The cab ride

“Where did you arrive from?” The airport taxi driver asked me as we left the airport.

“Hong Kong,” I answered.

“I thought you came from Leyte,” he joked, “because your luggage is so light, like you have hardly any clothes.” And then, as if to explain himself: “I just came from Leyte, to get my mother. She lost everything. When you’re there, you look forward, left, right, behind you — you see nothing, only debris.

“She didn’t want to go with me,” he continued. “I said I would make her, even if I had to carry her. ‘Why will I go with you?’ she told me. ‘I have no extra panties, just the one I’m wearing.’ ‘I’ll buy you new ones,’ I said.”

We entered Makati. He is careful at every corner. “I only started driving cabs recently,” he explained. “The rules are different here in Makati. If the traffic cops catch you, the fine is so expensive. It’s one day’s profit, gone.”

We talked a little about politics, the traffic.

“I used to be a seaman,” he said. “I went around the world. The other seamen asked me why I could be away from my wife for so long. ‘I’m tired of women,’ I’d joke. ‘I’m into men now.'”

I laughed. “That must be tough, though, to be away from your family and not come home.”

“Six to eight months at a time, and yet you’re the one in the wrong,” he suddenly spat out, defensive. “My son is spoiled. He took the money I earned and didn’t share it with his mother. He’s an addict, you see. You’d see his hand shaking when he holds a cigarette, like it was weed. His mother just kept going out with her friends. I earned so much money as a seaman, for what? It all went to my son’s rehab. So I might as well come home and be near them. That’s why I drive cabs now.

“Life is okay,” he concluded as we arrived home. “Driving cabs is okay. It’s a quiet life. Steady. Simple. Life can be okay if you’re ambitious.”

I paid him the fare. It was at once expensive and not enough.

Baltic cruise: how to get around on your own

Exterior

Ted and I are going on a Baltic cruise this summer! It’s our first trip to Europe and also our first cruise together. We did a lot of research and planning for this trip, with information we found all over the web. I’ll be sharing our research here so future travelers will have an easier time.

To tour or not to tour?

Our Baltic cruise has eight ports of call, stopping in one city each day. The cruise offers official tours (they call them “shore excursions”) that you can book in advance. Tours cost an average of USD$100 per head; with eight stops, that’s already an additional $800! The big question we needed to answer before our trip was: should we pay for these tours or explore on our own? Here’s how we answered that question.

Make a list of what you want to see

Ted and I read through the official excursion list provided by the cruise line. This took a lot of time — the PDF was a whopping 93 pages long! The list highlighted the most popular attractions per city, and some that were off the beaten path.

From the list, I used Google Images to search for pictures of each attraction. It was easier for me to gauge my interest in a place by looking at a picture than reading about it. (If the place looked boring to me, it probably wouldn’t be more interesting in person — especially if I paid $100 for it!) From the pictures and the description in the PDF, I made my own list of must-see places and combined it with Ted’s.

Compute the cost

Now we needed to find out if going to those places on our own was cheaper than taking the official tour. Cheap doesn’t just mean money — it also means the time and effort it would take if we did it ourselves.

When computing the cost for an attraction, look for:

  • Entrance fees (and hours; compare it with the time your ship is docked)
  • Transportation fees
  • Places to eat in the area

The cost difference can be quite staggering. For example, in Aarhus, the ship’s tour for the Den Gamle By Museum costs $130. But if we went ourselves, the entrance fee would only be $19!

Of course, tours are expensive because of everything else you get: the convenience of having pre-arranged transportation, a tour guide, and sometimes food. The most important thing you pay for is peace of mind — if you’re on an official tour, the cruise ship knows where you are, and will wait for you at port if you get delayed or lost. If you tour on your own, the ship will leave you if you don’t make it back in time. For many people, that sense of security is worth $100.

When computing cost, think of what you’re willing to pay for — the hassle might be worth the extra bucks. In our case, we decided to pay for tours in two places only:

  • St. Petersburg, because we won’t need Russian visas if we take official tours
  • Stockholm, because Ted wants to see the Ice Bar and it’ll only open in the morning for tours

For all other ports of call, we’re going to explore on our own.

Plan transportation

The next thing to figure out was how to get around without a tour bus. For that, I went to the forums — specifically Cruise Critic and TripAdvisor. Forums were treasure troves of practical information, with numerous posts from people with the same questions I had. I also looked at each city’s official transport site, which tells you where to buy tickets, how much the fare is, etc. (While I usually love using journey planners, they weren’t that useful to me this time because not all the sites were in English.)

When writing down transportation notes, be as practical and specific as possible. You won’t have the luxury of getting lost — you have to make it back to the ship on time! For every city, I wrote down:

  • How to get to the station from the pier (note that different cruise lines might use different piers)
  • The exact name of the train, bus, or ferry to take, and its direction (not just the name of the stop)
  • How much the fare would cost and where to buy it
  • The first and last departure times, how long the trip would take, and the frequency in between arrivals

I also made separate instructions for the return trip, because all the names and directions would change. I’m not relying on memory for this one, as non-English words will probably not stick in my head (can anyone say Hauptbahnhof?).

Look for tourist passes

I made a wonderful discovery while researching on transportation: some cities offered tourist passes. These are special cards that give free unlimited public transportation (and entrance to attractions) for a specific period of time (e.g. 24 hours). We used one in Hong Kong that gave unlimited subway rides for three days, and I was pleased to find several places in Europe had them, too. If you go to a city’s official website, you can find out if they have a tourist pass and where to buy them.

To compute if the pass is worth it, add up all your entrance fees from your list of must-sees + all the buses, subways, and trains you need to take to get there. Chances are, the pass is still cheaper. Plus, you don’t have to worry about buying tickets for each place — just swipe your card and go.

We’re buying tourist passes in Oslo, Tallinn, and Helsinki. Hooray!

Look for hop-on, hop-off buses

Another discovery I found was that some cities had hop-on, hop-off (HOHO) buses. It’s a tourist bus that loops around the popular tourist destinations, and for a fixed price you can hop on and off at any stop in the loop. While nothing screams “tourist” than a HOHO bus, you really can’t beat its convenience — you can cover several sights easily, and it might even stop at the pier, which means you can always find your way back!

We’re taking the HOHO bus in Tallinn and Helsinki (it’s a tram there, not a bus). Bonus: our tourist passes cover the HOHO ticket, too.

Learn from other travelers
I’ve found that the best tourist information you can get is from people who’ve actually been there. They might be tourists, cruise aficionados, or actual locals. First-hand experiences make better reading, as they will tell you what it’s really like to explore a place on foot (is the walk uphill on a cobblestone street? is it easy to get lost? what’s the weather like? etc).

Some travelers even post do-it-yourself walking tours so you can enjoy the benefits of a tour guide without the hefty price. I found a great site called Istopoli that has walking maps for some ports of call. There are tons of more information on the forums if you look hard enough.

Sea trail

Weighing it all in

Everyone likes to travel differently, and it’s up to you how DIY you want to do it, or if you’d rather pay for a tour that takes care of everything. I’ve been on a cruise before, and had almost missed the ship in Rome when we explored on our own. (I have a clear memory of gulping down a pizza slice while running to the ship’s bus that was about to leave. The people on the bus burst into applause. It makes for a good story, but I’d rather not have the stress if I can help it 🙂 )

I’ll post our research per port once we’ve actually been there and confirmed the information. Until then, thanks a lot for reading!

Hotel Vicente, Davao City

Hotel Vicente - The facade

The Calma side of our family (my mom and her nine siblings) have opened a boutique hotel in Davao City, Philippines. It’s called Hotel Vicente, named after their father (my grandfather), and is built on the land where their old house once stood.

Hotel Vicente - Lobby

It feels more like a house than a hotel; it’s cozy and comfortable, and very Filipino-Spanish. At first glance, everything might look shiny and new, but for my mom, aunts, and uncles, it really does feel like home. That’s because parts of their old house were saved and incorporated into the furnishings of the hotel. Doors, banisters, wooden beams, even a sitting rock that my grandfather used to sit on — they were lovingly planned and refurbished into Hotel Vicente’s decor.

Hotel Vicente - Old doors Hotel Vicente - Stairs Hotel Vicente - Old door

(All of these were from the old house!)

Unfortunately, I never met my grandfather. He passed away before I was born, and I have no memories of him or the house the way my older cousins do. This hotel is the closest that I have to my family’s history, and it was amazing to walk around the hotel as my aunts and uncles pointed out things and reminisced about their childhood. “This is where the girls slept — this used to be the kitchen — this is where the boys would fight,” etc.

Hotel Vicente also has its own restaurant and bar called Cristobal, named after my grandmother, who is turning 94 years old and now resides in Davao. Before she moved, I would see her during the holidays, where she would beam with pride if asked how she raised her 10 children in the province. She and my grandfather somehow managed to put all 10 children through college and into very distinct, successful careers – dentist, doctor, engineers, executives, entrepreneurs, I.T…. All of these careers eventually culminated in a hotel that was designed, built, decorated, and managed by the 10 Calma siblings. How 10 siblings can all get along is beyond me, let alone build a hotel together! When I walked around Hotel Vicente, I couldn’t help but feel immensely proud of what they had achieved.

Hotel Vicente - Room Hotel Vicente - Room

Hotel Vicente is along F. Torres Street in Davao City, Philippines. We’ve already had some guests stay with us and we’d love for more people to come and tell us what they think. To book, you can call Hotel Vicente at +63-82-295-7053 or +63-82-295-7393 or e-mail them at hotelvicentedavao [at] gmail [dot] com. If you have questions, you can ask them here and I’ll pass them along. I hope more people can come and see it; hopefully, you’ll feel the warm, familial love that serves as the foundation of our hotel. Thanks!

Early reviews of Hotel Vicente:

Hotel VIcente Room RatesRoom rates

Hotel Vicente
Florentino Torres Street, Davao City 8000, Philippines
Phone: +(63 82) 295-7053; 295- 7393; Fax: +(63 82) 295- 7383
info@hotelvicentedavao.com
http://www.hotelvicentedavao.com/

More on traveling (and two of my favorite travel videos)

MOVE from Rick Mereki on Vimeo.

I’m four weeks into my US trip. Before I left Manila, every person I’d run into (whether friend, acquaintance, or former student) would ask: “Are you leaving for good?”

“Stop trying to get rid of me!” I’d reply.

This trip’s been very quiet. In the years before this, whenever I’d travel, I’d _really_ travel. There would be adventures. I remember running through Rome stuffing a pizza into my face because there was no time for lunch, oh my god, the bus was about to leave. I remember finding my way home past midnight in Barcelona, in a bus, pushed against equally tired, equally sweaty people. I remember (okay, maybe I don’t remember) drunken nights in Austin. Watching my favorite band in Singapore. Avoiding the flea market sellers in Istanbul. Being quiet in the temples of Bali. At five years old, I remember being lost in the hills of a large park in London. (They found me eventually.)

This trip, in comparison, has been quiet. Domestic. I live in the suburbs. I cook, and wash the dishes. I read a book over lunch. I do an hour of yoga on the kitchen floor, since it’s the only uncarpeted part of the house. I hug my nephew a lot. I get slobbered on by the dog a lot. I play board games. I eat at my favorite restaurants.

Today, I walked into my favorite nail salon in Redwood City. The girl at the counter took one look at me and said, “Hi! It’s you! Long time no see!” She remembered me after a year. I love them.

Life is good; life is quiet. It’s not that I no longer have adventures. (I went to Casual Connect Seattle this year, and got home at 830 in the morning one night. It was great. I’m not doing that again.) It’s just that I feel myself slowing down. Work is always so intense that at the end of the day, I no longer have a burning desire to go out and party. Not as often, anyway. I want to keep seeing the world, but slowly, with enough time to breathe. I see (and value) the importance of home. Here in Redwood City, it almost feels like home.

I’m also dealing with real-world concerns now. You know, things like “relationships”, and “career”, and “Homeland Security”. (They detained me for an hour when I arrived in the U.S. because I stayed five months out of my perfectly legal six-month visa last year. “Just because you can do that doesn’t mean you should,” they said. I got the message: “You’re not welcome here”.)

Since I won’t be coming back to the U.S. for a while, I’m wondering where else I can go. Definitely Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in 2012. Maybe Hong Kong. Japan is still interesting. Europe? I’ve always been a type-A planner, but everything’s so hazy at this point that I can’t tell you where I’ll be. Maybe I’ll just let the world carry me around this time. If I get lost, someone please come find me.

Taipei (aka Blogging on the Road! Oooooh.)

20110710-094946.jpg

I am in a back corner of the Taoyuan International Airport, doing yoga stretches. Nobody here is minding me. Actually, there are very few people here.

The airport is full of stores. I have two hours left, but there is not much else to see. I’ve already sat for an hour in a little cafe named Iris (I chose it purely because i have an amazing coworker named Iris). ‘What is your specialty?’ I asked the girl behind the counter, and she pointed at the club sandwich. It was good, but it’s, you know, not Taiwanese. I did have bubble milk tea, which made me feel less like a sellout.

Most people here talk to me in Chinese by default, even the flight attendants on China Airlines. Do I look Chinese, or is it really only the Philippines that defaults to English?

Up ahead: a 12-hour flight to San Francisco. China Airlines has been all right so far. The attendants aren’t the friendliest in the world, but the in-flight entertainment makes up for it. (Your own TV with a gazillion movies, including all the fun stuff I’d only see on a plane: Red Riding Hood, 27 Dresses, and their current headliner, Beastly!)

/end stream of consciousness. I rarely blog now, but maybe with this WordPress App thingamajig, I will blog more.