The Unconquered Hill

There are places that are hard to conquer because of their natural physical barrier. Like the Masada in Israel, a fortress on top of a rock plateau 1400-feet high. This was the last foothold of the Jews against the Romans. Or the Maeda escarpment, which is a 350-foot high ridge in the island of Okinawa, Japan. The Americans lost hundreds of lives trying to capture this place, a story featured in the movie Hacksaw Ridge.

But I am not really going to talk about battles or wars today. The unconquered hill that I was alluding to was a hill in a bike route. Yes, no shedding of blood here, only sweat for it’s just a bike ride.

I participated in the RAGBRAI*, which is a popular annual week-long bicycle ride across the state of Iowa. This was my second time to join this event.

Before you really get amazed on my undertaking, I want to let you know that I only rode for one day, and not for the whole week. And I chose the day with the shortest route too, which was only 40 miles. I say only 40 miles, because on the other days, the course ranges from 60 to 88 miles.

see my shadow taking photo?

I did not train much for this bike ride. Since I run at least 2-3 times a week and can run 3 miles comfortably, plus knowing that I have finished several half-marathons in the past, I was confident that biking 40 miles should not be a problem at all. After all, I am reasonably fit, right?

When I run for the half-marathon, I usually train for at least 2 months. But the only preparation I did for this bike ride was I performed a 5-mile exercise in a stationary bike at a gym a week before, and I rode a 10-mile road test 2 days before the real event.

That was a mistake.

My cardiopulmonary function may be alright, and my determination is like titanium, but I overlook one thing. Riding a bike uses a different set of muscles than running.

So on one of the steep uphill climb, I felt my quadriceps muscles cramping and almost giving out. They were not trained to pound on the pedal for that long. As you probably know, running uses more of the hamstrings and calf muscles, not so much in cycling.

We stopped for a while after that grueling hill, and sat at the side of the road to give my cramping quad muscles a break. This bike-ride is not a race anyway. You can do it at your own pace, and can stop several times if you want. In fact, stopping to sample the foods being sold along the way and hanging out in the small towns we passed through was encouraged.

bikers and bikes taking a break

I made it through the 40 miles ride in one piece, and without keeling over. No bruises, no fractures. Only fractured confidence.

On the bike course of that day, the last leg was a couple of hills. I don’t know why they chose a steep hill for a finish after already pedaling 40 miles and passing so many hills. But since we were already within the vicinity of what was considered the end of the route, we skipped the last hill climb and called it a day.

the last hill of the course

We then phoned for our ride to fetch us at the street before the last hill – the last unconquered hill.

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(*RAGBRAI- Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa; photos taken with an iPhone)

Columns of History

Pompeii is an ancient Roman city near the modern day Naples in southern Italy. On that fateful moment in AD 79, it was suddenly buried in 4 to 6 meters of volcanic ash and debris during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

The city remained frozen in time, concealed under ash and rocks until it was discovered by surveying engineer in 1748. With methodical excavation, evidence of a once thriving city was unearthed.

When we visited Pompeii several weeks ago, we were able to witness the ruins, as well as take a peek at a slice of ancient Roman life.

Photo below is one of the main streets, where horse-drawn carriages or chariots pass through. It is amazing how the stone-paved road is in very good condition.

Though the pedestrians, experts believe, walk on the sidewalk and use the step-stones (big stones in the middle of the road) to cross to the other side of the road. The reason why pedestrians don’t walk in the stone-paved road was that most of the time runoff water was flowing in the road as part of their water drainage system. Plus, sewage from homes also stream through it, and you definitely don’t want to step on that.

Below is an entry way to a well-to-do home. I was impressed on the intricacy of the mosaic art on the floor.

Here is a courtyard garden inside the largest home on the block. It was believed that this residence was owned by a prominent Roman of the ruling class.

Below is an ancient eatery or food vendor, perhaps like the modern day McDonald’s or your local carinderia. The holes in the ‘counter’ are where the pots or vessels containing food were kept warm by a fire underneath.

Here is their theater (next photo) where they watch plays and concerts. I wonder what shows they have then. Maybe “The Three Roman Tenors?” Or perhaps “The Phantom of the Colosseum?”

The Romans also have public bath houses. The photo below, believe it or not, is a sauna room. A wood-burning furnace outside sends warm air under the raised floor to heat the room.

Next is a sample of their wall art. Much nicer than the modern day graffiti, I would say.

They also have some sort of sports complex. The facility below is a training ground for gladiators.

Below is Pompeii’s town plaza. At the backdrop is Mount Vesuvius, which is considered an active volcano up to this day, though the last time it erupted was in 1944.

As we walked around the ruins, I have noticed that there were lots and lots of pillars.

I supposed these columns that are still standing today, are testaments of a once proud and prosperous city, and what it stood for. Sorry, pun intended.

From Pompeii (while leaning on a pillar),

Pinoytransplant

(*photos taken with an iPhone)

Summer Colors

Summer has arrived as temperature in our neck of the woods is now climbing consistently into the 80’s Fahrenheit. Though the official start of summer, which is the summer’s solstice – the longest day of the year, is not until tomorrow. I am sure our mercury will rise above 90’s F (above 32 C) or even in the 100’s F (37.5 C and above) in the days to come.

Here are some of the summer colors I captured in the past week:

The first photo was taken in downtown Kansas City, when we made a stopover here on our way to visit our son who is working for two months in a summer camp in Missouri.

The next photo was taken in the downtown Botanical Garden here in Des Moines when we checked it out a few days ago.

My wife also got new planters and have started planting annual flowers that hopefully will not just last for the dog days of summer but late until the cold winter wind blows. Here are some flowers in our deck:

The photo below was taken two days ago when I drove down to southern Iowa for our outreach clinic. As you can see, even a summer’s day can become foggy, dull, and gloomy.

However. even if the day gets gray, there is still a possibility of beautiful colors shining through. And that is true in all aspects of our life. Photo below was taken from our front porch:

I am wishing you all a fun, delightful, and colorful summer.

(*all photos taken with an iPhone)

Taste of Italy

Italian cuisine is one of the best among the world’s cuisine. It is one of the most popular and most copied type of food as well. And where can you find the best authentic Italian food? In Italy of course!

When we visited Italy last month, we covered most of the country, from the northern region, with cities like Milan and Venice, to the central region which is Tuscany, including the cities of Pisa and Florence, and to the southern region, in Rome and even down to the Amalfi coast.

Amalfi coast (photo taken with an iPhone)

By the way, we avail the services of JDC Private Tours when we were in Italy, that’s why we were able to visit so many places and packed so many activities in such a short period of time. I was more than happy and have only compliments of their business.

Part of our trip of course was sampling authentic Italian food. Their cuisine is known for its regional diversity, especially between the north and south of the Italian peninsula.

Overall, the Italian foods that we ate, from the ‘street’ and on-the-go food to the long sit-down fine dining with 5-course dinner, (one evening we’re treated out by a friend from Rome and we ate dinner for almost 2 hours!), and from the appetizer like bruschetta, to the dessert like tiramisu, were all very good. It was really a delightful gastronomical experience.

Here in the United States, when we talked about Italian food, we think mostly of pizza and pasta. However, many of the “Italian” food we have here are somewhat modified to cater to the American taste.

For instance, when we went to one local restaurant in Rome, there was a note in their menu that says, “we don’t serve spaghetti with meatballs, fettucini alfredo, and lasagna.” That was interesting. Perhaps that’s all the American tourists order, and to the locals those were not even really authentic Italian dishes.

To say that Italy have many kinds of pasta, is an understatement. After all it is the mecca of pasta. But one thing peculiar is all their pasta are served “al dente.” Meaning it is really firm, teetering to raw, that you have to bite and chew it before you can swallow.

Leaning Tower of Pizza…….I mean Pisa

Another thing is that the Italian pizza is not served pre-sliced. They give it to you as a whole piece, fresh from the wood-burning oven, and they give a fork and a knife for you to slice it yourself. I heard that when they first introduced pizza in New York City long long time ago, somebody had the bright idea of serving it by the slice and made more money from it. Since then pizza in the US is served pre-sliced.

In one restaurant we went to in northern Italy, I was impressed on how many types of sauce or variation they have for pizza. The menu had 3 pages just for pizza! And Hawaiian pizza? That’s not even in the menu, because as you can surmise, that’s an American version of an Italian dish.

As a Filipino who grew up in Manila, I also have a different concept of an Italian dish. My favorite is the Greenwich pizza, which I understand is a Filipino brand of pizzeria. Furthermore, I used to think that spaghetti always have a sweet-tasting sauce, just like how my mother prepares it, which is close to the taste of spaghetti in Jollibee, the largest Filipino chain of fast-food restaurants.

When I migrated to America more than 20 years ago, the first time we dined in an “authentic” Italian Restaurant in New Jersey named Trattoria, I was a little surprised that the spaghetti tasted “sour.” In fact me and my wife looked at each other and said to ourselves, maybe the sauce was spoiled as it tasted different. That was an ignoramus moment for us.

Back to our tour of Italy, we landed in Milan airport and stayed in Milan for two nights. On our first day, we were so tired and jet-lagged that my son and daughter went to sleep without having dinner. But my wife and I, despite being tired, felt the hunger pangs and so we went out to eat.

view from our hotel room in Milan

Since we were in the heart of the city of Milan, there were several decent restaurants around our hotel. In fact in our hotel itself was a good ‘ristorante,’ but my wife and I wanted to explore the city. And lo and behold, just walking two blocks from where we were staying, we found what we were looking for.

We were excited as we enter the restaurant. Then we ordered our very first meal in Italy. I understand that you cannot go wrong if you order pasta in Italy, and that’s what I did. I ordered spaghetti. And when I tasted the spaghetti, it was all what I envisioned. It was good.

In case you are wondering what restaurant we went to for our first Italian dinner?

It was Jollibee!

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(*Jollibee opened in Milan last year, and was the first ever Jollibee branch and only one so far in Europe.)

When in Rome

When in Rome…..

Do as the Romans do…..

You strike a pose!

By the way, the last above photo is at the Vatican, and is not the Star Wars’ Death Star.

I think my modeling was kind of boring. Maybe I should have assumed a more gallant stance like this…..

Or perhaps I should have taken a more dramatic pose like this…..

On second thought, I don’t suppose I should shed off my clothes, so I’ll pass.

Posing from Rome,

Pinoytransplant

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(*All photos taken with an iPhone; credits to my unofficial photographer.)

Flying the Roads of Tuscany

When we talk about Italy’s countryside what comes to mind are the picturesque rolling hills and bountiful vineyards of Tuscany.

And there’s no better way to tour this scenic place than the iconic Italian way – riding the Vespa or the Fiat. Well, you could do it too with a Ferrari convertible but that would cost you an arm and a leg.

During our visit to Italy we did the Tuscany Vespa Tour. (This is not a sponsored article though I would gladly accept even a free pizza if they offer.) Some of us rode the Vespa scooter while some of us rode the classic small Fiat car. I did the Vespa.

We picked up the Vespa and the Fiat from the tour’s office parking lot. After a brief tutorial, as I have not ridden a motorcycle since more than 25 years ago, I became more comfortable of riding it. I was at least confident that I would still be alive after the tour.

Then off we go!

Our first stop was at a local vineyard.

After parking our motorcycles and cars, we toured the place which includes wine tasting. I am not really into wine, but they had prepared free pasta lunch too, so I was more than happy. Plus I don’t think indulging in wine and riding a motorcycle afterwards was a good idea.

I even saw a black cat at the winery. Was it a bad omen? Should we not continue on our trip? Nah!

After the vineyard tour, we were back on the road again.

Our next stop was a quaint town. We parked our vehicles and walked around the small town. Here we tasted free samples of truffle spreads, different kinds of cheese, and balsalmic vinegar offered in the local stores. Their balsalmic vinegar tastes good that it rivals the sukang Iloco (being a half-bred Ilocano, I’m still biased for the sukang Iloco).

After hitting the road again, our last stop was an old fortress. Its medieval courtyard was transformed into shops and eateries. There were no sword-wielding knights nor jousting tournament though. The closest we had to a battle were tourists jostling to buy the ever popular Italian gelato. Of course we had some too.

Overall, it was a really fun ride. You may think that this small scooter is under power, but it is not. Yes it is not as muscular as the Harley-Davidson, but this Vespa Sprint model with its 125 cc cylinder can still fly through the Tuscan hills.

It was a swell experience to fly the Tuscan roads with the sunlight on my eyes, wind on my hair (even though I don’t have much) and bugs in my face. Wait…..what?

Actually “flying” has a double meaning here, as this includes the flying insects that may hit your face as you zoom through the hills. I must be in a state of exhilaration with my mouth wide open that one insect hit my teeth. Good thing I was able to spit it out.

Italian bug tasting? Not included in this tour.

From the roads of Tuscany,

Pinoytransplant

(*All photos taken with an iPhone. Thanks to my unofficial photographers who took some of the pictures. A shout out to JDC Private Tours, who made our tour of Italy such a pleasant experience.)

Warm Thoughts on a Cold Day

Last Friday, I drove to our new satellite clinic. This was the most distant one so far compared to our other outreach clinics, as it takes an hour and 40 minutes to get there from our main office. I go to an outreach clinic at least once a month.

It was a very cold day for a drive. The outside temperature was -2 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill factor of -20 degrees. The wind was brisk and it was blowing the snow that was already plowed to the sides of the road back into the road.

The whole surrounding was white as we had fresh snow that had fallen the past couple of days. There was also a shiny glaze on the branches of the bare trees as in addition to the snowfall, it was preceded by a freezing rain that coated everything with ice, including the roads, which layered underneath the snow. This made the travel more dangerous.

In fact one of my partners cancelled his trip to another one of our outreach clinics a day before mine, due to the snow, sleet and ice.

But on the day of my travel, though it was very cold, it was sunny. Thus I decided to press on. Besides, there were many patients that were waiting and expecting to be seen. Plus, I felt confident in my driving and in my trusty vehicle.

I felt warm though while I was cruising along the wintry rural highways of Iowa. My favorite feature of my car on a very cold day like this was the heated seats along with the reliable heater. In some countries, like in the Philippines, a car airconditioner may be a luxury to keep you cool on a hot day. But where I live now, we can survive without an AC but not without a heater. It is a necessity or we’ll freeze to death.

But there was something more that was keeping me warm besides the heater, the heated seat, and the heated steering wheel. It was the warm thoughts and happy memories of a tropical place I still call home.

Playing on my car radio was streaming music sync from my iPhone from an on-line radio station. What was the radio station I was listening to? Pagudpud Beach Resort Radio Station! (Pagudpud is a place in Ilocos Norte, Philippines with a year round temperature of 70 to 90ºF.)

photo taken few years ago in a beach resort in Ilocos Norte

I could almost hear the lapping waves as they break into the sandy shore and the rushing breeze bristling through the palm trees. A stark contrast from the view of a slew of ice and snow surrounding me. They say that you could take away the boy from the island, but could never take away the island from the boy.

It’s true, I was feeling homesick. It has been three years since I last visited my motherland. Perhaps it is time for a journey back to that very familiar place.

I know I’m not the only one missing home. Most of us, in one way or another, have wandered away and left our comfort zones in pursuit of a dream. And many times in our quest, the path we crossed was not easy, for it was uncertain and unfamiliar.

I was deep in this thought when a familiar song played on the radio:

Hawak-kamay,

Hindi kita iiwan sa paglalakbay,

Dito sa mundong walang katiyakan,

Hawak-kamay,

Di kita bibitiwan sa paglalakbay,

Sa mundo ng kawalan.

That was all I needed to hear, a reassurance that we are not alone in this journey.

I glanced at my car’s GPS. It indicated that I still have 70 miles to go, and an hour more before I reach my destination.

Well, I still have an hour to enjoy this “beach.”

(*lyrics from Hawak Kamay a song by Yeng Constantino)

Antarctic Freeze

Yesterday, while sitting in my car when I was parked at the hospital’s parking lot that I took this photo of my dashboard.

The outside temperature was -18ºF (-28ºC)! No wonder I was really cold. But at least it was sunny and it was already warming up. It was -26º F before the sun rose. The wind chill though made it feels like -40º F.

It was dangerously cold that most schools including colleges here in Iowa was closed yesterday. Even the postal service was shut down. Of course hospitals stayed open and I still had to go to work.

Do you know where else had -20º F yesterday? At the South Pole in Antarctica. North Pole was a balmy 5º F!

I should be on the look out for penguins that may be crossing my path anytime soon.

A Day in New York

New York City has such a pull on my heart. You probably know it already that we lived there for a few years, long time ago. It was there where I received my training for my career, a medical specialty that I am now practicing for the past 20 years.

As the song New York, New York goes:


If I make it there,

I’ll make it everywhere,

It’s up to you,

New York, New York.

Anytime is a good time to visit New York City. But the holiday season is even more noteworthy. Especially on New Year’s when it becomes the center of the world’s celebration.

My family spent the last few days of the year 2018 in New York City. Here are just some of the places we visited:

We passed by some swanky restaurants, but we did not dine there.

Instead we were taken by our friend to a quaint eatery that was more quiet and subdued.

The ambience in this place was homey, relaxed, yet festive. The food was excellent. This is not a paid post, but if the management of this restaurant wants to give me a free meal next time, I heartily would accept it.

Then we went to Midtown Manhattan. Of course we used the iconic New York subway to get there.

Our kids together with some friends’ kids went ice skating.

There are several ice skating rinks in New York City. Perhaps the most famous is the one in Rockefeller area, but that is too small. Then there’s also one in Central Park.

We went to Bryant Park. This is near the New York Public Library. The ice skating rink is surrounded by New York’s skyscprapers. You could even catch a glimpse of the Empire State building from there.

The skating rink was very crowded though. There was a long line of people waiting and it took more than two hours to get in. But our children did not mind, as they chatted away with their friends while waiting in line.

I did not join them and was just satisfied watching the skaters go. Though there were some skaters that fell on the ice, but who cares, at least they were enjoying themselves.

I probably would be included in those falling a lot on the ice if I skated. I tried ice skating before, at least twice, and I would say that I could glide over the ice. Whether I was standing, or I was on my or knees or worse on my butt, but at least I could glide.

Besides watching people skate, the best part for me was watching this big machine sail through the ice.

This is the Zamboni machine, named after it’s American inventor and engineer. This machine smooths the surface of the ice.

I also spent time talking with our friends, catching up with them, while our children skated. Including an old friend, a classmate back in elementary and high school days. He now lives in Massachusetts.

We were in this place for several hours and my fingers and toes got numb from the cold. I had to walk around to keep warm and many times went inside the market stalls surrounding the place where there were heaters.

It was already dark when we call it a day.

We went back to our hotel which was located across the Hudson River, so technically it was in New Jersey. But you cannot beat the view from there – a view of the New York City skyline.

From New York, I wish you all a Happy and Prosperous New year!

Pinoytransplant

(*photos taken on the eve of New Year’s Eve)

Steel Magnolia

Silo|ˈsīlō|: a tower or pit on a farm to store grain.

Silos are a common sight here in Iowa. Since Iowa is mostly farm fields, they are part of our landscape. Yet, when we went to Texas, we toured a silo. What we visited was not an ordinary silo though. In fact it was a popular destination.

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As you already know, we went to Texas two weeks ago for a medical mission (see previous post). But we were still able to squeeze some time for a side trip.

After we landed in Fort Worth, Texas and were on our way to our hotel, we saw many road signs that lead to Waco, Texas. My wife asked our Uber driver how far Waco was from Fort Worth, and he told us that it was about an hour and fifteen minutes drive. My wife got excited.

Waco, Texas has been known in the past for some disturbing events. Some even correlate Waco to Wacko, which means Psycho. If you don’t know the history, it was about a cult led by David Koresh who had his followers live on a ranch in Waco. However, it was later put under siege by the government authorities in 1993. The compound was set ablaze, leading to several deaths.

My wife was not excited to see Waco for that. Fortunately, Waco is now known in a more positive light thanks to the popularity of Chip and Joanna Gaines. This couple became famous due to their HGTV show “Fixer Upper,” where they converted many rundown houses in Waco into beautiful dream homes.

The “Fixer Upper” show ended, but this couple has engaged in some other business of their own. They had bought a property in Waco that has a rundown silo, and they turn it into their own store, making it their most notable project to date. It is officially known as the “Magnolia Market at the Silos.” It is rustic, yet chic. Like a blend of steel and flowers. This property is now a tourist destination.

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It was not in our initial plan to go to Waco, but my wife, who is an avid fan of Chip and Joanna Gaines, could not resist the chance to see this place. In order to visit Waco from Fort Worth, we had to rent a car. Going by taxi or Uber would have been impractical as it would be too costly, and riding a bus would take us several hours – a time that we didn’t have.

When we went to the car rental, we were told that the only vehicle available since we did not have a reservation, was a large pick-up truck. That did not stop us. We drove that big truck to Waco and readily blended-in as Texans. Everything is big in Texas!

My wife could not contain her excitement when we reached the Magnolia Market. Needless to say, we did not leave that store empty-handed.

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Besides the home décor store, they also have a garden, a seed supply store, and several food trucks selling gourmet sandwiches, interestingly flavored ice cream, freshly squeezed lemonade and much more.

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In that market, they also have a bakery that sells some rather tasty cupcakes. The bakery was so popular, that the line snaked long outside the building. A sign in that bakery states: “A balanced diet is a cupcake in each hand.” Of course we tried some of those bake goods too.

Even though we were there for only a little more than an hour, we felt gratified. We spent more time driving than the actual time we stayed there, but it was still worth the effort. For one thing, it made my wife happy. And that was more than enough for me.

(*photos taken with an iPhone)