Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Organic Vegetable Delivery in Manila!

Dear MPF Clients,

My Personal Farmer is proud to announce and share the wonderful news we received. We just received the water analysis report from the Philippine Pesticide Control stating that our water irrigation up and downstream have no trace of chemicals (report attached). "ND" on the results portion means there are no pesticide residues.

Organic farming isn't just about chemical-free pesticides and using chemical-free fertilizers.  To achieve 100% Organic Farming is also about having access to a water source that is chemical-free.  Having clean and safe water irrigation is VITAL as it has the power to fight disease and save lives. My Personal Farmer has safe water irrigation for its crops and sustenance of its livestock.  With us you can guarantee that you and your family's health are in good hands.

Photo:  My Personal Farmer's Reservoir, Manolo Fortich, Bukidnon

My Personal Farmer sticks true to its claim- we grow 100% ORGANIC and CHEMICAL-FREE vegetables.  From our pesticides to our fertilizer and to our water source.

Share this good news with your friends and family.  At My Personal Farmer your health is our priority.

Note: For more newsletters, you may visit:  My Personal Farmer - Farmer's Notes - Letters from Renee

Donna N. Asistio

My Personal Farmer
Mobile:  +63 (918) 914 3759
Office/Fax: + 632 894 2243
Website: www.mypersonalfarmer.net
Email: donna@mypersonalfarmer.net                                    
  "Heal the Land, its Farmers, and You"

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The No Fear Approach to Manila

If you are interested in reading more about Manila, I encourage you to visit Here and There, a blog written by friends of ours who aren't afraid of polluted air and little things like flood waters. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bid List, Part II

The summer bid list is out! Let the obsessing begin!

My bidding strategy has dramatically changed since A-100. The 2nd tour bidding process, although still a directed tour, is different, but my thoughts, feelings, and priorities have also changed.

When we were bidding in A-100, I was inclined to overlook negative comments about posts on Real Post Reports and the OBC's Post Info To Go. In an attempt at worldwide availability, I wanted to be open to a variety of posts, and would try to read between the lines of an author's negative comments to get to the "facts" about a post. In theory, this is a sound way to distinguish reality from negativity, but it did not adequately take into account that I too will be subject to emotional responses while living at that post. If there is an overwhelming amount of negativity coming from a post, there may be a darn good reason it.

We FS folks are all, whether we like it or not, subject to worldwide availability, and bidding can be stressful because most of us want to know what we are getting into. In reality, you never, ever, truly know what you are getting into until you are in it. This goes for any major life change or decision, and life in the Foreign Service is a life of constant adaptation.

Because we don't choose our assignments, especially as an entry level FS family, it is necessary to work hard to approach this life with flexibility and an attitude of learning. But is it also necessary to be realistic, to know one's own limits, and to be aware that the expectations we bring to post can affect our ability to successfully adapt.

I was surprised by my own experience of cultural adaptation. It is generally thought that culture shock begins to wear off at 6 months following one's arrival, but I took much longer. I arrived at post with an open, positive mind and a desire to see the "real" Manila, but at 7 months the city--and perhaps my failure to acknowledge that I was experiencing culture shock--began to wear on me. A short time later, I had the opportunity to experience a 3rd world illness first hand--an "inevitable" experience of life in the Foreign Service. As someone who has always taken health very seriously, I was NOT ok with the inevitability of this experience. However, it taught me that MED is competent and has good drugs.

Having survived a year of illness, frustration, and culture shock, as we bid on our next post I hope I have learned things about myself and life in the FS that will help me adapt at our next post. I have learned that if a post is rated a 25% hardship, there's a reason for that, and it will serve me well to go into the experience of living there with appropriate expectations rather than a desire to overlook reality by being positive. I have learned that culture shock is not a weakness, but an inevitable aspect of life on the move. And finally, I have learned to be honest with myself about my limitations. Negativity doesn't help, but neither does naivete. 

To all of you bidding on this summer 2011 cycle, I wish you luck and a good night's sleep!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Are we still in the Philippines?

Palawan still holds the title of my favorite place in the Philippines, but our recent trip to Baguio offered Palawan heavy competition.

In Northern Luzon, about 4-7 hours away from Manila (depending on traffic), a trip to the Ambassador's Residence in Baguio feels like a trip to another country. The air is clean and cool, and the air smells of ... pine trees!

Baguio was first developed around 1900 by Americans who were thrilled to have found mountains, pine trees, and cool air in the tropical climate of the Philippines. I can imagine their elation to have found a place that reminds us so much of home--even those of us from Florida! These pictures can't truly capture Baguio's sights, sounds, and most importantly, smells.

An early morning view from the patio.

The back of the Ambassador's Residence.

US Embassy personnel are welcome to stay at the Ambassador's Residence for a small fee. Children are not allowed in the main residence building, but there are two cabins on campus that are great for families. There are plenty of restaurants in the City of Baguio, but I recommend bringing your own food, taking long walks, and enjoying your respite in the mountains!

For more information about the Residence's history, please visit the US Embassy Website at http://manila.usembassy.gov/wwwhamb1.html. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

FS Spouses and Partners: It's FLO Fellowship application time again!

The State Department is pleased to announce the FLO Professional Development Fellowship program open to spouses and partners of direct-hire US Government employees under Chief of Mission Authority. This program is designed to assist those spouses and partners who are not in a position to pursue their career paths overseas to maintain, enhance, and/or develop their professional skills.

Proposals are due in M/DGHR/FLO no later than May 15, 2011.

Palawan Holiday

Our recent trip to Palawan, an outlying island province in the Philipinnes, may havebeen my favorite domestic trip thus far. Palawan is well known for its diving and world class El Nido Resorts in the north, but central Palawan has a lot to offer as well.

 Palawan is the long, skinny island far to the left nearly touching Malaysia

We flew into Puerto Princesa and took a two hour van ride through the mountains to get to our resort near the Underground River, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must see for any trip to Central Palawan.

Sabang's unspoiled beaches surrounded by mountains are reminiscent of Hawaii, but since the Philippines has not made it onto Western tourists' radar, these beaches are undeveloped and unspoiled.

Sabang Beach

You can take a day tour from Puerto Princessa to the Underground River, but I recommend staying in Sabang. The mountainous, somewhat maintained road from the city to the Underground River area is an exhausting drive. Your hotel can book your tour and make sure you have the necessary permits--do not drive yourself to Sabang without these permits, as you will have to return to Puerto Princessa to get a permit before being allowed to participate in any of the activities. 

The Underground River is incredible, although the boats they send you out in are small and ride awfully low. Once you get over worrying about falling in the water you can appreciate the wonders of the cave. The bats will not hurt you, but they fly low, so be prepared. 

Emerging from the cave

The Underground River Park also has monitor lizards and monkeys. You can hike from Sabang to the Park on the Monkey Trail--technically this requires another permit. 

From Sabang Beach you can hike along the coast on the rocks. The contrast of the colors of the rocks and the clear tropical water is beautiful, but the terrain is slippery and sharp.

For a lazy day, our resort offers Carabao cart rides. We didn't take a ride, but we did enjoy watching the baby carabao who wanders the grounds. He stays close to his tethered mama.

Wonderful snorkeling sites are approximately a 45 minute boat ride from Sabang Beach, and have different coral from the reefs close to Manila.

I recommend Daluyon Resort for its location and great food/food service, but not for its lack of hot water. The resort boasts of having solar water heaters and dismisses all hot water failures as a unavoidable part of being eco-friendly, but in doing so they are doing the environment a disservice. We installed a solar water heater in our house in Florida, and enjoyed hot showers every day.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Holy Week in the Philipinnes

In the US the year-end holiday season incorporates a variety of religious holidays and also celebrates the changing of the year. The Holidays are celebrated by Americans of all faiths for the season's abundance of parties, gifts, food, and a few days off from work. Despite being a predominantly Catholic country, the same is true for the Philippines. In fact, I felt that the culture of Christmas gift giving was even more pressured here than in the US.

This week is Holy Week, and my first experience of a nationwide religious celebration. Last Sunday the streets were filled with vendors selling palm fronds, and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are non-working holidays honored by nearly all businesses. In contrast, many working Filipinos do not  have Christmas Day off. My driver is celebrating his four day weekend by taking a family trip to his home province, and it is very rare that his adult daughter and son, who work in a call center and a mall, respectively, get time off from work.

Holy Week in the Philippines is known for its Good Friday processionals that feature penitents engaging in self-flagellation and, in Pampanga, crucifixion. Locals and Wikipedia tell me that such practices are strongly discouraged by the Church, but those who practice self-flagellation view it as a form of devout worship. My driver tells me that the person selected to be crucified in Pampanga campaigns to be chosen, and is usually someone who believes that he has sinned and needs to be reborn in his devotion to Jesus. The crucifixion lasts for about an hour, and is hopefully carried out by someone with darn good aim. The Philippine Department of Health encourages tetanus shots.

A 2006 devotional crucifixion in Pampanga

In Manila, the city shuts down on Thursday and Friday, the radio stations suspend regular programming, and many people leave town. I've heard that there will be several processionals here in town. The processionals are bloody affairs, as you can see for yourself if you Google images of Holy Week in the Philippines.
I don't anticipate being anywhere near a crucifixion, but I am finding this experience interesting. Like many other cultural experiences in the Philippines, Holy Week feels familiar, and yet so different from my experiences in the US.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Culture Shock 101 (Duh)

As a new Foreign Service spouse I expected to be mostly adjusted to post six-seven months into my tour. As a clinical social worker, I should have known better. There is no chart; no timeline that you can fit yourself into perfectly. Knowing generally what to expect in a foreign country and educating oneself about adapting to change can help, but it won't necessarily make the process easier.

Before arriving at post I bought the book Culture Shock! and attended Tagalog classes at FSI, and from these resources felt somewhat prepared for what I would find in the Philippines. In my first few months I remember referencing what I had learned, but around December apparently forgot everything. It is only very recently that I have been able to shake off my bewildered frustration enough to be able to see what is happening to me--so this is culture shock! (Duh.)

Newcomers to the US Embassy are told that English-speaking Westerners get themselves in trouble because because Philippine social interaction is familiar on a superficial level. Even armed with this warning, it's easy to assume that you are able to communicate when you are both speaking English. ASSume nothing.

Even those of us with the best intentions can be overwhelmed by the emotional burden of living in a culture that is deeply different from one's own, and one of the reasons I joined the Foreign Service was for the learning experiences. Seven months later, I'm hitting the books--again, and because I have a point of reference, am learning much more from my reading. Expat survival guides such as Culture Shock! can be helpful in normalizing one's expat experience, but cannot help one avoid culture shock. 

My personal guidelines for the rest of my tour in Manila:

1) Be indirectly clear, and clearly indirect. Do not expect to "talk it out."
2) There is no queue.
3) There is no privacy.
4) "Yes" = maybe, sometimes, I don't know, I don't care, I have no idea what you just said, and sometimes ... yes!
5) My expectations are appropriate for life on the other side of the planet. (Duh.) Let the little things go.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Hardship = Hard on Your Patience

I have never been so patient--or rather, impatient--for so long, and for so many things. My seven months at post could also be called the great patience whirlpool of 2010-11, still ongoing. 

Manila is not unique in its ability to drive a mild-mannered American to insanity. Extraordinary amounts of patience are required at most countries with a State department hardship rating, and in general, Americans are not known for their patience.

Manila's unique demands on my patience usually turn up at the checkout counter. I used to love grocery shopping, and now avoid it because checking out is such an ordeal. Despite being exempt as part of my diplomatic status, I sometimes pay the 12% sales tax because my mental health is more important to me than the money. Even when I'm not using the VAT-exempt card, checking out is cumbersome, and usually involves signing multiple pieces of paper while several salesclerks crowd around you. I used to love browsing the aisles; now I love Amazon.com.

This particular aspect of hardship may have a greater impact on the family member who manages the household. Grocery shopping, paying bills, running errands, and generally providing for the household's daily needs all require multiple weekly trips through a checkout line, not to mention navigating the crowds and roller derby-esqueness of Manila's traffic.

Some things to note: the barreling buses, the jeepneys stopping in the middle of the road, the disembarking jeepney riders strolling across five lanes of traffic, and the general din of the car horns. It is remarkable that there are few serious car accidents, and it is because every Manila driver is paying 110% attention to the road.

How to deal? Beats me. But I can imagine that the more humor you interject into your experience, the easier it is to not take it seriously. For example, "I've been standing here for 20 minutes trying to make you let me pay you and we still aren't done? Isn't that hilarious." "That guy just ran into my side mirror. Now that's entertainment."

If unavoidable daily frustrations can become lovable, or at least entertaining, quirks of the city, the less those frustrations will seep into every interaction you have. This is especially important when the daily stress of being constantly frustrated begins to impact your relationships with co-workers, friends and family members.

Most of this frustration is due to the system being different. If Manila natives were made as crazy as I am by their daily activities, we'd have a city full of adults throwing tantrums fit for a toddler. This is what makes a hardship post hard: the degree to how different it is from life in the US. When I'm having a good day--aka my reservoir of patience is especially full that day--I can see past my frustrations to the beauty of living in Manila. Perhaps by the end of our two year tour I too will consider 30 minutes at the checkout counter a fact of life, and can better appreciate that the clerk who is making me wait wears a genuine smile the entire time.

To read about a FS spouse who doing a fantastic job of making the most of her hardship post, visit A Moveable Kitchen.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

City of Contrast

For seven months I've been meaning to write a post about Manila being a city of contrasts, but I never knew quite how to say it. So I won't. I'll just share these videos with you.

The first video is of a typical "real" Manila neighborhood. This one happens to be close to my housing community, although my apartment is inside a wall with barbed wire and a serious guard gate.


This video is from a neighborhood called Rockwell, where wealthy people live, and where I can go grocery shopping without wanting to tear my hair out--most of the time.


In Manila, depending on where you live, your daily travels will take you in and out of neighborhoods just like these, and you get to see the extremes of the socioeconomic structure here. After seven months I am still struck by the differences.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

FS Perks and the Hospicio de San Jose

One of the advantages of having a part-time job is being able to get involved in ways you don't have the energy for when you work 40+ hours/week. One of the advantages of living overseas as part of the US Embassy community is that it is relatively easy to get involved through organizations such as Manila's USEC.

In February I organized a diaper drive for my favorite local charity, the Hospicio de San Jose [HSJ]. I fell in love with HSJ in December when I attended the Marines' Toys for Tots presentation as USEC's representative, and every time I go back I am struck by the institution's positive energy.

Toys for Tots in December 2010

HSJ cares for orphans, special needs children/adults, and the elderly. Many special needs children are not adopted, and they live out their lives at HSJ.  

Ambassador Thomas greets HSJ residents. 

Many years ago, HSJ had a "turning cradle" stationed at its entrance, where women could surrender their babies anonymously. The mother would place her baby inside the "cradle," ring a bell, and turn it around, signifying that she had given her baby up for adoption. 

The turning cradle is now housed in HSJ's museum.

The US Embassy community donated nearly 7000 adult and children's diapers to HSJ, and we had the honor of presenting them to Sister Corrie and the HSJ staff today. 

Ambassador Thomas with the HSJ Sisters

We were greeted with song and dance at every turn!

This little boy can really get his groove on!

Our last entertainment was a performance of the Macarena

I consider opportunities such as these a perk of life in the Foreign Service. For more information on becoming a USEC volunteer, please visit its Facebook page. For more infomation on the Hospicio de San Jose, please click here to visit a Web page maintained by one of HSJ's alumni. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Swimming with the whale sharks

Heading to Donsol to swim with the whale sharks (butanding) made Lonely Planet's top ten in Asia, so of course it was one of our domestic travel priorities.

Although the whale sharks are the main tourist attraction, there's much more to do in the region, and I recommend taking an island-hopping boat tour one day and a firefly tour in the evening. Philippine fireflies are much smaller than those found in the US, and the sight was not quite as incredible as when the fireflies decorated the park last sumer in Falls Church, VA, but it's worth taking the tour.

We stayed at Giddy's, a Filipino-style hotel I recommend despite having to chase the kitchen staff down in order to be fed--every single time. The cooks were on island time. Other than the restaurant, the hotel staff was very good about organizing tours and being on time--a rare experience in this country, especially in the provinces. Another rare experience: the hotel was set in the middle of the town, so we were able to witness and even participate in local life without the barriers of guards, gates, and metal detectors. The night before we left for Donsol I returned from two nights/three days in Singapore, and, having had some time in Singapore to recover from Manila, I fully enjoyed this unique experience. Had I not been coming from the cleanest, most efficient city in the universe, I may not have been able to appreciate Donsol quite as much.

When you land at the Legaspi airport and step outside the plane, you can't miss the Mayon Volcano--a very active volcano.

The hour long trip to Donsol takes you through villages and lush greenery, and depending on your vehicle, is a pleasant trip. If one day of swimming with the whale sharks is enough for you, take an all day banca trip for snorkeling and waterfall swimming.

And finally, the whale sharks. My husband's description of the experience:
This is exactly how it happens -- the guide jumps in from a moving boat, you follow, knowing not where the beast lurks. You frantically search around in the dim water, looking for the city-bus sized creature. When the guide stops swimming, you know it's close. Then BAM ... there it is and you better move out of the way.

Even though the whale sharks are plankton-eating gentle giants, one dive was enough adventure for me.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

First Quarter Down

In honor of our 6 month anniversary of arriving in Manila (January 31), our one year anniversary of arriving in DC to join the FS (February 14), and the winter bidding cycle, here's my six-month perspective on Manila as a FS post:
1) Community - The Embassy has wonderful leadership and is staffed by a great group of people, creating a friendly work environment despite the heavy workload in the consular section. The social community is inclusive and supportive, and there are plenty of opportunities to make friends.
2) Travel - The Philippines is a beautiful country, and Manila is well located for Southeast Asian travel. Domestic travel can be either cheap or expensive, depending on where you stay.
3) Food - Although Filipino food and Americans don't usually mix well, there are good restaurants in Makati and the Fort.
4) Domestic help - Imagine a life where your house is always clean, dinner is ready, and there's no such thing as laundry nights. And most importantly, you can afford it. Drivers are helpful in dealing with the traffic and parking problems, and can multi-task as professional dog walkers, errand runners, and bag schleppers. 
5) Safety - There are certain places in the country where you cannot go, and there is a travel warning in the Philippines, but Manila is generally as safe as any other mega-city. 
6) Availability of goods - Unless you shop like a local, and it's difficult to shop like a local, you will pay US equivalent or higher prices for most of your groceries and household basics. Manila has a 5% COLA. However, you have access to many familiar US, Australian, and European goods, which helps if you are already overwhelmed by the city. When you can't think straight because you battled an hour of traffic getting to the grocery store, at last you will find a few familiar labels on the shelves. You won't find everything you want, but you'll find most of it. Local and imported fruits and veggies are generally plentiful, depending on the season. 
7) Good deals -  Restaurant dining and home food delivery is extremely affordable, particularly if you are used to paying D.C. prices. High-quality and skilled crafts, furniture, jewelry and clothing is wonderfully inexpensive at markets such as Greenhills, and travel can be cheap. You can have incredibly fresh, organic vegetables delivered nearly to your door for less than $100/month--take that, Whole Foods. Massages are the best deal in town, even at the Sofitel.
8) EFM employment - Most spouses who want to work are able to find a job at the Embassy, and most enjoy their work.

1) Air quality: The air quality here is poor, which makes it difficult to spend very much time outside. In addition to the pollution caused by smoke-spewing buses, cars, and jeepneys, there's always an interesting smell heading your way on the next breeze.
2) Traffic: Planning a night out is always a challenge. It could take 15 minutes to get to your destination, or it could take over an hour, and the traffic is unpredictable. For this reason, most people spend a lot of time at home or at the homes of their friends. In addition, driving in Manila is difficult, and requires your full attention when you are behind the wheel. The rule of the road is that there are no rules.
3) Nothing is easy: The only easy way to run an errand in Manila is to ask your driver to run it for you. From the traffic to finding what you need to dealing with salespeople, hilarity inevitably ensues.
4) Noise: Fireworks go off year round and at all times of the day and night, cars backfire, horns blare, scooters buzz, and there is the occasional parade.
5) Walk-ability: What walk-ability?
6) Money: Yes, you can save money, but not as much as you'd think. Good mental health requires escaping from the city approximately once/month, which can get expensive.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Resistance is Futile

A few weeks ago we rented Outsourced, a movie about an American call center manager who travels to India to train his replacement. I recommend this movie to all American expats, and especially to those who have lived or traveled extensively in a developing country. In one scene, the main character, desperate for a cheeseburger, drives to Delhi in pursuit of a McDonald's, only to find that they do not carry beef. Frustrated and generally discontented, he meets another American expat, who, after recommending the veggie burger, counsels the man to stop resisting India.

In Outsourced, this single conversation is a turning point for the main character, who immediately starts embracing life in India. For the rest of us, embracing a culture that is so dramatically different from our own may take a bit more than a single conversation.

The first few months in a new country are difficult, but at first it's easy to be positive. You may find certain aspects of the new culture grating, but in the first months they haven't annoyed you long enough for the irritation to seep into your bones. Once you move past four/five months, the cumulative effect of hundreds of small irritations begins to settle over your mind like a net, and you find yourself trapped in a constant state of resistance.

There are many things about life in Manila an American may resist. You could spend your entire tour should-ing all over everything. There are some aspects I will never love: the environmental catastrophe that is metro Manila, the traffic, and the general lack of structure in most aspects of daily life--with the exception of checking out, which requires one to sign fifteen pieces of paper and visit ten different counters to have one's receipt scribbled upon.

Yet there are many aspects of Manila life that I enjoy, and they are not all related to enjoying the company of my fellow Foreign Service community members. The elastic state of "rules" and "policies" often works in one's favor: take five minutes to stand your ground and you may end up with a discount instead of being ripped off. It doesn't get much better than an hour long massage from a skilled therapist in a clean facility for $10 USD. And it's easy to live in harmony with people who are good-natured, happy, and totally unwilling to engage in conflict. 

I may never embrace the smell of car exhaust greeting me when I step outside my door in the morning, but hopefully, in my second six months in Manila, I can learn to embrace the flow of daily life. I have tried resistance, and discovered that it is indeed futile.

Some things in Manila just make sense.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Holy Moly Holidays

Americans who are living in the Philippines sometimes make the mistake of thinking that because the country--or at least Manila--imitates American commercialism, the two cultures are similar. But beyond a similar fondness for Starbucks, I have experienced the two cultures as being vastly different.

Every first tour family may find their first holiday season away from home difficult, which is partially why we spent December 25th in Singapore. However, beyond the emotional aspects of missing family and friends, I found the holiday season in Manila to be more stressful than in the US.

Philippine culture is family and group oriented, and in general, Filipinos are very generous. If you have something, you must share it, even if doing so is a hardship. You may be poor, but there's someone in your extended family who is poorer, and you are expected to contribute some of your income to that person. Especially at Christmas time.

The expectation to GIVE can feel, to an American, overwhelming, but based on the traffic, aggression, and general tension in the city starting November 1st and only breaking on January 1st, it must be stressful for Filipinos as well.

The culture also has high expectations regarding spending. For example, the required contribution for a nearby domestic helper/driver holiday gathering was a day's salary--give or take a little depending on one's earning power. What would you do if you learned your required contribution to your office party was a day's pay?

Filipinos embrace life with a positive, live in the moment, bahala na (Leave it to God) attitude that make such cultural traditions enjoyable. It is this same attitude that Filipinos draw upon when they are smiling through extreme hardship.

Meanwhile, I am already working on spending November and December 2011 on an isolated beach.

New Year's Eve, however, is fantastic. Find someplace high to watch the panoramic view of the surprisingly large fireworks coming from everywhere you look. Viewed from a safe distance, the show is wonderful, even when someone is shooting fireworks horizontally off their high rise balcony, and someone else is launching them towards this same balcony, so that the fireworks appear to be hitting the side of the building. Unfortunately, this fantastic show is not without consequences, and the latest count of New Year's injuries is up to 929. Because after all, if you don't have any fireworks, shoot your gun instead. It's all about the noise.

The following image is from 2010, but it gives you an idea.

New Year's Fireworks Manila 2010, Manila, Philippines
This travel blog photo's source is TravelPod page: Happy New Year!