Friday, December 30, 2011

Arthur's Place

A two to three hour drive from our house lies Anilao, ie, a great dive location close to Manila. To take a break from the city, in our staycation we took a one night, four dive trip, staying at Arthur's Place which is just what we've been looking for. At $60/room/night (food and dive equipment extra) with a big lawn and enough beach to keep the boys entertained while we're out, the quality-for-price ratio is just right. Not that we didn't enjoy the luxury Vivre Azure stay with Bob back in July -- but at that price and with those amenities, who wants to dive? Arthur's was the perfect set up for our dive trip.

As I've mentioned before, diving would be impossible if we couldn't bring our nanny with us. Luckily, she loves playing with the boys at the beach, and, even better, they follow the rules and don't go in past their knees when we're not there. The waves in Batangas are very gentle, with no undertow. Thus, we can enjoy a few dives out and not worry about if the boys are having fun.

We took this trip with another couple from work who also have two boys, ages 8 and 5. Their grandma was visiting, so, voila!, their childcare taken care of, too.  Diving can be kind of a tricky hobby when your kids can't come, so trips must be strategically planned when non-divers come to visit.  Wm and the 5 yr old played well together, and Patch tried his best to keep up.  Our dive master (and friend!) took the eight year old out the second morning to snorkel and try out breathing through the regulator (at the surface). What a memorable treat for him.

Even if the visibility wasn't that great (the coral was blooming two weeks ago, and residual blooms clouded the water still), we really enjoyed playing under the water - and at its edge. The Philippines has much to offer on the beach front, and we really should be taking more advantage of it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Manila Stay-cation

We took this week off from work a few months back with the intention of taking a trip, maybe. We weren't really committed to going somewhere, but with both boys off of school, it seemed a logical time to travel. Not that we really think missing a day or two of school at ages 2 and 4 would make that much of a difference.  We quickly learned that this is the peak week for travel in the Philippines, rivaling only the week before Easter. Which means prices for hotels can be 3x normal - and spending $300/night for only normal accommodations seemed ridiculous. A Manila stay-cation it would be.

This has left ample time for playing on the playground, seeing MI4, a two-day/one-night diving trip to Anilao, combo playdate-coffeedate with a mom or two of friends of the boys, scanning in paperwork for our condo rental and medical claims, filing papers, sorting old and new addresses, rewatching Lord of the Rings, and basically crossing all those annoying little things off of the list that I have wanted to do for nine months but never quite got around to.

I've resisted the urge to go shopping for a bunch of organizational type contraptions and such to sort toys and closets. While I'd love to tackle this project, it doesn't seem worth it to purchase things which fit in the small spaces of our current place, without knowing what the next place will be like. Muji and good bye.

The only thing this week hasn't entailed - which would normally be part of such an extended time at home - is cooking and baking. Not really sure why, but I'm just not in the mood for that this week. Luckily, we seem to have ample left overs from Christmas dinner and a few nights eating out, so no one is going hungry :)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What Goes Around, Comes Around

I remember asking my mother one time why she was always inviting kids of old acquaintances over for dinner. She told me because she hoped that when I was far away in college, someone would keep an eye out for me. As it turned out, an old friend of my aunt's ended up living 10 minutes from my college - and she had a great garage for storing stuff during the summer. So, I guess my mom's plan worked out. A few dinners traded for summer storage.

On a foreign service listserv, I read a post about a family looking for temporary housing while their child was having followup surgery in DC. As it turned out, my sister was moving out of our condo a few days before this family planed to arrive in DC. And, when I explained the situation to my sister, she didn't mind the little bit of effort on her part to coordinate getting the keys and such to the family. A plan was hatched, and for about three weeks, the family - whom I've never met - was in our place. Thankfully, the surgery was successful and they were able to go to grandparents' home for Christmas.

I felt compelled to figure out how to make this work, because I knew exactly how the parents must have felt, even though - thankfully - I've never been in their situation (knock on wood!). Imagine living half way around the world, with the doctor that's been treating your child accessible only by email. You don't trust medical treatment where you are and firmly believe it's in the best interest of your child for the same doctor to continue with the course of treatment. You finally manage to get all the necessary insurance approvals and appointments clumped close enough together to have the trip back make logical sense (no small feat!).

But, then, where do you stay? A Residence Inn would be pretty expensive and you have no relatives living close by. So, you ask other families who live similarly nomadic lives, if anyone has advice, or perhaps even a place available for the budget you have. And keep your fingers crossed that the arrangements you make don't fall through at the last minute.

Thankfully, I think this family's stay at our place was not stressful. The linens were used and the pots and pans didn't match - but the basics, including internet, were there. Sure, it delayed by a month packing up our stuff and getting the repair work done on the condo before renting - and the rental fee received was minimal - but all I could think about is how much I would hope someone could help me were I in that situation. In this line of work, you end up relying a lot on your own family - and on the kindness of strangers.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Typhoon Washi

Typhoon Pedring put the US Embassy on international news as the "floating embassy."  Though damage and destruction ensued, it was nothing compared to Typhoon Washi which struck the southern Philippines this weekend. Six hundred dead and counting, on an island which already struggles to deal with rebel groups.

I heard a story at work today, which really hit home.  A friend noticed during an interview that the family was from Mindanao and noted he was surprised they were able to come today for the interview.

The family responded that they thanked God their interview was scheduled today, as they had a few options for days they could have selected. They left their home earlier than originally intended, because they didn't want to risk missing their visa interview. This morning, they were able to reach someone they knew, who said all their neighbors were missing and the mud in their house was up to the ceiling. Were it not for the interview, they would have been home this last weekend. The unsaid ending to the story, of course, is that they would be missing along with all their neighbors.

I can't imagine what it will be like for that family, traveling back to Mindanao. I'm not even sure, were I in their position, if I would want to wait a few days, to let things calm down and hope that the aid agencies are able to control disease and deliver drinking water, or if I would want to rush back to try and salvage what was left of my life. Our underwater embassy was peanuts compared to this.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Next Stage, Cemented

I don't really think of myself as that old, but who ever does?  I realized today, though, that I have firmly moved into the "next stage" of life.  DINK really doesn't apply anymore.  We may have had delusions in HYD, with only one young boy and babysitting so (comparatively) inexpensive, but such fantasies exist no more.

On the way home, a coworker (single, young, intelligent woman ... not unlike myself not so long ago - except Greg's been around since age 17 :)  ) conversationally asked about my weekend plans.  I thought about it, then said baking cookies for a cookie exchange, sewing a 70s costume for Wm's school play, preparing some snacks for the yaya to take to a Christmas party at Gymboree with Patch (while I'm at said cookie exchange), then a Lessons & Carols service on Sunday.

After a brief pause, she just looked at me with and expression that meant something along the lines of "wow. that is so completely totally different from my weekend, I don't even know where to start."  And, since she didn't volunteer her weekend plans other than a vague mention of "holiday parties" (and since we were home), I didn't press it.

I've been thinking about it all evening, as I was cutting out sugar cookies and then searching online for a free sewing pattern for a vest.  Really no going back anymore!  Our lifestyle over the last five years has changed dramatically because of our job, but gradually because of the boys - the later without really realizing it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Poor Patch

I've heard it's common among little siblings, though I suppose I'd have to let Beth or Tracy confirm - Greg and I both being first children, we wouldn't know for sure (well, quasi-first in my case, I consider myself a first child who also has four older siblings, so whatever. Families are what you make of them!).

But, what I hear is common in kids is an unloving devotion from the younger child to the older one.  Call it Monkey-See-Monkey-Do, or Idolization, or My Big Bro Taught Me All I Need to Know, or whatever - but Patch definitely suffers from it.  Anything Kuya does, he wants to do. Anything Kuya has, he needs to have. Anytime Kuya yells at him for spoiling his toys, he apologizes (even if Wm is being unreasonable).  Kuya is the be all, end all.

Tonight was a bit heart breaking for Patch.  Since Feb, the two boys have shared a room.  Mind you, Patch was 15 months in February, so Patch can't remember a time when he *didn't* sleep with Wm.  But, tonight, Wm decided he didn't like how his toes touched the end of his bed when he stretched them out, so he refused to sleep in his bed and went to the guest room to sleep.  Patch was miserable!  He kept running to the door saying, "Kuya outside! Kuya outside!" and trying to open the door to let Wm in.  Poor Patch.  But Wm was resolute and stayed in the guest bedroom.  (though, to his credit, he did get up to see why Patch was crying so much -- which, actually, only make things worse for Patch.)

Eventually, when I was able to calm Patch down enough, he realized he was really tired, and with the first normal deep breath, he practically fell asleep.  So, they sleep in separate rooms tonight - and Greg has promised that he will modify the IKEA bed tomorrow after work to extend it for Wm.  Otherwise, Patch might just have his heart broken.

*Kuya = Big Brother in Tagalog

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Wm on Work

We had a funny conversation with Wm this morning on our way to a breakfast with Santa.  We were talking about how a new friend was going to come over on Monday, and Wm was very concerned that the new friend's driver knew where our house was.  I explained that everyone at the Embassy knows where Seafront is, so I doubted the driver would get lost, bringing the boy over.  Being a logical kid, Wm then asked if that kid's parents both worked at the Embassy, too, just like me and Greg.

I explained that his father did, but his mom stayed at home to take care of the house and children - that was her work.  After a bit of silence, Wm asked, "You mean, not all parents go to work?"  I said no. He said, "Oh, I thought all adults go to work just like all kids go to school."

Then he wanted to know how many yayas worked at the new friend's house.  I told him one.  He answered, "That's why his mom can't work. One yaya can't watch three kids! If they got another yaya, then his mom could go to work, too, like the other adults."  (his new friend has two older twin sisters)

Then we moved onto more important topics, like what he was going to ask Santa for Christmas (a level crossing for his Thomas set, a parking lot, and a second double decker bus).

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Managing Three Homes

It's hard enough managing one home ... but this week has been full throttle managing all three places I can all claim as "home."  No wonder I'm feeling like I'm not really living in the present.

First, there's the day-to-day home in Manila with all the normal day-to-day stuff that goes on like balancing one car with play date requests by the oldest son and dentist appointments for me (I won that one).  Air conditioners making weird noises (immediate need to fix - I never want to be in an AC-free house here).  Christmas bonus to pay the household staff, as well as keeping current on premiums for their social security and health care.

Then, there's my claimed residency in Texas.  Not too much going on there, but I did have to write a check for property taxes and some initial capital repair expenses.  Expected, but still means reading through a spreadsheet, making sure I understand everything, and assembling the check book, address, and stamps all at the same place.  Sounds simple, but somehow it took me three days.

Finally, the transition of our rental condo in DC.  We've been quite lucky having my sister rent it for the last four years.  Sadly, that blissful nirvana came to an end on Nov 30.  So, now I have to schedule packers/storage for the last things we left in there (after all, we don't own that much else ... and I dread the possibility of being assigned to DC next where I am responsible for furnishing my own house, and hemorrhaging cash as a result).  And "interview" (over email) a property management company, to find someone who I think I can trust and who is a reliable email correspondent (given the time difference).  And keep my fingers crossed the apartment rents quickly to a reliable tenant after the minor repair work is done.

We always live with a bit of a split brain - our assignments are temporary and defined from the beginning, it's impossible (for me, at least) to fully fall into life in the new city.  This week, though, I feel like my brain is not just split, but exploded.  

Monday, December 5, 2011

$600 Worth of Melons

Saturday evening, I brought home an estimated $600 worth of Japanese melons.  How, might you ask, did I come across these melons?  And why, exactly, would I purchase them?  

The good news is, I am not off my rocker.  I did not actually spend $600 on six melons.  I only spent PHP 6000 (about $140) for two tickets to the Consular Corps of Manila winter ball.  Greg wore the same tux as he wore to the Marine Corps Ball last month, and my dress was only $60, so we're at a max expenditure for the evening of $200.  A bit pricey, for sure, but that included an open bar, a delicious dinner at the Shangri-La Makati, and two raffle tickets.

The Consular Corps Ball is famous for its raffle prizes.  This year's three grand prizes were two different four day cruises and a pair of round trip business class tickets to San Francisco.  Personally, I would also have been happy with either of the Boracay vacation packages - or two nights in El Nido, one of the top resorts here.  In addition to donated prizes, the Consul of each Embassy traditionally donates a raffle prize from his (yes, they were all men this year) country.**  For example, the Austrian Consul donated a Swaroski crystal vase.  Can you tell where this is going?

You guessed it!  Each year, true to form, the Japanese Consul donates some sort of uber expensive fruit.   This year, he donated two boxes of Shizuoka melons, flown in fresh that day from Japan, in the compartment of the plane and not the cargo hold, because the cold would ruin the sweetness.  The heydays of the Japanese bubble economy have not completely disappeared, it seems.  

Two years ago, my coworker won Fuji apples.  Last year, Patch's classmate's dad won melons.  For the last month, I've been talking about these melons.  After all, I figured, even if we didn't win a grand vacation, there's always the melons.  All the while quietly reminding myself that I never even won a cakewalk at my grandparents' church summer fair -- only Beth ever did.

Imagine my surprise when the first number called out was:  2 -- 8 -- 4!  My number (or maybe Greg's, but I was holding both tickets, so I'm saying it was mine).  The melons were mine!  Six sweet melons, so sweet I could smell them sitting on the table about four feet below my nose.  I even busted out a little Japanese chit chat when accepting my prize (to my amazement, no Telugu slipped out).  The Japanese Consul seemed pleased with this and told me he was glad the melons were going to someone who would truly appreciate them. 

When the evening ended, a fellow guest offered me a gift certificate to TGIFridays in exchange for a melon.  Greg, disliking melons of all varieties, wanted to take him up on it, but I refused.  Get your hands off my melons!

I spent Sunday periodically hunting around for information on these famously expensive melons.  I found a great YouTube clip - an 8 minute Japanese TV special on Shizuoka melons - that explains it all.  The melons had to be finished by today  (a mere three days after receiving them), so I brought three into the office, warning my coworkers it would be 80 PHP / bite.  Everyone agreed they were sweet and juicy and perhaps the best melon ever tasted, but, still, it's a melon.  And one slice is about what a local employee spends on a week's worth of lunch!

Knowing I couldn't finish two melons this evening, I divided the last one in thirds between our three helpers.  Greg, in his sarcastic tone, told them (as they were walking out the door) that he'd deduct it from their pay check this month.  The poor ladies stopped short and starred at him - until he reassured them he was joking.  Guess his sarcasm doesn't quite translate!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Patch, thinking

I've known it for some time now, that the irrefutable moment will come after which I can no longer call Patch a baby.  I may have avoided a few previous indications because it's a little sad when babies truly become thinking little people.  Not overly sad, since they only get more interesting as they can think and talk more.  But, still, more than a smidgen of sadness washed over me when I knew I had just witnessed the tipping point.  Not a baby.  Definitely a little kid.

I was able to put this moment off because Patch started talking a lot later than Wm.  With no verbalization, I found it quite easy to pretend that he still was a baby, using his limited baby sign language and grunting.  Whether from just being part of his own personal development timeline, or being a few months older, or having heard much more English-only for 11 months, or being in his playschool for two months -- his talking has recently skyrocketd.  Case in point: yesterday, Patch said, "Let's go gala!" (gala = go around outside in Tagalog).  Me: "Where should we go gala?"  Patch: "Gala to the playground. Go get shoes!"

You'd think that would have been enough for me, right?  But, no, I still deluded myself into thinking he was still my little baby Patch.  Until this evening.

Wm was experimenting with the AC remote control, and Patch really wanted to try it out, too.  Wm wanted nothing of his little brother interfering with his work, so when he finished setting the AC just so, he put the remote control back on the hook on the wall, which, conveniently, is just outside of Patch's reach.

Patch stomped around pouting for about one second and then ran out of the living room. We barely had time to ask where he went, when he returned from the bathroom carrying his stool.  He promptly placed it under the AC remote, stepped up, and tried to take it down.  At this point, Greg and I were flabbergasted, and Wm, never missing a beat, said: "Good idea, Patch!"  Seems the big bro was so impressed at Patch's resourcefulness, he no longer minded Patch having a turn with the remote.

There you have it.  I can't call a kid that stops pouting and crying and quickly finds a solution to his frustration a baby.  No way.

(Greg's comment on reading this: Now, if only Patch would use the stool to go potty by himself...)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Inside and Outside the Gate

Happy Thanksgiving!

Two years ago in HYD, I was super crazy.  With a month old baby, I invited 10 people over - with the extra help of my mom and two helpers, though, Greg and I managed quite fine.  This year it's a bit easier: only 6 extra adults and Patch is two!  Hence, the ability to write a blog post while simultaneously preparing a feast.

With a Butterball turkey and imported fresh cranberries at the store (and fresh pecans sent from Texas and brought by our friend visiting from the US), the meal should be quite traditional.  The only deviation from the usual was having to cause a pumpkin to be roasted and pureed while I was at work yesterday.  The pie looks great, though, so I'm sure it will be fine.

While driving around this morning, the juxtaposition between "inside" and "outside" our compound gate was quite amusing.  Inside is very quiet - everyone is either traveling or cooking!  The offices at Seafront are closed (obviously), so the extra work-related traffic is zero. The inactivity (or invisible activity - probably the kitchens are a hub of activity) feels like Thanksgiving Day.

Outside, though, traffic is raging, and actually a bit heavier than usual.  After all, no Thanksgiving here!  All it takes is crossing through our armed double gate.  Thanksgiving on one side, normal Manila on the other.  Greg and our visitor ventured into Intramuros this morning, so I'm sure the difference will be even more pronounced for them.


I run across some interesting words, living in countries where English is widely spoken and often used as the "link language" where so many dialects persist.  Filipino English and American English are, of course, mutually intelligible, but every now and then a word pops out that takes me some time to fully understand.

William's school uses the word "co-parent" in most of its communication home.  Today's letter was addressed in the singular, inviting the reader to attend a workshop on Friday morning with a visiting American Montessori consultant.  It concluded by encouraging the reader to bring along his or her co-parent.

As background, family here is much more fluid than in the U.S.  With so many OFW (overseas Filipino workers), it is not uncommon for children grow up with only one biological parent at home, or, if both parents are OFWs, with grandparents or aunts or uncles as the primary caregivers.  In addition, at the visa window, I observe all kinds of family situations.  Divorce is illegal in the Philippines, and many don't seek or can't obtain an annulment.  So, a separated person might meet another partner, have children with the new partner in addition to children from the legal marriage, and all live together as a family - except the parents in the new family aren't technically married.  So the new partner can't technically be a parent of the child from the first (still legal) marriage.

Over the last few months, I've gotten the sense that "co-parent" helps out in these situations, referring to whomever the parent thinks of as his or her primary support in the act of parenting - it is a broader term than spouse, doesn't have the sometimes negative association that comes with "stepparent," and acknowledges the nurturing role a live-in partner plays even if that relationship is not legal.

I'm curious if it also applies to the extended parenting roles that are necessitated by OFW parents.  For instance, consider this highly unlikely (but theoretically possible) situation.  I go on an unaccompanied assignment, leaving Greg and the boys (not my plan, but just for instance).  Greg's sister ends up working at a school in the same city as his assignment.  Feeling pity on him, she moves in to help with the boys.  Would she, then, be considered a "co-parent" for that short period of time?  Or does it have to be longer?

Americans, at least in my experience, have a very set and comparatively narrow definition of "parent."  In my opinion, it doesn't seem to extend beyond the bio-parent, step-parent, or adoptive-parent.  The idea of a "co-parent," though, intrigues me, especially in light of the extended absence of an OFW parent.  Greg's TDY really made me appreciate having two parents - as a single parent, I had to be "on" all the time.  Were he gone for three years, I might appreciate my sister or brother or own parent filling in as a co-parent.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Baby Shower!

When I was pregnant with Patch, the Americans at the consulate all got together for a potluck lunch and baby shower.  We had only 18 American employees at the time (two of whom were me and Greg!), and a baby was a big deal!  Patch would increase the total number of dependent children at post from four to five - 25%!

Embassy Manila seems to have an explosion of pregnant women and small babies.  I have no idea if it's always like this or if something funny is going on at the embassy water purifier plant.  For instance, at Seafront alone, we have four pregnant moms and at least six kids two or under.  Baby central!

Remembering how happy I was to have someone offer to throw me a baby shower (people sometimes forget for second pregnancies), I offered to host for my pregnant neighbor-coworker.  Well, actually, I asked a friend if she could host at her townhouse, since Patch still needs a nap.  So, one friend opened her home and cooked, I did games/prizes/party favors, and everyone else came along for the fun (and brought a small dish to share).

Comparing with my shower in HYD, today's party was a very normal American baby shower.  All the baby clothes and toys - even those locally purchased - looked like they could have come from any baby store in the U.S.  I remembered my most-used gift from Patch's shower: a small carry along bassinet. My friends scoured the city looking for what I described and eventually found one made in China with undecipherable English letters on it.  We used it daily, but always wondered what exactly was written above the embroidered bear.

I could find all the materials I needed for my games at one department store and one drugstore - as I was shopping, I was very much appreciating the convenience of this; in HYD, I probably would have had to visit at least four stores in at least two different sections of town and definitely could not have left the shopping to the night before.

I try to appreciate Manila for itself, but I still can't help but see it through HYD-colored-glasses.  I laugh that I compare it to HYD instead of TX or DC.  And wonder - when we move to the next city in a year and a half, where ever that may be - will I compare that new place to Manila? Or HYD? Or by then will I be so confused will I be able to experience it without comparison.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Good morning orangutan!

We took a family outing one morning to the Arc Avilon Zoo, where the animals are up close and personal. Patch was brave enough to shake hands with the orangutan, but Wm stayed as far away as he could. The birds of prey just hanging out on their perches also kind of freaked him out.

The petting zoo on the second floor offered a chance to feed carrots to bunnies and greens to the goats.  We both assumed the boys would be entranced by the farm animals - Wm used to love the petting zoo at the National Zoo - but the playground ended up winning the award for where we spent the most time.  Not even a glance at the peacocks or guinea fowl.

All in all, not a bad small zoo.  The cages were small and looked boring for the animals, but well maintained and the animals appeared healthy, pretty good for a private zoo in Manila.  I'm not sure if we'll go back, since we ended up only spending about 1.5 hours there, but the diversion from our usual home-bound-with-one-trip-to-MOA weekend routine was welcome

Watching, unobserved

Last Sunday, the children's Sunday school teacher commented, as we were dropping them off, how good Wm was watching out for Patch.  Normal mode of operation in our house is for Greg or me to be playing referee to unending games of tackle or chase, so this side of Wm I had not yet observed.

Interesting, that Sunday, the Sunday school room had just been painted the day before and the fumes were still too strong (we didn't bother asking why a church decided to paint on a Saturday and not a Monday).  Thus, Sunday school was moved to the veranda, across the courtyard from the sanctuary.  Our church was built in 1958, probably pre-air conditioning, so the sanctuary "walls" are actually floor to ceiling sliding class doors - now, of course, closed with modern central air - but providing a clear (and distracting) view from the sanctuary across the courtyard, to the Sunday school veranda.

Throughout the service, I kept sneaking peaks out to watch the kids and see how their mornings proceeded.  First, as their class was starting, I saw Patch run away from the tables to the fountain in the courtyard.  After all, at 90 degrees with 80% humidity, wouldn't you want to play in the fountain.  Then Wm, watching from the edge of the veranda paving stones, looked concerned.  Teacher was calling both of them back to worship, but Patch obviously wasn't interested.  I couldn't hear, but I watched the big brother gesture emphatically, and Patch finally run across the grass to his kuya.

A little while later I checked how their kids service was progressing.  At some point in the intervening 10 minutes, Wm had pulled Patch's chair right in front of his own, so that he sat with his legs straddling  Patch's chair and both hands on Patch's shoulders.  I guess he didn't want to take any chances of the fountain luring the small brother away.

Perhaps I should have been focusing more on our service, but I don't usually have a chance to watch the boys with my presence unobserved.  Of course, the usual mayhem broke out an hour later at home. 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Happy 2nd Birthday, Patch!

Patch can claim one victory over Wm, despite being the younger brother. He has had a proper party every birthday. Wm, sadly, missed out on parties for ages 2 and 3 – with moving and travelling, I guess we didn’t feel like it. Or maybe it was the lack of kids his age at the consulate. In any case, at least Patch cannot (yet) feel neglected as the younger child.

Patch’s usual Seafront buddies are traveling for the long weekend, so we invited the five kids in his new preschool class over to the playground for a low key get together. I also planned ahead enough to get a tricycle to come to the party. Not a Radio Flyer trike, but a true Manila trike. I.e., a side car attached to a motorcycle! Technically, these are off limits for embassy personnel due to security concerns (both road safety and purse safety). So, this took some advance planning on our part.

First hurdle: most trike drivers don’t speak English. I thus sent our driver out to Harrison Street to watch for “nice looking” trikes. I didn’t want one where the seat upholstery was torn or so dirty no one would want to sit in it. Luckily, Harrison St, right outside the backdoor of Seafront, is a prime trike and jeepney thoroughfare. This meant we could catch a driver on his usual route and not have to pay extra for transportation.

Next: negotiation, again handled by our driver. Once word gets out that some crazy American woman is looking to hire a trike for a birthday party, the price goes up. This is actually why we settled on a trike – my first idea was to hire a jeepney. But, I wasn’t going to pay $50. A trike for $12 + tip was much more in line with my expectations. Patrick is only two, after all!

Third: security clearance. Not joking! A drawback of living on the compound is that everything is subject to security review. After submitting two forms of ID and all plate numbers, the security office got back to me in about a week that everything was clear and the driver would be permitted to enter at the Roxas (main) gate. Whoo hoo!

I crossed my fingers this morning that everything would go as planned, and, at 1:45, the trike driver showed up – early! Amazing! Greg and our nanny went to escort him over to the party area, and the trike (which I had not yet seen) was just as promised. I even think that the driver cleaned it for the occasion, because the cab was shining like a mirror.

The party was fun for the adults because I don’t think any of the parents knew each other – or at a minimum had only met in passing. And everyone was from a different section of the embassy, so work couldn’t dominate conversation. No one had ridden a trike before, so even the parents had fun on the mini rides around the compound. Our nanny’s chocolate cake was tasty as usual, sweetening the celebration. Though the morning had been hot and steamy, by afternoon it was like a pleasant early summer day in Austin (yes, I know it’s October 29, but we’re in Manila!). What a great afternoon birthday celebration.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Not a useless day

It's about 7:30. I was thinking today was kind of a useless day, and said as much to Greg. After all, I didn't cross one thing off my "to do" list - not even trying to call more piano teachers which I promised myself on Friday I would do this weekend.

Wm and I woke up with pretty bad head colds and scratchy voices, so church was out. Greg took the boys for a morning playground visit, followed by Wm taking a long bike ride around the compound while I walked with him (checking out the generator and fork lifts, his favorites).

After deciding I would actually cook dinner, Wm and I went to Hypermarket. I don't visit it too often - I am really put off by the entire aisle of Spam and two aisles devoted to chips and cookies - but if I stick to the two or three aisles with food I'll actually purchase, it's a good little grocery store. Greg cooked grilled cheese for lunch while I prepped the marinade for dinner.

Quick nap in the afternoon. Then some more play time before assembling the kabobs for the grill. Interspersed throughout the day - taking Patch to the potty every two hours, resulting in only one small accident today.

We did have to spend about 30 minutes cleaning up the grill. I've seen cats hanging out around it, which is a bit gross. Considering, however, that this big built in communal charcoal grill is about 10 feet from our apartment, we figured we might as well use it. Take advantage of what we have, is the idea. Neighbors who just returned from pregnancy-medevac stopped by with their new six week old baby boy - what a treat to see the tiny baby!

The day didn't accomplish much from either an "experience Manila" or "shorten to do list" perspective, but Greg's right, it wasn't useless. Just quiet and in-house focused :)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Looking at the numbers, and thinking

I was looking at the number of blog posts - in 2009 it averaged about 7 posts/month. In 2010 about 5. 2011 is low at just over 4 posts. Still at one / week, but not very good for the faithful readers. Greg's guest blogging in September helped boost the averages!

But, it made me think about why it's lower this year. Is it because I'm too busy with two kids? Because I'm living on the compound and not really out and about as much to experience the local culture? Because the Philippines doesn't seem as exotic and strange after India? Because in general I've become slightly immune to the new and strange after almost four years overseas?

Another thought sprung to mind, too. I still miss India and our friends in HYD a lot. Maybe I'm subconsciously not allowing myself to learn as much about life here because then leaving Manila won't be as hard. Meaning, I'm going about normal daily life and learning the basics to make myself comfortable enough, but not permitting the culture to get under my skin. Or put another way, I can pretty much navigate Mall of Asia and find the stores I want - but have very little knowledge about the hidden shopping gems in the city.

Part of it certainly has to do with language acquisition, or lack there of. We spent eight months learning Telugu and about Indian history and culture. Comparatively, we spent zero days learning Tagalog, and our cultural training was a two week overview course on all of South East Asia. We came in behind, compared to our arrival in HYD.

I haven't decided if this distance between me and Manila is good or bad. I don't think I will be able to decide until we leave.

Or, perhaps I'm over thinking. It could be something as simple as personality fit. Maybe I just clicked with India, in a way I haven't with the Philippines. Just like with people, these things can't always be explained.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Travelogue: Baguio

I spent 2.5 days in Baguio, The City of Pines, for work. When the Ambassador or DCM takes a trip outside Manila, usually a junior officer joins to help handle trip logistics; this weekend I volunteered for "control officer" duty. Depending on the scale of the trip and meetings involved, more people might attend, too. This trip started on one side of the US government fiscal year (14 October) and ended in the new fiscal year (16 October) - given the uncertain budgetary environment, we made do with a "small footprint."

This was possible because the US Embassy Manila maintains a residence in Baguio: The residence is absolutely beautiful, and completely what I expected from the "summer capital" residence of the former Governor-General. It also holds an interesting part in WWII history as where General Yamashita surrendered the Japanese forces in the Philippines in 1945. Because of that, many swear the house is haunted; some staff refuse to stay in the main residence, preferring the bunk accommodations in one of the secondary buildings. History is tangible in this building, and I'm happy not only that the State Department maintains it - but also that it allows any employee of the embassy (officer or locally engaged staff) to rent rooms when not used for official business.

The city is about 5000 feet above sea level, and thus much cooler than the majority of the Philippines. The altitude also contributes to daily afternoon fog, reducing visibility to about 50 feet or less. This morning, I woke up to crystal clear skies, but when I looked out my bedroom window, a blanket of clouds hung about 10 feet below the residence's ridge, as if we were floating in the sky. An image of Valhalla immediately sprung to mind.

The city itself is divided in half. Part functions like any large town/small city in the Philippines. SM shopping mall is the most popular attraction, small eateries and shops selling a wide variety of goods line twisted streets. Jeepneys are vividly painted (unlike in Manila).

The other part belongs to the wealthy - two gorgeous golf clubs, with all the accouterments. No jeans allowed in there - thankfully, not certain what the dress code would be, I had packed a pair of chinos and a pair of slacks, either of which could be dressed up or down depending on the top ... so I wasn't kicked out of the club :)

Not having golfed since college PE class, I set out on a walk while the Ambassador had some meetings on the links. An inadvertent wrong turn ended up taking me on a loop from the residence to the city center and back - 2.5 hours later! Thankfully, I did manage to reach the goal I had when I set out: Narda's Boutique.

Narda Capayun, a local designer, has updated traditional ikat weaving designs to appeal to modern tastes - and supplied women in remote locations with looms to weave as they have time. I had seen an ikat weaving demonstration in HYD, so I wanted to see the differences with the Philippine version. I left with a lighter pocketbook, but a heavy bag to carry back home!

I think I enjoyed Baguio so much because of the palpable character. Our past family vacation trips have all been to beaches, which, while enjoyable, don't imbue the same feeling as staying in a historically relevant house, visiting with local people who have devoted their life to serious social problems, and enjoying a surreal natural setting on top of that. The weekend was work, but of the enjoyable and educational sort.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Street People

Not only cities in developing or mid-income countries have street people - DC certainly has its share of homeless people. But in Manila, like Hyderabad, homeless people - especially homeless families - are much more visible than back home. In both places, beggars knocking on our car windows are/were common at certain intersections.

Wm first became aware of the beggars at about age 3.5. I explained then that we give money to help poor people to organizations, like church, which help distribute things that people made. Sometimes he would ask why the people didn't go ask for help. I didn't really have an answer, and told him so.

Since coming to Manila, we've been attending church with much more regularity. I didn't think the Sunday school was much, but yesterday evening I learned he must be learning something, because he asked why the beggars don't pray to God for food, because God should give people food when they're hungry.

We had a discussion about how praying for something doesn't mean you get it - for example, Wm hadn't received all the engines and train cars he would like. But then he astutely pointed out that those are just toys. The people knocking on our car doors were hungry, and that was different.

He's right, of course. And, I admit, I was proud he recognized the distinction. But that didn't mean I had an answer. I just said we'd have to keep helping places like church to try and get food to poor people. It's just too bad there are so many who need help. Maybe if the people prayed, they would some how figure out how to get to a church that was serving food. For now, that answer sufficed.

Eventually, though, questions will keep getting harder. I'll have to keep on working at (and keep on learning myself) how to teach them to be compassionate and aware, but also safe and responsible. It's possible to "not see" the poverty if you want; but it's equally easy to become nearly paralyzed by the devastation. Striking a balance is tricky.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Final thoughts

As my days in Ghana draw to a close, I thought I'd put some thoughts down about the experience. First and foremost, on the whole it's been positive. This sort of short assignment is a great way to break the monotony of an otherwise dreary eight months doing IVs in Manila. Sure, NIVs in Accra aren't the most fascinating thing in the world, but at least they're different, and that counts for a surprising amount in this line of work. One of my favorite things about TDY assignments is that you get to meet an Embassy full of new people. The connections you find to them are a vivid reminder of just how small the Foreign Service is - virtually no one is more than a degree or two removed from any other given person. I'm sure I'll come across some of these people again, and hopefully I've left a good impression here. Even if I don't meet the same people again, I've expanded my "corridor reputation" - name recognition, in other words. And of course that glosses over the obvious positive of spending time with new, interesting people. As for the work itself, it's not all that different than NIVs in India or Manila, but it's immesurably valuable to hear new perspectives on the same questions you've asked a thousand times in a different place. India and the Philippines are both known as high-fraud countries (as far as visas go), but west Africa takes it to a whole new level. And even the people who are honest in their interviews have been found to be far more likely to misuse their visas than Indians and Filipinos. This gives the officers an entirely new slant on their evaluations, and results in an extraordinary level of jade and bitterness by the end of two years. Nevertheless, on the whole they leave this post with a positive impression of the place. I had never spent much time thinking about Africa, and I've found that I like it here more than I expected. One of my new friends here asked today whether I found Ghanaian culture more interesting than Philippine (which, to me, is relatively uninteresting, particularly after two years in the cauldron of wonder and mystery that is India). I wasn't sure what to say. Am I more interested in African culture? Not particularly. Yet I find the city a more interesting place to live, for a month at least. Perhaps that's because it's easier here to escape the chain-store sterility that pervades Manila. Perhaps it's because, while Filipinos are an outrageously happy people who never stop smiling, I've found Ghanaians more prone to start a conversation. So - a positive experience? Definitely. Would I do it again? Maybe. It's tough being away from home and family for so long. I think a month is the long end of what I'd do again on a voluntary basis; two weeks is probably a better amount of time. Having said all that, there's no better way to make you appreciate what you've got than to be away from it for a while. Absence, as they say...

the Floating Embassy

It's international news - my embassy was totally flooded on Tuesday by Typhoon Pedring. Go to google maps and check out our location: landfill granted to the USgovernment by the emerging Philippines government in 1939 (or was it 1936? I'll have to check my cheat sheet at the office). The chancery building was completed in 1941, well before modern architecture practices.

On Tuesday we had a big surprise. In the past, typhoons dumped a lot of rain, and the fresh rain water deluge came at the embassy from the east, causing a mess, but nothing like this time. This time, the rain was comparatively minimal, but the winds were unexpectedly strong - right at high tide. I was driving into the office along Roxas Blvd, and it seemed the promenade and disappeared and the sea waves were washing onto the road. Traffic police started a detour a few blocks further inland.

I continued to drive, to try and get to work. After all, living only a mile away, I figured I would have the easiest time of it. And, if any visa applicants managed to make it in,they deserved to be interviewed, given the expense and trouble. So, I continued meandering through the red light district of Malate, learning more about the embassy's neighborhood than I had before ...

I was about two blocks from work when a text came saying the embassy was closed and anyone en route should go home. Not really enjoying driving in flooded streets, I was only too happy to comply with instructions. Thankfully, my friend Caroline was with me, so we had a nice chat while continuing turning this way and that to keep heading towards home, but also trying to avoid steers with deep flooding. We saw an open bakery and stopped for some pandesel (sweet yeast rolls) just in case we were stuck for a bit.

When I got home, I had a text from a friend who left for work about 5 min before me that he was stuck! The bay had come over the wall and water was waist high in the embassy compound. Eventually, they figured out how to get a motor pool van close enough that people could wade though waist deep water to the shuttle home; most people, understandably , did not want to attempt to drive their cars out.

Some people lost shoes - either from the current or water damage - and a few people had some abrasions and rashes (from polluted water), but given recent news about attacks on our embassy in Kabul, this flood is no big deal. Still, With sudden storm surges, one worries about the worst ....

Life was back to normal at the consular office today. Not so much for other offices which sustained flood damage, but our brand new annex building held up for the storm.

I was amazed at the great job the city government did cleaning up the main streets. On my way in today, all the trash was cleared and dirt and paving stones were separated and piled on the side of the road. By the time I went home. The broken parts of the retaining wall had been sandbagged, and vendors were already out selling drinks and snacks along the promenade. Quick recovery, given that part of the city had been under 3 to 4 feet of water with who knows what washing in from the bay.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Monkey Business

I'm the easy part. All these visa applicants I talk to every day pay my salary, at $140 a pop. Funding for my position? No problem. But what about all this "development aid" that goes abroad? What happens to all of that? I got a close-up look today.

I went with a couple of other Embassy people to a town a few hours' drive from Accra, in Ghana's Volta Region. The low scrub of the flatlands was ringed by lush, green mountains (small mountains, yes, but the biggest this country has to offer). There were plenty of villages, but not a city to be found, and not many people at all in between the villages.

The goal was a village called Tafi Atome, where we had heard that the monkeys eat right out of your hand. That turned out to be no exaggeration. In fact, it could have used some embellishment; I assumed you just handed the monkey a banana and watched it eat. But the first time I tried that, our guide admonished me for giving the entire fruit to the greedy monkey. He showed us how to hold the banana tightly in the middle, so the monkey had to work to get the peel off and eat it. The right way, he showed us, was to hold the banana in a hand extended at a right angle, with the arm two to three feet from a tree - just far enough that the monkey couldn't reach it from the tree. The result: the monkeys, just a bit smaller than a house cat, jump from the tree right onto your arm and sit there as they dig the banana out of your fist.

I was a bit nervous about this at first. Most of my monkey experience, after all, is in India, where they are foul, obnoxious beasts that steal and attack at every opportunity. I still enjoy repeating the story about the Delhi deputy mayor who died after he was pushed from his balcony by a pack of angry apes. But these Ghanaian monkeys, called mona monkeys, were so cute you could hardly imagine them being mean. They were clearly not quite certain that we meant well, but they also clearly weren't threatened by our presence, and never seemed inclined to strike at us. I was surprised that, even with the whole weight of the animal on my arm and its mouth and hands digging into my hand, I never felt a claw or a tooth. The hands and feet felt more like a person's, where there's a nail instead of a claw, and the part that was touching me was soft as a human finger or toe. It was a unique experience, and all three of us had a lot of fun with it.

What does all of this monkey business have to do with the US government? The monkeys have been in the village for generations - but it was us (along with several other countries) who helped them turn it into a business. "Ecotourism" is a well-known word in that part of Ghana. We paid about $5 for a guide to take us through the woods behind the village, where the monkeys live. They were selling tshirts and other knick-knacks to the tourists. And of course we never would have been there in the first place without the monkeys, so whatever food, fuel, etc, we bought was driven by tourism. The villagers seem to get that.

Back in the 1990s, a couple of Peace Corps volunteers, supported with stipends from the US government, worked with the villagers to set up the paths and other infrastructure to allow them to run the program. USAID money assisted to form the community-supported organization that administers the sanctuary. And on the way back we saw a sign thanking the US Millennium Challenge Corporation for funding for the smooth paved road connecting the village to Accra, without which no tourist would be able to reach the place. All those Americans working on the project have left a village that appreciates the assistance it's received from the US, and looks more favorably on us as a result. Coke, Shell, and the other American and western companies that sell in the region have more tourists as customers and more locals who can afford to buy their products.

Visas are great, but every once in a while it's nice to see that we're actually doing something really good.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Learned at school

Wm's been at his school for 5 months now, and seems to be in the swing of things. After some false starts in HYD, we landed at Sloka which we loved - and still miss! Wm's school here is pretty good; really the only thing I'm not so wild about are the birthday parties with presents required at school.

I am still, surprised, though, at some of the things Wm has picked up. For instance:
- if you're upset about something, next time that happens, you can try laughing and see if it makes it better
- if you practice material with teacher every day, you'll get better at it
- it's a good thing to have your mom and dad proud of you and you should try not to disappoint them

Usually these thoughts of his are prefaced by "Teacher told me..." so I know where the new ideas are coming from. Right now, I can tell he's really wanting to figure out letters and words and must be a bit frustrated, because that's when he made the comment about "practicing new material" and working with the letter box. Kudos to his teacher for turning the frustration into positive work effort. Hopefully that will stick with him.

The respecting parents bit is ok, but definitely stronger and with a more Asian slant than we'd come across in a WASPy preschool in the US, I think. Hopefully it won't leave him with a complex. I'm no where near being a "tiger mom," so home life will mitigate any concerns I have there, I hope.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ballet in Manila

I had heard at an event here that the Philippines is crazy about ballet and I was sure to have ample opportunity to see ballet. The season didn't start until July, though, so i couldn't get started on the project right away. Then I was in India for the start.

In August, we scored a fee pair of tickets through work. While each piece was enjoyable - the evening was a bit disjointed and it felt a bit like a recital, than at a professional event. One piece by a local choreographer to power ballad music was danced well and offered a great view into adapting a Western art form to local preference - the audience certainly loved it. Personally, I couldn't stand the music.

After slight disappointment that evening, which ran about 45 minutes too long, I wanted to try a different company. Every morning we drive by the CCP, Manila's main theatre - when Cinderella was advertised on the event board, I wanted to go. It took some time to find a "date", since Saturday was the same night as a big charity cabaret fundraiser. But, one friend came through. We had a fun ladies night out to dinner and the to the ballet.

I came home to google who wrote the music (Prokofiev) and fine more about the dancers (not much luck there). What I did discover,though is that this city has three ballet companies, two of which preform at CCP. I'm sure there's a story there!

The real moral of the story is to always get someone's business card. Had I done that at the event I was at in April when I was first told about the ballet scene, then I would know someone who knew the answer.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Plugging in

I've been trying for a week and a half to get Armed Forces Network to work on the tv in this house. Until now, I thought that it would be as simple as plugging in the box to the television.

Sadly, the plus on the wall doesn't match the one on the box. So a standard cable is out. I spent the better part of an hour last week trying to find something that would fit. My wild goose chase took me to tiny roadside shacks, sketchy electronics stores whose wares I'd rather not know the provenance of, and one slightly alarming occassion in which I was directed to a windowless room several doors and an alley removed from the street. Somehow or other, though, that room contained someone who pointed me towards a shack where I was certain to find the parts I needed. That shack didn't exist, but a shop around the corner did, and there I found Daniel, who, after a solid twenty minutes of explanation, finally understood what I was looking for. Ok, even Daniel needed two tries to get it right. But in the end I walked out with exactly what I asked for. I had even found a Ghana Black Stars soccer jersey in XL. It had been a good day.

I walked in to the house in a good mood. I got out my cable. It fit perfectly into the box. Then I went to plug it into the wall and - blast! I had gotten the wrong piece on the end. Oh well, I thought to myself, at least I found a Black Stars shirt. I tried it on. At least two sizes too small.

A few days later I went back to Daniel. He was nice enough to replace the connector at no cost (I gave him the wrong one back, and he was probably eager to get me out of his shop anyway). I took my newly repaired cable home and plugged it in. I turned to the box-tv cord. Having secured it to the box, I turned around to put it in the tv and - blast! Wrong kind of plug again!

Back to Daniel I went. It was 4pm on a Friday, so I have no idea where he was but my friend was not in his shop. In fact, the whole place was locked up. Maybe he had anticipated my return and fled the scene. I have no idea. But, armed with the cable he had already made me and needing an exact replica, I felt certain that I could just show it to people and get the right thing made. Indeed I could. This time one of the roadside shacks did the trick. The guy even demonstrated the quality of his handiwork by putting an electrical current through the copper coax and using it to light up a bulb mounted to a piece of plywood. It was an impressive sight. Almost as impressive as the hen and chick pecking around on the sidewalk, or the herd of goats that rambled down the street, or the mysterious fellow in a Penn hoodie who walked down the other side of the road as I waited for my cable to be assembled. (Was he an alum, or did he find a used sweatshirt in a shop in the market? This will forever remain a mystery.)

Bringing the cable home, I was optomistic this time. I knew it would fit, and it did. I turned on the box. Lights: a good sign. The tv started to warm up, and - blast! The television answer to the blue screen of death. Nothing.

At least I'm now the proud owner of a XXXL Black Stars shirt.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Back at the home front

It's pretty quiet; we're settling into a good routine. The day's go quickly since Wm has decided he needs to be asleep by 7, which means start brushing teeth at 6:30. Tonight, when Patch was having difficulty settling down, I heard through the bedroom door: "Patch, it's nighttime. you need to sleep so you have enough energy to play tomorrow."

I laughed- Greg and I had said that almost verbatim to Wm countless times over the years, back in the days when Wm used to scream himself to sleep every night. thank goodness we have kuya (big brother) to help settle Patch down and avoid those terrible bedtime fits. (knock on wood!)

The only real difference is that Patch is starting to put a few words together into thoughts. Like Wednesday when he came to pick me up from work. I climbed in the car and he asked, "No Dada?" it was kind of cool to see that he expected Greg, recognized he wasn't there, and figured out the words to express what he was thinking. The baby days are gone for real now, I think. Especially since this evening, he went and sat on his potty and told me, "close door" like Wm says. When he knocked on the door a few minutes later, it was a successful trip. Maybe it's time to try potty training for real...

We have a vegetable garden that Lea and the boys are tending. Okra and squash, I think, are our first experiment. The seeds sprouted, so hopefully veggies will come! And some basil and mint growing by our front door.

We're fully moved in now - I had the living room painted sage green, and it looks great. I might see if I can convince someone to add some shelves in the laundry room and more towel rods in the bathrooms, but otherwise, we're done settling in. Now to enjoy the next 18 months before we pickup and start over again in some unknown location.

It's more lonely being home, I think, than being the one traveling. Abroad, there's always something new to see - whether grascutters at an African market or rows of silk at an Indian expo. At home, though, I think more about missing the usual routine and chit chat after toe boys go to sleep. It's quiet!

Plunging in

Remember yesterday I was impressed by how many foreigners there were around here? How the food was served in holes-in-the-wall? I was cured of this today - today some impressions of what one might call "the real Africa".

I went to the Makola Market today. I'll admit, it was not quite was I expected. I'd been to markets before, in India and the Middle East. If I might say so, this one put them to shame. First of all, it's far larger than any Indian market I've been to or any souk I've wandered in the Arab world. I took a taxi there and he took me to the edge of the market, then asked where I was going. "No idea," I shrugged. I paid my fare and got out. I saw a sign that said "Makola Mall". In I plunged. Finally, the crowds I expected. The exoticism I imagined. Strange and unexpected things around every corner. To be clear, a "mall" it was not. Instead, there was aisle after aisle of stalls, at first selling the junk you find in many developing-world markets. Cheap dishes, cloth, pots, beaten-up electronics.

Eventually I reached the food section, which seemed even bigger. Happily the ground was mostly dry; I can't imagine what it would have smelled like had there been pools of stagnant water. There were plenty of fish, but not a shaving of ice. The crabs came in several varieties, and were still alive, climbing on top of each other as they tried to escape their prisons inside plastic tubs. Piles of pink pigs' feet and more stacks of an unidentified red meat. I slowed down to take a closer look at those; I stopped when I got to the snails. They were also still alive, crawling around on top of other snails' fist-size shells. No, I'm not exaggerating, and no, I've never seen anything like it. "Do you eat them?" I asked. "Yes, want to buy some?" the hawker replied. "No, thanks, but can I take a picture?" She wanted money from me. I took no pictures. Still, the snails were probably only the second most shocking things in the market.

I only saw it once, but I couldn't keep walking when I saw the pale brown rodent the size of a small cat (for the Indian readers, it was about the size of an Indian bandicoot, complete with the giant front teeth). The creatures were dead, to be sure - hacked in half by one clean cut from what must have been a rather large machete. Seeing my stare, the vendor asked if I wanted to buy any. "What is it?" I asked. "Bush meat: grasscutter." I kept staring. The vendor's friend laughed at her and said, "You asked him if he wanted to buy any, now he's going to stare for a while longer." I've eaten bush meat before - nice big animals like kudu, ostrich, wildebeest. I shan't be sampling the grasscutter any time soon.

Sadly, I didn't get any pictures, even though I had my camera in my pocket. I had read and heard several warnings about how Ghanaians don't like to be photographed. I had also been warned that the police will come quickly if they see someone photographing a government building, and of course I had no idea which were government buildings. Most significantly, I was alone in the middle of a big crowded city. On one hand, the crowd made me feel safer - no dark lonely alleys here. On the other hand, crowds in poor countries like this can become mobs quickly. I had no desire to be at the center of one of those, so I kept as low a profile as my white skin would allow. Luckily, I'm not the first one to visit the place, and there are plenty of pictures online. Oh, and foreigners? None. It was about as much Africa as I could take for one morning, and after about an hour of wandering, I found a cab and returned to the relative comfort and familiarity of the posh side of town.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Under African Skies

After not coming within 10 years or 1,000 miles of Ghana in 2011, I've now been in Africa for just over three days, so it seems like as good a time as any to put down some of my thoughts. First thing: it's definitely a step behind both India and the Philippines. Ghana is generally known as one of the more successful and progressive of the sub-Saharan African countries (excepting South Africa, which "Africa people" don't seem to consider a proper African country at all). Still, the first thing that struck me on landing at the airport was that, within just a few miles of the capital and largest city, half the roads appeared unpaved. I went to India for the first time in 2005 expecting to find unpaved roads, candlelit homes, and streets filled with cows. Err, ok, so the bovines are there in herds, but unpaved streets in or around a major Indian city? Not a chance.

The biggest thing to happen in Accra this month was the recent opening of a KFC. As far as I can tell, this is Ghana's first outlet of a western fast-food chain. I also struggle to recall seeing a local equivalent, a west African Jollibee. Instead, there are tiny streetside restaurants galore, little more than holes in walls with dusty floors and rickety wooden tables and chairs that look like they're about to fall over under the weight of a plantain. (Incidentally, I sampled the fare at KFC and was pleasantly surprised to find that it tastes like KFC. Not bad.)

On the flipside, while it was often difficult to find a face from outside South Asia in India, central Accra has no shortage of foreigners. I ran into Lebanese, Pakistanis, Filipinos, and various types of white people in just a couple of hours today, not to mention what I'm sure were a dozen different flavors of Africans whose nationalities I'm unable to identify. (I know I'm still an Africa newbie because half the men here still look just like Hakeem Olajuwon to me, especially the ones with moustaches. I'm not bad at this point at picking South Indians from North Indians, Sri Lankans from Bangladeshis, etc. Africans? Not a chance.) Most people were interested but not shocked to find an American in their midst. I admit, however, that when I went into the carpet shop and found myself alone with a slightly sketchy-looking Pakistani, I professed that I was a Filipino. Sometimes it's nice to look like you could be from anyplace.

Finally, a word of advice to anyone traveling to Africa: learn enough soccer/football to have a five-minute conversation about it. All you really need to be able to do is name two or three players from whatever country you happen to find yourself in, but should you happen to be capable of really discussing how much better Arsenal looked before Frimpong (a Ghanaian, conveniently) was sent off against Liverpool and how awful they were without him against United, you'll find that it elicits huge smiles from the locals, and breaks down barriers exceptionally quickly. And if you're American and really in a tight spot, simply mention your nationality and remind a Ghanaian how much you hate it when our team plays the Black Stars, their national team who has beaten us the last two World Cups. I've tried this twice, and was greeted with howling laughter and claps on the shoulder. Actually, the first time there was no shoulder clapping - the Ghanaian was on the other side of the visa window. But there was plenty of laughter. And why not? For a country as small and relatively poor as Ghana to be genuinely better than the US at something that they really care about is something they should be proud of.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Review of the Compound

We're five months into compound living. Since that's just one month shy of 25% of the time we'll spend here (yes, really!), I figure sufficient time has passed to give compound living a balanced review.

On the whole, I'd say that for our family at this point in time, it's a good place to be. On average, we have about a 15 minute commute to work, which I love. The play ground, dog park, and swimming pool are all less than 50 feet from our front door. We just signed up for a vegetable plot.

From what I've seen of the other residential options, our compound is the only place in the city where Wm can ride his bike freely, without so much as a glance back to see where we are - or a gasp from us each time he comes to a corner. The clinic is a 5 minute walk, and they allowed us to sign a release allowing Lea to bring the boys in in emergencies (a privilege used only once so far, knock on wood). The embassy maintenance staff take care of anything that goes wrong - quick and reliable service.

Now that more families are being assigned to houses and apartments here, Wm and Patch have built in playmates. It's easy and the compound culture for the stay-at-home spouses or nannies to just knock on doors to play - I don't have to pre-arrange play dates (though we do with Wm's two friends who live elsewhere, which means driver schedules must be coordinated :) ). When Patch gets old enough, he'll hopefully start at the preschool right here, which will require zero coordination for transportation.

My life = simplified.

Not to say it's all peachy keen. Friday afternoon, for instance, we talked about going out for dinner that night. But we just didn't feel like braving the evening traffic to try out some new places in Makati or the Fort - and we didn't want to go to MOA (Mall of Asia) again. The nearby dining out options are quite limited. And the traffic to get to other areas is miserable.

It's true - the bedrooms are much smaller than the off-compound leased houses and the finish is basic. But look at it in perspective. If we were back in DC working at the mother ship, we'd be living in our condo that's half the size of this place. And the finish is just like you'd find in a well maintained normal middle class home. After coming from our apartment in India where everything had a patina of high class finish - but questionable functionality - I'll take reliable and nondescript any day. Slip covers, rugs, and wall hangings do the trick.

If we had older kids - or no kids - or no dog - or were single - or basically were at any other point in our life where we really just enjoy spending time at home, the compound would likely seem stifling. But for the next 19 months, it will suit us just fine!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


I'm headed to Ghana for work in a few weeks, and I needed two shots to go there. One was called "meningococcal", which doctor-speak for meningitis. The other is "yellow fever", which is doctor-speak for yellow fever. Unfortunately, our med unit at the embassy doesn't stock yellow fever vaccine, and I was referred to something ominously called the Bureau of Quarantine.

Knowing that this was a government office, I entered with low expectations. The place is located in the port section of Manila, which made sense when I walked in and realized I was surrounded by Filipino sailors about to head out to sea. All of this was fine until I completed the pre-inoculation for and answered, honestly, that yes, I had received a vaccine in the past seven days (specifically, the meningicoccal that had been administered an hour earlier at the embassy med unit). "Oh no, po", I was told, "you have to wait a week between vaccinations." As any well-vaccinated American knows, this is nonsense - we get multiple shots all the time. I also knew that I had just spoken to the embassy nurse about getting the yellow fever shot, and she had said it was just fine to go now. Third, I had just read the CDC information sheets about both vaccines, and both said that they were safe to receive at the same time as other shots. Finally, the doctors at the Bureau of Quarantine weren't citing medical reasons not to get the shot, they were going on about their policies.

So I was pretty sure there wasn't actually a medical reason I couldn't get this shot. But if I waited a week, I would start to push up against my departure time, and I couldn't get my Ghana visa until the yellow fever shot was completed. Lying seemed like a real option. At the same time, I like to be an honest person whenever I can.

What to do?

Well, I'm only sort of sorry to say that for just a few minutes I put aside my sense of propriety and remembered that I was dealing with government officials who just want to follow the rules. I made it easy for them - "Sorry, po, I misunderstood the question - my meningicoccal shot is right after this one, I haven't gotten it yet." A bit of discussion in Tagalog ensued. A was asked a few more times if I was sure about this, which I dutifully answered in the affirmative. (I'll note here that if I *had* gone to BQ first, then the med unit, I'm 100% certain that I would have gotten both shots in one day with no problem.) With no real alternative presented, the government doctor and nurse gave in. I got the shot - in the left arm, of course, because the right was still a bit sore from the other one, and still had a bandage on it.

It's at times like these that I try to remind myself that I, too, am but a lowly bureaucrat. I get it. All a good bureaucrat needs is a plausible explanation for how what they do is within the rules. So that's what I gave them. Shame on me.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Filipino Hill Station

If the Philippines had hill stations like India, Tagaytay would definitely qualify.

For our anniversary, we took a one night trip to Sonya's Garden ( Living on the compound has its perks - I did not worry at all about leaving Wm and Patch with Lea for one night while we were only a 2 hour drive away.

We arrived about 3 in the afternoon, checking into a beautiful room with crisp white embroidered linens - think English countryside visits the Philippines. I then went for a massage, a good rub with a little shiatsu thrown in (my first time having someone bend me). The massage oil was scented with goju, a local something - I can't find it on google, so perhaps I have the name incorrect. The slightly sweet and minty smell refreshed me.

Then we went to Antonio's for dinner, probably one of the best reviewed restaurants in the greater Manila area. The salad's lettuce was freshly grown in their own organic garden. Roasted tomato soup with basil foam followed. Main course of chateaubriand with hollandaise. I had a dark chocolate soufflé, and Greg a chocolate terrine, for dessert. Portions of a normal size, but the soup and the cut of beef definitely worth writing home about :)

Situated near the Taal volcano, Tagaytay's elevation makes it much cooler than Manila - I was a bit chilly at night in just a sundress and no shawl. Our room at Sonya's Garden had beautiful large (screened) windows, so we slept with them open, enjoying the mountain breeze. Such a treat after the constant AC in Manila. A night time down pour caused Greg to roll a bit closer to my side of the bed to avoid getting a bit damp. A poor placement of the bed or an added bit of romance? We decided to think of it as the later.

The next morning after breakfast of omelette, fruit, and freshly baked bread, we went back to the room to read. Well, Greg read. I just ended up falling back asleep again. Greg woke me at 11 to go take our class on "the art of doing nothing" - but we couldn't figure out where the class was held, so we just wandered the gardens experimenting with macro photography. Check out the results at:

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Wm's New City

Since January, many of our conversations with Wm have talked about "new cities." India and Hyderabad are the "old city" (he doesn't quite grasp the city vs. country concept), while Manila is our current "new city." But he does know that eventually we'll move to another "new city" and another child will live in our current house. At this point, these conversations are quite matter-of-fact, as much a statement of the obvious as observing that it's raining for the umpteenth straight day.

At our parent-teacher conference this week, Wm's teacher said he's adjusting well to his new situation, but he's still sensitive to moving and change. One of his classmates recently moved to Singapore. For the week after, Wm kept asking his teacher if that new city was a nice city and if nice schools existed in that new city. He was the only one in the class who even questioned where the classmate had gone and why - because he is the only one who has moved cities.

(Humorous side note: when I related this story to a friend at work, she remarked that at least Wm's bidding strategy is concurrent with ours: a nice city with good schools!)

Another day, during painting time, he told his teacher he was painting a road to a new city. She asked him where the road went, and he replied he didn't know yet. Only too true!

I'm very interested to hear in a few years, when Patch is 4, how Wm explains the "new city" concept to his little brother. I may never get the chance to listen in on that conversation (and perhaps, if I'm present, a version of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle will apply).

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Managing Finances

One thing the foreign service definitely makes more difficult is managing finances. Before we joined up, I downloaded all credit card and bank statements every month and made beautiful spreadsheets showing where we spent our money. I could estimate a good budget at the beginning of the year and adjust as necessary. Not a penny pincher, I did take a bit of pride in being able to put aside savings, while taking some fun vacations and purchasing a few nice things.

I kept control of it when I was in grad school - and when home after Wm was born. But then we joined the foreign service. The income cut combined with starting day care payments made the reality too painful to look at on a spreadsheet, especially when I compared all the fun things we used to spend money on, but couldn't anymore. Not wanting to resent our new jobs - or new baby - I just stopped tallying.

Then we moved to India. While we then had more wiggle room in our "fun" budget, I found the challenges of accounting more difficult in a highly cash-based society. My spreadsheets were heavily geared toward downloading income and expenses from websites. I didn't feel like making the effort to write down all the cash expenditures, so tracking it didn't seem worthwhile. I realized tonight that my beautiful spreadsheets are languishing on our old laptop - I hadn't even bothered to migrate them!

From January - March 2011, I encountered another obstacle: Home Leave. This has become synonymous with deferred purchasing, in my opinion. A bike for Wm. A new non-stick saute pan. A wardrobe update. Gifts for friends and family. Setting up temporary shop in our temporary apartment. Things we lived perfectly well without in India, but which make life more comfortable when available in the US. As one friend put it, we were trying our hardest to keep the US economy going!

Now we're just getting settled enough in Manila that I've attempted to start tracking again, easing myself in with tracking credit card purchases. The surprising result? We spend a lot on groceries. I'm not sure if the former is because of prices at the store we shop at most frequently, or if it's just simply because food is expensive here. Now that I'm aware, I'll have to price compare a bit more.

Thankfully, both India and the Philippines have had pretty stable FX rates. That would really make things complicated!

(And this is just the expense side of the deal. Income can fluctuate quite a bit when COLA or post differential changes.)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hope it lasts!

Wm and Patch - almost all of the time - are pretty adorable together. Maybe moving around the world twice in four months drew them close. Or maybe their opposite personalities help them mesh. Whatever the reason, I'm hoping their friendship lasts.

This morning, Patch (as usual) was messing up Wm's "lines" (he lines up cars, or planes, or trains, or whatever for various reasons ... and Patch thinks it's hilarious to storm in like a tornado and wreck havoc on Wm's orderly play method). Wm storms into the bathroom where I'm taking a shower and announces, "Maybe it would be better if I were alone!" I could almost hear Wm's pout on the other side of the shower curtain.

I stopped lathering my hair and asked who would make him laugh by spinning around in endless circles? Who would come over and give him a hug when he cries? Who would he fall asleep next to every night? After a brief moment of thought, Wm replied, "well, I guess Patch can stay." A classic big sibling moment, if I may say so myself (being the older sibling).

Tonight, for the first time in a long time, Wm was crying in his sleep. I went in to give him some pats, and, as I was doing so, Patch, in his sleep rolled over to snuggle closer to Wm. (yes, most nights they sleep in the same bed.) Wm then turned away from me, put his arm around Patch, stopped crying, and drifted back to a peaceful sleep.

Back in Manila

I'm back after a fun three weeks in Chennai (with a weekend jaunt to my old HYD haunts). Returning to HYD for the weekend brought back the intimately familiar, from easy conversations with close friends, to lunch at Chutney's, to brunch at our neighbor's in Hanging Gardens. Development (ie, new construction) is continuing in the city, though at a bit slower pace. If the city can manage to settle the Telangana separatist issue, I still think it is one of the most liveable cities in India.

Driving home from the Manila airport, excitement abounded at knowing Greg, the boys (and Bagwelle) were near, but it struck me it doesn't quite feel like "coming home" yet. I'm not sure if it ever will, or if I just need a little more time living here. We'll see what the next few months bring.

At the office, everyone wanted to know how the countries compare. For sure, Manila has more of the material goods - better shopping and restaurant options, from an expat perspective. But, all the same, I miss India! Something about that country just seems to have a pull on me ...

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

3 Second Diplomacy

I'm in Chennai. So is one Madam Secretary Clinton. It's exciting and anti-climatic at the same time. It's the first time an acting Secretary of State has visited Chennai, which is a big deal to the local government, press and institutions. But my main job was helping keep the consular section humming while my colleagues with local contacts could facilitate the visit.

I was, however, a first-hand witness to a pretty impressive scene of three second diplomacy today.

We had the "meet and greet" tonight at 7PM, and a bunch of us opted for dinner together after. Turns out, the Golden Dragon was the place to be - about 20 minutes after we sat down, in came the security agents to sweep the place, and 15 minutes later Secretary Clinton and her executive staff were escorted into the restaurant's private dining room. On her way in, the other diners were looking at each other in shock - did they just see who they thought they saw?

(We wanted to reassure them, yes, they did. But instead we enjoyed our dumplings, crispy spinach with candied walnuts, mapo tofu, crispy lamb and hakka noodles - plus the cocktail creation of a friend here: fresh lime soda sweet with gin - good improvisation on the old Indian favorite gin & tonic)

On her way out, the guests were more prepared. One guy even had his camera up and ready to shoot as she was about to power by his table. Secretary Clinton noticed it, stopped to smile for a good photo op, said good evening, and then continued on her way to her room.

For the next few minutes, all the chatter in the restaurant was how kind she was - that it was so unusual for a politician of her rank (especially in India) to take notice of the "common man" - and how lucky this guy was to have such a great picture! At our table, we agreed that those mere three seconds of her time had a pretty big impact for a positive image of the US with local Indians, especially since the story will be told again and again. Brava, Secretary Clinton!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Radio Silence

I've been sentenced to radio silence with Wm and Patch. Apparently, they're fine as long as they don't hear my voice or mention of "Mama" or "India." Thus making like easier for Greg and Lea, despite the difficulties posed for me, alone in my furnished temporary quarters. Greg calls after the boys go to sleep, enforcing the rule and rendering any pleas of mine futile. Pity on me!

Good news, though, is that Wm has not put up any bedtime fights. Before I left, only I was allowed to read stories, so Greg and I were worried how the bedtime routine would transfer to a Dada-only environment. Turns out, with radio silence, no toruble at all. One night, when Greg was trying to convince Wm to fall asleep in his own bed instead of Patch's, Wm even said that he couldn't sleep alone because Patch kept him company when I was gone. What a great little brother! [As I type, I can picture Patch accidentally bowling Wm over with a generous hug.] Greg gave up his entreties and now the boys fall asleep together in Patch's bed.

I'll be home in about 10 days, so my self-imposed exile will soon end. Most of you know I'm not really a mother to pine after or fawn over her children, and my work-induced mother-guilt is on the low end of the spectrum. Three weeks of travel, though, is testing even my independent nature.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Back in India

I've been back in south India for two days. Honestly, it's strange. When we left, I doubted I'd return - and certainly didn't expect it to be so soon. Our whole family still misses HYD (when Wm found out I was coming back to India, he had a total meltdown and wailed, "Mama, why are you going home to India without me?" The raw emotion outburst brought me to tears, too). The sadness of saying goodbye is still accute.

With no boys waking me at 5AM or clamoring for more scoops to drink or to fix trains, I enjoyed my usual Indian morning routine of yoga followed by a light breakfast with buffalo milk yogurt and Taj Mahal tea. I missed the morning stretch, the creamy yogurt and the strong tea!

This evening, I had to regain my sense of adventure, which had grown soft in the Shopping Mall and Starbucks Land of Manila. But, with a big breath, I ventured out on foot from my temporary apartment, sidestepping all sorts of debris in the street, being just assertive enough to get where I needed to go without getting run over by an autorickshaw. I have not lost the ability to cross a street.

I managed to find a decent dosa place for dinner and some shoes that fit (even if not stylish) to substitute for the ones I brought which broke yesterday. Confidence is necessary - otherwise, it would be too easy to hole up in my apartment, only venturing out when kind coworkers kindly offer to pick me up and take me out.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Water logged

Rain has been pitter pattering every day since we returned from Coron. Thursday, the tail end of Typhoon Falcon passed through Manila, really leaving a mess. Wm's school was canceled on Friday. Our parking lot had standing water past my knees at the worst point (for pictures, check out my neighbor's blog, "Here and There," at right).

I feel like I might never dry out. There's almost no point in attempting to tame my curls - or rather frizz ball head.

Best of all, I found culturally interesting how the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) defines storms - one of the main descriptions is by the conditions of banana and coconut trees.

Signal 1: Some banana plants may be tilted or downed.
Signal 2: Many banana plants may be downed. Some coconut trees may be tilted with a few others broken.
Signal 3: Almost all banana plants may be downed and a large number uprooted. Many coconut trees may be broken or destroyed.
Signal 4: Coconut plantations may suffer extensive damage.

Note no mentions of the banana trees in a Signal 4 storm. They were all already uprooted by the Signal 3 storm! Not that I have any knowledge of how strong banana or coconut trees are - but apparently I shouldn't be taking shelter under a banana tree.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Don't forget the pan-de-sel!

Lemon rice (William's HYD staple) has been replaced. Pan-de-sel is the new lemon rice.

It's a small bun, about the size of a parker roll, with a bit of sugar on top. Some versions, I'm sure, are sweeter than others. They're best eaten hot out of the oven in the morning, each bun costing about 1.5 pesos (3 to 4 cents).

Lea passes a little bakery on her walk from her apartment to ours and has taken to purchasing a small bag for Wm and Patch's breakfast. Every morning now, just barely after saying "Good Morning," Wm asks "Where is the pan-de-sel?" Even Patch starts clamoring "pen-sal pen-sal pen-sal" when she produces the brown paper bag from her purse.

Tonight as Wm was going to sleep, he said, "Mama, you forgot. Tomorrow is Saturday. How can I eat my pan-de-sel for breakfast since Lea doesn't come until late?" Looks like I might be up for an early morning walk to the bakery - let's hope the rain stops and the flooding subsides.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Moving-in update - almost done!

We arrived March 24 ... and now on June 22, I can say we're almost done settling into our apartment. Hopefully I won't jinx myself by writing that I expect we'll be done before the July 4 weekend.

All boxes are unpacked. The only ones left are ones that have clothes that are too small for the boys - and one box full of stuff that we're donating. Both acceptable reasons to still have things in boxes!

Placement of all framed items was decided upon tonight. No small feat! Greg counted and we have 20 frame locations left to measure. We have to do it all in one fell swoop because we only get one "free" visit from the embassy housing servicing staff to hang our picutres. We have cement block walls - which is great for keeping the noise down, but terrible when it comes to trying to hang our own pictures. I tried with one and failed miserably.

On one hand, three months to receive a shipment and totally unpack seems very efficient. On the other, when I think that it's three months out of the 24 we're assigned here (1/8 or 12.5% of our time...), that's a lot of time to spend in a semi-permanent status. The reality of the amount of time I'll spend packing, unpacking, and living without "my stuff" over the next years is starting to set in.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Visas, state's rights, and economics

After 2.5 years of non-immigrant consular work, I've had a lot of time to think about visas and really start to try and understand U.S. visa law. While I'm not "consular coned," the links from consular work to all sections of foreign policy are quite interesting. Any change in visa law (or even interpretation) has a huge political impact in foreign countries which are not part of our Visa Waiver Program. Indians will easily recall the hulabaloo when the processing fee for H1B visas (ie, for software programmers) increased. Filipinos are acutely aware of the current lack of H1C (nurse) visas.

I was interested to learn two weeks ago that Canada allows its provinces to sponsor temporary workers - and, if I understand correctly, the provinces can also decide how many of what kind of temporary worker. In the US, our numbers are capped by the federal government.

I started to think ... what would happen if, say, North Dakota could petition for foreign workers in areas where it had acute shortages? Northern VA, for instance, is chock full of software programmers. But what if Oregon wanted to actively grow its thriving (but comparatively small) IT work force - and had the option to recruit from overseas?

I then had an interesting debate with myself. On one hand, devolving power to the states appeals to me as more efficient - local governments usually have a better tap on what the local situation is and resulting needs are. On the other hand, with our current system, all companies in the entire country have an equal shot at hiring workers where they are needed - which seems like fewer economic barriers and less regulation.

Talking to so many people each day can be tiring, I readily admit. But the macro issues behind the individual visa interview are academically interesting. And I haven't even started to learn about our immigrant visa policy yet!

And we're off diving again!

We're off in about five hours to go diving again! Hooray! Naturally, Wm didn't want to go to school in the morning, with the excitement of boarding an airplane right after school let out. We promised him a hamburger for lunch, which got him in the car without tears.

Speaking of hamburgers, Wm has quickly adjusted to local tastes, preferring the Jollibee hamburger above all others. It's ubiquitous here - and I've even heard they've opend some in Daly City, CA, Queens, NY and Hawaii where there are large Filipino populations. I guess when we're back on home leave, we know where to head if he starts to suffer from too much culture shock. With the sweet thousand-island-esque topping, Greg and I will stick to the soft serve.

In India we tried to take a weekend trip every six weeks or so to see the country. It seems like here we'll slow down a bit to every two months or so - still plenty of travel, but it's a bit more of an ordeal traveling with two in tow and not just one. Of course, pretty soon we'll be able to travel a bit lighter - Patch has now been one week in a toddler bed! So, perhaps on the next trip we'll leave the travel crib behind.

(posted by PRDP, but my account wasn't letting me publish)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Close Call

Update from HYD - Naheeda passed her fifth class exams. It was a close call - she had failed three final exams (math, her weakest subject, Telugu and Hindi). The retest was scheduled for June 3. Stakes were high - she had already repeated fifth grade because she changed schools and the demanding new curriculum. If she failed, the current school might deny admission for a third repeat of fifth grade - and another school might not accept her into sixth as transfer with failing courses.

While all the other Indian kids were on summer vacation, she was back at her classroom for summer tuition and a second shot at passing the three exams.

Thankfully, word came today she was promoted to sixth class! Hopefully this next year will be easier, now that she has one year behind her. Big thanks to my friend Shae, who took over weekend reading tutorials to help build her English reading. She passed her English, history, science, and morals classes on the first go round!