Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hong Kong - Part One

My friend Beth worked in Hong Kong after college; I meant to visit her but with only two weeks’ vacation, I didn’t think I could manage it. And it seemed so far away! I feel I was close to going, but then she left. I was younger then and the world was bigger. Hey, I lived in Boston for almost two and a half years and never made it to the Garden or the Marathon – I had to make special return trips for both of those!

Fast forward to 2002 - I was pretty miserable at work. I had a conversation with my friend Vincent, who grew up in Hong Kong and was living there again. He asked what I would do if I could do anything, and I told him I’d travel – to Asia, to see him in Hong Kong. He asked if I could just quit my job and do it and I said I couldn’t. He looked at me and said, “but can’t you?” and that was a life-changing moment. It took me another year to be ready to quit, but that conversation started the ball rolling that eventually led me to where I am now.

Given Beth and Vincent, I did feel I would get to Hong Kong at some point. I tried to get there on my way home from Southeast Asia last winter, but I couldn’t find a flight that went from Bali to Honolulu through Hong Kong without other stops. However, once I knew I was coming back to Asia this year I knew I had another chance. It’s actually quite close to Manila – a two-hour flight! It was time to use some vacation days anyway (weekend travel in-country doesn’t use up vacation days, but any travel outside the country does) – two months have gone by since I arrived in the Philippines!

It was a good time to leave the country. Given the recent tropical storm and all the flood damage, I feel that my problems pale, but as I write this, a line of ants is crawling from outside to a spot under the light switch – I’m not sure what to do about that. I thought if I interrupted the line that would do it, but they keep finding a new line. Last week the refrigerator stopped working – I’d say it was a storage closet with a light, except that ants were crawling on the food inside (I suppose that if they are swarming on the shell of a hard-boiled egg, you can still eat the egg if you just rinse them off, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it) so it isn’t even a good storage closet. We’ve since decided that the freezer keeps things cold enough (without actually freezing them) so that’s not as dire as it seemed before I left. The toilet stopped working, too – that seems fixed now. But what made me really ready to leave was seeing what I hope was one but may have been two (in which case, one may still be at large) giant cockroaches in my room. I’d seen them outside, so I knew it was only a matter of time before I saw them inside, but I still jumped and screamed. I also don’t think I have to mention how much I was looking forward to hot showers. And it occurred to me that this may be the hardest place I have ever lived – Chicago in the winter? I still loved my apartment. King of Prussia? All right, maybe a tie.

Hong Kong is great – if you like architecture, history, nature, eating, drinking, traditions, temples, markets, museums, views, crowds, luxury, walking, swimming, the feel of a big city. I had a wonderful three days there! I had thought that if I didn’t make it by the 1997 British handover that it would be too late, but I think that as a Special Administrative Region it hasn’t missed a beat – it’s still a city of business and an interesting mix of cultures. I was happy to walk, walk, walk – and Vincent did a good job of showing me and/or directing me to a variety of places so I could get a good taste.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More Flood Pictures

From Habitat for Humanity Asia-Pacific...all of this is not far from where I live and work, but I am on higher ground.

To donate to the relief effort, go to

Monday, September 28, 2009

Flood Pictures from the New York Times

Tropical Storm Ondoy (Ketsana)

A tropical depression is an organized system of clouds and thunderstorms with a defined surface circulation and maximum sustained winds of less than 62 km/h. There is no eye or spiral form, but it is already a low-pressure system. The practice in the Philippines is to name tropical depressions from its own naming convention when the depressions are within the Philippines’ area of responsibility. Other government weather services name a tropical storm after it reaches 62-117 km/h wind speed and develops a distinctive cyclonic shape – hence what you may have read about as Tropical Storm Ketsana is called Ondoy here (storms with winds over 118 km/h are called typhoons here and cyclones or hurricanes elsewhere).

Ondoy was on its way when I left for the weekend and it had passed when I came back; the taxi driver told me that there was flooding at the airport and that flights were cancelled but I had no idea of the extent of what happened until this morning. Metro Manila was hit with a month’s worth of rainfall in a day and some reports said that over 80 percent of the area was flooded. Last I read said that homes of 435,000 people were destroyed. There are people on their roofs waiting to be rescued, there are people without power. The floodwaters are receding but many areas are still underwater.

Where I live, work and travel in between, everything was fine. We’re on high ground. Some co-workers couldn’t make it in to the office, some were stranded over the weekend and unable to make it home. In general, traffic was very light. Schools were closed since they are being used for temporary evacuation shelters. The squatters for whom Habitat is building homes had their shanties washed away.

I feel overwhelmingly sad. I’m glad to be related to an agency that will help (and if you want to donate, please go to – the direct donation link from the web site should work now). It might be that the best thing I can do is carry on with my fund-raising efforts (nothing like a crisis to increase awareness and bring out the generosity in people!), but I am still sad and somewhat shaken.

Ketsana is expected to hit typhoon strength before making landfall near Hue, Vietnam. And here in the Philippines, Pepeng is on the way.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Siquijor Pictures (from Week Eight)

San Juan beach:

Natural spring swimming pool:

Ancient enchanted tree:


Spanish-era church:

Church interior:



Maria's cove:

Mangrove sanctuary:

Scenic vista:

Dumaguete bell tower:

Building of Spanish vintage:

Philippine Spotted Deer:

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Siquijor, Island of Mystery

The president (who everyone calls GMA, her initials) declared Monday a holiday for the end of Ramadan (with a small but disruptive Muslim minority here – can you imagine if President Obama declared the same holiday?) and I had to take advantage of the three-day weekend by going away. I hadn’t yet had a beach holiday this month. In looking through Lonely Planet to prioritize travel, when I got to the Visayas I wrote, “anywhere,” knowing that opportunities and/or advice would come up. The most famous beach in the Visayas is Boracay – fabled for its white sand. I was inclined to go there, but the beauty of knowing Peace Corps Volunteers is hearing about destinations that are off the beaten track. I may still get to Boracay (though I didn’t get to Phuket in Thailand and I am okay with that), but this weekend it was on to Siquijor.

Siquijor is known among Filipinos as an island of mystery, for its witch doctors; sure enough, when I mentioned to Carmelita’s cousin that I was going she was a little spooked. I turned out not to have an opportunity to see a witch doctor, but I did get to experience a laid-back island and more than one beautiful beach. To get there from Manila you fly to Dumaguete in Negros Oriental and then take a ferry; I left after the Bay cleanup and arrived in time to get the last ferry. I stayed in a nice resort on San Juan beach – ocean breezes and sounds made for a great night’s sleep, and with fresh shrimp dishes and squash soup for dinners and French toast and mango for breakfasts, my first Filipino hotel stay (since orientation) was a success.

The driver who took me to my hotel, Nonoy, suggested an around-the-island trip, and since I could do that and still have resort time, I was up for it. Actually it was Nonoy’s wife, Grace, who took me around, since he had agreed to tour some Koreans around, but we kept bumping into each other, which was a good way to go. The island is about 72 km around – perfect for a day with multiple leisurely stops.

We went to a natural spring pool right in the town where I was staying (it kind of reminded me of Barton Springs in Austin!), so I kicked off the day with a short swim. We then went to the oldest tree on the island, said to be enchanted (so even with no witch doctor I felt some magic) and then to a waterfall (there were 133 steps down; Grace stayed at the top - not wanting to leave my things unattended, I didn’t swim, but it was picturesque). And then we went to a Spanish-era church and convent that are on UNESCO’s short list of possible sites. It’s huge for such a small island and was built with local materials. Then it was on to a beach in a cove off of the town of Maria – white-sand beach and just-right water – we swam for at least an hour. Loved it! Then it was on to a mangrove sanctuary – we walked around in the clear water and white sand for a while, with the tide going out while we were there. Our last step was a view point, from which we could see several islands. What a great day! And I did have time for a beach walk and lounge-chair reading back at the resort (I finished John McPhee and moved on to Pearls and Coconuts, a book from 1980 written basically for US Embassy wives – incredibly dated and somewhat un-PC, but in some ways interesting for that alone. I did learn an interesting factoid – it was Magellan’s voyage, which ended with his death in the Philippines, that underscored the need for an international date line! The day-by-day journals didn’t match up with the calendar days otherwise.... I also learned that the Clark of Clark Field here in the Philippines was related to a Revolutionary War fighter – I’ve searched on my own, so far to no avail, to see if he’s related to William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition – his brother fought in the Revolution…).

I spent the next morning at the resort, with a leisurely breakfast, trash pickup, beach walking, more reading, and swimming in the pool. Hoorah for a three-day weekend! Grace picked me up so that I could make the ferry back to Dumaguete – which was quite scary. I was given a seat way in the back and as we were pitching to and fro (to the sounds of people getting sick) I started calculating my likelihood of making it out if we capsized, wondered if I should text anyone just in case, and tried to focus on my book. Happy to be on land, I had a little while to explore Dumaguete before going to the airport. It has a laid-back vibe – when I landed I could immediately feel why people come for a short visit and end up staying for months in the Visayas or do voluntouring vacations there. I walked along its esplanade for a while, noted some Spanish-era buildings, and then went to a university-related botanical garden/zoo, which had some rare Philippine species. And then it was time for the plane ride back to Manila, back to work and back to my little room!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

International Coastal Cleanup Day

Before I left for the Philippines, I was doing a daily beach cleanup, and I found the Ocean Conservancy on the internet and learned about International Coastal Cleanup Day, held every year on the third weekend in September. The photograph on its web site was from Manila Bay! Coincidence? No! So I signed up.

Last week was tough though – I wasn’t sleeping well and at various points I thought I might be coming down with something; vitamin C, Airborne and herbal wellness formula seemed to do the trick, but despite the email mentioning that the cleanup was going to start early due to the tides, I decided not to wake up to an alarm clock. I knew from my previous trips to the bay that there would still be plenty of trash when I got there!

I got there later than I thought I would – between getting up late, walking to the MRT, waiting for the MRT, waiting for the LRT, and walking to the bay from the LRT, I got there much closer to the end of the allotted time than I thought I would. I don’t know how many people participated, but if there were a lot, most of them were gone. As was the shore – the water was up along the seawall. There were people standing in the water filling bags, there were kids playing in the water oblivious of or used to the trash, there were people on shore hauling trash up by the shovelful, and there was a lot of trash – mostly snack food wrappers and other plastic bags.

I decided that the best role for me would be to document things – so I took pictures and am posting them in various places. I did raise awareness and will continue to do so. I also did pick up trash this weekend – one bag for the island I was on, one bag for Manila Bay, and one for Mary’s site, since I didn’t have my rubber gloves with me for that trip (from now on I will bring them on all of my beach weekends!). I’ll discuss the rest of the weekend separately; for now, some more pictures from International Coastal Cleanup Day – Manila Bay.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Some Pictures from Week Eight

If I post pictures of each corner of my room, does it make the room look bigger?

Ceremonial shovels:

Ceremonial hard hats:

Unlike the one on Long Island, the duck sculpture near Calauan has an egg (for balut?):

The blender in action:

International Coastal Cleanup Day, Manila Bay:

Earthquake, Energy and Email

This afternoon I was sitting at my desk and all of a sudden I started to sway back and forth. Had I been spending too much time at the computer without a break? Did I eat something iffy? Not drink enough? I couldn’t sit up straight or stay still. Then the person in the cubicle in front of me said we were having an earthquake. A mild one, but we were up on the 26th floor, so we could feel it. After it stopped I still felt a rocking sensation, but I think I’m all right now. I look forward to reading about it in the paper – how far away the epicenter was, etc. I hope there was no major damage!

The dizzy feeling was real, but it might as well have served as a metaphor for my week. After being in the conference all of last week, it was hard to get back in the rhythm of my usual routine. I just felt off and a little overwhelmed. When I examined my feelings – living in the moment – I decided I was still happy, but for whatever reason I haven’t felt grounded this week. I’ve had some trouble sleeping too. I’m going away again this weekend (Monday is a holiday to celebrate the end of Ramadan – good for the Philippines!); the beach may cure all. I wouldn’t have gone away this weekend if not for the holiday – but I have to take advantage of those long weekends!

The work was a little different this week too, and that may explain part of the energy shift. Rather than research more prospects, we decided it was time to send out some appeals. So I spent most of the week emailing Filipino-American organizations and Habitat for Humanity USA Affiliates. At the same time, I’m building a contact list that they can use after I leave. There are hundreds of emails to send (the former I researched and the latter are on the web site) and I spent a lot of time sending emails and barely made a dent. I did get into a bit of a groove after a while, but still, now I know it will take a long time to get through all of them. There are fifty states! I think these are decent prospects though, so it’s worth the investment. Still, next week I may mix in a little research with the execution, to add more variety to my days.

This week the refrigerator was moved out of my room to the common area (Julie calls it a hallway; I’m in marketing) and I bought a table and chairs and another plastic shelf unit for my room. The Peace Corps Response recruiter is sending me a couple of posters for the walls, but other than that I may be finished settling in! With almost two months out of six gone (hard to believe), there are things that might make my life easier (e.g. colander, measuring cup) that I could buy, but I’ve managed without them so far and think I can continue to manage without. I like having the table and chairs though!

The other Metro Manila PCRVs relocated – about as far down Shaw in the other direction from the Shangri-La mall as we are in this direction. In other words, close, but we’re not on top of each other. We met at the mall for sushi one night; the next night they invited us for cocktails on their roof – I had told them I would give them my blender since I wasn’t feeling the smoothies, and they made some tasty margaritas (of course, then I had the idea of making pumpkin soup, and I had a feeling it would require a blender, and sure enough, the recipe I found calls for one – I may try it anyway but until I do, you can find it on

On Wednesday, there was a groundbreaking for 300 new homes in Calauan, donated by San Miguel, the big brewery here. Second trip there in a week! The ceremony was full of good will, though, and at lunch I discovered another tasty dish – greens of some sort (maybe the spinach-like one?) in coconut milk. Still, that was a long day.

Yesterday, Julie and I went to Rockwell mall for lunch. This is known as one of the more upscale ones in Manila – also one of the smaller, quieter and less crowded ones. I like it there! For the first time, I felt like shopping. It occurred to me that I could leave all of my Morocco clothes here and come back with some new, nice clothes. I wasn’t ready to shop when I got back to the U.S. and I may not be when I get back next winter/spring. So maybe I’ll shop now! What’s that I hear – cheering from the other side of the Pacific? Or maybe exasperation? I went back today with my credit card, had lunch at CPK (it was time), tried a couple of things on, didn’t find anything that worked, and lost some motivation. But the mall is so close to work, I’ll try again.

I also went out with the cousin of the cousin of Carmelita, Andrew’s co-worker in South Africa (the go-between cousin is in California, so arranging this spanned three continents!). She’s nice – we had a lot to talk about; it’s good to have some friends who are locals, not just the other Peace Corps folks! I know it made a big difference in Morocco.

Other highlights of the week – a long-overdue supermarket trip, to stock up on some things (too much bakery and mall lately – I had been to the fruit market so at least I had fruit, but no eggs or cheese or yogurt), a few skype/instant message conversations with friends on other continents, and a request from the Princeton Alumni Weekly for some thoughts and memories of the Band (needless to say, I had a lot to say!).

Baguio Pictures (also from Week Seven)

Baguio city scene:

Weavings of the north:

Typical (?) PCV apartment:

Ben Cab Museum Ifugao rice gods:

Ben Cab Museum garden:

Rice terrace and view towards the South China Sea:

Burnham Park:

Mountain view: