Archive for June, 2014

getting the band back together

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on the 5th day of May, i awoke to see Switzerland in daylight for the first time in my life.  in the small village of Lutry at the far west end of the country, Alicia’s apartment overlooks Lake Geneva and beyond it – Evian, France.  Switzerland is a country of tameless beauty – rich with mountains, lakes, old cities and about eight million multi-lingual citizens.  my first days here however were not spent exploring the Alps, swimming in crystal clear water and tasting cheese in the country side.  rather, they were spent shut inside a black box.

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welcome to “The Womb” – the cleverly named recording studio that Nathan built in the basement of a warehouse in Lausanne.  here, we teamed up with our other band-member Bryan Roberts who flew hear from London to rekindle Bearded Parrot – a music project we had given birth to a few years prior.  also joining us to provide that perfect amount of estrogen is new band-member Alicia Onstad.  together we are the newly imagined Bearded Parrot and for the next week and half the Womb will be our home.  lets see what we can come up with shall we…?

“Just Kiddin’ Just Whiskey”

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courtesy of Bryan

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courtesy of Bryan

The Womb Sessions were off to a beautiful start.  Nathan, Bryan and i were able to slip into our same ole’ even-keel mode of infectious inspiration while Alicia was quickly finding her comforts.  equal parts coffee and whiskey had become a major part of our daily diet as it kept us both energized and focused… that is until we ran out of coffee.  it all started when i announced needlessly to the band, “i’m gonna get another coffee and whiskey”.  then when i arrived at the Womb’s kitchenette to notice the coffee pot was in fact empty, the very next words to leave my mouth were, “just kiddin’ just whiskey”.  the phrase then spread amongst us like a virus and before long not a single one of us could say anything of importance without following it up with a “…just kiddin’ just whiskey”.  now with coffee, whiskey and country flowing through our veins, we knew we had to stop whatever we were doing and crank out a song before things got too out of hand.  we wandered through the streets of Lausanne trying to think up the most nonsensical lyrics we could and then when we returned to the Womb we fashioned this gem.

– Just Kiddin’ Just Whiskey

“Oh Delilah”

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when Bryan brought Delilah to the table – an extremely well written and joyously melodic murder ballad about a woman who slices off a man’s face before killing him and then goes on to get executed in front of her peers, we fell in love.  it’s on this song that we discovered Alicia’s hauntingly seductive vocal abilities and as we worked our way through it, she became this woman entirely.  this was by far the most complex recording in the session and we spent more time on it than all the others combined.  throughout all of it, i pictured Alicia slicing of my own face.  i still dream about it sometimes.

– Oh Delilah

“Steal your shoes, count your feet”

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this was actually the first recording we started in the session with the intention to get our creative juices flowing.  take a bass groove i wrote a decade back, marry it with some Nathan beat-hooks and mash our four monotoned voices together on top and this is what we end up with.

– Steal your shoes, count your feet

“No time to play”

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here’s an oldie but goody come back to rear its rabbit head about the little white rabbit so obsessed with greed and punctuality that he never took the time to be happy (poor little guy).  originally recorded years ago, Nathan and Bryan resuscitated it in order to add my baritone accompaniment.

– No time to play

“Timbo”

courtesy of Bryan

courtesy of Bryan

it was a sad parting when Bryan flew back to his academia life in London and a sobering blow when Nathan and i realized we were left with a pile of tracks to edit (though actual sobriety never entered into it).  rather than jumping head first into the pile, we let ourselves get a little distracted first…

Alicia has been hard at work creating a children’s story about a brave little boy named Timbo who flies to the far reaches of the Earth, braving deserts, forests, arctic freeze and oceans deep with his bubble-fueled jet pack to collect ingredients to concoct a potion that will heal all of the sick children of the world.  inspired by her story, Nathan and i could not resist our temptation to write a jingle for the eventual Timbo television series.  so not to let ourselves get too sidetracked from the tasks at hand, we gave ourselves a hard deadline of only 40 minutes to come up with our Timbo jingle concept but once we started there was just no stopping it until perfection was achieved.  8 hours later we ended up with this 37 second masterpiece.  ladies and gentleman, it is my pleasure to present to you, Timbo.

– Timbo

ok… we did actually manage to venture out of the Womb on a few occasions to explore the vineyards on the countryside, take a dip in Lake Geneva and wander through some adorable streets.

courtesy of Bryan

courtesy of Bryan

courtesy of Bryan

courtesy of Bryan

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my final weekend in French-Switzerland was spent in Orgevaux (A.K.A. “Bubble Mountain”) – a rural mountainside community with a breathtaking view of the lake.  there, Nathan and Alicia’s friends had rented a farmhouse and packed it full of DJ equipment, party provisions and people.  the walls vibrated by night and by day we frolicked and made bubbles.

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reverse culture shock

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i had met so many Germans on my travels that i figured by the time i actually went to Germany there would be no one there, but shortly after arriving at Berlin’s Tegal Airport i realized that i could not have been more wrong.  turns out Germany is full of Germans, but that’s not even the weird part.  the weird part was that suddenly for the first time in a very very very long time i was not completely surrounded by Asians.  after spending more than a year straight in mostly rural Asian communities i had become well accustomed to my continuous celebrity status.  day after day i had been approached by extremely curious and excitable individuals all wanting to ask me the same five questions and practice their English in the process – “where are you from?… what do you do?… are you married?… where is your family?… would you like to come to my home?” and every time i would answer them respectfully – “United States… i’m a traveler… no… far far away… sure, why not.”  now here in the western world, engaging in social interaction takes real effort.  here, one is not awarded immediate celebrity status upon entering an establishment simply based on the color of their skin.  here, things are as they *should* be and in that i feel relieved but the transition is a difficult one all the same.

Berlin is a very happening place and among my most favorite cities in the world.  it’s a sprawling city full of art and music with an extremely relaxing vibe.  the people here exhibit very little pretense and seem generally happy to be alive.  it has been over a decade since my last visit.  it impressed me then and it impresses me now.  i really couldn’t have chosen a better place to nurse the brunt of my culture shock.

needless to say, this sudden transition from Asia to Europe is somewhat of a drastic one.  one that marks a new chapter in my travels.  as of today, i’ll be temporarily retiring my tourist hat and replacing it with a slightly more sentimental one.  during my year in Asia i have managed to forge many important friendships with fellow travelers, many of which come from Germany and Switzerland.  today is as good a day as any to put Asia on the back-burner and couch surf my way across Europe in good company.

the first people i intended to visit were Stefan and Matthias whom i had met in Myanmar.  unfortunately, they were out of town that week but to my joyful surprise left me keys to their adorable apartment and a fresh carton of eggs.

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ten hours of jet-lag recovery and half-a-dozen eggs later it was on to my next order of business as well as my main reason for coming to Berlin – to reunite once again with my long-time American friend Nathan.  i found him and Alicia standing on the curb outside the coffee shop engaged in laughter.  Nathan+friends live and work in Switzerland and have just arrived here to get a five-day dose of Berlin’s infamous electronic music scene while getting as little sleep as possible.  being a DJ himself, Nathan is well connected in the music scene and was able to introduce me to the many gems of Berlin.  night after night we became nocturnal creatures of constant motion.

though people do it, most people can’t actually dance for five days straight.  especially people like me who require some sleep from time to time as well as an easy glass of red wine.  enter Christina – a dear friend i had met a month prior on Palawan Island in the Philippines.  she took the train up from Leipzig to visit me.  i was extremely happy to see her again in this different context.  her presence also added some needed balance to my Berlin experience.  one evening at a chill bar we sipped our easy wine and reminisced.  our bartender – a warm-heart named Melissa who had a thirst for modern dance, befriended us and engaged in our travel-talk until the sun came up.

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after which, we closed the bar and headed to the streets for a dancing lesson.  and just like that, my intended break from dancing turned right back into dancing.  this time, not to electro-beats but rather to chirping birds and joyous laughter.  waltzing morphed into tango and then tango morphed into what Melissa referred to as “contact improvisation”.

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dancing with the bartender 101

my five-day-long day in Berlin had come to an end all too soon but my twelve hour road trip to French-Switzerland was about to begin.  along the way we gave Christina a ride back to her home in Leipzig where we enjoyed some pasta and MarioKart before our long journey into the country i would end up calling home for the next two months.

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Hong Kong (the VIP tour)

Honk Kong Island skyline by night

standing on the shores of Kowloon at night peering across the great harbor toward the lit up skyline of Hong Kong Island, it’s hard not to stare and then keep on staring.  the eye carefully follows the outline of building tops from right to left then changes focus to the many ferries and junks that cart passengers back and forth across the harbor at regular intervals.  then onto the harbor itself when the florescent glow of the water distracts from everything else.  a scan of the water’s surface – this time from left to right reveals the fluent transition from each color to the next.  the skyscrapers shine exactly as we intend them to but the water below drinks their shine, obscures it and serves it back up as if to voice its own take on the matter.

zooming in now at mid-level as night turns to day, we see the compact lives of the million+ people who inhabit this ten kilometer long strip of land mostly made up of tall skinny buildings either built into the steep hillside or on newly created land that was once the harbor itself.

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at ground level, the streetcars even mimic the building’s tall and slender physique.

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facing north now back across the harbor in the direction of Kowloon you can see the many ferries loading and unloading passengers. if you want to visit the beautiful islands of Honk Kong, this is your jumping off point.

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zoom out again on a clear day, this time from the other side atop the island’s peak just in case you need hard proof that the city looks good from all angles.

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but what am i doing here?… and more importantly, what is Hong Kong doing here?

these are all fair questions…

what is Hong Kong doing here?

what exactly is this collection of small steep hilly islands covered with random patches of skyscrapers doing on China’s doorstep?  a trip back to Kowloon to visit the Hong Kong History Museum will surely shed some light on this matter.  please enjoy this slightly embellished recap of historical events…

during the good ole’ imperial days, several different ethnic groups across China flocked to these lands mostly to seek solace from war and famine.  they co-inhabited these lands generally in peace while sticking to their own kind until one day the very curious Portuguese landed on their shores and opened their harbor to world trade.  it didn’t take long for the British to catch wind of this and open up their own trade routes with China especially after discovering that they had tea!  by the early 19th century, the British Empire became heavily dependent on the import of Chinese tea among other goods and in return they could trade with them their… well actually that’s a sore subject you see because as it turns out, the Chinese had no real interest in any British made goods whatsoever, so instead they just asked for silver, lots and lots and lots and lots of silver.  not quite able to say no to tea, the British moved forward with this arrangement and caused themselves a huge trade imbalance in the process until eventually the dire dilemma on everyone’s mind had to be solved – “seriously Brits, there has to be SOMEthing you have that China wants besides silver.”  and sure enough the answer had been right there staring them in their faces all along.  Opium!  fields and fields of sweet sweet opium.  so the Brits loaded up their ships with crates upon crates filled with opium globs the size the cannon balls, sailed to Hong Kong and hand delivered it to the Chinese where it spread like wildfire.  now, finally the British could sip their tea in peace knowing that their economy wont tank while they were very rapidly turning China’s citizens into drug addicts.  more than unsatisfied with its newfound opium den culture, China attempted to nip the matter in the bud by outlawing the drug, dumping all of its opium into the Hong Kong harbor and asking the British nicely to cease future import of the drug to which they both agreed to and ignored at the same time.  this caused a bit of animosity which then lead to a series of battles known as the Opium Wars which China struggled to defend itself against.  by the time the war dust had settled, the British had claimed both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon for its own and then proceeded to grow the territory into a prosperous British city-state.  then in the interest of expansion, they convinced the Chinese to lease them the surrounding lands known as the New Territories thus defining the boundaries of what we know as Hong Kong today.  Hong Kong remained under British rule (except for a brief occupation by those pesky Japanese during World War 2) until 1997 when their lease was up and the British had to fork it all back over to the People’s Republic of China.

(and they all lived happily ever after)

What am i doing here?

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Catherine vs. Hong Kong

the answer to this question is simple.  i am here to visit Catherine.  Catherine is a British born world traveler, attorney, philanthropist and long time friend of the family.  my parents met her some years ago during one of their crazy world traveling expeditions and then quickly adopted her as their own (or was it the other way around?).  she has been living in Hong Kong for many years and knows the place better than most.  and since i was in the neighborhood (now that the world *is* my neighborhood), i could not pass up an opportunity to see Hong Kong through the eyes of Catherine.  in the ten short days i was there, Catherine made sure that every moment was jam packed with exciting things including ferry boat adventures to near by islands, hiking along scenic trails, visits to temples and monuments and of course, tasting some of the best Chinese food in the world.

here are a some highlights of my Hong Kong VIP tour:

at least one day was spent on Lantau Island – home of the famous Tian Tan Buddha (aka. “Big Buddha”). this is actually the world’s tallest outdoor bronze seated Buddha. from there one can take a breathtaking cable car ride through the hills and down into the bay that overlooks the airport.

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later that evening a duck feast was in order. that’s right… one entire duck!

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another day was spent on beautiful Lamma Island for a full circumnavigation followed by a fish-face-feast

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any return ferry ride to Hong Kong island is a production in of itself as that suddenly skyscrapers/sea spray combo gets you every time.

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courtesy of Catherine

posh Dim Sum brunch at City Hall anyone?

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and finally, the dinner to end all dinners took place at the fabulous Hutong restaurant across the harbor and atop one very tall building in Kowloon.  here, the specialty is spicy mouthwatering soft-shell crabs with a side of panoramic Hong Kong skyline by night.

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Catherine also liked to exhibit her organized and sentimental side by creating cute scrapbook-style collages of each day’s events.  each of which document the above mentioned and more but my favorite ones cover the more random events…

like that day i got my shorts mended then drank a Hendrix gin martini…
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or that time i drank red wine out of a coffee mug instead of a wine glass…

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and lets not forget that shave i got at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on my last day right before catching my flight…
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thanks for everything Catherine!  you have made my last days in Asia truly unique, enjoyable and memorable.

courtesy of Catherine

courtesy of Catherine

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giving back

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i’ve been traveling the world now for over 450 days.  in that time i have visited some amazing places and met many wonderful people, but i have not as of yet had any meaningful impact on the world around me…. until now.

i recently spent eight days on the tiny secluded Filipino island of Panitugan volunteering for a private initiative called HIP that stands for “Helping Islets in the Philippines” (yes, “islet” is a word meaning small island).  when Typhoon Yolanda (aka “Typhoon Haiyan” if you don’t live in the Philippines) hit seven months ago, it devastated many communities in the Visayas region of the Philippines and beyond.  since then, the world has responded.  NGOs and travelers alike have flocked to these areas to provide aid and people from all over have donated money, fresh water, clothing and building materials to their cause.  while most of this attention has been directed to the worst hit island of Leyte, many more island communities have had to fend with little to no outside help.  the Bantayan Island Group is one such community and the primary focus of the HIP effort.  in the village of Sulangan on the southwest peninsula of the biggest island in this group is where our story begins.

where is this place?

where is this place?

from Palawan, a plane then a bus then a ferry brought me to Bantayan Island (a few kilometers west off the northern tip of Cebu Island).  there i was met by a very kind woman named Taling who escorted me to the Sulangan Barangay Hall – the local district office and safe house of the islets.  in addition to keeping the hall immaculately clean, Taling’s role is to store and distribute the building materials for HIP’s rebuilding projects.  boxes and supplies were piled high in the shed attached to the hall which doubles as a kitchen.  i slept soundly that night on the office floor and woke the next morning to a hearty breakfast of spam and eggs.  Taling explained to me that i was to be sent to the islet of Panitugan to aid in the reconstruction of a daycare center.  i didn’t know it at the time but i was about to be the first foreigner ever to have stayed on this islet.

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meet Taling

meet Taling

later that day i was invited to be an honored guest at a special event organized by Oxfam – a British based NGO that came to Bantayan to help the fisherman by rebuilding the many banca boats that were destroyed by the typhoon.  they were celebrating the completion of their newly refurbished fleet.  this involved a ceremony where a priest blessed every new boat followed by an extravagant pig feast and then a boat race.  i was of course elected to partake in the race where my assigned partner and i rowed with all our might out to sea and back.  we finished 3rd of 6 and were awarded 100 pesos.

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for the next order of business, i was to be transported to my new home on Panitugan Islet and introduced to my host family.

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Panitugan is roughly 1km in diameter and home to 200+ people.  even from afar i could tell that the typhoon was not kind to this place and after my investigatory walk around the islet the full scope of the havoc became evident.  devastated concrete structures stood roofless and the remains of fishing boats were overturned onto piles of debris.  most functional dwellings consisted of either woven bamboo and scraps of metal or tents that had been donated.

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at the far west end of the island where the brunt of the storm hit, a concrete facade of a church stands tall and proud while the rest of it lay in ruin.  several children have adopted this as their playground.  what i expected to be the usual kid-chaos actually turned out to be a highly organized effort upon closer inspection.

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my new host father was named Jesus Alolor though the people called him JC.  apart from being a well respected Burangay counselor, he was an enthusiastic man and continuous bundle of joy.  he and his wife took very good care of me.  they put me up on a bamboo bed in their kitchen hut.  mom would cook over a raised fireplace while dad worked on rusty boat engines.

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they also had the most adorable grandchildren that at any moment could be found at the end of a rainbow.

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when i arrived on location the following day for my first day of work i was greeted by the carpenters: Caloy, Armand and another man named Jesus.  they were already well underway installing the ceiling of the in-progress daycare center.

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forget hard hats and steel-toed boots.  this construction site was flip-flops and shirtless and i was lucky to have showed up appropriately dressed.

considering the fact that i had zero carpentry experience and spoke no Cebuano, my initial time with these gentlemen was mostly spent trying to stay out of their way.  they already had such elegant working synergy between them that my best hope in helping them was to stand back, watch and learn.  sometimes they would throw me a bone by pointing to a handsaw and then to a block of wood with a line drawn in it, or by miming to me that they desired something heavy be carried from one place to another.  i took on these tasks with pleasure and felt useful doing so and then went right back to my observing.  i had never before stopped to consider what actually goes into the making of a ceiling but as i sat and watched them take their careful measurements and make their calculations, their plan slowly began to make sense.  by the second day i understood enough of their routine to be able to anticipate their needs.  i could hand them their tools before they need ask and i could handle various setup/teardown tasks in advance to make their workflows and transitions go a little smoother.  i was quickly on my way to becoming a carpenter helper ninja.

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i established a live/work routine here pretty quickly.  each morning i would wake early to the sounds of the village, then eat breakfast while i watched the fisherman come by with the morning’s catch to divvy up among the villagers.  if you could imagine, fish was on the menu for almost every meal.  mom liked to prepare it either salted and deep fried, stewed in a rich vinegar broth or simply raw in spiced vinegar.  fresh, technical and delicious!

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at the end of each work day i would often submerge myself in the ocean at low tide to a setting sun.

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then it was onto the night’s entertainment.  in addition to being the first foreigner to stay on the island, i also seemed to have brought the only guitar.  the combination of these two things brought me quite a bit of curious attention.   on an almost nightly basis a crowd of people would gather around my kitchen hut and listen to my songs.  i threw everything i had at them, be it originals, covers, or their favorite – improvised gibberish.

i adjusted to islet life pretty quickly.  the more i walked the main drag to work in the morning waving to the familiar faces while sipping my coffee, the more i felt apart of the place and less like a visitor.  they all knew where i was last night and accepted my odd ways.  there were no secrets on Panitugan.

though i was at ease, not being able to converse with anyone was beginning to take it’s toll.  it was then i decided to try and befriend a partially domesticated heron.  despite my best efforts to give him a good first impression, our friendship in the end was just not meant to be.

 

finally, my host father introduced me to his niece Florida who lives on Moamboc – the next islet over.  she spoke wonderful English and pretty much immediately assumed the role of translator.  suddenly being able to communicate with my fellow villagers was quite the game changer.  one evening at low tide we walked to her islet and dined with her family.

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the work days were long but rewarding.  a couple of times i got to accompany Jesus on supply run missions to the big island to replenish our stockade of plywood, paint and fresh water.  Taling always awaited us at the main hall with a smile.

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Jesus secures the plywood

the tools and materials we used were in very short supply and often the carpenters would create the things they didn’t have out of the various leftover scraps.  they made due with what they had and applied an assortment of creative workarounds without complaint.  they are the true MacGuvers and they lead by example – everyone of which i cherished with my entire heart.

one evening after the painting phase had begun i managed to break the only paint roller handle we had among us.  i must have thought i was about to be so clever as i went for my trusty kit of surgical tape and super glue until Caloy saw what i was about to attempt.  he snatched the roller out of my hands and proceeded to carve his own handle out of a tree branch using his machete, then fastened it to the roller with a strip of rebar and some rusty wire, then handed it back to me and exclaimed “It’s okay?” (a rhetorical question).  and just like that, i was out-MacGuvered by the king of MacGuvers.

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one ceiling and several coats of paint later, the daycare center looked a little more inhabitable and my work on the Islet had come to an end.

before

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after

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leaving this place was not easy. after only eight short days on Panitugan i had developed a unique bond with my new family, friends and coworkers. i had become a useful member of their small community and my hard work had earned me their respect.  i made a small yet noticeable impact on their lives and in the process felt like i belonged to something.  something larger than myself. something good.

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Jesus, Roark, Caloy, Armand

how could i possibly go back to being a regular old traveler after an experience like this?… lets go find out…

 

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