Thursday, December 9, 2010

Friday Morning in Cebu

Yesterday, we took our supplies up to Paril in the mountains about 40 clicks north of the city. Tom J. has already waxed poetic about the local traffic phenomenon, so I won't add alot to his comments about it, but I echo that there is no way on God's green earth that I would try and drive in this mess. If you have ever seen the photomicrographic movies of blood coursing through capillaries, and the jostling of the cells in an effort to get through, well, traffic here is similar to that. There has to be an organizational structure to it all, but, damned if I can see it. One thing really interesting is, you don't see vehicles with caved-in fenders, or beat up bumpers. Brinksmanship here is a high art-form. I swear,near misses of fractions of an inch are so common as to be eventually unnoticeable. Watching the bikers, both powered and pedaled, cutting through traffic jams is high comedy. Bikes serve as transportation for the masses. It is not uncommon to see a very small motorcycle (90cc or less)with four people on it, and these guys have no fear. These bikes are tough as nails, and although very small by our standards, quite powerful, and probably economical. Gas here is around $4 per gallon, so economy is important. A fairly common sight is to see some of these motorbikes that have been converted to haul even larger loads. Typically, a side-hack,(side car to the non-bikers among you), is fashioned out of rebar, the steel reinforcing rods used in concrete construction, or black-iron water pipe, and configured either for human or freight conveyance, and everything is hauled on these contraptions. I have seen as many as nine people on one of these, seemingly all happy as clams, and totally oblivious to the potentially fatal chaos around them. Pedestrians are a constant menace, wandering in and around the traffic, which is particularly hazardous at night. I tell yah, this is not for the faint-hearted! Pursing, our driver, is incredibly skillful, negotiating even the stickiest traffic situation with aplomb, and professional cool. The guy is a Christian, as manifested by the rosary and crucifix hanging on his rear-view mirror, but he must also be a practicing zen-budhist, to be so calm in the midst of potential destruction. He makes me feel relaxed, as his personal calm is contagious. He has a diesel powered 15 passenger Toyota van that he hauls us around in, and again, it is one tough, powerful vehicle, running up the mountain sides on roads( I use that term very lightly), that are scarcely passable with a water buffalo-pulled cart, in places. Let me digress here and say that the local mountain folk rely extensively on the aforesaid motorbikes--you see whole families on a's the one-year-old, hanging off the handlebars with dad driving behind, then, the 3 year old,and the 5 year old behind him, followed by momma hanging of the back with a rooster under one arm, and a big sack of something in the other hand, and they are going at, what looks like eighty miles per hour around these mountain "paths". One hiccup, and the whole family would be wiped out--no guard rails, and in some instances, a drop off of a thousand feet or more, inches fear, these people have no fear! The mountain roads are continually works in progress. Some stretches are paved with what looks like macadam, others, coarse gravel or local crushed aggregates, sections of gooey mud, and some areas are paved with concrete. Prior to this trip, I had not seen the process of the concrete paving. Yesterday, near the highest elevation of our route to Paril, there was a group of local guys installing the concrete forms to pour the concrete in. These were made of what looked like mahogany boards about eight inches wide, and from 12-15 feet in length, that were staked in place using rebar of around 1/2 inch in diameter.This would result in a slab-thickness of eight inches. The forms were placed to do roughly half of the width of the "road", with sections of around two hundred ft. in length staggard in such a way as to allow traffic to pass along side of the freshly poured and curing concrete, without disturbing it. Later the other side is formed and poured. Now, all of this is well and good, as long as it is dry, but yesterday's situation was otherwise. (more about that, later). I am not sure where the concrete comes from. Given the condition, and size of the "roads", I cannot imagine a concrete mixer truck getting to where the concrete is to be poured, so, I presume, it is all mixed by hand using the aggregates that must be hauled up the mountain side. The amount of hand labor involved in this process, then, is unbelievable.

It rained a good part of the night wednesday night. Joseph, the concierge here in the executive lounge says that we are currently under a tropical inversion, which is where the rain is coming from. In the five previous trips I have made here, this is the first time that I have ever seen more than just a sprinkle of rain. We made it up to the area where the road construction project was being done OK. The construction was past the "summit" of the mountain, so we were largely going down hill through the construction areas. Along side the concrete forms were stretches of out and out gumbo mud, but since we were going down hill, we had only a little slipping and sliding. As I said before, Pursing is a wonderful driver, knows his equipment well, and there was never any doubt about getting through. But, it was downhill . We made it to the Barangay of Paril, to the school where we will set up our dental clinic, and the place where some of the other multi-disciplinary projects will take place. It was raining..........some of the older boys helped us unload the supplies and stuff that we had brought up from the hotel. It rained.................Let me say here that the rain here is not like what we have at home. Each rain drop is about 1/2 inch in diameter, with attendant mass and momentum, and hits with a resounding splat. Newton, in describing what has become his "Laws of Motion", discusses the relationship between mass, velocity, and motion. The laws governing momentum were patently obvious, and we were parties to the demonstration thereof. The noise inside the tin-roofed building is unbelievable(and, I'm half-deaf. Even I thought it was loud!). The type of soil in Paril is not loamy, but moreover consists of a clay base laced with sand and small gravel. As such, it doesn't absorb a great deal of the water falling on it, and tends to run off with great vigor. No doubt, this is the principle reason why having a sustainable, potable water supply in the mountains is such a problem. Along side of the school is a little, what we would call a creek, at home. In all of the time spent in Paril, I have never seen more than a trickle of water in small potholes in the bottom of the stream bed. The term "raging torrent" comes to mind and takes on an unanticipated significance. The color of this once docile feature becomes the same as Starbuck's latte, with van-sized boulders being repositioned in the stream bed by the sheer mass of the rushing water. Anything that could float was being carried to who knows where, here and there forming temporary dams which with the backing up of the water, eventually were ripped to shreads, only to be reconstituted somewhere else downstream, where the process happened all over again. It continued to rain............

Tom J. and I were surprised to find our equipment and supplies in generally excellent condition. The lockable closet that we had hired built last year to store our stuff in, was dry, clean, and for the most part, free of bugs, snakes, lizards, etc. We did see a couple of cockroaches, however. These magnificent specimens of some of the oldest and hardiest life forms on the planet, were damn-near big enough to put on a spit, roast, and eat(but that's another story, for much later). Our purpose for returning to Paril yesterday, in addition to replenishing our supplies, was to check the operational status of our electrical equipment, which worked just fine, and do do a complete inventory of the supplies that we left behind. The boys helped us to haul all of the stuff to another room so we could spread it all out and check condition and log everything. Did I mention the rain?......This process took until around four in the afternoon. One of the teachers at the school insisted that we take a break mid afternoon, come to her classroom, where she had some crackers and some Nescafe' instant coffee prepared for us. This Nescafe' grows on you and those of us who have made this trip before, have come to appreciate its refreshing character. The teacher kept apologizing for not having prepared a proper lunch for us,etc., and etc. We tried to reassure her that we had certainly not expected such hospitality, that we had come only to work, but she would have none of it. Such is the hospitality that has been repeatedly extended to us in this, one of the most impoverished places that we have ever worked.

By now the rain fall had pretty much diminished to a drizzle and we headed back to the city. We didn't get very far(remember the concrete construction area?). It had become impassable. Pursing tried, but it just wasn't gonna happen there. After a good bit of manuevering, we got turned around and headed back to Paril. There is another, longer way, back to the city, which we suggested, and we started that way. Didn't get very far until we were met by a guy with his two kids on the ubiquitous motorbike, who were thoroughly soaked. Judith, who was with us and fluent in the local languages(I don't know whether it was Tagalog, or Cebuano), talked to the guy and we were informed that there had been a land slide that had partially blocked the road ahead. Further discussion insued between Judith, Pursing, the guy on the motorbike, and a small crowd that had gathered around to see what was happening. This also, no doubt,provided some entertainment, for the local folks, to see what would happen next. Motorbike guy grabbed one of the passersby, who had a big machete, and they then mounted the motorbike, motioned us to follow, and proceeded up the mud road stopping every so often to see if we were still following them. They stopped at a little hut and dropped the kids off and headed on up the mountain side. We got to the place where a big palm tree had become undermined by all of the rain and had fallen across the road. Motorbike guy and machete man set to work clearing the obstruction. A comment about machetes: I have seen these in use all over the world. They come in varying lengths and sizes(thicknesses), and have to be one of the most versatile tools ever invented, being used to hack one's way through the jungle, mow the grass, harvest the rice, filet giant fish, etc. Machete man would take one whack at the shaft of the palm fronds, which were easily the size of my lower leg, severing it from the tree stump. Motorbike guy would then drag each piece off to the side, out of the way. He has no gloves and the palm fronds have these vicious spines that can rip the skin right off of you. Anyway, after a very short time they had cleared a path big enough that we could get by. We got a little further up the road and hit another rough stretch where the van spun out. At this point, I was in the front seat, and Pursing asked if I would move to the back over top of the right rear wheel, which, evidently was a drive wheel, because after that, we went through that mud hole easily. When I am tempted to think more highly of myself, I will remember that one of my most useful purposes was to serve as ballast, dead weight over a wheel for the purpose of traction. (sigh).................

Motorbike guy and machete man led us further up the road, which was a little more firm and solid. We came, however, to a fording point across a small stream, which was made quite large by the flood, and there was a group of people on foot, milling around, waiting to cross over. Motorbike guy and machete man said, "we're outta here", or words to that effect, and returned in the direction from whence we had come. By now, it was looking like we might be spending the night in the mountains. Tom J. says "what are you thinking?" and I say I'm thinking that we aren't gonna cross that stream any time soon. The thing is: you can't let stuff like this upset you. The circumstances really were out of my control, I didn't have anywhere I had to be, I wasn't doing anything else, and besides, spending an unexpected night in the mountains would make for great conversation fodder later on. So, while Tom occupied himself with his Galaxy Whiz-bang, I took a nap. Shortly, I was awakened by the sound of one of the funky little Suzuki all-purpose trucks grinding its way up to us from the opposite side of the torrential stream, which by now, had run down enough that he could cross it. We saw some of the folks were wading through the water and it looked like we could get across. Pursing mounted up and we proceeded to move on across the stream and up a particularly muddy stream-side stretch of "road" to more firm ground. We entered a region where there were alot of rice paddies, with active rice growing agricultural operations going on. I have seen the terraced dry rice farming techniques elsewhere in the mountains, but this was the first Southeast Asian style of rice farming that I have seen here. This is a beautiful area, and under other circumstances, I would look forward very much to visiting it again. We began meeting traffic from the opposite direction, and it was comforting, because it indicated that there were apparently no other impediments to our returning to the city. The rest of the ride back to the hotel was largely uneventful, but rush-hour traffic in Cebu City after dark is not for those with weak constitutions.(see earlier comments about the traffic). It was at about this time that I realized that I was totally "fried", and the hotel was a welcome sight, indeed. We headed for the club, had some finger-food, a couple of drinks, and were met by Eunice, the lady who has handled all of our hotel and group acommodations in the past. A great friend to us and the program, and we were genuinely glad to see her. We went over to "Manny O's" the in-house hotel restaurant, had dinner, said good evening to Eunice and staff, and returned to our room, where I promptly crashed.

Today has bent spent tying up loose ends and getting ready for the rest of of our group to arrive.

Submitted by: Thomas J. Clark, DMD

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