Monday, June 30, 2008

Into the Soup

Flying into Legaspi, we get some good views of Mount Mayon, a perfectly cone-shaped volcano that is a major attraction for the Bicol region. When the plane lands and we step off, the heat and humidity immediately hammer us. It's intense! We see Fran and run to hug her. It's early in the morning, Monday, June 16. Weird.

We all pile into a van Fran has rented to take us to Tabaco City. The ride to Tabaco is our initiation into Filipino traffic. As we pass vehicles on blind curves, it becomes apparent that signs and lines are suggestions, that the horn is the most vital part of the van, and that what seems like two lanes really are three or even four, in practice.

In Tabaco, the van creeps through a crowded market and delivers us to our hotel, the Gardenia Hotel. The Gardenia seems small and cramped from the outside, and the elevator is tiny, but the rooms are spacious and clean, and the bathrooms have Western-style flush toilets.

We rest awhile, and then Fran tells us it's time to visit her host family for merienda, the afternoon snack. We trike or jeepney out to her host family's compound and are greeted by Helga and Leo (pronounced Lay-oh) and their extended family. Helga and Leo both look much younger than their ages. Leo has just come back to the Philippines after working several years at Diego Garcia.

Helga serves us pancit, a noodle dish; batter-fried bananas; rice cooked in sweet coconut milk, almost like rice pudding; and coconut milk. Then Leo and Nair, one of the adult men who live here, give us a tour of the compound. Nair shows me the place he built for him and his wife after typhoon Reming (typhoon Durian) destroyed the house he used to live
in. Their new home is open-sided and has a beautifully thatched roof and a loft. Nair tells me he loves the simple life. He asks me whether there's any place in the U.S. where people live as simply. I can't think of any.

We walk down the road to the San Lorenzo beach. Then it's back to the Gardenia and off to bed. I didn't realize that in the tropics, it always gets dark around 6:30 pm.

Don't Have to Live Like a Refugee

Di and Ed and I are home from the Philippines. The short version: Our trip was a success, we had a great time, we saw Fran and met her host family and co-workers, and the whole experience was amazing. So now, I'm going to blog the long version, beginning where I left off with my previous post.

We'd booked a room at the Country Inn and Suites near the Eastern Iowa Airport for June13--Friday the 13th--in case we'd have to drive up early to avoid bridge closings. By Friday, rumors were flying about the bridge to the airport. We left work early, and as we hurriedly packed, Channel 9 News was reporting that the I-380 bridge over the Coralville Reservoir was closed. If the bridge were closed, we'd have to drive 5 hours out of our way to get to the airport. I began trying to plot a more direct route along the back roads.

Thankfully, we never had to try my alternate route. As we pulled out of the garage at 3:30 pm, I turned on KXIC, which reported that the bridge was still open but would close at 6:00 pm.Getting out of Iowa City was an adventure in itself. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper on some streets, everyone trying to find a way across the Iowa River. We finally made it to I-80 and then onto I-380.

Water was lapping at the shoulders of the approach to the bridge over the Coralville Reservoir, but the bridge was still open, and we made it across. The bridge closed just an hour or two later. On the other side of the bridge, we were stuck in traffic for two hours, among people trying to cross the only bridge open across the Cedar River, the I-380 bridge in downtown Cedar Rapids. But we eventually made it to the hotel, checked in, and settled in for the night.

The next day, everything went smoothly. At the airport, I overheard someone talking about a wild taxi ride that morning along gravel roads from Iowa City to the airport--my alternate route. But we were glad we'd come up the night before.

Our flights to Las Vegas through O'Hare departed and arrived on time. At McCarran, we got our first taste of the Philippines at the Philippine Airlines (PAL) ticket counter. The counter didn't open until two hours before the flight was scheduled to take off. There was a long line, with many balikbayans (returning Filipinos) pushing carts loaded with big boxes full of goods. We waited patiently, the counter opened, the line moved smoothly, and soon, we had our PAL boarding passes.

I'd read horror stories about PAL, such as "PAL stands for Plane Always Late." But the flight to Manila via Vancouver was better than any flight I've had via a domestic carrier in a long time. We flew Fiesta (economy) class, but the legroom was good and the service was excellent. The seats may have been designed for someone shorter than me, but with a pillow behind my back, they were comfy.

The stopover in Vancouver was odd. We all had to deplane and bring our carry-on baggage with us. We were kept in a comfortable holding area, a little bit of nonCanadian territory, while the flight crew changed and the plane was serviced, and then we reboarded.

Back on board, we were given a pillow, a blanket, and an overnight kit--a blindfold, some socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste. We were served several tasty meals throughout the night, the best airline food I'd had in a long time, at no extra charge. With the excellent service and some sleep courtesy of a little lorazepam my doctor had prescribed for the flight, the 12-hour trip from Vancouver to Manila was not the ordeal I had feared.

We landed in Manila on the morning of June 16, two days after we'd left, due to having crossed the International Date Line. Ninoy Aquino International Airport has three separate terminals, and shuttling among them can be a nuisance. Booking our flight to Legaspi straight through via PAL, we stayed in Terminal 2, which simplified our trip. We still had to go through immigration and customs, and we had to exchange some dollars for Philippine pesos to pay the airport fee. The immigration official laughed at my virginal passport--"It's about time!" he said as he stamped it.

Soon enough, we were at the gate for the flight to Legaspi, the last leg of our trip by air. Aboard the plane, we knew we weren't in Iowa anymore when the cold air from the air conditioning condensed the humid Filipino air into rolls of mist.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Little Water Over the Bridge

Everything around me right now seems normal. It's just another day here at work, in my cubicle. But I know that down the hill, water is steadily creeping up the street by the Memorial Union. Rumors are flying. We're expecting that we're going to have to shut down all equipment here in MacLean Hall. We may be able to bring core services up at another site, but we might not.

Oh, and my wife and son and I are flying to the Philippines tomorrow.

Di and Ed and I tried traveling to the Philippines in March, but we had to abandon our trip when a delayed flight destroyed our tight schedule. We've been planning this second attempt since we came home. We padded our schedule, gave ourselves more time, more flexibility in case we had to rebook. Everything looked good. Now, though, we're wondering whether we'll get to the airport. Bridges are being closed, power is going out, drinking water is a concern.

I am caught between wanting to help, wanting to do something to keep services running, on the one hand, and wanting to get ready for the trip, on the other. We haven't seen Fran, our daughter, in more than a year. Our friends and neighbors and co-workers are laboring to hold back the flood, to keep power and water available.

Our own home is safe, far from the river. Even so, if and when we do make it to the airport and fly away tomorrow, my heart will be in three places at once--here, in the middle of the flood; on the plane, with my wife and son; and on an island on the other side of the world, where my daughter lives.