My Friend Tried to Kill Herself…

And only two people knew- the girl who had called the morning after, and me…6000 miles away.

A year ago, her recipe was set: the lost of a first love, college pressure, and a dash of depression. She’d gone through the steps: wrote a suicide note, and took the meds. She didn’t need much. She fell asleep with the fifth pill.

Her friends had noticed a change in her, even her mother had suspicions, but no one thought she would actually do it. Most of us have had suicidal thoughts at some point, we just don’t act on it. This girl did. She didn’t just want to die- she could have already died because unlike me, she tried.

There was that one worried friend who had called her the morning after, when she woke up alive and scrambled to hide all evidence of what she had tried to do. I don’t know how that conversation went but I know that she didn’t talk to people about it. ‘Kalain sad oi.’ It’s unusual. She only told me – a year later – because she was suffering bouts of anxiety and she was afraid she had depression.

There is a stigma attached to mental illness in the Philippines – and it is a taboo to talk about mental health. I would know from experience. When depression ceased me, I knew something was very wrong, yet my first reaction was to retreat further into myself and show the world that I was still capable of being happy by laughing when it was appropriate and smiling… when in reality I felt nothing.

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Weathered, a piece from Regardt van der Meulen’s Deconstructed sculptures

The fact is it isn’t as fun in the Philippines as most people think.

Filipinos are known as highly adaptable people who manage to smile even at the hardest times. Unfortunately, it seems this image also helps make the discussion of mental illnesses a taboo. In addition to this, mental illnesses are often connected to insanity (dangerous, aggressive, violent) and even seeing a mental health professional is perceived negatively. Denial then becomes a big hindrance to receiving treatment, not just for the person but for the family as well. Meanwhile, all we can do is bear the burden in our worn-down minds and try to cope by relying on our inner resources.

Sometimes, suicidal thoughts or profound unhappiness bring forth guilt. There are people who have it so much worse and they’re not chained by their own misery. What then, is wrong with you?

We need to talk about mental illness. We need to get rid of its stigma. We need to acknowledge, as a society, that a person cannot be held responsible for his own psychological health. We need to start to listen without judgement. We need to admit that refusing to acknowledge a problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We need to accept that it’s okay to get help, that it’s okay to be unhappy when there is so much to be happy about. Until then, we will continue feeding the ignorance that might ultimately cost us the life of a spouse, a parent, a friend, a child, or our own.

Stop the stigma. Mental health matters.

Reflections on a Year Past

I started 2016 with so much energy and the impulsiveness I’ve always had. As a response, Berlin gave us a ball of light in an entirely overcast sky for a sunrise on January 1.

It was at the beginning of 2016 that I finally made the change I was always planning on but was always afraid to do. It was painful then, but the pain stayed there. I was free. It was the year that proved what I always say: I’m too many people at once, sometimes I don’t know who I am.

IMG_017211111.jpgI spent so much time, money, and energy traveling. There were times when I felt physically, emotionally, and mentally spent. I met all sorts of people, engaged in countless conversations that impacted me so much, and collected so many stories. I realised I can talk and that there are people who want to listen, and that the quieter you are, the more you can hear.

I worked on rediscovering what it meant to be ‘family’ –as Jonathan Safran Foer puts it, “One day you will do things for me that you hate. That is what means to be family.” I spent my entire Christmas break traveling to meet family. It was a bit of a challenge that they were scattered all over the place.

I learned to do weekend breaks– having spent the previous year with barely any weekend free from work. I traveled to places I’d never heard of before, and learned to make do with whatever was at hand.

I woke one February morning to the news of the Brussels Bombings. I breakfasted in silence with the strangest feeling. By some stroke of fate, my extremely delayed flight left the airport 6 hours before that attack.

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World Pillow Fight Day in Berlin

In a fit of jealousy, stubbornness, and possessiveness, I started running again. Every initial step was a battle against the voices in my head, against memories of the darkest summer I spent. I signed up for my first half marathon: the Isle of Skye Half Marathon.

I met the dreaded ToiToi – Germany’s portable public toilets, enjoyed work and the diversity of the people I was with. When summer was in full heat, I had my first swim in a Berlin lake, did the Rostock Half Marathon, and enjoyed the outdoors and the endless events that made up Berlin’s summer spirit.

One Sunday I visited a Gurdwara for the first time and received insights on something I knew very little about. I learned that Sikhism is more tradition, a way of life, than religion.

 

I remembered my roots, realised how much two and a half years can change a person, and caught up on old relations. It was a pleasant surprise that although we all go through so many different experiences and we are constantly changing, some things are fundamentally the same.

I moved to a new city in a new country, made new friends, and lived a new life. I had my fair share of grief and tears, faced my selfishness and learned that I didn’t have to explain all my actions. I shuddered at the indifference I discovered– at how cold and cruel the human heart can be. There are people in your life who are worthy of an explanation– and among them, people who don’t listen. As the saying goes, there are people who can’t see the forest for the trees.

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Rolling with the times

It was the year I first smoked weed, shisha, drank a little too much a few times too many, yet it was the year I was fittest. I felt young. I regressed and did things I had missed out on in my strange childhood.

It was life on the fast lane that on the day I typed the words, it was true.

You know the girl you once thought you knew? Well, she’s not here anymore. 

 

 

Home in a Canadian Suburb

My mom used to say that her best friend lived in the middle of nowhere but that nowhere was about a 40-minute drive from Montreal. So of course, when I landed in Montreal on a bright late summer day, I was fooled by what I’d seen out the airplane window.

Having been so used to European cities that lack proper skylines, especially Berlin that lacks a CBD, I thought 40 minutes away would not be so bad. How wrong I was. Currently I’m in a place called Harwood – a couple of minutes drive from the terminus of Greater Montreal region’s rail system. There are sizeable towns in all directions, but we live in the middle of nowhere, in just one of the many houses along a main road. The supermarket is a 10-minute drive away.

I’m stuck at home, nice and warm with a cup of coffee, watching the greyness of autumn creep in, and waiting for the laundry to dry. The dog has taken my spot after I stood up for a minute. I’ve lots of things to do – and I’m so relieved the internet connection has become more reliable the past two days. I’m still trying to come to terms with the decreased mobility of suburban life.

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Suburban life is wasting so much time on public transport, and spending so much on cab fares when no car is at hand. It’s having a huge house and an even larger land because you can. It’s having to drive 20 minutes to a dog park so the hyperactive dog gets to socialise.

It is knowing the people working at your local supermarket- a 10-minute drive away because it also happens to be the mini local expat community. It’s the long days that drag on slowly. It’s knowing the neighbours and trying to maintain a good relationship with them. Even people here have time to drop by and visit their parents on their way to work. Meals provide the daily warmth of people gathered, and dinner is a place for conversations.

I’ve been wandering around for the last two years, understanding that home can be anywhere. It’s in the familiar lands of my childhood. It’s where an impromptu feast is prepared when the family gathers. It’s in the arms of the man I love. It’s in my mother’s company. It’s the flat covered with cat hair in Hamburg. It’s up in Denmark in the Christmas season. It’s in Canada, where so many people who were part of my childhood have ended up living.

Some things worth noting:

  1. Within these two weeks, I have probably spoken my native tongue more than in the past two years. And damn does it feel good! I’m a completely different person when I speak Cebuano. I enjoyed the sounds so much that I avoided speaking English at all costs or mixing up English words in my sentences.
  2. I affirmed that rice should always go with meat.
  3. It’s so easy to bond over shared memories. We try to include as little gossip as possible, but that’s unavoidable…
  4. I am lucky to have a friend I’ve known since we first got up on our feet. We had so many petty disagreements and stupid fights growing up. We hadn’t seen each other for 4 years and barely chatted, but once we met, it was just like the 4 years never dragged on separately for the both of us.
  5. A dog gives so much life to a house.
  6. I am a proud Cebuano. I belong to a large ethnic group predominantly found in the central islands and southern Philippines. Up until 2012, my native tongue, Cebuano, was never formally taught in schools. Even so, with about 20 million speakers, it has the most number of native speakers among the Philippine languages!

How To: Travel Cheap

It’s easy to get tricked by the glamour of photographs that we find on the internet. They’re the glossed over versions of everyday things.

Like a lot of people out there, I’m very selective of the images I post, and a lot of people see beauty in them without knowing the circumstances behind them.

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I have received a lot of ‘you’re so lucky’ or ‘rich girl’ comments, sometimes even the degrading, ‘it’s nice to have a rich boyfriend’. I have paid for all of my trips since I got my first job when I was 18. I work for them, make do with missing out on a few luxuries, and save up for them. Traveling is much cheaper if you know your way around things. As I’ve been dealing with budgeting for trips and planning for trips since I was 16, I’ve picked up on skills to stretch every buck.

So for those of you trying to fit a trip on a budget, here are just a few useful tips.

  1. CouchSurf

Way back in 1999, some guy found a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland but did not have a place to stay…so he hacked into the database for the University of Iceland and randomly e-mailed 1,500 of its students. He eventually received over 50 offers to accommodate him. On his return flight to Boston, he conceived the idea of Couchsurfing: to ‘surf’ on couches as a guest in somebody’s home, host travellers, meet members, or join events.

It’s a huge community and a great opportunity to meet locals and fellow travellers while saving on accommodation and I have met some great people on it. But it is not without its faults. There have been instances where people have used it as a hook-up site, and the web has quite a collection of couchsurfing horror stories, and I have had some bad experiences myself (but that’s for a different post).

2. Google Flights is your best friend.

Searching for airfares has been a lot easier ever since google launched Flights. You can opt for alerts on when the prices for a specific flight drops or starts increasing, see which airport has cheaper flights to your destination (if the distance is not huge, then sometimes it’s cheaper to take a train or bus to that airport and fly from there).

3. Rethink the single journey ticket and the Sightseeing Bus.

Almost all metros in the world will offer day tickets, multi-journey/multi-day tickets, weekend tickets and group tickets. Some already pay off after the second journey, so if you plan to explore the city on your own, consider opting for the multi-journey ones. Most cities also offer City Passes which can be a good deal if you want to visit a lot of museums and sights with entrance fees. They also have the option of including transport in it.

Ditch the Sightseeing Bus. The hop-on/hop-off at major tourist sites may be a lure, but do you really just want to sightsee? You can get a day pass for public transit and get to the same sights for less. Berlin’s bus 100 and 200 for instance, pass through almost all the major tourist points of interest in the city for less than €8,00 – all forms of public transport within zones AB included! They also depart more frequently!

4. Choose where you eat.

Avoid restaurants right at/close to major tourist sights, or restaurants with ‘tourist menus’ a.k.a. those flashy pictures of the dishes served plastered outside their walls. They are almost always tourist traps – absurdly overpriced and won’t really give you the ‘local’ flavours. Walk a few blocks away, and you’re more likely to find a good meal at a lesser price.

The rule of thumb is to eat where the locals eat.

5. Ditch the hotel.

Hotels are great for hassle-free stays but when your budget’s tight, you could still end up in a bad one.

If you’re young and looking to meet people, opt for a hostel. You can still go for a single room if you need a place to cocoon, but the atmosphere will be more social. Most hostels also organise activities or tours that cater to young travellers.

Also, for the uninitiated: AirBnb is awesome. Take my word on this one. It’s an online platform for renting holiday homes – rooms, flats, or entire houses. A lot of the listings have flexible check-in and check-out. Accommodations range from basic to luxurious, and they have the added bonus of a kitchen. Sure the site’s really being used to make money now, but you can still come across hosts who will really make you feel like a guest in their home.

If you haven’t tried it yet, here’s €27 off your first booking. You’re welcome!

6. Exploit your discounts.

Airlines, trains, and buses sometimes offer ‘youth discounts’ or discounted fares to travellers between the ages of 18-25. If you’re in possession of an ISIC (International Student ID Card), you’ll also get reduced admission on a lot of tourist attractions and be eligible for reduced fares. For a minimal yearly fee, becoming a Hostelling International (HI) or Youth Hostel Association (YHA) member will also give you discounts on accommodation and fares.

7. Find the right data pack. 

Try not to rely on mobile data when you are charged more for roaming. There are plenty of hotspots around. If you are staying over a week and think you will need a constant connection, check out what data packs they offer for tourists – they might cost you less than your home network’s roaming tariff.

My Vodafone gives me the same tariff anywhere in the EU for just €15/month.

8. Buy water from the supermarket.

The 500mL water that cost €2,70 at Starbucks might sell for €1,20 in the supermarket. The 1,5L might cost as low as €0,30.

9. Timing is key.

Prices can be much lower when you book just at the right time – not too early nor too late. Accommodation websites such as agoda.com and Booking.com will have early bird deals that offer free or flexible cancellations or discounted rates.

Airlines, especially budget ones, provide real bargains if you know when to book. Airfares are most likely to drop real low on Wednesday nights. Weekend flights are usually more expensive, the earliest ones and the latest ones are usually the cheapest. Clearing your search history might sometimes get your search engine to reveal lower prices.

Rail passes go on sale. Trains also sell discount fares if you book early enough.

An overnight bus means you don’t need accommodation for that night. You can find a locker to leave your stuff so you can explore a place while waiting for check-in time.

If you’re not too bothered by the weather, you might also want to consider traveling off-season.

10. Join the free walking tour.

In a number of cities, you’ll find non-profit companies organising free walking tours. These tours are on a donation basis, and you’re absolutely free to give whatever you want. I usually find myself giving more than I thought I’d be saving – but that’s because most tour guides I’ve met had so much passion that it was hard not to fall in love with a place.

La Tomatina: The World’s Biggest Food Fight

Picture yourself standing on a narrow street lined with white-walled houses, in a small Spanish town in the middle of nowhere. Now add 45,000 people from all around the world, high-pressure hoses shooting out water at random intervals, and over 145,000kg of tomato. The product is an enormous mess called La Tomatina.

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On the last Wednesday of August every year, the small town of Buñol, 40km from Valencia, becomes overrun with tourists seeking to partake in its enormous tomato fight.

No one is really sure how this Buñol tradition started- a popular theory is that in 1944 or 1945, angry townspeople rioted and threw tomatoes at members of the city council during a town celebration. Whatever did happen, people enjoyed it so much that it was repeated yearly after that.

As word of La Tomatina came out (thanks especially to the Bollywood movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara), the event got bigger and bigger that in 2013, the city council decided to charge entrance fees and to limit the number of participants.

Who wouldn’t put participating in a massive tomato fight in their bucket list? 

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Traditionally, the tomato fight officially starts when someone retrieves the chunk of ham at the top of a greased pole. While this is happening, they’ll start prepping you up and hosing the crowd with cold water.

The La Tomatina crowd is a wild bunch from all around the world and you’ll find people in the quirkiest outifits. There are men dressed in religious habits, a whole Just Married entourage, crossdressers complete with blonde wigs, #DicksOutForHarambe, and of course the crazy Japanese bunch.

We all know Japanese people don’t go for ‘moderate’. As far as these folks are concerned, it is either all out or none at all. There were men dressed in sumo clothes, a man with a lab gown get-up that was completely tomato-proof, ladies in tomato mascots, a group in karate outfits, and people in wetsuits.

As fun as it sounds, the absence of teamwork and strategy and the presence of drunk people mean that the chances of someone retrieving the ham are next to none. So, whether or not the ham is retrieved, the tomato fight officially starts at 11am on the dot with a canon fired to signal the coming of the first of six delivery trucks carrying the tomatoes.

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The mayhem begins when people submerged in waste-deep tomatoes start throwing them out to the crowd. The trucks then stop a minute or two at its designated unloading point to dump its entire load on the street. Caught too close to the water hoses as I was, the tomato fight ensued in a blur of plops and poofs and desperate attempts to hide behind the palm and avoid the water. My goggles came in handy after all.

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The fight lasts exactly an hour and another canon is fired to mark its end. It was only at the end, when the crowd had loosened a little that I realised the full extent of La Tomatina. There are some events look exactly like in the photo, and post tomato-fight La Tomatina is one of them.

With a little more space and no more risk of getting hit on the nose by a tomato projectile, the cameras start coming out to capture the tomato sauce lake the people are all on. I have never seen that much tomato in my life and I doubt anyone ever will. In some areas, it was ankle-deep flowing rivers of tomato sauce! The locals had installed tarpaulins up to the third storey of their homes for easier cleanup, and looking up, you’d find yourself wondering how the tomatoes managed to end up so high.

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Feeling like a pasta.

I got an awful tan line, got dirty, stinky, and spent. The march back up from the town plaza to the parking lot felt like a mass exodus of zombies covered in tomatoes, and with the sun shining- we became sundried tomatoes desperately trying to somewhat clean ourselves up. It’s a smell I will never forget. At one point, I wanted to cry because I just wanted to shower and be clean, and with thousands of people wanting a shower, there were not enough hoses around.

It was an exhilarating experience that would awaken the inner child in anyone.

I was so exhausted that when I got back in the bus, I quickly fell asleep and didn’t even realise when the bus left and only woke up when we were already in Valencia. It was certainly one heck of a day and an experience for me and so many others.

And to those worried about food waste: the tomatoes for La Tomatina are actually grown for the purpose of the festival- they are of inferior taste and come extremely cheap from Extremadura.

 

 

12 Types of Starbucks Customers Baristas Hate

I worked a few months at an extremely busy Starbucks at a prime location frequented by hoardes of tourists on a daily basis. We were a very international team- but we had a very multiethnic and multinational clientele as well and we had to be able to communicate. Sometimes though, the problem is not just language barriers. I came up with a list of the 12 types of customers baristas at Starbucks love to hate:

12 The Pointers

They can read but refuse to. They prefer to just point at the food on the display cabinet to purposely confuse you.

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11 The ‘normal size’ drinkers 

I have observed this to be an almost exclusively German thing. Starbucks doesn’t sell a ‘normal size’ and we wouldn’t know what ‘normal’ is as we sell roughly the same amount of Tall and Grande hot drinks. You’ll know it wasn’t the first time we got this order when we answer with a sardonic smile, ‘What’s normal to you?

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10 They Who Want Coffee

These people start and finish their order with ‘I want a coffee’, probably expecting you to have a background in sociology that you can decode what they want just by studying their presence. Chances are, they don’t just mean black drip coffee.

starbucks-employee.0.0.jpg9 Those who customise their orders by the bar, instead of at the counter.

This type is cumbersome when you are manning a busy bar. Oh, you wanted lactose-free milk? Why didn’t you say that before I finished your order? It’s fine. I will just smile, spill this drink and redo your order.

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© Journey of Continuous Improvement

8 Those with complicated orders that mention everything except the size.

Congratulations, you have successfully annoyed your barista and might have to exert more effort in repeating it.

7 Ice, Ice, Baby 

‘This is hot. I wanted my drink iced.’

No you didn’t. I’m sure because I took your order and you watched me write it and your name on a paper cup. But as usual, I will smile and we will redo it for you, and by the third cup I spill for the day, I’ll be indifferent to food waste.

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6 The Impatient One

This customer has time to wait in line but suddenly runs out of time when they get to the counter. They will tell you to speed it up because they are in a rush and that they have a tour that’s about to depart. Guess what? We don’t care that you didn’t think about that while waiting in line.

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5 The Phone Caller

Ah, that person glued to their mobile phone either chatting or talking to someone. Will they talk to me? Oh, that argument is more important than their order? Okay, the next guys after them are more important at this point. Oh, they’re talking to me now? They’ll have the nerve to get mad at you as well.

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4 The Undecided

These are the ones who spend over 20 minutes in line and still do not know what to order by the time they’re at the counter. These are the very people who cause delays that make people wait 20 minutes in line to begin with. They make you wonder what on earth a person stuck in line for 20 minutes can do that’s so important or interesting that they don’t even have time to glance at the menu and decide. Or they could just be girls.

3 Name Patrollers 

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©www.thrillist.com

Some people expect you to know how their name is spelled. This is often the case with teenagers who want to Instagram their drinks (Boy do we enjoy purposefully spelling your name wrong).

Well, at the Starbucks I worked at, most of our customers were non-Germans. Sometimes I wish all Spanish-speaking ladies are just named Anna to make life a little simpler.

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2 The Whisperer

They could be extremely shy or just enjoy eating their words or they are bat-eared folks who think that their whisper amid all the background noise is audible.

Some get pissed when you ask them to repeat what they said. Chances are you will give up on asking and spell their name wrong and you will get:

1 ‘I want my money back.’

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This customer will shout at you even when you don’t get what’s going on yet. This customer will verbally attack you and your clueless and innocent colleagues. This customer won’t reason. You made her name ‘Danna’ instead of ‘Anna’, and even if their drink was the only one of its kind on the counter, common sense is not so common.

Arguing with customers doesn’t make them wrong (and it’s annoying.) Hence, the Starbucks promise.

The Dwarves of Wrocław

Poland’s 4th largest city has just started popping up on tourist radars, and with its designation as European Capital of Culture this year, the tourism figures are rising.

What few non-locals know is that Wrocław is home to a sizeable population of gnomes. That’s right, the city is home to hundreds of dwarves. They first appeared in 2005 and the population has been continuously increasing that people lost track of their exact numbers some years ago. Back in 2014, there were over 300 of them spread out across the city. Some are begging for attention while others are inconspicuously hidden. Each one is unique, has its own name, profession, and story.

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The start-up guy

It seems like a tourist gimmick but it in fact started out as a commemoration to the Orange Alternative movement in the 80’s. The Orange Alternative was a Polish anti-communist underground movement that opposed the totalitarian government through peaceful protests, some of which were painting graffiti of dwarves over anti-government slogans, and running around the city dressed as dwarves.

The movement culminated in ‘The Revolution of Dwarves’ on June 1, 1988, when more than 10,000 people wearing orange dwarf hats marched through the center of Wrocław.

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Dwarves outside the Philharmonic
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Birthday dwarf-spotting

 

Today, the dwarves have become such a quintessential part of Wrocław that they’ve made an app for pinpointing them. Dwarf spotting is a fun alternative to traditional tourist sightseeing, and since there are always more dwarves arriving, you’ll find even locals smile and welcome another one they didn’t know before.