Friday, March 30, 2012

Manila & Holy Week

Holy week here is like Thanksgiving week in the U.S. I didn't notice it last year, I think, because we had only just arrived in Manila. Everything was new and different, so I had no reference to what was "normal."

Next week, though, in my office of 12, I think four will be at work - everyone else is on vacation. And trying to schedule meetings this past week with Filipino counterparts was next to impossible: everyone is about to head out and no one wants to start something new. Eventually, I just gave up on the external parts of my job, focusing on the things I could do within my own office.

You'd expect traffic would have started to calm down this week - but you'd be wrong. Everyone seems to be zipping around for last minute shopping in the city before heading back to the provinces next week. The newspaper reports that the police are increasing duty for Monday - Wednesday next week and that the traffic patterns are being altered to facilitate migration out of the city as everyone heads to the provinces. Come Thursday, Manila will be a relative ghost town.

One benefit of staying in town: travel time is at a minimum. Except on Thursday and Friday there's no where to go! Everything will be closed, except the outdoor displays for the Stations of the Cross, with families doing their devotions together. So, one can't take advantage of the clear streets.

By Saturday some places are open, and Sunday it's full swing. I asked last year why everything was open on Sunday - which, in my point of view, should be the holy day. A Filipino coworker explained to me: "Sunday is the happy day because Jesus rose again - and when we're happy, we like to go shopping and eat out."   

Saturday, March 17, 2012

two big changes

Though 2012 was off to a good blogging start, I got distracted. I do, however, have a good excuse, since in February we were sorting out two big changes -- both of which we found out about on February first, coincidentally. 

#1. The HR office way back in Washington, DC (yes, sometimes we do remember that we have a big HQ back there) reassigned me to the political section. Another junior officer had decided the foreign service just wasn't a good fit for her, leaving her job unfilled. Though various rumors swirled about how and who would fill it, in the end, the bureaucracy decided: me. The reason they gave? I'm an economic-coned officer who has done three years of consular work and have a similar transfer date to the officer who left. Meaning, the position would be good for my career development and - perhaps more importantly? - assigning me to the position wouldn't disrupt the people flow too much (though it did leave the consular section down one person right as busy season is peaking).

As I was talking with the HR officer at post about my reassignment, she finally thought to ask - are you OK with this? Most people just assume that junior officers will hate consular work ... but in truth, though I've certainly had my bad days, I didn't mind it. It's not where I'd like to spend a career - but found enough projects over the last three years to keep me engaged and intellectually interested. 

I actually am happy with the reassignment as it moves me closer to what I want to do - and five years of doing something other than what I want to do would be a really long time. But, just to play devil's advocate, I asked what would happen if I wasn't. The HR officer answered truthfully: not much since you serve at the needs of the service. She supposed under extenuating circumstances I could appeal, but we didn't get into the theoretical, since I had another appointment. My new job started mid-Feb. 

#2. My next appointment ... revealed that we're having a third baby. I had been suspecting something was up (after all, I've been pregnant twice before), but not having any "normal" early pregnancy signs, I wasn't sure. The weekend before, I had purchased a pregnancy test at the corner drug store for $2. Yes, $2. These things cost $15 in the US, so I wasn't sure if I could trust it. 

Turns out, I couldn't. The little line that's supposed to appear if you're pregnant? It was dashed. What was that supposed to mean? Maybe I was pregnant? Yes, well, I already knew I was maybe pregnant.  Not wanting to waste any money on a second dashed line, I just made an appointment with an OB. She found an embryo with a heart beat and ... well ... there were the beginnings of  Baby Number Three, floating around happily. 

That evening, Greg summed it up: "Pam, if you have any more surprises hiding up your sleeve, you might as well let me know now. Just rip the band-aid off all at once!" 

So, the last six weeks I've been swimming up stream learning about my new job, figuring out how to best arrange for the birth of #3 (I'll deliver in the US this time, given the proximity of my due date to my sister's wedding), and still trying to get repairs on our condo complete so we can rent it out in a timely fashion. 

Just this week I feel like I have a good mental grip on what's going on: I've written a few memos for work with good feedback from my boss; the lease for our temporary rental in Capitol Hill is signed for August - October; and the contractor is supposed to start repairing our floor on Monday. 

Keeping fingers crossed we have no more big surprises before our time in Manila is up. This last month and a half was a little too much at once.


Any expat who relies on imported food grocery stores will lament how products appear and disappear, with no warning or reason. In HYD, though we pretty much ate veg on the local market, I'd still make it a point to walk through Q-Mart once a month just to see what was there that I couldn't live with out. If a shipment of Tostios arrived (or Dr Pepper to have on hand for my mother in law) - friends would all SMS each other so each of us could get a coveted bag before the supply ran out. After all, it might be one week or six months until the next shipment came.

In Manila, I haven't found the stocking fluctuations quite so dramatic. My one big food splurge is milk imported from California. The box UHT milk is fine for cereal and baking ... but doesn't quite cut it for drinking in a glass.  I'll manage if I have to (which I did in HYD), but I figure if the taste I'm accustomed to is available, I'm going to buy it while I can. Since the import store near our house always had rows and rows of it, I figured this milk was one of the staples always in stock.

Imagine my shock in February when one month passed and still no sign of my loved California milk. Nada. I tried in vain asking the checkout ladies. Eventually, I must have seen distressed enough because she called over a manager, who took my mobile number and promised to SMS when the stock arrived. I couldn't believe it one week later when I actually received an SMS - I went to the store right that night after work. I was glad I did, because the stock was so small ... but based on the expiry date, I could only buy 1.5 gallons.

Sadly, when those precious three cartons were drunk, the stock has not returned. And the manager doesn't know when it will. No more hot milk in the evenings for me: UHT milk tastes even more funky when warmed.

Today, imagine my surprise, when I went to Hypermarket, a store which carries mostly local brands, but has a few international items scattered about (though the international items are never reliably in stock), and found milk imported from Washington state! I only bought a quart, not sure how it would be - after all, my first month here I bought some spoiled chicken at this store, which has made me a bit nervous about food quality there. But, first sample tonight tastes great.

Hypermarket, if you keep this Darigold milk in stock, you will be my go-to. S&R, it's been fun, but until you restock California milk, you'll become my monthly - not weekly - stop.