For travelers: Aside from the usual tips, 5 essential things to remember

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Armenia’s centuries-old monasteries are awe-inspiring!

Bags packed. Farewells done. All set and ready to go. Wait a minute – have you checked this out?

Flying groggy from Bangkok, I headed straight to a domestic counter in Manila requesting for a window seat and my bags prioritized. Philippine Airlines’ friendly check-in staff looked for my name and never found it. “You were not booked, ma’am,” they said.

After a two-week travel combining holiday and work in Thailand, I totally forgot I haven’t bought my connecting flight to Cebu City. Embarrassing! But what if it was an international connection? It would have been an absolute nightmare especially if you have spent all your money on shopping and can’t afford to buy the connecting flight ticket.

Flight time

If you’re flying at 12:00, look again. Is it midnight or noon? I once sauntered languidly at Jakarta’s international airport thinking my 12:00 flight was at midnight only to find out it has left 12 hours ago (while I was enjoying lunch with friends).

Many airlines and travel agents are now conscious of this confusion and puts am and pm clearly on the ticket. But then, it’s good to check one more time. Remember the difference on military time. It is much better than getting through the trouble re-booking and spending an unwanted extra money on missed-flight-penalties. It was good that the Philippine Airlines booking office in Jakarta followed up on my re-booking and even called me at the hotel to make sure things were in order.

More? Continue reading, just click here in Rappler.

Who said I’ll stop my way past midlife? Some life’s fun tips you might find handy.

My work has never been without fun moments. We can only give our best if we are happy with what we are doing.

My work has never been without fun moments. We can only give our best if we are happy with what we are doing. I met this mother cow while visiting a water project in Duhok, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

(Karlsruhe, Germany, 29/02/2016)

“Nobody said it was easy. No one said it would be so hard. Ohhh, take me back to the start.” – The Scientist, Coldplay

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At the rate I am going, I won’t. That’s a tried-and-test stubborn-as-a-mule attitude I was born with. I would probably be speeding through life until the stoplight turns green.

Tip #1: “Do it badly; do it slowly; do it fearfully; do it any way you have to, but do it.” – Steve Chandler, Reinventing Yourself: How to Become the Person You’ve Always Wanted to Be

The past three years have been a blur of exciting career opportunities. At 51, I managed a 10-member-team sharing updates on the world’s strongest typhoon in the Philippines. At 52, closing my ears to protests, I rolled my luggage for the humanitarian crisis in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Riding high on a camel in Petra. Just when I thought my previous trips cannot be matched in fun, Jordan upped the ante.

Riding high on a camel in Petra. Just when I thought my previous trips cannot be matched in fun, Jordan upped the ante.

Tip #2: “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.” – JFK

That was my most emotional assignment so far I am still haunted by the hundreds of thousands of tents occupied by over a million internally-displaced people from northern Iraq.

At 53, I am going back to Africa for the El Nino crisis, the long dry spell in Southern Africa affecting an estimated 60 million people across nine countries. From typhoons to conflict to drought and famine, my life has now been defined with the unbelievable privilege to be at the frontline of the world’s most challenging emergencies.

Tip # 3: “Making your mark in the world is hard. If it was easy, everybody will do it. But it’s not. It takes patience, it takes commitment and it comes with plenty of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. It is whether you let it harden and shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere …” – President Barack Obama

Yes, a privilege because being able to contribute my bit and give voice to those in pain is a special chance to reach out and serve.

My favourite graffiti-in-the-wall photo taken in Istanbul, Turkey. Often we need to look very closely to find beauty in things. Photo by the awesome Albert Yu.

My favourite graffiti-in-the-wall photo taken in Istanbul, Turkey. Often we need to look very closely to find beauty in things. Photo by the awesome Albert Yu.

There were many times where I felt I wanted to sit-down at a porch with a view of the sea and enjoy my latte watching the sunlight. I tell you it won’t take two seconds before I double over with laughter and chide myself. It’s not so Cecil Laguardia to blow the torch off and put it in the holder.

Tip #4: “It is not wanting to win that makes you a winner; it is refusing to fail.” – Unknown

Past my colourful midlife (that proudly included getting on a ship in Turkey to see Troy and riding the camel alone in Jordan’s iconic Petra last year), I will be riding out for my 32nd country. Swaziland, where I will be based, is a small-landlocked country in southern Africa with 1.25 million population.

Work becomes a blessing if you keep sharing and is willing to keep working hard. There are no free lunches. You have no choice but work to exist – you might as well find a way to enjoy it (or be miserable all your life?). I am not an expert on this – but I am on my way.

Tip #5: “Age appears to be best in four things: old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust and old authors to read.” – Francis Bacon

… then I became a grandma. But this needs a special page of it’s own. Soon!

PS: And you know I am writing a book. Yeah, I know you’ve read it a couple of times (or more). Just in case you forgot. :-)

No dull moment in Armenia. I found some of my warmest and nicest and loveliest friends from Yerevan.

No dull moment in Armenia. I found some of my warmest and nicest and loveliest friends from Yerevan.

 

 

 

 

Ok, let’s get the secret out: I’m publishing my first book!

This has to be smokin' hot to get to this page (at least in my opinion, don't argue).

This has to be smokin’ hot to get to this page (at least in my opinion, don’t argue).

(Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, 17/10/2015)

“Everything you do along your journey contributes to where you’re going.” – Jen Sincero

That title, I am sure, got us straight to the jugular. I finally found the “main event” of my going to Iraq.

When the communications job was handed to me in almost a flash – while doing frenzied media interviews at the height of Typhoon Hagupit in Tacloban City in the Philippines on November 2014– I was clueless my life was going for that big U turn (and a massive screeching swerve!).

Maybe I was too busy on my headphone at that time talking of and monitoring the storm to wonder what on earth God was cooking up on something exciting. My work on emergencies is a series of non-stop roller coaster ride, what else is there surprising to anticipate? I was dead wrong!

You know that saying “God works in mysterious ways”? He kept doing that in my life I have resigned to the reality that instead of working against it, I’d sit back and relax, waiting how He will unfold his plans right in front of my sleep-wearied eyes.

He always does. He always made me laugh and say, “There you go – I can never ever outguess You!” And that’s so sweet of Him. For someone who is often wrangling with God to do it my own way, it’s a pleasure to be spoiled with His blessings, and His maximum tolerance.

So, my mantra was and is always this: The best is yet to come. Not so surprisingly, my sweet friend Yara Raad was His voice when she said the exact words during a wonderful dinner treat in Erbil. Oh well, if you know God better just like me – He always goes for the big time!

GeorgeBernardShaw_thumb4I am finally publishing my first book! A long overdue dream, honestly. I need to say this and make this public before I chicken out and change my mind. You won’t hear the car backing out from the driveway this time. Yes, and this is not just going after a dream. I owe it to myself to make it happen.

As Jen Sincero continues with a tone that sounds like an order to me, “Our fantasies are the most revealing peepholes into who we are and what we think is awesome. No matter how out-there and ridiculous they may seem, they mean something to us, and usually represent our biggest and best versions of ourselves.” Enough said.

I told Albert Yu once that I dream of my grandchildren saying to a bookworm seated next to them, “You know what, my grandma is the author of the book you’re reading.” And he shot back, “I think there is already a lot of good stuff your grandkids can say. The book is just one of the long list of accomplishments.” I am not too shy today to share this.

Our Istanbul holiday – a September delight – sealed the dream smack into reality (in a quaint tea shop overlooking the Bosphorus Strait, to be exact).

This first book, a collection of my stories, which will be released on home ground, will benefit a project for children with Cerebral Palsy in Koronadal City. It will be my first project before going for the second – and major – book project from Iraq.

Yes, I am certain this is one of the very special reasons God brought me here. A lot of my weekends got burned working on it – I can’t wait for it to go to print!

Can you please be sweet enough to wait for the book to be unveiled here? As they say it well in the movie theaters, coming soon!

PS: My special thanks to Albert YuDiwa Gacosta, Karen Rivera, Chris Lete and Janice Evidente. For varying reasons, you know why.

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“It is a way we make a living, but it feels more like a responsibility, or a calling. It makes us happy, because it gives us purpose… And we also pay a steep price for this commitment.” – Lynsey Addario, war photographer in her book It’s What I doIMG_0580[1]

Falling hard for the pains of Iraq

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My first sight of Erbil on my plane’s window. My heart leaped with mixed feelings.

When my Qatar Airlines flight landed on one cold afternoon in Erbil six months ago, I was both excited and terrified. I am inside Iraq. The words almost screamed in my head.

I have covered major disasters in my 15 years as a communicator starting with the conflict in Mindanao, the Asia tsunami, the drought in the Horn of Africa, the massive typhoon Haiyan and recently the Nepal earthquake.

I must admit Iraq, with its turbulent and sensitive context, is one special job that would take heart and guts. I said yes because I felt it is one that I cannot bear to think back when I retire that I said no. Looking back, I am happy I made that decision despite so many protests and fears. My family and a lot of my friends would attest I was undeterred.

Braving winter, my first sight of a real displaced camp took my breath away. Over 200 families mostly coming from Mosul lived in the tents for five months in the camp with nothing but the clothes on their back. I was told of heartbreaking stories that many slept in the parks and unfinished buildings in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, before they found place in the camp.

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Fadli, fellow aid worker and friend, walks back to our distribution work. Beyond him is the road to Mosul.

Many of them lived very good lives back where they came from. Some were engineers, doctors, teachers, shop owners, policemen or farmers. Everyone have decent jobs raising families. One father showed me a picture of his smiling daughter at a grocery shop he owned. He said it is gone – leveled by a bomb coming from nowhere.

But my most touching moment was being offered a space next to the heater to ease the winter cold as I did my interviews. These people have nothing and have been suffering for months but they found in their hearts to worry for my welfare setting aside their own comfort. I would have understood if they were angry and bitter. They were instead kindhearted and generous, more than any of us can probably show.

My succeeding days, weeks and months going from camp to camp, from one abandoned building to another where the displaced of Iraq sought refuge were a non-stop string of a people’s humanity in the face of unspeakable suffering and misery.

It was seldom that people refused to get me into their tents and caravans to share their stories. They openly welcomed me like I am part of the family. I have never felt so special being part of these people whose stories I am trying to write so they have a voice for the outside world to hear.

I wish I am a superwoman to end this despair so undeserved. I am not. But I can use my pen, my camera and my writing skills to do something. That’s the best I can offer. My assignment is to tell the world that each and every person and child in the camps and building deserve to live in peace and enjoy the life that God has given them. I see my effort as a drop in the ocean, almost meaningless in the vast desolation of millions.

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Generosity so profound. A Yazidi woman offered me a freshly-cooked bread in a camp in Duhok.

When 10 children I talked to told me they have no hope because in Iraq, when one war ends another will most likely start – my heart sank to its lowest. I can’t allow them to give up their dreams.

I told them of my growing up years in Mindanao running away from war that seemed endless in the 70s. I told them I lived through that because I never gave up. Hearing my story and lifted by it, they started sharing their own dreams – to become a doctor, a teacher, an engineer, a cook and even a football player. I have proven that one person can influence another person to care and there will be many. It can start with you and me.

Hopes grew from one story in that one morning I met the children of Iraq. I hope you understand why I am relentless in writing their stories. For me, this is not just a job. This is doing my small share hoping against hope that one day the families can go home and resume their interrupted lives. We can always dream can’t we? Why not dream for the displaced of Iraq? They can come true.

My prayer is that as that the children and families I met and continue to meet will never give up. Join me.

What is every child’s wish in Iraq’s camps? Most likely the same with Miron’s in this video Miron’s Wish.

My pomegranate challenge … make it deep-red

pomegranateI now believe we are brought in a certain place for a reason. I haven’t even thought of Armenia a year ago and here I am falling in love with the country.

As I walked on the cobbled stone streets of Yerevan and endlessly got awed by the massive centuries-old buildings, I just knew there is more to the trip than just a break-from-Iraq holiday.

For years I was challenged by friends to do a book. What book? Maybe about traveling? But I was quite cynical because there are a million travel books around and maybe a hefty number of it on the places I have been to.

I’m on my 27th country if I am not mistaken. But it was hard to convince myself it will amount to anything. Maybe at this point. I also am not into writing anything for the sake of just doing it. If it ends up in a corner gathering dust – the joke would be on me.

But my eight days in Armenia brought me back to it. Meeting someone from Iraq whose life made me realize my own childhood experience was a piece of cake gave rise to that. I thought I have a very colorful life. I think I do. Growing up from a small village in Mindanao and doing aid work in at least a dozen countries – many of them on various kinds of emergencies – gives me the bragging rights. At least I suppose so.

IMG_7891 But there are journeys far remarkable more than mine. Ones that make us appreciate life beyond mere comprehension. My gut feeling tells me this one story is among the special ones. The privilege is mine to put a voice to it. I will keep you posted.

For now, I’d say thank you to Armenia for the inspiration. Apart from the ancient, awe-inspiring buildings and wonderful people – I’d day among the nicest in the world – you have just sealed my journey to a dream. You have inspired and opened my own deep red pomegranate challenge to fulfill. I take a bow and say thank you.

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Capping February and Qaladza

DSC_1200_editsMy first trip to Qaladza gave me one more amazing reason to feel privileged of working in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Inside, I was bursting with the thought, “I love my job!” until a colleague Dr. Ali Shah who leads our health program in Sulaymaniyah broke out the same words – loudly. That wasn’t pure coincidence I am certain. It was an affirmation.

Qaladza, or Qaladiza, is a town in the Sulaymaniyah Governorate is said to mean “Castle of Two Rivers” and traveling there takes you to the breathtaking mountains – some still snow-capped when we went – rolling plains and beautiful cliffs overlooking the rivers.

Traveling in Qaladza, with the dizzying turns, is a lot like real life. You get those highs when you find your passion and go for it.

Simply beautiful. Watch this video on Qaladza and you’ll agree.

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