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.

First Trip: Busuanga

We took advantage of the long weekend and headed off on our first trip.  We wanted a chill weekend so we chose to go to Palawan. After some trip advisor hunting, we decided to head to the Busuanga Bay Lodge. We were able to get a really good deal from Expedia (half off I believe!) and two weeks later we headed off.

We arrived at the airport and they weighed our bags, ok normal.  Then they were like, ma’am, your weight please.  What? Please step on the scale ma’am. So, I weighed myself at the airport.  We arrived at a tiny airport in Coron with two terminals and easily found our ride from the airport to BBL.  We were greeting with music and singing, which was a bit over the top in my opinion, but I guess some people like that kind of thing.  All I cared about was the amazing view from the Pavillion.

View from the BBL entrance

We had a quick, delicious lunch, then headed over to check out our Deluxe Casita.  We were not disappointed by the view, huge room, and oversized bathroom.

Deluxe Casita at BBL

Day 1

Relax.

We headed down to the waterfront for some kayaking and stand up paddle boarding (SUP).  After about an hour of that we got to relax in the infinity pool with some cocktails and enjoy the view.  We finished up the day with an excellent meal.  They offer a free hike, so we opted to do that on day 2.  Our activities planner warned us that it may be too hot to go at 9am, but I assured her that my time doing Bikram CrossFit had prepared me well for a hot hike.

Day 2

Hike.

Two people from staff met us with a book about birds in Southeast Asia and we headed off to Conception Falls. To our surprise, one of our guides grew up in Conception. We had assumed the staff had gone to school for hospitality and jumped around from resort to resort, but that was not the case.  We asked where he had learned English so well, and he said, “In school, interacting with guests at the hotel, and reading lots and lots of books.”  The path to the falls was not built for a tall person, poor Mark had to spend half of it bending over, until the trail covered in arching branches opened up to a vast field with hip high grass.

Trail to Conception Falls

I was tempted to ask who maintained the trail, then I saw the guides removing branches as we went, everyone did their part.  It took about two hours to get to the falls.  We arrived hot and ready to jump into the cold water.  We even got to climb up and jump off from the top.


We walked back through the town of Conception where the nicest house was owned by the elementary school teacher, checked out the pier, and then took a nap.

Day 3

Coron.

We joined two other groups from BBL on a full day tour around Coron.  We started by heading out to the Twin Lagoons for a little dip.  Some of the water is warm from the ocean, and then there is a layer of cold “fresh water” on top.  The lagoons are surrounded by breathtaking limestone cliffs and are filled with unbelievably beautiful water.

Twin Lagoons

Next stop was the famous Kayangan Lake.  When you google image search Philippines, this undoubtably shows up.  The water is a shade of blue I have never seen before, and everyone takes a picture on the same rock.  It’s 150 steps up, then 150 steps down to the iconic lake.

Kayangan Lake

We stopped for lunch on the beach and finished the day snorkeling around Siete Pecados.  It was low tide though, which made swimming over the reefs a bit challenging and I believe was the cause of fewer fish to see.

Lunch on rhe Beach

Day 4

Illness.

Something didn’t sit right in my stomach.  I was up sick all night, thankfully we brought antibiotics, so by mid morning I was feeling better, but extremely exhausted.  I only got up to get a massage at 4pm and some plain rice for dinner, then back to bed.

This was a bit upsetting given the cost of excursions from the resort and the fact that we only ate at the resort or on resort trips.  I know it’s the developing world, but for that amount of money, I did not expect to get the worst food sickness I have ever had. I was also very thankful to one of my closest friends starting her 4th year of medschool who gave me some advice on an issue with the antibiotics, everyone should make friends with a Dr., they’re useful.

Day 5

Pass Island.

We finally got a day at a white sand beach! We were greeted by a cute 6-month old lab named Homer.  The snorkeling was pretty good, though I didn’t get great pictures on the go pro, and the beach was beautiful.

Pass Island

We left Pass Island in hopes of viewing a WWII Japanese shipwreck, but were greeted by a swarm of jellyfish, so that was a no-go. Then we headed back to the resort to catch our ride to the airport.

There were, of course hiccups in the trip. Most notably, getting sick. The resort also couldn’t get our credit cards to work, which was surprising since we both have Visas, so technically we still haven’t paid for the excursions and food. It was suggested that since we live here we should get a Philippine bank account because international credit cards often don’t work. To that I respond, this is the first time our cards have not worked, we have guaranteed fraud prevention and repayment from fraudulent transactions, our cards come with rewards, there are no international transaction fees, we will be moving every couple years, and do you suggest this to all guests? Because, I’m certain you have plenty of international visitors. All those things aside, the trip was, overall, very nice. Excursions were a bit overpriced if you didn’t have a large group, but they’re certainly worth doing. The room was fantastic, especially for the rate we paid, the food was good, the views were amazing, and every place we went was astonishing.

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.  

Mount PinatuNoGo

Seven of us planned for a little over a week to hike Mount Pinatubo.  We booked a tour because it’s a pretty involved process getting up to the top of the volcano.  On Saturdays and Sunday’s the departure time from Metro Manila is 2:30 am, you then take about a 1.5 hour 4×4 ride, and finish with either a short (45min) or long (2-3 hour) trek up to the top of the volcano.

All but one of us arrived on time to our pickup location, the last one arrived 20 minutes late and was sent to the back of the van.  Neck pillows on, feet up, and seats reclined, the seven of us and Xena headed out full speed ahead, until we came to a dead stop in traffic.  We didn’t check the religious events going on and learned the hard way that an expected 1 million people would be celebrating the Iglesia ni Cristo 100th anniversary at a huge venue next to the road we were on.  This added over two hours to our journey, causing us to arrive after the allowed 4×4 departure time of 7:00am.  Our driver tried to convince them to take us up, but they had already started sending earlier arrivals back down the mountain due to expected harsh weather conditions at the top.  After over 5 hours in the car, we mentally prepared to drive right back to Manila (the tour company did offer to fully refund our payment), until one person had a brilliant idea – go to the beach in Subic.  We spoke with the driver, tour company, and got the go ahead and price for a beach trip, so off we went.

There are two beaches in Subic that are well known, All Hands and Camayan. We decided to check out All Hands since it was closest.  We drove up excited to head to the beach and saw a “No Pets Allowed” sign.  Which meant Xena would have to stay in the car with our driver and miss out on her first beach experience, I DON’T THINK SO!  After some quick googling we found that Camayan allowed dogs, so we decided to go with plan C for the day.  

We got to Camayan, rented a Cabana, and headed to the water. The beach was beautiful and had an amazing view.  Xena loved playing in the sand, but wasn’t too sure about the whole swimming thing.  After some sun bathing we grabbed a cheap, but good, meal at Meat Plus Cafe and checked out a friend’s box, CrossFit Subic Bay.  The box was awesome with a complete open air setup and covered outdoor area as well.

 

Beautiful day at the beach and an awesome open air CrossFit box in Subic Bay.

   
 
After the failed hike, failed beach attempt 1, and the long drive down, we came to a few conclusions:

  1. We enjoy the company. Despite being stuck in a car together for so long, we still had a lot of fun, made some jokes, and made the best of the situation.
  2. We still want to try and hike Mount Pinatubo.
  3. Next time we want to hike Mount Pinatubo we should drive down on Friday or Saturday, spend a day relaxing at the beach in Subic, then take a one hour drive to the 4×4 pickup location.
  4. Always check to see if there is a huge religious event going on.

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!

When it Rains, it Pours

I’m not trying to be depressing, just stating a fact about rainy season here.  When it rains, it pours.  It’s madness.  When I first arrived, it would rain for about 20 minutes and I thought to myself, “wow, rainy season isn’t that bad.”  I was questioning if rainy season had actually started.  Now I know, it hadn’t.  I also know that rainy season has officially started.  I wish I could video the extend to which it rains, but I don’t want to go outside.

I have learned to be very grateful for two things: my high clearance vehicle and a somewhat covered deck off my room.  There was about 1 foot of water on the road when I left work earlier this week. As all the low clearance cars were stopped and debating if they should go or turn around, my jeep plunged right in.  Then I got home and had to take Xena out.  She hates rain.  So, we decided to let her out onto the patio to pee.  Okay, maybe a little gross, but the ground gets wet and washes it away, I don’t have to get drenched (which takes only 5 seconds of standing in the rain), and I don’t have to deal with a drenched dog.

Rainy season does bring about cooler weather though.  The gym felt cool, going outside in the morning means not carrying Xena from one grassy patch to another so her paws don’t get burned, and I’m not sweating after 1 minute of being outside.

All this talk of Xena (follow her on instagram at xenawarriorboxer) and I haven’t posted any new photos of her.  She’s grown a LOT!  When we got her she was about 10lbs, now I think she’s about 20.  She’s fully vaccinated and can explore the world. We go to puppy school once a week on Fridays and she has gotten better, but there’s still a long way to go.

DSC_0969

She gets VERY excited to see dogs, and plays the way boxers do. Unfortunately, most dogs don’t appreciate her play style.  Poor girl, she will calm down eventually (right? In like 4 years…) Until then, I guess it’s soccer balls and big dogs for her.

DSC_0942 DSC_0945

We are all looking forward to some beach time in dryer weather and family visits at the end of rainy season.  In the meantime, we’ll be outside as much as possible between rain showers.

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.