First night's sleep was ok, a bit rough sleeping on a bamboo bed with no mattress but I've certainly slept on worse (Honduras springs immediately to mind). The wife planned a trip to Dagupan City today. Dagupan City is, I believe, the nearest big city to them here. It's about 30-45 minutes away by tricycle and it was one of the least comfortable rides I've ever taken. The wife's father's tricycle is fit with a sidecar with bench seats but the benches are basically a couple pieces of wood. Combine this with the fact that it's not that big to begin with and let's just say it's not the best mode of transportation for long trips. Virginia's mother came with us since a trip to Jollibee was in the cards and the wife said she just loves Jollibee. For the uninitiated, Jollibee is the Philippines' answer to fast food. It's a fast food chain that serves burgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, spaghetti, french fries, etc and it is extremely popular here. In fact, when I told a Filipino friend who lives in Germany that I'd soon be taking my first trip to the Philippines, the first thing he said was "Have some Jollibee for me!". Luca and the X Man absolutely love it. On the bus ride up here, every time Luca would spot a Jollibee sign, he would say "Oh...Jollibee!". And sometimes the mere mention of the name throws him into a fit of joy - "JOLLIBEE!". So we made the trip to Dagupan and the plan was to hit an ATM machine first so I could get some pisos (pronounced "pesos"). The wife still had plenty on her but I don't feel comfortable in a foreign country when I have no local currency in my pocket so I insisted we do that first. There's a bunch of different banks in the Philippines but the wife usually only uses the ATM at two of them as she doesn't trust some of the others. The ATM experience turned out to be my first frustrating one since I got here. I had intended to take out 10,000 pisos (about $225) which I figure will last a long time here since everything is so cheap. I prefer taking out larger sums when I travel since I get hit with a bunch of fees (anywhere from $5 - 7.50) when I use one in foreign country. I know most people recommend not carrying large sums but I've been traveling abroad for 12 years now to some pretty seedy places at times, and I've never had a problem so I don't sweat it. Anyway, we hit the ATM and after I put in my PIN and hit "withdrawal", it asked me which account I wanted to withdraw from: Savings, current, or credit card. Our account is a checking so I asked the wife which one she normally selects since I didn't see checking and she said savings. I hit savings and 10,000 pisos and got an error message saying "Insufficient funds". Well this concerned me greatly because perhaps my greatest fear is having my bank account info stolen and someone stealing all my money. I have two accounts and what I try to do when the wife comes to the Philippines is put some money into the smaller account and have her use that one. That way, if her card or number gets stolen, they will only get a small amount. However I didn't have time to take care of everything before I left so we're using our main account for the trip. I've had my ATM card rejected in other countries before but the error message usually says something about invalid card or unable to process transaction. I've never had one say insufficient funds before and to me insufficient funds means just that - not enough money. So I was nervous as we tried to find another ATM. We tried a second one and things were going fine until it showed the amounts that I could choose from and the highest amount was 4,000 pisos (less than $100). I was not about to only take out such a small amount and then have to do it again soon due to the aforementioned fees I get hit with so I angrily stormed off in search of another ATM. I know the Philippines is not the most modern country in the world but cripes, it should not be this difficult to find a frigging ATM that works with my card and will let me withdraw some money in a normal amount, especially not in a big city like Dagupan which is littered with shopping malls and restaurants. I tried another one and to my astonishment it worked fine so I finally had my money in my pocket and we set out for lunch. I thought we were eating at Jollibee but instead we went to a mall and the wife and her mother took the kids to another traditional Filipino fine dining establishment. You may have heard of it; "McDonalds". I didn't come all the way to the Philippines to eat at McDonald's (I don't even eat there back home) so I told her I would go get something else which worked out perfectly because I found a Japanese place that had sushi, one of my favorites. I got an 8 piece order of California maki and a large bottle of water and the total price was about $1.90...wow. The same thing in Italy would have cost me over $10.00. And this tasted much, much better. I was a little disappointed that I didn't get to experience Jollibee but I've got plenty of time.
From there we went to a different mall where the big supermarket - Robinson's - was to get some halo halo and do some grocery shopping. From what I can tell, there seem to be two main fast food chains here, Jollibee and Chow King. While Jollibee is American style fast food, Chow King is sort of a mix of Chinese and Filipino and, like Jollibee, they're everywhere. They have really good halo halo so we went there so I could try my first "real" one. Halo halo is a very popular Filipino dessert which is kind of hard to explain. It has to be experienced to get the full effect and I've never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world that I've gone. It's sort of a mixture of ice cream, flavor ice, varies tropical fruits, beans, purple yams, flan, and a few other things. It's delicious and perfect on a hot day. Different people make it in different versions and the wife sometimes makes her own at home during the summer but nothing is as good as the real thing. The halo halo experience finished, we hit Robinson's to do the grocery shopping. I've noticed the the wife's father is very fond of his brandy so I bought him a bottle of Napolean Brandy as a gift but he didn't seem much impressed by it. Perhaps he only likes the cheap stuff, who knows.
There was a really funny moment today as I bought a sim card for my phone. I did this for two reasons; first, so I'd be able to communicate with the wife if we get separated or are in different places and second, because I need my Geno fix. Geno is one of my best friends and we exchange email and sms back home throughout the day. I could not fathom a full two weeks without our normal daily banter so I needed a Philippine sim card. Shortly after, I sent him a short sms saying "Testing, this is my number in the Philippines". A couple minutes later I get a message that says "Great at 2am dick". I completely forgot that he is in the US and he's now 12 hours behind instead of 6! Cripes did I laugh when I got that message. In fact, I'm giggling out loud as I write this just thinking about it as I can picture a grumpy Geno, in the middle of the night, sending that message..."Great at 2am dick"...THAT'S WHAT YOU BRING TO THE TABLE GENO!
Dagupan City is the king of Bangus. Bangus is a fish that is extremely popular here and also among Filipinos abroad. I think the actual name is Milkfish but whatever it's called, it stinks to high heaven. We can actually buy bangus at the commissary on base where I work so the wife eats it occasionally and when she does, it stinks up the whole house so she mostly makes it when I'm not around. In our house it's affectionately referred to as "stinky bangus" and although I love fish, I've tried bangus and it's horrible. I've never understood why the wife still eats it so much when we have every other kind of tasty fish readily available to us in Italy such as salmon, tuna, and such. I guess it's just comfort food for her. Or maybe she truly and honestly likes the taste, hard as that is to believe. Anyway, like I said, Dagupan City is the king of bangus in that they are raised in little ponds all over the place in and around the city (Dagupan is situated right on Lingayan Gulf, where Gen MacArthur famously declared "I shall return") and when you drive in you can't escape the smell. It's not pleasant. On the way home we stopped at one the many little roadside stands for some fresh coconut. Turns out the guy is related to the wife's family, I think he was a cousin. Seems like everyone we run into is related to the wife somehow - cousins, uncles and aunts mostly. It was kind of cool watching him slice open the top of the coconut, something that looks easy but is very difficult, before slipping the straw in for me to drink. Fresh coconut juice, delicious. As I'm standing there, I look at the wall of his stand and he has a picture of a Filipina girl in a US Navy uniform. Turns out his sister is in the US Navy. After that we stopped at one of the many fresh fish markets on the way home and I bought some more shrimp for dinner. I'm a shrimp fiend, can't get enough of it, and it's so damned fresh and cheap here that I wouldn't mind eating it every night.
One of the biggest surprises yet came at Robinson's Supermarket today. While perusing the limited beer selection, I came across a beer I have not seen or drank in almost 20 years - Lone Star beer! They actually had Lone Star beer at this little supermarket in Dagupan City in the Philippines! I was shocked but I bought several cans and enjoyed them after dinner tonight. It was a fun night too, the wife's mother was here and after dinner we all sat out on the front terrace. Now the one thing you should know about Virginia's mother (Aggripina is her name) is that she is extremely religious. She also worked in Hong Kong for a few years while the wife was there so she can speak English pretty good but she's very shy and when she does speak, she talks so softly that I can't hear or understand hardly anything she says. She has endured a lot of hardship in her life for the good of her family and she's done a wonderful job raising nine (yes, NINE) kids and I have the utmost respect and admiration for her. Having said that, there are times when I feel like she doesn't particularly care for me, that maybe she wishes her oldest daughter would have married a nice Filipino boy from the hometown church instead of some white guy from the US who likes to drink beer and listen to ungodly music. I'm sure it's in my head, I just can't shake the feeling sometimes. Anyway, as I said, we were all sitting outside after dinner and I had been listening to the wife's iPod before everyone came out and was singing along with some of the songs. I took it off when everyone else came out and the wife's mother started singing some hymns. I knew one of them so I started singing along and then it turned into a hymn-fest with the two of us singing hymns together. It was a special moment, one I'm sure that meant a lot to her. Not surprisingly she asked if we would be going to church with her on Sunday and I said we probably would. The pressure is on now; if we don't go to church with her on Sunday, I might be kicked out of the family.
One last note about tonight. While we were sitting outside on the terrace I was in one of the bamboo chairs against the wall. At one point the X Man suddenly yells "Whoa, daddy, look at that spider!" I pull out my chair and on the wall behind it, a mere 6 inches away from where my back had been all night, was the biggest freaking spider I've ever seen in my life. I flipped out and tried to kill it with my foot but it was too fast and I missed but luckily the wife's aim was better and she killed it. I still get the willies thinking about how close I was sitting to that God-ugly thing.
Day two is in the books...still no snakes.
Click here for Day 3