The Visa Collector

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

Tag Archives: Slice of life

Fleet Week @ SF 2012


Airshows are one of the many fun things about our stay in the US thus far. One particular display of military hardware that we frequent is the San Francisco Fleet Week. I’ve been going to this event annually since 2005, with the exception of two years were business trips got in the way. In previous years, my wife and I picked a spot on Pier 39 and watched the boats and planes go by. This year, we decided to try out the paid box seats at the Marina Green. The music and the narration from the event organizers definitely provided a dimension that had been missing in previous years. But am not entirely convinced that it was worth the ticket price, especially since one could simply sit on the ground, in the vicinity of the seats, and still get the benefit of added information.

Here are some photos of the event. This album will grow slowly as I prep my photos for posting.

Filed under US, California
Oct 7, 2012

The birds of San Francisco


There is a small park beside the Embarcadero Center, on the corner of Clay and Drumm Sts., that the casual bird-watcher in me wants to visit whenever I can. The cluster of trees there hosts a sizable population of green parrots that have made the city their home. Presumably this is part of the flock that roosts in nearby Telegraph Hill. This flying community has been featured on a number of TV programs, to include the following.

City residents apparently love their birds. Which appears to give rise to an interesting . . . culture . . . among the city’s avian residents.

Aggressive . . . relentless . . . self-entitled.

We discovered these facets of San Franciso’s bird population first hand a few years ago when my wife and I took her parents around the touristy part of the city’s waterfront. We bought hotdogs from a street vendor and were enjoying an afternoon stroll by the water. As we moved from one photo-op site to another, muching on our meals, Seagulls were circling overhead. We had apparently wandered into their domain, and we would soon find out that they expected a toll in exchange for passage. While posing for a photo, my father-in-law held his sandwich off to one side. That became the toll collector’s cue and a large grey-white mass of feathers swooped in and halved what was left of dad’s dog. The hotdog wasn’t on the ground, or left on the table unattended. It was in a live person’s hand — within throat-grabbing distance.

Shock came first, followed immediately thereafter with laughter and amusement, as well as begrudging admiration at a display of audacity. It was an unexpected novelty that added another fun dimension to the day. Since then, when my wife and I find ourselves in SF, we’re on the lookout for unsuspecting tourists that find themselves in a similar situation. This experience apparently wasn’t unique to us.

Gulls are not alone in their belief that people exist to feed them. The other week, while enjoying a beautiful sunny day at the Ferry Building, we ran into the following bird that expected a culinary tribute for allowing us to sit at its table.

Perched on the back rest of the chair beside me, this bird had an unflinching laser-like focus on our french fries. We tried shooing it away and only stopped short of actually touching it it wouldn’t budge. There was no breaking its concentration, or shaking its belief that “Puny land-bound human, where’s my share?!!!”

We were all more accustomed to birds that were fearful of people. Back home, these creatures understood that most humans either viewed them as sport . . . or even in some circumstances, as snacks. San Franciscans are apparently a kinder lot, to whom these feathered flying appetites have grown accustomed. These KFC-ingredient-candidates are lucky to live where they do. They arguably wouldn’t survive long back home.

These birds are as much a part the city as the fog that obscures the Golden Gate bridge on what would otherwise be a clear day, or the local micro-climate that simulate different seasons in a single day. They are part of the quirkiness of the city, and I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

Besides . . . its fun watching dumbfounded tourists watching their hotdogs plucked from their hands and carried aloft. Schadenfreude!!!

Aug 19, 2012

Where did the time go?


My DMV sticker came today. Can you believe we’re half way through 2013 already?

Jun 27, 2012

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

Street signs


Street signs are so much a part of city life; it’s very easy to take them for granted. At the corner of any street of consequence back home, you’d find a post from which hangs, or sticks out, a sign that indicates the name of the street. In the case of some low cost subdivisions, the subdivision block number would substitute as a street name. Some signs were large and fancy, with reflective coatings. Others were more austere.

But you could always count on these rectangle-shaped signs to be where they needed to be, and to look the way you expect; as surely as the sun’s rise in the morning, and its replacement by the moon at night. After all, why would anyone do it any other way, right?

Ah . . . assumptions . . . assumptions.

My first overseas destination, Taiwan, was a harbinger of things to come. For one thing, naming conventions there were different. Major thoroughfares were called “roads”. My company’s Taipei office, for example, was situated along Tun Hwa North Road, which could be loosely likened to a wider version of Ayala Avenue in the Makati Central Business District. Yet it was still called a “road”. “Streets” were smaller than roads, and relatively less prominent. Small alleys and side-streets were called “Lanes”.

Taiwanese roads were divided into sections and compass directions relative to a point of reference — a concept that has no Philippine equivalent. This was designed to give people a rough idea where on the road they were. Tun Hwa, for example was divided into North and South by its intersection with another road: ZhongXiao. The further away from the intersection you were, you’d transition to different section numbers. Our office, again as an example, was at the southern end of Tun Hwa called Section 2. Other roads ran from East to West. Some had as many as 7 sections which actually stretched outside Taipei City, deep into Taipei County.

Taipei street signs were also squarer than rectangular. They had to be, because they were bilingual. In keeping with efforts to make the Taiwanese capital an international city, English approximations of Chinese street names, and Hindu-Arabic numerals were included in all signs as an accommodation for the city’s foreign residents.

Canadian streets, at least in Ottawa, had an interesting implementation of a bilingual street naming policy. Since the street names were the same for both French and English, and utilized the same letters, it was a simple matter of adding “St.” and the French equivalent “Rue”. The following photo taken near Parliament Hill shows how they do it.

The Irish like to put both old-Irish and English names of their streets on their signs, as with the sign below for St. Patrick St. in Cork, Ireland.

The photo above also captures a common theme amongst European signs. They often use plaques mounted on the sides of buildings. I first noticed them on a trip to Paris. I didn’t immediately recognize them for what they were, because I instinctively associated signs with posts. It also didn’t help that at the time I hadn’t done my homework and figure out that “Rue” was French for street.

Once I wrapped my head around the fact that the street-name-on-a-post was not a “sacred” rule by any stretch of the imagination, Irish and more recently Italian, street plaques were less of a surprise.

Assumptions are funny things. Sometimes, you can’t even distinguish between fact and assumption because it never occurs to you to re-verify what you’ve already accepted as gospel truth. The nice thing about visa-collecting is that you’re often forced into situations that make re-verification necessary.

I wonder which assumption will be challenged next.

Oct 3, 2010

Irish houses and their names


In July 2009, my company sent me on a week-long business trip to Cork, Ireland. It was my first trip to the country, and my third trip to Europe.

The hotel that my company booked me into wasn’t all that far from the office, and I liked to get to know new places by walking. So instead of taking a taxi to work, I opted to hit the pavement.

As I walked through residential neighborhoods to and from the office, one thing that stood out for me was the absence of house numbers. Street name plates were affixed, European style, to the fences on corner homes so you knew what street you were on. But if you were looking for a specific house, I imagined that that would be a bit of a challenge.

I ran my observations by my office mates, who were mostly expats from Germany, France, Spain, and a few other countries, and they confirmed my observations. There were indeed no numbers. But, they were quick to point out, mail and parcels all still found their way to them. Somehow, postal workers knew where everyone’s house was. There was a system, but nobody really quite new what it was.

That day, I started looking at the houses a little more closely. Each house seemed to have names. At first I thought that they advertised the owners of the house. Then I started seeing wording that seemed reminiscent of places in the Lord of The Rings. Hmmm.

Later in the week, I shared a cab to the Cork city center with a co-worker. While we were making conversation with the cab driver, I ran the house-name observation and the mail delivery mystery by him. To my surprise, the cab driver turned out to be a retired postal worker, and he was happy to clear matters up.

Each Irish homeowner, it turned out, was free to choose whatever name they wanted, register it with the local government, and voila, the house had an identity. Our driver chose the name of his favorite vacation spot (somewhere in Europe, forgot exactly what) for his house. These names often stayed with the house even as they changed owners.

I guess the semi-permanence of the house’s name helped postal workers find their mark. But man . . . I’d definitely need help if I ever accepted an invite to a house party, and had to find the house myself.

Filed under Ireland, Slices of life
Sep 26, 2010

Chopsticks required


One humongous mistake I made before moving to Taipei, Taiwan was to neglect my chopsticks skills. I could pick up large pieces of meat, so it didn’t seem like such a big deal. “After all” I thought “all restaurants should have forks and spoons, right?” Dead wrong.

While pricier restaurants do provide forks and spoons, common-man restaurants where most folks eat, did not. Needless to say, my first week in Taipei became very interesting . . . food-wise. I soon learned two things: hunger is a great incentive to look for alternatives, and that I was, in fact, left handed.

So unless you plan to bring utensils with you everywhere you go (which is what a Filipino officemate did on one trip) . . . it would be a good idea to brush up on this skill before moving over.

Filed under Slices of life, Taiwan
Sep 18, 2010

Sending stuff to the Philippines


Part of this article can also be found on

It’s as much a part of a migrant’s story as visas and currency exchange: “The need to send items to the home country”.

When we were still in Taiwan, we didn’t really bother with this as much since the cost of travel to the Philippines was relatively affordable. We simply just stored up what we wanted to send home, and then brought them with us when we went home for Christmas. The equation changed when we crossed the Pacific, and into the realm of $1,000+ travel. Christmas gifts would have to handed out in our absence for most years.

My brother moved to New Jersey in 1993, and had been sending stuff to the family by way of Johnny Air Cargo since then. So when we made the jump and needed to send stuff home, it was the logical first choice as a freight handler. We found the lone branch for JAC in St. Francis Square in Daly City — 40 minutes or so away from home. We patronized them for a couple of years, and put up with the travel and parking challenges of the rather congested square.

Eventually we started looking for alternatives, and we eventually settled on a reliable, familiar, brand: LBC.

We tried out a number of LBC branches. The first one we tested was the Tully Rd branch in San Jose. The location was horrible because of the atrocious traffic. It was close to a Jollibee that we used to frequent, we were all too familiar with the fight-for-the-right-lane that led to the entry ramp for US 101. It was a hassle that we didn’t really care for, and would prefer to avoid. We actually stopped going to that particular Jollibee once we found an alternative. So that LBC branch was a no go.

We finally found a branch that we liked in a strip mall along El Camino Real in Santa Clara. We really liked this branch and stayed with them for quite a number of shipping cycles. It was close to home, and the staff was great. Sadly it closed. (We still hope they decide to re-open this branch).

There was no way we were going back to Tully, so we went about looking for an alternative, and found one at. Hostetter Rd. (near a Goldilocks restaurant). Sadly, the owner of the commercial space reportedly chose not to renew this LBC branch’s lease. So this alternative option was short-lived.

Enter the LBC branch at 344 South Main St., Milpitas, CA.

I checked this place’s Yelp reviews, and a common refrain was the seeming lack of warmth on the part of the clerks and receptionists. While I do concur with this observation, I must point out that they were pretty darn efficient. Shipping forms and replacement boxes were provided as part of a well practiced routine. You’ll be in and out in no time.

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Sep 12, 2010

Taipei taxi language laboratory


Taipei taxis weren’t just a means of getting around. They were also an interesting way to work on my Mandarin.

All the foreigners I knew that managed to get over the hump between between language classes and actual conversation all told me the same thing: “Just do it”. I had to find as many opportunities to speak Mandarin as I could, and just try to be understood.

Being surrounded by Taiwanese in the office, you’d think practice would be easy. But I really wasn’t getting much practice at work. My vocabulary was so limited, my Taiwanese co-workers simply found it easier just to use English. So I had to find other ways.

Enter . . . the Taipei taxi.

Taxis were as ubiquitous as chopsticks. There never seemed to be a shortage of them, regardless of the time of day. Although the bus and rail systems were pretty good at getting people to key points of interest, some destinations just required the flexibilty of these bright yellow cars. Rarely did a week go by without a cab ride.

Most folks liked to ride in the rear seat. Right or wrong, my intuition told me that riding in front somehow humanized me to the driver, hopefully making him less inclined to drive me around in circles. This configuration also facilitated my “lessons”.

At the bare minimum, the taxi presented a very simple language test whose results were immediately available and easy to understand: “if I didn’t get to where I want to go, I failed”.

The basic taxi vocabulary was easy enough: “Hello“, “I want to go ____“, “intersection“, “at the corner“, “turn left“, “turn right“, “make a u-turn“, and “stop here“. In my early taxi rides always I brought written instructions to my apartment so that I could always find my way home. I also asked my friends to write down destinations on slips of paper that I could show the driver. With the destination out of the way I focused, and gained confidence with, the limited vocabulary mentioned earlier.

After watching how my friends gave instructions to drivers on a number of shared rides, I started giving instructions myself. Mandarin is all about the tones. Use the wrong tone and you end up saying something you didn’t intend (more about that in a future post). Some destinations were easy enough to pronounce. Other streets sounded dangerously like others, and were therefore vulnerable to butchery by unpracticed foreign tongues. Sometimes I got to where I needed to go, other times . . . lets just say it was an interesting way to discover new and interesting places.

The vast majority of taxi drivers I met were courteous and mindful of the fact that I was trying to learn their language. Upon detecting the awkwardness in my delivery, they would invariably ask (in Mandarin of course) “Where are you from?”. Small talk and polite probes would follow, until my vocabulary ran out and I said “sorry, I don’t understand, I know very little Chinese”. The probes would then end with polite smiles.

One day, I didn’t have to end the conversation prematurely. By then I had been engaged in a language exchange arrangement with a couple of Taiwanese friends. They were helping me with my Mandarin, and I was helping them with their English. Because of the latter, English was always a readily available safety net. That was not the case with taxi drivers, and this one was no exception.

The usual small talk ensued, and I was even able to ask a few questions myself. It wasn’t until the ride ended that I realized: “I had just completed my first Mandarin-only conversation!!!!” It was a fantastic realization comparable to riding a bike, unassisted, for the first time.

The fondness with which I recall that moment, is only matched by the regret in not having written down the time and day it happened. That milestone is lost to me forever. Hopefully with blogs like this, I won’t let moments like that pass me by again.

Filed under Slices of life, Taiwan
Jun 15, 2010