My first job out of college

The first job holds a special place in every professional’s career.

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My ego took a blow right after finishing my undergrad back in 2004. I graduated at the top of my class at a top university and expected employers to come racing and tearing down my door with a contract, as if I were a first draft pick star athlete waiting for my multi-million dollar offer. But all I got after two months was a job I hustled to get via email, which I quit after working for two weeks without a contract. My boss was a lawyer by the way. I sent scores of job applications, worked my contacts, and got a couple of job interviews to various organizations: government agencies, NGOs, and an urban planning firm. The only thing they had in common were the rejections and unreturned email inquiries.

Six months later I managed to get a research assistant job for a UNDP-funded sustainable agriculture project, “Enhancing Capacities on Sustainable Agriculture for Poverty Reduction”. I got wind of the job posting from my university organization’s e-group, sent by an alumna who also happened to work for the NGO hosting the project. I was invited for an interview, and reported to work a week or two later.

My commute was more than an hour going to work in Quezon City north of Metro Manila (we lived in the south), which included taking a tricycle (like a tuk-tuk), bus, jeep, train, jeep, and another tricycle. Our office was located in the NGO hub of the country close to the University of the Philippines, not too far from what’s now a popular foodie destination. It took a half-hour longer to travel back home. It was also hotter and sweatier. But those didn’t matter. At last I was a productive part of society; I was employed.

As my title suggested, I was responsible for doing research on the sustainable agriculture in the Philippines. Our project helped train farmers to produce their own organic fertilizers, and eventually assist them shift to sustainable agriculture and link them to the national and even international market. It was challenging work not only because of the complexity of the sector, but more so as it was my first job and specialized in environmental planning, and not agriculture. It turned out to be the first of my many future jobs working on agriculture and agriculturists, from policy, markets, and later on directly with farmers.

When not doing online research, I tagged along with our project manager to attend meetings outside the office. We met with other NGOs to identify any common areas we can jointly work on, or complement each other’s activities. There were also the occasional donors’ meetings to report on progress and issues of our project, and writing news articles for our newsletter.

Perhaps the highlight of my stint with the NGO was flying down south, in Cotabato, where we organized a three-day training for farmers to help them shift to biodynamic farming. I remember eating a lean but just-as-good bacon, and visiting the demo-site where it came from- a pig pen that, believe it or not, doesn’t stink. On our last day I joined some farmers for a hike and took a dip at a hot spring.

I never got to see the end of the project, but surprisingly I found a publication about it online. I handed in my resignation letter after three months to work for the government. It was a short three-month gig. But it was my first job where I received my first salary. It was an exciting first taste of the real world, just like with life’s many firsts.

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This is the first of a series of blog posts where I will write about my previous jobs. If you have other suggestions, let me know in the comments section! Don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter

Update: This blog post was featured in the online publication The Ascent.

Road trip: How I deal with SLEx on a bus

After moving back to Metro Manila, and to shield myself from the stress-inducing snarling traffic, I’ve pretty much given up on mass transit. I’ve setup a routine, and by way of extension, a life, where I try to avoid all modes of wheeled transportation- even a car- if I can help it.

My daily commute is a seven-minute walk, door-to-desk. For those times I have to go somewhere farther- home in Las Piñas or an aunt’s house in Manila (the city) on weekends- I rely on Uber. Without a driver’s license, a car, and the skills to drive one, it’s the only way to get around in the metro. Taxis, with all the haggling, crime, and grime involved, are now a far, second option. This of course limits my mobility. Save for a jaunt to Singapore in January and to my mother’s hometown in Sorsogon over Christmas, the farthest trip I managed last year was to Los Baños in Laguna, just 68 kilometers south of Manila.

Just recently, I renewed extra-curricular ties to my university, which means making more frequent visits to Los Baños this year. I’m exploring to volunteer in an elderly care program, and have been recently elected as an officer for the college-affiliated professional organization that I helped establish.

More than a decade after graduating from university, I still make that trip south every now and then, just to take a breather from the city. I arrange ‘official’ excuses to go back. I attend alumni meetings in my college, a fiesta farther south in San Pablo City, or do a day trip to Nagcarlan and Pandin. Facebook check-ins garner likes from university friends and other fellow alumni. For sure they would click the ‘envious’ emoji if there was one.

It’s easy to travel to Los Baños. Hop on a bus going to Sta. Cruz, Laguna along EDSA, Buendia, or Alabang and about two hours or so later, voila, you’re in Los Baños. If I’m lucky, I’m able to hitch a ride with a friend who would go home on weekends. Going back from a meeting, for sure a fellow alumnus is driving somewhere to Manila. Otherwise, I don’t have any qualms (and choice) taking the bus.

As a university student, I would travel home on Saturday afternoons after our military training, and be back on Sunday evening or early Monday morning in time for my first class. It was a weekly ritual, a route I know all too well, now hardwired in my body’s internal GPS.

The bus provides few forms of entertainment enough to kill the half-hour stretch of the South Luzon Expressway (SLEx). Most air-conditioned buses have a TV (and recently WiFi), which is good and bad. Good because there’s something to alleviate the humdrum of the trip. Bad, because I never got to start or finish whatever is playing. Most of the time, a movie is already playing when one gets on the bus. Sometimes I partly get lucky when the bus conductor starts playing the movie as soon as the bus hits the expressway, only for me to get off an hour later as the movie is about to reach climax. This was right before the time of the iPods and Spotify, when on-demand music meant burning your favorite playlist on a CD.

I recently visited a college friend in San Pablo, further south of Los Baños, who has turned into a regular weekend bus commuter when he started working in Manila full-time. He said you meet all sorts of people on a bus. I encountered one of them that morning.

A time-tested way to while away the time is to sleep, if you have the tenacity to do so. I had planned on sleeping on the bus after a rough night. I could get at least a good hour of shuteye from the two-hour bus ride once I have paid my fare, or so I thought. The lady seating on the opposite side was holding a talkfest. She was already deep into her conversation with her companion as I got on the bus along EDSA in Ortigas. She talked non-stop all the way to Calamba, where she and her companion finally got off. She talked so much that I barely remember hearing the voice of the guy she was with. When they got off the bus, a guy moved to their vacated seats. This time, he was singing along in a deep monotone to Whitney Houston’s ‘The Greatest Love All’ as he looked out the window. Sleeping on a bus is not easy to achieve, and that morning it wasn’t happening to me. I started singing along.

Upon leaving Metro Manila, Calamba is the first city that greets motorists at the southern tip of the expressway. It’s the last exit of the SLEx, the gateway to Laguna’s more rustic parts and all things calm and green, past the urban sprawl that has engulfed parts of the province closer to Manila. It signals ‘one more hour before arrival’ to my ultimate destination. The Calamba-Los Baños stretch used to be shorter. The volume of vehicles has unfortunately given way to predictable choke points in Calamba Crossing and the junction going into the UP Los Baños campus. A third one exists in summer, in Pansol, where Manileños troop to swimming pool resorts to cool down.

For someone who has visited six out of the seven continents, I can’t say I’ve always been, or already am, a good traveler. I feel anxious at the thought of air travel. As a child, I would feel nauseous after seating for a while in a moving vehicle. My mother made sure she had a barf bag with her in the unfortunate event that I needed one, which was quite frequent. At times, even up till now, a whiff of a musty taxi or pine-scented air-conditioned bus still triggers childhood memories of motion-sickness, projectiles, and plastic bags.

Memories of traversing the SLEx are nothing but a blur, like a necessary purgatory one has to go through to escape Manila and reach the gates of provincial Laguna. Most times I simply tune out and get lost in the time-space abyss. It’s transit in a trance.

I still squirm at the thought of long land travel, just sitting there in limbo, neither comfortable nor productive, neither here nor there. But for a couple of hours away to escape Manila en route to my happy place, I deal with it.

If you’ve taken a specific route countless times, you more or less can estimate where are you are depending on the time and speed of the vehicle, even with your eyes closed. Approaching Calamba exit, the driver releases the gas pedal and slightly applies the break. The bus slows down as it rounds the exit ramp, the centrifugal force pushing me lightly to the left. I then feel a rush, as if I’m on a plane preparing for landing, banking, gradually descending and raising its flaps to aid its deceleration and finish off with a smooth soft landing. It’s a gentle wake up call to tell me I’m approaching a familiar destination, now one that is part-holiday, part-business, but always like home. It’s a nudge I recognize, a unique one just for this particular bend in the road.

Journey to victory

By Andrew Zubiri

My grumbling stomach was telling me the time—it was almost noon. I decided to go out of our college building to grab something to eat at a nearby makeshift canteen. I was appalled with the throngs of jeepneys lined up on the street surrounding the Oblation as soon as I stepped out of our building, as if a jeepney terminal was relocated inside the campus. Seeing an assemblage of such vehicles inside the vicinity of the university was something peculiar to a naïve college freshman like me back then. I saw one of my blocmates and a couple of her friends in one of them, and jokingly asked her if she knew where the jeep was bound for. She seriously said yes.

Those jeepneys were bound for Edsa. There were about twenty of them, and a batch of almost the same number had already left a few hours earlier.

I forgot all about my hunger and headed straight to my dormitory to see if my roommates were also going. The idea of joining the rally was already abuzz in the dorm since the other night. I found one of them in our room and he told me that our other roommates had already left almost an hour ago to join the rally. I asked him if he was going to Edsa as well, he said no because he has tons of things to do. I invited second thoughts of not joining when I heard those words, for I did not want to go alone in this new pool of experience I am about to jump into. There were a lot of uncertainties playing in my mind, most of which came from what I see on TV or read in the newspapers about people, particularly students, who join rallies: violent arrests, beating up by policemen, or simply a scolding from my parents who warned me to not join such activities. But, fortunately, those remained as just those– thoughts. And those did not taint my enthusiasm and curiosity to join the rally.

I emptied my backpack and dumped in all the things that (I think) I would need: a shirt, a small towel, bottled water, and my allowance for the rest of the week. It felt like I was about to engage in a battle of some sort. I went to a nearby fast-food chain to buy four burgers, which I hoped would last me the rest of the day.

I went back to the place where the jeepneys were parked, but what I just saw was the last of them speeding away. I considered that as a sign that didn’t “deserve” to join a rally yet. I was as fresh as I can be as a college freshman, and I am not “nationalistically mature” yet, whatever that means. I saw a bunch of students wearing loud red shirts who at first I thought were student-activists, but I assumed and later confirmed they were members of a fraternity and a sorority. I overheard them talking about going to Edsa, and I wondered how. The jeepneys had all left, and not even one of them owned a car. My being nosey led me to stalking them. I heard them saying that all the vehicles will first converge in Crossing (Calamba), and from there will proceed to Edsa. My face lit up and I saw a ray of hope as I heard those words; I wasn’t totally left behind after all. They hailed a jeepney bound for Calamba, and I eagerly followed them.

The trip to Calamba was unusually a smooth one. We arrived there in no time. The multitude and convergence of students, professors, and other university constituents in another place outside the UPLB campus was overwhelming. Most of them were crammed inside cars and jeepneys, while some of the activists were spilled on the streets asking some of the manong drivers who have not yet joined the bandwagon (literally and figuratively) if they could go to Edsa. The students were not able to convince the jeepney drivers –but they were able to convince the bus drivers! After a few minutes of haggling and negotiating with the conductors, students started to pour inside nine non air-conditioned buses. Each was packed to the hilt with about seventy students, accommodating more passengers than its usual capacity. As a consolation, they had a television on-board. After everyone has boarded the buses and all were set, we began our pilgrimage to Edsa.

We breezed through the South Luzon Expressway, occasionally stopping for the other buses and jeepneys to catch up with the convoy. On our way, the ‘marshals’ told us we needed to pay about 35 pesos each for the one-way bus ride. The conductor switched on the TV, and the screen showed the impeachment trial court barren with the prosecution panel. We shouted ‘Booooo!’ whenever the irritating faces of the 11 senators who denied the opening of the controversial envelope were put up close the monitor.

I suddenly realized my hunger, and devoured one of the burgers with just a few big bites and gulped down half of the water I brought with me. I felt sleepy afterwards and decided to take a nap.

My adventure in dreamland ceased when I felt the bus stop and switched off its engine. I can’t exactly pinpoint where we stopped, but I know it was somewhere in a tollgate along C-5 road. A small building that housed the policemen and other traffic authorities was nearby. I thought we were there because some of us needed to respond to the call of nature, since there was a public toilet outside the building. Yes, some of us used the comfort rooms, but I later learned that it wasn’t really the main reason why we were there in the first place. I noticed that the marshals were talking to the traffic aides, but I was sure it wasn’t just a friendly chat. I sensed something was wrong. Our marshals eventually told us that the traffic men wouldn’t let us proceed to Edsa since the signs of the jeepneys say we were already out of route. Of course we were out of route, we came all the way from Los Baños! They said that the vehicles weren’t conducive for a safe trip because it was jam-packed. Of course they were jam-packed, would they bother to give us a few thousand pesos to hire a few more buses and jeepneys? They also said that we weren’t on for an educational trip, so why the very large number of students? They were definitely wrong. I know it would be one of the most historic, educational, and significant trips I’ll ever take in my whole life. They gave us various delaying tactics, like looking for protest permits, and threatening us that they would confiscate the automobiles’ plate numbers. I know someone ordered them to prevent such massive mobilizations. I know they were just doing their job, and apparently, they were doing it pretty damn well.

Most of us felt restless after a while, and the marshals told us to go down and join them in ‘pleading’ to the traffic authorities to let us go. The marshals told them that we would block the road if they won’t let us leave. But they were unmoved. We started to form a human barricade. With our arms linked together, kapit-bisig so-to-speak, we blocked the northbound lane of the road. Heavy traffic started to clog the said lane in no time, as motorists started to honk their horns. Some of us approached them and explained to them what was happening. Soon, their horns were blaring simultaneously to the tune of “Erap resign” (E-rap re-sign!) we were chanting. We started shouting Palam-pasin kamI! Palam-pasin kami! (Let us pass through!) to appropriately match our plea. The traffic men are (quite) smart: they let the northbound vehicles pass through the southbound lane. But we are smarter. Some of us have already started to occupy the opposite lane, and both roads soon became congested. The traffic men began to call for back-up with their CB radios.

A few minutes later, and not expecting the unexpected, the traffic aides let their defenses down and decided to let us go even if the back-up they’ve called for hasn’t arrived yet. If there’s a will, there’s surely (and literally) a way. We all cheered and rejoiced in jubilation. I was ecstatic. We felt that this was a very good start in anticipation of what was to come. We scurried in our respective modes of transportation, and quickly left and headed for Edsa. I saw one police officer passing by (maybe one of the back-ups) in his patrol car and gave him a thumbs-up sign and a snappy salute.

I can consider this sequence of events was a premonition of what was to unfold in the days to come. This also served as an inspiration that prepared us as we headed towards the historic place in Edsa Avenue corner Ortigas Avenue.

And the rest, not only as the cliché goes, but as we witnessed in Edsa, is history.