Friday, October 31, 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Haggling With the Natives

Though many people wouldn't enjoy it, one of my favorite things to do when in the Philippines is to haggle with the natives or in plain English, to negotiate prices of a purchase. In the Philippines, almost everything is negotiable price wise, which works out great since almost every price automatically goes up when a Caucasian enters the scene. At best, a Caucasian can only hope to get them back to the original price while a native could get them to go lower but I harbor no sour grapes over this. It is a deal for me and a deal for them. Everybody wins.

During my last trip to the Philippines, I wanted to get a large hand carved wooden statue of a native Filipino playing a flute while crouching on a stump with a dog and a recently slain deer lying at his feet. The statue stood three feet in height and probably took the carver several weeks to carve. It was almost glass smooth and finished in an ebony stain and would easily be worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars on the market over here. There in the tiny woodcarvers shop along a street full of woodcarver shops, it was unmarked and thus priced according to who walked in the front door. So when a German, an American, and a Filipina walked in, the price was automatically set pretty high.

I always started the process logically by asking "magkano" or in English, "How much?" I asked this even if there was a price tag with the cost affixed to the item because often, their answer was less than marked. Once they spit out an answer in Philippine Pesos, it was simply a matter of offer and counter offers of numbers. Depending on where you were doing the purchasing and how saturated it gets with foreigners spending large amounts of money, determines if additional haggling is necessary. For example, if you were off the beaten path as I was at the woodcarving shop, I would shake my head no when prices were given to me and acting insulted, start to leave the shop. This would guarantee another lower figure than the one just mentioned. The farther I got out the door, the lower the figure would go until I would eventually accept it, still at a higher price than any Filipino would have paid. For example, I bought a hand carved set of fork and spoon, two feet tall and a sign of prosperity when hung on the wall of your house for the equivalent of fifty cents. My mother-in-law, in an effort to prove to me how naïve I was, went back and bought the same thing from the same store for ten cents, five times less than what I paid for it. Note that the method of walking out the door does nothing for you in high tourist areas for the owners knows that another tourist even more willing to part with their money will soon arrive. For that reason and to not set precedence for future shopping gringos, I prefer to do my shopping off the beaten path.

With the woodcarver in question, he was in a district well known to foreigners for woodcarving statues but a lot farther down the mountain road than the other shops and thus not as frequently traveled. This shop was somewhere in-between the two extremes mentioned previously. He quoted me a couple lower figures as I walked out of the shop trying to look insulted but still the price was quite high. I set off down the road looking at other woodcarving shops but never could find another statue like the one I had my eyes on. I went back to the shop and was rewarded with more haggling. Would I take an unfinished one for less of a price, or a smaller one, etc? I acted indifferent to the object of my desire and instead questioned him on the cost of other items. Eventually he made one last offer and I took him up on it. For a measly 300 pesos or about $6.00 US, a princely sum for a day's wages for the woodcarver, I became the proud owner of the statue.

Eventually, wrapped in dirty clothing, stuffed into an extra large rolling suitcase, having survived customs and a plane trip across the Pacific ocean, the wooden statue arrived with me a couple weeks later in Iowa and now graces a wall in the great room of my home. Every time I look at it, I am reminded of the hour or so I spent haggling for it and the bargain price I received it for. I'm sure a woodcarver in the Philippines looks at some new electronic gadget he bought from the proceeds and remembers how big a fool I was to pay that much for such a simple wooden statue when any Filipino knows it should have cost five times less.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Why I Will "Waste" My Vote

With an election right around the corner and a mention by Saur in a blog post, and others in the past, about a third party vote being a "wasted vote", I would like to ad my two cents worth about why I will be wasting my vote this year.

I don't believe a third party vote is a wasted vote and would argue that a wasted vote is a vote for someone you know does not represent your own beliefs and principles. A wasted vote is a vote for someone you know will not lead the country in a way it should go. A wasted vote is a vote for the "lesser of two evils." Or, in the case of John McCain and Barack Obama, what we have is a choice between the "evil of two lessers." I believe our current election process has come down to a popularity contest instead of being based on preference.

Consider three examples that show a third party vote isn't wasted. In 2000, George Bush carried Florida and thus the election by 537 votes. Ralph Nadar received 97,421 in Florida. In fact, all seven of the other third party candidates received more than 537 votes in Florida. In 1992, Ross Perot won 18.9% of the popular vote making him eligible for federal funding for 1996. (15% of the vote is required before government funding is given.) Ross Perot's third party run in 1992 though successful, was still only the second best showing second to Theodore Roosevelt's "Bull Moose Party" run in 1912 that garnered him 27.4% of the vote.

These campaigns of third party candidates are not acts of spoilers or vanity. These are people who believe it is a constitution that is the governing document of our Republic. These are not people who want to address the current economic crisis by giving crooks on Wall Street $700 billion dollars and themselves $110 billion stuffed in a pork barrel. These are not people who are continually getting us into foreign policy debacles such as Vietnam and Iraq wars. These are not people who worry about keeping millions of donor's dollars in reserve for their inaugural balls or buying $150,000 wardrobes at Saks 5th Avenue. These are not people who support giving illegal aliens amnesty and a path to citizenship. These are not people who expressed support for sending combat forces for "peacekeeping purposes" against foreign countries even if those countries do not pose a threat to the United States. These are not people who support NAFTA or the United Nations. These are not people who believe in shrinking the size of the government. These are people who are campaigning to bring systemic changes in the "politics as usual" America even though we the people have a history of voting for "change" that never seems to happen when voting Republicrat.

I argue that voting for a candidate other than the best representative of our views has the opposite effect. If a candidate already knows that he has our vote, he will then concentrate on moving their platform away from our desires in order to court the votes of people far from my own. I really fault John McCain's campaign this time around for doing exactly this. Instead of being a maverick as he has in the past, he has been busy codifying the extreme right.

If the lesser of two evils does win, it won't be my fault because I didn't vote for them. In fact, it will be the fault of anyone voting based on popularity or FEAR (especially in this election and the previous one) rather than policies, issues and ideals.

Even if my vote has little chance of affecting the outcome of the election, in this case Obama in a landslide according to recent polls, it does and can influence policy and future elections. The groundwork laid by Nadar in the 2000 election are still being felt even in this election as both candidates spent large amounts of time and money courting the independent middle during the primaries. Unfortunately they haven't learned to court the middle after the primaries are over, but they will learn eventually. Rome wasn't built in a day.

If just 15% of voters vote for a third party, that candidate won't win, but that party will receive federal funding and debate time in the next election cycle. This would truly be a change to our broken political system.

So I have made up my mind. This year I will be "wasting my vote" for president by voting for the Baldwin/Castle ticket. I encourage you to vote for the person that best represents your principles. By voting only in this manner will we ever be voting for true change.

Monday, October 27, 2008

I Want To Ride a Jeepney

What do you get when you cross a Jeep with a mini bus? Although that question had never entered my mind, I discovered the answer while in the Philippines. What you get is called a Jeepney. The front end has the same grill, lights and shape of a Jeep but with wide flared fenders and the back end looks similar to a mini bus. They are everywhere in the Philippines and are a widely used source of public transportation.

Most Jeepneys had routes that they followed with a sign listing both end points. Once you found the vehicle going your way you just climbed in and gave them your money. The climbing in part is really harder than it looks. The entrance to these vehicles is located where an emergency exit door would be on a school bus. Once inside, the distance between the roof and the floor was about four feet with one bench seat running along each wall from the driver to the door. Filipinos, being of small stature, could just hop right up and take a seat. Me being six foot two inches tall, had to scrunch down to get through the door and do a odd sort of duck walk to make it to my seat much to the amusement of everyone else. Once seated on the low benches, my knees would end up being near my ears because I had to fold my long legs nearly doubled just to keep my legs from taking up the entire narrow aisle.

Natural Lover

You would pass your money (usually around $0.05 or $0.10 US dollars) to the driver and away you would go. There were two bars bolted to the roof that provided handholds for each of the bench seats. I soon learned that if you didn’t grab on to these especially when heading up and down the mountain, you would end up sliding down the seats and possibly squishing a whole row of Filipinos. I’m sure this wouldn’t be looked upon kindly by their culture.

Quite often, there wouldn’t be enough room in the Jeepney for all the passengers and so the last people would grab a railing and hang off the back end. If they were going for quite a ways they might just climb up on the roof until their stop. If you knew where you were going, (which I never did) you could just yell when you wanted to stop, otherwise, the customary way to signal the driver was to beat on the roof. This worked whether you were inside or on top of the Jeepney.

Jeepney drivers took great pride in the aestetics of their vehichle which they also owned. Without fail, their jeepney would be brightly painted, adorned with lots and lots of chrome, and festooned with about any ornament or decoration that was humanly possible. Each Jeepney had some unique name but generally fell in one of three categories; religious, luck, or sexual. Some of my favorites in these categories were Hail Mary, Two Guys a Girl, and Last Chance.

Jeepney Benz

Chance was always something I felt I was taking when riding a Jeepney. On one four-hour ride to see the rice terraces, the driver appeared to have just made puberty the day before. When I mentioned this to my hosts, they said he probably had been driving since he could see over the wheel, which didn’t help to reassure me because that couldn’t have been more than a week ago. Never the less, he skillfully sped us to our destination over some of the bumpiest roads and paths that I can imagine.

Overall, my Jeepney experience was pleasant merely for the fact that I never plunged over a cliff in one. If I had, I’m sure I would have been riding in the one that was named Last Chance and not the one named Hail Mary.

Religious Experience

Gilbert is that you?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Day Three

Author & Others Resting In Buck Farm Canyon

The sky began to soften up the starlit night and soon, the canyon wrens were serenading me with their songs. Life just couldn't get any better. I took my gear down to the beach and enjoyed the morning. After a while Jim, a retired mechanical engineer for Lockheed, came down and as the only other mechanical (or otherwise) engineer on the trip, I guess I could appreciate the many stories Jim told. I would have listened all day but pancakes, sausage and fresh fruit for breakfast seemed to interrupt us.

We set off down the river at an easy pace but didn't go far before stopping at Buck Farm Canyon. There we hiked up to the Hermit layer, a harder layer less prone to erosion forces, and where people like myself hiking in the side canyons always seem to get rim rocked. There in a shady bowl of rock, we lounged around before heading back to the river for a lunch of sandwiches and last night's leftovers. On the way back I saw scat from either a bobcat or a coyote but didn't know which. I'm not sure which species or both live in the canyon bottom and will have to research that later.

The Dark Canyon powered by Ote, was my ride for the day and I enjoyed talking with her. As we passed mile 40 and the site of a proposed dam that never got built, our talk shifted to decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam. The scars from several exploratory shafts at the Mile 40 site show how close we came to losing even more.

There weren't any big rapids today and we stopped at around mile 45 for an early afternoon. After unpacking the boats, a half dozen of us, namely me and some of the crew members, hiked up to the Eminence Break trail to above the hermit rock layer via a fault line. It was a real huff and a puff climbing up out of the canyon but the view was a feast for the eyes. We sat around for a while enjoying the afternoon until Heidi the cook needed to start back to begin supper and requested an escort. With lots of good bathing spots back around camp requesting my presence, I volunteered and we set off.

On the way down, a private party of six that we had passed yesterday pulled in at the far end of the sandbar, the very spot that I had picked out as my potential bathtub. Quick flashes of anger swam through my head that off all places to camp in this huge isolated canyon that we had to share our sandbar with others, the private group had to choose that one, less than 1/8th of a mile from ours. But also as quick, I realized how much the isolation that we have enjoyed over the past few days had already begun to take hold of me and put down roots. I quickly suppressed my anger searched downstream among the multitudes of house sized rocks for a bathing spot and was rewarded with a small sand beach at the foot of a nice flat rock to set everything on.
Buck Farm Canyon

Bathing in the canyon is an experience to say the least. First, privacy is hard to come by with an occasional boat drifting by (more so during the regular season and not the two week dory/private party season I was in) and the forced close proximity to camp. Several times during the trip we would surprise people on private trips, especially when we started out in the morning, doing various personal hygiene activities. The unwritten rule of the water was to politely look away if you were in the boat and if you were the one being seen, to realize that they didn't know you from Adam and hopefully thus minimize the embarrassment. Though I certainly didn't set out too, by the time the trip had ended, I had seen most people without their clothes on and most had seen me. It just couldn't be avoided.

But this afternoon, I had a secluded spot to myself for my bath and it went uninterrupted. Because the canyon is an arid climate that receives very little rain, it is recommended that you bathe directly in the river and allow your biodegradable soaps and shampoos to flush downstream. Because of limited spots and little rains to cleanse things, residues like shampoos can quickly accumulate on shore and provide an odorous and unsanitary condition. Generally, I would wade in to my knees, splash water to wet down my skin, quickly soap and shampoo, and then by quickly rinse by submersion. All told, this took about one minute, perhaps two at the tops but by then, my legs and most of my exposed skin would be thoroughly numb in the 46-degree water. That is why the sun kissed flat rock to rest upon while toweling dry was such a nice surprise and I was quickly warmed back up.

Back in camp, I went down to the kitchen area and watched the sunlight chase itself up the cliffs of the next bend down river. I reflected on one of the stories Ote had told me today was of Bert Loper, who in his time was known as the King of the River. In July of 1849 while celebrating his 80th birthday and running 24-1/2 mile Rapid, he had a heart attach, flipped his boat and drowned. Later they would find his boat washed up near Spook's Canyon downstream and to the right of Buck Farm Canyon. Many years after that in the 1975, his bones were found downstream and were removed for reburial with his wife who had died two months earlier. Though most of the boat had been destroyed, the remains were still chained to a tree there and offered up a chilling reminder that the river never sleeps.

Supper consisted of steak, spinach and mushroom salad, mashed potatoes, green beans and from what I saw coming off the stove, fried potatoes. As usual, I let all the other clients rush through the line first and by the time I went right ahead of the crew, the latter item was all gone. Afterwards, we burnt some mesquite that we found on one of our hikes in the barbecue grill and sat around swapping stories until late in the night.
Eminence Break

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Farming Is Not For the Weak of Heart

Soybean Harvest

Farming is not for the weak hearted, that is for sure. After months of watching it rain, my parents were able to rush in a crop only to have parts of it drown in the following rain. So in-between rains, they replanted, only to have parts of those drown out. But as the summer wore on and the now redeeming rains continued to falls, the crops grew well and the grain prices continued to stay high. But then the economic crisis thing happened and the prices fell and fell and fell. Meanwhile, crucial things like dryer gas remained high. Large parts of fields were ready for harvest but rains and green crops that had been replanted a month after the main crop hampered efforts. Finally yesterday, my parents were able to begin soybean harvest, now almost a month later than normal.

We Abbey's were there for the event after first making a several hundred-mile detour to pick Brother Abbey from the airport. If you recall, Brother Abbey fell off a grain bin almost a year ago and in some miraculous fate of intervention, lived to tell about it albeit with a leg shattered in hundreds of pieces. After several surgeries, lots of metal, scores of screws, rehabilitation and the passage of time, he is walking and with only the slightest of limps, something I never thought I would see again.

Within minutes of arriving on the farm, Brother Abbey, his girlfriend, and my family, walked out to the fields to meet Mother and Father Abbey. We had a quick reunion and then got back to work for harvest does not wait. Mother and Mrs. Abbey went back inside to finish preparing a late night meal. Little Abbey and I rode with Father Abbey in the combine for an hour talking and watching an extremely fascinated Little Abbey, almost two years and five months old, absorb the harvest process. Finally as the sun was starting to dip into the horizon, Little Abbey and I walked back across the field to the farmhouse while Father Abbey and Brother Abbey continued to work into the approaching darkness.

Little Abbey played with Mother Abbey for a while and then because a Monday and a new workweek was coming quickly, we bid our goodbyes and drove home in the dark. I'm sure we were back home and almost in bed before the rest of my Abbey family were inside eating their supper. Such is the way of harvest for the next six weeks if dry weather prevails. But as the summer has gone, so has our fall and rain is forecasted for the next three days.

To sum all this up, there is a bountiful crop in the field that isn't worth very much due to the recent economic crisis. Harvest is a month later than normal meaning anxious farmers wanting to get their livelihood under a waterproof roof are harvesting it earlier and thus wetter than normal meaning drying bills for safe storage are through the roof, no pun intended. The Abbey's have farmed for generations and no this well so we do our best to secure it but make time for family. Yes, farming is not for the weak of heart.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Day Two In Camp

Ote In North Canyon

We paddled through a few more rapids before pulling in for the day at Fahrenheit 451 Camp situated on a narrow strip of sand and rocks at the base of a shear wall on the outside of a bend in the river. It is so named for the temperatures it feels like to those who camp there later in the summer. As it was, it still felt like an oven until well after the sun went down. A supper of grilled salmon steaks, rice and a spinach mushroom salad was quickly dispatched. There was a quick discussion of the next day's plans before the clients

Not wanting to bake myself, I stayed up with the crew, all other passengers including the Germans were in bed, talking and writing in my journal. Ote was the only crew person joining the clients to bed at an early hour. Ote, short for Coyote, which I later learned was her name, is the wife of the owner of Grand Canyon Dories. She is a real character and is extremely knowledgeable on all things canyon related with lots of stories to tell. Having left my watch at home for the duration of the trip, I had no idea what time it was when we finally left for our beds. The crew always sleeps on their boats or on the two baggage rafts which float on the river. A couple times when rain was likely, the dories even had tents to cover their occupants at night.

My bed for the nights was a roughly seven foot long by three foot wide patch of powdery white sand between some rocks some ways off from the others. Kind of like a coffin with a view for above me the stars were shining bright. Upstream between the canyon walls I can see the Big Dipper and downstream Orion. Tonight only a sliver of moon is shining, framed by the downstream canyon walls, but it still feels like a bright flashlight right in my eyes. As I sat on my bed, I wrote down the wildlife tally for today which included four mountain sheep, lots of lizards over lunch, squirrels and a lot of 8" rainbow trout. Bronco had tried fishing for them earlier before supper with a fly rod but nothing was biting. I have always envisioned the Colorado River as it was in the past, big and muddy but the waters fed from the base of the dams is an emerald green that reminds me a lot of the Buffalo River in Arkansas.
Red Monkey Flower

During supper, I had spent some time talking with one of the baggage raft paddlers named Nick who was about my age. Like most of the crew, he was a ski instructor during the winter in Colorado and bounced around between there, the Grand Canyon in spring and fall and the Salmon River in Idaho during the summer. Right after this trip, he had part of the day off and then he was doing another dory trip for three weeks. This was his fifth year of living this lifestyle and though he was as poor as they come off the river or ski slopes, he was wealthy in my eyes. Later during the trip, I was even offered a job of rowing a baggage raft on the next trip and working my way to being a dory oarsperson after putting in my time. Never in my life has it ever been so hard to say no.

I had a life that I had left behind with a stable job that made decent money. It was waiting for me when I got off the river but wouldn't be waiting for me if I delayed my arrival for another month. It was challenging and rewarding but just didn't have the curb appeal as paddling the Colorado and Salmon rivers for a living. Besides, I wasn't nearly a good enough skier to teach so not having a winter income would really put a crimp in my income. Later during the trip, Nick would lose his grandmother's old point and shoot camera to the river. It was old and could easily be replaced at a cost of $50 or so but to Nick, it was a monumental blow to his finances. I just couldn't bring myself to get into such a position. Still to this day, I occasionally think of what might have been but a loving wife and beautiful daughter who wouldn't exist had I taken the job, always quickly snap me back to the path I chose and now wouldn't give up.
Fahrenheit 451 Camp

Friday, October 17, 2008

Day Two On the River

Bronco Scouting Big House Rock Rapids

I woke up in the light of false dawn and was already feeling hot. If I had to guess, the temperatures were still in the upper 70’s, which meant that today was going to be a scorcher. I would have liked to go back to sleep but my body said enough was enough of lying on the hard packed sand and sticking to the top of my sleeping bag. Only Heidi the cook was up getting water for coffee ready so I joined her down by the kitchen and watched the canyon walls slowly gathering color with an arriving dawn. After a time, others began to rustle and soon everything was in motion so I moved down by the beach where I could take it all in. It was a real treat just sitting there while a breakfast of honeydew melon, English muffins, eggs and bacon was prepared. After breakfast while the other clients were taking down tents, etc, I wandered up behind in the rocks and took some pictures of camp.

Today I rode with Bronco in the dory called the Phantom named after the destruction in the Phantom Ranch area. It is one of the few boats not named after something destroyed by either the Glen Canyon or Boulder Dams or the waters they impound. The first rapid of the day was Big House Rock Rapids, named after a big rock at the head of the rapids that is as big as a house. The rapids rushes into a boulder lined shore on the outside of a tightly radiused bend. You need to avoid the house-sized rock at the beginning but in doing so you put yourself perilously close to the boulder lined outside edge of the curve. Technically it was challenging for dories but as always, the picture makes it look like small ripples. Looks are deceiving and the first wave we hit was well over my head and engulfed me. Though it was probably 80 degrees, it was still early in the morning and it took my breath away. Unlike yesterday, I was still able to high side or throw my body weight towards the downstream gunnel to prevent the boat from being tipped over.

As the trip began, everyone was left to their own devises as to where to sit in the dories and with whom. But as the trip progressed and we hit some of the bigger more difficult rapids, the crew started dictating some of this. Chief among their concerns was having the bigger guys with more weight sit up front, especially those who could high side. Their goal was to weight the boat so it punched through the waves instead of going up and over, the less stable route and for people to move their weight around whenever we were sideways to the impact, also stabilizing the boat. Because I come from a kayaking background and know these rules well, I was in great demand later in the trip, often paired with guys with mass but little to no grasp of high siding. At one point in Lava Falls, we hit a wave sideways with me on the upstream side of the boat. I had to practically stand on the gunnel and was high siding so much that I could see over the guy next to me, now underneath me, and into the eyes of the wave. That was the closest I would come to tipping over the entire trip.

Below the Waterfall In North Canyon

We made it through Big House Rock Rapids no worse for the wear and progressed through a few small rapids before pulling out at North Canyon. We hiked up the canyon about a mile before getting rim rocked by a shear wall with a waterfall. The crew has been telling me a lot of the wildflowers aren't blooming yet due to the dry weather but that is hard to believe with all the wildflower pictures I've taken so far. We sat around in a shady limestone bowl area of the canyon for a couple hours enjoying the day before finally starting back. The way back out was a very hot hike with temperatures now well into the upper 90-degree range.

It was lunch time by the time we got back to the boats so we all slithered in what little shade we could find under the tamarisk brush while lunch was laid out. Today was crabmeat sandwich spread, leftovers from last nights supper and assorted condiments, crackers and cheeses. After lunch was over, we shoved off and were soon in a stretch of the river called the roaring 20's named for the numerous rapids that come one after another some twenty miles from our beginning at Lee's Ferry. (All river mileage is gauged in terms of miles from Lee's Ferry.)

Above the Waterfall In North Canyon

The rapids were mostly straight shots and full of big water that quickly cooled us back down. A couple of the better rapids were Hansbrough-Richards Rapids and Cave Springs Rapids. Hansbrough and Richards were two men on the Stanton expedition who on Monday, July 15, 1889, 111 years earlier, had drowned at this very rapid and caused the abrupt end of the expedition until better boats and lifejackets could be had. Though Hansbrough's skeleton would be found downstream a year later, Richards was never found. Knowing that someone has drowned on a particular stretch of river always makes me pause and re-evaluate things that I might have taken for granted without previous knowledge.
Vasey's Paradise

Next on our journey down the river was Vasey's Paradise, named by Major John Wesley Powell after friend and noted biologist Dr. George Vasey who never got to see the springs gushing from the canyon walls or the lush flora that marks the site. I recognized tons of poison ivy and also saw squirrels, ducks, golden eyes, canyon wrens and numerous other birds I couldn't identify. Right next to Vasey's Paradise is Stanton's Cave named after the Stanton expedition, which after loosing Hansbrough and Richards to drowning, stashed their supplies in the cave and walked home. It is also a major archeology site and where the first evidence of a massive dam was found in the form of drift wood 160 feet up from the river. This dam is a leading theory on how massive regions of the canyon were formed in a single cataclysmic event.
Red Walled Cavern

Somewhere around mile 33, we arrived at Red Walled Cavern that reminded me a lot of a larger Cobb's Cave on the Lost Valley trail in Ponca, Arkansas. It was a cavernous hole in the side of the cliff large enough to hold a football game in comfort on the fine white sand upon its floor. Because of our earlier lingering and the no camping allowed here to protect this natural beauty, we couldn't stay long and I barely had enough time to hike halfway to the back of the cavern and take a picture of the other boats in our group heading towards it before it was sounded that we were leaving.
Red Walled Cavern With Boats On the River

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mad As Hell

Finally the debates are over with and we can go back to hearing our handful of nightly sound clips from both sides and not feel forced to sit through ninety minutes of exactly the same thing as the previous two presidential and one vice presidential debate. They just say the same things over and over. Why exactly did John McCain want ten debates? He certainly hasn't even used part of one debate to his advantage.

So what is my impression of last night’s debate? Let me some it up by paraphrasing the candidates.

Obama: "me, me, me, me, me"

McCain: "Obama, Obama, Obama, Obama, Obama"

Kind of one sided don't you think? It's no wonder that surveys hand Obama the victory with 53% of the people saying he won the debate and only 23% say McCain won. I think McCain should have used a little more time to talk about himself instead of bringing up the same things over and over, the tax fine, Obama's opposition to offshore drilling earlier on his career when McCain himself was the same way earlier, and on and on and on. Joe Plummer was mentioned some 26 times last night, the economy a measly 16 times and Iraq only 6. What is wrong with this picture?

Let me address Senator McCain for a bit.

Dear Senator McCain,

You had my vote, even before the primaries were over. You were the Maverick, you were the one to reform Washington, and you would pull us out of this mess. However, last night was the first time you ever said, "I am not Bush." It was about eight months too late. You have wasted your entire campaign attacking Obama's character and leadership skills. I might find this acceptable if you hadn't done a half assed job at it. But you did do a half assed job at it and so it makes you seem like a grumpy, whiny old man. It also had the side effect that you have kept me in the dark about exactly what you are going to do for me if elected president except for buying failed mortgages from homeowners. Because I am a responsible homeowner and didn't buy a house beyond my means, this makes me feel like shit. Why have I spent my entire life saving and living responsibly when I could have been living it up, driving fast cars and pimping my pad? I didn't think it was possible that you could go an entire election campaign without talking about issues but you Mr. McCain have done it and I applaud you for that accomplishment. It will probably never happen again in my lifetime. So what am I to do? Vote for a guy who talks about issues but with whom I disagree with 50% of the time of vote for a guy who I used to agree with 50% of the time but has spent the last half year avoiding talking about anything substantial and what few things you have talked about how been about expanding the government and spending more money, the two things I am adamantly opposed to. You've lost my vote Senator.

In my voting career of four presidential elections, I've voted for Bill Clinton twice and two third party candidates (i.e. throwing away my vote). I thought this was the year that I would finally be able to vote for a Republican outside of our national and state Congress. I have a feeling that I will be throwing away my vote yet again this year on a third party candidate. I bet I'll have plenty to choose from who spend their ENTIRE time discussing issues on where they stand.


P.S. If McCain mentions Palin's qualification for vice president as someone who understands kids with special needs because she understands AUTISM better than anyone, one more time, I think I will scream. Trig, Palin's son, has DOWN SYNDROME, a chromasonal defect which is in no way, shape or form related to AUTISM, whose cause is yet unknown.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dear Customer Service Representative

One of my reading crutches, as I like to refer to it, is Stephen King. It started one rainy day as a child when I did something mischievous and was sent to my room to 'think about it'. It turned out to be the book "It" which I started reading and couldn't put down. It is also why my parents had such a hard time disciplining me because I enjoyed getting sent to my room, which gave me plenty of time to read. Anyway, my fondness for Stephen King has lasted through the years even though I don't enjoy his later work nearly as much as his earlier stuff.

About a decade or more ago, I joined the Stephen King Library. Every six weeks, I was sent either a hardcover original edition of one of his earlier novels or a hardcover edition of his latest novel before bookstores even got them. All this for $18 that included the shipping and handling fees and was way less than the bookstores ever sold his books for. This went on for a couple years until eventually I had caught up with all his books and thus would only occasionally get his latest work whenever it was released. This was fine and only amounted to $18 a couple times a year.

Then three years ago, things started to change. Bookstores would get the latest book two or three weeks before I ever did meaning I had to avoid listening to others discuss it until I got mine and could read it. Worst of all, I started getting Stephen King Desk Calendars once a year which I don't use and have no need for but still have to pay $18. Finally after receiving my third over priced desk calendar and not having received a new release in a timely manner in some years, I decided to cancel my subscription and just pay the higher price in the bookstores with my savings from not getting a stupid desk calendar.

But as I went to send the email, I had a change of heart and decided to try and just get out of getting a desk calendar while still retaining the membership. Wouldn't customer service be willing to do that to retain a member? So I sent them the following email:

Dear Stephen King Library,

I do not wish to receive any more calendars in the future. If this is
not possible, then I would like to have my membership to the Stephen
King Library cancelled. Thanks.

Ed Abbey

Of course I got back a canned response saying they would get to my email and reply within three business days. Finally on the third business day exactly, I received the following email:

Dear Member,

Thank you for contacting us regarding your Stephen King Library membership.

As a member of the Stephen King Library, you will be sent one selection from our library approximately every 6 weeks. Unfortunately, we are unable to alter the frequency of this schedule or the order in which the books are sent out to you.

Thank you for your understanding and your continued membership in the Stephen King Library.

Please feel free to contact us again, if you have any additional questions or concerns.

Customer Service Representative

Michael 0417

As you can probably tell and so did I upon reading it, Michael 0417 didn't even read my email before sending some canned response that didn't address my concerns. So I sent him this reply:

Dear Michael 0417,

Since you obviously answered my request with out actually reading it, I am not surprised that you answered a question that I never asked. Please cancel my membership effective immediately.

Ed Abbey (former Stephen King Library Member)

You just can't get good customer service these days.


I received a response yesterday from my last email. It read:

Dear Member,

Thank you for contacting us.

As per your instruction, we have processed your cancellation request.

You may receive up to two additional notices indicating that you need to respond. However, the featured selection will not be sent automatically.

Please feel free to contact us again, if you have any additional questions or concerns.

Customer Service Representative

Miriam 0465

Monday, October 13, 2008

Day One

Hedgehog Cactus

[Author's Note: During the first segment of this trip, the only worthwhile pictures besides the picture of the boat's at Lee's Ferry that has already been seen, were of flowers. So while my words in this post don't reflect the pictures, enjoy anyway.]

Day one began at Lee's Ferry with the temperatures in the high nineties though it was still late morning, only April 6th and much cooler back home. My oarsperson for the day was a woman by the name of Elena who had been running the rapids of the Grand Canyon for eighteen years. Since she didn't look a day older than me, I would say the occupation had been very kind of her. Her boat was named the Hidden Canyon which is now buried under the stagnate waters of Lake Powell Sewage Lagoon. I shared the stern of the boat with Don, a retired roofer from California and in the bow were brother's-in-law Don and Larry both also retired and living in Boulder.

Prickly Pear Cactus & Snag

Elena oared us through some small ripples and large pools as we talked and got to know one another. Soon we passed under Navajo Bridge, which would be the last road we would see for several hundred miles. As per custom, lunch was lowered down to the boats from the deck of the bridge via a long rope. I'm sure we could have packed it on the boats with us but it certainly wouldn't have had the show factor lowering it from the bridge did. We pulled in at a sandbar just downstream and dug into a lunch of deli sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, fresh tomato, sprouts, all the condiments, fresh fruit, crackers, potato chips and cookies. I was surprised with all the food, they hadn't used a steel cable to insure the line wouldn't snap when lowered.

Already my body is trying to adapt to the hard desert climate. I downed two quarts of water with my lunch and still felt thirsty but held back to prevent foundering when we started back down the river. The harshness of the sun and dry air that drove us to eat in our lunch in the cool shade of a cliff, robbed my body of moisture at an unbelievable rate. Because the literature said that a water filter would be available all during the trip, I had only brought one quart Nalgene bottle with me, which turned out to be a huge mistake. Fortunately Bronco loaned me one of his spare ones that I used for the rest of the trip. One quart would have been okay along the river but for the hikes, two quarts was never enough. Replacing fluids was only one side effect of transplanting myself from lush green Iowa to the arid canyon floor. During the coarse of the trip I shed several layers of skin, was constantly pampering my lips, which cracked and chapped and even had bleeding gums a few times early on until my body adapted. I always had a few open wounds from barking my bare shins on rocks or other pointing objects and those would never heal until I had gotten back to Iowa and then after a few weeks of being in a more moderate climate. Yes, my body rebelled during my trip but I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

Agave & Barrel Cactus

After lunch we hit 6-Mile Rapids and then shortly afterwards, Badger Creek Rapids which was running a 7 on the Grand Canyon scale. The Grand Canyon scale is different than the conventional rating system of western rivers where they are ranked from Class I to VI. On the Grand Canyon, the rapids are scaled 1 to 10 with 1 being flat water and 10 being the most difficult rapids that is actually runnable. Badger Creek Rapids in an area termed Marble Canyon is narrow at the top, a feature that gives it some of its difficulty and full of standing waves over ten feet high. But they paled when I saw Soap Creek Rapids a couple miles further. In John Wesley Powell's day, this rapids was unrunnable but subsequent floodings have reduced it to the runnable status but as I stood there looking at it from shore, only barely. It sounded like a freight train screaming by only feet away and as we sat in our tiny dory at the edge of the brink, it was all consuming. But as the boat tipped slightly and slid down towards the first wave, I became unaware of any sound at all. The dory climbed up and rode over, through and around the huge waves slapping me with water for the first time. The water minutes old from the bottom of the Glen Canyon Dam was an icy 46 degrees and took my breath away. Without breath nor sound and now with a few hundred gallons of extra water on board, it took me what felt like an eternity to grab my bailing bucket and getting my brief boating experience back to some resemblance of order. It all happened in about a dozen seconds. Before our adrenaline could return to only semi-elevated levels, Shear Wall Rapids loomed on the horizon and doused us again with big waves. Somewhere around mile 15 for the day, we pulled into a sand beach and home never looked so good… or solid.

Cliffrose Tree

The clients all grabbed their bags and raced off into the sand to set up tents with the exception of myself who stayed down with the crew and help get the boats unloaded completely. I was planning to sleep under the stars so didn't need to set up a tent anyway. Later as I snacked on some crabmeat dip and crackers, I tallied up the living creatures calling the canyon home that I had seen during the day. I came up with four American Condors, three Mountain Sheep, numerous herons and one Peregrine Falcon, the first one I had ever seen in my life. The floral species were pretty diverse but at this point in the trip, all I recognized by name were the Century Plant and the Tamarisk or pissweed as it is called by the crew for its distinctive aroma when tossed on a campfire. Due to the lack of floods now controlled by concrete dams, the tamarisk grows unchecked along the riverbanks and is very invasive on what would have been beautiful campsites.

We had a fire and everyone was still new to each other and full of stories so it was a pretty jolly affair until the two cooks served supper. Everyone got dead serious as they attacked the chicken cordon blue, Spanish rice, steamed asparagus with some sort of sauce and a dessert of strawberry shortcake made with fresh strawberries. It was just past eight when the last dishes were done but due to the age and plentitude of excitement earlier in the day, pretty much everyone went to bed. It was a warm night and the steep canyon walls focused light so that even the stars seemed like neon lights. I stayed up a bit enjoying the fire and the stars before finally heading out away from the crowd. I found a small clearing between some rocks, spread a tarp out and let the waters whisper me to sleep.

Redbud Tree

Friday, October 10, 2008

Grand Canyon Logistics: Camp Life

Fahrenheit 451 Camp

During the course of our pre-trip briefing at a motel in Flagstaff, most of the questions centered around camp life and gear so I would like to devote a post to those two subjects. For gear, you were provided two waterproof bags and one watertight ammo box. One waterproof bag was dedicated for your tent and sleeping bag. Although you were welcome to bring your own tent, I rented one from them for I believe $10 for the entire trip. Knowing that I was going to a harsh sandy, desert environment full of cacti and other sharp objects that love to poke, tear, and fill zippers full of grit, I decided $10 was money well spent versus the wear and tear on my $400 tent. In the end, I never used my tent once preferring to sleep outside under the stars. Since I was on a spring trip, bugs weren't an issue and it only rained once on a night that I had slept under a rock overhang. Privacy wasn't an issue since I was by myself and I was usually one of the last ones to bed well after darkness fell and one of the first to rise. Privacy was hard to obtain even with a tent and this is an issue I will dwell upon a little more in the future so I just got used to not having it. Still I would recommend that you have one just in case you do hit a rainy or really cold spell.

The second waterproof bag is for all your camp gear and clothing. Being a river rat, I had two spare changes of clothing, most of it polypropylene or nylon that could be layers, no cotton. Cotton gets wet and stays wet and those who wore cotton on the river spent large amounts of their camp time drying it to a slightly damp stage. I wore my clothes dry usually in a matter of minutes upon getting to camp and washed them regularly. The only cotton I had were some handkerchiefs that I used as a bandanna on my head during long sweaty hikes when my river hat would just get too uncomfortably heavy with sweat-filled headband. I also stored my daypack and boots for hiking in this bag. These bags only store perhaps three cubic feet of gear, which isn't much so you really have to become adept at cramming things into them or like me, really pare your gear down to the essentials. Because my boots are large due to my big feet and I had a book that I never read and some extras like a journal and maps, I was happy to get into my clean set of clothes at the end of the week. If I did it again, I would find some way to sneak another set of clean clothes into my bag.

Ledges Camp

The waterproof ammo box, about half a square foot in volume, was where you stored any gear that you wanted access to while on the river. These could be stored in small compartments in the bow or stern of the boats while your two waterproof gear bags went on the baggage rafts and were lashed down and inaccessible. I stored my cameras (waterproof and SLR), some spare rolls of film, my journals, a jacket, sunglasses and sunscreen. I went to light on this latter item and after frying myself for a day and a half bought a replacement bottle at Phantom Ranch for just shy of a million dollars or some similar outrageously high price. Some people stored dry socks and shoes in their ammo can but mine wouldn't fit even without the other stuff and I chose to invest in a pair of neoprene river boots with a rubber sole that I wore on short hikes. For the few days with longer hikes while on the river, I tossed a pair of tennis shoes into the hatch and just wore them wet because they always stayed wet with no waterproof accessible place to store them.

Once at camp, most passengers would grab their bags once off loaded and go set up their tent. Since it was often hot and I never used a tent anyway, I preferred to just leave my stuff in a pile and then find a place after everyone else had marked off his or her turf. This allowed me to find a place a ways away from everyone else for some solitude. Instead, I lined up with the crew and helped offload all the group gear as well. Mostly this was kitchen stuff and a few odd things like a communal water filtering system and the ammo can with an actually toilet seat portable potty. I would then help set up the kitchen and haul cooking water before attending to my needs. Although this is a catered trip and not required, the crew appreciated the help and it made me feel better whenever I asked them for a favor.

Generally we knocked off in mid-afternoon so you had a couple hours to do as you pleased before supper. After getting the crew unloaded and set up, I would stash my gear and find a place to relax. This usually meant finding a vantage point somewhere in the cliffs behind camp and writing in my journal or walking around taking pictures. As the trip wore on and undrunken beers accumulated from departed passengers, I often took a can or two of suds with me. Because generally leaving in the morning was short on personal time, most people took this time for personal grooming and laundry.

Above Deer Creek Falls

The camp cooks took care of the cooking and there was always plenty of food. Supper usually began early with appetizers of all kinds, from freshly made guacamole dip and chips to fruits. There was almost always a salad full of greens and a full meal. We had steaks and bake potatoes several times if that gives you any idea of how well we ate. At the end, we almost always had a desert of puddings or cakes if you had the room to eat it. A dishwashing station was set up and passengers did their own dishes going from one station to the next. I often helped the cooks do the communal dishes afterwards but it wasn't required of passengers. When possible or practical, we sometimes had campfires after dinner but almost always, the passengers would stagger immediately to bed. On most evenings, only a German father and son, along with most of the crew would share the campfire with myself, swapping stories and watching the stars appear.

Before bed, I would usually get my gear for tomorrow prepared before slipping into my sleeping bag on the sand. When I awoke with the graying skies of predawn, all I had to do was slip into my shoes and outer layer of clothing, pack my sleeping bag and carry my gear down to the boats. Most people would tear down their tents and pack their gear before breakfast so that after the dishes were done we could leave. The outfitters stressed before the trip that there was no set schedule and they adapt it to the group as it goes on. Since my group was mostly comprised of retired people who slept early and got up early, we had early starts. Breakfast would be cooked, dishes washed and while the other clients finished packing, I would help the crew tear down the kitchen and load gear back onto the rafts. From the time the last dishes were washed, we were often underway in less than a half hour.

We would always stop for lunch when on the river to allow everyone to get out and stretch their legs. Lunch was always a cold picnic lunch but always delicious. We often times had design your own sandwiches from a multitude of breads and toppings that even included last night's leftovers. If there was a short hike to go on or it was a day off the river, we would have a sack lunch that we had prepared that morning after breakfast to take with us.

Finally, I want to touch on the hiking. On all but a few days after boating, there were organized hikes with options. If you didn't want to hike as many of the retired people on my trip opted, you could stay in camp or hike a short ways down the trail and turn back. The crew would always try to split up so that at least one member would be with a group of clients on whatever hike they were out. If there wasn't an organized hike to some destination, they would allow clients to go off on their own but they asked that they were informed as to where they were heading and how long the client planned to be gone so that they could send out a rescue if needed. As the youngest member of the clients, this option was one that I exercised every chance I got. Most times I couldn't get far due to the geography but occasionally I wished I had a whole day to continue on.

Overlooking Camp & Nude Person

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Grand Canyon Logistics: The Trip

One of the Dory Boats and Two Baggage Rafts At Lee's Ferry

I thought before starting to chronicle too far about my trip now almost nine years ago, I would go into some of the logistics starting with the boats. Dories are a small, flat bottomed, very rigid boat with squared off stern and upswept pointed bow. At around 16 feet long, they are cozy affairs when four passengers, an oarsperson and all associated personal and communal gear are stored. Grand Canyon Dories, the outfit that I went with, maintains a small fleet of these boats with names that reflect features of the Grand Canyon now destroyed by man either by dams or commercialization. The founder, Martin Litton designed these boats based upon a cross of the McKenzie style boats of the Pacific Northwest and the Cataract boat of the Southwest. The reason I chose to do this trip in one of these boats is because they offer a closer connection to the subtle and not so subtle currents and waves of the Colorado where the inflatable rafts just kind of wallow over them. Also, dories are powered by oars and offer a more relaxed ride where the rafts mostly power along using motors between rapids.

While most of the raft trips are done in a week, dory trips are three times as long if you go dam to dam. Trips begin at Lee's Ferry and end at Lake Mead but there were three segments that could be done in various combinations and most of the people on my trip took advantage of them in one form or another. The first segment is from Lee's Ferry to Phantom Ranch, which is only accessible by a trail from either rim. This segment is by far the most scenic in my opinion and we had several people who came on the trip specifically to do this section, which they had not done on a previous trip. The middle segment is from Phantom Ranch to Whitmore Wash where you depart or arrive via helicopter. This is the most popular segment because it contains most of the big water and I think for most people it is there first helicopter ride. There is another segment from Whitmore Wash to Diamond Creek and one family did exercise this option but not by choice. They flew in planning to go the rest of the way but overnight heart problems caused them to exit at Diamond Creek and take a nearly 30 mile drive up one of the roughest and most spine tortuous drives in granny gear up Diamond Creek Canyon. Since there are really no big rapids or not much scenic beauty between Whitmore Wash and Diamond Creek, I'm guessing not very many people take this option. However, the third segment from Whitmore Wash to Lake Mead is fairly popular for those with shorter amounts of time to spin who would like to get their feet wet in boating the Colorado River so to speak.

Morning At Camp

I recommend doing all three segments for several reasons. The first reason is that you get to experience the entire thing as nature had intended it because it would be difficult for most people to arrive or leave partway down without the aid of beast or machine to ferry your gear. The second has to do with human interaction. Those that left after the first segment only did so reluctantly because they felt robbed of the intense camaraderie that had developed in that first week. Those that joined the trip at Phantom Ranch felt like intruders on a party to those of us who had been on the trip and it took a few days for them to "fit" into the group routines and really get to know the other passengers. Those that joined at the start of the third segment never really had a chance to fit in nor were they ever really given a chance to by the other passengers. Those that left at the beginning of the third segment felt similar to those that left at the end of the first segment but more intensely as most of them had been along since the beginning of the journey. Almost all those who only did a segment of the trip had one thing in common, this trip was their second trip was completing missed segments from a previous trip. Of the 20 plus passengers that I would meet and get to know through my journey, though only twelve to fifteen at a time on any given segment of the trip, only myself and three others went from dam to dam. Though I had my emotional scars at the end of the trip, I feel they were much less deep than those who only did a segment or two and not the entire trip.

Looking back at it all, group dynamics is a big issue in doing such a trip and not something that crossed my radar when I was considering this trip. Not only do you spend time in tight quarters on boats, but also in camp as most of our camps were little sand beaches in some niche in the river with sheer rock walls all around us. You couldn't get away from people if you wanted too. Still, most people learned to respect others so that if you needed some alone time as I often did, I could get it even if I was still plainly visible to half a dozen other people. I say most because there were some who never understood this. I hope to write more on this topic in the future because I do think it is a very important one.

Another reason that I chose to do all the segments is that they offered an extended version of that trip of twenty-one days for the first trip in the spring and the last trip in the fall. This allowed for several off the river days spent solely hiking and exploring the surrounding canyons and many half days of the same. Days on the river were never very long so even the evenings offered up hiking possibilities if the geography of the campsite allowed it and most did, even if it was just a few hundred yards. Most of my most profound moments were not on the river itself but up in the multitude of side canyons. Elves Chasm is one that even today after nine years, I occasionally dream about and can remember in vivid detail.

The Crew (L-R): Nick, Lee, Bronco, Duffy, Ote, Elena, Heidi & Mary

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Little Abbey and a VP Debate Summary In Just One Minute

Between two and three years of age is miraculous time in any toddler’s life. At one moment they can make you want to wring their neck and the next moment you can't help but adore them so much that you wonder how you could ever think such ill thoughts. It is a miracle. Little Abbey did such a thing to infuriate Mrs. Abbey last night and caused her to raise her voice. Little Abbey didn't cry or pout but merely walked across the room and gave Mrs. Abbey a hug. How can you stay mad at someone when they do that? Perhaps we adults should take our que from the toddlers.

Little Abbey is talking a blue streak these days and I try and remember how I used to write on my old blog that my biggest wish in life was that she would start talking after all her peers were already doing so. I think I might have even suggested that I might live to regret that wish. I go through life now agreeing with my daughter as she points out and names things every third second. If I am too slow to respond or not paying attention, she will repeat herself a few times and then say, "Daddy, daddy, daddy" until I respond.

She has mastered all her books with shapes, colors, objects of the alphabet and so forth. What used to take a full fifteen minutes to wade through with her ever-changing attention span, now can be "read" in a minute flat. Sometimes she even calls out what the next object is before I can get the page turned. Though she can put a name to almost anything I point too, I can't seem to get her to focus on letters. She just doesn't have the patience for that because I'm guessing that she doesn't seem them in everyday life walking down the street and words on sign just haven't caught her attention. This I'm not worrying about because I know one week she will notice and the next week she will be able to recite them forwards and backwards. She just seems to learn things that way.

One of her biggest fascinations these days is the sky. We look for the moon everyday as I drop her off at daycare and point out the stars. When we go for walks or drives in the afternoon, she is forever removing and putting on her sunglasses to ward off the sun while shouting at full voice, "My eyes!" As soon as the sun is no longer directly in her eyes due to a change in direction, cloud, or blocking tree, she will yell, "Sun all gone!" only to repeat the process as soon as we pass the tree. It is a great way to pass a long trip.

Although the terrible twos haven't been too terrible, I think it is because we don't let it get started. The other day when we got home I asked her if she wanted to eat a snack and then asked her what. She knows the words for everything but decided today she was going to whine until I gave it to her. I ran through the list of items but she continued to whine so I let her. As I went about my routine, she followed me in tears crying like she had been whipped. Finally, twenty minutes later as I was cleaning up last nights pots and pans and she was in the living room on the couch, I heard her sob the word grapes. I gave her grapes right away and within seconds she was bouncing on the couch eating grapes. See the first paragraph.

Finally, although non-Abbey related, I commented on other sites about the VP debates but didn't write up anything here. Mostly this was because I didn't see anything geared towards me in those debates. All they presented were sound bytes from their campaign speeches. If you didn't see the debates, here is a one minute video summary of them. If you did see them, check it out anyway.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Rules of Engagement For Driving In the Philippines

Starting Up the Mountain

The rules of engagement when driving in the Philippines are much different than the rules of driving in America and no I didn't make a mistake by saying rules of engagement for that is exactly what they are. Driving in the Philippines with an American perspective is not for the timid or the weak. I'll try to explain what I mean.

The first thing that I noticed on my way from the airport to my home away from home in the mountain top city of Baguio, is that signs or lane markings, which are few and far between, are more suggestions than rules. I've seen lots of cops pulling people over to shake them down for bribes but I have yet to see one pulled over for violating any law or road sign. For example, most of their roads had lane markings but as I have said, these are merely suggestions. If there is no oncoming traffic, a two-lane road, one lane marked for each direction, becomes a one-way five or six lane expressway, hills or blind corners not withstanding. If you are passing three cars on the inside as you sweep into a blind corner as far over into the oncoming lane as you can get, you merely honk your horn to let the three on the inside know you are passing and to warn any oncoming traffic that you might be coming. In America, rules would dictate that this maneuver never be attempted and if it were, the inside cars would speed up to protect their turf to prevent you from cutting them off and oncoming traffic would have only enough time to ponder where that horn sound was coming from before smashing head on into you. In the Philippines, the inside drivers give you some room and the outside lane oncoming traffic will actually slow down and let you pass. It amazes me every time. When at some point you do meet oncoming traffic, everyone merges back together into more or less single file in your rightful lane until the coast is clear or at least blind to the driver.

I've been writing this as if the main mode of transportation happens to be cars and trucks but in actuality, in parts of the Philippines these are a minority. In your journeys along a highway, you are just as likely to spot a jeepney, motor trike, kuliglig, carabao, people on foot, chickens, dogs, goats, etc as you are a car or truck. The road is the easiest path and thus becomes the most likely to be used path by all forms of life. The drivers of the faster modes of transportation skillfully swerve around these human and animal obstacles along with potholes the size of houses, piles of dirt, rocks, abandoned vehicles, or people drying and threshing their rice on the only flat hard surface available to them. These inanimate objects in the road were always well marked by other inanimate objects such as rocks or piles of dirt so there was never any need for anything reflective or glowing that might show up better in the dead of night.

In the Philippines, the most important part of a vehicle is not the steering wheel, the tires or even a motor. I've seen vehicles without combinations of these parts perfectly able to function in the Filipino road driving culture. However, if these cars lacked a horn, even brand spanking new off the showroom floor, they were damn near useless. A few of the hundreds of functions a car horn is used for in the Philippines are to let people know you are passing them, to let them know they can pass you, to warn oncoming traffic that you are passing on the outside of a blind curve as I stated before, to warn wayward carabao, chickens, dogs, and pedestrians off the road in front of you and for awhile, I believed merely for the shear pleasure of tooting your own horn. I reached this latter conclusion after seeing my driver honk randomly during the wee hours of the morning when not a car, warm blooded animal or inanimate object was in sight. It was only later that I learned that this last rule should be modified to read ward off evil spirits before crossing a bridge in the dark. Who knew?

Part Way Up the Mountain

After six hours in a van, my ass started growing roots into the hard futon like seat of the van and dawn slowly started lighting up the horizon. As if we couldn't plan it any better, the flat rice patties of central Luzon were giving way to the mountains of northern Luzon. As the road turned alongside a river crashing down from the mountains, the van I was in slowed down from road speeds upwards of 25 miles per hour down to about 1 mile every hours or so. The van, one of them nose less jobs with the engine between the driver and the passenger side, began emitting smoke from the access flap before we had gotten a third of the way up the mountain. The driver looked at it as if it were merely a minor annoyance and continued on with pedal to the metal in first gear. As we approached the curve, the smoke really began to thicken and I was starting to realize that it wasn't a thickening of the smoke inside but from outside the van. Only when we rounded the curve did I understand that it wasn't from our van or even smoke but rather it was steam. There on both sides of the roads where there was actually a little pullout instead of the normal rock face and sheer cliff, lines of cars heading down the mountain were hosing down breaks on one side and those heading up the mountain feeding thirty radiators on the other side creating huge billowing clouds of steam. We pulled into the line of those filling up their radiators and soon along with two quarts of oil for good measure, were heading up the mountain at a snail's pace. Many times I thought about hopping out of the van to stretch my legs, grab a bite to eat from some roadside vendor, soak in the view and then walk up the hill a few paces to catch the van still struggling gamely along all the while. I didn't only because I figured the van’s owner might take it as an insult.

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

Outskirts of Baguio City

The trip up the mountain ground on and at times it seemed impossible to tell if we were heading forwards or backwards due to the slow speed of travel. But the driver kept at it only stopping twice more for radiator water and once for more oil. It basically underwent a complete transfusion of vital fluids by the time we reached the top. There under a sun well up in the sky, Baguio City, Philippines which has a population of a quarter of a million people, was sprawled out on the mountain ridges, peaks and valleys all before me. I would later learn from experience, that there isn't a straight or flat road in all of Baguio. If you were standing on any street, you were by default standing on a curve and the road was heading uphill or downhill. At one particular point as we crossed through town, the road only six or so feet wide and went uphill following a knife ridge that dropped off almost straight down on both sides. Every time I passed this point heading uphill, all I could see out the windows was sky and lots of it giving the impression that one was in some sort of van airplane that was taking off at the pace of a slow walk. Finally, we reached the home of my fiancé’s parents attached to the side of a cliff. From the road that passed by ten feet in front of the house, it was only about 20 paces to the far side of the house where from the balcony at road level, I could look down some 50 feet into the valley below but at least the floors were flat.

Baguio City

Friday, October 3, 2008

Losing a Friend

Unfiberglassed Kayak

Back in my bachelor days of living in an apartment that required no maintenance or improvement efforts, I always sought out a winter project to occupy my time. The first winter outside of college I took up photography, bought lots of lenses, a nice SLR camera body, filters, etc, and set off every weekend on long drives taking pictures of what I saw. I still have lots of those pictures on slides and hope to someday scan them into my computer for presentation here. The second winter I took up woodcarving and spent many an evening carving odd trinkets finally culminating with a bull elk that still graces my bookshelves in the great room today. Being a bachelor of course, I just let the wood shavings land where they may in my apartment living room carpet and tried my best to get them all cleaned out come spring. I was forever stepping on a missed splinter of wood for my remaining years there in that apartment and I imagine the current occupant might have a splinter or two lodged in their foot. My third year was spent rebuilding and repainting my road bicycle along with a combination of the other two hobbies. It wasn't until my fourth winter that I really hit upon a hobby that really has clung to me years afterward.

It was actually during the summer after my third winter that I hit upon the idea. At the time I lived in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, also known as the frozen tundra during six months of the year, and generally known as Minnesota. With lakes everywhere, I thought it would be nice to own a boat to enjoy them away from shore. Having helped my father as a child build a wood strip canoe, I thought it would be nice to build another one. I was fairly certain that I could do the actual wood stripping inside if I moved the kitchen table into the bedroom and scooted all the living room furniture against one wall but hey, it was an apartment, I was a bachelor and these weren't technical hurdles. But in the process of trying to find plans, I found a book by Nick Shade entitled "The Strip-Built Sea Kayak: Three Rugged Beautiful Boats You Can Build". On the cover was the most gorgeous kayak I had ever seen and I knew that a canoe was no longer in my plans.

Being an engineer with access to powerful computer automated drafting software, I soon had the numbers and figures in the book converted into full-scale drawings of the forms. I started picking up an assortment of tools that I previously had no use for like a block plane, sander, some saw horses, etc. I was even in the process of figuring out where I was going to get the wood. Then it happened. A co-worker named Tom went through a divorce and suddenly had a three stall garage with only one vehicle and an assortment of power tools like a router table and table saw. It also had a heater. Remember, this was known as the land of the frozen tundra. Although he lived twenty miles away from me, I knew that it was an offer I couldn't refuse. My fellow tenants were spared the joys of smelling fiberglass fumes leeching through the walls and I could still eat my supper on a table halfway close to my television and not in the bedroom. For a change, winter couldn't come soon enough.

When the nasty weather started flying and summer activities dwindles, I sawed out my forms and over the course of several weekends assembled my forms. I spent another several weekends turning some free redwood leftovers from a decking project and some white cedar bought on the cheap into a bunch of thin strips. I bought a 1/4-inch cove and bead router bit set online and put a bead on perhaps a couple thousand linear feet of strips only to realize that when they say 1/4 inch, they mean radius and not diameter. What that meant was cutting the too large bead off a couple thousand linear feet of strips and hand planing them to fit. This took a couple more months. By the time I had finished May was just around the corner and the snow beginning to melt.

The finished project was gorgeous and the kayak and I made our rounds to show it off beginning at the local bar a couple blocks from Tom's garage where I had taken breaks and eaten the world's best mushroom swiss burger basket for lunches. I used the kayak as often as I could that summer but as fall approached, milky white blemishes started appearing in the glass here and there. I chalked it up as not giving enough curing time in-between layers of glass and went about my life. That fall as I was thinking of my fifth winter project, I was laid off, 9/11 happened two weeks later and suddenly I wasn't in the mood for any other mental occupation than finding a job in a world that wasn't hiring anymore.

Flash forward seven years and due to moving away from my plentiful sources of lakes, a job that required long hours and losing my bachelorhood, my kayak only saw the water less than a handful of times. The few white splotches turned into a general milky appearance all over and the fiberglass had actually started to blister in spots. I knew that it needed to be loved or it was going to fall apart and so a few weeks ago, I made the decision to find a loving home for it. It took me a few weeks to get up the courage to post it on an online sale sight and when I did, it was sold in just a couple days. Monday night the new owner, a young college student that reminded me of me back in those days, loaded it up on his beat up Volvo with 200,000 miles and drove off into the night. It was a real bittersweet moment for me.

But through the years and even now after my beloved kayak is gone, the dream still lives on. The dream to build another kayak except this time, using a totally different concept that I feel will revolutionize how people will come to think of wood and fiberglass boats. One that I feel I can potentially make into a successful business that will someday drag me from the sensory deprivation chamber that I call my office and into doing something that I truly love all day long. I would tell you but then I would have to kill you and readership on my blog just wouldn't be the same from then on. But perhaps some day in some future year when I make a go at it and if it works out, I will let you my readers be one of the first to see the finished product. From the ashes of one dear friend, another one shall rise in its place.

The Last Time I Saw Her

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Dream In the Beginning: Part Two

The Waiting Wooden Dories

I arrived at the motel just after noon in a searing heat with a lot of time to kill before the pre-trip meeting later that evening. So I did what any mountain man would do and took a siesta in the dark cool confines of my motel room. A few hours later, hunger drove me from my cool lair out into the heat where I started walking around town looking for a place to eat. I chose a McDonald's restaurant not only because I was once again poor and couldn't afford much else, but because I wanted to clog my arteries with one more greasy delight before disappearing off the civilized map for a month. Despite my financial situation, I ended up buying an extra meal and giving it to a homeless man sitting out front waiting for his luck to change. He had come in while I had been eating asking other patrons for money but the workers had shown him the door. Now as I spoke a few words with the man while he was hungrily eating, they were giving me a nasty look through the window. I just smiled, saluted them and walked back to my motel.

For a decade, I had imagined a group of other adventuring type adults in their physical prime sharing this trip with me but when I walked in the room the scene looked straight out of a geriatric convention. Old people where everywhere and I was sure that the walkers and oxygen tanks were tucked behind the chairs in which they were now seated talking about cashing IRA's and who had the most great great great grandchildren. I was the youngest person by over forty years and in some cases over sixty years! My stomach sank as I sat in a chair apart from the rest waiting for the trip briefing to begin thinking that all this saving and planning over all these years was going to be spent with a bunch of old people who had to be cajoled down the river.

After an eternity in which some of the older people starting dozing off and a few even went ahead and died, another older but physically fit man named Bronco, strode into the room and started briefing the clients on the trip; everything from how to relieve your bowels to righting a capsized boat. When he had given his presentation, he asked us if there were any questions. The geriatrics not dead or asleep started asking such questions as; "Are there port-a-potties at every camp?”, "Is it true that there are hot springs at every camp?", "Should I take sunscreen?” or my personal favorite incredulous statement, "I'm supposed to go to the bathroom in that!" I was stunned! How could people sign up for a trip like this when they had to ask questions like that or were squeamish about crapping in an ammo box with a TOILET SEAT?

It was forbidden for legal reasons for the trip outfitters to provide alcoholic beverages for the guests and they didn't want guests to bring lots of heavy cases of beer on the trip that they would have to pack, so they passed around a sign-up sheet where you could sign and add some money to an envelope for however many cases of beer you wanted and it would be waiting for you down at the boats tomorrow. I really didn't want to be boozing it up with 'grandma' and 'grandpa' every evening if by chance they were lucky enough to be awake much past six so when it came to me, I just passed it on with out buying any. For the final order of business, we were issued two waterproof bags and an ammo box (not the one for crapping in) for all our gear and were dismissed. All the geriatrics stood around probably discussing their AARP membership and arthritic hips but I didn't wait around, instead opting to head back to my room to begin my final packing.

Long before the sun even thought about rising, I was up walking around the motel grounds trying to sooth my jumbled up nerves with brisk clean air as I anxiously waited our departure time. I watched the sun rise up over the desert scrub behind the motel and then went in to eat my continental breakfast consisting of cold cereal and a bagel which really didn't taste very continental at all. Finally, two vans pulling what seemed like incredibly tiny and fragile wooden dory boats behind them pulled in, old people tottered out with mouths still oozing denture adhesive, gear was loaded and we set off for Lee's Ferry on the Colorado River.

When we arrived, the river seemed very unassuming and appeared to be like every other desert river you have seen, wide and stretched out between two rocky banks of scrub brush and sand. I can imagine Powell had thought the worst was over when he reached this point after surviving the narrow and turbulent canyons under the dirty waters of the current Lake Powell 'Sewage Lagoon.' I was pleasantly surprised when I met the rest of the crew that was in charge of giving the other 14 clients and I the time of our lives over the next month. Most of them were around my age and all of them were pictures of health with tans I hadn't thought possible for early April. They were stashing away case after case of beer in the boats making me instantly regret my decision to abstain last night.

The rest of the clients stood in a gaggle trying to stay out of the way or accidentally breaking a hip, so I strolled on down to the river that I had been dreaming about for most of my life. It was a beautiful emerald green and felt like a melted Popsicle on a hot summer day. I kneeled down at the edge of the river and watched the strong current go rushing by in swirling vortices of water. I prayed a little prayer of sorts to the Colorado River asking that if I respected it, would it respect me or more importantly my life? I took the silence as affirmative and walked back up the beach to the awaiting boats. I took the remaining available spot in the bow of one of the dories and we shoved off into the river. There was no going back now.