For the Love of Food: A week’s worth of culture keeps returning to a plate

My quest to understand as much of the Philippine culture as I can while I’m here is quite interesting. For every one question I ask about food, history, customs, and the day to day, I probably receive five or more about America and school/life/people/everything back home.

“So is it really like Mean Girls?” Is probably one of my favorite questions yet because it means a movie from 2004 is still that good to be common knowledge across an ocean. Before being asked if I like to cook, someone asked, “Do you like cooking pancakes?” “What about regular sweet cakes?” 

Meanwhile my brain is spinning as I try to relate my answer back in terms free of American slang and as straightforward as possible, I’m converting American dollars to Filipino pesos, miles to kilometers and pounds to kilos in my head as I try to explain a culture that comes as natural as blinking but this goes both ways as cultures are slowly starting to bridge together.

And the answer is yes. I do love pancakes. And every time I cross the street I feel like I am going to turn into a pancake. The closest thing I can compare it to is this scene from Elf when Buddy tries to cross the street for the first time in the City. Difference being the only top you cross in front of a stopped car is if traffic is congested, otherwise you Frogger your way across traffic. The first time I crossed the street here it was across a multi-lane roundabout to see what the Fuente Osmeña statue looked like. You don’t just look both ways before crossing the street here. Your head is constantly on a swivel as you inch your way across in font of motorbikes, cars, and jeepneys, sometimes, stopping in the middle of the road waiting on traffic. Just watch when I return to the states that this method of crossing the street has become a habit. I have a suspicion it will.

From somewhere outside my apartment Journey’s “Separate Ways” is playing loud enough that I don’t hear the rooster that crows throughout the day or the church bells I hear every morning. Urban Sprawl is intermittent with fires, last Friday we could see a cloud of black smoke that turned out to be over one hundred and fifty homes being leveled by in Barangay Mambaling (a neighborhood about 5 kilometers from work), in another part of the city. “Fires are common here,” several people at work told me as I looked on in awe.

I sometimes walk out of work or my building in any direction and am swarmed by beggars- mothers and children who pull at my shirt sleeve or dress hem asking for money with hands out and palms turned up or shaking cups at me that rattle with a lone peso. Whether it was “Santa” or “Santo” (saint), I didn’t have time to decipher as I kept walking.  I found out today at work that it is a fine-able offense to give money to people on the street and that often times the people begging aren’t in as much need as they lead you to believe, but are instead working as part of a scam for a boss.

The world is very different here. For dinner tonight I made Pinoy style sweet spaghetti (think SpaghettiOs sauce with more ketchup and BBQ sauce) and with the local favorite hotdogs. Of all things to be a local staple from American culture, I would not in a million years guessed it to be hotdogs. Food is just another way local life is being put into perspective. It’s something all conversations keep falling back to. And it just proves how much of a focal point food is here. After all, we all have to eat.

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A Little Lechon, A Little Karaoke, A Whole Lot of Rain, and A Day of Rest

It’s the closing of my first week here and I’ve learned a lot- at work, living on my own, and most importantly about the Philippines. The last two days have been the most notable since I arrived.

Yesterday was the work team-building event. We met at the office and went to Tambuli Beach, which is on a different island, very close to the island where I’m staying. Work and I are in Cebu, Tambuli was on Mactan Island where the airport I flew into is. The highlight of the day yesterday was the lechon, which is spit-roasted pig and hawt diggity dawg is was amazing. It was the best rendition of pork anything I have ever had. The skin is often considered the best part and to prepare you gut the pig (all the organs are saved and prepared) and drain some of the blood. I was not as bold to venture deeper into the anatomy of the lechon, as I was still getting use to the fact that lunch still had its face, something I have not been accustom to in the states.

It is also worth noting that karaoke is very popular here. You learn pretty darn past to have a canned go-to song to cue up when everyone wants you to sing. And you always sing. It’s better to sing badly than not at all. Karaoke came in two waves yesterday and the first was in Tambuli. After years of Mamma Mia (the Pierce Brosnan and Meryl Streep film version) I went with the first ABBA song I could find and called it good. Later in the evening we ended up at the karaoke bar in the basement of my building and we had over two dozen staff in a living-room sized room singing 80’s hits and popular American radio songs. I ended up singing more ABBA. But everyone ends up singing along to whoever’s ‘turn’ it actually is so it’s much more fun.

Today was Sunday and it was my first day without an agenda. I had left Oregon early Sunday afternoon, and landed late Monday night local time. It was three in the morning on Tuesday before I went to bed and when I woke up after four hours of sleep, I spent Tuesday going out a little ways from my building but not very far, mostly because of the utter zombified state of sleeplessness I was in. Wednesday through Friday I was at work. Saturday we had the team event. Today was my oyster I didn’t know what I would do.

I woke up late, lulled around for a while enjoying a slow breakfast and hydrating. Even though during the work day I drink about a liter and a half of water and more before and after work, I wanted to get all vitals as refreshed as possible now that I’ve been here a almost a week and hope to narrow down any future ailments to “dehydrated” or “shouldn’t have eaten that” instead of the base level of tired I’ve been feeling since I got here. About noon today I started feeling dizzy for no apparent reason and spent a decent amount of time trying just to feel better. And it seemed my day of adventure was coming to a quick halt. But I drank more water, rallied, and went to the market to get some things for my apartment- laundry and dish soap, more fruit.

As I was leaving the supermarket, the sky had opened up and water rained down in sheets. Most people stayed under the covered area to stay dry and I just charged giggling into the rain knowing that it was warm here, unlike the Oregon winters. I live less than a thousand steps from the market so I figured “How soaked could I get?” The answer is leaves a noticeable drip trail of water like I had jumped into a lake fully clothed. The building staff and doormen are likely starting to think I’m crazy since I just paraded through the lobby and to the elevator beaming. “Heavy rain outside today miss?” “Just like home but it’s warm here. And I couldn’t be happier.” Oregon has trained me well. No umbrella and all.

The rain was what put my adventure on hold and the fact it got considerably darker outside. It’s been raining heavily since and from what I have been able to notice, the world beyond slows down a little when it pours. I think the next time the sky tears open and I want to go somewhere, I’ll just throw on a raincoat over my sundress and trudge on in my Birkenstocks, but that was not today. I put my groceries away and realized that I had yet to set aside anytime since I got here to adjust to my living space. So that was how I spent my afternoon, with the windows open and the “cooling” breeze, organizing and cleaning. The rainy day and the slow afternoon to adjust and not need to be anywhere was very appreciated and I think next weekend I will go to the fort and some of the more notable churches.

Needless to say, I’m now feeling the best I’ve felt in over a week and probably since I finished my exams. I finally feel rested which is incredible. Compared to the timeframe after exams where I was just counting down the hours until I was here, I am relaxed and fairly adjusted to the day to day. After an exhausting week of just acclimating, Week 2 will be all about going out and taking advantage of everything I can. Jollibee, Magellan’s Cross, Basilica Minore del Santo Niño, Fuerte de San Pedro– I fully plan to take on a lot more of the sights this week. I think a rest day, timed with the weather there was no sweat, which makes a world of difference, really shifted my outlook on everything. I proved to myself I can survive and endure, all to make way for the real adventure.

A before shot and a requested selfie with a pig foot
A before shot and a requested selfie with a pig foot


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No Can Opener, No Problem. What My Step Mom Taught Me About The Philippines.

For 120 pesos, I can get a Starbucks venti iced coffee. A little half and half and we’re in business. For a little more than that, I can hit up the local super market and buy milk, instant coffee, and a can of sweetened condensed milk. After I boil a little water in my apartment (there’s this neat little contraption like an electric kettle but with a reservoir designed to boil water AND make things in the kettle-pot) and I can set up a left over water jug with the condensed milk poured inside and then the instant coffee mixture with a little milk to refrigerate over night so I have a cold beverage to start my morning without hitting up the green mermaid for a little get up and go.

My first questionable decision was not looking up the ratios for instant coffee and water. It was not on the label of the container like I thought and when the standard unit here is liters and grams, it didn’t even dawn on me convert between liters and cups and again for grams and teaspoons. Enter the moment where high school and college math come back to laugh at me and say, “You done goofed kid.” I’m guessing now it will either 1) weaker than I want or 2) more bitter than I anticipated since my familiarity with instant coffee extends to the occasional baking recipe.

My second questionable decision was not even thinking to see if there was a can opener in my apartment. I thought about it while at the store looking at cans of sweetened condensed milk. This was not the first time the presence of a can opener was a variable in the success or failure for the cooking task at hand. In college, a frequently asked question was, “Who do you know has a can opener?” And someone near by was smart enough to actually own one.

Thus we come to the moment where I realize there is no can opener, but there is in fact a very nice kitchen knife in the cupboard and I thought back to a morning at home where the can opener had broken and there seemed to be an impasse for my coffee (I think the condensed milk and lack of can opener may be a recurring gag in my life, TBD).

Enter my step mom. Filipino born and raised and accustomed to Americans having gadgets for every thing imaginable, takes out her orange kitchen knife, it’s a designated knife that is not used for anything else, whacks later and working the knife back and forth, the lid is off and everything is as it should be. My morning at home, 7,000 miles from where I am now carried on and everything was peachy keene.

I take the knife and the can and think, Oh my gosh. This is how I’m going to end up in a foreign hospital needing stitches at 8:30 in the evening. A feeble couple of thuds later, the can is punctured and I can start working the knife back and forth like I’m shucking an oyster.

Much like how the versatility of a kitchen knife to open aluminum cans, from what I can guess so far, versatility is part of the bedrock of the way of life here. My step mom doesn’t talk much about her life and growing up, just a couple islands from where I am now. And when she did, it was often the funny stories and the interesting parts.

You can’t walk down the street without seeing a homeless cat or dog, often underfed, roaming the street, bones showing through skin that’s seems too big for the creature. Everything and everyone here adapts and endures. Despite typhoons, despite hardship, despite a lot of things I am just beginning to understand, you make do with what you’re fortune enough to have here to the point MacGyver would be out shined.

My first year of college taught me about minimalism and ingenuity in a shared space- with a roommate, and with friends and neighbors at your fingertips. In just the three days I’ve been here, quietly observing the world around me, utilizing what I’ve observed from my step mom is making the day to day a little easier. Slowly but surely I’m adapting too.

What was trendy back home- thrifting, upcycling, many of the things that were ‘hipstery’ are part of survival here. If I could I would have paid more attention to what I could have learned from my step mom before coming here. But instead I’m watching the world around me and talking it all in. I can’t wait to see what the next few weeks’ yields.

After all,

It’s just the beginning

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Leave It To the Oregonian To Feel At Home Wherever It Rains

I’ve been in the Philippines for about twelve hours now. To say the least, I survived the journey, and that can be the hardest part. Solo international travel. Landing in Narita, Japan and having to transfer, by bus, to another terminal, in a country you do not speak the main language, but everything is still in English. Traveling before I had always thought LAX was intimidating. But that was when I was with someone who did a lot of the legwork and my job was just to follow.

This time is was a greater scale. Getting off the plane. Wandering through the airport to customs and immigration. A communication barrier between an elderly airport assistant and myself, and thusly did not understand that my luggage had been forwarded to my next flight, and did not require me to collect my bags and re-check in. The heart pounding fear of staring at the customs and immigration agent and hoping that you filled out the forms correctly. Asking an someone else how to get to the next place and being relieved when their English sounds better to your American ear than the English you’re trying to string together as the nerves and excitement simmers over and you just want to be at the gate for the next flight so you can breathe. “Follow this hall way to the left and take Bus 6 to Terminal 2.” And repeating the directions over and over under your breath even though you just have to walk two hundred feet and threw a door. Terminal 2 asking an agent, Where do I go for Philippine Air? “Second floor.” Getting turned around after walking the length of all the different kiosks and not finding it. Hint: it was at the end where you didn’t see it because it was the only one and the sign was small. The look of relief I could feel flash across my face when a Philippine Air desk attendant helped me check in and got me situated with the right directions to get to the gate. Getting there more than an hour early and waiting and checking in with friends and family and the Internet saying I got here. I’m half way there.

Usually I’m all for wandering around until the answer is apparent. But when you’re running on some hours of sleep, without a sidekick to keep you on track, not sleeping on your ten hour flight except through the bulk of Mulan (Which is an hour and a half long, by the way), being hungry and dehydrated and anxious, it’s usually easier to sacrifice the wandering for the concreteness of being where you’re supposed to be. I was more relieved as the airport antics carried on because every step of the way my chances of getting lost, needing to back track, missing my flight, having to mentally prepare myself for whatever level of miscalculated instructions I had managed to end up in- everything I worried could go wrong, didn’t actually happen. But I knew my worrying wasn’t actually because I was worried, it was because I wanted to be prepared for the unexpected, which always manages to happen when you travel.

This case of unexpected could not have come at a better time in my travels. The inbound flight that would take me to my final destination was delayed by a half hour or so. And it didn’t matter. I was sitting outside my gate, relieved and exhausted, typing away at my computer as I connected with people in Cebu who would be getting me from the airport to my apartment when I landed, and with family and friends back home in the States who were excited and curious about my adventure.

Thankfully, after running on fumes for some seventeen hours or so and a couple time zones later, I managed to sleep on most of the second leg of my journey. I landed. Followed the mass of people through customs and immigration again, got some neat stamps for my passport, again hoping that nothing would go wrong as I angrily got stared at by a customs agent, collected my bags, and waited for my ride. It was about one in the morning at this point. Hot and humid, like standing in the bathroom after a hot shower having forgotten to turn on a fan to vent the steam. The dark city (and quiet in comparison) was nothing compared to what I’m now experiencing. But I made it. Keys, internet, water. Telling my parents I had made it. A shower to get some of the travel funk off. Bed. Each small part building to the point where I thought, Holy cow. I made. Solo international travel, and a lot else, seems easier. 

Four hours of sleep later, figuring out how to lock up my apartment (both locks have character and little tricks to get them to actually lock), and an iced coffee later, I had at least made it out of my apartment and back with confidence. Later, I went for an adventure around the block, here it’s like two city blocks had been merged together in length, and went around again to the supermarket just up the street for rations (bananas and juice). I stopped at the 7/11 for a siopao, which is a rice flour steam bun with yummy filling (a staple from home that I knew would ease the rumbling stomach) and made it back, this time finding my way around was significantly easier.

About an hour ago it started raining. As a born and bred Oregonian, I had grown up with rain and despised its cold, wet, windy lingering it left for months at a time, but today it called for celebration. Today the rain was a sound of comfort. Which also meant the humidity dropped significantly and walking outside felt less like a steam room. The rain brought with it a sense of calm, invincibility, and a wonderful breeze. If all it takes for me to think I can take on the world, so be it. Adventure is mine for the taking.

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