Sunday, August 24, 2008

Betel Nut

Okay, to discuss betel nut. Apparently Popondetta, which is where we were at, has some of the best betel nut there is around. Hopefully that would explain some of the fascination that people have with it. There are a few different ways that people can partake of the nuts: one way is to simply chew on the nut itself, the preferred method is to mix it with lime and mustard. The latter concoction turns the teeth red and makes a pleasant looking puddle when expectorated. It is pretty easy to pick out who does and does not chew the betel nut, you only have to look at the teeth. People who do it have almost bright red teeth (the ones that are left anyway). They take the nut, take a small bite of the mustard seed, dip it into lime, and then chew it up. Apparently when you mix it this way it becomes a bit of a stimulant. It is not dissimilar to tobacco I suppose, but it seems a bit odd, especially when you consider that somebody had to be the first to discover this mixture. It makes you wonder how many other things the intrepid inventor mixed it with first before deciding to mix it with lime and mustard, or maybe they just mixed lime and mustard and then began experimenting, I don’t know. I guess that it has been passed down for a long time, (I know that it was being done that way in the Philippines when Magellan made his infamous stop there), according to the PNG guys we worked with it could be in the four digit range of years. Everywhere you go there, you see nice, bright red ropes of betel nut expectorant, at first I thought that it was blood, but quickly realized my mistake when I saw some lady hawk a giant one on the sidewalk. There is some betel nut chewing that goes on here in Micronesia, but it does not take on the huge status that it does in PNG. I will have more to say on that topic when I discuss the scope of work we have at the hospital we are working on

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Still Getting Caught Up

Our time in Papua New Guinea (or niugini as they spell it sometimes), wasn’t particularly all that eventful. Our accommodations were not that spectacular, for those of you familiar with our usual luxurious lodging at Hampton Beach, you can get a feel for what we were staying in. Walls that seem to be made of some strange material somewhere between the thickness of cellophane and cardboard, with acoustical qualities that would make any theatre architect jealous; water pressure that could knock your skin off (if you are a leper)-(assuming it was actually working)-(sometimes you could get hot, sometimes cold, but never any combination in between). Work was long, we built two clinics and a two room school house in addition to installing two 6,000 gallon water tanks at the local hospital for emergency water distribution. To say the least we were busy. The weather wasn’t too bad, considering that it was winter on that side of the world, it was usually upper 80s to low 90s with varying degrees of humidity. The people were pretty good to us and we made some good friends with the PNG Defense Force men we worked with. The only subject that I feel that I need to expound on and digress upon is the betel nut. I will save that for a future date as it will encompass all of my mental faculties to describe the lengths and breadths that people there go to for a good betel nut chew.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

leaving the philippines

Going all the way back to June, we finished all of our projects in the PI and were sent off with some very nice parties and ceremonies (and a not nice supposedly 5k "fun run" that was not fun and was not 5k). We left the Philippines by C-130, one of the nice and unique things about a C-130 is that it has the ability to utilize a "reverse" by changing the angle of its propellers. This is necessary when you are attempting to take off from a small runway the size of the one that they had in Calbayog City. What many people don't think of (especially children from a small island in the PI apparently) is that once that plane backs all the way up to the edge of the runway, it's going to change direction. There were two small boys standing at the edge of the runway on a small grass knoll when our C-130 changed the propellers to get us moving forward, the boys had only felt a small wind from our movement and must have felt safe standing a hundred or so feet behind the plane. However, when we began to move forward, all of that changed and they were sent literally flying down the backside of the knoll (naturally to our great amusement), I was just glad that the ramp was down so that we had a nice view of it.
If anyone has ever had the pleasure of flying on a C-130, you know how "comfortable" the accomodations are for a five hour flight. The important thing is that we made it back to Okinawa in one piece and were able to catch up with the rest of our battalion that had just left Gulfport. We spent two pretty uneventful weeks at Camp Shields before departing for PNG. It was another C-130 trip down to Port Moresby, PNG where we spent the night in a pretty nice hotel while awaiting our C-12 trip down (actually it was kind of up, in the north/south sense of the words up and down, but it was below the equator so I don't know if the usual convention of referring to northly directions as "up" and southerly directions as "down" is still accepted) to Popondetta. I will leave off here and continue updates as I find the time. Thanks for reading.

Friday, August 15, 2008

getting caught up

Wow, I knew that I hadn't posted anything on here in a while, but when I saw that the last post was from June, and I just realized we are halfway through August, I couldn't believe it. For all two people who read this, I apologize for not attempting to get anything on the page. Papua New Guinea was extremely slow (dial-up) with only two computers and twenty people trying to use them in the few hours a day we weren't working. I am going to try to backdate everything and fill you in on the trials of working in Papua New Guinea (PNG). I will just say for now that we had some serious materials issues (three days in a row we had parts bumped from a plane in order to make room for chickens, this is not a joke, it really happened, we really had parts taken off of a plane to make room for live chickens, again, not a joke-really happened). The internet here is slightly better, the difference being that we have limited wireless availability, so we can have more than just one or two people on at the same time, plus hopefully we will be working slightly more sane hours. I will also update on our trip to the USNS Mercy, we stayed overnight before flying to Micronesia. Thanks for not giving up on me and I almost promise to keep typing.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

getting a rooster

05 June 2008

Okay, I know that I haven’t written for a while, but there is a good reason; I haven’t really felt like it, nor have I had any experiences that I truly felt compelled to put into words. Mostly it is just work and sleep. We are hoping to finish a 1500 square foot building in about a month, most of which is concrete and block, a feat that will be something if we can accomplish it. We are closing in on it, but it is still in doubt whether or not we will make it by the 12th. We need the 13th and 14th to wash, organize, pack, and load our gear on the next set of flights. I have been told that I will be on the first flight back to Japan (this time that’s good) where I will take up residence in a new barracks room (hopefully the last time I have to switch rooms when we go back). Because I mentioned the roosters, I will elaborate on the topic. I cannot even begin to count the number of people that I see on a daily basis walking or riding in the pedal taxis that are carrying a rooster. Every time that I see these people I wonder if they are taking the rooster to the vet, the fights, or simply just taking the family rooster for a stroll. Everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, you go, you see roosters, chickens, and whatnot, but I only see people getting serious about walking the roosters.
I have seen all manner of things being walked, water buffalo(?), donkeys, fleas, lice, etc., but for some reason that I cannot fathom, the rooster is king. I have been invited to go to the local cock fights Sunday afternoon and will probably go just for the curiosity factor. In the meantime, I have to go walk my new rooster. I will try to keep this more updated, but can make no promises as the rooster is getting me up early in the morning.

Monday, May 19, 2008

getting around town

19 May 2008

Well, we didn’t quite finish the pharmacy, there were some material issues and we didn’t get the door and windows until almost noon. We just have some cosmetic details to take care of tomorrow and will be out of there by noon one way or the other. I don’t know which job I’ll be off to after that, probably back to the big block job at the main clinic that we are building, it’s probably about time I went back there and see how the electrical is coming. The pharmacy is about 45 minutes away from our compound which gives me a good chance to observe the driving here in this part of the Philippines.
Driving here is more of a contact sport than navigation. I have been to places where lane markings and signs are suggestions, but here they are wishes more than anything. There is a hierarchy on the roads here that must be observed at all costs. Right of way goes first and foremost to the largest vehicle, then the fastest, then the one with the most insistent use of the horn. In the States, the horn is generally used to signal your displeasure to another driver who has done something stupid; here there is an entire vocabulary contained within a few short bursts. I have been able to decode much of what is being said in this morse-like code – one short honk means “I am coming up behind you”, (this is reserved for slow moving pedestrians and human powered tricycles), the longer single honk is meant for engine powered tricycles and is a warning to move to the right. Two honks is the signal for “I’m passing you regardless of safety and road conditions because I’m faster” – this one also doubles to let the oncoming driver know that the vehicle couldn’t care less about you, so you better move to the right or you will be pushed off of the road. Three honks is serious and means “ move you slow moving a** or you’re going to get run over” – again, this one is reserved for pedestrians (even the dogs seem to understand this one) and pedal bikes and this signal is usually given approximately 6-12 inches from the offending party’s rear end resulting in an immediate jerking movement out of the vehicle’s path. Four blasts is so far the most serious that I have seen and is only utilized in the most hazardous of situations and usually only occurs every 100 or so feet of travel, this one means “pardon me driver of a larger vehicle, but I did not see you when I blindly pulled out from behind the vehicle that had the nerve to travel slower than I wished to, I would pull back in, but I have not yet had the chance to push the slower, smaller vehicle (pedestrian, bike, pig, cow, rooster, etc.) from the roadway, and would you please slow down momentarily to allow me to do so.” I know that that seems like a lot to cram into 4 toots, but they do it somehow.
The vast majority of vehicles on the road are not motor powered, they are human powered (I did see a kid with a roto-tiller tied to a wagon, he had leaned it back and had the tines in the air, I still haven’t figured out how he steered, but I digress), there are bikes with a third wheel and a cab everywhere you go. There are also motorcycles with the requisite cab also. You could not believe the amount of stuff that can fit into one of these cabs (I say into, but what I really mean is into, on top, below, off to the side, etc.), I even saw one that had the cab converted into a moving livestock cage and contained two pigs, I have no idea how the pigs paid for the cab but since sausage and bacon are delicious I don’t really care. The do have some busses that look like something that Scooby-Doo and the gang painted (picture the mystery machine with about 50 people in it, and again I use the term in loosely).
I have more to say about the transportation here, but will try to save further posting until I have completed more in-depth analysis. I do have a theory as to why people stare at me everywhere I go, and contrary to popular belief, it is not because I am 6’4”, 220lbs, and have red hair – it’s because I don’t walk around carrying a rooster - but more on that next time.

Friday, May 16, 2008

getting an eye opener

16 May 2008

Yesterday I was moved to another project – remodeling a “pharmacy”. Myself and two other Seabees were tasked with painting it inside and out, replacing four windows and a door, and building two sets of shelves for medication. The pharmacy is only about 50 square feet and barely has room for all three of us inside at the same time. We spent most of the day yesterday preparing the building by pressure washing it and scrubbing it. We had a hard time getting the pressure washer going. The only water source in town is a set of spigots by the town well, yes THE town well. We had to take a piece of hose and jam it over the end of the spigot and then jam the hose into our American hose which we then connected to the washer. There were already a bunch of the villagers out there watching us when we started, but they came out of the woodwork when we fired up the pressure washer. For the most part, the locals aren’t too impressed by out tools, a hammer may be nicer than another hammer, but it is still a hammer. The one thing that they are fascinated by is our power tools. Once we got the building squared away, we spent the rest of the day painting the outside in front of another huge crowd. Paint isn’t unheard of here, but it is fairly uncommon. Most of the buildings are made of unpainted block and stucco, while the majority of the homes are for lack of a better word, shanties. They are made of pieces and parts of all manner of things, old signs, pieces of plywood, corrugated metal, and of course bamboo and palm fronds.
Today we finished painting the inside of the building and second coated the outside. We again drew a huge crowd when we pulled out another of our mysterious wonders, a circular saw. One of the Philippino Seabees that we are working with stated that he had never run one, let alone seen one. The village was just amazed at how fast we were able to cut the plywood and pieces for the sides of the shelves. The villagers are extremely friendly, most of the men are gone during the day out working in the rice paddies, picking cutting and drying the rice. They put the rice on the side of the road because it’s hot and then sweep it up into sacks and cart it off. Almost none of the houses have electricity and none that I have seen have any type of running water. Everyone has big plastic jugs that they bring to the well pump to fill up. Some of the houses with electricity have televisions, you can tell which ones by the huge bamboo poles with rabbit ears on top in the yards and by the crowd of kids standing in the window to watch. We should be done there on Monday, and off to the next job.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

getting to work

13 May 2008

Yesterday began work in earnest. We had to take a little time to get started, but once we got going, it began to fly. The Filipinos are great to work with and are extremely eager to get the work done. By the time the first day was done we had laid over three hundred block and core filled everything. It was interesting working with people who don’t really speak your language, but some things are easy to communicate, work (especially construction work) and sports are international in nature. At the end of the day it began to downpour and hasn’t stopped raining since.
This morning we decided that only a few people needed to go to the main job site, but I volunteered to go to our inside job and help strip linoleum tiles and replace them with some nice new ceramic tile. The tile that was in place was the color of dried blood, a poor choice for a health clinic. We are also tasked with placing a concrete pad for an outdoor waiting area so that we can add another treatment room inside. The reason that I volunteered to go to that job is partly because I didn’t want to be bored all day, but mostly I heard that there was a monkey at the next door neighbor’s house. I will post pictures of the monkey on the dropshots site. We spent most of the morning wading through mud and trying to dig some form of drainage to keep the pad from flooding. I don’t know what job I’ll be on tomorrow, but it should be interesting.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

getting back together

11 May 2008

The rest of our group joined us yesterday here in the Philippines. All of our stuff arrived safe and sound and we all have cots to sleep on now. I spent the morning out at the airfield with a few other guys unloading the second plane in the morning and just relaxing in the afternoon while the reinforcements unloaded the third a final plane. We did have a reception dinner at the local hotel, hosted by the mayor. The food was good, I found some kind of meat roll that I filled up on – they said it was an egg roll, but there were no eggs in it. It was pretty tame, they did give us all the beer we could drink, but we were only there for a couple hours and didn’t get into any trouble. Today we are just going to wrap up some of the details about our main project and catch our collective breath before we begin work.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Getting there!

09 May 2008

We were actually able to get off the ground today in Okinawa and make our way to the Philippines. We were too heavy to land on the airfield in Calbayog, so we had to stop at the old Clark AFB and shed some load. Unfortunately, we had no control over which box we were leaving behind, we just had to dump the ones in the rear. The good news is that our MREs (meals ready to eat) made it, the bad news is that our cots did not. I have to sleep homeless style, I couldn’t find any cardboard, but did manage to get a piece of plywood to break the contact between me and the concrete floor.
We are living in an elementary school compound that is fenced on all sides. I didn’t realize that this was a big deal to the people who live here. We were met by what I assumed was most of the population (it wasn’t, they were all on the street riding bicycles powered by many every conceivable means). It was a treat watching the local forklift operator try to unload our box off the back of the C-130, let’s just say that his concern for speed and smoothness of operation isn’t exactly what the military likes to see around multi-million dollar planes. Once we finally got it on the truck, we were hustled into a couple of moving sardine cans that pass for vans here and whisked off to our home for the next month. I was shocked when we were met by a group of dancing locals and a band. The welcome that we received here was unlike anything that I have ever experienced, it was almost like we were conquering heroes. Once the hullabaloo died down we had to get to work unloading the box and putting our stuff in order for the next day. We had to leave one of our seabags behind to follow us the next day on another flight. Unfortunately, the one I chose to leave behind is the one with my tent, sleeping bag, poncho liner, etc. in it, so I have to rough it for the night. Tomorrow hopefully we will get our other bags, cots, and mosquito nets. Apparently we have all been invited to the mayor’s house for dinner tomorrow, so I will let you know how that turns out.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

getting sunburned

I would like to take back my premature statement of it being a “pretty down day”. As I finished typing the first entry, I got a knock on my door and had to go to work. The Marines/Air Force had originally stated that they would do all of the tie downs and palletizing of our equipment, but somehow there was a communication snafu and we (the Seabees) had to do it. We had to haul all of our equipment out to the airfield, chain all of the boxes onto 463L pallets, chain down our mortar mixer, etc., then stand by for an inspection of it to ensure that it was okay to be loaded onto our flight tomorrow. Long story short, we spent the entire day on the flight line making adjustments, finding chains and tie-downs, and standing by. Apparently one of the side effects of the malaria medication that we are on (doxycycline)is a decreased ability to be in the sun. I don’t think that I have been this sunburned in a long, long time. I never even came this close in Kuwait, Senegal, or Bahrain. There are many other side effects that make me wonder whether the cure isn’t worse than the disease. Hopefully the body will get used to the pills and I’ll be fine, in the meantime, it takes my mind off the itching smallpox growing in my left arm.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

getting ready to go

08 May 2008

Yesterday we spent the day repacking all of our tri-cons to be as evenly balanced as possible before we put them on the plane. There seems to be some confusion as to whether we can land the entire weight of the plane at the airfield in the Philippines. If we can’t, we need to do it in increments which will add a lot of time to the evolution. Hopefully we will find out sooner rather than later. Most of the people are flying down (as of now) on Saturday, while a group of us are flying with the equipment to oversee the unloading and putting it on the truck part of the job. This is lucky for me because it means more time on a C-130 with the super comfortable seats and the commodious bathrooms, not to mention the added couple of hours in the air.
Today should be a pretty down day. We had to turn our uniforms in to be “dipped”, which means they are going to spray them with some industrial chemicals to ward off two of the millions of mosquitoes that we will be feeding in the next couple of months. Once we get them back we have to wash them and repack them. As nice as it would be to get settled in here and prepare for the long haul, I am looking forward to getting down to the PI and getting to work. Time goes by so much faster when you’re busy and that’s what’s most important right now. The time change is still a little confusing. My body has pretty much gotten it, but my mind is still struggling. I just realized that it is eight o’clock in the morning here and the Sox are getting ready to play back home. I don’t know what the difference will be in the Philippines, probably a little less, but I’m not sure.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

getting caught up

04 May 2008

When I first found out that I had been selected to go with a detachment to Senegal in 1997, I had pictured myself working alongside giraffes, zebras, chimps, rhinos, etc. When we arrived and the only wild animals were donkeys, I was disappointed that my imagination had run far ahead of the reality. Western Africa in the region of Chies, Senegal is pretty boring. I have hopefully learned my lesson as we step of on another detachment to remote third world countries. I still have pictures of monkeys hanging out in trees watching us work, but don’t have the same level of expectation that I had all those years ago. I am of course sad to be leaving the family, but am also kind of excited that we are going to four places that I have never been to. I know that for anyone reading this on the website was promised some sort of amusing commentary. I can’t guarantee that this will be the case, but I will strive to do my best. If you are hoping for amusing, then you are hoping for me to encounter morons, simpletons, snafus, etc., etc.; thanks.

06 May 2008

The first full day of our deployment is done. We lost the fifth of May crossing the international date line and will hopefully get it back when we’re done. So far things have been okay, the flight over was typical; cramped, long, and boring. I was luckily by myself and was not accountable to or for anyone else until I met up with the others in Tokyo. For some reason we were split up into different groups and only finally all got back together this afternoon when the last group made it into camp. We are at Camp Shields in Okinawa for a few days, gathering supplies and tools. Today we inventoried all of the tool kits and tested the generators and electrical equipment that we will taking with us. Tomorrow we take all of our stuff over to the airfield and load it onto a C-130 for the flight to the Philippines. Apparently a few lucky chosen few (yup me) get to fly with it and unload whatever we need by hand to get the weight down to the point where a small forklift can pick up the boxes. I get to be first again, I hope all this being first doesn’t hurt my chances to come back early too.
So far, nothing really humorous or thought provoking has occurred. Part of that is because I am still too tired to think (only about 10 hours of sleep in the last three days), hopefully tonight I will be able to catch up on some of it. The internet here in Japan is kind of spotty, but I will keep writing and posting as I get the chance.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The beginning

Just a brief blurb on the upcoming mission, this is the official storyline by some no name hack who writes for the Battalion public affairs. Hopefully the reporting will be better from here on out. The name of the mission is Pacific Partnership '08.

This is a general idea of where we will be traveling to first. We are scheduled to build a social disease clinic here somewhere outside of Calbayog City,in the Philippines. Apparently it isn't a good idea to put your lepers in the same waiting room as your expectant mothers.

Our next scheduled stop is in Popondetta in Papua New Guinea. We don't really know yet what we will be doing here other than some rehab work on a health clinic.

Our last scheduled trip is to Chuuk, Micronesia. Again, no definite tasking yet, but I'm sure there will be some interesting work to be done.

I don't know if anyone is interested in sending any mail, but if so, the addresses at which I can (hopefully) be reached are as follows:
CE2 Higgins
NMCB 133 Fly-In Det. (Seabees)
USNS Mercy (T-AH-19)
FPO AP 96672-4090

The above address should be good until August, at which time it will be faster to just send stuff to Okinawa. We will be going in and out of Okinawa to resupply and regroup. The address in Okinawa is the safer of the two, we will be able to pick up our mail during our stops there. The first address is to the ship, they will supposedly fly our mail in once a week or so, but who knows. The address at Oki is:
CE2 Higgins
Unit # 60254
FPO AE 34099-5041