Elections 2016 – My Ballot

This has been one of the most divisive and shenanigan-filled election campaign seasons ever, and politics is normally crazy in this country so that’s saying something. There’s a strong use of social media this time around, and it’s led to the internet being a hotbed of opinions and propaganda and memes and lies and half-truths and threats of violence. I was hoping greater citizen involvement via social media and the debates would mean citizens have more information and thus would get to be more discerning, but it seems that things have only gotten worse. Hopefully we’ll get there someday, but it doesn’t look like that day is soon.

The presidential race has been particularly difficult, I would generally say this is the worst crop of candidates we’ve had since I started voting. I cannot find any clearly acceptable candidate, all of them have their own trade-offs. For the discerning voter, it’s a matter of which trade-offs you are willing to accept and live with. In fact, at this time, I am still unable to finalize my choice. I will probably decide who I will vote for president when I wake up in the morning on the morning of election day itself. That being said, for sure I will not vote for Binay (should be self-explanatory) or Duterte (risk of instability, too many things I disagree with, including character, foreign policy, diplomacy, etc). For both of the above choices, I feel that the worst-case scenario is significantly worse than the other three.

Grace Poe, I do not like mainly due to her inexperience, she has the most variance among the remaining candidates. Difficult to predict what happens with a presidency under her, although one can assume it will be reasonably similar to Roxas. I am not actually too concerned with her having been an American citizen (I am not very nationalistic in that regard), and if the SC says she can run, fine (with reservations). I will probably vote for her if I wake up feeling like I want to try to prevent my two negative choices from winning.

Mar Roxas, for all his faults, actually has a reasonable track record (I did vote for him as VP in 2010 on the strength of that record after all). He however suffers the misfortune of working under an administration that despite it’s accomplishments, has exhibited poor judgment and poor leadership at certain points over the past six years. As a regular commuter, I am also personally very annoyed at how the administration has handled the traffic situation in Metro Manila (although as one of the other candidates has pointed out, it is a difficult problem that may not be resolved in six years). A vote for Roxas is kind of a safe bet, we can easily assume that his administration will perform similarly to how the previous administration did: some bad spots in leadership, with some accomplishments along the way. It also means living with the traditional politics of the Liberal Party. I will probably vote for Roxas if I wake up feeling neutral or positive (if I wake up with any hate or anger or annoyance, I will vote one of the other two haha)

Miriam Defensor Santiago, my main issue is her endorsement of Marcos, which for me is a non-starter. That I’m even still considering her for this slot is a testament to how shallow the pool is. She’s brilliant and has an excellent track record, and her administration would probably be the most unconventional among the three. She is however, very much a political animal, with her own history of poor political choices here and there. I will probably vote for her if I wake up feeling hipster or contrarian.

If I wake up feeling like I cannot stomach any of the above choices, I will shade in Roy Seneres on the ballot (virtual abstain)

Okay, that was the tough part. The rest of the choices are relatively easy.

For Vice President, there is no other choice but Leni Robredo. Full disclosure: My uncle is married to the sister of the late Jesse Robredo, so my family is strongly in favor of Leni anyway (last weekend one of my visiting relatives told me I should be campaigning for her more :p). That being said, I’ve never met her myself, although my parents have. My choice is based on what I see and hear about her compared to the other choices. Her track record is not as extensive as the others, but her character is unquestionable, and she has been involved in grassroots community work even before she entered public service, and she has had a productive term as congresswoman.

For the Senate, just a quick run through:

  1. Risa Hontiveros – I voted for in 2010, still voting for her now.
  2. Lorna Kapunan – a newbie, but given one of the likely winners of the presidential race, we will need more Human Rights advocates in the senate
  3. Ina Ambolodto – some representation for our Mindanao/Muslim brethren. She was recommended by Jesse Robredo to be part of his team in the DILG, a big plus for me
  4. Leila de Lima – for Justice! Not afraid to go up against influential groups
  5. Francis Pangilinan – reasonably good track record, focus on agriculture
  6. Joel Villanueva – on the strength of his TESDA track record
  7. Sherwin Gatchalian – I still associate him with some text spam ads during the previous elections, but multiple people have vouched for how he has improved things in Valenzuela, so I’ll give him a chance
  8. Rafael Alunan – reasonably good track record during the Ramos administration. As a Duterte supporter, he is also my concession to their camp; as an intelligent man I hope he can help keep the mayor’s baser instincts in check should he become president
  9. Dick Gordon – he’s not perfect, and I disagree with his stand on a number of issues, but if I was willing to vote for him as president in 2010, there’s no reason not to vote for him now as a Senator where he would have less power
  10. Roman Romulo – focus on education. He’s only here because I’m a sucker for his political ad haha. He also has a reasonable legislative record focused on education
  11. TG Guingona – filling out the slots with a couple of re-electionists. #11 and #12 are soft slots, they are more likely to change depending on my mood during election day. Both of these guys seem to have reasonable track records and I don’t mind re-electing them.
  12. Ralph Recto – see above.

For party-list, once again I’m voting for AGHAM. I always heavily favor science and education, because playing Civilization taught me that it’s difficult to keep up with other civs if our science % is too low haha.

For mayor and vice-mayor, I will grudgingly vote for Bautista and Belmonte, who are running virtually unopposed anyway. I’m not too happy with HB and some of his shenanigans, but Quezon City is doing fine anyway.

For congressman, I will abstain. Kit Belmonte is running unopposed, but I have no idea of his track record, might as well abstain. I do not know the candidates for councilor either, so I will not vote for any councilors either.

Things can still change between now and election day, but more or less this will probably be the slate I’m voting for. Despite the fact that I enjoy seeing the shenanigans unfold, I’m tired of this election season and looking forward to it being over just under a week’s time. I’m sure that won’t be the end of our political circus (far from it), but I expect the toxic atmosphere online to at least maybe lighten up even just a little bit. Hopefully?

Edit: I was told that I take my votes too seriously. Cannot deny haha. Here’s my 2010 post for reference: http://roytang.net/2010/05/elections-2010-my-ballot/

Sketching Daily

I’ve had a bit more free time recently, and I’ve been filling that time by starting up some hobbies (some old, some new). One of them has been sketching. I’ve been drawing things for as long as I remember – I have elementary and high school notebooks with more doodles and x-men drawings than there are notes. And even at work, I often find other meeting participants checking out the random sketches I had been absently doing while other people were speaking.

I started following this subreddit SketchDaily. What they do is they have a bot post a daily theme (submitted by other users) and users post their sketches for others’ comments. “Sketches” is a wide-ranging term here, submissions can be anything – redditors will typically post sketches with a wide range of skillsets (some are beginners and some quite advanced) and mediums (some do real-life paper sketches or inked and colored drawings, others do digital stuff drawn on tablets or with photoshop).

If you follow me on Instagram (@roytang0400, it’s funny how I got that account, but that’s a story for another day), you know I’ve been posting my sketches for a bit more than a month now. I haven’t written a blog post in a while, so I thought I’d post about this and maybe show a bit of how I do my sketches. I’m not super talented or anything, although I like to think I’m not a beginner.

For March 15th, the theme posted on r/SketchDaily was “Lots of Dinosaurs”. I usually try to relate the theme to a pop culture thing I’m familiar with – something from movies, TV or video games. Since I’m a big Transformers fan, my first instinct was to do a drawing of the Dinobots. I’m not good enough yet to do one from scratch, so I usually search online for an image to use as reference. (I find that my sketches get a bit worse when I don’t use a reference)

I found the following image via Google Images, originally hosted on http://kaiju-kingdom-hearts.wikia.com/wiki/Dinobots:

The five Dinobots (if you are ignorant) are Grimlock (center, T-Rex), Snarl (bottom left, Stegosaurus), Slag/Slug (bottom right, triceratops, he was renamed to Slug in later versions because apparently Slag had negative connotations somewhere), Sludge (top right, apatosaurus), and Swoop (top left, pteranodon)

I usually start by doing a light-pencil sketch of a rough outline and layout:

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I’m drawing on a cheap sketchpad I bought for like 50 pesos using a 2B pencil. I usually just take pictures of my submissions using my cellphone camera, which explains the shadow near the bottom. I started out placing Grimlock’s head then placing the other Dinobots around him. It turned out that I had made Grimlock’s head a bit too big which meant I didn’t have room to place the other Dinobots exactly as they were in the reference image, I had to bunch them up closer (Sludge is mostly just a neck and head now), but that’s fine. Too lazy to start over.

Once I have the initial light-pencil sketch, I draw in some heavier lines. I start with Grimlock in the center:

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Then Snarl and Slag on either side:

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Then the last two, Swoop and Sludge:

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Now, usually I’d stop at this stage and maybe polish a bit more (Grimlock probably needs an Autobot symbol on the chest) and just submit it to reddit already. But the problem with this sketch when I look at it, it’s hard to tell the Dinobots apart – like in the image above, it’s hard to tell where Grimlock ends and Snarl begins.

So just this once, I thought I’d try adding some colors to the sketch. I’d never done it before, but my mom was into the whole adult coloring book fad so she had some colored pencils lying around for me to use.

Again I started with Grimlock:

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And then the rest:

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Okay, it didn’t really improve telling the Dinobots apart by that much. Maybe only a little bit. At this point I’ve already spent way more time than I normally do on this (I was already on one and a half hours, most days it takes me less than half an hour), so the I went ahead and submitted the above image to reddit.

The above isn’t representative of what I do with all of the sketches. For one, this output is way more detailed than my usual ones. And the process varies slightly depending on what I’m drawing. I will usually always have the preliminary light-pencil sketch. Sometimes for drawing real-life people, I’ll want to do an outline trace, which means overlaying the paper over an image I want to draw (usually on the iPad) and lightly tracing the outline with pencil. It feels a bit like cheating, but real-life faces are hard enough without it. Maybe someday I won’t have to do them anymore (although I’ve only traced like 3 sketches I think). And as mentioned, I don’t usually do the coloring – and I probably won’t do it again, takes too much time.

I’m still not sure how far I’m taking this hobby. I have no ambitions of becoming a professional or anything (a friend once commented he was scrolling through his instagram feed with famous artists like Leinel Yu and one of my drawings was interspersed and surprised him LOL), but like life, I’ll just see how it goes I guess.

Comparing Singapore and PH: Apples and Oranges

 

(Originally posted on Facebook)

Heaven knows we are in need of some serious income tax reform, and the government needs to work a lot on efficient utilization of the revenue they do earn, so of course when I first saw the image below like any middle-class Filipino I found it a bit enraging. But then I thought to myself: if Singapore has such low taxes, where does the government get their operating budget from? Are they simply 20 times more efficient in using their money? I had time, so I thought I’d do a bit of research. (I’m just pulling figures off the internet and using what limited understanding I have of economics so feel free to correct me where I am probably embarassingly wrong)

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First off, 1M pesos annual salary = around 30,000 sgd (more or less, let’s just make the math easy). According to the table from the original article (https://sg.finance.yahoo.com/news/highest-income-tax-rates-world-160000035.html), that’s the second lowest tax bracket (200sgd + 3.5% of the excess over 30k sgd). While the 240,000php annual salary is in the third highest bracket for the Philippines, taxed at 20%. Obviously Singapore has a lower tax rate than we do, but it seems a bit disingenuous to be comparing one of the lowest brackets with one of the highest. The highest tax brackets are 20% for Singapore and 32% for the Philippines

The comparison was a bit exaggerated, but that’s fine. Singapore tax rates are lower. How much money do they collect? According to http://www.singaporebudget.gov.sg/budget_2015/RevenueandExpenditure.aspx, it was some 61B SGD (around 2T PHP) in 2014. For a population of 5.67M, it comes out to roughly 11K SGD (362k PHP) per capita. Roughly 36% of that was corporate and personal income tax (which I assume are the ones levied as a portion of income)

For the Philippines, revenue was at 1332B PHP in 2014 (source: http://www.bir.gov.ph/images/bir_files/annual_reports/annual_report_2014/cmtt.html) for a population of 100M, roughly 13k PHP per capita. Roughly 58% of that was for taxes on net income (which I assume includes both corporate and personal income tax)

So: Singapore has lower tax rates, but they manage to collect almost 3x as much money per citizen somehow, and less of it is from income taxes. As far as I can tell, complaining about the poor quality of service vis-a-vis the tax rate is ridiculous given the PH government has almost 20x as many people to serve and is earning only around 2/3rds the revenue). The Singapore government can afford to provide better services because their citizens earn more money and hence the government earns more money, despite the lower tax rates. Even if we were able to utilize all the govt revenue 100% (with nothing lost to corruption/inefficiency), we’d still have only 4% as much to spend on services per capita as compared to the SG government. As pointed out by a friend, SG also has a much smaller area to govern and hence much lower expected expenditures.

So it’s not a straightforward “we should be getting better services because we have a higher tax rate!”. We still need to build up our economy so that we can support lower tax rates without giving up too much in social services. At the very least, comparing ourselves with Singapore is an apples and oranges type of deal

Travel anxiety

As I write this I am at the airport, trying to kill time. As per usual, I am more than an hour early before the check-in time for my flight. It’s a thing I do, no matter where I’m travelling, that I put in lots of buffer time so I will more often than not arrive way too early and need to wait. It’s not just for flights either – I have a tendency to arrive early for any sort of time sensitive appointment. (Except work of course, where I often take what I call “tactical lates”, but that’s a story for another time)
The buffer time and arriving early is a form of risk management I suppose. Since flights are costly to miss, you have to manage the risks involved. It’s also a form of anxiety I guess, something I’ve been prone to lately – worrying about all the things that could go wrong. I’m especially familiar with travel anxiety given how much I’ve travelled this year – this is now my fourth time flying out of the country for a while. I plan to go easy on the air travel next year, I’m kind of burned out a bit by it. Not that I don’t like visiting new places, but as I mentioned above there’s a lot of anxiety around it. Some sources of anxiety are:
1. Traffic. Metro Manila right now is one of the worst (if not outright the worst) city in the world with regards to traffic. On a normal day, you’re pretty much rolling the dice on any estimate of travel time as the traffic will randomly grind to a halt unexpectedly. And I just happened to be travelling during the week that we are hosting the APEC summit, which means random road closures and traffic congestion in the southern part of the metro where the city lies. Granted, I’m targetting to arrive at the airport a bit after midnight so the risk of a traffic jam is very low, but I’d prefer not to roll the dice
2. Flight cancellations; this is pretty much a unique risk during APEC week as a number of flights have been cancelled due to visiting dignitaries and security and whot not. There is supposedly a no-fly zone on the airport until the last day of the conference, and I’m flying out on the last day. My flight wasn’t on the cancellation list, but I couldn’t get a straight answer from any of the official channels whether the no fly zone would affect me. The airline’s helpline just kept me on hold for a while, not enough to hold my patience when I just wanted to confirm my flight eill push throu. Given it’s an early morning flight, the risk is again low, but still someing to think about.
3. Scams. Before APEC and the Paris terrorist attacks took over the local news cycle, one of the big causes of worry for travellers was the so-called “laglag bala” scam where unscrupulous airport staff would plant bullets in your luggage and proceed to extort you when they are detected at the xray machine. I don’t seem to be the target audience, but I plan to check in my luggage to minimize the odds of such problems occuring. It’s a shameful issue but the good news is that it has brought to light the sheer incompetence of officials in the transport department.
4. Forgetfulness. There’s always a risk that you arrive at the airport and realise you forgot something important and have to go back. My mom likes to tell the story of hpw she once almost left for the airport to travel to Vietnam and had to go back home because she forgot her passport of all things. Or even worse, what if you travel to a foreign country and realise you forgot to pack any socks? Or underwear? (Not a true story). Nowadays I always prepare a checklist ahead of time of what I plan to bring, to minimise the risk of forgetting things. Of course, you need to remember to check the list again on the way back home – during my last trip home I left my phone charger at the flat we were staying at and had to double back for it
5. Accommodations/getting lost. This is more of a problem when you’ve already arrived at your destination and there’s some problem with the accommodations you’ve planned out. Maybe there was a problem with the booking or you got lost on the way there. For the first night on this particular trip, I’m staying alone at an airbnb in a country that isn’t primarily English-speaking. It’s also my first time using airbnb. So I have a number of things to worry about: will I be able to find the place? Will I be able to communicate well with the owner? Will he murder me in my sleep? (Ok I guess the risk of that last one is probably pretty low)
6. Flight problems. Well, I don’t have a fear of flying per se, but I can imagine some people might, especially given how there’s a lot more incidents of flight problems, crashes or even disappearances happening latly. I would guess it’s pretty much a product of the information age
Well, worrying too much about all of these things isn’t helpful of course. It’s a habit I have to rid myself of – I need to learn the right amount of worrying that’s appropriate enough to manage the risks, but not enough to drive myself crazy. After all, one of the reasons for travelling is a sense of adventure and to anxiety so I should learn to let go of my worries and enjoy being out of my comfort zone for a while

Grand Prix London 2015

I was sent to London for work for a few months, which meant an opportunity to play a third GP for the year after Manila back in January and Singapore back in June. This will be the most GP events I’ve played in a one year period. I didn’t have time to practice, so I went with an updated version of the Jeskai tempo deck I was playing at the start of Khans rotation.

I was really hoping to run into a lot of monored or UR Artifacts – basically the PT Origins metagame. Unfortunately the metagame had already reacted the week before. Here’s how my day 1 shook out:

R1 0-2 LOSS vs Abzan Control (mull to 6 and mull to 5)
R2 2-0 WIN vs RG Monsters (mull to 6 in game 1)
R3 2-1 WIN vs Abzan Control
R4 2-1 WIN vs Abzan Megamorph (mull to 6 in game 2)
R5 0-2 LOSS vs Abzan Megamorph
R6 0-2 LOSS vs Temur Dragons
DROP

I was expecting to be slightly ahead on Abzan decks in general, but my lack of practice turned that into a 50-50 proposition instead. I made a lot of sequencing errors and play mistakes (and felt like I had too many mulligans). I lost the Temur match due to being too aggressive (and not understanding how Thunderbreak Regent worked lol).

The thing about competitive Magic is that both proper deck selection and practice both matter. For all three of the GPs I played in, my deck was a good choice – unlike previous years where I basically slapped together whatever I could based on card availability. My best performance this year was in Manila back in January since I had a lot of practice for that. I played in a number of trials beforehand and had regular playtest sessions with a small group. For Singapore in June, I had a bit less preparation; I only played two trials and a shorter playtest period, and I almost made day 2, dropping the last 2 rounds. For London, it was week 2 of the season and I was in a foreign land so I didn’t have any chance for any sort of preparation.

Losing at competitive Magic is a downer. Well, competitive anything really. It’s a problem with being a spike haha. It makes me question whether I’m going to keep doing it – you get a high from competing and winning and eking out close victories, but losing makes you question whether all the prep effort is worth it. I guess it’s a matter of finding the fun in it again, and the drive to keep playing. We’ll see.

I played a sealed after dropping out of the main event, but only managed to win 4 boosters. I also played the SSS on Sunday, but scrubbed out again. I quit the weekend after that, since it felt like I was on tilt and was dead tired. So the GP was a bust, but at least there was swag!

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Thirty-Seven

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I like to be optimistic, or at least to try to. And to believe the best of people, or at least try to. It’s not always easy. Sometimes people disappoint you. Sometimes you feel lost. Or stressed. Or stuck in a rut. And you don’t know what to do.

You have to be able to look within yourself to find your own drive, to find the ability to move forward in spite of the tough times. And to be able to appreciate the good things in your life.

Despite some bad spots, I’ve still had a pretty good twelve months though. I’ve traveled a lot, and plan to travel more before the year ends. I’m still learning new things. I’m still blessed with good family and friends and a means to sustain myself and my wants.

My birthday always feels like a good opportunity to step back and take a breather and find some perspective. And to re-affirm the choice to keep moving forward – one step at a time…

 

GP Singapore 2015

GP Singapore 2015 would be my first Modern GP and maybe only my 3rd or 4th Modern event altogether. Modern is a difficult format to prepare for; there are many decks to prepare for and it’s almost impossible to master all the matchups. For this reason, I felt much less prepared for this event than for GP Manila back in January. I put together Grixis Twin for this event. It’s a bit difficult to pilot, but I felt it had a reasonable matchup across the board and there’s always a chance of comboing out when you’re falling behind. Here’s the list I played:

Here’s how my day 1 shook out:

R1 2-0 WIN vs grixis twin
R2 2-1 WIN vs coco elves
R3 1-1 DRAW vs abzan
R4 2-0 WIN vs gw coco
R5 2-0 WIN vs grixis twin
R6 2-1 WIN vs red burn
R7 2-0 WIN vs affinity
R8 1-2 LOSS vs rg tron
R9 1-2 LOSS vs merfolk

Of course 6-2-1 doesn’t qualify for day 2. Getting eliminated in the last 2 rounds makes me feel a bit salty. The draw vs abzan was because I lost game 1 and boarded into grindy control. I’m not sure if I should have tried to quickly win game 2 first. The loss to RG tron was close; if I had won the die roll I think I would have taken the match, although I did make some sloppy plays in game 3 as well. Merfolk was an uphill battle – this was one of the matchups I had not prepared for and it seems horribly bad for my side. Game 1 he had the first turn Aether Vial, which seemed to be unbeatable. I managed to eke out a win game 2 after a timely Anger of the Gods and finally running out his Vapor Snags so I could combo off. Cursecatcher + Spell Pierce kept me off Anger of the Gods in game 3 long enough for a 2nd and 3rd lord to push through lethal damage.

The problem of course with not making day 2 is that one doesn’t really plan on it, so you’re never sure what to do on Sunday. I skipped out on the Sunday Super Series and instead decided to play some Chaos Sealed on Sunday afternoon.

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Given the Champions of Kamigawa, Worldwake and Rise of Eldrazi packs of course one would hope for some significant value like Jace the Mindsculptor or maybe even just a Sensei’s Divining Top or some such. Instead I got such hits as Terra Eternal, Spearbreaker Behemoth, Spawnsire of Ulamog and Kusari-Gama. At least I got a Jace Architect of Thought and an Ojutai Soul of Winter which were good enough to get me 4 wins in 5 rounds of swiss. I wanted to claim a complete set of DTK with the points I won, but it took too long for my results to come in and someone got the last set before me. So I settled for a booster box and a t-shirt instead.

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Well, I didn’t too well this trip, but at least there’s still some swag and some winnings so it wasn’t a complete loss. And it’s always good to visit with my friends in Singapore so overall it was a good trip. I might be able to hit another GP later this year…it depends on how work plans shake out.

Europe 2015: Paris Part, Versailles and Barcelona Again

Previously: Overview | Barcelona Part 1 | Barcelona Part 2 | Rome and Vatican City | Rome Part 2 and Paris Part 1

This series of posts has taken longer than I thought it would, and I grow weary on it. We’ll cover things a bit faster from here, less of the daily stuff and we’ll stick to the highlights. This will be the final entry!

Sunday March 15th

This Sunday we took a long walk to visit the famous Louvre museum (why go to Paris and not see the Louvre). The French person behind the ticket booth greeted us in Tagalog when we told him we were from the Philippines. I was pleasantly surprised to find out the audioguide offered for the museum used a Nintendo 3DS XL and a custom cartridge.

The museum had a lot of Greek and Roman pieces and of course French artwork. Some of the things I found most interesting follow.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace. Well, I may have accidentally clicked on the detailed guide for  this piece and thus spent some extra time here

The Winged Victory of Samothrace. Well, I may have accidentally clicked on the detailed guide for this piece and thus spent some extra time here. Photo Credit: Ryan Liwanag

Diana of the Hunt. There's a replica of this statue in the hall of mirrors in Versailles

Diana of the Hunt. There’s a replica of this statue in the hall of mirrors in Versailles

Apparently there's always a big crowd around the Mona Lisa. I honestly found it a bit underwhelming, given how famous it is.

Apparently there’s always a big crowd around the Mona Lisa. I honestly found it a bit underwhelming, given how famous it is.

The Coronation of Napoleon ended the first audioguide tour we had decided to follow. The painting is huge and there were lots of details to take in

The Coronation of Napoleon ended the first audioguide tour we had decided to follow. The painting is huge and there were lots of details to take in

One of the last rooms we visited was full of Rembrandts, who was apparently very fond of selfies somehow

One of the last rooms we visited was full of Rembrandts, who was apparently very fond of selfies somehow

The tickets we had gotten also let us visit another nearby museum, but we were and had already spent most of the day in the Louvre so we decided to pass on that. We walked around a bit more, passing by one of the Paris bridges with love locks all over it. We ended our walk at the famous Notre Dame church; still tired, we passed on the long queue to get into the cathedral and took a taxi back to our hotel to rest up.

Monday March 16th

After a late breakfast of omelettes at a nearby French cafe, we spent the first half of the day travelling to the Eiffel Tower and hanging out at the base of the tower for a while, near a grassy area where there were a lot of other people just lounging around. We held off on going up the tower, saving it for our last day. Nothing of import happened for the rest of the day.

Tuesday March 17th

We had set aside this day to travel to Versailles, which required us to take a longer train ride out of Paris. We took a short walk from the train station to the Chateau, bought our tickets and got audio guides (from which we learned a lot). Some highlights follow.

There's a series of rooms with detailed paintings of Greek myths which left me looking up all the time. I think this Apollo one was my favorite

There’s a series of rooms with detailed paintings of Greek myths which left me looking up all the time. I think this Apollo one was my favorite

The famous Hall of Mirrors in the Chateau

The famous Hall of Mirrors in the Chateau

There's a series of rooms where normal people could get a glimpse of the king and queen's daily lives, including their bedrooms and this dining room

There’s a series of rooms where normal people could get a glimpse of the king and queen’s daily lives, including their bedrooms and this dining room

The Hall of Battles was easily my favorite thing in the Chateau, I paid attention to each of the battles/paintings discussed by the audioguide. Typically, I have already forgotten most of the information, but I was well entertained

The Hall of Battles was easily my favorite thing in the Chateau, I paid attention to each of the battles/paintings discussed by the audioguide. Typically, I have already forgotten most of the information, but I was well entertained

I think we managed to visit most if not all of the rooms of the Chateau, which gave me a new perspective on how ostentatious the life of royalty really was and a better appreciation of French history.

After the Chateau we went prowling around the gardens which were huge. We visited the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon, smaller complexes which were the residence of Marie Antoinette, and spent some time being lost on our way back to the Chateau.

It was late in the afternoon by the time we finished our tour of the Chateau and the Gardens, well worth the trip. We took the train back to Paris and decided to have an expensive dinner at a fancy French restaurant (one of the few times we decided to splurge on food). I had a French onion soup and a rather large pork chop.

Wednesday March 18th

After eating our last breakfast at the old lady’s pattiserie near our hotel, we took the Metro to the Montmarte hill overlooking Paris and famous for the white-domed Basilica of the Sacré Cœur (“Sacred Heart”), though we didn’t bother going inside the church. We spent some time here listening to a street performer and taking pictures of pigeons (omitted here for brevity, available upon request)

Panorama of the view from the Montmarte hill

Panorama of the view from the Montmarte hill. Unfortunately the Eiffel Tower was not visible from here

We walked back to our hotel, passing by the famous Moulin Rouge. We decided to rest and split up for the remainder of the day and just meet up later in the afternoon for our climb up the Eiffel Tower.

I took a leisurely afternoon walk to the Eiffel and waited for my companions at the same grassy spot we hung out at before. As the afternoon grew late, the wind grew bitingly cold and I was thankful when they finally arrived so that we could go up the tower.

We took the train ride to the top of the Eiffel, almost 300m above sea level. It was ridiculously cold at the top too, my hoodie was nowhere near enough

We took the elevator ride to the top of the Eiffel, almost 300m above sea level. It was ridiculously cold at the top too, my hoodie was nowhere near enough

A display atop the tower showed the distance from different capital cities around the world, and the height of the highest building there, for comparison to the Eiffel. I have no idea what this Stratford Residences is though

A display atop the tower showed the distance from different capital cities around the world, and the height of the highest building there, for comparison to the Eiffel. I have no idea what this Stratford Residences is though

Panoramic view from atop the tower. Please excuse my poor camera skillz

Panoramic view from atop the tower. Please excuse my poor camera skillz/quality

After enjoying the view from the top of the tower, we descended and enjoyed the tower's light show

After enjoying the view from the top of the tower, we descended and enjoyed the tower’s light show

Thursday March 19th to Sunday March 22nd

We flew back to Barcelona Thursday morning. We had booked a different hotel for our last leg, the Charm Suites along Parallel Ave. It turns out the staff were mostly Filipinos so they were very welcoming to us. The 3-person hotel room was easily the best we had booked for the trip. The room was large and came with a large TV, a fridge, a kitchen area with plates, utensils and a stove for cooking and thankfully free wi-fi.

We spent the last leg of the trip in decompression mode, mostly relaxing at the hotel room. I was planning to attend a Dragons of Tarkir (MTG) Prerelease that weekend so I took a 30-minute walk Thursday to find the place I would be playing at, which turned out to be in an area filled with shops relevant to my interests: toy stores, book stores, comic stores, etc. I decided to register for the prerelease at Gigamesh, a large sci-fi/fantasy/comic book store with a back room for the tournament.

Before the weekend we took a leisurely afternoon/evening walk to the Barcelona coast so that we could make contact with the Mediterranean sea and having seaside paella for dinner.

I spent Saturday at Gigamesh having a good time playing with Spanish cards at the DTK prerelease. I had spent some time during the past few days studying up on the card lists in Spanish, worried that I would have a tough time with the local players. Most of them understood English well enough though.

Finally, Sunday was our flight back to Manila through Singapore, and the end of our trip. And the end of this series of posts, I hope you enjoyed it – I’m not sure I’d be willing to go into such detail again haha. Well, I have a couple more trips planned this year, so let’s see what happens there. Thanks for reading!

Europe 2015: Rome Part 2 and Paris Part 1

Previously: Overview | Barcelona Part 1 | Barcelona Part 2 | Rome and Vatican City

Friday March 13th

This was our last day in Rome and we were planning to visit the Colosseum and the nearby Palatino Hill. It was a long walk and we passed by a few palaces and the usual open plazas, many of the landmarks identified by Egpytian obelisks placed there by the Roman emperors. Rome is chock-full of cobblestone roads and plazas lined with souvenir shops and pizzerias and buildings fronted by 12-foot-high steel doors with large lion-head knockers and churches liberally sprinkled every other block. One of the churches we passed through was the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church which featured the Bocca del Verita/Mouth of Truth, made famous by the 1953 film Roman Holiday. There’s a short queue outside the church for tourists wanting to take a picture at the Mouth of Truth.

Supposedly if you lie with your hand inside the mouth, you will lose your hand. I would have pretended to lose my hand, but the guy ahead of us in the queue already did that gag

Supposedly if you lie with your hand inside the mouth, you will lose your hand. I would have pretended to lose my hand, but the guy ahead of us in the queue already did that gag. Photo Credit: Ryan Liwanag

The church itself wasn’t too large – it was only a minor basilica, but there was a display of the relics of St. Valentine.

We also passed by a large elliptical open field on the way to the Colosseum, which we found out later to be the site of the Circus Maximus. It used to be the site of ancient Roman chariot races. For some reason, I decided to pick up a rock from the field and take it back home as a souvenir (hopefully not illegal LOL)

circus_maximus

The Circus Maximus reminds me of the UP Sunken Garden, although it is significantly longer

After that we arrived at the Colosseum itself. Outside the Colosseum were the usual merchants selling various souvenirs including replica Roman soldier helmets and swords. I asked the merchant how much one of them was an he jokingly told me it was one million euro. There were some people offering guided tours, but we decided to go our own this time. The ticket price was 16 euro for a combination ticket that gave us access to the Colosseum and the nearby Palatino Hill and Roman forum.

The outside of the Colosseum - the pillars are riddled with holes

The outside of the Colosseum – the pillars are riddled with holes

The Colosseum had a few exhibits inside showing artifacts recovered from the site that gave insights as to how the ancient Romans enjoyed the games, including graffiti from the stone seats depicting Roman gladiators and pots and pans indicating the audience cooked meals while watching.

There's a mess of tunnels underneath what used to be the Colosseum floor - they raised up animals using trapdoor platforms from this level

There’s a mess of tunnels underneath what used to be the Colosseum floor – they raised up animals using trapdoor platforms from this level

The Colosseum has three levels and a basement level, although our ticket did not allow us access to the basement. It was thankfully a rather warm day although still a bit windy, as we spent some time going around the first and second levels. I had to resist the urge to shout “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!?”

Just across the street from the Colosseum and up an inclined road was the entrance to the Palatine Hill and Roman Forum. We head up the elevated area first to go around the gardens and building ruins of the former palace. We were already a bit tired by this point and climbing up the hill was exhausting but it did afford us a good elevated view of the Colosseum and the nearby sights.

The view overlooking the Roman forum and nearby ruins

The view overlooking the Roman forum and nearby ruins

We wasted some time trying to figure out the correct path to climb down the hill (we totally weren’t lost!) At the base of the hill we visited the ruins of the Roman Forum (disappointingly, it was just a bunch of stones) and we also visited a couple of temples before deciding that we were too tired to look at everything. Tapped out, we tried to figure out where the exit was.

We walked back to our hotel, stopping for a late lunch of sandwiches at a small corner shop and later on at a gelato place along the way where the young woman behind the register somehow managed to figure out we were fellow Filipinos while we perused the menu.

It was still early, but since we had a late lunch that day so my companions didn’t want to go have dinner any more. But I felt like while I was in Rome I should eat more pasta so I headed out into the chilly night and decided to return to the Montecarlo and I had some gnocchi despite not being too hungry (it was still pretty good!) After dinner, I headed back to hotel and we rested up for the trip to Paris the next morning.

Saturday March 14th

After a slight scare with a delay in finding our check-in luggage, we took a taxi from the ORLY airport in Paris to our hotel. The taxi turned out more expensive than we had expected, but I think by that time we were at a point in the trip that we were more willing to spend than be tired.

Our hotel was the Hotel Camelia International on Rue Darcet. We were greeted at the lobby by a grumpy-looking one-legged Frenchman who reminded me of Ray’s father from Everybody Loves Raymond. He confirmed our reservation and gave us keys for our room on the sixth floor, instructing us to use the lift. The lift turned out to be able to carry only two people at the time, so we had to take two trips. The room itself was mostly just the three beds crammed into a tight space. The bathroom/toilet had no lock and if you were sitting on the bidet, the door would slam right into you when it opened. The room had no wi-fi – you would need to go sit at the common area in front of the reception to use the wifi. We did not take the breakfast option at this hotel, which turned out to be a good idea, as it turned out later to be only a croissant and coffee. While pleasant enough, the place was easily the worst among the places we stayed at during the trip.

After a bit of rest we headed out to find something to eat and ended up ending at a restaurant serving South-Asian style food where I had some sort of shawarma type of thing. As usual while eating we planned out our day: we decided today to visit at least the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees.

Paris wasn’t like Rome with all the crowds and tourist spots so close together, it was closer to Barcelona with wide streets and lots of open spaces. Like Rome, there seemed to be no skyscrapers in Paris; we passed by what seemed to be residential neighborhoods lined with trees coming back from winter cut in identical patterns. We arrived at the rotunda surrounding the Arc de Triomphe and we took the tunnel to cross the road to the island where it was. We decided not to pay the fee to climb the Arc since we were planning to climb the Eiffel later on and we would get a better view from there.

From there we made our way to the Champs-Elysees. I wasn’t sure what I expected, but it was full of fancy, high-end shops. Lots of tourists too. We only went into a couple of shops (I’m not really into shopping). The wind was brisk and cold as we made our way down the avenue; eventually we moved past the area full of shops and arrived at a couple of museums adorned with gilded fences and statues of angelic hosts, I believe one of them was the Grand Palais.

From there we walked a bit south until we were at the Seine near the Pont Alexandre, a well-decorated bridge which gave us a good view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. The bridge was surrounded by pillars on each end with ornate gold statues atop them. Apparently this bridge is a popular location for prenup pics; we counted no less than 6 couples in tuxedos and wedding gowns having their pictures taken on or near the bridge.

The bridge gives us a good view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance

The bridge gives us a good view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance

One of the golden statues watching over the Pont Alexander

One of the golden statues watching over the Pont Alexander

It was almost dusk by then so we started to make our way back to the hotel. We make our way through a maze of streets named after different capital cities, passing near the La Madeleine church. By this time night had rolled around and the buildings and restaurants are illuminated in various shades of neon. We arrive at the hotel late at night, and we turn in early in preparation for more walking around the next day.

Next: The Louvre and The Versailles

 

Europe 2015: Rome and Vatican City

Previously: Overview | Barcelona Part 1 | Barcelona Part 2

Wednesday March 11th

It’s early in the morning when the shuttle picks us up to take us to the airport for our flight to Rome. When we first planned the trip a few months back, only Spain and France were on the itinerary. But due to a last-minute change in circumstances, we decided to add Italy to the trip. We had also acquired a railpass and were planning to travel by train between Spain and France, but given the change of plans we decided to refund the railpass (up to 85% of the cost can be refunded) and we literally booked inter-Europe flights during our layover in Singapore at the start of the trip.

We had booked all of our inter-Europe flights on Vueling, a Spain-based budget airline. I was a bit apprehensive about it since internet searches led to some stories of people having trouble with lost baggage, but luckily they were able to get us and our luggage to Rome safely and without incident.

Upon arrival at the Rome airport, we went to a tourist information kiosk to get some maps and whatnot. While we were there, this Italian man kept wanting to talk to us, offering free information about a shuttle service from the airport. We already had instructions on how to get to the hotel by train, so we ignored him at first and tried to figure out ourselves where to go. Eventually we gave up and just took the shuttle service with a few other travelers. We were the last to get off the shuttle, so we got something of a preview of the different places in Rome as the other passengers were dropped off at their hotels.

We were dropped off on a cobblestone sidewalk in front of a four-or-five-story building with a 12-foot tall metal gate in front. We walked in cautiously and found ourselves in a short hallway with a doorway at the end. The old lady who popped up from behind the doorway told us we needed to go up one floor when we told her we were looking for our hotel called Migdal Palace. Another large door on the right side of the hallway led to a stairwell. At the bottom of the stairwell was an old-timey open-air elevator made up of rusty metal bars. We only needed to go up one floor, but what the hell. We rode the small elevator up.

At the reception desk, we were greeted by a pretty Italian lady named Alina who spoke with accented yet clear and understandable English. She was very friendly and told us there was a room ready but we would have to wait a bit for the beds to be set up. We had not yet had breakfast at this point, so we asked her the most relevant question: was there a nearby place where we could eat some good pasta?

She directed us to a small restaurant at a corner a few blocks from the hotel, the Montecarlo, saying that she ate there all the time. We were a bit early for the lunch hour so we had to wait a few minutes for them to be ready. We were seated at an outdoors table; I ordered some carbonara, since Marco from Freehostels had recommended it, while my two companions ordered cacio e pepe, recommended by Alina at Migdal Palace.

While waiting for the meals to be served we pored over the maps to plan out our Rome trip. We only had 3 days in Rome, so we allocated today for walking around a bit and seeing nearby things, then the next day we would visit the Vatican, and on the third day the Colosseum.

Carbonara!

Carbonara!

The carbonara was very good and very cheesy; the sauce was egg-based without cream (as opposed to the cream-based ones I’m used to) and luckily no mushrooms (I dislike mushrooms). I also had a few bites of my friends’ cacio e pepe and it was a strange combination of tastes but also very good.

After eating we headed back to the hotel where the beds had already been set up. We rested up for a bit before heading out to explore the city a bit.

We made our way through the city, passing by a couple of plazas with small fountains surrounded by a maze of irregularly-arranged cobblestone streets. Rome was easily way more crowded than Barcelona and was very much a tourist city, made obvious by the abundance of shops and street stalls peddling magnets, keychains, miniature roman helmets and other random souvenirs.

We visited the Pantheon (an ancient Roman circular domed structure adorned with various exhibits including the remains of the ninja turtle Raphael), the church of Saint Ignatius de Loyola (which would turn out to be the first of many well-decorated churches we would visit) among other places. We made our way to the well-known Trevi Fountain, but unfortunately for us, it was undergoing renovation at this time and was drained of water. We walked around a bit more and late at night we ended up eating at this kinda fancy Italian restaurant which charged us an extra 5 euros for the tablecloth (or at least that what the chef’s gestures looked like when we asked him to explain the bill)

Not too much detail to talk about here, but here are some pictures I shared via Google Plus: Wednesday afternoon in Rome.  (You might need to be logged in to Google to access, I have no idea how this works)

Thursday March 12th

Next day we availed of the free breakfast served by Migdal Palace, which consisted of bread, croissants, eggs, goat cheese and no meat, which ranks it below the breakfast from Free Hostels. Nonetheless we had our fill before heading out for the day’s walking around.

We made our way west towards the Tiber river, then followed it north until we crossed the river at the Angel Bridge towards the Castel Sant’Angelo. From there we walked westward along the Via de Conciliazone which would bring us right in front of Vatican City.

As we approached the Vatican, a blonde lady started walking with us and offering us details about a tour package she was offering. I wanted to ignore her, but my companions started listening to her so we stopped to hear her spiel. The way she told it, the tour involved us paying 46 euro each and included a 26 euro entrance fee for the Vatican Museum and the tour groups would also have access to a special passage from the Sistine Chapel to the Basilica of St. Peter. While there was no entrance fee for the Basilica, going with a tour group would allow us to skip the ridiculously long line of the tourists waiting to enter the Basilica. However, the fee the lady was offering seemed too rich for our blood so we passed on it and carried on.

We reached the border to Vatican City and stood there for a while contemplating how to proceed, and we were approached by another person selling tour packages. This time it was a man of South Asian descent who reminded me of Community’s Abed. He got our attention by calling out in Tagalog “pinakamura dito!”

The tour package he offered us was similar to what the blonde lady had, except he was was offering us a price of 36 euros each, or 10 euros less. While we were contemplating it, we also met with a couple of Filipino expats who were referring people to a nearby souvenir store they were involved with, and they told us the price Abed was offering was already pretty good. After some discussion, we decided to go with it.

We were introduced to our tour guide Angelica and handed phone-sized receivers with earphones that we could use to listen to her while she talked about stuff on the tour. We started in front of the Basilica, joined by some white people, and Angelica described to us the history of Rome and Italty and Vatican City and Pope Francis and all that jazz. Pretty informative stuff, but nothing I need to repeat here. After a bunch of these introductions, we would go over to their tour office to pay the fee before heading off to the Vatican Museum.

As we were walking towards their tour office, I saw Abed calling me over away from the group, and I walked over to him and he told me that the white people that were part of our tour group had been given a higher price so that we should avoid mentioning how much we are paying. Felt a bit shady, but I guess we were getting a better deal so we ran with it.

After paying at the tour office, we headed over to the Vatican Museum. At that point we found out that the Vatican Museum entrance fee was actually only 16 euro, so I’m not sure why both the blonde lady and Abed said it was 26 euro. Whatever.

The Vatican Museum was filled with exhibits featuring statues depicting Roman emperors and other events from Roman history, including statues of Roman gods (which I didn’t expect from a Catholic institution). There was also a section filled with Catholic-focused murals and ceiling paintings. Angelica would stop at various exhibits to give us a brief background and history. We stopped at a corner of the pinecone courtyard so that Angelica could give us a briefing on the history of the Sistine Chapel – apparently they were not allowed to give briefings inside the Sistine Chapel itself. Naturally she had to give us the joke about the missing first fifteen chapels.

Afterwards we went into the Sistine Chapel itself. No photography was allowed inside so we spent most of the time staring upwards at Michaelangelo’s masterpieces on the ceiling (being a tourist in Rome apparently meant looking up a lot).

After the Sistine Chapel, Angelica took our group through the secret passage reserved for tour groups. It brought us to the front entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica where the tour ended. Angelica gave us some last words and left us to take a look at the Basilica at our own leisure.

I’m finding it difficult to find the words to describe the Basilica itself, I guess the most appropriate word to use is grand. We spent one hour walking separately around the Basilica just looking at things (although I did spend some time sitting down since we had been walking through the Vatican Museum for around 3 hours before this). There’s just a lot of history and statues and paintings and chandeliers and tombs and relics. As a Catholic it was well worth the visit. On our way out we took some pictures with some Swiss Guard standing by one of the side entrances.

We left the Basilica at around 3pm and had a late lunch at a restaurant along the Via de Conciliazone. After that it was still early so we spent a couple more hours walking around checking a few more sites and running into some weird yet entertaining street art. We wanted to visit the Villa Medici, but it was closed on this day. Eventually we got tired and decided to take a taxi back to the hotel and rest.

Some pictures from this day on Google Plus again: Thursday in Rome.

To be continued

I was hoping to cover all of the Rome leg in one post, but this post is already long enough as it is. It may take at least three more posts to cover everything else, I hope the audience doesn’t get tired.