An Unusual Christmas Week

This years Christmas is low key.

Veneration of the Child Jesus

Four weeks ago I went back to work and landed myself in East Africa, Uganda to be exact. My work even took me to the north of the country, in Arua. When I arrived I knew that I will be spending the holidays away from home, that’s why I made connections to the only Ugandan friend I have … Silvester.

Sil and I worked for a year in Palestine. Living in Gaza for the whole of two thousand and sixteen, and I got to know his family. From the many stories we shared hanging around the house, for the lack of places to go that is not banned and the lack of other expats who does not have the same security restrictions as us, I got to know them as if we’ve met.

So when I arrived in Uganda, the second day, I met Martha, his beautiful wife and the latest addition to his brood of three boys – Michael. The little tot is special to me … he’s the namesake of my dad and both were born on the feast day of St. Michael September 29, eighty-three years apart.

Miguel and Michael

It has been decided much later that I will be spending the whole Christmas break in their house and with his family in Kampala.

Seguku hills

The view … sunset over Seguku hills in Kampala

In the outskirts of Kampala is where the Kasozi is raising their family. The house is exactly how he described it and from the photos he had shown when he broke ground.

Coming over though was a bit of a challenge, having driven long hours from Arua that day, I was eager to just get to their home. We set off quite late than normal be cause of some last minute paper works before office is officially closed for the holidays. We lost three hours from the usual six morning rendezvous, we set off at nine and there were near mishaps along the way plus the mandatory lunch and shopping. We reached the city center at the peak of the traffic of Kampala and being the last to be dropped off I reached Martha’s home at ten that night.

I’ve been on the road for over thirteen hours. Felt like I travelled from Manila to Doha all over again 😳.

The house is over the hills, overlooking south Kampala and across other hills. Rough road and uphill I was just happy our driver was game despite the late hours.

The morning after

Martha welcomed me despite the time and showed me where I will be sleeping in the next two weeks – I am roomies with the boys VJ and Mattie, three and two years old sleepyheads. When they woke up they wondered who is there sleeping in what used to be empty bed across their room.

Sweet boys, I woke up with being addressed as Aunty followed by “how are you?” Two sets of eyes wondering who this muzungo is … the white skinned aunty (although I am more brown than white 👩🏻‍🦱).

Riot everyday

The boys born a year apart are like twins. They worn similar clothes when we go out and copy each other all the time. But more than that they are frenemies. Always someone is crying and calling for mommy but when they are in good terms they are the image of bliss. A sweetheart if you ask me until one bites the other 🤭.

No they are not twins 😜

Good thing mom has the patience of a saint. Never saw her angry, stern yes but not angry nor frustrated. Wondering how some parents react when one and worst three are acting up together making a riot. Waiting to see what Michael is like when he turn two … it would be a noisy house over Seguku hills.

🙏🏼

I am thankful for this experience, an immersion I didn’t plan. In the Philippines, to experience 101 hospitality one needs to be invited to live in a Filipino house, rich or poor the experience will be profound. Same as I have here although I imposed my visit I am experiencing a holiday like no other.

Happy to meet Silvester and Martha’s family including their immediate extended family. It is truly wonderful to live a life like a local even though I am musungu.

It will be hard to leave but will soon do before I overstay my welcome, but actually to return to work up north.

I Kep It A Secret

Cambodia was a good training ground for anyone who wants to venture into international development work back then. I started mine in early 2000 I Signed for Six-Months, and Then I Stayed for Six-Years in Cambodia, but I don’t know now.  The last two times I visited I almost didn’t recognize the country, so much progress had happened, and of course, I was happy.

The last time I visited the country was in 2015 it was so much different than when I left in 2006 and returned again in 2008 except for the capital Phnom Penh, it has always been crazy but with less traffic.

This time, I made sure that I don’t stay long in  Phnom Penh,  I was escaping the hustle and bustle of the city. I just wanted peace and quiet, away from the crowd, close to nature but not too far away from the civilization.

I was trying to get away from the stresses brought on by straight three months work during my time in Nepal. The initial fears of aftershocks to living in small tents for almost a month and living in a high rise (well only the 3rd floor) when you don’t know when the next shake will be.  I was escaping that to center myself again before going back to it one last time.

So I decided to be somewhere different from what I remember — I went to Kep.

The province is close to the beach that was developing fast but not as fast as its neighboring provinces of Kampot and Sihanouk Ville. Back in the days, we cannot just go there without encountering danger signs. Most parts of the region were closed off because of the landmines.  Kep was not a real province until 2008, it was still part of Kampot, and the safest place to visit back then was the beach side of the province.

So to be safe, I stayed not along the beach but close. When you enter Kep proper, just after the roundabout before turning to the right, I turned left and gone up a little uphill where Vanna Hill Resort was located. It’s away from the main road and away from the crowd but close enough to not be afraid to return late in the night from watching the sunset and enjoying a meal along the beach … alone.

(Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
Sitting on the balcony in front of my room … I have the cottage all to myself (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)

September – October was off season I am the only guest in the whole resort hotel. I rented the double cottage facing the sea and every day for the whole time I was there I wake up to see the sunrise and in my hammock to watch the sunset. I felt like I own it or at least I can pretend ha! ha!

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I enjoyed every amenities of the resort and really unwind. I am in the swimming pool in the morning and go around the town in my rented tuk-tuk in the afternoon.

When I am not eating outside, I can ask the kitchen to whip up something delicious for me. Traditional Cambodian food that I missed like Fish Amok and Cambodian Curry with seafood instead of the traditional chicken. But beware it can be pricey to order something for one, and those dishes are actually eaten with a company.

But no trip to the beach in Cambodia without the tradition of buying your fresh seafood in the market, having it cooked and enjoying them while watching people and again the sunset.

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The beachfront along Kep was so much different from what I remembered back in the days. Gone are the dirt road, dusty and potholed. It was replaced by wide asphalt road that connects directly to the highway.

There were also big hotels and boutique hotels, and some that have seen better days along the beachfront that caters to just about anybody who wants to spend a weekend in Kep.

I was tempted to visit and spend the night in the  Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island), but since it’s low tourist season there will be no one there with me, and the locals usually go home to the mainland in the evening,

My trip to Kep gave me the rest and recuperation I needed to go back to Nepal and finish off my mission and return home in time for the holidays.

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Practical tips:

  • Get the van to Kep and arrange to drop you off your hotel. I took the bus going home, but we had a breakdown, and I arrived very late than my original plan.
  • Off peak season is always cheap and you can choose a different room than what you booked if you didn’t like it (at no cost for me but for you maybe with a little bit extra).
  • Eating outside is also cheaper than having meals prepared for you in the hotel unless you come in big groups.
  • Solo travel is always fun to do but be always on the side of caution. Book transport with the hotel at least they know the driver, and they speak English.
  • Carry small bills with you all the time – in local currency and in dollars.
  • Always smile, Cambodians are such friendly people.

Happy traveling!

 

On Becoming A Better Human Being

Yesterday I started sending messages to my friends in the Middle East wishing them “Ramadan Kareem” (which means Have a Generous Ramadan) despite all the sadness we hear in the news of Palestinian women, men and children being killed for wanting to return to their homeland and all the other countries at war now and of people being ostracized and killed for being different.

The month of Ramadhan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful.
[Quran 2:185]

The faithful continue to believe that all these shall pass and we will see a peaceful world. As Catholic, I also wish the same, and I think others too practicing other religions, wants a world where we can co-exist and enjoy the freedom to express who we are, what we believe and who we want to be.

***

Then I remembered a chapter in the book of the Dalai Lama talking about religion and how it can make us a better person.

We know that most of the crisis and war around the world are fought in the name of religion or the belief that that is what their gods believe they should do and gain their place in their heaven.

But many of us know that the teachings of the different religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism) and other faith practices are towards peace, love, tolerance, acceptance of our differences and in fighting off excessive desires (in wealth and fame). And all of that is inert individual characteristics that we already possess. That is why, if we banded together, we would eventually win the war that is ravaging our world now.

According to the Dalai Lama, we can have philosophical and metaphysical views on religion at the same time live it according to your daily existence. But he also said that although the philosophical views differ and sometimes contradicts each other, in spiritual practice all religions are connected. They all recommend inner transformation of our stream of consciousness which will make us better, more devout people”.

True right? It all boils down to our understanding and accepting that we may have different faith beliefs, but we are similar on a spiritual level. Others may profess it outwardly, but it doesn’t mean they are more faithful than the others. It really depends on how you live it out, on how you’re spirituality makes you a better person for others.

Each one of us may believe in one way and one truth but it doesn’t mean that it is the same for the next person, we should be open to accepting the truth of other traditions even if it goes against our own convictions regardless of its reasons and how it affects others.

We as a person should have our own conviction but we should keep an open mind and be tolerant to those who don’t share them because that makes us different from each other but at the same time similar in a way that we accept each other to be like you — a person living each day trying to be a better person for others.

Postscript:

I am happy to say that all my friends who responded to my messages are all fine together with their families. They want us to remember them in our prayers and to keep up wanting for world PEACE!

Reading suggestion(s):

My Spiritual Autobiography His Hoiness The Dalai Lama

My Spiritual Journey Begins in Taizé: Silence

When I joined my organization back in 2002, I was invited to attend a pre-departure briefing even though I was working in Cambodia for over four years prior. So I went to France and stayed there for almost 3 months because of the holidays and the list of training I needed to attend.

I’ve been wanting to go to France when I was introduced to the meditative practices of Taize. That was during the preparation for the celebration of World Youth Day in 1995 in the Philippines. I was a young delegate from my parish and my diocese sent out to go around and tell the youth about the WYD celebration and how to prepare for it.

Taize prayers were sung over and over until the self is quiet and the only thing you hear is the song in your head and the beating of your heart. That was the first time I experience to be one with my soul and from then on I said to myself I will go and visit where it all began.

So when I finally found myself in France the first place I decided to visit was Taize and relive all the glory days of the World Youth Day experience I had when I was young. It is an ecumenical community where young people from all over the world gather and experience the presence of God through the other young people, through singing and sharing of stories and their dreams. I wanted very much to be part of that.

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Funny though when I arrived in my hostel in Lyon, not many French youths I met knew about Taize. Luckily the receptionist was from Romania, and he knew about Taize back in his home country. He was working in the hostel as part of his spring job and was happy to show me on the map how to get there.

But during the briefing at the HQ, I met one colleague – Nestor from Benin who had been there and knew some people in France that can help me go there. I was happy to make his acquaintances and over time we became good friends and we kept in touch until now.

(Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
My good friend Nestor, the one responsible for me to meet Gerard and visit Taize in 2005. We remain friends until now. (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)

He introduced me to his French dad – Gerard (the one that accommodates him when he’s in France) and he became my French dad too. Every time to return to France I go out of my way to visit him in Verze and we have picnics and return to Taize for prayers. Every Christmas too when I can I send him dried mangoes from home.

(Dhidhak Collection / France 2005)
Approaching the big house – Chez Gerard (Dhidhak Collection / France 2005)
Chez Gerard (42)
Our trusted Beattle (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)

Gerad was the one who brought me to Taize in his old Bettle. Passing through the backroad from his small village, through vineyards until we reach the hi-way leading to the community. It was a short scenic ride all the time and because it’s close we can always stay until late and experience the prayerful silence of Taize.

(Dhidhak Collection / France 2005)
My French dad – Gerard under one of the old trees in the Taize compound. (Dhidhak Collection / France 2005)
(Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
Follow the signs … on the way to Taize
2005 Taize (7)
Entering the Taize community compound. The bells are sounded every prayer time. (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
2005 Taize (13)
Young people come from everywhere and commune with God anywhere in the community (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
2005 Taize (8)
The belfry of the church inside the community (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
(Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
The valley around the community (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
2005 Taize (16)
The prayer area inside the big tent (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
2005 Taize (17)
The candles that light the whole place … it gives a warm glow that put one pilgrim into prayerful trance together with the Taize prayers sung over and over (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
(Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
The ICON of Jesus on the cross (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)

That was my first pilgrimage in France.

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Listen to Taize Prayers here and experience the peace I experience whenever I listen to them.

In the Lord, I’ll be ever thankful

Holy Spirit come to us

Nada te Turbe (Let Nothing Trouble You)

Signs of Times: A Summary of My Two Decades of Experience in International Development

The world has changed since I set out to conquer it two decades ago. Progress has reached most of the countries I worked with and new challenges had risen overriding perineal problems of poverty, accessibility to basic services, human trafficking, joblessness. With the rise of populism, strongman syndrome, and complete disregard of humanity in war-stricken countries (Syria and Yemen) and man-made disasters (Plight of the Rohingya) that targets us humanitarian workers and civilians especially women and children.

We still have a lot of things to do.

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Screengrab (Link embedded in the photo)

Many airports have improved from the list of countries I visited, it was my sign of progress. I used to experience eating “fish and chips” for breakfast in a 1-hour flight in Cambodia flown by Russian pilot I was having smashing drinks the night before. Or travel 12 hours by road in the pot-riddled hi-way going to the north and only after 4 years, public buses started to ply the paved road and the 12 hours going to Siem Reap reduced to 4 hours if the driver doesn’t decide to sleep before continuing.

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Screengrabbed: Google Image

I had the exposure to life and situations I wouldn’t have known if I stayed working in the hospital in the Philippines even if the people I am helping are those that would rather buy food than to go to hospitals to seek medical attention.

I worked for a long time in the disability sector. My training in school didn’t prepare me for the training I learned in the field. I learned how disability is created and become part of the big and dynamic disability movement advocating for the rights of the vulnerable and the marginalized including people with disabilities. I was immersed in the sector when the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities was launched in 2006, a significant treaty that made history – it being signed by over 100 countries when it was launched in March of that year. Many laws and treaties followed, and new goals were designed to continue to support the most marginalized sector in the global society.

c_e-fourt_handicap-international__a_woman_in_iraq_teaches_children_about_the_risk_of_mines_through_mine_risk_education
Screengrab (Link embedded in the photo)

I trained a lot of people. I told my friends I teach in classrooms with no walls. In return I learned a lot from them too, I become self-conscious that I am just one tiny person in the vast world of issues that matter.

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Community Training in Bo, Sierra Leone (Dhidhak Collection)

The problem doesn’t get solved. There are still countries willing to fund wars and fund terrorist and pretend to do actions against them. I was in France when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and the year after the issues of cluster bombs was discussed in Paris, and the Convention on Cluster Munition was launched much later. The organization I worked the longest (www.hi.org) actively advocated on banning the use of landmines and cluster munition during a war. Sad to say, some countries producing them won’t agree to stop because there is no livelihood alternative for them (Billions $ invested in producers of globally banned cluster bombs) to do. But what is sadder is the collateral lives affected by the use of cluster bombs and landmines … especially children (The human impact of cluster munitions) long after wars has ended.

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Signage like this are found all around Cambodia (Dhidhak Collection)

I was exposed to the consequences of war. I lived in the biggest outdoor prison called Gaza Strip while I enjoy the perks of drinking alcohol in the land stolen from them by their oppressor across the border. I also lived in the most reclusive country in the world that is already opening up (latest news: North Korea changes its time zone to match South). But they are not comparable.

I got stopped at checkpoints and lied to get my way out of a bind. I escaped narrow death coming down slippery slopes in places where the road is an imagination. My drivers are my best friends in all my mission, including taxi drivers.

I lived with people who otherwise I will not encounter in my life. I worked with a lot of French people but never learned the language but adapted their accent for better understanding. I sometimes return back to the American accent I am always mistaken to have, but I guess that’s just my Filipino accent muddled with all the language I have stored in my head.

I tried to impose self-gag because sometimes it is the right thing to do. My actions, my words and maybe my thoughts (out loud) can have consequences. You never know but what I do know is that Big Brother is always watching.

Join me as I continue to be an active observer in this crazy world of ours and try to be chill with it accepting that we live in an imperfect world.

The late Joy Irving, my first mentor as community worker and educator told me “we cannot change the world all at the same time but we can make a difference alone one brick at a time”

And that is what I am doing. I will continue to stack my bricks to create the foundation to support all that I and like-minded people want to achieve in our lifetime.

Harry Styles – Sign of the Times (Audio)