Not in Manila Anymore, Toto (From Manila to Bacolod, in pictures)

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The most remarkable thing about traveling from Manila to Bacolod is how uneventful it was. Let me explain.

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Seeing Family (Hellos and Farewells in Pangasinan)

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Facebook and other social networks have changed the game for Filipinos. It allows far flung families to keep up like never before. Whether it’s Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Singapore, or  back in the homeland, Filipino families can be present in each others’ lives so long as there’s an internet connection.

That doesn’t negate the importance of meeting face-to-face, though. That’s why, despite having made internet connections, my cousins have come to a small barangay in Pangasinan, the province north of Manila. They’re here to visit their cousins for the first and, perhaps, last time. This is an out-of-the-way place. The barangay isn’t a vacation spot so it won’t be easy convincing spouses and kids to make this trip. For many of the cousins there’s also a language barrier, so that makes a trip that much more difficult. Without the help and urging of first generation family, it’s hard to see how this meet up will happen again. Continue reading

Filipino Signage (part 1)

English/Tagalog sign

A sign that’s dramatic in Tagalog, but a bit. . .ahem. . .”pedestrian” in English. Hah!

English is one of the official languages of the Philippines. Most road signs, therefore, are in English. (Thanks for everything American colonizers, especially the English!)

Tagalog is the other official language, though, so many signs are also in Tagalog. The Tagalog signs have a certain flair that’s missing in their English counterparts.

Take the above sign, for example. In English it’s unremarkable: “No pedestrian crossing.” In Tagalog, though: “Crossing prohibited, fatal.”

This, however, can’t top another sign at this same intersection I wasn’t able to take a pic of which, translated, read: “Crossing prohibited, Someone’s already accidentally died here.”

So, just in case you were wondering whether this is just speculative signage, it’s not. Helpful in the extreme, really.

Extended Family (Who’s in Your Clan?)

Extended Family

An airpot pickup shows just how deep Filipino families run.

It’s difficult to capture the scope of a Filipino family. Here, though, is one illustration. I am spending my time in Manila with my father’s family—his brothers, sisters, and cousins. I am staying at their houses, eating their food, and enjoying their company and hospitality. Probably nothing that unusual there. But wait, there’s more. Continue reading

Family Style (in pictures, mostly)

Delicious foods

Delicious foods

The heart of any Filipino family event is the food. While the people are the most important thing, it’s the food around which they revolve.

This is evident in the amount of food. Every Filipino gathering I’ve been to starts with a host who’s worried there isn’t enough to eat and ends with every attendee going home with a brimming takeaway plate.

Filipino get togethers also tend to be loud. In part this is down to shear numbers. The Philippines is over 80% Roman Catholic. [1] When I taught here in 2003 I remember a talk show on TV where a priest and others debated whether contraception should be legal. Not “should be encouraged” or “distributed in schools” but “permitted by the law.” I gathered that to that point artificial birth control pretty much wasn’t officially allowed. With that many babies running around there’s bound to be some noise.

So with my arrival coinciding with one of my cousin’s birthday, an impromptu party turned into a full-blown eating session. Let’s just say food and family were delightful, richly flavored, and made quite a bit better with the presence of a little kalamansiContinue reading

Why I Will Never Be a “Self-Made Man”


My uncles, aunts, and cousins in the Philippines are, for the most part, solidly middle class. They own their own homes and cars. They have laptops, wifi, and smartphones. Labor is cheap here so most have a live-in helper who cleans, cooks, does laundry, and tends to the house. This is all quite comfortable by Philippine standards. Arriving at any of their houses after a long trip is a relief.

After 25 hours of international travel the first thing I want to do is get clean. Rinsing off the grime of a journey feels like being reborn. It’s the first thing I do once I get a chance.

Which brings us to this: no matter how middle-class you are in the Philippines there’s one thing that quickly separates this status from its U.S. equivalent: taking a shower.  Continue reading

Smells Like the Philippines (in pictures, mostly)

The family waiting area at Philippine International Airport.

The Philippines smells. I first learned this when I was a kid. Every time relatives from the Philippines would visit they would bring a box of filled with stuff from the homeland. The boxes were how I learned to love bibingkasapin sapin, and other Filipino delicacies. We’d also stock up on inexpensive clothes, usually polo shirts. Sometimes there’d also be a toy. For us kids, it was like a mini-Christmas.

One thing, though, also snuck its way into the pasalubong: Philippine air. Trapped in the crevices between plastic wrapped garments, hidden in the banana leaf encased desserts was the smell of the Philippines.

Technically, it probably was a combination of tropical humidity, living jungle earth, and diesel fumes. To me it smelled like grandma and grandpa, uncle and auntie, cousins, many of whom, as a child, I’d never laid eyes on.

Scientists say that smell is the sense most associated with emotional memory. I could’ve told them that. Every time I step off the plane in Manila, what hits my nose isn’t just the smell of a foreign country; it’s not just ocean salt, jungle, and heavy humidity. It’s toys, desserts, gifts, and the knowledge that people far away think of you as family. In other words, it kinda smells like home.


22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

The arrival for family is a big deal in the Philippines. Waiting family is restricted to one side of a vehicle loading/unloading area. Notice the two levels, both lined with rows of seats facing the airport exit so that groups can demonstrate their enthusiasm for arriving relatives. The second floor is lounge air conditioned.

Loading zone only

A car pulls up and loads up luggage from a family member. It is 4 a.m. in the morning.

Organizing arrivals

To sort out the hordes of arriving relatives, there are handy signs telling passengers where to wait and stare across the loading zone until they spot a familiar face. (Note the English, one of the many gifts the Philippines received from the U.S. during its imperial rule.)

Waiting with a box

I got picked up by a relative who works nights at a call center. I was pretty much alone most of my waiting time. This is the quietest I’ve ever seen the arrival area. Still, there were groups of people across the way waiting in the lounge.

I got bored.

Pay phones in various states of existence in case you don’t yet have a sim card for your cell phone.

The new tollway

The new tollway to where my father’s family lives has been widened from two to four lanes. It is still lined with Great Wall of China height billboards. It’s nice some things never change.

Bible bus

The Philippines is over 90% Christian and 80% Roman Catholic so bible verses on the back of commercial buses is nothing unusual. If you look this one it it reads: “22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” I’m guessing no road raging bus driver, then.


You’d never mistake driving into my dad’s brother’s place for anything back home in the U.S.

Share the road

No sidewalks needed. Cars and pedestrians learn to share.

Power lines

Power lines crisscross and tower over a busy street. Compared to most I’ve seen this is pretty organized.


Trapped in A Steel Case of Ingestion

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China Eastern Airlines is all about the branding flair.

I’m flying China Eastern for the first time. The airline just got permission to fly into Manila and is pretty darn motivated to up it’s presence. That means deep discounts coming in a good $200 less than the competition.

Of course, it comes at a cost. The cushion in the middle of my seat is worn so much it felt like a 4×4 plank of wood tried to introduce itself to my colon. After a full two hours of this my travel ingenuity kicked in and I slid my blanket under my bum. Problem solved. They say necessity is the mother of invention; I learned today that a couple hours of a timber enema works, too.

Doesn’t stop there. When I ordered a “ginger ale” I got water. This is because I confused the flight attendant by looking Chinese. My bad. She misinterpreted my obscure English for a Chinese hinterland dialect, I think. Smile and nod. I’m good with water.

The real difference though is in the food. Airlines usually serve some bastardized version of their country’s fare. On KAL you get kimchi. Thai Air you’ll get Thai (surprise!) and Turkish Air gives you Turkish food (weird cheese!). American? Sandwiches, of course, but you’ll have to pay extra (deli sliced capitalism!). Continue reading