Flying above Manila, you see the flat green roofs of factories and the large colorful houses, laid in straight suburban rows, of the wealthy. Almost like California from above. And then there's the scraggly growth of rusted corrugated metal roofs lining the rivers. These swell in number as you near metro Manila, massing in large swarms that crush up next to the wealthy subdivisions, between the buildings, next to the factories. Corrugated metal, weighted down by old car tires and patched with sheets of thin plastic, with barefoot kids in shirts with holes and skinny yellow dogs and old men sitting on cracked lawn chairs in their underwear. Everything is brightly colored, like the jeepney buses that advertise the names of the drivers' children (names like Boy-Boy, Bing-Bing and Maria N, where N is the set of all female Catholic saints' names). Everything on the rich side is brightly colored too, down to the Jesus Tiles (paintings of him, the Sacred Heart, Mary, and an overly flowery border) posted under the barbed wire on most of the front gates.

My family of four landed in the Philippines last week, stood under the wrong last name sign (WXYZ instead of C) and packed into my aunt's car, which already had four people in it (there are no seatbelt laws or passenger limitations in the Philippines). This is a place where lizards crawl up the traffic-greyed sides of houses, mosquitos are bigger than your pinky, cockroaches are bigger than your thumb, and ice water sweats and smokes out of the glass when you pour it. Syndicated beggar children press their faces against your car windows when you stop at an intersection; people sleep on dirty sheets of cardboard outside the windows of expensive department stores, a full dinner costs a little less than a buck, and the minimum daily wage is about six times that.

When we got past the security gards and the two sets of spiked gates, we walked into the house of my father's parents and were immediately seated in front of huge bowls of noodle soup. Still sleep-deprived from Olin, I crashed almost immediately afterwards and was shaken awake seven hours later by my mom because Manang Lorna (one of my grandparents' maids - it's commonplace for the middle class to have multiple household help) had made breakfast. Breakfast turned out to be a giant assortment of siopao (white buns filled with meat or bean paste), siomai (steamed dumplings), and tao hue (think ultra-soft tofu with maple syrup and you won't be far off). And then Christmas Day mass. And then to my mother's oldest sister's house for more food - my great-grandmother's special chicken soup, lugaw (rice porridge) and some sort of fish. And then back to my grandparents' house for more food like lechon (whole roast pig) and diniguan (pork blood stew).

The Philippines is mostly about food. And family. And combinations thereof. I'm sitting here on New Year's eve having some excellent coffee ice cream, but my stomach is full of roast chicken (from the business of my dad's cousin), soup, mango, pork ear, more chicken, more soup, and tiny fried crabs that taste a lot like popcorn until their legs get stuck between your teeth. And halo-halo, which is a mess of coconut, corn, jelly, seeds, and things I can't remember all piled atop shaved ice. We had fish, so my mom is happy. We got cheap software, so my brother Jason is happy. We got a Barry Manilow Sing-Along Videoke DVD, so my dad is happy, and everyone else will nod and smile politely. I've been promised a trip to the bookstore at CHEAP DISCOUNT ASIAN TEXTBOOK PRICES!!! so I'm quite happy as well.

Moving on to eat the ube (purple yam) ice cream. There's a dog barking outside on account of all the fireworks being set off outside our window for New Year's, which is one reason I'm thankful for my hearing loss. It smells like powdered smoke and mosquito repellent, as opposed to the usual smells of traffic smoke and mosquito repellent, and you can still see across the street through the smoke, which means folks are still getting warmed up with the fireworks.
My entire paternal extended family (minus the youngest son and his wife) spent the last few days in El Nido, a southern island named after the swallows that live their and the nests they spin out of their saliva (tasty). It's a tin-and-cement fishing town where babies sleep in hammocks on the catamarans of their parents. We stayed at the resort part of it, which I have mixed feelings about (yes, tourism boosts the local economy, and it's a beautiful place, but...) and snorkeled in the coral, fished in the sunrise, kayaked in the lagoons, and perpetually rinsed white sand out of our pants and shoes. El Nido has the bluest water I've ever seen. It's like looking at the jackfish and barracudas through liquid aquamarine glass.

On the day our 19-seater propeller plane was to leave back for the city, its battery overheated. Since the sun was setting and the pilots fly by sight (no radio towers), we spent the next few hours at the dirt-strip airport being bitten by mosquitos until a speedboat came to take us back to a resort. The clouds parted, I saw multiple whole constellations for the first time, and the speedboat almost stalled three times in the middle of the ocean on the way to the resort. They didn't actually have extra room there. We would have to stay in the manager's room and in the library. There was a book on the digitization of media in the library, so there were no objections to this on my part.

When we got back, there was... more food. And embarrasing baby pictures of my brother. And food. And less embarrasing baby pictures of me. And food. And pictures of my father that look eerily like my brother, one from when he was 19 and thought sideburns and bellbottoms were fashionable, and a goodly number from when he was dating-and-almost-engaged-to my mom, meaning I hadn't yet come along to tell him he should get rid of the mustache. Also my grandmother's birthday party, which was tiny and informal. By this I mean I did get to wear a nice red shirt and pants instead of a dress (although my grandmother was thrilled that I did purchase a dress, and suggested buying more), and we were able to fit all the guests inside the house by putting tables everywhere that wasn't a bedroom. This means there are no further pictures of formal-Mel that I can be blackmailed with, although I do have a haircut and new glasses and people have been trying to buy me jewelry and clothes. Thankfully, I've had a growth spurt since they last saw me, and they now all know I'm studying engineering, so most of my family is showing me brochures for their new product lines instead of nice sets of pretty flowered pants. In fact, if I get another pair of pretty flowered pants, I'm going to sell it in the tiangge (haggling market) and use the money to purchase textbooks. It's not a millstone around my neck any longer - it's potential inventory.

Mmm, the entreprenurial spirit of the Chinese. Now to watch the boys (Jason and my two cousins Mark and Michael) play computer games.