The Visa Collector

A blog about travelling with a Filipino passport, and life overseas

Archives for US, California

The day the “Visa bulletin” no longer mattered


For the past few years, visits to the  US Department of State Visa Bulletin Website were a monthly ritual:

Through this site, the US government announced the cut-off dates for the visa and residency applications that would be processed the following month. These bulletins were posted on either the 7th or 15th, so on those days the first thing I did when I woke up was pickup my smartphone, and visit these sites. There were many disappointing mornings.

What you hoped to see was a “C”, short for “current”, beside your application category. That meant that there was no delay in processing and you could gauge your wait based on established timelines for your type of application. For the past four years, however, instead of a letter, I saw a date. The date represents the last application that would be handled. If the date was earlier than yours, that meant that your papers were still in a folder or shelf or somewhere . . . untouched. Better luck next month.

There was no discernible pattern for advancement of that date. I had a friend at work who was a math major, who was also waiting on his own papers, and actually tried to work out the trends, but to no avail. Months would go by with no change. On other times, the site visit felt like a bad Twilight Zone episode because the processing date would actually move backwards . . . sometimes several years backwards. Officially, the practice was called “retrogression”, and was supposedly part of how the US government managed immigration quotas. I just called it an out-of-body-experience.

All that changed on the 19th of June,  2011 when this came in the mail. Total wait time: 2,100 days . . . 5.75 years . . . over half a decade.

The package actually arrived on the 18th, but we were camping that day so didn’t see the package till we came back the day after.

To those still in visa bulletin hell, hang in there.

Jul 15, 2011

Seven seasons and counting


Last Monday, 2nd of May, I celebrated my seventh year in the US. Over half a decade ago, I flew from Taiwan — which had been my home for 3.5 years — to LAX in Los Angeles (an experience that triggered my distaste for that airport and its hassles), and then took a domestic flight to the San Jose airport. Back then it had only been my second trip to the US.

It was a lightning-fast move. The interval between the initial hint that I would be transferred to the US office, and receipt of the actual travel order to move was measured in days. My wife and I couldn’t believe it, and it rapidly became a lesson against procrastination. We had been putting off going around Taiwan, and visiting neighboring countries because we figured they’d always be around. Alas, easy access to all these places was history.

However, we can’t really complain about what we received in exchange for that loss of access:

Amusement parks in SoCal . . . crab-fishing in San Francisco bay . . . a GreyHound bus ride from Huntsville, Alabama to Atlanta, Georgia . . . a stroll in Central Park and in Brooklyn neighborhoods reminiscent of what you’d see on Sesame Street . . . crossing paths with a wild Bear in Juneau, Alaska . . . a submarine and helicopter ride in Maui, Hawaii . . . first DUKW tour in Boston harbor . . . a white-knuckle drive to a world-renowned observatory on top of Mt. Hamilton . . . cheap buffets off the Las Vegas strip . . . to-die-for Cioppino in Moss Landing, CA . . . first snowball . . . discovery of dry-aged steak . . . handpicking Cherries and Strawberries in the central California valley . . .

Can’t complain at all.

Looking forward to the coming seasons.

May 4, 2011

BattleLA: “Blackhawk Down” meets “Independence Day”


After a particularly tedious day at the office, I decided to blow off some steam at a theater in a half-dead mall that was close to the office. The movie was Battle: Los Angeles, an alien invasion movie set in Los Angeles, California.

I’d summarize the movie as “Blackhawk Down” meets “Independence Day”. It sure wasn’t frakk’n Skyline.

Like War of the Worlds, film makers brought the story down to the level of the individual by focusing on the struggle of a single squad of Marines assigned to a rescue mission. The invasion, therefore, was not seen from a objectifying strategic level, but from the jarhead’s perspective.

Whereas Jaws thrilled their audiences with a hidden fear beneath the surface of the water, the aliens of Battle LA were cloaked in fog. But visual impairment was the least our hapless heroes’ worries. The bipedal villains were inexplicably resilient to their weapons. If those challenges weren’t enough, drop in the detail of having the unit led by a 2nd Lieutenant that was fresh out of training, and backed up with a replacement Staff Sergeant that was rumored to have caused the deaths of the men in his previous unit.

The inexperienced-lieutenant scenario had been used in many movies before. Within the SciFi genre for example, we have the likes of Lieutenant Gorman from Aliens whose gaff not only caused the near total loss of his unit, it created the situation around which the movie centers. While the mental lock-up-under-fire is a predictable story element when a character like this is introduced, the way it was done in BattleLA left the character room for redemption. Whereas Gorman simply become a pathetically despicable character that could only atone for his error through a heroic death, BattleLA’s lieutenant character’s error was couched within the classic war movie officer-sergeant dynamic. This turned it into a tragic, but sympathy-inspiring, growth pain moment. All human characters in the movie remain likable throughout. Which is just as well since the movie arguably makes for a good Marine recruitment film.

Without a doubt, the movie benefited from assistance by the US Armed service’s film offices. The sheer number of non-computer generated equipment definitely gave the movie that feel. Whereas Saving Private Ryan was a virtual video catalogue of US small arms available during the period, BattleLA is its equivalent for present-day US Marine hardware. Whatever effort the military extended, they definitely got their effort’s worth back because the military comes across very positively in this movie. The image of a lone, immobilized M-1 Abrams tank under fire from directed energy weapons, protesting each incoming hit with retaliatory roars from its cannon encapsulated the movie’s underlying message about the military’s fortitude and devotion to mission.

Movies about the end of the world seem to beg for big-speech scenes, and BattleLA complies. It has its own equivalent to the “Today is our Independence Day” speech from Independence Day; now regarded by some critics as one of the cheesiest movie scenes in film history. At least this movie’s speech-moment was for a much more smaller audience, and was more tightly integrated into the inter-character conflict that developed throughout the story. Not so much cheese here.

I’d always been fascinated with SciFi combat that pitted present-day weaponry with off-world arsenals, which is actually a difficult balance to maintain. The makers of Independence Day and War of the Worlds simplified their task by simply making the aliens overwhelmingly superior. Add deflector shields to the invader’s arsenal, and that pretty much sets the tone for the movie.

To make the movie’s characters relevant, infantry-level combat still had to be viable. So even though the alien’s superiority was still unmistakable, it was not devastatingly insurmountable. This made for a fair number of Blackhawk Down-type combat scenes.

BattleLA delivers. For me, it fulfilled the promise that Skyline implied . . . but fell horribly short. I still regret watching the latter movie. For those who made the same mistake, this movie will make up for it.

This movie was a sufficiently satisfying distraction . . . I was able to return to the office after the movie to continue the work that had turned tedious.

Apr 7, 2011

Visiting the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation museum


How often do you get an opportunity to park beside a T-55 Main Battle Tank?

For folks who visit the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation in Portola Valley, CA, that is mere routine.

A friend with a passion for all-things military visited me in February. So I put together a sightseeing tour that would prioritize military exhibits. This Jacques Littlefield creation was simply something that couldn’t be missed: the largest private collection of armored vehicles in the world.

This museum is situated within the founder’s “Pony Tracks Ranch” at 499 Old Spanish Trail, Portola Valley. GPS directions to the property are notoriously unreliable, so drivers are advised to pay special attention to the directions to the property that are given in response to a request for a visit. I didn’t, and ended up trying to enter someone else’s private property, as per my beloved Garmin’s instructions. It was apparently a common occurrence.

Visits are by appointment through the museum Website: Tours are typically scheduled on weekends, with one tour held in the morning and another in the afternoon. Special tours, however, could be arranged during the week. As of the visit, the admission fee was at a reasonable $20.

Our morning group was handled by Phil Hatcher, the second gentleman in the video above. It was an excellent tour, filled with bits of trivia about the vehicles in the display in general, and on the specific pieces in particular.

The vehicles on display are a scale modelers dream. My friend, who had made more than his share of Sherman tank models, paid special attention to the number of Sherman versions in the collection, and reveled in the differences between US Army and US Marine Corps color schemes. Such is the attention to detail that modelers focus upon their subjects. It was only fitting, therefore, that the employees and volunteers at the museum, and even the founder himself, had an affinity for assembling replicas. The collection was actually an off-shoot of this hobby.

On my part, the following vehicle, a Sturmgeshutz III, brought back memories as it was the very first tank model I ever made.

The sheer number of vehicles and equipment, from Scud missile launchers to Main Battle Tanks, were simply too much to take in on a single visit. I will definitely come back to this place sooner than later.

If there was a take-away from that visit that was a tad disconcerting, it was about the future of the collection. The founder had died in 2009, so the millions that had been poured into the collection in years past was no more. A foundation was now in place to preserve what was already in the collection. But the various vehicles that were still in different stages of restoration would, in all likelihood, would no longer be completed.

A return visit, therefore, is not merely an indulgence, but a show of support for a unique vision.

Mar 13, 2011

Philippine Consulate: San Francisco, CA


The Philippine consulate consulate in San Francisco CA is a pleasant place to renew travel papers, certify documents, and other similar transactions. It’s is neat and organized. The consulate occupies space at the Philippine Center along Sutter St. within which a variety of establishments address a variety of Filipino concerns, from travel to sending money home. A nice one-stop-shop. The consulate is on the 6th floor.

Unlike other embassies, which can be found in the hilly residential parts of the city, the Philippine Consulate is situated in a commercial area. Street parking, therefore is a valid option, but more often than not is unavailable. Embassy staff recommend the following parking lots listed in the picture on the left.

Personally, I favor the Sutter-Stockton Garage. Its within a stone’s throw from the Philippine Center and is not claustrophobic.

Each time we visit this consulate, which is typically a year or so apart, we always notice improvements to their service offerings. We processed my wife’s passport extension (more about why on another post) yesterday, and changes were readily apparent. The following sign greets when you step out of the elevator.

These weren’t there the other year. The overall layout had changed, and there were more desks for various consulate services, from passport renewal to processing of notarized documents.

Convenience was a focal point of many improvements. There is now an ATM in the waiting room, which particularly useful given that they neither accept personal checks nor credit/debit cards for their services. For those who neglect to bring copies of key documents, citizens can avail of a self-service photocopier for $0.25 per copy. This used to be situated at a rather odd location outside the main waiting area. These days these machine are now situated in the waiting area.

Now that my wife’s passport renewal has been processed, I probably won’t be back till I apply for an ePassport next year. Looking forward to next year’s surprises.

To the folks at the San Francisco Consulate: “Keep up the good work”.

Feb 9, 2011

How to refuel your car


A few years ago, my brother and his wife visited us for a few days. We don’t live in one of the major bay-area cities, so we had to drive a fair distance to see the sights. From the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, to the world-famous aquarium in Monterey.

The first time we stopped for gas, my brother got out of our CR-V with me to watch me fill up. “It was about time I learned how to fill up by myself”, he said. That caught me by surprise. He moved to the US east coast back in 1993, 11 years before I did, so this just didn’t compute.

Until that visit, I had come to believe that unattended gasoline stations, save for a solitary employee manning the cash register, were the norm for the US as a whole. I had come to accept this as just one of many things that set this country apart from the Philippines, where gas attendants abound.

That apparently wasn’t the case. My brother’s home state of New Jersey, for example, still had attendants. A co-worker would later share that there are actually some states that don’t allow drivers to pump fuel themselves.

I learned to operate a fuel pump on my second day in California. My boss back then walked me through the process of getting my first rental car, and immediately afterward led me to a gas station and taught me to work the pump. To this day, I flip the nozzle to drain residual fuel from the hose into my tank — just as she taught me that sunny 3rd of May.

The fill-up process is straight-forward for most gas machines. However there are less-than-well-designed ones out there that will will require a bit of probing. But the basic operating steps pretty much remain the same.

The approach

When driving up to a machine, it usually helps to know which side of your car permits access to the gas tank. This probably isn’t much of a concern when driving your own car. But if you travel a lot, and have to deal with a plethora of rental cars, not being mindful about this can result in the occasional three-point-turn at the gas station parking lot.

Fuel gauges offer aid in this regard. Note the samples below. On some cars, the side where the gas pump is on the fuel gauge corresponds to the location of fuel tank access. On others, the location is indicated by an arrow.

The photos above were taken from a Honda CR-V and a Honda Accord. Both of which have their fuel tank access on the driver side. The following photo is from a friend’s Mazda which has its access door on the passenger side.

Most pump consoles will walk you through the fueling process. The photo below shows what most start screens look like.

They typically assume the following sequence:

1. Choose a payment method: cash paid directly to the cashier or via debit/credit card
2. Choose fuel type
3. Remove nozzle from its cradle and then insert into fuel tank receptacle
4. Begin fueling
5. Return nozzle to cradle
6. Wait for additional instructions

Payment method

Unless the credit card reader on the pump isn’t working, I typically prefer to use a card. Its faster and you can just let the pump figure out how much gas your car needs (See nozzle discussion below). If you pay through the cashier, you have to guesstimate how much fuel you need because they’ll ask for a dollar value.

Choose fuel type

Pumps segregate gasoline by octane levels. The higher the octane rating, the more expensive the fuel. Refer to your car’s documentation for the appropriate fuel type for your vehicle. When driving a rental car though, I always go cheap.

Some pumps have a single nozzle for all three types. Others have nozzles for each. Watch out for machines that also offer both gasoline and diesel. Diesel nozzles are typically in a different color from those dedicated to gasoline.

Gasoline, single-nozzle Gasoline, multi-nozzle Diesel

Insert nozzle . . . begin fueling

Fuel won’t flow till either the credit card is authorized, or the cashier approves the sale. Once approved, fueling can begin. Unscrew the fuel cap, insert the nozzle into the fuel tank, squeeze the lever, and then engage the lock (shown on the picture on the right).

Nozzle locks are great. They allow you to do other things while fueling, like cleaning your car’s windshield or grabbing a quick bite at the station convenience store. Once the tank is filled, a sensor in the nozzle automatically disengages these locks, making the fueling process painless.

While researching for this post, I was surprised to learn that there were literally dozens of nozzle brands. Here’s a sampling. One key difference between nozzles is the location of the lock. The photo above only shows one design. Others, like the one shown below, have the lock within the lever guard itself.

Locked, fueling Released

Return nozzle to cradle

Once fueling is done, and the nozzle is safely back in its cradle . . . don’t forget to screw the fuel cap back on.

Interestingly enough, forgetting this final step is not an all-too-rare occurrence. Googling for the terms “gas cap” + “forgot” yields a fair number of results. It’s . . . like . . . a special club.

My first weekend with my first rental car also marked the first time I took it to a gas station by myself. I’d been driving along city streets to work all week, and hadn’t been on the freeways yet. I resolved to change that that Saturday and figured that I’d tank up before did so.

I pulled up to a Union 76 close to my temporary apartment, filled up, and mentally went over my freeway route while waiting for the click of the nozzle lever that signaled a full tank. That click didn’t take long since I hadn’t really been driving around very much. Ready or not, the Interstate run was on.

While filling up, a police car pulled up to the fuel pump ahead of me. As I was getting ready to go, I couldn’t help but notice that the policeman was staring at me through his side mirror. Flashing lights and sirens didn’t mark my departure from the station. So I figured that was that.

Upon arrival at my destination, I discovered what he was staring at. Like a black tassel hanging from the side of the car, my fuel cap was hanging by its restraining cord, below a fully open fuel door. Happily it wasn’t raining.

Wait for additional instructions

Some gasoline stations use their machines to up-sell other services. Car wash services, for example, are often offered at a discount.

Make sure you answer all the prompts on the console to prevent others from taking advantage of your purchase.

This is a reasonable snapshot of how things go in California. Moving forward, will be more mindful of the experiences in other states. Till then . . . happy fueling.

Feb 6, 2011

First earthquake of the year . . . that we noticed


From the USGS Website:

Magnitude 1.3 at the following location. Still felt as far away as Cupertino.

You have to admire just how fast the US system dishes out data for the benefit of the public. The report above, and the corresponding Google Map data generated below, was available seconds after we felt the quake.

View Larger Map

Jan 7, 2011

Happy 2011 everyone!!!


Happy New Year everyone!!!

From the party at EleTRONica in California Adventure.

The Laserman show was awesome.

Jan 1, 2011



On a recent flight to Germany, I discovered the following interesting gem that would have been cool to have on other flights: a USB power outlet at each passenger seat. This was on a US Airways flight from Philadelphia, US to Munich, Germany.

Interesting how they had these on an international flight, which had a myriad of other entertainment options by way of personal entertainment systems, but not on the domestic flight which had virtually no entertainment. Bummer.

Dec 20, 2010

Encounters with the fourth season


What blog about Filipinos living abroad would be complete without a post about winter? With December upon us . . . it is time.

I have a friend at work, a Canadian-Armenian, who had seen one too many winters and maintains romanticized notions about the tropics and palm trees. In a classic example of “grass is always greener in someone else’s garden”, we regularly exchange nightmare stories about each other’s home-country weather. He’d talk about stepping out of a properly heated airport into freezing, humid winter air and not being able to breathe. On my end I would relate how tropical humidity would trigger asthma attacks and other heat allergies.

We both liked to make light of the other’s climate preferences. I’d also give him a hard time whenever he complained about the air-conditioner in the office being set too low, or if he showed up with a jacket on just-slightly-chilly days. For his part, he liked joking about sending me on a one-way trip to Manitoba in January, and sharing videos like the following:

He once asked me “How many Filipinos really share your dislike of heat, and don’t believe that they are living in a tropical paradise?” Without hesitation, I said: “100%”. I shared that question with friends and relatives, and they all laughed in agreement. On the flip side, given how temperate-climate people love to soak up the sun in spring and summer, its arguably safe to say that winter doesn’t hold the same fascination for them as it does a tropical person that hasn’t really seen the worst of winter . . . yet.

My first falling-snow experience happened in New Jersey in December of 2005. My wife and I were visiting my brother for Christmas. We had just gone to bed, when my phone rang. It was my brother’s eldest son. “Uncle, go outside, quick!!!” he said.  Apparently light, feathery snow had started falling, and he recalled a conversation earlier that evening about my only having seen snow on the ground in my first US visit in 2001. He wanted to be the first one to make the introduction to the stuff that regularly buried their drive way each year.

More snow was in the cards on that visit. On the day we were to visit New York City, the weather had turned bad. We had originally planned to take rides on the upper deck of Greyline double-decker buses for a hop-on/hop-off tour of the city. But both my brother and sister-in-law warned that it was too cold for what we wanted. “People get killed in this weather” my brother said ominously.

So, as any good tropical person would, we headed off to NYC, bundled in wool coats that my brother lent us as replacements for our pathetically inadequate San Francisco cold wear . . . and went on the roof-top bus ride anyway. Cold . . . shmold.

The adventure started uneventful enough. We found the bus, and proceeded to the top deck where we saw a fair number of people who felt as we did about missing out on views of the city’s skyscrapers. As we waited for the tour to start, we were treated to our first daylight glimpse of snow fall. Large, cotton-like flakes were drifting into view . . . sideways . . . which was a surprise.

When the bus finally started moving, fascination with the flakes, gave way to a new-found appreciation for thermal underwear — which we didn’t have. I knew things were going to get interesting when I started losing sensation in my toes. Even on the coldest days in Baguio City, Taipei, and San Francisco, that never happened. All of us on that deck pretended that everything was fine for a few blocks. Then when the first couple stood up and made for the stairway, we were all gone faster than it would have taken any of those snowflakes to melt in a Philippine-noon in summer time.

Believe me that experience stuck. When we made preparations for a cruise to Alaska a couple of years later, long johns and thermal socks were on the top of the list of things to buy. As we stood on deck watching the local wildlife, while our boat navigated through glacial melt, my wife and I were warm and toasty (more on that cruise at a later time).

First encounter with large volumes of fresh powder-like snow, not the solidified brown slush pushed aside by snow plows, was in February of this year at Sierra Summit, 65 miles northeast of Fresno, CA. It was too short of a trip to learn winter sports so I spent my time discovering the small things that children at this latitude probably take for granted by the time they learn to write:

  • The way snow sparkles like hundreds of tiny pieces of glass
  • How it crunches as you walk on it, and how it accumulates on your boots
  • The way snow spreads in a powdery arc when you kick it
  • How snowballs do indeed get bigger when you roll them down hill

As expected my Armenian friend told me I was nuts for having gone through such lengths for an opportunity to get frostbitten. I simply smiled and shrugged.

If I ever got him to the Philippines, I figure the tables would be turned. My father-in-law, who used to work as a shipping manager for an export company in my home town, once told me about a Russian ship whose crew couldn’t get over how green the mountains around the port were. I suspect these boringly plain mountains would have the same effect on him. Wait till he sees the folding leaves of a “Makahiya” plant, or the pods of what we used to call as kids as “water bombs”.

All this writing about grass-is-greener-in-someone-else’s-yard got me thinking. If snow is to a tropical person, what thick greenery is to a cold climate person . . . ever wondered what would fascinate a sand-blasted-all-his-life Bedouin?

Dec 11, 2010