Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Down the gangplank to Sabang Beach...

I considered saving some bucks by taking the bus to the Batangas Pier, the pier being where ferries and Bangka boats ply back and forth to and from Mindoro, primarily to the Puerto Galera landings, such as White Beach, Sabang and PG itself. Eventually, I may try using public transport but not this time. Taking the bus would mean catching two different buses: the first from Angeles to Manila, and then a second one on to Batangas. The good thing is that the buses leave continually from both locations, at least every hour if not more often, but in the interest of safety and convenience, ehhhh, never mind.

My replacement credit card arrived on Friday and that was the last thing holding us up. We contacted our driver and told him to get a van and be at the house so we could be on the road at 5am. Turns out we should have left at 4am. That’s because by the time we got to where the highway goes through the Makati area of Metro Manila the traffic was bumper to bumper and mostly unmoving. We learned later that if we’d left an hour earlier we would have completely missed the traffic congestion in that part of Manila. Live and learn.

It didn’t help also that we’d stopped at McDonald’s for drive thru breakfast meals and coffee which took most of 20 minutes. On top of that, the driver mistakenly got off the South Luzon Expressway one exit too soon, and then took almost 45 minutes to figure out his mistake. Ehhhh!

One development that SAVED us some time on the road is that the Batangas Pier Expressway is now complete. It had been more than 4 years since my last trip to PG. It was a pleasant surprise to see that the Expressway goes all the way to the pier now. The last time I’d made the trip the hi-way had ended at Lipa City, which meant almost another hour of driving on a winding dangerous two-lane road through berg and barangay. The finished freeway between Batangas and Lipa City now only takes a few minutes to undertake. Now THAT’S the kind of progress that I can believe in.

By 9:45am our driver found a spot in the large parking lot in front of the pier terminal that acts as both long and short term parking. A portion of it is also set aside as the bus terminal. I believe the short term parking is prorated by the hour; I’m not sure of the rate but it’s not that expensive. I asked the attendant what overnight parking costs by the day in case I can talk my buddy into driving one of these days for another expedition. The attendant said the rate is 155 pesos a day. That’s not so bad either; depending on the peso rate that’s just under $3.50.

We made our way on foot to the terminal and were met by three or four “helpers.” These guys are okay. I didn’t select one; I always let my gal deal with that stuff, but she picked a pleasant fellow that helped us with our bags and took us to the best ticket booth; in other words, the one that would get us a ticket on the very next boat going to the exact beach that we wanted to go to. In our case we wanted to land at Sabang Beach, just around the corner from our hotel at Laguna Beach. I think we ended up giving him a couple bucks for his assistance—well worth it.

We waited inside the air-conditioned terminal for less than an hour when it was announced that our Bangka was ready to board. We paid another porter to take our bags and place them on the boat ahead of us. He also made sure we had three nice seats together saved and ready for us. We were amid ship on the starboard side for all you seafaring types.

These large diesel powered flat-bottomed wooden boats, each with a pair of bamboo outriggers to keep them from capsizing in rough seas, can probably carry 45 passengers, maybe more if they really cram folks in, but on this ride there were only maybe under 30 of us. And lucky passengers that we were, sitting right in front of us were three young ladies who decided to listen to some “urban music” at full volume on a tinny sounding little cell phone. After five minutes of that torture another foreigner sitting across from us on the other side of the inconsiderate trio soon had enough of the blaring crap. He got up and awkwardly clambered across a host of already seated passengers and stowed luggage moving to a seat all the way aft, as far as he could get away from them. He preferred diesel fumes over having to listen to the garbage those girls considered music.

I remarked to my fiance, “I don’t blame that guy one bit. Boy, it’s too bad how rude SOME people can be right? I mean it’s too bad they never learned any manners, you know?” They heard me, but now it was a matter of stubborn wounded pride to leave the music on and at full volume. They took turns glancing with hurt eyes over at me; each time I shook my head slightly and raised my eyebrows questioningly at them. Strategically, I already had my mp3 headset on anyway so that my REAL music completely drowned out any of the racket they were playing. I don’t go ANYWHERE these days without my mp3 and earplugs. It’s how I cope in this aurally foul world.

While all that guff was playing out one of the myriad boatmen continually called out as we settled in and waited to cast off, “Beer! Who wants Beer! Get you beer here!” He would call it out, wait a minute and then call it out again. It got irritating. I felt like I was back in Philly watching a baseball game—"Beer here! BEER!" I told my gal sarcastically, “You know, if he says it ten more times, I don’t think I’m going to be able to resist it. I’ll HAVE to buy a beer. He’s wearing me down Sweetie!”

Holding my hands out I began counting down with my fingers each time he yelled, “BEER!” One, two, three, four… “It’s happening Sweetie. I’m caving. Six more times and I WILL have a BEER!” Seven, eight, nine… I counted off his persistent sales attempts. She cracked up before I could get pinky number ten in the air grabbing both my hands. “You bolang! Stop that!” She ordered me to knock it off while giggling nervously at my antics. She’s always afraid I’m going to offend someone, and she’s right to worry. I listened to her and stopped. By that time I had already put on my mp3 to escape the acoustic rudeness of the three “pok pok girls.”

The word is that the seas in these parts have been extra choppy lately, especially for this time of the year, and that Sunday morning they definitely were. The skipper sat perched up high ten feet forward of us behind the steering wheel. I watched him maneuver as he craned his head to see outside. He was trying to maintain as much speed as he could without slamming us hard into the bottom of any extra roguish swells. Occasionally his timing would be bad and we’d bang roughly into the bottom of a trough, at which point he’d pull back on the throttle before gradually getting our speed back up again. Next thing I knew he was standing turned completely around in his seat with the throttles completely back and yelling and pointing furiously at a foreigner sitting on the other side of my fiancĂ©.

I took my earphones off just in time to hear him speak irately at the white-haired brush-cut old guy in faded jeans, “You want to do this!”

“Sure, you want me to steer?” the cantankerous old American replied.

I asked my companion, “What’s that all about?”

“Oh, the old man was complaining to the captain that he was going too fast.”

I shook my head. “Well, I wish the old bastard would mind his own business; and I wish the captain would ignore the crazy old coot. The captain shouldn’t be paying him any mind at all. He’s being unprofessional to say the least. So you know what? I think they both suck!” I didn’t say it loud enough for either of them to hear, but my girl nodded in agreement.

Forty minutes after leaving Batangas off the left front of the bow I was able to make out Sabang far across the whitecaps a couple miles off in the distance. Pointing at our destination I tapped Divine on the shoulder and told her we were almost there. I was surprised at how quickly the trip went. Fifteen minutes later, with boatmen at every step to guide and occasionally catch us, we landlubbers struggled to make our way across the slightly rolling deck to the bow end of the boat where we cheerfully and slowly made our way down the wooden gangplank to the sandy beach of Sabang. Our vacation had officially begun!

More to come…

Friday, April 23, 2010

TRYING to make it to Puerto Galera... BUT first...

We’ve been back from our five day escape to Puerto Galera for a week as of today. Even while I was still there, swimming with the fishes, I was already thinking about when we would return. Man I LOVE that place.

For a while though I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to make the trip happen. About two months ago the pain in my lower and middle back began to wander down into the inside of my left hip eventually causing a dull grinding ache in my gut down into my groin. It got me to thinking that maybe I had a lot more wrong with me than just degenerative disc disease, . . . . perhaps even the “big C.” . . . Gulp!

Back pain has been a part of my life for years now but various types of analgesics and braces have allowed me to at least get up and move around, almost like "normal" people do. Starting in January and February though, on occasion I would have to have to call in to the VFW service office where I still volunteer on a casual basis to tell the secretary that I wouldn’t be in. This would happen on days when my hip would feel too "iffy" to the point that I lost all confidence in my ability to safely support myself. It was horrible. I never thought I could get like that before I had even reached 55.

I discussed my almost unbearably painful condition with my fiancĂ© and she talked me into letting a masseur come over to work on me, my first reaction being that I would prefer a masseuse if at all possible. I made my playful request with cocked head, raised eyebrows and a grin hoping she’d “understand.” (chuckle) She laughed me off claiming that she ONLY knew of this one GUY, but not to worry, “HE'S very good!”

Turns out he’s a reflexoglogist who also incorporates full body massage techniques. Whatever he is, he IS good; and by the way, only charges about $9 per hour per house call. Twice a week for three weeks he came over and worked my back, my entire body actually, and it seemed to work pretty well. He pulled, pushed, kneaded, pressed, yanked, and rubbed; it was absolutely awesome. At least it allowed me to sleep without pain, something I hadn’t been able to do for months. Unfortunately, the soothing effects of the therapy did not last into the following day. Getting up the next morning, taking a shower was STILL a problem. . . . So now what?

As my new good friend Don from Texas likes to say, and I quote, “Bad news don’t get any better with time.” In other words, don’t put off doing what you need to do just because you fear you might not like the way it turns out, and sometimes, . . . Don is right.

Following my friend's suggestion I called Dr Quintos, my orthopedist. H he had me come in for x-rays the following day. The last time he’d looked at my spine on an x-ray was way back in ’02, just after I’d retired from the air force. Back then he noticed that my spine was straightened unnaturally at both the neck and lower back, probably from constant muscle spasms; and notably back then he noticed that my L4-L5 disc was desiccated. Oh what a difference 8 years makes! Now, I have a whole host of discs throughout my entire spine that are pretty much nonexistent, almost bone on bone, especially in the area where the “L’s” meet the “Ts.” I’m referring to lumbar and thoracic vertebrae.

Dr Q was very nonchalant as I described my symptoms, completely unsurprised that the pain was now deep down inside my hip and lower abdomen. He showed me where nerves and muscles from my damaged middle lower back go diagonally down my side attaching into a spot deep inside my hip. He told me reassuringly that the pain and its location were completely normal for my condition. So that was cool. “Normal” is always good, right?

He asked me what kind of pain meds I was on if any. I described the three or so that the VA is currently prescribing for my various aches and maladies. He nodded inquiring if I wanted to try something else. Without pause I shook my head vigorously and almost pleaded, “Yes! Please!”

Long story short, I took the new pain reliever designed for this kind of condition and within an hour I felt almost completely “normal.” (Ahhh, I ADORE that word!) It was like a miracle. I looked it up online and asked my pharmacist brother about it---it’s called Arcoxia. Turns out it’s in the same family as Vioxx, a pain med that I used to take with similar great success 8 years ago until all the negative furor took it out of American pharmacies. It also turns out that Arcoxia is not legal to be sold in the US, probably because of the class action lawsuits that cost Merck hundreds of millions for the similarly working Vioxx. All I can say about Arcoxia is “Works good; lasts long time!”

With my back pain under control I began to get excited again about going to Puerto Galera. The trip was on! We were out of here within the week, . . . or so I thought. Our travel plans went on hold once again when I went online to do a routine check of my bank and credit card accounts. My heart skipped and huge beads of sweat popped out all over my forehead when I noticed that my credit card was showing a brand new $7000 balance! What! No WAY!

There were three separate charges amounting to the 7 grand, all to some supposed public relations firm, each with an additional overseas processing fee. Immediately I refuted the charges and sent a strongly worded email to USAA, my stateside bank, telling them in a semi-hysterical manner that in no way shape or manner did I EVER make those charges. To its credit, USAA responded within an hour with a reassuring email that they would refer the charges to their fraud department. In two days all the money was returned to my credit card balance. But now I had no credit card! I needed it to go on my trip! Blast it!

I ordered a replacement card, paying an extra 8 dollars to have the card sent expedited; but living overseas that means the “expedited” mail gets here in a week or so instead of the usual two or three weeks or so. Usually I only check my mail once a week, but that week I went down to the mailroom every day until it arrived about 8 days after I had ordered it. That was on Friday; we left for PG on Sunday.

At last we were on our way. . .

Sunday, April 18, 2010

FREE at last

Something catastrophic happened here to one of my “new” family members that completely put me off my blogging even as I was already losing steam with it. It was something so horrendous that it just seemed to collapse me from the inside; took the heart right out of me. Maybe I’ll speak of it soon; I don’t know. If I write about it there’s a possibility that it could affect me in a very negative (dangerous) way, so I’ll have to consider carefully if and how I do it. As usual, there’s more to this place than meets the eye. One has to be very careful. The locals KNOW this instinctively; foreigners have to learn it, usually the hard way.

On a different note, as of the end of last year I am no longer a certified service officer for the VFW. I still assist and advise my successor on a small scale basis, but I can no longer sign forms for claimants, or make decisions for them, nor can I go into the embassy and review their case files or represent them during Board of Veterans Appeals hearings. After 7 years it’s a huge relief to have all of that behind me—again (I had “quit” once before for about a year). The responsibility was more than I wanted to continue to bear. I’m not sure how much longer my very capable replacement will be able to hang in there, but my loyalty to him and my deep respect for his integrity and altruistic devotion to duty keeps me hanging in there as his little helper bee.

Anyway, now that I’m free at last I want to enjoy being retired while I'm still able. Life is short, a phrase that I've used for years, but its taken on REAL meaning as I realize that I ONLY have a couple of decades left (if I'm lucky). For any younger people who happen to read this, believe me, old age sneaks up on your ass.

Aside from looking in the mirror and seeing the deepening lines, the thinning hair, and the bulging waist, it's been my experience with helping other “old veterans” (guys only a little more advanced than myself) that has shown me that health can be an iffy thing. From them I've seen that you never know when the body will just decide to crap out on you. It seems we are all filled with ticking time bombs; whether it be cancer, a heart attack, or some deadly or lingeringly pernicious disease. Or, getting back to the first paragraph of this post, the end could come from just being shot down in the street like a dog.

Anyway, Vietnam War veteran Buck comes to mind for instance. I played golf with him (or pretended to) for the first year or so after leaving the service. I did so weekly with this air force retiree, a happy go lucky fellow in his late 50s; a gregarious man some dozen or so years older than me. He played 3 or more times a week, something I could never do with my set of restrictive afflictions; so seemingly, he was stronger and in better shape than me. Alas, we had a falling out, more of a clash of personalities you could say, and we stopped playing together. A few years later I learned that this robustly active man had a massive stroke and was suddenly confined to his bedroom, unable to walk and hardly able to speak or feed himself. Within a year a subsequent series of “cerebral vascular accidents” took him further down and finally killed him. There wasn't much left of the original golf playing Buck by that time anyway. At the end he no longer resembled the vibrantly stalwart wise-cracking fellow that I had first met not long before.

Sigh. He never saw it coming. It could happen to you and it can certainly happen to me. It’s a crap shoot. And he's just ONE of many I've seen come and go since my arrival in this place. The lucky ones are those that go out like my friend, army veteran George. He died practically on his feet by way of a massive heart attack or aneurism. Bang. Gone. Feeling queasy, he leaned over to splash water on his face in the sink. He closed his eyes to do so and never opened them again. Geez, I have many more examples but I think the point is made. I'm already depressed enough as it is.

So, with that bit of morose observation presented let’s just say that I want to experience some of the good things that this life has to offer before it’s my turn to go down. Pursuant to that ambition we headed south for almost a week for one of my favorite places in the world—Puerto Galera. I'll write that post next. Pictures too! Including bikinis. Don't worry; I'm not the one wearing them. See you then....