Sunday, February 17, 2013

HEEEERE fishy fishy fishy!

Travelogue: Donsol, Sorsogan.

Mission: See the Butanding, up close and personal.

Operation: Success.

This is perhaps the coolest thing I have ever done.  I've done and lot of fun things, and seen a lot of interesting places, so it's kind of hard to compare (I know, I live a rough life sometimes) -- but having a shark 30 meters long swimming less than a foot from me was a-MA-zing (sorry, Nancy, just had to say it :)  ).

Donsol has a history of eco-tourism, with pretty strict rules about whale shark "interactions" - no touching, no flash photography, only three hours on the water per group, and (supposedly) just one boat per shark.  In our case, though, that last rule was lifted because it had been five days with no shark sightings = some very sad tourists.  Which is how we felt the first day when we didn't see any (though we did see some dolphins jumping and manta rays).

Hence the title of this blog.  Greg and Wm started calling: HEEEERE Fishy Fishy Fishy!

The next day, though, two sharks seemed oblivious to the 25 boats skimming around the bay waiting for them and they kept on coming up to the surface again and again.  One shark we could tell was the same because he had a little clip in his back fin.

The first interaction was my best.  Greg and our BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer - a local fisherman who has training from the local tourist department; BIOs are required to accompany each boat to make sure all rules are followed) jumped off the boat to see the shark - and Wm was about to, but as he was getting in he freaked out (as a normal five year old would jumping off a moving boat) and he clung to my leg (I was still on the edge).  A boat guy helped Wm back into the boat, and by that time, our boat had passed the shark.  We circled around a bit, waiting for our BIO to signal for the boat - and before I knew it, the boat guy yelled at me: JUMP NOW!

I jumped.  I cleared the propeller of the boat.  I looked down in the water -- and the whale shark's mouth was right there.  Yes, I screamed into my snorkel, not having expected it to be RIGHT THERE.

Worried I would accidentally touch it, I tried to put a little distance between me and the shark, swimming the entire length, frantically trying to stay far enough away from it's back fin.

The next few times we jumped in, I was much more calm and was able to swim along with it for awhile (until other boats of people came, crowding).  Our BIO told me that usually the boat drivers are much more respectful of not dumping four or five boats worth of people at the same place.  But, with the five days of no sightings, all the drivers were worried it might be their only shot to have their paying customers see the shark - so hence the madness (Greg got kicked by a fin, our BIO ran into a bamboo pole of one of the boats).

We stayed at the Vitton resort, which was fine - pretty standard Philippine resort, perhaps a bit upscale since our room had A/C and hot water - and it had a pool.  Not a Taj hotel in India, but clean and $50/night for a double.

The only bad part was lack of naps - all three boys were screaming on the plane ride back and all the way home.  Took me a bit after we arrived home to remember that the previous two days were a once in a lifetime experience, and I should just block out the three hours of tantrums.

Offer accepted!

So, thank you State Department for unexpectedly changing my job last year to the political section ... which meant I was assigned a blackberry.  I really try hard not to use it for personal work, but this weekend we were going whale shark sighting (blog on that coming soon!) and we had the offer on the house ... and the resort in rural Donsol had no WiFi. Horrors, right?  Luckily I still had blackberry reception, and could work through the price negotiations with two quick emails.  (oh, yeah, I sent one work email, too ... but after the boys were in bed so as not to break my Lenten resolution of no work or "screens" during family time).

Thankfully, our real estate agent is very patient, and waited up until 10:30pm on a Sunday night his time, for us to get off the plane.  We signed the offer right when we got home from the airport (cool new program called "DocuSign" - which we had also used to sign real estate documents two years ago for our brief stint as home owners in Texas).

House should be great, as it was completely renovated prior to us purchasing it.  LR, DR, Den, Kitchen, half bath on main level.  Three bedrooms, 2 full baths on second.  Finished attic (Lea's room) and finished basement and half bath (Wm has already claimed that "for the kids").  Big yard, three houses from a park, 1/2 mile to metro and elementary school, short walk to restaurants and shops.  Except for the "MD" instead of "DC" in the address, it really is pretty much we were looking for - on paper at least!

Now the next big steps are (1) orchestrating the closing from afar and (2) finding preschool for Patch and summer camps for both boys.  We're already late for #2... 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Offer going...

... on a house in Montgomery Hills, MD.  Not sure what we think about moving back to the DC area and not being in the District proper, but, sadly, our budget can't afford a house with a DC address and a space large enough to host my family's Thanksgiving dinner (~20 people), which is something I *really* want to do when we're back and near family!

(hint, hint, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles ... )

It's taking some time to set up the logistics of an offer (which is hard enough even when you're in the same city as the property), but hopefully in the next few days it will happen - and then we'll see what the seller says.

If this comes through, it will be the first time since I graduated from college that I'll have lived in a single family home.  Kind of weird, actually, to think about it that way.  Especially since I remember being asked by someone in Texas, when I was pregnant with William, when we were going to buy a house because you couldn't possibly raise a child in an apartment or condo.  Honestly, were there a 1,500 sq ft condo we could afford in DC, we'd be all over it.  We're just priced out of Kalorama and its million dollar flats!  

Monday, February 4, 2013

What was I doing there?

I accepted an invitation this morning for an interfaith breakfast.  Religious freedom is part of my human rights portfolio, and the Ambassador couldn't make it to the breakfast, so the invitation was passed to me.  I was looking forward to hearing what the Catholic bishops were to say during this event to commemorate UN week of interfaith dialogue.   The discussion was interesting, but putting policy aside, I had a few cultural thoughts from the morning.

First, it was at Villa San Miguel in Mandaluyong - an area of town I had never before visited.  I drove by small streets with so many electrical wires strung, I could not see the sky (and really feared for a fire, if a huge earthquake ever did hit).  I saw meat markets with cuts hanging in the open air - which I've seen before in the provinces, but never in the city where my shopping pretty much takes place at mostly Western-style grocery stores.  And tricycles queued up orderly like a taxi stand (not clogging the street like they do by my house).

Next, I arrived at the breakfast to find my assigned seat with four ambassadors, one assistant secretary, one monseigneur, and Cardinal Tagle, the Archbishop of Manila.  And Pam.  Suddenly, the Sesame Street song "one of these things is not like the others" was playing in my head.  I confirmed with the organizers they knew my rank within the diplomatic corps (ie, not quite Ambassador or Cardinal level! :) ), and they assured me that's where I was meant to be.  Luckily I have good table manners and can make pleasant conversation.

The last surprise came with the opening entertainment.  A troupe from an orphanage gave a small performance - five violinists, two guitarists, a percussionist, and two young girls dancing.  They started with "Mama Mia!" which was closely followed by Gangam Style.  I'm pretty sure in the U.S., a children's group would pick something religious to sing at an event like this - especially if the top-ranking Catholic official were present.  But, this is obviously not the U.S.  And Filipinos love music and dance - so Gangam style it was.  The energy in the performance had the full audience clapping along - and it wasn't until I left that I realized that I must have absorbed a bit more Philippine culture than I thought, since I didn't think the selection was that out of the ordinary.  Because it's not for here.


It's official.  We're actually moving.  First there was the research, then the bidding, then the handshake, then the paneling, then the proposed itinerary.  Today came the TM4 - i.e., the travel orders approved by our HR tech - amazingly, approved almost 90 days before our proposed departure date.  This has never happened before and will make many friends at post ridiculously jealous.

One friend leaving on Feb 6 didn't receive his until last week - a mere two weeks before he was supposed to leave.  You can't buy your plane tickets without the TM4 ... so he was, rightfully, worried the plane might sell out -- or that the price of remaining seats would be higher than the amount authorized, requiring a re-authorization (which can get to be a vicious cycle).

Now. Stress. Level. Mounts.

Augmented by the fact that Wm got in disagreements today with both his best friend at school and his two good friends on our compound.  He's not the easiest kid to get along with ... so after calming him down (and a requested "big, long hug"), I started thinking about him having to make new friends when we move and adjust to a "regular" school system.  I will need all my patience about me in August and September!