My most unforgettable travel-related experience, so far, is the time I went to India to cover the Delhi Dialogue. The culture, the food, the people – India is an incredible country to be a foreigner in.
A few weeks ago, though, I had my second most unforgettable experience. The first time I stepped foot on US soil. Ok technically, it’s not US soil. I’m talking about the US Embassy in Manila.
I was one of the 20 journalists from the regions all over the country blessed enough to have been invited to join the first US Embassy Seminar for Regional Media in Manila. For two days, we were allowed to meet and interview top US Embassy officials who normally the mainstream media wouldn’t have access to.
It was a wonderful experience. We were each booked a room at Bayview Hotel (a hotel I’ve come to love), conveniently located right across the US Embassy. I arrived late on a Sunday, about 9 pm, because my Cebu Pacific flight was delayed by more than an hour due to the depressing weather that day. Then being a probinsyana, I got lured into riding those ridiculously overpriced taxis outside the NAIA, on the way to the hotel.
What struck me first was how much of a stickler to time the Americans are. The US Embassy Public Affairs Office was able to pack within a day 17 speeches from 17 officials. Every talk started on time. There were even bathroom breaks in between each set of talks. I couldn’t help but be impressed. It was all so efficiently done.
The Embassy had a policy about taking photos inside the facilities so I don’t have a lot of pictures to show off. But I walked away from the seminar with my mind nearly bursting with information on what the US Embassy does and how it affects Filipinos. I have to confess, I always thought the US Embassy only did visa applications. I didn’t know that they were doing so much more.
The US Embassy acts like an extension of the US Government on Philippine territory. So they have representatives from Homeland Security, FBI, justice department, etc. They have existing projects that aim to improve not only communities around the country but also efficiency in Philippine government like the Bureau of Internal Revenue. USAID handles most of the community-development projects, while the Homeland Security officials work with local government units to help boost their anti-crime activities. For example, Homeland Security is helping Cebu provincial government in stamping out the worsening cybersex industry in Cordova town. There is also a division inside the Embassy that’s currently working with BIR to improve revenue collection by reducing internal corruption.
Of course, the seminar wouldn’t have been complete without discussing visa applications. We got to meet and ask officers from the Consular section. Did you know that among the US Embassies around the world, US Embassy in Manila handles the largest number of fiancee visa applications?
We also had tours inside two important facilities in the embassy – the Chancery and the consular section. The Chancery is a beautiful building. Elegant and courtly, the revival-style mansion is like a grand dame that’s so well-preserved for her age. It was designed by architect Juan M. Arellano and gifted by the Philippine government to the US. The tour inside the consular building also gave us a glimpse of the other side of the window where the visa interviews take place.
On the second day, we went to the very posh Raffles Makati for the Kapihan sa Embahada, a forum patterned after PIA’s own Kapihan, which works like a press conference. Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr. was there to answer questions about US-Philippines Partnership for Growth program, a bilateral engagement that will assist the Philippines in achieving higher growth in key areas, in line with other high-performing emerging economic. (More info here)
Before the Kapihan, we also got to interview officials from organizations implementing US-funded projects in the Philippines. I’ll reserve the stories I gathered for another blog post.
The two-day seminar, all in all, was a wonderful experience. It was info overload, yes, but I’m not complaining. I learned so much that would help me in my job as a government writer, in adding context to stories related to US-Philippines relations that I would be writing.
I also bonded with other writers from PIA from other regions. Half of the 20 participating journalists were from Philippine Information Agency, and the other half were from private media. Betty Malone, the US Embassy spokesperson, said this was their pilot project, the first time they opened their doors for the media and they wanted to see how it would turn out. Based on the feedback that we gave them, I believe they’ll be holding another round next year for a different set of writers this time.
I’d like to thank the US Embassy for giving us a “backstage” tour of what goes on behind the scenes at the Embassy, and for giving us access to key Embassy officials. A huge salamat also goes to Miss Yolly for facilitating our travel and stay and making sure that everything goes smoothly. Miss Yolly and her staff did a great job in making us feel welcome and properly fed, too.