PinoyArtista is the pseudonym of Jose Gamboa. A Filipino visual artist based in Barcelona, he is the creator of BioComs, where you can be the hero in your very own comic. For inquiries: pinoyartista(at)gmail(dot)com
It is with the appropriate amount of pleasure that I announce my first exhibition in Barcelona.
Spanning eighteen months and four countries, “What Am I Doing Here” is a retrospective of the works created over the past eighteen months since I arrived in Europe. It will include drawings, paintings, photographs, and screen and letterpress prints created in Barcelona, Amsterdam, Paris, Venice, and Las Palmas.
The exhibition will be on the 15th of April, at l’Atelier, a small but cozy bakeshop in Carrer del Joncar 29, Poble Nou, at 19.00h.
Tengo el placer de invitarte a mi primera exposición en Barcelona.
“¿Por Qué Estoy Aquí?” es la primera exposición individual de José Gamboa en España. Una retrospectiva que abarca dieciocho meses y cuatro países, que incluye ilustraciones, impresiones de pantalla y tipografía, pinturas y fotografías.
Six days away, there is still a lot that needs to be done. And unlike other exhibitions I’ve organised before, this is my first solo show–literally: I have had to everything, from booking the venue, conceptualisation, curation, funding, promotion, framing, mounting, and more.
I was seated in the backseat of an Opel Corsa; in the driver’s seat was Miguel S, 32, and on shotgun was his girlfriend, both of whom I’d met for the first time that morning. We were driving on the highway heading to Girona, about an hour and a half from Barcelona.
Why was I traveling in a stranger’s car you might ask? The answer was simple: I’m cheap.
I had hitchhiked once before, in Bacnotan, Ilocos Norte, Philippines, several years ago. I wasn’t alone though, and this was out of sheer necessity. Long story short, a mate and I had taken a siesta while our friends were in the water surfing. We didn’t notice them leaving, and they had assumed we had ridden in one of the other vehicles back to our lodgings in Urbiztondo, about forty minutes away by car. We woke up, and realising that we had been abandoned, walked out to the main road in our board shorts with not even the equivalent of €1 between us, to thumb a ride. My mate was awfully relaxed about the whole thing–I had a feeling he had done this before. Fortunately, the first car we hailed picked us up. It was a high school teacher in an owner jeep. He wasn’t going in our direction completely, so we had to take another ride, this time by public transport. Jeepneys do not have any dress code, and since this attire is fairly commonplace in rural areas in the tropics, two shirtless guys in nothing but board shorts and flip flops did not raise too many eyebrows. Although we did elicit some giggles from some schoolchildren. The driver seemed to understand our situation and did not ask us to pay the full fare. Upon arriving at our lodgings, our friends were quite amused by the entire affair, and I was less than amused that they didn’t even consider returning for us once they’d realised we’d been left behind.
Whereas being half naked in a stranger’s jeep and in a Public Utility Jeepney with a friend a few years ago was a matter of necessity, now I was by myself in a stranger’s car for less-than-unavoidable reasons: I was using the car-sharing platform Blablacar for the first time in order to get to Salt, Girona from Barcelona to see The Coup, a hip hop group from Oakland, California, as part of Girona’s annual Black Music Festival.
I had heard about Blablacar from a schoolmate who had used it to get to Madrid, and she had vouched for it, saying that it was quite secure. Blablacar works by connecting people who have cars with those who don’t, with the car owners covering their petrol by charging the riders less than it would cost if they took a bus or train. The website requires you to create a profile, and there is a feedback system which keeps the members accountable.
The Coup were playing from 2200 up to 0200, so I had booked a ride back to Barcelona the next day, at around 1630, this time with Arturo B, 44 years old, Renault Espace. Both rides cost a total of €14. But I still had to sort out where I would spend the wee hours of dawn after the concert. And whereas Blablacar costs something to get somewhere, to stay somewhere there is another online platform called Couchsurfing which is absolutely free.
I had been a member of the Couchsurfing community since 2010, but had never had the opportunity to participate. The way Couchsurfing works is, you offer a couch (or bed) in your home to travelers for a night or more, and they in turn are expected to pay it forward, hosting people in their hometown. The community had modest beginnings as a non-profit, but had grown massively, and was eventually bought and turned into a for-profit enterprise, much to the dismay of many veteran couchsurfers.
Spending one night in Girona seemed like the ideal opportunity to give Couchsurfing a try. I was able to find a host fairly easily (Guillem, 22, 9 positive, 1 negative reference), but the day before he said he couldn’t host me without giving any particular reason. I tried finding other hosts, but since it was at the last minute, I didn’t get any confirmations. As I had already booked the rides on Blablacar and paid for the concert tickets as well–and the Coup was one of my favourite hip hop groups–I opted to go the way of the ballsy and the brainless: I decided wing it.
So an hour and half later, after bidding Miguel and his girlfriend adieu, I stood in the middle of what appeared to be a shopping complex in Salt, Girona. No worries, I had a tablet and all I needed to do was find a wifi hotspot so I could get to the venue. I hung around a bowling alley for a bit since they had free wifi and window shopped since the concert was still three hours away. The map showed that the venue, La Mirona, was only 15 minutes by foot and upon consulting with some locals, apprehended that Girona was around 45 minutes by foot, since public transport wouldn’t be available after the concert. No problem. A 45-minute walk was a piece of cake to me.
At 0100 the Coup took the stage.
An amazing set. During the after party, Boots Riley and the rest of the band hung out with the audience. The Spanish women were all over them of course, and after managing to snap a few photos, I drifted to the bar.
At 0400 I exited La Mirona. It was dark, and the temperature was around 12°C and I started to walk. I was crossing a bridge when I heard voices behind me. A cursory glance showed two men, and as they drew nearer, they became two black men speaking English. American English. California English. It was the guitarists of the Coup. They were a bit disoriented and were looking for their hotel. We walked together, chatting and smoking, and I felt like I wanted to tell them I had no place to stay that night, and could I crash at their hotel? But my Asian etiquette would not let me.
We parted ways and I continued to walk.
At around 0500 it was getting colder. I had taken a few wrong turns, and I was starting to run out of energy. My plan was to get to Girona and find a hostel or something, since I’d been there before and it was more accustomed to tourists than Salt. But by 0530 I couldn’t keep on.
What would have been my first Couchsurfing experience turned out to be my first homelessness experience. I think someone came in at one point to use the machine, and the bright fluorescent lights kept me from getting any quality shuteye, so less than an hour later I was back on the road.
It was getting light, but colder than ever. I saw a door to an apartment building ajar, so I went in and napped on the steps for a bit just to keep warm.
Two hours after I had left Salt I sat in a cafe sipping tea. It was the best tea I had ever tasted.
The rest of the day I strolled around Girona, sketched, listened to some blues music in the plaza, had lunch, met with Arturo, 44, at 1630, picked up two other riders, and slept like a dead man until we reached Barcelona.
…all of which–with the exception of La Fabrica del Sol which was under renovation–I would recommend if you are traveling to Barcelona.
Moreover, I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled to six cities (Sant Pol del Mar, Sitges, La Palma, Andorra, La Molina, Girona), strolled through four parks (Parc Guell, Parc Citudella, Parc Pedralbes, Parc de Montjuic), attended four musical performances, one stand up comedy show, one stage performance, three lectures related to cultural management, visited one printing press, shifted out of the Master’s Degree to the Postgraduate Diploma in Arts & Cultural Management (a story for another post), signed up for two dance classes which I did not go to, worked three part-time jobs, moved flats once, met loads of people from all over the world, and have learned quite a bit about European culture and this wonderful city called Barcelona.
All these novel experiences are just the beginning and have of course, irrevocably changed me. My philosophy is that novel experiences are by default, positive. So whenever I have to make a decision, I usually try to go for the one that has some degree of uncertainty, but always, always, I choose to act, as opposed to inaction. In this way, the change is encouraged, if not welcomed, and sometimes, the change can happen on my terms, as opposed to the common condition where change is seen as an unavoidable imposition.
Moving to the Spanish Apartment, as well as the new flat (which I have dubbed Rockafort–as that is more or less the name of the street) was surprisingly simple, although the circumstances around it were anything but.
When I was moving to Barcelona, I sent an email to everyone in the university’s Master’s program, asking if anyone was looking to share a flat. I got a few responses, and the result was that I had a place to stay–paid for in advance–even before I had set foot in Barcelona.
The rent of the flat was divided by everyone, and a month later, the occupants had risen from four to five, reducing our individual shares. However, this would only be until April, by which time the rent would go back up again. This, including the fact that one flatmate–who shall remain anonymous–and I were basically getting on like a house drenched in ice-cold water, made me decide it was time to make a change.
So I began asking around, and it so happened that Lena, one of my classmates, had just moved into a flat with a room available. Upon visiting the flat and meeting the other occupants, I decided that I could live here. I contacted the landlord, made the reservation and started moving my things that same day. Being the cheapskate that I am, I tried to move everything on foot: a twenty-minute walk at night in the winter. Only in Barcelona can someone get away with this.
I had to find someone to take my old room, however, as we had agreed prior to my moving in that should I leave before the end of the contract, then I had to find a replacement. Equally important was finding a good person to move in, someone who wouldn’t flip out or make the others feel unsafe (as I mentioned, there are no locks on any of the doors in the flat—not even the bathrooms).
Surprisingly, this again proved to be easier than I expected. Minutes after posting a notice of the room in various fb groups for Erasmus students and others related to housing in Barcelona, I already had several offers and had scheduled visits that same afternoon. In the end, I decided on a French Erasmus student taking up a Masters in Economics at the University of Barcelona. Three days later I had handed her the keys to the flat and had already spent one night at Rockafort.
The change of flat included having new flatmates: three Spanish guys–Adria, Alvaro, and Ricardo, Anna, a Korean, Lena from Hamburg whom I go to school with, and a wonderful pug named Fiji, who is clearly everyone’s favourite occupant.
Other changes include a considerably smaller and colder flat, room, kitchen, bath and toilet to share, less amenities (no lift or dishwasher), slower wifi, and hot water that disappeared while you were showering when any other faucet was switched on. On the brighter side, cheaper rent and cool flatmates all of whom—with the exception of Fiji–are professionals who preferred to speak Spanish, giving me the chance to practice my castellan.
Below is Adria, who isn’t in the above photo because he works crazy hours:
I will be writing a bit more about my new flatmates in a future post, but basically, a lot has changed over the last 120 or so days, and unavoidably, I have changed with my circumstances. The frequency and intensity of these shifts, being compressed in a small amount of time has also accelerated my growth as a person. Having only a few people to call upon in an emergency–all of whom I’ve known less than half a year–taught me to be truly independent and self reliant. Also, it taught me to do something I have not done before: How to develop close friendships in a short amount of time. It means I have become better–not the best, obviously–at relating with others, an invaluable life skill regardless of who you are and where you’re from.
For this alone, all other benefits of studying and working abroad notwithstanding, makes the entire experience of putting oneself out of one’s comfort zone absolutely worth the price of admission.
Like falling in love with another person, it is intoxicating, you want to breath them in, you can’t bear to be apart, and then you can’t help but start to imagine what it would be like to live together, to plant roots and grow old together.
That can be part of the reason why travel is so gratifying. Each time you step foot in a place you’ve never been before, the possibility is there.
But there is a distinction between Love and its often-confused doppelgänger, Infatuation.
Infatuation is a volcanic eruption: loud, intense, all-consuming. It can feel like the real thing, and sometimes, it could be.
Love, on the other hand, is a garden. It takes time, a lot of effort, quiet, and without fanfare, it blooms, and an entire field that once had nothing but dirt, is filled with life and beauty.
During some of my travels, certain places have aroused this feeling in me; places that have taken my breath away, places that feel like home.
My earliest memory of such a place would probably be Baguio, a city in the mountains in the north of the Philippines. I had spent almost every summer there as a child, and bathed in its cool air that smelt of pine. I rode horses, learned to bike and roller-skate (had quite a few injuries), and met a lot of interesting people. Unfortunately, rampant and uncontrolled development has destroyed the Baguio I once knew, and living there no longer appeals to me as it once did.
Another place I felt at home in was in Basco, Batanes, the northernmost island of the Philippines.
Closer to Taiwan than the rest of the Philippines, Batanes looks completely different from the rest of the archipelago.
Then there is Baler, Aurora, a city on the Pacific coast, six hours from Manila. Over the course of well over thirty trips, I grew to love surfing, the people, and the place.
When I went to Bali, Indonesia in 2013, the perfect waves, friendly people, and cheap yet delicious food made me feel that I needed to–if not relocate–return here at least once a year.
And then in January 2015 I experienced La Palma.
All the places that have captured my heart have similar characteristics in that they have a lot of nature, are close to the ocean, the people living there are warm and hospitable, and economically are quite undeveloped, and certainly none are likely to be listed in the GOOD cities index anytime soon.
It could have something to do with my having grown up in notoriously congested and polluted Manila.
Like Thoreau, I longed to escape the concrete jungle, and time and again, had considered packing up and living on some seaside town where the pace was easy, and life was as it should be: Enjoyed everyday.
But La Palma was on a whole another level. Its natural beauty was stunning, with its sunsets, mountains, flora, seaside, and climate being optimal for human existence.
Compared to Barcelona, the Spanish people I met here were so relaxed, friendly, and their features were likewise very different. Also, I was surprised at how many Germans were on the island. Hiking, apparently, is something Germans (and other Scandinavians) are totally crazy about. I met that rare breed–retired hippie Germans–who have made la Isla Bonita their home.
Even if hiking isn’t your thing–although if you are walking through trails like these–how could you not be, La Palma offers so many opportunities for cyclists, climbers, downhill bikers and long boarders, para and hang gliders, sailors, surfers, and so on.
The island was formed and reformed by volcanic activity, and the most recent eruption was less forty years ago, and its raw beauty made me imagine that this is what the earth must have looked like when it was very young.
Although I have never been there, I imagine that this is what Hawaii–one of my dream destinations–looks like.
Although Hawaii has much better waves, I was pleasantly surprised to see beautiful right handers and A-frames at Los Guirres, one of the surf breaks on La Palma and the one of the stops for the Gran Canaria surf circuit.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to paddle out because I didn’t have any gear and wasn’t able to find the board and wetsuit rental. Instead, I was able to watch a bit of the surf, bodyboard and drop knee competition that just happened to take place that weekend.
At the competition I saw the most number of people I had ever seen in one place on the island. La Palma doesn’t have its own university and its industry mainly revolves around bananas and salt, which are its main exports. As a result, young people leave to study and find work, leaving an ageing population and not much economic activity.
But this is what draws me to this place even more. Bali and Baler have started to become crowded as tourism has developed the area. In La Palma, with a population of less than 18,000, you can go to many places and not encounter another human being.
Before I came, I considered hiking to be a boring past time, devoid of any thrill or challenge. I’ve gone mountain climbing, cross-country skiing, and caving, and all the hikes I’ve been on had been unenjoyable. But La Palma showed me that I had not experienced extreme hiking. Every year, hikers die and sometimes disappear in these mountains. Towards the end of my stay we went on hikes that lasted for five hours, that rose and descended a thousand meters, and where nothing, not even the wind, could be heard.
Of course, it could simply be the people that have drawn me to this place. As I wrote in Terminal Illness, I went to La Palma to visit my aunt whom I had not seen in over twenty five years. She and my cousin made my stay absolutely wonderful, especially since it was such an ordeal to get there, and I will forever be grateful for their hospitality. My aunt rises up with the sun, which peeks over the mountain at around 9, she makes an impressive cup of tea, then goes to work in the garden. She has a macadamia tree. She and her husband are still gradually moving books and things over from Germany, and the house still needs constant work. Occasionally, she visits with other residents of the island (her neighbour, another German, spends seven days a week tending to his garden–which is beautiful) or drives into town to do shopping.
My aunt had only moved to La Palma less than two years ago, before this she had devoted her life to running a bookshop which she owned for fifteen years, then sold when on their third trip to the island, her husband said, ‘Sell the bookshop, let’s get a place here.’ Just like that.
It sounds so simple, although of course, it never is. But at its core, life and love are simple.
It is for all these reasons that La Palma has captured my heart.
So we shall meet again someday, La Isla Bonita.
During these seven days, the island also captured my imagination:
If you would like to read more about everyday life on La Isla Bonita, here is the most popular blog on La Palma (in German).
In terms of experience level, I would classify myself as a class 3 traveler (5 being the highest). I’ve been to three continents (Asia, Europe, Australia), have flown on flights lasting 22 hours, have traveled extensively around the Philippines, and when I have the means, I try to visit at least one new country every year. Despite having been granted a ten-year US visa thrice, but I have never taken advantage of it, and have never traveled above Economy class.
So I wouldn’t consider myself inexperienced when it comes to air travel. As a class 3 traveler I have had my share of mishaps. Compounded with my penchant for disregarding rules and regulations, I have had quite a few ‘incidents’ in airports.
But in this particular case, it could have just been sheer bad luck.
As I mentioned in Part One, I was bound for a flight to La Palma from Barcelona at 0900. After some setbacks, I had made it to the airport at around 0800, and was headed for the security check.
Like any experienced air traveler, I had checked in online prior to my flight, but–and here’s where the inner misfit in me reared its all too familiar head–didn’t print a boarding pass. Besides the fact that I didn’t have a printer, I figured, Hey, this is Barcelona, a developed country, not the Philippines, and nobody brings a printed boarding pass in the age of online check-ins and QR codes. For good measure, I sent the boarding pass to my cellphone and had the confirmation email of my online booking on my tablet.
While queuing up for the security check, there was a scanner for the boarding pass. I showed the airport personnel the ‘boarding pass’ link I’d received by SMS, but then I realised I needed the bar code for the machine. Now here’s my phone:
Cursing under my breath, I spent around 10 minutes trying to pull up the boarding pass on my iPad using the 30-minute free airport wifi. For some reason the site and link wouldn’t work so I gave up and went to the Vueling check-in counter (another five or so minutes in the queue) where I was told by the desk agent that I needed to try the last-minute check-in desk (had I known such a desk existed I would have gone there immediately) at the end of the bank of counters.
Now I was starting to panic. My heart racing, I dashed to the last-minute desk. There a lady was calling the name of some tardy passenger, indicating that I had to wait. When she could attend to me, I told her my flight details. “You are too late,” she declared matter-of-factly. I could only imagine the expression on my face. “The gates close in three minutes,” she stated flatly, and despite my begging and assuring her of my running speed, she said it was impossible for me to make it. Perhaps if I had come ten minutes ago (while I was copying the boarding pass link from my phone to the browser on my iPad), it would still have been possible, but since this was not the case she suggested I check the Vueling ticketing office for a flight change.
With a terrible knot in my stomach, I sprinted to the Vueling ticketing desk (which of course had to be all the way at the end of the hall) where I pleaded with them to help me. The first person I spoke to simply looked at his computer and said the worst words I have ever heard.
Besides ‘You’re going to live. Kinda,’ ‘I’m sorry, but your application has been denied,’ and ‘It’s not working,’ this is the worst sentence one could ever hear:
‘Your plane has already left.’
That’s when the sheer hopelessness of my situation struck me.
Until that point in my life, I had never heard such a sound escape from my lips. The groan of despair was punctuated by the thud of my forehead as I leaned it against the cold glass of the window of the ticketing office. I felt utterly horrible. I had been looking forward to this trip for the past weeks, the ticket had already been paid for of course, and my aunt Susan, whom I hadn’t seen in over twenty-five years, was expecting me.
Disheartened, I tried to call her to tell her the bad news. The call wouldn’t go through so I sent her a message asking her to call me, and that it was an emergency.
I went back to the Vueling ticketing office, deciding to ask another ticketing agent who might possibly be more resourceful. I spoke to a Jordi who said that there were no more flights for the rest of the week to La Palma, but that there was the option of taking a flight to Tenerife instead, then taking a connecting flight or a ferry to La Palma. The change would cost an additional €129, and I had to make the booking by 1005 and he couldn’t tell me how much the connection or ferry would cost.
That was it. Game over. No way was I going to spend that amount over the original flight. I crumpled to the floor in the corner of the terminal and sent out an email to Anja apologizing for fucking up so badly, and tried to breath.
That was that, I thought. I had just wasted a plane ticket–something I’ve never done before–and I was preparing myself to go back to my flat where I would proceed to lock myself up in my room for the rest of the week.
Then my phone rang. It was tita Susan. It was the first time in twenty five years that either one of us had heard each other’s voice. On the verge of breaking down, I explained what had just happened. Calmly, she said she would talk to Anja. A few minutes later, Anja called and I explained that there is an option to go to La Palma through Tenerife, and I heard her mother say that this was quite simple. But I didn’t think I’d have enough money to buy another ticket from Tenerife to La Palma, I said. She told me not to worry about this, that they would book the flight for me.
So I went back to Jordi and bought the 1200 flight to Tenerife arriving at 1420. Anja texted me that I was booked on a Canary Air flight at 1535, I just had to pick up my ticket at their desk, and that Tenerife was a small airport so there was a lot of time to make the connection.
Exhausted but bolstered by the fact that they had not given up on me, I was on my way to Tenerife two hours later.
The fat lady was still not singing though. When we landed two hours later, I checked the time and my heart stopped for the second time that day.
But Anja said it was a small airport, so maybe fifteen minutes was enough time to pick up my ticket, check in, and go through security. I was the first out the door of the plane and into the terminal. Unable to find the Canary Air desk, I asked the airport security with Guardia Civil emblazoned on his uniform. He indicated how to get to the desk, but I still couldn’t find it. It was ten minutes to departure, and I couldn’t believe I could be so stupid as to miss two flights in a single day.
Careening around in a panic–there were no escalators–I wound up back where I started, to the puzzlement of the Guardia Civil. Finally he understood what I was looking for. I explained that it was an emergency, that my flight was leaving in less than ten minutes. “Don’t worry, we are one hour behind Barcelona,” he said (I paraphrase). My heart started to beat normally once again. Mind you, throughout this entire ordeal–which had so far lasted several hours–I was communicating in nothing but Spanish. He led me to through security barriers and I found the Canary Air ticketing desk tucked away in a corner behind a pillar where they were sure to be difficult to find.
The lady confirmed my booking, then handed me a bill to pay for €59. Confused, I said that this was already paid for. She checked her computer and shook her head. After paying for the flight to Tenerife, I had €71 in my wallet, which thankfully covered the fare. So I approached the check-in desk with my boarding pass and €12 to my name. The airport officer then said that they have two bookings under my name. She cancelled one and told me to return to the Canary Air office to get a refund.
At 1535 I was back up in the air, flying over the blue waters in a plane that was probably as old as I was. I noticed that with all my running that day, my left shoe’s sole had started to come off. These were hand-me-down hiking boots, and before leaving Barcelona, I had just had the right sole repaired. Looking around at the old plane, I thought, “Please let this be the last thing to go wrong today.”
And it was. At 1610 I walked through the arrivals gate of La Palma airport, hugged my aunt and cousin, got into the car, and drove through the most beautiful island I had ever seen.
A few days later, I received an email with the subject, ‘Did you like your Vueling experience?’ (translated). In this case, silence was the best response.
Did I learn anything from this ordeal? Two things: First, always print your boarding pass. Second, be thrifty in all things, except when it comes to air travel. This should likewise apply to medical care, but that’s a story for another day.
I have always had problems with authority. When it comes to rules, like in the story of Bre’r Rabbit and the Brair Patch, if you want me to do something, tell me to what it is and I will pathologically do something else, gaining some sort of undefinable satisfaction from refuting imperatives that may be as simple as ‘No Entry’ signs to as practical as ‘Please sit down while you are on the (insert the ride or transport of your choice).’ My point of contention is not the rule itself–this is for the good of the general public–but that it should always apply, when I feel that there is room for exceptions. This knee-jerk rebellion kicks in most especially in ‘controlled’ environments, places where authority is unquestioned and absolute. Places like embassies, restricted areas in offices and hospitals, prisons, military camps (I was detained for 6 hours in 2012 while working as a courtroom sketch artist for an Al Jezeera – English documentary. I will expound further in a future post), and airports.
Airports and I have quite the history together.
2010: Stopped at the security check of NAIA 3 for packing a Swiss Army knife in my carry-on. They told that I would have to get rid of it before I could board the Cebu Pacific flight to Samar, where I was headed for a surf. Not seeing any alternative, I gave it to the airport security officer.
At the departure gate, I thought about how I really liked that Swiss knife–it was a present from my godfather–so I ran back to the security check to ask for it back, gave it to a Cebu Pacific desk agent, saying that I would be back in Manila in a few days, and would she mind keeping it for me? She said yes, we exchanged numbers, and ran the considerable distance back to the gate where boarding was already in progress. Upon returning to Manila, I contacted the Cebu Pacific desk agent, but I think she had grown attached to the Swiss knife and I never saw it or her again.
2012: On a trip to visit my sister in Brisbane, I received this lovely letter from the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service: On the immigration form one is asked if they are bringing in any foodstuffs. I had some granola bars on me, and I assumed the Australian Quarantine & Inspection Service meant produce, meats, fish, and so on, so I indicated ‘No.’ Apparently that was a mistake. During the security check they took me aside and sternly informed me that I had breached Australian Quarantine Law. Fortunately, I simply got a slap on the wrist instead of the fine of $AUD220 or even 10 years’ imprisonment.
2013: While traveling to Hong Kong to visit my friend Dominique, who was living and working there at the time, I was detained for around two hours. I had just landed, and at immigrations the officer took a cursory glance at my passport then beckoned me to follow him. I was led through a door, a starkly-lit hallway, then into a holding area with other travellers, 90% of whom, as far as I could tell, were Filipinos, with some Papua New Guineans and a Taiwanese girl who was traveling as an unaccompanied minor.
I figured that being a 33-year old, single Filipino male, I fit the profile of someone who might want to overstay in HK, something that Filipinos have earned a reputation for doing. In colloquial Tagalog we even have a term for this: TNT, which stands for Tago Nang Tago, translating to ‘Constantly Hiding From the Immigration Authorities.’ Maybe it was because on the immigration card I indicated ‘the Omni Hotel’ as my residence in HK, a hotel I had stayed at with my family over twenty years ago. Why I put that down can only be explained by that innate problem I have with authority.
In broken english, they asked me questions about my profession, how much money I brought, and so on. This was not so bad, considering the other detainees were interrogated in rooms, asked to switch on their computers, and questioned more aggressively than me. When they asked me where I was staying I provided them with Dominique’s address and phone number, and they gave her a call. She had been expecting me to call her hours ago from the train station from the airport–where she would meet me–once I had arrived. She later told me she had fallen asleep waiting, and when her phone, she immediately asked “Where are you?!” upon picking up and was surprised to hear a strange voice on the other line introduce himself as someone with the Hong Kong Immigration Authority.
After two hours or so I was finally free to go. I got on the train (didn’t even buy a ticket), and was greeted by the Dom’s bemused expression as I proceeded to pay the fare at the counter to exit the train station.
2015: For the holidays, I was flying to La Palma in the Canary Islands from Barcelona to visit my aunt Susan whom I hadn’t seen in over twenty-five years, and my cousin Anja.
My flight was at 0900. I was up by 0500 and it was still dark when I walked out to catch the bus which would take me to Plaza España, where another bus would take me to the airport. Simples.
After reaching the first bus stop and waiting and walking from stop to stop for around 10 minutes, I realised that the bus wasn’t coming and that walking to Plaza España would take too long. I hailed a cab, got to the bus station in less than ten minutes, where I saw the next bus waiting. At that point I should have leapt out of the cab like in the movies, telling the driver to keep the change. That would have been the right and cool thing to do. But instead, I waited while he counted out the few cents I had coming, lost the few precious seconds, and missed the bus. But no problem, there was another bus coming. In fact, there was an express bus that went straight to the airport. It was more expensive, but after waiting for the regular bus to arrive, I decided that I’d need to to shell out the €5 to get there in half the time. But then these express buses do not make change for anything larger than €20, and I was only carrying €50’s. The driver shook his head when I asked him to give me a change, so I proceeded to ask the other passengers. No one had any change. I spent fifteen minutes running around like a fool. On the curb was a queue of taxis waiting for passengers. I went from one to the next, but at seven in the morning, no one had any change. In desperation I approached a couple of street sweepers, who looked at me like I was crazy, exclaiming (and I am paraphrasing) “Can’t you see we’re working? We could use 50 euros!” They directed me to the Metro, where I went down but there wasn’t a soul. I tried cafés in the Plaza, where the first said they didn’t have change, the second one was closed. Returned to the first cafe, asked to buy a bottle of water, figuring that they had no choice but to give me change then, but the lady insisted that she really didn’t have any at this hour. I realised that I had no chance of getting on the express bus so I decided to wait until the regular bus arrived.
Around 0745 I was headed for Terminal 1 of Barcelona airport.
People who study abroad are assumed to have been born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouths.
If you go abroad to study art, the silver spoon is assumed to be up your ass.
This assumption is made because studying abroad–especially if you are coming from a developing country–is extremely expensive. So costly in fact, that even citizens from developed countries wishing to pursue higher education would need to borrow money to do so.
In my case, I have never studied art in a school. The only time I ever studied abroad before now was when I was an exchange student in Norwaywhere I won a scholarship under the Youth For Understanding Exchange Program, and was hosted by host families.
Now that I have the luxury of going back to school to take a Masters in Arts and Cultural Management in Barcelona, Spain, it is not difficult to assume that I am one of the idle rich.
It is true that I am quite fortunate to have this opportunity, and that far from starving, I have, until around a year ago, lived rent-free in my father’s home. Living at home until one is well into one’s 30’s (I know some who are in their 40’s) is a fairly common practice in Philippine society–one that I have repeatedly tried to break away from at various points in my life.
But in fact, this schooling is funded entirely through savings that I have accumulated over the years. A significant portion of this is from commissioned art works as well as sale of stock investments. I have long wanted to study animation or art, but the schools I want to go to (the School of Visual Arts or the Vancouver Film School, where I had gained an acceptance) were beyond what I could afford.
The one-year graduate program at the International University of Catalonia on the other hand, was. But just. I have enough to cover the tuition fee, one-way ticket, and visa fees. For the living expenses however, I have enough only for a portion of my study period. Therefore, paid work is of the essence.
For more of a challenge, Spain is currently undergoing a recession. And in an economic downturn, the first to get cut from the budget are culture and the arts. And Barcelona has no shortage of creative, talented folks. You just have to go to any public space or subway, where you will be blown away by the level of talent on display. But there is a reason that the stereotype of the Starving Artist came to be–and persists to this day: Artists, more often than not, do not make money from their art. In fact, the joke is that whenever anyone responds “I am an artist” to the question “So what do you do?”, the follow up is, “And what is your day job?”
So for the past three months, I had to figure out a way to earn some money.
Use the Internet
The Internet is your friend. Use wordpress, twitter, facebook, instagram, and behance, etc, as freely-available platforms to showcase your work.
Specific to Barcelona are sites likeLoquo,Craigslist, where you can see job postings and advertise your services as well, and, if you are able to teach any thing, TusClasesParticulares, which is where the above ad is from. I posted my services as an art and english teacher for kids. So far no takers.
I’ve sought work in another country through freelance sites like oDesk, at the recommendation of friends who’ve been able to earn consistently.
Show Your Work
Artists sometimes have problems blowing their own horn, as in my case. But in order to get people interested, you cannot simply describe your work, you have to show them.
In the above photo, I happened to come across a nice little bookshop which had artwork on display. Upon making some tentative inquiries with the owner (who didn’t speak any English), I learned that they have art exhibitions every month. When I showed her some of my work, she said she would be open to my doing an exhibit in her bookshop sometime next year. We’ll see how that goes. Other great venues to offer to display your work are pubs, restaurants, and offices. It goes without saying that the venue gets a commission if some of your work is sold, but it’s good to get an agreement on paper in this case.
Meet Gerson, a theatre graduate from Baranquilla, Colombia (the hometown of the magnificent SofiaVergara and Shakira). He won a Young Talents Fellowship under ICETEX to take a diploma in Arts & Cultural Management at the International University of Catalonia. He has acted on the stage and on television, and plans to one day have his own TV show.
As a member of Fundación Doctora Clown (Clown Doctors), he dispenses the medicine of laughter to sick children in the hospital.
Unlike the rest of us who are doing the Masters Program, Gerson is taking the non-degree track of the program. He opted to take the course in English in order to improve his communication skills, instead of choosing the Spanish track. He really wanted to study drama or something related to performance art, he said, but he couldn’t find any courses within the fellowship’s budget in Spain. So now he is studying the legal aspects and tools of cultural management instead of acting or dance. It is twice the challenge for him.
So now we are five (at least until April, which is when Gerson finishes his studies).
He is a welcome addition to the flat first because now our individual rent payments go down. It is also good to have another Spanish speaker in the flat aside from Awat, so that we non-Spanish speakers have more opportunities to practice and learn Castellan, something I have not been doing as much as I should. Thirdly (pun intended), it is great to have another person from a developing country with whom I can share common experiences and traditions.
Moreover, another male in the flat is better than being the only thorn among the roses. Being surrounded by females both at school and at home–pleasant though it may seem–can get quite exhausting. Having relatives and friends who are gay, I’m accustomed to interacting with homosexuals, although it is the first time that I will be living with one. Most importantly, however, is that Gerson is a welcome addition to our home because he is a good person with a pleasant sense of humour.
It does not come without its drawbacks of course. Having more people in the flat means less space and as I’ve written about previously, getting along with three people is challenging enough for me as it is.
Regardless of where you are in life, the first day of anything is always a nerve-wracking experience. As I first stepped through the gates of the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya the day after I had arrived in Barcelona, I felt the nervousness that everyone feels on that first day of school. Add to the fact that I had yet to unpack, was still adjusting to the six-hour time difference, and had spent my first night sleeping on a piece of cardboard.
It helped that I was with my three flatmateswho were my schoolmates as well. At least I could get to the university without getting lost. They all had 3G on their phones so could easily use Google Maps or City Mapper (I highly recommend this app) to easily get from point A to point B without getting hopelessly lost, as I frequently do.
After officially enrolling, the other students and I were greeted by Dr. Consuela Dobrescu, the academic coordinator of the program. Each of us was handed a folder containing a planner, highlighters, a folder, a pencil, and a calendar from the university. She then toured us around the campus which was composed of two buildings, one with five floors and another with six. UIC was so much smaller in area than the universities back home. It was not tiny by any standards, and in addition to my course, a Masters in Arts and Cultural Management, they also have graduate and doctorate courses in Business, Education, Architecture, Humanities, and more. Another stark difference is how few personnel they require. There are perhaps two people in charge of security, a few more for custodial and food services, and the rest are academic and administrative staff. At the DLS-CSB School of Design & Arts where I taught illustration, the building is thirteen stories and they employ a small army of security guards, custodial personnel, drivers, and non-teaching staff. Of course, they have over 4,000 students, but in the Philippines, labor is cheap.
School was never a place for learning for me, I feel. I had spent nearly 50% of my life to date in educational institutions, with four years resulting in a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies (a course especially designed for those who do not know what they want to do when they grow up—which is an accurate description for who I was in college and even after), and a year in the University of the Philippines taking up the Certificate for Professional Educators Program in order to teach.
But here I am now, paying a significant amount of money out of my own pocket, traveling more than halfway across the world to sit in a classroom and to listen to lectures. At thirty-five, I am the oldest in my class and two years older than the academic director of my program. My brain stopped creating new connections over ten years ago, and millions of my neurons have ceased to fire by now, so my ability to acquire new knowledge isn’t all it used to be.
So why am I going back to school? And why all the way in Spain?
Several years ago, my French friend Dominique lent me a film L’Auberge Espagnole (in English, The Spanish Apartment). It is about six Erasmus students who share an apartment in Barcelona.
Today, I find myself living in an flat, in Barcelona, together with three other students from different parts of the world. Uncanny how life imitates art.
I believe that commercial air travel is one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. Thanks to it, there is nowhere in the world that one cannot be in in less than 22 hours. The world has seemingly shrunk, and one can meet up with friends in London, do business in China, and order shoes from the US (again via China).
As I walked into the Swedish furniture complex in Barcelona after having ridden over in a German automobile with a Spaniard at the wheel, a Russian, two Germans, and a Norwegian, I felt the full impact of the much-bandied about word globalisation.
Meet my flatmates (click the image):
All three women are incredibly well-traveled and very independent. Coming from the Philippines where we rarely have the opportunity to be alone, not to mention to travel solo, and where women still play traditional roles, they are all quite exceptional. Although I am accustomed to being the only thorn among the roses–I was the only male teacher when I worked in Mindanao, and the only male reading teacher when I worked in a clinic for children with learning difficulties–this is an entirely new experience, given the variety of backgrounds, cultures, and personalities.
It will be interesting to see how things develop in the next few months. I am certain there will be challenges. For one, I am an introvert who is used to living alone, so there will have to be some adjustment on my part.
Also, coming from a developing country, I will also be faced with a lifestyle that I consider–simply because I come from the Philippines–to be well above my means. As fortunate as we are to have found a beautiful, spacious flat in the suburbs of Les Corts in Barcelona, furnished with appliances, cutlery, dishes, brand-new IKEA furniture, I would still need to be able to find work to support myself while I am here.
The IKEA furniture-shopping expedition culminated with a meal in the cafeteria. Whereas my flatmates bought curtains, frames, carpets, bookends, lamps, and other embellishments with which to beautify their rooms, I had bought a trash bin.