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!