Tuesday, May 29, 2018

FAQ about Cuba

FAQs about Cuba based on my experience

1.  Is it really amazing in Cuba?

YES.  You don't just see Cuba, you feel it.

Salsa lesson

2. Is it expensive in Cuba?

YES.  Very very expensive.  Our first tourist trap dinner cost us USD65 for 2.  Other meals were USD20.  Cadillac rental is USD65 per hour.

3.  Is the food delicious?

NO.  If you really want good Cuban food, I'll say eat in Miami where all ingredients are available.

Avocado with CANNED tuna in a very recommended resto 
scary rubber pancake and waffles for USD 20 in fancy hotel

4.  Do you only spend in CUC?

YES and NO.  The usual misconception about CUC is that it's the money that tourists use.  CUC is basically anything that is expensive like food, hotels, car rentals; and CUP is used for smaller amounts.  Easiest way to explain is that CUcs are dollars and CUPs are cents.  Things sold to tourist are VERY expensive that is why you have no other choice but to spend CUCs, there is nothing you can buy in CUPs.

5.  Did you go to the beach in Cuba?

NO.  Since I am from the Philippines, being quite proud of the beaches in our country, I was more interested in the culture of the Cubans and seeing the sights of Havana.

6.  What was the best thing in Cuba?

The people.  They are so extremely friendly.  Especially looking very foreign walking in the streets of Havana, locals will just come and say hello to you, ask where you are from, ask if you dance salsa! haha  I never felt unsafe in Cuba but being new in the tourism you can expect some bogus prices.

We joined a tour we booked via Airbnb Experience (https://abnb.me/Ic0yaXgqjM) and it was the BEST tour I have ever been in my life.  It was so educational, so open, so intelligent and was very eye opening and a great way to learn about Cuba and the Cuban people.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Yellow Fever Vaccine in Manila

Yellow Fever Vaccine in Manila, Philippines

This is my excellent experience getting a Yellow Fever vaccine from the Bureau of Quarantine.  A requirement traveling to South America, specifically if you are going to Brazil.  Other countries such as Argentina would possibly ask for a vaccination if you have been to Brazil.

The whole process took me 11 minutes to complete from start to finish.  It was so refereshing to experience an efficient governement office whose aim is to serve the Filipino people, especially OFWs.  No red tapes, no hassle, no bullshit.  I was there 12nn and there was no lunch break!

Step 1 Get and Fill out the form

I went in, the guard by the entrance asks me what I need and if it's my first time.  I said first time, so I got 2 forms: Personal information sheet and waiver form asking you about your allergies, medications, if you have HIV, if you're pregnant, and other things that may affect you if you get a vaccination.  Also make sure to go with a full stomach.

Step 2 Get Vaccinated

The nurse verifies your waiver and injects you with the vaccination.  It is a very thick solution so it hurts when it gets into your blood stream.

Step 3 Pay

First time vaccination costs PHP 1500 pesos and good for a lifetime.

Sept 4 Wait for the Card

They will ask you to check if they have typed your name and birthdate correctly on the yellow card they will be issuing you, the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis.

That's it.

It takes 10 days for our body to produce antibodies and so the validation date of the certificate is valid 10 days after you get vaccined.  Whether or not you're going to get sick depends on the person.

Bureau Of Quarantine 
Local government office in Manila, Philippines
Address25th St Port Area, Ermita Brgy 653 Zone 68, Manila, 1000 Metro Manila
Open today · 8AM–5PM

Monday, June 5, 2017

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

UPDATE May 2018

I had so much fun in my trip that I totally forgot about my update on Cuba!  I've had 2 random people who found me on facebook asking me if I was let through Cuba haha.  For me it was like people trying to coerce Game of Thrones cast to find out who dies on the next episode haha

So here it is:  In August 21, 2017 I was in Miami Airport flying to Havana.  I paid USD 50 for the Tourist Card at the check-in (not boarding) counter of Delta.  I've read almost every blog about entering Cuba and found that it was much easier and cheaper to buy the Tourist Card with Delta.

Although Cuba Travel Card/Visa may be purchased in advance through American Airlines https://cubavisaservices.com/product/aa-visa-card/ for USD85.00, or for USD100.00 or on the day of departure at the departing hub airport from the Cuba Travel Services booths. Note that only cash (USD) and credit card are the only accepted forms of payment at the Cuba Ready booth.

In my opinion, there is no need to buy the Tourist Card in advance.  Why?  It is literally a piece of card where you fill in your information before you fly.  It does not need any sort of approval other than to check if the information you filled out is correct.  (You cannot make a mistake!  If you do, you need to buy another one)  Unless you are one of those OC people who needs to have all the documents ready beforehand, there is really no point to paying extra USD25 for it.

my actual tourist card, ticket and boarding pass

Entering Cuba

Entering Cuba emotionally ready to be deported, my sister and I were very nervous.  We put on make up, fixed our clothes, making sure that we looked presentable to the immigration officer.  Practicing Spanish in my head if I had to pretend that I didn't know I had to have a tourst VISA not a tourist CARD.  (Perdon, pero no se que necesito otra visa para visitar su pais...) haha

We fell in line for about 15minutes, greeted by the extremely friendly Cuban officer, "Hola! Buenos Dias!" She stamped our passports and said "Welcome to Cuba!"

Havana, 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":