Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas with the Monkeys

To escape some of the Holiday craziness in Manila and find some clean air, we spent the four day Christmas weekend in Singapore. I never thought about traveling to Singapore before we lived in Manila, but it's an interesting city. For us, its main attractions were its parks.

There are pros and cons to being in a country with very strict rules, but one of the pros is Singapore's commitment to conservation. We benefited from three of those projects, and four if you count the zoo: Fort Cannery Park, the Botanical Gardens, and the Nature Reserve.

The Botanical Gardens are free to the public, responsible dog-owner friendly, and very close to the Embassy. You could easily spend your lunch hour de-stressing in the green.

The Singapore Zoo is a delight for adults and children. So many monkeys!!


There is a family of orangutans who roam free in the treetops above the sidewalks. But watch out if one of them is above your head!

For an additional fee you can stay for the 7 pm Night Safari, which is in an entirely separate park next to the zoo. Even though tours leave every ten minutes, I recommend getting in line at 6 pm. You'll wait about an hour, but if you arrive at 6:30p you'll be in line for much, much longer.

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, also free to the public, is a mostly undisturbed section of primary rain forest, and heaven to green lovers from Manila! Surprisingly polite wild monkeys roam about, and if you look closely you will see a flying lemur, or a Colugo, trying to blend in with a tree's bark. If you are especially lucky you might see one take flight.

Singapore is Manila's polar opposite: it's quiet, exceptionally clean, and orderly. If you're looking for 3rd world adventure it's not for you, but it is a welcome break to Americans living in Manila. However, you'd best follow the rules.

In Manila most rules are a suggestion and open to various ways of "coping" with getting caught, but Singaporeans take their rules very seriously.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bawal Umihi Dito

"Bawal umihi dito" is signage familiar to any resident of the Philippines. Variations include "Bawal umihi D2" and "Bawal umihi," but they all communicate the same: don't pee on me.

As you drive through Manila you will see this request scrawled on the sides of buildings, in corners, and pretty much anywhere there is an opening between the storefronts and carts that line the streets. If you are a male in the Philippines, the world really is your urinal. Unless, of course, you obey the signs.

At first a Western foreigner (with a basic understanding of Tagalog) might find these signs off putting. One might ask,"Do people just urinate everywhere?" The answer is, probably not, for two reasons: 1) there are designated male urinals provided by the MMDA and 2) considering the city's poverty, Manila is clean. For example, the man in the picture below may not be peeing inside the urinal, but at least he's peeing next to it.

From GMAnews.TV

You may be thinking, "How sexist. Where do women ihi?" Don't worry, earlier this year the MMDA announced that it will soon be placing female urinals in Manila. Since the male urinals are pink, the female urinals will be painted green.

Bawal umihi dito signs bring joy to my early morning and late evening commutes to and from yoga teacher training.  I understand it as a metaphor for life, and seriously, how many times have you wanted to say, "Dude, please don't pee here!"

I am not the first person to find these signs significant. If you Google "Bawal umihi dito," you will find links where you can buy T-shirts and baseball caps sporting the phrase. You too can ask the world to take its urine elsewhere.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


After three months of living and traveling in the Philippines, this past weekend I found myself  overwhelmed once again. Our Cebu hotel room had blankets, clean tap water, and reliable hot water, and even more disorienting, it did not have an odor wafting from the drains nor the little hand bucket found in nearly every Philippine bathroom. I didn't even find a chameleon in my drink glass in the morning.

When we first arrived I was surprised at how little I was impressed by the resort's comparative luxury. I got over it, but my initial reaction helped me see how much my perspective has changed in my time here. In our previous island travels we had been staying in places that, although nice, were rustic, and yet these places make you feel like you really are on a tropical island. Our Cebu hotel, although very nice, reminded me of a Disney resort.

Lonely Planet describes the Mactan island resorts as places that appeal to "fly-in, fly-out tourists from within Asia who pay top dollar to be insulated against the Philippines," and if that's what you're looking for then this is a darn good place to do it. Other than the natural beauty of the water and the coral reefs, the closest a tourist will get to experiencing the Philippines at this resort is the Filipino counter at the breakfast buffet. The hotel makes an effort to remind its guests that they are, in fact, visiting the Philippines by stocking its mini-bars with Pinoy ramen noodles. Available for purchase for P120.

Yet guests seeking insulation still can't avoid the road from the airport. On our night time trip to the resort we stopped at a crossroads in front of a sari-sari store, where two men stood with large, pink pigs on leashes. This was the first time I've seen a large pig on a leash, and while I looked on, one of the pigs began to urinate, creating a flowing river of pig pee in front of the resort's shuttle bus.

This amused me, but blankets in a hotel room? Now that's shocking.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

FLOwing Home

The first few months in a new post are both wonderful and difficult. Each country is unique and presents its own set of challenges, and most people go through a period--usually within the first six months--where everything sucks.

I believe this attitude--which I am familiar with--comes from the cumulative stress of daily life being harder than it was before, and hardship posts may be more disruptive than others. Hardship posts earn their designations for a variety of factors, but they are all cities "where conditions of environment differ substantially from conditions of environment in the United States."  Life in a non-hardship isn't necessarily better, but it's probably easier--at least at first.

Manila is a hardship post with a relatively high differential rating (meaning it's harder than most places), but not for the same reasons as Mauritania, Africa or Kabul. Once I battle the traffic and the smog and arrive at the grocery store I can find most of the things I need (although not necessarily in the same place two weeks in a row) as long as I'm willing to pay for them. But Manila is certainly a place where the environmental conditions are different than the US, which has given me the opportunity to reflect on trade-offs in the Foreign Service.

Throughout our lives we prioritize and make choices, but when basic aspects of life such as housing are inconstant, we are more frequently confronted with the compromises involved in our choices. The Foreign Service requires you to make a lot of choices on faith. You don't really know what a post will be like until after you've lived there a few months. Some times things work out just like you imagined, and sometimes they don't.

When we headed to DC for A-100, I left my career as I knew it behind. A thriving therapy practice and foreign service spousehood don't mix well. I knew that was choosing a professional life change, but I had no idea what that change would look like.

We extensively researched ways for me to have a career--career being a loosely defined term that included everything from jam making to getting another graduate degree, but until recently I had no idea what would happen to my professional identity.

Fortunately I had something to ground me: I knew what I didn't want to do.

There are many things that you give up when you choose a life in the Foreign Service, but this life has benefits far beyond hardship pay differentials and weekend trips to tropical paradises (although I must say the weekend trips are pretty awesome). Thanks to my supervisor's support with unpaid leave and FLO's professional development fellowship program, I am beginning a month-long, intensive, 200 hour vinyasa flow yoga teacher training next week.

For several years being a yoga teacher has been my dream, but it was never feasible because the training requires a significant commitment of time and money, and I already had a full-time job. But now I have the opportunity to pursue a career that would have been difficult if not impossible before we joined the Foreign Service. Thank you, FLO, Manila CLO, and my husband, whose desire to be a Foreign Service Officer helped me find a new professional home!

Julie the Yogini

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Where's the palm oil?

Our trip to Hong Kong reminded me why Manila is a fantastic post. Incredible cities like Hong Kong are a two hour plane trip away. We went to visit an A-100 friend and enjoyed a weekend in the first world. Our first night there our friend took us to what the locals consider a "seedy" area of town, but all I could see was evidence of working infrastructure and money. It's amazing how one's definition of "nice" changes. Manila has plenty of upscale malls and areas of abject poverty, but there's not much in between. And you certainly can't find Guinness on tap.

The view from the Star Ferry

If you look real hard you might see Batman jumping off the building.

Maybe some day we'll have such a view.

I love that they use bamboo

A misty trip to the peak

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My other house is my castle

There are many things I love about the Foreign Service, but losing my feeling of autonomy is not one of them. When I wrote Freedom of No Choice, I described feeling grateful that I didn't have to decide which post was the best fit for our family. Now that we are living at post, I find that I am much less comfortable with my lack of choice in my environment.

Our post assignment is not the source of my discomfort. The city of Manila deserves its designation as a hardship post, but the beauty of the Philippines and Manila's proximity to Southeast Asia makes it a very enjoyable post. However, I never expected to be so uncomfortable in our assigned housing, nor did I anticipate having so much trouble with our shipments. Of course, I never imagined that our bedroom would be larger than the dining room and living room combined, and I didn't know how attached I was to my stuff until it arrived broken, or not at all.

It is because we are living in a foreign city--and a hardship city--that losing our autonomy over these aspects of our lives is especially stressful. When you are overwhelmed by the world outside, your home is your sanctuary. But if you don't feel comfortable in your home, you have no sanctuary.

The topic of housing is so saturated with negative emotion that it's the proverbial third rail in the Foreign Service community. There are some who will never be satisfied with their housing, but there is also a great deal of room for improvement in the housing assignment policies. Yet even with policy improvements it would still be painful to not be able to act on one's own behalf, especially when it is about something so fundamental as being comfortable in your own house. Unless, of course, your housing assignment meets all of your needs and exceeds your wildest expectations.

Julie was very glad when her house arrived

Friday, October 1, 2010

Crash Bang Scoot Drift

"Crash and Bang " is a course at the Foreign Service Institute [FSI] that prepares overseas staff and their families for driving in conditions where it might be prudent to wear protective gear inside your vehicle. If FSI had a course for driving in Manila they would call it "Scoot and Drift."

Manila's reputation for horrendous traffic is well earned. The money that we were saving by being a one car family will soon be spent on hiring a driver. However, we are not hiring a driver because the traffic is dangerous.

Manila is so congested there isn't room for reckless driving. Its drivers could be compared to small town USA drivers, but packed like sardines and with crazy buses, jeepneys, and scooters thrown in for fun.

When driving in Manila it is important to keep your eyes forward. You are responsible for the front of your car and the back end of the car in front of you, and if you spend too much time looking in your rear view mirror you will cause an accident. And regardless of the official laws, it will be your fault because you weren't obeying the "rules."

If you are unable to tolerate drifters, do not try to drive in Manila. According to the "rules," the best way to get across four lanes of traffic is to just go. Go slowly, but without hesitation--the people whose bumpers are behind yours are expected to let you through.

If you need to get into a lane, just go. I call this "scooting" because you can't go fast enough to dart. You scoot into a space, and then you sit. When scooting, never, ever, ever play chicken with a bus or a scooter. The buses know they are the biggest vehicles on the road, and the scooter drivers are just plain loco.

Considering the size of the city, there is a relatively low incidence of traffic fatalities in Manila, and most of those accidents involve scooters. Because they are NUTS. I haven't tried driving outside of Pasay and Malate so I can't speak for the driving conditions in Makati and beyond, but from what we've observed, it's not impossible to drive oneself, but doing so would require excessive amounts of Gatorade and chocolate.

Overall, unless you have an incredible amount of patience, hiring a driver will probably improve your quality of life, especially if you live in Makati or the Fort, or are driving outside the city during the work week. In the meantime, I will continue to pat myself on the back for deciding to keep our large vehicle and sell our smaller car. Size does matter.

The commuter buses in Manila are the size of large tour buses.  

 Jeepneys are about the size of a standard SUV.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Worldwide Wienerdog

Hello, this is Grace, one of Mobile Home's superstars. I have short legs, but in my (almost) four years, I've really gotten around.

I was born in Tennessee and first joined a pack that wasn't the best fit for me. Apparently my first pack leader found me a little difficult to live with ... who knows why. Then, when I was nine months old, I moved to Florida and joined a different pack. My new pack had another red dachshund, and she was awesome. She let me sleep in her bed and taught me to eat my food fast. After a while she went away, and although I missed her, for a few months I got all the attention from my pack leaders. Life was good.

Then the interloper ... I mean, Julie ... arrived. She has really long legs and no respect for my stature, but I guess she's ok. She climbs in my chair with me, and when I'm cold I let her stay. I especially like it when she lays down so I can make sure she knows I'm in charge.

In the last eight months my pack has moved from Florida to Virgina to Manila. I think some of my friends were worried about my trip overseas, but it was ok. I didn't have a great time at the kennel in Virginia because a mean dog bit my ear, but my stay in Amsterdam was ok, and I was happy when Julie and I were reunited with our pack leaders in Manila. When we were waiting in the Manila airport's cargo arrival area I could hear my pack leaders' voices behind the big wall, so I barked a lot to make sure they knew I was there.

I like my new house in Manila. We have a great aso ya-ya who takes good care of us when our pack leaders are away. I used to give her the stink eye, but now I like her a lot.

The best part about living here is the opportunity to chase stray cats. I stand watch at my window to make sure no cats try to sneak in.

When we go outside I patrol the stairs, the park, and everywhere else in our neighborhood. A couple of times I managed to tackle a lounging cat, but my pack leader pulled me back. I have no idea why--I totally could have taken it.

Julie doesn't understand that the cats are invaders who must be eliminated. Sometimes our pack leaders let her off the leash and she just walks by cats that are invading our territory! But she does sit at the window and make sure the tree trimmers stay in line.

If anyone wants to know more about my experience as a Foreign Service dog, feel free to ask. In the meantime, if you see any cats trying to sneak past my perimeter, let me know.

Friday, September 17, 2010

I want to eat your brains ...

Today I had a cultural experience.

I subscribe to an organic produce delivery service called My Personal Farmer. For 3200 pesos/month we receive a box of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables once a week, delivered directly to our neighborhood. The produce is grown in Mindanao, harvested the morning of the delivery, and flown up to Manila the same day. I am enjoying this service for three reasons 1) I've never tasted such delicious vegetables 2) The (almost) doorstep delivery is fantastic and 3) I have the opportunity to experience new fruits and vegetables.

For example, this is a marang:

I think I just had a zombie experience.

When it arrived our helper told me how to open it once it had ripened. She was very excited when we received it and said that we would be able to smell when it ripened. She did not, however, warm us that I would wander around the house for a half hour looking for the horrible smell before finally tracking it down. You could smell it outside our front door!

However, the fruit inside is actually pretty good. Smells can be deceiving.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

More Beautiful Places (and a bit of humanity)

In the six weeks we've been living here we've taken every opportunity to explore. Life in Manila can be difficult, but outside the city--and even some places inside it--it's beautiful.

A few weeks ago we joined a CLO trip to Coco Beach in Puerto Galera, Mindorno.

The water was gorgeous, and the air clean.

After the sunset we enjoyed the stars--the clearest sky I've seen in a long time.

Last weekend we explored the La Mesa Ecopark in Quezon City, which is in metro Manila. The Ecopark is a breath of fresh air in the city, although with traffic it may take as long to get to the Ecopark as it does to get to Tagaytay. 

We passed block after block of typical Manila sights

And miraculously found ourselves in a beautiful park.

It was wonderful to see what Manila must have looked like before being developed. Manila has many of these gems, but it takes effort to battle the traffic and get to them. Outside the city the country is gorgeous, although evidence of poverty is everywhere.

And on the way home, comic relief:

The Breath of Life

You'd think that writing would be easier after our move overseas, but I've found it to be more difficult. Our first month in the Philippines has offered plenty of potential writing topics, but the idea of organizing any of them in to an essay is exhausting.

There's so much information to process in the first weeks at a new post it's difficult to think, much less write. I didn't recognize that I was feeling overwhelmed until I tried to organize my thoughts into a blog. Being a former hospice social worker, I find myself comparing the new post adjustment process to Therese Rando's six Rs of grief:
  • Recognize the loss/change: People must experience the loss/change and understand that it has happened. 
    • "I'm where?! Who are you people? And what is that smell?"
  • React: People react emotionally to their loss/change. 
    • "!@#$$%% palm oil!"
  • Recollect and Re-Experience: People may review memories of their lost relationship (events that occurred, places visited together, or day to day moments that were experienced together).
    • "Remember when I could breathe inside a supermarket? Those were good times."
  • Relinquish: People begin to put their loss behind them, realizing and accepting that the world has truly changed and that there is no turning back. 
    • "I accept that the smell of frying palm oil is a part of my new world, and am grateful for the places where that smell is absent."
  • Readjust: People begin the process of returning to daily life and the loss/change starts to feel less acute and sharp. 
    • "Oh look, I can buy Wesson canola oil in the grocery store!"
  • Reinvest: Ultimately, people re-enter the world, forming new relationships and commitments. They accept the changes that have occurred and move past them. 
    • "I am fortunate that the use of palm oil in the Philippines has significantly reduced my french fry consumption."
In addition to my palm oil adjustment, there are many other aspects of change that require their own set of Rs. No wonder we call it culture shock. We are enjoying our life here and working hard on adapting our expectations. You don't realize what you take for granted until you are confronted with it's absence. Such as fresh, clean, palm-oil-free air.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Beyond Barbed Wire

Living and working abroad as a private citizen can be difficult, but living and working abroad as a Foreign Service family can be weird. As a Foreign Service employee your compensation includes shipping your household effects and vehicle, most work related travel expenses incurred by you and your dependents, and, of course, diplomatic legal protection, but you spend much of your daily life surrounded by other Americans. In many ways this familiarity is comforting, but it takes extra effort to immerse yourself in the foreign country's culture.

Many Foreign Service families do fully experience living in another culture, but it requires one to venture beyond one's normal routine, and in our case, the barbed wired walls and armed guards protecting our housing community. By our third week here my body was adapting to the environment and time change and we were starting to feel settled, but every night before bed I felt a little anxious, and it wasn't because I had just moved to a foreign country. It was because I had moved to a foreign country but was spending most of my time within the walls of a place that looked a lot like South Florida.

As a post Manila is unique in that it would be easy to try to insulate oneself from the city's culture. You can't avoid the traffic, the pollution, or seeing evidence of extreme poverty as you drive to work, but you can eat at Chili's, shop for groceries at S&R (Costco), and watch Scrubs and Everybody Loves Raymond on local cable in your air-conditioned housing. You'd find yourself inconvenienced by not finding everything you want, but life would be familiar. In many ways, having access to American products is one of the benefits of this post, but it can also feel surreal.

Fortunately for me, the weekend after I began to feel agitated we went to Tagaytay, which, being without transportation, we wouldn't have been able to do without our wonderful friends.  In Tagaytay I finally felt like I was living in a foreign country, and the bedtime anxiety disappeared. I find it interesting that in order to feel comfortable I had to pushed out of my comfort zone.

The Foreign Service community is one of the best things about life in the foreign service, but experiencing the exotic aspects of life abroad is equally important to enjoying this lifestyle. I look forward to exploring the Philippines further, and, in case I haven't mentioned it, the arrival of our car.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Going to see "the beautiful places"

The best part about being posted in Manila is what's outside the city. Last weekend we had the opportunity to visit Tagaytay and Taal Volcano, and we saw some of the "beautiful places." (Every consular officer's favorite phrase.)

The view from People's Park

The view from Picnic Grove

Zip line at Picnic Grove

Tagaytay is built around the edges of Taal Volcano. In order to get to Crater Lake, you take a boat across Taal Lake to Volcano Island. I recommend driving down to the lake and buying your boat ride there. The road to the lake resembles the Mt. Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire and/or the road to Hana in Maui. Villagers greet you at the island and sell you a guide and a horseback trail ride up to the crater. The guide is likely necessary as an escort through the village, but we didn't go for the horseback ride. The horses are small ponies, and although the trail is hot, it only takes about an hour to hike up to Crater Lake. Haggling is acceptable. If you don't buy a horseback ride but get tired or overheated on the way up, no worries--the villagers follow you up the trail with a pony--just in case. 

Boat ride across Taal Lake

The village on Volcano Island

 Crater Lake at Taal Volcano 

Reminders that we're standing on the inner rim of an active volcano

I highly recommend enjoying a delicious meal at Antonio's

We enjoyed fresh air, good food, and great company. I can't wait for our next trip!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Food, Whine, and the Foreign Service

I have always been willing to try different types of food, but our move to the Philippines has challenged my flexibility. And not just balut or this local delicacy:
Having never traveled in a country where you can't rely on basic sanitation practices, much less drink the water, being afraid of my food is a new experience for me. Between our lack of transportation and the amoebas, these past two and a half weeks I have been much more interested in cooking.

However, after my first week of freaking out, my fear has not kept me from exploring the local cuisine. It has made me much more conscious of my food choices. My first time at every new restaurant I wonder, will this be the one that does it? But as long as it smells good I eat it anyway.
I'm glad I'm trying the food, because Manila has a lot to offer. We had a special occasion to celebrate during our time here, and we went to a French restaurant in Fort Bonifacio. I can't remember ever having sorbet in a tea kettle full of dry ice.
I had so much fun playing with it I almost forgot to eat it. And in case you were wondering if Starbucks has anything different in Asia:

Manila is a hardship post, but not for lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. The local large supermarkets haven't impressed me with their produce, but then again, neither did the grocery stores back home. However, the local farmers' markets are excellent.

Lime-skinned Oranges

I have been enjoying planning our dinners around what looks good at the market on Sundays. 

And if we don't want to cook, we can order in. You can have almost anything delivered in Manila. Tonight we had Indian food delivered to our door. It wasn't quite as delicious as Haandi in Falls Church, but it was good!

Practicing good food safety habits is prudent, but hiding in fear of amoebas is not necessary. I could eat all of my meals at home and still find myself sick. Fortunately we have a good med unit, and I just learned how to make homemade yogurt.