Sunday, May 24, 2015

I am Gladiator - Volunteering in the Philippines

I arrived in Tacloban, Philippines, on the island of Leyte, last Monday. This stage of the project/journey is a five-week mission to help some people in the nearby community get back into homes after the devastating Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan in 2013. I am on a team called "Gladiators," and we supply the various sites with the heavy materials. Rather than bore you with the details of my new daily workout regimen, I thought I might share a little of what I rediscovered here on my third project with All Hands Volunteers.

There is something special about a volunteer - whether a coach, a Marine, a tutor, or someone else stepping forward to give their time and talents - who essentially works for little more than doing what they believe is right and necessary. The people with whom I work are unique in that they bought expensive plane tickets, left jobs and families, and traveled to another country to do a job no one in their right mind would do on vacation. This is not about me, I'm talking about a team - constantly with members coming and going - that is undoubtedly a force for good and has a spirit that I rarely see elsewhere. I work with Germans, British, Belgians, Aussies, Chinese, Israelis, Americans, and more. We delight in discussing our little differences, yet everyone here is the same in that all have a drive and enthusiasm for working, sweating, and bleeding so that some stranger might have a better life.

Now, everybody sacrifices for something. Parents do it every day for decades, without a day off. Military members and police officers risk their lives, often for ungrateful people. Priests and nuns give up the right to ever marry and have families. Volunteers are everywhere, and we're no better; that's not my point. What strikes me as magnificent is the indomitable force that is created by ordinary people - from multiple countries - born simply from the desire to be good and work for positive change in the world while they put their own personal home lives on hold.

The bottom line is that while there is plenty of bad news out there to make you wonder how we have managed to exist as a human race for so long, there are gladiators out there fighting for the reason why we should.

Video: Mark and All Hands Volunteers in Tacloban - "Leyte Arrival"

Saturday, May 16, 2015

In Good Company - Leaving Makati, Philippines

I don't know why, but I am always astonished at the hospitality and friendliness of strangers when I travel. Maybe it is because I grew up in a place that had no tourists, or maybe because I have spent time in places that have an open disdain for them. Of course, nowhere you go is perfectly safe and welcomes the foreigner (that I have witnessed so far) all the time. I have definitely had plenty of locals around the world try to take advantage of my being in a strange place - like the pork vendor in Prague, the fake cop in Vienna, the taxi driver in... well, everywhere. However - and maybe it's just having an open mind and a desire to get to know the people who live around the world instead of just their landmarks and photo ops - there are plenty of people in many lands who will share their world with you and treat a stranger as a friend. I have seen it in Italy, Colombia, England, Peru, Turkey, Hawaii, Japan... wow, pretty much everywhere, and now in the Philippines.

If there is one thing this new travel video project has taught me, it's that meeting these unique and fascinating people all over the world and taking part in these experiences are moments - not unlike life - that are usually just recorded by the mind and never actually revisited. This came to me at a birthday party the other day - at home, we have the luxury of taking moments for granted because of the possibility (and in some cases, probability) of repeating something similar at some point in the future; when abroad, there is a good chance you have just created a one-time-only memory, hostage to the performance of your brain and victim to time. Certainly, moments and people come and go - some stick around longer than others - wherever you are, but like they say, "take a picture; it'll last you longer."

There is no mystery here. Life, and everything in it are temporary, everybody knows that. Traveling gives you unique experiences, no kidding. Good people help strangers, stop the press! It's just something to think about.

Thanks, Makati.

H & J Sports Bar

Monday, May 11, 2015

Connection in Manila - My Introduction to the Philippines

I didn't actually plan to be here.

The original plan was to connect here in Manila to a regional flight south. That was before they closed the next airport for repairs for a few weeks - the airport for the one non-negotiable destination of the trip (so far). However, we here at JMP Travel have contingency plans for such instances. This particular plan is called "Winging It."

Manila Skyline
It turns out, Manila is not a bad place to spend a couple of weeks - not that I had any prior opinion about the place. I've actually spent all of my time here in the city of Makati, which is part of Metro-Manila; in fact, I have the view of the Manila skyscrapers in front of me as I write, perched on my fourth-floor rooftop. In the case of most other major cities of the world, I probably would have made my way in to explore by now, but I've been content, for some reason, to just take in all that is Makati. By most measures, from what I have seen, this is not a particularly charming place. The traffic is loud and seemingly omnipresent. The air is, at best, borderline carcinogenic. The river looks like landfill runoff and reeks of it too (and children swim in it). The weather has been oppressively hot and humid. However, I'm having a pretty good time!

The good news is that there is plenty to keep me entertained. If you know me, you know that this is, in part, a culinary adventure, and there is a whole world of foods to try here - all within walking distance. I like that I can walk around the corner, and there is a guy cutting open young coconuts for my refreshment for about a quarter (USD).  Beers are cheap. You can get a street food meal that usually involves some sort of mystery. I went to a 400 year-old church for Mothers Day and was the tallest guy there. There is a gigantic mall just about a mile down the road that has anything you could want. Best of all, I found a sports pub a block away that shows live international soccer matches as well as NBA Playoffs and has the friendliest staff, some of whom I now call friends (they're open until 8:00 am, which I have tested just once and I blame it on American basketball). The moral of the story here is that if you plan for things not going according to plans, sometimes that is when the best discoveries are made.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Walking Amadeus S01:E02 "Connections"

Episode 2 - Connections

Makati Manila, Philippines (2015)

One-man journey around the world makes connections in Seoul and Manila
to find an unexpected extra two weeks in the latter - intro to the
Philippines and a world travel lesson to remember.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

A Little Bit of Seoul - a 13-Hour Layover in South Korea

Let me get this straight - I leave America with the fond memory of Underbelly ramen still fresh in my mind, and my first meal in the sky above Asia is a just-add-water knock-off of one of my new favorite meals? I have to admit, though, after what passes for in-flight meals on domestic US flights, that Korean kup-o-noodle is pretty much luxurious. Call me crazy. Speaking of hospitality in the air, has anyone noticed the inverse propensity to achieve friendly service on a plane relative to the age of the flight attendants? Are these older ones just kind of over it? I mean, if I had to spend 10 hours with some of my past tables with nowhere to hide, I'd be pretty bitter too. Well, at least they get free flights.

Alright, the million dollar question was, "What would you do with a 13-hour layover in Seoul?" (Apparently, it's "Korea" rather than "South Korea," but I never got the memo.) I tried asking around for the bus to Pyongyang, but everyone just gave me odd looks. Well, I arrived at Incheon International Airport (more on them later) at 7:00 pm and my next flight wasn't until 8:00 am. If we recall the Miami layover, I just rented a car and slept in it, which worked out quite well. However, different circumstances require different measures, and I opted for the hotel and two train rides. I had a grand Gangnam-Style plan to take over (not literally) Seoul and enjoy from dusk 'til dawn (minus vampire strippers), which was literally all I had there. However, midnight in Seoul is 5 am yesterday in Maui. I barely left the hotel, which is to say I walked a block to get some fried chicken. I was dead-tired and too worried about getting an hour and a half to the airport by 6 am, when trains don't start running until 5:30. I asked all the Asians there I could to figure out that math problem, and even they couldn't solve it with any great probability of success. Long story short - I put it in God's hands. It turns out He put in a good word for me with the fine people at Incheon Int'l, and they fast-tracked me through ticketing and security (and the thousands of other travelers there that day who left on time to get to the airport), and I made it to my gate with time to spare! Thank you ICN; I'm glad I chose you over Pyongyang. In conclusion, the answer to my all important question was: fried chicken and a mediocre pilsner - that's what you do with a 13-hour layover in Seoul.

Still wonder why I travel alone?