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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Asia Tour with Two Tickets to the Philippines

Tokyo, Japan
Besides seeing and hanging out with old friends and new ones (thanks Simone who introduced me to two of her new friends and Stefanie who invited me to drink with her friends in Tokyo), my one month stay in Japan was coming to an end.  It was short but long...moreso long because the Yen-US exchange rate was at an all time high (Y88 = $1.00) and for some brief patches, I didn't know where I'd be staying and knew that I couldn't afford to pay the Y8000 per night at a hotel (minimum costs).

Since Japan is not the cheapest place to spend a month just "hanging out", I actually considered that I would see if I could fly standby and try to get out of Japan sooner.  I'd have to pay a change fee but I figured it would be cheaper than to stay in Japan.  When I called the airlines, I was told that I could pay $75 to change my flight.  Perfect.  Since my flight was routing through Beijing, I asked if I'd be able to stay in Beijing longer; leave Japan earlier but fly out of Beijing on the original date. "It is against the fare rules" I was told.  So, I decided I'd make the most of Tokyo for the remaining time that I was there and leave on March 4 as originally scheduled.

So, while in Japan, I tried to stretch my money when I could and walked the distances that I could walk.  Thanks to google maps (on your iPhone, it is REMARKABLE!), I walked the streets as if I was born and bred in Tokyo.  Some of my more triumphant walks were Eifukucho - Umegaoka  and Nishi-Shinjuku - Umegaoka.  Since the weather was pretty nice, it was great to not only save money but get some exercise in too.

March 4 quickly came and on the day of departure, I actually had one more Tokyo Metro ticket that I had not used yet.  So even though there were easier routes to get to the airport, I decided that I would go on a route that was not suggested just so that I could use the Tokyo Metro ticket that I had purchased with the multiple ticket purchase. It was actually quite easy except for the the part when I got to Shimbashi station.  Apparently there is a new Shimbashi Station and an old Shimbashi Station.  I didn't have enough time to figure out the difference so I can't tell you.  But when I got here, I got lost...I was supposed to ride the Keihin Kyuukou which is also commonly referred to as the Keikyu. The characters which are typically read as Keihama or Kyouhama threw me for a loop (literally!) and I was walking around in circles.  In the end, I found out that I needed to ride the Toei Asakusa-sen which was apparently the Keikyu and so I didn't need to take a tour of both the new and old Shimbashi Station. Confused?  Well, that's the point...that's exactly how I felt when I was there and I literally wasted about 20 minutes, lugging my large backpack, suitcase and other junks around the crowded station.  Finally, got on the right train which departed at 12:04PM.

The Airlines suggests that you arrive at the airport at least 2 hours prior to departure time for international flights and I should have been there at 11:50AM.  I was so worried they were going to close the flight and I wouldn't get on!  I arrived at the airport at 12:15PM but I still needed to ride the shuttle bus to the International Departures Terminal!  Ack!!!  Arrived at around 12:20PM but because it's a smaller airport with less international flights, it's not so crowded.  Typically at Narita airport, you'd have to give yourself at least 30-40 minutes just to clear Immigration; lines and lines snaking through to get stamped out of the country.  At Haneda the line was about 10 deep and took me a total of about 4 minutes to get through.  No big deal that I turned up only 1.5 hours prior to my flight. PHEW. The only downside was that there was no coffee (I was looking for a Starbucks because I had a coupon for a free coffee redeemable only in Japan) and no convenience stores for the ever so tasty Y100 rice balls!

I had separated my luggage and packed my backpack for check-in and my suitcase (the one my dad brought for me) with my winter clothes as hand-carry.  It took some extra time logically trying to figure out what was going in what bag but it worked out perfectly.  Air China sent my backpack straight to Taipei even though I had a 15 hour layover in Beijing.

Beijing, China

I arrived at 4:50PM and I would be departing the following morning at 8:35AM. It's crazy because this was the only flight option but the airlines doesn't offer a free hotel stay. Instead, your options are to sleep at the airport (images of the movie Terminal flash in my mind) or get a hotel at the airport which turns out to be about $80!  Luckily I had my multiple entry Chinese Visa which I paid an arm and a leg for (Y15,000) in Tokyo and a friend who was going to house me for the night. 

Exiting Immigration, among the sea of round Asian faces, I recognized Wang Zhen my very good friend Nicole's husband.  Nicole had sent her husband (who is hoping to get accepted into a US University to improve his English and earn a degree) so that he could practice his English and me my Chinese. It was actually a learning experience for both of us, I think.  He spoke to me as if I understood everything so his speaking pace was natural and he used regular conversational words.

There was one incident that had us all in stitches.  We were trying to meet up with Nicole and her daughter, Tianyu.  We had walked into the Wal-Mart (most are like department stores so other stores on other levels) and Wang Zhen had said something to me.  "Dui, dui (okay okay) I answered and I waited there.  I thought Wang Zhen said that we were in the wrong building and he would go and come back and wanted me to wait there.  So he walked out and I just stood around, observing my surroundings. I must have been in there for about 3 minutes when Wang Zhen came back "Regina! lai lai (come, come!)"  Huh?  What happened?  Apparently, Wang Zhen did not ask me to wait there and instead he was just telling me we were in the wrong building...I was supposed to have gone out WITH him....ha ha. Lost in Translation.

I cannot begin to describe how amazing both Nicole and her husband are.  Nicole and I have know each other for 12 years now.  We both worked at the same law firm in China in 1998.  I was still in college and working at the firm as an intern.  Our boss was also a graduate from my university and I was able to spend an expense paid winter term in China (I think I just paid for my flight) and was able to bring a friend. I ended up bringing a friend from my freshman floor who was also studying Chinese.  The three of us shared an office together; I don't think Nicole really knew how to react to us young college kids who had terrible Chinese.  Since our first meeting though, Nicole has been a great support to me and my ambitions of returning to live in China.  She was there for me on my first attempt to live in China in 2002 and has continued to support me with my move later this year. I cannot thank her enough!

It goes without saying, I had a fabulous dinner with Nicole and her family (China's One Child Policy = standard family size = 3) at a Korean restaurant.  I could not believe how much I ate; no actually I can!  Although it was a Korean restaurant, they also had sushi (although cannot be compared to Japan); 4 pieces of salmon for $3! I could not pass that up!  After dinner, we stopped at Nicole's office.  If you are entering the China Market, be sure that your intellectual property rights are covered.  A good place to start is with a credible and honest law firm:

Got to refresh at Nicole's house and repack my luggage again.  This time I would be leaving my suitcase behind.  As the Northern part of the world is heading into spring, I didn't think I would need my winter clothes until next winter.  I thought it would be a great idea to leave it with Nicole in Beijing; one less thing to bring over.  Planning proved successful as I had everything I needed and left everything else behind.

Woke up the next morning at 6AM to make my way back to the airport to catch my flight.  Mind you, I left all my warm clothes behind so ran out to the taxi in 0℉ and needed to make a mad dash out when I got to the airport.  Smooth sailing from there and I boarded my connecting flight to Taipei with no problem.

Taipei, Taiwan

Three hours later, I was back in Taipei.  My great friends Dennis and Vicky (remember from 'Taiwan and Great Friends'?) and the great people that they are, allowed me back into their home.  I wasn't sure how long I would be in Taiwan but asked if I could stay for maybe 2 or 3 nights.

I actually have my return flight to Hawaii scheduled for March 15.  I thought I would spend the weekend in Taiwan and then spend a week in the Philippines.  My cave guide Erwin offered to meet up with me and we planned to spend time together.   Since I had limited internet connection in Japan and because most of the computers I used were probably not secure, I didn't want to purchase my Taipei - Manila flight until I got to Dennis and Vicky's place.  What I didn't expect though was that the ticket would be sold out!  YIKES!  So without thinking, I went ahead and purchased the next ticket available which would depart a week later on March 12.

Initially when I first saw the ticket back in the Philippines, it was only $40 + $25 tax = $65.  Now however the ticket was $60 + $25 = $85. This would reverse my plans and have me spending a week in Taipei and the weekend in the Philippines. I went ahead and did this without carefully researching; I suppose I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to find a ticket for less than $100.  Later, I realized that I would much rather spend a week in the Philippines (they have cheap movies there!) than a week in Taiwan.  So after discussing with Erwin, found a ticket on Cebu Pacific.  Bought that ticket for $100! My assumption was that even though there would be a cancellation fee, I'd only pay about $150 for both tickets which was still relatively cheap (can barely fly inter-island in Hawaii for that price).  I was okay with my purchase and then found out that the company of my original ticket would charge me a $40 cancellation fee and would return the remaining fare (which I later learned would only be $20 because the $25 tax would not be refunded) in the form of a voucher.  Oh well, it was done; I had my new ticket to the Philippines and I would leave in a few days.

I spent the weekend with the family and everything was low key. The highlights over the weekend included Vicky making me a fresh blended juice every morning and leaving it for me in the fridge!  So sweet!  (I'm such a great pun writer!)  Thanks Vicky!  Great pizza at Cosi Cosi and going to see NINE at the theaters.  The movie price isn't any cheaper than it is in the US but I thought I should see what Taiwan theaters were like.  Vicky and Dennis were having a date night so I tagged along as the third wheel.  The cool thing here which they also do in the Philippines is that you are able to pre-purchase your ticket as well as choose your own seats.  Although I was buying my ticket right before the movie, I had no problems in getting a decent seat although separated from the couple.  The movie was okay with an all-star cast.  We also rented District 9 the following night (there's a 9 theme here).  The movie was surprisingly good; I also hear that it just won an Oscar for something last night?

My final night here, I found out from twitter that one of my customers would be coming out to Taiwan to participate in an Indigenous Television Broadcasters conference.  Turned out it was 4 of them and one of the other travelers was my old elementary school classmate!  What a small world.  Met up with Sam and hung out at their beautiful hotel for a few hours.  Later, I could sense they were tired so I excused myself and ended up walking out to Tong Hua Night Market. It would be my last night so I wanted to eat Luroufan and Yimian at the stall that my friend Jen had introduced me to the last time.  Equipped with my google maps, I walked about 2 miles to the Night Market.  Thankfully, I located my stall and the lady remembered me!  I ordered the same dishes.  Since I'd be leaving the next afternoon decided I would take the same order to go.  Walked another mile and a half back to my friend's place.

The following morning I woke up early, had my leftover take-out from the night before and made my way to the airport shortly after 10:00AM.  It was drizzling which didn't make my walk to the train station with all my luggage pleasant.  I had to first take the Metro 5 stops and then transfer by bus.  Everything seemed to go smoothly until I arrived at Taipei Main Station and nothing looked familiar. I couldn't remember where I got dropped off and where I needed to go to ride my bus (I had purchased a round trip bus ticket).  After getting lost for about 20 minutes, finally found my way to the bus station and made it in time to ride the 11:00 bus.

Reviewed my ticket, confirmed 01:40, Cebu Pacific.  My ticket isn't for 1:40AM, is it?  No, who flies at a time like that?  I was told by my bus driver that Cebu Pacific was in Terminal 2.  After about an hour, our bus pulled into Terminal 1.  I remained on the bus since I needed to go to Terminal 2.  Arrived at Terminal 2 but didn't see my flight information on the big board.  Asked someone at the Information counter and was told that Cebu Pacific is located at Terminal 1.  Had to find my way by Sky Train from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1.  It was already past noon and again I was afraid that I may miss my flight.  Taoyuan International Airport was much bigger than Haneda...Arrived at Terminal 1 and again tried to locate my flight on the big board...couldn't find it.  After being directed here and there, a lady finally told me, "Oh Cebu Pacific that's the one that leaves at midnight!"  WHAT?? You've got to be kidding me!  I was directed to the information desk and was given a number for Cebu Pacific. Dialed the number and just my luck, their office was closed and would be for another hour or so.

Finally got through to them and I was told: "You missed your flight so there is no refund and it is not rebookable."  Seriously?  After all the trouble I went to buy this flight so that I could get into the Philippines earlier??  I asked her, how much and when would your next flight out be.  She told me that there were no flights the following day but there was one on March 11 (only one day earlier than my original flight) and the price would be over NT5,200 (almost double what I paid).  "No thank you" and I hung up the phone.  My next attempt was to call the company that booked my original ticket and see if I could somehow use that because I did have a voucher.  Couldn't get a hold of anyone so went ahead and  emailed them.

The Spirit of Manila always with great customer service replied and said that they would kindly reinstate my ticket and I would not be charged the $40 cancellation fee however I would have to pay for the airport tax of $25 again.  Okay, okay it wasn't so bad.  I'm still kicking myself for canceling the ticket when I still had a few more days and I could have verified that I used my second ticket first.  But oh well, only $25 more wasn't that bad considering...

Bought another set of round-trip bus tickets and made it back to Vicky and Dennis'.  God Bless them!  What a crazy day and I have to think that maybe it wasn't meant to be that I went out to the Philippines earlier?  Dennis had joked about my tickets the whole time since I ended up buying two in the first place!  Hopefully, I'll make my flight on Friday and I'll at least be able to enjoy the weekend before I make it back to Hawaii for a short one month stay.

So, what to do in Taiwan for my next two full days?  I'm hoping to make it back to Tong Hua night market again.  And a friend of a friend, Elroy who also hails from Hawaii is a promoter and will have his weekly Wednesday party so hopefully I'll make it out to that.  Any other thoughts? Suggestions?  Thursday the weather should be warming up so maybe I'll make a day trip somewhere.

I seem to always keep myself entertained....

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