Sign Language: The Miniature Store

Mini 2oz bleach next to mega bottle

Its a consistent theme here:  the missing middle.  You see it most starkly in the striking contrast between rich and poor, and the lack of a very little in between.  The wealth disparity and missing middle class are reflected in so many experiences here:  very low end places to eat or shop, or very expensive alternatives instead.  Not so much in the middle. You can buy jumbo-sized or mini-sized versions of just about anything depending on the size of your wallet.  Robert dubbed the local 7-11 as “the miniature store” as the only sell mini everything…  Occasionally, like here, you see the jumbo and mini side by side and, at least to me, its symbolic of The Philippines itself.

How is the Taste Regarding Your Food?

Walk into a store and you will typically be greeted by a wall of staff. But do will they know what it is that you’re looking for?

It takes a little while to get used to the service experience here.   It starts with the different use of English. I’m not talking about the distinctive accent or pronunciation, although that certainly adds to things.  Its the mixture of missionary English, American English and unique Filipino phrases, that sometimes ask the ear to do a double take. Always polite, always sincere, the phrase comes at you, and the brain says “What?!”

“How is the Taste Regarding Your Food?” was a recent inquiry put to me from a waitress in Shakeys Restaurant.  She was checking whether we were happy with our food.  Its a much more formal way of asking “Everything ok?”   And a much quirkier way of asking “Is everything to your satisfaction?”  It sort of nailed it for me with the language barrier.

And there are other new experiences to handle when you first arrive and are purchasing something:  anything, like a cup of coffee or household supplies.  I can’t remember exactly where we first did it, but our initial experience at the department store in Metro Market is the one that I remember best:  You’re standing at the cashier island, with one person in front of you. There are two employees and two cash registers.  The first employee is involved in ringing up the first sale.  So you stand near the empty register and hand your item to the second employee — the one not doing anything — and hand her your item expectantly.  She very politely signals that the other employee will handle your transaction and steps back.  (It took me two tries at this on two separate occasions to figure out that the second person’s job was as bagger.  Baggers don’t use the register. Cashiers don’t bag. Get used to it.)  Its your turn and both ladies do their jobs and you hand over the money, then she says it:  I receive one thousand pesos, mam.  Or I receive the exact exchange, mam.  She’s signalling the denomination for the cash received and it has to — always — be stated out loud.  I don’t bat an eye anymore when it happens but it takes at least a dozen transactions to get used to.  Orders are the same way in the restaurant:

Customer:  Can I have a cup of black coffee please?
Waitress: Yes mam.  I repeat your order.  One cup of black coffee.  Thank you.

I repeat your order, Mr President…..

If you’re not expecting it, it throws you, especially if your ear is not tuned to the accent yet.  Your order will *always* be repeated back to you at every restaurant, every time.  No matter how long or short your list.

Transactions here are very formalized and regimented. You see the rows of employees outside the store first thing or at shift change, the supervisor drilling them on something, probably the same thing they were drilled on yesterday.  Cashiers are taught to ask customers if you have the company loyalty card at the beginning of a sale.  But if the answer in no, that conversation is over.  They don’t try and get you sign up for one (thank god!) but they can’t answer you on how to obtain one either. (No one trained them on that).

The whole transaction experience is a reflection of the values of where you are, where ever you are.  It is frustrating when there are five people serving you, but none are able to help you, or no one can think outside of the box to solve your problem.  But compared to other places where no one can be bothered to serve you, there is no one to serve you, or where you have to beg for a menu – here its a positive pleasure.  Returning to the Philippines after Greece to smiling, courteous faces is a bit of a relief.  Of course I’d like competency with courtesy and friendliness, but two out of three ain’t bad!  Its also a striking contrast to have a minimum of two assistants in a world that’s heading increasingly towards self-check out.  How’s the service where you are?

Marine Ball 2012

It Ball Season again here in Manila and the city has the traffic to prove it!  We braved it last night and headed out to the 2012 Marine Ball all glammed up.  Mega salon treatment, hair and make up’ed later, here are the results of Team Caroline’s valiant efforts.

For those that didn’t read this blog’s report last year, the Marine Ball is the annual celebration of all things Marine, and parties are held worldwide in November.  There’s lots of pageantry, formal dress uniforms,a few speeches, and a very big cake cut with a sword.  And, of course, dancing and the chance to see friends and colleagues all dressed up.

It was fun, but one ball a year is definitely enough for me.  I don’t know how the socialite crowd do it!  Happy 237th birthday Marines!

More Fun in The Philippines

Latham’s preparing for his HS final film production and they want to include a green screen shot of a woman driving.  So this weekend they ran a few green screen tests.  Here’s his friend Carl goofing around to music to test the green screen and lighting.  Keep watching ….around the 1:00 mark, it all falls apart!  Makes me laugh every time…!

P.S.  I love how the green screen picks up the trees and makes them look like they’re on fire!!

Hammock Potato

Oh yes, Hammock Life!  October was really busy and the thought of three days away on a short beach trip at the end of the month really kept me going.  We booked a stay at Kookoos nest in Dumaguete on the island of Negros, a short flight away from Manila. It was a very small resort, consisting of half a dozen native huts directly on the beach. Apart from snorkeling and diving, there’s little to do except to hang around and read.  Enforced relaxation.  Exactly what we all needed.

View from said hammock…..

It was the perfect place to stay for us.  No air conditioning (but fans in the room), a private bathroom (cold water only…which I can tolerate for a couple of days) and private balcony (with spectacular sunsets), and it was surprisingly mosquito free.  There were plenty of bugs, though, if you chose to be bothered by them. I wasn’t — mostly — they didn’t bother me, and I didn’t bother them.  Except for the spider.  First night I head outside down the steps to the bathroom.  On the pathway, trying to negotiate the next step, is a very large, very hairy, black spider.  Or let’s just say it… the “t” word……tarantula.  Well, maybe not a tarantula – who’s knows, I don’t know spiders – but darn close anyway.  He looked something like this:

He moved very slowly.  I did a triple take to try and comprehend what I was looking at, then fled back upstairs.  Maybe I didn’t need to go that bad!  You can be sure I took extra precautions every evening, watching where I stepped.  Never saw him again!  Never wanted to!

After that excitement, the rest of the stay was very relaxing and uneventful.  I turned into a true hammock potato, reading 1.5 books in two days, taking four mini-naps a day.  The food was good and we ate three meals a day at their little restaurant, helping ourselves to the cooler bar whenever we wanted a drink.  I would definitely go back, despite my encounter with “Bertie” as I dubbed him.  You take the rough (and hairy) with the smooth, right?!

How to Toilet Train Your Cat

Butter wouldn’t melt….

Latham told me that as he was heading off to college next year, I should take this opportunity to buy a cat as a child replacement, or use it as an excuse anyway.  It was his way of trying to talk me into getting a cat.  I was pretty adamant that we didn’t need another pet in our mobile lives.  The cost, worries and sheer logistics just logically weigh the benefits of having a small, warm creature curled up on your lap every night.  Also, with Latham off to college, I can think of other things to do with my time than just have another entity to look after all the time.  But after a year of being worn down by cute kittens in the pet shop window and heavy hints from Robert and Latham, I finally succumbed, and last September we bought a very cute siamese.  And with her came the dreaded world of pet travel rules and regs, airline restrictions, and worst of all, what to do with her during the complexities of changing post.  Like I say….a bad idea in every way except that we all wanted a cat again.  Logic loses to emotion, yet again.

So over here in teenage land, I am dealing with potty training again.  Living in a high rise apartment meant a kitty litter tray – we’ve never had to have one for any length of time before — and its nuisance and smell.  Plus kitty litter is very expensive here.  (A ridiculous, heavy, luxury import if you think about it.)  Our helper very graciously does most of the dirty work, but our kitchen area is completely unliveable without some scooping upkeep by yours truly.
Tired of the expensive kitty litter and smelly bathroom, I looked online for alternative litter tray products and in the process discovered the wonderful world of toilet trained cats.  The prospect of toilet training her so that she did everything but flush, was very appealing and we started the process about a couple of months ago.

I’ll spare you pictures of the first part.  Essentially you just move the kitty litter tray from its original location, slowly, until it is located adjacent to the toilet.  Then, as she accepts that, you start raising it, slowly…using boxes or telephone directories ….one at a time…. until the kitty litter tray is parallel in height to the toilet seat.  Its very important that the raised tray is secure, non wobbling and able to take the force of her leap without scaring her. Depending how far away the tray’s current location is from the proposed toilet, this could take days or a few weeks.

Once you have it parallel to the seat, you move it on to the seat itself.  Leave it there for a while.  She is now jumping up on to the toilet seat to do her business.  An important goal has been reached.  Again, structural security is everything.  Use lots of duct tape!  Make sure that the toilet seat lid is taped in the open position.  You don’t want that to come crashing down accidentally and ruin your progress.

Now comes the tricky bit. The litter tray has to go.  But cats like to dig and scratch around, and the noise of the water below can be a bit scary. So again, slowly is the key.

Raise the lower toilet seat and tape a disposable aluminium pan to the inside of the ceramic bowl.  It has to be tabled really securely and able to take the weight of the cat, Here’s my first insert:

Note ample duct tape securely affixed to clean dry surface. Can’t emphasis this enough!

Lower the seat so kitty has somewhere to learn to stand and balance and you have this….which is starting to look awfuly familiar:

The next step was to be cutting a small hole in the center of the aluminum tray. However, my husband unexpectedly stepped in and bought me the “Litter Kwitter” kitty training set, which does all the construction work for you. I had spotted it online, but as it cost $50 and I knew I could pull the whole thing off with cheap aluminum trays and a pair of scissors, I was too cheap to purchase it. But he did, and yes,it was easier with the pre-made trays, but doing it yourself is very feasible too. Just keep enlarging the hole — slowly over time.

As we were now Litter Kwitter owners, after 1-2 weeks of the pan in place as before, I inserted the orange LK disc, which has a medium sized hole as below:

This was the hardest stage so far. For the first week or two she missed more often than not. At first, we think she never aimed for the hole, hitting the water only accidentally as she tried to use the litter area around the edge. For us though, it was already a success as just having to flick turds from the ledge into the water and flushing was so vastly better than the litter tray. After about a month she was only missing occasionally. There was never any clumping in the litter as the “shorter” visits were hitting the water 100% of the time. Time to move on to the green ring:

More of the same, of course, except the hole is bigger. This is the stage we are at currently and I expect things to progress now so that we don’t need anything in a month or two. Even if she never progressed on from here, the smell and mess is negligible. I could happy stay here and never worry about a litter tray again.

Bottom line is that my description might make this sound like a lot of work for a long time. It isn’t. You don’t have to be diligent. There’s no timetable. I can forget about the plan for a week or two and life goes on. In fact that’s better, as slowly is the key to success. Of course, for an FS family, we do still have one more problem: How easily do toilet trained cats use other human toilets? Can I take her to a new bathroom in our Nepal home and will she adapt? Can I pop into the Ladies room with her at the airport en route? I guess we’ll have to wait and see!

Sign Language: Roadmap 2030

There aren’t many so many hilarious “Engrish” signs in the Philippines.  Filipinos usually have beautifully written English, correctly spelled with good grammar.  No struggling with “chicen” or “chikken” here.  Its always spelt “chicken”. Nor any not-so-delicious-sounding dishes such as “deep fried crap” on the menu.   But there’s plenty of other things that jump out for comment.  Here’s a large sign from Dumaguete airport from the local police force, outlining their vision and mission statement for their goals until 2030:

Its interesting how it seems both laudable (who wouldn’t want those goals), sincere, naive (given the many corruption struggles here) and a bit desperate (no-one in the west would write this, suggesting that things aren’t that way currently) – all at the same time.  And bringing the Almighty into a public service statement is just not done in the West.  Ultimately a more interesting sign than a badly spelled menu, I think.