Sign Language: …..and we’re back!

wang wang Came back to Manila today to discover it is a “No Wang Wang” zone. I would be very upset about this if I knew what it was! Later, Google told me it literally means “no sirens”, or more specifically here “no special treatment for self-important people who think they don’t need to line up”. As if….

So… as I stood in line waiting… I glanced over at an interesting sign. If you got very bored standing there, you could always go over to the clean area and avail of their body frisking services which appear to be on offer.  Sounds too good to be missed:

Sign Language: For Decorative Purposes Only?

Some people sarcastically comment that street signs here have no meaning and are only for decorative purposes.  I beg to differ.  Here’s my take on the functional interpretation of road signs here in Manila:

Sign:  Stop Sign


Description:  Red hexagon

Possible Meaning: You may stop here if you feel like it, or if you would like to send a text

Sign: Pedestrian Crossing


Description:  White stripes across the road.

Possible meaning: Beware of foreign pedestrians shouting and screaming at you for some unknown reason

Sign:  Traffic Light

traffic light

Description:  Pole with coloured lights

Possible Interpretation of colours:  Green = Go.  Yellow = Go faster.  Red = Stop (unless your on a motorbike, then you can go anyway.)

Lane Markings


Description:  White lines painted down the middle of the road.  Inexplicably, comes in two different designs:  solid or dashed

Possible meaning: A suggestion on how you might like to form lanes if traffic is not too heavy.

Sign: No Parking


Description:  White Circle with a crossed out P

Possible Meaning:  Other people may not park here

Am I wrong?!


90 Days Tick Tock…Tick Tock…

clock This weekend we have reached the 90 days until departure landmark. Its the unofficial start of the departure check list of things to schedule/do/complete before we go. And the list is long!  Its not that any of it is so difficult, there’s just a lot of it, and mixed in with family priorities going on at the same time, it pretty overwhelming if you don’t break it down into little doable bits every day.

Things would be a little easier if the people reviewing our travel orders could do so a little quicker.  They did stop by for a quick photo though:


How to Make Homemade Yoghurt

Yoghurt making equipment

Assembled ingredients to begin the job

Ingredients to make 2 kilos of yoghurt

  • 2 litres of water or UHT milk  (you can use fresh milk also, but using that here is prohibitively expensive and UHT is just fine.  Water is fine too.  It just makes a less creamy yoghurt)
  • 2 2/3 cups of full fat milk powder
  • 1 cup of yoghurt starter or 1 cup of homemade yoghurt from the last batch
  • 1 cup of sweet whey powder (optional.  It makes the yoghurt creamy and taste like it has a higher fat content, although it actually adds no fat to the mixture.)
Sweet Dairy Whey

Sweet Dairy Whey adds creaminess and a very slight sweetness to the yoghurt without adding significant calories. You can buy it online.

Yogurt Starter

We purchased yoghurt starter as part of our initial experiments to give us a standard to test our experiments. It turns out that you don’t really need it unless you can’t get plain fresh yoghurt easily.


  • 2 1-kilo/liter containers (tupperware or recycled yoghurt containers are fine.  We recycled a large Skippy jar.)
  • Large slow cooker (crockpot)
  • 2 large plastic jugs or bowls for mixing.
  • Wire whisk
  • Sieve
  • Small ziplock bag or tupperware container
  • 1/3 cup measure
  • Towel
  • Thermometer (optional, but recommended)


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Pour milk(or water) into plastic jugs. Add 2/3 cup of milk powder to each jug and whisk.  Add half the yoghurt starter to each jug.  Mix well.  Finally add the sweet dairy whey to each container and whisk well.We like to use two jugs and pour the liquid back and forth to make sure both jugs have equally combined ingredients.

Pour the mixture through a sieve because at the bottom there are usually lumps of powder that did not mix in well enough.  You can pour the mixture directly into the yoghurt containers.  Because of all the powder you have added the volume will have increased to greater than 2 litres.  So pour the extra mixture into a small baggie or tupperware container.  This will be processed along with the main yoghurt containers but will become your yoghurt starter for your next batch.  Once its made, you can just leave it to cool down and put it in the freezer, ready for your next batch of yoghurt another time.

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Put the yoghurt containers and baggie into the crockpot.  The crockpot should be no more than 1/3 full of warm water.


Note our containers are too tall to fit into the crockpot to close the lid properly.  This is not a problem if you use a thermometer to keep track of the temperate and a towel to cover the top of the crockpot and act as a blanket.  You should try to maintain a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  The minimum mark on our meat thermometer is 120 degrees, so once we see the temperature is getting near the 120 mark, we turn the crockpot off and let it sit for a couple of hours, keeping an eye on the thermometer and turning the crockpot back on again to bring the temperature up again.  This can be much easier if you have a hot area in the house that you know maintains a high temperature, or a crockpot that can maintain 100 degrees by itself.  Ours can’t and we are fighting erratic airconditioning in the kitchen.  With a little practice your get a feel for how long it takes and how many times you need to check the temperature.  Yoghurt making takes 4-8 hrs typically.  In the right temperature conditions, you can put it on before you go to bed and wake up to fresh yoghurt.

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Hints and Tips

1. Always wash up the mixing equipment immediately.  The milk and whey powder traces turn to concrete on the sides of the jugs.

2. If you don’t want to purchase yoghurt starter and have yet to make your own baggie, you can use commercial yoghurt.  Most of them will say “live yoghurt” on the side of the container which indicates that it has the live culture to make your own.  The exception would be highly processed yoghurts, especially those that don’t need refrigeration.

3. If the yoghurt didn’t set, the temperature was too low.  If the yoghurt curdles the temperature was too high.  Try again with adjusted temperature controls.

4. Don’t expect to get it right the first time, but its also not that difficult.  Once you figure out how to control the temperature, the battle is won.

Cost and Quality

The flavour, texture and quality is vastly superior to commercial yoghurt.  Its worth figuring this out just for the improved product.  However the cost is also significantly cheaper.  Made with only water and skimmed milk powder, the cost is about $1.50/kilo.  Using UHT milk and dairy whey, the cost goes up to $3.00/kilo.  Compared to the prices that we are paying here for imported yoghurt, that’s a steal.  Imported yoghurt costs from $11-20/kilo here.

Trawling for Bargains in Greenhills Market

Shopping at Greenhills, Manila

Whole frog purse, anyone?

I’ve been to Greenhills enough now to start feeling more comfortable in its giant maze. Its still organized chaos in there, but a least I’m starting to notice the “organized” bit, and its less scary as the jigsaw puzzle pieces that make up the layout are starting to come together in my mind.

If you don’t know Greenhills, its a giant covered market with distinct sections selling a wide variety of stuff. There’s the clothing section specializing in “knock offs” of everything.  There’s the shoe section, the handbag section…and of course, the best known section: pearls (which are not knock offs, by the way).

Greenhills was the first stop on Paul and Nikki’s packed 8-day tour of The Philippines, as they came out to visit over Christmas.  It was a lively first stop and they did very well, especially considering the jetlag and mental overload of stepping out on to the street of Manila for the first time.

Buying pearls at Greenhills market manila

Nikki browses the choices….Look at the unbrindled enthusiasm (or is that avarice?) in her eyes!

Pearls from Greenhills

Pearls, pearls and more pearls

There’s just so much stuff! Shop fast and hard, and live to shop another day!

Greenhills market stalls

What a warren! You could get lost down there!

Greenhills Tshirts

Hairy Potter.. get it?…..took me a minute….

How not to have a bad day in Manila…

S….or any place else really where time is not valued in the same way as it in the West. And especially if you are a new expat in town.  I see lots of new faces arrive, having never lived overseas before, and it makes me realise that I have learnt quite a bit in my 20+ years of bouncing around the planet.  Here’s what I want to tell them about tackling every day life in Manila:

Have the taxi fare available in small change.  Never, ever, ever get in a taxi with a large note.  They will not have the change.  However much of a rush you are in, you will not save time by skipping this reality.  In fact, you will end up spending more time on trying to solve the problem at your destination and greatly increase your blood pressure at the same time.

Keep small change in general.  When you purchase something from a large store, give them your large bills.  Say no when they ask you for help with “20 pesos” so they can conveniently hand you back simpler large bills in change.  They have a drawer full of change and have been asked to try and get exact amounts from customers.  They have the change to give you, so take it.  You’ll need it later for the small shops, vendors and taxis along the way.

Know how to get where you’re going.  Even if you’ve never been there before.  Taxi drivers typically do not know the roads and have been known to capitalize on this fact by taking you the “scenic” route.  Buy a map book for Metro Manila and photo copy the relevant page so you have some idea of where you are.  Don’t expect the taxi driver to be able to follow the map.  I tried that at first and most of them just glanced at it and threw it on the seat.  They do much better with landmarks. I would study the map and call out landmarks I saw, asking them to “turn left at the BDO bank, for example.  I have a file with a number of well-thumbed photocopies that I used regularly until I got familiar with the city streets.

Build in Enough Time to Get There.  The traffic is very erratic here.  It can be very difficult to be on time.  Sometimes the same journey can take 15 minutes, sometimes an hour.  I try to plan the longest, reasonable amount of time and I try to have something in mind to do (see below) if I’m early.

Set realistic goals for errands  Make a mental separation of what you have to do, from what you’d like to do and expect to have to change your plan.  Popping in to the dry cleaners on the way to your appointment sounds good on paper if you are heading in that direction.  But service is slower than you are probably familiar with and unexpected difficulties can make a quick side trip less than fast.  I put the dry cleaners receipt in my bag and plan to stop on the way there if the traffic is light, and on the way back (or not at all) if its heavy.  Not always possible, but if its not urgent, it can make the difference between peace and sanity.

Ask before you need to know  Another time filler for when I’m early: doing research.  For example, I might have noticed a store opposite my doctors office that sells something I know I’ll need at some point in the future.  When you have extra time and are not in urgent need of something, it is SO much easier to handle the questions and research.  Often you need to ask the question different ways, or talk to a different member of staff, or just figure out the right language to use.  Its much easier and more productive to do this when you’re not madly rushing or frustrated.  Plus I become that rude, arrogant foreigner when I’m panicked and I hate that.

Take responsibility for your own bad experiences  I certainly don’t follow my own advice all the time- I get pissed off and frustrated plenty— but my days are much better when I do.  Sometimes bad days are just unavoidable.  But more often  when everything’s going pear-shaped, its frequently because I’ve veered from my own rules.  Taking responsibility for my own mistakes doesn’t calm my frustration when I’m in the moment, but it does redirect it back to me and not the poor unfortunate sales assistant who might otherwise take the brunt.  And think it helps me cope better next time.

Sign Language: Bawal Umihi Dito

“Its forbidden to pee here”
bawal bawal2

The everywhere sign. Plastered on every conceivable vertical surface all over the city.

I choose to translate it as “Don’t stand around here. People use this spot as a toilet so frequently, they put up a sign!  Not that the sign makes any difference:


There are signs that forbid everywhere.

Bawal Tumawid Dito. Its forbidden to cross the road here:


Bawal Magtapon ng Basura Dito. Its forbidden to dump garbage here:


Are you spotting a trend?

Christmas Cupcakes


Making lots of Rudolph cupcakes!

I’ve never done a cupcake tree before, and I got it into my head this year that I’d like to do one for Robert’s FM department Christmas party.  There’s over 120 employees that attend.  That’s a lot of cupcakes, but when I broke it down into manageable chunks it didn’t seem so scary.  I had a lot of fun last year making a themed Christmas Cake, but I wanted to see what I could manage this year with little individual cakes.

Unlike last year, I didn’t have the help from Latham, who was tied up in school activities.  So I baked the cupcakes a couple of weeks before and froze them.  Icing can easily be prepared a week in advance, and I spent a couple of weeks sourcing all the various candy embellishments that I needed for the designs I chose.

The day before, I sat down with everything and started the production line.

There was about three dozen melting snowmen, at least a dozen Rudolfs, fluffy Christmas sheep, iced candy canes, Christmas present bows (and a number of other designs) that needed to be pumped out.  It was fun but — as always — more time consuming than planned.  It took 5-6 hours to get all of them finished and packed up for transportation the next day.  Just getting the cakes down in the lift to the car was a production.

Here’s the final result:

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I think it went over very well at the party.  (But note to self:  Learn from the last two years!  Frosting and candy do not mix well with 80 degree heat, no matter how well I think I’m transporting them in AC-controlled conditions.  The second they get out into the humidity everything starts sliding apart!)  Next Christmas we’ll be in Nepal in cool weather, so  problem solved I guess…

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.