Thursday, March 28, 2013

Cleaning out the food

I was so excited to move to Manila and have food available that I purchased on impulse some things I hadn't seen in two years in India.  Like frozen spinach and wheat germ.

Two years later, these are still unused.  Mostly because, I admit, my nanny is a great cook - and I pretty much have completely outsourced meal planning and preparation after giving some basic guidelines (ie, protein and veggie at every meal).  I think she's never used frozen spinach or wheat germ, so there they've sat.

Holy Week is a dead time in Manila - the city clears out as everyone one goes "to the provinces" to be with family.  (I think I have some old posts about this?  I'll have to check later and edit this post.)  in 2011, we had just moved here during Holy Week and it caught us by surprise.  2012 we spent in Burma.  This year, in theory, I'm spending the staycation sorting our house in preparation for moving.  Mostly, this involves me saying I'm going to sort, but instead I've just been hanging out, ignoring the daunting task.

Or creating other activities - like inviting two families over for lunch today.  I am justifying this by baking chicken using wheat germ and making spinach soup.  I'll also have couscous salad.  What better way to clean out the pantry than through a party?  

House closed!

We know where we'll be living come June - yay!  
Don't you think we look like we belong?

As I've mentioned a million and one times on this blog, living a split life between overseas and the U.S. would not be possible without support from our family.  A big thanks goes to my sister for scoping out houses, being available for in-time-zone calls, and signing for us at closing.  Not to mention her and her husband taking care of a good number of fixes before we move in.

The benefit for them?  We'll be about a 20 minute drive away and able to watch their dog whenever they travel for the next two years.  Pretty fair trade off, if you ask me.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Closing Day

It's about 9AM, DC-time.  I'm going to bed shortly.

At 2PM, DC-time, my sister will hopefully be closing on our house.  I say "hopefully" because I am going to sleep tonight not knowing if she will actually be able to sign the papers in five hours - and if I will - or won't - be a homeowner when I wake up in the morning.

(Note: "wake up in the morning" is a lose term with a baby around.  By "wake up in the morning," I mean any time after 5:30 when I decide to make tea. I do not mean the periods between 1AM and 4:30AM when I'm trying to coax baby back to sleep, or pretending I don't hear him - but am still very much awake - in nascent attempts to sleep train him.  He may be a cute potato, but champion sleeper he is not.)

The story?  Well, the home inspection found a 15 degree temperature difference between the second floor and attic bedroom.  No good.  We asked for a credit at closing to have the furnace inspected and repaired or replaced. The seller refused the credit, insisting he would have a licensed HVAC technician fix it.  We agreed.  And then the seller didn't have said technician come until two days ago.

My sister visited for final walk through on Monday, and the furnace wouldn't turn on.  Great.  She and the real estate agent tried to call the seller, but it turns out he (and his agent) is (are) an Orthodox Jew(s). And it is Passover.  And he can't use a phone.  And I am in Manila.  Probably one of the most challenging closings for my real estate agent ever.  Somehow, though, my real estate agent managed to find a work around and have someone from the seller side send out an HVAC technician (should arrive in about 45 minutes) -- without a telephone call.

If that technician can fix things before 2PM, we'll close.  If not ... hopefully closing will only be delayed to Thursday.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

22 yards for 20 bucks

A friend here had the bright idea that I should get curtains for our new house stitched in Manila.  A brilliant thought, considering I can pay a seamstress PHP 800/day plus lunch - and I was pretty sure material would be less than the $20-30/yard, on average, at G Street Fabrics in Seven Corners.

This necessitated a trip to Divisoria (wholesale and retail anything you want -- just watch your bag closely!), and today was pretty much the only Saturday I had free to do it.  Two friends were interested in going (one for the experience, the other to find party favors for her daughter's upcoming first birthday), so off we trekked.

I had been once before, searching for barongs for the boys for Beth's wedding.  On that trip, after over four hours of hunting, I finally found what I wanted.  I was prepared for an adventure, but also had to take baby, so didn't quite have time.  Amazingly, I navigated the twisty streets and alleys and found the wholesale cloth section our nanny had shown me last June.

Unfortunately, all the fabric was either too heavy, too grandma-like, too shiny, or too colorful for an American palette.  Not to mention baby (and three adult women!) was getting hot - and our feet and legs a bit muddy from tramping around on dirty streets.  Just when I was about to give up hope, I spotted a store where the bolts of cloth were standing in neat rows on steps, allowing easy perusal. (The rest of the stalls just had things pilled or stacked, difficult to see patterns without putting effort to lift and haul the bolts around.)

We walked through the U-shaped store, not really seeing anything that piqued my interest.  But at the end, when we came out again to the alley, I noticed a brown and pink silk fabric that would not have looked out of place in a Calico Corners store.  Intrigued, I lifted up that bolt and -- bingo! -- neutral colors in curtain-weight fabric.

Baby had just woken up, so my friends offered to hold him in the shade while I dug in.  The three Filipino shopkeepers seemed to get a kick out of three white women standing in front of their stall, so they started helping me pull things out.  One guy said in broken English: "These not pretty colors. Why you like?"  I decided it was not the time to get into American interior design.

It turned out this stack of muted colored fabric was comprised of remnants, and one had to purchase the entire bolt. I selected the following 22 yards from four bolts for 830 pesos ($20):
The price was so inexpensive compared to the U.S., I honestly couldn't bring myself to bother bargaining. Now the trick is to figure out how I want them stitched for which windows.  Tricky, since I haven't seen the house - only pictures and detailed window measurements.

After all that tramping around, we were relieved to find a Starbucks in a new air conditioned mall built just at the edge of the jumble.  Perfect way to cool off and rehydrate.

When I returned home, our nanny whisked Ian out of my arms and into a bath before I could blink an eye.  I think she was kind of ticked off at me for taking him somewhere so dirty.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


The Philippines is nickname central.  Some of my coworkers and acquaintances:

Jovi (Jose Vincent)
Wheng (Rowena -- this is standard)
Tin-Tin (Christina)
Chinky (yes, for someone's whose eyes are very small ... but we put the kaibash on that at the office)

Just read the paper and you'll find Bong, Jiggy, and Joker.

I don't even bat my eye any more at given names like Bambi, Princess, Rapunzel, and Girly.

When I was a visa officer, I kept a piece of paper at my desk with some of the most unique names I came across -- and some strange spellings like a family with four children where every letter "S" was replaced with an "X" (think: Xamantha and Xamuel).

All the same, I was surprised today when one of Wm's classmate's parents asked me how we pronounced his nickname.  I replied we just called him by his full name - no nickname, despite our original intention to call him Will.  She looked a little confused, which puzzled me.  Finally, she said: "But you always write 'Wm' on class emails.  How do you pronounce that? 'Wum'? 'Wi-um'?"

I wondered for a bit if my shorthand had inadvertently created a nickname, but his classmates at the party today just called him by his full name.  I did kind of like, though, that people assumed I was just being creative, and not simply a lazy speller.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Problem solving

The last few days we've had two debates in our house.  Luckily, Wm has come up with solutions for both.

(1) During breakfast, he likes to watch YouTube clips.  This started out with sesame street and has digressed.  Patch now likes to watch toy reviews, and lately Wm has been watching "Plants vs. Zombies" just waiting for us to download the game for him (he's on track with his chores to get it this weekend).  But then I listened closely and realized the bad language used by the narrator, so Plants vs. Zombies was banned, causing mass hysteria for two days.  Until Wm suggested he could watch it with the volume off.  Since I don't have any objection to the game (aside from I'm just not a video game person ... but Greg does his Fifa soccer, so we're not about to ban video games) this seemed a simple solution. No more theatrics at breakfast.

(2) I'm having a big debate about upgrading or not for our flight home.  Lay flat seats are great - and business travelers love the privacy pods - but, unfortunately, this means I wouldn't be able to reach Patch to make sure he stays seated and buckled during take off and landing and other times of turbulence.  Hmm...  I've been debating this for months, have had friends on recent trips give me their opinion, etc etc.  Wm's solution last night?  He and Greg upgrade, and Patch, Ian and I stay in the back,  since I need to feed Ian and Patch likes company.  Oh - and since there are only two iPads, he and Patch get them and Greg has to read a book. Sorry Greg, no Fifa soccer for you on the way home.

Class pics

Ylang Ylang Class, 2012-13

Sloka, 2010-11
Though neither Greg or I really think of ourselves as educationally counter-culture, surprisingly we've found (or at least, I have found) myself singing praises of both the Waldorf school Wm attended in HYD and the AMI Montessori school in Manila.  While "Waldorf-inspired" and "Montessori-like" schools abound, in our case both schools have been "strict constructionist" adherents to the methodologies, which has required significant parent-learning, too, so that our home environment is not at odds with the rhythms of the school classroom.

I have come to appreciate the schools so much because both require a conscious decision by parents to select that method of instruction, so parents are invested.  Not that the same commitment wouldn't happen in other schools (many of the parents at Patch's school, a play-based American preschool, are highly engaged!), but that, especially when dealing with cross cultural issues, being surrounded by parents who have made the same decision as us means we share a common denominator.  In both these particular schools, too, the same group of children stayed in the same class for two years, creating strong bonds in an otherwise transitory lifestyle. 

Both Sloka and Maria Montessori continue from age 3 through grade 8 (and both are currently adding high schools).  His classmates, past and present, don't realize how lucky they are, having access to such wonderful institutions with committed teachers and parents, for their entire school life.  I'm kind of jealous of the parents, in fact.  It's funny to look at these pictures and think that, while both schools have a special place in my heart, Wm doesn't really remember Sloka and will only have vague memories of MMCSFI. 

I know we'll probably grow to be as attached to other schools as we move around -- whether in the U.S. or overseas.  I feel like batting 2 for 2 right now is pretty high, though -- especially since in both cases we've gone outside the traditional embassy-recommended options and selected which school "felt right."  Honestly, I really can say that's how we chose both: walking around the classrooms, we both sensed that it would be a good match.  A little new-agey of an approach, perhaps, but in both these cities, our gut instinct has proven spot on.  Wm and we are better for it.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

In the Cockpit

In this special guest appearance by Greg, your correspondent recalls his visit to the Pasay City Cockpit. If you read that name and saw the picture above, you might have an idea of what happens there.  Cockfighting, very much illegal in the States, is legal and extremely popular here in the Philippines.  The Mall of Asia, arbiter of all that is cool in Manila, even contains an entire store dedicated to the bloody pastime.  But the trappings surrounding the fights held no attraction to me.  Frankly, the fighting itself didn't appeal too much, either.  But it's clear from living here that cockfighting is a big deal, an accepted and beloved hobby for men (almost exclusively), especially outside the city.  (This hit a bit close to home one time when one of our security guards brought his pair of fighting cocks into Seafront for safe keeping.  The problem, of course, with fighting cocks, is that they are actually just roosters, which means lots of early morning cock-a-doodle-do-ing.  Not much of a problem for our house, where our boys are up early enough to wake the birds, this was understandably irritating to our neighbors.  The cocks were duly evicted.  But I digress.)

When a friend, also checking items off his Manila to-do list in the last months prior to departing post, invited a group to the cockpit, I accepted immediately (Pam's only caveat: I am sitting at the keyboard under threat of having my precious iPad confiscated if I don't write something about the experience for this blog soon).  I found it odd that Sunday was the day of choice for cockfighting, but it seems that Filipinos proceed directly from pew to pit.  After all, there's a rooster dinner in the offing at the end of the festivities.  Yes, the rooster does in fact die.  Always.  If not in the ring, then... we'll get to that later.

We arrived at the cockpit in a light drizzle.  I'm not sure what I expected, but I suppose I thought the place would be a dark, smoke-filled, booze-driven den of iniquity, where punters gamble away most of their day's wages and leave their sorrows at the bottom of a bottle, then toss the bottle onto the dank dirt floor.  I imagined a musty room where I was unlikely to emerge unscathed by the nimble fingers of a pickpocket going for my last pesos.  I saw in my mind's eye feathers flying over the blood-spattered denizens, hands at the ready to block a stray beak or claw escaping the confines of the ring.  I saw what I think a cockfighting ring would look like in America.  It was anything but.

The Pasay City Cockpit is one of the larger venues in Metro Manila.  It's clean, modern, brightly-lit, and very much above-board.  It was only a moment after I entered that it occurred to me that cockfighting is perfectly legal here - there's no reason to take it underground.  Still, we six Americans stood out like ostriches among, well, cocks.  We paid our 200 peso ($5) entry fee and took our places standing at the back of the lower level.  Yes, there were two levels.  The lower one had about five rows of seats (proper seats!) surrounding the glass-enclosed dirt ring.  The upper level was a bit deeper, so all in all I would guess something like 500 fans were in the arena.  It wasn't full - this was an ordinary Sunday, not one of the crazy derby days, when four or more birds enter the ring and the last cock standing wins.

The fights had already begun.  One on one, cockfights are simple, basic tests of speed, skill and perseverance.  It started with the baiting of the birds.  Each owner had another guy on his side with a tune-up rooster, just to get the competitors aroused.  I suppose when you put one cock in another's face, they don't like it much.  The idea here was to show your bird off and get more of the bettors on your side.  I was shocked to hear that the minimum bet was a hefty 500 pesos ($12).  These guys aren't messing around.

The betting was actually the most exciting part.  As uninitiated rookies, we had helpers.  We wanted the favorite ("meron", or "there is" in Tagalog) or the underdog ("wala", or "there isn't").  Gave the money to the matchmaker.  And let the free-for-all begin.  Wall Street style, the bookies and the more educated guests tried to find someone to take their bets.  In a flurry of shouting and wild gesticulation, bets were made, odds were agreed (usually 50-50, but sometimes slightly off), and slowly things calmed down.  Unfortunately, I never figured out how people decided which bird to bet on.  In many of the fights, I couldn't even tell which was which once they started mixing it up.

The fighting itself was the quietest time of the afternoon.  The cocks went at it on a dirt surface, in a ring about the size of a boxing ring, but with (immaculately clean) glass sides so the diminutive competitors were visible.  Some fights lasted barely 30 seconds, at the end of which one of the roosters was very much dead, sliced in just the right place by his counterpart's 2" ankle blade.  Some of them were more drawn out.  But none went more than about four minutes.  Surprisingly, most fights ended with no visible blood on the dirt, and at no time did blood, feathers, or cocks leave the ring.  I suspect that death came relatively quickly to the losers (a wounded winner, on the other hand, was a different story).

We watched about 15 fights, at the end of which most of us had had our fill.  On the way out, one of the bookies offered a tour of the arena.  We accepted, of course.  The "green room" was surprisingly quiet, considering the dozens of roosters in the small space.  Each owner had a metal briefcase with shiny razor blades waiting for an ankle to attach to.  There were a few snack stands, though they seemed to be aimed more at the cock owners than at the fans, who were very serious about their betting.  Our final stop was the slaughterhouse.  You can guess what happens here, but I'll post a picture anyway.

So.  Bloodsport?  Yes.  Cruel?  Probably.  Interesting?  Moderately.  I enjoyed my afternoon at the fights, but it was truly a once in a lifetime experience. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Big guy

Seems that the baby is eager to catch up to his big brothers.  This morning, he climbed over the pillow nest, rolling right off the bed.  I got a stern rebuke from Wm, as he carried his baby bro out of the room: "Mama, don't you know Ian can crawl? You shouldn't leave him alone like that unless he's in a bed with sides on it like the crib. Good think I was playing near by to rescue him."  Oops.  Bad mom for relying on the pillow nest ... but perhaps I get some props for having fostered such a caring biggest brother?

Early this evening, baby was having fun trying to figure out how to climb up on his dad.

Then during Octonauts, he figured out how to pull himself up on the coffee table.  Yeah.  On one hand, kind of cool.  On the other?  Baby days are over.  Toy sequestration really can't be delayed.  Triple trouble with three active boys is just waiting for me around the corner.  Before I know it, we'll be going through a gallon of milk in one day...  

Friday, March 1, 2013

Manila Hotel

Visiting the historic Manila Hotel was on my "bucket list" -- it's so close to work, I felt like I really should check it out.  But, like anything close and easily accessible, I hadn't.  And with just 60 days left in country, I figured I probably wouldn't get around to it.

Luckily, some other friends at work had the same feeling (we should, but probably won't) and not being sleep deprived parents of a baby (and thus not lacking energy to plan anything), they put together an impromptu dinner party.  Deal: everyone stays at work until 5:30 to work on EERs (our annual review; ugh), and then we'd get cocktails in the lobby, followed by dinner in the Champagne Room (which opened at 7).  Sounded great, so I agreed even though it meant an extra session in the lactation room...

We arrived at 5:30 to find a mob of young girls waiting for a K-Pop star to make his appearance - we never did see the star, despite occasional screams when they thought he might be coming out.  We did enjoy the "signature cocktail" (gin, calamansi, and sprite) while waiting for the restaurant to open -- and were very surprised to find the lobby so beautiful and well maintained.  The hotel is not in a posh part of town (though in the 1900-30s, it certainly was) ... and is not on the usual list of hotels for official visitors, so our expectations were low - but, actually, it was quite pleasant and beautiful.

The restaurant really reminded me of pictures from 1920s and 30s Hollywood super clubs, with small sofas, fake silver trees, funky chandeliers, and waiters in short white dinner coats.  With such an atmosphere - and a quiet live pianist instead of too-loud music soundtrack only too common in Manila restaurants - we all remarked that we had no idea why the place didn't have better reputation around town.

The food was fantastic - I ordered escargot (delicious garlic butter sauce!) and chateaubriand (very tender and actually cooked rare).  It wasn't cheap (PHP 5,000 per couple for cocktail, one bottle of wine for table, appetizer, main course, and coffee (sorbet and after-diner chocolate gratis) -- we were all too full to try dessert, though I bet it would have been delicious too!), but was well worth the price.  Even the big foodie in our group was impressed!

The McArthur Suite was closed for a movie shoot, so I don't think I'll manage to see that before we go (never say never, though...) - but I highly recommend the Champagne Room for a special occasion meal, or just when you want a little treat out of the ordinary.