Saturday, March 24, 2007

I'm blogging again...

But at a different site. I'll be writing mainly about China, but also a little about the Philippines at my new blog, Letters from Asia.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The countdown

I have a handful of days left in Manila, less than a week to go in my apartment. I've been packing up my stuff, sifting through all the stuff that can accumulate in a year. Going through old notebooks, I find "to do" lists and notes from work -- notes that make me laugh, smile or cringe. Lots of it is being thrown away. Some being packed into boxes and shipped back to my parents' house in Nevada, where it will wait indefinitely for my return. The essentials are being stuffed into my one suitcase, one duffel bag and one backpack.

In less than a month I'll be in Nanjing studying Chinese at Nanjing Normal University. I'll be there for a semester, perhaps longer. Returning to China is something I've been thinking about doing all year, but finally contacted the university in July.

Smelling US dollars, the university immediately said they have room in their program (it's always good to know you're getting into a school for your intelligence). The representative at the international students office and I started a bizarre email conversation, where I would request something three times and he would pretend to not have received any of the emails. OK, so maybe he didn't, but I doubt that. This doesn't really surprise me, I am, after all, returning to China. I spent a year there as a teacher in Hangzhou, a city relatively close to Nanjing. I know the antics, I know the craziness I'll be dealing with in a few weeks.

But despite all its frustrations, I've missed China. I felt like I left Hangzhou right when my Chinese was starting to get good, right when I was comfortable and settled into my life there, right when men in pajamas shopping for vegetables in mid day and tiny tricycles overflowing with Styrofoam cruising down a busy downtown street became normal sights.

I may only stay for a semester. I may stay longer. I'm playing it by ear. But whatever happens, I'm sure the next few months will be filled with crazy stories and great adventures.

Manila has been good to me and I will miss it. Despite all of the frustrations of the year, I've made some great friends, seen some amazing places and accomplished things I wouldn't have been able to accomplish anywhere else. I didn't get to swim with the whale sharks or see the rice terraces in Banaue this year, so I'm sure I'll return for a visit very soon.


Photos: Top: Nanjing Normal University. This photo was taken on my trip to Nanjing in 2004. Middle: A man transports a ridiculous amount of styrofoam on the back of his tricycle in front of my old apartment in Hangzhou. Bottom: Hangzhou's famous West Lake. No, that is not mist. It's pollution.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Round and round and round...

Tanya, Brendan and I spent one rainy afternoon checking out a fun park. In true Manila style, much of the park, including most of the rides, were inside, sheltered from the typhoon. The indoor "park" smelled a lot like those red hot dogs mixed with wet cardboard. I could feel the ground shake when a huge pirate ship swung back and forth in a two- or three-story opening created just big enough for the ride. I would have loved that place if I were 12 years old.

Something to complain about

Saturday afternoon I huddled under my half-broken red umbrella, frantically waving at any vehicle that looked like a taxi. It wasn't raining hard yet, but it was raining. Any sort of precipitation and Manila taxi drivers disappear. It took half an hour to find an unoccupied taxi, but once I did the driver asked me for 50 pesos over the meter because there was "traffic."

Taxi drivers always moan about traffic. I've never understood why. Is there a magical moment of each day when there isn't traffic in Manila? Because if there is, I would like to know. You would think taxi drivers would just consider Manila traffic an occupational hazard and get on with their day, but they don't. They complain and ask you for more money and then when you're stuck in traffic, they shake their heads and say, "Traffic. So much traffic." Depending on my mood, I'll sometimes pay a bit extra, just so I don't have to look for another taxi.

But this time I promptly got out of the car. I didn't care if it would take me another half hour to find a taxi, I was in no mood to be extorted by another shady driver.

I soon found a taxi driver who didn't complain. They do exist; it's just difficult to find them. Later the same night, my friend Juliana and I were leaving a concert in Malate when we started the taxi hailing dance once again.

The dance is familiar to most people who've spent more than a day in Manila. You hail a cab and tell them where you're going. In most cities, that would be that. A price would be fixed or a meter started and you would be on your way to your next destination. But in Manila, the driver first decides to either accept or reject you. This can be a frustrating process depending on where you're hailing the cab and where you're going. If you're not going in the same direction as the driver, you have to start the dance over again. But that's only half of the process. Once you've been accepted, the driver does one of three things. 1) Turns on the meter (this is the preferred behavior), 2) Asks for a certain amount of money over the meter, or 3) tries to set a flat rate. You will almost always get ripped off with options 2 and 3, and just about 50 percent of the time with option 1.

Outside the club in Malate it was raining again. I was expecting a difficult time finding a taxi because I was going home to Quezon City. But I quickly found one who seemed willing to make the voyage to the suburbs.

We drove about one block when he suddenly said, "I can't."

"Why?" I asked, thinking he was just another complainer.

"Flooood," he said, pronouncing the word with a long-U.

"What? No flood, look!" I said, pointing at the un-flooded asphault on Adriatico Street. Sheesh, I thought. My neighboorhood doesn't flood very often. If there was a flood in Quezon City, Malate would be flooded too. I figured he was just trying to get out of taking me to Quezon City. Nothing new there.

"Flooooood," he said again.

He wasn't backing down, so I got out and hailed another taxi. The second taxi driver didn't mention a flood, turned on the meter and we were on our way.

About 15 minutes later, the taxi skidded to a stop as the driver reluctantly drove his low, Toyota sedan through about a foot of water. I could hear him cursing under his breath.

Ooops, I thought. A flood. I guess the first driver did have something to complain about.

Friday, July 21, 2006

A few good resources

I'm always on the lookout for good background information when big news stories break. It's something about working in a newsroom. Here are a few resources that helped me understand the Israel-Hezbollah conflict a little better:

* Q&A: Behind the Israel-Hizbullah crisis, The Christian Science Monitor

* From the Council on Foreign Relations: Mideast Conflict Rages On (July 18, 2006) and a profile of Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah

* Another fascinating, very well-written profile of Nasrallah that originally appeared in Sunday's Washington Post (here's a link to the Sacramento Bee's reprint) -- the article shows the contradictions of a radical group that has also legitimately entered politics as members of parliament.

* And a great blog post by PBS Frontline's Kate Seelye in Beirut -- Lebanon: "This Country is Drowning"


A coworker and I were walking through our company's compound to get a cup of coffee when she asked me, "Christina, what are other countries doing to get their citizens out of Lebanon?" I am not an expert on the Middle East, nor the situation in Lebanon and Israel, but I have been watching a lot more CNN and BBC, and checking the New York Times and Washington Post Web sites more obsessively than usual.

"It looks like a lot of people are being evacuated by boat," I said. "Why?"

"Well, I was just covering a press conference at Malacanang (the Philippines' version of the White House), and the official stance on evacuation is that Filipinos should try to hitch rides with whoever will take them. So far only the United States has agreed, but only if all their citizens are safe."

It shouldn't surprise me that the Philippine government's seemingly limitless services for Filipinos working overseas would fail at a time like this. The government draws up plans for everything, and then draws up plans for drawing up more plans. But planning and action are two different things. You would think that after almost a year here I would know better. You would think I wouldn't be surprised. But I was.

"You mean, they want Filipinos to hitchhike out of Lebanon?"

"Yeah," she said. She was laughing a little, but she was clearly half ashamed and half annoyed with the government.

With 30 to 40 thousand Filipinos in Lebanon, you would think the government would have an evacuation plan that consisted of more than just writing letters to embassies, begging them to repatriate nationals stuck in the middle of missle attacks.

To be fair, there are a few other plans now, and some of the plans have been implemented. So far a couple hundred Filipinos were taken by bus to Damascus. When another group arrives, a chartered flight will bring them back to Manila. But that's only about 400 people. Others have been told that they should seek shelter at a Catholic Church in Beirut. One church. Thirty to 40 thousand people. That's a lot of hitchhikers.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Rizal Shrine

Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila. July 9, 2006.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Headline of the Year?

When puns go bad, we -- poor readers -- get something like this.

Thank you, crazy Manila Standard Today copy editor, for making my day.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Rainy days in Manila

One of the things I'll remember about Manila after I've moved away is the rain. It was rainy when I got here in August last year, and now we're back to the rainy season, a few months before I leave. I love the rain -- the sounds, the smell of the air. But what I really love most about rainy days is the excuse to do nothing. (OK, so I wouldn't have accomplished anything productive today anyway, but the rain helps me justify it).

When it started pouring today, I pulled out my current reading material, Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President by Helen Thomas, the longtime UPI White House correspondent. The book is really just a series of vignettes cobbled together by Thomas and her colleages in the White House press corps -- funny, insightful moments from nine (yes, nine!) presidential administrations. And so far, the thing that's struck me most, is how much Bush Jr. is like his father -- with strange interpretations of the English language and incomprehensible answers to questions. (Forgive me for not noticing this sooner, I was 8 years old when Bush Sr. was sworn into office).

Here's a great example, Thomas writes:

"During the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Bush noted in a speech, 'Remember Lincoln, going to his knees in times of trial in the Civil War and all that stuff. You can't be. And we are blessed. So don't feel sorry for -- don't cry for me, Argentina.'"

Huh? (But I believe Bush Sr. has been upstaged by his son in the "what did he just say?" department. )

Anyway, I had just made it through the Clinton administration and was about to move onto Bush Jr. when I decided that I just wasn't doing enough of, well, nothing. So I got dressed and wandered across the street for a massage at my neighborhood spa.

Now, a bit sluggish and tired, I'm meeting some friends for dinner and drinks. Tomorrow I hope to make it to a cockfight -- a Philippine tradition that I have yet to experience. If that doesn't happen, my friend and I are planning another trip to the spa.

Yes, life in Manila sure is tough.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Photo Essay: Good Friday crucifixion

In the spirit of blog posting, I've decided to finally post my photos of the Good Friday reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. When I decided to move here, one of my friends in the states told me she knew two things about the Philippines: 1) Imelda Marcos has lots of shoes, and 2) that's the country where people volunteer to be crucified ever year with real nails. I knew I had to see both the crucifixion and the shoes. (One down, one to go.)

One of my friends from work is from a town near San Fernando in Pampanga -- right near crucifixion ground zero. He had always been too afraid to watch the actual crucifixion. As a kid, he ran and hid behind his mother when the shirtless penitants with bloody backs walked by his house whipping themselves. So he had no desire to see it now, 20 years later, with the crazy American. I eventually convinced him with my enthusiasm for all things historical -- including reenactments that draw blood. (They volunteer, so what's the harm?)I think Good Friday 2006 in Pampanga was the hottest day I have ever experienced. Hot, humid, no shade. We sluggishly made our way through crowds of penitants, tourists and locals who were hanging out by the side of the street, watching the yearly procession. The event can be divided into two parts -- the procession of the penitents whipping themselves and the actual crucifixion in a big field in front of thousands of people and TV cameras.
Although it would seem like the crucifixion would be the most dramatic part of the day's events, the first, more bloody part sort of knocks the wind out of the sails of the crucifixion. The shirtless men sacrificing their backs line up on a narrow street. They whip themselves with bamboo pieces attached to a rope. For a long time they just whip and whip and nothing happens. Once in a while I had to dodge a whip or two -- the street is very narrow and with all the people it's difficult to avoid the flying weapons/torture devices. Then the Jesuses start to arrive to make their procession to the field where they will be affixed to a cross.
They're escorted by men in gladiador costumes.

In the hot sun and the crowd, the procession feels very, very long. And then suddenly you have to start ducking for cover. Backs start getting bloody and the blood starts flying.

(That's also apparently when I forgot how to use the meter on my camera.)
The tricycle driver wipes the blood off his tricycle.
When we got to the field, what seemed like thousands of people were already there, crammed into a sort of pit area for spectators. Photographers and cameramen sat on a raised platform, a bit above eye-level from where the Jesuses would be crucified. The crosses were on a raised mound above where we were standing. With so many people wrangling for a photo of the Jesuses as they were crucified, it was difficult for me to get my own photos, but I managed a few.
The Jesuses don't actually stay crucified for very long -- maybe just a few minutes. And there's a platform built into the cross for them to stand on, so the weight of their bodies doesn't cause more damage to their already injured hands and feet.
Throughout all the crucifixions, my friend kept talking about "the white guy" that was supposed to be crucified. He was really just there to see the white guy. When we were about to collapse from heat stroke and dehydration, we finally left. We didn't get to see the white guy, but I read about him later, and it turns out that he was there but didn't go through with it. He was a news anchor from the UK who was making a documentary called "Crucify Me." I guess the documentary didn't exactly end the way he intended.


I have more photos from the crucifixion posted on my Flickr account.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A badge of honor

In a nation obsessed with credentials, the resume is a very important document. Use the wrong title, you might not get the job you want. But, if you went to a school that has "Harvard" anywhere in the name (and, somehow, plenty of schools in the Philippines have found a way to insert the word "Harvard" into their names) -- and you've got the job!

So when I found some fascinating resumes on the Philippine Senate Web site this morning I was not at all surprised by one resume that boasted "educational training" at Georgetown University, Harvard and the University of the Philippines (among others).

But when I started to browse through more of the resumes and biographies of the country's senators, I found a few more telling items.

I first checked Miriam Defenosor Santiago's biography. She's always entertaining -- my coworkers' favorite mantra about Miriam is that "she's always good for a sound bite!" -- and her biography did not disappoint. One section titled "Youth Idol" describes Senator Santiago in language usually reserved for television commercials for American Idol.

Dr. Miriam Defensor Santiago is a charismatic Philippine icon, idolized by all young people throughout the country for her intellectual brilliance, fiery eloquence, and moral courage. Millions of Filipinos believe that she won as president but was cheated in 1992, when she ran as a wildly popular independent candidate. She has triumphed against attempts on her life, political persecution, electoral fraud, and black propaganda, to become a role model for her millions of fans.

Of course, the section "Miriam Magic" is the icing on the cake: "She has been called the incorruptible lady, the platinum lady, the tiger lady, the dragon lady, the iron lady of Asia, the queen of popularity polls, and the undisputed campus heroine. But to her millions of fans, she is best known for the unique brand of charismatic leadership that media likes to call 'Miriam magic.'"

Someone should tell her that when she's called "the dragon lady," it's not necessarily a good thing.

More interesting -- or perhaps revealing -- are the headings on Sen. Aquilino Pimintel's resume. After listing his work experience and political experience, Pimintel lists his other "accomplishments" with the resume headings "Ousters from Public Office" and "Martial Law Arrests and Detentions." (These are actually headings from his resume -- where people like me would use "Awards" or "Skills.")

While I can stretch my imagination enough to understand why a senator might choose to list his arrests during martial law -- to show his courage against a ruthless dictator! -- I'm still not convinced that drawing attention to the times he was ousted from public office is a good idea. Of course, in a place where coups are attempted approximately every three and a half months, it's no surprise that being ousted from office is a badge of honor.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Edge of the World

I have become a deadbeat bogger, I know. But I wanted to start again by posting a photo from my trip to Palawan last weekend. I love this photo. It was taken as my ferry approached Coron in the Calamian group of islands north of Palawan. If the world were flat, and if there were an edge that ships could fall over, the edge would be behind those islands.

I'll post more photos soon!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Islands for Sale

Most of my friends and coworkers in Manila have a side business, which usually involves selling things. One girl brings shoes and accessories to work, dumps them on a desk, and all the women in the office huddle around, sifting through the pile. Then there's the guy we call the "pirate." He delivers pirated DVDs to anyone who doesn't have the time to make a trip to one of the city's pirated-goods meccas.

So a few weeks ago, when I was at dinner with some friends, and the restaurant's lounge singer started passing out his business card, I wasn't surprised that it listed multiple "jobs." While I probably won't be needing his services anytime soon, I kept the card because it amused me. He lists his profession as "consultant" and his services as (this is a word for word list):

* Water Purification Machine (dirtiest water to potable, safe drinking water)
* Talent booking (local and abroad)
* Cars (all kinds)
* Real Estate (lots, house and lot, building, islands in Palawan)
* Travel (tickets, passports, visa, etc.)
* Private Loans, Mortgages
* Concerts, Shows, Mini Concerts, Celebrities

Hmmm, maybe I will need his services when I finally buy that island in Palawan...

Monday, April 03, 2006

My other life

This isn’t my real life. It can’t be. In my real life, I don’t read Cosmopolitan magazine, I don’t obsessively check my horoscope, and I certainly don’t go to fortune tellers.

Maybe it was a bad day, or week, or the accumulation of six long, frustrating months – but when a friend approached me one evening at work and asked if I wanted to go to a fortune teller, I was more enthusiastic than I ever expected. What did I have to lose, other than a few dollars?

One friend (I’ll call her “F”) is devoutly religious and felt a little guilty about having her fortune told – considered a pagan activity by her church. She didn’t seem to mind the guilt though. F had already been to two fortune tellers in the last month, but wasn’t satisfied with her readings. That night she wanted to know about her love life in the coming year. The other friend (“S”) was going through a bad breakup and breakups can make a girl do crazy things, like visit fortune tellers.

Me on the other hand, I had no excuse. I just wanted to try it out and maybe get a little insight into this making-life-decisions thing that I haven’t gotten the hang of yet.

We arrived at a bar where we could have our fortune told while getting liquored up. (How convenient for the fortune teller, I thought.) We had the choice between a tarot card reader and what the waiter called an “intuitive reader.” We ordered drinks and the tarot card reader; she didn’t cost as much as the intuitive reader.

When our reader arrived, F enthusiastically volunteered to go first. S wanted some time to decide whether she wanted to hear what this woman’s cards said about her. There is the chance that something bad will be said, and that was the last thing S needed.

The reader told F that her hard work would finally pay off at work this year and that she would be well rewarded. Despite the good reading, F wasn’t happy. She kept asking questions.

“Yes, but will I meet a man this year,” F asked.

“Um, well, yes…” the reader said.

“OK, then, will I meet anyone interesting this year?”


“Will I fall in love?!”

“That’s difficult to tell. It is probable that you will.”

Clearly frustrated with her less-than-stellar love report, F eventually gave up. S decided to have her tarot cards read. As S listened, stiff lipped, clearly holding back her emotions, the reader told her there was good news: She would meet three men this year. S’s face lit up. F frowned.

“But what about me?” F asked. I held back a laugh.

One satisfied customer, one unsatisfied. I would be the tie breaker.

As the card reader arranged my cards in a pattern that probably means something to people who know about things like tarot cards, I thought about what I would ask. The only thing on my mind was my job, and if I had made the right decision when I moved to the Philippines. In past weeks thoughts of decisions I could have made had looped through my head.

“Your cards are all very positive and strong,” the tarot card reader said.

I asked her about my job, my decision to move to Manila, my future career.

“It’s all good. You’re right where you should be.”

This woman doesn’t know anything, I thought. But as she spoke about the people who have reentered my life recently and the people who’ve always been there – I started to get sucked into the process. Choosing cards, flipping them over, asking a question. The reader didn’t give answers – she gave hints and clues. I liked trying to interpret the vague answers, like some sort of game.

My reading was finished in 15 minutes. S and F were chatting, comparing notes about their readings.

We invited our reader to drink with us. We chatted and ate chicken wings. At the end of the night I felt lighter, like I had been through the fortune telling equivalent of a therapy session. It could have been that I just needed to put into words what had been bothering me for months, or it could have been the vodka tonics, but for a moment I believed the tarot card reader – her assertions, her confident statements about my life.

But, I told myself, it’s OK to believe in tarot card readings when I’m not living my real life. Just like it’s OK to believe that my astrological sign is best suited for friendships with Libra and Gemini. But only now, not in the other version of my life.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A happy ending

A couple of months ago I wrote a story about adoption in the Philippines. I interviewed a few couples about their experiences with adoption, including Patricio "Jojo" Abinales and his wife Donna Amoroso, who had been trying to adopt a child for about two years when I interviewed them. Donna is American, Jojo is Filipino, and they live together in Japan. At the time they were nearing the end of a long international adoption process. They now have a new daughter to keep them busy, and last month Jojo wrote about parenthood at middle age for Newsbreak.

Back from a break

I took a quick break from Manila this weekend and feel better -- ready to tackle a few work projects and even more personal projects. I also seem to have taken a month-long break from blogging, so I hope to kick off another spurt of posts today with a few photos from my weekend at a resort near Puerto Galera.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Anniversary time

The Western press loves a good anniversary. Nothing proves this more than the 20th anniversary of "people power," the mass uprising than ended the Marcos dictatorship. Here are a few of that stories that examine the Philippines 20 years later.

Glory Days, Time Asia, Feb. 27, 2006
Filipinos wonder what's changed 20 years after Marcos, AFP, Feb. 22, 2006
In 20 years since Marcos, little stability for Philippines, Washington Post, Feb. 24, 2006

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Living the good life in the afterlife

The Chinese cemetery in Manila is, at the same time, fascinating and absurd. It's its own city with paved roads, small alleys, and mosoleums larger than the homes that the living of Manila inhabit. There are tombs and alters like the one above. I would consider that to be one of the more modest tributes to a former Manila resident of Chinese descent. And then there's what my fellow urban explorers and I dubbed "Main Street" -- a street lined with small mansions with air conditioning, glass windows, and well groomed yards.

We found one mosoleum bigger than a large church, apparently the resting place for an entire family. Some of the graves had clearly been visited recently.

Some looked forgotten -- like their families moved away long ago -- left to decay in the tropical humidity.

After the landslide

My biggest complaint about the breaking news coverage on the landslide in Leyte was that no one mentioned that the entire area had basically been declared a disaster area for weeks before the landslide. In other words, people (and in this case I mean "the government") knew this was going to happen, but didn't evacuate the area. It's unthinkable.

Then a story in the New York Times comes out saying the government has known since last May that the village was in "grave danger."

Policies were even in place to avert a pending disaster: Area villages were evacuated late last year, and a logging ban, to address the deforestation at the root of the problem, had been adopted more than a decade ago.

But reality was another matter. According to government officials and environmental groups, problems ranging from government corruption and ineffective laws to a lack of money and the political will to enforce the laws contributed to the collapse of the mountainside here in the first instance, and allowed it to become a large-scale human tragedy in the second.

I feel one of those lists coming on -- you know, the ones that say "You know you've been in the Philippines too long when..." Well, this list would start with, "You know you've been in the Philippines too long when the above statements do not shock you at all." It seems the key is to maintain a sense of outrage and injustice, and to not let the constant stream of tragedy, disaster and human suffering caused by corruption make you cynical.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Love in a time of call centers

The Inquirer today has a story about office romance at Manila's many call centers. First, congrats to the PDI for keeping my attention through the entire story. I think it may be the first time I've read an Inquirer story from start to finish. Second, whether this is true or not, it is an interesting concept: call centers contributing to an increase in extra-marital affairs.

Angel, who currently has a boyfriend not working in a call center, said she herself was being courted by an older married coworker.

His wooing, she said, comes leeringly with some kind of assurance that “it’s supposedly a natural thing in call centers to have a lover while you’re inside and another one outside, both at the same time.”

“Para lang daw masaya (Just for a little happiness),” she told the Inquirer. Asked what she thought made her call center prone to such indecent overtures and liaisons, Angel said: “When you’re in one, you tend to spend more time with your coworkers than with your family or partner. You practically have a life nowhere else but there.”

The parts about keeping a relationship going on the nocturnal hours of call center employees also makes for some interesting reading.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Long-delayed post

It is ridiculous that I haven't posted anything about the stampede in Manila that killed more than 70 people. It's even more ridiculous because I work in the news industry, and I've heard about every single development since the stampede a little over a week ago.

Thousands of people were waiting in line on Saturday, Feb. 4 to get into the first anniversary show of Wowowee, a game show produced by my host institution. So far some have noted the inherent tragedy of the stampede -- that the people who died were the poorest of the poor, that the gameshow may have represented hope in what may have been an unhopeful world.

Still others have talked about how the stampede reminds us of the problems of the Philippines. It reminds us that there are many who live on practically nothing.

I can't help but feel like all the talk is, well, talk. In the end, there will be many investigations with many "answers" about what went wrong. We will hear, from many viewpoints, who did what and who is to blame. But the real question is, will things change? What has to happen before we do something about the poverty here in the Philippines, and the poverty that touches every corner of the globe? Or are we too comfortable in our airconditioned homes to really know what it's like to live day-to-day searching piles of garbage for food or for a glass bottle to recycle in exchange for a few coins? I am as guilty as the next person of inaction. I hope that by acknowledging the problem, we (myself included) can at least imagine a world where stampedes like last week's don't kill dozens of people, and where people don't have to count on a gameshow to live out their dreams.

Sunday, January 29, 2006


I'm really not trying to look smart/cool by using the Chinese characters for "happy new year." I just wanted to see if my Mandarin Chinese skills have completely disappeared yet. Surprisingly, I was able to remember those four characters, but I still had to double check in my Chinese textbook. (OK, so maybe I am trying to look a tiny bit smart/cool. So what?)

Happy year of the dog!

(Photo taken Saturday, Jan. 28, near the LRT Recto stop in Quiapo, Manila.)

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Travel Journal: Wedding Video

Here's a brief video of the groom's procession to meet the bride. Thanks, Anu, for the video clip.

Travel Journal: One wedding, four days, five chocolate fountains

Can a girl really stand to live a lifestyle that allows her to have access to a room full of desserts every single day? The answer is yes. Especially when the dessert room also includes a chocolate fountain. Every. Single. Day.

This isn't something I dreamed up during a lull at work; it's not something out of a fairy tale; and it certainly isn't something I read about in a women's magazine. This was Simi and Amit's wedding.

The location: The Leela Palace, Bangalore. (The only five-star hotel I've ever, or probably will ever, stay in.)

Simi, as I mentioned before, was one of my roommates at NYU. Amit is now her husband. I hadn't met him until the wedding. They're both Americans, of Indian heritage. They both grew up in New Jersey, and, as if this whole story were some sort of movie, their families have known each other for years. And no, it wasn't an arranged marriage. These are two throughly "modern" people. My best memories of Simi are of the crazy boyfriends she would introduce us (the unsuspecting roommates) to, her addiction to television dramas aimed squarely at the teenage set (i.e. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Gilmore Girls), and the seemingly neverending stream of designer jeans that would rotate through her tiny, Manhattan-apartment closet.

Even a year and a half of living together in close quarters, I'm certain Simi's wedding now tops the list of best Simi memories. Four days of eating, dancing, eating, drinking, and dancing some more.

The first night, the welcome dinner, was really just an excuse to party. It's hard not to dance at an event like this. Everyone, including the grandparents, is dancing. I hobbled to the hotel room I was sharing with Anu, Judy and Mike (one of Amit's friends) at about 2 a.m., hoping to rest up for the next night's event -- the Sangeet. I had been warned before the events started that the wedding would be a non-stop party and that I should rest up while it was still possible. Little did I know how true that statement was. When I left early the first night, I couldn't help but feel that I was missing out on something because very few people were calling it quits. A handful of men and women in their 70s stayed up much later than I did.

The Sangeet, though, was really when the party started. Simi and Amit's friend performed a skit and a dance.

Besides the usual room of desserts, chocolate fountain, endless array of food, and dancing, the night included a performance by Pubjabi singer Sukhbir. Being the clueless American, I had no idea who this guy was -- his music was great, but who was he? It turns out he's huge not only in India, but apparently also in London.

I was totally rested and ready to stay up all night. But then the cops shut down the party at around 2 a.m. A government official was staying at the Leela that night and the music was annoying him.

The next day was the Mehendi for the women -- the henna ceremony. It was a nice low key event after another night of over-drinking and over-eating. We sat and got our hands decorated with henna. The woman who did mine finished in about 45-seconds, making me feel like she did a somewhat sloppy job. And then when I compared it to Simi's henna (below), I realized she definitely did a sloppy job. After about an hour, I started getting impatient. I couldn't do anything with the sticky concoction of drying henna and lemon juice dribbled on to make the design "stick." I didn't care anymore if the design wasn't dark enough. There was another buffet waiting outside and I wanted to eat. So I went to the bathroom and scrapped the henna off -- and jumped in line for food.

The day of the wedding ceremony, we were still all feeling a bit tired. But the upbeat theme of the day definitely snapped me out of my slightly hungover, only-had-four-hours-of-sleep fog. Amit, his family and friends, all met outside the Leela. Amit got on a white, bejeweled horse, and his family and friends danced around as the horse slowly made its way to the hotel gate where his side of the family would meet up with the bride's side of the family. Live music, clapping, dancing, and twirling, colorful clothes is enough to wake anyone up from a weeks worth of wedding events.

The bride, with her attendents, and groom met in the middle, under a canopy of jasmine and roses.

Although the actual ceremony seems like it should be the height of the wedding -- for the guests it definitely wasn't. The entire ceremony was performed in Sanskrit. Even the bride and groom couldn't understand what was being said, though I'm sure they had been briefed on what exactly they were promising each other. We later got a translation, which included some memorable lines, including the promise that "even in dreams, (the bride) will never think of any other image except (the groom)" and that "(the groom) shall keep (himself) away from bad company and gamblers."

About two minutes into the ceremony, a waiter starting tip-toeing up and down the aisles of guests. He approached Judy, Anu and I and whispered that "high tea" was served. Um, the wedding just started, I thought. Why would we leave? This is what all those events have been leading up to? But after about 15 minutes of squirming in our seats while listening to Sanskrit vows, I told Judy and Anu that I was getting hungry. They were too, so we eased out of our seats and bolted toward the buffet. We thought we were being rude, just up and leaving in the middle of the ceremony. What we didn't realize was that at least half of the wedding guests had already left and were hanging out at the buffet. Someone later told us that it's pretty common for guests to leave during the ceremony at an Indian wedding.

Lucky for us, there was another chocolate fountain waiting for us -- ready for us to dip pineapple, strawberries, cookies and marshmellows into its lucious stream of sweetness.

Days, even weeks, after the wedding, as I was traveling through India and then Laos, the image of the chocolate fountain would pop into my head. But alas, life with a chocolate fountain could not go on forever.


More photos from the wedding.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Travel Journal: The Auto Rickshaw

Judy and I discovered the auto rickshaw, otherwise known simply as the "auto," on a day of exploration in Bangalore. We utilized the auto during our entire trip -- and had varying experiences with them. Most of the time you negotiate a price before getting in the auto -- a practice that usually leaves the unsuspecting traveler spending way more than he or she should. Bangalore was the only place we visited that had metered autos, which sort of surprised me (imagine having metered tricycles in Manila). Even then, there were a couple of auto trips where the driver simply went round and round in circles to run up the meter.

Two and a half weeks of auto rides and I had definitely developed a love-hate relationship with the vehicles and their drivers. Although the auto was convenient in cities where you have to call cabs, they're also not the most pleasant way to get around. When you step out of an auto, you usually feel like a layer of dirt has permanently embedded itself on your body.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Coup fatigue

I walked into work Friday afternoon, still not quite back in my work groove after a month of travel. I plopped down at a desk next to a desk editor. After a bit of small talk about my trip, I asked her what the big news has been lately.

"This whole coup thing," she said.

Uh. What coup thing? Since I got back Tuesday night, I had been doing my best to catch up on the tangle of political news I had missed while riding trains and buses in India. I had already been brought up to speed on a story about four soldiers involved in the 2003 Oakwood mutiny who had escaped from Fort Bonifacio. But I hadn't heard anything about a coup.

"Oh, you know, there's another rumor about another coup. It'll either happen tonight or tomorrow," she said, seeming a bit bored by the whole situation.

"The escaped soldiers? They're planning a coup?"

"Yeah, something like that. But I don't think they can do it. They're only lieutenants. You really have to have a colonel on your side to accomplish a coup," she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

I must have look dumbfounded at that point because she continued explaining her reasoning.

"Well, four lieutenants only have, what, two hundred soldiers under them? If you're a colonel, you command a larger number of people. You can't pull off a coup with only 200 people."

I was more surprised that the desk editor -- who I had previously suspected was more interested in hair styles and fashion than the inner workings of the armed forces -- pronounced her analysis with such a startling lack of emotion. She didn't have to say a word, I knew she was so used to coup rumors that this bit of news might as well have been someone announcing that Manila's traffic is bad.

In a place where one group or another attempts to overthrow the president about once a month, it's no wonder people have coup fatigue. Even I find myself with the beginning symptoms of coup fatigue. This is at least the second coup rumor since I arrived in August -- and even I was not rushing to check the news this morning to see if, in fact, the four lieutenants had staged a coup.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Gnomes and dwarves

I've never heard of the Filipino superstition of looking for mounds of dirt near a potential home. The mounds, according to an article in the International Herald Tribune, are the calling cards of gnomes and dwarves. I'm sure this is something I would learn if I ever bought property in the Philippines. The article -- which is really about foreigners buying property here -- also includes an interesting side note about feng shui. Apparently you can get a good deal on property if it has bad feng shui -- but watch out, you may not be able to resell it.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Travel Journal: Mysore, India

On Christmas Eve I arrived in Bangalore with my friend Judy. We had been planning the trip together for about two months, but I had been planning it in my head for about a year -- ever since I found out one of my college roommates was getting married in India. We arrived at night and quickly (and relatively easily) made our way to the hotel that would be our home base for the next week. The five-star Leela Palace -- a hotel I would never have been able to stay at without the help of a group discount and four people crammed into a double room -- would also be the location for four days of wedding events. (Let's just say the hotel lived up to the "palace" part of its name. I'll post photos in a future post.)

We had seen nothing of Bangalore yet -- except our hotel room that had plates of brownies and bowls of fresh fruit laid out for our snacking pleasure -- but I wanted to get out of town before the wedding celebrations began. So Judy, Anu and I hired a car to drive us three hours to Mysore, a place I had been told I had to see if I was going to Bangalore.

I was lucky to have two friends with me in India. I knew I would be busy with wedding events, but I also wanted to travel, and India just seemed a little too daunting to explore alone. Judy is a former PIA fellow. Eventhough we both grew up in Nevada, living only about an hour away from each other, we didn't meet until both of us were living in China. Anu is a friend from NYU. She wrote to me about a month before I was planning to leave to tell me she was also going to be in India visiting her family. She wanted to see the wedding.

The car ride seemed particularly long, crammed into the back of a Tata, the ubiquitous car brand seen all over the country, rivaled only, it seemed, by the Ambassador. Our driver seemed to be trying to get in a head-on collision with almost every vehicle we passed. This didn't really surprise me -- enough travel in Asia and you start to wary of the crazy driving. It becomes normal. Our first stop on the highway: Cafe Coffee Day. The coffee shop seemed to appear out of nowhere on the road between Mysore and Bangalore. We were at first skeptical, hoping to go to places that we thought would be a little more "local." (By the time the trip was over, realizing it was India's version of Starbucks, we happily sipped their lattes and ate their chocolate covered espresso beans.) Instead, we found a place to sip fresh pineapple juice.

It was mid-afternoon when we reached Mysore and we went directly to the Mysore Palace, a stunning work of architecture surrounded by gardens. We were not the only ones there to appreciate it. After taking off our shoes, the three of us filed in slowly, corraled through hallways and rooms decorated in a distinctly European style with hundreds of other people. Halfway through we noticed a group of young men that went where ever we went. We would stop, they would stop. We would walk faster, they would walk faster. We finally lost them when we walked toward a separate part of the palace, and then quickly found a way out.

Our driver met us at the gate, and asked us where we wanted to go next: The market. He said it was closed, but dropped us off in a commercial district of the town. We wandered a bit and found an open air vegetable market. I, for one, was mesmerized by the colors. I didn't realize I would see many more markets like this one in two and a half weeks in India.

Back on the street I was unable to focus for very long on one thing: Motorscooters whized by, children sold armfulls of flowers, old women sat on the street selling fruit, people hurried down the sidewalk with bags of goods from the market.

Still somewhat mesmerized by the activity around me, we made our way back to the car. We started to drive back to Bangalore, but we stopped our driver in time to make a quick trip up Chamundi Hill. Monkeys wandered on the side of the road with the vendors. Cows lounged in the middle of the road.

Back at the Leela, we decided to relax. We had been warned that the wedding was going to be a non-stop four-day party. I wasn't so sure that was possible, but I took their advice and we all tried to go to sleep early. Good thing we listened. The next four days of dancing, eating, drinking -- did I already say eating? -- would test my abilitiy to get by on no sleep more than any time I've experienced since I wrote my honor's thesis my senior year in college.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Back in Manila

The plane had barely touched down on the runway at Ninoy Aquino International Airport late Tuesday afternoon when the buzzing and beeping of cell phone text messaging began. The sky was surprisingly clear and the weather not the skin-melting humidity I was bracing myself for. I walked toward immigration, passport in hand, passing both a live band and a sign welcoming visitors to the "bird flu free Philippines."

I made my way through immigration, got in a cab, and was immediately confronted with a staple of Manila life -- sitting in an idling car in the parking lot that is EDSA. When you buy a plane ticket to Manila, travel agents should just be honest when you ask how long it takes to get from your departure location to Manila. My flight from Bangkok to Manila was three hours, but there should be a disclosure stating that just because your flight is over, that doesn't mean you don't have another hour and a half travel time before you get to your destination, which could be only a mile from the airport.

Luckily I had a chatty cab driver who spoke excellent English. He informed me that the Philippines is the third most corrupt country in the world and that the country would never advance economically without an end to corruption. I tried to tell him that other countries also have plenty of corrupt politicians, but he wasn't convinced. He was exceptionally friendly. I believe he should be appointed as a designated tourist taxi driver by the Department of Tourism. I'm sure many visitors to Manila have been put off by some of the city's more questionable cab drivers.

The guards at my building welcomed me back. My apartment was still neat, just the way I left it a month ago, but I quickly pulled everything out of my suitcases to give it that rock-star-just-trashed-a-hotel-room look, minus the empty bottles of booze.

I have to admit it doesn't quite feel like home yet, but it is nice to be somewhere familiar, back in my old routines, back to the craziness at work, back to my apartment with the sounds of karaoke drifting through my window.


Photos and stories of my travels in Laos, India and Bangkok are on their way!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A "break"

My blog posting was put on hold for a couple of weeks because my laptop keyboard suddenly gave out. The R, W and P keys refused to work -- and no amount of pounding would help. In fact, I believe it made things worse. Miraculously though, the stars must have aligned or something, because two events coincided to get my computer working again: 1) My uncle had the exact laptop keyboard I needed and sent it to me FedEx, and 2) the IT department at work not only installed it for me, but did so in less than an hour. And I'm always saying I don't believe in miracles.

Now that all keys seem to be functioning, I'm leaving for the holidays. I'll be going to Bangalore for a friend's wedding. And then I'll be traveling around India for two weeks with two great friends -- destinations have not been planned out yet, except for New Year's in Goa. (I'm sure Goa will be crazy around that time, but we're lucky enough to have a place to stay with some locals. After that, it's either north or south, depending on what we feel like -- and where a train will take us.) Before flying back to Manila, I'll stop in Bangkok and make a side trip to Vientiane. It should be an adventure -- and hopefully I'll come back with lots of great photos.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Night falls

A night shot from my apartment window. I'm still getting used to my digital camera. There seems to be a different skill to taking night shots with a digital SLR than with a film SLR. I like this one, despite the blur, because of the light on the street below. There was quite a party going on down there, and the red-orange glow of the light seems to capture that.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Great photos!

Here's a great photo blog. Excellent photos from Manila and around the Philippines.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Product of the month

I found this amusing toilet paper brand at Hytop -- my neighborhood grocery store. Needless to say, it is now my preferred brand of toilet paper.

New/Old Communism

A day after I flew out of Tagbilaran on the island of Bohol, I read about an attack on a cell phone tower in the same city. The New People's Army raided the cell tower and shot a guard because Globe Telecommunications -- my own cell phone service provider -- refused to pay the NPA's "revolutionary taxes." Since then I've paid closer attention to the actions of various communist groups in the Philippines.

The Christian Science Monitor has a story with a lot of background on the NPA and communist insurgency. The Philippines is not only a highly commercial and capitalist society, but it is also one that still has old-money, landed families that wield an enormous amount of influence over the economy and politics.

What I find fascinating about this article -- and about the situation in the Philippines in general -- is how the symbols of capitalism have changed so dramatically. (After all, it's only been in the last few years that the NPA began attacking cell phone towers.) In the end, the goals of communism have not changed much: these farmers are still hoping for a reorganized society. But at this point -- after years of struggle and insurgency and thousands of former communists integrating themselves into mainstream life -- the communists that remain seem to be hoping the hierarchical structure will bend just enough for farmers to own their own plot of land.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Ten in 2005

In the not-so-distant past, I was a community journalist. (Don't ask me what I am now, I have no idea.) The job has its positive side -- having an impact on a community in a way you wouldn't if you worked for a big city newspaper -- but it can also be the most tiring work in the world. As one of my former colleagues put it, "Nobody seems to understand the hell that is community journalism."

One part of the job that was "hell," or just annoying, was reporting on cyclical events -- the things that happen over and over like clockwork. In Tahoe, I always knew I would be writing weather stories on the first snowfall, a major storm and when the snow finally melted enough for people to start going to the beach instead of the ski resorts. My colleagues that had been working in the same city for a decade or more had covered the same events so many times they could practically write the story before the event.

Working in a newsroom in the Philippines has given new meaning to the cyclical story. Here, every few months or so, we report the murder of a journalist. Since 1986, when Marcos fled the country, 73 journalists have been killed here. And last week, another journalist was killed.

A 27-year-old radio and newspaper commentator was shot in a public market in Cebu, the same city where, just a few weeks ago, a policeman was convicted of killing a journalist in 2002. That's a major victory for journalism in the Philippines -- where, according to Reuters, it's the first conviction in 73 murders since 1986. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism says it's the third conviction in 55 cases. (The PCIJ story details the saga of the case -- including the murder of two key witnesses.)

I would love to offer an analysis of this situation, but it's difficult to point to one thing or another as the reason so many journalists are killed here. The Committee to Protect Journalists, which has given the Philippines the unenviable title of "most murderous country for journalists," offers a great analysis, reporting that it may be a combination of a lack of journalism standards, the inability to enforce the rule of law, widespread proliferation of illegal firearms, and a misunderstanding of the function of the press in a society.

There are a few patterns that have emerged over the last 20 years: Usually the journalists killed are radio commentators in the provinces who were speaking out against corruption. Because of this, my coworkers -- TV reporters/writers/producers in Metro Manila -- feel somewhat disconnected from the problem. But even well-respected journalists in Manila have received death threats because of their work.

The murder last week was the tenth case of a journalist being killed this year alone. I don't think anyone here can afford to ignore the problem. It's representative of so many problems in Philippine society, politics and media -- and for the cycle to continue is a tragedy that affects more than just journalism and the media, but the entire country.


On the Radio, Under the Gun, CPJ, August 2005

In Search of Solutions to Media Killings, PCIJ, Sept. 8, 2005

Monday, November 28, 2005

And now, a moment of silence

Please forgive me while I take a trip down memory lane. Last night I was talking to my friend Joan, who still lives in Hangzhou and works at Zhejiang University of Technology. She's a former Princeton-in-Asia fellow who decided to stay and make her life in China.

Last night, Joan had some devastating news. Our favorite neighborhood restaurant -- nicknamed "the Standby" -- closed. I can't tell you how many delightful meals I ate at the Standby in one year in Hangzhou. I have so many memories of dinner at the standby with the other foreign teachers -- laughing about our students, whining about our crappy love lives, daring each other to drink the "snake jiu" (an alcoholic beverage with a preserved snake inside), desperately trying to get the attention of one of the waitresses, who was usually looking in the exact opposite direction of our table any time we needed anything.

Here's Joan's standby "obituary":
Hello friends,
I am writing with some bad news - - "The Standby" restaurant has closed it's doors. As most of you know, this restaurant has served as my favorite source of delicious meals for over 5 years - through thick and thin - SARS -great reunions - visiting friends - lots of laughing - many wonderful PiA-ers, free dishes from the owner (Man Man Chi)- the hard-working waitresses who always treated me like a special friend - the memories are sweet and savory. Even the tables full of smokers seem appealing today.Lazi Ji, Suanmiao Liji, Danhua Nangua, Tieban Niuliu, Suanni Bocai, ShuizhuRoupian - ah - I will miss all of these. Those of you who have spent time with me here will understand the depth of my sadness. It is a great loss for me and all fine dining fans in Zhaohui Liuqu! I've attached a couple photos - one taken today and one from a special lunchon a snowy day last year. A final toast to great food in an environment that only enhanced the
dining experience.