Those Trunks Though.

Those Trunks Though.

After my visa fiasco with my last assignment, I was potentially a little too enthusiastic about the fact that I didn’t have to get one for the Philippines. You mean there’s no way this country can formally reject me? What a time to be alive. We live on one or two month tourist visas here, which are a convenient way to avoid being rejected but a pain to renew. And of course they get progressively more expensive the longer you stay in the country. To renew in country, you have to spend most of your work day, and again more money than you would like, sitting in the immigration office for a stamp that allows you 30 more days in the Philippines. But if you leave the country, you get a shiny new visa stamp that lasts for another month when you come back. And we got a few days off for Christmas. And my ex teammate from our first assignment, Alli, was close enough to travel with me. And the first place we both wanted to go was Thailand. Sooooooo we did.

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Alli gettin all excited at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

The first thing I noticed about Thailand was how great their public transportation is, or at least how great it is compared to the Philippines… The second was how many foreigners there were/are in Bangkok. There were humans from all over the world, in more diverse company than Alli or I had yet seen in Southeast Asia. Which is mainly to say, we saw more white people on the way to our hostel than either of us had seen during our whole first month in the Philippines. In the Philippines, at least the parts where I live, there are a decent number of older white businessesy type men. I’ll maybe see one every other day on my walk to work. There are a drastically smaller number of white women, a very few black men, and I think I’ve seen exactly 3 black women over my 4 months here. One African lawyer I met told me that he knows all 10 black men in this city of 12ish million people, and that they have a special nod of acknowledgement. The number of white women I’ve seen below 40 is pretty negligible, but they mostly just get confused if I try to nod at them.

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Another one of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, cuz look at it.

Anyways. Bangkok was really great. Alli and I spent our first evening wandering around Silom, the part of the city our hostel was in. I honestly never imagined I’d find a place with as many places of worship as Texas, but Bangkok very well may have more temples than Texas does churches. We managed to find one on our first night without a single other tourist, and it was so cool to just observe. Honestly, after that, Bangkok felt like a succession of temples.

We (Alli) did find a church for Christmas Eve service, and that was a welcome difference. I really couldn’t tell you what the service was about. I was mostly thinking about home and family and enjoying the candle lighting portion if the service. I’ve never been the type to get homesick, but that church service was the first time I experienced how much being abroad means missing out on important things. It didn’t help that Christmas fell less than a week after a dear friend’s wedding. (Em, if you read this, know that I spent a long time looking at pictures of you/Bri/Steph/Kristen and imagining myself in a matching red dress standing up there next to you. Love you! Happy for you! Proud of you!) I’d never been away from my family for the holidays, and there I was, my first year out of college, missing Christmas at home. Much belated love to everyone for Christmas!

After the slightly emotional service, we fell in with a group of people headed to dinner. And here I was reminded that community is everywhere. We ended up having a huge Thai seafood dinner with people from at least 4 continents and 8 countries. There were some Norwegian girls who were just passing through like we were, a South African girl who was spending the year in Bangkok teaching english, a South Korean girl working in Bangkok, and then others from India, Thailand, and I forget where all. Most of us knew roughly one out of the 12ish people at the table before sitting down, but the meal was so full of laughter, love and praise. Definitely one of the more beautiful manifestations of the global church that I’ve seen.

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For the rest of our time in Bangkok, Alli and I kept it pretty standard. Some more temples. A museum. We did do a bike tour that took us to some pretty out of the way places, like a temple that had been abandoned and consumed by a neighborhood until just a couple of years ago and another neighborhood that was built over the river. Alli and I both agreed that it was our favorite part of Bangkok, even though I for sure broke my toe, (which was my own fault because I decided it would be a good idea to wear freaking chacos) and Alli broke her hand riding through one of the too small streets that ridiculously suddenly doubled back on itself.

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We met some really cool people on that trip, including a very happily married young woman who made a point of traveling for a few months every year, whether her husband could get time off from work or not. Note to any future spouse: she’s my idol. THEN WE WENT TO CHIANG MAI.

Chiang Mai was by far my favorite place in Thailand. It’s much smaller and flatter than Bangkok, and we spent as much time outside as we possibly could. Bangkok and Manila are very different of course, but they had that whole way too much concrete and way too many people thing in common. So Chiang Mai, with its lazier roads and mountains in the not to distant distance and quieter feel overall, was a relaxing change.

Also, Mom, if you hated the fact that I stayed in a hostel in Bangkok, you should really skip this next part.

I love hostels. I love the social element of them, that you can eat breakfast with a girl from Madrid and a guy from Bangalore, discuss the way it’s getting increasingly more difficult to visit China and India with a British professor in your dorm room, or tell some random girl in the bathroom about the different bike tours you’re going on and then have her turn up 5 minutes before yours leaves because hers was cancelled (yep same married girl, she was awesome).

And second to hostels? A really good homestay. Airbnb can be a bit hit or miss. You can get people who are too involved, hosts you never meet, or you can meet people like Ansaya. Her home was listed as the “Creative Place,” home of local artist, and I was very convinced from just that description that Alli and I had to stay there. Especially since it was like $5 a night. Everything lived up to expectations.

Alli and I exchanged a look when we pulled up to the address, because we couldn’t see anything resembling an apartment. We were in the right place, you just had to follow a little covered alley back to a semi-hidden staircase and then walk all the way around the building to an even more hidden staircase that opened into a rooftop garden, where Ansaya was waiting for us. Her home was arranged around the open space that housed her living room, one of the beds she rented out, and a kitchen that doubled as a bar sometimes. She had a few other rooms arranged around the edges of the garden, and we had one of these to ourselves. Ansaya herself was incredible! She was so kind and accommodating, helping us work out reservations for tours and making sure no one took advantage of the wide eyed tourists staying under her roof.

We spent the first night trying to get into an elephant tour, unsuccessfully. With Ansaya’s help, we got on a zip line tour roughly 8 hours before it began and an elephant reservation tour the day after that. Both tours left at 7, but Ansaya made a point to get up and make us breakfast of yogurt, eggs, and passion fruit both days.

The zipline day was awesome. We spent hours flying over a forest full of trees that our guides assured us were covered in poison ivy’s meaner older brother. They said people had to wear hazmat suits to construct the zipline platforms, but I’m not necessarily sure I believe them. We saw monkeys, sorry gibbons, and met some more really cool people, like a Croatian photographer and his girlfriend who traveled for most of the year. Apparently it’s that much cheaper to fly someone out of Croatia than it is to hire someone from the states to take pictures. I’d love to spend more time on the ziplines, but dang this is getting long isn’t it? So ON TO THE ELEPHANTS.

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This.

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This is my favorite thing I’ve done in Asia.

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I spent the first 13 years of my life watching almost nothing but Animal Planet, and this day trip was very much a childhood dream come true.

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We drove into the mountains for 2ish hours in a semi-open truck, and several times we passed huge fields where we saw elephants just chilling in huge open barn structures. nbd.

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We ended up on the side of a mountain in a hut, where we were told to change into local shirts and grab some bananas. The elephants came out of the forest, we fed them and washed them and all was right in the world for many hours.

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Honestly, this day deserves its own post, but 3 months later I don’t even remember the name of the tour company so this is about all I have to say about the elephants.

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(Oh except one more thing. If you’re ever looking for somewhere to do elephant tourism, please be aware that so many companies abuse their animals. The ones we interacted with we all rescued from abusive situations, so we weren’t allowed to ride them at all. Some places will let you ride them in a responsible way, but having more than 1 person on an Asian elephant leads to huge health problems!)

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Chiang Mai also has some pretty great cafes and boutiques and also night markets, but I’ll move on to Phuket because SORRY THIS IS SO LONG.

The part of Phuket we stayed in was a sleepy little beach town that was perfect after all of the movement. The beach was beautiful! But for the love of all things good and holy, do not trust just anything that says it has UV+ 50 on it. Alli and I went to the beach the first day, well covered in what we thought was sunscreen, and I spent the day dozing/reading a copy of Steppenwolf I’d picked up at the hostel.

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The sunscreen was A LIAR. It was straight up lotion. Which might not be a huge problem if your skin has any melanin in it whatsoever, but mine is TRANSLUCENT. Alli fared a bit better than me for some reason. Y’all. It was so bad. I still have very distinct lines, 3 months later, so that was a fun first day at the beach. It also made for a fun second and third day at the beach….

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But, being in Thailand, we weren’t about to let something as silly as second degree burns on 50% of our surface area (oh sorry that was just me) hold us back. The best thing we did in Phuket was for sure the island hopping day. We were on a boat all freaking day, and it was WONDERFUL.

We went to a beach where there was a monkey, who was quite uninterested in us until some idiot started feeding it coke. We went to one beach where pre-Oscar Leo had starred in a movie, which Alli and I watched later and decreed was “pretty whatever.” We went one beach that had a secret beach. We went to a beach that wasn’t actually a beach at all, but more like a hollow island with cliffs surrounding a calm little piece of ocean. Finally, we went to another beach where there were friendly beach cats and pineapple drinks, and I think we probably went to some other beaches as well. Each of these islands had its own nifty name of course, usually Koh something, but I forgot most of them by the time we got to the next island. We made friends with an older couple, and spent much of the day with them. The woman was Corsican and had a good time talking at me in French and chuckling (with me, mostly) over my attempts at responding.

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We spent another day in Phuket where I got to be that horrific tourist in a t shirt on the beach, before heading back to Manila. We landed, sunburned, bruised and with minor broken bones, at 10pm on New Years Eve. The tradition in Manila is to light off fireworks for New Years. The fun part about this tradition is that there are no restrictions on who’s allowed to do this, and sometimes they’re shot at passing cars. Alli and I met up with my roommates and tried to sneak up onto our roof several times, thoroughly annoying our friendly doormen, but ended up watching the fireworks from an apartment on the top floor which our friends had just moved out of but which I still had a key to/from the openings in the stairway. Overall ridiculous, but a great way to bring in the New Year in a still pretty new to me city.

If I were really trying to be one of those “I have more wanderlust than you” bloggers, I would for sure have broken this up by city at least… Promise I’ll try to keep it shorter from here on out!

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When Writing Turns Selfish

When Writing Turns Selfish

So I’ve been thinking about this blog more than normal lately (so some). And it’s problematic.

Writing a blog about myself has always felt a little silly, but at the beginning of the year I was firmly convinced that it would be worth it. I wasn’t going to contribute fluffy clutter to the usually less than serious blogging corner of the internet. I wanted to write something of substance and to talk about my work in detail. I wanted to share everything that I learned about human trafficking, to be able to explicitly discuss our challenges and victories and, more than anything else, to tell the stories of our survivors. I wanted to talk about the strength of survivors moving from vulnerability to freedom, of lawyers fighting monolithic systems, and even of the law enforcement officers in their efforts to reduce and prevent trafficking.

But the longer I’m here, the more selfish that feels. I still want to write about trafficking, and I firmly believe that stories of justice being done and the world changing as slowly as it does should have more attention on every writing platform there is. But what I really want is to facilitate the healing of our survivors and the changes my coworkers make to this city. And I’m learning that sometimes telling stories can be selfish. The work we do is sensitive, and I need to get out of the way.

The reality is that it’s inappropriate and unsafe to put information about the work IJM does on the internet, even in as obscure a portion of it as my wannabe blog. Things don’t wrap up neatly very often, if ever. Cases usually stay open for years, some lasting a decade or more, and there’s a real possibility that they could be dismissed because someone on the other side finds an intern’s blog with just enough information. 

The stories of our rescues, convictions and closures should be told,  but only in a context that lets the work of providing justice to the poor continue safely. Unfortunately, that means most of what I do/make/write doesn’t have my name attached, but making a name for myself is pretty much the lowest priority of the year.

I have decided that it would be best to move any work talk to a monthly-ish email update. This will protect everyone involved in the actual struggle for justice and give me the freedom to tell these stories right. Comment, message me, or tell my mom if you’d like to be added to the emails!

This isn’t necessarily the end of the blog though. I may keep it around for exactly the type of self indulgent travel posts I was convinced I wouldn’t write. They’re actually pretty fun to write, and I’d like to have a better answer to the inevitable “how was your year?!!” than just “so great!!”

Made it.

Made it.

I actually landed six and a half weeks ago, which feels like a crazy thing to say. But then, any variation of “I live in Asia now” still feels like an absurd statement. Anyways, sorry (Mom) for not getting around to posting in that month and a half! I will say that finding good internet here is cause for significant celebration, but I will also admit that this excuse doesn’t hold up for all six weeks.

This city, though, is far more interesting than my laziness. It is crazy. It’s huge, and loud and so fast. From the roof of our building, you can see the ocean, mountains, roughly 100 high rises and the 5-6 malls that are in walking distance. I have a pretty long list of restaurants, museums, open mics and cafes (one of which is Harry Potter themed?) to check out and a number of fun new humans to explore with.

It’s a funny time of transition for all of the interns here. Over the past two weeks, five of them finished their year and left. Two are extending another half a year, and one more came later than the others and so is only halfway through. My roommate Hannah and I showed up just in time to get to know the community before it went through this massive overhaul, and the changes aren’t even done. Two more girls are coming in less than a month, which will settle things for all of four months. I miss the girls who left, even though I only knew them for a few weeks. Common purpose and lack of larger social circles/any kind of comfort zone kind of speeds up the friendship process, I guess. But at the same time, I’m so excited to meet the girls coming in and to deepen my friendships with the existing interns. This job attracts some crazy fun, smart and ambitious people. And I cannot even begin to talk about how much I already love the local staff. You know what? I don’t think I will. I’ll save that for it’s own post.

Honestly the worst thing so far has been the traffic. It’s practically a curse word here and a great excuse for showing up 3 hours late to anything. Think L.A., but pretend like driving is a game where lanes are made up and general traffic signals don’t matter! There are only supposed to be 3ish lanes on most roads, but somehow 4 cars, 3 motorcycles, and another endlessly moving line of actual bicycles fit in those 3 lanes. So (Courtney) I promise I will not, in fact be getting a motorcycle. I’m almost getting to the point where I’m grateful for well enforced traffic regulations in the States. But also maybe not.

Other things which are (in fact) privileges and not rights:

  •  Good wifi
  • Dr. Pepper
  • Airconditioning
  • Average wifi
  • Flat sidewalks
  • Clean water and/or air
  • Bad wifi
  • Any internet at all really

Adjusting to a new culture is fun and overstimulating and overwhelming, and so is the work I’ve been doing. The main reason I haven’t posted anything is because I’ve been working 10+ hours a day for the first time in my life, and I keep waiting for that to not be true so that I can take the time to write something.  Funny thing about work though, it always seems to be there the next day. 

Since I’ve been here, we’ve had  multiple people convicted of human trafficking, another few take plea bargains, a number of establishments that sold underage girls have been shut down by the government, we’ve taken children as young as six and eight out of exploitative situations and I actually assisted on a rescue. By “assisted,” I mean I was only getting coffee/breakfast/snacks/lunch/also dinner for the victims, police officers, lawyers and social workers, and I was happy to be able to contribute even that much.

In between meals on the rescue they didn’t have all that much for me to do, so they told me to go talk to the girls. Honestly, that idea was initially terrifying. I know, I know, but how was I supposed to relate to these girls on any level whatsoever? Y’all I’m so happy to announce that I was wrong to be intimidated. It was so good. They taught me some Tagalog, and we talked about everything from places we wanted to see to how we did our hair. I thought talking about boys might be a touchy subject, but I can now confirm that the ideal guy (tall, rich, handsome, young, but not necessarily in that order) is one of the world’s great universals.

We/the police shut down this bar because they were employing minors, but not all of the girls were underage or trafficked. This meant that when we went in, we had to pull out all 60+ girls, but they didn’t all want to come out. Some of the girls I made friends with are already back at the same work, because that’s what they do and that’s their choice. The whole thing was heavier than I’d expected.

More on that later, I’m sure.

But in summary: hey hello I’m alive and I love it here and here’s a picture Hannah took of me and a tree and our neighborhood (kinda) to prove it.

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I bought a ticket, so this is officially real life

I leave for Manila on November 22, because I am actually moving to a real place for job that I am finally allowed to do.

People keep asking if I have done everything I wanted to do before I leave, and I find that question really difficult to answer. During the 3ish months I’ve been in Dallas, I’ve been to one art show and exactly 0 readings of anything. I haven’t been backpacking at all, and most of the things I saw in theaters were movies made for 6th grade boys.

But then this is home, not a tourist destination, and I can’t quite shift my perspective enough to look at it as a checklist. I spent more time trying to get to know this version of my little brother, the one that is 12 years old, lanky, and probably half a foot shorter than the next one I’ll get to meet, than I did going anywhere or seeing anything. And sure, I could have used this time to figure out how to make money on a blog or something like that, but instead I pretty much just spent time with people I enjoy. I guess that’s the difference between home and vacation.

Manila will start out as the exact opposite, I imagine. I will know no one, nothing will be familiar, and everything will be an adventure. But then I’ll write this same post all over again in a year.

Anyways, this is just a quick post to update anyone who’s interested on the departure date! I promise to consume nothing but Chick-fil-a, Whataburger, and (diet) Dr. Pepper between now and Sunday!

Ok, Things are Actually Happening Now and It’s Great

Monday was a good day. There’d been a whole weekend of disappointing football, but that was ok because of friends and tailgates and Mic Check. And then on Monday, IJM called.

Y’all. I have a job. It is in Manila in the Philippines, and I leave somewhat soonish.

I could not be more excited. Manila is huge and layered and everything I want in a new city, and I cannot wait to get to know the place.

I’ll be doing all the same communications work that I would have been in that other place too, which mainly consists of “storytelling.” I get to spend a lot of time interviewing survivors and making sure their stories are told. Oh, and isn’t it fun that I get to talk about the specific city and all that this round?

The work in Manila is more focused on sex trafficking of underage girls and sexual violence than forced labor, so it’s got an extra level of gut-wrenching to it. But things are actually happening there, changing there. I can’t wait to join the fight. According to IJM’s website: “We have secured the conviction of more than 100 traffickers, rapists and other criminals in the Philippines, in trials that have lasted as long as nine years.”

I’ll miss this of course. I’ve enjoyed being home and getting to spend so much time with my family, but I am so ready to go. There’s a lot more information on what International Justice Mission does in the Philippines below (not graphic, but also maybe not for sharing with my little cousins *cough* Aunt Christi).

https://www.ijm.org/where-we-work/philippines

Liminality

My job (that I technically have but am still not yet doing, keep reading I explain I swear) involves some of the more repulsive parts of human interaction, what with one set of humans exploiting other humans for the first group’s own personal gain. So I’m sorry that I won’t always get to write an exciting travelogue that tells you where to get the best curry around.

Luckily, this post isn’t about human nature and how much we can suck at times! This one is more annoying than depressing. I still wish I didn’t have to write it. I do though, so here goes:

My visa was denied. I will not be working in South Asia next year.

I will definitely still be working for International Justice Mission, but I’ll be in a different office, probably either in Africa or Southeast Asia. I wasn’t given a reason for the denial. I was only told that the consulate is not legally obligated to explain their decision to me. They also lost my driver’s license. I’ll admit I’m uh just a little bit bitter at that entire country right now. So I’ll be starting the entire visa application process over for a different country, once IJM figures out where they’re sending me.

Anyways, for now here I am nannying and living at home, and I’m pretty sure that makes me a real writer right? I’ll admit that this whole shift made me angry. I’m leaving everything I’m familiar with, and that is actually one of my favorite things. I am possibly a little too addicted to new things. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there is an element of terror to the whole thing. I’d met and loved my team, knew my job, and was excited about the city. I had a certain amount of comfort. Now I’m starting over again.

There are positives! I get to spend more time with my family. I have almost exactly 0 responsibilities…

It is really disappointing that it isn’t working out like I wanted it to, but this is temporary! I just wanted to update everyone as to why the last time we said goodbye for a solid year probably wasn’t actually the last time you’ll see me.

Visas Are Hard.

Like really hard. This is the third one I’ve applied for, and nothing about this process has been charming.

It’s definitely partly my fault. It’s definitely not all my fault. But that’s ok and also not important.

From what I hear, bureaucracy drives everyone crazy, not least those who actually work in it.

So, the answer to that extremely valid “when are you leaving” question has become: tbd.

My application recently got passed on to the next level of processing, and I haven’t heard anything from them at all since that happened. IJM says not to worry if I don’t hear anything for 6 weeks from last week, as this is definitely less than unheard-of. After that they’ll start asking questions, and at 8 weeks they’ll reassign me to a different location. And this isn’t as personal a problem as it sounds. Only 2 people on my 6 person team have actually gotten a visa.

Only 1/3 of these people can legally enter the subcontinent!
Only 1/3 of these people can legally enter the subcontinent!

So until I hear from someone about something, I’m just playing a waiting game. Honestly, it is nice to have more time with my family than I’d thought (I was supposed to leave October 1 and start work on the 9th). I also imagine that I would be freaking out right now if I were really leaving tomorrow, but this delay has just increased the anticipation.

I’m about ready to stowaway on a plane sans passport, so you can be sure I’ll be gleefully publishing any news I get as soon as I get some.

 

 

Oh and  also, just a note as to why I’m saying “South Asia” instead of using the name of the *cough* subcontinent as I do in actual conversation: Basically, IJM has asked us not to. They don’t mind people knowing where we are, but do not want records of our work in this area readily available to the general public. This is to protect our team, our clients, and the entire process of systemic transformation that we’re undertaking. So feel free to ask me about the specific place/city by text (YES you can text me just like normal), snapchat, whatsapp, skype or any number of the more or less defunct communication tools that we have available today! But plz don’t post it publicly on my Facebook or anything like that. Thanks!