I was not a university student, not a fresh graduate, not a new employee trying to find her footing in the professional world. I could say that I was an accomplished manager with over 7 years of experience, having climbed the ranks in an independent publishing company that was later bought by one of the largest media conglomerates in the country. I could say that I had a solid career path, a powerful paycheck, and an enviable position. I could also say that I was in desperate need of a break!
I was at a point in my life when I was reevaluating my priorities, weighing my options, and figuring out my next move. While I lived and breathed publishing, I could not ignore the call of my other interests – travel, volunteering, and continuing education. For months, I was mapping out the possibilities in my head: take half a year off and travel the world; volunteer through VSO Bahaginan or GeoVisions; take up an MA in Development Studies; or stay put – keep on doing my job, which I was good at, and just continue enjoying the lifestyle that I’d grown accustomed to.
Then a friend of mine, a fellow traveler, invited me to her send-off party – she was going to Brazil on an internship through AIESEC. I knew right then and there that I had to do the Exchange, and that it was going to be my version of a mini-career break.
Career break, gap, sabbatical – call it however you want to – it’s when an individual takes time off from his profession to pursue alternative activities for personal development. I have always been an advocate of travel with a purpose, and the opportunity to participate in a Development Traineeship program in my country of choice could not have come at a better time.
So, mid-January, I find myself on a plane to Turkey, and hours later, smack in the living room of a traditional Turkish family, with Mom and Dad speaking zero English but offering the warmest hugs. I was sure then that I was in for an extraordinary ride.
Over the next few days, I settled in Bemar Kariyer (http://www.bemarkariyer.net/html/index.php), the open education school I was assigned to. I found the place buzzing with the unmistakable energy of over a dozen interns from all over the world, ready to work, to build friendships, to learn, to travel, to share their stories and their lives. Our weeks were filled with teaching English to 11-year old kids, holding conversation clubs with university students and professionals, conducting language level tests, visiting high schools to hold cultural presentations, attending Turkish classes, and a lot of talking, laughing and playing. We used the weekends to travel around the country — from the mosques of Istanbul to a ski resort in Bursa, the ruins of Ephesus and Hierapolis, the underground caves of Cappadocia, to the wondrous Pamukkale.
In Bemar in Denizli (a small and lazy city in Central Turkey, where there are 2 shopping malls, approximately 13 bars, and which I now fondly call my second home), I met a plethora of personalities from different countries, of various ages and circumstances; and here I formed friendships that will last a lifetime.
All too soon, the 7 weeks were up, and before I could even fully process the fact that I was in Turkey, I needed to pack my bags and say goodbye. As I watched my host brother and sister throw kisses to the shuttle bus pulling away, I realized that while my career break didn’t give me a clear cut answer to my “Now what?” question (in fact, it opened up more options, further confusing me for a time), it helped me figure out what really makes me happy, what gives me a lasting sense of fulfillment, and it gave me a glimpse of how life can be if I continue to be courageous enough to strive for what I truly want. That, my friends, is absolutely priceless.
My top 10 peak moments (in random):
- Riding a hot air balloon and hiking the Rose Valley in Cappadocia.
- Being sang “Happy Birthday” to in 7 different languages.
- Hanging out in Burger King (of all places!) for 7 hours with two other interns (now dear friends), talking about life, love, revolutions, the past, and the future.
- Walking from my home to Bemar one morning and realizing that I was completely content and happy.
- Cooking my very first Adobo (ever) for my host family.
- Proudly announcing during my cultural presentation (a few days after Mubarak stepped down) that the first peaceful People Power in the world was instigated by Filipinos.
- Couchsurfing in Istanbul and staying up all night, talking.
- Having my first tricky yet stimulating Christian-Muslim discussion with my host (with Google Translate helping along the way), with everybody around the table agreeing simultaneously, in different languages, that wars are always caused by some form of inequality – political, social, economical – and religion is only used as an excuse. We all hugged one another after.
- Tchu-tchu (a Brazilian tradition) outside Jazz Rock.
- Meeting my kids for the first time, then seeing them for the last.
My top 5 tips for would-be interns:
- Learn how to say “Thank you!,” “Help!,” and “How much?” in your destination’s language before flying in. Then try to speak as much of it during your stay.
- Ask for work. If you find yourself sitting in a room waiting to be told what to do, chances are, you’ll be sitting there for a long time.
- Ride through the discomfort. Not everything will always pan out as planned – you may encounter problems with your host family, your company, or the local AIESEC – but if you voice out your concerns and stick it out, you will eventually appreciate it as part of the experience.
- Dig into the local cuisine. You can literally eat your way into a culture.
- Ask questions and talk to people. It is said that it’s always better to seem stupid for a second than to be a fool for a lifetime. You are here to learn, so go ahead and learn. Talk to everyone – each person you meet will enrich your experience.