Grappling with the cliché of mzungu and African child

We started our community service projects this week here in Kisumu, Kenya with our partners, the Young County Change Makers, a community-based organization empowering youth in the area. As expected, it has been a struggle, mentally and emotionally.

We were at the Nyalenda informal settlement when we were surrounded by little school children. The scene was all too cliché. Hurray! Mzungus (Swahili word for Westerners) surrounded by happy African children! Haven't we seen too much of that already? Are we living and telling the same narratives? I found myself outside of the moment, just watching my friends hug and play with the kids. A part of me wanted to take pictures to capture the moment, but the other part of me couldn't help but feel uncomfortable and disdain for the whole situation. So what did I do? I became cold and distant to these children, vacantly giving polite high fives, but really wanting no part of this all too typical scene.

And I went home with all of these questions about the stories we tell of Africa, our impact as visitors to this regions..and just felt overwhelmed and actually paralyzed by my thinking. And I really hated myself because instead of enjoying these children's presence and playing with them as all children love to do, I spent the afternoon inside my own head. Instead of seeing and treating them as human beings, they became just abstractions in my academic lens. And in the end, isn't that worse? Isn't that more dehumanizing?

But today at Joyland, a school specifically for kids with physical disabilities, I put my thinking cap off and just allowed myself to be in the moment. I played soccer with one of the classes, exasperated by the heat but enlivened by how my ass was getting seriously kicked by these kids. We took photos of each other and many were fascinated by my Asian heritage. "Are you Chinese?", they'd ask. "I'm from the Philippines". Many Jackie Chan moves were exchanged nonetheless. I also got to spend time with my new friend Tabitha, this sassy little 12 year old, who told me about her everyday experiences at the school and even showed me how to do a proper catwalk. At the end of the day, she gave me her bracelet saying, "I want you to keep this so you don't forget me". I gave her my hair tie to remember me by. Cheesy and cliché, but her gesture really touched me and it was all real.

As my good friend, Saleema, wrote to me today, "it's not a cliché to bond with another human being, and it will never be a cliché to laugh with a child". And in the end, making those genuine connections is what we and what Operation Groundswell is all about...

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. 

Travel and Travail: The Parallels Between Travel and Work

The great travel writer Pico Iyer once wrote, “Few of us ever forget the connection between ‘travel’ and ‘travail’”. And if I may draw your memory back to Grade 3 French class for a moment, you’ll remember that the word “travail” means “work.”

After traveling to 30 cities, nine countries and three continents in one year, let me tell you that, contrary to what many may think, there is actually a very deep connection between travel and work. Traveling, for all its splendor, also entails hardship. And these hardships bring out skills, qualities and lessons that’ll prove to be invaluable in the workforce.

I recently started writing for TalentEgg, Canada's career hub for recent graduates looking to hatch their career and in my first article, I share some of the lessons I've learned on the road and how they can all be applied to the working world. You can read it on TalentEgg's Career Incubator here. It's all about being resourceful, increasing your cultural sensitivity, being a chameleon, and keeping your composure in some of the weirdest and most stressful situations. So if you're looking for an excuse to travel...I give you a lot to work with in this article. ;-)

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"...