Thursday, March 29, 2007

Batad, Bangaan, and the Bitternut

Today I woke up early again, this time to see the much hyped terraces in Batad. I paid a guy with a motorized tricycle to take me and my guide up to the trailhead, as there are no roads going into Batad. After forty five minutes up a windy dirt road through the jungle, he dropped us off and agreed to meet us that afternoon. We began hiking at a brisk pace and soon cleared a substantially high pass to descend in upon the valley of Batad.

We descended for half an hour, and soon emerged onto a ridgeline dropping steeply into the famous "amphitheater" that is so famous. This was the rice terraces to end them all! Truly a beautiful sight to behold. He took me along a trail high above the town, and soon the rice fields were disappearing again. This next trail took us to Bangaan, another village famous for its terraces and airy views.

It was a beautiful hike, but stiflingly hot. Needless to say, I got terribly sunburned, despite all my sunscreen. I would rank it among the best hikes I've ever taken, were it not for the sticky hot weather and the sun frying my epidermis to a crisp raisin-like consistency.

We finally arrived at Bangaan, about two hours ahead of schedule. We had hiked about 20-24 kilometers, and we were exhausted (or at least I was). We hid under the porch of somebody's house/storefront for about two hours, because he had told the driver to pick us up two hours after we actually got there.

So we had two hours to kill. He promtly pulls a packet of something out of his pocket. At this point I should mention when this "guide" first found me, the fellow looked as though he had just lost a couple of teeth to the dentist. I was thinking to myself, "Did he just get out of a barfight ten minutes ago? That would explain his missing tooth and all the blood on his lips, wouldn't it? His teeth and lips were stained bright red with something bloodlike. He was kinda freaky looking actually.

After a little while, I saw him spitting something out of his mouth, and he told me it was tobacco. It didn't look to be the color of chewing tobacco, but I saw two other people spitting it on the street later that day, and indeed, it was the same red color. I saw stains all over the street from where they were spitting it.

And now, back to this afternoon, when we are waiting for our ride. He pulls out something he calls "a bitternut." About the size of a wallnut, with the consistency of a dried coconut and the taste of chalky tonic water. It was indeed bitter. He shows me how to peel the skin off (just like a coconut) and he says to chew the greyish contents. Not wanting to be rude (and being genuinely curious), I begin chewing on it.

This is when he pulls out some other kind of leaves and a white powder he calls "lime." The lime came in a tiny plastic bag. He scoops up about a quarter teaspoon of the lime powder. After my skeptical looks and his insistence that it is both completely safe (and legal) I put the lime covered leaf in my mouth and begin chewing it with the wad of bitternut. The lime tasted like hot curry powder concentrate. My tounge was now on fire. Then he gives me a tobacco leaf and tells me to add that to the mix.

After 5 minutes of chewing on this burning gunk, several things began to happen in the following order:

1. Due to my lack of skill at chewing and spitting this concoction, I dribbled nasty reddish crud all over my favorite t-shirt, shorts, and shoes. I have a feeling it won't come out.

2. I gagged on this nonsense every 2 minutes.

3. I began to get high. Really high. Not like a little buzz, but like, well... something else completely. He kind of hinted that it would make me high, but I had no idea. I sat down after my head started spinning, and focused all my remaining mental powers on not gagging and trying not to drool masticated dreck all over myself. I failed miserably.

4. I finally started to feel sick, and before barfing all over the hot, dusty road, I spit the whole mass out, drank the last of my water, and focused on not barfing.

When we finally did get back, the guide showed me the stuff in a market in town. They were selling it everywhere, so I figure it must be legal around here. They sold a little packet of the stuff for practically nothing. I almost bought some, but then I thought better of it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Disclaimer: This is a picture as I took it with my camera. They have not been tediously put through photoshop on my computer, and therefore may not accurately reflect my skills as a photographer. (Or rather, they will accurately reflect my complete lack o skill.) Please don't judge too harshly.

They also take an eternity to upload to Blogger, so I'm only giving you this one shot of my guide from the cave.

Sagada to Banaue

I woke up very early this morning to view the group of terraces near Sagada before catching the last jeepney to Banaue, where I am now. I didn't even have to set an alarm. The ceaseless racket from dogs, roosters, and pigs being slaughtered before sunrise saw to it that I woke up at an obscenely early hour. I'm glad I did wake up early, because the terraces were absolutely spectacular. I had to hire my own transit to the area, and drag my guide along to show me the trail, but it was worth every 'piso.'

We approached the terraces from atop a mountain ridge between two steep valleys. We descended into the bigger valley, where golf-course colored layers of rice climbed up the walls of a steep limestone canyon. The terraces themselves were constructed of grey limestone boulders, which contrasted nicely with the bright green of the rice. He led me down a steep set of stairways, through a village perched on ridgeline, and down into an amphitheater of endless plots of rice clinging to the cliffs.

After about an hour of hiking deeper into the canyon and photographing each and every plot of rice from all angles, we came finally to a limestone sided slot canyon sporting a big waterfall and a swimming hole. I had to take a quick dip. I wasn't in long, as it was kind of awkward swimming while my guide just watched me. So I got out and we began the long hike back out of the valley. We emerged at the top sunburned and drenched in sweat.

From there, I hopped into the next jeepney (what passes for public transit around here) bound for Banaue, which boasts the UNESCO world heritage/8th Wonder of the World rice terraces. Just before we departed, three very attractive local girls sat next to me on the bus. Not only did they actually sit next to me, but they were willing to talk to me and flirt with me as well! How could this be? Since when do I ever get to have the attention of not only one, but three pretty girls? Something must be unusual.

And during the course of our conversation, it quickly emerged that they were Jehovah's witnesses! Of course! I knew something wasn't right! The conversation sort of fizzled out after they tried to push their magazines, pamphlets, and DVDs off on me.

Anyways, at the next town, Bontoc, I was able to catch another jeepney to Banaue. One thing about jeepneys: they are terribly uncomfortable after the first 40 minutes on a dirt road. Naturally, the three hour journey from there left my behind in shambles.

So now, I'm here in Banaue. I spent what was left of the afternoon viewing the terraces around here. They are even steeper, but tacky development throughout the town along the highway makes it difficult to photograph the two thousand year old set of terraces. Moreover, because they harvest and plant rice twice a year in Banaue (due to its lower elevation), I missed the correct season. I should have come in late April. At the moment, Banaue rice consists of tiny little sprigs poking out of murky, muddy water. It's not the lush green bounty spilling over retaining walls like Sagada. Just so I don't sound too negative about Banaue, I should say that the terraces here really are impressive. I will have pictures available as soon as I can! Stay tuned!

Things should improve tomorrow though, when I make the three hour hike to Batad, at a higher elevation. Things should be greener and more photogenic in Batad.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Hotel Key: Lost in Cave

Today I got up and decided to explore the wonderful area around the town of Sagada. Unless you know the area around here, hiring a local to take you around (for very reasonable prices) is the thing to do. I started by hiring a guide, who took me up to the highest mountain in the area and then along a ridge. My guide spent most of the time stopping in at every house where he knew people so that he might borrow everything he needed: a water bottle, his hat, water from another place, then a pack of cigarettes from his friend. He was a nice guy though, a fact which he repeatedly pointed out along the trail during his smoke breaks (can we say fishing for tips?). It was a nice day, but extremely hot. Needless to say, I was drenched with sweat.

The afternoon turned out to be the real adventure though. Having previously recommended that I take a tour of the local cave (under his excellent and very knowledgeable services of course), we met shortly after lunch to decend into the depths of the Earth. We met up at the prescribed time, this time with him toting a big glass bottle of liquor. At least I thought it was liquor. He later told me it was oil for the lamp. Ah, so that's what they use for light around here.

We walked a little further, stopping at one of the same houses where he picked up a coleman lantern, the kind with the glowing mesh bulbs inside. He also brought a rope along for rappeling, but I didn't see that he had a harness or anything else (and indeed he didn't). In fact, I didn't see that he had a backup source of light save for his cigarette lighter.

So after leading me down a small dirt road, he leads me into a giant gaping hole in the ground, and quickly points to a pile of boxes lined up on a ledge. Below the ledge was a 4o foot drop into the cave. He told me the boxes were "hanging coffins" and an ancient tradition of the people in the area. He said I could take pictures of them, but I couldn't open them. As we were descending, scrambling down some rocks on the other side of the cave, I noticed several coffins had fallen into the shadows below.

Weaving our way around, over, under, and through a boulder pile, we quickly found ourselves devoid of any other light source. Our only source of light was this coleman lantern which my guide held up at the base with his hand as though he were scrambling down the rocks to deliver a pizza. At this point I should note that he had convinced me to take the "adventure" entrance to the cave. People who know me, know also that it didn't take much convincing. As he disappeared in a tiny hole in the cave, pulling our lantern through, I began to wish I had brought my headlamp, which at this point was still in Japan.

Then he slipped and almost fell, catching himself with his one free hand and lofting the lantern into the air. Oh good! He didn't drop it! On one other occasion, he climbed down a 20 foot chimney I normally wouldn't do without my climbing rope. He tied the rope to a stalactite and insisted I use it, but stemmed his way down this convoluted drop with one hand holding our only source of light. While I was somewhat impressed with his skill as a climber, his common sense and knowledge of basic mountaineering and spelunking safety left a lot to be desired.

As a side note, stemming is when there are two rocks or walls close to each other, and one makes an arch of your body, pushing off the walls with your hands and feet to climb. For anyone who is interested, I could have done what he did with two hands, but not while holding a coleman lantern over my head in the dark.

We continued weaving our way through these boulders. With each airy step into the dark, I'm filled with images of this hairbrained yo-yo falling 20 feet, dropping a flaming lantern which explodes all over him, and forcing me to dig my way out with a cigarrette lighter, camera flash bulb, and the LED on my watch. I've obviously spent far too long in safety concious Japan. 3 years ago, this wouldn't have bothered me in the slightest.

Anyways, the worst move came when we were in a bottleneck for a natural river. The guide pointed to the waterline, with minerals forming several lines on the side of the cave up to a point where everything drops off into the darkness. I looked over the edge, and noticed a 50 foot dropoff and asked how we were getting down. He said we were going up and asked me to hand him the lantern after he climbed up a big, smooth beehive looking thing. He made a few bouldering moves onto it (right beside the dropoff I should add) but couldn't manage to get up. He asked if he could stand on my shoulder, and only then pulled it off. I then handed him the lantern, and he lowered a rope for me to climb up.

I shined the lantern into the enormous cathedral-like chamber below me. The volume of this cave rivaled St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. I simply cannot explain how big this cave was. He led me through an easier passageway through a tiny tunnel and around to the floor where the previous dropoff ended. We then had a long straight section of smooth, slick rocks to walk through. Only now, there was a river below us, and bats chirping and squealing in the sanctuary above us. We came across several pools, and he called one particularly large chamber the "dancefloor" Music was of course provided by the bats above us. This place was huge.

We kept going, and finally came to another tributary and down into several lower chambers. The only similar place I've ever been was Havasu Creek, in the punchbowls just before its crystal clear waters dumped into the Colorado River. Only there was nothing above us but expansive blackness and the distant sound of bats and waterfalls echoing across the walls.

Most of the punchbowls were only about waist deep, and one could see to the bottom of them. Smooth slick rocks greeted my feet beneath the water. When the punchbowls would end, there would simply be a wall below which would be beehive shaped forms with water silently trickling over in all directions. Only occassionaly would one hear the sound of water spilling like it would in a stream or a creak.

He took me down through a couple of smaller chambers where the water came up to my arms. I held my camera aloft while he held our light source. I figured it was marginally safer here, because if he dropped it, there was no risk of fire now.

At some point during this whole ordeal, I lost the hotel key that was in my pocket. It had a large wooden handle, and must have simply floated out of my pocket.

He took me back out another entrance, and on the walk back, I took pictures of the beautful rice terraces, shocked and amazed that these were not the supreme mother of all rice terraces in Banaue, but simply minor ones in Sagada. I'm definitely in for a treat tomorrow.

But right now, I'm watching a bunch of people eat dinner in a tiny eatery with an internet connection. I guess I had better go back to my hotel and face the music about losing my key.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Manila to Baguio

Yesterday, I slept in more than I should have before waking up and trudging my way through Manila to find the correct bus terminal to go North to Baguio, where I am now. Overall, Manila was about what I expected to find, only hotter. A grimy, crowded, and chaotic city choking to death in stifling heat, jaywalking pedestrians, and motor vehicle emissions. Open air markets sell cheap brand name knock-offs, pirated DVDs, cheap junk, and all sorts of food I haven't tried yet. They don't even have to cook the food, because it is so hot in Manila, the food is already warm. It's a lot like a cross between Bangkok and Mexico, only hotter.

I went back to the airport to book a flight to the island of Busuanga, and then weaved my way through two bus terminals to find the bus to Baguio. Did I mention that its hot in Manila?

I arrived in Baguio last night at around 8:30. At night time, Baguio is pleasantly cool. Baguio was originally built during the American conquest and occupation of the Philippines as an R&R retreat for the invading US Army. There is a place called Camp John Hay built in the hills near the town, with a golf course and other recreational activities. They built it here to get out of Manila's stifling heat. They should have gone further up into the hills as its still kind of hot here during the day. But it is pleasant at night, and not quite as terribly hot as Manila. There is also a beautiful park called Burnham Park here. Note the American name.

In about an hour, I'll be boarding a bus and heading off to a place called Sagada, a place higher up in the mountains. Known for great hiking and unique tribal cultures. It will also be within distance of the famous Banaue Rice terraces. Here's hoping I can get back before Friday morning, when my flight leaves for Busuanga.

Also, I should tell you about the Jeepneys, which are basically US army jeep frames extended at the end to hold 20 people. You just get on a jeepney, pay the fee, and they go along a prescribed route with the destinations painted on the side. They can be a bit confusing at first, but are quite convenient for getting around. They are also painted in all sorts of bright, psychedelic colors and chrome emblazoned around the vehicle. I have never seen such gaudy public transportation. I will have pictures soon.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Job Hunting, a party, and going to Manila

On Friday, after frantically sending off 3 resumes to potential employers, I felt satisfied I could take a vacation in the Philippines without feeling like I should be spending my entire spring vacation in job hunting. I found some other opportunities in my search that looked interesting as well. So while I still can't sleep at night because of the stress, I think I should be all right.

I got back from the post office just in time to hold a party at my house for some of my favorite teachers. Mr. Sanpei and the gang from Katahira JHS all came over to my house and I invited a bunch of other people as well. He brought about four pounds of basashi (raw horse meat) for us to chow down on. Not as many people came as I hoped, but I do think people had a good time. Paula and her new husband Yuya made an appearance though. Other pals, such as Dan, Dave Popoff and Benjamin turned up as well. While it was pretty low key, a good time was had by all.

Then yesterday morning, I woke up, threw a bunch of stuff in a bag and moseyed on down to Narita International Airport with Paula and her husband Yuya. While I was heading off to the Philippines, they were both headed to Bali for their honeymoon. They are both really cool people.

The flight was somewhat uneventful and I had to connect through Hong Kong. The travel agent never sent me the confirmation number for my e-ticket, so I had to call Cathay Pacific Airlines before I left. The flight was rather uneventful. Like most Asian airlines, they have decent service and new planes, so I watched Rocky Balboa. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I liked it, even though I winced at times.

From Hong Kong to Manila, they upgraded me to business class for no apparent reason! Cathay Pacific went up a couple of notches in my book after doing this. Unfortunately, the flight wasn't that long, and I had a splitting headache for most of the flight. Met a nice Philippino lady who worked in Hong Kong and lived in Phoenix for a year. She had done some kind of master's program at the Thunderbird School for International Management.

I was able to learn some things from her. Apparently tons of Philippinos live and work outside the Philippines and send money home. Immigration at the airport even had special lines for Philippino foreign workers.

I'm in Manila now, and I'll post more soon. Stay tuned!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Getting a Book Published

No, I did not submit any of my manuscripts to publishers for consideration, but my grandfather, Dr. Richard Beal sure did. For as long as I can remember he's been busy editing, revising, re-writing, hiring editors, and agents, and consultants of every sort, and generally searching every corner of the publishing world for someone who would print his book! And according to my mother, all this persistence and diligence is about to pay off as somebody finally agreed to publish his book.

For those of you who don't know him, my grandfather was an entomology professor at Northern Arizona University (GO LUMBERJACKS!) and also a minister before retiring to Prescott Arizona. He currently teaches a Bible-study class for the senior folks at his church in Prescott.
Everyone knows him as a warm-hearted, cheerful old guy who loves insects.

Years ago, he wrote a book for Christian audiences about the ever-present evolution/creation debate that continues to afflict the more conservative churches in the United States. In several states, the issue of teaching evolutionary theory in classrooms has been both historically, and recently, a hot political issue for many Christian voters, who believe the theory of evolution to be anathema to a literal interpretation of the Biblical story of creation. Many conservative Christian groups and political factions are now arguing before courts and school districts to teach a theory of "intelligent design" as an alternative to the theory of evolution.

As I recall, the bug-collecting scientist in my grandfather argues against any narrow or rigid interpretation of the creation story in Genesis. He also will defend his own profession and that of most mainstream biologists from serious misconceptions about the theory of evolution.

Regardless of the subject matter, I'm sure my grandfather is thrilled. He has been writing this book and searching for a publisher since I was about ten. He's also been working on other books, including a commentary on the book of Acts, and more recently Christian themed fiction.

So Grandad, if you are reading this blog, CONGRATULATIONS!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Of A Revolution

One of the frustrating, but less apparent things about living abroad is missing out on all the new albums your favorite singers and bands release during your absence.

In this day and age, it is probably much easier to live abroad without missing your favorite things than it was even 20 years ago. There is probably very little I can't get my hands on in Japan assuming I really wanted to. The internet, free trade, and a massively interdependent global economy spawn enormous marketing campaigns to sell everything from Lindsey Lohan, to Disney Movies, shampoo, and ipods in every concievable corner of the globe. So I can travel pretty much anywhere on the planet and never escape the corporate onslaught of Pepsi, MTV, McDonald's, and the likes of Paris Hilton (as much as I might like to rid my mind of such things). Less promoted stuff, such as Navajo Tacos, and Girl Scout Cookies become quickly forgotten, and replaced by favorite things in your new environment.

Then one day, after you've almost forgotten something existed, another fellow expat will bring it to mind, or you will run across it surfing the web. This happened yesterday as I opened up the page to see a link promoting one of my all time favorite bands performing in Madison Square Garden. O.A.R. short for "Of A Revolution" has apparently released a new album in my absence, and judging from their presence on MSN, seems to be doing quite well for themselves.

I was turned on to O.A.R. in college by my friend David Hanson as we drove around Flagstaff. A jam band from Maryland with a unique rock/reggae sound, They are legendary live performers in big college towns across the American Mid-Atlantic and Mid-West. I have selected a couple of videos from youtube that I had never heard before and a live performance of one of my all time favorite O.A.R. songs.

The sound on O.A.R.'s new music videos seems quite slick and slightly overproduced. They probably had some talented hired guns helping them put these songs together. Their new work has a very different tone compared to their earlier albums, which are much more down to earth. The song Love and Memories in the video is quite the departure from their Bob Marley inspired bar anthems about booze and poker that I remember in college. But I do like it. Their other song I found a decent video for, Right on Time, seems more like the O.A.R. I remember. But none can deny that they've adopted a more complex sound.

They appear to be quite successful now and have come a long way. Judging from everything I've heard about them, they have probably worked really hard to achieve the success they have, and I salute them. To see what they are really known for, here's a video of an older song of theirs, About Mr. Brown. Their live performances are often legendary and frequently bootlegged.

Japanese Junk Food

America has a much deserved reputation for eating very unhealthy foods. But the United States is by no means the world champion in this department, as the product I discovered the other day suggests the Japanese are competing for the title.

I assure you I did not doctor this picture. What you are looking at is indeed “chocolate covered cheetos.” The caption actually reads, “miruku chokoreto aji (milk chocolate flavor)”. I tried one, and it did indeed taste like a pork rind covered in artificial cheese powder and then dipped in chocolate. Blecch.

最近新しいジャンクフードを食べました。 アメリカでCheetosは人気がある。でもミルクチョコレトの味がありません。アメリカ人はその味が可笑しいと思います。 私はミルクチョコレトCheetosを好きじゃないです。

Skiing with the Hearing Impaired

This also happened a couple weeks ago. Be patient as I will catch up soon.

I went skiing last weekend with the one Japanese guy I know who doesn’t speak Japanese as well as I do. I met Mr. Yagisawa the October before last as a member of a sign language club I joined back then. I quit the club long ago and subsequently forgot all but a smattering of my Japanese sign language (not that I learned much to begin with). He and I used to go out to cafes from time to time and “talk” with a notepad. He was eager to learn and practice English, and I was eager to learn and practice Japanese. I would scribble to him in broken Japanese and he would write back in English. We both learned quite a bit from each other.

The opportunity to know him better was one of the reasons I actually joined the sign language club to begin with. Yagisawasan is a remarkably intelligent guy who teaches art at the local "deaf school." He's an extremely curious guy who is always interested in learning new things and is always full of questions. He's also an extremely good teacher who makes excellent use of pnemonic devices. I learned more signs from him in just 20 minutes than I did in several weeks of classes with others in his club.

Alas, I never did learn sign language very well. At my peak I could very slowly sign the Japanese kana and learned a some basic greetings, phrases, and simple vocabulary. But I never got very good.

I see him at my gym sometimes, and we both agreed to go skiing together. We met up and he drove me up the mountain to the resort. It was obvious he hadn’t skied in awhile, and I felt bad that he couldn’t keep up. I felt bad about convincing him to go down a more difficult run. He finally had to take off his skis and walk some of the distance. We still had fun. He said he usually goes snowboarding, and I figured that he would just be doing that.

Note: The picture in this post was ruthlessly stolen from the internet and comes from this website. This is not me or Mr. Yagisawa skiing.

Okinawa Food

Another post from a week ago. I'll be caught up with everything this morning.

I met my friend Kame and her friend Sachiko this week to try out some Okinawa food. Okinawa is known for its delicious and very nutritious food and is one of the few places in Japan that serves up spicy food. I had one dish made from a tomato based spicy sauce and rice that could easily be mistaken for something from Mexico. Other dishes I ate didn’t resemble Mexican food at all. Being the flake that I am, I forgot what everything was called.

Kame’s friend is going to Kyoto in order to work as someone who teaches people how to wear kimonos. For some time I have known that wearing a woman’s kimono is a complicated affair that takes some learning and practice, but I had no idea people actually taught such things as a profession. I couldn’t have guessed that one required a license to do so either! I may have misunderstood Sachiko explain the line of work she was in, but I doubt it. She evidently has to go to Kyoto to take a licensing exam. This is all assuming I was hearing things correctly and important details were not lost in translation (as it often happens).

Politics and other sundry business.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, I don't wish for this blog to become a bullhorn for my politics, but sometimes you have to make an exception. Here's an editorial that might interest some of you from Slate.

Sundry goings on here in Japan include:

  • A suspected spider bite incapacitated me for a couple of days. This delayed my rigorous training schedule for the 10 mile race I entered last week. I couldn't run very well with a swollen leg with two big itchy dark red welts on them. The school nurse told me to see a dermatologist, but it has since cleared up. No excuses for not training now.
  • I have booked a ticket to the Philippines to spend my spring break and am currently trying to figure out how to fit everything into my schedule. I aim to get an advanced scuba license, dive a couple of very deep World War 2 wrecks that require this coursework despite my confidence in diving that deep. I also intend to see the famous rice terraces in Banaue, which is one of the world's forgotten wonders. See picture.
  • I joined my friend Chandan and his missionary friend Jeff for their weekly Bible Study meeting. It was a pretty informal affair they have on a Thursday night.
  • At the request of my employer, the Koriyama City Board of Education, I have removed links to my students' blogs (and found they were dead anyways) out of privacy concerns. Apparently there was some incident somewhere in Japan (that I've never heard of) involving a teacher divulging private information about a student on the internet. So, I am no longer allowed to post anything private about my students or promote my blog among my students.