Wednesday, July 30, 2008

IX: "Bayan Ko" (My Country)

I've done a lot in the last month... gazed at the squatters from afar and visited my grandmother in Mandaluyong, stayed at the 5-star Shangri-La hotel in Makati, spent a week in the water-sport and white beach splendor of Boracay, rode an elephant in Bangkok during my couple days in Thailand, experienced the "high-class" luxurious life of Eastwood City and made lifelong memories with my family in Quezon City. I also stood atop a rural volcano village in Tagaytay, took an epic ride down a water slide in Antipolo, saw the home of the first Philippine president in Kawit Cavite and went on a horse-and-buggy tour of love at my parents' engineering college in Intramuros.

And when it comes down to this... a not-so-short summary of my time here, it's almost impossible to relay it all in a few straightforward paragraphs. Because it seems that the things that I find most strange, and borderline uncomfortable, about the Philippines in general, are also the things that make it so wonderful.

When I first arrived here, I was choked by the thick humidity and unforgiving heat. It was all I could think about because I was so used to my clean, air-conditioned, convenient, spacious, soft and comfortable life in California. What spoiled American brat wouldn't complain?

The air smells weird, it's always overcast and hot, central air-conditioning is virtually non-existent, the beds are always hard as rock and it's about an 85% chance that a public restroom has puddles of urine on the floor and is equipped with a bucket of water in lieu of toilet paper. The streets are loud from all the honks and yells, pedestrians fear getting hit by jeepneys, cabs and tricycles when they cross the street, most stores have "mega" or "world" attached to the names, and they tend to copy every other country's popular culture instead of creating their own.

And yet, the people here are happy. The concept of depression is an abstract idea to them, even though the minimum wage is 300 pesos (about $7) a day, even though everyone hangs their laundry outside because clothes dryers are too expensive, and even though an average portion at a restaurant is equal to a half-size in America. But when you don't have "too much" staring you in the face around every corner, it doesn't take much to keep you happy. And what you do have, is exactly enough.

People here are happy if they can make a modest living and put some food on the table for their families. They don't need the next, best thing. They'd rather be hospitable to their neighbors than keep everything to themselves. They're not afraid or disgusted by giant flying cockroaches... in fact, if you find one in a restaurant, you just wait for it to fly out the window instead of call the FDA to lower their restaurant rating. They're genuine and caring, and will always make sure you're comfortable before they are.

It's a country that loves acronyms, knock-offs, and references to The Beatles. (My family and I drove past a little "lechon," or "roast pig" stand called Sgt. Pepper's Litsonan the other day. And that's only one of the many references I've seen here since arriving.) Kinda' "baduy," I know... but it made me smile and I'm sure John, Paul, George and Ringo would get quite a laugh from it.

Inside of every 7-11 are dozens of bags of delicious prawn crackers, fish kropek (also crackers), local candies like pulvoron and barquillos, and various flavors of C2 juices. Ripe mango, watermelon shakes and dalandan (mandarin) juice are restaurant staples, along with crispy pata, sinigang, kare-kare and pancit. McDonald's delivers, including their spaghetti and 1 pc. chicken combo. It's a food lover's dream.

The "barangays," or neighborhoods, consist of narrow streets crammed with uneven houses, but the people inside them become lifelong friends who share daily greetings and participate in massive fiestas during the holidays. Street vendors walk down the badly-paved roads yelling "taho," "balut," or "fishballs." Who needs the ice cream man when you can cook your own snacks on a traveling wok for less a dollar? And if you didn't catch the "taho" man, you just walk down the street, because chances are, there's a family who's converted their front room into a convenient store where you can get what you need. And if you're lucky, they might have some bananaque... that's right, barbecued banana. Yummm.

Even the main streets have their vendors. Despite the beggars that cup their hands against the windows to get a peek of who's inside the cars, other street-salespeople, with their raggedy clothes and worn tsenelas (flip-flops) walk between the cars with bags of snacks and various packs of cigarettes. Ran out of smokes? Just roll down your window and pull out a 20-peso bill.

I'm coming home the day after tomorrow. Go figure, I'm finally used to the humidity and the air, and now I'm coming back to the fresh and dry deserts of California. Still, it's a pretty exciting prospect because I really miss Penny Lane Pom Pom, my friends, greek food, my laptop and my bed. Besides, living out of a suitcase is really starting to wear on me.

But I'll remember this trip and this country. I'll remember the best, drunken sing-along I ever had with my cousins. I'll remember the patriotic pride of the Philippine people, the amazing cuisine and the way people appreciate their blessings instead of complain about what they don't have.. or even need. And I know I can come home with a new understanding of why my immigrant family members are the way they are, why my parents' modest upbringing made it so important for their kids to have comfortable lives and quality education, and overall, a newfound respect and love "para sa bayan ko."

Saturday, July 26, 2008

VIII: Epic

Friday, July 25, 2008

VII: 'Tang Ina

"Puta'ang Ina" = "Bitch mother"

This is what people say here instead of "shit!" And if you want to call someone a son of a bitch... you say "Puta ang ina mo" or "Your mom is a bitch." So actually, this is much more gender-friendly because you can say it to a female as well. I've heard this phrase more times in this Internet Cafe than I have in my life before coming to the Philippines. It's kinda' funny... but I never really put much thought into the literal translation until now. Random update, I know.

I don't have much to say today. Or maybe I'm just super lazy to say anything else. I have to wake up at 6 a.m. tomorrow to take a road trip to Antipolo, where there's supposed to be an epic waterpark. We're caravaning 40 of our local family members to the park to have a day-long party. "Galing!"

I'm excited. And tired. *Extra-long sigh*

Thursday, July 24, 2008

VI: For the homies

Whilst taking a 30-minute taxi ride earlier through the horribly congested traffic of Metro Manila, my all-of-me was faced with an overwhelming sense of homesickness and nausea. I kinda' miss you guys... or maybe it was just the dizzying traffic-weaving of our honk-happy taxi driver with ridiculously long thumb nails. Or the numerous beggars walking in the middle of the street, who slammed up against the windows of our cab, asking us for money until the stoplight turned green again. Who knows?

Either way, it dawned on me that the thing I miss the most about being at home is being able to see/talk to my friends - those of you who speak English as a first language and would understand why I'd be pointing and laughing at the nimrods on the mall stage performing Celine Dion songs over a karaoke machine instead of a real band. Did I mention they like Celine Dion? And did I mention they use a karaoke machine instead of real instruments? And did I mention that these are hired performers for the centers stage of a major mall? Yeah.

To top it off, this one performer named "LaLa" (to her credit, she actually did have a band to back her up), ended her set of other people's songs with a very moving cover version of Michael Jackson's "Black or White," where she added her own flare at the end: "But if you're thinkin' bout my baby, it don't matter if you're blaaaaack.... or brown.... or beige... or red... or yellow... or blue... eek... oooooor whiiiiiiiiite." I've now learned a very important lesson about racism. Maybe I should buy her album. But my gut instinct tells me that I've already heard all the songs before.

Besides the food, I haven't really seen anything original in this kooky country. Don't get me wrong, it's been a helluva experience being here, but to be honest, I'm a little disappointed that the stereotypes of Filipinos being a bunch of copycats has so far been proven true. T On the upside, if you ever want to have a nation-wide singalong of "Wonderwall," this is definitely the place for you to go. Just make sure you're prepared to hear incorrect lyrics and the heaviest fobalicious accents ever.

I feel slightly guilty for thinking this way about my people... but I just can't help it. I guess I really am pretty fucking American. I'm sure this would all sound pretentious to native Filipinos but I can't help but wish you guys were here with me to laugh at all the corny-ness.

Anyway, I didn't mean to make this such a long e-mail but I was in serious need of communicating with more of my white, and white-washed friends. About a week more to go...

Let's have coffee when I get home... no more of this coffee-jelly frappuccino bullshit. (Actually, I'm a little afraid to try anything that has coffee and jelly in the same name... but I had to throw that little detail in there for dramatic effect.) Drink a delicious iced coffee for me, please!

I'll be back on Friday, Aug. 1. I arrive in LA at 8:05 pm... and I will be jet lagged so no sleep for me at least until morning. In other words, come hang out and we'll smoke some Lucky Strikes all night. I hope you'll still be able to see me. I'm kinda' dark. Ew.

I love you.

Monday, July 21, 2008

V: The House My Grandfather Built

The house on Bignay Street is separated from the road by a simple metal gate that reaches just above my chest. During all hours of the night, the street is pretty busy. There's a 7-11 around the corner, and the jeepneys and motorized tricycles honk their horns while passing through.

On the other side of the swinging metal door that's attached to the gate, there's a cozy little porch with a furniture set made out of bamboo, and a single metal swing suspended with thick chains. On one of the walls, a little blue box labeled with "mails, bills, etc." hangs against the bricks, throwing off the symmetry of the three hanging ferns placed on the wall for decoration. Beyond the porch, a wooden sliding door with a bluish tint leads into the house.

This is the house my grandfather built. My mother told me that it was once a 2-bedroom project house. But my grandfather, a career policeman and an artist for pleasure, tore it down and rebuilt a bigger property in its order to comfortably house his wife and 12 children. That's right, 12, my mom being the 2nd youngest. (On a sidenote, my grandmother actually got pregnant 15 times, but obviously... had 3 miscarriages.)

Nowadays, only one of my grandfather's children lives in this house; Tito Roly, we call him ("Tito" meaning "Uncle"). He is accompanied by his wife, some of his kids (my cousins), some of his brother's kids (more cousins), and their children (my second-cousins). The rest have moved on, mostly to the United States, where I was born in 1981.

I've been to this house once before; I was only a year old and I vaguely remember falling off the piano bench and yelling "aray ko!" ("ouch!") really loud. The upright piano, now severely out of tune, still stands in its original spot. But besides that, the rest of the house was only a faint memory... until now.

On Sunday night I sat on one end of the bamboo couch in the porch patio, next to my brothers and across from my second-cousins Aaron and Marvin, and cousin Mimi (short for Michelle). Marinating in a cloud of cigarette smoke (from the Marlboro, Lucky Strike and Mild Seven cigarette butts overflowing in the ash tray),we attempted to catch up on an entire lifetime of experiences.

We were essentially strangers, having met only once with no real recollection of shared memories. But luckily, we all had an innate curiosity about each others' lives and a genuine desire to bond the way family should. Equipped with a couple bottles of local Tanduay Rum and Diet Coke, and a pair of acoustic guitars, we did exactly what came naturally... spend the entire night drinking a shitload and singing every song we could possibly think of.

Marvin played an acoustic version of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," utilizing his intensely amazing ability to play in harmonics. We sang aloud in unison, probably waking all the neighbors on the street. More songs, covering Incubus, Oasis, Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews, The Cure, Mr. Big, Extreme, Smashing Pumpkins and everything 90's, filled the air as we finished off the first bottle of rum and went through a few more packs of smokes.

Tito Roly, who was talking to my parents near the metal swing, got trashed and decided that walking inside the house to take a piss was a nuisance, and therefore opted to relieve himself in a potted bush instead. We laughed... a lot.

I learned from my cousin Aaron that locals here like to call young, pretty girls "Lolita"... similar to the way we call them "prostitots" back home. He said that the Backstreet Boys were "baduy" (corny), but we all agreed guiltily that some of their songs are catchy as hell. My brothers and I, still not completely used to the humidity, were sweating as if we were in a sauna. We got a few more mosquito bites, and turned a little red from all the alcohol, but it was all worth it.

Before we knew it, my parents were walking to 7-11 to get some "pulutan," or "snacks" to satisfy our drunk munchies. When they returned, we ate siopao and Filipino Cup Noodles, which I should add, is way better than the American version. By the time we were done, it was after 3 a.m. and we were drunker and happier than we ever could've wished for.

I'm not sure if it has anything to do with our blood, but it amazes me how effortless it was to enjoy that night. Maybe there really IS something in the family bond, that helped us to transcend the shallow lines which normally keep people from becoming close in new social situations. It was as if we knew each other our entire lives and never missed a day. And it made us all sad to think that it would eventually have to end, that my brothers and I would have to go back home to California, and that the next time we would see them would probably be years from now.

But no matter how much time passes by, I know I can take comfort in this memory. It happened in my grandfather's house, where the closeness of my family really began. And I'm grateful to be a part of it. In the end, even though this house is on the other side of the world from where I grew up, it still feels like home... not just because it's the house my grandfather built, but also because its roots are in the family that my grandparents built.

Friday, July 18, 2008

IV: Thailand

I just got back from Thailand yesterday. We got there on the 14th and had the most jam-packed two days of my life. Talk about power-sight-seeing.

We went to Seacon Square Mall in Bangkok, visited 3 wats (temples), the royal grand palace, rode elephants, ate a ton of Thai food, watched a crazy crocodile show where this kid stuck his head in a croc's mouth, and visited the floating markets.

At the Bang Pa-In Temple, a buddhist monk sprayed us with Holy Water and prayed for us. Enlightened verses in Thai filled the walls of the wat, and a golden Buddha sat in lotus position at the front of the altar.

I fell in love with a Thai crepe called "Lotte," which is filled in with stringed molasses (I think) that looks more like stringy blonde hair than anything else. It was delicious, and I have a feeling I'll be craving it to no avail when I get back to the states.

At the floating markets, we paid 500 baht each to take a boatride through canals that were full of stores. The owners would pull you in with a big hook if you showed any interest in their goods.

Thailand is somewhat similar to the Philippines. The humidity is not as thick but it's hot as fuck. The weirdest thing about it though was that the people look very much like filipinos, but they don't speak much English. It's easy to forget how difficult it is to communicate with people when they look just like you.

I finally saw a squatting toilet for the first time - it's super low to the ground and toilet paper is nowhere in sight. Almost in every bathroom, there's a bucket under a faucet where you're supposed to scoop water to wash your bathing suit places after using the potty.

I got a couple of caffeine headaches out there for lack of available espresso. But hell, it was awesome anyway. It makes an American girl like me feel very grateful for having the luxuries I have back home. Walking down the streets of Bangkok are enough to make you sometimes feel like an asshole for having money in your pocket and a soft bed to sleep on. Outside one of the malls there, I stepped out to have a cigarette and saw a little girl, no older than 5, laying on the ground with a plastic cup in front of her- begging for bhat. But she did so with a sweet smile and a bow of thanks when you put a couple coins in her cup.

I know I'm forgetting much more details, and I don't have my little notebook with me to fill in the information. Right now, I'm sitting at an Internet Cafe in Eastwood City, Philippines. I'm not sure what time it is, but I do know it's the afternoon of Friday, July 18th.

Somewhere in the mall, my mom is getting her hair highlighted... The rest of my family is using the computers as well. I'll have to update again soon because it's super loud in here and my ability to give detailed insight is not working because of all the damned gamers in this room. That, and I'm kinda' hungry.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

III: Island Hopping

I'll have to make this short because I have about 12 minutes left until my Internet time is over.

We took a boat tour of the nearby islands yesterday. Our boat-guy, Che-Che took us around to a spot off the coast where we could snorkel. There are thousands of fish in the water, and they come right up to you if you have a piece of bread. They swarm right to your hand and eat the bread out of your fingers. It's kinda' creepy at first, but they're pretty harmless.

We went to another island called Crystal Cove... for 150 pesos (about $3) each, you can go cave swimming. There were two caves we visited and it was the most surreal feeling being in there. The water was so clear, and sometimes a bat or two would fly above your head.

At Puka Beach, we had "merienda," or afternon snack. As soon as our boat came ashore, merchants with their baskets full of handmade jewelry come up and sit next to you.. trying to sell their goods. If you express the least amount of interest, at least 5 more come up to try and compete.

At one point, a little boy came up to me and offered me a puka shell. And in return, I gave him 1 piso. The thing is, after you give one kid money, you have to give them all money. So my mom and I gave them each 1 piso. It's crazy how they even try to hussle you. One kid was asking me for money after my mom had already given him some.

On my agenda for today: jet skiing and a ride on the banana boat. I hope I don't get any more sunburnt than I did yesterday.

Mosquito bite count: 13, tan level: darker than average.

Monday, July 7, 2008

II: Boracay

If you've ever seen the Darjeeling limited, you'll be able to get a pretty good idea of what the Manila Domestic Airport looks like. It's very similar to the airport in India in the movie... except instead of an altar to Ganesh, it's to the Virgin Mary. It's very crowded and hot, electric fans hang from the pillars, and the back wall is lined with little stores selling food, drinks, magazines, postcards, and by golly... cinnabon!

In one corner of the small room is a large sign that says "comfort room" - which is actually the same thing as a restroom. Public bathroom ettiquette is really strange here. Instead of forming one line to use the next available stall, you have to choose a stall in advance and form a mini-line in front of that... which really sucks if the person in the stall is going #2. I was pretty jealous when the stall next to the one I was waiting for went free before mine. What a stupid and nonsensical thing.

Our flight to Boracay was delayed a half hour. We left at about 1:30 in this tiny charter plane which I thought was going to come crashing down after it hit some turbulence. Luckily, it didn't crash and I'm still alive. The flight was really short, perfect for listening to Act I of the TV episode of This American Life.

After landing at the Boracay airport, my dad paid a couple porters to carry our luggage for us to the bangka (tagalog for boat). We had two guys... who carried more than 60 lbs. of luggage each on their backs. And they were pretty happy when they received about $1 each for the service. Then we got on the bangka, and it was about 15 minutes across the water to the tiny island where our resort is.

We had to take motorized rickshaws (here, simply called tricycles) to get through the town to our resort. The town is mostly rural and absolutely beautiful. It's lush and full of tropical plants. And the people here are constantly burning leaves, and it makes the air smell like camping. Little kids run through the streets whenever they please, and most of the locals live in huts made out of grass and bamboo.

The beach here is a real sight. The sand is white and is as fine as baby powder. At night, the stars are extremely bright. We're actually going to go back to the white beach tonight. We have to take tricycles there because our resort is on the other side of the island. Right before I came to the resort office to use their 1 public computer (100 pesos for 1 hour), I had a 1-hour full body massage that cost about $10. My brother Josh is getting his at the moment.

I'm actually running out of time now, so I'll have to update again soon. I think some nightlife is in order. The white beach has a bunch of bars and maybe we'll have to order another cocktail pitcher of "Weng-Weng."

Sunday, July 6, 2008

I: Uncomfortably familiar

I arrived in Manila yesterday (July 5) just before 6 a.m. Back home, it was still 3 in the afternoon on Independence Day. Right now, it's about 7 a.m. on Sunday, July 6. I am at the 5-star Shangri-La Hotel in Makati, where everyone calls you "maam" or "sir."

As soon as I got off the plane, I noticed the change in atmosphere immediately. Besides the humidity that was so thick that you could scoop it with a spoon, there was also something very different about the air. People in California are constantly talking about how bad the environment is over there, but believe me, you have no idea what bad air is until you come here. Not that I'm complaining... it's just an observation. I suppose that's going to be the main purpose of blogging while I'm here - which means I'll have to detract from my usual style of writing.

There's a very distinct smell to Manila. I'm not sure if it will be the same when I get to Boracay this afternoon... but it's a really strange scent. I don't mean to badmouth my home country, but to be honest, it's like a mixture of exhaust fumes and sewage. It's not that strong of a smell, but someone who's not used to it would definitely notice.

AT the airport, we spent about an hour waiting for our luggage. Something tells me that the luggage people were very inefficient. But that's beside the point. During that hour, I found myself looking for a bathroom, and here's where the subtle cultural differences begin to manifest themselves. I was roaming around the luggage area when I found a sign that said "toilets." So I went over to that hallway and saw a lady dressed in a security guard's outfit (similar to TSA in the U.S.). She made eye contact with me, smiled, bowed and motioned her arms in a graceful sweeping motion towards the ladies room. And so I followed. When I went out, she said "good morning maam" in the most fobulous accent ever.

Philippines has a gazillion service workers: from security guards, to people who actually help you take your luggage off the moving rack, to taxi drivers, to people who show you where the bathroom is, and hotel greeters. They're everywhere! And they seem to always be at arm's reach. I guess this is where the Filipino hospitality thing tends to show itself best if you've never had contact with a Filipino family. Everyone is very formal... it's always "sir" and "maam" so it's easy to feel high class.

But on the other side of things, the poor areas have their own characteristics. After we left the airport, we went to visit my grandmother - who lives in a small apartment in Mandaluyong. (All the places I've mentioned so far are within Metropolitan Manila.) During the taxi ride there, we stopped at a traffic light and I was shocked when a young, skinny girl came right up to the window of our van and began peeking in and knocking on the windows to beg for money. My mom said this was a normal thing in this part of MAnila. We drove past the shanty towns--which look just like they do on TV, and into a "better" area where my grandmother's apartment is.

It was a gated area. Still, the thing was tiny - and HOT. There was only air-conditioning in one room. And they scoop water from a bucket into the toilet to make it drain faster. The entire apartment (kitchen, living room, bathroom and 2 bedrooms) was probably the size of my living room and kitchen combined back home. If there's anything that could make me better appreciate what I have in California, it was seeing my grandmother in this apartment. Yet, it made her happy. This is where she grew up, and this was the life she knew best.

It was really weird to see her this way. I never got to see her in her normal environment because whenever she'd come to the US, she'd stay in our house. And seeing all the poor people around us in Manila was very humbling. To know that some of them were family members was even more humbling. It was like everything was so familiar, but so strange at the same time.

After spending my entire life arguing and being angry with my grandma, I've finally come to realize that life in Mandaluyong is enough to really toughen and harden someone. To me, she always seemed like a bitter old lady. But here, it made sense.

We only spent a few hours there - we were trying to kill some time before we could check into our hotel at 2 p.m. So we visited some other family - the details of which I'll have to recount later with the help of some pictures.

Around 1 p.m., we left Mandaluyong and made our way towards Makati. In stark contrast to where we just were- Makati is like Beverly Hills. There's a huge mall called the Glorietta (which still is just a fraction of Philippines' famous Mega Mall) that is like a maze of shops and eateries. People here love food - restaurants just may outnumber the retail shops in the malls. We also went to the Greenbelt - another partially open-air shopping strip that had very classy architecture with sculptures and fountains everywhere.

Before entering any mall, you have to go through a search post - a security guard with a metal detector scans you and you have to show the inside of your purse or backpack. It's like going through the security check at LAX.. but much quicker and without the X-Ray. Still, it's pretty ridiculous because i had to keep unzipping and zipping my camera bag.

The rent-a-cops in Simi wouldn't stand a chance against these guys. They're at the malls, at every major intersection directing traffic, and almost everywhere you look in public. This probably explains why major crime in the Philippines usually comes in the form of corruption.

So far, Manila has been a major mind-trip. I bought a pack of lucky strikes for about 46 pesos - just over $1. And that's on the expensive side - other ciggies can go for as low as 12 pesos. With 45 pesos to the dollar.... you do the math.
Also, the food here is amazing. Everything is so tasty and I have no idea why that is. It's like I got thousands of new tastebuds as soon as I landed here. We've eating pretty much the same kinds of filipino dishes my mom makes at home... but the flavors are so vivid. It's like seeing tv in technicolor for the first time, except with your mouth.

I'm about to go downstairs for breakfast soon and then we'll probably hang out until 11. We have to be at the domestic airport to catch our 1 pm flight to Boracay. White beaches, here I come.