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Back in Manila

They say when you go somewhere for the first time, you go for the place, but if you go back, you go for the people.  Yesterday, I returned to the Philippines.

My first trip to Manila was rough (if you are curious, I wrote about that trip here and here).   Manila is a sprawling, gritty developing world city, a place with unimaginable traffic, and water so bad that you must be careful brushing your teeth.  Poverty is everywhere, as the city – well, really the country, is a place of have’s and have nots, with almost nothing in between.   Somewhere around 20 million people live in the metro area, and most of them live in extreme poverty.  It is hard to walk 100 meters in any direction without seeing some evidence of it.

Last time I was here, I got sick.  I am not sure if it was food or the air pollution, but I spent most of five days here largely subsisting on jamba juice, Gatorade, and some trail mix that a colleague had carried along.  While truly grateful for the experiences and the friends I had made, on the last morning of the trip, I was happy to see the airport.  While there are many beautiful places in the country, there is a reason why Manila isn’t high on the “places to spend your vacation” list.   

While the relationship between our two governments has been at times a little up and down, what is unmistakable here is the affinity for everyday Americans among everyday Filipinos.   Beyond our historical ties, some four million Filipinos live in the United States, and it is rare to meet someone here who doesn’t claim some family in America.   And meet people here you will, as this is a land of lovely and joyful people.    I made several friends on that 2013 trip, people who thanks to social media, I’ve kept up with.  But in all honesty, I still wasn’t sure if I would come back.

Last fall, I hosted three guys from southeast Asia, in the USA as part of the American Council of Young Political Leaders partnership with the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, one each from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.  They spent a month with us in Tallahassee, interning in various jobs, seeing Florida, and meeting with experts and political leaders who worked in the same space in the USA that these guys work in their home country.  From time to time, hosts like me get a chance to repay the visit – follow on travel, as they call it. 

The Filipino in the group, Lord Arnel Ruanto (known as LA), sold me on the need to give the place another shot.  Actually, I didn’t have much of a choice – he asked me 2-3 times a day for a month when I would come and let him show me around the place.   So, when the chance came to come back and observe his work, there was only one possible answer.

Here I am, staring out over Manila Bay, back in a place I never thought I would visit once, let alone twice.  Our schedule is packed with 14 to 16-hour days, and at one stretch, five hotels in five nights.  I am giving four talks, participating in another 4-5 roundtables, and spending hours on the country’s roads.  He’s jammed 2+ weeks of activities into essentially a weeklong schedule -- while this time, I packed granola bars and my own supply of medicine! Like every one of these experiences, I look forward to seeing new places, and meeting people who are doing important work in their communities.   

However, that’s not why I came back – I came back for the same reason that I will surely come back again --- the desire to see old friends, the opportunity to meet new ones, to experience the both the comfortable and uncomfortable challenges of the journey, and through it all, the opportunity to again spend time with some of the most joyous people you will meet anywhere on the planet.

Anthony Bourdain once said: "Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind."   In that same spririt, I am back in Manila. 

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