Thursday, July 31, 2014

Another Season Like None Other

We just got through with a winter that was one for the record books. It wasn't particularly snowy but it was one sustained cold streak all winter long. It froze so deep here that that they are still fixing all the broken water mains throughout town. Our house made it through relatively unscathed though the slab under the garage door heaved a bit because they didn't put a footer under it much less a footer below frost line in a normal year. When I get to the garage in my remodeling of this house, I plan to fix that problem.

So after a horribly cold winter, spring was a long time in coming here. We got a little more than normal precipitation but not enough to flood us like in years past. The biggest thing was that spring was cold and we were well into May before I felt safe enough to leave the garden hoses hooked up outside the house.

Summer has come and the cold spell has still remained. We are now at the end of July and we have gotten only four days that cracked ninety degrees. I can't ever remember another July where that has happened. Our grass is still lush and growing fast. When we normally mow our lawn once or stretching it twice in the month of July, we mowed if four times. We are still getting regular precipitation so farmers are looking at absolutely perfect stands of corn and soybeans. My dad, who has never said the words perfect and crops in the same sentence has even admitted that this year his crops look absolutely perfect. He is already worrying about whether he will have room for all of his harvested crops come this fall.

Tomorrow we start the last month of meteorological summer and the forecast for at least the next two weeks for our area is more below normal temperatures. They are backing off a bit on the rain so it may start to dry out but even without rain from here on out and continued cool temperatures we will end up in pretty decent shape. El Nino still has two to one odds of forming which will mean a cold fall here followed by a warmer winter with more precipitation. Just in case mother nature decides to go for three in a row, I'm keeping the snow blower tuned and ready to go.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Ten: Side Trips

When traveling anywhere in the Philippines, due to road and traffic conditions one must spend long hours in the vehicle to get to your destination. Needing to stretch now and then, we often pulled over at attractions along the road. One of the things I noticed is that a lot of the attractions were created by current and past governors of nearby towns. I wondered if it was a legal way of bribing constituents to keep them in office.

At one particular attraction, there was a lion, the birds seen above and below and miniature horses pulling carts to give children a ride around a track. Nearby was also some sort of dinosaur themed exhibit judging from the large fiberglass dinosaurs standing guard. Because we had a long ways to go, we let the kids take a ride with the miniature horses and watch the birds before hitting the road again.

Another stop along the way was this old Spanish church at Paoay (pronounced pow-why). The Spanish started a missionary there in 1593 and started building this church in 1704. Spain had a long reign in the Philippines until the Spanish-American war was ended in the fall of 1898 and America gained control of the Philippines for the sum of $20 million. It always thrills me to see buildings older than our country and this one was still a functioning church.

At the northernmost point of the island of Luzon, the mountains running north and south eventually run smack into the water. Engineers wanting to build a loop road around the island found this obstacle and had limited options. They could either go up and over the mountain or through the mountain. Neither of those options were particularly appealing and horribly expensive so in the end they came up with a third option. Build a bridge around the end of the island. The bridge is set back from the mountain so that it doesn't get covered up in frequent mudslides that occur and it is elevated 31 meters so that it doesn't get washed away by frequent typhoons that hit the area. This 1.3 kilometer long bridge is now quite famous and called Patapat bridge and connects the provinces of Ilocos Norte and Cagayan. Some enterprising fellow even hung up a basket in a tree at the only pullout where you can get a good photo of the bridge asking people to pay P10 (about 23 cents) to park there.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Nine: Killer Spider!

For the most part, bathrooms in the Philippines are stripped down versions of the one here in the States. Many of them contain only a toilet and a sink. They are fully tiled with a drain in the floor and if you shower, you do so with a tabo or dipper which you use to poor water over you. As the country becomes more affluent, houses are starting to install at least one actual shower in the house but these are plumbed up to inline heaters with lots of dials, switches and scary looking electrical plugs plugged into sockets right in the shower with you. All this is leading me away from my main point which is that most bathrooms are very tiny compared to those here in the States.

The one where the above picture is taken was about three feet wide by about five feet deep. In order for me to use it, I had to open the door, squeeze between it and the sink and get turned around in front of the toilet so that I can get the door shut again. On this particular trip early in the morning when I was still waking early due to jet lag, I closed the door and sat down to do some business when I looked over by the hinge side of the door and saw this guy.

To give you some scale, I later measured the tiles and they are 10" tall. This guy was every bit the size of my hand. The first instance I saw him, my heart leaped in my chest and possibly skipped a beat. I hate spiders and I figured word had gotten out and someone had placed it there to scare me. They had done a good job I thought but as I sat there keeping an eye on the thing just to be sure, I saw it mandibles moving near its mouth. Suddenly muscles in my body all tensed up and I knew taking care of business would no longer be possible. I carefully, every so slowly, eased my camera out of my pocket to snap the only picture seen above thinking it might be a good blog post on the biggest spider I have ever seen out of captivity and then started to ease up my drawers to prepare for a careful exit.

Just as I got ready to reach for the door handle, the darn thing started skittering around the door at 90 miles per hour coming to rest on the gosh darn door handle. My heart may have reached somewhere around 3000 rpm and a little yip of fright might have escaped my mouth or I might have manly shooed the spider away and walked away. I'm guessing you all know which way was true.

As I stood there debating what I was going to do at three in the morning trapped in a claustrophobicly small bathroom while everyone else was sleeping by a killer spider looking to kill me with one venomous bit and use my body to hose millions of spider eggs. We eyed each other for awhile and I finally came to the conclusion that one of us was going to die and I slowly started reaching down to grab my Teva sandal to smack the spider with or die trying. My hand had just made it somewhere south of my knee when the spider made a break for it.

Now in a three by feet feet wide bathroom, making a break for it has limited options. In this case, the spider leaped over to the wall above the sink and dashed along the wall mere inches from my shoulder. This time I definitely screamed as I lunged for the door. It takes me a full 30 seconds to maneuver my large frame in around the door and sink so that I can get it back closed. Somehow with the killer spider now lunging for me, I was able to leap towards the door, in mid air open the door, clear the sink, fly across the threshold and slam the door behind me, all in about .05 seconds. Somehow the door slamming or my screams of terror weren't loud enough to wake up the house but my heart beats nearly did.

Later when every one woke up, I warned them of the killer spider on the loose in the bathroom and of course was laughed at. Then about three hours later I hear my wife screaming like she was being murdered in the same bathroom and like me, she came flying out the door at record speed. After that, my brother-in-law, who evidently is immune to killer spiders, trapped it in a very large plastic container with a tight lid and he spend the rest of his days on the balcony as a show and tell object. It took me a few days before I was able to use that bathroom or again and even then, I checked every corner of every bathroom for sibling spiders seeking revenge for their brother before I ever put one foot across the threshold.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Eight: Filipino Art

A bulul carving is a traditional carving done by the igorot people of northern Luzon and used to guard the rice crops or in some healing ceremonies. Many non-igorot people keep a bulul statue by the front door as kind of a good luck talisman. While on some down time between trips in Baguio City, we went to a new art museum that contained a lot of these bulul statues along with more modern art. It was definitely worth the trip because I love wood carvings and this museum had them in spades.

As you can tell in the above picture, the bulul front and center is definitely male. I'm not sure what or who is driving this but if you visit many wood carving shops in the Philippines, the carvers definitely have a fascination with genitalia, male and female. Everywhere you look are penis and vagina carved into wood. Some like above, I could write off as art but much of it is pretty much in your face. One of the most common is a man standing in a barrel and when you pull the barrel off, a huge penis falls down towards you. On the female side you got nude women carvings which are meant to crush 'nuts' between their legs.

One of my dreams is to buy a container load of furniture similar to the one above and ship it back to the States where I can use some, give some away or perhaps sell it. I just love how native wood carvers can take odd chunk of wood and turn it into a work of art/functional chair like the one above which was in the museum. The mountain roads are full of carvers who make this chair look like plain old vanilla ice cream. This trip I did make a contact who does ship stuff to the States from the Philippines and perhaps in the future we might be able to make some sort of deal for part of a shipping container but to get an entire 2m x 2m x ?m tall container costs $1600 to ship. I would need to pack it full and sell a lot to recoup my costs on that one. So for now, I still dream of buying carved furniture and placing it in the perfect nooks of my home.

Just a sculpture that reaches out and grabs my interest. I've never seen something like this in any wood carving stands.

Another bulul statue sitting in the corner of the stairway.

Yet another large snag that has been carved and polished into a couch of sorts. I'm not sure what kind of tree this is from but it is absolutely gorgeous. I'm not sure this would fit in a 2m x 2m container anyway so I'll just have to view it in our trip slideshow from time to time.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Seven: Rice Paddies

Down in the low lands, rice is a big part of the economy in the Philippines. My brother-in-law has been managing the family farm inherited after my wife's father died when she was just a little girl. Recently he has been trying to get it deeded over in his name so that it is his legally too. In the photo above, you can see his land in the strip where I am standing. The strip is about 40 feet wide and extends through the submerged rice paddy all the way to a distant strip of taller grass near the trees in the background. The other strips of land to the left and right of my brother-in-law's strip belong to other farmers.

In the Philippines, land is more community based that here in the States. You still physically own the land and farm it but there aren't many fences and nobody really cares if someone walks across your paddy on the way to their paddy. You will see big fields of these paddies belonging to many farmers who live nearby.

In the off season, it is common to see carabao (water oxen seen above), cows, goat (seen below) or other animals grazing away in the paddies. When it gets close to planting time which coincided with my visit, they will prepare a paddy among all the paddies and sew rice seed thickly in it. When the rice sprouts and gets to be about 8 or 10 inches tall, it is pulled in clumps and divided among the patty owners who will then plant it in their paddy in more orderly rows spaced out a couple inches or so. Before they plant their paddies or even flood them with water, the earth is first tilled with small tractors and equipment. This kills all the weeds growing in the paddy and loosens the soil for the next step.

Once the earth has been tilled, the paddy is flooded with water pumped in from a nearby stream. The farmer will then get his kuliglig which is the device seen in the picture above. It is similar to a tiller but with reel like blades (similar to the old lawn mowers) on each side in place of the wheels. An engine powers those reel blades which stir up the water and the loosened dirt into a mud slurry. Once the slurry is thick enough, the farmers take the clumps of rice grown from see and they poke them roots first into the slurry as they are doing in the picture below. There they continue to grow as the slurry dries out and eventually are harvested.

Traditionally the farmers lived on their land in nipa huts similar to the one above. These structures were build on bamboo poles stuck in the earth and had suspended floors that kept the occupants dry above their paddies. I still seem some of these in use in the rural areas but most of the farmers now live off their paddies in nearby houses looking like the one seen below. The nipa huts that I still see around appear to be shade relief for the farmers out working in their fields. The one above that I took through the windshield of a moving car is actually in a harvested tobacco field which you see here and there throughout the Luzon province. Another fairly common crop you see if cassava and occasionally dragon fruit. I also saw a few paddies of corn too. I'm not sure if it was the field corn variety or what passes for sweet corn in the Philippines. Their sweet corn is more like our field corn, tough and no sweetness. It really blows their mind when they sink their teeth into some Iowa grown sweetcorn. I usually cook two or three times more corn than I would for native Iowans and they will go through it all in one sitting like crack junkies three days after their last high.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Six: The Eating of Food

After the lengthy post that I wrote previously on the ins and outs of shopping for food, I thought I would show you a few miscellaneous food pictures that I took during the course of our trip. Above is a plastic bag of quail eggs which we boiled and snacked on. It was my first time to eat them and while they were similar in taste to a boiled chicken eggs, their texture was creamier and not as dry as a chicken egg. In fact, I liked them better than hard boiled chicken eggs though you had to peel three or four to equal one chicken egg.

Fresh shrimp cooking on a little charcoal grill on the patio. Many Filipinos use these as a sort of summer kitchen to keep the heat outdoors.

Above is dragon fruit which has a taste and texture similar to kiwi fruit. I saw numerous dragon fruit plantations as we were driving around. They consisted of a field of posts set into the ground about five feet apart with a used motor cycle tire fasted to the top of the post in a horizontal position with a cross brace. The dragon fruit plant was a cactus like plant that would be tied to the center post and as it grew up and through the tire would drape over it. I'm not sure when harvest season was but I didn't see any plants with fruit on them while I was there.

When is the last time you had bottled pop? For me, I'm guessing my last time was nearly 20 years ago when I was in college. I was happy to see that bottled pop is still alive and well in the Philippines. The only drawbacks were that it came in teeny 8 oz bottles which are shadows of their American plastic counterparts and that the servers inevitably stuck a well used and recycled straw in it when serving it to me. I always took the straw out and just drank from the bottle because I'm guessing the straws were probably never sterilized or even rinsed.

Road side vendors abound on the island and you are never more than a stones throw from food if you want to pull off to the side. Many times the vendor isn't there but if you pull over a honk your car horn, one will quickly appear and quickly open up a buko (young coconut) or as in the picture above, wrap up some tupig in a plastic bag to eat on your journey. Tupig is just one form of a gelatinous rice and coconut mixture that is found in snack type foods. In this case it is wrapped in banana leaves and grilled. Another form called tinubong finds it in the cavity of a bamboo shoot and steamed. In all cases it is a sweet and tasty snack.

When visiting restaurants in the Philippines, everything is served with rice as can be seen in the above photo. This platter of food was served family style for about a dozen of us and we quickly went through all the mountain of rice seen above and ordered and consumed a second mountain to go with the BBQ meats, salads and sides. I think it cost me about $25 for everything.

While in Baguio, my mother-in-law wanted to throw my oldest daughter a Filipino birthday party at their most popular fast food restaurant Jollibee. The two pictures above and below are their versions of the happy meal. The one above is fried chicken, a cake of rice and a side of gravy. In the picture below the cake of rice has been replaced by spaghetti. I have eaten pretty much everything put in front of me during my time in the Philippines but I have yet been able to try fast food spaghetti. I chose the option above with the rice cake and it wasn't too bad though I was confused about what to do with the side of gravy. I ended up pouring it on top of my rice.

Above is charcoal grilled squid purchased from the wet market earlier in the morning. Below is a pinakbet pizza which we saw while driving though a town and bought for a snack along the road. Traditional pinakbet contains fish sauce, bitter melon, string beans, tomatoes and a few other ingredients and is served as kind of like a stew eaten with rice. The pizza form which was a first for all of us, American and Filipino alike, was pretty tasty.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Five: Foraging For Food

Most houses that I have been inside in the Philippines have refrigerators but they aren't utilized like their American counterparts. In America, a typical refrigerator would have staples like milk, butter and eggs along with meats, vegetable, cheeses and leftovers from previous meals. Filipino refrigerators have the staples but none of the rest. They are much smaller and are not the central part of a kitchen like they tend to be in America. I write all of this to say that most Filipinos tend to shop at markets on a daily basis or several times a week. Their food is fresher than the freshest of American food found in the supermarket often picked, caught or killed that day. 

If they aren't buying fresh food to prepare, they are buying prepared food from food vendors like the one in the photo above who make it fresh every day. This particular stand is owned by my wife's uncle and is in Manila. As I sat inside eating breakfast and talking with my wife's uncle one morning, a constant stream of people stopped by picking up 'sack' lunches to eat later at work. They would inspect the contents of the pots and select the ones they wanted which were scooped up and ladled into plastic bags that were then knotted and put into a larger plastic bag with other selections. The other common method of dining there was to bring your own rice, though rice was also served, and to pay for a ladle full of a dish to be put on top and then eaten right there at the counter.

When dining in America especially at quick eating or fast food places, the food is often made in advance of your arrival and kept warm on hot plates until served. While this is also the case in similar restaurants of the Philippines, all you have to do is ask and almost all of them will make you some fresh food. At the above stand in a block of the town of Vigan that served every kind of empanada imaginable, I ordered some fresh empanadas for lunch. The empanada dough was made from rice flour and the filling consisted of papaya, longanisa (similar to a sausage) and an egg and then fried. They were outstanding and worth the wait.

I would say that the hardest aspect of food for someone used to living in a first world country like the United States to adjust too is how meat is sold in the Philippines. There aren't any refrigerated cases full of styrofoam and shrinkwrapped trays of meat, or at least that I have seen. If there are, I'm sure it is way beyond the price of the average Filipino. They instead by their meats or seafood in 'wet' markets which are usually nearby to their produce markets. They are open air stalls and nothing is wrapped. In fact, the pig, cow, or chickens were probably slaughtered overnight or early that morning and by the time we get their near dawn to buy it, they are still processing it into the cuts you see above. All these stands have a bloody wooden stump in them where they can cut up your purchase to your desire and the meat is put into a plastic bag and knotted at the top.

The most common question or concern I get is about food born bacteria being present in this situation. While I'm sure there are bacteria present, there are several factors that prevent them from getting you sick. First, the meat is super fresh so any contaminant is probably only on the outside of the meat and easily rinsed off before cooking when you return home. Second, rare or medium rare aren't terms used in the Philippines. Everything is well cooked thus killing any bacteria present. Third, most of their meats are cooked with preservatives like vinegar or soy sauce that are acidic and salty and adding another level of safety. In all my time in the Philippines, I have never gotten sick from the food. I have had my run ins with bad water but that's another story.

Being a poor country, no part of an animal is wasted, including the tails of cows which can be seen in the blue plastic tote above. The man in the picture just finished up scraping the hair off the tails in the big container of water right next to it and they will be chopped up and put in plastic bags when purchased where they will most likely be made into a Filipino dish called kare-kare. He was right in front of the meat store in the preceding picture and when he was finished, he took a few cans of water from the taller container near the street to wash the hair and blood on down the sidewalk... right where we walk. Like I said, it makes my mind squirm thinking about these things but I've never gotten sick from the food.

More appealing to me are the seafood sections of the wet markets because the fish and seafood are all freshly caught. In fact, if one travels the roads leading up the mountain to Baguio in the wee morning hours, they are full of trucks of fish, veggies and other perishable items that are creeping up the mountain in low gear heading for the markets where the fish will be sold and consumed later that day. These fish are nothing like the ones you find in an American store which are frozen and then thawed and days if not weeks old. Just one whiff of your nose will tell you that these things are super fresh. Again note the presence of the bloody wooden stump and plastic bag seen on the right side of the photo.

For other perishable goods and some non-parishable stuff, you can go to the rest of the market area in town. In Baguio, the market area comprised about four or five blocks of alleyways covered with tarps like what is seen above or roofed open air areas. Merchants set up their stands  to hawk their wares to passersby and like the wet market, everything is very fresh. For the most part, you only see what is in season at that moment. Although technically illegal, you also find many private individuals who will set up shop along the side of the street every morning selling the produce they picked from the night before or early that morning that was ripe. Nothing is priced and there are dozens of people selling the same thing so much time is spent shopping for the best foods and haggling for the cheapest price.

For non-perishable goods, there are a few stores that are similar in nature to American grocery stores. They are full of rows of shelves of boxed, bagged and canned goods that you can select, put in your cart and pay for in the checkout lanes. However there is one noticeable exception. I am taking this picture from the far back corner of the store. If you were to walk all the way to the far wall seen in the distance, hang a left and walk another length of distance, you would reach the checkout area. Where I am standing when I took this picture was the end of the line of people waiting to pay for their items. Seriously! The line wound left and right through the aisles between here and there and probably had at least 300 people ahead of me. No more will I get impatient when I get to a checkout line in America and there are more than a couple people ahead of me.

The best strategy to minimize the wait to pay was for at least one other person to shop with you. One person would get a cart and immediately go to the back of the store and get in line to pay. The other person would grab a hand basket and make forays into the aisles that we passed getting the necessary food items and occasionally come back to dump it in the shopping cart as it slowly advanced in line. After about 40 minutes in line, I finally turned the last corner to the checkout lines seen below. It looks chaotic but was actually fairly organized. All along the way in line, there were store employees stationed to help people find the end of the line and prevent people from cutting in line. During the 40 minutes I pushed the cart slowly forward in line, three other people tried to cut in line in front of me and were quickly collared and shown to the back of the line. Once you got to the end of the line, another store employee would usher you to the first empty checkout line available. Once again, all your groceries were put in plastic bags for you to carry out by hand. The carts were not to leave the store.

One thing that I found funny is that we bought some eggs at this particular store and when we got up to the counter, they asked which price I wanted. One price was for the eggs and another price was for the eggs if you kept the carton they were in. I'm not sure what would happen if you selected the cheaper price sans carton but I'm guessing it involved a plastic bag. We paid the higher price and got to keep our eggs in the carton so I never found out the answer.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Four: The Airport

I never have any pictures of the international airport in Manila. One reason is my camera is packed in the bottom of my carry-on so that even if I lost every single bag (which happened twice this trip), I always have my camera and pictures that I've taken. Bags and clothes can be replaced but pictures can't. Another reason is that after 30 hours of being inside airplanes and airports, I'm ready to get out into the other world and I am in no mood to take pictures. The third reason is that the Manila airport is a full on assault to my rural Iowa senses, very crowded and full of people who like nothing better to do than to lighten a 'rich' white guy of his belongings. This means offering me taxis, carrying my luggage which everyone knows is full of pasalubong/gifts, picking my pockets or stealing a large camera hung around my neck. For those reasons, I just keep my camera safe at the bottom of my backpack strapped securely on my back.

Upon arrive and once you clear immigration and customs, you immediately find yourself outside the terminal and in the midst of  a huge crowd of porters and taxi drivers. A very tall white guy stands out as an easy mark and thus I tend to get a lot of unwanted attention. I don't blame them because if I was in their shoes and only making a few dollars a day in wages, I would want to hit up the people most likely to give me big tips for my services. In most airports, this is the area where you would meet the people who are waiting for you to arrive on your flight but not in Manila.

The first time I ever flew in to that airport, I spent a half hour standing there fending off all the taxi drivers and porters while waiting for my fiance to arrive and rescue me. What I didn't realize is that I had to cross the street and go down a large ramp and cross yet another street before I reach the barricaded area where all the families are waiting for arriving passengers. There it is truly a free for all of people and noises which combined with the hot humid air full of exhaust fumes, assaults me like nothing else can. Fortunately for me, I'm a tall white guy in a land of small brown skinned people so the people searching for me generally see me well before I see them and rescue me. Soon I am settled into the average minivan with twelve other people who came to greet me and heading towards the mountains of Baguio. In the Philippines, aunts, uncles and long lost cousins want nothing more to do than spend ten hours round trip in a van going to the airport to see a family member.

On the return trip back through the airport heading home, the Manila airport is also unlike every airport I have ever been too. When we pull up to the terminal entrance and unload our luggage onto carts to wheel into the airport, we can only get as far as the door and then they are immediately scanned with x-ray machines, along with all your carry-on items. The worst part is that your luggage carts can't make it through this area so you have to pile up your luggage on the backside of the x-ray scanner conveyor belt and find another cart to pile them onto. Your next stop is to check in at the desk where you get your tickets as far as the first layover in the States and your luggage is checked in. Then you head through a myriad of check points where your tickets are checked, your passports checked, your carry-on luggage is scanned again and finally you make the extortion booth. The Manila airport is the only airport I have ever been too where you are forced to pay to go between the check-in desk and the departure gates. It costs about $12 per person to leave so I always have to keep a pocket full of pesos to make it through that area.

Once lightened of the pesos in my wallet, we once again have to make it through two more security check points where they check our tickets and passports. Once we arrive at our gate, we must first have our passports and tickets checked a third time and then at the bottom of the stairs, our carry-on luggage is searched by hand. Finally you reach a room full of seats where you can await for your flight. However if you need to use a restroom or get a drink of water, you must go back through two or three layers of the security (bathroom two layers, drink three layers as I found out with two kids) and repeat them on your way back. The worst part about it all is that I really don't feel anymore secure than I do at airports with less checkpoints and layers, only inconvenienced. The only explanation I can come up with for all of it is that there is such a huge amount of unemployed people willing to work for next to nothing that it is the governments way of subsidizing the poverty by creating all these jobs in airport security. So if you are ever flying out of Manila, make sure you double or triple the normal amount of time you think you need to get through all these checkpoints before you reach your departure gate and make sure you save P500 in local currency to make it through the extortion booth.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Three: City In the Mountains

Once I survive the 20+ hours of flights along with time spent on layovers and getting through immigration and customs at Manila, my journey still has a long way to go. My wife is a native of Baguio City which is in the province of Benguet in the mountains of central Luzon island or the main island of the Philippines. On paper, it is a 160 mile drive along a fairly direct route but in reality it is a five hour journey via minivan.

The reasons for the length of time can be saved for a later post but part of it is the last part of the journey where we transition from the lowlands and rice paddies to the mountain tops. It is about an hour and a half slog up winding mountain roads no matter which way you come from to reach Baguio, the summer capital of the Philippines. This mountain top city had highs of 76 and lows of 68 the entire time I was there while in the lowlands the temperatures were in the mid 90's for highs and maybe got down to the mid 70's at night.

Most of my trips to the Philippines have me arriving at the airport late in the evening meaning by the time we reach the outskirts of Baguio dawn is just thinking about breaking. Many of our journeys to other places during our stay often start in the wee hours of the morning to maximize time spent at our destination and to avoid the worst of the traffic. As a result, I rarely get to actually see much of the view as we wind up the mountain roads. However on this trip, we did make one short trip down the mountain during daylight hours and I was rewarded with the view seen above.

Baguio is unlike any city I've ever seen, here, abroad or even in the Philippines. It is a city clinging to the sides of mountains and seems very precarious in nature. The only flat spots in the entire town are the two soles of your feet and even they aren't often on the same elevation. Houses are often three, four and five stories tall to conform to the side of the mountains but often are probably about the same square footage as many suburban homes. My mother-in-law's house can be entered in from street level on the fourth floor where the kitchen, living, dining and master bedrooms reside. We stay up on the fifth floor in a suite of bedrooms, while the third floor contains a sort of efficiency suite and the second and first floor small apartments that are rented out. Because of the close confines of everything and the steepness of the surroundings, it is hard to photograph her house and get a real sense of what I am talking about but I was able to capture a picture of a similar residence seen above while driving around Baguio one afternoon.

Baguio City covers about 20 square miles of mountain side and has a population of about a third of a million people. If you count the interlocking barrios, I'm certain that it is closer to a million. During my time of coming to Baguio over the last decade, the population has exploded. Places that were tree covered mountain slopes on previous visits are now packed with houses and roads. It went from a bustling mountain town to a crowded city seemingly overnight. Smog is already a big problem and will probably get worse before it gets better. I tolerate it for my short stays but I definitely would never want to live in Baguio City full time unless I want various lung and breathing ailments later on in life. In the picture above, I'm fairly certain that the mountain in the background now covered with houses didn't look like that on my last visit. It probably had houses back then but not nearly as densely packed as they are now. That and the lack of trees always drew my attention to it whenever we drove by.

This picture was taken with a telephoto lens of the mountain in the previous picture. It certainly gives you a sense of the vertical nature of Baguio and the density all in one photo. Unfortunately the smog problem gives it a foggy appearance.

Most of Baguio City however looks closer to this picture. It is still very densely populated and steep but there are pockets of foliage here and there and larger trees sticking up above the houses. While you see lots of tropical trees like avocado, foliage like bamboo, you also see lots of pine trees which is why Baguio is known as the City of Pines among other names. The view out my bedroom window is of pine trees that whisper in the breezes and being on the edge of town, mercifully free of smog most of the time. Baguio is also known as the strawberry capital of the Philippines though in all my times, I have yet to see actual strawberries growing anywhere. This trip I cam close and saw some strawberry beds being planted in the bottom right corner of the picture at the head of this post.

While visiting a new museum on the edge of town, one of the balconies on the third or fourth floor (at road or entrance level) offered a view outside of town and into the sparsely populated mountains outside of town. I have only made one overnight trip into the rural mountains on my first trip to the Philippines over a decade ago and after this trip where I explored more of the coastal and lowland regions, I wish to explore the rural mountain regions more in the future. They are largely blank on the detailed maps that I bought of the country but I know in a country this populated, they are full of invisible people.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Two: Without Any Baggage

I don't like flying anymore. It has long since lost its novelty and these days I feel more like a cow being transported to a slaughterhouse than someone going to or from a vacation and wanting the convenience of getting there in a timely manner. I've had my share of flight delays, missed flights and strandings in airports overnight but not once have I ever lost a bag. Mostly that has been because for work I never took enough to check a bag other than a small carry on but some of it has just been dumb luck. Well my luck finally ran out.

Our very first flight of three to the Philippines was delayed an hour so our leisurely layover in Dallas before getting on a flight to Japan turned out to be a mad sprint through the airport with my wife carrying our youngest daughter and one carry-on item and me herding our oldest and carrying the other two carry-on bags and the stroller. We just made final boarding but as we caught our breath in the cattle chutes they call airplane seats these days, I knew our baggage didn't have a chance.

Twelve hours later when we reached Japan and made it to our gate with 10 minutes to spare before boarding, I asked the lady at the desk if she could tell me if my bags made it here. She typed into her computer and with halting English told me they had which surprised and elated me. Just a few minutes before boarding she tapped me on the shoulder and told me they actually were still sitting in Dallas. So as we flew our last leg of the journey to Manila, we were pondering our next move. You see in the Philippines where poverty and corruption are so prevalent, loosing a bag is almost a death sentence for it. It becomes a one stop shopping center for airport employees and anyone else that gets to handle it before you ever see it again, especially when it originated in the United State. You see because it is customary for returning Filippinos to bring pasalubong or gifts with them when they come back home and anyone from the U.S. is considered extraordinarily rich in their eyes, those bags are always worth checking out. Our were no exception since three of our five checked bags were packed full of things brought as gifts to pass out.

I wasn't too concerned with the gifts since all of them with the exception of my pens that I made could be easily replaced. I was concerned with the clothing situation for myself since being six feet two inches tall in a land where being five feet tall is considered a giant, I knew finding duds for myself wasn't going to be an easy task. In fact I remember on a previous trip when I needed to find an undershirt and a barong (native dress shirt made from coconut fibers) for a wedding, I spent hours in shops all over town until I found one undershirt that I could just barely squeeze into. The barong had to be hand made to fit me. So when we arrived in Manila and sure enough none of our bags decided to join us, I wasn't too thrilled.

We spent an hour with their lost baggage guy filing a claim and negotiating how we were going to get our luggage if ever again. Because at that point it was still in Dallas and needed to make two flights worth 16 hours of flight time to reach Manila, he wasn't sure when they would make it. We decided to make the five our van journey up into the mountains to our home in Baguio City anyway and hope that our bags would arrive in a few days. Until then, I was forced to wear the clothes I had been marinating in for the last 30 hours for a couple more days. I was able to find some underwear and a shirt (that advertised that it was an American size) to wear to get me buy but it wasn't pleasant. Our bags did eventually arrive and miracle of miracles, contained all their contents. Life was good.

On our return to the U.S., our flight out of Japan to Chicago was delayed 45 minutes and we were heading into one of the world's busiest airport and the shortest layover of all four layovers we had going and coming. We landed in Chicago with about an hour and a half to get through immigration, customs, go from the international terminal to the domestic terminal which meant going through TSA (or equivalent) security for the third time that day and find our flight. We just did with only minutes to spare so once again as I was flying the last leg of our flight, I couldn't help but wonder if our bags had made it. Because we had excess baggage from bring all the gifts to the Philippines, we filled them up with native Filipino wood work and kamagong wood to bring back home. As it turned out the kamagong wood was so dense and heavy that we even had to borrow a sixth bag to get everything home and remain under the 50 pound limit. Now all that would be lost yet again to the airline gods.

When we finally landed and made our way to baggage claim, the conveyor was just starting up and the third bag out was one of ours. Holy crap, it had actually made the flight I thought. A second and then a third one soon came out and I pulled them off the conveyor. Having learned the lessons from our outbound flights that we would never have time to actually use a baby stroller in an airport as we ran to catch flights, we had wisely checked the stroller in for our return flights and it came out too. We waited as bags came out and were claimed by various people and a couple who had apparently been away from each other groped and made out on the other side of the baggage carousel but the remaining three bags still never came out. Finally after seeing the same five bags go around for the third time, it was just down to us and a group of three middle eastern men waiting on bags and knowing that sometimes language barriers can make things take three times as long, I hastened over to the lost luggage desk ahead of them.

Dealing with lost luggage in America turns out to be a breeze. They scan the codes on the bags that did arrive, check them against your baggage claim receipt and enter the numbers of your lost bags into their system. They take down your address and a phone number and tell you they will be shipped the following day right to your door... and they were. There was no concern on my part about them being rummaged through and they weren't. They are finally unpacked and put away.

I have learned some valuable lessons this trip. Nearly half my flights were delayed and out of the four total connections we had, we had to literally run to catch the flight of three of them. Our average connection time was two hours but when dealing with international flights, customs and multiple security screenings, it is not enough time. Not only does it make you run to catch flights but it doesn't leave enough time for your bags to make it. Next time I think I am going to ship things via boat a couple months in advance and tell our booking agent that we need at least three hours between flights. I don't really want to try to find a shirt to wear in a land of short people ever again.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part One: The Long Answer Behind the Title

Technically I met my wife online. Back in the day when forums were all the rage of online communication, we were both members of a photography forum. At first all I knew was she was a female who was interested in photography living in London. I didn't know anything else about her including marital status or ethnicity. I know more about most of my readers of this blog than I knew of her. Then two things happened in my life. First after a couple years of knowing her through this photography forum, we developed a friendship. Second, being young and single, I wanted to exercise my wings and begin to explore the world, especially since I lived near a large international airport with occasional cheap airfare to points all around the globe. After research, I decided an English speaking country might be my best bet for a first trip outside of this one and chose London as my destination. I wrote to the only person I "knew" living in London asking if she would like to meet me for a day or two and show me around town. She accepted and about three years later she became my wife.

The first time I went to the Philippines, I was newly engaged to my soon to be wife, but after three years of a long distance relationship, we needed to spend time together. I also needed to go meet her mother, brother and rest of her extended family and get a blessing for our upcoming marriage. That trip to the Philippines was mostly about discovering myself and this new country so foreign to my comfort zone thus when I came back with stories to tell on this blog, I named the series Joe Philippines for reasons already mentioned in a recent post. The second time I went to the Philippines for an extended stay, I was already becoming familiar with the country so it wasn't so "foreign" to me and it felt like the major theme of my stay was getting to know my extended family over there. Kuya is a term of respect given to people close to your age but older than you are in the Philippines. A lot of people addressed me as Kuya Ed over there and so I named the series of blog post I brought back Kuya's Philippine Journals

This trip to the Philippines developed a theme that was totally unexpected to me. I knew my extended family well and this time around, it felt more like a second home than a foreign country. I have grown comfortable living there to the point that I sometimes forget to be self conscience of being a tall white guy in a country full of short brown skinned people. Instead, I saw a piece of wood that was so beautiful that I immediately fell in love with it. I spent my time searching for some souvenirs made from the wood and searching for unfinished pieces of the wood to bring home and make some things out of it for myself, chiefly some fountain pens. Because the latter task turned out to be much harder than I ever expected, it got to the point where is was always on my mind.

Kamagong is a wood native to the mountains of the Philippines. It is a super hard and dense wood referred locally as ironwood sometimes and ebony wood other times due to the dark color. The wood actually starts off more the color of our native oak wood here in the U.S. but as the tree ages, it develops dark streaks of black grain structures. The older the tree gets the more black grain develops until in an old tree the wood is completely ebony in color. Kamagong completely ebony in color is very rare and very expensive. Most of the kamagong wood that I saw was black with tan streaks running through it like the bowl you see at the top of this post. It is still hard to find and expensive by local standards but not rare. Almost all the kamagong souvenirs are left in their natural state or made into things that could be turned on a lathe using high speed steel tools because is such a hard wood to work with and hence the nickname of ironwood.

The pens that I took to the Philippines to hand out as gifts to my extended family and friends were a big hit and so I quickly thought that it would be nice to find some of the wood to take home for making some more of them. I could find finished souvenirs made from the stuff but halfway through my trip when I began realizing that I might night find any kamagong, I actually bought some sticks used in martial arts made from the wood thinking that I would just cut them up and make them into pens. I kept searching though and every place I stopped or went, I would ask locals where I could find some and I always received vague and varying answers. Eventually on the last full day of my stay in the Philippines, I found it close to my home in the Philippines and brought back two used stair treads made from it. Each tread 1 x 8 x 36 inches in size, probably weigh close to 40 pounds so it was a feat getting it home. More on that later.

So to wrap up a long story, that is why the title of this series of posts about my trip to the Philippines will contain the word kamagong in the title. It will help me keep this series of posts separate from my previous two so the posts can be found for future reference either. I have a lot of stories to share with you and I hope you enjoy reading about them.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

I'm Back

I made it back. The trip was wonderful though the travel to and from the Philippines had much room for improvement. Lots of stories and pictures to share with everyone but first, I need to unpack, download all my pictures and stories from my journal and get some blog posts composed in a couple two or three days. First however I'm going to sleep off some of this jet lag and perhaps catch up on a few of your blogs. Later.