I’m a sucker for brands

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I love branded items. Remember those rowdy cowboys in the Marlboro cigarette commercials or the sexy, almost naked A&F models that subconsciously told you to wear A&F and feel as sexy as them. I tried – it didn’t make me look or feel sexy – but I loved A&F just the same.

I recently bought a 128gb iPhone 7 Plus, matte black. It was quite pricey so I decided to scrimp on accessories – a glass screen protector and transparent skin cover. Big mistake! Two weeks later, the screen protector had bubbles on the edges and started coming off, while the skin cover got deformed. My brand new, shiny device didn’t look new at all and it didn’t have the protection I required.

The perennial problem of what to do with an older device when you upgrade haunts me here in Toronto. I wish I were in the Philippines where there are many friends and relatives who would delight in having the older devices.

In ensuring protection from day one, I end up with devices that have no scratches and dents, and fetch a higher price when sold pre-owned online. Such was the case with my iPhone 6 Plus and the one before it. Online buyers are quite scrupulous and many have been scammed by online sellers, so they are very careful when buying online.

I ended up going back to the Apple store and buying the proper screen protector and cover for twice the price of the unbranded items. They also installed the screen protector with a machine which ensured that alignment was perfect.

Lesson re-learned: branded items promise and deliver quality and durability. In trying to scrimp I ended up spending more. Now my iPhone looks immaculate and I’m happy with its protection.

This principle applies not only to electronic items – it’s universal in my world. I can cite countless examples of how branded items provided a better experience and made it worth the extra spend.

My big pain in the butt

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This is not a blog post about a baboon’s ass.

For the longest time, I suffered from hemorrhoids. It’s familial; several in our family have it.

When you have hems you are used to seeing blood during bowel movements. When she was 76 and my mom saw blood in the toilet bowl, she thought she was having one of her hemorrhoid flare ups and just ignored it. Like me she had hems for the longest time. She didn’t know that the blood was from a different source, colon cancer, which would take her life three years later.

What happened to my mom has stirred me to action. I wasn’t going to wait that long. But before I share how I resolved my problem, I want to tell you my story and the lessons I learned along the way.

This is a topic that’s considered taboo. In the office you hear a lot of people say, “I have a migraine attack” or “My vertigo is killing me” but seldom, if ever, do you hear someone say “I can’t sit through that meeting because my hemorrhoid is acting up.” It’s not glamorous to talk about your butt and its problems.

For thirty years I had hemorrhoids. Six months ago, my doctor here in Canada diagnosed another anorectal disease: anal fissures. When I went to her for help because I couldn’t stand the pain in my butt, she asked me to describe it. I said it felt that something down there got torn. She said hems don’t tear or give the sensation of tearing. She said I could have anal fissures which was confirmed by the anorectal surgeon she referred me to.

All this time I have been incorrectly attributing my anal fissures to hemorrhoid flare ups. I did have legitimate flare ups. One time I remember my hem got thrombosed and my anal sphincter collapsed so the hem wouldn’t stay inside my anus. The doctor put a lot of lube and pushed the hem inside my anus. He then put tape to close my anus and keep the hem inside. An exposed thrombosed hem is extremely painful.

I had two anorectal diseases with different treatment options.

Let’s talk about fissures. This is the most painful experience one can ever have. In reading the online forums, a mom described fissures as more painful than normal child birth. If only I could verify that! There is an informative article published by the New York Times about this topic.

Other mind-boggling descriptions of fissures: it’s like giving birth to a pineapple or passing razor blades! You would know you have fissures when you dread having a bowel movement. Hard stools that pass through the fissures cause excruciating pain.

The best solution to fissures is having soft stools. To achieve this I took a stool softener in the morning and in the evening. I also took a magnesium citrate food supplement. These are available over the counter. In addition, and one which I consider the magic solution, I drank a glass of prune juice before going to bed. Sometimes, depending on how much fiber I had in my diet, I would end up with loose bowel movement in the morning. This is fine. Loose bowels cannot aggravate fissures.

Until my doctor diagnosed my anal fissures, I wasn’t addressing them properly, thinking I was just having a hemorrhoid flare up. I had the fissures on and off for a couple of months.

My doctor prescribed 2% diltiazem ointment for my fissures which was very effective. I also had regular bowel movements once a day in the mornings. For as long as I had soft stools, I managed my fissures well until they healed. Another thing I did that was really helpful was to use lube before bowel movements. I would apply lube outside and inside my anus to coat the lining and protect it when I passed stool. Others recommend Vaseline ointment but lube worked wonders for me. Even now that I am free of fissures and hemorrhoid, I still use lube to aid in my bowel movement.

When my fissures were fully healed, I went back to the anorectal surgeon and asked him to remove my hemorrhoid. I’ve wanted this for a long time but was always thwarted by the much-ballyhooed post-operative pain. I have a low pain threshold.

My surgeon said that hemorrhoidectomy, the surgical removal of hemorrhoids, is outdated and he hasn’t performed one in 15 years. He said that there are now several less complicated and less painful procedures.

During my appointment, he asked me to describe what was bothering me. After a 15-minute conversation he asked me to lie face down on a small table in his office. I had to kneel on a step attached to the table and lie face down. He then adjusted the table to bring my butt up.

Using a sigmoidoscope he confirmed that my fissures were all healed and asked me to stop using the ointment. He said I had one small hemorrhoid. He froze it first and put a rubber band on the “neck” of the hem. The procedure, rubber band ligation, was completed in ten minutes. The frozen, choked hem would dry up and fall off in a couple of days and would pass with my stool. It was a painless procedure with no post-op discomfort.

In two weeks I will turn 51 years old. This is the greatest gift I could ever give myself. After 30 years of suffering, I have finally rid myself of my hemorrhoid. Happy birthday to me!

There are many procedures available now to treat hemorrhoids. If you are suffering, please go see your doctor and ask about options.

There is a reason we use the phrase “pain in the ass” in the English language. You don’t want it to apply to you.

Why I Love Bose®

 

Bose

Several years ago, when I was in Bahrain, I bought a nice pair of wired, in-ear Bose earphones. They had nice silicone tips with several sizes so you can choose the best fit for your ears. These earphones were great for listening to music, but I used them more for mobile phone calls, especially when driving. They delivered a great audio experience. I was very happy with my purchase and enjoyed the earphones immensely.

Fast forward three years I was back in the Philippines and my Bose earphones reached the end of their rope. The wires connected to the in-ear parts got torn and rendered the earphones useless. I was sad.

I searched for Bose in the Philippines and found their representative office in Manila. When I explained the situation, the technician was very knowledgeable and explained my options. I could buy a new one – a later version because the one I had was already discontinued. Bose is very big on product innovation and they create better versions of products in no time. My second option was to return the damaged earphones and get a brand new replacement of the newer version for 30% of the SRP. This was essentially a 70% discount on a new set of earphones. And this despite the fact that I used the unit for 3 years and had no extended warranty! I was even prepared to buy a brand new one. Thanks, Bose.

In 2013 I returned to Toronto and bought wireless around-ear headphones, again from Bose. I loved the wireless freedom and the crisp, delicious sound. My daily subway commutes were comfier! After two years I had to replace the ear cushions. Again, one phone call to a very knowledgeable and helpful technician and my problem was solved.

On the third year, the band of the headphones showed signs of wear and tear (little pieces where chipping off). About this same time Bose came out with an upgraded version of the unit (pictured above).

Fourteen years ago I quit smoking and I have been buying myself a nice “treat” every year to reinforce the behaviour. This year I bought the Bose around-ear wireless headphones.

This left me with a quandary as to what to do with the old unit. It is fully functional apart from the chipped exterior. Out of curiosity, I called Bose and the courteous technician was very helpful. He politely said that the band was not a replaceable part but if I were interested, because they still have surplus stock of the discontinued unit, he can replace mine with a brand new unit for approximately 25% of the original cost. Additionally, the courier costs to return the old unit and to deliver the new one were free. Again, like the experience in the Philippines, I’m getting a brand new unit for a 75% discount. I couldn’t pass up on this opportunity.

I now have a spare brand new Bose around-ear wireless headphones. If a friend from Dubai is nice to me, he just might get a surprise!

Bose displayed consistently excellent customer service in three countries: Bahrain, the Philippines and Canada. The technicians were courteous, knowledgeable and helpful. They try their best to make the customer experience as hassle-free as possible. Bose is a great brand that creates great products!

Fast forward three years from now when I need to get a new set of wireless headphones, guess which brand I’m buying.

[Disclaimer: I do not represent the company Bose or any of its subsidiaries. The comments above are my own based on my personal experience purchasing Bose products.]

High Tech Travel

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I travel as much as I can and I love technology, which makes travel easier. However, during a recent trip to the United States, I was taken aback by how technology has impacted air travel and I’m not sure that I’m thrilled with what I experienced, although in time, when the innovations become more familiar, I know I will be grateful for them.

Because US immigration and customs control is done here in Toronto, I got pre-processed via a machine that scans your passport and where you answer pre-screening questions. The machine also takes your picture and prints out a form that you need to submit to the US immigration officer before being admitted to the United States, even while physically still in Toronto. There are three airports in Canada with this facility – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

In a previous post I lamented about how I was inconvenienced by an airline that did not accept cash for inflight food sales when I didn’t have a credit card. Now, they’ve gone a step further by selling entertainment on board. Yes, you need a credit card to view the movies or listen to songs on the inflight entertainment system. Seriously?

Online check-in twenty four hours before your flight is quite common in North America. I received my boarding pass in an email from the airline. I didn’t have luggage to check in so I was expecting everything to go without a hitch. I was travelling from Toronto to LA with a layover in Charlotte.

The problem was, even with roaming activated on my smartphone, I couldn’t access data or wifi at Charlotte International Airport so I couldn’t retrieve my electronic boarding pass. Neither could I open the airline’s app or WorldMate’s app where I had copies of my boarding pass.

Thank goodness the email that the airline sent had a PDF of my boarding pass which I presented during boarding. Going paperless meant I didn’t have a printed copy of my boarding pass. Lesson learned here: have a printed back up of your boarding pass for situations when data or wifi are not available.

A week later, I was early at LAX on my trip back to Toronto with a layover at O’Hare International Airport. I decided to skip online check-in on this trip.

At the counters I was caught by my biggest surprise of this trip. There were no more counter check-in staff. Instead, what greets you at the check-in counter is a monitor and keyboard – you need to check yourself in! If you have luggage to check in you need to put it in the weighing scale. The computer asks for your booking reference or travel locator. Then you need to scan your passport on the scanner.

Because I didn’t have pre-assigned seating when I bought my ticket, the computer now advised me that all available seats were for sale, meaning I had to pay to get a seat assignment on the flight. Because I was really freaked out by this new experience, I chose a seat, swiped my credit card, and waited for the computer to print my receipt and boarding passes.

The luggage tags were still printed inside the counter where airline staff used to check people in. I saw one airline staff who went back and forth checking for printed luggage tags. He will verify your identity and tag your luggage.

I’m sure if you really freak out and don’t know what to do you can still call the very few airline staff and ask for help. I observed that people were already used to this process and knew what to do.

Some questions in my head:
1. What if you didn’t know your booking reference or where to find it? (Lesson here: always write down your booking reference or know where to find it on your itinerary.)
2. What if you didn’t have a passport? I’m not sure if the scanner would scan/accept a driver’s license or any other form of ID.
3. What if you had to pay for your seat and didn’t have a credit card? Where do you pay with cash when there’s no one there to help you?

Upon reaching Toronto, I was processed via the automatic immigration and passport control system where you scan your passport and customs declaration form. After processing the machine prints out a form which you need to show to the officers guarding the exits. You don’t get to speak to a human immigration officer anymore!

Some lessons I want to share with you:

1. Always have a copy of your itinerary and know your booking reference.
2. If you opt for online check-in and electronic boarding passes, be sure to print a copy of your boarding passes in case wifi or data fail while you are boarding.
3. Have an international credit card available and ensure that you make a travel notification to your bank to avoid unnecessary delays.
4. Bring your passport, if available, even for domestic flights.
5. Lock your carry-on luggage because airlines sometimes collect bags during boarding to load in the cargo bay and to give back to you at the destination airport. You wouldn’t want to part with an unlocked luggage.
6. Most important of all: arrive early and give plenty of time to go through the travel formalities. The things you have to go through are stressful enough. If you arrive late and are running to make your flight, your stress will be so much worse.

If you do what you can to ensure you are prepared for your trip, you will have a better, hassle-free experience. Safe travels!

The Credit Card Necessity

credit-card

There are two things I don’t like about Air Canada: one, they sell their food to passengers; and two, they don’t accept cash payments onboard.

I still dread that awkward moment two years ago when the stewardess asked me, at 30,000 feet, “We don’t accept cash, do you have a credit card?”. I swear the entire cabin heard my negative reply. And I’m sure several of those that heard my reply jumped into conclusions that I either have poor credit or worse, am a discharged bankrupt.

In North America and most of the first world, credit is a privilege bestowed on individuals who have, in the financial institution’s estimation, the capability and intention of repaying debt. These capability and intention are often gauged using the credit score provided by credit bureaus. The higher a person’s credit score, the higher his credit worthiness, which means he has access to more credit. On the other hand, a person who is a discharged bankrupt or who is currently in a consumer proposal, has very limited chances of being granted credit.

It’s quite ironic that the person who has access to credit usually doesn’t use it and the one who needs it cannot access it.

After being out of Canada for seven years I came back and checked my credit score – the credit bureaus expunge records every six years so all my old records were gone and I had a clean slate.

Barely one month into a full time job I applied for a credit card with a provider known to help those who have no or bad credit history. A credit card is a necessity here. Imagine purchasing an LV bag for $3,050 and paying in $20 bills. Doable, yes, but the norm is you pull out your plastic, swipe or tap, and you’re done.

I had to build credit again and the sooner I started the better off I would be. I got a card with $500 as credit limit. I was grateful the card provider didn’t require a security deposit.

Fast forward two years I now have credit cards from three major banking institutions with credit limits I can’t afford to use.

Two strategies helped me get back on track with my credit. First, I always paid the minimum payment required on time. It’s better to pay the balance in full every month if you can afford it. Second, I ensured that my credit utilization is always within 30% or less of my revolving credit. This is the amount of credit you use versus what’s available to you. So if you had $10,000 credit, you shouldn’t use more than $3,000. If you maintain these two strategies, within a year or two your credit score will improve and credit offers will start coming your way.

I can now comfortably travel on Air Canada and proudly pay for my onboard purchases with any one of my three credit cards. In two years my situation has turned around for good. The challenge is to continue my responsible use of credit. I hope I don’t get depressed and use shopping as therapy. With credit at my fingertips, I avoid browsing LV and Tag Heuer websites for fear I might do an impulsive purchase. And get stuck paying for credit for a very long time.

Cuba, si

The mural of a handsome Che Guevarra greets us at the Plaza de la Revolucion, with the inscription “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (“Until victory, always”). Everywhere there were photos, murals, paintings, slogans, etc. celebrating Cuba’s victory in the revolution. However, as I began to explore Havana, I wondered what the revolution really achieved, at least for the common Cuban. The city was depressed. Poverty was ubiquitous. And the future was not hopeful.

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Despite the negative situation, Cubans went about their daily activities with a positive outlook. In most restaurants and cafes, and even in small convenience stores, there was either a live band or a speaker hooked to an iPhone playing salsa music. Cubans were always quick to gyrate to the sexy beat of Latin music.

Tourism is a big industry in Cuba. Travelers from around the world pump hard currency direct to the economy. In Havana, Cubans are used to the presence of tourists. They come in various shapes, forms and sizes. Despite the boom in tourism, it was disappointing to note that very few Cubans spoke English, or at least attempted to. I noticed that most of the TV channels and radio shows were in Spanish, so it didn’t come as a surprise that there is a huge communication barrier for tourists who don’t speak Spanish.

My friend Ronaldo and I capitalized on the fact that a lot of words in our mother tongue, Filipino, contained Spanish words so we used those words to attempt communication with the locals. When words failed, signing also helped. We only met a couple of Cubans who spoke good English – one was a salesman in a souvenir shop and another was a tour guide. Even my Spanish translator app on my iPhone was useless there. When you are communicating it is a nuisance to be searching the app for the idea you can’t translate to Spanish. I wish they’d invent an app where I record my message in English and play it back in Spanish. That would really be convenient.

The scenery was nostalgic – it felt like the city was trapped in time in the 50’s and 60’s – and the presence of vintage vehicles in the Central Park, used as taxis, authenticated the feeling of being in a time warp.

I imagined women in their Maria Clara outfits and men in their suits, smoking cigars while walking the streets of downtown Havana. But instead what you see is a contrast of men and women, Cubans and tourists, wearing colourful shorts and sleeveless shirts, with young Cuban men sporting David Beckham’s H&M commercial hairdo.

There were a lot of hustlers and panhandlers in downtown Havana, especially at Central Park. This was the part of my vacation that was annoying and upsetting. Locals who did this wanted a quick buck from an unsuspecting or gullible tourist. The scams run the gamut from a woman with a child to an old man being pushed in a decrepit wheel chair. All of them were asking money for food. The worst were the able-bodied drunks who had empty liquor bottles in their hands, breath that reeked of alcohol, who tried to scam you with money so they can get more booze. Those who approached you on the street had different stories and strategies but the same goal in mind – to earn a quick and easy buck.

Cuba has two currencies – the Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC, which tourists use, and the Cuban Peso (CUP), which locals use. The CUC converts to 1:1 against the US dollar. As a tourist, it is seldom that you have to deal with the CUP. When you buy in the local shops and pay with CUC, you can ask them to give you change in CUC so you don’t have to bother converting currencies. One CUC is 25 CUP so it can be cumbersome dealing with two currencies.

Food was a disappointment. Obviously, McDonald’s and KFC don’t operate in Cuba. Although I’ve known about this during my research pre-trip, it was still disappointing to find the limited food choices in Havana. Being a foodie, I wanted to indulge while on vacation. The best we had were steaks but even those don’t compare to the ones we enjoy in North America.

Until we discovered Chinatown.

Thanks to my friend Ronaldo who managed to introduce himself to a Chinese national named Terry, who was in Havana on a work-study program from his employer in China. We were looking for the souvenir shop near the Yara Cinema and couldn’t find it and Ronaldo asked Terry for help. We found the souvenir shop and asked Terry for a recommendation to a good restaurant. Terry gladly showed us Chinatown! This was on our fourth day in Havana, and to me, Chinatown was like an oasis in the desert. We feasted on delicious Chinese food and we kept coming back until we left Havana. The place was just fifteen minutes from our hotel but it was out of the usual path we took when strolling. Morale of the story: when pressed for good food, look for Chinatown!

Terry also taught us to haggle. During our first two days we didn’t really care much. Whenever we went to Central Park, there were all sorts of hustlers offering taxi rides to wherever you wanted to go. The standard rate was 5 CUC. We found out later that we were being scammed because most of the places we wanted to go to only cost 2 CUC and not 5. Thanks to Terry we started haggling with taxi drivers. Rarely did they ever turn down a 2 CUC fare because there will be three or four drivers who would grab the opportunity. Supply of taxis overwhelmed demand so this was good for tourists.

We felt safe the whole time. There was a visible police presence in the tourist areas. They are smart to protect the tourists, who bring in money to their economy. One unfortunate incident involving tourist safety can have adverse consequences to their economy. Common sense will go a long way as in any country you visit. Keep your valuables hidden. Don’t stray in dark streets especially late in the evenings.

Smile and be polite but also be firm with the hustlers and panhandlers. Hola was a good icebreaker. Gracias and por favor were also handy.

There weren’t a lot of places to shop and even the few malls in downtown Havana had very little items on display. There are souvenir shops but you need to haggle there too as the prices are sometimes unreasonable. I wanted to buy an apron to use here in Toronto. There was a Havana Club branded apron that was selling for 10 CUC. I could go to a Dollar Store in Toronto and probably get an apron for two dollars. I did buy a Che Guevarra t-shirt, though.

Havana was a great experience! It was unhurried and relaxed. Great for those vacations when you don’t really want to do anything. Will I go back? This is the debate I continue to have with Ronaldo. Probably not. I have a limited travel budget and there are so many other countries on my bucket list, so instead of spending money on a return trip to Havana, I might as well use it to go to Athens. But then again, Ronaldo may convince me to go back to Havana. We’ll see.

Back in Toronto, as I put my Che Guevarra fridge magnet in my refrigerator, I thought of the warm and friendly Cuban people I met during my trip. I remembered the salsa music. And the taste of a cold mojito on a warm, sunny day. At Central Park in Havana, tourists and panhandlers go about their daily business. It’s another beautiful day in Havana. Viva la Revolucion!

Three Conditions for Unsolicited Advice

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Many of us listen with the intent to advice or provide information. We have a lot of “been there, done that” stories to share that we often overlook the fact that the person we are having a conversation with may not be looking for advice, but for a listening ear. We sometimes feel good knowing that we have more information or know a subject better than the other person.

I had a former boss whom I consider an excellent listener. He never cuts me off to give his advice. He listens intently, looks me in the eye, nods for understanding, and asks the occasional question to clarify a point. He is there 100% of the time – no checking of smartphone, no glancing at his watch and no unnecessary interruptions. He understands the human need to be listened to. Whenever we meet, he always gives me a precious gift – his undivided attention.

When I need his advice on the topic being discussed, I have to ask for it, he never volunteers it. And when I do ask, he intelligently and unreservedly gives it to me, no holds barred. His ideas are always thought out, smart, and relevant. After every conversation with him I feel good. He makes me feel respected and relevant. I always look forward to our occasional meetings. I wish I could be more like him.

I am the complete opposite. I listen to advice or provide information. I want to share my wisdom, experiences and knowledge with people. I also have the bad habit of cutting people off when they start rambling. I get impatient when people have difficulty expressing their thoughts. I am aware of these flaws and am working to eradicate them.

Ironically, when I encounter people who listen with the intent to advice or provide information, I tune out very quickly. I don’t need information, I have Google for that. If I need advice I’ll ask for it. Sometimes all we need is human connection to affirm our relevance in this world.

This brings me to another former boss who told me never to forget the three conditions for unsolicited advice. He said when people start advising you about what to do with your life or how to deal with a current situation, you need to ask yourself if they fit into any one of three conditions:

1. Do they put food on your table?
2. Do they put a roof on your head?
3. Do they put money in your pocket?

If you can answer yes to just one of the above conditions, then they have earned the right to advise you. If not, then you can politely excuse yourself from the conversation.

I should give this advice to myself and resist the urge to advise others. If I do this, I will be a more effective listener and communicator. People are generally attracted to good listeners. With the overabundance of information from technology, the world is a noisy place. Sometimes all one needs is a person who genuinely listens, a person who cares.