Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Kick Starting your Day

Living in an Asian country like the Philippines, it is expected that the major breakfast staple is rice in one its many varieties, as it is with all meals. It is the variety of toppings that makes breakfast here one of the more interesting meals of the day.

The most common is dried fish, either tuyo or its smaller cousin dilis. Fried and served with a splash of vinegar it will grace either fresh steamed rice or sinangag, yesterday’s rice fried in a little oil and flavoured with garlic.

Another firm favorite, if the supermarket shelves are anything to go by, is hot dogs. They come in mind boggling array of types and brands. Pork dogs, beefy dogs, chicken dogs, cheesy dogs, sweet and juicy dogs, American dogs, the list goes on. Served with sinangag and an egg over easy, it is an ok start to the day. A little banana catsup, yes a tomato sauce looking topping made from bananas, does them no harm.

A more interesting form of the humble sausage for your first meal of the day is longanisa. The native version is a small round delicacy flavoured with spices and garlic. Hamanado is similar but with sugar added to make it a sweeter start to the day. They are available pre-packaged from the supermarket or fresh from the markets. The market purchased longanisa will vary from seller to seller, with their eleven herbs and spices a closely guarded family secret.

Other hearty starters include beef or pork tapa. Strips of meat cooked in garlic, soy sauce and kalamansi juice. The kalamansi is the local version of the lemon, about the size of a full bodied wine grape.

Breakfast steaks feature on the Filipino breakfast menu, thinly cut steaks cooked with brown sugar, garlic, salt and pepper. For the big eater they are served with rice and diced native tomatoes, a smaller version of the western tomato.

Pork or chicken tocino is another sweet start to the day. Cubes of meat are marinated for at least 24 hours in a mixture of amatto water, which gives them the characteristic orange colour, sugar and spices. They are fried in a little water and served with, you guessed it, rice.

Very little is wasted in the Filipino kitchen, consequently omelets flavoured with leftovers often replaces the sunny side up or over easy egg. Also you may find that couple of day old honey cured ham cut into thin strips and fried beside your breakfast rice.

For a lighter start to the day there is Pandesal. A small white bun, crispy and slightly salty on the outside and sweet and soft inside, they are best eaten within a couple of hours of coming out of the oven. Eaten with butter or just dipped in your coffee, pandesal is also a favoured merienda treat and a great hit with the rug rats.

Another child orientated breakfast dish is champorado, a chocolate rice pudding. Often served with peanut butter mixed through it, the best beloved will be back for more.

Although the western wheat and corn flaked breakfast cereals are available, the small space given them on supermarket shelves indicate that a lot of marketing hype is going to be required for them to make serious inroads on the local fare.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Year of the Dog - A photo essay.

The 29 January was the start of the chinese new year of the fire Dog and trip to Manila's China Town was on the agenda.

wearing red to attract good luck

to see the lions

up close and personal

and hear their bands

and the fireworks

amid the thronging crowds

buying round fruit for good luck

and sweet, sticty Tikoy to bind the family together

where east and west rub shoulders in harmony.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Retail Therapy V

One of the first things you will notice or perhaps more correctly won’t notice when attending a supermarket is shopping trolleys littering the car park. Those supermarkets that have car parks are virtually free of the abandoned silver cages with minds of their own.

Inside there are plenty either stacked at the entrance awaiting your use or when abandoned cluttering the approach to the checkouts. Of which in the larger supermarkets there will be 40 to 50 more often than not in rows 2 deep.

As with supermarkets the world over, there are aisle upon aisle of pre-packaged food stuffs, household cleaning products and personal hygiene necessities arranged to encourage impulse buying. There will be a fresh fruit and veg section where the majority of nature’s bounty will be pre-bagged except bananas which are sold by the hand. The deli section will have an amazing array of hot dogs including beefy dogs, chicken dogs, cheesy dogs and sweet and juicy dogs.

In the fresh neat section there will be 2 or 3 butchers in direct competition, each offering a similar array of cuts, although at different prices. The prices can range as much as 5 pesos per kilo for what look to be identical animal parts. Pork cuts predominate and unlike the fruit and veg your choice of particular cuts is expected. Beef is available although the quality is questionable. Chicken is another big seller and like the fruit and veg comes pre-packed.

At the Landmark supermarket meat purchases are paid at point of sale. It is necessary to keep the receipt handy as it will be checked at the checkout. So too will the receipts for purchases from the liquor store and the bakery, where point of sale payment is also mandatory.

At the Pure Gold supermarkets, a chain of warehouse style supermarkets which also sells at a discounted rate to sari sari stores, the checkout receipt is required to exit the store. The bagger will have noted on it how many bags you have and they will be countered upon exit.

All supermarket checkouts have baggers who pack your purchases into plastic bags after they have been scanned by the checkout chick. If your purchases are few, they will hand them to your care. If they are many, more than 3 bags per person, the bagger will take control and transport them to your waiting carriage. The cost of this act of generosity is at the customer’s discretion, although 20 pesos is considered average.

All supermarkets have a package counter where you can leave purchases from other stores before starting your therapy session in the supermarket. This does leave you free to fill your trolley unencumbered and avoids any confusion at the checkout as to just where that bar of soap was acquired.

Ever mindful of their customers’ comfort the majority of supermarkets provide a range of food stalls between the checkouts and the exit. Whether it is sustenance after the exertions of filling the trolley or catering to the wise shopper mantra of never buying food on an empty stomach your needs will be catered to.

A wide range of mouth watering treats from ice creams to full meals are available. Local delicacies like siomai, a pork dim sum, or kalderata, a spicy meat stew, compete with franchised fast food outlets of every description. Those that don’t like Rustan’s at the Power Plant Mall have an assortment of food outlets facing their checkouts just a few meters across the mall.

Supermarkets, like all Philippine retail therapy options, offer food for instant consumption as often as practical; a fed shopper is a happy shopper, di ba. That the car parks are trolley free shows that the baggers not only provide an extra service for the customer but also protect the owner’s collateral.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Sing, Sing a Song

The Philippines is renown for having an internet café on every corner and rightly so. Internet cafes proliferate but they pale into insignificance when compared to karaoke bars. From tiny rooms with 3 or 4 plastic tables and videoke machine in the corner to luxuriously appointed salons with a stage and hostess, songs from the 50s onwards fill the night air.

No night out is complete without a karaoke session. You can hire a private room for yourself and friends and sing your collective hearts out for around 300 pesos (AU$7.80) an hour. Drop into any of the many bars and for the price of your drinks share the machine with the other customers.

Attend a girlie bar and have a hostess attend your every need. Organize your songs with the DJ, hold your hand while you sing if you’re nervous, lead the applause for your efforts and organize another round of drinks to celebrate your stage success.

No party is complete without a videoke machine and the hiring of one can be reason enough for a party. As noted in ‘The Streets are for People’ when gathered together and music is added, Filipinos will sing rather than dance.

When guests arrive for a dinner party a couple of clicks and the TV is turned into videoke machine as the song book starts passing from hand to hand. The latest microphones come with a key pad incorporated to punch up the number of your song.

Across a back ground of idyllic beach scenes, busty maidens in bikinis and hunks without their shirts the lyrics glow when it’s their turn to be sung. Your efforts will be evaluated not only by your fellow singers but by the machine itself. Have no fear the machine is as tolerant as your fellow singers and I have never seen a score of less than 75.

Japan may well be the undisputed capital of karaoke but the Philippines with its love of singing and its enthusiastic adoption of the technology must be coming a very close second.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Streets are for People

The Philippine version of a military coup is People Power. When a million plus Filipinos congregate on the EDSA in Manila and thousands of their fellow citizens on other streets throughout the country to display their displeasure with the ruling elite People Power is in full swing.

There have been two People Power uprisings. The first was in 1986 when Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in favour of Cory Aquino. In 2001 when the impeachment of President Joseph Estrada failed, the people spoke again and he was ousted in favour of Gloria Arroyo. On both occasions the military sided with the people.

These world attention grabbing headlines are only the tip of the iceberg of the Filipinos affinity with their streets. Vehicular access to the streets is often restricted if not completely obstructed as the Filipino’s every day life spills out onto the street.

Be it for a religious fiesta of which there are many. The first was last Sunday for the Feast of the Holy Family. Agata St in San Andreas was decorated and closed for the day. Games of palo sebo, climbing a greasy pole for the goodies at the top, and pabitin, goodies attached to a wooden frame which is slowly lowered as a score or more of kids jump to reach them, were arranged for the kids. Fifty five year old Kuya Resty is convinced that the poles are shorter and the goodies reduced than in his day, but that is another story. Later in the evening a group of strolling players entertained the residents with fire eating and dance displays.

Our street is closed for three weeks at Easter. Known in the Philippines as Holy Week, a chapel is built in the street. For the two weeks prior to Holy Week, whilst it is being built and decorated, and for the week itself our street becomes a dead end for motorists. A score of other streets where chapels are built also restrict the horseless carriage’s dominance.

On the Wednesday and Friday evenings a host more streets become the preserve of pedestrians only as the holy week parades wend their way through the barangay. With the Friday night procession taking the best part of two hours to pass any given point.

During October our street, where two way traffic is the norm, is reduced to a one way lane. October is the month of the Holy Rosary and the grotto to the Virgin Mary located next door to our compound comes into its own. A tent that takes up half the width of the street is erected and each evening around 6pm plastic chairs are set up for the devotions of the faithful.

The tent is donated by the mayor of Makati City; well that’s what the sign on the side says. To the best of my knowledge no permits or licenses are sought or granted for any of these activities. They just happen, as do the numerous secular street parties.

When ever the size of the crowd for a birthday, an engagement, a funeral, a party or any sort of celebration, looks like exceeding the capacity of the house it is held in the street. A tent is erected; tables and chairs are put in place and more often than not a videoke machine is set up centre stage. At parties in the Philippines the expectation is to sing rather than dance.

Like the street sellers discussed in Retail therapy III these are essentially illegal assemblages to which officialdom turns a blind eye. It would be the brave official who attempted to move these people along and would no doubt require back up of military proportions to be successful.

The streets of the Philippines are owned by the people. They express their ownership in these many and varied ways on a daily basis and when truly aroused by blatant injustice they will use their streets to change the course of their history.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Retail Therapy IV

The Philippines is essentially a cash economy. Credit cards are accepted but if you offer to pay cash, out side of the large department stores and tourist traps, the price will be a 3 to 5% cheaper. In the smaller shops the price tags will have two prices, the actual price and the cash price.

If there is only one price displayed, ask, bargains are cash only. In the markets, plastic is the bag you carry your purchase home in. In the shopping malls ATMs are a growth industry.

The Makati Ave entrance to The Landmark, a large Ayala department store, is flanked by 8 ATMs. With the entrance security guards just meters away, scores of people per hour top up purses and wallets. After a quick bag and body search by the said guards, the therapy can begin.

With so many ATMs about, to go more than 5 minutes when out and about without seeing an armoured car is a rarity. Coming in all shapes, sizes and colours these metal boxes on wheels are immune from parking restrictions. With the serious looking armed guards who spill out upon stopping, who is going to argue.

I have yet to see a shopping mall without at least one security guard to inspect your bag and pat the small of your back at each entrance. Often there will be 2 or 3 with entry being split along gender lines for the mandatory inspection by a guard of your gender. The exit will also have a guard, more to stop unauthorized entry than a fear of un-purchased goods exiting.

At down town Makati in the Ayala district 2 department stores, SM and The Landmark, flank the Glorietta Shopping Mall and all 3 are interconnected. It is possible to enter at The Landmark and emerge 3 blocks away at SM without leaving the air conditioning. Along the way you will pass 6 sets of security guards, 3 of which will inspect your bags and check the small of your back for a concealed hand gun.

All manner of business have security guards. Stand alone franchised fast food outlets have them, the local quickie mart has them, the 7/11 will have one, the Pharmacy will have one, the hotel you stay at will have one. The local pawn shop will have 2, one of which will be armed with a swan off shot gun as do banks and supermarkets.

Even car parks have them, often equipped with a dentist’s mirror on steroids to check the under side of your conveyance. The bomb you’re driving may not actually be one, but its muffler’s cavities will be exposed.

In all my time in Manila I have yet to hear a shot fired in anger by this private army. In the smaller establishments they will open the door for you, mind your umbrella and other packages whilst you spend your pesos in their store. They have even hailed me a ride when burdened with packages and all with a smile and a “Hello Sir, Mam.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Room for One More IV

It is a truism, which I can vouch for from direct observation, that tricycle drivers know the longest way between any two points. These motorcycles with their covered side cars carry their passengers from door to door within and to neighbouring barangays.

Restricted from using the main thoroughfares, they wend their way through the back streets negotiating the speed humps along the way. With their human cargo on board, along with whatever goods and chattels are deemed necessary for the journey, they chug their way through the narrow streets that are old Manila.

Made before the motor car and if one is parked in any of these streets, the remaining space is just wide enough for one tricycle at a time. With two way traffic plying these lane ways, there is a politeness, bourn out of necessity, displayed by tricycle drivers as they pull over to one side to allow an oncoming vehicle right of passage.

Although when the time comes to cross a main street, as it does in all trike rides, they are as aggressive as any other Manila driver. Demanding their right of way irrespective of the passengers’, folded into the side car, concerns for the bull bar bearing down upon them.

A tricycle can accommodate 3 Kanos, the 2 smaller ones in the side car and the large one on the seat behind the driver, and up to a football team of Filipinos. They usually have a fold down carry rack at the back of the side car for extra passengers to stand on or to carry those purchases that won’t fit around the passenger’s feet or on their laps. When we bought a new washing machine we transported it to the house tied onto a trike’s carry rack. As we accelerated after each speed hump I was sure we were going to flip backwards.

Tricycle bayads (fares) are best negotiated up front and range from 20 to 50 pesos (AU$0.50 to $1.25) per trip depending upon the distance to be traveled and what the driver thinks he can get. Fortunately at popular pick up points like markets, supermarkets, suburban malls and train stations and bus terminals there are a surfeit of trikes thus keeping bayads competitive.
That being said there are some routes, especially in the provinces where tricycles tend to replace jeepneys as the main form of public transport, where they charge on a per head basis. In this instance you will share your trike with strangers and you should expect to wait until there is a full load before heading off.

In the city of Mandaluyong there is a breed of red tricycle which has its passenger compartment behind the driver rather that at his side. These trikes can accommodate up to 6 average adults with only a slight squeeze and also charge on the per head basis. Although the impatient Kano can pay the fare of 6, at around 45 pesos (AU$1.20), and have it all to them self.

A quieter version of the tricycle is the Pedi cab. These are usually a BMX style of push bike with a passenger side car attachment. The laboured breathing of the driver as he stands up to peddle from a standing start with a couple of passengers on board is easily drowned out by the sounds of the street. Pedi cabs are the short haul public transport option operating within the confines of a barangay.

They are not as wide spread as tricycles which at last count numbered 9000 registered and any one’s guess as to how many unregistered in metro Manila alone. The Pedi cabs close cousin the BMX bike with a goods side car can be seen everywhere. These work horses can be seen delivering anything and everything. From, furniture to gas bottles to house holders and crates of cool drinks to blocks of ice to the omnipresent sari sari stores.

After jeepneys, tricycles are my preferred mode of transport they are just so much more fun than a taxi. My favourite tricycle ride to date was just a couple of weeks ago. Half way through the journey our noble steed stalled. A couple of kicks displayed a distinct reluctance for forward motion. Unfazed, our driver hopped off and requested my asawa and I to vacate the side car. He then tipped the trike backwards so the front wheel was in the air, gave it a shake and thumped the petrol tank a couple of times. Once back on all 3 wheels it sprang into life again and we continued uneventfully to the conclusion of our journey.

There is always room for one more trip in a tricycle tank.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Retail Therapy III

Consider this scene gentle reader. You have arrived for the first time in a foreign land, negotiated the vagaries of the taxi system through a blur of strange sights and smells and have finally found succor in your hotel. After an interesting meal of strange but tasty delights, you are resting from the day’s excursion when the plaintive cry of “balut” drifts up from the street below.

Who or what is a balut? Investigation reveals balut to be a local delicacy, which you are informed with a sly grin you cannot have said to have truly visited the Philippines without partaking of the wondrous properties of chicken embryo in the shell. And, if you’re quick you can catch the street seller before he rounds the corner.

Opportunities to shop come to you in the Pearl of the Orient, even at 9 o’clock in the evening. At any time of day itinerant street vendors will pass your door offering a wide assortment of wares designed to part you with your pesos. Rugs, bamboo blinds, foods of all descriptions. As write this I can hear the oft repeated 6 bars of the ice cream seller as he peddles down our street.

As you venture out and about, street vendors populate the street corners on the major thoroughfares selling all manner of goods from fruit and veg to personal electronics. In the popular shopping strips the stores themselves spill out onto the sidewalk and mingle with the street vendors. Where the stores stop and the street vendors begin is often a matter for conjecture.

As you enter or exit the train stations vendors are there. They catch a short ride on your bus to offer you and your fellow passengers’ snacks, drinks and trinkets. Your taxi or jeepney stops at traffic lights and street vendors walk down the aisles between the cars with chocolate, lollies, cigarettes and flowers.

As you approach a market, your anticipation of the bargains that await is titillated by an ever increasing number of side walk sellers. Those who cannot afford or missed out on market space set up on the streets surrounding them. The closer you get the less the chance of walking on the side walk, to proceed you must get out there with the wheeled traffic. It is wise to remember that the first price asked is an opening gambit, especially if you are a Kano.

Churches, cemeteries, political demonstrations, any place where two or three are likely to gather there will be street vendors. It might be very serious business that the crowd is intent upon, but they still have to eat. If they can afford to take off time from work there is a good chance they can afford a trinket or two.

Did I catch that balut seller on my first day here? I didn’t even try. Although I did hear about a Korean gentleman who ate a balut for a bet, he did insist on being blind folded before doing so.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Grace's Story

Working overseas is the dream of many Filipinos. With unemployment running at 25% and notoriously low wages, the opportunity to work and for foreign wages makes being an OFW (Overseas Foreign Worker) an extremely attractive escape from poverty. Working in all countries at every imaginable kind of job, OFWs are the Philippine’s major export. Returning in excess of US$8.5 billion a year in remittances to families, OFWs are a major supply of foreign income. To the extent that there are several sections of government concerned with their welfare. But it isn’t always plain sailing.

This is Grace’s Story.

Grace is a 20 something, attractive Filipina. Her father had been an OFW for 20 years in Saudi Arabia and an aunt had worked in Japan. The offer of a 2 year contract to work in Kuwait as a waitress at 80 Dinars (AU$360.00) a week plus a 10% service charge and tips with food and accommodation thrown in compared to the Philippine equivalent of 1800 (AU$47.00) was great news. She was aware that her first 6 months wages would cover her relocation costs, but even so 18 months would see a tidy nest egg put away.

When she arrived in October 2003, she discovered her wage was actually 60 Dinars (AU$270.00) a week and she was there on a tourist visa. She was working 12 hours a day in a billiard hall/internet café and 14 hours a day during Ramadan. When Grace wasn’t working, she was locked in her accommodation upstairs from the billiard hall. Her employer had her papers, including her passport, under lock and key.

During her first 3 months, her only income was the 10% service fee and tips. An associate of her employer took an unrequited shine to her during this time and started to press her to marry him. But Grace had met Farouk, a customer at the billiard hall who was fast becoming a very close friend.

Using the ruse of a medical examination for the regularization of her papers from a visitor’s visa to a domestic work visa, the associate took her to an apartment and raped her. Her employer was unsympathetic to her plight and suggested she marry his associate. Grace subsequently fled her employer’s custody and made her way to the Philippine embassy. She also filed a complaint with the Kuwaiti authorities about the associate’s behaviour.

The embassy advised the resolution of her complaint would take years rather than months and all they could do was offer her a safe haven. Her recruitment agency advised she return to her employment and consider the marriage proposal. Grace was in limbo, her papers were in the hands of her employer and without them she wasn’t going anywhere.

Secure with the knowledge that Farouk would be a regular visitor, Grace returned to her employment. With only her tips as income, her employer ceased passing on the service fee, Grace preserved with her 12 hour working days and being a virtual prisoner in her own time. Her relationship with Farouk, much to her employer and his associate’s dismay, blossomed.

In July of 2004, when the re-imbursement of her location costs had finished, her expectation of a pay check didn’t eventuate. Her employer advised her that this situation would continue, although marriage to his associate would certainly put things in a new light.

After 3 months of this situation and no sign of her employers resolve weakening, Grace, with Farouk’s assistance, escaped again. She and Farouk moved into an apartment with 3 other Filipina OFWs. For the next 10 months, she was still a virtual prisoner. With no papers, any expeditions out of the apartment were fraught with danger. To all intent and purposes, Grace was an illegal alien. Her papers were still under lock and key with her employer.

In August 2005, the inevitable happened. On a shopping trip to the supermarket with her Filipina flat mate, Grace was arrested by the Kuwaiti authorities. Farouk was able to get her passport but her employer was on holidays and couldn’t be contacted. His decision was required on whether Grace was his employee or not to resolve the situation. Grace cooled her heels in jail for 10 days awaiting his return.

Upon his return, her employer decided she was no longer an asset to his business. With financial assistance from Farouk, Grace returned to the Philippines. She was home with family, a lot wiser but with no more than what she departed some 22 months before.

Any redress available to her has evaporated as the recruitment agency that placed her in Kuwait was unregistered and has subsequently disappeared into thin air. Her complaint against her assailant will no doubt wither on the vine as she is in no financial position to pursue the matter.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Norton Virus

My main puter has been brought to its knees by the Norton Virus. Whether it is the bastard or programmed child of its parent Norton Anti Virus I have no idea. But upon trying to un-install the parent it crashed my Netscape & Opera browsers and although IE continued to operate, access to secure sites was a No, No.

The only fix available is a complete reformat, but the Norton Virus has made the backing up of files problematical, to the extent that I have had to ship the CPU off to the store of my local geek. (I know save often and back up as often)

This is being written on my son’s machine without access to a lot of my material. Consequently the updates here and on its sister site pissedpoet.com are a bit erratic. Hopefully things will back to normal very soon; it’s been 2 days so far. Who’s breaking out in a sweat and hands are starting to shake.

Does make one wonder, if there were no virus’ would there be a need for anti virus software and if there was no need how would anti virus companies make a quid? Especially those that charge serious change for their services as opposed to the public spirited companies that offer their anti virus software for free.

Monday, January 16, 2006

You Want Fries With That

With “kain na”, which literally means let’s eat, being a traditional greeting, it is little wonder that fast food outlets are so popular in the Philippines. To say they are everywhere is an under statement. Wherever you turn around when out and about, the opportunity to gobble and go will be at your elbow.

The one man ihaw-ihaw on the street corner fanning the coals under his barbecued banana or chicken neck bits on a skewer. The hole in the wall carinderia with 3 or 4 stools set at the counter offering local dishes with rice on the side for 30 (AU$0.79) pesos. The mobile sellers on their bicycles or pushing their hand carts offering everything from fish balls to ice cream. The pizza parlours with a dozen home delivery motor bikes parked out the front.

The branded factory franchised fast food outlets, the bakeries and the cake shops. The food halls you must be traverse between the check outs and the front door of your local supermarket. The department store food halls, like SM Makati whose basement food hall has so many outlets that it takes a good 20 minutes just to survey them all.

The acres of the malls dedicated to food outlets. Even the very up market Greenbelt in Ayala and Rockwell’s Power Plant Mall with their vast range of restaurants and coffee shops finds space to accommodate the major fast food brands along with some others.

Pre-eminent is Jollibee, the local fast food franchise who has taken on the majors at their own game and beaten them hands down. It seems that even the big kid in this play ground, MacDonald’s, known locally as Mc Do, is running a poor second to the happy insect. With its subsidiaries of Greenwich Pizza, Delifrance and Chow King, where the food actually has some taste, it is the undisputed leader in the Philippine fast food industry.

At the corner of JP Rizal and Reposo Streets, two hops, a step and a jump from the house in essentially suburban Poblacion there is a bank, a petrol station, a Jollibee, a Chow King and next door to the bank a Mc Do. The Jollibee and the Mc Do are both 2 story affairs. Next door to Jollibee are 3 carinderias and across Reposo Street, outside Chow King, are a couple of ihaw-ihaws. The question is not only what to eat, but where?

For the wary traveler, not wishing to experience the Philippine version of Bali Belly, which actually comes from the water rather than the food, or so I am led to believe. The water here in Manila and in Cebu, from my experience, is drinkable out of the tap; well it hasn’t got me yet. I have been living here for the best part of 6 months and had 3 months of visiting prior to becoming a resident and not once has my stomach been upset.

During that time I have eaten from all the sorts of food providers available. The precautions I take are not to eat from low trafficked eateries, in a busy joint there is less time for the food to sit and wait. The second is to eat the food at the temperature it is when served. It is my understanding that poorly reheated food is the ideal harbour for the nasties that like to attack your gut. Here, more often than not, food is served tepid, a piping hot meal is a rarity. It makes sense, hot food, hot climate equals perspiration. Demanding that the food be heated up is just asking for trouble.

I tend to avoid ihaw-ihaws mainly due to the fact that they are open to the air on the street and that black stuff coming out of the back of the jeepneys has got to settle some where.

If you do follow my advice and do get a severe case of the runs, you have my sympathy but it is only offered as what works for me. There is a wonderful diversity of taste sensations in Filipino cuisine and although KFC with rice has a novelty value it is still KFC. I would much prefer Andoks manok, chicken grilled over glowing charcoal served with brown, spicy gravy that is to die for.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Plastic Furniture

In the Land of Oz, the place I called home until 6 months ago, plastic furniture is the cheap junk furniture at the bottom of household pecking order. It’s usually reserved for out of doors entertaining and lounging by the pool.

Here in the Philippines the ever so humble plastic stacker chair is every where. From bingo halls, via internet cafes and entertainment venues to hiding under a cloth throws at up, up market soirees. Hiding under the damask table cloths at the same event are plastic tables either of the pedestal or four legged variety.

Being a tropical country, prior to the introduction of air-conditioning, upholstered furniture was a rarity. Timber furniture was the norm consequently the adoption of plastic variety was relatively painless. The appeal of robust construction, injection molding with cleverly included re-enforcing rather than several bits joined together, and an attractive price have pushed it into every day use.

Plastic furniture can now be found in every room in the average Filipino home. From chest of draws in the bed room to pantry cupboards in the kitchen, plastics have invaded far beyond the cabinets for white goods. If it isn’t subject to heat, a plastic version will be vying for attention.

As I sit here during my working day, which writing these ramblings is a part, I have my derriere firmly placed in a plastic chair. Unlike their antipodean cousins, the plastic furniture of the Philippines is a quality product. It is also damn comfortable, more so than the six wheeled upholstered monster I had in Oz, who would have thunk it.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Room for One More III

Taxis in the Philippines are pretty much like taxis anywhere. When you need one, there are none to be seen or they are all occupied, when you don’t need one, you are tripping over them.

Apart from the FX taxis which are basically up market jeepneys in that they squeeze 10 passengers into a space designed for 8 and ply a pre-determined route. They are the old style of what is known in Australia as Toorak Tractors, a high riding station wagon or estate car. They will stop anywhere along their route to drop you off and if they have room they will stop when hailed. It is best to sit in the back as only 4 people are expected to share a space designed for 4. The front seats will be a bit of a squeeze, 6 people in a space designed for 4 or maybe 5 small people. And trust me not all Filipinos are small.

FX’s proudly claim to be metered but I have yet to see the meter engaged, passengers pay a fare some 3 to 7 times higher than a jeepney (see the first 'Room for one more') depending on the distance traveled.. Like the jeepneys they will wait at their start point for a full load, although if you are prepared to pay the equivalent of 10 fares you can be the only passenger. A regular taxi will more than likely be cheaper.

Regular taxis are of the small Korean style of sedan with a capacity for 5 people, including the driver. This restriction is mostly observed although it can be waived if you can come up with the right inducement to tempt the driver. For some reason that escapes me, the window winders on the back doors are usually absent. My asawa (wife) does insist that the doors are locked when in a taxi and as her knowledge of things Filipino is much greater than mine, I offer this as a recommendation.

Like their counterparts the world over, Philippine taxi drivers know all the traffic jams and all the scenic routes between you and your destination.

When in Cebu, we caught a taxi at the entrance of the SM Mall, off we went into an excellent traffic jam. After sitting there for 10 minutes the driver did a U turn and we sped off to another, albeit smaller traffic jam, which we negotiated in about 5 minutes. After a right turn and as we passed our pick up point we hit our third traffic jam. The driver’s intention of turning left to look for another one when the road ahead looked like the traffic was moving was it. We decamped, it was not so much the 50 pesos (AU$1.30) on the meter that pissed me off, it was being played so obviously for a patsy.

The next day we hired Ricky and his cab for 5 hours to do some of the sights in and around Cebu for 1200 pesos (AU$31.50). After we shouted him lunch at the Blue Waters Resort, he couldn’t be more helpful. Took us to places off the beaten track that only local knowledge could provide. After a good 7 hours we waved a disappointed Ricky goodbye, he had other places he wanted to show us including the infamous Colon Street. We convinced him the red light district wasn’t our scene and after he had organized his co-driver to take us to the airport the next day he bid us a fond farewell.

Taxis in the Philippines operate on a boundary system where the driver pays the owner a fixed fee to drive the taxi for 24 hours. The current boundary in Manila, I am led to believe, is 1450 pesos per 24 hours. After running expenses, which usually stretches to fuel only, the takings are the drivers. My brother-in-law drives for the full 24 hours and then takes the next day off. Other drivers share the cab with a co-driver and work 12 hours a piece.

Consequently, even though the taxis have meters, it is up to the driver how much they will actually charge.

We once got offered a bayad (fare) of 50 (AU$1.30) pesos with 130 (AU$3.40) showing on the meter. The driver didn’t go the way my asawa thought was the best/cheapest way. She gave him such a tongue lashing in Tagalog that when we arrived at our destination the driver said it was 50 pesos “kasi your girl friend thinks I trying to cheat you”. Being called my girl friend did mollify the asawa to a certain extent (after all she is the mother of a 20 year old son) and I felt sorry for the bloke, so I paid him the meter. But, I didn’t give him a tip, to have done so would have been sheer folly.

With the bayad being at the driver’s discretion, if you’re traveling between the Airport and Makati and the meter looks like it is going to pass 130 pesos it would be a good time to start discussing a negotiated fare. Even if the idea is rejected, as it most likely will be, it does tell the driver you are aware that you are being taken via the scenic route. Your alternative is to stop your ride there and catch another taxi, with flag fall being 30 pesos (AU$0.80) it could well be your cheaper option.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

They’re Everywhere, They’re Everywhere

Like a locust plague swarming, the air in the Philippines is full of text messages. Little bits of misspelled text sent from one cell phone to another, usually one thought at a time.

Cell phones are an epidemic here. Leave that box empty on any sort of official or semi official form and it will be handed back to you. An explanation that you don’t have one is met with a look of wonder and disbelief. A reiteration that you are a cell phone free zone is greeted with a shake of the head and a “sobra kakaiba (bloody strange) Kano” look.

With the introduction of texting at around 1 peso (AU$0.02) a message to send and nothing to receive, everyone can afford it. And making the most of it is becoming the new national sport. To the extent that there was a news report a couple of days ago saying that school children were skipping lunch to make sure they could afford a load.

The majority of cell phones are pre-paid and you can load your phone for as little as 30 pesos (AU$0.78). But 30 pesos will also buy you lunch and the thought that Filipinos are giving up food to text is a major change in mind set, even if they are kids. This is a country where eating is the national sport with six designated meals a day.

Where ever you are there will be some one texting within sight. At the train station, in the mall, even in church. I saw a woman texting during a christening. Begs the question, does God have one too?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A Great Little Pub

Considering coming to the Philippines and wondering where to hang your hat when you get here? Well, if you’re intending to stay in Makati you would hard pressed to find better accommodation than the Artina Suites Hotel.

Is this a plug for them? In a word, yes.

I have stayed there a couple of times, all my European friends have also and not bad word has been said about them. We have all been as happy as the proverbial pig in doggie do.

Artina is a small residential style hotel located a stone’s throw from the Makati City Hall and a 10 minute jeepney ride from Ayala, the home of Glorietta and The Greenbelt shopping malls. If you prefer to walk, allow 20 to 25 minutes. If taxis are your thing and the fare exceeds 70 pesos (AU$1.84), either the traffic is impossible and it would have been quicker to walk or you are being taken by the scenic route. There is also a red light district, a short 10 minute walk away, if that is your scene.

You can get a 2 room suite for 1850 pesos (AU$48.00) a night which includes a complimentary breakfast for 2 at the restaurant in the foyer. It alone makes the tariff worth while.

The food is excellent, a fusion of traditional Filipino fare and modern western cuisine with a dash of Asian stir-fry thrown in for good measure. If you are new to Filipino food this is a great introduction. The Artina café is one of my favourite eateries in Manila and is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and morning merienda. Although it must be said, the wine list is a bit on the sparse side. OK, almost non existent with only 2 reds and one white, but on the up side the corkage on your own wine is reasonable at around 200 pesos (AU$5.00) for one or three bottles.

There is a secured basement car park if you really want to drive yourself in Manila traffic. The elevator is cozy, but the rooms are clean, spacious, serviced daily and the beds are comfortable. They also offer half and full day tours to places of interest in and around Manila.

Artina is a 3 star hotel offering a 5 star service. Unfortunately, they aren’t on the net yet but if you would like contact details drop me a line or leave a comment and I will be happy to help.

By the way if you do decide to stay at Artina check out the view from the roof , it is magic and one of best to be had in Makati.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Room for One More II

Although, as I expounded upon jeepneys being the backbone of the public transport system of the Philippines, in the first of this series, there are many other ways to get from A to B here. Jeepneys traverse a pre-determined route of 10 to 15 Kms, which means to get across town you will have to take 2 or 3 rides. If you are headed for a popular destination there are buses. They come in two varieties, ordinary and aircon.

Ordinary buses are buses pretending to be jeepneys. The glass in the windows has either departed for a life of luxury in more hospitable surroundings or is locked in place from years of inaction. Although the seating is across the vehicle rather than running down the sides, it is of the bench variety and often unpadded. As most buses ply the major thoroughfares, the exhaust fumes of the other uses is an included extra.

The aircon bus will have its windows in place plus padded seating, 3 on one side of the isle, 2 on the other. “Fresh” air will be pumped at you from adjustable, little vents in the overhead luggage rack and sometimes they are actually adjustable. On most aircon buses there will be curtains on the windows which are very handy at high noon. If you want to watch the passing parade, push them to one side and peer through a couple of week’s accumulated dirt. A lot of aircon buses have video on board, a selling point proudly displayed on the wind screen.

Suburban buses don’t run to any time table they just ply back and forth along their route. Buses to the provinces do depart at certain times from their terminus and it is wise to check the times of your chosen carrier of which there are many.

All buses have a conductor who collects the fares, which are determined on the distance you are traveling. You will be issued with a paper ticket which either looks like a chook raffle stub or one printed with an intricate series of little boxes with holes punched in certain ones. Reading the tickets is a science in itself.

The conductor also touts loudly for potential customers at designated stops or at pedestrians who are looking in his direction. A customer is a customer, one getting off is making room for another to get on. Consequently, a bus will stop to set down or pick up a passenger anywhere along its route.

To hail a bus, as with jeepneys, attract the attention of either the driver or the conductor of your chosen carrier. This can be determined by the destination notice hanging on the wind screen, from the shouts of the conductor or the sign in his hand. Along the way, street sellers will board to hawk their wares of snacks, drinks and trinkets and get off the next time the bus stops.

On provincial buses it isn’t advisable to sit too close to the front unless you’re a seasoned traveler. On a trip back from the provence, Nueva Ecija, I noticed a fellow Kano seated right behind the driver. When we stopped for a comfort rest half way through the journey his knuckles were white. He swore we had spent at least a third of the time on the wrong side of the road.

Even if you're not in the city, fear not, provincial buses like their suburban counterparts will pick up passengers along the way. When all the seats are full, little stools appear so customers can sit in the isle.

There is always room for one more.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Retail Therapy II

To market, to market to buy a fat pig,
Home again, home again jig-a-de-jig.

This kid's rhyme could have been written with the Philippine markets in mind. Most Barangays have one and any self respecting town has one. They are a collection of open air stalls selling every imaginable product all under one roof. They have 2 distinct sections, a wet market and a dry market and some, like the Guadalupe market, have a shopping mall upstairs. It must be a mall, it has armed security guards on all entrances.

In a wet market you can purchase all the fresh produce your heart desires. Rice in all its varieties, of which there are many. I had no idea there were so many and yes, you can taste the difference. All sorts of fish both fresh and dried. All the parts of a pig or a chicken that are fit for human consumption, which in the Philippines is the entire animal, yes all of it.

Pork sisig is a very tasty, slightly dry, crunchy concoction made from the face, the ears and other bits, that I haven’t strenuously inquired about, of a pig. Other animals make it into the sisig stakes with Tuna sisig being a popular menu item in the better restaurants. What they substitute for the ears is anyone’s guess.

The dry market, as the name suggests, sells all manner of dry goods, from clothing and foot ware to furniture stopping by office supplies, toys R us, cell phones, jewellery, watches and all manner of haberdashery. You can get your clothes altered and even get that new ball gown or wedding dress made from scratch.

You can also haggle on price and if you’re a Kano (foreigner of European extraction) you would be wise to do so. There is the real price and the Kano price, because all Kanos are rich, right. Oh how I wish that were true.

That being said, if it’s a bargain you’re after, the markets are the place to go. When we shopped for a set of drawers, we got our first price from The Landmark (a large department store in Ayala) our second price from the mall upstairs at Guadalupe and brought the very same item downstairs at 60% of The Landmark price and at 80% of the upstairs price.

Our usual markets are Guadalupe and San Andreas, both one ride away. For special shopping expeditions, like Christmas shopping, we go to Pasig Market. A 3 story monster, the ground floor is the wet market, the upper floors are the dry market. With the top floor only being open on Saturdays, where the bargains are many, the crowds are biblical.

Then for those obscure items, there is Divisoria. This is a market that takes up several city blocks and sells everything, from designer brands to the best reproductions that can be pirated. If it isn’t at Divisoria, it most likely doesn’t exist and you should make your own. Divisoria deserves and will get a retail therapy of its own.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Room for One More

The Philippines is renowned for its multi-coloured, highly decorated jeepneys. But after about 10 minutes in the country, you realize that these are the exception. Officially referred to as PUJs, the majority are drab utilitarian vehicles with route details as their major decoration and more often than not belching black smoke.

That being said, they are the back bone of the public transport system as they career down major thoroughfares and side streets playing tag with each other. The first jeep gets the passengers.

Holding on average up to 20 passengers, 2 up front next to the driver and 18 in the back seated on benches running down the sides. It is not uncommon to see an extra body on the outside hanging onto the back waiting for someone to alight so they can move inside. Although those passengers tend to be young and male.

Jeeps stop and start at their passenger’s whim, apart from their start points, where they will sit until they have a full load. There are no designated stops, to get off you shout “para” or knock on the roof or both. To hail a jeep, you need to attract the driver’s attention.

This is easier than one might expect considering the traffic, which in Manila, like all big cities, is chaotic. Jeepney drivers drive with one eye on the traffic and the other searching for customers. Make eye contact and nod or stretch out your arm, palm down and close your fingers and your ride will stop. With luck it will have pulled over to the side of the road if not thread your way through the traffic and climb aboard.

Watch your head! You will be shuffling along inside the jeep bent at right angles to a vacant bit of bench and it’s a good idea to hang onto the hand rail on the roof. If there is a gap in the traffic before you’ve found your bit of bench, the driver will be heading for it. Also be aware of your fellow passenger’s toes, if you inadvertently do step on someone’s toes a smile and saying “ay sorry” should avert any serious recriminations.

The standard bayad (fare) for a jeepney is 7.5 pesos (AU$0.20) although if you are going for a long ride, more than 4.5 kms, expect to pay an extra 50 centavos (AU$0.01) per kilometer. Pass your money down the jeep saying “bayad” along with a recognizable land mark near your destination. Your fellow passengers will pass the money to the driver whose hand will appear above his shoulder to accept it. Like wise your change will be passed back the same way.

Now, not only is your driver negotiating Manila traffic, scanning for customers, he is also making change. The majority of jeepney drivers are very competent if somewhat erratic. I have often marveled at their ability to take their vehicles into spaces I was pretty sure they wouldn’t fit and to do so at speed.

If your Tagalog isn’t up to counting hand signals will suffice for the number of fares you want. Index finger for one; V symbol for two; middle, ring and little fingers for three; four fingers for four and add a thumb for five.

A sense of geography is handy but not a pre-requisite as jeepneys traverse a pretty much pre-determined route and as long as you know where you have come from you can catch one going back the way you came. There are literally dozens of them passing any given point most hours of the day. Ok, between 1 am and 5 am they do become a bit thin on the ground. That is when taxis come into their own, assuming of course that the driver wants to go where you do.

Jeepneys are a great way to explore the Philippines and get a sense of the place from the local’s perspective. They are the preferred means of local transport for the majority of the population and there is always room for one more, if not in this one, then in the one behind it.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Sounds Like a War Zone

I have survived my first Christmas in the Philippines, so much food, so many relatives, so much good cheer, and so much noise at night.

Ok, I live in Makati which isn’t the quietest place at the best of times, but this was amazing. I never imagined there could be so many different bangs from fireworks. From the small arms rattle of the Multiple Banger to the deep throated roar of the PVC canons.

It started about a week before Christmas and built up to an all out assault on the city on NYE and even last night, 6 nights after the event, there were still small skirmishes happening.

If you ever intended to sleep through the New Year, forget it, this is the sound effects for any number of war films and there is no volume control. Steven Spielberg could have sent a sound recordist here for New Years Eve and had enough sound effects for six openings of Saving Private Ryan.

The Multiple Banger is a long, thick sparkler-like firework that when ignited produces a fast series of forty sharp bangs and a very impressive shower of sparks that lasts for about 45 seconds. My brother-in-law let one off in the house, we had to shout for the next 15 minutes to hear each other and his wife’s concern for the soft furnishings was not unrealistic.

The PVC canon has replaced its bamboo predecessor, but is operated in the same manner. A length of PCV pipe has raw alcohol spayed into it which is then ignited and boom. The diameter of the pipe determines the timber of the bang with a one inch pipe resembling small arms fire and a 4 inch pipe sounding like heavy assault artillery.

These canons are available commercially for around 300 pesos (AU$7.90) at Divisoria. (A Manila market that rightly deserves a retail therapy of its own.) The alcohol is readily available from any number of hardware stores.

Will I get into the swing of things and purchase my own canon for the end of 2006? Unlikely, I prefer a slight buzz and a silly grin from my alcohol rather than hearing loss for a few days.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Retail Therapy I

The Philippines is a shoppers' paradise. Here you can shop till you drop with ease. There are literally shopping opportunites at your front door.

There is a Sari Sari store (a small convenience store and I do mean small, like about 10 square meters) at the front of the compound where I live here in Makati. Across the street is another, 50 metres down the street on the left is another and around the corner on the right are three more.

One or another of them is sure to have whatever it is you've run out of. No need to bother the neighbours for that cup of sugar. The quantities and the range that they sell are predicated on covering whatever it is that has run short.

You can buy one egg for 4.5 pesos (AU$0.11), a cigarette for 1.5 pesos (AU$0.04), you can kill yourself slowly very cheaply here, and a sachet of soap powder for 7 pesos (AU$0.18) which is good for 4kgs of clothes washing. Except for a cigarette, which is a stick, if you dont specify how many you require, you will be asked how many pieces? When you buy multiples of something in the Philippines you're buying x number of pieces of the item.

The sari sari store out the front of our compound opens around 6am and closes at about 10pm. It also has a tendency to close for an hour around lunch time, although if you shout loud enough someone will come and serve you. You do need pretty good Tagalog to pull that one off though.

When you venture further afield, like onto a main thoroughfare you will be confronted by shopping strips with a never ending supply of shops selling all manner of goods and street vendors selling food, trinkets, lollies and cigarettes.

A short jeepney ride away are supermarkets, wet and dry Markets, which every Barangay (suburb) seems to have, and for your major therapy there are the department stores and the shopping malls. The shopping malls can be huge, like the SM Mega mall which is so big it had to be split in two and hosts hundreds of shops.

More on the joys, frustrations and intricacies of these forms of retail therapy in later posts.

However it is comforting to know that should you run out of your favourite alcoholic reviver after a long day of therapy your local sari sari store can help, as long as it's beer or brandy. Yes they will have mixers for the brandy but will be limited to cola, lemonade and that strange orange coloured concoction, Fanta, for which I have yet to find a use.