Friday, November 18, 2005

Joe Philippines - 11: Third World Shopping 101

One of the things I plan to do more of when visiting the Philippines this Christmas is to buy more. During my last visit, before my wife had ever been to the United States, she would often veto my desires to purchase a particular object saying that it was too expensive. By her standards, she was right but by my standards, it was dirt cheap. Now that she has seen what the price of some of her native things go for at Pier 1 Imports or like places, I think she will be siding with me more often on this trip.

In America, most prices are non-negotiable. You either pay it or you walk away. There are a few exceptions to this rule but not many in low volume purchases. In the Philippines, everything is negotiable. When shopping outside of the regular tourist haunts, very few objects have prices and for a very good reason. This allows the seller to adjust prices according to their perceived notion of the wealth of the buyer. If my native Filipina mother-in-law were to walk into a store, she would probably get a pretty reasonable price. If I were to walk in alone, I would probably get quoted two or three times a reasonable price by my mother-in-law's standards. If we were both to walk in together, she would probably get a price somewhere in-between and would be able to negotiate it to a closer to reasonable price albeit still a little higher than had she walked in alone. These are the facts of life and I find nothing wrong with it.

I am not going to buy anything that I don't think is worth the price. The native seller may think he is pulling one over on me by charging me more than he would a native Filipino but most likely, it is still dirt cheap compared to what I would have to pay for it back in the states. I give the seller a little extra money for the object in question and we both walk away happy customers. Nothing wrong with that. I could probably negotiate it for much the same price as my mother-in-law should I take the time to speak their tongue and live among them long enough to fully understand their economy. I'm very slowly working on learning the language but I'll never be there long enough to fully understand the economy and so I am happy for slightly over local retail.

My wife taught me how to ask for the price and almost all vendors say the number of pesos in English so I can usually wheel and deal from there. Sometimes the English numbers are so accented that I need my wife to interpret but most of the time I understood. On my last trip to the Philippines, I bought very few things in my wife's presence for the above mentioned reason. However, I did sneak out when she wasn't around and bought several of the better things I found in my travels and managed to do all right with the negotiations. The sellers all love to see me walk into their store because in their eyes, all white westerners are rich and they will practically run over all local customers in their haste to show me their goods. It also helps in the sense that they just hate the thought of me spending my money at another shop so they will quickly reduce their prices at the first sense that I am going to walk. That is step one. Step two is when I have to tell them how much I am willing to pay for the item. They will inevitably say they can't accept that much or more than likely give you a third price. If it is what I feel is fair, I usually pay the third price otherwise I go to step three and start to walk out. Sometimes you get the low price and sometimes you walk away with nothing but your pesos still burning a hole in your pocket. If I really want to pull out all the stops, I will at this point, contract my mother-in-law to buy it on my behalf on another day. She is guaranteed to get it for the lowest possible price.

What fascinates me and what I want to purchase are considered by most Filipinos to be just their everyday ordinary items. All the tourist spots and souvenir shops sell little knick knacks that you would never find in a Filipino household. Little stick men and women figures with a barrel around them that when removed, expose extremely exaggerated sexual anatomy are everywhere in stores but never in a Filipino house. On the last trip, I bought handmade brooms that they use to sweep their floors, a couple small hand carved statues and masks. All very unique to the United States and very common to the average Filipino. What I would like to buy is a whole bunch of solid mahogany furniture that locals carve and try to peddle along major highways from a nippa hut camp but I haven't worked out the logistics or the cost of getting it home. Again very average there but extremely unique and probably very pricey if you could find them here.

So this time when I head to the Philippines in a little over a month, I plan on taking a little more spending money, more bags to haul some of it back, and maybe depending on the prices, ship some of it back on a slow boat from China, or at least from that vicinity. Knowing how practical and frugal my wife is, I still will probably have to sneak out to buy some of it.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Joe Philippines - 10: A Culinary Experience

Going grocery shopping in the Philippines is about as unique of an experience as you can get. Being a westerner, I am used to going into large box like grocery stores full of foods of all kinds stacked neatly on shelves and categorized into aisles. It is the definition of order, which starkly contrasts to the controlled chaos of the Filipino markets. The Filipino market in Baguio is more of a district or several block area in town. Sidewalks crammed filled with smiling natives standing among a sea of baskets and containers holding a wide array of fruits and vegetables. Some look vaguely familiar to ones that I buy in the United States but most look like they were grown out back behind the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. My wife, mother-in-law and her sister, would walk through the sea of produce with nostrils flaring smelling various fruits for ripeness and pinching various things for firmness. I for the most part tried to hang back and act like I was not with them because the venders always would try taking advantage by charging a higher price assuming that I was rich as they believe all westerners are. But my mother-in-law is no slouch when it comes to haggling and she would let them know that she wasn't about to be fooled. After a few lashes of my mother-in-law's sharp tongue, even the most recalcitrant vender would back down to a more reasonable price.

As we accumulated food in various plastic bags, it was an on going game the entire trip to have me "try" various foods. I could always tell when I was biting into something a little bit dubious by watching the eyes of my wife's family and gauging how intently they were looking for my reaction. I humored them by trying it anyway but mostly I ate it for the experience of trying something out of my realm of what I consider normal dining fare. Over the course of my stay I would bite into things sour enough to almost make me swallow my lips and bitter enough to make even the worst enemies appear sweet, always chased by a heaping dose of amused laughter from my in-laws. It is bad enough when I know that I am about to bite into something like that but my in-laws wouldn't make it easy for me and would cook it up in food when I got back to their house. Sometimes I was supposed to eat it and other times it was merely added for flavor though I rarely knew which until after it was swallowed. I finally was able to convince my wife to show me examples of things hidden in the food that I was not supposed to eat and for the most part she did a good job. But every once in awhile, one piece of ginger root would look like a piece potato, and I would treat the table to a whole array of face making as I tried to cleanse my mouth of the taste amidst their chuckles.

Down one narrow alley between tall buildings, we entered into the meat market, very obvious to the casual passerby by the strong odor of blood and flesh drifting out. My wife suggested I stay behind but I wanted to experience everything and so followed them into the dank shadows of the alley. Various racks lined both sides of the alley with meats hung out in the open air, sometimes in whole albeit skinned form and other times in large cuts. All were fresh and had probably been butchered that morning of the night before judging from the pools of blood here and there. The air was thick with flies. We found a vendor with various large cuts of hog lying on a bloody board in front and after studiously inspecting them all, my in-laws selected one with a pointing of their hand and a few words in their native tongue. The vendor picked up the pork and stepped back to a large wooden stump soaked in blood, fat and flies, where he had just chopped the head off a chicken, and proceeded to dice up the meat and put into an empty plastic shopping bag. I must admit, that my stomach roiled a little bit at the thought of eating that later tonight but when it came, I ate it without hesitation and with gusto. To use one of my favorite saying, "Columbus took a chance," and so did I. I never got sick from the food during my entire time there as it was all very well cooked and done so in various strong preservatives like vinegar and soy sauce. To westerners used to the cleanliness of grocery stores, it might seem horrible to deal with meat like that but I rationalized it by thinking of how it had been recently butchered and cooked in comparison to the cuts in the grocery store which were probably a couple weeks old by the time it ever reached our mouths.

Our last stop of the day was in a wide covered alley where numerous stalls containing more varieties of rice than I had ever seen in all my life, lined both sides. I stood around for five minutes as my in-laws wandered here and there, sticking their hands into various open sacks of rice, feeling and smelling for heaven knows what. I finally decided that this was going to take awhile so I found a seat at a bench in the middle of it all and watched as people went about their shopping. It didn't take long for two drunken Filipino men to sidle up and sit beside me on the bench and start talking in an English that between the alcohol and accent was only barely recognizable as such. I started out pretending that I hadn't heard them but they only got louder so then I took to pretending I didn't understand so they leaned in closer and shouted even louder, their breath almost making me drunk. Finally after twenty minutes, my in-laws had finally selected a couple pounds of rice and rescued me from the two drunken men who to their credit, never gave up trying to communicate with me.

Back home, knives clattered in a flurry of chopping, dicing, mincing and slicing of the days haul and shortly it was transferred to various hot woks and pots on the stove. Most perishable food in the Philippines, at least with my in-laws, is bought on a daily basis because cold storage in very limited. Not only was their refrigerator about a third of the size of it's American cousin, it was mostly filled with bottled water and soda. Soon the table would be loaded with a nice pork and vegetable stir fry, a soup with what appeared to be seaweed floating in it, another vegetable medley with whole squid laying limply on top and a blackened fish with blackened eyeballs laying on a platter and staring blankly back at me. Of course, no meal would be complete without a huge pot of rice and the one on our table could have fed the entire state of Iowa with ease even if it was barely enough to feed this family in the Philippines. I did not fight for one of the eyeballs, which are highly prized around a Filipino dining table, nor did I try a squid though I have since eaten many, but I ate my share of everything else. It was tasty, just as long as I was able to avoid eating the flavor garnishes hidden here and there by my in-laws who were intently watching my face for any sort of taste bud reaction.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Finding Sweetness In Carving Big Air

One of the outdoor activities that my parents taught me as a youth was downhill skiing. Now here in southeastern Iowa, there aren't any hills worth skiing and not enough snow to ski on most years should you find a hill. So for a couple years, my skiing was confined to the occasional trip to nearby (within a few hundred miles) ski slopes that don't even qualify as bunny slopes by Colorado standards. But somewhere during my early high school career, they got me out of school for an extra week over Thanksgiving and we headed out to Winter Park ski resort in Colorado. I took three days of ski lessons and by the end of the week, I had skied down every run in the resort albeit with many falls on the more difficult ones like The Outhouse! Since that trip, I have never been back out west and have only occasionally skied the surrounding bunny slopes. For the most part it would be terribly dull if not for the company of friends but every once in awhile, it does get exciting and one such time is what I am going to blog about today.

On this particular trip, I was skiing with some friend in central Minnesota one Saturday evening and we were making our last run down the mountain. One of my friends who was skiing in front of me had a terrible wreck with skiing, hats, gloves, etc., flying in all directions or what skiers term as "having a yard sale." I helped him retrieve his lost gear and then we decided to race down the mountain so that we could catch up with the rest of our friends before hitting the bar. I pointed my skis downhill, crouched down as aerodynamic as possible and off I went with Jason my friend close behind. We had the option of several runs and I noticed that Jason had veered off behind me onto a different run. Now all alone, I zoomed down a run that I had been down before earlier in the day but hadn't for several hours. I went flying around a sharp corner sending up a rooster tail of ice as my skis skittered across the now hardened slush that the day's sun had turned the trail into and refocused on my path. Up ahead I saw two groups of snowboarders, one on each side of the run looking up the slope at me with a curious expression. I aimed to split the run in-between the two groups and hurtled on down the slope unseeing of the obstacle that lay ahead in poor light of early darkness. It wasn't until the ground disappeared that I finally understood what they had been looking at.

Over the years, I had tried doing small jumps with my skis only to have horrible yard sales on the slopes beneath the jumps. I just had a terrible sense of balance and had learned that I needed to keep both skis on the ground at all times in order to not horribly die in some tragic skiing accident at an early age. So as I flew off this massive ski jump that these snowboards had constructed in the snow, I knew I was dead. The ground fell away at an alarming rate until I was nearly twenty feet up in the air and hurtling down the mountain at jet speeds. I wildly windmilled my arms attempting to keep my balance and only was only able to succeed about half way. I hit the slope some sixty feet down slope from the ramp on one foot and way off balance. The impact caused one ski pole to jam between the snow pack and my upper torso, preventing me from collapsing in a heap and amazingly keeping me upright. As I regained my balance and kept on going down the hill at a still very rapid pace, I heard a voice yell after me, "Sweet dude!" As I skied on down the mountain and rejoined my friends, I couldn't help but think at how sweet it was carving some big time air. I don't think I will do it again.

Friday, November 4, 2005

Extreme Ecstatic Excitement and Bone Liquefying Terror!

Have you ever been absolutely terrified and yet excited beyond all belief? I never thought that was possible until Wednesday morning when my wife gave me a second confirmation "gift." I opened it up and out slid a pregnancy tester showing that my wife is pregnant with our first child. My first thought was, "I'm going to be a father!" followed by the second thought of "Oh my God, I'm going to be a father!" Extreme excitement and bone liquefying terror all in one package in the form of a piece of plastic, some litmus material and two horizontal lines. Needless to say, my mind hasn't been into work all week long.

We both want kids and after a year long "lets just focus on us and our marriage for awhile and not have children right away" period, we decided to let nature take it's course at the beginning of summer. We both want children and since we married later than many of my peers, the window of opportunity to get the kids out of the nest before retirement isn't as wide for us as others . I was happy to learn the news and can't be more excited. So excited, blogging about any other topic just doesn't seem interesting at the moment.

The terrifying part is being a parent for the first time. Sure my parents were awesome examples to live up to. Sure I turned out to be a well-adjusted person... I think. But does that necessarily make me a good parent too? Can I provide for my child everything that they need to succeed in life and be happy? I hope so, I pray so, but having never done this before, I can't know until the results have been verified. So many, many years down the road when my child is where I am now, I guess I'll have to report back to you on the results of my parenthood test. I hope I don't fail!

Both of us have a lot of science in our educational background and so we both wanted to verify the initial test results that she had actually taken a week ago. I made a trip to the local drug store to buy one of those EPT test kits that contained two tests. I read the instructions, which said a minus, or horizontal line is negative and a plus with both horizontal and vertical lines is positive. So when my wife took the test and produced one vertical line, we were a little stumped. The second one produced the same results. The instructions detailed all kinds of color variations but didn't say anything about one vertical line. So we made another trip to the store to buy a third type of tester, this one digital. Definitely positive on that one. So with the other signs of a missed monthly cycle several weeks ago, a slightly elevated temperature all this time and a little bit of nausea, I guess I am convinced. By my estimate, I'm guessing the new Abbey should arrive sometime around the end of June or the first of July. Hopefully a subsequent doctor's appointment will give a more precise date.

We have decided to keep all this news to ourselves for the time being until parents are notified around Thanksgiving but in an attempt to free up brain thinking capacity, I am telling the entire blogging world. Since to my knowledge, everyone but Gidget, Mikey and Jeri are clueless as to my true identity (I kind of feel like a superhero but without powers), there is no harm. I ask those three to keep it under their hats for the time being but the rest of you are free to shout it out. Although I will probably be blogging about this in the future, by letting my secret out to a largely anonymous crowd, I hope it will allow me to focus on blogging business as usual.