Summer Dreams 2014

coming soon

Granada Nicaragua

In Search or the Perfect Ceviche and other adventures out soon in my TravelOkcity column, Leisure+Adventure Magazine, and here.

Marshall Islands

Got Wasabi? (A deep sea fishing adventure in the Marshall Islands)

Prairie Dog Town

Adventures in the city of Oklahoma and beyond in my travel column, TravelOkcity.

Hefner Lake Park

Adventures in the city of Oklahoma and beyond in my travel column, TravelOkcity.

Huahin, Thailand

The warm hospitality of a boutique hotel in the beach resort town of royalty in the northern part of the Malay Peninsula.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Travel, Technology, and the Golden Ticket (Thoughts and Tips on Applying for a U.S. Tourist Visa)

From my Tech Thoughts column in Speed Magazine, 2007
* since this was published years back, certain details (like fees) may no longer be applicable

The 10 year multiple visa that I never get to use anymore since I moved to the States.

I just got a transit visa for my trip to the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) in Micronesia. After queuing for four hours in the embassy, I can’t help but thank the powers that be for technology. If not for the wonders of the electronic appointment system, I would have been watching the sunrise by the Manila Bay while I waited in line with hundreds of other hopefuls. Before the appointment system, my mother lined up for half a day to apply for a visa; she started at the crack of dawn, was done before the sun set, and was  rewarded with a 10 year multiple tourist visa for her valiant efforts. I don’t think I have her willpower.

It’s ironic that to go on a vacation, to leave the concerns of a complex world, I have to go through layers of bureaucracy and stacks of documentation. To feel the powdery sands between my toes and allow the whispers of the tide to ease away the stresses of the modern world, I have to have immunization shots, line up at the embassy, accomplish application forms, book flights, clear up my schedule, endure an overnight flight, pass through several x-ray systems, CT scanners and metal detectors, and take off my shoes even before I get to the beach.

All the hoops I had to go through just to go sailing and sun burnt!

Continental Airlines, the only airline that flies to the RMI, changes planes in Guam, a U.S. territory. To be granted entry to their airport, to use their restroom, to grab a burger and to park my derriere on one of their chairs while I wait for Continental to change planes, I have to obtain a U.S. transit visa on top of my RMI visa. It wouldn’t have been too much trouble except that to get a transit visa, I had to go through the same process of applying for a tourist visa. That meant facing that one stranger that could change the direction of my flight. Fortunately, my recent interview was uneventful.

The interrogating consul inside the glass aquarium was an indifferent but efficient lady. She politely asked several curt questions answerable by monosyllables. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if she was asking or merely thinking aloud:
“You’ve been to the States before./?”
“You’re requesting for a transit visa./?”
“Your brother is a U.S. Citizen./?”

A rustle of papers. The click-clack of the keyboard. Then, “take this to the courier.” She shoved the highly coveted piece of paper through a small opening on the glass partition and without another word, my interview was done. She didn’t even bother to look at my papers. It took me over a month to get all my documents in order: bank statements, certification from editors, school papers, car registration, etc. All that hard work for nothing. I had a ready spiel on how I need to come back because I’m completing my novel for my thesis or how passionate I am about my work here, but it wasn’t the time nor the place for idle chatter.

THE golden ticket that will allow you access to almost anywhere in the world..almost.

Who cares? I got the golden ticket. It was a 1/4th sheet of yellow paper that heralded my trustworthiness. It took every ounce of control not to wave the paper in the air for the world to see. As I watched the others walk out with their heads down, hands empty, I pondered on this phenomenon. Year after year, thousands get turned down. Some of them walk out defeated, because they are made to feel unworthy to walk on sacred soil so fertile that it flows of milk and honey. Yet, year after year they trod on, reduced to numbers (“3208 to window ten, please”), forking out a hundred dollars for an application that they themselves printed, suffering the humiliation of being finger-scanned like criminals, herded by Filipino attendants who carry on like they’re better than because they work for the American embassy, ordered to wait in long lines, leave their mobile phones, stand up, sit down, hush.

Some of my travel buddies are afraid to apply for a visa for fear of being denied,
and to think one of them already had a multiple visa before!

Who am I to complain when I was just granted a visa? Who am I to criticize when just like many, I too enjoy and benefit from the inventions of American  geniuses like Alexander Graham Bell, Bill Gates, and Ralph Lauren? What right do I have to gripe when I sometimes still long for the electric air of the Big Apple? Who am I to protest my four hours of waiting when over a decade ago, people lined up 48 hours in advance?

Fortunately, with technology taking over the appointment systems, the long lines had been cut to more than half. Interview appointments are set either through phone or online ( The former costs fifty pesos a minute (don’t get me started on the rate) but you get personalized service through a Filipino operator who will tell you what to do and what not to do like not mixing up your appointed time (which I of course did) lest you wait another two weeks for the reschedule. Beforehand, you must pay the application fee of a hundred dollars at an accredited bank.

In MY airline, I won't require a golden ticket!

A more convenient option is the online reservation which will cost ten dollars extra for a VisaPoint PIN. The VisaPoint is a web-based information and appointment system that allows you to view information on nonimmigrant visas, pay for your application through a credit card, and schedule an appointment by choosing from available dates and times.

Application forms are now printed from the site. Answers must be keyed in before the form can be printed, eliminating errors and illegible handwriting. Adobe Acrobat Reader version 5.0 or higher is required to download the form.  The site also prompts for invalid entries, so you are sure that you are typing in the correct entries. A barcode, containing all the information you entered, is printed on the application form. Conveniently, the system allows you to generate copies for Family Duplicates.

My Choice. My Airline.

Online technology has made traveling more convenient in other ways. To purchase tickets, there is no need to step out of the house. The International Air Transport Association has committed to 100% e-ticketing this year. It’s easier to check for availability, pass miles and flight status. If they can work on a video conference interview with the embassy then we don’t even have to leave the house until our departure date. But with the way things are going, travel may soon become virtual. To explore the Old Quarter of Hanoi or the overgrown Japanese hospital of Roi Namur in RMI, I may no longer need to step out of the confines of my room. How’s that for travel convenience?

Why bother? The goal is to collect as many stamps as possible.

I don’t know about you, but I still relish the feel of the sun on my bare back and never tire of the joys of hoarding complementary airline toothbrushes in spite of the long lines and overweight fees. This reminds me, I gotta go pack my sunblock.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Location, Location, Location (Hong Kong)

Published by AsianTraveler Magazine 2010
Photos by Nana Arellano Aoyong

It’s a mantra for real estates agents and applies to many establishments, especially for hotels. Of course it’s also about service, amenities, and other features. But with Marco Polo Prince Hotel, which sits right at the heart of the city’s busiest commercial and business hub, location sure contributes greatly to its success.

Tsim Sha Tsui is like an oriental version of Times Square.

Located along Canton Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, Marco Polo Prince Hotel and its other sister properties (Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel and Marco Polo Gateway), form part of Hong Kong’s largest shopping complex and are next door to some of HK’s major tourist attractions. Prince is part of Harbour City, a shopping zone of about 700 shops including 50 restaurants. Behind it is Victoria Harbour, offering guests an almost surreal view of the city at night. On the other side, guests can walk towards Salisbury Road for some education at the Cultural Center, the Space Museum, and the Museum of Art. Everything else is a ferry or an MTR ride away. It seemed like when the city was planned, the Marco Polo group got lucky and got first dibs on the center of the Hong Kong universe.

Fair warning

Marathon shopping tip: hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

The Prince’s location, coupled with its multi-star service and amenities, has propelled it to strive and thrive in spite of the economic downturn. In fact, Prince was named Hotel of the Year at the recently concluded Marco Polo Annual Awards by Marco Polo Hotels.  It was a grand slam victory for Prince General Manager Philip Lim and his team, with the hotel bagging a total of three awards (Hotel of the Year, Most Competitive Hotel, and Hotel with Most Improved GOP Performance).

1881 Heritage, an ode to the Victorian Era and big name brands.

 “I would look for a hotel that is in a very good location,” shares Philip, but he was quick to add that “a hotel in a good location that is branded is plenty, but the difference is the service. We always try to create additional value for our customers, taking the extra mile.” 

A budget shopper's heaven.

And this was exactly what I was looking for on the day I revisited Hong Kong. With my feet itching to go a-walking, and my heart longing for some retail therapy and a little wine sousing on the side, I found what I was looking for at the Prince Hotel. And so yes, I blame location for the calluses on my feet, the extra pounds around my waist, my thinning wallet, and the excess baggage. Consider this a warning. If you are dieting, saving, or looking for some downtime, Prince Hotel is not the place to book. However, if you are up for some gastronomic fun and retail adventure, then you would be happy with Prince.

NY in HK

Outside the Prince’s cool confines (it seemed like they always set the air conditioning at freezing point inside the malls and the hotels. I heard this keeps people wide awake, which doesn’t really make sense what with everything that the location has to offer), the energy is almost electric. Fire-red taxicabs whizzed by between buildings that scream of colorful marketing and commerce: Cotton On, DBS, Tax Free, Sony, Marrionaud Paris, Tsubaki, Sale, S. Square Cafe Cozy Lunch Set and several other signs in Chinese which I’m sure either promised porcelain skin or the best pork suckling in town. The signs are big and colorful, some sparkle and pulse. They reminded me too much of Times Square in New York, only the signs were mostly in Chinese.

New and cheap!

At rush hour, the place transforms into Wall Street oriental. Asian men in business suits and women in stylish high heels rush home in packs. A sprinkling of Caucasians and other races walk alongside them. They walk lost in their thoughts. Some talk in their hands-free sets, brushing past us, seemingly not noticing us. A mass of bodies, they move almost mindlessly, flowing efficiently and with purpose, crowding escalators and filling trains. I am almost scared. Feeling much like a country mouse lost in a rat race, I was afraid they would trample me, but the frenetic energy brings a tingle to my flesh.

‘Tis the season to spend

Love in the midst of madness (photo by Nana Arellano Aoyong)

The air had a crisp quality to it that was somehow odd in a place crowded with buildings and roads choked by cars and buses. It was a familiar exciting feeling: the anticipation of Christmas. We walked farther along Canton Road and soon we came upon the houses of Hermes, Channel, and Gucci. They were like big gift boxes with glittery ribbons. When we neared the flagship store of Louis Vuitton, we noticed a long queue by the door. People were actually lining up to get into the store. It’s the season for giving, after all. People were eager to spend.

We continued on towards Nathan Road but were quickly sidetracked by small boutiques that sold dresses and shoes that were more within our budget. I found a light wool dress in heather, and with it I imagined a pair of black tights and a white Christmas. The tag said 69 Hong Kong dollars. I quickly did the math in my head – Php 417. It was going to be a very happy holiday indeed. In another store, I chanced upon a creamy golden light coat with a puffy collar and sleeves.  The tag, which read, HKD100 made me hesitate, but then Nana, my shopping buddy, said I looked like someone who just stepped out of the JFK airport. That erased all doubts. 

Come to Manila, and you won't have to fall in line to spend big.

Shopping was such a joy in these little streets between Nathan Road and Canton Road. The only real downer is that fitting clothes are prohibited in most stores. “No fit! Cannot! Cannot!”

Our hands full, we decided to unload, which was not a problem because Prince was conveniently just around the corner. After unloading, we found another store with the following treasures: a vintage-looking locket watch - HKD39 (our host, Janice, said I could have gotten it for HKD20, but I couldn’t let her burst my bubble), a Chinese silk fabric covered notebook - HKD29 (“You could have gotten that for 10!”), little bolanggus (toy drums) with birth animals printed on them - HKD15, and a memorable shopping experience - priceless. There were also bracelets, porcelain China dolls, silk bags, and other inexpensive baubles that would be perfect under the Christmas tree.

sparkly stocking stuffers

I had to pace myself because we had the Night Market in our itinerary, and I knew that prices would be even more festive and that haggling would be fun. Unfortunately, things had changed quite a bit since my last visit at the Ladies Market in Mongkok, an MTR ride away from Tsim Sha Tsui. The merchandise lacked the luster that I thought they used to possess. In fact, I was reminded of the goods that they sold back in Divisoria or the bazaars in Manila. There was really nothing new, and I quickly got bored. The bartering, though, was still extremely entertaining. 

They look as cheap as they cost, and that's why I wasn't happy.

Janice taught us to negotiate for at least a 70% discount. If they refused, we could do the walk-away technique, and she guaranteed they would relent. True enough, after turning our back on them, feigning disinterest, they would grab for our arm. If we tried to extricate ourselves from their desperate grasps, they would plead. “Missy, how much you want? How much you want?” From then on, the bargaining power was ours.

Get ready to haggle.

Back at Canton Road, just a short walk from Prince, is Heritage 1881. Here the atmosphere is less manic. The stores are a little bit snobbish and uppity. Saleswomen don’t run after you. They offer a smile at a safe distance as you carefully walk around their displays. The brands – Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Mont Blanc – were not the things that delighted us. It was the building that housed all these expensive names. A building of unique Victorian architecture, Heritage 1881 used to be the headquarters of the Hong Kong Marine Police in the late 1800s. Today, it stands as an elegant structure, a reminder of Hong Kong’s rich colonial history.  

Symphony of taste and design

Behind the Marco Polo chain is the Victoria Harbour where you can turn your back away from Canton Road’s beautiful chaos. Prince, for instance, sits by the Ocean Terminal. It is directly connected to the Ocean Center which features balconies and viewing decks for weary shoppers or for those who simply want some sun and a whiff of the salty sea. Here we sat beside a snoozing local to watch the silvery waves reflect the glass and steel of the skyscrapers.

Taking a break at the Summer Palace.

At night the view completely transforms into a different world. The water turns a deep black; its edges give off a golden glow from the street lights. At Cucina, one of Marco Polo’s most celebrated restaurants, we sat by the glass walls, watching the city’s lights twinkle like stars submerged in the water. A traditional Chinese ship passed by while we sipped on our smooth white chardonnay. Its red sampan sail rig stood out, glowing in the dark. It flowed past, quiet and majestic, reminding us of Hong Kong’s proud living tradition amidst all the modernity.
It is evident even in their cuisine. The Michelin-rated menu of Cucina is a clever mix of Asian and international dishes, both traditional and contemporary and concocted by highly celebrated chefs: Graeme Ritchie, Au Yueng Chung Kei, and Ryan Zimmer. Even the table is set to display the elegant marriage of the modern and the old. The traditional crispy suckling pig skin sitting on a soft white pastry is served in an ultra-contemporary table setting that is both minimalist yet decadent. The Amadei dessert – rich dark chocolate fondant with a sprinkling of popcorn and tofu and caramel gelato on the side – sits on a slab of black marble. On another plate is a curious capsule that breaks into gooey strawberry and rose filling that spills over yoghurt cheesecake. The capsule is formed using liquid nitrogen, making the dessert a complicated dish that is just as delightfully complex in the mouth. To cap it all was a generous helping of strawberry balsamic ice cream (made from scratch of course) served in a bowl of ice, the cold crystals sparkling with the reflection of the city lights. Around us are black wooden lattice panels, marble, glass, and rich fabrics. With everything combined, it was almost an otherworldly experience. Or maybe it was just the chardonnay.

At the roof top of the Island Shagri-La, HK.

If Cucina is everything elegant, the Spice Market at the Prince is a trip back to the markets of old, alive with the scents and tastes of Southeast Asian cuisine. Lunch and dinner time, the crowd is as hectic as the markets of Hong Kong. People crowd the buffet tables for the steamed fish, stir-fried noodles, Peking duck, dim sum, tandoori, and a host of other Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Singaporean favorites. Every day they also have specials and on our first visit, they served the most special of all specials: the Typhoon Shelter Wagyu. The most tender and succulent Kobe-style beef is served on a small plate of stir-fried vegetables. The melt-in-your mouth experience almost made us forget about the other items on the buffet table. The waiters happily obliged. Plate after plate of wagyu was delivered to us, so we didn’t feel the need to stand up. We were perfectly happy where we were. We had, after all, the perfect location.