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Journal of the San Francisco Ambassadors
on the Philippines Exchange

(including a pre-exchange trip to Singapore and Cambodia)

October 25–November 17, 2006 


NOTE: This is a collaborative journal with different ambassadors contributing entries.

But first, here's a copy of Exchange Director Karen McCready's newsletter article summarizing the exchange.


Exchange to
the Philippines


Exchange to the Philippines
By Karen McCready 

Brass band receptions, keys to the city, dinner with the mayor…. This may not sound like any exchange you’ve ever experienced, but such was the ceremonial welcome that greeted us during our two weeks in the Philippines this past November. After three days in Singapore and five days exploring Cambodia’s capital and the temples of Siem Reap, narrowly missing a hurricane, we finally met our Manila hosts and were whisked off to their homes to enjoy the first weekend with the families. The highlights of our Manila stay, besides the reception at City Hall, included a tour of Corregidor, an audience with our American ambassador at the Embassy, and several school programs featuring the best of their student talent. Hopefully, the nightmarish traffic of the city will not be the most indelible memory. Several of our ambassadors had to endure up to two and a half hours of commuting to gather at the Philippine Women’s University in the center of the city for our daily group functions. We have to admit, however, that another highlight was the whole group’s being treated to a ride in a "jeepney,” a hybrid take on the jeeps left behind by the Americans after World War II. These stretched out, narrow vehicles hold twenty passengers, ten on a bench on each side, paying 14 cents apiece. The religious icons adorning them eloquently express Manila drivers’ fatalistic attitude.

Baguio City, 130 miles north of Manila, provided welcome respite from Manila’s heat and traffic, in spite of the seven hours it took to get there. (There is no such thing as a freeway, at least not in the areas we visited.) We did take a few detours to visit important sites along the way. One of these was a church that had been half buried by the lava and ash of Mount Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption. Particularly significant to our FFSFBA members was our side trip to a mango grove, the future site of a “Gawad Kalinga,” dedicated to the memory of Astronaut Willie McCool, the pilot of the tragic Challenger mission and Yvonne and Remus Bretoi’s daughter-in-law's uncle. Two of the G K organizers met us at the site to explain their program of building cinder block homes and helping to rehabilitate the lives of poor Filipinos.

Set in the pine forested mountains at 5,000 feet, Baguio’s weather is reminiscent of San Francisco. It is every Filipino’s ideal of the perfect family vacation spot. Just ask any Filipino that you know. Again, we enjoyed a quiet weekend with our respective families before resuming a busy weekday schedule. The acting mayor, a young university professor, summarized Baguio’s history for us during the reception at City Hall and continued the discussion of politics and civic issues at a dinner he hosted for us at a local Chinese restaurant. Like our Manila hosts, the Baguio folks outdid themselves with their generous hospitality and their efforts to show us all the local highlights, including Burnham Park, dedicated to and named for the Chicago architect who laid out the design of the city (as well as that of many American civic centers, including San Francisco’s). Of course, a visit to the Philippines isn’t complete without an evening of karaoke singing! The welcome and farewell parties were down home family affairs with lots of singing and home cooked local specialties.

I would like to close with a tribute to those 18 stalwart and cheerful ambassadors who joined me on this exchange of a lifetime. They dealt with long flights, tricky and changeable security regulations, illnesses, injuries, tropical weather, tedious commutes, but, most of all, they immersed themselves in a new culture, became members of their host families, and left lasting impressions of the best that we can be. For me, it was a challenging learning experience far beyond my expectations, and I hope that I am the better for it.



Wednesday, October 25 and Thursday, October 26:
En route to Singapore from San Francisco

By Karen McCready 

Amazingly, the thirteen ambassadors from the Bay Area and the five joining us from three other clubs around the country convened in plenty of time to wait out our “red eye” departure on Singapore Airlines. After months of exchanging emails and phone calls, I was delighted to see JoAnne Roberts and Kay Frankenstein, compadres from our 2005 exchange to South America, and to meet Anne Sander, also from the Seattle club, and Evelyn Lovett, from the Tampa Bay club. It was a reunion with Mary Lou Hudson, whom Barry and I had met when she showed us around St. Louis last summer. The nineteenth ambassador, Monika Boerger, was to join us in Manila at the start of the exchange.

In spite of the best intentions of taking notes on our lengthy flight to Singapore, those nineteen hours faded into memory by the time we arrived at the airport and had to start dealing with baggage claim, complicated tour options, transport to our hotel, etc. We arrived on schedule at the sleek, luxurious Singapore Airport at 11:00 a.m. and were greeted unexpectedly by a tour group leader who wanted to sign us up for a $20 tour of the city. Having understood all along that we would receive an abbreviated city tour as part of our complimentary “Singapore Stopover” package, I tried to rebuff his sales pitch, especially when he kept emphasizing the included lunch at Hooters! My naïve expectation of a hotel shuttle meeting us at the curb was soon dashed as I waited interminably for the tour group agents to tear out all the individual coupons for the complimentary and reduced rate attractions. Also, I eventually had to concede that no free tour was available and that the $20 was a good value.

We finally arrived at the Hilton Hotel on Orchard Road, in the heart of the upscale shopping district, at about 1:00 p.m. Unfortunately, with check out time at noon, most of our rooms weren’t ready yet, and to make matters worse for our travel-wracked bodies, they were trying to stick the female roommates in one-bed rooms. When I discovered that they were giving another group who hadn’t arrived yet priority over us, I asked for the manager and got some action, along with some free drinks for those of us still waiting for a room. Nevertheless, the hotel was lovely, and the half-price meals at the lobby restaurant were a delicious bargain. We all settled in and rested up for a full day of touring the next morning.


Friday, October 27: Singapore
Chinatown, harbor boat tour, and more

By Kay Frankenstein

Taking a bus from our hotel, we spent a very busy day visiting Chinatown, the Indian market, a park with orchids, and the Merlion statue in the harbor. After lunch at Hooters Restaurant, we took a harbor boat tour on the Singapore River, which is actually a long arm of the harbor, passing under several bridges, each in a different style.

At 6:30 p.m., Tong Li, the young webmaster of the Singapore Friendship Force club, met us at the hotel and escorted us to the subway for a dinner at a hawker center. This is a new hawker center, basically an outdoor food court, called Glutton Bay, near the super modern Esplanade, a performing arts complex. We were met there by about six other young members of the club. (This group was formed in 2002 by a group of then graduate students. The group has grown to about ten members.) They treated us to dinner with a lot of ethnic dishes and different drink combinations. We were some tired people as we returned on the subway to our hotel. I really liked visiting with our young Friendship Force friends.


Friday, October 27: Singapore

By Steve Cooper

Our first stop was an Indian village. . . . Our guide described the construction and age of the various buildings.

Overall, the city is beautiful because of the landscaping and lack of tract housing. Huge old trees, 4 to 6 feet in diameter, were left standing and custom homes and flower gardens built around them. Even in the areas where very poor housing exists, there are many mature trees, shrubs, and flowers. There is also an abundance of laundry hanging on the clothes lines. The view of the city from our hotel room is very pleasant.

After our tour of Chinatown, we boarded a boat for a trip down the Singapore River, which turned out to be the most interesting part of the day for me. I counted eleven bridges across the river during the tour. The high temperature and high humidity left me soaking wet. I decided to wear shorts the next day.

We went to the Civic Center, where we were welcomed by a half dozen or more "Junior Friendship Force members." They guided us to a public outdoor eating facility with fourteen to sixteen food booths of different nationalities serving many, many kinds of foods, mainly rice-based dishes. We also had all the San Miguel beer we wished to purchase. Since I was pretty well dehydrated from our walks and adventures, I had to thoroughly refresh myself.




Monday, October 30: Cambodia
Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek Memorial, National Musuem, and more

By Anne Sander

Our day in Phnom Penh was a full one. After an early breakfast at the Sunway Hotel, I walked outside to explore the neighborhood. The American Embassy was directly across from our hotel, while Phnom Wat was across the street to one side of it. After taking some pictures of the horde of motorbikes and motos filling the streets, I walked around Phnom Wat snapping pictures of the people gathered in the park-like grounds as well as of the elaborate paintings and carvings all around the wat.

When our group tour began that morning, it was grim. Our first stop was the genocide museum, a high school converted into a prison during the Pol Pot regime called Tuol Sleng or S-21. The torture apparatus, the abject conditions, and the rows upon rows of pictures of the victims were gruesome. Over 10,000 people passed through this prison with only seven surviving the ordeal. Most were killed there or transported to a “killing field" and then killed. Following this grim experience, we traveled over a long, BAD road to an actual killing field. Along the drive there, we passed a swampy waterway where tons of water spinach was growing. Our guide told us that the spinach was meant for animal fodder as the swampy area was actually a sewer basin. However, he said that many of the poor in the city ate the spinach either from lack of knowledge or funds to buy better food. The killing field called Choeung Ek Memorial was even worse to view than the prison. A stupa housing many of the victims’ skulls was near the entrance. Fields around the stupa had many hollows with signage telling about the number of bodies found in each excavation and, in some cases, telling about the method of killing before the bodies were deposited in the graves. The trip back to our hotel over the long BAD road seemed easier as I was glad to have the morning over with happier destinations planned for the afternoon.

After a light lunch and a short time for relaxation, the group headed out in the afternoon for the National Museum, the King’s Palace, and the Silver Pagoda. Following the tour of those complexes, we drove to the Russian market where most of us spent about half an hour browsing through the wares. That evening, when I asked several members of our group what they liked most about the afternoon, I received these varied responses:

the jewels at the Silver Pagoda . . . the crowds in the streets and on motorcycles near the Russian Market . . . the guide at the National Museum . . . the rug in the throne room of the King’s Palace. . . the shower at the end of the afternoon . . . the luxury of the Royal Palace . . . the treasures in the National Museum.

That evening we enjoyed a set dinner in a local restaurant which consisted of five courses with fish predominating. I didn’t find any of the food too spicy, but then I didn’t chew on a red pepper as Gerry did. While we were eating, Cambodian music was being played nearby. It seemed a little repetitious to some of us, but it did serve to make the Cambodian scene even more authentic.

We had so much to experience during this very full day, that my roommate, Kay, and I crashed as soon as we returned to our hotel that evening.


Tuesday, October 31: Cambodia
Angkor Wat

By Dave Gustavson

Our group left for Angkor Wat at 2:30. Angkor Wat is an amazing place, surrounded by a huge moat and then by walls with gates, and with several towers in the center, everything carved of rock with statues everywhere (although most are damaged or missing due to parts being stolen or removed to a museum). It seemed like we'd never make it to the central area, as our group doesn't stick together, so the guide has to go over the same material several times, as he re-encounters various fragments of the group.

We just circled around the central towers. The stairs up them are extremely steep, 75 degrees, without handrails. (There are a couple places with handrails, but the waiting line to get to them is prohibitively long.) A few of our group posed on the 2nd or 3rd step, but nobody went up.

We left before sunset, but determined to return tomorrow at sunset. Sunset illuminates the main entrance of Angkor Wat nicely, if it isn't too hazy and/or cloudy.

We found out that the typhoon kind of fizzled out; it looks like the center went a little north of Baguio. Though it had promised to be the worst typhoon in the last eight years, it doesn't seem to have done as much damage or killed as many people as more recent typhoons, e.g., 2001, or the Millennium typhoon of last month.


Wednesday, November 1: Cambodia
Angkor Thom, Bayon Temple, Ta Prohm Temple, and more

By Dave Gustavson

We got up early, breakfasted, and hit the bus for the 8:30 departure to Angkor Thom.

We had to change buses in order to enter Angkor Thom—only small ones can make it through the gate and over the bridge to run around inside. Some of our group saw elephants and wanted to ride them instead, and eventually sorted out who would and how we'd meet up again after being split, and how to pay. Then it was discovered that the rides were all booked up, so it was moot and we continued on together.

Later, at the Bayon Temple inside, there were other elephant rides that circle the temple site, somewhat shorter ($20 for two people for about 15 minutes). A similar group and split was negotiated, and Dave remained near the elephant ride area in order to film them departing or returning. Eventualy all were back and rejoined the group, and the guide repeated the tour inside for them, so the non-riders got to see it all twice.

We then took the bus to see the Elephant Terrace and the Leper King Terrace. (Leper, because someone misinterpreted a missing finger in a statue of the king as leprosy, when it's now thought to be merely a broken-off finger, a damaged statue.) Then back to the hotel for lunch and rest.

Then at 2:00 p.m., off to Ta Prohm Temple. This site features lovely enormous trees eating the rock structures, straddling walls and lifting stones with massive surface-loving roots. The trees are sometimes called cotton/silk trees because of the sheen of their bark, but they are also known as Kapok trees. This is the site where Tomb Raider was filmed, with Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft. Half the site was closed to the public for the duration of the filming.

Here's a link that shows where most of the things we saw can be found, along with some info about them:

Then to Pre Rup, which is the state temple of a king, built in the 900s.

Then back to Angkor Wat to see it at sunset. No luck; too much haze and too cloudy, so we didn't linger. Dave tried to buy the sticky rice in bamboo like their OAT guide had bought for them in February, but couldn't find any.

Dee organized a BYOB cocktail party in our room, and provided crackers and cheese, apple and orange slices, etc. About a dozen people came.



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