Thursday, October 30, 2008

Steve learns to drive a diesel stick shift jeep

I never got behind the wheel of a moving car before I started taking driver’s ed at St. John’s Prep School in Minnesota 41 years ago when I was 15. We used a simple-to-shift automatic. It wasn’t until my father came to visit me that I encountered a stick shift.

Dad came down from Duluth. He parked the car in front of the main entrance to the school. For those of you familiar with the St. John’s College/Prep campuses, there were not too many other places dad could have parked the car to make it more difficult for a first-timer. The ’65 Mustang was a powerhouse, “4 on the floor.” It required more than the average gas to get it going without a stall. I remember when my mom first drove it. We lived on a hill so starting out was a breeze. But when we got to the main road, she kept killing the engine. Finally she said the heck with it, gave it way more gas than it needed, and threw rocks a quarter mile back down Lindahl Road.

Somehow Dad thought I would know how to drive a stick shift. Furthermore, he must have felt that starting on an uphill would be no problem. Well, he was wrong on both counts. He had to explain how to keep your right foot on the brake while pushing in the clutch with the left, then slowly letting out the clutch until you felt the gear begin to engage so that you wouldn’t roll backward, then shift your foot off the brake and onto the gas, and push the gas pedal (but not too much or too little) while letting out the clutch. Note: It also helps to be in the right gear.

Needless to say, it took a while. Dad, usually patient, got kind of flustered after a while. I couldn’t understand how he could have possibly thought I would know how to drive this monster, and he couldn’t figure out how I could not already know how to drive a stick. I also think he was afraid that before I got the car going up the hill I was going to leave the transmission under the car and he’d have to walk the 150 miles home.

For those of you who can remember learning on a stick, see if this sounds familiar: You let out the clutch too fast. The car jerks and the engine dies. You start it again. Oops, forgot to push in the clutch, car jumps and jerks to a halt. Push in clutch, let out clutch too slow, don’t go anywhere. Let out clutch too fast. Jerk and die. Eventually you get the car moving forward, shift to fourth instead of second, car barely wants to move, dies. Repeat.

I honestly don’t remember if I ever did get the car going on the uphill, or if Dad had to drive it somewhere where it would be easier to start. I became an okay manual transmission driver, but after we sold the mustang I had very few opportunities to review my skills.

Eventually Dad got to be a fan of Oldsmobile Diesels. I think he bought one every other year from about 1978 until around 1986. The early ones had real problems and got a bad name, but the later ones were very reliable and got great “gas” mileage. And contrary to popular opinion, they were the best starting cars in the coldest weather due to their double batteries and glow plugs. They were, however, slow accelerators and always had that smell of oily diesel fuel. Because we were married in 1973, we only saw Dad’s cars on occasion. We bought our own six-cylinder Olds diesel station wagon in the mid ‘80’s and inherited a diesel Tornado from Dad after his death in 1988. So I am somewhat familiar with diesels.

Jump ahead to 2002, and my first trip to the Philippines. You couldn’t help but notice that an awful lot of vehicles here are diesels. With the exception of luxury cars, buses and motorcycles, it seems that everything runs on diesel. The fumes hang in the air of Manila. Even the bancas (small double-outrigger boats) chug along on diesel fuel. Diesel fuel is slightly cheaper than gasoline here and readily available, and when you live on an island available is good.

So when we went shopping for a vehicle we had three primary goals: 1) the driver’s seat had to fit me, 2) the vehicle had to be stainless steel to withstand the salty air, and 3) it had to be a diesel. We ended up only shopping at two places that had already been selected by Ronald and Fidel, Corregidor Foundation Inc. (CFI) staffers. The first place we looked did not have anything to fit category 1, in other words, they were all very suitable for the average five to five and a half foot Filipino. Once I almost got stuck behind the driver’s seat of a jeepney (a larger jeep-like vehicle used for transporting lots of Filipinos facing each other in the back seats). Fortunately I was able to straighten up again after a few minutes.

The second place, however, had one Nissan turbo-diesel with a seat that could be moved back sufficiently that I could actually fit and press the pedals without feeling that I was eating my knees. Filipinos like loud vehicles, and we had to ask the dealer to add a muffler, which he agreed to do free. (I think he added one, although it is still pretty loud.) They also love stickers. One on the back says Single Son. I don’t know what it means but I am my father’s only son, so it’s accurate. One on the lower front windshield says Simple Dreams. Fitting enough. And the one on the side says Amazing, so I always refer people to our Amazing Jeep. There was one further sticker, this one on the top of the front windshield. I had to ask for that to be removed, since I sit up about six inches higher than Filipinos, and I couldn’t see a darned thing out the front of the Jeep. Ronald test drove it, since there was no way I was going to drive this thing in typical Filipino traffic without first getting real acquainted with it.

Okay, so we owned the jeep. The next thing was to get it delivered to the island. I believe that Ronald and Fidel drove it to Camaya Point. In any case, we arrived on Corregidor a week ago Wednesday and it was supposed to have been delivered the same day. However, low tide and strong winds prevented delivery until the following day. It was towed over on a barrel-supported barge and delivered to the north dock around 4:00 in the morning. So when Marcia and I went down to see about breakfast, there were Ronald and the jeep.

After showing me what each of the buttons and levers does, Ronald handed me the keys and said, “Time to try it out.” He coached me through the essentials, like pushing in the clutch, releasing the hand brake, (real important as I have since found out,) turning the key to the point where you then apply a lever to warm the glow plugs for five or ten seconds, then turn the starter and off you go. I got to the off you go part before I managed to kill the engine by letting out the clutch too fast. But after only another one kill, off I went.

For those of you unfamiliar with Corregidor, it’s steep. Sure there are flat spots, but to get anywhere you are going to go up and down on some pretty good slopes. The secret is to be in the right gear. The Nissan is a five speed. First is up and left. Second is down from there. On the level, second gear is fine to start out. You really only need first gear to get up the steepest grades. In fact, you can pretty much get by on the island with second and reverse, since you want to be in a low gear going down hill so that the engine compression acts as a brake and you don’t go flying off a 3 or 400 foot cliff. On this particular vehicle, reverse, which is far right and down, is hard to find; it wants to go into fourth, a worthless gear here. I have learned to get it into reverse, but it is tricky. You couldn’t get by without reverse here if that’s what you’re thinking.

One last thing: the traffic on Corregidor. The main road on Corregidor goes from the middle of the tail on the east to a circle around the head, where we live. I don’t know, maybe five miles of pavement. This describes Manila traffic: crowded and nuts. This describes Corregidor traffic: me and the road. We did have an oncoming tour bus pass by this morning, and have had to move over for a pedestrian or two, plus a motorcycle that was saving fuel by coasting down the hill.


Inviting others to join the newsletter

Nothing too exciting happened yesterday. That’s to be expected on a small, remote island. We know that we are going to have to be creative at times to fill our day.

We just wanted to say that we are receiving more replies right now than we are able to answer. As time goes on and we get a faster and more reliable internet connection, we intend to answer each email. Now we are limited to short replies when necessary.

We’re hoping to add pictures to our emails soon.

One other thing. Please feel free to pass these updates along to anyone who might be interested in the Philippines and/or Corregidor. We have already received some inquiries from people who had our emails passed on. That’s why we’re here, to ehlp spread the word about this tremendous WWII historical site.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Banca ride around the Rock

Tuesday was the most interesting day for us on Corregidor so far. We started by taking a ten-mile banca ride around Corregidor. We met a couple from Annapolis, MD, on the night before at the beautiful sunset from overlooking Bataan from Battery Grubbs on the far west end of the island. Bill and Midge are here while he teaches psychology at a Manila theology school. This was their eighth visit to Corregidor, and it is purely because they love the island, not that they are related to a soldier who fought here.

They asked us to accompany them on the ride, which is one of our favorites. You get a much better feeling for the island fortress after you see it from all angles on the water. At places there are awesome cliffs from top right down to the water, at others deep ravines. From the “tail” you can see the curve of the island and how Corregidor is part of the top of an extinct volcano.

The ride was rough, and the Coast Guard made us wait half an hour to make sure the waves didn’t rise too high. They also insisted we wear life jackets, although none of the crew did. We were often hit by saltwater spray, which is very corrosive to most metals, so I warned Bill to guard his camera. Only once did a wave come crashing over the side, soaking Steve’s back, since he was on that side of the banca.

Soon after we docked, we were escorted to the south dock where we awaited a small delegation of tourists, including the Spanish Ambassador to the Philippines. Ambassador Fraille (hope that’s close) spoke some English, but his assistant is quite fluent. Steve was asked to be their tour guide. So Steve’s first experience guiding guests around the island included a dignitary and even a small security force, which stayed in jeeps while we rode in an old open-sided bus. Apparently the ambassador was pleased, since we have not heard that a new Spanish-American War has been declared in the Philippines. Of course this is how the Philippines became under the United States 110 years ago following, among other things, Dewey’s defeat of the Spanish fleet right here in Manila Harbor. The island still has the Spanish lighthouse, flagpole, and other buildings from the pre-American era. One other note: One of the island fortresses near Corregidor is called El Fraille, like the ambassador.

The evening ended with beers and karaoke at MacArthur Café, including Foundation and island staff.

Although this is “rainy season,” until the last two nights it has been fairly dry, with only an occasional light shower. The last two nights we had thunderstorms pass over, although the worst of the rain missed us here.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Going shopping in Balanga

If new experiences are educational, then Thursday was worth a year’s college credit in “the real world.” The goal was to buy as many things as possible to stock our new home, and to keep the cost at or under 100,000 Philippine Pesos (P100,000). Currently the dollar is worth about 47 pesos. The cost of renting a banca (boat) to cross to and from Bataan, and then renting a truck to haul our purchases was P3,000 each, leaving P94,000, or $2,000 for our first trip to start furnishing the house. My thought was that we would need at least twice that much to get a good start.

We began by meeting our assistants at the boat dock at about 7:00 AM. Husband and wife work for the Corregidor Foundation, Rafi as the island purchasing agent, perfect for this task, and Vicky, an office clerk, for the woman’s perspective. The ride to Kamaya Point took about half an hour, and then we boarded the flat bed truck with side rails. Marcia and Vicky rode in the cab, while Rafi and I rode in the back. The driver seemed to drive as fast as humanly possible, and the roads in Bataan are bumpy, so the gals were bouncing all over in the cab while Rafi and I sat on plastic chairs and took the wind in the face and bumps in the butt. It was interesting to see all the school children walking along the road, along with the usual traffic composed of bikes, trucks, buses, and underpowered motorcycles with sidecars that are called tricycles. We spent a lot of time weaving in and out of traffic on the two-lane road.

We arrived in Balanga, the largest city of Bataan, and a city which played a major part in the Death March, by the way, after about 45 minutes. About 8:30 we were already in our first store, starting on our shopping list. This particular store had furniture and appliances. We settled on a fridge, a 7.5 cubic foot Panasonic, for around $250. We bought a two burner gas stove with two gas tanks and a stand, for maybe $150. The kitchen table and six chairs we got for around $175. I’m thinking that the washing machine with spinner were around $300. Two wardrobes, with top compartments to hang clothes and two wide drawers each underneath were about $275. All in all we spent P54,000, or around $1,150. Because of the size of the order we got free deliver to Kamaya Point. So P60,000 spent and a long way to go.

The next stop was a rattan store. We traveled to and from there on tricycles, Marcia and Vicky in one, me in another with Rafi riding on the back of the cycle. The sidecars are so small that I, 6’ 5” tall, have to scrunch to get in and barely fit. But the price for the ride was P20 each, or about 40 cents. The streets seem to be at least 75% tricycles in that part of the city.

Leslie Murray told Marcia to look for rattan because of the cost and withstanding the constant humidity. Was she ever right! We got a king size bed for P2,100. That’s right, less than $45. We also bought a living room set of one sofa, two chairs, and a small table for P3,600, and two bedside tables for P400. The side tables were on sale, buy one, get one free, or as they say here, “Buy one, take one.” Can you imagine getting all that furniture for $130? So we were up to a little over P66,000, and things were looking better for the budget.

Next we went to a store called Vetafs. Here we bought too many things to list, but included were king-sized sheets and pillow cases, utensils, plates, cups, laundry and dish soap, reading lamps, and a whole lot of other stuff, all for about P13,000, or $275.

Then we crossed the street to the hardware store. Rafi was well known there, and went behind the counter to help. We bought tools, clothesline, hose for outdoors and the washing machine, pipe for shower curtain rod and laundry room rod, and a bunch of small things like screws and hooks. This came to about P5,000, or a little over a $100. And we were starting to get to the end of the list.

Then we went to lunch at a Chinese restaurant. We all had bird’s nest (or bird spittle) soup. Marcia had chicken curry, while the rest of us had chicken chop suey. Absolutely delicious. Even with drinks and a tip it was only around $15.

We went back to Vetafs to pick up a few more things that we realized we forgot the first time, then to the hardware store again for a piece of “marine plywood,” (less susceptible to the high humidity) to make some shelves.

Then we headed to the mattress store, where we got a foam mattress for P4,500, or around $100. All in all we came in at just under P100,000. I’m sure I forgot a few purchases so the numbers probably don’t add up perfectly, but in any case we bought an awful lot for around $2,000.

We headed back to the banca, less the appliance store things. It was fun watching the guys load up the back of the truck, especially the rattan furniture, but somehow they made it all fit. I told Rafi to tell the driver to take it easy going back, and he drove much slower.

The boat crew loaded everything on the banca. The bed went last, and was jammed under the roof and sticking slightly out the prow. I wish that we had taken a camera because it was something to see, and my explanation can’t do justice. Suffice it to say that these guys know how to get things from the mainland to the island.

At the shore, around 5:00 and a little more than a half hour to sunset, we were greeted by three vehicles and enough helpers that everything was in the house soon after dark. One thing we had failed to take into consideration; the headboard of the bed was three or four inches taller than the width of our hallway. No way was that bed going to get to the bedroom without major surgery. With nothing more to do, everyone left.

I offered to buy beers for all the helpers at the MacArthur Café, and soon after Marcia and I arrived and ordered dinner, the guys started showing up. I pulled out a P100 note and bought 20 coins for the karaoke machine. Soon we were all drinking beer and listening to renditions of the island’s favorite songs, most of which are American, by the way.

Saturday morning found Rafi, Vicky, and two others at our house by about 7:00 AM, ready to get to work. They cut 4 inches off the bedposts. Each post is bamboo, about four inches across. Then the bed made it down the hall and through the door. During the next couple of hours they set up the refrigerator (which we won’t use until we’re on solar because running a generator 24/7 is cost-prohibitive), the stove, and the washing machine. They put up hooks, rods for laundry and shower curtain, and just kept working until everything we needed was done. I never would have believed so much could be accomplished in such a short time from Friday morning till around 10:00 Saturday morning.

A note about laundry here. Although you can buy a standard washer and dryer, electric dryers consume a whole lot of energy. (The Philippines runs on 220 power like most of the rest of the world outside the US and Canada.) So what most people do is buy a washer and spinner. The washer is filled manually via a tap like an outside tap for a garden hose. The water is air temperature unless you heat some. After the clothes are washed, they are transferred to a spinner, or centrifuge, which gets most of the water out. Then they go back into the washtub to rinse, and then a final spin. The water drains out onto the floor and down a floor drain, so the whole laundry room floor gets washed along with the clothes. Then the clothes are hung out to dry. So it’s more work by far than what we are used to. But it is affordable, and the clothes come out very clean.

So thanks to Rafi and Vicky and the rest of the crew for an exceptional job. They do not expect to be compensated beyond their normal pay, so all we can do is say thanks and offer the occasional free beer party.

Of course we are thinking of little things that we need, some of which we forgot and some of which we just thought of. Living on the island is SO different from what we are used to that we are going to constantly have to adjust. It’s hard to say if things are what we expected, since we expected a lot of unexpecteds. But the challenges are being met and the island people are so nice that we will make it through.

Two final notes. Friday was our son Nick and daughter-in-law Carrie’s 10th anniversary. They are such a wonderful couple with five great kids and we are so proud of them.

Also, Saturday was the date of the Michigan-Michigan State football game. I told Nick that if State wins to send me a DVD of the game. If they lose I don’t want to know about it. Ah, life without television. As the old Simon and Garfunkel song said, “I get all the news I need on the weather report.”

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Arriving on Corregidor

We arrived yesterday morning and the day was beautiful weather-wise. It is not furnished, so we are sleeping on mattresses on the floor, like we did our last two weeks in our old house. We have a diesel generator and are awaiting solar. Right now we are using Internet service at the Corregidor Inn, which is slow so this note will be short.

We have been treated very well and expect to really enjoy ourselves in this Paradise. Last night we had squid for dinner. Not bad. We slept in the dark and negotiated with flashlights, as the generator is too expensive to use all the time. At night the sounds of the frogs and whatever else inhabits the jungle kept up a steady purr. This morning we woke up a dawn to the sounds of roosters and monkeys screeching at each other. We went to the shore to pick up our new (used) diesel Nissan jeep.

Anyway, we are safe and settling and we will now be able to pre-type our notes so that we can send more.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Getting ready to leave civilization

Today was the last of eight straight days in Manila getting prepared for our move to Corregidor. Nothing special to report, mostly had to wait because no boat ran there today.

Tomorrow we get on board the ferry and leave civilization. Well, to be honest, Corregidor is civilized, but it is a different world from anything here in Manila or the States. "The Rock" is a tadpole-shaped crown of a dormant volcano at the mouth of Manila Bay. To the northeast is technically the bay, to the southwest is the South China Sea, which is part of the Pacific Ocean. The water is always warm and swimmable. Occasionally a shark fin can be seen from shore, but swimming is basically safe. Marcia was stung by a jellyfish in 2007. You are never much more than about 1/2 mile from the water anywhere on the island.

The head of the island is west, on the Bataan side. The crown is called Topside and is about 630 feet above sea level at the peak. So you can see that the road up must be rather steep. In fact it winds around, as did the old trolley line, parts of which are still visible. Going towards the tail (east) is Middleside. This is where we will live, at approximately 400 feet. We will be isolated as no one else lives up there except possibly an occasional security guard may spend the night. Next is Bottomside, which is about 1/4 mile across. To the south is the "Navy Side," to the north the "Army Side." Between is the Corregidor Inn, with its 20 or so rustic rooms. Proceeding east is the tail, which begins with Malinta Hill and its marvelous tunnel, and eventually you get to the airstrip. If you go to Google Earth you can start at Manila and head southwest 26 miles til you find Corregidor.

We hope to have Internet right away, since we bought a gizmo that plugs into the USB port and uses the phone tower on the island. We are told that it is slow speed, so we are not expecting much. But the cost is only about 10 cents every 15 minutes. So you may or may not get an update from us tomorrow. Here's keeping our fingers crossed. We do not know what we are going to do for food in the short term, and even the long term is somewhat questionable. We do know that the workers on the island eat, so we will too. There is a coop on the island which has a few staples such as rice and sugar. A boat goes across to Bataan a couple of times a day and the owner takes orders for food. We have never seen the boat but I guess we'll get to know the guy pretty well.

We are planning to go to Bataan to buy the furnishings for the house, which is bare except for some plumbing fixtures right now. Oh, yeah, 2 or 3 fans. Anyway, as soon as we get a bed we'll at least be able to sleep there, and the water is always available from the outside water tank, so we can wash and shower. Hopefully we will get word soon on our solar system and get that project underway. We will have a generator but that will get expensive fast.

Anyway, despite the mild trepidation, we really are looking forward to settling in our new home and helping around the island. Steve's father thought it was a paradise, and it's easy to see why. The beautiful flowers, the palm trees, the beaches, the quietness, the occasional typhoon and earthquake, what wonderful things to look forward to. We hope to be back tomorrow night to give you our impressions of the first day.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

We see start to get familiar with Manila

Metro Manila is somewhere around the 10th most populated city in the world. First is Tokyo, where we spent three hours on the ground at the International Terminal of Narita Airport, which services it. In a way it's like being in any other international terminal, you see a mix of nationalities and the signs are in Japanese, Chinese, and English, much like Detroit. We're hoping to experience the real Japan someday.

Even though we've been to Manila a half dozen times before, we never believe the traffic. Cars weave in and out with buses, trucks, bicycles, and pedestrians in such a way that would kill Americans left and right. Lane lines are only suggestions, and the first one to an open spot wins. No one gets mad. Horns are constant. But you get there, eventually.

Tuesday we started our application for the extended visa program, which is a retirement in the Philippines thing. We had to go all over the place to fulfill various requirements, including getting health exams. Friday we hope to finalize this. Once we are covered we can stay for up to a year at a time without the hassles and expense of getting visas renewed all the time. We spent our time in Makati, the business district of Manila. There are two or more banks on every block, often the same type, especially BDO (Banco de Oro.) There are Chinese, Korean, you name it types of banks in Makati. It's like a different country from where we are staying in Manila proper.

Today we bought a vehicle for Corregidor, a Nissan diesel Jeep-type. It has no doors, so to speak, and the windows are flaps like a tent. Great for getting around, though. Cost: 155,000 Philippine pesos. At 47 pesos to the dollar, you can figure it out if you wish. Tonight we had dinner at Robinson's Mall, a four-story shopping center that is beyond description, but we may attempt it in another email. We also got our cell phone.

Monday, October 13, 2008

"Steve and Marcia's Excellent Adventure" begins with a "Great Escape"

Our adventures began even before we arrived in the Philippines.

Two weeks ago we had an auction and sold almost everything we owned, including our Buick Le Sabre which was primarily Marcia's car. The remainder we divided into what we could take with us in four suitcases and a few things that we would store at our son Nick's house.

On Friday morning we packed up the last of our belongings, locked up the house, and headed for Nick's workplace in Jackson, Michigan, for lunch. We then headed out of town for Nick's. Ironically, being unfamiliar with its maze of one-way and interwoven streets, I almost ran a stop sign in the middle of town.

We then headed toward Gregory, our new home away from home. We were traveling east at the speed limit of 55 mph on a moderately traveled two-lane state highway. Suddenly I heard Marcia say, "Lord, have mercy!" and simultaneously I heard a bang on the right side of the car. We spun around, and I thought we were going to flip. In fact all that happened was that we gently slid backward into a soy bean field and came to a stop.

My first thought was to make sure Marcia was okay, and then, "This is going to screw up our trip on Sunday." We got out of the car and saw that a number of people had stopped. Our car, with back seat and trunk packed full, sustained damage to the back passenger side, including the door which wouldn't open. The trunk was skewed, and the rear axle was slightly bent, but the car appeared drivable as long as the tires, which were jammed with grass, didn't deflate.

The driver of the large Ford pickup which hit us approached to make sure we were alright. He apologized profusely for not seeing the stop sign until it was too late. He said that he was going around 50 mph, looked down at his seat for something, and when he looked up he was already almost in the intersection. He was able to swing the truck to his right, and thus it hit our car with its front left bumper instead of straight on. He had a two way radio, and called for the police. They were in no hurry, once they heard there were no injuries.

Two women who were traveling westbound (towards us) stopped and told us what they had seen. The intersection was such that visibility from our direction was essentially non-existent, since there a hill with a cornfield planted right up to the road. From the women's direction, however, they could see that the pickup was not going to stop and were prepared to be hit at full speed until our car intervened. They said that we saved their lives, and I'm not sure they were exaggerating. A volunteer fireman who stopped to check on us said, "God was with you."

When the sheriff arrived he said that almost all accidents that occur at more than 45 mph involve fatalities. All three of us were unharmed. However, if timing had been different by less than one tenth of a second, there certainly would have been serious if not fatal results. Because he hit us just behind the center of the car, he swung us off the road to the right. A split second sooner and he would have pushed us into oncoming traffic and we would have had a minimum of three vehicles and five people involved. A split second later and he would have swung our back end around, again involving all three vehicles. And of course if he had missed us on either side the results would have been much worse for him and the women.

Because the car is a 2000 Park Avenue with over 150,000 miles, it is probably a total loss. We won't find that out until after we reach Manila, after Nick gets the estimate. Amazingly, we were able to drive the car to Nick's without trouble, despite the steering wheel being cockeyed, reinforcing my feeling that driving a big car has its advantages in a crunch.

Like my pedestrian accident of four years ago, where one second either way would have saved me from a brain injury and missing a year of work, things like this make you think about how life is so uncertain. Every day is a gift from God. We are very grateful, and realize that all of our plans for our retirement, less than one week old, could have come, literally, to a crashing halt.

Tomorrow, God willing, we head out to the Philippines, to continue our excellent adventure.