Archive | July, 2012

A quarterly report I don’t mind writing

24 Jul

Saturday marked a very special occasion – it’s been 3 months since I moved to the Philippines! Cue applause, cheers, a few clever heckles, and oh go on then, blow some environmentally friendly bubbles as I go by you!

Not gonna lie, in many ways, this has been the hardest 3 months of my life. I’m pretty tired ¬†of the same debilitating heat and suffocating humidity every single day, I miss spooning and hugs and kisses, my brain hurts from translating another language and yes there are times when I feel super duper lonely and can’t shake it off. But there’s something about milestones that make you forget all the crap and feel somewhat nostalgic about all the beauty and love I have experienced so far, so I thought I’d share some things I love about living in the Philippines.

  1. Greetings – Good morning Karen! Good afternoon mam! Kain na dito mamsir! (eat here mam and sir but I have no time for the “and”, I have customers to hustle!) Here in Philippines, hi or hello is never ever enough, every occasion needs a greeting far more grand and festive! Sometimes, when I am really in a stink, I walk home from work and by the time I’ve made it to my house, I feel a million times better after every second person on the street has bid me good evening as though we’re in a broadway musical or disney movie opening sequence

    Some well wishers. Please note another of my fave things – the crop top shirt fold, the best way to ventilate in summer heat

  2. Whatever you want, there’s always a way to get it done – People waiting to get on an overcrowded jeep? No problem! Hoy, kid, sit on your brothers lap! Strong looking dudes, get on the roof! Guy with chicken and machete, put them both in one hand and hang off the back with the other hand. Need to get a bed from one side of town to the other but have no wheels? 8 pesos and a tricy will do the job, just strap it across the top and watch your cargo cruise smoothly across town. No light bulb cover for that street lamp? As if that’s a worry when you have a plastic bottle and some scissors! It makes a spoilt Australian feel very humble when people here have so little to work with and yet get everything done just as thoroughly and with an even happier heart than their Australian counterparts.

    Getting transport done like a boss

    3 is not too many for a motorbike

  3. It’s a public holiday/birthday/anniversary/christening/any day of the week! Let’s celebrate it with a videoke party! – this requires no explanation.

    They start videoke training young here

  4. It’s always a disco when someone gets a text message – which is often. I know most of the lyrics to “I love you like a love song baby” by Selena Gomez, which I had definitely never heard of before I started working with Rosalie. I know it because she has it set as her message tone and when she gets a message, she let’s it play and against my free will, I find myself singing along and whenever I hear it, which is often in the Philippines as they have about 5ish songs on repeat wherever you go, which leads to…
  5. The soundtrack of the Philippines – Pinoys love the cheesy pop music. I will be so out of the loop with good music when I get home! Here is the playlist in order of played almost constantly to played during a break from those more frequently played:
    • Moves like Jagger – Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera
    • Rap Das Armas (club mix) – Cidinho & Doca
    • Papi – Jennifer Lopez
    • Any Nicky Minaj, Katy Perry or Guy Sebastian song
    • Love you like a love song – Selena Gomez
  6. Food is the true language of the world – people love to connect with me and with each other in general and the best, cheapest, and most hospitable way to do this is through food. I have experienced many moments where my colleagues seem to be taking a break from their real job of eating to do their incidental job of doing local government work. Most heartwarmingly, I have noticed when I am sad or lonely or have great big bags under my eyes from insomnia the night before, my dear friends at work hand me a turon or sinapud or bananacue or some garlic corn or peanuts or an ice cream sunday because that’s the best way they know how to comfort. I paid them back with a vegetarian dinner party on Sunday night and they all decided to become vegetarians if I cook for them!

    10am ice cream sunday on a brown out day

  7. Cute kittens and puppies everywhere! Oh and cute kids singing for me when they hear me speaking English

    Cute kid and cute ming ming together!

    Ridiculously adorable pup

    Cheeky kiddies

    Dang cute puppy having some lunch

    Tricy driving Ming Ming

  8. Constant and uninterrupted sensory stimulation – So I constantly feel the heat as I have said… that is a big one. But underneath the cheesy pop soundtrack is the sound of children playing outdoors and people calling out to each other across the street and dogs barking and cats crying and tricys just being tricys. My nose is tuned into terrible smells like burning rubbish and sewers and petrol and fumes but way more often to the faint smell of the ocean and of young coconuts, pansit cooking in calenderias and fish drying in the market and my favourite smell of various banana snacks cooking or being brought to me in a basket for 5 pesos a piece. And as I have mentioned many times, the beautiful colour that surrounds me always, my orange house and the yellow church next door and the green rice paddies and buko trees across the road and the white sand and unbelievably blue sea and the gorgeous white smiling teeth surrounded by a cheeky brown face of everybody around me.
  9. My new friends – these guys deserve a post to themselves. But in short, I am a volunteer in a remote location with no other volunteers anywhere near and no substantial expat community to speak of. This has been so good for me as it has given me the opportunity to immerse myself in the local culture and lifestyle and have good local friends, who if I didn’t hang out with, I would just be alone. Yanie, 21 and constantly taking selfies and posting them on facebook, but who is the new EA to the Mayor so her photo frenzy often is saved for the end of the day when she has finished her work. Aileen, who hated cats until I started forcing her to experience “pusa sa puso ni Karen” (cats of my heart time with Karen). The other day she said “stop showing me these, I am starting to love cats!” and she came into work all in a frenzy yesterday, blaming me for her sudden but urgent need to take pictures on her phone of kittens she sees in the street. And Rosalie who is looking for love in all the wrong places, but gives so much love to everybody around her, especially her little daughter Danish who we have adopted as the groups daughter. Rosalie knows everything about everything pinoy and I would have been sleeping on the floor without her help when I first moved into my place. And Sir Junie, or Fau Fau, my counterpart, who loves to laugh and secretly loves to sing karaoke and who somehow always turns up wherever I am just to make sure I am safe. Life here would be much harder than it is if I didn’t have these guys making me laugh every single day.
  10. Best pals

So Philippines you crazy cat. You’ve made me fall in love with you and I look forward to everything you have yet to offer me, good and bad!


Cooking for one

9 Jul

I have decided I am going to become an amazing cook. If you know me well enough, you will know that when I make a decision like that, I always make it happen. My favourite example was the first time I went to Falls and I told my girlfriends I was gonna hook up with a guy from Canberra so I would have a friend when I went there on high-flying government trips. HA! They laughed…. as if you’d find a guy from Canberra at Falls in Lorne, let alone a guy worth hooking in with. Oh but who was laughing when that I did at 7pm on new years eve?

But as usual I digress. I could cook before I came here, but was messy, wasteful, overly elaborate and trying to cook ayurvedicly, which does not alway equal deliciously. Here, trying to live as the locals do and being in a remote location, I buy what I can find and cook with what I have in the kitchen, plus a surplus amount of beans, quinoa and yoghurt cultures sent to me by my loving mother in my balik bayan box, more food than anybody could ever eat in a year, especially someone who almost never eats lunch because it is way way way too hot.

I’m trying to do it ready steady cook styles, where you just have a couple of ingredients and work with those. Carrie gave me the initial idea of this and then Kezza of course took it to the next level by filming herself narrate her ready steady cook challenge to send to her mum. I feel the icing on my impressive cake will be what I tell you I am working with:

  • A single burner electric stove (dunno what I plan to do when there’s a brownout)
  • A toaster oven
  • A food processor and stick blender
  • A rice cooker (of course!)/steamer (used for steaming way more than rice… I have had rice in my house once since arriving)
  • A kettle
  • A yoghurt maker (thoroughly unnecessary for this climate)
The best thing about this process was acquiring all the necessary tools to become an amazing chef. What?! You mean a dish drying tray doesn’t come with the house? Sorry… WHAT? You mean can openers don’t just appear when you need them? And EXCUSE ME? You can’t buy a sink plug anywhere in Sorsogon and you have to wash your dishes in a bucket with hot water boiled in a kettle?

Haaaaaaayy kapaso! (oh it’s so hard!)

PS I realize these photos would look so much more impressive if I photographed them using my DSLR, but I haven’t overcome the messiness whilst cooking so my hands are always too covered in something to touch my precious Nikon (mwah mwah mwah I love you Nikon)


Satay tofu


Italian poached eggs with bell peppers


Roast vegetable and quinoa salad with sunflower seeds, feta and dukha (made by the lovely Carrie) with felafels and homemade hommous


Peanut butter and banana smoothie


Spinach fettucini with garlic broccoli (broccoli is such a treat here!)


Leftover garlicky, broccoli-y olive oil and since the olive oil is from Australia, absolutely no wasting, so VOILA, garlic bread


PBBSM smoothie, made to look so much fancier in my new milkshake glasses

Passion and conviction and (re)inspiration

8 Jul

Late 2010 I had my first proper boyfriend. He went alright. I knew he wasn’t a forever boyfriend but I was pretty attached to him as an idea. I had been doing bikram yoga on and off for years and really hated it, but he lived near the studio and one day I walked up the stairs and took a vinyasa class and at the time just really like it. When he broke up with me out of nowhere, I was devastated even though I knew it wasn’t working and I remember yoga somehow making me feel better.

A couple of months later, 5 girls set off on a holiday which would totally change my direction. My friendship with these girls became sister close but also the bevy of wanderlusting travelers seeking adventure with passion and conviction we met inspired and unsettled me and I came back not sure what to do with myself, a feeling i didn’t shake for a long time on returning. A school friend died shortly after and her funeral touched me not because we were particularly close, but because her life was celebrated too because of her passion and conviction and I realized my restlessness was a feeling in myself that I had neither of these. Around the same time I had been seeing a guy we met in Thailand for a couple of months and when he left for England, his home, I was devastated.

I remembered yoga made me feel better after my bf dumped me, so I turned to it again at this stage feeling restless and broken hearted. The more classes I took, the more it’s transformational power hooked me, transforming me from someone who took yoga to make myself feel better to someone who did yoga to try to make myself a better person to help others. This was especially profound when I met and took class with Les Levanthal, who I would follow to the end of the earth (but that year, just to Bali) just to feel his loving kindness and the passion and conviction I felt I lacked that he radiated through every pore of his being.

I spent the next few months, including my stint in Bali, using yoga to help me develop passion and conviction for living life with loving kindness so when a colleague casually told me about her experience as a volunteer in Indo, I knew that was the perfect opportunity for me to take all the benefits I gained from yoga and use serve others. This assignment was advertised and after more than 6 months of lead up, I am here and being pushed to my absolute limits and feeling everything on the emotional spectrum.

I wanted to tell this story not for my blog readers really but to remind myself on this night, when I am feeling dark after a weekend of solitude and stormy skies and lethargy, that I came here by my own choice with the knowledge that this would be an experience and with that experience would come extreme highs and like this past week, dark lows. I told this story to reinspire and remind myself that on the yoga mat, when we fall, we don’t stop, or cry, or walk out or give up. We breathe and take a moment and come back into the pose.

Cross-cultural moments #5

6 Jul

Everybody in my office right now is eating corn, after they just ate bulido (kamote biscuits) and it is only 9.40am, which means breakfast wasn’t that long ago. Aileen after I said I wasn’t hungry at this particular moment…

Aileen: How often do you eat at work in Australia?

Me: Um once. For lunch. Sometimes I have a cup of tea in the morning and then in the afternoon I might have a banana or some nuts if I have yoga t 6pm

Aileen: *shocked* that’s sad. Like a third world country

A fiesta season love affair

5 Jul

Pinoys love a fiesta. Every barangay has a fiesta plus there’s the town fiesta, so I have eaten plenty of buko (coconut) salad plus sticky rice over the past 2 months. Yes, 2 months of fiesta season in Philippines! I did however get to eat some lettuce tomato and onion at the Bagacay fiesta as that’s what it was understood that vegetarians eat. Oh Philippines and your love affair with fiestas and meat… I’ll have you understanding vegetarian food by the time I’m done here!

Fully decked out tricy

Philippines National Army

Hello Kitty getting amongst it

Pa ra pa pum pum!!!

Little girls as beauty queens

So many cool dudes in Philippines, even in marching bands

Girls & boys & girlish boys

5 Jul

Ms Gay Gubat 2012 was fabulous (read FAB-U-LOUS!!!). The dresses were so much more spectacular than Ms Gubat, the makeup much more fierce, the bikinis more than a little bit skimpy and the question and answer section camper than Sydney Mardi Gras. You would think in a town like Gubat, with a population half the size of my home in Melbourne, many of whom are living well below the line, a beauty pageant with a cast of 8 beautiful gays would be the last thing on the agenda. But Ms Gay Gubat is a cultural institution here and symbolic of the role of gays in Philippines in general.

If it weren’t for that sign up the back, who could tell these are boys??

It might seem weird that I am using the term “gays” as a collective noun for a particular segment of the population. In Australia, very un-PC. But in Philippines, it isn’t uncommon to have someone described to you or introduced to you followed by “he’s a gay”… interesting turn of phrase. The most visible segment of the gay community here in Philippines is the bakla, which I suppose in Australia you would liken to a drag queen. These guys are just as sexy as women, and in some instances, sure do look like women and get poor unassuming men into trouble (or sometimes assuming? or sometimes forced into it by a friend…).

So sexy! Does this look like a boy to you??

What is most interesting here, though not uncommon in Asian countries, is that “you don’t have to be a gay to have sex with a gay”. In a country with overpopulation, poverty and a very powerful church banning all forms of contraception, men here will “do whatever it takes to get the job done” (credit to my guy for that quote). Yes, men want to have sex here, so they will have sex with a bakla, or just any gay, to have sex. Married men and women often practice celibacy so as not to add to a brood and divorce here is not an option, so men will have sex with a gay without threat to the family structure nor to his own standing in the community.

Gays in Philippines, used to describe gay guys, are an accepted and deeply entrenched part of the culture. However, lesbians are not really accepted. Women would be punished for extra-marital affairs. Walk around and see men playing basketball and drinking in the streets with not a woman in sight and in my surf group, there is one local girl who’s 14, and whose lola told her she is only allowed to surf until she gets boobs. After that, no way. In my own opinion (like everything in this blog please note), it is not necessarily a sign of lack of opportunities for women. Indeed I know many women who have been to college and who are working in professional roles and have hobbies. But the fact that an unmarried woman over 30 is called an old spinster is a sure sign of the expectation of women in this culture. Get married sure, make babies, definitely. But not too many and when there are enough, hubby will find his fix elsewhere and she will look in the other direction.

The surfers, known as the mandarigma (warriors) in these parts. Giane is there, but not for too much longer if her lola has anything to do with it

I’ve found this somewhat difficult to deal with as a Filipino-Australian. I don’t have the luxury of people looking at me and passing off my un-Filipino behaviour as Australian. When I’ve finished surfing and am walking up to the street with my bikini soaking through my clothes, I am looked on with disapproval. There’s a lot of whispering when a male friend and I hang out. And people thought it was very strange that my guy was here cooking for me while I was working. But I am hoping even though I am a woman here not displaying what are currently accepted as feminine behaviours, I will display that I am respectful and hardworking and successful, and maybe that will change perspectives. I think provincial Philippines could use a bit of gentle shaking up…

Side note: The gays loved my guy. We went out one night to a fiesta in my Barangay and at least half the guys (girls?) there were bakla and they sure were undressing him with their eyes. Could have made a lot of money pimping him out…. Next time.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

3 Jul

Dear friends who regularly read my blog. I am so sorry for the recent lack of posts. Will you forgive me when I tell you I’ve spent the last 3 weeks in a boyfriend visit haze?

I just got home alone after 5 days away in Manila for the last part of my man’s trip and came back to a single room apartment that feels too big and empty with just me in it. Since I am always honest about my feelings on this blog, I will tell you I’ve been crying almost the whole day, buses, minivans, planes, jeeps and supermarkets be damned, and I’m definitely still crying now.

I walked in to see a list on a whiteboard I’d made him write so we wouldn’t be late the day we left, and I went to eat some peanuts and saw there were none left because he’s spent many an afternoon “drinking” them straight from the jar. The doxycycline he’d bought even though there’s no malaria here but had got anyway just to be safe (like not eating from Bain Marie’s, or not taking petty cabs, or not top loading) but had stopped taking after 3 days is on my bedside table. Atop the fridge is a bottle we’d cut the top off full of coins because he didn’t wanna carry them around and I am lying on pillows which have his smell on them, which I will try to retain for as long as possible without them getting too disgusting.

It was so nice to have someone here caring about what I eat and going out to get me veggies I’d forgotten and washing my dishes for me (eventually) and just being here witnessing and living my new life here with me. I’ll miss coming home to smells of vegetarian pasta and I’ll miss being interrupted in my rooftop svasana by him returning home and repeating the Tagalog he’d learnt with his fiends in legazpi in a terrible accent. I already miss the weight of his hand on the small of my back, seeking reassurance after getting separated from me in the market and the squeeze of his hand in a vehicle going way too fast into oncoming traffic and I’ll even miss the spike of his beard after a lazy few days on my cheek during a hug too warm for this climate and yet exactly what you need.

My life was fine before he came and it will be again, but there’s no denying I’m gonna need to be real sad the next few days before I emerge from the darkness and get back to doing what I came here to do wholeheartedly. But something else to be sad about is that if I were going through something like this at home, I’d be in the same position in my leopard bed with the same tears, but a gal or a sis would be right there next to me comforting me not by giving me advice or sage words or anything like that… Just by lying there giving me nothing but sympathetic love. I miss my friends so much in moments like these and I hope you are all happy and healthy and safe and warm right now.

To my guy – i’ll see you again real soon. Thanks for the best 3 weeks ever ever ever.