Monday, June 5, 2017

Cuban Visa Application for Filipino Passports: To Cuba or Not to Cuba

Getting into Cuba

I have researched thoroughly about going to Cuba as Filipino Citizens; so Cuba has 2 kinds of entry requirements for tourists, 1 is the Tourist Card and other one is the Tourist Visa.

The Tourist Card is quite easy to get, you just need to pay USD50 when you buy the ticket and you pick up the tourist card at the boarding area before you fly to Cuba.

Image result for tourist card cuba
photo from www.howtotraveltocuba.com
Getting into Cuba as a Filipino

Now, Tourist Visa is a whole different story.  We are one of the 19 countries that is required by Cuba to secure a visa before entering their country.  We are: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, India, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka.  Honestly, I have no idea why we are part of this list, I didn't realize we do not have friendly relation with Cuba.

We do not have a Cuban Embassy in the Philippines.  We used to have one in Makati but during the Aquino administration, we closed down our Philippine Embassy in Havana, so they reciprocated.  So now, the Cuban Embassy in Malaysia has diplomatic jurisdiction over the Philippines; which means, visa applications must be sent to Malaysia.

sample Cuban Visa - thank you Ivan Man Dy
I emailed the Cuban Embassy in Malaysia and below are the list of requirements for A-1 Tourist Visa:

  1. Valid Passport with no less than 9 months remaining validity
  2. Photocopy in color of the passport
  3. Confirmed returned e-ticket with proof of purchase attached with e-payment/ invoice/ receipt from the tour agency
  4. Signed and completed application form
  5. 1 passport size photo 
  6. Confirmed hotel reservation in Cuba
  7. Letter from the bank of Financial Statement that proves the financial solvency of the applicant for the trip.

I'm attaching the file that I got from the embassy for more thorough instructions and requirements.

So I plan to stay in Cuba for about 5 days or so.  So to file for a visa, it will cost me RM262 and a non-personal application fee of RM119.  The exchange rate of Malaysian Ringgit to Philippine Peso is 11.57, which totals to PHP 4,572.

Not only that, we need to deposit it to their bank account so bank charge for transfer is about USD10, or PHP500.

Shipping of our passport, which is classified as non-document in FedEx costs PHP1,340 one way.  Then I will have to prepay the FedEx cost coming back from KL to Manila, which I am assuming around the same price, let's say PHP 1,500.

Not only do I have to book and PAY for ALL my hotel reservations, I have to show them proof of receipt and invoice for the plane ticket! Which means I cannot make a phony booking of my ticket.  This also does not guarantee that I get an approved visa (although I highly doubt my application will be rejected).

So in total, I would need to spend about PHP 7,912 just to get a Cuban visa to visit for 5 days.

To Cuba or Not To Cuba, that is the question.

I have a Filipino passport and have long accepted the fact that I would need to apply for visas whenever I travel.  I paid USD150 for my 10 year US Visa; paid EUR150 for my Schengen Visa (that lets me into 26 EU countries); paid nothing for my 1 year Korean visa, and PHP2000 for my 3-year Japan Visa.  So spending almost PHP8,000 for 5 days in Cuba is really too much for me.  I don't really know if it's worth it.

I have spoken to 2 different people personally that have been to Cuba using only a tourist card, also read the blog of Kach Medina of Two Monkeys who did the same.  But I also spoke with Ivan Man Dy and Ivan Henares who have been to Cuba and applied for a tourist visa!  Funnily enough though, they were stopped at the immigration because they have never seen a tourist visa before haha, I guess they don't have enough Filipino tourists to realize that we actually need a visa.

So, I'm gonna risk it!  I'm going to get a ticket from Miami and see if they let me in Cuba, if not then I'll just fly directly to Colombia!  Fingers crossed!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Cuba and South America, here I come!

I cannot believe how time flies by so fast.  The time for my solo travel has come again and I cannot be more excited!  Just to recap, I was in the USA and Mexico in 2013, then I was (just) in Europe in 2015!  It's been 2 years already?!

So this year, I am going to Cuba and South America!!!  I am so excited about this.  Ever since I came back from Mexico, I have been learning Spanish on my own.  I have been listening to audio books and watching a lot of Narcos on Netflix haha mainly learning how to swear better in Colombia.

Since my trip is about 3 months away, I really have to start preparing for my visa.  I am going to write about my Cuban Visa and Argentinian Visa experience too.

I will start my trip by going to USA with my sister Girlie.  We just booked our tickets yesterday.  Luckily, we have enough miles in our credit cards to get free flights!  We have finally decided that we're going back to NEW YORK!  (♪♫Concrete jungle where dreams are made of...♪♫) We will be spending a few days pigging out in NY and tax free shopping in New Jersey!  From there, we will be going to Miami (♪♫...welcome to Miami..♫♪).  We were big fans of the TV series Dexter, so it's gonna be fun being there; it is also a great introduction to the real Cuba!

Cuba!  It seems like everyone is scrambling to get to Cuba ASAP before its culture evolves in a different direction. Other than seeing the old architectures and cars, I am interested in their Chinatown (Barrio Chino de la Habana), there was a big migration of Chinese people to Cuba and I heard there are still signs that are in Chinese and a few stores left with Chinese merchants.

After Cuba, we will be heading to Colombia!  Visiting both Bogota and Medellin (and other cities for me).  We are big Netflix Narcos fans so we would like to see Barrio Pablo Escobar and also to see if all women in Colombia are as gorgeous as Sofia Vergara. haha

From Colombia, Girlie will be heading back North flying to Canada to visit our very good friend Zara; then I will head further South to Ecuador and find myself in the La Mitad del Mundo and Ecuador is also where Green Silo's quinoa is from!  It will be interesting for me to see a real quinoa plant and how they are grown in person, learn more about the business that I am in.

After Ecuador, is Peru!  The Haven of Gastronomy and I shall make sure to find the best restaurants and street foods I can find in Peru.  Funnily, while I was browsing thru Facebook while I was writing this blog, came across this video from Pero Like page.


I was introduced to Peruvian food by my friend Jules and if the food I tasted is half as good as it is in Peru, I will come back even fatter!  Peru doesn't just have the best food in South America, they have the Machu Picchu too and other amazing sceneries that I have only seen on Instagram.

After Peru is Bolivia, which according to Wanderlass is the best place to buy native woven embroidered stuff and where she was able to send a balikbayan box back home haha and I plan to do the same!  I bought the most beautiful and cheapest floral embroidered blouses back in Mexico and I regret not buying more because of my luggage restriction.

After Bolivia, is the magnificent Argentina.  It initially wasn't part of the plan because I would need to obtain a visa to enter, but I just cannot miss out the chance of going to Patagonia and go to the "end of the world".

Finally, I head to Brazil.  It is hard to see all of Brazil in just a few weeks, the whole country is too big!  Iguazu Falls is definitely in the itinerary, but I think just BEING in Brazil is enough excitement.

After squeezing in all these places in 3 months and a few days, all good things must come to an end.  If I follow this plan, then I should have 7 new countries under my belt.  So excited!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Day 3: Getting Tattooed by Elyang and Whang Od!

Read what happened yesterday.

Our day started early.  We woke up at 5:45AM to get ready, to pack our bags because we were heading to Sagada immediately after I finish getting tattooed.

I really had to make sure that I get a tattoo while in Buscalan, considering how hard it is to go up there.  While I was still in Manila, I was contemplating whether to get my tattoo from Apo Whang Od or from Grace (I didn't know of Elyang then).  I had to make a mental PRO/CON list to justify my decision.

Yes, Whang Od is the living legend, she IS the "last" mambabatok (tattooer), and it would definitely mean more; on the other hand, Whang Od is 95, she has less control of her strength, and I've heard stories from people about how painful it was to be tattooed by her, and how deep the wound is.  I am a very sicky person,  I just look healthy, but as my mom would always say, gawa sa papel de Japon (made of Japanese paper, easily torn). haha  So I was also afraid of getting sick while I was traveling, I would be such a party pooper.

The locals in the Buscalan Village joke about how hard Whang Od would hit the bamboo.  They compare the sound that of Grace and Elyang produce when they tattoo: tik tik tik tik tik tik tik... VS that of Whang Od: TOK TOK TOK TOK TOK TOK! hahaha  They'd tell stories how people would cry, and see how their skin will swell up and how the blood would flow out of the fresh wound (blood don't usually "flow" when you get tattooed, traditional or modern).

So when I've finally decided that I was gonna get my tattoo from Elyang, the locals were making fun of me that my tattoo would mean less if it didn't come from Whang Od but I have given them 3 really compelling reasons:

1.  It would hurt a lot less from Elyang.
2.  Elyang would eventually become old too (she is 17, haha)
3.  If Elyang decides to stop tattooing and pursue another career, my tattoo will become Limited Edition.

6:30AM, Elyang was up, she started preparing the hut to tattoo me, I showed her the design that I wanted, I have never seen this design on the internet before, which is why I chose it, and also it was the prettiest traditional pattern I saw on the "menu" board.  Mine was the "moon" apparently (I didn't think it looked like the moon, more like the sun haha) with a mix of honeycomb pattern.

There are a bunch of traditional designs to choose from: like the centipede, the crab, the eagle, the sun or the snake scales:
photo from iamkimsantiago.com
at the back, there are silly random designs people ask Whang Od to tattoo like mountains, skulls, ninja star, stick figures, and Baybayin (alibata).
I went to the hut before Zara and Geoffrey; Zara was so nice to cook me breakfast while I was getting tattooed.  

Elyang prepared the thorn, the ink paste, and the bamboo stick.  I showed her the design and the orientation how I wanted the tattoo to be;  I was glad that she corrected me and told me that it was inverted.
She uses plastic coke bottle cap as perfect circle stencil and twigs for lines.  She smears the stencils with ink and stamps it perfectly center on my back before she starts tapping away.  
The tattoo did not hurt as much as I expected.  I really cannot gauge since it's a new position.  I have a few other modern tattoos that varied in pain levels; so really it is quite hard to say that traditional hurt less than modern ones.  Did it hurt less because the part below the nape really hurts less than other parts of my spine?  or is Elyang more delicate?  Maybe it's the altitude too of getting a tattoo at 1,500m above sea level.  But the bottomline is, it didn't hurt that much.  Maybe a 6 out of 10.

It was a different story with Whang Od, after my beautiful tattoo was done by Elyang, I had Apo Whang Od tattoo her signature below the tattoo, it was a simple 3-dot design, like ellipsis.  The pain, 10 out of 10.


Here are a couple of videos I "made":



Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Day 2: Road to Buscalan

Read what happened yesterday

We woke up early to take a jeepney to Bontoc, which takes roughly 2 hours; and then from Bontoc you take another jeep to Tinglayan which is the town below Buscalan, that's another 2 hours.

When someone says 2 hours, I think, ok that's my drive from Quezon City to Makati, I can do that.  But then 2 hours is not really 2 hours, because when they say it leaves at 8:30, it means 10:00; Not that I prefer Manila traffic, but 2 hours in the jeepney is 2 hours of rigorous shaking, we felt like a bunch of over-shaken martinis.  When we arrived Bontoc, we were told the jeep would leave at 1PM, but only to find out that it was at 2PM, then when finally it was 2, we didn't leave until it was 2:30PM.

Several times we were offered to sit on the top load!  Seeing that we looked like travelers with our backpacks; I tell them, are you crazy? I'm too old for that shit haha maybe if I were 20 or something.  I'm not crazy enough to sit on top if there are available seats inside!

patienly waiting for 2PM
In the middle of all the waiting, I calculated the time of arrival: 2 hours from 2PM is 4PM, an hour of trekking, 5PM, it is impossible for me to stick with my original plan which was to come back to Bontoc after getting a tattoo.  I realized that it has taken the WHOLE morning, just to get to Buscalan.

Why did I want to come back to Bontoc?  It is because I was worried about spending the night at the mountains. haha I am such a city person.  I am not nature-y at all.  I have only camped once in my life, and I am uncomfortable without a clean toilet.  I have never been to Buscalan and I do not know what it is like there.  The last time I did "homestaying" was when I went to Antique with a bunch of friends.  I had a hard time because there were 16 of us crammed in 1 small house haha  the breeze that we expected to come at night, did not come and it was so hot; there was no electricity and a lot of mosquitoes.  I have been given some warning about Buscalan and that made me very worried.  But then I had no choice. My tour guide has already booked me a place in Buscalan, he reassured me that the place is nice and we get to have our own toilet.

It is very useful to hire a tour guide.  He  helped me book a spot to get a tattoo, gave me specific directions on where to go,  carried my backpack, arranged transportation upon our arrival, he also booked us a place to stay in Buscalan.  He also has alot of stories about history of the tribes.

The hike up the town of Buscalan was a relatively easier one compared to the trek towards Tappiya Falls; but for some reason, I got really dizzy and felt like puking after the climb; maybe it was altitude sickness or the steps were more steep.  but here I was 30 steps away, giving up.

I'm gonna stay here
Finally made it up!  Zara, Geoffrey (met him in the jeepney) and I were received by the host, asked us to relax and drink some coffee while they were preparing our room.


I was still a bit skeptical until they showed us our house for the night!  Oh the relief I had!  It was a beautiful house with hardwood floors.  It was spacious, clean, homey and the toilet was extremely clean.  I loved it.  I was also pleasantly surprised that they had electricity almost 24 hours a day.  Oh happy day!


Mambabatok
We rested for a half an hour until the guide took us to meet Elyang, one of the grandniece of Whang Od.  The other one is Grace, she was the first one that Whang Od taught how to tattoo, but she wasn't around when we arrived.  We also found out that Whang Od stops tattooing after 4 or 5PM.  She wakes up early so she needs to rest early too.

There were 2 other people in line for Elyang.  So we just ended up sitting around and chatted about Whang Od, how much the tattoo hurt, and which tattoo I was going to get.


Our tour guide assured me that he was gonna wake Elyang up at 6AM tomorrow so that I can be the first one she tattoos at 6:30AM.  I apologized to Elyang in advance but she was really friendly and nice about it!

Can't wait to get my tattoo tomorrow!

Day 1: Road to Batad

This year, I turn 33.  I've had my share of epic birthday parties when I was in my late 20s but for the past couple of years, I have been celebrating by being a couch potato.

This year, I went on this bucket-list trip I have been wanting to take for so long.  To go see the Banaue Rice Terraces!  Since I was already in the North, I decided to go check out Sagada and visit Whang Od, the oldest mambabatok (tattooer) in Kalinga.

I was lucky that my good friend Zara agreed to travel with me and celebrate my birthday journey with me!

Pakshet & Pakshet
So we started our trip by booking our bus tickets online!  I was pleasantly surprised that it was quite easy to book tickets online both for GV Florida Transport (to go to Banaue) and Coda Lines to come back to Manila (from Sagada); with that ready, I booked a hotel in Banaue for a night, which was the only night we were sure where we were going to be.

Our Day 0 started traveling from Manila to Banaue, the bus takes about 10 hours including stops.  The bus left Dangwa Terminal at 11:15PM (departure was supposed to be 10:45PM).  Luckily, the bus was not full so we were both able to stretch our legs and sit a bit more comfortably for the 9 hour bus ride.

I have already arranged a tour guide to come pick us up from the station who was going to bring us to see the Rice Terraces and go to the falls.  I had no idea where the falls was or what it looked like.  I just read that there was a certain fall that can be visited when you go to Batad.  I was like "ok!"

We arrived Banaue 7:30AM, checked in the hotel, took a shower, changed to fresh clothes and left at 9:00AM for Batad.  I found our tour guide Raffy on Facebook; he has 5 stars on his Facebook page and clients seem to rave about his services.  He was indeed friendly and a but was a bit of a crazy driver.

We followed him through the Batad Rice Terraces, which was of course, impressive!  I've always wanted to go see and
step on the rice terraces.  We were mindlessly following him towards to falls, not knowing that the trail was 2-hour long and we were already half way there!!!

If you know me, you know how lazy I am.  I don't exercise.  The only walking I do on a regular day is from my table to the toilet. We were an hour in towards the falls and the steep roads are starting to emerge and I realized it's too late to turn back.  It was so hot, I was out of breath, exhausted, in pain and thirsty.  The road was so steep, we needed walking stick to navigate the mountain.  After 2 and a half hours, with about 10 stops, we arrived to the majestic and grand Tappiya Waterfalls!


Tappiya Falls
me dying
Being there by the falls, I thought, oh the trek was worth it.  After an hour of chillin' and swimming in the refreshing cold water, it was time to go back.  It is already the rainy season so we had to make sure to be back before 4PM.  30 minutes into the trek back, I say, is this really worth it?! hahaha I was dying.


The walk back to our tricycle (at the top of the mountain) was less hard (read: NOT easier).  It always seems shorter on the way back, but still first day was a real struggle.  Pakshet (Zara) had an easier time since she's sort of a gym rat, she even managed to try out some "barbels" along the way.  The locals were surprised how strong she was, I boasted that she just won a competition lifting weights a few days ago! haha

Pakshet Palay Lifting!
The night ended early, we were both exhausted (me more than her), we had another early day tomorrow to go see Whang Od!