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Random Travel Notes 11 June 10, 2009

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Uncategorized.
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So! Just returned from the family’s usual summer getaway, care of an invitation from the parents. Yeah, yeah, I know: didn’t broadcast this trip at all. But what can I say? You never call, never write…

Kidding aside, this trip to San Francisco and back — with my folks and the wife, but sans my brother — seems like a good excuse for another round of Random Travel Notes!

When the upgrade is a downgrade. At the check-in counter in Manila, we learned that both my parents got upgraded to First Class for the short leg of the trip. No trouble there. Right before boarding, I ended up getting an upgrade, too. That was a problem, as they couldn’t extend the same courtesy to the wife. So I did the logical thing and passed on my seat to her. Problem solved. Fast forward to right before landing in Hong Kong: a flight attendant came to my seat to tell me that there was a spare seat in First Class and that I could use it now in order to be with the rest of the family when we landed (at my wife’s request, of course). So then and there, I collected all my carry-on baggage and made way for my new seat. It must have looked plenty odd to the other passengers, seeing this one guy getting his stuff together and making for the exit even before the plane made its descent. Kudos to the wife for pulling the strings and to the sensible flight attendant who made it happen. Having said that, however, is it too much to ask that Cathay Pacific find a more sensible way to administer seat upgrades so people traveling together don’t get split up awkwardly? What, that four of us with the same surnames checked in at the same time and asked for adjacent seats wasn’t a dead giveaway?

From the CNN Center in Hong Kong… Just an interesting side note: we were on the same flight as CNN Asia Anchor Andrew Stevens, who’d been in Manila the previous day to cover Manny Pacquiao’s belated homecoming celebration.

It wasn’t the jet lag that got to me. Directly anyway. What threw my body clock for a loop this time around was being awake in the mornings while everyone was asleep. With no one to talk to, I’d inevitably get sleepy and nap myself. So I suppose one could make the argument that there is a social dimension to jet lag, too. And while on this subject, let me just say that the twelve hour time difference between Manila and New York is so much easier to deal with than the fifteen hour one with San Francisco. In the former case, at least your meal times are still the same. In the latter situation, your stomach has to do some adjusting also. (If I’ve ranted about this before, let’s chalk it up to jet lag.)

Been there. Done that. Will eat there again. In the ten-odd years that the family’s been frequenting the San Francisco Bay Area, we’ve developed a list of places to visit whenever we’re in town. Naturally, a good number of these are restaurants that my parents’ friends recommend to us. So yes: with the wife joining us for the first time we did the rounds as we usually would. Par for the course, that. I’ve observed, though, that the number of Filipino restaurants on our list keeps growing. While I appreciate the convenience — back in the day, it was a chore to get Filipino food when one needed a fix (in New York, it still is) — it does seem rather odd that we flew so many miles away from home to enjoy good old fashioned home cooking.

Digital Cable 1. Because the US has mandated a switch to digital television by 12 June 2009, it was about time to obtain digital cable boxes for my parents’ place in the Bay Area. This much I’ll say: I’m rather impressed with the quality of what Comcast has to offer as compared to the digital service I received from Time Warner Cable in NYC. Because I shipped over the old tv from my NY apartment to San Francisco, I got to see the difference firsthand (controlling for the equipment!). The bottomline? Much clearer picture quality — and I hadn’t even signed us up for HD!

Digital Cable 2. Side story: after installing the cable boxes, I had to call Comcast’s customer support hotline to activate them. Ended up transferred to a technician with a rather odd accent. Fellow was Filipino! In Manila! It was my surname that prompted him to ask if I happened to be one and thereafter volunteer the information himself. But apart from that, he was very professional: didn’t chat me up and continued to speak to me in English. But yeah, his affected American accent was quite terrible. At the very least, I’ve heard better.

Digital Cable 3. Last one: It’s neat how it’s now possible to put one’s cable subscription on hold and simply reactivate it in real time with a phone call. Such a thing couldn’t be done (if memory serves) when we first came onboard with the service about a decade ago. Amazing how market competition works in the US and forces companies to really adopt best industry practices: in the West Coast, at least, it would appear that AT&T is the one keeping Comcast on its toes.

Road Trips: Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea; Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Initially, the idea was to spend a night or two elsewhere, but in the end we decided to sightsee at Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea (one trip) and later drive up to Napa Valley and Sonoma County (another trip). For Trip A, we just swung by Cannery Row, passed by Pebble Beach and spent a couple of hours in downtown Monterey. For Trip B, we decided to check out the Hess Collection and Domaine Carneros. Between the two, I much preferred the coastal journey (Trip A) to the one up north (Trip B). This might have something to do with the fact that I’d been there when I was much younger, so I already have good memories of where Clint Eastwood was once mayor. Besides, the scenery is breathtaking (the 17-Mile Drive alone takes the cake), and the cool weather was also a definite bonus. But it might have more to do with the fact that I’m not a wine drinker anyway, so the charm of Wine Country is rather lost on me. Besides, once you see one winery, haven’t you seen them all?

Off-Broadway. I didn’t really have a chance to catch shows on Broadway in New York, partly because I was busy but more because I just didn’t want to go watch anything by myself. Where’s the fun in that? So I never did get to see Wicked or Spamalot, two shows that I would have otherwise wanted to catch. So imagine my delight upon finding out they were both showing in downtown San Francisco! True enough, we made time to catch both. The verdict? Wicked was amazing — my favorite was the performance of “Gravity” prior to the end of the first act — and is perhaps proof that an adaptation can be much better than its source material (personally, I was none too impressed by the book). Spamalot, where “plot” is really just an excuse to pull off as many gags as possible, was certainly one of the most hilariously irreverent and politically incorrect shows I’ve seen in a while.

Clouds and Dust. Took a lot of pictures this trip, and there are two things I noticed after looking through the photos. First, it would appear that we were out and about on days when there were no clouds or when there was sufficient cloud cover to keep the sky overcast. Second, sometimes dirt on the camera lens isn’t too noticeable while viewing pictures from the camera’s screen but becomes painfully obvious once the pictures are enlarged. Heck, I think eighty percent of the pictures I took have the same speck of dust in the upper right hand quadrant of the shot!

Epic Fail at Starbucks. Once, after dinner, we repaired to a nearby Starbucks before heading off for home. I ended up with the task of placing our orders, and since I had to order for five people — my parents, a friend of theirs, myself and the wife — decided to make sure I could communicate it in as organized a way as possible. While waiting in line, I sorted out mentally what each of us wanted, organizing these in a manner that should have been easy to follow (decaf drinks first, like drinks together). Then my turn came and I placed our order. But the barista was completely lost. As in. Couldn’t get the orders straight at all. Worse, after patiently sorting it out the one preparing the drinks wasn’t much better, fouling it up just as badly. My guess is that in the US baristas (and restaurant attendants in general) tend to deal with people placing individual orders, as opposed to how in the Philippines they’d have to take orders for much larger groups. Hence, I submit that baristas trained here are probably much better at what they do than the average barista elsewhere in the world. I can imagine that if Philippine-trained baristas had been running the store that night, everything would have gone much smoother. Not to mention we wouldn’t have gotten cappuccinos on the cheap, as barista #2 misinterpreted the “C” that barista #1 wrote on the cups because I placed an order for plain brewed coffee.

Stanford Medical. Strictly speaking, one of the reasons we went on this trip was so dad could finally get the executive physical exam he’d planning for quite some time now. A few years back, a friend of his told us that the Stanford University Hospital had comprehensive check-up programs for visiting professionals. Since my dad hadn’t had a check-up for some time he was interested, yet we could never quite schedule it on any of our prior trips. So this time around we made sure it would push through. As expected, he got a clean bill of health for someone of his age. Interestingly, it seems to me that the program regimen was exactly what one would have undergone at the better hospitals in Manila. More, since exactly half the nurses that attended to my dad were Filipino, you could make the argument that there’s no real advantage to going through such a program. Aside, that is, from the peace of mind that comes from knowing you got a once over from a medical team at Stanford. Thus, in a sense my dad waited all these years and traveled all the way there just to be told to lose weight and get more exercise. I guess it could’ve been worse. At least they didn’t tell him to take two pills and call them in the morning.

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