One Year Away From DC

One year ago I enjoyed my last day in DC.  I had already packed out of my house and was loving life at the Fairmont Hotel in the West End. I woke up on that last day, probably a little hungover from the night before, and met a friend at Baked and Wired in Georgetown for breakfast.  We walked over to the Key Bridge Boat House and took out paddle boards to the middle of the river to watch the DC flyover.  After the flyover ended, we headed to lunch on the waterfront, I met my aunt for dinner that night, and  I finished off the evening at Sauf Haus to say bye to friends. 

Today I find myself on a plane to Sydney, Australia. I woke up, took my puppies out, and grabbed an uber to the airport.  I was lucky enough to win a free trip the Singapore for the Under Armour “Test of Will.” We had our briefing yesterday and the three others joining to compete in the test of will emphasized what a big deal it is for me to compete at Regionals, so the rep from Under Armour met me at the airport with a bag filled to the top of Under Armour Swag!

Two very different days, so what has else changed in the past year?

House

DC: 1 bedroom + office English basement apartment with patio and yard

Manila: 2 bedroom townhouse apartment

Neighborhood

DC: Up and coming neighborhood.  Walking distance to public transportation, restaurants, bars, and an awesome coffee shop. 

Manila: Secure compound in somewhat dodgy neighborhood. Walking distance to…a 7-11?

Commute 

DC:  5.5miles to American University – 35 minutes by bike up the biggest hill in DC ugh

Manila: 2.2 miles to Primal Ape CrossFit – 45-90 minutes by car

Social Life

DC: Trivia and/or happy hour during the week, out at bars or house parties on weekends

Manila: Social life revolves around gym and my workout schedule, very minimal drinking

Gym

DC: 1 hour CrossFit Class 4-5 times a week

Manila: I don’t even want to know

Household Chores

DC: Dishes daily, work together to do full clean every week or so, laundry almost daily

Manila: None, I’m a complete slob and live in a house cleaner than DC, thanks to a helper 

Vacations

DC: One major trip per year, small trips for long weekends

Manila: Busuanga, Bohol, DC, Thailand, Boracay, Baguio, and Australia, with Singapore, El Nido, Korea, Malaysia, and DC on the horizon

Free Shit

DC: No one is giving me jack shit for free, except maybe some beer and Jameson at Sauf Haus

Manila: Trip to Singapore and a bag of athletic gear from Under Armour

Under Armour Airport Delivery for Regionals


Let’s see what changes the next year brings. 

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MGZ Visits, Part 1: Boracay

My friend from college had a month off between medschool and residency, so she booked a trip out to the Philippines. For the first part of our trip, we headed out to Boracay.  Boracay is known for its white sand beaches and is the most popular getaway in the Philippines. We booked a room in station 3 at my friend’s hotel for a discount. We had a large room with two double beds and amazing air conditioning.

Boracay is the perfect place for doing nothing and feeling totally ok about that. We spent the first day laying on the beach and attempting to get our tan on. It was hot though, so we absolutely needed to dip into the water. We got dinner and sunset drinks at Kasbah. After sunset we went to bed early, it had been a long day in the sun, plus a 5am wake up. 

  

On our second day, we got out on paddle boards in the morning, and laid in the sun for pretty much the entire rest of the day. We found an AMAZING breakfast spot that morning, too. 

For our third day, we checked out Puka Beach. The waters were clearer than White Beach and there were not as many obnoxious vendors. We got two lounge chairs, coconuts, and enjoyed the sun, view, and breeze for the afternoon. 

  

We finished off the trip at Spider House. This laid back, bamboo beach resort had great drinks, snacks, and view. You could jump off or climb down a ladder to cool off in the ocean. As a bonus, there were puppies. 

   
 
Overall, I enjoyed my lazy time in Boracay. To be fair, I did workout at CrossFit Boracay, where I did pull ups on bamboo bars, but overall it was lazy. I would stay in station 1 if I return though, less crowded and fewer vendors. 

Eligible for Unemployment

I have to give fair warning, this post will be very dry.

I was reading blogs with Eligible Family Member (EFM) tags and stumbled across one of my favorites.  A post from a few days ago really struck home for me, and has prompted me to write this post.

While that may seem like a crazy thing to say, particularly at a spouse orientation, I was not the least surprised.  Spouse orientation was an interesting day for me, and I assume for many other spouses.  First, let me explain the backstory.

Prior to spouse orientation, most of the information EFMs receive is from the spouse, who receives the information from the State Department.  During the application process, the applicant is given packets about the FLO.  The FLO was set up because EFMs had to accept unemployment as part of the trailing spouse position and they wanted that to change.  They wanted the State Department to acknowledge that EFMs are generally well educated and have rewarding professional lives. They want to continue to have careers throughout their time abroad. Furthermore, without work, it can be a tough transition, leading the direct hire to seek other employment so his/her spouse can lead a happy, fulfilling life.

Anyway, the direct hire receives all the information about the FLO, the Global Employment Initiative (GEI) and the Expanded Professional Associate Program (EPAP).  These programs all sound fantastic! They pass this on to the EFM and accept the job as a diplomat.  This brings me to the spouse orientation.  This is the first time a spouse is invited to learn about life abroad as an EFM.  This is when dreams are shattered.  I was told that the best thing to do when moving to a new post is to either telework or pick up a hobby – like writing, photography, or guitar.  I had just quit my office job and couldn’t think of a hobby that I liked enough to give me fulfillment for the rest of my “professional” life.  They mentioned that spouses love getting coffee, or often find joy in learning new recipes.  With each new suggestion, my heart sank a little deeper.  It’s clear why I’m not entirely surprised that a C-suite executive spouse was told to try running a daily bake sale.

The most useful portion of the spouse orientation was when an EFM came in to discuss his experiences at his past couple posts.  Finally, I was given an honest and direct answer.  He said something along the lines of, it was lonely at times. I was working full time prior to our departure so I couldn’t learn the language.  I had a hard time getting around, and an even harder time meeting people.  I applied for a job at the Embassy, but I never got it.  You’ll find it’s very typical for only a single job opening to become available when you’re at post and everyone wants it.  If you do get that job, you often have to wait about 6 months for the security clearance. That being said, I’ve never regretted my decision to come along.  For every hard day, there’s something amazing I’ve learned, plus I’ve lived and traveled to some pretty cool places.

Later in the day, I was presented with the statistics regarding family member employment.  I was quite displeased, for two reasons.  First, 60% unemployment seems fairly high, and didn’t give me much hope for finding a job.  Second, this includes spouses who are employed full time, part-time, and “as needed.”  My opportunity for regular employment started seeming less and less likely.

I tried and tried to find some more honest answers online through blogs, but came up fairly dry.  Mostly because a lot of blogs are written by EFMs with children, so it didn’t seem to fit our situation.  They filled their days hanging out with toddlers, meeting other parents from school, volunteering, working at the Embassy, or enjoying early retirement. Finally, I was put in touch with a friend’s friend, who is also an EFM in her mid twenties, with no children.  She told me that the saying tends to be, assume you’ll be unemployed, finding employment is a bonus.  Don’t expect it to be in your career field, and if it’s at the embassy, it will generally be administrative in nature.  So, I learned that the GEI hasn’t been as successful as I had hoped.

The most immediate, and easiest, fix I can see for the short term is to include reliable internet as a utility.  Housing and utilities abroad are covered by the State Department, but internet has not been added to the list of utilities.  This means that internet is not set up in the house upon arrival.  This would be fine in the United States, but abroad, it can take 2-3 months for the internet to be fully installed, and in those places, it’s generally very unreliable.  These does not provide EFMs with a very good chance at teleworking.  If it were included as a utility and the fastest provider was used, EFMs would have an infinitely better chance at teleworking as a career from post to post.

With all that said, there are, of course, some very big pros to this lifestyle.  Some people do not want to work and certainly will feel no shame in deciding not to apply for a job.  Household help is affordable at many posts, money is provided for each school age child to help cover the costs of the expensive international schools, and housing is provided.  It is a great opportunity to travel, experience new cultures and find new interests or better develop old ones.  While the career may not be traditional, through part time jobs, volunteer work, some full time positions, and hobbies, it can still be a very rewarding life.

So why have I bothered writing all this, especially since I have a job?  I wished that I had found this type of information before we committed to the lifestyle.  While it probably wouldn’t have changed my decision, it would have been nice to have made the decision based on the truth.  I am very grateful that the FLO, CLO, GEI, EPAP all exist, I just think there’s a long way to go and until we get there, the truth should be made more public.

A Weekend of Celebrations

I witnessed my first proposal.  I was rowing away on an erg while another group of coaches did sled drags with a long rope.  One coach asked his girlfriend to hop on and pulled her in, got down on one knee, and proposed.  Of course, that meant we all got to celebrate.  We went to People’s Palace for an amazing dining experience.

In order for you to truly understand why it was so awesome (which it really was), you have to also understand what other dining experiences are like.  Generally you wait a while to order your food then the food arrives one plate at a time, with up to an hour wait from the first delivery to the last person’s food deliver.  It then takes a long time to get a bill and then we have to tell them we don’t pay VAT and wait another hour.  It’s a more pleasant experience to eat at home.

We sat down at the table and were lucky enough to be there with the head chef, so he ordered for us.  Within five minutes of him ordering, our food arrived at the table.  We asked if it was just because he was there, and he said no, he enforces a 5 minute ticket time.  Once the order comes in, it should leave the kitchen within 5 minutes.  The waiters also don’t take notes, they just memorize the order.  To top it off the food was phenomenal.  From the pomelo salad to the sticky rice with mango dessert, there wasn’t a single dish I didn’t enjoy.

I tried to figure out why the service could be 1000 times better at People’s Palace than every other restaurant I’ve been to here.  Apparently after six months or so working somewhere, the company has to start paying benefits.  Instead of doing that they just fire them and move on to the next person who is eagerly awaiting a job.  It’s not worth the time to properly train the wait staff.  I assume, that at People’s Palace they are willing to train their staff, because they are also willing to keep them.  Now, I have not been able to confirm that training and money is the reason service is poor relative to what I experience at home, but if that’s the case, it’s certainly a sad reality on the part of the businesses.  Unfortunately, there is a high demand for jobs, so it’d be challenging to convince a business owner to retain employees at a higher cost when it doesn’t stop many people from dining out anyway.

Onto the next celebration, or party.  A going away party for one of my swolemates.  He’s not only someone I work out with, he’s also the one who got me in contact with my gym.  We booked a cabana at the Palace Pool Club.  It’s exactly what it sounds like, a nightclub with pools.  Thankfully it was not Saturday night, I can only imagine how crazy it would be to party in a pool and how many drunk injuries there would be.  The idea is pretty sweet though, especially given how hot it is here.

The pool was nice, they had some floaties for us to jump around in, the mojitos were delicious, and so were the burgers.  We were the only ones there for a while so we used the open dance floor space to do the typical CrossFit thing, drinking relays.  Handstand walks, push ups, and squats, plus chugging a beer.  All in all, it was a pretty fun day.

I’ll see if I can get photos from other people this weekend since I failed miserably at taking them.

Cheat Meal

When I first got to Manila, another expat said it was about 6 months before he was invited into a Filipino’s house.  HA only took me 3.  I work on the local economy, which means I have become friends Filipinos.  This is something that, from my understanding, is not the norm.  The athletes at Primal Ape CrossFit work in a variety of fields, including as a chef at People’s Palace (whoops, still haven’t made it there, gotta get on that).  The Chef was discussing the cheat meals he likes with a coach and decided best to share in the meal.  So, he invited a group of us over for the perfect cheat meal.

Guacamole, Turkey Tacos, Korean Fried Chicken, Fish Tacos, and Chocolate Chip Cookies


The meal was amazing, I’d never had Korean Fried Chicken, but I would like to have it again.  I think I laughed so much during the night that it almost offset my overly full stomach.  Some wigs were even busted out, I’m thinking maybe I should chop off my hair and dye it green?  

  

As I get to know everyone here, it makes the new country feel a bit more like home.  Everyone has been very welcoming, regardless of the fact that they know we won’t be here permanently.  So here’s to many more fun nights  (and cheat meals!) I’ll close with a picture of Xena just because.  

The Fridge that Travels

Remember how I talked about pack out way back in early May?  Well, all that stuff that we packed out finally arrived at our house this week (I shouldn’t say finally, 2.5 months is a pretty standard amount of time to wait for HHE).  Aside from two missing shoes (which we hope will pop up in the next few days) everything arrived in good shape from the long trip by sea.

Prior to Thursday, I thought that I could live really well without all my stuff.  I still think I could live without most of these things, but I’d rather not live without a couple items.  It hasn’t been the clothes or shoes that have made it better, but the little things that make it feel a bit more like home.  We had the provided bookshelves and TV stand removed and replaced with our TV stand, bookshelves, and most importantly, our beer fridge.  After we put together the living room, I walked in to see the minifridge and thought to myself, wow, now it feels more like home.

  
I haven’t had to live with white walls and loaned furniture since college.  Back in college, I’d unpack the specialty tea mug I was gifted, slap my San Francisco poster on the wall and call it home.  I wish I had thought back to that, but next time I won’t dismiss the little things that make a house a home – a mug from a wedding that also reminds me of where I grew up, the reward from winning a kickball tournament on the mall, and the little mug that traveled to college each year.

  
I’m still waiting on facilities to come hang up posters (we have concrete walls, so we can’t do it ourselves), but the fridge and mug that traveled have made a world of difference already in feeling less homesick.  It’s also nice that our 50″ TV, Ikea bookshelf, Ikea stand, and mini fridge don’t look like a grandmother picked them out!

Are You Homesick?

Last night I was asked a question that I hadn’t really asked myself, “are you homesick?” I sat for a second before answering because I hadn’t been asked this very genuine question yet and I was grateful to be able to give an honest answer.  Yes.

Although we bid Manila high because of how welcoming people are to Americans, the warm weather, and the fact that you can get almost anything you want here, it’s still different in many ways.  Just like everyone back in the States, I commute in traffic, go to the grocery store, eat out, drink on weekends, and take my dog outside.  Yet, each thing presents a unique challenge, one that would be comical as a traveler, but hit me a bit harder when I realized, this is home – at least for now.

I already wrote about the adventure that is driving in Manila.  To be fair, the novelty still hasn’t worn off.  I follow all the rules at in the States and for the first time I finally get to drive the way I would want, without the worry of pissing someone off and having them get out of their car to yell at me.  On the other hand, the commute is draining.  I can’t somewhat mindlessly get to my destination like I could in the U.S., all attention is on the road.  I will, however, miss the lights when I get back.  They count down the green, yellow, and red lights, how do we not have this yet?!

Unlike the U.S., my trips to the grocery store never seem quite complete.  We used to shop for the week at a single store, now it seems like we can hardly fill up a grocery basket and have to swing by 2-3 stores.  You can get almost everything, but there are some hard to find items as well.  For instance, I got extremely excited when I found a tiny thing of arugula, a staple of mine at home. Once we got home, I couldn’t just whip up a salad, first I had to soak the arugula and veggies in vinegar for 10 minutes.  It was so delicious and comforting though.  The vegetable/water problem also presents a dilemma while eating out. Can I order a salad here? Do I think the ice cubes are from filtered water too?  On the plus side, I can have all the mangos, papayas and other tropical fruit I’ve never heard of that I want.  Blender is in the mail to make some delicious tropical fruit drinks for some poolside relaxation.  As if this wasn’t relaxing enough.

There are so many stray cats and dogs that I’m nervous to take Xena out, even once she is fully vaccinated.  I’m also missing out on the neighborhood dog parks to make friends.  We have a dog run nearby, but it doesn’t seem to get much use.  I have been told that on the weekends people gather on High Street in the Fort with dogs.  Will have to check that out after the last vaccine.

It’s the little things that make me miss the U.S. a bit, but I know that with time I’ll get adjusted, make more friends, and lose the homesick feeling.  Right now I’m still in the getting to know people better phase, but another EFM and I have a plan for socializing during the day once summer transfer season has come to an end: Balcony Club.  The townhouses where I live have balconies off every floor, but when on earth will I use the balcony off my guest room?  I’m not going to make coffee downstairs and walk it up the stairs just to drink on that balcony, it’s both inconvenient and a bit small compared to the main balcony.  See the difference?

Well, with Balcony Club, we will pick someone’s floor specific balcony and have a drink there.  It will give us all an excuse to make the balconies nice, take advantage of them, and get to know each other.

There are also things here that I will miss when I leave.  A huge help has been vet house calls.  I text the vet the problem or update and he texts back with a time to stop by or a solution.  Plus, it’s cheaper than the states – house visit, medicine, stool sample, inner ear sample, and microchip added up to about $60.  Also, a helper.  We will have someone starting in July who will cook and clean.  I know I sound spoiled, but I despise household chores, so this is a big win for me.  I’ve been told she makes more working for us than she would on the local economy, so I guess it’s not a horrible gig for her either.  She will also look after Xena while I’m at work.  Lastly, the travel.  Though I haven’t taken advantage of this yet, I know it will be amazing.

One thing I’m undecided about is the signs, some are inappropriate but hilarious, others are Taglish (Tagalog and English) and thus, entertaining.