Last year, I hit a personal record of presenting papers at 3 international conferences; 2 field research travels; and a seminar abroad. With over 50 flights made, I was close to becoming addicted to airline lounge food. I don’t have much to complain about - my travels are all covered by grants. Living out of a suitcase (with bulky winter apparel) 5-10 days in a row is not bad if I juxtapose it with the sheer delight of sharing new ideas. The absolute buzz I get from these inter-cultural exchanges gets me so energized to go back to my Miagao classroom and teach.
Steeping out of regular teaching during the semester (but expecting to come back to it quickly) comes with the usual stresses: arranging make up classes, preparing assignments, and generally making sure the students do not fall in the abyss of forgetfulness while I am away. It also requires great stamina to roll out of a plane and into a bus and then into the classroom with little sleep, and a very reliable helper at home who can orchestrate a swap between my suitcase and my lunchbox at the bus stop.
With a hectic travel schedule, I learned some useful things:
1. Incorporate non-academic pursuits around your primary agenda
My last few summer vacations in the US involved linking up with local Filipino-American (Fil-Am) groups who are more than eager to host a lecture by a Philippine-based academic. From these encounters, it has become my standing mission to tell Filipinos abroad about conflict-affected areas in Mindanao and in central Panay highlands so that they too will be invested in the task of rebuilding these communities. From this newly-discovered passion, I fold in meetings and presentations with Filipino groups, expats and students to my official travel itinerary. In Bangkok and Kyoto, I presented at Solidarity Events, which raised a substantial donation for the Typhoon Haiyan relief efforts of my University. Our sorties with a Kyoto-based student group also netted a donation to a typhoon-affected local high school in Tapaz, Capiz.
2. Cultivate networks on the sidelines
Breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, drinks— where these are not provided at the official events, I use them as an opportunity to get to know other attendees. In Bangkok, I join bargain shopping expeditions; in Tokyo and Kyoto, I imbibe amounts of alcohol beyond my usual intolerant levels. In Dekalb, two Filipino friends hosted a super early breakfast at a school cafeteria before my limousine bus pick-up for O’Hare airport. I went out for farewell drinks with Salzburg Seminar cohorts at an American sports bar in Ropponggi. Both involved trading off a few hours of sleep but the great company was well worth it.
3. Squeeze in some work during your downtime
I bring “homework” with me on my official travels; not papers to mark but short-term consultancy jobs for which I am required to review research instruments or a report. Much of my late nights and early mornings were spent pouring over these, thanking my foresight to bring many packets of instant coffee to perk me up through these tasks, and 24-hour wifi services in hotels where I am lodged. I have learned to master my hotel environs for essential errands: 7/11s (in Japan, everything from mailing to photocopying is done there); Kinkos and FedEx.
4. Buy gifts for folks at home from kombinis (convenient stores) or at a supermarket
Pasalubong (gift) is a must for every Filipino who goes abroad. I learned to buy mine from CVS and Japanese kombinis. Digestives, rice crackers, green tea Kitkats, spicy tamarind— they come in presentable packs and do not cost much. You need not go out-of-the-way for thoughtful pasalubong.
I wear or pack my running shoes when I travel. If there’s no gym in the hotel premises, I go out for walks. In Bangkok I explored the Siam neighbourhood where we were at for almost a week, taking note of the flower-and-food-festooned tiny shrines in between big buildings. In Kyoto, I walked along and across the river, peeking at temples and immaculate gardens. In Tokyo, I allot 30 minutes or more trying various walking routes to and from train stations. It gets me outdoors and gives me a feel of how locals live.
As I get older, purposive sightseeing is no longer a high priority add-on to my official travel itinerary. My sense of well being, taking pleasure from good company, and connecting with those who share my passion for humanitarian work take precedence. It’s my version of paying forward the many opportunities given to me.