In Transit: Jakarta to Manila

I am writing this at Soekarno Hatta Airport in Jakarta waiting for Cebu Pacific counters to open. My flight is in four hours bound for Manila. For the first time in my not so young life, an airline counter is closed for check-in for an international flight (THAT’S IN FOUR HOURS).

Keeping my composure – or at least trying to by writing my thoughts down – I decided to look for a place where I can sit down and chill. I walked around looking for McDonald’s (what else) because they have cheap and good coffee. It does not exist in this airport so I settled for the next best thing: Starbucks Old Town White Coffee A&W. Another mystery to me: How can A&W exist in this place and not McDonald’s?

I went in anyway. I saw power outlets by their tables so that’s definitely a place to go. It had wifi too (but at this time of writing it’s not working). Like any A&W, it came in stark brown and orange theme, with the rootbeer float on display. Unlike any other A&W outlets (in MNL anyway), the bear mascot is still there! Flashback to 1994 when I was seven and I popped my root beer float cherry – that bear was a witness to it.

What I’m saying is, this joint is a freaking time warp. The place feels like it’s stuck in the late 90’s or mid 00’s the latest. It’s ancient and worn but it’s clean and, well, friendly. Too friendly in fact that it doesn’t care almost. I like that. I like places that give customers independence and that is rare in Asia.

Too many a commercial establishment have that badger of a staff constantly staring at you and asking if you’re all right. I don’t like that, although I know the management means well, like trying to force a slave on you, but man I see it as invasion of privacy.

So I’m back here, charging my phone, writing this down and just… watching.

The default hairstyle of flight attendants are French Twists. They don’t give out spoons and forks here, which is weird for me. On my part I ordered myself root beer (in honor of the memory that is A&W), brownies and perkedel – which turned out to be the Indonesian version of bubble and squeak/potato croquette, which doesn’t really need cutlery for me – but I got served spoons, or plastic hooks which resemble spoons. Innovative product design perhaps, but it kinda reminds me of the stool collection sampling tool you get at the lab.

The rest of the population in the midst is ordering fried chicken and rice. Everyone is eating by hand. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not by any means squeamish but I am a bit culture shocked. It’s so different. Back at home – you can only eat by hand at home. I get two spoons for scooping out my float and brownies (the bigger spoon on the picture is for the drink – I’m spooning a drink and I can’t fork the cake) but… no spoon and fork for… a proper meal. It’s cool though. Again, product design. Their rice is packed in a paper pocket, like a sandwich so that you won’t have any problems with grains sticking on your fingers. The rice is shaped like a burger bun so you actually bite into it like a burger. The chicken, well, is still a chicken and will forever be finger food. I’ll only comment if they will give out sticks to pick french fries with (which I saw in the school I’m working for – WTF).

I see promotional posters that say “True Love Comes In Pair” for the brownies. Shame how one letter can change the whole feel of an international brand, but oh well, remember remember – it’s not their first language so don’t judge.

Okay let’s go to set meals. The Good Friends Meal is for 4 people with 4 pieces of rice, 4 glasses of drinks and 8 pieces of chicken with 2 desserts. 2 desserts and 8 pieces of chicken. Hm. The Good Family Meal, arguably for the family, comes with “9 Chicken”. No rice, no dessert, no drinks, just 9 Chicken. I don’t know about you but their promotion guy is a bit funky in my opinion.

But after that’s all said and done, I have to say: it’s nice here. It’s not the perfect place that’s for sure but it’s real and that’s what matters. It gives great food (tell you what: root beer and fresh brownies – what can go wrong?), snappy and smiley service, and clean surroundings. For a place that serves people who are tired, anxious, jetlagged and fucked over by plane companies, this place gives out the comfort that travelers need.

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Acquiring A Schengen Visa: Proof of Financial Capability Part 1, Funds Transfer

Getting a Schengen Visa is not a walk in the park. It involves serious strategic planning for those not coming from US, UK, Canada, NZ/Aus, especially if you don’t have a residence permit in Indonesia (but working) — meaning you can’t have a bank account.

Now Schengen requirements state that I have to have proof of financial capability to show that you can support yourself while in the EU (for Spain you would need €64, 53/day times the total duration of the stay times the total of the applicants. The total is €580, 77 per person for the duration of less than 9 days [data from Spanish embassy]; for Portugal it’s €40.00 per day plus €75.00 per entry into the country [data from Portuguese embassy]). Bank statements must show the name and address of owner(s). Electronic printouts are accepted; proof of regular income, e.g. pay slips of the last three months;. ! That means payslips (check), bank transaction slips (no banking activity here, so nope), OR bank certificates (nope). I’m screwed, but not royally. I have an active bank account in the Philippines so hey, I’ll wire my money there! Ha, but I can’t have a bank certificate because the bank needs my “personal appearance” in order to do it and also logistically, I can’t withdraw my money because my debit card is expired.

What do I do? Go bank to where the banks are: Philippines. I’ll do that next week, hoooray! Progress for my Schengen Visa!

I had 40 million Rupiahs this morning. I don’t want to [physically] carry it to me to the because: a) it’s too risky (what if my bag got lost, what if someone picked my pocket, what if what if what if!), b) it’s too bulky c) I don’t know if Philippine Foreign Exchange Counters would have a favorable exchange rate for the Rupiah; I know we had a hard time exchanging the currency in Thailand. And I’m sure black markets who have a really good rate for these kinds of transactions, won’t have the Rupiah exchange readily available.

I was also thinking of just bringing cash to Sokarno Hatta International Airport and have the Currency Exchange Counter there exchange my bills, but I doubt if they will welcome my Rp 40M transaction. Maybe they will, I don’t know, but I don’t want to risk it because I only have 4 days in the Philippines and I don’t want to waste any time on doubts, second thoughts. and Rupiah-Dollar-Peso hunting in case the airport guy tells me I can only exchange Rp 10M for the day. I want to arrive with all my papers ready to sign and cards waiting to be picked up (heads up to UnionBank for excellent customer service, I have been transacting business with my banker globally via iMessage, I highly recommend it).

So what I thought was to wire money to my account. I went to the bank here, BCA, which was conveniently located in front of my grocery shopping mecca. I messaged my banker in the Philippines. She said she was in a meeting and will get back to me later. So I messaged my mother (second time today, the first time was I told her I was resting because I was having a weird, flu-like attack and she told me to go out and finish this bank business “it would do you well not to think you’re ill”, she said) telling her that I need to know the details of her bank account so that she can be my dummy in this whole affair.

Now I’d like to think I know banking, money and how the commerce works. I have been signing checks, checking SWIFT codes, wiring money and negotiating (impossible rates lol) with banks and tellers for my parents ever since they decided I can do so, and that was when I was 16. So ten years experience with tough Philippine banking under my belt gives me confidence to saunter and make my chaching speeches in banks (given they speak English).

So mother. Dummy. Clearing time for international wiring for the Philippines takes 2-4 days because it’s a “slow country” (Thailand isn’t a slow country so it’s instant, that’s why I love it there) by international banking classification. I timed it, today is actually an opportune time for me to transact the wire, as it can be received on Friday and they can wire it to my name via Western Union on Monday morning when I arrive Manila. I can then withdraw the money from Western Union from China Bank (next door to UnionBank in The Fort), and deposit it to my account; have my banker furnish me my bank certificate, boom. Part one of banking journey done!

My mother denied my request. She told me not to use her account because “it’s from Bank of the Philippine Islands”, meaning it would take 1 week for the bank to clear it because they don’t have any international partners except Wells Fargo, so it would use at least 3 banks to process the wire, meaning it will cost time and money. What a crappy diplomatic system this bank has. So I told my mother “screw it, I’ll Western Union this to myself!” and she replied, “Isn’t that money laundering?!”

Fucking hell, who launders Rp 40M?! Really??

But of course, respect for my mama wins, and she makes sense, I don’t wanna get jailed for money laundering too, over Rp 40M, just play it safe, I told myself.

She suggested to wire it to her, I’m like okay cool, but I have to pay Rp 750,000 so I have to readjust my budget. Wait. So while recomputing my budget (I tend to be very organized with the ins and outs of my money and be pretty strict about it), she messaged, “can’t you just bring in cash? I’m sure the customs won’t look at you, you don’t have $10,000 anyway” and $10, 000 is the maximum hand carry-able cash you can have to enter (I think) ANY country. And I told her my worries about the Rupiah – Peso conversion hunt which I don’t really have time to be concerned about.

Then chaching moment! I thought of a solution that was GLARING. SIMPLE. SMART. EFFICIENT.

It reminded me of A’s story about how the Native Americans didn’t see the ships of Europeans getting near the shore because they are not expecting to see it there.

Me: “Ma, I’ll just buy US dollars.”

Ma: “Yeah, you better, it’s easier hahahahaha”

Me: “Puta! It’s that simple, I feel so stupid”

Ma: “Money matters and banking do that”

In the end, that’s what I did. And I earned! Instead of RP 12,930 that xe.com reported as the rate, I got Rp 13, 230 for $1 rate. Not that it greatly matters but I know that a cent counts in these kinds of transactions. They ended up rounding my Rupiahs to $3,000 and returning an excess of Rp 630, 000. I will encash that in the airport currency exchange kiosk when I get there. So I signed a ton of paperwork speaking sadikit of Bahasa Inggris, waited for at least thirty minutes and then boom. Got what I wanted. Happy days! Man I never felt so accomplished haha! It’s the little things.

Next step, Philippines.

Reasons Why I Love Thailand

One morning, I woke up up with a longing for Thailand. I don’t know why, but instead of getting homesick for the Philippines, I miss Thailand more.

I know Thailand has become a cliche for so many travelers, that if you are a “cool” one (read: hipster), you avoid it. True enough, Thailand is a magnet for backpackers and retirees. However, I had so many experiences in Thailand that has shaped me to who I am now. I have taken so much in terms of knowledge, and frankly, I think I have grown more in my nine months in that country compared to my sheltered twenty five years in my home country.

Why Thailand? It’s beautiful. Not physically, because it looks like the Philippines and they both look familiar, but the infrastructure: roads, internet (oh, internet), 7/11s, transportation, food – it’s really easy to live there. The culture? They don’t care about you, in fact, they turn their back to you when they know you can’t speak Thai. I thought that was rude at first but I adjusted to that. It’s soooo different to the Philippines where everyone would bend over for you to tend to your needs. I also find Buddhism refreshing at first because they weren’t as judgmental as Catholics. Oh and all the gold is pretty, even if your mind is telling you how outrageous it is to spend precious metal over monuments.

In Thailand, I learned how to live alone in a room without a fire exit thereby having me planning a fire escape route, with a landlady named Porn calling me at 6am to wake me up, and by 4 pm leave a bag of fruits on my door. I have buy food from the street (tricky for a vegetarian – so I learned a bit of Thai), open a bank account without actually speaking, move houses alone in a foreign country because the school didn’t help, travel locally in a different language (without interpreters at that – yay!).

I learned to live with my partner which was a welcome change from living alone but still a change nonetheless. I learned how to keep house (I need to improve on that) and with that I learned that small spaces are not easy to maintain because you tend to think, nah, it’s only small, easy to clean this – and never get around to doing it. I learned how to carry a microwave at the back of a motorbike because taxis didn’t exist in Hatyai and the tuktuks cost a lot for a 3 block drive. I learned to pack my life in two backpacks and needed to let go of unnecessary baggage, especially when you are traveling for a month in two countries. I learned how to move with a pack of visa runners, how fear of Thai immigration can bond a motley crew of foreigners begging their host country for a few more months to stay before the visa, and how quickly those bonds disintregrate when you get hold of your visa.

In Thailand I learned how to be patient, open and understanding. I had to be independent in more ways than I can imagine. I had to be dependent on my boyfriend when I thought I can do it alone. I appreciate living alone but enjoyed it with my partner. However, I know that I can’t live with anyone now, except him.

I have learned how my body works, especially with the lax Thai pharmaceutical laws. I didn’t have a medical insurance there but drugs and medicine were cheap and ubiquitous. I had WebMd on my fingertips, and the frustrated pharmacist just wants to give me what I want to send me away. I diagnosed myself and healed myself pretty well but the hormones I took for contraception didn’t work as expected. For a country that has a very sexy stereotype, I thought contraception was an easy part of life but hell, no.

I learned how I seem to appear to people, they think I am Thai. When Ash and I are together, they stare at us because I speak better English and they think: Thai? Not Thai? WTF?! Ash and I are pretty sure that they think we are a sex worker-sex tourist couple as well as with most Thai women – Western man stereotype. I had trouble with that at first but finally managed to say “fuck it, fuck them”. I have learned to communicate via charades and body language because of the language barrier. When words can’t say what I mean, I have to act what I mean then. It was tough but I had to do it.

I have learned my boyfriend’s love language, his little quirks, how his mind works in the wee hours of the morning, when he is jetlagged, when he is happy. I learned how to expect and not expect, how to talk to him and reach out. I have learned how to distance and give space and not be bothered about it (well, not as much as before). I learned that I enjoy him and his presence a lot that words are not enough for me to clearly paint the picture to you. I learned that it’s a different ball game when you’re apart and when you’re with each other. I learned to travel with him and found it very intimate because traveling strips you down to your core and it is during those moments of magic happen as you share your discoveries.

Thailand is very special to me. I can say that it’s my mentor. It challenges me A LOT and it’s not easy, but like a best friend, it will give you a good time through bad times. So cheers, and  kop kun kaa.

Happy Valen — Chinese New Year (Or How Asia Screws Up My Holidays)

Last night, I had cereal for dinner. Now that’s not bad, in fact, that was a norm once upon a time. But I’m really trying to have a healthy and balanced diet these days so a bowl of Rice Krispies doesn’t really cut it. I had to shop for food.

I got stoked because it’s Valentine’s Day! In my world, Valentine’s Day means Valentine’s Day Sales, and that includes food, particularly chocolate. It’s treat time for me. I don’t care for flowers or candle-lit dinners… I’m more practical. With Ash and I, we spent our last Valentine’s together on a beach in Thailand eating falafels for 60 Baht. It was the greatest Valentine’s Day ever. (Then again everyday together for us is like Valentines lol)

The point is, for me, Valentine’s is a normal day with awesome sales that you’re supposed to give to your partner. Well, screw that, I’ll buy those stuff for myself. They’re nice, especially the food. Heart boxes of Ferrero Rocher for half the price! McVitie’s dark chocolate digestives on a buy one take one! Gimme some of that!

So I woke up in the morning, cleaned the house, and it was time for food shopping! Ack! I went to the shop. I opened the door. I saw red and they weren’t love hearts.

Oranges. Stacks of them.  In boxes. My world went “whaaaaat?” My sweet dreams — crushed by reality called Chinese New Year. No more sales. So I moved slowly across the aisles, wondering about how different I am to the rest of these people. My reality isn’t compatible to this. I want love hearts instead of red, round lanterns. This is false. I expected to see roses, chocolates and jewelry along the shopping arcades, not dragons.

I felt really fragmented then. You see, I’m Asian. I’m Filipino. I should belong to this reality because, well, Chinese New Year is Asian; but no, I felt super alienated.

Chinese New Year isn’t new to me, we celebrate it in the Philippines by having token promos for it in shops, like buy one take one on luxury rice cakes, and maybe one section of the shop decorated in red and gold with angpaos and dragons. I’m part Chinese as well, but back at home, it’s Valentines that paints the town red. News programs don’t report news at this time, instead they run news features on how to spend valentine’s day if you’re on a budget.

I know should not impose my culture on another country but I fully expected that Valentine’s, like Christmas, is omnipotent. In Indonesia as well, where there is a lot of Catholics – I work in a Catholic school for Chrissake (then again it’s not run by nuns or priests which is kind of a no-no in the Philippines. Hm. Culture).

In my utter disappointment, I wandered to the local fruit section marveling at their weirdness thinking, hey these weird fruits belong to my circle of being strange. Instantly I thought, damn these strange fruits aren’t weird, they are the normal. Awkwaaaaaard.

I also asked myself – why is my notion of fruit apples, bananas and oranges – when they were all imported back in the Philippines (except for the banana of course). Why can’t atis be my mental image when I think of fruit. Guyabano. Chico. Buko!

Fragmented again.

These are those days where I don’t know how it means to be Filipino. Is it me, or are the rest of the Filipinos as fragmented as I am? I’m really confused. But, the good thing is, I know I can be an individual because I can’t define my social group. I’m happy with that because I have always been the weird kid since kindergarten. I have my rules and live by them because the sense of individuality is the best gift you can give yourself.

Then I hear the ubiquitous “Gong xi gong xi gong xi a mis” song being played, then the next thing you know a dragon dance is being performed in the shop. I couldn’t even get a proper picture because people were enthusiastic for them blurring my shots. Everything stops in the shop. Can’t pay, can’t weigh. You have to watch. I did. It was nice. But I walked away from that party as soon as I can and entered another grocery. It was sedate, even with red lanterns all over it.

And the best part, Zero 7’s In The Waiting Line is playing. I belong here.

Top Ten Signs That You’re A Jaded Expat

Originally posted on Asia Pundits by smurfystew

10. You make top 10 lists about the correct and proper ways for expats to live their lives while abroad.

9. You rage post about how backwards and stupid the country you are living in is on Facebook and in forums late at night while you are drunk, and then quietly delete the posts without comment in the morning before a local sees how deeply disaffected you are with their country.

8. You have taught the same dreary English lessons so many times at this point that you could do it in your sleep, and you sometimes do.

7. You keep saying to your friends that in just a few more years you’ll be going home. The sad truth is that you’ve told that same tired tale for the last decade and you have made no effort to leave. The reality of the situation is that you are a sucker for pain and are far too addicted to the scene at this point to go anywhere, even if you really wanted to. If you give up now, it would be like admitting defeat and you would have to return home in shame, and you certainly wouldn’t want that now, would you?

6. You work ten hours a week and feel that you are overworked and underpaid.

5. You know that the cheapest place in town to get hammered is the convenience store and you make very good use of these during the summer months. You visit the local convenience store so much that the staff there know you as “the drunken foreigner”.

4. You dream of a vacation on a beach that is six months off, knowing full well that if you just endure six more months of self-imposed hell, a solid month of pleasure and debauchery outside of your host country will be coming your way. “Only six more months, baby! Thailand here we come!”

3.  You constantly bitch about how boring your host country is, yet, you never make any attempt to get out of your house, let alone the city you are living in, to see what the country actually has to offer.

2. You have written a memoir or are writing a memoir about your life abroad and you actually believe people give a shit enough to read about your boring life.

1. You trawl the Internet in a desperate attempt to find out whether you are indeed a jaded expat or not.

Bonus points if you have ever been arrested, gone through a divorce, lost it all, including your sanity, or had to flee under the cover of darkness to avoid some very bad shit that was about to come your way.

Anything we missed? Feel free to add your own signs and symptoms in the comments section below.