Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My First Trip to the Philippines, Day 2

Day 2

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.

Monday, August 30, 2010

My First Trip to the Philippines, Day 1

Day 1

Stayed at the wife's aunt and uncle's house in Manila. Tita Conchita and Tito Willy live in Quezon City, a suburb of Manila. The plan is to come back here a day or two early before we fly out so Conchita can show us around Manila a bit. I'm looking forward to that as I really am more of a big city person and I've never seen Manila. Tito Willy drove us to the nearest bus station early this morning and we were dismayed to find that the next bus leaving for Pangasinan did not have air conditioning. It was 8 am, that one left at 9 and the next one with AC left at noon. There was no freaking way I was riding in a bus for almost 5 hours in this extreme heat and humidity and the thought of sitting outside a bus station for 4 hours in the heat waiting for a bus was equally unappealing so Virginia's mother hailed a taxi to take us to another bus station. No luck there either so we went to a third station. The taxi had AC and the driver said he would drive us all the way to Pangasinan for 4,000 pisos (about $90) and I actually considered it but fortunately the third station had a bus with AC leaving in an hour. It worked out well as the bus was a lot more comfortable than a taxi would have been. The bus stopped a bunch of times on the way up for bathroom breaks and such and every time it stopped, a handful of street vendors hawking all kinds of different food items would come on board and try to sell them to the passengers. The most popular items seemed to be pork rinds and some kind of special pie called Bako pie. I know it was special because every time a guy would come on board selling them he would say repeatedly "Special pie...special pie...". I did my customary hand wave at each one and they left me alone but at one stop the wife bought a little plastic bag filled with what I thought were some kind of large, speckled gumballs. Turns out they were hard boiled quail eggs, she said Luca loves them. I tried one and they were good, basically tasted like a mini boiled egg. The whole bag cost like 50 cents for 10 eggs. The wife had bought a roll of toilet paper at the bus station in Manila which I thought was strange until she told me that the public bathrooms in the Philippines don't have any. Yikes. Manila is dirty and looks run down but the drive got more interesting as we got further from the city and into the provinces. At one point we passed by what used to be Clark Air Force Base. Clark was closed back around 1991 when a nearby volcano (Pinataubo) erupted and covered the area in ash and soot. I've always been fascinated by US military bases - especially those in other countries - so I felt a bit saddened seeing what must have once been a bustling area and a great place to be stationed. Continuing on, you start seeing enterprising Filipinios selling all kinds of stuff in little shacks and stands right on the side of the road. Snacks, drinks, coconuts, anything they think they can sell. You literally see them one after another all over the place.

After several hours we finally arrived in Rosario, La Union, which is the closest bus station to Boloen, the little Baranguay where the wife's family lives. Rosario is a big public market town so the place was crowded with people and every single one of them was staring right at me. I got the feeling none of them had ever seen a white person in person before. It was a little disconcerting but I did my best to ignore it. A few minutes later the wife's father and sisters pulled up on a couple of tricycles. Here, a tricycle is basically a motorcycle with a sidecar attached. They're very popular as they're the cheapest way to get around and they can go on the little roads and dirt paths that most cars cannot. You see them everywhere, especially in the provinces. They remind me a lot of the "Tuk-Tuks" you see everywhere in Thailand. Anyway, after nearly 8 years of marriage, I finally met Virginia's father, Herminigildo. Herminigildo is a very small but muscular man. He's been working the fields his entire life and it shows. His skin is so dark that he could almost pass for a black person and it's just as weathered as it is dark. You can tell just by looking at him that he is a hard man and an extremely hard worker. He's probably no more than 4 foot 10 or so but he looks as strong as an ox. Since we were right next to the market, we did some shopping first to get some fish and other stuff for dinner. I held Luca as we walked through the market which was sort of indoors as it had a low hanging tarp covering it. Inside there were all manner of fish and meat, all caught or killed that day, and tons of different fruits and vegetables. The wife chose some shrimp and some fresh fish and haggled with the vendors while every single person in the place stared at me. Again I did my best to ignore it but imagine walking around in a place where everybody just stares at you. My brother works in Africa and I'm guessing he deals with this as well. Definitely takes some getting used to. Across the dirt road from the market were bulidings with shops just like in any other town in Europe and also a decent sized supermarket where we bought coffee and other stuff that I can't live without. Unfortunately it's instant coffee as I doubt anyone here has ever even heard of espresso. I'm prepared to sacrifice certain things for a couple weeks and it looks like my morning coffee will be the first to go. *Sigh*. I was quite surprised to see an actual supermarket in such a small, austere place though. Perhaps it's the first of many misconceptions about this place that are sure to be shattered in the next couple weeks.

Arriving at the house was quite a shock. We got out of the tricycles and I noticed Virginia give the young guy that drove our tricycle some money. All of us and our bags would not fit in one tricycle so they had asked a local friend if he wouldn't mind giving us a ride. I thought it was a relative but he was just a local friend and I guess they don't do stuff like that around here for free, not even for friends. I probably shouldn't be surprised, they're very poor here and need to make money any way they can. Not to mention that he's gotta pay for his gas somehow. This is how the wife's family had to get around before they bought their tricycle last year; every time they needed to go somewhere, they had to pay a friend to take them. I can't imagine how inconvenient and annoying that must have been. When their crops were wiped out last year by the extreme flooding I offered to send them some money to help them recover and they spent that money on the tricycle. I have to admit that my first thought was "We send them money and they use it on a motorcycle?". The wife assured me it was the best thing they could buy. I was not convinced then but I certainly am now. The tricycle is practically their lifeblood and I can't even imagine how they got by without it before last year. But back to the house; the tricycles stopped at a little foot bridge next to a river. We grabbed all the bags - the wife's father grabbed the biggest, heaviest one - and started across the bridge and I quickly realized that we wouldn't be able to just pull my suitcase along by the handle, we would have to carry them all the way. To get to their house you first had to cross this little creaky, metal hanging foot bridge, then walk about a half mile or so on a dirt path through a bunch of rice fields. I was immediately glad that I packed everything into one suitcase but carrying that thing all the way in the extreme heat and humidity kicked my ass, I'm not ashamed to say. Arriving at their lot, we had to walk along a narrow little path through the rice fields to get to the house which was pretty much what I expected it to be. Most of the furniture was hand made out of bamboo. There's an upstairs and a downstairs but the upstairs is completely empty since they had to replace the roof a year or two ago due to termite damage and they still haven't finished it yet. The boards that make up the floor are so thin that you can see the downstairs through the cracks. The place would actually be pretty decent if it was all fixed up and furnished. The kitchen has no furnishings except for a refrigerator which they don't put a whole lot of stuff in because they are prone to long power outages here. For cooking, there is a fireplace. They cook everything over an open flame pretty much. In the living room there's a tv but the wife says it's from 1976 and it only gets two channels. The bad part for me is the bathroom. They have an actual toilet (with no seat) but no indoor plumbing, just a bucket of water they keep next to the toilet. Basically you do your business, then dump water in the bucket until everything goes down. That will take some getting used to I'm sure but I've crapped in worse places so no big deal. The shower is just an empty cement room with a chair in it. You drag a bucket of water in there and take a field shower. In the front yard they have a big cement sink type thing with a big water pump next to it which is how they get their water. They keep a huge bucket next to the pump full of water and use it for everything; cooking, cleaning, washing, etc. Luca likes to give himself makeshift baths by taking the little dipper in the bucket and pouring it over his head, it's very cute. There are witndows but most of them are broken which isn't a big deal as the house is usually wide open anyway. You can't completely close it up because there are cracks and openings all over. And the bugs! There are more flies here than I've ever seen before. You sit down and you've got 4 or 5 flying around you all the time, it's very annoying. Mosquitoes don't seem to be much of a problem yet thankfully. The kitchen table is covered with little tiny ants. The wife said they normally spray some stuff that keeps the ants away but I can't remember why they haven't recently.

We bought some fish at the market for dinner and I bought the biggest prawn (shrimp) I've ever seen in my life. The wife had the fridge stocked with beer - she knows me so well - and I gotta tell you, there's nothing like a cold beer on a really hot day, even in the Philippines. The wife's father came by after dinner with a small bottle of brandy and he and I sat and bonded while we got slightly inebriated. It was a fun experience. He can actually speak English a tiny bit albeit in short, halting half-sentences that I have to struggle to understand. He seems to have taken to me more than anyone else in her family so far which I take as a good sign. I like him a lot, he is really cool.

So Day 1 is over and so far no snakes. We're off to a good start.