Embracing Wanderlust

View from the Clouds by Nina Terol-Zialcita
View from the Clouds by Nina Terol-Zialcita

Different people have different reasons for packing their bags, getting on a plane, and setting off for distant lands. Some do it to take a quick break from their frenetic life and escape to sun, sea, surf… and shopping. Some do it for work, the trip necessitated by this client meeting or that conference. Others do it to survive. They pack part of their lives with them and leave the other half at home, risking social ties, emotions, and a bit of security for a larger paycheck that would allow them to support their families. Others do it for love, crossing continents and cultural boundaries to spend the rest of their lives with The One. Still others do it for the thrill of the chase, planning their sojourn months—years!—in advance then finally taking off for weeks on end, in search of colorful experiences and connections that will often lead them closer to themselves.

When I was younger, I saw traveling as a bothersome necessity, a requirement imposed by the fact that we were a family of airliners and that we had loads of free trips to use each year. I grew up in a single-parent household with my mom being gone for… maybe three-fourths of my childhood, and she compensated by taking us on these impromptu trips. Shopping in Hong Kong, zoo-going in Singapore, fun family time in Disneyland, our first limo ride in Hawaii—these travels weren’t too frequent, but they were memorable if only because it was time for everyone to be all in the same room. But since I was too young on many of those trips to fully appreciate what they entailed, I ended up just going with the flow, not expecting too much and not putting too much of myself into the experience.

As I got older, however, wanderlust crept in and there emerged a hunger—a deep yearning—to learn from the world outside of my beautifully shaped archipelago. The adventure started in 2006, when a short-lived partnership with a Singaporean firm saw me traveling out of the country on frequent, impromptu trips. I loved the feeling of connecting with and learning from colleagues from different parts of the world, and I resolved to keep traveling for work—to keep seeking out those intellectual and cultural connections that won’t necessarily come with flying on holiday.

In 2008, I took my first-ever trip as media covering an international event—the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, where my now-husband had performed and where I find myself again this year. There I met an organization and people who I now consider to be part of my “media family”. That year, too, I experienced a series of heartbreaks when I couldn’t secure the funding I needed to take two programs—one, a short journalism course in Greece, another, a graduate degree in Australia—and the hunger grew.

Maybe it was the “Fil-for” in me (my biological father is British) that kept me wanting to connect with another continent; maybe it was generations of trans-continental travel seeped into my blood. Whatever it was, a latent desire to be out into the world was seeded in every pore of my being, and milestones in my life kept happening outside of the country without me planning for them.  In 2009, my husband and I were married in the midst of the Homeless World Cup in Milan, Italy, where he performed and gave drumming workshops and I was part of the media corps.  Then in 2010, I took my first solo flight to Europe for the European Journalism Institute in Prague, Czech Republic.  It was followed by another week of traveling, writing, and connecting with friends in France. That trip—taken at 30 years old—sealed the deal for me.

I wanted to travel for work and do work (writing, researching, meeting, talking) while traveling. I wanted my life to be about these trans-continental, cross-cultural connections that don’t just happen within the confines of a single organization or a single country. I wanted to embrace the world—and I, to be fully in it.

Then, lo and behold, in 2011, the Universe decides to make me editor-in-chief of a travel magazine. (Part of the wish, granted.)

As I write this now, I am in a room surrounded by lush greenery in Kuching, Sarawak, in a hotel near the foot of the mythical Mount Santubong. It is my third time to cover the Rainforest World Music Festival, my fifth time in Sarawak, and my nth plane ride this year. I’ve had Misadventure and Mishap follow me around in airports and at my destinations, but I don’t let them stand in my way and I just treat them as part of the fun. I have a terrible cough and would really be better off resting at home, but there’s a kind of magic here—a powerful, positive energy—that I cannot deny myself.

Jamming with "rast" (Eastern modal music) - Rainforest World Music Festival (Photo by Nina Terol-Zialcita)
Jamming with "rast" (Eastern modal music) - Rainforest World Music Festival (Photo by Nina Terol-Zialcita)

Yesterday, while attending one of the musical workshops that are embedded into the festival, I watched an impromptu jam of three musicians from Poland and one from Iran as they introduced their kinds of zithers, multi-stringed instruments that sound more like harps and pianos than guitars, and explored the nuances and intricacies of their instruments. I was mesmerized by the soothing sounds of the zither and found myself almost in a trance as I tried to capture that moment on film. After that came another jam focusing on “rast”, what they call Eastern modal music.

I was absolutely entranced by the voice of Mamak Khadem, a beautiful Iranian woman who is defying stereotypes and cultural norms by giving a voice to the women of Iran, in a society where only men hold power. I loved the electronica and oud combination of DuOud, a duo from Tunisia and Algeria by way of Turkey, who continue to uphold their traditional music while embracing technology. Also part of that jam was Theodosii Spassov from Georgia, an amazing flutist who could produce a wide range of sounds with his shepherd’s flute, and Hamid Saedi, a handsome Iranian who was also Mamak Khadem’s husband and quite magical-sounding on the sambuka (the Persian zither). And that was only the workshops—a full night of concerts had yet to unfold.

Last night, too, over beer and cocktails at the festival’s famed “Heinekabana”, I had an eye-opening conversation with a senior colleague, John—originally from the UK, now living in Thailand—whom I had conversed with a year ago on “Asian jazz” and the “anonymity” of our music as far as our Southeast Asian neighbors were concerned. This time, though, the conversation was on the socio-political and cultural contexts of his Thailand, my Philippines, our other neighbors (Burma, Vietnam), and similar events in the United Kingdom in the 1820s.  It was part-history lesson, part-political commentary—and some of our friends had already left the table, probably thinking that they would rather go out and enjoy the music than be part of this discussion—but I loved every minute of it. These are conversations I would not be able to have back home, conversations that enrich my data bank and inform my work as a political animal back in the Philippines. This wasn’t part of the festival menu, and yet here I had it.

A midnight jam at the hotel bar with Senor Victor Valdes on the Mexican harp (Photo by Nina Terol-Zialcita)
A midnight jam at the hotel bar with Senor Victor Valdes on the Mexican harp (Photo by Nina Terol-Zialcita)

It is moments like these—moments wrapped in pure musical bliss or intense intellectual and cultural exchange—that make me excited to pack my bags again and again, and endure all the inconveniences of modern-day travel. These are moments when I feel the world’s many lines being blurred and even momentarily erased, as we access knowledge and “knowing” from all parts of the world in one space.

Here, in this festival, for instance, there are no boundaries between me and the musicians of Kenge Kenge from Kenya, who are only a handshake and a smile away.  There was no language barrier between me and Señor Victor Valdes of Mexico, whose enchanting performance on the Mexican harp put us on the same plane without having to exchange words with each other. I didn’t need to understand Mamak Khadem’s words to be moved to tears by her beautiful, haunting chanting. The customs and traditions of the island nation of Vanuatu are within reach—if only I open them long enough to see the performances of Leweton Women’s Water Music. To me, THIS is what traveling is all about—it is not just about the journey or the destination itself, but also, and more importantly, about the people you meet and learn from.

This is just one event of many, one trip of several more that I will be taking this year, but it captures perfectly my connection with travel and the world. As I step out of this room and onto the sunshine, I will greet each experience with arms wide open, embracing this powerful wanderlust that has brought me here and that makes me privileged enough to sing, dance, and live as one with the world—even if it’s only for a few short days.