Monday, September 16, 2013

Colorado Flood Update

Many friends from outside the area have inquired how we've fared through the recent disaster in Colorado.  Here's an update:

Our current place (rental) is fine, though the property we're building on was decimated pretty badly (it's about 2 miles from where we presently live, next to a lake on the St Vrain river).  The river is normally 20-30 feet wide and 1-2 feet deep.  I could have waded across it no problem a week ago.  It was 200-500yds wide when we saw it a few days ago (no typo there).  The shot below is our lake, but it's connected now to the river and the next lake over.  The water continues for hundreds of yards to the right side of the frame.  Utterly amazing.

Here's the sign to our neighborhood.  Irony is we just changed the street name from Dougla Drive to Waterside Ln.  How appropriate.

This guy tried to go around the road barriers.  Bad idea.  Fire department got their engine stuck trying to save him.  He gets a Darwin award for being an idiot.

The pool area (which is lower and inside the flood plain), looked like this only a week ago:

And here's the same location a couple days ago:

There's a 100-200yd section of road that's completely gone (new river channel) in front of our new neighborhood, as well as the road into our neighborhood, so it's going to slow us down for construction of our new home up there (we had just broken ground a month ago).  Good news is our homesite was safe.

The town in general is in pretty dire straights.  Two of our three water mains are out, and we're on a mandatory boil order for what's left because they can't confirm it's safe.  There's well over 100 miles of roads in our county alone that are closed or destroyed.  Cities to the north (near Greeley) have their sewer systems completely out and are on a "no flush" order.  We are much more fortunate.  The city 10 miles up the road (Longmont) is just destroyed in places.  Here's a link to an aerial view from a couple days ago (yesterday--Sunday--made things far worse).

And here's the fire department yesterday:

There's over 17,000 homes damaged in the area, and the flooding has covered thousands of square miles.  It's just mind boggling.  Over 1000 people need to be airlifted to safety from the mountains, but no one could fly yesterday because it was raining (again) so hard.  The incident commander said it was the largest airlift in the country since Katrina.  Truly unprecedented in this part of the country.

Finally, today we're supposed to be out of the worst of the rain, and the forecast is to get warmer throughout the week.  Since we're fortunate to not be too affected personally, we're drinking only bottled water and helping out our neighbors as they clean out the mess.

It will be many months before we can get this all put back together, but we're very blessed that we weren't affected more personally.

I haven't seen anything like this since my years overseas in the Philippines following the volcanic disaster in the 90's.  It's unreal.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Walmart Bingo

I took my 8-year old on a date tonight and she chose for her activity--wait for it--Walmart Bingo. She found bingo cards online and after our dinner, we commenced the hunt. The items on the card were mostly outrageous and not likely to find (including "bearded woman"), though not outside the realm of possibility; the "someone buying beer and diapers" came pretty close. Here, however, were some delightful finds I did manage to pick up, even if not on the bingo card:

  • Teenage girl in PJ's
  • Dude with "Shh, this is my hangover shirt" t-shirt
  • Dude with one eye
  • Dude with a mohawk and a mouth full of chew
  • Guy buying worms
  • Guy with a full 1-1/2" gauge in his ear, plus more jewelry on his lips.  He looked like livestock
  • Broken bottles on the floor in the drink aisle
  • Mormon missionaries.  Maybe they broke the drinks!  Luckily they were missing the facial jewelry.  Phew.
  • A girl playing (successfully) with 3 hoola hoops at the same time
  •    ^^^My kid^^^
  • A large number of people on scooters
  • A large number of "persons of size"
  • And...
  • A cashier who could not count my change
Not bad for a 20-minute roundup!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Philippines - Final Thoughts

This is entry #15.

Link to entry #14.
Jolayne is also chronicling our trip here.

Final Thoughts.

What an amazing journey we had!  This was a life-defining event for both me personally and also for my family.  As I've now had several months to consider the experience as a whole, I do regret that we were immediately thrown into the chaos and stress of moving once we returned home; I didn't really get to bask in the experience the way I'd hoped.  However, I am grateful for the time I spent noting and writing down the things that happened on this trip.  My journal entries are long and perhaps too detailed.  But I've learned from previous trips that the details and vividness of the experience tends to wear with time, so I'm hoping to keep as much of this as I can.

My favorite joke was "How many people can you fit on a jeepney?"  Answer: "Isa pa, isa pa!"  (One more, one more!)  Here's a fun clip I put together on our orphanage visit to prove the point:

More seriously, my Heavenly Father's hand prints were all over our trip, from beginning to end.  This journey was what I've come to refer to as a classroom experience for our family in seeing the hand of the Lord so visibly in our lives.  I can't remember another time where we shared so many experiences clearly showing us how intimately involved He is in the details of our lives.  Truly He knows who each of us are, the nuances of our lives.  It's served to strengthen my faith and focus my efforts.  And although it's a completely different story more appropriate for another time, I've also learned that this classroom experience was given to us to help us learn and trust prior to the next phase of our life, moving away from the home we had loved. We have since been asked to exercise faith and put the things we learned into action by stepping into the darkness, only to see that there's a lit path for a few more paces.  It's been a transforming experience.  A few examples:
  • Setting the itinerary.  You wouldn't think it would be that hard to match up reward tickets with cheap tickets so we could all travel on the same flights.  It was.  It took many hours, but I managed to find one single itinerary that would keep us all together, allow us to use my mileage points, and still keep the rest of things affordable.  That wasn't an accident.
  • Arranging for pick-up from Clark airport.  Having someone we'd never met so readily agree to pick us up at midnight and drive us an hour to our hotel for no charge at all was another tender mercy.  How we found him was even more so.
  • Finding my way directly to De Ocera's home after so many years.  With no difficulty whatsoever, on our first morning in the country, we were able to take a jeep right to the correct corner and then make our way to Normita's home like I'd been there just recently.  I hadn't.
  • Visiting with people I'd not seen or spoken to in many years and falling right back into familiar relationships.  What was especially touching was being an mouthpiece of sorts in God's hands to tell them that He knew of their circumstances and loved them.  I said those words only after feeling impressed strongly that's what the Lord wanted me to say, and the tingling sensation on the back of my neck confirmed as I shared.  Traveling so far to share that message with a few select people was by itself a spiritual and rewarding experience.  I knew when we set out on this experience that there would be someone (or more) whose lives we would specifically touch in a personal way as Heavenly Father reached out to answer their prayers.  I can say now that I know of two families to whom that happened.  One was the Garcias and the other was Armida De Ocera Emita.
  • Searching for our rented-house-in-a-rice-field and stopping at the exact right turnoff on a dark and dimly lit road when coming from the wrong direction.  We found it exactly, on the first try.
  • Making just the right buses in order to get to the airport on time over a very long journey from Zambales
  • Finding my iPad!

As the trip concluded, here's a few of my other thoughts that really stand out:

  • The Filipino people so rarely meet their potential.  It's not something I say lightly or as any form of disrespect for the people whom I love dearly.  It's just a sad fact.  Individually there are so many pioneers, so many people who triumph above their circumstances and surroundings. It's amazing, incredible even.  And yet, as a people, they continue to suffer in much the same way year after year.  Much has changed between my two visits over nearly 20 years, and yet much is exactly the same.  I bet that will also be true in another 20 years.
  • We are more blessed than we ever realize.  The trip truly showed us just how blessed we are.  I don't mean that as a trite cliche, though it often sounds that way.  It also makes me wonder what I've done, though, to have such a different station in life than so many of the people that I've met.  In those quiet moments of personal reflection, that can still be a difficult thing to reconcile.
  • Boracay is a tale of two worlds.  How strange it was to see four- and five-star resorts right next to shanties where families lived hand to mouth and barely got by.  We all certainly live with much, much more than we really need.  We grow to expect it, though we shouldn't.
  • Corruption controls too much of this world.  For example, our driver Jun's getting pulled over after dropping us off in Manila; the officer simply expected to be paid off to make the problem go away.
  • Getting back to Korea was an immediate breath of fresh air (both literally and figuratively) by being back in a developed country with clean drinking water and other things we often have taken for granted.  It wasn't that I was glad to have left the Philippines; that wasn't it at all.  It was just a vivid contrast we experienced upon leaving.
  • My family did a great job in a very foreign place, but I know they were ready to come home.  For a first international experience I really put them through the wringer; they rode nearly every form of transportation: airplanes big and small, jeepneys, vans (rented and private), countless trikes, bangkas (boats) big and small, paraw (sailboats), buses (airCon), and many miles on foot.  I'm proud of them for taking it all in stride.
  • My kids travel well.  It makes me proud as a travel-loving dad to know that my kids share in that love as well.  We did incredibly well as a family and everyone pulled their own weight.  This isn't a trip we could have done a few years ago, but even when it was hot and hard, my girls pulled through very well.  I was impressed.  On balance, however, I had hoped my youngest would be more willing to eat new foods and that my other girls would be more willing to engage fully with the people they met.  They were undoubtedly perceived as a little standoffish, which I had hoped would not be the case.  That said, my kids each did some great things:

    • Kristen made friends everywhere she went.  She was just so willing to accept kids and she wound up with some great friends.  As a result, she became the star of sorts as she crossed cultural boundaries to have fun the way kids do.
    • Misha has an affinity for learning languages.  Tagalog lessons were a drag for most of the family, but Misha enjoyed learning.  Her mind understood things quickly and she and I shared a special bond with Tagalog.
    • Amy really jumped in at the orphanage.  She has a gift with young kids, and they recognized that almost immediately.  I believe that experience has touched her in perhaps a more meaningful way than she has shared with us.
  • The toys we took were a great idea.  They really helped to spread joy to the kids we met.  They weren't super expensive or ornate, but they were a great way for my kids to share experiences with other kids who didn't fully speak their language.  I'd definitely do it again.  The Oriental Trading Company was a great place to get stuff.
  • Our fundraising efforts touched me.  The generosity of friends and family brought Jolayne and me to tears on more than one occasion.  With those funds we were able to touch the lives of specific people.  And while it can be hard to make any sort of meaningful difference in a place where there are so many needs, I'm convinced we made a difference in select lives.  Normita told me after we returned home that she had been praying for a way to help her people.  She knew it was beyond her own ability to do much, but that was shortly before we got back in touch and set things in motion.  As a result, a number of students are able to attend school who would otherwise not be able to do so.  And there are funds remaining to help these students in the future as well.  Making a difference one person at a time is the way the Savior served, and it feels great.
  • We now have cousins 15 time zones away from our part of the world.  It was such a touching experience to see my kids and the De Ocera kids laughing and playing like the longtime friends/family they weren't.  I believe in kindred spirits and that some of us knew each other before we came to Earth.
I hope to return to the Philippines again in a few years, and to again share in a joyful reunion with my Filipino family.  Until then, I am intensely grateful for this experience and what it has taught me, for the way it has enriched my life, and how it has touched others.  Truly God knows us and loves us.  He is aware of the minute details in our lives.  We have only to look to see His love and involvement in each day.

Philippines - Day 12 (Traveling/Korea)

This is entry #14.

Link to entry #13.
Jolayne is also chronicling our trip here.

Day 12-13.  Wednesday, April 10th.

Day 12 picked up exactly where day 11 left off; it's all part of the same thing.  Our flight from Manila wound up leaving almost an hour late, but it was no big deal.  We boarded a new A330 about 1230am and pretty much all immediately fell asleep.  The plane was very quiet, and none of us touched the food we were served; Kristen probably slept the best and Amy the worst since she was sitting next to another guy that kept bumping her.  It's funny about personal space on airplanes.  Things you'd never do in public normally are all-of-a-sudden common and acceptable when confined on a plane: touching, rubbing, all sorts of awkward.  The flight was about 3 hours was all, and before we knew it we were landing back in Incheon/Seoul.  We took off at 82 degrees (+humidity) and landed to 32 degrees.  We'd taken time in Manila to pool all the things we'd need into a single bag, including pants, sweaters, etc.  ...or so we thought.  Turns out we didn't bring any thing for Kristen.  Poor thing was freezing from the time we got off the plane.  She wound up using my sweatshirt and Jolayne's pants all cinched up the rest of our time in Korea. My cute little white-trash kid.

By the time we deplaned at about 5am and figured out the right way to register for a transit tour and also make it back up to the Asiana Lounge, the sun was coming up.  My poor kids were just exhausted. They collapsed on the middle of the floor on the concourse and immediately fell asleep while I sorted out what to do next.  

We wound up having breakfast (light) in the lounge, charging ipods, and waiting for a few hours for our transit tour time. The kids tried to sleep, but I don't think anyone besides Amy got any shut-eye.  Jo and I showered; it was a nice facility.  Having access to the lounges has certainly made the trip easier.  We've really enjoyed my gold status this year, and it makes me really consider whether to move my miles away from Southwest since traveling internationally seems to be something we're more interested in now.  We've visited many of the places in the western US already, and even though I can more readily get credit on Southwest, the cost of flying overseas might mean a change is afoot.  With my dad retiring next year anyway, and since Southwest has lost some of its original Spirit, moving to United might not be as terrible as I've long thought (the mainline United folks are not very pleasant by and large.)

After leaving the lounge we went through immigration and got our 3rd stamp in our passports for the trip.  We were officially in Korea!  The kids were much more excited about the passport stamps than they were about the place itself.  Funny.  We waited another 30 min or so after finding the gathering point for our tour, which was to take 5 hours.  By this time we seemed to have regained some of our steam.

There were about 20 people on the tour.  The airline provided either a transit hotel or a day tour to the city as part of the 12-hour layover.  Nice stuff.  But since 3 of our tickets were rewards, they didn't qualify.  So I paid for 3 additional transit tours back in LA at $60/each.  $180 was pretty spendy even for all 5 of us, but it was a good way to see a country I otherwise knew nothing about.  We all boarded a bus and were on our way about 930a.

We had three destinations.  It's about an hour's drive from Incheon into Seoul, and we tried to enjoy the landscape, but we soon were all dozing; it was just too hard to stay awake after only a couple hour's sleep. 

Korea isn't a huge place, and the weather seemed to mirror what we had at home in Colorado; it was a stark contrast to what we'd experienced with the extreme heat in the Philippines.  It was definitely still late winter in this part of the world.  South Korea is home to about 50 million people and is approximately the size of Kentucky.  The country shares the well publicized DMZ with North Korea, and tensions were running extremely high during our visit, with threats of attack from the North flooding CNN just prior to our getting on the plane in Manila.  Of course, nothing happened, and I didn't even notice any sort of elevated threat or nerves once we arrived in South Korea.  From what I can tell, they've spent pretty much the entire last 60 years with the threat of attack and annihilation on a daily basis, so when some crazy dude goes on TV and says he's going to attack you, it's not really any big deal.  

Compared to the Philippines, we were immediately taken with just how clean and orderly everything was.  It was another stark difference from the rest of our journey.  When we first got off the plane and saw a drinking fountain with the words "purified drinking water" on it, we were taken back at what an amazing thing it is to simple have reliable, clean water to drink any time we wanted.  Wow, the things we take for granted.

Our first stop was to Cheongwadae Sarangchae (don't ask me to pronounce it), a museum and welcome center.  It was a good choice since it gave a good, quick overview of what the country was all about.  We didn't have a ton of time there, but we were able to learn a little about the country and even Seoul itself. 

Next, we walked to the nearby Blue House  the presidential palace.  As it was described to us: "You Americans have the White House, we Koreans have the Blue House."  Though we weren't permitted to get very close, I have to say the architecture of the Blue House (it's actually a complex of buildings) was more impressive than what I've seen at the White House.  As we were taking pictures of the places, our guide suggested that instead of saying "cheese" we instead say "kimchee", which is a sort of national food there.  I tried Kimchi on the plane ride over and wasn't overly impressed, but then I didn't have high hopes for fermented cabbage anyhow.  According to Wikipedia, the veggies often ferment underground for months at a time.  Mmmmmmm.

As we were gathered in front of the Blue House, we saw cops on rollerblades.  First time I've seen that form of transport for law enforcement.  It was picture worthy.  They weren't armed that I could tell (and since they were in super-spandex outfits, I could see a lot!  By this time it was late morning but the temps were still in the 40's.  We were chilled, especially since we weren't exactly dressed for it.

Next, it was a short bus ride to a Buddhist Temple.  When we disembarked in front of a post office with a sign showing PSY stamps, my girls broke out into Gagnam Style dancing.  I got out the music on my phone and we had a good laugh at them doing the horse-riding dance in the homeland.  

Over at the temple, we arrived just towards the end of a very crowded worship service.  Everyone took off their shoes prior to entering the temple.  The kids had never seen anything like it, and it was really interesting to see a form of worship so entirely different to what we knew.  We were permitted inside, but there was a strict no-pictures rule.  I had my camera around my neck, and although I didn't attempt to take any pix, I did manage some stern looks from a number of tiny Korean grandmas.  Speaking of grandmas, this place was absolutely full of them!  There were a couple hundred four-foot-nuttin Korean ladies, all dressed similarly and who were EXTREMELY pushy once the worship service let out.  Wow.  Personal space was nonexistent.  Still, it was really cool to see something so authentic.

Outside the temple was a small open-air market under a plaza adorned in thousands of colorful lanterns.  It was really pretty.

We were next ushered quickly back onto the bus (none of our stops was more than about 30 minutes) and taken through the downtown core area.  It wasn't nearly as busy or congested as I'd imagined (and it was the middle of a weekday morning).  I enjoyed seeing the area and yet not having to worry about the fuss of figuring out how/where to get everywhere.  But still, I much preferred our immersive experience in the Philippines, where we saw so much more of the country than a simple view from a bus window.

Our next stop was for lunch.  We stopped at a traditional Korean restaurant, near the American Army base in the city, Yongsan Garrison  there was a sizable American presence in the neighborhood.  Our restaurant was in the basement of a commerce building, and we were treated to Korean barbeque; it was the first time the kids had seen a cook-it-yourself stove built into the table.  It was yummy, and I have no idea about half of what I ate, though I know we had kimchee (cole-slaw like cabbage) in there somewhere.  We had about 30 min for lunch and we were the last ones out.  Felt like the hosts were laughing at our naivity in how to eat korean food, but no one showed us how it works, and I can only remember one other time having it in recent years.  In reality, they likely weren't paying any attention to us as I think they get the transit-tour folks coming through every day (not a bad gig).  We were charged $3/ea for tiny sodas; no bargain.

Our last stop was then down the road a few blocks to do about 30 min of shopping for small souvenirs.  Kristen was the only one who found something, and she came home with a pretty collapsing fan.  It was starting to rain, and even though most shops in this district readily took American Dollars (at a premium, of course), we just didn't have enough time to find anything worthwhile for the other girls.  Of course I got an earful about how unfair that was; yep, add it to my bad-parent list.

We then headed back towards the airport, an hour's drive.  While I wanted to stay awake and capture the sights passing us by, we were all so tired from the long journey we all dozed throughout the ride.  We were so very tired, but we made it through the day well, and enjoyed our short time (but extended layover) in Korea.  

Our day in Korea was interesting and informative; it was a great way to pass some time on a long layover.

After disembarking the bus we were quickly back through security and picked up the 4th stamp in our passports.  The Incheon airport really is an amazing place; super nice.  We still had some time to kill, so we went back up into the lounge to pick up our bags, charge iPods for another 45 min and grab more Sprite (at least for the kids, who used the trip as carte blanche to drink as much soda as they liked).

By this time my stomach was pretty upset.  We'd managed to make it all the way through the trip without any illnesses at all, which was amazing.  But I must have eaten something that morning (or perhaps at lunch) that didn't agree, and by this time I started popping the pills we'd brought.

We then made our way down to the gate, stopping briefly along the way to let Amy look for souvenirs.  There were none that weren't terribly overpriced; most of the offerings were duty-free and very expensive.  I recall reading somewhere than Incheon is the only airport in the world with a Louis Vitton store in it; just a little beyond our price point.  Amy was ticked that she didn't get a Korean souvenir and Kristen did.  Oh well.  Guess we all know which child I love more (inside joke with my kids!)

The crowd in our gate area was as diverse as any I'd seen on the trip.  People from the Middle East, India, and many from east Asia.  We went through several more security checks and had our water bottles from the lounge confiscated.  Boo.  We got to board first because of my status, and we had the back half of the plane nearly to ourselves for some time.  Finally they called the zone that represented that portion of the plane and it quickly filled with a raucous crowd of Chinese, Vietnamese, and others, who were nearly yelling, moving from chair to chair, and generally causing a stir.  It was an absolute goat rodeo and continued right up until the time the plane pushed back.  In fact, as the plane began to taxi, there were still a half dozen who were up and active, switching seats, moving bags, and even appearing to argue with flight attendants.  I thought it was pretty entertaining, really.  The flight left on time at about 4:30pm Wednesday.

The best news was that of only a handful of empty seats on the plane, we got one next to us!  Yay!  I consider that a huge benefit on a 10 hour flight.  So our flights really turned out great on the whole trip, having those extra empty seats when they counted.  This plane (a B777-200) was older and didn't have all the fancy Audio-Video On Demand (AVOD) that we'd enjoyed on previous legs.  But having the open seat next to me was sure nice, sharing with Misha.  Jo, Amy, and Kristen were in the row in front of me, in the rear starboard portion of the aircraft.  The flight didn't include much to write about, and we landed uneventfully at San Francisco at around 10am on--you guessed it--Wednesday!  This was one long day!  We actually touched down before we'd left, which was strange for sure.  Upon landing at SFO we had to wait in the customs line for something like 45 minutes since we didn't have any special status to get us through more quickly.  Jolayne always comments at how she likes the way the immigration agents says "welcome home" after determining that we're safe to let into the country!  I like that too.

As an aside, we traveled on Asiana flight 214, the same flight that later crashed on landing at SFO on July 6, 2013.  It was surreal to know that we'd been on that same flight (and perhaps even the same aircraft).  We very much enjoyed Asiana, however, and we'd travel them again if permitted.

We had a couple hours before our final flight home to Denver, and we tried the United arrivals lounge, but they wouldn't let us in (it was too late in the day or something ridiculous).  More of the silly United-showing-they're-not-as-good-as-international-carriers show we'd seen since the beginning.  Just made me glad we were on Asiana for the bulk of our trip.  The unfriendly agent said we might be able to get into the lounge in the domestic terminal.  So we went back through security and tried our hand at the regular United Club where we were again told we couldn't enter but that they'd be happy to give us one-time passes for $50 each (or perhaps it was more, I can't recall).  What a joke.  So we went back to the main food court for something to eat.  The prices at SFO were incredibly high, and although we were just sharing snacks, it still ran us something like $25; I love how airports manage to charge you crazy for everything you have no choice but to go along with (unless, of course, you're at Incheon and get everything for free because it's such a cool airport).

Our last flight came and went mostly without a hitch.  We were all SOOOO tired by this point, even though it was only mid-afternoon local time.  We were on about hour 35 of our trip home.  Poor Jolayne by this time had also picked up whatever stomach bug I'd started feeling in Korea, and although we'd both been popping Pepto pills like candy for a number of hours, it finally got the best of her.  She's the first one I've actually seen use the barf bag for barf (although Kristen does a nice puppet with them).  She was so quiet about it no one even knew what was going down.  We all appreciated that.  Once the flight attendant found out, she was more than helpful in trying to make Jo comfortable, which was a nice contrast from all the unfriendly United staff we'd encountered earlier in the day.  Truly, one caring person can make a difference in someone's day.  (Jolayne's account of the experience is certainly better than mine!)  Our flight landed and we went through the now-normal routine of collecting our bags at Denver, happy to be almost home.  

We still had two more issues to get through.  First, the bag belt jammed and we had to wait for maintenance to come and fix.  

Then United lost Amy's bag somewhere between rechecking it after customs and arriving in Denver.  For being 2013 and having all sorts of crazy-cool technology, I'm amazed at how often luggage gets lost by airlines.  We've experienced 3-4 of those ourselves in the last few years alone.  It's frustrating.  I have to say, though, that if you're gonna lose a bag somewhere on the trip, the leg home is the one to do it on.  We filed the lost-bag report with United and they promised they'd send it home to us the next day.  Whatever.  We wound up getting the bag a day or so later.

Our friend Claudia picked us up from the airport, which we were grateful for.  We were so tired it's probably a good thing we weren't driving ourselves home at this point anyway.  We enjoyed telling our new stories on the ride home, and 35 minutes later we were dropped off at our house.  It was so good to be home.  Walking into our house was somewhat surreal in its own way; it seemed so very far away from the places we'd just visited.  And knowing that we would soon be selling our beloved home made coming home to it that much more special.

Next: Philippines - Final Thoughts

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Philippines - Day 11 (Boracay-Manila)

This is entry #13.

Link to entry #12.
Jolayne is also chronicling our trip here.

Day 11.  Tuesday, April 9th.

Next: Philippines - Day 12 (Traveling/Korea)

Tuesday, our last day in the Philippines.  It started early as usual, as Jolayne wakes up before the sun (pretty much anywhere in the world, it would seem).  It's actually a nice time of day; not as hot.  

This morning we noticed it was slightly cloudy and the wind was stiff and had shifted, coming in on our side of the island.  It was quite refreshing.  We liked it and so did the kite boarders.

We had a busy morning planned, getting ready to go (and scheduling in a private massage!)  Before all that, I decided to take a quick jaunt back down to the bayan (town center) to take more movies/videos and to see about buying a couple last minute souvenirs.  Really I just wanted to get all the experience I could before we had to leave, snapping pictures along the way.   Here's some random shots:

I made my way a couple miles (or so) back down to D'Talipapa (the souvenir part of the market) to find some more coin purses that we could share with friends.  By the time I got there I was pretty drenched in sweat; good workout.  I found some coin purses (what is it with me and coin purses, anyway!?) and made my way back towards the villa.  Trouble is, I hadn't planned right and used up the rest of my cash; I had nothing to hire a trike to get back.  So I had another 2-mile jog ahead of me and had to double-time it since I knew breakfast would be on.

We enjoyed mango pancakes once more for our last morning.  They were again delicious and a nice way to bid farewell to the more-relaxing part of our trip.  

After breakfast Jolayne and I were treated to private couples massages.  All through our visit along the beachfronts there were people hocking cheap massages where you'd just plop yourself on a bench next to everyone else and get a rubdown for the equivalent of $5-10.  We never did that (didn't seem super relaxing right there in the middle of the noise) but instead hired private therapists to come over.  Turns out it was a great idea.  While the private massages were much more expensive, it was a unique experience I really enjoyed.  

First we were given saris and instructed to dress down into just them.  We did so and were then led down below the villa to a private beach grotto with two massage tables.  Down there, we were completely alone and enjoyed heavenly massages with the water lapping against the rocks only a few feet away.  The morning breeze made it that much better.  I don't think Jo enjoyed it quite as much as I did; she prefers a softer touch and really didn't appreciate all the oils rubbed throughout her hair!  For me, it wasn't a big deal.  We had planned to get short massages for the kids as well, but by the time we were all done there simply wasn't time before we had to head for the airport.  Too bad for them.  

We hurried back and got dressed and finished packing.  I'd arranged for a multicab (a miniature jeepney) to take us to the jetty port (P300) and we made our way quickly after a warm goodbye to our hotel staff.

Sadly, we also had to bid farewall to hearts on toilet paper.  Tears.

Once at the port, I had to pay this fee and that fee one more time, and then we quickly made our way onto a ferry headed across the channel back to the main island.  Once again the ferry was just an enlarged banka with outriggers and open-air sides (though covered).  As we were crossing the channel, we incorrectly caught the wake of another boat and several ladies on the opposite side from us got completely drenched with the splash back.  They laughed it off, but it wasn't just a little squirt.  These poor ladies were soaking.  

After disembarking the short ferry ride (10 min or so) we then carried our own bags (kids were still under orders to not let any eager porters help them) over to the trike terminal.  I'd read it was a short trike ride to the airport from the ferry port.  I paid for two more trikes and we hopped on.  Had I known the airport was only a couple hundred yards behind the ferry port, I would have skipped that ridiculous step.  A few minutes later we were in front of the airport.  It was a nice looking place that seemed quite modern.

We made our way inside and checked in.  Our bags were weighed and I had to pay another P500 or so overage, even though we all only had rollaboard-sized luggage.  We were only permitted 10kg each, which was pretty tiny.  I was really glad I'd left so much of our gear at that hotel in Manila; it saved me a ton.  Then I was treated to a fabulous iPad reunion.  The airline's station manager came out when I explained to the desk staff what had happened. I think he was a little perplexed at my continual use of the word "miracle" as I explained the story to him in Tagalog.  They were all very courteous to us, however, and I managed to snap a picture with the security guards who delivered the iPad back to me.  So cool!

When we checked in we found that the published flight time had changed yet again.  Strange!  As mentioned early on, flight schedules are more like general guidelines than anything else.  This one had changed several times and no attempt was made to communicate that it was now supposed to leave a half-hour earlier than I'd originally thought.  Thankfully, however, it was late (like nearly every flight in country, it would seem) and we wound up leaving only 15 minutes after our originally published time.

Paid--wait for it--more departure fees and went through security and into the waiting area, ready for our flight.  The kids zoned out immediately.

Caticlan is a very small airport that only operates during daylight hours (no runway lights), and has a very short field.  From what I'd researched, the airport regularly closed in bad weather, and the short field caused more than a couple of mishaps over the years.  I wasn't exactly nervous flying out of here (it was a perfect sunny day), but it was definitely something I was paying attention to.  Only small aircraft fly out of Caticlan.  Our plane was a Q300 (propellor driven) and they put the brakes on run the engines all the way up full throttle before beginning the takeoff run.  Wanted to use all the tarmac they could.  Once we got airborne, it was beautiful seeing all the islands we flew over on the short hour back up to Manila.  It was a view I hadn't seen previously of the country.  Islands everywhere!

On arrival into Manila, I could easily see the piles of trash strewn everywhere along the rivers and neighborhoods.  It was pretty disgusting, and unfortunately that it was so easy to pick out from the air.  On landing we parked away from the terminal and were again met by buses.  We made our way to the terminal and our bags came out very quickly.  Aside from their compulsive tardiness, the local airline did a great job I thought.

Before long we were back out at the curb and met by our old friend Jun with his van.  Inside were Normita, Armida, and the kids.  How fun to see each other again!  When we left Pampanga the week prior, we didn't think we'd see one another again.  Thus the tearful goodbyes.  But Armida managed to get the day off work and we all missed each other, so the gang took a Victory Liner bus from San Fernando down to Manila and met up with Jun who agreed to chauffeur us around one more time.  Yay!  It was about 330p by this time, and we had until evening before we'd need to be back at the airport for a long journey home.  So we had about 8 hours together.

Our first stop was back over to the Marriott hotel to pick up our stowed bags.  We had to again go through tons of security to get onto the campus.  Guns, dogs, and inspections galore.  Then I hopped inside and quickly retrieved our bags.  What a great trick that is!  Didn't cost me a thing (exempt for the tip) and our bags were nice and safe while we were gone.  Back out to the van and on our way.  By this time we were pretty hungry.  We hadn't had any lunch, so I asked Jun if he'd stop over at Shakeys Pizza nearby.  He readily agreed and we made our way inside; all the kids joined us.  The adults stayed in the van.  Stuff gets stolen out of vehicles very regularly, so Jun was a sport (the entire time) and guarded the bags.  Inside, we tried to find something on the menu that wouldn't take a half hour to cook and eat.  We got salads and spaghetti and managed to get back out to the van surprisingly fast.  Kristen, Alyssa, and Allison were just peas in a pod again, singing, playing, and generally having the best day ever.

Our next stop was to the Manila Temple.  I had been there a number of times as a missionary, since that's where the area offices were (across the street).  But remember, it's been 17 years!  I only knew the general area.  And the air card I'd purchased for my iPad still didn't work worth a darn, so I couldn't get any maps loaded up.  Normita had been there many times before as well, but she's always been a passenger and thus didn't know the way either.  We were kind of a comedy of errors as we found our way over to the right neighborhood.  Ultimately we made it and pulled in around 5pm.  It was Armida's first time there, which was pretty cool.

Once we got there we quickly ran into the Aliac family (Oliver had picked us up originally at Clark).  Small world.  They were on their way home from visiting family in the Manila area.  The kids had a great time running around, playing, and generally being irreverent on the temple grounds (despite our efforts).  Kristen and her Filipina sisters went together quite well; they just giggled and laughed over and over.  Even Armand was more comfortable now; he too was running around and chatter-boxing (I don't think he said two words while we were in Pampanga).  We managed to get some great pictures of the group.  It was a nice stop.  I also ran into 3 American missionaries who were getting ready to head home after their two years of service.  It was a fun chat to explain to them what we were doing and get their take on things.  They each exclaimed how they hoped they'd be able to come back with families one day.

Next, we all piled back into the van and headed towards the American War Cemetery.  It's huge, like many dozens of acres.  It was something I'd long wanted to see.  But despite it being huge, I think it must not have been huge enough because we couldn't find it.  No worries.  As we drove around town trying to find this silly place, the sun neared the horizon.  Oh well.  But the kids sat in the back seat bouncing around (no seat belts) playing, goofing, and acting like the long-lost cousins they now were.  It was truly heartwarming.  Actually, he said they were little angels even though it wasn't Sunday.  That was funnier.  Then they started singing primary songs, which was pretty great.  primary presidency for some time now, and it was obvious how she'd spent much time teaching the children the songs.  

Driving around, I noticed how some part of Manila clearly looked like we were at home in the States.  Curbs, sidewalks, traffic lights, and even parks with grass (that's the one that surprised me the most).  So different from the sites only a few blocks away, where the shanties were literally built on top of one another.  We wound up at the Mall of Asia, the third largest mall in Asia.  

Again, Jun stayed with the van to keep all our stuff safe; great guy.  The place was huge (and air conditioned!)  We walked around for a while and let the kids run and play.  Then we set out to find dinner.  We really didn't need to drive that far considering what we wound up doing.  Oh well.  Our flight was to leave at 1145p, so we had a few more hours to kill at the mall.  We decided on Pizza Hut, which as a chain is much nicer in Asia than the US.  Expensive, too.  The place was packed so we waited a good 30 min for something to open up.  While we were waiting Jo went to a pharmacy and made her first purchase by herself in Asia!  Yay.  Finally we were seated and while we were waiting for food we showed off all our hundreds of Boracay pictures to Normita and Armida.  Time flew; after enjoying our pizza it was already time to head back to the airport. We just weren't sure how long it would take to get through the lines.

The airport wasn't terribly far away, and we arrived quickly.  As we rolled up, we saw hundreds of people sitting outside on the sidewalk and curb.  I figured it was all part of heinous lines we'd be waiting in.  Suddenly it was time to say goodbye once again.  Truly the DeOceras were family with us, or perhaps it was the other way around.  Armand, Allyson and Allyssa are great kids and beautiful people.  It was wonderful watching their personalities come out.  When I first met them, they were quiet, somber, perhaps even fearful.  Within a short time they were smiling and having fun together with my kids.  By the time we were ready to leave, they had dropped their guard and were fun loving goofballs who would have fit well in my own home.  Their parents and grandparents are pretty amazing too.  These people are pioneers in their own way, working hard for a better life.  I admire their dedication and example.

It was great that we had another day together and that they'd taken so much time to take the bus all the way down from Pampanga (a couple hours each way), with young kids.  Jun was also great about driving us all around town; a true gentleman.  Since we'd done all our crying a few days previously when we thought we wouldn't see one another again, we were spared the tears this time.  But we all embraced warmly, hoping we'd see one another again soon.  And just like that we were in the airport, ready to make the long, long journey back home.  What an amazing journey we'd had in the Philippines!  And what wonderful people we met!  A true bond.

Even though the trip wasn't over yet, I was already considering how much more I'd enjoyed the personal nature of our trip than the touristy things.  It was the family visits, the personal stories, and living in the culture that I had enjoyed the most.  It made me want to come back and to focus even more on service and friends.

I learned later that after dropping us off at the airport and heading back over the bus terminal, Normita (passenger seat of the van) had taken off her seatbelt in preparation to arrive and get out.  They were pulled over (not by a cop car, of course, but a guy on the side of the street or perhaps on a motorbike) for this traffic violation and told that the fine would be P1300 ($52).  Steep.  Of course, they were able to avoid this "action" by simply paying the good cop P250 immediately, and he released them.  That's how the corruption goes.  It's a very good thing we weren't still in the van when that happened, as the cop would have seen westerners and thought we had lots of money; it wouldn't have turned out near as well.  I had stories as a missionary where other missionaries were apprehended and charged with crimes they did not commit as part of a shakedown process that's all too common.  I recall once driving in Manila myself and having a cop (on foot) flag me down and direct me to pull over.  My companion commanded that I not stop, and we drove on by him.  I had committed no infraction, and he was almost certainly going to try to make a few bucks off the white guys in ties (who were surprisingly poor!)

Our time in the Philippines was nearly over.  We had a long red eye ahead of us, with a 4-hour ride (leaving at midnight!) back to Incheon.  Then a 12-hour layover in Korea before another 10-hour ride across the Pacific.  Finally, another 2.5 hours after ground time in San Francisco before getting back to Denver.  The most interesting thing was that our 36-hour trip home would all be on Wednesday!  In fact, we would land in San Francisco BEFORE we left Korea, even though it's 10 hours later.  That date-line stuff is interesting.

It turned out the hoards of people outside the airport were just sitting there; not in line or anything.  Perhaps they were meeting inbound flights later.  We entered the airport very quickly (remember, security is at the exterior door in this part of the world).  The Manila airport (NAIA as the locals call it) isn't exactly an ode to modern architecture.  The place could compete with LaGuardia Airport in NYC for obnoxiousness.  I really had hoped we could skip it all together and just leave from Clark, but it wasn't to be.  

Before checking in, we wanted to resituate our gear so that we'd only need a single bag to change clothes in the much-cooler climate of Korea during our layover.  The weather in Incheon would be near freezing when we landed, though warmer during the day.  We had nothing but warm-weather clothes, so we put all the pants, etc into a single bag (or so we thought…)  Checkin proceeded quickly, and the Star Alliance Gold status proved once again quite helpful.  The staff at Asiana were extremely courteous, just great to work with.  This flight was nearly full, so we weren't going to be able to stretch out in our own rows like we had previously.  Of course, true to Philippine form, the flight was late (there's only one runway at NAIA, and flight delays are chronic).  

After checking in, we had more airport-payment circus to deal with.  We had a number of forms to fill out and fees to pay, of course.  It cost P550 ($22) each for a departure fee to leave the country.  While that sounds strange, it turns out most airports charge such fees.  It's just that NAIA is one of only a tiny number of airports in the whole world where that fee isn't just embedded into the fees/taxes in your plane ticket itself.  After paying the departure tax, we had to go through immigration (fairly long line) and then finally on to security (the real one this time).  Men and women go through separate lines, but the quality of the screening was really a joke and made TSA look quite good (amazing).  It's no wonder the Philippines has been on Europe and North America's naughty lists for air travel for the last several years.

Ultimately we made our way to the Star Alliance lounge with plenty of time to spare before our (late) flight.  This lounge was NOTHING like the one we'd enjoyed in Incheon.  It was old and crusty, like most everything in the airport; in need of updating.  It's just too bad the corruption in government is so rampant in the Philippines.  Seems like half of every peso spent on government projects must get skimmed somewhere; nearly every public-works project ends the same, terribly over budget, with amazingly poor quality.  While in the lounge we watched the CNN International news about how North Korea was warning foreigners to leave South Korea because of impending attack, and that's precisely where we're about to go.  Ha, glad CNN was there for us.  I didn't feel like there was any problem, though, and the ticker at the bottom of the screen read that the British Embassy said not to worry.  Of course, I don't think that made Jolayne's parents very happy; they were a little worried for our safety.

The kids by this time were pretty wasted, and they crashed on the (aged) couches while we waited.  I started blog notes.  The Asiana staff told us not to worry about anything, that they'd come personally to get us when boarding was ready for our flight.  Classy.  As midnight approached, it was time to say goodbye to the Philippines.  What a grand visit we'd had!  I absolutely loved it, all of it.