Friday, November 28, 2008

i wish i could run away

I feel restless. Maybe it's the stress from my company's recession woes. Maybe it's travel bug. I want to do something different, or do nothing at all.

I'll be a hermit again for the long weekend.

* * * *

On top of all this, I miss good food. I want to eat authentic everything. Silly imitations just don't satisfy me.

The restaurants I've been going to lately have nothing to offer. I've tasted better.

So-so buffet at Dusit

Second plate, still unsatisfying

Too unsophisticated

* * * *

This discontent - maybe it's all chemical.

I'll run it off.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

overrated virtue

On January 16, 1991 when I was 10 years old and didn't like my scrawny, insecure self labeled stupid by my own father, the world was busy worrying about other things. The Gulf War started. Serial killer Aileen Wurnos admitted to killing six men. It rained in New York.

That same day, my favorite writer Kurt Vonnegut was busy answering questions for the Weekly Guardian. His replies to the otherwise dull interrogation were brilliant, of course, and you only have to read his works to see that in a thousand years, he will be to future humans what Descartes is to us.

"All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental."

* * * *

Anyway, I thought about how I would answer the questions thrown at him, for no practical reason except to see if my thoughts make as much sense on paper as they do in the socialist republic that is my head, where they go unopposed.

Q: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Traveling with one bag knowing I don't need anything else.

Q: What living person do you most admire?
Whoever invented the alarm clock. He/she put the world on schedule.

Q: What do you not like?
People who order nonfat latte.
Bad bed sheets.
Dogs in clothes.

Q: What is your favorite smell?
Leather seats of a luxury car. Good bread. MSP fresh from the shower. Don't make me choose.

Q: What is your favorite word?

Q: What is your least favorite word?
Maybe. (I need definite answers.)

Q: When were you happiest?
When I realized that my life is now all mine.

Q: How would you like to die?

Q: What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Patriotism. It starts wars.

* * * *

You? How would you answer these questions?

* * * *

This weekend, I intend to stay in and play dead as my muscles are still sore from yoga. Hibernating for a couple of days shouldn't be too hard now that I have unlimited internet and a full season of THE OFFICE. My refrigerator is stocked and there are two books waiting to be read. I'm already excited.

I am thankful for this city pad. When before it felt impersonal, now it feels safe. This passive investment really paid off; in fact, it kept my world together.

* * * *

I turned 45 last month. The math says I didn't, but it sure feels like I did. I've been through so much already; surely, I can't just be 28.

My life has always been on steroids. Among my friends (all of whom have above-average IQs), I was often first: The first to buy a car, to buy a house, to lose a parent. All these things eventually happen to everyone; they just happened to me sooner.

At 21, I did what a 27-year old does. I bought a car. I've had three since.

At 23, I did what a 30-year-old does. I bought a house. (Now, I don't even live there. It is empty, waiting for things to smoothen out so it could be put in the market.)

At 25, I did what a 35-year old does. I quit my job and built a company. (It's still a company until now, thank God.)

That year, I also lost my mom. It's the kind of loss that happens, on average, to people in their 40's; the kind of loss that leads humans to worry about their health and/or start to seize life. Me? I'm 15 years earlier than the norm. Sad, but at least it's over, right?

Henyway, so now, I'm 45.

By the time my friends are really 45 years old, I'll at least be 70, which was the age Confucius retired.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

panic mode

Okay, so I have lost 25%. Not even my diversification into bonds a few months ago was enough to cushion the sharp falls in the last few weeks. A few more slumps in the market and I might wake up one morning 30% poorer.

My risk appetite is on its last legs. Should I dump now and keep what's left of my money?

Only I seem to care

It seems many Pinoys have no clue how the recession can affect them.

Owners of companies have never been more aware of every centavo, that's for sure. However, many clueless employees (which outnumber worried businessmen) sit and stare at their computer monitors under the illusion that their jobs are secure.

People, if your boss sneezes, you could catch a cold. We should all be panicking more, you know.



Signs of the times

This week, major industries started to lay off employees.

Call centers are either cutting their seats (ACS) or posting huge losses (Convergys).

CitiGroup's Philippine unit, which is the biggest foreign bank in Manila, is set to "re-organize" its 4,000-strong workforce and ax those that they feel are not needed anymore.

Jollibee was among the top stock losers.

Etc, etc, etc.

All these can contribute to unemployment, which gives people less money to spend. This then affects many other industries which right now seem "safe" despite the recession. The property sector may see low sales / huge loan defaults. Service agencies (non-voice BPOs, advertising houses, back-end processors) will feel their clients' penny-pinching. Almost all companies across industries - food, medicine, basic and luxury goods, cable companies, telecoms, technology distributors, media - will see sales declines as their customers / their clients / their advertisers buy less and less.

Are you scared yet?

I am. But it could just be the coffee.

(I hope it's just the coffee).

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Hanoi taxi scam: A total rip-off

Most Hanoians are very friendly and kind, NO DOUBT. I loved Hanoi (as evidenced by my previous post). I would live there if I could. Cabbies there were generally courteous. However, there was this one taxi driver who ripped us off. Here he is:

He insisted that we pay $45 USD for a 5-miute ride.
There was no traffic. The destination (a famous temple) was in the middle of the city - it wasn't like he was never going to get passengers from where he dropped us off. The streets were mostly one-way causing him to drive a few miles more, but still. A 30-minute transfer to the airport (including toll fees for the highway) only costs $15. So why should we pay him 700,000 dong (roughly $45-$46) for a 5-minute ride? The meter said 70,000 dong, but he insisted that we pay 700,000.

The taxi name is Ha Noi Moi.

This kind of scam is prevalent, I later learned in this thread.

We argued for what seemed like 20 minutes to no avail. I couldn't find a policeman to help us out. To make the long story short, we just paid him the $45 he wanted. I had to channel my inner Dalai Lama and think positive thoughts. We could easily earn $45. Maybe he really needed money badly.

Still, "stealing" from helpless tourists is no way to make money.

This is not an isolated incident. Other tourists got ripped off, too. Read here.

So if you are planning to go to Hanoi, my suggestion is walk whenever you can. And if you have to take a taxi, make sure you only trust established 'official' chains like:

Hanoi Taxi
CP Taxi
Mai Linh Taxi

Sunday, November 02, 2008

back from outer space

The financial markets really took a nosedive two weeks ago. But there was no point in losing my mind while losing money, right? So I packed everything in the trusty overnighter bag and escaped.

Roughing it up

Les vacances was not very glamorous, I'm afraid. I had to leave my Prada loafers and Marc Jacobs clothes behind and decided to bring shirts and shoes that were not too precious, just in case my bag gets lost or stolen. That's how I travel – I get all my crappy stuff and live in them for the duration of the trip.

Can you believe I survived on just five shirts, two shorts, and a pair of pants? I brought handwashing detergent with me, so I just washed each piece before I went to sleep at night. They were dry after 24 hours or so. Don't worry – I think I managed to look presentable despite this backpacking stint. I wore my new Gucci sunglasses, and of course, I've always had Romanov cheekbones :)

Unglamorous as it was, the trip was really good for my soul. And my legs, which are a bit more toned now that they have walked a thousand miles. It was also good for my relationship with MSP. Being together 24/7 and making sure none of us died during the expeditions brought us closer than ever. My new tan is a bonus. I hope it lasts at least a month. (When you are Irish-pale like I am, this almost never happens).

So, where exactly did my unprecious Donna Karan rubber shoes bring me this time? Let's do a recap.

(NOTE: I'm too lazy to post a lot of pictures here. If you are my friend in real life, then you know where my Flickr account is. Go there and log in to see private pics with me in it.)

1. Around the city of Hanoi

And by AROUND, I mean ON FOOT. Hanoi is a pretty compact city, and navigating through all its quarters was not as hard as I thought it would be. There were ample sidewalks, and the autumn weather was pleasant. (It was still a little warm for me, but of course I am an Eskimo.)

Let me describe my typical Hanoi day.

Our semi-glamorous hotel was well located, and we always wake up to the view of one of Hanoi's many lakes. People here really take exercising seriously, and easily a hundred of them come to the lake to run or do aerobics starting 5:30 in the morning. The sound of their music was enough to wake me up.

After the generous buffet breakfast, MSP and I planned out our walking trips, where we would have lunch, etc. Our expeditions really brought us to unusual places. We saw some touristy spots, sure, but we also saw Hanoi's truly local jaunts.

Unlike sell-out cities such as Manila where you will find a pretentious Starbucks in every corner, Hanoi has retained its old-world culture. The people here are very proud of their heritage and seem to refuse neo-colonialism. All cafes are quaint and family-owned. The shophouses are very much like what you would find in old Paris, and are still run by local craftsmen. There are no high-rise buildings, and certainly no McDonald's. People just enjoy sitting on the sidewalk, swigging Saigon beer, and watching the day go by.

Fried crickets

Catfish rolls

A woman preparing street food

Of course, food was superb. It was so good that I didn't mind sitting on rickety stools of un-air-conditioned little restaurants just to get my fill of Bahn Cuon. Hanoians are very fond of eating out, and they do it unpretentiously. The Vietnamese Baguet (a French relic) that we got for about $1 at Lenin Park tastes wonderful – imagine really good bread stuffed with three kinds of thinly sliced pork and herbs.

Pho is still served in little ankle stools for breakfast. (I'm talking about real pho with murky soup, not the demystified version in chain Vietnamese restos you can find here.) You will see everyone from businessmen in suits to yuppies to local factory workers converging in knee-high tables, slurping the broth, thinly sliced beef, and rice noodles.

Thang Long Water Puppet

Our nights were reserved for seeking culture, whether it be watching a water puppet show or just sitting somewhere staring at people. We didn't mind doing this everyday. In fact, the whole Hanoian vacation went on like this: wake up at 5:30, eat breakfast, start walking, get lost in awe and translation, get lunch, start walking again, try a Hanoian snack, walk again, watch a play / sit out in the park to watch the sunset, have dinner, go back to hotel. We did this for almost a week and never grew tired of the routine. Best of all, we spent way less than $100 a day. Life in Hanoi is that cheap.

2. Halong Bay

I must say that Philippine beaches are still more beautiful, but Halong Bay (being a World Heritage Site) is also breathtaking. I actually enjoyed it – and that's unusual for someone who hates watter.

There were just three of us in the junk – MSP, me, and our new German friend Sabine, who travelled alone. We all enjoyed the seafood prepared by the ship's staff (a whole buffet table just for the three of us). We also liked staying out on the deck and getting some sun. MSP jumped in the middle of the bay for quick dip. He's a water person like that.

In the afternoon, the guide took us to one of the Halong Bay caves. Disappointing as it was (because they turned it into a museum complete with steps and lighting), the cave was still interesting, to say that least. Nothing compares to the “mini adventure” I had with Barry and Ennui in Malaysia, though. Now THAT was a real cave. The one we saw in Halong Bay was far too touristy for my taste.

Perhaps what really made the Halong trip special was how quickly we bonded with fellow traveller Sabine, who spoke good English with just the right touch of German (Ze cave is very crowzded...Ze water es purfect...I likez the dinners). Sabine was like a tourist attraction herself, as we learned so much about the alternative life from her. It will take abouz 9 hourz to gezt from Prague to Munich by train, she said to me while Googling the info on her Blackberry. You shouldz look at low-cozt flightz instead. It wouldz save you and your friendz time zend a few hundred euros.

Talking to this 39-year-old business consultant from Hamburg, I found that my 'ideal' life was not so strange, after all. Like me, she also didn't want kids. She loves to travel alone. She likes to unapologetically spend her money on herself (you can tell, because we have the same Gucci sunglasses). My childless, 'selfish,' citizen-of-the-world dream only sounds strange in the third world. To her, I'm pretty normal.

3. Singapore (pictures later)

MSP and I flew out to Singa Pura after about a week in Hanoi. Thank you, Vietnam Airlines, for the great cabin food. Your pilots also land very well.

Anyway, I have nothing much to say about the “Lion City” except that it looks like I built it. It is clean, organized, and about 70% air-conditioned. It's one big mall, or one big Makati CBD. Devoid of Hanoi's charm and culture, it was at least amusing in its own right.

One night , I sat in one of its many Starbucks outlets by myself as MSP went off to see his friends. Four hours passed and I didn't mind, as I had a lot of fun watching locals “run after” their self-imposed deadlines.

Singaporeans walk briskly, with a purpose. Those who walked alone always plugged their ears with iPods, and those who walked with companions can always be overheard saying phrases like “maximize profit margins” or “the latest Louis Vuitton bag.” It's this New-York-style materialism combined with commitment to work that makes Singapore, well, a miracle. It managed to attain first-world status in just a few decades. It must be doing something right.

Shopping was a bit disappointing, as some designer goods were way more expensive there than here. However, I did have a ball looking through the shops that you could not find in Manila, like Dior, Loewe, and Hermes, among others. There were also Japanese chains like Muji and of course, Royce. Potato Chip chocolate, you are finally mine.

What now?

Hanoi was truly fascinating. It's a cheap little 'escape' city – one I plan to go to on my own if I ever need to get away from everything. Perhaps I'll rent an apartment there for extended periods. I would spend my days wandering its streets and eating $1 rice crepes. I would sit out in the park, walk around the quarters. Ah, the life.

Singapore, on the other hand, I would not really miss. It is an expensive city, and the shopping is underwhelming. I will probably stick to my favorite Hong Kong when it's time to replenish the bag/shoe closet. Those who want to see Singapore are advised to only stay there for 4 days, tops. Any longer and you would run out of things to do. How many times can you really enjoy the cable car to Sentosa, right? Singapore is just another city and there's not much to see, unless you are really big on man-made infrastructures built 24/7 (they don't stop at night, as finishing early saves more money in the long run). Still, it's worth a visit. The efficient MRT system is truly impressive.

No place like home

The trip was a quick amusing moment of my life, but I am not ready to trade my life here. Maybe someday, but not today. “Home” may mean a condo unit in this pollution-ridden city; it may mean waking up to honking cars at 2am. It also means work, work, and more work. These are all true, and they are the reasons I escape once in a while.

But “home” also means comfort in familiarity. Here, I can get around without a map. My friends are one text message away. Here, I have my DVFs and Puccis. And if I ever crave Vietnamese food, I need not worry – my pad is 5 minutes from a Singapore-like mall, where they have Pho Hoa. Life is also good here.