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Coffee options at San Pablo City, Laguna

If you are a coffee lover like me, traveling outside of the main urban areas of the Philippines often means being deprived of real coffee for a while, because Nescafe and 3-in-1 (instant coffee with powered milk and sugar) is all that is available in most rural parts of the Philippines.

If you are traveling by road back to Manila from the Bicol region, then you've most likely experienced the anticipation of a real coffee as you get closer to San Pablo City where there is a Starbucks out the front of the SM mall on the Pan-Philippine Highway.

But if you are not a Starbucks fan, there is an alternative that I discovered yesterday on the way back from Quezon province. It's called Espresso de Kaldi and the coffee is as good as, if not better, than Starbucks. It's on the right hand side of the Pan-Philippine Highway about a kilometre before the SM mall, just after the Petron gas station.

San Pablo coffee shop.jpg

My only disappointment was that they do not serve coffee in mugs, only paper cups - which is not good for the environment. But given that 95% of Starbucks coffee in the Philippines is served in paper cups, I can't penalise them for that.

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Short visit to Bangkong Kuhay Valley

We attended the christening of a friend's new baby daughter in San Pablo City, Laguna, this afternoon, after which we headed to Dolores in Quezon province for the reception which was held at the Bangkong Kuhay Valley nature resort.

It was my first time there and I was impressed with the beautiful forest views from the resort.

Bangkong Kuhay Valley view.jpg

The road up to the resort was very narrow in places and a couple of times I had close calls with motorcyclists (locals I presume) racing down the hill at speeds far in excess of what the road is safe for. Towards the top, the road becomes a dirt road and is very rocky in places. I doubt a small two-wheel drive car would make it up to the resort if it was raining.

The only part of the resort that I saw was around the function room where the reception was held, so this is not a review of the place. Maybe I will return to write a proper review one day when I have more time. But I was impressed to see an honesty bar in the garden - the first time I have seen that in the Philippines. Normally hotel and resort owners in the Philippines are the least trusting people in the world, and won't let you leave their premises until someone has checked out the minibar to make sure what you have written on your minibar tab agrees with the hotel's reckoning. I've assumed that's always been because guests have taken advantage of the honour system that hotels in other parts of the world generally adopt.  So it will be interesting to learn of this resort's experience with an honesty bar.  Not only does this resort trust its guests to record what they have consumed in a book on the bar, they leave the cash that guests have paid in a basket next to the book.

The honesty bar at the Bangkok Kuhay Valley nature resort

The honesty bar at the Bangkok Kuhay Valley nature resort

The outdoor seating area at the honesty bar

The outdoor seating area at the honesty bar

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Treatment of animals in Asia

I went to a landscaping materials supplier in Antipolo today to buy some ara-al stone, and was playing with this friendly kitten whilst waiting for my pick-up to be loaded. I noticed that his whiskers had been cut off, so I asked the nursery owner what had happened to it.  

She told me that her kids had cut the whiskers off. I suggested to her - as politely as I could - that maybe she should tell her kids not to do that. I explained why cats need their whiskers and that they can become very disoriented and distressed if their whiskers are cut off.  Fortunately this little fellow didn't seem to be suffering any ill-effects, but it annoyed me that the mother didn't seem concerned about it, even after I explained why cutting off a cat's whiskers is a big no-no.

Unfortunately, living in Asia exposes you to a lot of ill-treatment of animals. Cutting off whiskers is a comparatively mild form of physical abuse compared to some of the things I have seen. I frequently see kittens dumped on median strips of busy highways where they are unlikely to survive more than 24 hours unless a passing motorist stops and picks them up (something I have never seen happen, or been able to do myself, because usually the traffic is moving too fast and it would be dangerous to stop).

A Filipino friend told me recently that his cat was blind because neighbourhood kids had poked its eyes out "for fun". What was almost as disturbing was that he too seemed to be unconcerned about it.

And then of course there are the dog-eating festivals in China where pet dogs are stolen from suburban streets and boiled alive, and the bloody dolphin-killing rituals in Japan that attract international condemnation every year.

Why do people in Asia treat animals so badly? I don't know the answer to that question.

Yes I know my question is based on a generalisation, but from my observations from 50 years of traveling the globe, it seems to me that the treatment of animals in Asia is far worse than in any other part of the world.

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Good coffee in the Philippines

I've been living in the Philippines for nearly seven years now, and as a coffee lover it's been hard going at times because up until recent years we had little more than chains like Starbucks, Seattle's Best Coffee and Coffee Bean to choose from. That was until Costa Coffee started opening stores a few years ago, so now the situation is much improved.

However, the nearest Costa Coffee stores are all close to an hour away from where I live, so most of the time I make my own coffee at home using my espresso machine.

Finding fresh beans with good body and flavour was also a challenge for many years too. I tried many different Philippine coffees because I assumed those would have been fresher than imported ones, but most were too bland or too bitter.

So for the past couple of years I've been using the Costa ground coffee in tins, despite them being about twice the price of other brands.  But the problem with Costa is that the supply of their ground coffee is very erratic.  They will have some in stock for a few weeks, then nothing for several months.

So I was absolutely delighted to discover a new local brand today called 'Brillo' that has an Italian Roast blend that tastes almost identical to the Costa coffee that I normally buy.

My 'old' coffee on the left, and my 'new' coffee on the right, with a cup of freshly made 'Brillo' coffee in the middle.

My 'old' coffee on the left, and my 'new' coffee on the right, with a cup of freshly made 'Brillo' coffee in the middle.

Actually Brillo is not that new. According to their website, which I checked out when I got home, they were established four years ago, but I only came across them today. I will be switching to them now because their coffees are half the price of the Costa ground coffee (but I shall still continue to enjoy Costa's famed flat whites when I am in the vicinity of any of their stores because I can't replicate the thick layer of crema on my home espresso machine).

The Brillo company was established to roast and package imported coffee beans in small batches, recognising that the secret of good coffee is to use freshly roasted beans.

Brillo is a strange name for a coffee brand (when I think of Brillo I think of a soap-filled scouring pad) but I guess they are using it as a Spanish word (which means brightness). The Philippines used to be a Spanish colony so it is quite common here to see Spanish words being used as brand names.

But what surprised me most of all when I checked out the Brillo website, was that their Italian Roast was a blend of a local Arabica bean (from Mt Matutum in southern Mindanao) and a Java Robusta bean (which I guess is why they can keep the price low).  The coffee tastes so good I had assumed it must have been 100% Arabica beans because the Robusta beans don't add any bitterness at all.

They have three other blends that I will try in due course, but at the moment I'm more than happy with their Italian Roast - let's hope they can keep the taste of that blend consistent (something that Starbucks struggles to do with their coffees).

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Jeepney rollover protection?

I spotted this jeepney driving through San Mateo, Rizal, this afternoon, with dozens of pillows tied to its roof. I wondered whether these belonged to a passenger who was using the jeepney as a cheap means of cartage, or whether the jeepney driver had installed them in case of a rollover.

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Flying on a wing and a prayer

Flying back from Cebu on Cebu Pacific Air yesterday, I was not impressed to see advertisements plastered inside the aircraft cabin carrying this worrying message.  I'm sure most passengers are like me and prefer to be reassured that the plane is well-maintained and being flown by skilled pilots - not being told that someone is praying that we will make it to our destination! 

 

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Beautiful Camiguin Island

I spent a few days on Camiguin Island this week. It's a beautifully scenic island made up of five volcanoes, but only one of which is still active (it last erupted in 1953). Ironically that one is known on the island as the 'Old Volcano' (official name Mt Vulcan), but geologically speaking, that one is the youngest because it's a parasite cone of the larger Mt Hibok-Hibok. I tried to climb it whilst I was there, but the sign to the path up the volcano from the coastal road is misleading (see last photo), as the path only goes as far as a grotto about half of the way up the mountain. When making enquiries later, I was told that the only access to the volcano crater is from the other side of the mountain, and you need a guide because the path is not well defined. I didn't have time to try from the other side, so I will save that trek for a future visit.

Camiguin Island has some great restaurants, but no good coffee shops yet, which for a coffee addict like me was a bit of a disappointment. But there's a road right around the island, and many up the flanks of the volcanoes where you'll find waterfalls and pools to swim, so it's a great destination for cycling, hiking and getting back to nature.

 

A view of the north-western part of Camiguin Island from White Island - a sandbar which can be accessed by small ferries from Agoho, about 5 kms west of the main town of Mambajao.

A view of the north-western part of Camiguin Island from White Island - a sandbar which can be accessed by small ferries from Agoho, about 5 kms west of the main town of Mambajao.

There are many waterfalls and cool swimming holes on the flanks of the volcanoes of Camiguin Island. Most of them are easily accessible by road.

There are many waterfalls and cool swimming holes on the flanks of the volcanoes of Camiguin Island. Most of them are easily accessible by road.

If you stay on the west coast of Camiguin, you'll enjoy some beautiful sunsets. This is a black sand beach not far from the airport. Most of the popular tourist spots are in the north-west quadrant of the island where the airport is located.

If you stay on the west coast of Camiguin, you'll enjoy some beautiful sunsets. This is a black sand beach not far from the airport. Most of the popular tourist spots are in the north-west quadrant of the island where the airport is located.

This sign on the circumferential road south-west of Agoho is very misleading because the path from here does not lead to the Old Volcano crater - only halfway up its flanks.

This sign on the circumferential road south-west of Agoho is very misleading because the path from here does not lead to the Old Volcano crater - only halfway up its flanks.

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Aerial view of Mt Fuji

Flying back from Haneda to Manila this morning, I had a great view of Mt Fuji from the right hand side of the aircraft:

I love the shape of the carbon fiber composite wings of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. They are so elegant. New aircraft technology is impressive, but it's a pity they haven't found a way to keep the windows clean yet.

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Japan's beautiful Wisteria gardens

Today I visited the beautiful Ashikaga Flower Park, north-east of Tokyo, to see the Wisteria vines in flower.  I’ve just missed the cherry blossom season on this trip, but the Wisterias are almost as impressive.  

There are two big Wisteria gardens in Japan - Kawachi Fuji-en and the Ashikaga Flower Park. The Kawachi gardens are probably the most well known to international tourists because that’s where the photographs of the famous Wisteria tunnels are taken, but it’s a long way from Tokyo on the southern island of Kyushu. To get there you need to fly or take a bullet train, which takes about 6 hours. But the Ashikaga Flower Park can be easily done in a day trip from Tokyo.

Just take any main-line train or bullet train to Oyama, which is 1-2 hours out of Tokyo, and then a local train on the Ryomo Line from Oyama to Tomita (don’t go to Ashikaga Station because that’s the next one along, and is further away from the gardens). The local trains on that line run every hour.

Get off at Tomita Station and walk to the main road (a short distance) and turn right.  Walk down the main road about 750 meters and you will see the entrance to the gardens on the left.  At this time of the year, the train is full of people visiting the gardens, so all you have to do is follow the crowd.

As will be seen from the photos below (click on the images to enlarge), there are Wisterias all over the gardens from vines that look like trees because they are over 140 years old, to young specimens in tubs that are beautiful in their own way. The oldest Wisterias in Japan are in these gardens, and one covers almost 2,000 square metres.

These gardens have many other flowering plants, and strolling through them is a very relaxing way to spend a springtime afternoon. There are excellent facilities in the gardens including restaurants and snack bars, and even an ice cream parlour selling Wisteria ice cream.

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A sleepless sleepless night

Last night I didn’t sleep a wink. Not for a single solitary moment.

That was the first time that had happened to me in my life. Yes, like most people I’ve had the odd night where I’ve had difficulty getting to sleep because of illness or just too many things on my mind, but eventually I know I will fall asleep. Even on long haul night flights I can usually sleep for a few hours, but I’ve never experienced being unable to sleep even one minute for the whole night.

I went to bed about 2 am which I guess would be late for most people but pretty much the norm for me when I am writing or editing photos. Usually by that time I am quite tired so will rarely take more than a couple of minutes to drop off to sleep. But last night when my head hit the pillow, I realised something wasn’t quite right. I felt hyped up – sort of like I would expect to feel if I had downed a couple of espressos before bedtime – and my stomach was feeling unsettled too.

After half an hour I got up and took half a Travelan tablet because that usually fixes an unsettled stomach very quickly. But on this occasion it did nothing.

I tried listening to my iPod for a while because that usually sends me to sleep if my mind is on other things. But on this occasion it didn’t work.

I tried turning on the air-conditioner because often the hum of that will send me to sleep, but that didn’t work either.

So at about 3.30 am I got up and went back to my office and did some more work for about an hour.

At about 4.30 am I decided I must surely be ready for sleep now, so went back to bed. But I still couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned for a while, tried counting sheep, but couldn’t fall asleep. It was a strange sensation - my body clock seemed stuck on daytime. My stomach was still feeling unsettled, so I started thinking about what I had eaten during the day. Breakfast had been the same as usual, a toasted cheese and tomato Panini for lunch – nothing unusual there – and for dinner an item off the menu at my local Italian restaurant that I had eaten a dozen times before. Coffee mid- morning and mid-afternoon, a glass of Sangria in the evening – nothing out of the ordinary at all.

Then it struck me. I had done one thing that was different to my normal routine. Normally I will make a fruit smoothie before or after lunch, but I’d been running a lot of errands yesterday so didn’t make it until a few hours after dinner. And I’d added an extra ingredient that I’d never consumed before.

When I went to the fridge to get the yoghurt and wheat germ that I always add to my smoothies, I spotted a small jar of chia seeds on the shelf that I'd bought some time ago but never got around to trying. I read the label and it suggested adding a tablespoonful of the seeds to smoothies. I’d heard of chia seeds being described as one of nature’s superfoods, so thought I would try some in my smoothie. I wasn’t sure how they would taste, so I only added about a teaspoonful.

Could I be suffering from some sort of reaction to the chia seeds, despite the small quantity that I had consumed?

I got up and went back to my office and googled “Will chia seeds keep you awake” and lo and behold there was a page of results littered with the words “chia” and “awake” in a bold font. One search summary simply said “Do not take Chia after 2 PM as it will keep you awake at night”.

So despite having taken only a teaspoonful of chia seeds, it seems that was the cause of my sleeplessness. And probably because I had never taken them before, my stomach was reacting to them because I had taken them dry (many of the links I started reading recommended that they be soaked in water and made into a gel before adding to smoothies because they absorb large amounts of water and can therefore cause dehydration in the body if taken dry).

Many of the sites to which the search results linked told stories of Aztec and Mayan warriors marching through jungles for 24 hours on nothing more than a handful of chia seeds and some water. Health food sites raved about how rich they were in anti-oxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, and loaded with vitamin B-17 and phytonutrients. Other sites described them as better than coffee for providing an energy kick to enable people to work through the night without the side-effects of caffeine.

One health food site maintained that chia seeds “will let you fall asleep when you want to without disrupting your biorhythms” but that was a solitary site amongst hundreds of others saying the opposite. (I later noticed that the same site said “chia’s high levels of vitamins and nutrition won’t just help keep you awake, but they’ll give you the energy to operate at the very top of your game both in a physical and mental sense” – which seemed to contradict the earlier claim that they wouldn’t keep you awake).

So I came to the conclusion that it must have been the chia seeds that were keeping me awake – despite the relatively small dose that I took (perhaps being the first time I had consumed them, they had a greater effect on my body).

By this time I had been on the Web for more than an hour, and it was already dawn. I still didn’t feel sleepy so decided to have a shower and breakfast. At around 8 am I headed out to run a few errands and came home just before 10 am. I went into my office, turned on the computer, and started answering emails, but then realised I was nodding off in front of the computer. So just after 10 am I went back to bed, put my head on the pillow, and in less than five seconds I was fast asleep.

Despite being an advocate of natural foods with a strong interest in medicinal plants, I have always been a skeptic when it comes to many of the claims that health food purveyors make about their products (especially those that claim to cure cancer or make you look 30 years younger) but I seem to have stumbled across a product here that was definitely living up to its claim that it would “feed the body with a steady supply of energy that can last for hours”.

Unfortunately it supplied me with a steady supply of energy at a time when I didn’t want it, but having been subjected to its effects without realising what was causing them, I had unknowingly undertaken a sort of blind trial without being influenced by the claims for the product.

Sometimes when you consume a product that claims to give you more energy, and you subsequently feel energised, you are never sure whether the product is really working or whether it is a psychological reaction to the marketing claims. In my case I experienced the feeling of having more energy without realising what was producing that feeling. So it does seem that the claims being made by promoters of chia seeds are real.

Today I am feeling completely washed out because my body clock got thrown so much out of kilter by taking the chia seeds late at night (I feel like I have jet lag right now) but assuming I can get to sleep tonight, tomorrow I will try some chia seeds with my breakfast and see if they give me an energy boost in the morning.

The ‘offending’ chia seeds. I note the bottle says this is a 7-day supply. Based on the reaction I had to one teaspoonful, I don’t think it would be wise for me to try consuming the contents of this bottle within a week – I think I would be jumping out of my skin.

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The good luck/bad luck bird

I posted this photograph to my Facebook wall yesterday to see if any of my Malaysian friends could identify the bird. I took the photograph last December in the restaurant at the bird park in Kuala Lumpur (where it had landed next to my table and was watching me eat) so I had assumed that it was a bird from the Borneo rainforest, given its striking colours.

However, I was wrong. Turns out it is an African ground hornbill (thanks for identifying it, Angie). When I looked it up on the Internet, I discovered quite a few interesting facts about this bird. Apparently female birds lay two eggs, but they only raise one chick, leaving the other to die within a few days.

According to some information posted by the Honolulu Zoo (which has two of the birds) the African ground hornbill is classified as ‘vulnerable’ in South Africa now (which is the next classification down from ‘endangered’) because they can now only be found in reserves (with about 700 birds in the Kruger National Park). The zoo’s website states:

“In South Africa there has been a large decline in their numbers for a number of reasons. They are popular to use as ‘muti’ or tribal medicine among some of the indigenous people of South Africa. The brain of a ground hornbill, if kept in a village, is reputed to bring the village luck. Irate homeowners kill them because they will attack windows, breaking them, if they encounter their reflections. They are also vulnerable to picking up poison baits that are set out for predators. Currently there is a conservation project underway in South Africa, in which the second chick from a nest is taken before it dies and raised and released to help increase their numbers.”

That’s good news that efforts are being made to help prevent these birds from becoming an endangered species.

Some other facts on the website that I found interesting related to the local folklore surrounding the African ground hornbill. The Masai believe that the bird should never be killed because it will bring bad luck, but if one lands on the roof of a house, the occupants must move immediately or they believe death will ensue.

Seems this bird has a split personality in African folklore. In some circumstances it brings good luck, on other occasions it brings bad luck.

I am pleased to report that death did not ensue after it landed next to my table at the Kuala Lumpur bird park!

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Monkeys suck their thumbs too

I was walking back to my car after having lunch at the Kuala Lumpur bird park today when I spotted a monkey on a waste bin across the road eating banana skins from the bin. I took a few photographs as she had a cute baby monkey hanging onto her chest. When I got back to the hotel in the evening, I downloaded the photos onto my laptop. On a larger screen the baby didn’t look quite so cute (their faces look like old men!) but I noticed it was sucking its thumb. I guess that must be something that monkey babies and human babies have in common.

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Water views, but caveat emptor

We arrived in Manila today after an 11 hour flight from Honolulu - the last leg of our four and a half months' trip around the Pacific. As we were flying in over Laguna de Bay, I noticed that a new sub-division of houses had been built on low lying land close to the water. Up until now I had only seen predominantly squatter homes in this area.


Why on earth would the local authorities permit building on such flood prone land? It is not long since Manila was devastated by floods, and there has been so much debate since then about the need to build away from flood prone areas because of global warming and rising sea levels, yet new homes are continuing to be built in areas that will be at risk of inundation by water in future years.

It was difficult to see from the air exactly how high above the surrounding water the houses have been built, so I shouldn't be too critical until I have had a look at the area from the ground. So I made a note to go and have a look at this sub-division in the next wet season. Might make an interesting case study.

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American Airlines – a goddamn awful airline

Over the past four decades I’ve flown on most of the world’s major airlines – except one that is: American Airlines (AA). Up until 9/11, that wasn’t for any particular reason. It just happened that way. After 9/11, I made a point of avoiding AA because of its name. It seemed to me that AA would be the first choice of Al Qaeda in any future attacks because of its ‘American’ name.

But that was until today when I found myself on a codeshare flight from Toronto to Honolulu that I had booked through Qantas but turned out to be on American Airlines planes. It was actually two flights because it was via Dallas-Fort Worth and we had to change planes there. It was an early departure out of Toronto – 6.45 am – so we checked in at 4.45 am. The lines for immigration and security were a mile long, so we only had time to grab a yoghurt parfait and a coffee before boarding. That didn’t worry us as we knew AA was a full service airline in the One World alliance, so we looked forward having breakfast on board on the three hour flight to DFW.

After take-off the flight attendants came through offering a drink. After an hour or so I was getting hungry and started wondering when the meal service would start. I looked back down the plane to see if there was any activity in the galley – but there was none. So I walked down the back and found the flight attendants sitting in the rear seats, one reading a book and one filling in a crossword puzzle. I asked when breakfast would be served. One of the flight attendants raised her eyebrows, then frowned, and replied: “there is no food on this flight”. She frowned again as if to suggest I was crazy to think the airline would be serving breakfast, and turned back to her crossword puzzle without any further explanation as to why a three hour 6.45 am flight on a supposedly full service airline would not be serving breakfast. There was no food for sale either, so AA wasn’t even offering as good a service as a budget airline.

I had read stories in the past about American airlines cutting costs and imposing extra charges for checking baggage, but I’d not heard anything about them cutting out the food service entirely.

When we got to DFW, I went to an AA service desk and asked the clerk there whether a meal would be served on the flight to Honolulu. I had assumed that perhaps AA had cut out its meal service on shorter flights, but surely on an eight and a half hour flight to Honolulu there would be meal served. But I was wrong. She asked if I was flying first class. I said no, to which she replied “you can buy a sandwich on board”.

There were three hours between the flights so I took the opportunity to have some lunch at the airport and buy some snacks for the rest of the trip, but what I found quite incredulous was the announcement at the boarding gate before our flight left. The gate clerk announced that due to the incoming flight being full, the cleaning of the plane would take longer than usual and therefore the flight would be leaving 15 minutes late. She then went on to suggest that passengers use this time to go buy some food because “we’ve got some food on board to sell but there’s not enough for everyone and eight hours 40 minutes is a long time” (referring to the estimated flight time). Not the sort of announcement I would expect from a full service airline!

The flight actually left 50 minutes late because after the cleaners had finished they announced that there were some “technical problems that had to be fixed” but eventually we were on our way – or so we thought.

About three hours into the flight the pilot came on the PA to advise that we would be diverting to San Francisco because there was a technical problem. He said it was nothing serious but he didn’t want to fly over the Pacific with it. He said parts were available in San Francisco and it should take about an hour to fix on the ground. “Nothing to worry about, folks” he said.

Nothing to worry about? Maybe not, but when we landed in San Francisco we were quickly surrounded by fire engines.


AA never did tell us what was wrong except that they “needed to replace a switch”. That took two and a half hours instead of one. When we were eventually airborne again I wondered whether AA would try and make up for all the delays by offering passengers a meal (after all we were now running over four hours late, and wouldn’t arrive in Honolulu until 3 am Toronto time). But no, all we got was a recorded announcement saying “American Airlines and One World airlines thank you for choosing to fly American Airlines”. I wonder how many passengers would have been thinking “for the last time”?

All we got was a single drink again and then the flight attendants disappeared until it was ready to prepare the cabin for landing in Honolulu. And I wasn’t impressed with the condition of the plane either. The headset socket in my seat wasn’t working so I couldn’t watch the movie (which was only on a small screen about five rows in front of me; so difficult to see) and the passengers about three rows in front of me kept complaining about a bad smell around their seats (fortunately I only got a few whiffs of it).

I’ve not flown on many airlines worse than AA. I’d rate it on a par with Uzbekistan Airlines. Maybe slightly better because Uzbekistan Airlines probably wouldn’t bother landing if they had a technical problem – but at least Uzbekistan Airlines offers a meal service on flights that are eight hours long (although admittedly not very appetizing).

What amazes me most about the atrocious AA service is that they are still part of the One World alliance. Having flown on most of the other One World airlines, I can say without fear of contradiction that AA is not in the same class. It puzzles me that One World would still want to have an airline in its alliance that doesn’t even match the service standards of many budget airlines in the US (e.g. JetBlue who offer free drinks and snacks, and have flight attendants who are attentive throughout the flight).

So I will put my two flights on AA (which turned out to be three) down to experience, but I certainly won’t be flying on them again.

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No age limit for this Cuban model


Whilst walking around Havana’s old town this morning, I came across an old woman sitting against a concrete wall in one of the side-streets, puffing on Cuban cigars and posing for photographs in exchange for dollars.

I don’t normally like to pay for posed photographs - to me they look too touristy - so I just walked on by.  But after walking another couple of blocks I regretted not taking advantage of the photo opportunity, because she looked such a character.  So I turned around and went back, and she was still there, seemingly doing a roaring trade posing for tourists who were snapping away with their cameras and handing over dollars.


I took my photograph (above) and paid my dollar and went on my way. I guess she was making a good living ‘modeling’ for tourists – certainly enough to keep herself well supplied in Cuban cigars. Not sure that the cigars were doing much for her complexion though (click on the photo to enlarge and you'll see what I mean!)

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A day with the Embera Indians

Today we visited an Embera Indian village north of Panama City. It was a fascinating experience providing an opportunity to learn first-hand about their culture and how they live. To reach the village, we traveled by road for about an hour out of Panama City towards Colon, and then about 30 minutes by dugout canoe down a river and across a lake. The village has no road access.

The Embera are one of eight indigenous groups that live in different parts of Panama. Sometimes the Embera and Wounaan (which have similar cultures but speak different languages) are referred to as Chocoe Indians, so that’s why there are references to there being seven indigenous groups, rather than eight. The village we visited comprised 16 families, most of whom were relocated from the Darien Gap about 15 years ago (due to raids on their villages by FARC guerrillas from Colombia).

It was a wonderful day. We were welcomed by one of the village chiefs, and it looked like the whole village came out to meet us.
Later the village medicine man showed us around, and then they cooked us a lunch of fresh fish and fried plantains.

It was so peaceful (the visitors comprised just four people – me, my wife, an American film maker and a guide/interpreter) and so far removed from the reality of modern day living, that when it came time to leave in the afternoon, we really didn't want to go.

This teenage girl looked so sad the whole time we were there (but I took quite a few photographs of her as she was very photogenic). I guess she was about 13 or 14 and maybe suffering ‘puberty blues’. In the Embera culture, girls get married soon after puberty. Most are married between 14 and 17. They will marry only other Embera or Wounaan. It is rare for them to leave their villages to live in the ‘outside world’. It’s hard to know whether they are better off living the simple lifestyle that their culture provides, or whether they should be given the opportunity to join the modern world. That’s a question that can be debated for hours.

This little girl was another that I photographed quite a lot during the day as she had a cheeky smile and was happy to be photographed.
These children (they looked to be between 4 and 7 years old) were paddling a large dugout canoe across the lake to feed some monkeys living on a island in the lake. They were doing it without any adult supervision. Parents in western countries would probably freak out at kids so young doing something like that, but I guess in the Embera culture this is how kids have fun.

The medicine man told us about some of the many medicinal plants that they grow in the village. Illnesses are treated almost entirely with herbal remedies. All of the villagers looked very healthy, so I guess his remedies must be effective.

He also told us that he is alive because of this tree. He said his mother drank a tea made from the leaves when she was 60 years old – way past menopause – after which she gave birth to him.

If you'd like to see more of the photos that I took at the Embera Indian village, please follow this link:
http://www.xyzasia.com/other-photo-albums/embera-indian-village

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The fascinating Uros islands

After settling into the Intiqa Hotel after our arrival from Copacabana, we strolled down the street and had a nice lunch at an Italian restaurant that the hotel had recommended in the town square. The lunch was excellent – probably the best food we had eaten for about 10 days – and there was an interesting array of shops along the street between our hotel and the town square. Puno looked to be a much more interesting town than it appeared from what I had read on the Internet, so we were somewhat disappointed that we had planned the itinerary to spend less than 24 hours here. On the way back to the hotel I bought a knitted Alpaca wool sweater from an old woman on the street. It was less than US$20 and a good fit for me.

In the afternoon we took a boat with a guide out onto Lake Titicaca to visit the famous Uros Islands – a group of about 40 floating islands in the northern section of the lake.

The islands are made of totora reeds. The roots of the reeds are used to construct the base of the islands – several metres thick – and cut reeds are used for the surface which is soft and spongy to walk on. The islands are anchored to the lake bottom by ropes tied to sticks.

The Uros are descendants of pre-Inca people and they still live a traditional lifestyle – although these days they have modern technology such as solar panels and motor boats (the traditional reed boats with the puma heads that you see in some of these photographs are now used just for giving rides to tourists).

Between three and 10 families live on each island. Children go to school on the mainland by boat. Tourism provides additional income for the Uros, but it is a challenge for them maintaining a traditional lifestyle in the face of rising tourist numbers.

It was a most interesting afternoon. We had hired a private boat so there was just the four of us and our guide, so the visit was more intimate (I don't think I would have enjoyed it so much joining an organised tour). There were five families living on the island that we visited and they took us around a few of the other islands in one of the reed boats.


If you'd like to see more of the photos that I took on the Uros islands, please follow this link:
http://www.xyzasia.com/other-photo-albums/uros-islands

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Maybank shows how to screw up a global brand

If any Malaysian students of marketing are looking for a good case study on how to degrade a good brand, they need look no further than the outcome of the 'Strategic Alliance' between Malayan Banking Bhd (Maybank) and American Express Inc (Amex).

I've had an Amex charge card since 1980, and they've always been the most efficient credit card company that I have ever dealt with . . . until about three or four years ago that is. Back in 2003, Amex was a stand alone charge card in Malaysia, like it was in Australia where I had my first Amex card. But then on 3 December 2003, Amex and Maybank announced a 'Strategic Alliance' that would purportedly offer “the combined strength, convenience and rewards of two leading institutions”.

The 'Strategic Alliance' would involve Maybank taking over “all operations . . . including billing and accounting, customer service, credit management and charge authorizations, as well as marketing”.

I didn't notice much change for about three years (knowing now how inefficient Maybank is, I guess that it took them that long to start doing any damage), but then one day towards the end of 2007 I got a call from Maybank asking why my Amex account had not been paid. I told them that it was on auto-debit from my RHB bank account – and always had been since I transferred my Amex account to Malaysia in 1998 – so the problem must have been at their end.

Over the next few weeks I kept getting the same call from different customer service agents, and I kept telling them to check the auto-debit, until one day one of the agents said “Oh we don't accept auto-debit from RHB accounts any more – you will have to open a Maybank account”.

Well, then the fun and games started. Just trying to open an account with Maybank was like trying to get a visa for an Israeli to visit Iran, and over the next three years I started to gain some insights into why Malaysians complain so much about Maybank. I had always found Malaysian banks fairly efficient – I had banked mainly with RHB but also did a fair bit of business through CIMB – but OMG it is hard to describe the bureaucracy and inefficiency that I have experienced as a Maybank customer since early 2008 when I had to open a Maybank account.

But that's not the reason for this blog post. I could write a book on some of the crazy things that I have had to endure on visits to Maybank branches. The purpose of this blog post is to comment on Maybank's latest fiasco with the American Express website in Malaysia.

About a month ago I went to log onto the Amex website to check the exchange rate on some hotel charges I had put on the card in Jakarta, so that I could complete my expenses claim at the office. To my surprise I discovered a notice on the website that said:

“Due to a systems upgrade on 5 April 2010, all Online Services users will be unable to view their transaction history. New Online Services registrations have also been temporarily disabled. We sincerely apologize for this inconvenience and expect the upgraded service to be available in May 2010. Should you require any assistance, please feel free to contact American Express at 1800-88-9559.

I think it was about 18 April that I logged on, so that meant the website had been down for about two weeks by then. I had seen banks do upgrades to their websites many times and take it offline overnight – but never for two weeks.

So I rang the 1800 number and asked how I could check my account. The customer service agent said that I would have to wait until 1 May when the website would be back up, but in the meantime they could link my Amex account to my Maybank account, so I could access it through the Maybank online banking system.

He told me that it would take two days to do that, so I waited for a couple of days, checked my Maybank account – and there was no Amex account showing there. I called back and a different customer service agent couldn't tell me what had gone wrong, but said she would link the accounts straight away – but it would still take two days before I could access it. Another two days went by, no sign of the account, so another call to the 1800 number and same apology and same promise to link the accounts.

It is now more than a month since I first called, and the accounts still aren't linked.

In the meantime I called and asked how else I can access my charges. The customer service agent suggested that she could send me a fax of my statement – but again that would take two days. So I asked her to do that, but no fax came after two days. Another call, another apology, another promise, and still no fax to this day.

Up until the end of April the customer service agents were promising that the site would be back up by 1 May. When that date came and went, they promised it would be back up by the middle of May. It is now 20th May and the website is still not back online. I have no idea what the latest promise is because every time I try to call them now, nobody answers the phone. I just get a continuous recording saying "Sorry, all our executives are busy" (I guess they are busy fielding complaints).

In a few days time I expect the dead-tree copy of my Amex statement to arrive by snail mail, so I will eventually be able to see what I have spent a month ago and do my expenses claim. But it has probably cost me more time on the phone to Maybank in the past month than my claim was worth.

In the past four years my opinion of American Express, on a scale of one to ten, has gone from about a nine to zero. My opinion of Maybank was never much better than about a one, and that's gone to zero too.

It puzzles me as to how a global brand like American Express can let a local bank, whose customer service if bordering on incompetency, take over management of their brand and drive it into the gutter.

So what’s the take on this for students of marketing? Simply that if a multi-national company franchises its brand (which is effectively what Amex did with Maybank through its ‘strategic alliance’), there should be some mechanism by which the brand owner can monitor and if necessary supervise day-to-day operations to ensure that the reputation of the brand is not damaged through sub-standard customer service.

In 2002 BusinessWeek magazine rated American Express No 15 in their Top 100 Global Brands listing. In 2009 American Express had slipped to No 22 in the same listing. I wonder how much Maybank contributed to that?

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Strange stares at Zouk Cafe Bar

Here is a short review of the Zouk Cafe Bar that recently opened in Kuala Lumpur's Gardens Mall:

Excellent food – lousy service.

Okay, maybe I should explain the 'lousy service' bit.

I went there for dinner last night with a friend. He had eaten lunch there a couple of times since it opened in December, and said the food was good. We seated ourselves when we arrived because the staff seemed too busy to notice us standing at the entrance (even though the place was only a third full). We then asked one of the passing waiters to bring us some menus, which he did promptly. It was a while before he came back, and when he did he said: “Are you ready for me to take your order?”. “Yes” we replied. He then picked up the menus and took them away – and that was the last we saw of him! We sat there somewhat bewildered, and after it was apparent that he wasn't coming back, we called one of the waitresses over to take our order.

I ordered a Caesar salad with chicken and a glass of Chardonnay. “Sorry we've run out of white wine”, she said. “Okay, well just give me an iced lemon tea instead”, I replied. And then she walked off without taking my friend's order! My friend called her back and said: “Aren't you going to take my order as well?” to which the waitress just stared at him as if he was making a very strange request.

Our food came about 10 minutes later, and I had no complaints about the Caesar salad – the lettuce was very fresh (a rarity amongst many other KL restaurants where the lettuce always has brown edges from being cut up hours before) and I liked the fact that Zouk provided the dressing on the side – but it was a very small portion. I finished my salad when my friend was only about a third of the way through his meal, and one of the waiters took my plate away – and then tried to take my friend's plate away as well, even though it was clear he had not finished eating. Then twice before he had finished eating, other waiters came by and tried to take his plate away! It reminded me of one of those episodes of Fawlty Towers where Manuel the waiter had decided that it was time for the guests to finish their meal (or was it Basil Fawlty?).

As I was still hungry, I asked for the menu again and ordered a bowl of wild mushroom soup. As I was waiting for the soup, the waitress that had originally taken our order walked by with a glass of white wine for one of the other tables. I called out to her and said: “Hey I thought you said you had run out of white wine?” to which I just got another strange stare as if she didn't understand a word I was saying.

My soup came about 25 minutes later after several reminders to other waiters (I think they had forgotten about it). Again it was excellent – freshly made and very tasty (and a better sized portion than the salad).

So no complaints about the food at Zouk – but OMG the service is woeful.

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The amazing Delhi Book Store

I visited the Delhi Book Store today – reputed to be the largest book store in Asia - and what a strange experience that was.

I had read that the Delhi Book Store stocked many books that were not available in other countries, so I thought I would check it out to see what books they might have on tropical horticulture. Their website says they have 99,000 titles on display in a 20,000 sq ft showroom on five floors, so I was expecting to see a flashy store-front like a Borders or a Kinokinuya. But it is located in a grey and very unimposing building in a busy backstreet of Darya Gani (see photo below), about 10-15 minutes in a taxi from the centre of Delhi, which you would never guess was a book store but for the sign on the front of the building.

Inside, the place looks much more like a book store, although the ground floor felt more like a library with chairs and tables for reading:

My first surprise was to discover that I was the only customer. It was late morning, so I would have expected to see many more people in the store (although there were plenty of staff about). The two lower floors were devoted to medical books – tens of thousands of titles on everything from brain surgery to parisitology. Some of the titles I saw were on very obscure topics such as 'Intestinal Anisakiasis in Japan' (which I gather is something you get from eating infected fish in Japan) and 'Percutaeous Lumbar Discectomies'.

I asked one of the staff where the titles on tropical horticulture were, and one of them took me up to the third floor and handed me over to another staff member. There were no elevators, so we walked up some narrow marble staircases which were stacked with thousands of books against the wall. I guess they must have run out of storage space elsewhere in the store. In any other country that would be regarded as a fire hazard – but hey this is India!

The sales guy on the third floor explained that they did not have any Indian books on horticulture (which was really what I had come for) because all their titles were imported, but showed me what they had. I discovered a few interesting titles that I had not seen before – a book on botanical orchids, an encyclopedia of mushrooms (an English translation from a French book) and a book titled 'Creative Propagation'. The sales guy who had been watching over my shoulder as I browsed the shelves said: “That's an excellent book on propagation, sir. I would highly recommend it to you”. I wondered whether he was a student of horticulture in his spare time, or whether that was just standard sales spiel that they were taught at the Delhi Book Store. I didn't feel entirely comfortable having him hanging around all the time whilst I was browsing, but at least it was convenient having him hold the books for me.

I also found in one of the other sections on the same floor a book on digital imaging that looked interesting, so I added that to the other three and then asked the sales guy how much the books were (none of them had price labels). This is where things got interesting.

The sales guy took me and the books over to a portly Sikh with a bushy beard, looking resplendent in a bright turban, sitting behind a large empty desk on the other side of the third floor, in front of what looked like one of those home altars with carvings of Indian gods and incense sticks burning in bronze urns (the smell of burning incense permeates the whole book store). He pulled out a pad of blank paper from a drawer in the desk, and after glancing at each book, wrote down on the pad: 1 x 400, 1 x 500, 2 x 750.

He tore off the top sheet and showed it to me. “These are the prices of the books. Okay with you?” The prices looked fine to me – much cheaper than I expected. Even the most expensive books (the book on botanical orchids and the encyclopedia of mushrooms) were only 750 rupees (about US$16) and I was sure that you would not be able to buy those for much less than US$40 anywhere else in the world. But what I was amazed about is how he quickly priced the books with only a glance at them. Did he know the price of the 99,000 books in the store in his head? Or was he employed as some sort of estimator to price them on the spot?

After saying I was fine with the prices, the sales guy took the books and the sheet of paper on which the prices were written over to a girl sitting behind a desk on the other side of the floor. I thought she was the cashier, but she only entered the details into a computer and printed out a list of the titles with their prices.

Then we had to go back down to the ground floor where it turned out the cashier was located. The sales guy accompanied me the whole time carrying the books, so I felt like I was getting very personal service. I paid for the books with my credit card, and the cashier then write out an invoice by hand and gave that to me with my credit card receipt. I thought that was the end of the sales process – but no, we had to then go to another desk near the entrance where another girl behind a computer entered the details of the books into her computer from the hand-written invoice (I am guessing that was some sort of inventory management system). After that the sales guy placed the books into a canvas bag and handed them to me, thanking me for my custom.

As I headed out to the street, I saw two other customers entering the store (the only ones I saw in the half hour or so I had been inside), so wondered how this place with all its staff, manual sales processes and enormous inventory made any money – but I suppose as labour is so cheap in India, they don't need to bother about the more modern sales practices that book stores in other parts of the world have adopted.

The Delhi Book Store is certainly bigger than any other book store I have seen in India. It's hard to tell if it really is the largest in Asia, because it's hard to compare with the big book stores in Singapore and Hong Kong which are more spread out. I suppose I could try counting the books next time I go into Kinokinuya in Singapore to see if they have more than 99,000 titles in stock.

(PS added 28 February: When I got home to Kuala Lumpur, I looked up the books on Amazon.com. The botanical orchids book was listed there for US$39.50 – so looks like I got some real bargains in India)

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