BIGGER PICTURE: Living the dream

Breathes there a man with soul so dead who never dream of going to various places in the world. To dream is one thing; to go those countries you dream is another. But living the dream is the ultimate level.

I was still in high school when I have this itch of going abroad. I really wanted to see those places which I can only dream of. But I grew up in a middle-class family; my father is a mechanic while my mother is a homemaker. All in all, there are nine siblings.

So, it was impossible for me to go abroad – in those days. But the dream kept on coming. So much that when I was 25, I got my passport without any intention of going to another country.

Then, like a thief in the night, it happened. I was already working for a non-government organization where some of the staff where going to other countries to train farmers and interested groups of agricultural systems which earned my boss the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for peace and international understanding (touted to be the Nobel Prize of Asia).

I was attending a journalism workshop at Los Baños, Laguna when the much-talked about journalist Juan Mercado approached me. He was one of the resource persons and head of the Press Foundation of Asia (another recipient of Ramon Magsaysay Award).

During a break, Mercado asked me: “Do you have a passport?” I was totally surprised by his question but I quickly replied, “Yes, I have.” (Two months earlier, I got my passport.) Hearing those, he again asked, “Would you like to go Bangkok for another seminar?”

Don’t ask me what my answer was. A month later, I was already in Bangkok, Thailand – my first trip in another country. I was already 26 years and I had the opportunity of going abroad and attending press briefing on food security in the region with other journalists from other countries.

I returned to Bangkok the second time when I was invited by the German embassy to attend a business expo. It was during October and one of the much-awaited events was the Oktoberfest. All invited journalists were requested to attend.

Before the party ended, there was a raffle contest for all visiting journalists. When my name was called, I got my prize: a winter jacket. How will I use it, I asked myself. I am from a tropical country! But just the same, I brought it home.

Without knowing it, I would be able to use it two months later. A week after my arrival, I got an e-mail from my friend, award-winning journalist and author Don Hinrichsen, who asked me if I could co-author a paper on water and population. To do it, it’s either he come to the Philippines or I go to the United States. Without hesitation, I begged him if we could do the latter. He approved.

Without much trouble getting my US visa, I was on my way to the land of milk and honey one December. My destination: New York, the city that never sleep! Imagine yourself: a journalist who grew up in the Philippines without any idea on what winter was all about!

When we touched down at the JFK International Airport, I immediately joined the queue of foreigners at the immigration area. After asking some questions, the immigration official stamped my passport, gave it to me and said, “Welcome to the United States!”

With the famed New York City landmark

Manhattan was a dream come true – a place that has been featured in several Woody Allen movies. The people are dressed to kill – as if they come out from a pictorial for fashion magazines. The Central Park, Times Square, Radio City and that huge Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center – name it, I had seen them all.

After a week in Manhattan, I was on my way to my sister’s place. They picked me at the airport in Saint Paul and went straight to the Mall of America (yes, the biggest mall in North America). It was so huge that it takes about three days to roam around it.

I never had an opportunity of seeing snow in Manhattan (experienced only very cold while walking along the busy street), but staying in the house of my sister’s sister-in-law in Minneapolis was totally engrossing. I peeped from the glass window of the room where I was sleeping and I could see the pile of snow in the neighborhood (a scene I only saw before in Hollywood movies).

I stayed with my sister’s place in Hibbing (the city where Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan grew up) for more than a month. In the morning of December 25, we woke up very early as we had to spend the Christmas in the place where her mother-in-law lived. While we were on our way, I could see the snowflakes dropping from the air. As if I could hear Bing Crosby crooning, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…”

Actually, it was my second encounter with winter. The first one happened in Durban, South Africa the previous year. I was attending the 13th International Conference on AIDS, where I had the pleasure of meeting two well-respected dignitaries: Nobel Prize winner Nelson Mandela and Hollywood actor Danny Glover.

Having no idea about Africa, I was totally surprised when I learned that South Africa has four seasons. I got to know it only when I read a magazine where it stated: “Winter Issue.” So, when I got out together with my Filipino companions for a dinner, we were totally shocked with the kind of cold we experienced.

Winter is great but only for taking pictures and selfies. Seeing snow also get you of an idea of what white really is; it must be the reason why the Holy Bible used the words: “as white as snow.” If only winter is only for a week!

If you think I abhor winter, I like autumn better. It’s not so cold; it’s just like you are inside an air-conditioned room. Plus, seeing the various colors of the leaves: from green, they turn to yellow, then orange, then red and finally brown. “Are those leaves painting,” my niece asked me when she saw the pictures I took.

The best autumn experience I had was in Montreal, Canada, where I attended an international gathering of science journalists from all over the world. It was October and maple trees were all over the city. And the trip going to Quebec was totally exhilarating as I saw the hues of colors along the lanes.

Aside from the Durban experience, I also attended two AIDS conferences in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (yes, I scaled the Twin Towers) and Melbourne, Australia (where I visited its famous zoo).

Scaling Great Wall of China

Three International Coral Reef Symposiums brought me to Bali, Indonesia (ah, those famous beaches and noted Hindu temples), Fort Lauderdale, Florida (did some diving at the Biscayne National Park), and Cairns, Australia (who has never heard of Great Barrier Reef?).

As part of the prize in winning the competition of Bright Leaf Agriculture Journalism Awards, I was able to visit Beijing, China (I found out the scaling the Great Wall is not a walk in the park) and Hanoi, Vietnam (visited the famous Halong Bay, a World Heritage).

Other international conferences brought me to Bogor, Indonesia (where I had to fly to Jakarta first), Siem Reap, Cambodia (an opportunity of going to the famed Angkor Wat), and Phuket, Thailand (a city that was once devastated by tsunami).

“You are living the dream which most of us want to experience,” my friend, Gabriel Paolo Morales told me the other night (that conversation led me to write this piece). “It’s not so often that someone like you will ever experience the kind of opportunity you have.”