Vending Machine Food

I found this at Nakau, a tiny restaurant/diner near my hotel, on my first night in Tokyo. I ordered it through a vending machine with pictures of menu options on buttons, handed the receipt to the waiter, and it was prepared for me within minutes. It was one of the most delicious dishes I've ever eaten, but I have no idea what it's called because the menu was all in Japanese! It's basically strips of beef on top of rice with some really, really good secret sauce. Does anyone know what it is so I can order it again in America? Everyday? For the rest of my life... japanese-vending-machine-food

Land of the Rising Fun

My biggest regret about Tokyo is that I'm not staying here longer. It's truly one of the capitals of the world in fashion, technology and just about anything else. It's as close as humanity could get to a perfect city. It's clean, people are friendly and polite, and there's even a crackdown on smoking to the point where its illegal on sidewalks except in very specifically assigned spots. My mom said that she is sometimes annoyed by everyone bowing all the time, but I think its pretty courteous and I could get used to it. Crime is also extremely low, and Tokyo citizens are so comfortable in their surroundings that most men leave their wallets practically hanging out of their back pockets without any fear of theft. (However, assassinations tend to happen here quite a bit, which I'll get to later.) We got up bright and early to watch the rising sun outside of our high-rise hotel window before getting on another tour bus for morning city tour. First stop: Tokyo Tower. Even my mom and I, who are both scared of heights, felt perfectly comfortable in Tokyo's tallest structure, as the observation deck is completely enclosed by windows. The city view was so crystal clear that we could see the snow-capped peak of Japan's highest mountain, Mt. Fuji (which I MUST go see next time in Japan. There will be a next time...)

mount-fuji-tokyo-tower

Then we drove through the Imperial Palace Gardens, where Emperor Akihito and his family live and he works everyday. However, the area was littered with Japanese journalists and heightened security because just the day before, the minister of welfare was stabbed to death by a lone assassin. Our guide didn't seem to convey the gravity of the situation in English, but it's all over the media here. Knives appear to be the weapon of choice in Japan, as I don't think citizens are allowed to own handguns. But then again, crime rates are still low.

After driving through several shopping districts, including an entire anime neighborhood that I didn't have time to visit on this trip, we went to Asakusa Kannon Temple & Nakamise Shopping Arcade, site of the oldest and most popular Buddhist temple in Tokyo. Crawling with worshippers and tourists alike on a bright yet chilly November morning, the area was a little overwhelming but definitely worth checking out. Afterwards we were supposed to go to some pearl showroom as every tour seems to have some kind of attraction selling you something, but the guide gave us the option of being dropped off in Ginza, which almost everyone took advantage of. 

When we arrived in Tokyo's shopping mecca of high-end department stores and designer labels, first and foremost, I had to find lunch. But that was a problem. While I mentioned before, there are places you can eat well and cheap in Tokyo. But would you ever find a place to eat cheap on Fifth Avenue...that was not a Subway or a Quiznos? Well you can't in Ginza either. Either the places we found were extremely expensive, business-lunch places, or they were American chains. And I refused to eat at a Subway in Tokyo. We eventually found a nice looking, affordable restaurant which had pictures and samples of meals outside the door, like most restaurants do here. As my mom says, its always best to eat where the locals eat, and this place was very traditional as we even had to take off our shoes before being seated. The lockers for our shoes were locked by large, square wooden keys. Incredible. 

But then when we looked at the menu, no more pictures. No more English. My mom and I stared at each other, unsure what to do. Then our waiter came by, who spoke a little English. My mom then tried to explain to him what we wanted, but the poor guy just looked completely lost in translation. He had that look on his face that I could almost see how hard his brain was working to understand us, sort of the same way I look when I'm trying to understand someone speaking a language I don't know. Finally my mom just said, "Ramen. Noodles. Chicken. Meat." Then our waiter nodded and smiled, and later came back with Chicken Teriyaki strips with Miso soup and sides of salad and white rice for both of us. I was very happy. 

Afterwards we walked around a bit and checked out the department stores. My mom told me she used to come here years ago (like 38 years ago. Again, pause and think about that.) on the weekends from Manila because she could get really cheap airfares. There was even a full-sized Printemps department store AND two Harrods stores (sized down into boutiques), which I've never seen outside of France and the United Kingdom, respectively. I also stopped in the Uniqlo (the Japanese version of Gap -- but BETTER), and I saw the cutest pair of dark blue plaid pants, but I didn't buy them. And now I really regret it and I can only hope that they have them at the SoHo location back in New York :/

To continue the tour of shopping districts in Tokyo, we headed for the trendy and hipster Harajuku District, which most Americans are familiar with now thanks to Gwen Stefani. They had the usual stuff I've seen on this trip: TopShop, Zara, and H&M, which must have just opened as the line was down the block and there were security guards everywhere. My mom remarked that the H&M bags were being carried around the neighborhoods like badges of honor. We walked around Harajuku Street, a series of back alleys like a lot of shopping streets in this western area of Tokyo, and most shops were tiny, expensive boutiques. My favorite, however, had to have been the second-hand American clothing store. I don't know where they get their stock. Tourists looking to dump their stuff before going home? International shipments from Salvation Army? Who knows.

harajuku-streetThen we made our way back east again to accomplish a goal I have had for years: to see every Disney park in the world. Don't ask why I have this goal. I'm not sure myself, but after I hit up Euro Disney in 2004, I figured I should just go all the way. Anyway, Tokyo Disneyland was my last target. After changing trains three times, we finally made it to Tokyo Disneyland. Disney sure gets people coming and going, as they actually charge a fee (250 yen) to take the shuttle from the JR Station to the park. Hong Kong didn't do that. Hmph. Anyway, we went this late in the day (already dark since sunset is around 4:30 p.m. right now) because at the foreign Disney parks, admission is cheaper after 6 p.m. by at least 50%. I don't know why they don't do this in the U.S. parks. I've never Disneyland park-goers look so good. EVERYONE dresses up here in Tokyo, everywhere they go. It's like New York and Paris, but then some. I brought my trenchcoat, but I even felt shabby with my Converse shoes. Very different from the usual sweatshirt and tennis shoes crowd in Anaheim. Not to mention the kids are all well-behaved here. No children screaming and throwing temper tantrums. Incredible.

After a few hours at the park, my mom and I were exhausted and decided to call it a day. The trip home was supposed to be pretty straight forward. Only one transfer. We couldn't even get that right. We were almost back at our station, when my mom asked if the one we were at was the right one. I said no, but then the lady next to me said it was "Iidabashi" (which was the station we were headed for). So my mom and I jumped for the door, but then the man in suit (well, every guy wears a suit here) who was standing in front of me said that it was not Iidabashi. I turned to stop my mom, but she was already on the platform. Then as I jumped to catch her, the doors shut in front of me. My mom and I stared at each other between the door windows, as we started to move away. I motioned for her to stay there, and I got off the train at the next stop (Iibadashi) and waited on the platform to go back. Then a young Japanese guy started talking to me (in Japanese), but I didn't know what he was saying. He was smiling and then said finally in English, "You want to go get something to eat?" And then I said, "No, I have to go find my mom." Poor thing must have thought it was a line, but it was true. Then the train came and I went back to the other station, collected my mom, and we went back to the hotel, stopping at the restaurant we went to the night before to get some yummy take-out.

Now I'm headed back to the United States, but with a few stops in California before back to New York. But I must, MUST, come back to Japan soon and explore Tokyo and the rest of the country soon. I am glad that I came now, however, and not 10 years ago, as I'd probably be headed back to America with a suitcase full of useless Sailor Moon souvenirs, which I actually didn't see any of...but there was no lack of Hello Kitty here...

*Thanks to my former fellow FC interns for suggesting this blog entry title previously.

Front of the World

Tokyo in one word: Incredible. After arriving to Tokyo Narita Airport, we had to sit around for about an hour and a half until the next shuttle arrived, but honestly it did us some good as I think both my mom and I just needed time to sit down and decompress from all the flying and driving we've been doing. Thanks to the recommendation of my friend and former fellow intern, Anne, I booked a room at the Grand Palace Hotel, which turned out to be much better and fancier than I expected. Plus, they're all decorated for Christmas, even though as I understand it that X-Mas isn't really a big holiday here. But it looks like the target demographic here is made up of business travelers, so it probably caters to them well. 

My mom, however, wasn't entirely happy with the room since there was no air-conditioning. Since it's already autumn here and beginning to get cold (which I am so thankful for since I'm SO over hot temperatures for this year), the hotel doesn't have air conditioning available anymore in order to conserve energy. I understand this, but my mom kept pushing me to call the front desk about it. "I'm hormonally-challenged," she said, which I just began to laugh, literally rolling around on the floor at. So she called. While on the phone with the front desk, I could hear the Japanese attendant telling her that there was no air-conditioning when it is below 20 degrees Celsius (68 F), to which she just kept responding, "Why?" (which I also laughed at). Finally, someone brought up a fan, which calmed the room down.

Naturally, I was quite hungry after unpacking, so we decided to head out of the hotel in search for some ramen (and Japanese candy!). One of the Concierge desk attendants gave me a map of restaurants in the area, specifiying two ramen houses. One of them, she said, was more famous but she told me not to go there as it is "kinda smelly in a bad way." So we walked towards the other one. However, every restaurant we walked by smelled delicious. They also all had pictures of menu selections in the windows. Finally, I couldn't keep passing this up, and I saw a delectable-looking beef and rice bowl (I'm not sure what it was called since it was in Japanese...) along with ramen in a window, so we went in. The restaurant was immaculately clean, and it was very small, with a bar of 5 or 6 seats on one side near the entrance and two or three bar seats around the corner, and then two tables of two on the left side next to the windows. A machine with pictures of all the menu options on buttons, like a vending machine, was near the door. My mom and I stared at it a little, not sure what to do, and then we looked to the waiter for help. He stared back at us for a minute too, as if no one in the room knew how to speak ANY language at all. Then he came over and helped us order. It was definitely the most delicious meal I've had on this trip...and probably the best Japanese food I've had ever. And it cost us a total of about $5 USD. I have to go back before I leave.

Afterwards, we walked around the neighborhood to see what else was nearby. We stopped in a drugstore, where I bought a ton of Japanese chocolate and strawberry candies. I also stopped at one of the many vending machines along the sidewalks to try out how one works and also to get the cutest can of Fanta grape soda ever.

japanese-candy

As we were walking, my mom didn't stop commenting on how nicely everyone was dressed and how clean the city is. She has been to Tokyo many, many times, but it seems that Tokyo doesn't stop impressing people. As my Time Out: Tokyo guidebook says, there aren't many trash cans throughout the city, but most citizens bring their rubbish home. Incredible.

Now, as it is past dawn in the place where the sun rises first in the world each day, I'm going out to explore.

Escape from Manila

Well, it sure felt like an escape. Let me begin, however, with the return to Manila on Monday afternoon. In order to keep costs down, it was cheaper to fly back to Manila from Hong Kong to catch a connecting flight to Tokyo, leaving us with about 12 hours back at the house. Considering its Big Game week (my favorite week of the year), there is not supposed to be any sleep this week, and so far I haven't really gotten any thanks to airports and planes. I think I might even have my passport number memorized by now. Going from a nice 22 degrees Celsius to 33 was only the beginning. The taxi ride back to the house in Santa Mesa was almost two hours thanks to a six-car pile-up on Roxas Boulevard, involving 4 cars, a jeepney and a big truck. The truck went away spotless, but the back of the jeepney looked like an accordion and there weren't any windows left on the other cars. When we got back to the house, I tried to nap, but I got distracted by Wheel of Fortune, and then we headed to SM Centerpoint to get some more snacks. As my mom was buying some buko (coconut) juice, I looked over to the first vegetarian restaurant I've ever seen in Manila, only to see they served barbeque pork and chicken adobo, among other things. I think the only thing on the menu that was legitimately vegetarian was a fruit salad, and even then I'm not sure...

Our Northwest flight to Tokyo was set to depart at 7:35 a.m. from NAIA, so we had to be out the door by 4 a.m. just in case there was traffic. Trying to be as quiet as possible without waking anyone up, my mom and I loaded our luggage into the car. Just to give me the right send off, a giant roach appeared near the car to wish me goodbye. I will not keep in touch.

While the drive was only about 30 minutes, I think it was the longest drive of my life. As we pulled out of the drive way, we turned the air conditioning on, which I wish we never did. The car was sluggish already by two blocks away, so we turned it off and opened the windows, which at night was just fine. However, the car never really got back to normal. I'm used to our driver blasting down the streets, but since it was so dark and there are hardly any streetlights in Manila, he was being on the extremely cautious side. Yet the car was still making a funny sound. Every block seemed to wear and tear on the vehicle, to the point where I thought it was just going to break down and we were going to have to find a cab to get us to the airport. Then I became afraid that since it was so dark, we might hit another car since other drivers weren't as cautious. Or even that we might be car-jacked/mugged since there have been so many incidents near our area lately. When we finally made it to the airport, we missed the exit to the terminal because our driver was only used to dropping us off at the Philippine Airlines terminal, forcing us to make a completely illegal turnaround in the dark.

By some miracle, we made it to the airport. Again, this other international terminal looks like it hasn't been updated since construction, but it was still cleaner and more organized than the old JFK JetBlue terminal. A little after sunrise on a clear morning, our jumbo jet headed for the Land of the Rising Sun.

City of the Future

Getting up on Sunday was harder than on Saturday, but at least I got to sleep in a little (to about 7 a.m.) After watching live updates of the Cal/OSU football game back home on ESPN GameCast, I decided it was time to leave the hotel and forget about the disappointing result. However, it was only 9:30 a.m., and no dim sum places were open yet. We headed back down to Tsim Sha Tsui to catch the Star Ferry to Central on Hong Kong Island and eat proper dim sum over there. After crossing the footbridge over Connaught Street Central, we found that walking through this part of the city is all on footbridges. It's like walking in a city over a city. One thing I found slightly surprising was that this was the congregation site of the overseas Filipino workers in Hong Kong, as they all gather here on Sundays and sort of "picnic" on along the bridges. I noticed other tourists found this sort of strange as they didn't stop staring, but my mom said they gather here together on their day off because they're more comfortable being around people from home. Plus, it helped when we kept getting lost because my mom asked a few of them for directions.

After stopping in the Marks & Spencer to check if they had strawberry trifles (NONE, but they had some other imported desserts which just didn't look as good), we headed for Stanley Street at got dim sum at Luk Yu, recommended to us by a local storeowner. After barbeque pork buns, chicken spring rolls and pan-fried dumplings, we were again stuffed. Then we stumbled upon something I've never seen before anywhere. We were going to walk up a hill in the Mid-Levels district, a trendy neighborhood with cuisines from all over the world and a SoHo of their own, my mom saw an escalator and insisted we take it since she was tired. This first escalator was flat, a sloped version of the moving walkways at airports. But then there was another one, and another one...and another one. It turns out it goes way up the mountain. We kept going for at least 20 minutes from one escalator to the next, zig-zagging up, but after awhile, my mom got tired of our adventure and said we should go back down. Unfortunately, there are only stairs going back down. 

mid-levels-escalatorsWe headed back for the Hong Kong MTR Subway Station for one attraction I needed to see here: Hong Kong Disneyland. Before you get all, "Wow, why are you bothering with Disneyland in Hong Kong when you're from California, blah, blah, blah," I need to see this as after HK Disney, the only park I have not been to is Tokyo Disneyland (which I will be going to in a few days...), and I want to see all of the ones in the world. (Don't judge me. We all have our oddities.) Well, I can tell you that Hong Kong Disneyland blows the American parks out of the water. Perhaps because its newer, but it's also calmer. First though, we had to take the subway there, which was extremely easy. The stations are easy to navigate, and both the stations and trains are immaculately clean. There's also a transparent fence between the platform and the train tracks to prevent anyone from falling in. We really need that in the United States.

Transferring to the Disney train line at Sunny Bay station was simple...and very hard to miss. All of the windows are shaped like Mickey Mouse. But it doesn't stop there. All of the handles on the ceiling are shaped like Mickey Mouse, and there are bronze statues of Disney characters all over the train. I was amazed to see so many people on the train, considering it was 3 p.m. in the afternoon already, and I was also surprised that most of the people going were older. When we stepped off the train, it was obvious we were in Disneyland from the usually glitz and "magical" signs everywhere, but there was something else strange about the landscape. I could swear that once I stepped off the train, I left Hong Kong and was not in Anaheim, but somewhere more like Palm Springs. Disneyland here isn't littered with screaming children. I speculated that many people come out here for leisurely walks in the promenade as there is a nice large park and pier outside of Disneyland. My mom also pointed out how much easier HK Disney is to get to, compared to the one in Orange County as that one is ONLY accessible by car. 

After awhile, my mom and I got tired and wandered into the Grand Salon of the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel. I bought a bottle of Sprite and sat on a plush, Victorian-style green couch in the air-conditioned room for about 30 minutes. Too tired to walk back the MTR station, my mom tugged me over to the hotel shuttle, not really knowing where it was going, and we just hoped that would take us back to the station - which it did!

After making it back to Mong Kok station in Kowloon, I had to stop at Hui Lau Shan, a mango dessert chain that my friend Victoria recommended to me and I couldn't pass up. I got a mango-strawberry slushie, with a layer of fruit chunks at the top and yogurt and ice at the bottom, while my mom got something with mango and coconut. The busy streets of Mong Kok were irking my mom, as she was exhausted from walking and large crowds all day, so we walked back to the hotel. The only way to cap off the day was with more take-out food from the local restaurant since it was so good and cheap the day before.

Between the MTR and the Mid-Levels, it's obvious that Hong Kong is truly advanced and a model for cities around the world. It's a city of the future. Maybe being a day ahead really helps.

Shopper's Paradise

On Saturday morning, I was very reluctant to get up at 6 a.m. Although I've gotten used to waking up at 5 a.m. on this trip, this was the first night I've spent in a comfortable bed in over a week. But the idea of taking a piping hot shower for the first time in over a week was more enticing. Plus, I had to get rid of the cigarette smell that seems to loom over our room. After getting ready for the long day ahead, my mom and I got aboard a half-day city tour bus of Hong Kong Island. First stop: Victoria Peak. I'd say this was the attraction I wanted to see most, and we definitely lucked out on the weather. Picture perfect skies. Plus, it's 3 degrees Celsius cooler up there than down here. On the zig-zagging roads up, reminiscent of those on the Pacific Coast Highway, our lovely and very hilarious local guide, Vivian, gave us some info on Hong Kong, including the fact that 7 million people live here. High-rises are the architecture of choice here and land is extremely expensive. She said jokingly, that's why they're all so small. She made a lot of jokes referencing the petiteness of Chinese people compared to Westerners, which the bus full of Britons, Australians and Canadians (I think my mom and I were the only Americans as I didn't hear any other American accents...) just found adorable about her. Next stop: Aberdeen, where the local fishing village is and the home of the Jumbo Floating Restaurant (As Vivian noted, you've probably seen this place in any Jackie Chan movie.) Jackie is pretty popular around here, and we even saw his seaside home on the way to Repulse Bay, which looked like a small English castle. Repulse Bay, named after the HMS Repulse that used to be docked here, was gorgeous, with the first sandy beaches I've seen up close and not from a plane window this whole trip. Last stop, at this point on completely the other side of mountains of Hong Kong, was Stanley Market, a series of outdoor stalls selling everything from knick-knack souvenirs to local artwork, more knockoff designer handbags. I was sort of surprised at the lack of these bags, and Manila seems to be bursting at the seams with them, and I've heard from many people that Hong Kong is too. Although I didn't do much shopping in Hong Kong (only a package of nice wooden chopsticks and a small jade elephant for myself), HK is, as Vivian said, "a shopper's paradise," nearly everything here is tax-free. Only four goods are not: cars, gasoline, cigarettes and alcohol.

After getting back to our hotel in Kowloon, my mom and I quickly changed into more sophisticated attire and hurried down to the hotel shuttle for tea at The Peninsula Hotel. Tea is served in the decadent lobby of the grand old hotel between 2 and 7 p.m, and the dress code supposedly prohibits flip-flops and beach sandals. That didn't stop anyone, as I looked down the long line and most tourists were wearing said shoes or tennis shoes. It's a good thing we went at 2, considering we only waited about 30 to 45 minutes in line, and when I looked back as we were being seated, it was then already out the door (it's a long hallway). Over $400 HKD (~$50 USD) including 10% gratuity (that's the standard here), the tea-for-two selection was extremely worth the wait. If you go, I recommend getting the "Peninsula Blend." The lobby, once a site just where local Britons and many American ex-pats relaxed in colonial times, is now THE place to go when on holiday here. My mom noted that the lobby had been sized down, however, since her first visit here in 1964. (Pause, and think about that.) Now half of what used to be the full lobby of the hotel is ritzy, top-of-the-top stores like Cartier and Prada.

peninsula-tea

After tea, it was close to 4:30 p.m. and almost sunset, so we headed for the Star Ferry to Hong Kong. At $2.20 HKD ($0.28 USD), as my mom says, it's the best buy in Hong Kong. Much like I do when I'm on the Staten Island Ferry, I got off the boat and got right back on to head back to the other side. Not because I didn't want to see Hong Kong, but I wanted to take pictures of the sunset on Victoria Harbour (and I was really tired and wanted to go back to the hotel). After getting back to shore and walking around Nathan Road (the main thoroughfare and shopping street in Kowloon) we headed back to the hotel. After a full day of walking, we were exhausted and hungry. So we got take-out Chinese food at the restaurant two doors down from the hotel: Teresa Coffee Restaurant. I highly recommend this place as well if you ever stay at the Metropark. Not only was the food (chicken with cashews, pan-fried noodles and fried rice) all delicious, the portions were huge and we got all of it for $90 HKD ($11.60 USD).

Tagaytay

On my past trips to Manila, I've barely been able to get out of the crowded, 10-million populated metropolis. Yesterday, however, my mom and I were invited by one of her cousins to Tagaytay in Batangas, one of the provinces south of the city. Sitting in the back of the 9-person, air-conditioned van, I watched as we sped down the flyover (freeway) out of the city, past the smog-filled skies and shacks along the road that transformed into cloudy skies, open fields and rice terraces. In the distance, it was possible to see the mountains near Laguna de Bay, whose peaks were covered by clouds, hiding their height. Despite being in the provinces, away from traffic, there was no lack of construction along the way. Many developers, especially foreign investors from China and Korea, have been building gated communities, hotels and resorts on the untouched land. During the two-hour trip, my mom and her cousin and friends held lively conversations in English, Spanish and Tagalog. Thankfully, they speak Spanish slowly enough here that I can actually understand it and try to participate in the conversation. They were all very sweet, but it's amazing how point-blank their questions were, including whom I voted for in the recent election. I don't even know how many times people here have asked me if I'm married yet or not. One of the ladies in the car even offered to introduce me to her grandson, but I just smiled politely and didn't say anything.

When we finally arrived in Tagaytay, I looked out on one of the most breathtaking and beautiful sights I've ever traveled to: the Lake Taal. When we got out of the car I experienced a feeling I never had before in the Philippines: I was cold. One of the first stops was at my mom's cousin's vacation home: a three-story, modern Filipino-style dream home over looking the lake. Although there is a steep price of $600 USD per night, the dark, wooden house could easily fit 10 people (maybe even 20) among all of the beds already in the place (at least 4 per story) and massive living rooms with attached balconies on each floor.  The Hamptons will never even come close in comparison. Unfortunately, it's just too far to fly to from the United States for a weekend getaway. What makes the lake special is that it surrounds an active volcano, which spews every few years and erupted as recently as 20 years ago. We drove around the province for a bit, past burgeoning pineapple fields and palm trees along the cascading mountains down a narrow road, barely big enough for only one car going by at a time.

tagaytay After lunch, we stopped at a fruit stand on the way back, where some of the ladies in the car bought a lot of tropical fruits, including pineapples, coconuts and durian. I decided to hop out and play photojournalist, chronicling the women bargaining ruthlessly with the local sellers, and one woman insisting on selling my mom and her cousin some espasol, a long, chewy candy wrapped in white paper made out of rice flour, milk and sugar, resembling a large pastilla but no caribao milk. But my mom refused, since she doesn't ever like buying cooked goods off the side of the road. " You don't know how or what kind of conditions these things were cooked in."

While I was stuffed after lunch (chicken adobo, kare-kare with peanut sauce and mango ice cream), after such a long drive back in traffic and rain, my tummy was rumbling. And for some unknown reason, I craved something I almost never want to eat in the United States. So on the way home, we stopped at a McDonald's drive-thru window and I got chicken nuggets. I don't know why, but it was good.

Luck of the Draw

While I encourage people to travel to the Philippines because of how affordable it is for the Dollar or Euro, I also encourage it for the eye-opening experience some Westerners desperately need. On Tuesday, my mom and I went to the bank nearby to take care of some errands she needed to attend to. While on the way out of the bank, an elderly woman with ragged hair and clothes falling off of her asked me for money. I got into the car, and my mom handed me 20 pesos to give to the woman. 20 pesos, an equivalent of 40 to 50 U.S. cents, can really buy a meal here. On Monday, I got a waffle with mango topping for 10P and a bottle of water for 6P.

After I opened the window and gave her the money, she smiled at me and limped down the street. It was only as she was half way down the crowded block that I noticed she only had one sandal on, and that left foot pointed sharply outward and couldn't be reeled in. I might say that I get used to the poverty here, or at home, but I never really do. I think that would be impossible, or incredibly cold-hearted. My mom sighed and looked out the other window of the car as we tried to back out into a congested, smog-filled street of cars, pedicabs and jeepneys -- elongated jeeps, almost steel beasts, and not one looks like another. "It's the luck of the draw," she said.

My dental work also finished up on Tuesday. After the first day, there was hardly any pain. At one point, my dentist was afraid that I might need a root canal on one of my left back molar, but thankfully, the decay didn't extend to the nerve, and she was able to fill it. In a strange way, I was sort of sad to say goodbye to them. I grow attached easily and I hate goodbyes, so I tend to just quickly say goodbye, or at times, not say goodbye at all, to avoid the awkwardness and sadness of it all. However, the owner of the dentistry office sent my mom a package of goodies, including an ice cream cake. Only in the Philippines will a dentist send a patient an ice cream cake. And I don't say that out of humor, but because that is how generous the people are in this culture. It was sweet, in every sense of the word.

TopShop

One of the best things about traveling to Manila for Americans is that it is low-cost city, and the exchange rate is very favorable to the dollar (about 49 pesos to $1 today). I've picked up a lot of necessities here for less than $20 USD, and most of my meals (combined with my mom's) don't usually come out to more than $4 USD. However, that isn't to say I haven't picked up a few special items. Before I got to Manila, I found out there are eight TopShops in the metropolitan area alone. EIGHT. It was my second full day here (Saturday) when we were at the Edsa Shangri-La Mall when I first saw it. The promised land. Two words fashioned into one: TOPSHOP. I stood outside for about 30 seconds without moving, my jaw hanging open and my eyes glazed over in wonder. Ok, so maybe this is a little much, but I've been waiting patiently, and now desperately, since I first heard about the first TopShop opening in America (in SoHo in New York) in March. It was supposed to open its doors on October 10, but because of stupid rules and bureaucracy at the NYC Board of Commerce, it's not opening until at least March 2009. They sure know how to keep an American girl waiting. Anyway, I picked up one shirt (even though I wanted so much more) since the prices aren't cheaper here but about the same as the U.K. and U.S.-online store prices. The store was quite petite, not much bigger than the size of my bedroom here, nothing like the ones I've been to in Dublin and London.

Then I saw a Marks & Spencer, so obviously I had to get something there too. I got a dark black and grey plaid top, and although they carry a lot of the cookies, chips and candies that the British stores carry, no strawberry trifles. Sigh. My mom said maybe in Hong Kong they will, but since they didn't at the Prague location, I'm not getting my hopes up.

On the drive to Makati on Sunday, my mom asked if I had a radio or CD player. I pulled out my trusty iPhone, which she didn't realize had an iPod too. I started playing the Mamma Mia soundtrack (Yeah, I had to buy it after seeing the movie on the plane so many times), and she asked if I had any oldies. I said I had a 1960s playlist, to which she scoffed and asked, "Don't you have any Journey?" As if I didn't…

After shopping for my camera at the Rustan's in Makati, my mom and I met up with her best friend, Lourdes, and we went to her brother's new restaurant, Le Régalade. The brand-new French bistro, opened in September, features a Michelin-star chef, Alain Rayé, from Vancouver. Le dejeuner was très bonnes, including a succulent pot of bœuf bourguignon and French onion soup, which I normally don't even care for much, topped off with crème brûlée and the most delectable apple tart I've ever eaten. Not to mention the restroom was the size of a small New York apartment -- and it was absolutely gorgeous with cherry wood walls and giant plush leather chairs in the waiting area. I would live in it.

Since I've had extremely weird sleeping patterns over the last week (which have really thrown my entire body for a loop), I've been watching a lot of television at random hours. I've noticed that if there are two things you can count on when traveling internationally, it's CNN and BBC World News. I won't watch Rachael Ray at home; I refuse to watch it here. Another thing I noticed is while watching NBC's Today, there's a big difference on the international version versus the American one. When Al Roker does his little weather bit and says his token phrase, "Here's a look at the weather in your neck of the woods," it typically cuts to the local weather station. Now, since obviously they don't do that here because of the time change, other shows like CBS' Early Show and ABC's Good Morning America play music while displaying the American map. However, Today does not, and Roker doesn't seem to realize that we can hear everything he is saying. He sure does make fun of Robin Williams a lot. Très bizarre.

Camera Shopping

Asia is known for having cheap electronics, particularly cameras. Hong Kong, as my mom said, is one giant camera store. I wanted to get a Canon digital SLR camera there on Stanley Street, and I asked for a lot of advice from my friend Victoria, but I thought it might be easier to pick up a camera here in Manila instead for a number of reasons. For one, my mom speaks the language here and also it's easier for us to pay here since we have pesos in the bank. I was right and wrong. First the wrong. Apparently Manila only carries two models of Canon SLRs: a 450D and a 1000D. Strangely, the 1000D is cheaper. And they were both out of my budgeted price range. We went from store to store over three days, and I couldn't find anything else. We did see a few cheaper cameras at the tech bazaar area in Green Hills, but my mom was resistant to buying the camera there since its a series of stalls, not real stores (this is also the place to go for really good designer knock-offs).

Now the right. Since my mom speaks Tagalog, all of the salespeople we talked to were incredibly nice and helpful. (Buying anything in English here is a totally different situation.) This kind of courtesy and customer service just doesn't exist many other places. Additionally, my mom is able to pay for the camera here in pesos on her local debit card, making the transaction more secure. We finally settled yesterday on the 1000D model at the Shoe Mart (that's the local department store chain) in Makati. We even got a free Batman: The Dark Knight backpack, which I'm not sure what we're going to do with. I spent more than I planned, but I know I can return this easily should anything go wrong.

On the way home as I was ogling my new camera, my mom suggested that we should buy a gun to go with it around here. I looked back at her slightly stunned as she just giggled slyly, looking out the window over the polluted Pasig River.

On a side note, only in the Philippines have I ever experienced the awkwardness of being taller than everyone else. But never have I been taller than my bed. Every single night here, I keep hitting my toes against the iron rods at the front of the bed. I've always dreamed of being taller. Now I'm happy at 5'3".

Wide World of Sports

For the first time since Sunday, November 3, I got a full night's sleep (even if it was from 9pm to 6am). Most, MOST, unfortunately, I wasn't able to watch the Cal-USC football game at 9 a.m. on Sunday (5 p.m. PST on Saturday) on ESPN here. I got hope on Friday since ESPN was airing the Virginia Tech-Maryland game, and they were airing a Pac-10 football special, which I didn't get to watch since we left for the dentist.  However, when I woke up this Sunday morning, much to my dismay, it was obvious there would be no Cal football for me. I perfectly understand ESPN airing more UEFA football, which I have been watching a lot here and has been far more entertaining than the Asian cricket tournaments I had to sit through in 2003. But instead of world football or American football, ESPN has decided to air…the National Spelling Bee. Great. Just great. As I mentioned before, if you think Christmas season starts early in America, its nothing like here. My mom said that Christmas (as there are no other winter holidays celebrated here really) decorations have been up in malls and around city streets since September. Filipinos really go all out for Christmas here, and it does make the city a bit brighter for a few months. For a very small taste, imagine entire department store floors of home and tree decorations and manger scenes and Christmas carols blaring in mall hallways. My favorite decorations are always the green, red and yellow paroles (large stars usually made out of capiz) either hanging in people's windows or from treetops along the roads.

The only city in the United States where I have experienced the winter holidays really take over is New York City. When I watched Today this morning (I think was Saturday's episode) one of the anchors mentioned the opening of the Rockettes' show at Radio City Music Hall. I mentioned to my mom that I was planning to go with some friends, and she said she'd love to go, but doesn't have the patience to sit through live shows anymore. "If there's not a remote control, I can't sit through it."

Dental Tourism

A few months ago, I stipulated to my mom that I had to have my cavities filled while I am in Manila. Before anyone starts to question me, it's not like I'm going to a witch doctor. Dentistry is just cheaper here since I don't have insurance. Plus, isn't medical tourism becoming a trend in America? That's not to say dental practices aren't…different here. On my first morning, after dropping off my messenger bag and pants to be repaired and altered, my mom and I headed to the dentist's office at Centerpoint. On the car ride over, I was showing my mom the Cantonese and Japanese language guides on my iPhone. "You know they'll kill you here for that," she said dryly, pointing at the phone. I promptly put it back in my bag and I've decided to leave it at home for the next few days.

I'm not going to reveal how many cavities I had, but let's just be glad it wasn't in the double digits. The dentist told me I also have an extra tooth -- in the front, not wisdom teeth (although I do have those). My mom said to be glad that I don't have an extra finger, like Anne Boleyn (seriously, she said that). So while the dentist was fiddling around with that dental mirror in my mouth, I explained to her that the sixth finger was a rumor and probably not true granted that it was a sign of witchcraft in those days and Henry VIII wouldn't have married her with that (not that things turned out well anyway). I prefer to think my extra tooth is just lucky.

Before the dentist got to work on my teeth, I realized that she hadn't put any anesthetics yet. She had already put a green tractor in my mouth to keep my jaw wide open and got the drill ready when bolted up and asked if she was going to put anything on my teeth first. "Oh, you want anesthetics?" she replied. I looked blankly and replied politely that I would. I never realized (or thought possible) that this was optional. She gave me a few papers to sign (which was awkward since I wasn't sure which address to write down), and put a few shots in my mouth. It was not nearly enough. The first tooth was fine, but the next few were piercing, and the last one was hell on earth. She kept putting shots of local anesthetics in my lower right gum, but I could tell that my mouth was not as numb as it should be. All the while, Christmas music (Yes, already. I'll get to that later.) was playing in the mall outside, so I had to listen to "Feliz Navidad" over and over while wondering when the drill was just going make my head explode. It was like Santa's Workshop of Pain.

Finally, it was over, but I still have more cavities to get filled over the next two days. My mom says that dentists are hesitant here to inject a lot of anesthetics here since so many patients have high blood pressure. But I do not. I want the drugs. Badly.

We concluded the day in Greenhills, which is remarkably different and pretty awesome now. Last time I saw it in 2003, it was a cluttered and dirty indoor flea market. Since then, it burned down and investors rebuilt it into a fabulous mall, outdoor food court and a clean flea market. Each month, all of the stalls are cleared out for one day and the place is cleaned and sprayed down for bugs and rats. Today was that day. All of the stall owners were waiting outside of their vans with their goods ready to go back in. After stopping in the Starbucks for a desperately needed cup of coffee/injection of caffeine, my mom and I were trying to decide where to pick up dinner. "We could go to California Pizza Kitchen," she suggested. I did not come 8,000 miles across the United States and the Pacific Ocean to go to CPK. We went inside and then she exclaimed she knew exactly where to take me and tugged me outside. I never could have thought this one up: pizza in a cone. Surprisingly, it was delicious. I got the "Pepperazzi." Think a hot pocket with an opening at the top. I'm curious to try the fruit pizza at the shop next door, even if I might regret it. I don't know how they come up with this stuff.

Postscript: Last night I saw the King Kamehameha of roaches on the wall. Luckily, he didn't open his wings and fly at me. But, I still didn't sleep much afterwards.

Chateau D'if

One of the best things about moving to the East Coast was that flights to Europe are both faster and cheaper. However, traveling to Asia has become an even bigger odyssey than ever before (sorry to state the obvious, but I've never been this jet lagged). After two days of flying, I have finally made it to Manila -- but not without bumps along the way. Amazingly, all of my flights so far have departed and arrived early. The Northwest Airlines-trip to Tokyo Narita Airport was remarkably smooth, yet I couldn't sleep and I watched Mamma Mia twice. Ten hours after I looked out of the plane window to see the Golden Gate Bridge behind us, I finally saw the beaches of Japan below rosy and yellow skies, with mountains popping up over fog in the distance. Flight #3 of 9 was going smooth until the last hour when not only did the plane start shaking violently side-to-side, but also the aircraft started dropping rapidly in altitude to the point that a few people were shrieking behind me. Here I was, after 8,000+ miles and one hour away from my destination, and I was terrified that the plane was going to crash into the pitch-black Pacific. Thankfully, after a few minutes, it stopped.

Then there was the airport to deal with. I got through Immigration and Customs quick enough, but finding my mom was another ordeal. Unlike the posh Philippine Airlines terminal at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the terminal where all of the other international flights land is a madhouse full of locals waiting for families, carts full of balikbayan boxes and cars that stop for no one. Furthermore, there is a system where you exit based on a letter system that coordinates with a last name. I suddenly got confused (keep in mind I haven't really slept in almost 24 hours at this point with the exception of right before the sudden drop ride before). I wasn't sure if I was looking for my name or my mom's last name. I decided just to go with "K" and pray that I was right. I walked down the ramp into a sea of humanity without having any idea where I was going. My phone started vibrating in my pocket, and it was my mom on the line screaming to find out where I was. I looked behind me and said I was in front of the Duty Free shop, which is exactly where she was. Figures we'd both be in front of a store. I haven't seen my mom in eight months, and every mile and bump in the air was worth getting here.

On the way back to the house in Santa Mesa at the very last street of Metro Manila, my mom tells me that my grandma doesn't look the way she used to, as she has been quite sick but she is still strong. Mommy also tells me not to expect much from the house. "Welcome to the Chateau D'if," she says with an evil giggle. Honestly, it was a five-star hotel compared to what this place was when I was last here five years ago. First off, there's a shower installed now so I don't have to use a plastic bucket. I've only seen two roaches so far, both of which were dead upon arrival. Plus, there's air-con, so that alone makes life bearable. 24 hours after getting on the BART in North Berkeley, I finally sat down and got into bed.