Countries which don’t need a US visa (the Visa Waiver Program)

I’ve received some interesting comments to my US Embassy post(s) and as a result, I’ve wondered which countries are spared the ignominy of applying for the “overrated” US visa. My Google quest of course led me to the US Department of State website which has a portion dedicated to the US government’s Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The VWP is the program where nationals of certain countries can travel to the United States without a visa provided they plan to only stay “for 90 days or less for tourism or business.”

Only three countries in Asia are in the list: Japan, Singapore, and Brunei. Most are in Europe, the Pacific (Australia, New Zealand) and of course I have to consult Wikipedia to know exactly where Andorra is P Of course, if it makes you feel better, there are 174 other countries in the world which are not in the list and of course have to get their b*tt to the US Embassy each time.

The full rundown of VWP participating-countries:

Andorra, Iceland , Norway, Australia, Ireland, Portugal, Austria, Italy, San Marino, Belgium, Japan Singapore, Brunei , Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Denmark , Luxembourg, Spain, Finland, Monaco, Sweden, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, New Zealand, United Kingdom.

Countries which have signed a Memorandum of Understanding and where the full implementation of VWP is under review: Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, and Slovakia.

Initial reaction to the list: we’ve always prided ourselves of centuries of friendship with Americans and I wonder why been we’ve been “outshone” by Slovenia, Slovakia and the rest of them.

At first glance, it seems that economic wealth of the country is used as a basis for visa waiver but most are in the low population category too (think of the Republic of San Marino which only has a population of 30,000 people, or Lichtenstein and Monaco).

Considering that the requirements for admission under the program is “a very low non-immigrant refusal rate,” the integrity of the passport process (no fakes), and the ability to address security/law enforcement threats, looks like the Philippines will not be in the program in a hundred years. Tsk, tsk!

Red @ Makati Shangri-La Hotel

First of all, have you noticed how hotel rates have gone up these days - not only in terms of the room but also F & B? Makes me feel that I can never book again in a hotel unless am a balikbayan or Keanu Reeves living his life out of suitcases. The last time I inquired about this five-star hotel’s dinner buffet, it was a whoppin’ $50. Wow! All I can say is: “I gotta win them Christmas raffles!” P

Because it’s not everyday that I get to indulge in fancy dining (My Knight in Shining Armor is not around), you can just imagine how I ended up at Red, the Continental restaurant and wine bar of Makati Shangri-La. It was for some presscon. Red is so named because of the red upholstery of the furniture in the resto. How simple can it get? You can sit in a red chair by the window that overlooks a man-made garden with little waterfalls. The view is still better in Manila with the sunset and the bay, but this will do.

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First to be served was the Lemon Olive Oil Poached Tasmanian Salmon with green and white asparagus, plus some egg-based sauce. This salmon was immaculate in its freshness, my first time to try it raw without Kikkoman and wasabi. Yeah, i imagined it was my favorite shake sashimi except that this one had the skin on. The sight of raw fish with raw skin looked unnerving, but yes, I was able to finish this one. Especially as I love salmon and asparagus!

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No soup! After the fish appetizer came the main course. Between the Fillet of Grouper and the Grilled Prime US Rib Eye, I chose the latter. Sidings included creamy potatoes and rosemary jus. Sadly, this one was a disappointment. My rib eye cut was a thick one and far from being tender or juicy. The steak lay unfinished on my plate. I was ready to proclaim that “hey, if you’re looking for the best rib-eye in Manila, it’s not Red….” Enough said.

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Luckily, the resto would redeem itself by their dessert. For the event, this was the jelly-like tagliatelle made from buco pandan topped by a salad of strawberries and Baguio Citrus Sherbet. The sherbet was the best thing as it just had the right fruity, lemony flavor.

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Red’s pralines are also to-die-for. I brought home a box, only to find out they easily melted. I was more than happy to lick my chocolate-crusted fingers.

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Capping the meal was hot brewed Lavazza coffee. Seems the servers were happy to serve more than one cup so I also had Shangri-La’s signature cappuccino. The best thing in life … is coffee after a gourmet meal!

Overall, service was good but lagged in certain aspects. Made me wonder if service suffers for a five-star outlet in big events, as opposed to just serving casual diners. There were close to a hundred of us and there was a considerable waiting time between the entree and the dessert.

Red
Lobby Level, Makati Shangri-La Hotel
Ayala Avenue, Makati City
Tel. No. 840-0884

If we have double-digit inflation, why do they keep on building condos?

Two launch events I attended recently has made me do a double take on the state of our economy. If real estate companies are building more condos and houses, is there hope for better times ahead? Probably. If there’s one belief that has been inculcated on me by other people, it is that you invest in land today with the hope that prices will appreciate in the future. Still have to test if the hypothesis is true, since I haven’t disposed of any piece of real estate to see if substantial gains can be had…or not.

Another real estate assumption is that it is always good to buy at “preselling” rates. This means plunking down your money on a piece of structure that hasn’t been built yet. The good thing is that you get it at the lowest possible price per square meter. The bad thing is that it will remain a “risk” until the structure or unit is finished and is formally turned over to you. The safest way is always to invest in reputable companies, with a portfolio of fully-completed projects. Another advice is to review the contract so that you can actually recover your downpayment when either the project or the company itself goes down the drain due to bankruptcy or some other reason.

One Pacific Place is one such condominium project that is being sold at preselling rates. The property proponents, ACI Group & Cactus Realty, enjoins its target market to invest in a unit today and occupy it by 2011. Two things it boasts about - a good location in Makati’s Salcedo Village and excellent track record of being the company behind Pan Pacific Hotel Manila. Investors can grab studio units now at P1.9 million or so which is not bad for prevailing prices in the prime business area.
1 BR unit, One Pacific Place

Another property hotspot to look out for are the projects of Alveo Land Corporation, formerly known as Community Innovations. Alveo is the originator of high-end projects in the booming Makati-Taguig boundary such as Two Serendra and the Columns Legaspi Village. They also have a line-up of properties out-of-town, from Laguna to Pampanga. All projects take into consideration environmental sustainability and the well-rounded needs of residents so that you literally “work where you live, and live where you play.” As proof that all is not downtrodden in the economy, Alveo Land posted earnings of P4.8 billion last year, up by an impressive 53% from the income of P3.1 billion in 2006.

Two Serendra(2)

I used to have my dream house, but now that am living in it, a condo remains a dream address for the following reasons:

1. Proximity. I think this is the whole point of having a condo, it being a few blocks away from your office, favorite mall or resto. Nothing like walking in the heart of Makati rather than driving for 45 minutes to reach TimeZone.

2. Prestige. As long as it’s not some run-down government project and actually has a landscaped swimming area and high-speed elevator. Wi-fi would be tall order, but yes, that too.

3. Security. Have had friends whose stuff was stolen even in the most uppity condos but it was more of a personal issue than anything else. If all guests are screened in your condo and there are CCTV cameras on every floor, then you should feel safe enough, and that’s good.

4. Value appreciation. Even if some people contend that it’s not wise to invest in a condo since you’re not stepping on a piece of land, a condo in a prime area still appreciates higher than a faraway house in the great suburbs. And a condo unit is easier to rent too.

Plurk, Twitter & the rest of the microblogs

My Manila Bulletin Blog-O-Rama column this week talks about the unstoppable rise of the so-called microblogs. If you ever wonder where your favorite bloggers are, most likely you can find them in sites like Plurk & Twitter.

What you can find here? Mundane details such as what we ate for lunch, gossip in cyberspace and all sorts of chatter that would otherwise be worthless in a blog. Ask me to write a movie review worth writing about and I am likely to squirm. It’s quite hard choosing my words and forming them into coherent paragraphs. But somehow it all seems so easy announcing “It sucked! ” on Plurk or Twitter. Both of these sites show that more facets of our life can now be made public (or less private) if we choose it to be. And if they gain visibility, the microblogs can be great influencers of public opinion. What they lack though is the substance that both new and traditional media brag about.

Just a few of my thoughts on the rise of microblogging:

1. All bloggers can be microbloggers but not all microbloggers can be bloggers. You see, blogging takes so much time and pressure, but it is exactly the opposite with the micro version. You can say “must go to gym now!” and that is perfectly acceptable. While blogs seek to change the world, microblogs seek to trivialize it and that’s what makes it accessible and convenient to most people.

2. Microblogging as a primary form of social networking. Something about Plurk and Twitter takes me to high school once again, when the success of my slum book was judged by how many people wrote on it. The fun in the game is determined by the number of people you have in your circle as “friends” and “followers” or “fans.” It is more of a popularity contest really, and some people have attained online celebrity status just by making a career out of being in the social networks. Hah.I have to admit, there are people in my circle that I don’t know from Eve, but I can’t resist adding them for the sake of “quantity” and “diplomacy.”

3. Microblogs as a major source of information. In my few weeks in Plurk, I was able to learn the latest gossip in cyberspace and what the rest of the blogosphere was talking about in terms of happenings and events. Somebody posted about job openings in his company which is useful (who can refuse jobs these days??). Furthermore, I like these social networks slash microblogs because they enable me to know my casual acquaintances in a different light - their opinion on things and what’s happening in their life that I wouldn’t be able to know otherwise. I realized that being on these sites is also a good form of market research, as what one publicist was doing. Float an idea and immediately get a feel of people’s reactions to what you plan to promote or advocate. Invading the microblogs might as well be a public relations frontier in the near future.

Just a few last things to say: microblogging can be addicting. I mourn the loss of my precious time going through my Plurk timeline just to read about what people bought at the mall or what happened to their pets. I am amazed that I can post about what the fried rice I ate for breakfast and get seven replies. This has never happened in my blog - ever! So I am updating away because in the great world of microblogs, I am Someone, and the petty things I do, like “eat an apple!” mean Something. Go figure.

Add me in Plurk ;) http://plurk.com/redeemByURL?from_uid=1920350&check=-1617859538&s=1

Beef gyudon recipe from Heny Sison’s cooking class

Heny Sison is known hereabouts as a maker of fabulous wedding cakes. But at her cooking school in Waltermart Makati, we were surprised to find out that she teaches a variety of cuisines too. That’s how I found myself one Sunday sitting in her class for some lessons in Japanese cooking.

In the agenda were such Japanese delights as temaki-zushi (do-it-yourself rolls), rolled omelette, beef gyudon with a separate recipe for the accompanying sweet-vinegared ginger (shoga no amazu-zuke), and green tea or macha jelly.I must say nothing beats the Japanese cooking class we took before in Manila Diamond Hotel since we had five-star ambiance and a Japanese chef to teach us, but Heny’s tops the scale too for insider secrets shared and audience participation. We just wished this Cake Lady smiled more ;)

Heny Sison Cooking Class

Somehow, am intimidated from cooking sushi. Not a big fan of the food too. So I had to take comfort in the gyudon recipe that Heny shared in the class. Beef gyudon is, like, my Japanese comfort food. I always order it in Yoshinoya, Rai-Rai Ken or any of those fastfood restos. Judging from the cooking class recipe which I eventually tried at home, it’s very easy to make too.

Here is the beef gyudon that Heny made in the class:

Beef Gyudon

I think the secret to a good gyudon is the slice of beef - the thinner, the better. Also, the sauce (which is easy to mix anyway) and lotsa onions. Gyudon is best accompanied with beni-shoga, which is not commonly served in Japanese fastfood chains , when it should be. The flavor of sweet ginger cleanses the palate.

Can’t resist having my own version of beef gyudon at home, even though it’s hard to find sukiyaki slices in our neighborhood grocery. The gyudon I tried from the recipe ended up sweetish which is good, since my eight-year old twins liked it.

Gyudon, my version

Here’s how to make gyudon or beef on rice:

1. Slice 500 grams of onions thinly.
2. In a medium-size saucepan, mix 1 cup Japanese cooking sake and 1/2 cup water. Bring to a boil. Add the beef slices and simmer for a few minutes. Add 3/4 cup soy sauce, 3/4 cup mirin and 4 tbsps. sugar. Simmer for 3 minutes.
3. Add onions and again simmer until onions are transparent and soft.
4. Prepare hot cooked rice in bowls and add gyudon with the sauce on top. garnish with sweet vinegared ginger.

Our attendance to Heny Sison’s Japanese cooking class was made possible by Waltermart and Abenson Plus! card. Be a member and attend cooking events. Also get perks like gift prizes, freebies and special deals on selected items. Contact Waletrmart Makati at 8138851, 8130563, Abenson at 8122882, or Heny Sison Cooking School at 3862210.