In 2009, I had just finished my Bachelors Degree in Economics from UPLB (University of the Philippines - Los Banos) and I was ready to make my first steps out into the real world.
My father was living in Kuwait at the time, so he helped me to get a great internship at the Philippines Embassy (Labor Department) – not completely independent, or even adventurous looking back through all of my experiences since then, but at the time this was a huge leap for me, one that would eventually lead me to corners of the world I never dreamed I would see in my lifetime. That was a month after my college graduation and it was my first time to travel internationally!
I cut my internship short to pursue a career choice of my own in the healthcare industry, which lasted for four years. It felt like I had everything; a good job for my age; my own rented apartment (not sharing with anyone); a car, expensive gym membership and of course some of the brands and labels the Middle East has to offer!
Travel was barely even a part of my life then, my Filipino culture and Middle Eastern consumer lifestyle made sure of that. That is, until a chance meeting with some expats led me to my first travel experience and with it my first backpacking trip to Armenia with my new friends and best friend in Kuwait, Lory. It was Eid holiday 2012 – the year that everything started to change in my life.
That feeling of excitement setting off on a journey for the first time, without the help or direction of my parents left me with a longing for more and being young and impulsive, I started planning dramatic changes in my life. I went on an Asian cruise with my family, went on a trip to Nepal, Sri Lanka and even a skydiving trip to Dubai! I narrowed it down to three choices, each with varying levels of ‘responsibility’ and excitement:
1. Return to the Philippines to get my Master’s degree;
2. Fly to India to do some spiritual soul-searching;
3. Fly to Kurdistan, Iraq to look for a job in the oil industry.
All very contrasting choices! Going back to the Philippines seemed like a big step backward and I didn’t feel I was ready for India yet, to be honest, it scared me. So I was left with one choice, Iraq! It seemed familiar, yet dangerous and exhilarating at the same time. I went on a week-long trip to Turkey (with my best friend, Lory) before I packed up everything to move to Erbil, Kurdistan!
I waited until my father went on a trip to the Philippines (I was young and it felt rebellious), packed my suitcases and flew to Erbil, Kurdistan. I had no job, nowhere to live, no contacts and no friends, I simply arrived in Iraq intent on starting a new adventure and proving that I could do it on my own. I chose the oil industry because although I wanted to travel, I still had a career mentality and oil is known for providing the best benefits for young professionals eager to get ahead. I quickly found a room in a house with a Filipino family and within three weeks I had a job with one of the biggest oil companies in the world, all was going to plan! Life was good in Iraq, way better than Kuwait; you could by alcohol when you wanted, there were bars and parties, but I wasn’t allowed to drive due to my job. I had to be chauffeured around in a bullet-proof car with an armed guard, which was exciting for at first, but became a bit restricting after a while!
What I was still missing though, was a solid group of friends, people I could just hang out with, who weren’t interested in competing with each other over who had the bigger paycheck and who were interested in traveling too. Once again, I found exactly what I was looking for in the Traveler’s community, even in Kurdistan! It was a mixed group of locals, visiting travelers, NGO workers, and volunteers – I was with the right people again!
I enjoyed my life in Kurdistan, although I worked hard(er) too, six days a week with just Sunday left for socializing and partying with friends. Unfortunately, though, the work schedule meant that I still wasn’t really traveling. I had changed career, left my friends, moved to a new country and was earning a lot more money, but nothing fundamental had changed.
After five months in Iraq, I realized that I have simply picked up all of my old routines, habits lifestyle choices and relocated them to a different country.
It was at about that that I met two backpackers - a Chinese girl traveling solo around Iraq and Afghanistan and a young British guy hitchhiking from Turkey to Iraq, through Iran to Georgia. What they were doing seemed incredible to me and what followed was serious of more dramatic decisions!
Once again, I checked my finances and have 10,000USD savings (5,000 paid to stocks/mortgage and the other half was my pocket money). I packed my bags and booked my flights, this time back to the Philippines to settle a few things, before flying straight to Bangkok, where I started my first ever long-term backpacking trip around South East Asia, the first 3 weeks I brought my brother and sister with me who that time left the country for the first time!
Almost five years later and I have no regrets; I’ve visited more than 100 countries in all the 7 continents, met the love of my life (got married!). We’re still exploring and finding new and amazing ways to support our sustainable travel lifestyle. You can read here on how we funded our sustainable travel lifestyle.
I don’t know if what I did was brave, stupid or just rebellious, but my time in the Middle East- Kuwait and Iraq taught me a lot about myself and gave the experience and confidence to step outside of the life I was raised to live and into the life I was born to live.
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