Lost (and Found) in Prague

“And on to your left we have the coffin of King Ferdinand V of Bohemia…”

Our tour guide’s voice drowned in my head as I fumbled with the controls of my borrowed camera. The room that kept King Ferdinand’s coffin was dark, and I wanted to get a good-enough photograph using the camera that I had started using only the day before that. A click here, a snap there—I turned around to ask my classmate, Eva, a question about using the camera in low light…

… And then they were gone.

All of them.

I was in the middle of St. Vitus Cathedal, in Prague’s historic Hradčany Square, with what looked like hundreds—even thousands—of Sunday tourists, and I couldn’t find our tour guide or any of my classmates.  It was my second day in a country whose language I did not speak and whose signs I could not decipher, and I was lost.

Prague Castle, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic
Prague Castle, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic (Photo by Niña Terol-Zialcita)

* * *

It was exactly a year ago when I landed in Prague, the Czech Republic to try to my hand at being a student in an international program. I was 30 years old and married for less than year, but I felt like I was 18 again—young, exuberant, and ready to take on the world.

When I found myself alone in the middle of St. Vitus Cathedral, I took it as a sign that I was meant to explore the city in my own way. After a momentary panic attack, in which I went around and circled the cathedral twice in hopes of finding a familiar face, I let go and decided to walk around Hradčany Square, the world’s largest functioning castle compound which houses the cathedrals of Sts. Vitus, Wenceslas, and Adalbert, as well as Prague Castle and the Archbishop’s Palace, among other edifices. I retraced some of the steps that our tour group had taken, spending a bit more time to take in the sights and take some photos, then I chatted with the old gentlemen who were selling their artwork by the hillside staircase and bought myself some art. I browsed the museum shop, peeked in some the cafés that lined Hradčany’s perimeter, chatted with the cute guy selling black Bohemian beads, then I made my way to the streets below. I couldn’t understand a single thing that the signs were saying, but I had a map, intuition, and my inner sense of adventure to guide me.

Lost in Prague
Photo by Niña Terol-Zialcita

* * *

I seemed to have done a lot of walking while in Prague—not only because taking the metro and walking to our various destinations was the most cost-efficient way to travel, but also because I had a lot of questions about myself and where I was headed. I found that walking offered me time, space, and great stimuli for thinking. The more I got to know the city and make myself comfortable traversing streets whose names I could not pronounce, the more I felt that I belonged out in the world instead of in a little box defined by a title and a desk. The more I immersed in the seven-day program and got to meet journalists of all shapes, colors, languages, and persuasions, the more I realized that words were where I was most comfortable. While I had thought that change was best done while being in government, I also realized that truth was sometimes best pursued from the outside looking in. “The journalist’s first obligation is to the truth,” our program said, and I knew that I had to step out of my political blinders in order to see better.

And while I loved my country and was projecting myself to be “Little Miss Philippine Ambassador” while in the program, I also knew that there was a larger world outside, where race, ethnicity, and nationality mean less than being human itself.

One afternoon, after a Mexican drinking spree with some of my classmates, I was walking back with Sarah, a lovely young Egyptian who was talking about the challenges of being young and Egyptian in a society where race and religion was such a big deal, and I asked, “Wouldn’t it be better if we just saw ourselves as citizens of the world?” Sarah liked that thought and, together, we reveled in the possibilities that it offered.

It feels just like the United Nations (There's me--the smallest in the group, with Sarah towering beside me)
Students from the European Journalism Institute 2010: It feels just like the United Nations (There's me--the smallest in the group, with Sarah towering beside me)

* * *

The program showed me much about a side of the world that I hadn’t yet seen, and it also revealed sides of myself that I was only getting to know. At the end of the program, when we were asked to write letters to ourselves, I wrote this letter , where I asked myself these questions:

Letter to Myself

The real question is: where are you now, REALLY? What REALLY brings your heart joy, and what are your real motivations sans the ego and the titles? Your dream board says one thing but sometimes you get caught up in the ideals of power and responsibility that you find yourself foregoing things that matter to you–and for what? In the narrative that is your life, who is your target audience? Who do you really want to speak to, and whose lives do you really want to touch?

You can’t be everything to everyone. So, who do you want to be someone to, and what do you want to do? How will you get there?

* * *

One year later and a continent away, I’m closer to finding the answers. It’s funny how we sometimes need to (literally) lose our way just to find ourselves, and how we need to be jolted out of our comfort zones in order to make it back home. I lost my tour group while looking through a borrowed lens while in Prague, but it was also these borrowed lenses of the world that helped me see more clearly and find clues that were just right under my nose.

The view from Hradčany Square (Photo by Niña Terol-Zialcita)
The view from Hradčany Square (Photo by Niña Terol-Zialcita)

In Search of the Common Thread

First published in the author’s blog, The Art of Changemaking

“How do you teach them not to hate?”

Veteran journalist Christiane Amanpour has been quoted saying that, and we in Writer’s Block Philippines often use that, when teaching our freelance writing workshop, as an example of a powerful quote.

The question is powerful because it is loaded with meaning on so many levels. First, hate itself is such a strong concept–stronger than anger or loathing, not quite just the opposite of love, a misunderstood and often-misdirected emotion that is known to cause destruction and loss on many levels. Second, it assumes that hatred is a learned concept–that it is not just a reflex reaction and felt instinctively, but cultivated and developed in thought, belief, and action until it manifests itself in concrete, solid form. Conversely, the question leads us to think that, if hatred can be learned, then it is also possible for us to unlearn it or block it from fruition.

Ironically, that thought came to my mind on the wake of my first wedding anniversary. I got back from a weekend getaway with my husband on the day the world commemorated the ninth year of 9/11; and in the Philippines, gloom still hung over the country and its erstwhile friend, Hong Kong, as both neighbors struggled to cope with their painful losses and the institutional ineptitudes that caused them. When dealing with pain, our initial response is usually to find someone or something to blame. In the case of the United States, it was Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden; in the case of Hong Kong, it was the Filipino police and their national leaders. In both cases, it bred fear of and hatred toward the Misunderstood Other.

How do we reverse hatred once it starts to set in? And how do we teach the world to unlearn centuries of collective programming so that war, destruction, and death can be avoided? How do we, as nations and as peoples of a single human race, even begin to reach out and move beyond our fears and pains?

The questions are larger than the sum of the fragments of available answers, But I’ve realized that one strong and powerful reason why I write is that I would like to believe that, somewhere deep within the stories of people, places, rhythms, and sensations, lie the common threads that make us all more alike than we think we are.

* * *

Palestinian musician Adel Salameh, being interviewed at the Rainforest World Music Festival (2008) | Photo by NTZ
Palestinian musician Adel Salameh, being interviewed at the Rainforest World Music Festival (2008) | Photo by NTZ

Two years ago, I met Adel Salameh, a Palestinian musician who performed at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia. During the press conference, I found myself drawn to Adel’s story because he chose to be an artist in a country where art and all forms of expression are forbidden, where decades of Occupation have snuffed out his people’s concept of identity, where exuberance has no place because all that exists is an encompassing mass of nothingness. There are no songs, no stories, no artists, no musicians–Adel had to fight to be able to travel to London, where he could move about freely and create as any sentient human being could.

He spoke of a project that he had worked on while in London, which involved bringing together young children from both Israel and Palestine to co-exist, communicate, and create under a single roof for two weeks. Adel observed that the children had no difficulties adjusting to their new playmates–they were even making friends and playing with each other quite happily–but it was the adults who were filled with fear and had difficulties accepting this short-term reality. The children made beautiful music together, Adel shared, while their elder counterparts–parents and other adults running the program–were paralyzed into inaction.

I asked him then what message he wanted to communicate through his music, and he shared a vision of a world where people could communicate, connect, and create without fear, where people could embrace their identities and share this with the world without fear of hostility and suppression.

It’s been two years since that interview, and I find myself wondering whether the children that Adel Salameh and his colleagues had brought together once would someday recognize each other on the Israeli-Palestinian border and call out to each other as brothers and friends, as they once had.

* * *

It’s stories like Adel’s that are worth the “labor pains” of writing, worth the pittance that we writers get paid for all the hard work of running after an interview, asking the right questions, faithfully transcribing the answers, and–brick by grammatically correct brick–building a story that can stand up proudly in terms of both structure and form. No one picked up my story on Adel Salameh, but I wrote it anyway (in two parts) and put it up on a blog because it was a story that HAD to be written and shared.

In essence, I write not necessarily because I care about what readers or editors want to read–although that counts a lot, too. I write because there are so many questions that need answers, and we owe it to ourselves as human beings to at least ask, explore, and discover.

I am obviously an idealist-optimist-hopeless romantic. Where others see war, destruction, and pain, I see the triumph of the human spirit. Where others see loss, I see opportunity. Where others see mud, I see the ground that can be built upon. I often see the world not as it is, but as how it should be, and it gives me hope that the world CAN be a better place.

Can writing stories EVER help teach people not to hate? I don’t know. I have to admit that I haven’t tried hard enough. But if I could uncover and write one good, hopeful story a day, it would be enough to keep me writing for the rest of my life. Hatred is such a strong and powerful word–an emotion and an experience strong enough to break down a fortress–but the search for humanity’s common thread is far stronger. It goes back as far as the beginning of time, to the advent of mankind’s search for meaning and truth. Imagine what we could achieve with our words if only we gave ourselves the chance.

The stories in themselves are nothing if not for the elaborate process of excavating meaning and sharing them with the rest of the world. Imagine how the world would be if we could break stereotypes, crush prejudices, eliminate biases. Imagine if we could tell stories that would help us look into the eyes of our adversaries and see the same thread of humanness that we see in our own selves… Maybe, just maybe, we would have moved one step closer to stopping hate.