Friday, May 29, 2009

Expanding My Comfort Zone: Part 1

I'm a pretty conservative person and I don't mean in the political sense but in how I live my life. I don't take a lot of chances that I don't calculate out in my engineering mind to be in my favor. I suppose that can be considered a good trait to have but I don't like it and always admire those who seem to be less uninhibited when it comes to making some of the larger decisions in life. This is why when a coworker bought a truck off eBay all the way across the country a while back, I became fascinated.

I accidentally walked in on a conversation he was having with another coworker about the truck and so was let onto the story though not given many of the details. Being the cyber snoop that I am, I logged onto eBay and soon found out all the information I wanted such as how much he paid for the truck, etc. I'm not into that kind of thing but it got me to thinking about the act of buying a car over eBay. I have bought six cars in the past, two new and the rest used. When buying a used car, I generally just walk through the used car lots nearby or answer classified ads and when I see one I like, I test drive it, kick the proverbial tires and buy it. I'm not a mechanic and don't know much about the stuff so if it starts up, runs without knocks, clangs, or thuds, I assume it is okay. However, this method has the major drawback that you don't have a lot to choose from and you have to be vigilant because popular cars tend to disappear quickly. EBay on the other hand, only sells cars by timed auctions so you know when they will disappear and you have virtually millions of cars to choose between to find one that is exactly like what you want. The one drawback is that you have to buy the car sight unseen.

My coworker did this but when I found his ad, I saw several dozen high-resolution pictures so virtually every angle of the truck. I felt as if I had been there and kicked the tires. The only thing I couldn't see from the pictures was how the engine sounded. In my entire vehicle buying life, I have never started up a car for sale where the engine or transmission sounded like crap so I began to think that perhaps my coworker was onto something. When he told me how reasonable it was to pay for someone to haul the car by trailer all the way to Iowa, I really started paying attention. On the spur of the moment, I typed in the made and model of a vehicle that my wife has coveted for a long time.

My wife has wanted a CR-V for many years. I am pretty much anti SUV, even the small ones, but she will be working at a job soon that will bring in about as much money into our home as my job works. So despite my reservations, I have been looking through ads for a while in our local area but the CR-V's were few and far between and usually newer than what she wanted. She didn't like the newer ones and wanted one in the 1998 to 2001 vintage. Her current car which we bought for a song and has seen its better days, I didn't like driving anymore because it just felt unsafe. It was a Chevy and just hasn't aged as gracefully as my three year older Honda. She needed a better vehicle but used cars in the makes I had been looking in are very pricey these days and new ones are even pricier. I didn't know what to do and so many months had passed by without anything being done.

Then my coworker had bought a car over eBay and an hour after hearing him tell me about the vehicle still down in Florida, I was looking at a 2001 Honda CR-V (Special Edition none-the-less) with low miles and in mint condition sitting in Chicago somewhere and about to be sold in five hours. I emailed the link to my wife who immediately replied she loved it and told me what her max price was. I still hemmed and hawed a bit and did what a conservative engineer would do. I researched the vehicle on several sites to find out what the going blue book value was, researched buying vehicles over eBay and even called up the guy selling it asking him some questions and most importantly asking him if I could back out should I win the bid, get there, and find it wasn't as advertised. He said I most definitely could. And so after pondering it for another hour or so and with just a couple hours left on eBay, I put in a bid.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Long Due Little Abbey Update

I haven't done a Little Abbey update in ages, so long, that it is hard to even know what to write anymore. Since she talks and we can have conversations, it is hard to identify milestones that have happened which were the meat of previous posts. So I will just ramble for a bit and hope that things come out okay.

Right now in our household, preparations are being made for her birthday in less than a week when she will turn three. We have been working with her to say three when asked how old and to hold up the appropriate number of fingers. She knows how many fingers to hold up and that isn't the problem. The problem is that she has a hard time keeping the remaining two fingers down when holding three up. So for now, she takes her other hand and holds onto the two remaining fingers.

She has long since mastered the alphabet both capital and lowercase letters and often sits "reading" her books by saying the letters. Although she can count and tell you how many of something is present, she doesn't seem interested in learning her numbers. Since she is only three and there is so much to life at that age, we certainly aren't forcing her but I do find it mystifying of her lack of interest in recognizing the written numbers. She is doing better on the phonics front and knows how perhaps a fourth of the letters sound.

Another thing that we have been working on is teaching her what our real names are, street name, town name, etc. I've heard too many stories of little kids getting lost and only know that their mommy's name is Mommy, etc. Although we aren't teaching her this, Little Abbey seems to have an excellent sense of direction and can point the way to our house when in the general neighborhood and knows our house by sight from a long way away. This too gives me a sense of relief that should she stray away from home someday that she can find her way back. I would like to take credit for this and assume that a sense of direction is just in my genetic makeup that got passed on to her.

Since my wife has been enjoying life between two jobs at home, Little Abbey has spent most of the last few months with her. So when we would have to take her to daycare for the off day when Mrs. Abbey had errands to run that were a lot easier to do by herself, we were pleasantly surprised but not overly shocked that Little Abbey's reaction to it had changed from tearful goodbyes to one of excited anticipation. I think that is one of the things the drawbacks of being an only child and so when she starts going back on a regular basis in a month, the interaction with other kids her age will be a good thing.

One aspect of Little Abbey's maturing that I haven't adapted to yet is her developing sense of independence. She will go up to her room and play for a couple hours at a time sometime and can now be out of our sight and be okay with that where before she had to always be within our sight to be happy. I'm okay with her up in her room playing by herself but when I am out in the garden planting navy beans before a big rain on its way, it is hard to concentrate when she keeps wanting to disappear hear and there and I would like her to stay in the backyard where I can see her. She is fairly aware of the street out front but I don't think she has learned the ramifications of running out into it and so I still insist we keep close tabs on her when out in our yard. Another reason why I hope to someday have a little land where a kid can roam and be nowhere near a road.

Little Abbey loves the outside and has already located her first morel mushroom by herself without anyone else knowing it was there and guiding her towards the general vicinity. I will take credit for that too. Like me as a kid, she doesn't like to eat them yet and like my parents did, I don't encourage her to even try them. For now it is more for me and someday she too will come to discover the error in refusing to eat try them. We try to go a walk around town most evenings if it is fit and Little Abbey loves riding in her off-road stroller and will usually walk the last part herself. This has gone from 100 feet to sometimes up to a half-mile. The daycare says she always pesters them to go outside which they do if it is fit for small babies which they have two of now. At her grandparents place, she is always outside walking around picking flowers (dandelions), chasing the cats, seeing what papa (my dad) is up too, flying kites or playing in her sandbox. I think she would be happy to play in that thing every waking minute if allowed.

Generally, my daughter is no longer a baby and I can't deny that fact any longer. She has grown so much, emotionally, psychologically and physically, the latter one I also take credit for, and is almost as tall as most kids in kindergarten now. She still surprises me with something new almost every day and I enjoy living that moment through her eyes. While planting navy beans in the garden, we found lots of giant earthworms under that nice mulch of leaves (thanks again Ron!) and it was fun to see her hold and inspect the new to her world creature. On my recent business trip, I bought her a kiddy fishing rod with a magnet on the end and metal noses animals that she can "fish" for inside the house. Hopefully I can connect this new love of "fishing" with the earthworms and do the real thing someday.

Although these things are only the tip of a very large iceberg, I hope they give my long time readers who have been following her progress for the last three years a sense of how she is developing. And as a reward for reading this post, here is a shot that I took during the last snowfall this year in March. Enjoy.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Revisiting the Seasons: Winter

I'm away on a much needed vacation so here is an old blog post that I wrote back in September of 2004:

Snowfall On Big Bluff

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Revisiting the Seasons: Fall

I'm away on a much needed vacation so here is an old blog post that I wrote back in October of 2004:

Under a Harvest Moon

My wife and I spent Saturday helping my parents with the fall harvest, more specifically, shelling corn. My job for the day was to bring the loaded wagons halfway home where I would switch with my father and then take the empty wagon back to the field. It is a job that I love because it gives me plenty of time to reflect on life and let my mind roam. I listened to the radio for awhile but the same dozen songs kept playing so I turned over to talk radio stations but they were all covering the Hawks game which bored me to tears since I am not a sports fan. So I was left with the smells, sounds and sights of mother nature.

Nothing quite tickles my nose like the smells of fall. The clear crisp air seems to enhance and magnify all the smells ten fold so that even the most subtle smell can seem like a symphony. It was a beautiful sunny day and the odor that can only be associated with corn harvest filled the air. When inhaled, it is like a steroid as the lung inflates and seems to transfer those very smells into the blood stream as energy. Nothing seems impossible on days like those.

A slight wind was blowing so when the combine was out of earshot, I could hear the rustling of dried corn leaves dancing. Some people have wind chimes to sooth their ears but for mine, there is nothing better than leaves blowing in a light breeze. At periodic intervals, these sounds would be replaced by the throttled power of a combine as it made it's way back towards my end of the field. It grumbled and growled but continued to shuck the corn and store it in the hopper leaving behind a cut "lawn" of corn stalks. Much later when we are gathered tiredly around the supper table, the sun long gone, the muted talk is still filled with happiness and nobody is complaining of how tired they are. The crops are bountiful, the weather is good, uncertainty has been replaced by certainty and for that, everyone is thankful.

Perhaps the sights are what I enjoy the most of fall. I like the golden browns that has replaced the greens of summer. I like seeing fields that have been shorn of the bounty of grain and will lie dormant until spring when the once again sprout to life. I watched a hawk looking for food, glide for over a half hour without one single flap of it's wings. It circled, dove, rose and stalled in an endless pattern before it finally disappeared beyond a hill, still with nary a flap of his wings. A rabbit hopped about keeping a wary eye for hawk shadows on some mission indecipherable by me. A doe and her two almost fully grown fawns, walked across the field always alert for possible signs of trouble. The two fawns stayed focused on finding dropped corn fully trusting their mother to keep watch and alert them in danger. A shadow slid across the stubble right in front of my tractor and I looked up to see the hawk gliding about again but this time obviously on a mission. He tightly circled as he dropped lower and lower finally disappearing behind some unharvested corn at the far end of the field never to be seen again by me. Bon appetite Mr. Hawk!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Revisiting the Seasons: Spring

I'm away on a much needed vacation so here is an old blog post that I wrote back in October of 2004:

Morel Madness

Armed to the hilt with empty bread sacks, my mother took me on my first morel mushroom hunt at the tender age of nine. Like a typical nine year old, I had absolutely no interest in looking for mushrooms, which I knew, would taste disgusting. We kids are born with this information that the likes of mushrooms, broccoli, spinach, etc are the equivalent of kryptonite to Superman when eaten by little kids. So why on earth would I want to find more of them? But that all changes when my mother held up a morel to show me what they looked like.

I don’t know exactly why I loved searching for those elusive spores that only grow for a couple weeks a year. Again, I think it has to do with some instinct born into children, which makes them love to play hide-n-seek and search for Easter eggs. I was addicted to the hunt and every spring, I looked forward to the warming of the temperatures when we would arm ourselves with some empty bread sacks and head out for the patch.

Like moon shiners, marijuana growers, and gold miners, morel hunters guard their patch in a thick cloud of secrecy. Everyone loves to brag about how many mushrooms they found but whoa to the person who asks where. A heavy silence will fill the room followed by a polite laughter that means nice try for asking. If an answer is given it usually goes something like, “we found these around in some woods.” Nobody has ever to my knowledge every repeated that question.

Although I was forced to eat foods that I didn’t like as a child, my parents never forced me to eat mushrooms. They always offered, but when I refused, they would just divide and consume the mushrooms between themselves. Finally after a few years of this, I decided that I wanted to try one. I might of shot up with some drugs because I was just as addicted after that first mushroom. I was enveloped in a morel madness that to this day has never left.

Morel madness has consumed my family and has helped to coin such terms as ‘Mushroom Machine’ when referring to a dying elm tree ripe for mushrooms around it’s base and also the ‘Mushroom Mother Lode’ when referring to a large quantity of morels every where you look on the ground. For two or three weeks a year, the rural population of SE Iowa is found stalking through the woody draws looking for ‘mushroom machines’ in hope of finding the ‘mushroom mother lode.’ Now excuse me while I fry up some tasty morel morsels to eat before I go stark raving mad!

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Pictorial Mushroom Hunt

With the help of some downloaded software that I'm sure borders on being illegal since it retails for $50, I have been able to obtain some photographs that I took two weeks ago during one of my very brief forays into the woods to hunt for the illusive morel mushrooms. Seeing that the foray was entirely unplanned and all I had was a cellphone with me, I beg that you overlook the poor quality of the pictures and just look at them merely for their entertainment value.

When I first step into the woods looking for morel mushrooms, probably the most common things newbies with me ask is why I am looking up. Well mushrooms can and do grow anywhere it seems given the right environmental conditions but for heavy concentrations of them where you can fill a bag in minutes, you have to look for a mushroom machine, i.e. a recently dead elm tree where the bark in the uppermost reaches is just starting to loosen and fall off. This tree was a mushroom machine a few years ago but it is too far gone and I didn't a single edible fungi underneath it.

I crossed the natural bridge over a little ditch to the other side:

and not seeing any mushroom machines around, proceeded to look down to find this:
and this:
Obviously I wasn't the first person to look there and I suspected the culprits were my parents since they had been there a couple days prior. But during the season which lasts two to three weeks, morels can pop up over night and so I continued on. After a few minutes of poking along, there in the weeds I saw my first one. Can you spot it?

Once you see the first one, the others are easier to find. Soon I had a bag full of nice gray morels like the one below. I like the grays because they are more moist and flavorful. However the yellow morels are normally bigger as my brother can attest too because he only found two yellow ones and they equaled the volume of my bagful of gray morels.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Simplifying My Life & Saving Money By Going High Tech

I live in the sticks. Actually I live in a small town but it is surrounded by miles of nothingness that makes me happy but drives a certified cityslicker to tears within seconds. Somehow, for reasons I have yet to understand because it happened well before I moved here, a minority of people elected our major. He is affiliated with the Maharishi Transcendental Meditation cult that lives on the edge of town and comprised a fifth of our population. Although he is a decent upstanding citizen, he has been a terrible mayor and might be racing the Current Occupant in the Whitehouse to see who can spend more taxpayer money. One of the side effects to our Guru Mayor is that he is very in tune as all Maharishi are with getting grants from our government. One of the grants our town has received is for hooking up every single house in our town to fiberoptic cable, the first town in the nation to do so.

Several weeks ago, a gray box with a fiberoptic cable was attached to the side of my house and two days ago, they did the actual installation. The only real drawback for me is that now one company will control my television, phone and internet. But my old system isn't removed so I guess I can go back to it at anytime. There are lots of advantages to fiberoptics. The one that sold me is that it is almost $80 a month cheaper than my current system which goes through four companies, cable, phone, long distance carrier and internet. It comes all on one bill which means less bill paying, which I love but will also probably mean more paper space to hide hidden charges, which I hate.

I opted for the bare essentials package. For $30 per month, I get digital high definition television signals but will get the local channels that I now get plus some extras that I really like the Public Television Learning and World channels and a NPR channel. Because I don't have digital televisions and probably won't for some time, I have to have a couple boxes to convert the signal but they are included in the price. My package comes with a phone which is why I wrote last time that I will continue to have a landline though I really don't need or want one. The phone plan is very basic. I can call anyone, anywhere in the United States and talk an unlimited amount of time and I just pay a flat rate of $30 per month. So if for some reason I need to talk to someone other than my wife or favorite five people, I can. For another $30 a month, I get unlimited internet access to a fiberoptic lines which is over ten times faster than the fastest high speed DSL line available to the average Joe. I will be able to download movies in a blink of an eye or perhaps quicker. In total, I signed up for the cheapest package and it is going to run me $90 per month. I still can't believe that I'm saving money by doing all this.

Now that the system is installed and working, the best part about the whole affair is beginning. I am calling up all these companies that have been stealing my hard earned money for all these years and providing me with sporatic and arguably crappy service and telling them where to stick said crappy service. Best of all, the phonecall don't cost me a dime!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Drug Kicking and Screaming

Well it finally happened. I got up on the wagon for the first time with the rest of you folks. I wasn't kicking and screaming as I might have suggested in the title of this post and I actually was kind of interested to see what I was missing. I guess the old techno-geek in me broke loose for a change after being suppressed for so many years. Yes, I am now the owner of a cellphone.

Technically my wife has had a cellphone for many years. It was one that she had owned before she met me and we got her a basic plan of 100 minutes per month for a bare bones price. We did it because she was commuting 120 miles a day to work and I wanted her to have it in case of emergencies. For five years, it was sufficient but the time has come when it wasn't going to work for us.

My wife will be starting her residency, again, this summer and due to the late and odd hours, we have bought a second home. Actually we are only renting and it is an apartment but I like the thought of a second home so that is what I'm calling it. Our second home is just going to have the bare essentials and we didn't want to sign up for a landline phone that would be expensive and not used much. On nights where Mrs. Abbey is working late and staying up there, we wanted to be able to talk to Little Abbey and myself so we needed a phone with more minutes.

We looked at various carriers but only two of them have signals here in rural Iowa where our primary home is located. Mrs. Abbey's current carrier was definitely more reasonable priced so we decided to stop in and scope things out. We ended up with 1000 minutes though I hardly see how we can use them since calling each other is free and also any five people who we choose. I only call maybe two or three people besides my wife and my wife is very similar in her calling habits. But 1000 minutes was $20 off per month which made it as cheap as the cheapest plan. We also ended up with not one but two free phones and all this for the paltry sum of $60 a month. This is about 50% less than our current phone bill for the landline phone. My long term plan is to eventually get rid of the phone but for now, I will still have my landline for reasons that I plan to blog about next.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I found myself reading an instruction manual and punching buttons on my new black Motorola Razr phone. I learned how to hypothetically take pictures, videos, change wallpapers and many other funtions I will never use and will forget by the end of this week. I always wondered how people could type fast enough on keypads to stay interested in a conversation but after entering a couple dozen phone numbers that I may want to call sometime in this millenium, I was getting pretty good at it. I waded through menu after menu selecting options that I had no idea if I even wanted. Do I want it to vibrate, ring, ring then vibrate, vibrate then ring, do I want the vibrate to be a dot, a dash, a dot and dash, two dots, and do I want those vibrations soft, medium or loud. The choices just kept going on. I elected to just do the old fashioned ring but in the two or three times my wife called me just to say hello because she could (see how quickly someone slides with a cellphone), I had a hard time differentiating my plain old ring from that of everyone elses. I could choose from a long list but they all just seemed hokey to me and not something I would want someone to have to hear if they were in the vicinity of my ringing phone. So I went online and $2.49 later, I had a ringtone of which I could be proud. I now answer to the opening guitar rift of Deep Purple's classic "Smoke On the Water".

I may have gotten a cellphone but it doesn't mean I have caved completely. I still refuse to take it everywhere I go. Other than the first call or two to my wife just because it was a novelty, I am not going to call anyone unless I have to and it can't wait until I get to my landline until such a time that my landline no longer exists. I turn it off when I am in meetings, church or other group gatherings. I am not giving out my number and no you can't have it Murf. I got the Razr for one reason, it was the thinnest one and it was free. Okay, that was two reasons but I got it so that I could tuck it in my front pocket and nobody is the wiser so I don't have to refuse people when they ask for my number. The only remaining question I have yet to answer is what to say when someone notices something near my crotch vibrating in two dot increments to the opening guitar rift of Smoke On the Water?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Road Rules: Part 3

[I'm out of town all week on business so here is an old post that I drug from the depths of my archives to keep you entertained.]

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!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Road Rules: Part 2

[I'm out of town all week on business so here is an old post that I drug from the depths of my archives to keep you entertained.]

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.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Road Rules: Part 1

[I'm out of town all week on business so here is an old post that I drug from the depths of my archives to keep you entertained.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 1, 2009

No Supper Finer

Fate has not been kind to me this spring. I've spent more time at work or in a hospital than I normally do and it is paying a toll. I have yet to gone mushroom hunting this year and the season is already half over. But I haven't been skunked completely!

Mrs. Abbey and Little Abbey had a chance to sneak down to the farm this week under the clever guise of picking up medication on the way for my mother so they didn't have to drive 60 miles round trip to get it. Once the medication was delivered, they went out 'shrooming and within minutes of looking, found a 'Mushroom Machine'. There they picked enough mushrooms to fill a gallon sized freezer bag which in my house is enough for two small messes. I lightly breaded the first mess with a mixture of half flour and half parmesan cheese and fried them Tuesday night. I also microwaved some fresh picked asparagus that Mrs. Abbey stole from the farm and that was our supper. It just doesn't get any better than that.

I imagine that due to the rain, my parents and brother who is also visiting, will get plenty of mushroom hunting in while waiting for the farm grounds to dry out and I can steal all the mushrooms I want. Eating them is definitely the best part but I do enjoy hunting them and hope that even with my schedule, some how some way, I will get a few minutes to sneak away and find a 'Mushroom Machine' for myself. Until then, I will just find them in my dreams with 'shrooms as far as the eye can see.