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.