Food Struggles and Market Scenes

Food has been one of the biggest personal struggles of my service.  Part of the housing agreement that the Peace Corps made with my host family includes them providing me with meals, which is lovely because it’s one less thing that I have to worry about in my day-to-day existence, but at the same time it’s been difficult to give up control over my diet.  Everybody in my host family works so during the week meals are purchased from a carinderia, brought home in plastic bags, and dumped into bowls for serving.  As an American I’m used to a lot of variety in my diet, both in terms of ingredients and style of cooking, and that variety just isn’t widely available in the Philippines.  There are only so many times you can eat mushy stir-fried meat in brown sauce over rice before you start daydreaming about all the food you took for granted at home:  burritos, real cheese, vegetables of any kind, good burgers, pickles, lasagna, strawberries, blueberry pie, and millions of others that I can’t think about now because I’ll go crazy.  What was I talking about?  Filipino food, right.  The point here is that it’s fine, but there are few things that I really enjoy eating.  Occasionally, however, I try to take matters into my own hands and actually try to cook something that appeals to me.

While I love food, I’ve never enjoyed cooking.  It’s not entertaining to me, and I’m not particularly good at it, and it’s a lot of work, especially in the Philippines.  Refrigerators are uncommon so fresh ingredients can’t be kept in the house for too long, meaning you have to make a trip to the market when you need something.  (To be honest, food safety isn’t a big concern here.  Leftovers get left out and eaten at some, sometimes distant, point in the future, a fact which my bacteria-fearing self finds hard to deal with.)  This weekend I’m home alone so I have to feed myself like a grown up, and instead of going out to eat for dinner tonight I decided to try this recipe for pineapple fried rice.  Most of the ingredients are available in the local market, so I set off.

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I returned from my outing an hour after I set out, having walked two miles and made stops at the pharmacy where I bought the cashews, a department store where I bought the knife (none of the knives in the house are sharp), and the market.  Here’s what I paid:

Knife:  45 pesos ($0.90)
Vegetables (carrots, green onions, white onion, garlic, ginger):  55 pesos ($1.09)
Cashews:  95 pesos ($1.89)
Pineapple:  40 pesos ($0.80)
Mangoes:  102 pesos ($2.03)

I didn’t need to buy rice or soy sauce because they were already in the house.  The cashews were kind of expensive but they were delicious and added a bit of crunch so I think they were worth it.  And when I stopped to buy a pineapple I realized that I have no idea how exactly you tell which one is a good pineapple.  What qualities am I supposed to look for?  The vendor clearly perceived my confusion because she looked at me, plucked a pineapple from the pile and handed it to me.  It’s a method that’s gotten me through a lot here:  look confused and wait for help.  It doesn’t take long.

The mangoes have nothing to do with the recipe; they’re for dessert.  I could have gotten less expensive mangoes but I prefer it when they’re newer so I was willing to pay a bit more.  Soon it will be mango season and I’ll practically live on them, but for now they’re a bit of an indulgence.

After a short rest to recover from the emotional exhaustion that comes from having people stare and shout at me for an hour I decided it was time to get started.  With a soundtrack provided by a 90’s playlist from Spotify I chopped, diced, sauteed, and stirred.

If you look at the recipe you’ll see that it claims the prep time will take ten minutes.  Lies.  How does anybody do that?  I’m slow with a knife, but ten minutes just seems ridiculous.

Approximately a billion hours after I started from the market I finally had dinner.  It was tasty and the cooking part wasn’t difficult so I’ll probably make it again sometime.  I’m not cooking tomorrow though.  Tomorrow I’m going out to eat.

Also: this knife isn’t sharp either.

 

 

Land Travel in the Philippines

In most areas of the Philippines it’s fairly uncommon for people to own cars.  (I say most areas because I figure somebody in Manila has to be causing all that horrendous traffic.)  Instead, people get around using a variety of public transportation options that can take you anywhere from down the street to the next barangay (neighborhood, essentially) to the next municipality, or across the island.  Options can vary depending on where you live, but these are the most common in my little city.

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Pedicabs:  These are my least favorite form of transportation, mainly because the cabs are all about two inches too short for me to sit in comfortably.  They’re all over the city though, pedaling around and picking up anybody who waves them down from the side of the street…or they’re sitting in front of the sari-sari store that has a tv and the drivers are watching it instead of working.  Or they’re taking naps in the shade of the cab.  When the drivers do choose to work you can get a ride anywhere within the main city area for five pesos (ten cents).

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Tricycles:    These have been common in every place I’ve been in the Philippines.  They’re essentially a sidecar attached to a motorcycle and they can come in varying levels of fanciness-I’ve even heard tales of trikes with wifi.  These work much the same as pedicabs do:  you stand by the road and wave one down when it passes by, but these will take you farther than pedicabs will.  Prices can vary depending on the area you’re in and how far you’re going.  One time I had a driver try to tell me that it was 150 pesos for a ride that should have been twenty, tops, and he was shocked when I yelled at him in Waray-waray and threw a twenty peso bill in his direction.

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Jeepneys:  Jeepneys are a classic Filipino transportation method.  They were originally created from repurposed jeeps that the US Army left in the Philippines after World War II, which the Filipinos customized with covered beds with benches along the back walls, and pressed into service as public transportation.  These generally go further than trikes.  They travel along specific routes, which are painted onto the sides, and the current destination (downtown, airport, etc) is displayed on a placard in the front window so you know which one to flag down.  Once the driver has pulled over you climb in the back and squeeze into any seat you can find, which can be a difficult proposition because there is no such thing as a too-full jeepney.  If there’s no room inside people will stand on the bumper or climb onto the roof, neither of which Peace Corps Volunteers are allowed to do.  (I wouldn’t do it even if we were allowed.  I’m accident prone enough without adding an extra element of danger.)   You pass your bayad (payment) up along the row of people to the driver, who somehow manages to keep track of everybody’s payment, make necessary change, and drive the jeepney all at once.  Then once you reach your destination you can either yell “Para!” (stop), bang on the wall, or do as I do and tap a coin on the metal hand rails to signal that you want to get off.  This system can get annoying when people insist on being dropped off right at their door, despite the fact that the jeepney just stopped twenty feet ago to let someone else off, but you learn to accept it.  Jeepneys are hot and stuffy and often crowded, but they’re a common part of Filipino culture.

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Vans:  These are how I get from city to city on my island and within the region.  They work essentially like small buses in that they have regular routes from one place to the next and anybody can book a seat.  I get my ticket at the terminal and I rarely have to wait more than twenty minutes for the next van to leave, but if you live along the route that they travel it’s possible to flag one down if there are empty seats.  The comfort level of vans can vary dramatically depending on the vehicle, how many people are on the trip, the route you’re taking and which seat you get, with number two, the front passenger seat, being the holy grail.  There’s a new company in my city that has fancy new vans with headrests and leg room, but with most companies you’re crammed into a van with up to 14 other people (plus however many kids can sit on laps), holding your bags, and in my case with my knees jammed up to my chin.  The route I travel most often is twisty and winds through the mountains, so kids getting carsick isn’t unusual.  There have been times that I’ve counted the minutes until I could get off the van and onto solid ground, but for the most part the motion sickness pills so thoughtfully provided by the Peace Corps make the journey tolerable.  I pay 120 pesos (about $2.38) for the two and a half hour ride to the nearby city with the airport.

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Buses:  I don’t take many of these because normally I take vans, but the few that I’ve been on have also varied widely in comfort level.  Some are open air with people in every available space and the seats falling off the supports, but others have been plush, comfortable overnight buses, and some have been in between.

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Motorbike/motorcycle:  Nope, just kidding, don’t worry!  Despite these being the most common privately-owned method of transportation in my area, they’re strictly bawal (forbidden) for Peace Corps Volunteers.  When I got here I was constantly surprised by how many people could fit on one of these, but now the various combinations don’t phase me anymore.  It’s not unusual to see four or five people, including a baby, riding down the street.  I see every combination of adults, kids, babies, dogs, and pigs and I don’t even blink.  (Okay, I might have blinked when I saw the pig.)

Even with all these options my most common transportation method is a lot more simple:  I walk.  Everything I need on a daily basis is within easy walking distance, plus walking is free and I’m on a limited budget.  The fact that I walk everywhere caused a small stir when I first arrived, with multiple people commenting on it and apparently talking about it among themselves.  (“I hear you just walk to school!”  Yes, I do.  It takes ten minutes!)  It’s more common to take a pedicab or trike than it is to walk, even if you’re just going down the street, so it was just another way for me to stand out from the crowd.

I am looking forward to driving when I get home, even though it’s never been my favorite thing to do.  I miss the autonomy it provides.  I miss turning up my favorite music and singing along instead of being subjected to whatever pop hits the van driver wants to listen to.  I miss not having to take three different forms of transportation to get someplace.  But for now I do the best I can and try to appreciate the fact that I can get where I need to go…eventually.

February in Review

2/6: Who knew that Hokkaido, Japan would trigger such extreme homesickness? The snowy fields and hills in the distance look just like home.

2/6: During my last vacation I stayed in an open air treehouse and slept under a mosquito net and during this one I’m staying in a huge hotel with chandeliers everywhere. It’s a little different. Dinner is a huge buffet and we almost fell over in excitement.

2/7: Holy cow, Japan is COLD. A year and a half in Beach Corps has made me weak, but luckily there are hot springs to warm me up. I’ve been three times in two days…I haven’t been this clean in a year and a half.

2/8: Wearing two hoodies at once was a stroke of genius. I’m still cold, but it’s slightly less devastating.

2/8: I think what amazes all of us the most about Japan, aside from the efficiency of everything, are the bathrooms. They play nature sounds! Crazy things happen at the push of a button! Technology at its best…yet there is no wifi on this bullet train. (Why don’t we have bullet trains in the US?!)

2/12: I can clearly never live anywhere cold again. I’m just much more comfortable in a tropical climate.

2/15: A remote island with a bunch of really nice people is a good place to spend Valentine’s Day. Sleeping in a leaky tent in the rain is a less than ideal, however.

2/24: I really hate grant writing. My brain doesn’t work on the detailed level needed.

2/25: Yep. Filipino summer is coming.

I Still Don’t Like Winter

I’ll be honest:  part of the reason I applied for a Peace Corps position in the Philippines and not, say, Mongolia, is because I hate winter.  Hate.  I grew up in a region defined by its ridiculous snow storms and being able to miss two years worth of snow drifts, frozen toes, winter driving, and dreary grey days was a wonderful prospect that I jumped at willingly.  Of course, sometimes the seasons here can wear on me:  it’s either rainy season, which is extremely wet, or hot season, which is blisteringly, painfully hot.  And after more than a year and a half here I can say that while sometimes I miss things about the seasons at home, like crispness of fall days or the gentle sunshine and the smell of the thawing dirt and in the spring, I’ve never missed winter, except for maybe a little at Christmas.  So, knowing this about myself, where did I decide to go on vacation?

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Northern Japan, specifically the city of Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido.  In the middle of winter.  My decision making skills are sometimes questionable.

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I wasn’t prepared for the deep, intense homesickness that this landscape and climate gave me.

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These are the faces we made when we realized that if we had waited a few more months we could have seen the cherry blossoms AND been able to feel our extremities. 
Okay, I am glad I went, despite the fact that I was ridiculously cold for a week.  I mean, how often am I going to get the chance to go to Japan?  And on a side note, it wasn’t really that cold.  One day I saw a thermometer that read -3°C, which is about 27°F.  Where I’m from, that’s a pleasant winter day.  After more than a year and a half living in the tropics?  That’s icy torture.  I spent most of the time I was outside shaking like a leaf.  But it was fun, really, I promise.

For one thing, we stayed in a ridiculously fancy hotel.  I mean, look at those chandeliers.  On my last vacation I slept in an open air tree house, on a mat on the floor, under a bug net.  Both places were delightful, but very, very different.  This was a definite break from Peace Corps life.

When we arrived we found that there had been a small mistake with our reservation, and to make up for twenty minutes worth of inconvenience we were given passes to the dinner buffet for each night of our stay.  And the buffet was glorious.  My friend Lauren and I were so overwhelmed when we walked in on the first night that the only thing we could do at first was hold hands and stare silently at all the food.  We had a lot of feelings.  The lack of variety in my diet, as well as the lack of my favorite foods, has been one of the struggles of my service so when I was faced with piles and counters and rows of food, and I could choose whatever I wanted…it was a lot to process.

Besides the food, my favorite thing about the hotel was the hot spring baths, known as onsen.  On multiple occasions during my time in the Philippines I have had dreams about giant bath tubs, so being able to soak in massive pools of steaming water was literally a dream come true.  I haven’t been that clean since I arrived in the Philippines and began my perpetually grungy life and I probably won’t be again.

The reason we chose Sapporo was the snow festival, an event which draws millions of visitors each year.  We didn’t see the whole thing because we were so cold that our faces were frozen and it was impossible to talk so we decided to save ourselves and retreat to the warmth of our hotel, but what we did see was beautiful.

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I think we fit in well.

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This is how Beach Corps volunteers handle the cold.
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On other days we took advantage of the rail system, including the bullet train, to explore other areas.

One day we went to Noboribetsu, another city on Hokkaido, to do some sightseeing.

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We visited Jigokudani, otherwise known as Hell Valley, which is so named because of the volcanic activity in the area which causes the steam vents.

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I like to think that I have a decent amount of perspective on my life in the Philippines, but going to Japan was quite the culture shock anyway.  I kept marveling at things that would have been inconsequential to me a couple of years ago, like the fact that all public transportation leaves on time, according to a schedule that is known and published.  If the bus schedule says it’s leaving at 3:14, that bus is leaving at 3:14, with no waiting for it to fill up, or for the bus driver to wake up from his nap, or for it to stop raining, and to catch one you don’t have to stand by the road for an indeterminate amount of time, hoping one happens to come by so you can wave it down.  And we weren’t stared at everywhere we went; I’m not sure if that’s because it’s not socially acceptable to gawk at strangers or if we just weren’t that shocking, but it was nice.  Drivers followed traffic laws, which I’m not sure are actually a thing in the Philippines.  People walked on sidewalks instead of in the street and crosswalks are actually used, complete with pleasant tweeting bird noises when it was okay to cross.  There was very little noise pollution, what with the lack of roaring trykes, crowing roosters, and shouting hoardes of children.  It took a while to convince myself that it was okay to drink water out of the tap and that doing so really wouldn’t result in a multiple day stay in the hospital.  And we spent an inordinate amount of time marveling at city skylines and feeling homesick for New York and Chicago and missing our old lives and thinking about where we want to go next.  I think both Lauren and I decided that wherever we go it has to be warm because we can’t handle being that cold ever again.  But it’s about to be summer in the Philippines, so ask me again in a couple months and maybe my perspective will have changed.