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Lessons Learned in the Philippines

16 Jun

I’ve been here for a bit of time now, and I’d like to think iv been learning some inside secrets, including the fact that it is possible to have a conversation using only one syllable.
Example: Elevator opens,
Person outside elevator: “baba ba?”
Person inside elevator: “bababa”

Translation:
Q: “Are you going down”
A: “Yes, going down”

Fascinating, right? Anyway, here’s a couple of other things I’ve learned so far.

Iwas means avoidance and Filipinos are very good at avoiding certain situations, both social situations and while driving. I know this sounds vague, but once you experience it for the first time it all makes sense.

It is very difficult to be a vegetarian in then Philippines. Pork and chicken are especially hot commodities, as is high cholesterol and thus heart attacks. Many of my Indian coworkers cook and bring their own food from home.

It is considered inhumane not to have recreation and nap rooms in the office. It is also customary to take a one hour lunch break. (I could really get used to this).

Being called ‘exotic’ is an insult. You might as well have just called the person an ugly mountain critter.

The invention of voicemail does not exist here. You may have to call the same office multiple times in order to get the person you’re looking for. However, an unlimited cell phone plan (talk, text, and data) is about $40USD a month. Yes, even for an IPhone.

There are number coding systems on the license plates indicating which days your car cannot be driven. If a license plate ends in 1 it means the car cannot be driven on Mondays during rush hour, and may only be driven between 11am and 3pm. Motorcycles have no restrictions.

When it rains, it often floods streets, but it might not be raining 5 minutes down the road.

Many of the people I’ve met cannot swim. “What?” You say, “but they live on an island, and the country is made up of 7,000 islands, and it floods!” Any you would be right, but I suppose the same goes for people born and bred in NYC. You wouldn’t exactly throw a child in the East river or the Hudson for a swimming lesson, and no one would voluntarily swim in the smelly, polluted Manila Bay.

Almost everyone asks your age. No keeping that a secret. It’s one of the first questions asked, along with “what do you do,” and “how are you liking it here so far?”

Apparently, no one here has a pointy nose, a cleft chin, or an eye color other than brown/black.

Most Asians want to be whiter. Now I knew this before coming here because in India and Hong Kong many people avoid the sun and use whitening face cleansers. BUT did you know that there is such a thing as whitening deodorant? And whitening face and body lotion?

Spas are an all day event. ‘Huh’ you ask? Allow me to elaborate….Over the weekend we went to Wensha spa spa. It’s open 24 hours and has an all-you-can eat buffet, massage, steam bath, sauna, mani, pedi, basically any type of pampering you could wish for. We entered in the afternoon and stayed the maximum amount of time, which just so happened to be 9 hours. (Yes, you read that correctly). Our first treatment was a one hour massage. Now I specifically asked if there would any type chest massage involved. In Austria, after graduation, I had stayed at a spa for a couple days and the European massage had been more…shall we say, invasive, than massages in the US. I was assured this was not the case. Boy was I in for a surprise! Not only was my butt given a thorough massage, but also my stomach, and pretty much the entire front of my body. Oh but the fun didn’t stop there. My masseuse also walked on my back, and did stretching, which included rocking me on top of her to stretch my back. It was intense. Probably the craziest massage I’ve ever had, to the point where my back was sore for a couple days because every single knot was rubbed out of me…literally. After the massage, nap time. Yup, I was covered with a blanket and passed out for a good 2hours. Next stop was our one hour foot massage. And by foot massage I mean another body massage, but in a laz-y-boy. The one mistake I made was getting a mani/pedi without a foot spa. In the US when you have a pedicure it automatically includes soaking of the feet and getting all the dead skin off your heels. Here, they are two separate services. Lesson learned. So for about $45 USD I had a one hour body massage, one hour foot massage, manicure, pedicure, nap time, lunch and dinner, oh and the steam room. I could definitely get used to this.

Lastly, everyone is really friendly and incredibly hospitable. All the people I’ve become close with here want to show me a good time and make sure I’m safe and have everything I need.

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Bataan, Corregidor Island

6 Jun

History has always been fascinating to me, but being here has made me realize that the US and Philippines have been deeply intertwined for nearly 100 years since the Philippine revolution in 1898. We fight for them, they fight for us, and then we crash a mine sweeper on one of their precious reefs, due to “faulty navigation” ….but I digress. After a 3 month battle in Bataan in 1942 the Japanese army forced 60 to 80,000 Americans and Filipinos to march from Marivales, Bataan to Camp O’donnell. Known as the death march of Bataan, it is considered one of the worst war crimes in history.

After the third shift, at 7am, 13 of us packed into a 10 passenger van and drove from Quezon City, Manila to Marivales, Bataan. ( In case you’re wondering how we fit into said van, one American seat actually equals 2 Filipinos, so problem solved!) From Marivales we took boats out to Corregidor Island which has long been fortified to protect the entrance to Manila Bay. Corregidor also happens to site of two major WWII sieges and has been left unrestored in order to honor the soldiers that died there. We toured the island by jeepney and none of us realized exactly how big the island really is. Some of the hot spots include the Malinta Tunnel, the last stronghold of joint Philippine American military, the Filipino Heros Memorial, and the Corregidor Lighthouse, which is one of the oldest landmarks on the island. It seemed like we had the island to ourselves, and even though we were all exhausted, we managed to take an enormous amount of pictures, including jump shots.

Once back on the mainland it was time to find a place to crash for the night and drop off the people that were not staying the night. While we now had 8 people remaining in the 10 passenger van, this is where I get incredibly antsy. ‘What do you mean we don’t have a hotel booked?’ Perhaps it’s only the people I’m with on a daily basis, but they seem to have a difficult time making a decision. My interaction on a daily basis has been the struggle for where to eat lunch and what to order, and yet most restaurants have an 8 page menu. A typical interaction goes something like;
Coworkers: ‘ what do you want to eat?’
Me: ‘What do you normally order?What is the specialty here?’
Coworkers: ‘ umm anything, pork, chicken, beef, what kind of food do you want?’
Me: ‘I’m not sure what some of this is…what is palabok, what is lechon? well what are you getting?’
Coworkers: ‘umm I’m not sure yet, maybe we will go somewhere else’
Me: ‘ where do you want to go?’
Coworkers: ‘ where would you like to go?’ And on it goes.

You can imagine how the interaction went for picking a hotel. I was too tired to care where we stayed. I had faith in my US coworker and our driver, who has been our tour guide on the weekends. My US coworker was leaving for good on Sunday so this was to be her last hoorah. We settled at Villa Imperial, which did not happen to be on the list of hotels I had researched prior. Although there was barely running water and a flushing toilet, the food was excellent, and there was a videoke machine, which is very popular here. While I do not sing any type of karaoke, it was fun to watch, and with 26peso ($0.60) San Miguel beers what more could we ask for? We were provided with garlic rice at both breakfast and dinner, along with milk fish and Nilagang Baboy soup, which tastes like Eastern European sweet and sour cabbage soup. It has pork, bok choi, potatoes, and a type of white radish.

This week also marked one of my coworkers birthdays. In the US when it’s someone’s birthday, we all buy dinner for that person, or pay to go to an event of their choosing. In Asia, the birthday boy or girl pays for all their friends to go out. What a great idea! The birthday dinner happened to be traditional Filipino food at a place called Gerry’s Grill, (there are two locations in California)known for their sizzling pork sisig. We had beef care-care, crispy pla-pla, beef kaldereta, and tanigue kilaw. Some people may be grossed out when they discover what some of the food is, but don’t knock it ’till you try it. To cap off the dinner, we went to Conti’s for mango bravo cake. I love anything with mango, and mango bravo is officially my new favorite dessert here.

Tagalog word(s) of the day
Tawad- negotiate
Mahal- means expensive, but it also means love…love is expensive 🙂

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Going Local

29 May

As is typical at nice hotel everywhere outside of the US, there is a full buffet breakfast with almost anything you can possibly imagine. At the Edsa Shangri-la this means a create-your-own soup station, omelet station, fruits, yogurt, jams, sushi station, beef tapa, crepe station, panini’s, waffles, Indian, garlic rice, danishes…basically anything your little heart desires. Thus no matter what time I get home from work, 1am or 4am, I will wake up for this divine breakfast. At the sweet breakfast station there is bibingka, which is a type of rice bread that I’ve come to fall in love with. My coworker was kind enough to introduce me to Rico, who runs the omelette station and continued to spoil me every morning with an elaborate crepe filled with everything from mangos, and jam with fresh strawberry sauce, to mangos, bananas, marshmallows and white chocolate pieces. I miss you Rico!

While staying at a five star hotel is nice and fancy, I think for the long term I would start to resent it, and so I started looking for something a little more homey. I looked at service apartments and condos, and after two weeks of debating, one of my local coworkers found me a great service apartment in Makati, the central business district. While it is farther away from work than the Edsa Shang in Ortigas, it has a more active and social atmosphere. Once I moved / settled in to my new digs, my coworkers came over to show me around the Glorietta and Greenbelt mall areas and to take me grocery shopping! I think one of my favorite purchases is the 24 quail eggs I purchased for 40P ($0.95)…wow what a deal. Everything I thought would be expensive, was fairly cheap, and everything I thought would be fairly cheap was pretty pricey, go figure.

Some of the other popular foods I’ve tried are halo-halo, which literally means “mix-mix”, and is one of the most famous ice treats, especially from ChowKing. When my coworker explained to me what was actually in it I thought it couldn’t be true…how can coconut, purple yam, beans, corn, rice, jackfruit, bananas, pearls, and palm fruit taste good? Magically it does, and I can’t wait to try it again.

Jollibee is the most popular fast food chain, BEFORE McDonalds which comes in a far second. I have yet to try the burger, but the chicken joy with palabok was mighty tasty and not too big.

My other coworker, who also moved out of the Edsa Shang, wanted to cook a typical Tex mex dinner. It was fabulous! Even though eating out here is often cheaper than cooking in, everyone likes a home cooked meal.

Our final stop for the evening was the infamous Hobbit House bar, one of the 7 most bizarre bars according to Lonely Planet. While the place was fairly dead on a Sunday night, there is live music daily and imported beers from all over the world. Where else can you get a Duvel and Blue Moon in Manila? Even though this bar felt slightly exploitative, the music was good and the beers will have us coming back again.

 

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Binondo, Divisoria, and …Balut?

23 May

The April version of hemispheres magazine on united airways featured three perfect days in Manila. One of the places recommended is Lord Stow’s Bakery, which I first discovered in Hong Kong. They make great egg tarts, so of course I had to go. Fortunately, a coworker that’s staying here is adventurous as well and with the help of a local friend we took the MRT and LRT to Binondo, the worlds oldest china town. After our egg tart fix we walked around china town and made our way to the markets of divisoria. When I tell the people at the office that I went here they all think I’m crazy. It reminds me of the markets in India and Hong Kong. We walked around to buy souvenirs, I bought a new umbrella and by some miracle I found two dresses that fit! I say by some miracle because a) the clothes tend to run smaller and while I am short I’ve got nothing on some of the people here, b) the clothes run skinny, and these hips don’t lie, c) there are not always fitting rooms so its more a “hold it up and see” and d) they like this concept of “free size” or “one size” thus implying that it fits most Filipinas. So you can imagine my excitement when I found a store in divisoria that had a dressing room and free size dresses for people with hips. And then something awesome happened… I saw someone with a Cotton On bag. Which might have you thinking, “what in the world is cotton on and why is it awesome.” I first discovered cotton on in Australia and bought many a clothes there due to the fact they are reasonably priced and timeless, almost like American Apparel with flare. The second time i found Cotton On was in Hong Kong, and by some act of god I stumbled upon one in the Galleria Mall in Dallas Texas. Every time I find a Cotton On i have shopping success without regretting the hit to my wallet. The local I was with was kind enough to indulge me by hunting down the location and we were led to the new Chinatown mall where I promptly ran around the store with glee.

After that we were pretty shopped out and quickly made our way back to the LRT via tricycle. A tricycle here is basically a bike or motorcycle with a covered side carriage. It’s a little scary because its low to the ground and weaving in and out of traffic, but once you get over the initial shock it’s loads of fun!

Our evening plans consisted of a roof top pool party with some other coworkers that are here temporarily as we’ll but managed to find condos. On our way home from pool partying it up, our local friend remembered that I want to try balut. When you Wikipedia balut you may want to gag, but to me it just tasted like hard boiled egg and a hard plasticky shell, and I think it was worth the potential street cred I might now possess.

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Manila City Tour

22 May

We started early in order to take a private city tour through the hotel. Typically I refuse to spend money on these types of tours mostly because they are overpriced. But we also didn’t have the luxury of shopping around for the best option. So promptly after breakfast we braved the Friday rush hour traffic to Makati courtesy of Frank, and yes that’s his real name. We got to escort his daughter and adorable grand daughter Chelsea to Makati where they were going shopping and we were picking up a German-French man who happens to be living in Atlanta. The first stop on our tour was the American cemetery which is shockingly more impressive than Arlington. The grounds are incredibly meticulous and the mosaic maps detail major WWII battles in south east Asia. I can’t wait to see what they do for Memorial Day.

Frank then drove us through the brand new and modern financial district and Forbes Park, home to the rich and famous, including the controversial Imelda Marcos who is now back in the country and a congress women to boot. After driving through the “reclaimed” land, home to the Mall of Asia, the third largest mall in the world and the largest mall in Asia, past the US embassy and the Manila hotel to Intramuros. This is the old Spanish capital and where the national hero Josè Rizal was tried and executed in 1896 for starting the philippine revolution against Spanish rule. Within Fort Santiago you can see Rizal’s last steps. Right outside of this fort there is a government store that will issue you a certificate with your pearls, which of course means they’re legit right? Apparently they are having a 60% off sale, but $650 usd for a pearl necklace, earrings and bracelet are not exactly a deal to me. I bought a couple of postcards and called it a day.

Earlier my coworker had been joking that if Frank got us a coconut off the street then we would right him a really good recommendation. This was all said as a joke, biro, in Tagalog, but all of a sudden frank pulled to the side of the road and got us a coconut! And not only the juice, but the meat too. What a guy! It was hard to go to work after a morning like that.

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Red Hot South East Asian Summer

18 May

How do you prepare to live in a foreign country for three months? I had a paranoid feeling that I was forgetting to do something or bring something or let someone know I was going to be away. And before I knew it, literally it happened in about 2 weeks… The adventure of a lifetime has begun! The morning of my flight I was frantically last minute packing and tidying up the apartment before James drove me to JFK. Thanks to a handy travel scale, courtesy of mom, both of my bags were underweight. Airline baggage fees have become outrageous and I’ve been in line behind many people who had to repack bags or pay ridiculous overage fees. Luckily credit card companies have gotten smart and now offer free bags in their annual fee. Since there is no delta sky lounge in Terminal 4, I bought a bunch of “I Love NY” gear to give to new friends I anticipate meeting along the way, and headed to the gate. Some of my last minute errands included calling my credit card companies, my cell phone carrier, my parents and my grandma. And of course taking pics of my delta lay flat bed on the upper deck to Tokyo Narita. The two inter-continental Delta flights were very comfortable and my gluten free meal request was honored and delicious. I kept the same seat on both flights and didn’t need to recheck my luggage in Tokyo. Upon landing in Manila, I went through customs and made my way to the Shangri-La lounge area on the opposite side of the pick up/drop off lane. There, coincidentally, was my coworker from Chicago and two other coworkers that have been here for at least 3 weeks and were nice enough to come to the airport to meet us on a Saturday night. After getting checked in it was time to try and sleep before our first day of work. Everyone at the office is extremely nice and the service at the hotel is impeccable. The buffet breakfast is outstanding and similar to what I experienced in India. It’s attached to a mall which is a very popular hang out spot in Manila. The mall of Asia here is actually the third largest mall in the world.

I was asked before I came here whether or not I liked Filipino food. Of course the person that asked me this did so with a scowl on his face, therefore indicating that he did not like the food. I had no idea what he meant until I came here and realized how sweet most of the food is. “Sweet beef” you ask? How can this be? I have no idea, but it surprisingly really good, especially for breakfast. American restaurants are incredibly popular here. Apparently when IHOP opened there was a 4 hour line for the first couple weeks. However one thing that is definitely not the same is Dunkin Doughnuts. While I am not a fan of their coffee I decided to get one with my coworker anyway. We were walking around apartment hunting for me which is no small task in 93 F degrees with over 100% humidity. The regular iced coffee was so bad it was undrinkable. It was literally like drinking sugar with some coffee flavored water in it. We took a couple sips out and quickly ditched it. I guess we’re sticking to Starbucks.

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