I've lived abroad for about seven years now since I first moved to Costa Rica in 2011. (Wow, where does the time go?) Although I’ve spent time throughout Latin America and now Southeast Asia in that time, I’ve always managed to come home to Connecticut every year where I grew up, as well as my adopted home of California.
So instead of tracking time by the calendar year of January through December, I tend to consider my year when I leave and then when I get back to the U.S. – when I can see family and friends from my “old life,” eat way too much home cooking, and easily find clothing that actually fits.
On this tour of duty, I left from San Francisco on November 8, 2016 – Election Day. Next week, I’ll be touching down again in New York City for about seven weeks stateside.
Therefore, I thought it was the perfect time to reflect on my year (ok, eleven months) abroad with these top 10 memorable experiences:
I was lucky enough to go on an early morning hot air balloon ride at dawn on February 9, the first day of the annual Pampanga Hot Air Balloon Festival and also my birthday. It wasn't cheap, but the view of the countryside farms and villages below was breathtaking!
A friend was looking for someone to dress up as Santa for a Christmas party for sick children in Cebu, so I volunteered (“But why is Santa sweating so much?”). That’s how I got to know Everlasting Hope, a non-profit that helps poor kids with cancer and their families. Since a warm-hearted friend got a Santa suit custom made for me, I’ll be dressing up for the kids again next Christmas!
Through Everlasting Hope, I also got to know Liza Mae, an adorable and spirited 8-year old girl who is suffering from a cancerous tumor that covers her face. Lacking enough money for any medical care (or even proper shelter with a CR), I took on her cause, raising enough money from caring friends all over the world to get her treatment. I was even able to visit their humble shanty near the port in Cebu, where Liza Mae presented me with a drawing that says “Salamat” – now my prized possession in the world.
Taking a weekend trip to Tagaytay with two great friends, Trevor and Laarni, we hopped on a ferry to Taal Island. After a hot and dusty hour hike to the top, we were rewarded with a once-in-a-lifetime view of an island inside a volcanic lake on an island inside another lake on an island. That’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen! I even got to hit golf balls into the volcanic crater. Fore!
When it came to branching out into mass media, 2017 was a super fun year for me. I was asked to be a guest on Jeff the Solar Guy’s radio show on 93.7 ENERGY FM, which led to DJ’ing own show on that station, rekindling a love affair with radio that goes back to my college days.
Additionally, for some strange reason, the hometown newspaper in my new adopted city, the Dumaguete MetroPost, invited me to write a weekly column. They even gave me carte blanche to write about whatever I want and express my personal opinions. I don't think they know what they're getting into! But so far, I've been tame and well-behaved in my column, and it’s a fantastic way to get to know my new community.
I took 57 flights this year (58 with the hot air balloon!), but none was more memorable than going up in a four-seat Cessna for an aerial tour over the Negros Oriental coastline and Apo Island. Thanks to Royhle Air, a private charter company that flies out of Dumaguete and Cebu, I hope to take a few more of these puddle jumper flights!
Visiting a local friend in Cagayan de Oro, we spent a day in the mountains, where I rode the longest zip line in Asia. It started raining on our way back to the city. And then raining harder. It rained as hard as I’ve ever seen for the next 12 hours and the city flooded. In fact, I was stuck inside my hotel all weekend since the water on the street below reached the height of an SUV, which made international news.
I love it when friends visit me in the Philippines because I get to play tour guide. This year, my U.S. buddies Trevor and then Scott came to visit, so I showed them around Coron, Cebu, Boracay, La Union, Camiguin, and yes, Dumaguete.
In fact, two of my favorite road trips near my hometown are to Sijiour, where I love rope swinging and splashing at the Cambugahay waterfalls, and hanging out at the picturesque Manjyod Sandbar.
When Scott or Trev come back next year, I want to take them to my new favorite island and the surfing capital of the Philippines, Siargao.
For the second year in a row, I was honored to attend karate legend Judd Reid’s live-in Kyokushin karate camp, where 26 of us from all around the world trained our hearts out – and then trained some more. Last year, the camp was 12 days long, but this year's camp was "only" 6 days – and I was much better prepared for it.
But although it was half the time, this camp was five times as hard, with three intense workouts a day, including sparring every day with the other experienced fighters. Somehow, I survived again, and Shihan Reid actually graced me with a blue belt this time. I hope I live up to it, and maybe I can get the courage (and the cardio) up to attend his camp again next March! Osu!
Cambodia holds a special place in my heart, from the wild countryside to the beautiful people and even heartbreak, as our good friend Anton passed away there on my first day back in Asia in 2015. But in February of this year, I took a trip back to “The Kingdom,” where I toured Siem Reap by helicopter and also ninja’d into Phnom Penh to surprise my best homie there, Wicced, as well as several great charities I support there.
Living abroad in a new place can be equal parts challenging, frustrating, sometimes lonely, and also fulfilling. Everyone sees the nice photos of beaches and sunsets on Facebook and thinks that life is easy and unencumbered, but quite the opposite can be true when you're a stranger in a strange land. However, I am happy to say that after much soul-searching (and island searching!), I did find a nice, peaceful, beautiful, healthy and happy place: Dumaguete.
I’ve lived in Dumaguete for less than six months now, but already I’ve experienced sunshine and sea breeze moments of clarity where the city of friendly people feels like home. It will take more time to get adjusted and keep making friends, but while I’m gone to the U.S. for these two months, I’ll have people that miss me; and when I come back, people that will be happy to see me.
That’s all I can ask for.