Thursday, January 21, 2010

Have (No) Visa, Will (Still) Travel

Every Filipino traveler has a horror story about a visa application gone wrong -- or at the very least, gone annoyingly time consuming in terms of documents to submit or the number of visits to an embassy. It's all about the four-hour waiting lines, the multitude of bank statements, and occasionally, the attitude of the visa applications staff themselves.

Most of the time, we just grin and bear it, telling ourselves this is the price to pay for travel, especially to the First World. But sometimes, the hassles and indignities of a visa application make us feel we should just give up the trip all together -- as in the case of a friend applying for a visa recently to a Northeast Asian country. He'd already been to that country several times, so he figured a visa for a third trip would be easy. He'd submitted everything required including an NSO-issued birth certificate...except it was issued in the latter half of 2008. The embassy refused to even review his application without the 2009 NSO birth certificate.

"This is a birth certificate, for goodness' sake," he said angrily, recalling the encounter at this unnamed embassy. "What would be different between a 2008 NSO and a 2009 NSO? The birth date? If they ask for one more ridiculous document, I'm canceling my trip and going to Hong Kong instead."

You'd think that with the global recession and all, more countries would be welcoming spending tourists rather than making things harder for them....

Well, a Facebook friend of Travelife Magazine recently sent us a comprehensive list of countries Filipinos can travel to without a visa. Thought'd we'd share this with all of you in case you wish to suddenly do a visa-free trip outside of ASEAN one of these days. Just the thought of being able to jump on a plane tomorrow and go someplace exotic like Brazil -- without having to collect bank statements, income statements and other documents to prove you are not going to TNT in their country, and then troop to an embassy -- is making us want to do exactly that! Recently, we've been to Morocco and Israel -- wonderful countries with mind-blowing cultures. We can't wait to visit the rest...especially Latin America!


1. Andorra
2. Bermuda
3. Bolivia
4. Brazil
5. Burundi
6. Colombia
7. Comoros
8. Cook Islands
9. Costa Rica
10. Ecuador
11. Fiji
12. Galapagos islands
13. Haiti
14. Hong Kong
15. Israel
16. Macau
17. Maldives
18. Micronesia
19. Mongolia
20. Morocco
21. Oman
22. Palestine
23. Peru
24. Saint Helena
25. Samoa
26. Seychelles
27. Sri Lanka
28. South Korea - Visa required but no fee needed. Citizens of the following countries will not be charged an embassy fee for a South Korea visa: Italy, Japan, Philippines (up to 59 days stay), Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, United Kingdom.
29. Suriname
30. Tuvalu


Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Malaysian (Short) Story

I really don't know why these sort of strange things keep happening to me, but they do. If you've read my previous blog entry on a similar (minor) fiasco at a piano bar in New York some years back -- well, this is something along the same lines.

This happened just a year or so after I'd left the Ateneo and was already working as Regional Development Officer (RDO) of AIESEC International, the Brussels-based coordinating office of what is perhaps one of the largest student organizations for those majoring in business and economics, in the world.

Traveling for AIESEC

I'd been pretty active all through college with AIESEC, starting as PR for my local Ateneo chapter, and then working with Anthony Pangilinan in the national chapter as National Committee PR Officer, and then becoming chairman of the bid committee of AIESEC Philippines to host an international congress in the Philippines. Finally, when Cecile Marquez of AIESEC UP moved over to the Brussels office to become a director of AIESEC International, I became RDO for Asia-Pacific - a fantastic dream job that anyone out of college would have killed for, that involved traveling for something like six to 12 months around the region, spending about three weeks in each country, and helping the local chapters establish and strengthen their AIESEC chapters,

I've lost track since then of just how many AIESECers actually made it to AIESEC International, but during my time, it was only Anthony, Cecile, Marc Ablaza and myself. Being in AIESEC International opened a whole new and unimaginable world of travel and international relations. It also taught me very early on about professionalism and how to deal with big business and cultures different from my own. The experiences in AIESEC changed me for life in so many ways I can't even begin to count, and the happy memories of congresses all over the world -- and the post-congress fun in places as diverse as Hong Kong, Boston, New York, Brisbane, and Nagoya are indelible in my mind and heart.

Zsa Zsa Padilla in Malacca

Anyway back to my story of an interesting evening in the city of Malacca, Malaysia, where I somehow found myself in the course of my tour of duty for AIESEC International, checked into what was then the Ramada Renaissance hotel in this historic and quaint seaside town.

At this point, I'd been living in a suitcase and on the go for close to six months, hopping from one city or country to another, and meeting only new faces in each town. AIESEC people eveyrwhere are pretty nice and we often share the same drive and desire for business excellence that helped make AIESEC one of the best-run student organizations even then, and certainly today; but months and months of new places and people were starting to take its toll and I was hankering for something homegrown and familiar.

Well, that evening, I had had my laksa and curries for dinner and was rather reluctant to return to my hotel room; and frankly I was a bit homesick after months of dealing with non-Filipinos in an ever-changing environment. Seeing a notice about a Philippine band playing in the hotel's music lounge, I decided to just go in and stay for a while to chill out and listen to sounds from home.

The band was great and they played many of the (English) popular cover songs that Filipinos the world over have grown famous for imitating even better than the original bands or singers. But for some reason, I wanted -- desperately -- to hear something Filipino after no contact with Filipinos for so long. So I decided to request a song from home.

I could've requested any song, of course, but at that particularl moment, I just couldn't think of any. So again, as in New York (you'd think I would've learned about the pitfalls of miscommunicating by paper napkins after this, by the time I reached New York some years later... ), I reached over for a paper napkin, took out a pen and simply wrote; "Can you please play any OPM?"

Then I thought -- how about something by Zsa Zsa Padilla? It may have been the wine that night, but I honestly couldn't think of anything else to request, and I couldn't even think of a specific song. But somehow Zsa Zsa Padilla stuck in my head. Don't ask me why I thought of her. This was years ago, mind you, and perhaps she had been in the news a lot at that time, or had just come out with a hit song.

So I added on that same napkin: "(By Zsa Zsa Padilla)," and handed the napkin to the waiter to give to the band. Of course, I meant could they please play any OPM by Zsa Zsa Padillla.

At the band's break time, I saw the waiter hand over my napkin to one of the band members, who then read it.

Immediately her face lit up with a mixture of pleasure and surprise, and she looked out at the large and darkened audience as if she was searching for someone. Then she whispered something to her bandmates, who then also suddenly looked similarly overjoyed and they all gazed out again at the audience as if they were searching for someone. I assumed they were all happily surprised to learn there was a Filipino in the audience, in this little Malaysian town, and this was the reason for their almost strange jubilant reaction. This was before the launch of all these budget airlines, so it was not very easy to move around, the way it is now, and it was much harder to find Filipino tourists off the beaten track.

Just before the second set was about to start, the lead singer went up to the microphone with a big smile on her face. She then proudly announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, we are so proud and honored to announce that one of the top singers in the Philippines is now sitting in this very audience, and we ourselves are such big fans: Ms Zsa Zsa Padilla!"

This was followed by the lights brightening and some dramatic drum rolling by the Filipino drummer.

Some of the people around me had seen me giving the paper napkin to the waiter, and so they started to scrutinize me with interest and clap. Pretty soon everyone else started to clap too.

How did this story end? I'll leave it to your imagination for now....or perhaps I'll write about it in a future issue of Travelife Magazine. In the meantime, we would so appreciate it if you get your copy of our holiday issue at the bookstore today -- it's one of our best ones to date!


Friday, January 8, 2010

Designer Rafe Totengco joins Travelife

Rafe is now Travelife's new Global Editor at Large

After years of traveling the world searching for inspirations for his handbag and shoe collections, internationally-acclaimed Filipino-American designer Rafe Totengco has decided to record and share his travel experiences via a regular column in Travelife Magazine, the Philippines’ leading travel & lifestyle publication. Rafe joins Travelife as Global Editor at Large, and his first column will appear in the February-March 2010 issue.

“We are pleased and honored that Rafe Totengco, one of the most successful Filipinos in the international fashion scene today, has accepted our invitation to join Travelife as Global Editor at Large,” said Travelife Publisher Christine Cunanan. “We believe that Rafe’s writings about his wonderful and stylish adventures all over the world, combined with his wit, humor and eye for perfection and detail, will be an endless source of enjoyment and information for Travelife’s readers.”

Rafe launched his namesake handbag collection in New York in 1995. Since then the Rafe brand has grown to include women’s handbags, shoes and small leather goods. Known for its balance of fashion and function, Rafe blends uptown sophistication with downtown edge while remaining classic enough to be worn for many seasons to come. Over the years, Rafe has become one of the most acclaimed of a new generation of American designers. Today he is President and Creative Director of Rafe New York, which is nearing its 10th anniversary.


In 1989, Rafe left a successful clothing business he started in Manila to pursue his dream of a career in fashion design in the Big Apple. He moved to New York, enrolled in FIT, and supported himself as a design assistant. In 1994, he produced his first collection of accessories: belts and watchbands for a SoHo boutique which sold out instantly. When the shop asked him if he had handbags to go with the items, he enthusiastically said "yes" even though he didn't have a single bag made yet. One year later, the first collection of Rafe New York handbags debuted Bergdorf Goodman's uptown. In 1995 Rafe worked out of his apartment with one assistant making bags and belts in a few of the last holdout factories in Manhattan’s garment district. In order to grow business, to sell Rafe personally made cold calls and brought his collection to stores. By 1999 with a small infusion of cash and help from family and friends to he was able to expand to over 60 department and specialty stores worldwide.

Rafe Totengco is a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).

He has been recognized in his field wih numerous honors including:

Gen Art Foundation, 1996

ENK International, Fall 1997

CFDA, 1999

Fashion Group International, 2000

Accessories Council, 2001

TOYM (Ten Outstanding Young Men)
Philippine Jaycees, 2002, awarded by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo

Filipinas Magazine, 2005

Asian Enterprise Magazine, 2007


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A New York (Short) Story

The original version, written by Travelife's Frequent Flier, first appeared in the New York Times in April 1997.

My friends and I had drinks at a Manhattan piano bar one evening while on holiday in New York. The piano player was extremely skillful so I decided to request my favorite Michel Legrand song. It was not the sort of place where one would normally make song requests but I decided to give it a try, as nothing makes me happier than hearing my favorite songs while on a wonderful night out with friends. I took out a pen, reached for a paper napkin and simply wrote down the song title, ''What are you doing the rest of your life?''

''Could you give this to the pianist?'' I asked the waiter, who delivered the note during the break.

When the pianist returned from his break, he glanced at our table, and then smiled and winked at me. I read this as a sign that he would be playing my song next.

A few moments later, the waiter returned to our table with a grin on his face.

''Ben says he's busy tonight,'' he told me. ''But if you're free next Tuesday night he knows a nice little spaghetti place not too far from here.''


Click on this link to hear the song "What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life" by Michel Legrand.


Sunday, January 3, 2010

Around the World in 60 Days

At the end of an epic trip, there is no place like home

To celebrate an early retirement from a long career in a financial firm, my husband and I last year planned a world trip that included some favorite places and also a handful of exotic new ones. It was to be the last word in passionate travel, this amazing 60 day journey that circumnavigated the globe by air, land and sea. We had stays in several lovely hotels and apartments, a river cruise down the Rhine from Basel to Amsterdam and a hundred new friends along with this, some memorable plays and concerts in London and New York, parties in five different cities, a bit of shopping indulgence in Strasbourg, very long lunches accompanied by too many bottles of burgundy in Paris, an emergency hospital stay in Delhi, and even a seat next to music superstar Fergie on the 14-hour flight from New York to Tokyo.

The trip began, quite appropriately, with a lavish feast in Delhi hosted by an IT mogul for my husband and his eight investor friends from Japan on the first evening of our world trip. The sprawling estate in the outskirts of the city came with its own gigantic Japanese tea house and carp pond, which served as the backdrop for a private Indian cultural show featuring songs and dances from every region for ten guests. After the show, we were led to an adjoining garden the size of a football field, where the mogul and his friends waited and makeshift booths were set up as in a carnival, this time with chefs showcasing the delicious foods of different regions. It was quite an extravagant spectacle for ten visitors.

Next morning, this same mogul trotted out two private jets to fly our group to the state of Bihar, the poorest state in India, for a quick visit to the ruins of Nalanda University (5th century B.C.), one of the oldest universities in the world. The local government had arranged a welcoming committee of hundreds of villagers, who swarmed around each foreign visitor with overwhelming friendliness like followers of a demi-god. My husband counts this experience, along with a stay at the now rather infamous Taj Hotel in Mumbai, as one of the highlights of his trip.

In Mumbai, we were fortunate to meet one of India's famous movie directors at a dinner one evening, and he introduced us to his Bollywood world. Almost every evening in Mumbai after that fateful meeting involved a late night dinner and drinks session at some trendy Mumbai hangout with this famous director and his coterie of (incredibly beautiful) actresses and models. As you can imagine, the nine guys in our group of ten were all eyes and quite happy about this -- for some reason, I was always the one who wanted to go home early.

Fast forward to Paris some weeks later, where we were joined by Jojo and Fides, good friends from Manila, for a Paris holiday centered on a series of unforgettable meals. For our eight days together in an antique-filled apartment along the Avenue George V that had a marvelous view of the Tour Eiffel and an airy kitchen that faced the Four Seasons, we took turns choosing restaurants but also enjoyed visiting the local market on Avenue President Wilson to buy fresh food for cozy dinners at home. Perhaps it’s the quality of the produce, but even a simple roast chicken stuffed with herbs or sole pan-fried in butter tasted like heaven.

One of the best and most enjoyable meals we four had on this particular trip (we enjoyed being together in Paris so much that just over three months later, we four returned to Paris for a longer stay -- and again more great food and wine) was courtesty of Jojo, who very kindly took us to the famous Tour D'Argent restaurant along the Seine River, one of the most romantic restaurants in Paris. I can still remember everything about that fabulous day when we had a lovely table facing the Notre Dame and Jojo generously ordered bottles and bottles of amazing wine. The Tour D'Argent has pretty good food, but it has perhaps the best cellar in all of Europe, with many bottles sleeping in their cave underneath the restaurant for decades, if not centuries -- and in optimal storage conditions. We ate and drank and toasted to every good thing imaginable for over four hours, ending our meal with some lovely cheeses from their cheese wagon, to go with the last of our wines.

Afterwards, we were all very tipsy, but we walked across the Seine via the Ile St Louis and made our way to the Marais for coffee and chocolate.

On Labor Day, we were still in Paris and we four were invited by my Parisian friends – a French architect, his American novelist wife Sarah and their sommelier-daughter Issy who had trained at La Pergola, one of Rome’s top restaurants -- to their charming home in the 7th arrondissement for a very authentic French meal of fresh white asparagus, roast cuts of beef and, again, just too much wine. We also met Peter, the daughter's boyfriend, who is known as a legendary wine expert in France, and this began a great friendship over food and wine. We didn't know then just how respected Peter was in France's wine world until we read about him in various books and websites that mentioned him in the same breath with Robert Parker. Also, a few months later the four of us were back in our favorite Paris again, and over lunch with him at the Michelin two-star Carre des Feuillants, we observed with amusement as the chef came out to greet Peter like royalty and how the sommelier quaked with pressure over his wine recommendations.

After France, we took a train to Basel, Switzerland to board a river boat that would take us down the Rhine from Switzerland to the Netherlands via Germany. It was our first time on a river boat, and it was certainly very different from being on a Silversea cruise ship, although equally enjoyable. For starters, the rooms, which were all the same in size, seemed unthinkably compact to us -- especially at the outset. Amazingly, we found space for our five pieces of luggage and all its contents in this closet of room, and actually lived happily here for over a week. River cruises, of course, don't have the same standard of luxury or amenities as the bigger sea ships -- but they have their own charm all the same. Because it's such a small ship, people are friendlier and the atmosphere is much more congenial. Also, river boats are able to stop anywhere along the way, in the quaintest of towns; and more often than not, the town and all its attractions are just a few steps away from the boat. This isn't the case with large cruise liners that often have to dock several miles from town because of their size, in the middle of nowhere, and then passengers just get bussed to the city center.

Up until this point, I'd been quite good about shopping, conscious of the fact that I should not buy stuff I would have to lug around the world for 60 days. So I only bought things I absolutely couldn't resist like a sari in Agra (which I wore to the Peninsula New Year's Eve party) and a Goyard travel bag in Paris, when Fides and I visited the Goyard shop along Fabourg St Honore. But during our boat's stopover in Strasbourg, I happened to pass by an Hermes shop while taking a morning walk, and they just happened to have a Birkin in my favorite size (30) and in the Hermes color Havanne, which is a mix of coffee and brown. I was taking all of an hour to decide whether to buy it or not, prancing between one mirror and another in the store with the bag in the crook of my elbow, when my husband became impatient waiting and finally said, "For goodness' sake, just buy it!" Well, that was all the push I needed to take out my credit card and leave the store with a large orange box -- a nice souvenir from our cruise.

Later, we spent two weeks in London, where we met up with friends at lunch and walked to the theater for a play or a musical almost every evening. London, of course, is expensive for any kind of entertainment. But with the help of, we were able to enjoy famous musicals, serious theater and experimental plays in the West End, and even a concert at the Royal Albert Hall (my favorite venue) for a fraction of normal prices. One Friday night, though, we hosted a cocktail party at our St. James apartment for friends new and old, including many we had not seen in years. The weather was unusually fine for London, and not a few of the guests stayed way past eleven o’clock having wine and cheese on our rooftop terrace overlooking St. James’ Palace.

Our final stop was New York, home to the best aged beef steaks in the world. Angelique, my best friend from college lives here with her Canadian husband, and our regular New York routine has always involved hosting a drinks party, seeing a play, driving out to the outlets for some retail therapy, and eating as many aged beef steaks as possible. For the latter, we try different restaurants but always seem to gravitate to one: Gallagher’s, an old and very New York restaurant that is Angelique's favorite in the theater district -- a large establishment with cozy interiors and snappy service that doesn’t really make you feel like returning, caricatures on the walls and some great aged rib-eye steaks that are grilled on the outside and all tenderness inside. Ageing beef is a tedious, complicated process rarely successful in Asia, so this is one indulgence I allow myself with gusto in New York. I almost always order a T-bone and bring half home to have with rice and Peter Luger steak sauce for breakfast the next morning.

From New York, we planned to visit Boston and to drive around Maine before returning to Asia. However, one day we woke up with similar feelings after almost two months of living in a suitcase (or rather, in five large suitcases...): Boston could wait till the next trip to the East Coast – whenever that would be. It was finally time to go home.

This originally appeared in the July-Aug 2008 issue of Travelife Magazine.