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Elena Lopez - Blog 3: Take Care

Elena Lopez - Blog 3: Take Care

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Forgive me for dusting off an overused saying, but time flies. I’m now in the final month of my six-month internship in the Philippines, but it seems like only yesterday I was taking my first steps in NAIA’s Terminal 1 as a fresh-faced foreigner. My first impression of Manila is still vivid in my mind: a grimy, run-down airport; the noisy masses of humanity; the wall of hot, humid air that slams into you the moment you step outside. I remember standing lost, exhausted, clutching an enormous suitcase, wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into.

Six months later, I’m still surprised by the Philippines but I’m a lot more confident in myself. It wasn’t an easy journey, however. Although I was warned about the challenges of living in Manila, it’s still quite different to actually experience it. I have had my days of being frustrated and homesick, wanting to crawl into my bed in Canada and eat one of my mom’s home-cooked meals. There are a litany of things I’ve struggled with and been agitated by, like:

  • The horrific, standstill traffic. When you have close to 12 million people living in an area smaller than Calgary, commuting times triple and often seems never-ending.
  • Insufficient, crumbling infrastructure. The drainage system gets overwhelmed by sudden rain and the train system is running beyond the capacity it was designed for.
  • The daily confrontation with poverty. Standing beside Westernized chains like Starbucks are entrepreneurial roadside stands selling sundries like cigarettes and pop, and families sleeping on cardboard in doorways.
  • The Kafkaesque bureaucracy when it comes to getting anything done, like the drawn-out visa extension process.
  • The seemingly never-ending invasion of cockroaches, mice, and mosquitoes.
  • The constant noise. There are always dogs barking, cocks crowing, men yelling, cars honking, music blaring, children laughing.

    And that’s just at night time.

CAPI recognised the challenges that these internships would bring us, and that’s why our pre-departure training placed a big emphasis on taking care of yourself. For me especially, I found this crucial, it being not just my first time living in a foreign country, but also my first time living away from my family. This necessitated independence and self-discipline on my part, but it went beyond typical responsibilities like grocery shopping and paying rent. I also had to be mindful of my physical, emotional and mental health – like when I had dengue fever, I had to monitor my wellbeing and take myself to the hospital, or when I struggled with homesickness I had to come up with coping mechanisms. Self-care is crucial.

At the same time, self-care was made easier by the fact that I was welcomed to the Philippines with open arms. Overall, Filipinos are extremely warm and friendly, and my organization was no exception. CMA ensured that I had a stress-free transition, and was patient with me as I settled into my new environment. The office environment was more relaxed, informal and focused on relationship building than what I had previously experienced in Canada. For example, punctuality is not mandatory; “Filipino time” is notorious for never being on time. As for relationship building, I’ve often found that many people I’ve met have taken a genuine and sincere interest in my well-being. “Do you have enough food? Come over for dinner if you’re hungry! Be careful when you take taxis!” are all common statements. Even when saying farewell, people will say: “Ingat ka!” It’s a Tagalog phrase that means, “take care”.

After six months, I can safely say that I have indeed taken care, and that the Philippines has taken care of me. Despite the challenges I’ve faced, the experience has changed me in ways both material and subtle. In the grand scheme of things, six months is only a drop in the bucket, a moment in a lifetime. And yet, I’ve come to love the Philippines, and I don’t want to imagine my life without:

  • The open friendliness of strangers on the street who greet you as you walk by and help you if you’re lost
  • Working with some of the most passionate activists I’ve ever met and having access to amazing opportunities to wrestle with migration issues
  • Witnessing the legacy of colonialism and development in the Global South with my own eyes, in real life
  • Being serenaded by karaoke singers
  • The constant supply of inexpensive, succulent tropical fruit
  • Being only hours away from breathtaking tropical destinations
  • Having the chance to learn more about my family’s heritage

As my internship comes to an end, I can’t help but feel that the course of my life has been irrevocably changed. I used to be very certain of my life goals, replete with a five-year plan. Now, I’m less certain, but in a way I have more direction, because I now have a better idea of my true passions. My return to Canada certainly does not mean the end of my chapter in the Philippines. In the meantime, ingat ka – take care.