One More Reason to Love Etihad Airways

Almost two years after the Manila to Geneva and return flights from Brussels, Etihad Airways gave me another reason to be impressed with its customer service. My choosing the airline at that time was unplanned. I was looking for the cheapest flights that will get me to Geneva, which is the nearest airport of entry for me to Aix-les-Bains in the Savoie region of France where I was headed. Etihad had the best price then so I picked it not knowing much about it.

The flight to Geneva was a pleasant experience. I was happy with the food and the in-flight services so I thought I got a good deal out of it. And it was the same on my return flight from Brussels. I cannot remember when they gave all the passengers the Etihad Guest miles programme form to fill up. But I recall filling it up not really thinking that I would be able to use it since I do not travel often.

Over the months following that trip, I have been getting regular email updates on flight deals and other information. I think I received emails every month or just often enough not to be annoying so I did not unsubscribe from the mailing list like I tend to do with other merchant newsletters and notifications I get.

Some of the most recent emails I got from them was to inform me that my miles were about to expire. I did not open the first three emails related to that and finally got around to checking the fourth one when I received it. I was clueless about what I was supposed to do with those expiring miles. But I was impressed by how they made it easy for me to figure out my options.

I started checking out the items in the Etihad Guest Reward Shop to see what I can get so I could use the expiring miles. I opted for a backpack since it is something I could always use, especially on future trips. As I was exploring my options, I was still half-expecting that getting whatever reward I choose will not be as easy as it seems to be. I was also expecting that I will end up paying something for it like maybe the shipping cost or whatever. So I was really surprised when the transaction was smooth and seamless. I also did not have to pay for the shipping. So I got a nice backpack for free all thanks to the frequent reminders that got me using my miles before they expired.

I was also happy with the reward merchant’s service. I had a change of mind about the backpack’s color I initially picked after I finished ordering it. I read from the confirmation of the order email I got from Etihad that I will have to contact the merchant directly for any changes. I sent an email the next day asking if they can change the color from black to navy. But I was not optimistic that it will be changed since a day has already passed and they might not be able to read my email in time. But a few days after, I got an email from the merchant that my request has been applied to the item and it has already been shipped via UPS. They also sent a tracking number that provided up-to-date information about the current location of the package.

Less than a week after I placed the order, I got my new Fjallraven backpack and in the color I requested.

package arrived
The packaged from the Etihad Guest reward merchant in Latvia arrived
My new navy Fjallraven backpack
The reward from the miles that almost expired ^^ Thanks for the constant reminders about it, Etihad!

I have been impressed by Etihad’s service during that trip in 2015. And I even wanted to travel with them again when I was booking my flight for the trip a month ago. But the airline was not among the options available. So I booked with another airline. I may not have traveled with them again this time. But I hope to do that again in the future.

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13 Hours in Istanbul

The plane touched down the runway of Istanbul Ataturk Airport at 4:10 AM of the 31st of July, one hour ahead of the 5:10 AM ETA. I was feeling a bit worn out already as I have been technically on the road for over a day having left Davao on the 30th of July at 8:10 AM. I spent almost 11 hours at NAIA Terminals 3 and 1 waiting for my evening flight to Istanbul and spent most of the roughly 12-hour flight awake as my two seatmates sitting on the window and center seats kept making trips to the toilet.

But despite the creeping fatigue, I was buoyed by the prospect of seeing even a little of Istanbul. I was looking forward to the sightseeing tour that Turkish Airlines offer for passengers with at least six hours of wait time at the airport.

I wanted to take the 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM tour schedule that includes a visit inside the Hagia Sophia. But as my ETD to Kaunas, Lithuania from Istanbul is at 4:00 PM (which got delayed for 1 hour and 20 minutes), the much shorter 8:30 to 11:00 AM sightseeing tour will have to do.

Turkish Airlines’ TourIstanbul 8:30 to 11:00 AM Sightseeing Tour Schedule

With still about three hours to kill, I decided to explore the terminal and see if I could find a place to get a cup of coffee. But I had trouble finding a table at the many coffee shops I saw. So I decided to look for the Old Bazaar I read about where I could buy some souvenirs. I figured I should buy what I need already since I may not have the time to do it on my return flight.

Old Bazaar at the airport

Luckily, I quickly found the shop and spent some time there browsing a wide array of items many of which I really liked. I managed to stick to my list and bought what I needed except that I could not find the black soap I promised to buy for my friend Anna Liese and the Istanbul or Turkey mini-bell for my friend Chalyn.

At around half past six in the morning, I decided to start looking for the Hotel Desk where I needed to be at 8:00 AM if I do not want to miss the tour. I had a bit of trouble locating it so I asked one of the airport staff at the information booth just across the passport control area in the departures terminal. The girl told me to head out to the food court, take the elevator located at the left side, and go down to level 1.

As I reached level 1, I asked one of the airport personnel I saw there where the Hotel Desk is located. He told me to pass through passport control first. I was surprised to see the long queue. It took me more than 15 minutes to reach the line closer to the booths. But it was then that things got a bit frustrating. Some people were so eager to go first that there were double lines queueing for each booth and with many people who came much later than me who got through passport control before me.

I finally managed to get through after a little over ten more minutes of waiting. I passed through customs to get to the exit, turned right, and walked straight looking for Starbucks that serves as an easy-to-find landmark for the Hotel Desk that sits beside it. There was no one in line so I went straight to one of the windows and asked about the tour. The guy asked for my boarding pass, checked it, and told me that I will have to take the 8:30-11:00 AM tour. He then told me to wait at the cafe and wait for my name to be called.

I observed that there were already a handful of passengers that seem to be waiting for the tour as well. But Starbucks still have plenty of tables and seats so I was finally I able to get a cup of coffee that I have been longing for since I arrived.

Just before 8:00 AM, one of the Turkish Airlines staff started calling names. I was confused because I did not hear my name. As the group was about to leave, I went to the Hotel Desk to ask if that was for the tour and he told me that it was for the group going to the free accommodation. The hotel stay is for passengers with at least 10 hours of layover who probably prefer to sleep or rest than go for a quick tour of the city.

At about 8:20 AM, the staff called the names on their list. There were more than twenty of us in the group. We were told to follow the tour guide and we left at exactly 8:30 AM. We walked a bit to where the bus will pick us up and waited for about ten minutes there. We got on the bus as soon as it arrived and it left the moment everyone was on board.

I have read a lot of things about Istanbul and seen numerous photos of it over the years. I thought I have a fairly good idea of what I will see. But there was something about actually seeing some parts of the city that made me wish I have more time to enjoy the sights longer than the few seconds that it takes for the bus to pass by. What little traffic on the road was a welcome experience for a change for it meant slowing down to take in some of the views.

The scenery along the coastal road from the European side of Istanbul coming from Atatürk Airport.
The scenery along the coastal road from the European side of Istanbul coming from Atatürk Airport.
The scenery along the coastal road from the European side of Istanbul coming from Atatürk Airport.

I was sitting in the window seat at the right side of the bus with a great view of the coastal scenery. We were coming from the European side of the city where the airport was located. On the left, there were many fascinating sights as well including the views of the Yedikule Fortress, Old Samatya Armanian District, the Walls of Constantinople (Istanbul City Walls), Hagia Sophia, and so much more. I was really hoping we could at least slow down or stop for a few minutes just to see more of them. But we were on a tight schedule. I just have to remind myself that the short tour is much better than just staying at the airport and not seeing any of it at all.

At Galata Bridge with the Golden Horn behind me
Another view from where I was standing at Galata Bridge

I did not take many photos as I did not want to miss the sights as the bus continues on its route. The first stop was at Galata Bridge. Our tour guide told us we will spend ten minutes there to take photos. The sight of birds flying and gliding gracefully against a backdrop of the water and the cityscape was among the most beautiful things I have seen as the bus journeyed along the coastal road. And I got to see it again as we spent time at the bridge. Birds were soaring above the Golden Horn that glistened as the thin clouds on the clear, blue sky offered little cover from the bright sunlight.

Dolmabahçe Mosque
Dolmabahçe Mosque

The second and last stop was at Dolmabahçe Palace where we spent twenty minutes wandering around taking photos. There was a cafe at the palace grounds with outdoor seating with a nice view of the European coast of the Bosphorus.

Dolmabahçe Clock Tower (Dolmabahçe Saat Kulesi)
The main gate (Sultan’s Gate) at Dolmabahçe Palace
Outdoor seating, and just a small section, of the waterfront cafe in the palace grounds that offers a great view of the Bosphorus.
Another view from the cafe
View of the clock tower from the Sultan’s Gate
View from the exit

We left Dolmabahçe Palace at exactly twenty minutes after we arrived and continued the sightseeing tour, this time en route to the airport.

I have always been fascinated with the things I have read about Istanbul. While I thought of wanting to see it at some point, I did not really have that much of a strong desire to do it until that moment when the tour started last week. As the tour guide started telling us about the city, I found myself wanting to explore it at length, see its breathtaking architecture and landmarks, taste as many of the foods as I can, and drink plenty of Turkish coffee and tea, among many other things.

If there was one thing I was sure about as I stepped off the bus back at the airport, it would be this: I want to come back. I started the tour just curious about what I would see. And I finished it already in love with the city.

How to Get a Turkish e-Visa

Opting to book with Turkish Airlines for my flight to Lithuania led to some really interesting discoveries. I initially had a reservation with KLM which was supposed to have a ten-hour layover in Amsterdam. I flew with KLM before so for me it was a good choice except that I was a bit iffy with the departure date and time from Kaunas, Lithuania because it meant staying another night in Vilnius then traveling at dawn to Kaunas to catch my flight.

I was not sure if the organizing committee of the event I was going to will arrange a transportation for us from Vilnius. And I did not want to risk getting lost like I did as I was leaving Aix-les-Bains in 2015 so I chose to be on the safe side and looked for other flights which will leave Kaunas on the 6th of August. I thought that I would be more comfortable traveling on my own to the airport in the afternoon than at the crack of dawn.

The Turkish Airlines flight came up on top as I was making comparisons with at least three different sites with KLM coming in a close second. The former was cheaper by almost a US$100 and the arrival and departure times in Kaunas worked for me. So I picked it.

But like KLM, the Turkish Air flight also had a 10+hours of layover. I was wondering how I will spend the long wait time at the airport in Istanbul so I started doing some research.

I was happy to discover that Turkish Airlines actually offers a choice of either of the two services for their passengers with over ten hours of layover in Istanbul Atatürk Airport — 1) a free hotel accommodation or 2) a free tour of the city (for those with waiting time of at least 6 hours). I immediately decided to take the second option and proceeded to learn more about it. I found out that I need to get a Turkish visa which, thankfully, I can get online.

Applying for a Turkish e-Visa is easy when you have the required supporting documents like a valid Schengen or US visa.

Here’s how to get a Turkish e-visa in three simple steps.

1. Apply

Go to the evisa.gov.tr website
Click the Red “Apply Now” Button located at the top left side of the screen

Fill out the form and make sure to double check all the information as anything that does not match what is on the requirements will make your e-visa invalid


Once you have completed the information, you will get a confirmation email. Check the email message and click the link provided to proceed to payment

2. Make Payment

3. Download the e-Visa

Schengen Lithuanian Visa Application

I finally got my Schengen visa three weeks after I filed my application at the VFS Austria Visa Application Center in Cebu. The Austrian Embassy Manila also represents Lithuania so I applied for a visa there, or to be more specific, via the VFS Austria Visa Application Center. The requirements are the same as when applying for visa for travel to Austria and booking for appointment is done online through the VFS website.

I picked the visa center in Cebu since it is much closer coming from Davao. I booked an appointment for 8:00AM on a Monday last May. I traveled to Cebu Sunday afternoon and stayed at the New Era Pension Inn which was only a few minutes’ walk away from the Keppel building where the VFS Global office was located. I was happy with the accommodation and would stay there again if I have to apply for a visa through VFS Global again.

Monday morning I left the inn about 40 minutes before my scheduled appointment. I was so glad I did because I got lost on my way there. I was told by one of the staff of the inn to go straight, turn left, and just go straight until I reach the brown building. I followed the instruction to the letter and have been walking for over 15 minutes when I realized that there was no brown building in sight as far as I can see. Thankfully, I passed by a gasoline station and saw a group of people chatting. I asked them for directions and they helpfully told me how to get there. It turned out that I should have taken another left turn only a few meters after that last “just go straight” initial instruction I got.

So I retraced my steps and spent over 10 minutes walking to Keppel Building. I arrived a little before 8:00AM, signed my name on the appointment sheet handed to me at the reception, handed a number, and was told to turn off my phone and not to use it while I am inside.

I was number three so I spent more than two hours waiting for my turn. From what I observed, processing time for each of the two applicants before me was about an hour or so.

It was my first time to try applying for a visa through a VFS application center. My previous experiences have been directly with the countries’ embassies in Manila. I did not know what to expect. So I was happy that it was a fairly good experience. I realized that the reason the whole process stretch to at least 45 minutes was because the man in charge of receiving the applications was, not surprisingly, meticulously checking them. I also like how the person was being detached and professional without being rude.

After checking all the requirements, he proceeded to ask me a set of questions that was on the document where he also wrote down my answers. The next step was the biometric fingerprinting and finally I was asked to pay the following fees:

  • Php3,240.00 – Visa application fee
  • Php2,710.00 – Logistics + courier + SMS fees
  • TOTAL: Php5,950.00

Some thoughts about the visa application and the requirements:

  • It was really convenient that there was a visa application center in Cebu. I hope that VFS Global will also set up a center here in Davao to make it easier and more cost-efficient for applicants coming from Mindanao.
  • Personal bank statement balance should cover six months unlike the three months requirement for visa application at the Embassy of Belgium Manila
  • I had to submit the travel insurance with the requirements unlike before at the Belgium embassy when they only required applicants to submit a copy by email before they released the passport with the visa in it
  • For the second time, I got my confirmed flight reservation from here. And once again, I was happy with how quickly they sent it to me

—–
VFS Global Cebu
Location: 503, Keppel Building, Cardinal Rosales Avenue Cor Samar Loop, Cebu City, 6000 Cebu

28 Hours in Cebu

Last Sunday’s trip to Cebu was not for leisure. But it proved to be a welcome break to what has been a most stressful month. Not only was I able to accomplish what I needed to do there. I also got to spend time with my high school friend

DAY 1

Can’t it be just “new driver”? ~ Seen on the way from the airport to Mabolo

The flight was delayed by about an hour so I arrived at Cebu at around 2:00PM. I took a taxi to the inn where I was staying. I chose the place because it was near the building where the office I needed to visit the next day was located. My only plan for the day was the meet-up with my friend later in the evening after her coaching training. I spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on some much-needed rest and sleep.

My friend and I later had dinner and a long chat somewhere at Ayala Terraces.

DAY 2

Taking care of business

Early Monday morning was for taking care of my main reason for traveling to Cebu. I finished what I had to do by 10:00AM and headed back to the inn to rest and get ready for check-out.

Lunch at Zubo Chon

Zubo Chon
The placemat
Delicious crispy skin and flavorful meat

Eating lechon is part of a Cebu experience. And I was not planning on leaving without having one. My friend brought me to Zubo Chon after I told her I want to eat it for lunch. I was happy with the restaurant’s lechon although my friend told me she prefers the one she buys in one of the city’s public markets. Something to keep in mind for next time.

A Glimpse of Casa Gorordo

Casa Gorordo Museum
Outside looking in

My friend wanted to have coffee at the cafe in Casa Gorordo so I could look around the old house/museum. But it was closed when we got there. We were told that it does not open on Monday’s. Luckily, there are other spots worth exploring nearby so the trip was not entirely wasted.

Location: No 35 Lopez Jaena, Cebu City

Yap-Sandiego Ancestral House

From Casa Gorordo, we walked to Yap-Sandiego Ancestral House. This old house may not look as grand as Casa Gorordo. But it was impressive in its own way. The house is said to be one of the oldest Chinese houses built outside of China. More than 90% of the original roofs and walls are still intact. One of the volunteer guides there told us that since it was built, the house has withstood some of the strongest earthquakes that struck Cebu.

A little about the old house
Some of the many items to find at the ground floor of the house
Dining table at the ground floor
One of the windows at the ground floor
Tempted to play a game of sungka ~ at the 2nd floor of the house
View of the garden below
An old radio that’s still working
An old harp
A banggera with a clay jar that stores drinking water. I remember a similar jar at my grandparents’ home and how the water stored there was always cool to drink.
Wishing well
An old boat used as a window planter. View from the garden
Not sure why there’s a portrait of a couple at the cooking area. But I love these old pots.
At the ground floor again

The interior is filled with things — from old everyday household items to religious sculptures and images that made me think about some of the collection I saw at the Baclayon Church in Bohol when I was a kid.

According to the guide, the owners still live in the house on weekends.

Location: Parian District, Cebu City
Admission Fee: Php50.00

The Jesuit House

Inside the compound where the old house and the hardware business are located

At the second level of the house

An old movie projector
How the Jesuit House looked like in the past
The newly opened Cafe Parian inside the compound

Located only a few meters away from the Yap-Sandiego ancestral house, the 1730 Jesuit House stood hidden in no-so-plain-sight. I love the story of how it was “discovered” by the son of the owner who was studying at the Ateneo in the 1980’s. According to the story my friend told me, the son was looking at photos of the old Jesuit House in a textbook when he suddenly realized that it looked familiar. It turned out that the building has served as the bodega or warehouse for their family’s business for many generations.

The first and second level of the Jesuit House are made of coral stones. It has many interesting features including the wood reliefs and floorboards.

Location: 26 Zulueta St, Cebu City
Admission: Php50.00

Heritage of Cebu Monument

One section of this impressive monument

This monument immediately captured my interest as my friend drove past it on our way to Casa Gorordo. It was our last stop in our unplanned culture and heritage tour. Heritage of Cebu monument was stunning up close as it was from afar. I love the details and the way all the sculptures seem to blend so well together. I could have spent more time gawking at it if it were not for the merciless heat of the sun that was already beginning to make my head ache.

Homeward-bound

We made a quick stop to my friend’s home in Mandaue before we headed to Mactan International Airport to catch my 5:55PM flight to Davao. I like how there are many trees on the side of the road leading to the airport as well as the many cafes, restaurants, and shops inside the terminal. Those are just some of the things I hope to see in Davao’s airport in the near future.

Twenty-eight hours in Cebu may not be enough to see what the Queen City of the South has to offer. But it was enough to enjoy some of the city’s best.

Traveling in Europe by Train

A friend’s Facebook post yesterday made me look back to my own experiences booking train tickets online for my Geneva-Aix les Bains-Paris-Brussels-Antwerp trip last year. I have not thought much about the process at that time. It was just one of the whirlwind of activities I had to deal with prior to the trip. But now that I reflect on it, I would have to say that it was a bit confusing at first.

Screenshot of my friend's post
Screenshot of a friend’s post

I remember spending some time looking for the best routes and transportation options. I had to figure out how to get from Geneva airport to Aix-les-Bains and book tickets for that as well as for other trips. I made all the arrangements on my own so I was initially anxious about how things would turn out. But I was pleasantly surprised everything went well — well, at least most of it. And these are some of the things that helped me through it.

Rome2rio

My go to source of information for routes, transportation options, and more
My go to source of information for routes, transportation options, and more

Rome2rio is informative and user-friendly. I has been my go-to source of information when looking for the best routes. I find it helpful and reliable. I like how it made some of my past trips a lot easier to plan.

Voyages-sncf.com

Aix les Bains to Paris (TGV)
Aix les Bains to Paris (TGV) – Train tickets for me and my friend from Myanmar who asked me to book a ticket for her as well
Paris to Brussels (Thalys)
Paris to Brussels (Thalys)

Booking tickets with Voyages-sncf.com was a breeze. And in hindsight, the “Ticketless” option I chose on my Thalys ticket was more convenient. I just saved the barcode ID they sent me on my phone and presented it to the inspector as instructed.

My TGV e-ticket, however, was another story. I thought that I just had to present the e-ticket I printed as stated on the confirmation email I received. But as I was sitting at the lounge area across the information and ticketing booths at Gare d’Aix-les-Bains-Le Revard, I noticed that most of the passengers I saw were holding what looked like boarding passes. So I approached the woman issuing tickets out to ask if I needed to confirm my reservation again. And this is where my Aix les Bains to Paris misadventure began. I had trouble conversing with the woman because she was talking to me in French the whole time. And whatever little I have learned in my French 10 class in college did not help. After a lot of pointing to the printed ticket and showing the email confirmation, she finally understood what I was trying to say and gave me a boarding pass. Too bad I did not get the chance to use it and enjoy the free Wi-Fi onboard the TGV train since I mistakenly went to the wrong platform and boarded the wrong train.

Fond Memories and Takeaways

  • What they say about booking train tickets online months before your trip is true. The Aix-les-Bains to Paris ticket I purchased on Voyages-sncf.com only cost me $42. The cost of the ticket from Bellegard to Paris that I had to buy after I missed the TGV train to Paris-Gare de Lyon was approximately EUR100 (give or take 1 or 2 Euros) not to mention the price of the ticket from Culoz to Bellegard. Boarding the wrong train was an expensive mistake on my part. But on the upside, I got to see more of France and met some of the kindest strangers I will never forget.
  • The beautiful scenery reminded me once again why I love traveling by train (Amsterdam to The Hague, Beijing to Hangzhou to Xiamen, Guangzhou to Hong Kong, and others)
  • The stranger seated next to me in the Thalys train who  put (and retrieved) my heavy luggage on the overhead compartment
  • Paris-Gare de Lyon and Gare du Nord — the architecture, trains, vibe, and the people
  • Taking the train from Brussels Midi to Brussels Airport instead of heading straight to Antwerp. I chose that route because I figured it would be more convenient for me to take the shuttle from the airport that stops directly in front of  the hotel where I will be staying. On the downside, I missed out on the chance to see the Antwerpen-Centraal railway station which was one of the city’s attractions.
  • Meeting a US-educated Tanzanian politician at the platform while waiting for the train and having an interesting conversation with him about education and politics during the trip from Brussels Midi to the airport.

Passport Renewal at DFA Davao – Waiting is the Hardest Part

My passport still has nine months in it before it expires. But since I don’t have any upcoming trip in the next two to three months, I decided to renew it while I have the time to spare. The last thing I want is to rush through the process when I suddenly have to travel.

So early yesterday morning, I went to DFA Davao located at SM City in Ecoland. There’s no appointment system so many choose to line up to get a priority number. I heard from someone that queueing starts as early as 6:00AM.

I arrived a little after 6:00AM in the morning. And I was already 87th in line. But only few came after me so the line wasn’t as long as I imagined it would be. We were waiting in like a covered pathway. There were some stone benches built a few feet from each other. There were also a limited number of blue monoblock couch-type chairs that can fit 4-5 people. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough for us farther back in the line could use.

DSC_0001
The queue when I arrived.

Queueing for long stretches of time isn’t a problem for me. I always make sure I’m armed with a good book and enough reading materials on my phone to ensure that I won’t get bored. I noticed that people have different ways to pass the time. Some just sit quietly doing nothing while others engage in conversations with people next to them.

I also noticed that some leave the line for a while without worrying about losing their spot. Everyone’s just being nice looking out for each other. It’s like waiting there creates a bond through the shared experiences of sacrificing time and energy just to accomplish an important task.

There was little activity between the time I arrived until around 15 minutes to 8:00AM when those in front started stirring. Some DFA personnel wearing blue collared shirts  with DFA Security printed on the back arrived and started handing out application forms. The priority numbers everyone was after were actually the last two to three numbers on the application forms.

I was told that the first twenty for renewal will be given priority. We’ll be the first ones to be accommodated as soon as the DFA’s office at the mall opens. Thankfully, there were only a handful of renewal applicants so I was one of the 20.

They left as soon as they finished issuing the application forms to everyone in the line. Anyone who arrives after this will have to wait for the mall to open and fall in line outside the DFA office.

Another round of waiting begins after we got the application forms. Some left for a while to eat breakfast somewhere while others just stayed in the area. Finding a place to eat was no problem. Starbucks at the Annex was open and I saw some people holding McDonalds coffee cups so I surmised there must be one nearby. I also heard that there was a carinderia across the street from the SM.

Finally, the mall opened at exactly 10:00AM. It took us a long time to get in because of the security check. I found this mildly frustrating. While I commend the meticulous bag checks the security guards were doing, I just thought that given the number of people who flock to DFA Davao daily they could have developed a system to make the security checks less time-consuming. All three of the security guards seemed to be doing a job that one person could easily handle given that there’s already a scanner.

As soon as we’re in, it was a few minutes more of walking to the DFA office at the 3rd floor. I approached the guard calling out numbers and showed my current passport and told him I’m applying for renewal. He waived me in. There were three counters directly in front of the entrance doors. I think the duties of the three personnel there was to do initial checks of the application forms and requirements as well as to answer queries.

I was instructed to proceed to the passport renewal window. But before I reached it, I was told by one of the staff in the area to have my passport photocopied. I told him I brought a copy. After checking it, he said it wasn’t within standards so I need to have the original photocopied again. I fell in line at the photocopying area and waited a bit before proceeding to the renewal window to submit the requirements.

Luckily, I have an e-passport so I was only required to submit a photocopy of the 2nd page and a valid ID. I submitted the forms and the passport copy then I was told to proceed to Window 7 to pay for the renewal fee. I paid Php950 (20 days). Those who want to expedite the process will have to pay Php1200 (10 days).

Next stop was where I got my photo and e-fingerprints taken. I only waited for about 5 minutes before my name was called. It was a fairly quick process so I couldn’t believe it when I was finally headed to the exit after less than 20 minutes of processing my passport renewal.

I’ll have to say that the mall set-up was a definite improvement from DFA Davao’s old office in Jacinto St. And I guess I really got lucky yesterday for finishing everything faster than I thought I would.

The Hague Supermarket Items That I Miss

I love going to supermarkets when traveling. They are easily the best places to find necessities that I opt not to pack when I want to travel light. I also find it comforting to find familiar items which remind me of home.

Staying for three months at The Hague entailed a lot of cooking and grocery shopping. This meant frequent trips to the nearest supermarkets like Albert Heijn, Aldi, and Konmar. There were also visits to the open-air markets that I always enjoyed.

It has been years since that short stay but I still miss some of the items that have special spots on my list of favorite things:

1. Stroopwafels

stroopwafelNothing prepared me for my first taste of these delicious treats. And they quickly became part of my daily life while I was there. The chewy confections were the only snacks I made sure I had in stock. I took a particular liking to one brand that has the finest (at least in my limited experience) small-sized and scrumptious stroopwafels. I found them at the first supermarket I visited. Thankfully, they were also available in the other supermarkets and small grocer stores so it was easy for me to get them. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the name of the brand. But I still have a picture of the packaging in my head.

2. Cheese

cheese-shopI was not a cheese person before that trip. But I became a convert during my time at The Hague. Not only because Holland/The Netherlands is the home to the famous Goudse kaas. It was also because it was the first place where I found a wide array of cheeses almost everywhere. The supermarkets and open markets were veritable treasure troves of so many cheeses in all shapes and sizes. I could not even pronounce or read the names on the labels of some of the cheeses I found at the supermarkets. I just grabbed whatever looked good to me. Later on, I decided to sample as many kinds and that has been one of the best things that I did in my brief stay there.

3. Rookworst

This sausage is not only tasty. The cooked variety is also the most convenient and easiest to prepare. It is excellent for meals any time of the day. And I even loved making sandwiches out of them — with whatever cheese I had on hand.

4. Chocolates

The supermarkets’ chocolates aisles are little slices of heaven on earth. The Hague’s close proximity to Belgium and its other European neighbors famous for their chocolates meant there was no shortage of delightful treats to try. I opted for brands that were unfamiliar to me. And I was never disappointed with my picks.

5. Ice cream

I am ambivalent about ice cream. I could probably live without it. But I developed an appreciation for it in my sojourn at The Hague. It was probably because of the many Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs selections for me to choose from.

There is more to the city than these items that makes me yearn to go back.  I may not have been to many places yet. But The Hague will always have a special place in my heart.

 

Thanks for the Wild Ride, 2015!

This year has been far from boring despite my lack of expectations going in. The Chinese horoscopes I have read  hinted of little promise for my sign. Given the somewhat unfavorable predictions, I opted to block them from my mind (yes, I’m selective like that). So I welcomed the year a bit wary of what’s to come. But with a firm resolve that whatever happens, I will do my best to get through whatever life throws at me.

For a year that was supposed to have little to look forward to though all sorts of crazy things happened. The good, the bad, and everything in-between — they all made this year unpredictably eventful. Here are some of my 2015’s highlights. Every experience was an opportunity for gratitude, happiness, learning, and growth.

Family is Love

We don’t do showy love in our family. But we see and feel it. And this year, there have been several ways I’ve seen how they support me in what I do. They may not always understand my choices given the traditional beliefs some of them have. But I could count on them to be there for me. It has always been more than enough. My dad, mom, and sister each in his and her own ways have helped me a lot this year.

It was sad and scary though when my dad was hospitalized last November. He had to stay at the hospital for several days. It didn’t help that we were not really sure what was wrong with him. He’s been dealing with diabetes and high blood pressure for so long. Thankfully, he got better quickly and was able to go home a few days later.

Friends I’m Lucky to Have

I don’t often see my closest friends since I moved back to my hometown. So it’s always a happy occasion when I get to meet them. I had a chance to do just that this year for some friends I haven’t seen for a long time.

Early this year, I met up with Nathan, my brod who got me into arnis, dragonboat, and capoeira. It’s been almost eight years since I last saw him so I was happy to reconnect with him. I’ve seen him again after that when I went to Manila. I had dinner with Sis Lilet who was in Davao a few months back. I had a meet up with my kindred Karen and former workmate Ailene when I was in Singapore. I likewise had a chance to see my awesome Virgo friends Anna Liese, Babs, and Chalyn when I was in Manila last July. I stayed with my former teammates Belen, Jess, and Adrian when I was in Paris. A common friend from Pencak Silat also made time to visit us while I was there. And just a few days ago, I had lunch with high school friends Leonor and Deanna who are based in Cebu and Cagayan de Oro respectively.

I’ve also kept in touch with my best buddies Bixie (Seoul), Min-Min (Melbourne), Beth with Milo (Maryland) and Aileen (Singapore).

Getting an Apology I No Longer Expected

Early this year, I found a message on my Facebook account’s “other” inbox a few days after it was sent. I usually don’t check that inbox so I don’t know what prompted me to open it. I was surprised to find that message there, especially at a time when I no longer expected it. It was a most touching message that I’ll never forget. Here’s to closures and great stories that last a lifetime.

Health I Need to Take Better Care Of

I had at least two worrisome respiratory woes this year. Both required visits to a pulmonologist. During my first check-up, the chest x-ray showed some fluids in one of my lungs. I was worried about this because it was the first time that it happened to me. The doctor gave me a lot of medicines. I was advised to refrain from doing physical activities. This meant skipping kendo training for at least two to three weeks each time. The treatment worked so I was more than glad I stuck to it. But the problem recurred a few weeks later, but without the lung fluids. I got another round of prescriptions. I made sure I followed the doctor’s advice to the letter. This was a few days before I had to leave for jury/umpire duties at the Singapore SEA Games.

Getting sick sucks for a lot of reasons. I realized I need to take better care of my health from now on.

Jury/Umpire Duties

I once read an interview of an experienced umpire who said something like a good race for us jury members is when we remain “invisible”. And I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s every jury/umpire/referee’s wish that every race goes as smoothly as possible.

I’ve been generally lucky in the previous umpiring assignments I’ve had. But that all ended this year. I’ve had a lot of challenging firsts while doing jury/umpire duties in the past months.

SEA Games

Crews at the Start area.
Crews at the Start area.

This year’s SEAG was memorable for me because I got assigned as Responsible Judge at the Finish. I’ve done Judge at the Finish several times but not the responsible judge task. I was also Judge at the Start at one of the toughest days to be assigned in that post given the bad weather that was threatening to get worse by the minute.

During the last day of races (Final A), I was the only female umpire of the four out on the racing course. It was raining hard early that morning and quite windy too. The weather improved a bit so the races started as scheduled. But it was still raining. I was a bit worried about some boat classes like the coxless pair and four given the weather conditions.

As my luck would have it, I was the umpire for the women’s coxless four (W4-). It turned out to be one of the toughest events to follow that day. Some of the teams’ boats were already swerving as soon as the race started. The wind was not helping at all. Everyone was moving into others’ lanes. I was using my white flag and bullhorn almost throughout the duration of the race. I had several instances of near collisions involving not just one or two crews but most of them. Two teams were so close to colliding with each other as they approach the finish. I was surprised that the race ended without mishap.

World Masters Regatta

Umpire Boats
Umpire Boats

My first assignment as jury member for a world event was equally memorable. It was the busiest regatta I’ve been to. Over 3,500 participants were competing in different age categories (27 to 90+). Races were scheduled from 6:00AM to 7:00PM for three and a half days. Jury members were assigned to work in shifts. There were only 3 minutes intervals between races. I’ve never experienced calling out a false start before. But in that event, I had two false starts and one close call when I was assigned as Judge at the Start.

Crews at the Start Area. Taken while hanging out near the Aligner's Hut while I was off shift.
Crews at the Start Area. Taken while hanging out near the Aligner’s Hut while I was off shift.

During my afternoon shift in the last day of races, I was static umpire at 500m (350-700m zone). A male single sculler in lane 1 stopped as his boat approached the 500m mark. I asked him if he was okay and he said he doesn’t want to continue anymore. He said he would like to leave the race course and go directly to the rental boat pontoon. Only a few races after that, a women’s pair boat in lane 6 capsized. The boat driver and I quickly went to assist the capsized crew. The rescue boat stationed near my umpire boat was gone and I wasn’t getting any response on my call for assistance on my hand-held radio. We had to assist the distressed crew fast because the next race was already coming in.

Despite pushing me way out of my comfort zone, I have to say all the umpiring experiences I’ve had this year taught me a lot. And most of all, it made me realize that there’s nothing to fear when I’m out there doing my job. That stepping up is exactly what we do, if needed.

Kendo Journey

With the MKC senseis and senpais
With the MKC senseis and senpais

It hasn’t been a great year for me in Kendo. I went on a long hiatus at least twice. I stopped training for a month during the first quarter of the year. Then I had to take breaks of at least two to three weeks each to recuperate when I was having respiratory problems and when I had to travel for jury duties. My second long break from kendo was from August to October. I only came back after a fellow kendoka told me about the kyu assessment scheduled for November. I thought maybe I should give it a shot and see if I’ve learned anything in all those months I’ve trained. Because honestly, I’ve always felt lost given the prevailing lack of feedback.

I wasn’t expecting much from myself for the kyu assessment. Still, I felt a bit sad and disappointed soon after I failed my first ever 1 kyu exam. But looking back to what I’ve been through, it didn’t seem bad at all. It was funny actually how everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong in the days leading to the evaluation. Failing the assessment on the last day of November seemed like a fitting end to the worst month I’ve had in 2015. Work-related changes that required learning some new skills, sleeping at the hospital for a few days when my dad was hospitalized, learning Kata 1-3 only a few weeks before evaluation, and cramming Bokuto 1-9 lessons in two days all took their toll in my performance.

I had a tough time even during the two days of pre-evaluation training with the visiting MKC senpais and senseis. My shinai was damaged on the first day so I couldn’t use it. The only available replacement I could use was Lim sensei’s carbon fiber shinai. Apart from the difference in size, it was also a lot heavier than I expected. I experienced using men’s size shinais before. But sensei’s shinai was quite heavy. I could feel my shoulders protesting the whole time I was using it. The next day, one of my male dojo mates lent me his extra shinai. While it was lighter than Lim sensei’s shinai, the grip was different so I had to adjust to that as well. Just when I thought that nothing could go wrong anymore after what I’ve been through, I was proven wrong. The night before the evaluation, our club manager told our batch that we can only take up to 2 kyu. This was perfectly fine with me given how ill-prepared I was. So I was surprised when the next day he told us that we’ll be taking the 1 kyu evaluation instead. And as the results show, I messed it up big time.

Despite the disappointing results though, I couldn’t help but feel motivated. Ono sensei’s unexpected feedback inspired me to do better. Because he doesn’t seem the type who’d say something without meaning it.

Strangers to Remember

The kindness of strangers is another highlight for me. I’ve met several in my travels this year. I may not know or remember their names, but my interactions with them have been unforgettable.

-The young accountant I met at NAIA Terminal 1 while I was waiting to check-in. We’re on the same flight going to Abu Dhabi. He’s a new addition to the country’s growing number of OFWs. We ended up as buddies until we had to go our separate ways in Abu Dhabi. He was on his way to Jeddah and I was traveling to Geneva.
-The dedicated volunteers met at the World Championships in Lac d’Aiguebelette, France and the World Masters Regatta in Hazewinkel, Belgium
-The old lady who chatted with me at the boulangerie near the hotel in Aix les Bains
-The owner/chef of a restaurant where I had one of the sumptuous dinners I’ve had in Aix les Bains
-The teenage kid who helped me when I got on the wrong train on my way to Paris
-The train conductor on the same train who kindly looked for a new and detailed route for me (which was not easy given the train schedules)
-The couple at the train station in Culoz who helped me after the teenage kid left me in their care. They made sure that I get to Bellegard as smoothly as possible so I could catch the train to Paris Gare de Lyon
-The guy seated next to me on the Thalys train going to Brussels who kindly put and retrieved my luggage for me on the overhead compartment.
-The US-educated Tanzanian guy I chatted with on the way to Brussels airport
-The rower who took the time to give his thanks saying that we’ve all been really nice and that it was the best masters regatta he’d been to.
-The girl I met at Brussels airport going home. It was like we’ve been friends for a long time. She was on her way home to Tarlac after a 6-month visit with his father, stepmother and stepsiblings who live in Liège, Belgium.

All these encounters left me with stories and memories that inspire me.

Travel

MBS, home sweet home while in Singapore. Taken while hanging out with my former workmate who's now based in Singapore.
Marina Bay Sands – home sweet home during the SEAG. Taken by my former workmate, who’s now based in Singapore, while we were hanging out.

I didn’t expect to travel this year except maybe for the SEA Games. The notice of my selection as one of the jury members for a world regatta came in the first quarter of 2015.

My first trip was to Singapore for the SEA Games. Unlike my previous trips, I didn’t have to go to Manila this time. The Davao-Singapore direct flight made it more convenient for me. Soon after I returned from Singapore, I traveled to Manila. While Manila’s been home for me for almost two decades, I haven’t been there much in recent years. It was like traveling to somewhere familiar, but feeling like everything has changed.

Two months after, I traveled to France to attend a conference. The trip took me from Davao to Manila to Abu Dhabi and to Geneva. The view during the plane’s approach to Geneva airport was simply breathtaking. It was one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve seen from a plane’s window. The hour-long road trip from Geneva to Aix-les-Bains was delightful. I still remember the picturesque scenery on both sides of the road. I stayed at a hotel in Aix-les-Bains with my friend and fellow umpire from Myanmar. She booked with the same airline so we could meet at Abu Dhabi airport then travel together to France from there.

Rooftops in Aix les Bains. Taken from the hotel room's balcony.
Rooftops in Aix les Bains. Taken from the hotel room’s balcony.

From Aix-les-Bains, it’s only about 20-minute bus ride to Lac d’Aiguebelette which is part of one of the communes in Savoie, France. It’s one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve seen. This year, it was the venue for the world championships and the conference.

My friend and I went our separate ways after the conference. Her friend who’s based in the Netherlands picked her up in our hotel on our last day in Aix les Bains. They were traveling to Barcelona together while I’ll be traveling to Paris. But what could’ve have been a simple trip became a circuitous journey when I got on the wrong train. I ended up in Culoz before traveling to Bellegard to catch a train to Gare de Lyon in Paris. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, what could’ve been an unpleasant experience became a happy sightseeing side-trip and memorable adventure.

My former teammates who now live in Paris picked me up at Gare de Lyon. I stayed with them during my short visit. No matter how short though, I was still able to see the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, Sacré-Cœur, and the Arc de Triomphe. I enjoyed exploring a little bit of Place Charles de Gaulle and ventured on my own to the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise to visit Oscar Wilde’s tomb.

From Paris, I took the Thalys train from Gare du Nord to Bruxelles-Midi then transferred to another train going to Brussels Airport. I chose that route because it seemed more convenient for me. I wanted to take the Airport Express shuttle that stops at Crowne Plaza Antwerpen where I’ll be staying. In hindsight though I wished I just took the train to Antwerpen-Centraal to see the station’s beautiful architecture. I didn’t know then that I won’t have the time to explore the city given our busy schedule. I didn’t see much of Belgium much to my regret. The only sightseeing I’ve done while in Antwerp was the long walk I did soon after I arrived and the daily trips from the hotel to Willebroek where the Hazewinkel rowing venue was located.

I may not have been able to see much of the places I’ve been to this year. But in each place I’ve discovered more than I expected. All the experiences and things I’ve seen made me want to travel more. It also made me realize that traveling solo is one of the best experiences one can have.

Work I Enjoy

I was happy with work this year. I had to learn new skills to adapt to constantly-changing requirements. But it was all fun despite the long hours I have to do sometimes. More importantly, I’m grateful that the work I do now allows me to pursue my passions. It may not be as financially rewarding as my last “regular” job. But venturing out on my own was a risk I was prepared to take on so as to have more freedom to do what I love.

It’s been year of ups and downs. But despite the struggles, the good things far outweigh the bad. At the end of the day, I learned many things along the way.

So I’ll end this with a quote: “Trust me, I never lose; I either win or learn!” Unknown

Sayonara and Thank You, 2015!

[Photos] One Fine Night at the The City of Light

The early evening rain did not last long. It trickled down to a drizzle after the initial downpour. In less than an hour, it stopped. The fierce wind that gripped La Ville Lumière that day seemed to have blown it away. It was a good night for a walk. Chilly but romantic — the sort of romance that makes you fall in love with life again. Walking the streets of Paris made me realize again that true beauty is the sum of all the good and bad. The City of Light lives up to its reputation. And in many ways, it exceeds it.

Eiffel Tower mesmerizes at night.
Eiffel Tower mesmerizes at night.
Near the fountain
Near the fountain
Pyramide du Louvre (Louvre Pyramid) at the Palais du Louvre (Louvre Palace) courtyard.
Pyramide du Louvre (Louvre Pyramid) at the Palais du Louvre (Louvre Palace) courtyard.
Facade of a section of the Louvre Palace.
Facade of a section of the Louvre Palace.
One of the smaller pyramids around the Louvre Pyramid.
One of the smaller pyramids around the Louvre Pyramid.
The lights dazzle. A lovely night for a walk. Autumn seemed to have come early in Paris.
The lights dazzle. A lovely night for a walk. Autumn seemed to have come early in Paris.
At a street near the Louvre. With my Paris-based friend and former teammate.
At a street near the Louvre. With my Paris-based friend and former teammate.