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.