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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Great Adventure: Up Up and Away

So, you're adopting from The Philippines. You've waited, been matched, paid fees, waited for documents, waited for clearances and waited a little more for good measure.  And then, all of a sudden with a rush of unexpected expectancy, you receive . . . .


You might find yourself feeling very short on time, despite the fact that you've waited many grueling months for said call.  You may find yourself lacking in confidence as you call for airlines and hotel recommendations and research the currency exchange, food safety, needed travel vaccines and a host of other panic-inducing tasks that loom large, when all you really want is YOUR CHILD.

Let me share with you some tips I hope will be useful to you as you travel to The Philippines for the first time. I have lived here for two years and prior to living in The Philippines, completed four international adoptions FROM here to the United States so keep in mind my observations come from the viewpoint of an American traveling abroad. If you are from another country, you may not find these tips as useful as an American traveler might.  Keep what works and discard what doesn't. . .

1. Exchanging Money: The US Dollar is equal to about 43 Philippine pesos. This fluctuates daily but just by a peso or two on either side. If you are able to exchange about 100 US into pesos before you leave the US, you should.  Ask your bank for SMALL bills (20 and 50 peso bills rather than 1,000peso bills).  You may find you want to buy something to eat or drink at the airport or you need to tip someone who has helped you.  You can exchange larger amounts of money at your hotel or, for a better rate, have your driver take you to a local money exchange office.  Many malls here such as SM (Shoe Mart) have currency exchange inside. Just be aware of who is watching you exchange your money and keep it in a place difficult to pick pocket (front pocket, small zipped pouch inside a double-zipped bag, etc).  It is hard to give an estimate on how much money you'll want to bring or exchange because that depends on how much sight seeing and in-country travel you plan to do.

2. Hotels:  Many adoption agencies will give their clients lists of hotel recommendations to choose from. We have chains here like Holiday Inn, Shangri La, Inter Continental, Ramada, etc that are more familiar and streamlined for an uncertain traveler. There are also guest houses, which can be a wonderfully economical way to stay here and to be in a more "Filipino" neighborhood setting. Many mission organizations have guest houses where you rent rooms and the staff there cooks three meals a day, as in any home setting.  Guest Houses are often in gated communities or have their own guard at the gate to keep foreign visitors safer.  You need to ask for guest house recommendations from others who have stayed in them.  Online postings often look much nicer than they actually are and often, the neighborhood itself is not a good one but is not shown in the online advertisement.  If your adoption agency is recommending that you stay in Makati City, they are suggesting you stay in one of the most expensive and Westernized places on Luzon.  If that is the experience you are after, stay there.  There is a Microtel right next to Mall of Asia that foreign travelers love. You can get taxis and busses from there to anywhere and it is clean, safe and convenient to shopping and restaurants.  Often, agency representatives have not traveled here or have not traveled in quite some time.  Ask parents who have recently traveled about their suggestions. This place is always changing and the best information sometimes comes from your online adoptive group, not your agency. 

3. Vaccinations/Diseases:(I'm not a doctor. I just play one on TV) 
 While it's true that The Philippines still has cases of diseases that have been eradicated in more developed countries, this is a relatively safe place in which  to entrust your health. 
There is a LOT of tuberculosis here. A lot. That being said, TB tends to manifest in weakened immune systems and be overcome by a healthy body.  There is no "tb vaccine" that you can take prior to travel anyway so, there's no point in stressing out too much about TB.  The bcg vaccine is given to infants here often as a protections against tb but it's value is highly debated and it is not appropriate for anyone over the age of one year old.  IF, by some awful stroke of luck, you happened to contract TB while visiting here, you will be placed on a long-term regimen of antibiotics (6-9 months). The main concern for travelers here , that deserves some attention, is Dengue Fever. Dengue is a mosquito-born illness that lowers your blood platelets, gives you horrible joint aches and fever and is generally a sickness requiring hospitalization and possible transfusions. And it's not entirely uncommon.  The main way to protect yourself is by using mosquito repellant. But please don't let Dengue scare you out of enjoying this country. In the two years I have lived here and the times I traveled here before the move, I have been bitten by countless mosquitoes and, thank God, not contracted Dengue.  
We did not receive any extra vaccines prior to traveling or moving to The Philippines. Our regular boosters and childhood vaccines were considered by our own doctor to be sufficient and, so far, they have proven to be just that.  Hepatitis is more common here than in the United States as well but I am going to venture a guess that most adoptive families do not plan on exchanging fluids with anyone here locally and leave it at that. Universal precautions for helping sick or injured people should always be observed.   If you do find yourself to be sick or in need of medical care while you are here, your hotel or guest house can direct you to a trusted clinic.  Also, many medications that are by prescription only in the US are able to purchased over-the-counter here. If you feel yourself coming down with strep throat or an earache and know which antibiotic you would normally take for such an illness, you can simply go to Mercury Drug or Watson's Pharmacy - or any pharmacy-and ask for what you need.   

3. Shopping at the Markets: 
I don't like to "wheel and deal". I never have and I still don't. It's just my own personality. If you don't mind bargaining with locals, secure your belongings in a pick-pocket-proof place and head out to a local "pelengke" (open market) for everything from souvenirs to fresh fruit to street foods.  When you ask a local vendor how much something costs, you WILL pay "skin tax" but you can also get some great deals.  For example, if a vendor tells you a t-shirt costs 250pesos (roughly 7 US) and you offer him 150 pesos (about $3.50) you might both end up happy. Do not pay the quoted price from local vendors.  Always ask for a discount.  I like to send my Filipino husband to do our bargaining because he inevitably gets a better deal than I ever would.  I like to shop at SM (shoe mart) mall or Robinsons because it's price-fixed and there's no bargaining required. 

4. Public Transportation: This is a tricky one if you're taking a taxi.  We generally approached a parked cabbie and asked "how much to take us to xyz?".  If we thought the price quoted was too high (anything over 300pesos was too high for us), we asked the next cabbie. You can also request that your cabbie use the meter rather than a fixed price ride. Either way, he will expect a tip of somewhere between 20-100pesos at the end of the ride.  I have heard one story of a metered ride in which a cabbie drove in large circles to increase the fare.  The hotel staff later told the patrons their destination was about 2 kilometers from the hotel but the cabbie drove 21 kilometers!
You can ride in a jeepney (long, silver vehicle with no back door and bench seats along the insides) if you know a little bit about where you need to go.  I wouldn't have taken the jeepney without my husband just because I didn't know how they worked. You have to find the jeep with your desired route name on the side or the sign in front, get on, pass your fare to the front via the other passengers and say "para po" when you want him to stop and let you off.  Jeep rides run from 8 to 25 pesos per person per ride and can be a fun cultural experience IF you know where you are going. The busses are a little more organized and the driver can tell you if he goes to your desired stop.  The busses with open windows do not have air conditioning and are a little less expensive to ride than the air conditioned busses. I ride busses here alone regularly and have had no problems. You ask the driver if he goes to your desired stop. If he says he does, you sit on the bus and wait for the person to come to you, take your fare and issue a little stub.  It's pretty basic.  The busses and jeeps do not like to make change for bigger bills so you NEED small bills, once again. 

5. Speaking English:   English is one of the two national languages here. Some people are under the impression that everyone in The Philippines speaks English. That is not  true. A LOT of people here speak SOME English but do not come here expecting the cabbies, bus drivers and all the people you will encounter in the markets to be fluent. The staff at your hotel will likely be fluent. So will your ICAB social worker and all of ICAB. All of the professionals I have met here speak excellent English.  The children who come to our orphanage do not speak English until they have been here a long time. At public school, the students usually start learning basic english in grade 3 but many of your children will not have made it to grade 3 yet.  Learn a few simple Tagalog phrases like "thank you",  "how much does it cost" or  "where is ________?".  I could type them out for you but pronunciation changes the meaning of words in Tagalog so it's better if  you hear those phrases spoken to learn them.   It is just a respectful thing to do. You are in The Philippines, learn a little Filipino.  Locals are so gracious and very happy when they hear a foreigner trying to speak their language.  I have royally messed up some Filipino phrases and the people I'm talking to just laugh ("with" not "at"me) and bail me out. I have yet to inadvertently cuss but I'm sure that's coming . . .

6. Beggars:  This is such a personal decision each family has to make but please make it BEFORE you travel. Will you give to beggars or won't you?  You will be approached. Beautiful children with big, round eyes will approach you with a hand out. What will you do?  Do you give to everyone who asks? If you do that, will you have enough left to make it back home with your new child? I have heard so many streams of thought on this issue and this post is already long enough but here are a couple of things to consider:
Children who beg are often sent out by parents to make money for the family.  I have a friend here in street child ministry who refuses to give to child beggars as she feels it fuels the "industry". I understand her position. I  have another friend in street child ministry here who carries 5peso coins in her pocket specifically to give to beggar children and she tells them in Filipino that Jesus loves them as she gives them a coin if they approach her.
Some of the boys in our center told us directly that they begged and parked cars (directed traffic) just to have money for computer shops and ice cream.  Others have told us they would be beaten at home if they did not earn a certain amount each day.
I am not even willing to share my own opinion on this matter right now but please discuss this as a family and come up with a plan that fits best with your  faith and your conscience. Keep in mind, I have some former beggars in my center and they are pretty wonderful children at the core. If I knew their hearts before seeing them begging on the street, it would really muddy the waters for me.
7. Food:  Food is HUGE part of this culture. I, personally, think Filipino food is some of the best in the world. There is so much salty, sweet, stewy, colorful food here.  It is an important part of being accepted here to gracious eat what is offered.  There is a lot of fish in this diet. If you don't like fish, you are possibly going to offend someone at some point. I have never gotten sick from eating food at someone's home or from a street vendor. I do not drink beverages from a street vendor but I eat a LOT of kwek kwek (batter fried quail eggs), banana-cue and turon (deep fried banana in an eggroll shell with brown sugar) and have been just fine. These items are sold for 10pesos each and are delicious and filling. I recommend you try them.  In fact, I am making myself hungry just typing about them.  In restaurants, ask if the water is "mineral water". That is how they refer to purified water. I would avoid ice and non-peeled fruit unless it's from a bigger chain, just to be sure but, like I said, I am such a foodie and have eaten so much from everywhere we go and never had a food-born illness that I know of.  I have had intestinal parasites once but no idea where I got them.  If you are worried about getting those, buy one 500mg mebendazole tablet from the pharmacy (over the counter) and take it after you get back home. It is a one-time treatment for most human parasites and it will give you peace of mind. I take one every six months "just in case". 
The food here is rarely deboned. Your fish, chicken, etc will come with the bones. The fish often comes with the head. The skin is not removed from much of the meat as well.  I have had pork come to my table with hair and squid that still has the beak.  You just have to be aware and look it over before biting in so you don't lose a crown!

8. Waiting in Line:  People will cut in front of you in lines here if you leave much of a space between you and the person in front of you. It is a very crowded country. Personal space is much less than the "three feet on each side" that Americans enjoy.  I used to get annoyed when I was in line at Jollibee and someone would slide between me and the person in front of me and then I realized a space that size led them to believe I was still making up my mind. They are not necessarily trying to be rude, just efficient.  If you don't want to be cut in front of, put your nose about 2 inches from the back of the head of the person in front of you. Seriously. 

9. Non-Confrontations:  Sober people here tend to be fairly non-confrontational. If you are angry about service you receive or feel cheated in some way, the best approach is a calm, friendly, smile and a simple explanation about what is bothering you. The "fits" I've seen my fellow Americans throw in the airports would not be well-received here and might merit a call to the local police.  This is probably a good bit of life advice, no matter where you travel, but Americans specifically, are more boisterous and emotive than the average Filipino.  Please don't come here and propagate the "ugly American" stereotype.  Show grace.  After all, this country is giving you a pretty amazing gift. 

10. Gift Giving:  This is a big part of Filipino culture.  If you stay in someone's home, give a small gift (body spray, candy, pens and stationary, picture frame, etc and a card).  If someone invites you over to a meal, bring a gift.  You should consider bringing ONE gift for all of ICAB (like a bag of office supplies, a box of candy to be shared, etc) although they would never ask for such.  The same goes for your child's orphanage director and houseparents, staff, etc.  The cost of the item is not a big issue. Something very small is appreciated. 

There is so much more I could say about The Philippines, traveling here, living here and experiencing this place but let me sum it up in a short few sentences. This is the country of my heart. I love this culture, the people, the food and even the hard aspects of being here. The needs draw me but the culture keeps me. 
I pray you will come here with an open heart and open mind and let this place become a part of who you are.  To love the culture and country of your child is a great gift you can give him.  And, trust me, in a place like The Philippines, it happens effortlessly. 

Come. Enjoy. Learn. And Teach. 

God bless you on your journey . . . 

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