Penman No. 283: (Happy (Digital) Anniversary

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Penman for Monday, December 25, 2017

 

IT USED to be, in simpler times, that we marked and celebrated only the most meaningful of anniversaries—birthdays, weddings, the passing of loved ones, and maybe the day when we became a lawyer, a professor, or a boss. In my case, things got even simpler because Beng and I decided to get married on my 20th birthday (44 years ago in a few weeks). It’s a decision I’ve regretted since—not the marriage, but the twinning of these events, because it would have been nice to have two separate days and two separate excuses to celebrate.

But in this era, when relationships don’t seem to last much longer than cellphone batteries and when people can instantly “unfriend” each other for the most peevish of reasons, anniversaries have become precious things, with millennials having to invent such clumsy portmanteaus as “monthsaries” or “mensversaries” to find relief in the completion of another month’s tetchy togetherness.

And then there’s the turn of the consumer year that merchandisers won’t let you forget; if it’s September, then it’s not only the start of Yuletide in the Philippines, but also the inevitable announcement of the new iPhone X, Y, or Z (accompanied by a deep intake of breath as the awesome new gadget is unveiled, followed by the gnashing of teeth once the price is mentioned).

And yes, of course, I have the new X, which I was intrigued by but surely didn’t need—people my age could have lived happily ever after with the iPhone 4s, if truth be told—but I felt like rewarding myself for having stuck with the iPhone for ten years since the first one came out. That’s what anniversaries usually do—compel you to repeat a lunatic act. (Those of us now screaming about the X’s price tag will do well to remember that the first one, with all of 16 gigs of memory, cost a princely 45K in September 2007, plus another 5K to hack for use with local telcos. And before anyone subpoenas my SALN as a UP prof, I got my X at a steep discount through my telco, by hocking my soul for two more years.)

The decade-defining X reminded me of two more anniversaries that fell this year, of the kind that makes sense only in the context of our new digital reality, where a few years might as well be a lifetime in terms of changes in the way we think and work.

Last December 17, I marked my 20th year on eBay, which means I’ve been a digital consumer for longer than some of my students have been alive. EBay began as Auction Web in 2005, but it was in September 1997 when it opened shop as eBay, so it turns out that I signed up just a few months after its official launch. My first eBay purchase was a 1950s Pelikan 140 fountain pen from Germany, which stayed with me until I foolishly sold it a couple of years ago; my most recent one this month, again from Germany, was a 1950s Montblanc 234 ½ fountain pen—how odd is that? (But perhaps no odder than another recent acquisition—a book of letters of the Jesuits in the Philippines to the King of Spain, in a French edition published in 1706.)

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Between those two purchases lies a long green trail of about 1,000 other eager buys (my 100%-positive feedback score stands at 869)—mostly pens, watches, and books, but also computers, phones, spare parts for everything, and things you can’t get from any store (like original Apple shirts, the blue ones Apple Store employees wear). Like the cliché goes, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, and I’ve very often been that other man, crazy and willing enough to take your grandfather’s Parker 51 or that weird-looking Hamilton Piping Rock (yes, that’s what it’s called) off your hands.

Friends scared of doing business online often ask if I’ve ever been scammed or burned on eBay. In those hundreds of transactions, maybe two or three times, I either never received what I bought, or got something else; but since eBay has an ironclad guarantee, I got refunded in the end. Presuming you take the right precautions—examine advertisements down to the minutest detail; read feedbacks (although they’re not infallible); know your product; review its price history, etc.—eBay’s safe and easily the world’s largest bazaar open to Filipinos. My only word of caution: it can get addictive, especially since it’s cashless; expect your PayPal/credit card bill to soon read “eBay eBay eBay…”

My other anniversary thankfully came free: last March, I marked my tenth year on Twitter. Ironically, I’m not much of a social-media guy, and that Twitter account (@penmanila), which I must’ve opened in 2007 on a whim, lay dormant for most of that decade until two years ago, when—uhm—a certain candidate in a certain election got me so worked up that I quickly found my meek and gentle self embroiled in a full-scale Twitter war with a vandal army. (“Something wicked this way comes,” I tweeted, quoting Macbeth; it didn’t stay that lofty or that literate for long.)

Wicked

I’m now up to 760 tweets, and counting—still nowhere near the many thousands that my younger readers have unleashed upon the universe, but old guys think more slowly and our fingers take more time to travel across the keyboard. That’s actually good for social media and its trigger-happy culture, and I can only wish I were that pokey and that deliberate on eBay.

Still, happy anniversary, and Merry Christmas, all!

Penman No. 100: The Digital Tourist (1)

L1090980Penman for Monday, June 9, 2014

 

SOME FRIENDS who perhaps still miss the days when you dressed up for plane flights (even if it was only to Hong Kong) and carried your paper ticket in a cardboard sleeve asked me upon our recent return from Europe to draw up a digital roadmap for tourists. In other words, what kind of digital resources can tourists and travelers avail themselves of to ensure better, cheaper, and safer travel? By “digital resources,” we mean things that you can find online on the Internet, like hotels and their rates, or carry around with you on your mobile phone or laptop, like travel apps that can record and remind you of your bookings.

It used to be that all you needed in your carry-on was an alarm clock, the kind with two brass bells that roused you like your mother from your jetlagged slumber (if you remembered to set the alarm the night before). But now we travel with smartphones, laptops, tablets, and a raft of batteries, chargers, and adapters, the better to maintain that indispensable virtue, connectivity, also known as your digital tether to home, office, and social network. (All this should make us want to ask why we even left home and what a vacation is supposed to mean, but as everyone knows all too well these days, leaving home means bringing as much of it with you.)

So herewith, some of my favorite digital-travel tips and tricks:

Where to go. While our destinations are often chosen for us (a conference here, a wedding there), sometimes we actually have that rare and precious option of deciding where to go, budgets and schedules permitting. Everyone will have his or her own bucket list—I’d still like to visit South America, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe someday—but Beng and I prefer to go around Asia for quick, cheap holidays, and are always on the lookout for special deals from regional airlines. Sign up with Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines, among others, for regular advisories on their packages. This way, we’ve visited Beijing, Kota Kinabalu, Hanoi, Shanghai and many other places nearby at giveaway fares (about P5,000 round-trip, all-in, for two of us to Beijing). Be open and adventurous, and be ready to book a trip months in advance to get the lowest fares. That also allows you to reconfigure your calendar around those trips.

How to get there. Again, check out airline offers, as well as travel agency packages. Make sure to factor in taxes and surcharges, which can bloat the final bill. What you want to get is the “all-in” price. Factor in baggage allowance; some airlines will charge you even for your first checked bag, especially on local flights. Budget airlines can offer aggressively low fares, especially off-season (that’s why we went to Beijing in December—freezing, but fewer fellow tourists to nudge you around), but it won’t hurt to check as many rates as you can. There are many online guides where you can check prices and book flights—Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, etc.—but I use SkyScanner (skyscanner.com.ph) a lot; it gives you the price in pesos, and immediately identifies the lowest price, with many other options. Sometimes it’s also good to check directly with the airline; recently, I found that Air France, on its own website, was offering a flight from Paris to Madrid that was lower than anyone else’s. Also, sometimes, cheapest may not always be the best for you. Cebu Pacific has great regional fares, but they often mean arriving in your destination around midnight, costing you a day and some anxiety in a strange airport. Adding a little more could also mean extras like a better plane and a better layover (we chose to fly BA to Madrid and back via Heathrow, to try out the new A380 and even marginally revisit London, one of our favorite cities). For local travel, don’t forget to explore your train and bus options—ground travel may be slower and not always cheaper, but you’ll see a lot more of the country.

Where to stay. Beng and I are lucky to get special rates from the Starwood chain (Westin, Sheraton, Le Meridien, etc.) because our daughter works there, but when we have to find other hotels, then TripAdvisor and Booking.com are our best friends. As a rule, I never book a hotel (even a Starwood one) without checking the TripAdvisor reviews, which can reveal problems like “great hotel, but terrible location” or uncover pluses like “free, strong wi-fi, two minutes’ walk from the Metro.” TripAdvisor can rank hotels according to your budget and other preferences, assigning one to five stars. Once, on a lark, Beng and I decided to go slumming in Hong Kong and stay in the cheapest dive we could find, so I reversed TripAdvisor’s rankings and found a one-star place on Nathan Road. It was cheap—and fun; we survived! Booking.com is another great guide to hotels and bed-and-breakfast places; they allow you to book often without any downpayment, cancellable without penalty within 24 hours of your stay. I booked our Venice hotel in Mestre and our Madrid airport hotel on this site. (A tip about Venice and Mestre—hotels in prime tourist spots like Venice can cost a fortune, but staying in places like Mestre, a very short train ride from Venice, can save you precious euros better spent on food and sightseeing.)

What to do. Every destination will have scores of travel guides online, but again, TripAdvisor’s thousands of reviews will give you a good sense of what’s worth visiting and what you can forego, especially on a tight budget and schedule (we passed up going to Halong Bay in Vietnam—pretty pictures, but a very pricey day trip). Like I wrote in a recent column, this is where we often let Serendipity take us by the hand and just let one streetcorner lead to another. Unlike many others, travel for us isn’t racking up a series of posed shots before famous landmarks; it’s about seeing what most other people will miss, or doing what most other tourists won’t. I don’t necessarily mean “going native,” which no one can honestly do on a three-day parachute tour, but finding or straying into unusual places, like that dusty, forgotten museum in Shanghai filled with dinosaurs and ancient, mummified Aryans, or that bookshop in Hanoi selling bright purple ink for 20 pesos a bottle.

Before I forget, and even before you begin your digital tour, scan, save, and upload (to one of your own email accounts) copies of your passport, visas, and travel insurance. (Yes, you can and should book travel insurance online—it’s one of those things you’ll be happy to never need.)

Next time, I’ll list and discuss specific apps—WorldMate, Metro, and FlightBoard, among others—and other tools (maps, photos, currency exchange) to help make that next trip of yours a more pleasant and fulfilling experience—as long as you don’t lose your tablet or smartphone.