in transit

Portraits of Why I Travel

We can talk all day about the complex histories, the rich cultures, the funny languages, and the delicious or obscure food that every place is made up of, but in the end, it always comes down to the people. For a true traveler, what really matters are the people you meet along your journey whether it's the brief encounters with inconsequential strangers or the unforgettable moments with strangers who turn to life long friends.

As one blogger on the Matador Network so wonderfully wrote, "despite the reasons why we end up in some dot on a map, it is always the people we share our time with that will define the place in our minds. Other travelers. Locals. The people we came with. Shared laughs. Shared suffering made eminently more tolerable because everyone is suffering together. Hour long conversations about the meaning of life using a few shared words and hand signals." Inspired by that, I thought I'd share a few faces in the crowd that have given shape and depth to the places on my map...

Sylwia and I up top Mount Pilatus

Sylwia and I up top Mount Pilatus

Sometimes you meet people you just instantly click with. Sylwia's one such person. We met three years ago while studying abroad in the Czech Republic, traveled one weekend to Berlin, and have been travel buddies ever since. It makes all the difference in the world to be traveling around with someone who shares your travel style, who can withstand your "quirks", who's interested in seeing the same things you are and who revels in the same simple pleasures as you do...or even better, somebody who can teach you to open your eyes and heart to something entirely new.

The good people of CMFR marching at the International Day to End Impunity

The Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries to work in for journalists but the people from the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, a non-profit media monitoring organization, is fighting against that. In November 2011, I decided to go back to my home in the Philippines and volunteer with them. I hadn't been back in nearly a decade, but Kat, John, Melai, Bryant, Sheila, and the rest of the CMFR team made me feel so welcome. They taught me so much about the Filipino press system and the culture of impunity that plagues the country, but also the amazing people who are working hard to change the system.

My little family in Florence

My little family in Florence

Sometimes you just totally and completely luck out with your choice in accommodations. Sylwia and I met Christene, Eoin, Kathleen, and Katy (L to R) at the Dany House in Florence and it was all love from the get go. This shot's from one of the most amazing and memorable nights in my travels...watched a sunset with a panaromic view of Florence, ate cheese, drank wine, and obnoxiously sang 90s hits all night. Just one of those picture perfect days to last a whole lifetime, you know? (Cue Jay-Z's version Forever Young here...)

Theavy at a non-profit fair trade event

Theavy is one of the sweetest people I know and we met while I was backpacking the streets of Phnom Penh.  She works at Mekong Quilts, a social enterprise offering sustainable employment to women in the village of Rumdou in Svay Rieng province, and we struck up a conversation immediately about our work in the non-profit sector. She invited me to an event where I got a first hand glimpse of the huge and vibrant fair trade network in Phnom Penh. Our friendship continues through email as we keep each other updated on non-profit life in Cambodia and Canada, continuing that cultural exchange despite the geographic constraints.

Goofing around with the OG crew

Now I know technically this one doesn't count as I didn't meet these crazy people on my travels, but rather here at home in Toronto. It's people like the entire Operation Groundswell crew (at home and abroad) that are the reasons why I travel. The open mindedness, the readiness for whatever adventure awaits, the social awareness, the genuine kindness...

...and of course there are those who I didn't manage to get a picture of but whose faces have added even more color to the video reel of my adventures I often replay in my head And so, whether by chance or by design, I welcome and look forward to the friends I've yet to meet on my future's to more conversations, to more dancing, more laughing, more drinking, more singing. 

Unvisited Corners

It's been two weeks since I got back from the Philippines, ending my "journey to the motherland" and propelling me straight into a different kind of madness -- no, not the chaos of the streets of Manila but the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. I haven't really had a chance to properly process everything that I've been through, all the odd emotions that have swept through me. But alas, the year is coming to an end (still don't know how this happened so fast) and I'm sitting here, reminiscing as I always do...

I've spent the past year all over the place. After graduation (a milestone I often overlook), I took off to travel and explore the wider world. Thirty cities, nine countries, and three continents later, I'm here exhausted by all the moving around, but bursting at my heart seams with a lifetime of memories and an even greater passion for all of life's adventures.

2011 has just been one big love story, albeit an unconventional one. You see, I've fallen a little bit in love with every city and country I've visited. Whether the scenery, the architecture, the culture, the food, or the people...I'm always enamoured by something and I never fail to find something to appreciate. And at the end of every trip, a certain melancholy sets in as I leave a part of myself there. In Florence, I left myself on the steps of the Piazalle Michaelangelo, up top the Alps of Switzerland, in the night clubs of Berlin, on the canals of Amsterdam, in the chocolate shops of Bruges, the riverside in Phnom Penh, the temple mountains of Angkor...

But that's where the Philippines is different. I don't think I've left any part of myself there, but rather I've found pieces of myself. This trip has been in every sense a journey...not just an exploration of some country, but of my roots. On so many occasions during my time there, I felt national pride for a country I've barely spent any time in. Yes, I was born there and am, by blood, a Filipina...and yet, I've spent my life in Canada and for the past nearly two decades, that has been my home. It's an odd feeling. When I read Jose Rizal's books (our national hero), look into the faces of the people, look out into the country's natural landscape, travel through the madness of its streets, I can't help but feel such a strong affinity for and kinship with this place...

I'll never forget the time we were watching Manny Pacquiao's fight and the Philippine national anthem came on. Naturally, everyone rose to their feet. I don't know why but it took me aback...I've never had to get up for any other anthem but Canada's before. And I didn't know the words...I've only ever known Canada's. I am Canadian after all. And yet, as I stood there watching and listening to the people sing the anthem, I couldn't help but feel overwhelmingly patriotic. And it isn't just patriotism either, there's this familial feeling too where everyone, even strangers, becomes your Tita, Tito, Kuya, or Ate (aunt, uncle, big brother, or big sister).

It's like I've stumbled on to these unvisited corners of myself...and what a surprise to find them miles away from "home" (now a fluid word). And it's even more perplexing to hold on to these pieces and not know quite yet how and where to fit them all in the bigger puzzle that is myself...

It's like Pico Iyer once wrote, "every trip to a foreign country can be a love affair where you're left puzzling over who you are and whom you've fallen in love with"...

Angkorin' Around

A complete contrast to the horrors of the Killing Fields and the S21 prison, a trip to the heart of the ancient Khmer civilization at Angkor presented the positive brilliance that mankind is capable of. The monuments of Angkor are truly awe-inspiring and no words I sculpt could ever do justice to what the Khmers did with their hands on stone...I'll show you instead.

Not a Goodbye, but a TTYL to Journalists for Human Rights

There's been a lot on my mind and in my heart the past little while and I've been procrastinating in writing this post for as long as possible. It's been hard to find the words, but here I go anyway...

Tomorrow is my last day at Journalists for Human Rights. In three days, I'm flying out to the Philippines to start my new adventure. As you can imagine, the past few weeks have been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster as I've been preparing for this transition in my life. So you'll have to bear with me as I'm about to get overly nostalgic in the paragraphs to follow...

I started working at jhr as the social media intern when I was just nineteen years old. A young grasshopper with a mind still so ripe and impressionable. I can't tell you enough how much of an impact this single experience has made in my life. jhr and the incredible people that I've had the pleasure of working with for the past two years have played such a significant part in molding who I am today and who I want to be. To work with an organization that is so wholeheartedly dedicated to empowering the people who are all too often marginalized and ignored has been, pardon the cliche, an absolute privilege. In the yellow wood that is my life, the luck of having stumbled upon this path and my choice to take it...well, that has made all the difference. At home or abroad, jhr changes lives...and mine is no exception.

I basically grew up in that office. I started back in 2009 when social media was really just beginning to explode and I've learned so much since then...not just about social media but also about journalism, human rights, media development, working with NGOs, and a whole smorgasbord of other world and life lessons. I've been able to combine my interests in international development, human rights, and online technology in a way that I didn't even realize was possible back then. These were all separate fields to me, but I've since learned the possibility and beauty of putting them all together in a way that can catalyze change.

I am forever grateful to Ben Peterson for taking a chance on me first as an intern, then as a staff member to head up jhr's social media efforts and take on the enormous responsibility of acting as jhr's online voice. I've been given so much trust to run with my ideas and turn them into something meaningful. At a time when executive buy-in for adopting social media in organizations was a painful and frustrating endeavour, I was being given the freedom (and the budget!!) to organize tweet-ups and hold workshops on how to use social media to spread human rights awareness. Communications departments in businesses and non-profits alike were struggling to get executives to even wrap their heads around the idea of social media...and there I was in our boardroom, a third year university student throwing out outlandish words like "tweet-up" and "twestivals" and actually being taken seriously.

And that's the beauty of working at jhr. There is so much openness to new and fresh ideas, regardless of who is proposing them--full-time or part-time staff, interns or volunteers...everyone is genuinely treated like a valued member of the team. There is so much support and trust from everyone, you can't help but feel like a part of something bigger. And I know it's this not-so-secret weapon that'll continue to propel jhr's growth in the future.

family photo

So to my family there at jhr, I'm going to miss working side by side with all of you! You are truly some of the most dynamic, committed, and passionate people I've ever come across. How you all work so tirelessly day in and day out, often juggling a myriad of roles, is something that will continue to blow my mind. And it's something that I'll take with me in the future to push myself to do better in whatever setting I find myself in. I can't tell you enough how much of a positive influence you've all been for me...

Despite all the hard and serious work we do, we always manage to keep the energy alive in that office and it is honestly just a joy to work with each of you. I'm really going to miss sitting with all of you in the kitchen at lunch baking in the sun even on the coldest of days. I will miss the birthday cakes, the beers, and the brainstorms. I will miss the frequent debates of whether or not to grab a cookie from Le Gourmand (if you're ever in doubt in the future, just know that the answer is always yes). I will miss wheeling around the office to bother you with my questions. And I will miss the frequent mystery of who has the bathroom keys.

There are tons of changes coming up for both jhr and each individual there, and though all changes have their melancholy, I am beyond excited to see all the growth (always growth!) that lies ahead. You are all an inspiration and I am proud and humbled everyday to know that I've had the opportunity to work with each of you...

Peace, love, and social media,
@justineabigail ;)