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. 

Thailand Part 2: Ko Phi Phi

Our second destination for the Thailand Trip was Ko Phi Phi.  We flew to Krabi where we took a Taxi to the pier, got tickets for a ferry, and at last landed at Ko Phi Phi.

Ko Phi Phi was hit with a Tsunami in 2004, nearly all of the buildings were knocked down.  By 2010 most of the buildings had been restored, now it’s the hot spot destination for young travelers.  The island is packed with stores, tourists, and night life.

It was low tide when we arrived so the Taxi Boat could not take us to the hotel, we got to walk along the path to the end of the beach to the Bay View Resort.  The resort was in the perfect location, walking distance to the restaurants, but away from the noise.

Unfortunately, it was overbooked and they did not have the room I had booked in advance available.  While Tory and Alex enjoyed their stay at the hotel…Mark and I had a very different experience.

On our first full day there we decided to chill on the beach.  We set out on a journey to find long beach.  We walked up through some mountains, stopped for lunch at Viking Nature Resort. Then found our way to Long Beach.  It was a bit further from the crowds with white sand, umbrella’s and beautiful water.


The next day we hopped aboard a large speedboat to go island hopping.  We hit all the famous islands, Monkey Beach, Maya Bay, etc.  It was a long day, but very beautiful.  Followed by a delicious dinner and even some beer pong.


There is only one ferry from Phi Phi Don to Railay, the next destination, so Mark and I decided to wake up early and go scuba diving.  We were paired up with a dive master who worked to get us the best day diving he could.  He took us away from the crowds, showed us the fishes, and kept us entertained.

Although the island has natural beauty, in my opinion, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.  I completely understand why tourists began flocking to the Phi Phi islands, the water is amazing, the rocks are beautiful, and the beaches are fantastic.  It’s become too popular though. When they rebuilt after the tsunami, it was because they needed tourists to come back, but it was not built to match the natural beauty.  The streets were dirty, some of the beaches completely lined with boats, and the tours to the most beautiful beaches are so filled with boats and people that it takes effort to get a photo without it all.  I had a fun trip because of the company, but I don’t think I’ll be back.

‘Murica

I am supposed to be writing about a lovely trip to Boracay, but two weeks before the trip I received an email inviting me to interview for a place in George Washington University’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program. So, I booked a flight to DC and headed off to America.

I got sick before the plane trip, but thankfully I flew Emirates so it wasn’t completely awful. I got extra legroom and even three seats to myself. They gave me warm towels to wash my hands, pretty good food for a plane, free red wine to help me sleep, and more than enough movies. After the 27 hour journey from 90 degrees and humid, I landed in DC in the middle of winter. I was nervous I would be freezing the entire trip and not prepared clothing wise to handle the cold. Thanks to global warming and El Niño it was a surprising 65 degrees when I landed. A-M-A-Z-I-N-G

I spent my first week working out at CrossFit Balance Georgetown and laying low because I was sick, then headed off to my interview at GW on Saturday morning.

It was so easy to be back in DC. I was able to stay shockingly busy for having nothing to do but an interview. I met up like old times for lunches, happy hours, and trivia.

 

Back with the gang for a night of Trivia.

I even got to spend time being a tourist. I visited the Renwick Gallery for the Wonder exhibit (which I highly recommend), and walked around the monuments…in a tee shirt, in December.

Renwick Gallery, Wonder Exhibit.

I got back on the plane ready for Manila, knowing that at the end of our post I would officially become a Physical Therapist.  I was accepted to GWU.

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.

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!

Biking in a Developing Country

When We lived in DC we biked everywhere.  Not because Mark and I couldn’t afford a car, but because it was faster (we also had Fred, my aunt’s ’88 pickup truck on loan for a year which we generally just used for the grocery store).  It was great to be able know I wouldn’t get stuck in traffic, I wouldn’t have to drive around for 20 minutes trying to find parking or have to pay for parking, didn’t have to pay for gas, and I got to enjoy the nice – and not so nice – weather.

Prior to my arrival in Manila I spoke to a handful of people about biking, everyone said it was not an option and that people don’t bike here.  The reason I was generally told I could not bike is that it’s not safe.  My first day here I bought a mountain bike.  It sat untouched near the front door for a little over a month, until last week.  Last week I pumped up, ok Mark pumped up, my tires, brushed off the dust on my helmet, threw on a sweet pair of Sperrys with socks, and hopped onto the bike.

  
I survived day 1 and even did a day 2!  I skipped day 3 because I had to work late.  So what was it like?  Well, it was quite warm.  I did have to stop a lot more than I would in the US and dodge a number of obstacles like push carts, people, mopeds, and jeepneys.  I have never smoked a cigarette before, but I’m pretty sure my bike commute added up to smoking one.  There’s a lot of smog coming out of cars and buses.  That being said, it was about 40 minutes faster than driving, liberating to pass all the cars, breezier than I expected, and I’m pretty sure that the roads are smoother here than DC.  Yes, that’s right, the roads were smoother than DC!  I’m also quite sure it wasn’t just the sweet shocks on my new bike.

Just like DC, I felt a common bond to my fellow bikers.  Maybe it was all in my head, but they still gave the friendly nod, and the general awareness of each other that was not as an enemy like cars.  This also goes to show that plenty of people bike every single day and how easy it is not to notice these bike commuters.  Sure they are all male here, but many of the bikers in DC are also male.

My safety, however, was a concern to my coworkers.  They told me to be careful since I am a woman, especially since I have a backpack on, which could make me look like an easy target.  I’m still undecided on this.  Okay, I didn’t feel completely safe at night, but there are always lots of people on the road and if I’m on a bike it might imply that I don’t have tons of money and may not make the best target.  This could be naive of me though.

All in all, I think it was a pretty positive experience.  I can get a mask to help with the air pollution, wear longer sleeves if the sun is beaming too much on my pasty northern american post-apocalyptic winter skin, and fasten a front strap to my backpack to make it more challenging to steal, and maybe just carry my knife in my pocket (not so sure about the last one).  

I learned that despite what everyone thinks, it is not too difficult to bike in a developing country. Just be smart, pay attention, be comfortable on your bike, and share with the world how awesome biking is.  It will, after all, help with the air pollution, which in turn makes biking more enjoyable.