Monday, July 31, 2006

We Will or We Won't...

As a break here at the mid-point of our Top Ten list, I will stop and address a common question we heard during our 2 week visit back in the States: "Is there anything that you're going to miss once you leave the Philippines for good and get settled back in the U.S.?".

Understood, this cannot be fully answered until we have had a chance to adjust back to "normal" life and mentaly/emotional "digest" the experiences of the last 6 months. But what the heck, I'll take a stab at it now and see if our thinking changes at all. Here's a List of Will or Won'ts (the Final Five of the Top Ten will resume!):

Won't Miss: The Pace of Pedestrian Traffic: It perplexed us on our first day, amuses us on good days, enrages us on bad days and will continue to be one of the most infuriating things about attempting to travel from Point A to Point B on foot. I'm just surprised I haven't strangled anybody yet. For the full description, go here. (scroll to number 6)

Will Miss: Mangos: Nothing captures the goodness of natural tropical sunshine like the flavor of a ripe (or unripened) mango. Dried mangos, fresh mangos, mango juice, mango smoothies, mango vodka- whatever it's form, it's delicious. Just please don't substitute it for avacado in sushi!

Won't Miss: Extreme Air Pollution and Incessant Noise: There's a 45-foot distance between the front doors of our building and the entrance to the mall (which is how you get anywhere around here). Traversing that short distance can instantly induce suffocation and/or deafness. We're not even sure what the whistling and honking is for....

Will Miss: Speaking Freely About Our Minority Status and Other Racial Themes: Someone asks how to spot Kendra in a crowd? "Just look for the tall, White Girl". Why haven't we ordered food yet? "Just waiting for some Filipino's...they're on a different time".

Won't Miss: The Sex Industry: 50-year old white guys with 12-year old girls and embarrased prostitutes in the elevators.

Will Miss: Friendly Staff, Security and their Dogs: As intimidating as they may seem at first, the Guys With Guns are actually quite nice and their dogs are aloof. And I'll miss being referred to as "Sir Tim" (pronounced "Surr Deem") a dozen times a day.

Won't Miss: Mall-Worlds: They're everywhere and they're all the same- sucking the uniquiness and creativity out of the culture here with bland vanilla Western chain stores with mannequins of 6-foot-tall anorexic blonde American women in their windows. Give me a place like Tiendesitas or Quiapo any day.

Will Miss: Overly Exuberant Grocery Baggers: Although the grocery shopping experience itself can be a bit daunting, there is never a shortage of excited young men scrambling over each other to help Kendra bag her groceries and cart them the 2 blocks back home and up to our room. This was always is very helpful and we will miss it!

Top Ten....Number 6

A short, 2-hour plane ride takes us cross country to a land and culture which fit both of us very well- as well as to a Magical Fairytale Land all it's own and a fantastic meal made by monks. Number 6 on the countdown takes us to:

Hong Kong

It was really tough deciding which shot to post for Number 6, which speaks to the wide variety of places and situations that we found ourselves in during our short 5 day trip to Hong Kong. A lot of great shots were taken of the city, it's scenery and it's people, but I finally had to go with a shot of us looking extremely happy! A very different place, indeed, but we fell in love with the city as soon as we experienced the efficiency and speed of the airport staff, the MTR transit and the hotel shuttle system and all-around customer service.

The bird-flu scanners and the ever-present hand sanitzing stations gave us a great peace of mind, even though we did end up with a small roach situation in our first hotel room. After a beautiful night cruise on the harbor (which the planning for was competant beyond anything we'd experienced previously), we dove into the chaotic atmosphere of the local night market, where we utilized our honed bargaining skills for some great and unique finds.

The next few days found us in a traditional fishing village surrounded by dried fish products and buying amazing hand-painted artwork from an old man and his wife. A few hours later, we're staring up at a 112-foot high, 250-ton bronze Buddha, enveloped in thick clouds of incense and enjoying at Buddhist-prepared feast of vegetables.

24 hours later, we're deep into the (literally!) magical world of Hong Kong DisneyLand (complete with it's own MTR train), taking pictures with Daffy Duck and reverting back to childhood on the Winnie The Pooh rides. (I, personally revert back to my deepest and darkest panic-ridden nightmares when I attempt to ride Space Mountain). Retiring back to a humourously decorated (but never approaching cheesey) DisneyLand Hotel, we are again treated to exceptional service and a near-perfection assortment of veggies prepared at the Crystal Lotus.

What a trip it was! Certainly worth a 20-hour plane ride for a second visit sometime!!!

It was also a fun trip to write about.... some of our best Tim/Kendra-style tag team narrative are on these posts!

Hong Kong Summary
Hong Kong Day 1 - Arrival, Exploring Kowloon and Boat Tour
Hong Kong Day 2 – Hong Kong, Lantau Island Tour and Night Market
Hong Kong Day 3 – Hong Kong Disneyland!
Hong Kong Day 4 – More Disney!
Hong Kong Day 5 – Back to Manila (Escaping the typhoon!)

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Top Ten....Number 7

Top Ten....Number Seven

Peculiar Twists on Familiar Items

Let's be honest- grocery shopping here in the Philippines isn't the easiest thing in the world. From the aisles packed with crazy shopping cart drivers (and their children) to the endlessly long checkout lines with innevitable multiple price checks...from the reply of "Out of stock, sir" regarding anything to the overwhelming odor of raw fish products, the whole experience can be a bit stressful.

But what never fails to amuse/educate us is seeing familiar products with a bit of Filipino flavor thrown in, hilarious imitations of U.S. brands or just completely new and unexpected food products. For instance:

Creamy Cheese flavored Pringles
Canned Mystery Meats (is this North Meat?)
Entire aisles of instant noodles
Ketchup flavored Pringles
100 varieties of Tang drink
Shitake Mushroom flavored Oatmeal
100 varieties of spaghetti sauce that all taste like ketchup
Massive bulk containers of soy sauce
"Fita" Ritz Cracker knock-offs
Coconut Jelly
"California" sushi rolls contaning mangos
Pizza Hut's SPAM-Lover's Pizza
Coffee Jelly drinks at Starbucks
Fried chicken at McDonalds
100 varieties of dried mangoes
McSpaghetti dishes at McDonalds
100 varieties of skin-whitening lotions
Refills for foil and plastic wrap
Cream-O Oreo knockoffs
"Spud's" Pringles knock-offs
Ube (sweet potato) flavored ice cream (or Ube flavored anything)
Corn flavored ice cream
A dozen varieties of bananas
Pizza flavored Pringles
Everything from shampoo to fabric softener sold in single-use sachet packets
Hot'n'Spicy Pringles
Frozen whole fish shrink-wrapped in plastic
100 different varieties of rice
Every variety of Cadbury's Chocolate
Canned meatloaf
Canned squid
100 varieties of canned corned beef
Rice at Burger King
Banana Ketchup
Lysol liquid concentrate
Knorr shrimp broth cubes
Red Bull Supreme
Coca-Cola Light
Prawn Crackers
Avacado flavored ice cream
1 pound bags of pure MSG
Golden Oreo's

Here's a grocery store flier.


In other news, we've been busy going through all our things and separating what we will need for this last week in Manila from what we will need in Australia from what we will be shipping back to Philly. We're also making sure that we finish up all of the food in our cupboards and fridge before our last week hits and everybody will want to take us out to eat.

It's alot of planning! We need to bring (but not pack yet) 2 small duffel bags for our 5 day Australia outback tour. We'll have to pack those when we get to our B&B in Adelaide. We're still not sure what our Internet situation will be for our 2 weeks Down Under, but if we get into a location with wireless access, we'll be sure to post.

Also, consider this your official "Last Call" for any items Filipino. If there's any craving for cool chopsticks, wood carvings, jewelry, bags made from discarded juice packets or Louie Vitton/Gucci/Rolex/SpongeBob look-alikes let me know now, so I can go out this week while Kendra's at work.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Top Ten....Number 8

The number 8 spot goes to one of the most beautiful places on this Planet:

Getting there was an adventure all in itself. The prop plane/jeepney/river boat combination took us through deep jungle onto water that was an almost unreal color of blue. From the houses on stilts which overlooked the schools of brightly colored fish to the fabulous evening sunsets, this place was a shining jewel on the ocean a million miles from anywhere. We stayed busy with kayaking, snorkeling and a strenuous hike through the steep and densly vegetated mountainside above the resort. And we attempted (unsuccesfully) to fish, too! Then there was the trip across the bay to explore a dark cavern filled with deep water, covered in razor sharp barnacles.

We ran into some issues with the whole idea of "Filipino Time" and lack of proper planning for activities, but every night we saw a baby shark swiming under our hut in the green "fish lights" and enjoyed lots of good food and evening "Pride of the Philippines" dances by the staff.

The natural surroundings were stunning, and we were completly safe the whole time thanks to the "Men With Guns". What a beautiful place! Kendra and I would love to visit here again!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Top Ten....Number 9

Other Ex-Pats

We will make Number 9 on our countdown a collective "Thank You!" to all the other foreign workers (civil and military) and their families that we've met here. Kendra and I are both very appreciative for all your friendships, personal assistance, generosity and hospitality. We would have never made it this long this far from home without the company of so many fine and fun people to hang out with, explore with, vent to and learn from. This includes:

Elizabeth: Shared a belly-dancing stage with Kendra the first night we met, introduced us to the ABP girls and was a great friend to both of us. See you soon in D.C!

Justin: The coolest Marine you could ever meet. Showed us around the Embassy, took us to Hobbit House, played with the girls, went bowling, rode a bull, and shared the Marine's beer stash with me. Stay Safe!

Chris and Colleen: For introducing us to the Women's Bazaar, touring Binondo and Quiapo, and for all the great tips and information you shared with us- thank you so much, and say "Hi!" to the kids!

Ban and Mohammad: Get Ready for 2 more years! Good Luck and thanks again for the last-minute bazaar trip!

Mike and Elisha: Congratulations on the new baby and thanks for befriending us while you were here! Showed us Hussein's Persian Kabob and Beer Paradise (couldn't ask more from a friend!). Good luck in New Hampshire!

Todd and Veena: We really enjoyed your company- Thanks for making things fun!

And thanks to anybody else that I can think of- Patrick, Nichole, Ryan, etc,etc..

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Best of....Number 10

[The Countdown is on the fridge!]

Since we're down to the last 10 days of our grand adventure here in the Philippines, I figured we could do a Top 10, or Best Of list as we count down the time until our departure. Every day, along with the latest stories and news, I'll post one of my best pictures or share one of our best stories or memories from the past 6 months and link back to the blog post (if it has one). These will be in no particular order so as to avoid any fighting between any groups of people we may or may not mention! It'll be hard to pick out out just 10 and harder still picking out only one photo!

Starting off:
Tim and Kendra's Philippine Top 10: Number 10

The Taal Volcano (and Sonya's Garden)

Our trip to Tagaytay was one of our first excursions out of the city here in the Philippines. This was when we first meet Ramer- a terrific guide, wonderful driver and all-around great guy. He bargained with the locals to get us a good deal for a boat to cross the Taal Lake and led us up the dusty trail to the rim of the volcano for a great view of the steaming Crater Lake. He bought us a coconut to drink at the top and also took us to the fabulous Sonya's Garden- a haven for vegetarians in this squid-and-pork saturated culture. If ever we were to return to this country, we'd be sure to spend a night there and enjoy more of their delicious vegetable delights.

The Taal Volcano was the first of many amazing natural wonders that we would see- just as amazing would be the human conditions we passed through while on our way to our destinations.

Read the Tagaytay/Taal Volcano/Sonya's Garden post.
PhotoBucket from that trip.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

T Minus 10......

If we were still at Kenbrook (the camp where Tim and I met), we would probably have been getting ready for Christmas in July last night. I didn't even think about that until I wrote down the date and it came to mind. This is a rather festive little celebration put on with a huge meal and decorations and skits which take everyone's mind off of the fact that it is actually very hot outside and it hasn't been Christmas or really a major holiday for many months now.

As it was, we were in the Philippines and were experiencing the last battle cry of Typhoon Glenda which caused our originally scheduled dinner location to be cancelled. So, instead, we had dinner at Grappa's in Greenbelt with Andy, Lottie (my work replacement), Keysi, and Sam. It was really nice of everyone to come out with us and had a great time.

Grappa's is mostly an Italian restaurant so you would think the wine would be the main draw. However, they also brew their own Czech beer, and that ends up being a far bigger attraction for most. Of course I did have several glasses of wine regardless (still not a big beer drinker), and I even tried a small glass of the Grappa wine (which was actually a grape-based spirt tasting like a raw fuel source- 90 proof) after which the restaurant was named.

After a lot of fun conversation, teasing, and jokes that only Tim (and sometimes not even Tim) really understood, we all headed home in our separate directions. We were pretty beat so we went to sleep soon after that. Sometime in the night we lost electricity which shut down the computer and turned off our alarm clock. As a result, I didn't actually get up until it was 8:00am and the sun was already blasting through the windows into our eyes. This of course let to much teasing at work that it was the Grappa wine which kept me away from work. My reply - "No guys. It wasn't the wine. If you thought I was tipsy based on my attempt at humor, remember that you NEVER get my humor." (Not that I am an overly funny person to begin with).

After today we are down to 10 more days in Manila. The time is starting to move a little faster and our departure now seems more imminent. I am realizing that we have to finish sorting through a lot of stuff and get things packed into piles for Australia and our Shipment home. Also, I will definitely miss many of my co-workers. But for most people, there is no place like home!

[The other night we had some drinks and dessert at Bed Space in Greenbelt. It looks like it was taken right out of Old City Philly with it's posh interior and modern design. It has some cool lighting and some low couches and tables. It also had a high-powered green laser generator which are highly regulated in the U.S. and would never be allowed in such a small venue. Their dessert menu consisted of a half-dozen varieties of Crème brûlée.]

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Sunday's Post

Today started like an ordinary Sunday for us. After getting up from a dream where the entire human race was being subjected to horrifying psychological torture such that no one knew what was real and what wasn’t anymore, I called my sister to say "Hi!". During our conversation, my brother called on my cell and I called him back on Skype after awhile.

We had planned to get together with the Repique’s later that day, but they were having some trouble getting a hold of their driver. In the meantime, I went grocery shopping and started the tasks of cleaning and prepping the vegetables. We met up with Verna, Vanessa, and Crystel at around 2:00pm. We had a pretty short visit. We gave them what we brought from home for them from us, my mom, and Raquel, and we had Merienda together at yet another mall. It was raining extremely hard and Verna needed to be back at 5pm, so we left to head back home. It was good to see them again. We will try to get together once more before leaving for Australia.

[Kendra and Verna]

[Here's a shot of Michelle that missed being posted yesterday]

Last Visit with the Girls

On Saturday we woke up at around 9:00am and decided to get some shopping done for the girls, since later that afternoon we would be going to visit them for the last time and some generous folks back home had donated some additional money to be used for them. We walked over to SM soon after the mall opened (at 10 am) since we were also supposed to have lunch that day with Todd before he flew back to the US.

We have attempted to describe on several previous occasions about how overwhelming the staff can be at the shopping malls. At times you are surrounded by 5-6 eager staff members wanting to help you (some verbally asking, others just hovering over your shoulder). Normally, I take this OK -as just a normal part of shopping here. Saturday, though, I was agitated and needed my personal space pretty much as soon as I got out of bed. To make matters worse, I had not yet had my coffee or anything else to eat, and I’m definatly one of those “WARNING: Cranky When Hungry and Not Caffeinated” kind of women.

Well, as a result, our shopping was not very enjoyable and ended up becoming very rushed, because the minute I would go to look at one thing I would be surrounded- so close sometimes that I couldn’t even get the item off the rack without hitting one of them. My comments of “Excuse me”, “Just looking”, or “I don’t need help, thank you” were not working at all.

Despite it all, we were still able to pick out some nice school supplies and more clothes for the girls (including several rain coats), using money donated from some of Tim’s co-workers and also using some remaining funds that Tim’s parents had donated. I just wish that I would have been able to shop a little more comfortably and look at a little more of the items in peace. We did seem to have an (unintentional) running Disney theme for the clothes though.

We brought the stuff back to the apartment and got it together along with the water guns from a previous visit (our plan was to leave them at the ABP house for the girls to play with next summer), some more games, crayons and paper for them, and some leftover cleaning supplies and toiletries for the house (About every other week for the last 5 months, our housekeepers restock us with shampoo, conditioner and bar soap which we don't use, so we stockpiled it all for the girls).

We then went to meet Todd at the People’s Palace in Makati. We hadn’t been there for months, but we really liked their food. It's a thai cuisine and they even have a separate vegetarian menu, which works just fine for me, and some good wines (thier Vietnamese spring rolls with peanut sauce are amazing!) We had a nice lunch. I’m sorry that Todd will be heading back to the US, since it is always nice to have fun people to hang out with us, who can relate to our experiences here. However, I’m sure we will see each other when we get back in the US, and maybe we will even work together on a future project.

Shortly after lunch our driver, Ike, came to pick us up for the 40-minute trip to Quezon City. The nice, clear morning turned ugly just as we arrived as the sky darkened and began dumping large amounts of rain down on us as we dashed for cover in the ABP House. The girls and staff were really excited to see us again- the intense bombardment turned from raindrops to hugs and suddenly our day got a whole lot better!

After unloading the van and trying to keep the girls from tearing into the bags of pillows, clothes and supplies we had brought, we took them to the living room and suggested to the girls that we make "Thank You" cards to the people who had donated money to get them gifts and things, which we could show when we returned to the U.S. They were very excited to do this, and we spent about 1.5 hours making some very colorful and creativly decorated cards, complete with Bible verses and lots of "Hi! My name is.....!".

[The girls- hard at work with the Crayons]

Of course pictures were being taken all throughout the card making, and we got to talk to the girls and visit with them as they worked. Another gift we had brought for them this time was a colorful bandana for each of the girls. Tim and I often wear a bandana during our visits due the heat and humidity, and the girls are always taking them off and playing with them, so we thought they would like having one of their own. We called them up one at a time and gave them a bandana, one of the pillows and a little note. The note was from Tim and I, saying that we really enjoyed our time with them and that we would always remember them. I had some of my co-workers translate it into Tagalog, which we included in the note:

Kami po ay labis na nagagalak sa bawat oras na ating pinagsaluhan habang kami ay narito. Maraming salamat po sa pag-bahagi ng iyong buhay sa amin at sa bawat hapon ng Sabado na kayo ay aming kasama.
Ingat po kayo palagi!
Kuya Tim and Ate Kendra

[Kendra giving Manilyn her bandana]

[You can tell the staff has been working with a large group of small girls for a while now- as soon as they were handed out, the pillows and bandanas were instantly tagged with the girl's name with a Sharpie!]

For the most part, they all really liked the gifts. There is always going to be those few kids in any group that likes what you gave the person next to them more than what they were given and some that will complain about the color, etc. Even these cute little 3rd world orphans are no exception to that rule. However, the whole thing went well, and everybody had a great time. We all posed for pictures with our bandanas on, and then went up to the roof court (it was still raining hard outside) to play with the girls before leaving.

[The Famous Girls of Ang Bahay Parola ("The Lighthouse"). Now with even more color!!]

We played for about another hour with jump ropes, PlayDo, tag, etc. and then it was time to go. Saying goodbye was very sad. Several of the girls have gotten in the habit of calling me “Mommy” which is both sweet and heart breaking. We were very honest with them that right now there is no plan for Tim and I to return to the Philippines- we really didn't know if they would comprehend that we were'nt coming back. They said to say "Hi!" to Ate Elizabeth, who has been back in D.C for several months. So, Ate, “Hi!”.

[Who needs a gym when you've got 25 girls who all want to jump rope?]

[And, who needs a fitness center when you've got 25 girls who want to be picked up, swung around and chased across the playground?]

As we drove away, even our driver, Ike, was sad. He has a daughter in the province that he rarely sees and I think it reminds him of her when he drives us to visit the girls. Thanks to Ike for helping us out so many times by translating Tagalog and keeping us safe on the road!!

[Tim's Note]:

It was certainly pretty tough to say goodbye to the girls for the last time. Knowing the horrific backrounds of these kids makes it even more amazing when you see what energetic, fun-loving and beautiful girls they are becoming. Spending a few Saturday afternoons here in this dirty and destitute village a million miles from nowhere with 2 dozens little girls has been one of the most positive things about being here in this country.

They haven't got to the point of asking me if I will take them home (as they have with Kendra), but even so, it's hard not to let yourself get attached and wish you could do more. I guess I just want to hope that they will continue to be taken care of and put on a path that will lead them out of the destructive cycle of extreme poverty and neglect which has led them here. The staff at ABP and the StreetChild Mission International all seem quite able to help them with their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs. They've got good food, a bed and bath, schooling and a church environment to grow up in. Plus, they've got crazy characters like Elizabeth, Justin, Patrick and Kendra & I dropping by to give them a good laugh!

They should be just fine.

But, we'll miss them and wish them the absolute best. Thank God for pictures!

[Vangi -- Always with a smile and told me all about the neighborhood boys]

[Manilyn giving me some photography advice]

Michelle --playing jacks on the floor]

[Mirasol --Posing with her Tigger]

[Ike and I started posing for this shot with only 2 of the girls....then they just started piling on. Notice how Mickey Mouse is being used by one girl to take another girl's face out of the shot- Those kids!]

[Now they're being a bit more civil, posing with Kendra, Ike and I]

Office Space

We are about to start our 3rd week back in Makati since returning from our U.S. flyback. This also marks our 5 ½ month mark in the Philippines. So, we have two weeks left. We’ll be making several posts in a row here to update everyone on what has been going on with us since returning and some of the activities of this weekend.

First of all, it still continues to rain and to be dark and cloudy all the time. This is a very extreme country – all the rain at once, all the sun at once. If I lived here all the time (or the southern US or the west coast of the US), I would terribly miss the transitional seasons of Spring and Fall. Fall is my favorite season.

The two weeks I was back at work have been pretty routine. Todd Olson, another expat from Atlanta, has been back here again, and so he has been entertaining. It is always interesting to observe the differences between how the team relates to Todd as a male versus their interactions with me. Even though I am also very friendly to the people at work, most of my relationships are more at a distance, and people don’t share much with me. Todd seems to get the scoop on everything, but truth be told – that is fine. In many cases, I would probably rather not know!

I have also been training my replacement to take over the development manager role when I leave.

However, this past week we did have some exciting events at the office. I had just heated up my lunch in the microwave and was about 4-5 bites into it, when I smelled something HORRIBLE. I mean just dreadful. I was sitting there smelling my food – smelling the trash, etc. Then the combination of this smell with the fact that I was trying to eat started making me feel as though I was going to throw up. I stood up with my hand over my mouth and tried to just take deep breaths. I looked over the divider, and other members of the team were also sniffing the air with frowns. Unable to be polite about this, I said – “Is someone eating something that smells really really bad?” Most of the team started laughing and one started profusely apologizing. She was eating TUYO (dried fish heads).

Once I realized it was food, I was able to place it a bit better and someone propped open the door to air the place out a bit. I wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed that such food was being consumed in the small confines of the office or impressed with her for being able to eat something that smells so foul and actually like it.

[The best place for fresh Tuyo in SE Asia- Lantau Island, in Hong Kong]

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Look!- It's Blue!

After 2 weeks of constant, rainy, foggy dreariness here in the tropics of the Philippines, I've almost stopped looking out the windows in the morning. So imagine my surprise when I stepped outside yesterday and looked up to see blue skies, fluffy white clouds, bright sunshine and a nice breeze (still, it's hot and muggy, but at least you're not swimming through it!)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Pictures from my walk to MarketMarket

Some quick fun facts:
  • The distance from Philadelphia to Manila (8,533 miles) is about 28 times more than how far the space shuttle Discovery was from the Planet Earth (about 300 miles).
  • Of course, if we were to fly as fast as the space shuttle does when it re-enters the atmosphere (Mach 25, or 18,500mph), we could be back home in 45 minutes.
  • 45 minutes is the time it takes us to drive from Philadelphia to the Starbucks on the PA Turnpike on way to Lancaster County (in good traffic).

[Flowers along McKinnley road]

[Security System: Protected by the Virgin Mary and Fido]

[Didn't notice the avacodos until I uploaded this picture back home. Guess I gotta go back!!]

[Keeping the streets clean after a hard rain]

[How most normal people get to the market. The Jeepney loading/unloading area]

Monday, July 17, 2006

Today's Stroll

Hypethetical Question: If I were to take a walking tour of North Philly with my camera, taking shots of people's houses and candids of their lives out on the street, how long would it take for the police to find my bullet-ridden corpse and for the cash in my wallet to be used for crack?

I'm not looking for an answer, I just wanted to express how different the culture is here.

Today I felt like seeing something new. So I took a walk back in the direction of the American-Manila Cemetary which I had visited during one of my first weeks here. But since I had already seen it, I just kept walking. About 2 and a half miles later, I came to a whole new section of Manila that I'd never experienced before. And what an experience it was!

After passing through a vast area of numerous construction sites of Fort Bonafacio/Taguig City (it's what's planned to be the Philippines "Premiere" City, or the "New Makati" by 2020), I came to a middle income residential area across the highway from the massive MarketMarket shopping center. Lots of tricycles, outdoor food stands, a couple of barber shops and salons, all situated at the top of a hill.

Pausing for a second, I looked to my right and saw a small opening in between 2 shop buildings and decided to check it out. Through this narrow passageway, I came to a long set of rough steps, carved out of cement. These stairs led down the hill and opened up into a massive complex of houses, an entire village situated along both slopes of a small valley.

I slowly ventured down the uneven steps (it had been raining hard for about an hour previous to this, so everything was wet, too) and stepped into this new environment. It looked like the entire valley had been covered in cement, the narrow alleys between houses and the houses themeselves were cement or concrete blocks with metal scraps used for many of the roofs . Along the sides of these narrow passages were gutters that were rushing with rain water and sewage; there had been an attempt to concrete them over, but at many places, the concrete had fallen through making large holes in the ground and you could see under the rocks. There were also numerous blue plastic pipes, which had been layed in grooves in the concrete and covered, but they, too, had become exposed over time.

It's a bit much to try and describe everything that I witnessed in this place and the conditions that people live in here, so I'll let the pictures speak. In response to my initial question at the top about taking pictures in North Philly, don't worry, it's (literaly) a whole different world here. I ran into a group of teenage guys who were overjoyed to see me, addressing me as "Kuya" and show off their tattoos (they even ran off to get another guy, the one with the big dragon on his back). Then there was the group of older guys playing poker, who paused in their game to pose for a picture. I was in no danger whatsoever.

[Looking from one side of the valley across to the other.]

[Very narrow alleys forming a crisscross maze through the neighborhood.]

[The poker game]

[Pretty much every residence had something to sell. Candy, water, ice, beer, snacks, etc. ]

[Kids walking the wall]

It really was amazing to be that deep into such an out of the way area and have such close contact with such friendly and welcoming people. Even with all the differences in customs and culture, sometimes it's hard to place yourself in a different country when you're basically living inside a Western mega-mall. A 5-mile trek with a quick turn down a narrow side alley paved with cement will certainly get you back in touch with halfway-around-the-world reality.

Some of the sights were pretty tough to stomach, but I wouldn't want go back to the U.S. without seeing these things firsthand and I think I was seeking that out today. Your life, as you know it, suddenly comes under a new light, with a new perspective, when you walk through areas like this- something that can't be communicated through movies or TV or even this blog. The world suddenly seems so massively large, with you so small and so far away from home, but right next to people who aren't so different than you. I hope I never forget that feeling.