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.

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.

Election Night in America

I am truly proud to be an American again. I feel privileged to have been able to not only witness, but to vote for history and see an African-American become the president of the United States of America. This is not only a message to the world that we want change and to repair our image, it is a message to Americans on how far we have come and that anything is truly possible in this country. It reaffirms every value of this nation. And I'm especially glad that I was able to experience the night in Berkeley. Telegraph Avenue went absolutely insane! There were people crowded on the streets, people hanging from street lights, jumping on to the sides of buses. But it was all peaceful. Not to mention it was the only time I was happy to see a tree-sitter. (Video below soon...) I saw so many of my friends I haven't seen in months. Everyone was cheering "YES WE CAN" and "OBAMA" and "USA! USA!" as if we had just won every gold medal at the Olympics. The only thing that would have made me happier would have been to see Sarah Palin board a one-way flight back to Alaska. Or maybe to Russia.

elections-berkeley-telegraphUnfortunately, the evening was bittersweet. While I am proud of my country, I am ashamed of my home state. While even at this moment (9:51am PST), the San Francisco Chronicle still won't call the Proposition 8 race, it is clear that California will write hatred into its own constitution and literally divide us into first and second class citizens. It is applalling from the state that has a reputation and prides itself on being on the forefront of social change and being one of the first states to repeal laws against inter-racial marriage. Now it's a sham. I am not as proud of being a Californian as I was even just yesterday.

Nevertheless, the United States is on the right path again. For the last eight years, while I have always loved my country, many people including myself questioned the direction it was going in. I am very aware that the problems we face now will take years to repair, but I am confident now that it will get done.

And despite my renewed love and pride, I am leaving -- but just for two weeks -- as I'm boarding soon for Manila, via Tokyo Narita Airport. Unlike past trips I've taken outside of the U.S. in the last eight years, I'm not longer afraid of people heckling me. Peace out, America!