Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Alors, must apply for a Schengen visa

photo from Summer Solstice
When my friend asked me where I was going for my birthday, I said "off to 'Blois" to which she replied "whaaaaat? Blah?? where's that?"

This year I'm spending my solar return in a yoga festival with, according to the 3HO site "about 2,000 people from Europe (and some from Africa, Asia, America, etc) in a natural environment to practice eight days of yoga and other activities related to the teachings of Yogi Bhajan including three days of White Tantric yoga." The festival will be held in Domaine de Fondjouan, located south of Paris, where the nearest train station is Blois (in the Loire Valley).

It was my yoga teacher Marisa Harnadh who recommended to go last May. She said "why not spend your birthday with the Yogis?"  Well, I asked for something different this year and the next thing I knew, I already booked everything from the festival fee, accommodations, even the flight.

I thought everything was a-ok until for some strange reason, I had an inkling to leaf through my passport. That's when I discovered that my Schengen visa has expired. Honestly, I was so confident that my visa was still valid that it didn't even cross my mind to check last May.  I immediately checked the website for information. Note that the the website indicated in italics Appointments may only be made within three months from the date of departure. Three months!?! I crossed my fingers, dialed the embassy's call center and I guess the universe must be on my side because I got an appointment for Friday, July 5. I know that it's a bit tight considering that the scheduled appointment is two weeks before the date of departure.

So, for those going on holiday to France or any other Schengen area - that's to any 22 European Union member states or to any four European Free Trade Association member states - do lodge your application early. Here are the steps to apply for a Schengen tourist visa:

First, set an appointment by calling the Embassy's call center. For France, call any of these numbers:  PLDT 1 (909) 101-3333, Globe 1 (900) 101-3333 or Bayantel 1 (903) 101-3333. There is a toll charge of  P32 per minute excluding VAT and NDD charges for calls made outside Metro Manila.

Then prepare two sets of documents (original and photocopy) of the following:

  1. Signed Schengen visa application form (click here) with photo (35mm x 45mm, white background).
  2. Valid passport (3) month's validity from the end of intended stay and photo copy of valid and former visas.
  3. Cover letter explaining the purpose of the trip and proposed day-to-day itinerary.
  4. Details about the trip:  Proof of accommodations (vouchers), round trip flight booking (note: it says not to purchase ticket).
  5. Proof of employment - certificate of employment with monthly salary and leave of absence approved by employer.
  6. Proof  of income - income tax return, recent bank certification, photocopy of the last three months statement of account.
  7. Identity - birth certificate, if married, also include a photocopy of your marriage contract.
  8. An international travel insurance
  9. The visa fee of EUR 60 (short stay) is non-refundable and must be paid in cash, in Philippine pesos. 

Wish me luck! 

Monday, 24 June 2013

Hazy Singapore, PSI as high as 421!!

Sporting the hottest fashion craze in Singapore
As luck would have it, we were right in the middle of the country's worst haze ever. When we arrived, the air quality level in Singapore was hovering at 300 PSI (Pollutant Standards Index), breaching the "hazardous" classification.

The PSI level is reported on an hourly basis by the National Environment Agency (NEA). Note that 101-200 is unhealthy, 201-300 is 'very' unhealthy and over 300 is hazardous.

Last Friday at noon, the PSI  reached up to 421 level. That's when Pinky stepped out to lunch with her former student who is taking her masters degree at Lasalle College of the Arts . She said that the whole of Singapore looked like a foggy day in London, all white, the visibility was less than 500 meters.  She said that while  walking, she experienced difficulty in breathing.

It's no joke. I was mostly indoors in the hotel where the workshop was taking place. The strong smell of burning vegetation was wafting through the air-tight, air-conditioned room. In fact, that Friday, the screen was blurred due to the dust particles between the projector and the screen. I felt my lungs burning as I was breathing and my nose was already runny and eyes swollen. The photo below shows how the haze can impact one's health.

The government of Singapore was urging residents to remain indoors and to wear not just any ordinary surgical mask but a N-95 particulate respirator mask. This type of mask  filters 95% of airborne particulates; otherwise, it's better to use a damp cloth to cover one's mouth and nose. The masks were already sold out and a few stores were selling  for as high as S$10 a piece (original price is S$2). Pinky got our masks in Mercury Drug Store for only PhP 95.

view from our cab at 292 PSI
Apparently, the haze occurs annually when neighboring Indonesia clears their plantations specifically in Sumatra through the slash-and-burn technique. This is similar to our kaingin system where farmers burn forests to create agricultural fields

Our taxi driver said that it was the worst in years and was blaming the palm oil companies of Indonesia for burning over 100,000 acres of peatland. Palm oil is used in the production of cooking oil and is used in the manufacture of cosmetics, soaps and now biodiesel fuel. He said that the plantations clear the land every five years.
Pinky singing at O'Leary 

Well, despite the haze, Pinky was able to swing a mini-concert called "Pinky Amador in Transit". Thanks to Jun and Mylene Flores, DeoVirtucio and the Requiem Rising and instant PA Roselle Effrancia who organized everything at the O'Leary's Bar and Grill (next to the Singapore Flyer). There were more than a hundred Filipinos who watched the show.

Tips for those Singapore or Malyasia-bound during this hazy period:
1. Check the NEA website of Singapore or  Malaysia every hour for it's pollution index reading. The index will tell you the reading from healthy to unhealthy to hazardous.
2. Wear a N-95 mask outdoors when it reaches an "unhealthy" level and also indoors when it reaches "hazardous". (Note to bring your own mask since the country may run out).
3. Keep hydrated by drinking  lots of water.
4. Use nasal sprays and eye drops.

hazy night with the gig crew

Pinky with Vivian and Isabelle
classmates Rachelle and Sheryll with Dr. Rohan and Matthew

Monday, 3 June 2013

Youtube swim sensation Shinji Takeuchi

Wow is all I can say after watching youtube swimming sensation Shinji Takeuchi's Total Immersion video. He swims effortlessly and it seems like his head barely comes out of the water to breathe. His video "The Most Graceful Freestyle" (2008) is now ranked number one worldwide among swimmers. He really makes swimming  look easy, just gliding in the water for 2:48. Right now it has been viewed 3.9 million times (note though that Psy's gangnam sytle is still #1 with 1.6 billion views).

I was able to meet him up close and personal last weekend with effervescent Tessa P. who hosted the
Coach Shinji Takeuchi with TI Philippines' Ria 
closing ceremony of  'Smart, Speed and Open Water Skills Camp". Total Immersion Philippines' Ria Macay  invited coach Shinji of Total Swimming West in Japan to hold the open water skills clinic, a 3-day weekend class in Batangas.

The participants were mostly triathletes who would like to  learn how to swim the distance without getting tired and  master open water skills such as sighting, swimming straight and drafting to maintain speed. The highlight was his 'perpetual motion freestyle', four key stroke habits for tireless swimming. This is to swim with ease and flow to go the distance or a hundred untinerrupted strokes.

before the race with Coach Ria

Coach Shinji said "when you submerge your head, a vow wave is created and the level of the surface gets lower. I do not roll my head so much since the surface is 8-10 inches(20-25cm) lower than the original one."

The culminating activity was an open water race 500m for kids and for adults - a choice of 1km or 2km distance. Luckily, it was sunny and the water was calm and no stingers. I crazily joined the 1-km swim and managed to finish without cramping. Mind you, I haven't been training at all.  Tessa, on the other hand,  joined the 2-km distance and finished third! She could've finished first if she didn't stop before and after transitions to pose for her fans. LOL!

The cost of the 3-day swimming clinic  was pegged at  USD550 for international participants and USD450 for Philippine residents. The  private tutorial was pegged at  USD120 for 35-minutes. Coach Ria said that he'll be back this third quarter for a longer distance openwater clinic.

what a beautiful day, the venue
at the finish line

Tessa wins 3rd place at 40 mins, 1-min behind the 1st 

group shot