiasis. The bad news was that the drug of choice was not recommended for pregnant women.

Amoebiasis is a parasite that is primarily transmitted by fecal matter in water of third world countries. It is a virulent form of giardia that can be found in many rivers and streams of this country which is why you don't see people drinking directly from streams around here. Similar to giardia, a healthy person can ingest small quantities of the parasite and not get sick. That is why we can go swimming in contaminated waters and live to tell about it. But unbeknownst to both of us, pregnant women's immune systems are particularly susceptible to things like this which might explain why I didn't get sick. But there could be some other explanations. Although I think we both avoided unbottled water and ice, my wife is a fruit-eating junky and after spending over two years away from some of her native fruits, she had gone on a native fruit binge. Much of this fruit is cut up and rinsed in unbottled water and I for the most part avoided any that I hadn't prepared myself and knew that it hadn't been rinsed. I assumed my wife would be immune since she was raised on the stuff but evidently that wasn't true. However she got it, she was sick and definitely needed medication to treat it.

The OB-GYN doctor treating her said that the drug of choice (insert long Latin name here) shouldn't be taken by pregnant women and instead prescribed her something else that my wife, who is also a doctor, knew nothing about. We were both concerned about taking the drug but both knew that not taking it wasn't an option. So I told her to hold off for an hour while I did some research. I grabbed a pocket full of pesos and walked up the mountain with my younger brother-in-law until we found an open internet shop that rented computer time by the half hour. Soon I was sitting at the station typing in the familiar address www.google.com, the all-knowing site only to be presented with a site in a language I didn't understand. However, I quickly found a button for an English translation and off I went into cyberspace trying to google some reassurance.

What I found wasn't very helpful because I could find absolutely nothing on the prescribed drug on pregnant women. I did find several reputable sites that said the drug of choice, which shouldn't be taken by pregnant women according to the OB-GYN, was largely misrepresented based off wives tales in developing countries and that no modern studies showed any harm towards pregnant women. What worried me is that all the articles ended with a warning that pregnant women shouldn't take the drug unless necessary. Not very heartening to read. I did find one more article that said that drugs in this category can't pass through to the fetus after the first trimester of pregnancy and since my wife was in her second, I was slightly more assured. But try as I might, I couldn't find any information relating to pregnancy on the prescribed drug.

Slightly off topic, the entire time I was in the internet shop, which was just five computers set against a wall of an open-air garage, two-dozen Filipino kids who were either playing video games or watching those playing them constantly jostled me. My chair was constantly leaned on and over so that whenever I sat up straight, the back of my head would bump into some kids face and my back would pinch his hand against the chair. This happened almost every five minutes and the kid never learned. Later, my brother-in-law told me the full story. Since these terminals were rented by the half hour, you had to type a code in to start a big red timer that counted down your remaining time in the upper right corner. The boy had been constantly watching the timer and asking my brother-in-law if he could use the remaining fifteen minutes, ten minutes, three minutes and yes, even asked if he could use the last minute before the computer screen went blank. However, I didn't know this and by the time my computer screen went blank, I was extremely claustrophobic in that place and staggered out of my chair outside. I am not a crowd person and that small room was just too much.

Feeling better in the fresh air, we walked back down to the house and I told my wife what I knew. She made an overseas call to our American doctor on call who at 1:00 a.m. on the morning after Christmas wasn't all that coherent, didn't know what amoebiasis was or the effects of either drug and why should he? He doesn't practice in a third world country. So in the end, we put our faith the Filipina OB-GYN, hoping that she knew her stuff, and in God and my wife swallowed the pill. I couldn't help but think of the movie Matrix and wonder what was on the other side of the rabbit hole. My wife slept again downstairs mostly to be close to the bathroom, and I spent a second night alone.

In the morning when I hustled down to check up on my wife at the half-cocked rooster's crow, (definition of half-cocked: Rooster who crows at 3:00 a.m. instead of 6:00 a.m.) I found her much improved. As the day wore on she got better and regained her strength and by New Year's Eve she was back to normal. But to tie this in with yesterday's post, I think we both worried about the ultrasound and what our baby might look like. So when we saw that we indeed have a beautifully normal looking child with ten fingers and ten toes and no extra tentacles or tails, we were both relieved. Thank God!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Seeing My Indeterminate Fuzzy Blob For The First Time

Since I heard the heart beat for the first time towards the end of November, I had been waiting for this moment to provide a shape with that sound. Like most men I suppose, we are very visual creatures and I needed something visual to pin my hopes and dreams upon. I needed to see my child. Despite these expectations, I wasn't setting my hopes very high. After all, every previous ultrasound picture seemed to look like a fuzzy blob on a background or more fuzzy blobs. People would point out the head and hands and I would squint at the blob and say something like I see even if I really didn't. These fetal blobs always seemed to be in a laying position and appeared motionless and in hindsight, why wouldn't a picture of some moment in time be motionless?

So sitting in the darkened room with my wife on the table with a lubed up belly, I wasn't expecting much when the nurse pressed the wand to the outside of the stomach. As I squinted at the monitor, all I could see were fuzzy blobs swimming in and out of focus and my thoughts were being vindicated. And then it happened, I saw an arm with fingers attached briefly appear before being sucked back into the computer screen. My heart stopped. My breathing stopped. Time stopped. Then the profile of a baby curled up on its side came into view and my life began again. I could see my baby.

For fifteen minutes, I crouched at the edge of that chair in the darkened room staring at the monitor like a Wheel of Fortune contestant looking at the envelope in Pat Sajak's hands desperately wanting to know what they had just won. I was afraid to blink for fear that I would miss something crucial. The nurse moved the wand this way and that, looking from all different angles as she paused the image every so often to measure a femur, measure a head, print out a picture of our baby sucking it's thumb... all of it ten times more interesting than watching Geraldo enter Al Capone's supposedly hidden vault. It was seeing life and knowing that I had created it.

Barely a minute into the fifteen minutes ultrasound viewing, the nurse moved the wand top dead center (an engineering term) on my wife's belly so that we were again looking at the profile view. What I saw brought some tears to my eyes. There centered on the monitor was a picture of a baby swinging his arms around back and forth, flexing ten (yes I counted) fingers as if counting or playing an imaginary piano. It wasn't slow motion as one would suspect but fast... in real time... keeping pace with some fast paced concerto. Making a fist, unclenching, making another fist, sticking the thumb into the mouth, and back out again. Legs were also moving and I couldn't help but ask my wife how she wasn't feeling all this. In an awe struck voice she looked at me and said, "I don't know!"

All during the procedure, the baby constantly moved arms and legs and at one point, even turned over as if getting comfortable. But I suspect the baby had an ulterior motive and had been listening in to conversations between my wife and I. You see, my wife doesn't want to know the baby's gender and I do. She wants to be surprised on the day of delivery and I want to be prepared. Having just shopped for baby clothes a year ago to send to my brother-in-law and his wife, I know how hard it is sometimes to find gender-neutral stuff. So we had decided that if the nurse could reach a conclusion, that they could tell me privately and my wife could still be in the dark. The baby must have known how bad my wife is at waiting to learn surprises and kept twisting this way and that until the nurse finally gave up on trying to peer between those wildly churning legs. Although all the old superstitious ladies in the Philippines say it is a boy and my wife and I both keep referring to the baby in the masculine sense for no reason, for the official record, our baby is still indeterminate.

I could have sat there all day long but all too soon, it was over. The nurse pulled out a string of perhaps thirty pictures clipping out four of them to give to us and stapling the rest into the doctor's charts. She pulled out the VCR tape on which she had recorded the entire event for our viewing pleasure later on and soon we were being escorted into another room where the actual checkup took place. I took the four ultrasound pictures to work for show and tell but gave them back to my wife at lunchtime because I wasn't getting any work done with them on my desk. Even without them, the memory of the baby playing air guitar in my wife's womb kept replaying over and over. What song was it? Smoke On the Water?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Summer Days of Cultivation

One of my childhood jobs on the farm was cultivating. After the corn and soybeans had emerged from the ground, there are six to eight weeks to weed between the rows before they get too tall to do so. This was done with a cultivator that could straddle six rows at a time and turn over the soil with long steel shanks. Because corn grows a lot faster than soybeans, it was usually a race to get them done first and them a more leisurely time for the soybeans.

During cultivating season in early summer, my day would start early with a quiet knock on the bedroom door. My father and I would eat our breakfast and then head outside still an hour before the first rays of sunshine would scratch the sky. By the sulfur yellow glow of the outdoor light, we would grease our tractors and cultivators in the chilling morning air serenaded by the crickets. We would set off for the field and usually arrive just as the sky starting turning a rosy orange and begin work, driving up and down, six rows at a time, taking out weeds before they had a chance to get started.

The work was pretty dull with most of the actual work happening at the end of the rows. There you would have to lift the cultivator out of the ground, throttle back, shift down, turn by hooking the front wheels just past a row of beans on the end rows making sure the rear dual ended in-between two rows as well to avoid crushing more plants than necessary, counting off another six rows, getting lined up, throttled up, geared up and cultivator back in the ground. After that, all you really had to do was go straight and keep the wheels in-between rows so that the cultivator shanks didn't take out six rows of crop or as my grandfather called it, cultivator blight.

Back then, most of our fieldwork was done on open tractors. These days, tractors have cabs with radio and air conditioning but back then you were open to the elements for the most part. We did have small umbrellas that we mounted on the fenders of the tractor to shield ourselves from the sun but did little to protect you from the wind, rain, dust and heat. Mornings were my favorite time mostly because of the lighting conditions. I guess those were my first lessons in morning light that would later help me as an amateur photographer. The crops would be deep green like properly sautéed vegetables in a hot wok, the sky would be a deep blue and old weathered gray fence posts would almost appear white. The heat of the day had yet to set in making a light jacket comfortable.

But soon the sun would rise up over the canopy and the heat would appear causing us to shed layers like a snake. Soon after, the top layer of soil would dry of its morning dew and clouds of dust would rise up. If you were lucky there would be a cross wind but more often than not, it was either at your front or back... one-way. This meant that on half of your trip to the field, the dust kicked up from the cultivator would drift past the open tractor choking the occupant. I carried a handkerchief for just such an occasion and tied it around my nose and mouth bandito style to filter it out of my lungs. It was uncomfortable for sure but necessary unless you wanted to cough up black dirt later that evening. By the end of the day, I would be coated head to toe with a thick layer of dust which I am sure drove my mother to fits doing the laundry.

Some days my mother would drive out at lunch time to bring us our lunches, other times if we were close to the home farm we would drive in and occasionally when neither of those two options were feasible we would bring our lunches with us. I disliked doing this simply because I hated blowing off the thick layer of dust off of my food before eating it and the spout of the water jug always ended up a muddy paste that had to be wiped away with your shirt sleeve, also covered in dust, before drinking. You just learned to like grit. Back in my childhood days, farmers often stopped for lunch whether it was brought out to the field or we brought it in lunch buckets. Now a days there are just too many acres to cover and not enough time so you work why you eat. You learn to eat a sandwich between the ends of the rows or learn to hold it in your mouth while working all the levers. I normally timed it so that the last bite was crammed into my mouth just before the turn.

Iowa springtime weather can change on a dime as with most of the midwest. You can go from a cloudless day to a full out lightening thunderstorm in less than an hour. Many times I was caught out in the rain and there was nothing to do on an open tractor but learn to get wet. It kept the dust down but turned all the dust coated objects into muddy ones. Sometimes I would have to take off a sock or something so that I could clean the steering wheel of the mud so that I could keep a grip. I'm sure my mom always wondered how the one sock got muddier than the other one. If it were a light rain, we would continue working until the ground would start balling up instead of crumble. Spring showers are often short so this was the case most of the time. Occasionally we would get rained out for half a day or perhaps a whole day but not often. More than once when lightening was near, we would get off the tractors and hunker down in a nearby ditch until the worst was over and make a dash home.

With no radio and just enough mental focus on the job at hand to do it correctly, I was still left with a surplus of mental power that I needed to entertain myself with or get bored. I did lots of serious thinking on those days mulling over subjects that had been bothering me or sometimes I just sang woefully out of tune and mercifully drowned out by the tractor engine. I would sing every song I knew completely and then the parts of songs that I only knew one verse or perhaps the chorus. When I finished, there was nothing left to do but start all over singing them again. By the twentieth time, even that would bore me to tears. I did lots of mental designing trying to create solutions to make things work better, mostly answering questions that had never been asked. Sometimes I would build them later like I did my portable farrowing unit and other times they would quickly be forgotten as fast as they had been dreamed up.

Most evenings we would work until sunset, which came at eight or nine in the evening making it a sixteen-hour day. Those days were what I call slow days. Slow days are days that aren't physically demanding but still wear you out mentally. On more physical days, time always went faster mostly because you worked from the neck down and allowed your brain to sleep awhile while the rest of your muscles worked their butts off. Occasionally, even a slow day went slower. One day cultivating, I had just switched to a field much closer to the home farm while my father was finishing up the field that we had been working on previously. My Mom tried reaching him on the radio but he was too far away so I answered. She said my grandfather was having a heart attack and she was taking him to the hospital. A half hour later when my father showed up, I radioed him the news and he left for home immediately leaving me behind. Not knowing what to do, I continued doing what I was doing for the remaining eleven hours left in our day. My grandfather would end up dying of another massive heart attack while in the hospital a few days later, but the rest of that day were some of the longest in my life.

Eventually all days come to an end and so the sun would start turning red again near the horizon and we would head off in the twilight for home. We would fuel up the tractors and check over the cultivator replacing worn out shanks or broken springs as necessary. We would beat as much dust as possible from our clothes and then head into the shop and the air compressor where with a pump and electricity on our side, we would do a more thorough cleaning. Inside, our clothes went directly to the washing machine and the rest of us through the shower before sitting down to dinner. The crickets would be in full chorus and usually the only sound beyond the scraping of utensils on our plates, especially towards the end after we had recounted how many deer, snakes, eagles, bobwhites, etc. that we had seen during the day. Our brains, tired from the job of entertaining the rest of our body all day long, would shut down tight, allowing only a few stray sparks of the synapses to finish eating and guide us to bed. That quiet knock on the door always came way too soon.

Kuya's Philippine Journals: Like a Bat Into Hell

The driver of the van had eaten lunch with the host family as per custom but then had retired to sit in the van until we were ready to head back. Though it was cool in the mountains around Baguio, here in a lower province, it was very warm and inside the van it was oven. Have you ever seen a dog that is chained to the side of the house all day every day even as the summer days grow longer and the sunshine makes it hotter? The dog is friendly at first, allowing all those children who pass by to pet it, but gradually the hot sun makes the dog a little meaner every day until one day the dog goes mad and bites a child like one did to my younger brother so many years ago. Like that dog, this driver had gone mad sitting in the heat of that van waiting and when we climbed in to head back to Baguio, I could see it in his eyes.

Lessons learned from the morning puke session were evidently tossed out the window and immediately we found ourselves violently weaving back and forth as the driver tried to make his way through the heavy town traffic, occasionally violently being thrown forward in our seats to the sound of screeching brakes. Unfortunately, my self-dosing of Dramamine was already worn off and my senses were now firing on all cylinders. As we drove off, the driving wasn't the same as the way down, it was worse. Where as on our way down the driver had cut in front and followed to closely to people, this time he savagely ran them off the road. Where as before he had looked for gaps in the oncoming traffic, this time he merely swung out when he chose to almost daring those oncoming vehicles to a game of chicken. I stopped counting the near head-on collisions after six because I figured it really didn't matter since I was going to die anyway.

If one could find humor in the whole situation, there were some ironic instances. Several times going up into the mountains, the driver would swing into the other lane when going around hairpin corners to carry more speed only to nearly collide with a driver coming the other way. Once when tables were turned and we came around a corner in our own (outside) lane and found it occupied by an oncoming jeepney, our driver honked his horn and shook his hand out the window in rage. I saw all this from my seat and as I clung to the armrest for dear life I remember thinking, hah, serves your right you crazy old fool. How do you like a taste of your own medicine? Oh Lord, I'm going to DIE!

On another hairpin corner to the right as our driver raced around with the right tires off the pavement kicking up rocks and sending them flying over the guardrail into the gorge below, I was horrified to see a young girl and a toddler right in our path. I closed my eyes and involuntarily ducked at the last second and waited for the sickening thump that I knew was going to happen but never did. When it never came I looked back but we were already around the corner and out of sight. If we did hit the girl, she made no sound and if we missed her, it had to have been by less than an inch. I corrected my thoughts; SOMEBODY is going to die!

I am what I would consider a religious man but I am not one of those people who feel the need to publicly pray. My prayers are usually reserved for inside the church or in the privacy of my home and are mostly prayers of thanks or asking for guidance. But right after the incident with the girl, I closed my eyes and began to pray for all that I was worth. I prayed for something catastrophic to happen to the engine or transmission of that van and I prayed for it to happen as soon as possible. I prayed that the catastrophic event wouldn't come in the form of a blown tire for that would have crashed us either into the cliff to one side or plunged us to our deaths in the gorge below on the other side. I suppose we could have hit the cliff and then plunged off into the gorge but I digress.

A few miles downhill from Baguio as we were tearing through an inhabited portion of the road at 120 km/hr even though at the edge of the area I had seen a 40 km/hr speed limit, the driver started into another blind hairpin corner. There in the middle of the road was a broken down flatbed truck and there was no time to stop. The driver slammed on the brakes sending me once again into the seat in front of me as the back wheels of the van broke loose. We hit the road shoulder fishtailing before shooting over into oncoming traffic now beside the broken down truck. The oncoming vehicle swerved off onto their shoulder and our driver eventually regained control and hit the gas, squirting around the front fender of the truck with inches to spare.

Without missing a beat, the driver continued to accelerate as we headed into the next blind hairpin turn just 100 feet down the road. Too late he realized that he was going too fast and once again I found myself in a van sliding partly sideways on the shoulder of the road. But once again he managed to pull the van out of the spin and regain control. As he once again punched the accelerator to the floor, he looked back in the rear view mirror with those mad eyes and laughed. I wanted so much to just punch him in the face making sure that I could escort him to the gates of hell as we plunged off the cliff but instead I just gave him the meanest look I could muster while concentrating on remaining in control of all my other bodily functions.

Then like a switch has been thrown, we reached the Baguio City limits and he slowed down for a leisurely drive through town to our house. When the van pulled up in front of the house, I jumped out and went immediately inside to eliminate the possibility of the driver saying something to me in English, as most natives want to do when they have done a service for an American. I was really afraid of what I might say or do should he speak one word to me and I really didn't want to embarrass my hosts. All of the riders in the van that day thought the driver had driven way to fast and dangerously and my brother-in-law, like me, was furious. But nobody had said a word. I didn't say a word because I was a guest and didn't feel as if it was my place to do so, but in hindsight that seems very stupid considering I had thought my life to be in jeopardy. Because my mother-in-law was the senior member of the van and Filipinos are very respectful of their elders, I think that is mainly why the othe passengers kept silent. I think my mother-in-law didn't say anything because in a way, she wanted to test me and see how much I would put up with.

In the end, this story has a happy ending because we all made it home safely and I got a chance to meet many of my wife's relatives on her father's side of the family whom I had never met before. So after giving my thanks in a quick prayer, I told them that if we ever get that driver again, I'm walking!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: Like a Bat Out of Hell

I have rented a lot of vans during my travels in the Philippines to travel to places mostly because the price is right and it is convenient when traveling in a large group. For about $50 a day, I can have a van and a driver at my disposal to drive me anywhere I want for the entire day along with as many of my closest relatives that I can fit inside. So on Christmas morning with the family van still broken down, all we had to do was make a few phone calls and we had a van and driver lined up.

After staying up until the wee hours of the morning opening presents and catching a few hours of sleep on “the rack,” I awoke at eight with the understanding that we were supposed to be ready to leave by nine. My hosts emphasized this repeatedly as if they were worried that I wouldn’t be ready. So at about a quarter until eight, I went up to my room, changed, packed my bag with camera and other necessities for the day and still have five minutes to spare. After thirty minutes of standing outside being entertained or should I say entertaining Richard the Dog, whom the family says is too ugly to be stolen and eaten, the rest of the family was ready and we set up the mountain to meet the van at the church. (Everything seems to revolve around the church doesn’t it?)
The roads out of Baguio City all head in the same direction... straight down. Grades of 20% or larger are normal there when you are hard pressed to see 10% in most of America. Every driver who drives a lot in steep territories knows to downshift to let the engine be the brake and preserve the real ones. Our van driver was no different in that respect and so as we wound our way down the torturous mountain, we passed a few vehicles but nothing to worry about. We stayed between the lines, we didn't go over the edge and we lived to pass go and collect our two hundred bucks. But had we been playing Monopoly in the States, we would have gone directly to jail immediately afterwards.

As we rolled out of the valley and into the lower provinces where straight roads are more common than not, the drive pushed the metal to the floor... literally and I watch the speedometer rise from 30 km/hr until it pegged out at 120 km/hr. Now to you speed freaks who are fluent in conversion and know that 120 km/hr is only 75 miles/hr, let me give you a little background on road conditions in the Philippines.

A) In America, walking on the road is generally frowned upon where in the Philippines it is normal. In fact, laying out your recently harvested rice to dry in the middle of the road is normal. Heck, if you get to your buddies house and decide to leave your bicycle leaning in the middle of the road, it will still be there when you get back and not flattened 25 yards down the road.

B) In America, most cars travel within a few miles per hour of each other mostly because we have posted limits that are enforced. In the Philippines, if they have speed limits, they rarely have signs and they are never enforced.

C) In America, the majority of road users are on vehicles that are capable of going the posted speed limit. In the Philippines, a carabao commonly share the road at a leisurely 1 or 2 km/hr. kuligligs and pedi-cabs can go upwards of 7 or 8 km/hr, tricycles 25 to 30 km/hr and the average vehicle at 60 km/hr simply because they rarely get a chance to go faster with all the other slower moving vehicles in the way.

So when I saw the speedometer of our van pegged at 120 km/hr, I knew trouble would soon happen and I wasn't disappointed. The first tricycle appeared on the horizon and with over 80 km/hr speed differential, gradually stepping on the brakes wasn't an option anymore. The driver had to jam them to the floor causing the seatbelt (thank god this van had seatbelts) to tighten uncomfortably around my waist.

Everyone rocked forward with the momentum but we got safely slowed down and were following the worried looking passengers on the tricycle as an insane six inches away. Back and forth we swerved, the van with bad shocks doing the shimmy, as the driver intently gazed the oncoming traffic for a gap. Not room enough to pass but just a gap. After fifteen minutes of swerving he finally got the opportunity and hit the gas as we shot into the lane of oncoming traffic which coincidently had oncoming traffic headed right for us. Fortunately for them and us, they decided to hit the brakes and swerve onto the shoulder to let us squeeze by not only barely missing them but nearly hitting the front of the tricycle we just passed with the back of the van. The drive glanced up in the rear view mirror, grinned and mashed the pedal to the floor. Game on.

The normally three hour trip went on for an hour and a half as the driver alternated between accelerating and full on braking occasionally causing me to put my forearm up to create a protective brace between my upper torso and the seat in front of me to prevent my face from implanting into the back of it. Sometimes we would get up to the peg just on the 120 km/hr line but more often than not, some other slow moving vehicle, and at this speed all other vehicles fell into this category, came into view forcing him to slam on the brakes before he pegged it out. Whenever we weren’t accelerating or braking, we were violently swerving back and forth looking for away around the jeepneys, van, tricycle, bicycle, carabao, person or drying rice blocking our forward progress.

As I have stated before, I inherited part of my mother’s carsickness gene and am prone to carsickness when in violently swerving vans, planes and such so I was extremely thankful that I had self-medicated with some Dramamine, the drowsy formula, before leaving. That and my sleep deprived senses allowed my mind to function only enough to grasp what was going on without getting too worked up about it and to allow for bodily self preservation when the breaks were slammed down. My wife, who never gets carsick, started getting green behind the gills and eventually puked on the floor right behind the driver. I would later learn that this was not due to carsickness but at the time, my thoughts were, “You go girl, puke all over this guy’s van and maybe he’ll get the picture”… and he did. Immediately he slowed down and upon reaching a cemetery that we were planning on visiting anyway on our way to Pangasinan, stopped and got out to survey the situation. My poor wife was embarrassed but I wasn’t and in fact kind of relished the fact that the driver was now cleaning puke of the floor mat while we were paying respects to the dead.

My wife’s father, who died of malaria when she was ten years old, is buried in an above ground cement coffin as were everyone was in that particular cemetery but us. It is a poor person’s cemetery where the crypts are so close together you can’t even squeeze between them and in case of a dead spouse or child, are stacked one upon the other like Lego blocks. Weeds and trash are everywhere in this overcrowded stack of concrete blocks but signs are everywhere of those still remembered. Filipinos are very reverent of the dead and usually journey at least once a year to visit them and to leave small tokens like flowers, cigarettes or candles... something to let passersby know that this one hasn’t been forgotten. The last time I had visited my wife’s father, we had left flowers and lit cigarettes. This time however, we put some flowers and stuck three small candles to the crypt and for good measure, added a yellow plastic bag of puke to the neighbor on the right. While we laid store bought gifts my wife gave a part of herself and what can be more personal than that.
All too soon our time to push on arrived and we all piled back into the van to drive the few remaining miles through town to the house where my father-in-law’s side of the family was having their annual family reunion. I won’t bore you with the details but as per custom, there was food enough to feed an army and like starving soldiers, we gorged ourselves and sat back in the shade to talk and have a good time. The highlight of the afternoon were a group of young girls showing off their dance moves only to be out done by a small three year old boy with all the right stuff. At one point to the delight of the crowd, he even took off his shirt in a strip tease, waved it like a lasso over his head and tossed it into the crowd. If I had thought to record it on tape and submitted it to America’s Funniest Videos, I would be ten grand richer as we speak.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: A Christmas Story

For several hours that afternoon, my job was slicing up the meat meant for the barbeque grill with the world's dullest set of knives and getting it marinating. Once it had marinated properly, I spent a couple backbreaking hours shoving the slices of meat onto sharpened bamboo sticks. But I wasn’t alone and had good company as everyone was preparing for the big feast that was to happen in less than six hours. Piles of vegetables were chopped, fish prepared, and several other dishes were readied so that upon our arrival home from the midnight mass, the feast could be prepared in the shortest amount of time. Eventually everything was prepared as much as possible and my wife and I snuck up stairs to catch a short nap on “the rack” before the mass.

Dark had taken over the Philippines except for the sparse firework explosion when I awoke three hours later to the rustling downstairs as people prepared for mass. Because Filipino houses don’t have insulation of any kind, sound travels easily. We too started getting ready and then hopped into the family van since at a mere 64 degrees, it was deemed too cold to watch the 100 yards to the church. The van made it about 30 of those yards before stalling out and refusing to return to life so at risk of hypothermia, we emptied out and walked the remaining 70 yards.

The midnight mass starts at ten o’clock and until recently used to last until midnight, hence the name. But Filipinos evidently protested that it didn’t leave them enough time to prepare their feasts when they got home so the local church condensed the service to just an hour and a half. Fifteen minutes into the beautiful service, I found myself looking at my watch to see how much longer I was going to have to sit on the painfully hard pews that had little in the way of ergonomics for tall white guys. My butt felt as if I had just been caned which made it difficult to pay attention to the recreation of the nativity story by the local children. The only good thing about the pain was that it took my mind off the numbing 64 degree chill during the walk home, me in a light jacket and my hosts bundled in heavy coats, stocking caps, scarves and mittens.

The walk home was downhill (in a very steep sense) and the thought of food spurred everyone so that we were soon home and setting about with last minute food preparations. I went to help light the charcoal grill only to find out that no charcoal supplies had been laid in reserve and we were clean out. Now in America at 11:30 on Christmas Eve, you would be SOL or shit out of luck but not in the Philippines. My wife’s younger adopted brother and I first went to the sari-sari store two houses down which is the Filipino version of the convenience store at a gas station. Since there is a sari-sari store about every other house, you never have to go far. They were out so we ended up going to a neighbor two houses up the street in the other direction where we were able to obtain a huge bag of charcoal. Not the uniformly pressed very condensed charcoal that we use here in the states but honest to goodness charred pieces of wood. Normally it would take a cart to haul it back to house but in the spirit of getting some good BBQ into my starving stomach sooner rather than later, I hoisted the 60 lb sack on my shoulder and climbed the 20 feet down to street level and carried it the 20 feet back to our house.

Soon, the grill was sizzling with grilling pork as the men stood around talking about guy things in Tagalog while the women made the final preparations inside and talked women talk in Tagalog. I felt just like I was at an American BBQ except that I only understood about every fifth word. Just enough to get the gist of what was being said and laugh at the appropriate times. Now Filipinos are typically fashionably late in every aspect in their lives but when it comes to celebrations, they are always early. So at five until midnight, it was close enough to Christmas morning for them that we said the prayer and commenced to eating, even though the meat was still grilling. I don't think Jesus would have minded. There are only two rules for celebrations in the Philippines. First you must prepare enough food to feed a small army that has been fasting for a month and two, everyone must eat as it food is going out of style. Both were accomplished.

An hour later, empty bamboo sticks had been denuded of their meaty contents and empty bowls and liters of pop filled the table. Dishes were gathered and washed while non-family members bid their goodbyes and set off into the early morning to some other household where they might snag some leftover food or perhaps receive a present. Perhaps pared down to a dozen family members, we retired to the living room and began to pass out the presents to various people. My wife and I had sent a balikbayan box full of gifts a month and a half earlier plus had brought a huge suitcase full of gifts so it was a very merry Christmas for my wife’s family. Simple gifts of shampoo, Pringles, t-shirts and merchandise from name brand stores here in the U.S. were big hits and much appreciated by everyone. Because finances prevent most of my hosts from buying lots of gifts, my wife and I didn’t receive any which allowed me plenty of time to wander around in the periphery dodging wrapping debris and take plenty of pictures. My gift was just being in their presence and being accepted as one of their own. For that, I was very happy.

Finally at a little after two in the morning and less than an hour before the neighbors chicken would begin his trial wakeup calls, everyone gathered up their gifts and made for the various beds throughout the house. I was able to sleep until about eight when “the rack” forced me to get up or suffer a permanently seized back. The five hours of sleep took just the edge off my senses, which as it ended up was probably for the best since a few hours later I would be fearing for my life.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: Rich White Guy

As one would expect with a third world country, there are plenty of poverty to go around and the Philippines is no exception. The people I talk to tell me that it wasn’t always that way as little as a decade ago and that corrupt politicians are to blame but I suspect that isn’t the whole truth. The full truth would also include a large measure of population overcrowding and just not enough country to go around. My in-laws are extremely poor by American standards and even by Filipino ones they aren’t close to rich but they are also a long way from the bottom of the social ladder in the Philippines. I would say their neighborhood and lifestyle is a solid middle class in the Philippines and thus the target of those more needy who needed money.

Since my arrival into the airport terminal where a band with a container for donations in front was playing, “White Christmas” while the temperatures outside were around seventy degrees among the palm trees, there has been a constant bombardment of carolers roving the neighborhoods for money. About once an hour all evening late into the night, groups would stop out front singing some heavily accented American Christmas song until someone came out and gave them a few pesos. If that person came out ten seconds after they started their carol, the song would immediately end and they would move onto the next person. If the homeowner was a little slow in finding some pesos, the carolers sometimes forgot the rest of the lyrics of the song and would move on to the opening lyrics of another carol or simply repeat the words they just sung.

As these roving bands of carolers singing for money passed by our house, I began to notice something odd. A group of five boys that came in the evening looked very similar to some boys that were in a group of ten that came by an hour earlier. About an hour after that, three boys that looked like some out of both groups came by again and a half hour after that, two boys swung by the house whom I was now very familiar with. It was a pretty nice little scam.

For the most part, I stayed out of site of these roving carolers because to most Filipinos, a white guy is automatically rich and therefore a premium target. Though my hosts offered me pesos to give to the carolers, I politely declined knowing that once I set foot out the door, they would be inundated with even more carolers looking for money and I didn’t want to subject them to that.

Whenever I which out in public during my stay in the Philippines, a constant stream of people would come up to me wishing a Merry Christmas or Happy New Years with their hands out. Others simply came up and asked for money. Still others would send their children out to collect the money and if they really wanted to rake it in they would send the child out carrying a younger sibling to really hit the sympathy chords. I am a charitable person but for the most part, I ignored all these requests for pesos because I didn’t want every white guy after me to be assumed to be as “rich” as I was had I given them money.

It is just not the poor that want to elicit money from a white guy that shows up in their presence but pretty much all the vendors as well. I could walk into any store crowded with Filipinos and immediately the store clerks would drop what they are were doing and rush up to wait on me and all prices automatically doubled or tripled compared to what my in-laws could buy it for. But the Philippines is a country where almost everything is negotiable and so I learned to negotiate prices down with my sparse knowledge of Tagalog. Most often, I could get things down to 50% of the starting price and on occasion I could reduce it by as much as 75%. However, despite my negotiations, I was always paying more than what my mother-in-law could buy it for as she proved on several occasions. This didn’t bother me so much because I knew what I was paying for the item was a small fraction of the cost back home in the U.S. and I would rather give the extra as a form of charity than give it to those who merely beg and most of all, we both walked away happy.

Unfortunately, several times during my stay I would come across other westerners who bought things without negotiating often time twice or three times as much as I paid. The problem with their actions is that it sets the stage for the belief that all white people are rich. I spent many hours talking at length with various members of my wife’s family converting American prices of various goods over to pesos to illustrate just how expensive it is to live in my country. I also tried to explain that yes we do make a lot more money compared to the average Filipino who makes $100 per month but our bills are also significantly higher. So when we save money for a vacation, it goes a long ways here in the Philippines and sometimes gives them the false impression that we are rich. Unfortunately, I know by their requests for me to give them digital cameras or asking my wife for money, that this discussion largely goes in one ear and out the other. To them and most Filipinos, I will always probably be the rich white guy.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: A Visit To the Wet Market

Blood was running across the floor in red rivers and bits of fat and flesh floated along like abandoned boats. The remains were hung up by the legs from steel hooks hung from the ceiling, sliced open to expose the red flesh and protruding bones still sheathed in pale skin. The head had been removed from the torso and was now sitting on a table five feet away tilted back and looking up the sky as if contemplating the universe. The tongue slightly protruding from the mouth still agape and the glassy eyes told a different story. The ears had been piled on another table where fleshy ribs and other pieces were stacked seemingly random about yet other tables. Even the tails had been removed and hung up for all the world to see, including one American who was experiencing a Filipino wet market for only the second time in his life.

On my first trip to the Philippines I had gone to a much smaller version of the wet market in a much poorer part of town and thus had left my large 35mm camera at home. This time, I was shopping this Christmas Eve afternoon with my Tita Daisy for the necessary ingredients for our midnight feast after mass. On the menu was pork to lace onto bamboo sticks for a barbecue, fish, shrimp and anything else that looked good. Daisy was to do the wheeling and dealing for the food and I was to carry it home for her and perhaps take some pictures with my sleek new digital camera that I could palm and slip into my shirt pocket unnoticed.

The market we went to this time was the main wet market which is the term given to the meat market for what I assume for the bloody floors. It was an open-air affair located on the ground floor of what felt like a parking garage with a concrete roof and floors. Small stands perhaps six feet square jammed almost every available space leaving only the slimmest of aisles for hundreds of meat seeking shoppers to navigate. The stands had a horizontal tabletop crammed with cuts of meat in various stages of processing. Overhead, groaning racks were loaded with still more cuts of meat and an old scale that looked as if it had probably last been calibrated sometime in the summer of ’69.

Sharing the aisle in front of the stand was often a large section of log turned up end and manned by a large knife wielding Filipino whose job was to further process any meats according to the customer’s specifications. When customers weren’t demanding the time of the butcher, they often were hacking a rack of ribs from the torso or chopping the head off a freshly drained hog perhaps minutes dead.

Tita Daisy set off through the packed aisles slipping here and there as she inspected racks of meat for signs of freshness that I couldn’t recognize. Several times I nearly lost her from me sight and would have to scramble to keep up, ducking the cleaver wielding butchers intent on chopping their meat in the very same aisle I was walking down. Every time I did catch up with her she would have a couple plastic bags from various stores full of some cuts of meat or whole fish which she would hand me before setting off in another direction.

Meat in the Philippines doesn’t come in sanitized Styrofoam containers that have been shrink wrapped and labeled with dates and other information. Instead, vendors save up plastic bags from previous shopping and add your chopped meat inside, perhaps tying it in a knot. I collected these bags from Daisy and carried them in one hand with my wallet, camera, and other hand in my front pocket to prevent the numerous pickpockets around from emptying me of my pesos. Plus it allowed me to secretly take a picture here and there in the market with one hand and without being too obvious of a target.

After what felt like an hour of wandering the various bloody aisles of meat, we had found everything and headed back through the streets crowded with vegetable and fruit vendors. Each vender has commandeered a ten feet square section of sidewalk or street curb where they had a blanket or piece of cardboard laid out heaped tall with their wares. The funny thing for me is that the next ten vendors will have what appears to be identical produce as the ones before and they all appear to be selling it for more or less the same price. How does one decide which vendor to buy from?

By now, I was carrying some forty pounds of meat and produce in a dozen plastic bags with handles wrapped tightly around my hand. My arm was aching and I wasn’t looking forward to the long jeepney ride home but Daisy hailed a taxicab and I was able to unload the pile into the back seat for the ride home. Twenty minutes and $1.50 later, we were carrying our purchases inside and beginning the preparations for the midnight Christmas Day feast still about fourteen hours away.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: Twas the Night Before Christmas

Christmas Eve morning began not surprisingly at 4:00 for me but I was more than ready to get up off "the rack." It isn't surprising because on every single trip to the Philippines, the sleeping schedule has always been erratic with all night overland journeys here, dawn masses there, a midnight mass here, and animals such as dogs, roosters and mating cats howling at all hours of the night. (Yes, I learned on this trip that mating cats can really howl something fierce.) With all this going on, a regular sleep schedules doesn't exist and so when the rooster at the neighbors house had awaken me with his crowing (thirteen times) and then had gone back to sleep, I had stayed awake until I heard preparations for attending morning mass underway.

We trudged up the mountain to the church in the pre-dawn chill where temperatures hovered in the mid-sixties. I found it delightful in a light jacket while the rest of my party where bundled in stocking caps, scarves and gloves, looking more like they were heading out on an artic exploration adventure than just attending mass. The church was a large one with perhaps a seating capacity of 500 or so Filipinos or a dozen small Americans. It was packed but we were able to find a spot to sit in the second row confirming that Filipinos are just like Americans in that they fill the church up from back to front.

I guess it was no surprise when myself, an American, was sitting in a Filipino church and the priest turned out to be a very large Dutchman. (Talking about spanning the globe culturally!) Later, I would learn that it is traditional for Filipinos to give gifts of food and other stuff to the priest during the offertory during every single mass... more than 365 times a year since some days like today had multiple masses. I think the large Dutch priest wasted not any of the gifts of food.

Because the mass was Catholic, it was no different than those found in America excepting the thick Dutch accent. It was in English like most official forms of communications in the country so I could follow along. There were only two major differences that I noticed. The first, in America the crucifixes with the representation of Christ hanging from them are almost angelic in quality where in the Philippines they tend to be more graphic and almost gruesome. Maybe that is why more people in the Philippines attend church regularly than their counterparts here in the states. The second difference comes during communion. In American churches, parishioners receive communion in an orderly fashion normally row by row with those seated in front, the last ones to arrive, going first. Maybe the church feels they are the ones who need it most. In the Philippines, when the priest steps down from the altar, there is just a mass rush as people push forward to receive communion. I was immediately swept up towards the front with little brown people pushing me from all sides as people lined up in front of the altar the entire width of the church. The priest quickly walks back and forth handing out the communion wafers to those in front and then the real struggle begins. Those in front must make their way through the others in the church now stacked almost ten deep and who are still pushing forwards to the front, in order to reach your seat. Because I outweigh most Filipinos two to one, the tend to give me some leeway and the other Filipinos who were in the front and had already received communion would follow in my wake as I made my way through the crowd. I admire the enthusiasm of Filipino people during communion and for the church as a whole especially when compared to the majority of parishioners here in the states that attend masses looking as if they had just woken up. I knew if would be hard for me to muster up enthusiasm when it came to attending the evening midnight mass later on.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: Showering By Tabo

Upon my arrival to Baguio City, my wife and I checked out the latest completed renovations to the house, which is five stories tall. One story still is nothing more than a shell for storage and the two lowest stories are rented out to transients, but the top two stories are the family living areas and are still tiny by most American standards. Fortunately, there wasn't a big crowd yet and the majority of the crowd had been up all night so we broke off and went to bed. Time: 8:00 a.m.

The beds themselves are very utilitarian and I don't think you would find a "Pillow Top Sleep Number System" bed in all of Philippines. It would probably mold inside of a week. Instead, beds are composed of a metal framework of wire and a thin mattress. Over the course of the week, I would affectionately refer to the bed as "the rack" even if I still would rather sleep on it than be tortured by said device. As I laid down on it, I had been sleeping or spending my waking hours for the last thirty plus hours in a cramped sitting position and to lay flat seems luxurious even if it was on "the rack."

Four hours later, I awoke refreshed and stiff from the bed but soon had the kinks worked out and decided the next order of business was to wash two days worth of grime off myself and get to smelling human again. But in order to do that, I had to face the tabo (short a sound with a long o) bathing method, which I hadn't experienced on my first trip to the Philippines.

Most Filipinos are short on plumbing though most have running water. From what I have seen, they normally have a working kitchen facet and a spigot in each of the bathrooms but that is it for the pressurized side. On the drain side, it is very similar to American standards, i.e. toilets, shower drains, etc. A typical bathroom will be a small room with a toilet and a sink. The floors and bottom half of the walls will be tiled and the doors will have some sort of metal sheathing. There will be a drain somewhere on the floor and a spigot protruding from the side of the wall with a plastic bucket and a tabo (plastic handled ladle for scooping water) underneath. There aren't any shower curtains or bathtubs and if there are, they still don't have running water.

To take a tabo bath you can suck it up and just use cold water or you can heat up some water in a teakettle on the gas stove in the kitchen and bring it up to temper the water. Then you ladle a couple scoops of water over yourself before shampooing and soaping up your body. The rest is rinsing. The water splashes all over the bathroom and gets everything wet which is why they tile the lower half. But it does create some sanitation problems in my opinion.

Between showering and using the same tabo and bucket to flush the stool when necessary, the toilet seat is always covered in water which caused me a great deal of uneasiness when it came to doing your business. In a house full of people, toilet paper seemed to last by the hour and always seemed to be in short supply. So when I had to use some of this precious supply to wipe down the toilet seat before sitting on it, that sometimes left the bare essentials for finishing up. I got to where I horded my own personal roll of toilet paper so that in the middle of the night I didn't stumble into the bathroom to find an empty cardboard tube hanging there which always seemed to be the case.

The other problem is that the bathroom was always wet. Not only does this force you to wear shoes or sandals when using it; it is also a great petri dish from growing all kinds of bacteria especially in the more humid regions of the country. The one advantage to the whole affair was that cleaning the bathroom, a task that I hate when back home in the states, was as simple as splashing a few buckets of water around. You can't beat that!

During the course of my stay in the Philippines, I would spend two nights in Tarlac City down in the provinces at the house of an Uncle of Mrs. Abbey who through a catering and party supply business, seemed to be doing well for himself. He has the first working hot shower I have seen in a private home during my stays in the Philippines. I have included a picture below to illustrate to you why with a hot shower at my disposal, I still took a cold shower. Notice the wire running from the overhead light run off of 240 volts that snakes down to a switch wrapped in electrical tape and then draped up and over the shower curtain rod to the shower head. None of it was wrapped in anything remotely waterproof. I shuddered at what was going on inside the showerhead where the wires terminated and decided a cold shower would be just fine for me.

One more comment on the picture. The "extra" cord hanging down from the shower was a rubber hose tapped into the side of the shower head that ran down to a much smaller shower head kind of like those ones in the U.S. that come connected with flexible metal conduit only not nearly as nice. The small shower head (about one inch in diameter) was the only one that worked. The large one on top produced only a dribble which made me suspect that it was being used as a heating chamber of sorts and definitely convinced me to not try the hot water.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: Social Autism At It's Finest

Somewhere along the line, I read my new favorite term. Social autism. I define social autism as the lack of awareness of one’s surroundings or the needs of others in your immediate vicinity. Airports and airlines are full of social autism.

I don’t know how many times I have flown in my life but I have logged a lot of hours in an airline seat, perhaps more than most. Every flight the message has always been the same. Please stay in your seats until the plane has come to a complete stop and the pilot has turned off the fasten seatbelt sign. Yet I have never seen that happen once. On the flight into Narita, Japan on the way to Manila, I counted at least thirty people in the tail section of the plane alone, including redneck man, dragging luggage out of the overhead storage bins while the plane was still moving. It was so bad, that the pilot had to stop the plane and wait five minutes before the attendants got everyone seated again, all the bags restowed and all the overheads closed again before proceeding. I don’t know about other people but on every flight I have been on, you get out from front to back and if you stay seated right until the row in front of you starts making your way off the plane, it doesn’t take you any longer and likewise, rushing to get your bags before the plane is stopped or even after it is stopped gets you off no sooner. All you do is make it harder for others to get their bags around you and in the case of the Narita flight, delay the entire thing. Social autism.

Waiting in terminals for the boarding call, you know when it is getting close when people start jockeying for some floor place right next to the ticket agent in front of the gate. The gate agent will eventually start by giving the boarding announcement for those sitting in the rear of the plane and hordes of people immediately cram forward trying to get on the plane even though they sit in the middle or even near the front. I know this by seeing how many people are clogging up the aisles near the front of the plane when those of us in chattel class way in the back are waiting to shuffle back to our seats. They slow down the entire boarding process. Social autism.

In Narita, the agent announced that boarding for rows 60 through 68 would now begin and the normal rush forward began. But unlike normal procedure of disregarding the seat numbers and allowing anybody with a ticket on in any order, the ticketing agents diligently checked each number and told those with lower numbers to please return to their seats until their numbers were called. Bummed? Sure they were but discouraged but they certainly weren't giving up. Instead of going to their seats, the rejected people simple stepped to the side. But the shear number of people stepping to the side congested the entire works up like a mid-winter cold does to sinuses until those with the proper seat numbers couldn’t even step forward to get to the ticketing agent or the plane. Why the hurry to get to a seat where you will be sitting for the next fifteen hours? My wife and I had seat numbers in row 62 and were stuck in this throng of people with room to move neither forward or back for over twenty minutes as the ticketing agents repeatedly asked those with lower numbers to please move back from the gate and take seats until their numbers were called. It never happened but eventually we and those with seats in row 60 and beyond were able to squeeze by and get onto the plane. It was pleasant to walk clear to the back of the plane without having to wait on those sitting up front to clear the aisle but their behavior in boarding really slowed up the process. Social autism.

Every flight always ends the same way as the final descent begins. Please shut off and stow all electronic equipment, place your luggage in the overhead compartments, place your trays and seats in the upright position and remained sitting until the pilot has turned off the seatbelt sign. Yet every flight, the attendants had to go through the cabin asking fully a third of the people to turn off various electronic equipment and move their seats and trays to upright positions. I saw one flight attendant have get up and hurriedly tell a man to return to his seat as he made his way to the bathroom when we were literally less than a minute from landing. Social autism.

Every since 9/11, going through juiced up metal detectors at all the security checkpoints means removing every piece of metal on your body and even your shoes. Yet people still insist on wearing so much jewelry and hiding metal objects in various pockets hidden on their person. One lady even wore these laced up boots that took her probably five minutes just to get one back on again. While I am standing in line waiting my turn, I remove all metal objects and place them in my carry on bag so when I get up there all I have to do is send the bag through and place my shoes in the tub and I’m through. In contrast, I got behind one large black man with more bling bling than you can shake a stick at and the security woman had to ask him three times to remove such things as coins, watches, and large necklaces off, each time causing him to sigh and walk back from the metal detector to place the offending object in the basket. At this point, he still hadn’t walked through the detector once. When he did, he faced the wand when he set off the detector due to more forgotten bling bling. He was still getting a pat down as I made my way towards the next gate. I wonder if all that personal statement was worth the delays. Social autism.

Since I became attuned to the words social autism, I see it everywhere and it is discouraging. It seems to be communicable and spreading like wildfire. We as a society are becoming more engrossed about ourselves and tuning out those around us. It is becoming all me, me, me and nothing about those around you. I find it truly sad.

Kuya's Philippine Journals: It Is Good To Be Home

The Philippine International airport is unlike any other international airport I have been through. You go through immigration, pick up your luggage, and clear customs just like any other airport but there the similarities stop. Where most other airports have large indoor terminal areas to meet people, rent a car, find a taxi, etc., in Manila, you find yourself walking immediately out the doors and onto the street. There, a swarm of taxi drivers await the passenger trying to out shout the other drivers and tempt you to take their vehicle. Because I am white, they pay extra attention to me because I am rich and naive to their trumped up prices. Fortunately, I have the Filipina wife card to play and that trumps everything. A few words spoken in the native language of Tagalog by her and they all are off to prey on other less rich and less naive passengers.

Though you are outside, you still aren't where you need to be if you want to meet your friends/relatives or get to your vehicle. For that, you must cross the street and descend into another building with two ramps, one with A-L descending left and another M-Z descending right. As Abbey's, we take the left most road which unlike Frost seemed to be the one most traveled and descend to another open air street that calling chaotic would still seem conservative. On one side of the streets, hordes of passengers disembarking from many international flights that all come at the same time in the late evening wait with their luggage. On the street, all manners of vehicles spaced out 3 to 6 inches from the bumper and side panels of those on all sides jockey for position to stop and pick up you and your luggage while blocking the most other vehicles as possible. Lots of horn honking and whistling by police at this point but nobody is paying attention as everyone is having a tearful mini-reunion with some passenger with 300 of their closest relatives. Lastly, on the far side of the street is a barricaded sidewalk in front of parking garage where hordes of Filipinos still scanning the descending ramps for their long lost relative wait patiently stacked ten deep. Periodically upon spotting their long lost relative, a mass of 300 or so of the closest relatives will swarm out of a narrow opening in the barricade and without looking, race across the five lanes of traffic, slipping between the bumpers where possible and walking over the others where not, traverse to the other side where they join the chaos.

That is where Mrs. Abbey and I are as we are carefully guarding out bags from the ever-present thieves while scanning the crowd for one of her 300 relatives. Out of the periphery of my vision, I see a figure come racing towards and bear hugs my wife as their momentum carries them out of sight behind me. I whirl around to protect my wife from her attacker only to see that it was her Tita (Aunt) Daisy. Tears start flowing from them like a water sprinkler and as I stood there guarding our bags, I couldn't help but loose a few of them myself. As I took my turn joyously hugging Tita Daisy, my wife frantically scanned the crowd for the one person that means as much to her as myself, her mother and thirty seconds later, there was another running bear hug and lots more tears by all parties. I kept waiting for the other 298 to appear but it was not to be this time. The last person of our reunion party, Tito (Uncle) Pito would eventually be roused from his sleep by Daisy and would jockey the van into a position about three lanes out and blocking two of them. We charged out among the traffic, quickly loaded up the van and set off into the Manila night. By my watch it was now 12:10 in the morning on December 23rd.

Heading off into Manila is not for the faint of heart or for those who aren't native to the area. The streets follow no pattern or grid like other countries and contain very few if any lane markings or signs. Immediately upon our departure, I was completely lost as we randomly turned left or right onto other roads with no signs or markings. We made a brief stop at the office where Mrs. Abbey's brother works for more hugs and tears before heading for the outskirts of Manila and the provinces beyond.

My wife and relatives slipped off into Tagalog as they got caught up and I for the most part watched the world unwind outside the window as I listened on catching words here and there and generally following the gist of the conversation. My wife speaks better English than perhaps the majority of native born Americans but her mother speaks it roughly and with a little difficulty so I have always emphasized that they speak their native language whenever it is more comfortable and I will follow along and learn it as best as I can. Besides, mother/daughter conversations probably wouldn't interest me anyway.

After a couple hours of driving, fatigue sets in and they start drifting off to sleep so I take my cue and crawl into the third row bench seat that is barely three feet long. I curl up all six feet two inches of my frame into a contorted fetal position and with my head slamming the side of the van with every pothole we hit, I fall asleep and awaken only a couple hours later when we stop for gas and some food.

Filipino gas stations are very different than their American counterparts. As first glance they look similar but the differences are great upon closer inspection. Most have an armed guard on the premise and those that don't probably have several guns inside under the counter. All are full service and kept very clean. I mean so clean that after every car leaves the attendants mop the concrete by the pump clean. I never saw a cigarette butt, discarded plastic bottle or over flowing trashcan during my entire time there. Inside the convenience store, it too is clean and looks very similar to the United States. Lots of snack type foods wrapped in individual cellophane packages, a drink dispenser, hot dogs roasting in the display rack and even arroz caldo.

Arroz caldo is rice porridge served in a bowl over meaty chicken bones and it is very delicious. So when my hosts asked whether I wanted a hotdog or arroz caldo for supper/breakfast/middle of the night meal, I chose arroz caldo and for gas station food, it was delicious. After I finished, I left my wife, her mother and Daisy to finish their hotdogs while I went outside to talk to Pito who had taken his hotdog outside to eat while guarding the van. (Thieves are everywhere.) Whenever I walk around in places like that, reactions are normally the same. The elders all politely star with curiosity or perhaps envy (remember, all whites are rich) and the younger generation will occasionally give me a hello or a "hey Joe" greeting. The very poor always immediately flock up to my side begging for pesos after telling me Merry Christmas (or Happy New Years) and those selling things come over to show me their wares. At this time having not yet been to an ATM machine, I was pesoless and so all went away disappointed not that they would get money even if I had pesos. It sets a bad standard for all subsequent whites visiting the area and most look like scam artists, often carrying infants to drum up sympathy.

With full bellies and a sun just beginning to illuminate the mountains to the east with backlighting, we crawled back into the van and started east. Soon we were crawling up the steep mountain switchbacks, occasionally slowing down when we came to restrictions where the road had been narrowed down to one lane such as due to a landslide taking the other lane with it sometime in the past. Though we are in the same van as my last trip we are moving much faster than last time mostly because we are 297 relatives fewer and much lighter. We grind up the mountain and sometime around six o'clock with the sun now shining rosily in the east; we pull into Baguio City and up to my mother-in-law's house perched on the side of a steep mountainside. My wife and I both felt the same, our journey was over and it was good to be home.

Monday, January 9, 2006

Bush Arrogance

I read something yesterday that tripped all my Spidey senses. Evidently, last month President Bush agreed to accept the ban on torture but then later reserved the right to ignore it as he signed it into law using a little known device called a bill signing statement. Why it is little known is beyond me since he has used it over 500 times during his tenure, more than the last three presidents combined. (Clinton 105, H.W. Bush 146 and Reagan 71)

Bill signing statements don't have the force of law but they send a powerful signal to executive branch agencies on how the White House wants them to be interpreted. According to legal experts, Bush has in every case, interpreted presidential authority as broadly as possible and interpreted legislative authority as narrowly as possible, preempting the judiciary branch. In some cases, Bush bluntly informed Congress that he has no intention of carrying out provisions that he considers an unconstitutional encroachment on his authority. I find this an arrogance of power.

Congress has clashed with Bush over signing statements before. In 2002, lawmakers from both parties vigorously objected when Bush offered a narrow interpretation of whistle-blower protections in legislation on corporate fraud. After a series of angry letters from Congress to the White House, the administration backed down. Some members of the current Congress from both parties also question the legal authority of presidential signing statements. Do you want to hear a real non-shocker? It turns out that Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito wrote a 1986 memo outlining plans for expanded use of presidential-signing statements.

This country was founded largely because we rebelled against having a king and so the balanced the powers of government. We gave congress the power to make the laws, the President the power to execute them and the judicial branch the power to interpret them, not the President. Signing statements are a terrible off setting of this balance of powers in my opinion. The Constitution says that if the President doesn't like a law he can veto it, even just one single line of it. By using a signing statement, Congress and thus the people aren't even given a chance to override it.

In 2003, lawmakers tried to get a handle on Bush's use of signing statements by passing a Justice Department spending bill that required the department to inform Congress whenever the administration decided to ignore a legislative provision on constitutional grounds. Bush signed the bill, but issued a statement asserting his right to ignore the notification requirement. Surprised? I'm not.

Friday, January 6, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: There and Back Again

Before any great adventure can start, one must first get there and so I would like to start my Kuya’s Philippine Journals series with the story of the trip there. Because we don’t have the luxury of taking a couple months off for a roundtrip boat ride and it is impossible to get there by any other means, we are left with flying. Now flying and I have never really agreed with each other. For one, I have never enjoyed being stuffed into a tin can with hundreds of other people for long hours on end and with no escape. For another, I inherited the ability to get motion sickness from my mother and though I never get as sick as her, I can and do get a little green behind the gills on long haul airplane flights, especially with turbulence. Fortunately, modern medicine has come up with Dramamine. Before our trip while stocking up on some medicines to take along for “just in case,” I found the Dramamine selection at the local store and saw that I had the choice between regular and non-drowsy. Seeing I had thirty hours of airplanes and terminals ahead, I quickly bought the regular stuff. Non-drowsy is for amateurs.

Our first leg of the trip was just a short hop from the local Iowa airport to the large airline hub in Minneapolis aboard a small thirty-seater turboprop. There were only two seats on our side of the aisle and my wife and I occupied both of them so no problem. On the second leg from Minneapolis to Japan, I was anxious as to who was going to be sitting on the other side of me in the four center seats where we were located on the 747-400. I always seem to have bad luck when it comes to drawing seat neighbors on long haul flights and this one would be no exception.

I spotted him as soon as he passed through the intermediate bulkhead and started heading for his seat… right beside me. He was a sweaty looking redneck with a baseball cap at a jaunty angle and I knew by the way he acted that we were not going to be friends. He stowed his bag in the overhead and sat down with a meaty plop into the seat next to me and immediately started elbowing my side and arms as he jockeyed for position on the shared arm rest and issued a loud, “Gawd damn, we are going to have to figure something out.” In fact, almost every sentence he said over the next fourteen hours would start with a “Gawd damn” and more often than not end with a drawn out “shit.” Nothing suited him. When I ordered a Sierra Mist when drinks were served and received an entire can while he ordered a diet Coke and received just one of those little plastic glasses full, mostly with ice, he turned to me and said, “Gawd damn, how did you get a whole can. Flag down the attendant when she comes back on your side and ask for another can of it. The one on this side is trying to dehydrate me… shit.” I ignored him. But he just never seemed to get the hint. When dinner is was served it was, “Gawd damn, I’m going to be eating rice for the next 16 days, I sure don’t want to eat it now… shit.” On it went the entire flight. Nothing but negatives.

It was extremely windy when we arrived some thirty thousand feet up from Narita, Japan and it took awhile for the plane to gradually lower itself down to the tarmac shaking all the occupants around like a paint mixer. We taxied around and waited for a gate to open which never did and eventually they decided to unload us right there on the tarmac and bus us into the terminal which displeased the redneck to no end. “Gawd damn, I only have a half hour to catch my flight to Shanghai and if I don’t make that flight, there is going to be communication problems… shit.” I suddenly was hoping for more delays. When the plane finally stopped, the man grabbed his bag and tried forcing his way up the aisle but only got a few rows up before being blocked by a glut of other passengers trying to stand in the aisle and also get their bags. When it came our turn to make our way out of the plane, down the stairs while hanging off for dear life in the hurricane force winds, and make our way to the waiting bus, I was happy to see the man, looking very frustrated, wedged into a seat in the middle of the bus. The bus wound slowly around the terminal and finally stopped and the man tried to get out but was in the middle and my wife and I ended being the first off the bus since we were the last on. I couldn’t resist making a comment like “So we meet again,” which didn’t improve his move and he just abbreviated his comment to another drawn out, “shit.” As we made our way to the security checkpoint, the man hurriedly brushed by us in his haste to get to the security only to get in a line slower than ours. As we exited the checkpoint making our way to our next gate, I saw him one last time still putting on his belt and shoes with a very hurried look.

Nothing sucks worse than having to rush through a strange airport, going through lots of security checkpoints when your flights are late and you are crunched for time. Coming back home, our flight out of Manila was delayed for three hours for maintenance issues while every fifteen minutes the captain would come on the intercom and say that they only needed fifteen minutes more before they could leave. Three hours later when we finally took off for Narita, I knew there was no way we were going to make our international flight back home since we only had a two-hour layover. Much to our relief however, our connecting flight was held since so many of its passengers were on the Manila to Narita flight but we still had to hustle through the Narita airport to the gate while they constantly paged final calls. For some reason, all incoming passengers with connecting flights in Narita are routed through security again where bags are checked and passengers are run through the metal detectors. That certainly doesn’t speed things up. I thought of redneck man, "Gawd damn."

We had made up a half hour of time in flight but were still running two and a half hours late when we flew out of the still extremely windy Narita airport for the good old U. S. of A and I figured catching our last flight from Minneapolis to rural Iowa was virtually impossible since we had only an hour a half layover and had to go through customs which is always a zoo. But the plane picked them up and put them down and we ended up getting into Minneapolis only fifteen minutes late. (Why don't they do this all the time?) However, going through customs ate up lots of time and by the time we made it to our final gate, we had just five minutes to spare before they gave the boarding call. I wanted to wait until everyone had boarded so that I could enjoy the fresh terminal air for a while versus the canned airplane air but my wife insisted on getting to her seat. So we joined the line to board only to have the ticket taker pause when she got to our tickets and frown down on the computer screen. Great, here I am on the final leg after flying half way around the world and there is a problem that is going to be solved by me spending a night sleeping in the airport or taking a high priced taxi to some high priced hotel. Much to my shock and relief, the attendant announced that she was going to have to cut off boarding after us leaving eight people still standing or sitting behind us in the waiting area. The woman carrying a small child behind us broke down into hysterics yelling and screaming at the attendant saying she had a seat number (the child evidently would sit in her lap) and had verified it earlier and yet she was going to be denied. The attendant tried to tell her that there was a seat available on the 7:00 and 9:00 o’clock flight but the lady hysterically begged us to give up one of our seats. I had been in airports for almost thirty hours at this point and was in no mood to spend another five hours waiting for the next flight that had a seat and be split up from my wife. Besides, my wife had a doctor's appointment the next morning to have a baby checkup and I certainly didn’t want to miss that. We grabbed our ticket stubs and boarded the plane without looking back and trying to mute out the anguished cries of the woman. After doing weight checks, the lady and small child were allowed aboard but at least six others were left stranded behind.

Finally, six flights and fourteen days after we started, we touched down at the local airport and hauled our bags heavy with souvenirs and other booty out to our car, which started, always a sweet sound, and drove the hour and a half back home. Local is still a long way in rural Iowa. My throat ached from breathing all that canned airplane air for so long but it was great to be back on terra firma. It was good to be back home.

Thursday, January 5, 2006

Kuya Ed Is Back!

Well I am back safe and sound along with my wife and I must say, it is good to be home. We both enjoyed the trip and as expected, I have lots of stories that I will relate to you in the upcoming days along with lots of pictures to post once I get them downloaded, processed and uploaded. For me, this trip was more special because it was our first trip as husband and wife, which meant that I was treated more as a close family member than the stranger that I was last time. I was given the title Kuya Ed by my wife's slightly younger cousins (lots of them), which is a term of respect meaning roughly "older brother." Those cousins from a different generation than us referred to me as Tito Ed which translates into Uncle Ed and often blessed me or touched the back of my right hand to their forehead as a means of showing respect to their elders. Likewise, I bless my elders when there to show my respect, much to their amusement and appreciation. In short, I was accepted and loved as one of the clan... all three hundred or so of them... and felt at home.

My last trip to the Philippines has three main goals. The first was to meet the immediate family, the second was to get a blessing for our upcoming marriage in the States since most (and as it turned out all) of them would not be able to make it, and lastly to explore the upper Luzon part of the Philippines. This trip was different. My wife and I both wanted to spend more time with all of the relatives during the holidays and not do so much traveling. As a result, I feel that I understand the culture quite a bit more than my first time around and got to explore my wife's heritage a little deeper.

I thought initially, that I would continue the Joe Philippines title of the series and take up where I left off on my last trip but for me that title is one of an explorer and this time, the trip was more about family. So I decided to come up with a different title for my series, which will eventually be linked in my sidebar that better suits the purpose. What I have decided with my wife's help is to name it "Kuya's Philippine Journals." I hope over the next few weeks or perhaps months as I slowly relate the stories and the pictures that you enjoy them as much as I did in experiencing them. Thanks for reading.

Sincerely,
Ed