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.