Monday, August 27, 2012

It Begins

The flight was long... really long. And as usual, I couldn't sleep. Sometime in the middle, the flight attendant asked if I wanted food, in excellent English. Assuming there wasn't an option besides the beef or chicken entrees, I said no thank you, I'm vegetarian. She replied, oh, so you want chicken then? I realized then, that being vegan in the Far East might prove harder than I thought. I had brought plenty of food for the trip, but what I'd saved to get me started here was gone overnight when two of my closest friends, Jason and Roselynne, finished the rest catching up in the hotel on the first night.
A huge welcoming sign to Philippines Immigration

The next day was the gathering that prompted this trip. It was in memory of Jason's grandmother's death, and also in celebration of his mother's birthday. The last time Jason had visited the Philippines was 7 years ago, and this gathering was a no-miss. Jason and I had been trying to get here together since we first became friends in 10th grade, his job ended two days before the party, I had the time and the money to plan the trip (and then some), so we made it happen. I arrived 7 hours before his flight. And then at the airport, somehow, Jason walked right past me standing in the walkway of the exit from Immigration, and we spent an hour and a half looking for each other. I couldn't find his flight on the arrivals board, which spanned the hours before and after the time his flight was supposed to arrive. I went two floors up to the airline office asking about the flight, which they said had arrived 7 minutes before the scheduled time. So I went back down, the elevator doors opened up and there, 30 feet away was Jason's father looking for me.

There were complications with the places where we were to stay because of all of the rain and flooding from a week before, so we stayed in a hotel the first night. All three of us had a blast catching up, especially Roselynne and I, because we only knew of each other's life adventures through Jason. After three whole days of travel for me, and only a few hours sleep in all, we stayed up all night long. Roeslynne is a friend of mine from high school and she has lived the last year and a half in Cebu, a different island than Luzon, where Manila is. She's studying to be a Physician's Assistant at Cebu Doctors' University. And little did we know that our philosophical paths have been nearly identical. A lot was said, and still more to say. She returned to Cebu yesterday, and I can't wait to visit Cebu.

The next day at the celebration, falling asleep on our feet, the last meal being 24 hours before, we ate like no other. The only thing vegan was plain white rice, so I went for the next thing with the most vegetables, a traditional noodle dish called pancit, which was by no means vegan. Desperate, I ate it anyway, and made sure to eat some papaya to help digest the next time I found some.

My last name is Cacanindin. 'Cacanin' basically means snack, and it is also a particular dessert here --- 'din' means 'too'. So Cacanindin translates literally to 'snack-too' or 'snack-also' or 'snack-much'. At the banquet, one of the desserts just happened to be Cacanin, a non-vegan dessert that I simply couldn't not try when I learned its name. It's basically a semi-sweet rice cake with a buttery chocolate-coconut topping. So tasty!

Jason's father's family is wealthy and very hospitable. I'm currently sitting on the sofa of a beautiful home that could rival all but the luxurious mansions in the States. My hosts have welcomed me into the family with open arms, and open minds, as they are doing their very best to take on the challenge of veganism. According to Jason, the motivations of each of these women to take on the challenge is unique, but regardless of selfless or selfish, I think it a bold gesture of hospitality. In fact, I feel overwhelmed by hospitality so much so that my usual means of showing thanks by cooking, cleaning, fixing things, or just helping in any way possible have no room to be shown. I'm sure I'll find more creative ways to express my appreciation in the coming days.

We are here with his father's family in Manila until Thursday, when we leave to stay with his mother's family out in the much poorer country (more to my liking than the city). Then from there, it's on to Cebu to stay with Roselynne, who returned last night, maybe Bohol, and maybe Palawan (both different islands from here) before heading back up to the main northern island of Luzon, to visit my family in the yet poorer and smaller village of Aringay in La Union province where my grandfather grew up. I have been told that I related to 80% of the people in Aringay. Additionally, one of Jason's relatives heard my last name and instantly mentioned a well-respected lawyer he worked with named Justino Cacanindin, from Aringay, who died along with his wife only a few years ago. Jason's family has a relative named Benito Macareg Valdez (1907-1991). His mother was a Macareg, one of four surnames I'm related to by blood. She married into the Valdez family. I'll have to look into it when I get to Aringay. What a surprise it would be if my best friend of 9 years from Lancaster, CA was also my cousin (once-removed)!

When I arrived, Jason's mom and some of his other relatives were horrified at my full beard, and his mom was proverbially handing me the razor to shave it off. So, rather than alienate Jason and myself from the family...

Roselynne made it disappear.

I slept better last night than I can remember every sleeping. Today I've been crafting fantasies of places I'd like to go while I'm in the P.I. and talking food with Jason's food gurus. This afternoon, we'll go to the Mall of Asia, the largest mall of Asia. In Philippine cities, the mall is nothing like it is in the States. No matter what you want to do, you have to do it at the mall. School, doctors, dentists, optometrists, post offices, produce, hardware, fish, day care, concerts, call centers, churches are all found at the malls, the majority of which are indoors. Jason and I tried our best to think of something that wasn't done at the mall, and the only things we could come up with were drinking and smoking. So aside from coffee and sugar, everything in life except drugs happen at the mall. We haven't been to one before, so we're going to the Mall of Asia first, go figure. Then tomorrow maybe to some museums and a park. Hopefully it won't be too long before I get to update again. Until then, bahala na! Let it be!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Taipei, Taiwan

Today, I had an 8-hour layover in Taiwan, so I took a 1-hr bus into Taipei proper and walked around. I was surprised how similar the most urban areas were to other US cities I've been to. There's a more striking contrast between poor and rich however. Tons of brand new apartment buildings nicer than many in NYC stand tangent to run-down apartments with a cage around every balcony and window.

As many people drove vespas as taxis and buses, but the streets are actually really nice! People move quickly, but not with the sense of desperation and angst that overwhelms the senses in NYC, or even all of California!

I stood next to the tallest building in the world, Taipei 101 (tallest from 2004-2010), which was obviously built to inspire awe at human creation and economic vitality. But, it just didn't induce that in me. I've spent too much time in mountain ranges where one slope can climb10,000 feet in a single shot, so 101 floors and 1,667 feet just didn't compare. No matter how much humans marvel at themselves, nature will always knock our egos down, and always dwarf human "accomplishment".

Didn't mean to get negative, it was awesome running around my first Asian country to visit for a few hours. And, it's awesome that the airport has computers with free internet! Who'd have thought? Anyway, off to my connection to Manila, and hopefully a nap. Till the next country... ;-D

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Farewell North America

My spirit animal is a hawk, as I've mentioned before. I'm less than 24 hours away from leaving the open spaces and the variety of ecosystems of western North America. In 48 hours I'll be in the Philippines, at the beginning of a 2- to 8- year adventure in the Far East that will probably take me to 20 different countries, and thousands of new experiences. I also have family in the Philippines who I've never even spoken to in my life. This journey will be a spiritual, personal, and physical adventure that simply HAS to happen at this point in my life. I have no commitments, no debt, nothing except family, friends, and the eternally compelling and important activist work to be done here in my homeland. At this moment, I am excited, a little nervous, and mostly just stressed about the frustrating process of boarding an airplane in one country and landing legally in another. I wonder if my western-US spirit hawk will be a Philippine Eagle when I return, or maybe even a totally different animal?

Ultimately, every time we step outside, we put ourselves in a situation of extreme risk. Traveling overseas spending very little as possible may sound risky to some. To me, life is too short not to take on risks that are unpredictable. Life should be full of first experiences; the time we have should feel fulfilling in every way. If you're not feeling fulfilled, then it's time to make a change in your life. Anyone, I mean ANYONE can make a journey like this. All it takes is a spark of desire, and a breeze of motivation, and life can be transformed in an instant.

I stand here with the utmost breadth and depth of experience that could be gained in the years I have lived up to now. Every moment unafraid of death because I know I lived every single moment to its fullest and wouldn't change a thing about  my life and who it has led me to become. Life can't be put off. It's an ocean in torrent, utterly uncontrollable, that must be faced with courage and passion. Fling yourself into the nothingness of existence and see where it lands you. The liberation felt in that moment, and the depths of one's self that can be reached are ineffable.

There's no sense in worrying about things that can't be controlled. There's only me, this moment, and the next. What's important in these moments? For me, it's reuniting with my family, and grounding myself for the adventure of a lifetime. I'll meet you back here soon enough! I'm sure that by the time I have internet access in the Philippines, I'll have plenty of interesting stories to tell already. Until then!

Hitching down the coast

From Seattle to near Los Angeles was a three-day journey that included two raving rednecks from Mississippi, a kid who was on the longest drive of his life leaving Oregon and moving for SF, and also the hitchhiking trap that is Sacramento. It took about 18 hours to get out of Sacramento, but again got saved by a short ride to just out of town, and then all the way down to the front door of my parents' house in Lancaster, CA. Pretty sweet.

Hitching to Seattle

Shorter story, but still amazing. So, I got a few short rides from West Yellowstone area up to Bozeman, MT, where it took about an hour to get a ride westward. The woman who picked me up thought she was going farther, but had to drop me off at an exit that was literally nothing. In an hour, four cars passed me on the road that subtraversed the freeway. The fourth was only the second that entered the freeway, and it was a man who lived 6 blocks away from my grandmother's apartment in Seattle, the same apartment my mother spent her high school years living in. It was utterly amazing that this guy picked me up there, of all places. When stuff like that happens on the road, the person who picks me up always had some unusual circumstances that literally held them back from leaving until the right moment, a delay that was essential to being able to stop and pick me up.

He was very smart and capable, and had a professional hand in a lot of different honey jars working at a very high level in things like teaching scuba diving and inspecting welds around the country. He was also gay and obviously interested in me. Near the end, in the last hour or so, every exit was another opportunity I was passing up. He really wanted to give me a blow job. He was super nice, just a little desperate, I think. I arrived at my grandmother's doorstep less than 18 hours after I left the cabin in West Yellowstone. Pretty awesome time thumbing it.

My time in Seattle was essential to mending some of the rougher ties I have with my blood family in the past. I'm so happy that I made the trek up there. I wasn't going to originally, but sometimes, family is more important than anything else.

Earth First!

The Rendezvous was an experience of important self-discovery, and profound learning experiences. It was almost a small Buffalo Campaign reunion, so there were quite a few people I knew. I was somewhat cautious to make deeper connections mainly because I knew I would be flying to the Philippines in 6 weeks. I also couldn't talk for the entire week I was there. In my thirst, I filled my water bottles at a gas station in an area that I knew had poisoned water. After all, that was part of the reason the Rondy was happening there. I think it was something in that really wretched water that made it hard to get my voicebox to work at all for more than a month afterward.

The Rondy is basically an activist training camp that also serves to inject a deeper involvement in a particular campaign. This one was hydrofracking. Fracking is a last-ditch effort to harvest natural gas where chemical-saturated water is shot deep into the earth to fracture shale rock, and thus releasing natural gas. It poisons entire watersheds, makes the surrounding air unbreathable for miles around, and even causes earthquakes. And, it's happening on public land all over the United States in fragile habitats, national forests, and protected parks. It's the wholesale of public wildlands for the profit of the very few with the support of huge amounts of taxpayer dollars.

One of the many plants in the Allegheny National Forest where the Rondy was held was shut down for an entire day. It's the very first time a plant has been shut down, and it cost Halliburton millions of dollars. You can bet there will be more actions taken against hydrofracking in this country in the coming months and years, but for each action, there are 10 new plants that become operational. It may be a losing battle, but Earth First! has a motto of No Compromise. Culture can sell a lifestyle of moderate luxury to the masses, companies can sell them bottled water after they've poisoned public water, entire habitats and species can go extinct, hospitals can demand health bills far out of proportion even for the life-threatening illnesses in millions of people as a result of hydrofracking. But no matter what downwards spiral capitalism forces us into, you can bet that at least a very very small percentage of us will go down spitting, kicking, and screaming to the last breath to protect the Earth and her precious resources upon which we all depend absolutely.

Hitching to Pennsylvania

The road to Pennsylvania and the National Earth First! Rendezvous was interesting to say the least. I left West Yellowstone, MT four days before the Rondy was scheduled to begin. Got a ride from a trucker who took me all the way to Billings, MT, where it took more than 3 hours to catch a ride. She brought me 40 mi east but not before her car broke down twice on the freeway. Her car needed new fuel injectors. Two Native American families got me to just east of Buffalo, WY at a stop that was just a gas station and a pub. The first day of my journey was coming to a close, and my thoughts turned to where I was going to sleep in an area where there were no trees.

Then, two vehicles drove around from the back; the driver in the first was a guy with big glasses was flashing the peace sign and an even bigger grin. I asked him if they were headed east. "Sure are." Got room for one more? "Sure do." It was a hippie caravan of two vans, a small sedan, and about 15 hippies. The lead van was a big Ford with a raised roof and dimmed lights, complete with bed in back, flowers tied to the radio antenna, books and trinkets piled halfway up the windshield on the dash, musical instruments, and the overwhelming smell of hippie cabbage. They were all exhausted, and needed driving relief, so after 30 mins of asking other customers at the station for gas to help us get to our family (Rainbow) gathering in Tennessee, I took the wheel of the main van, and drove through the night to the sound of blasting music.

Half of the hippies were kids between the ages of 16 and 22; they were the usual too-lazy-to-do-anything-else type. The other half were extremely creative and intelligent, slightly older, most with college degrees, and most simply frustrated with every other way of living and hoping for something better. After we got to talking, they really tried to get me to come to the Rainbow Gathering with them. In turn, I tried to get the smart ones to come up to live alternatively but do something worthwhile in the environmental activism scene in PA. Then, the most interesting and most attractive girl in the bunch tried a compromise to get me to come to Tennessee and then halfway through the Rainbow, we would drive up to the Rondy. I was tempted because she was really someone special, but I felt that the Rondy held something more important to me than a whimsical crush.

Every time the hippies stopped, they got out and wandered, dehydrated, glazed eyes, spreading like films of smoke into whatever sheltered community they descended upon. We drove 24/7 but our pit stops could last anywhere from 20 min to 2 hrs. Once, we stopped in Des Moines, Iowa, asking for gas with our illegal, metal, 5-gallon, army surplus can. A kid rolls up to us on his moped bumming a cigarette. The same bloke in glasses and leather kilt that picked me up off the curb near Buffalo, WY raises a cigarette he just rolled in the air like a torch. "Right here, just rolled it. Got anything in exchange? We need a few dollars or some gas." "I don't have any money or gas... What else do you need?" "Well, we need a gas can. The one we got is illegal." "Actually, I have a few of those in the attic. That's worth more than a cigarette though. What else you got?" "Well," said the 15-year hitchiking guru, "I could probably get you stoned." A smile danced onto the kid's face, and after some deliberation, we piled into the cars, and drove a couple miles to the kid's parents' house.

Now, this house is in a cookie-cutter, plastic, suburban neighborhood that made the community in Edward Scissor-Hands look like a Rainbow Gathering. The shape, design, and paint of every house was immaculate and identical in every way. The front lawns are cut exactly the same without a fence to separate them, and the trees were all brand new. Then the hippie caravan led by this kid on his moped rolled up to one of the houses, and the topless, shoeless hippies flooded out onto the lawn. Three are under a tree drinking water and smoking joints, and one girl is doing hand stands on the grass. The kid goes into the house followed by two kids who had just packed the fattest bowl I'd ever seen. Moments later, kid's sister comes out and eyes handstand hippie with the most disgusted but curious look on her face, as if she'd never even heard of a hippie before. Used to causing this reaction in people, the hippies took her under their wing, calmed her down, and found small talk was easy as pie. Minutes later, seriously stoned sparky comes out asking if anyone needs water, which leads to flooding the garage water spigot, and then to brushing teeth in the sink just inside the house. After about two hours, people are finally ready to pile back into the vehicles and move on.

Then, Iowa lamb chop comes back out of his house holding a teal duffel, which he stuffs hurriedly into the lead van, saying, "Don't let my sister see this." This kid has never left his county before in his life. Then he tells his sister he's coming to help us with gas at the station, and jumps in the caravan bound for Tennessee. Completely bursting with bubbly energy in the back seat, he said "I've always wanted to get out of that fucking town!" I was so proud of the kid for taking the initiative to let life lead him around a bit rather than sloshing around trapped in the mud of the mundane. About 36 hours, one more passenger, and far too much marijuana later, I'm dropped off on a freeway headed north towards Pennsylvania never to hear from them again.

I got a ride up through Ohio from a really interesting woman just a year older than me who likes/trusts men with beards, and who seemed on the very precipice of breaking out of the chains of religion, social expectation, and tradition that can sometimes enslave the Midwestern, white, country woman. We drove through an intense storm of horizontal rainbands, green clouds, more than 5 flipped semis, and uprooted trees. Slept overnight just south of PA, then caught 8 or so really short rides that got me to where the Rondy was supposed to be. It was only after 17 miles of walking in an East Coast heat wave with a 65-lb pack that I made my way to the Rondy site only half a day late, and having lost almost 10 lbs of body weight from dehydration. I was only late because the directions were completely wrong, and after I had vacated my last ride, I was on foot till the end. The sight of that welcome tent was so sweet after such a struggle.

Harboring a Fugitive Buffalo

The buffalo taught me to listen to spiritual chatter around me, and the things I've heard and spoken continue to surprise me. For a recent example, check this video out. A BFC volunteer received a call that a buffalo had gored a dog that had attacked it near the Campaign headquarters. As she was hanging up the phone, she noticed a bull walking up the driveway to the Campaign in an area 30 miles away from where the hazing agencies had pushed all other buffalo to inside Yellowstone National Park more than a month before. The bull made its way over to the co-founder's personal cabin and bedded down under a tree just out of view. Less than a minute after the buffalo was observed bedding down, the local Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) agent drove up the driveway and asked if we'd seen it. The bull came up to us for safety, and of course no one gave up the buffalo's life. The video tells the story: