Heartbreak and adventure for Philippines intern

Ngunguru and Manila may be worlds apart but as Northland’s Tim Johnson discovered their cultures have a fair bit in common.
Tim and a colleague standing in a river

The internship allowed Tim to see parts of the Philippines not usually on tourists' itineraries

The 23-year-old spent three months in the Philippines interning with social enterprise MAD Travel, supported by the Foundation and TupuToa, an internship programme for Māori and Pasifika students. 

Tim, of Ngāti Tamatera and Cook Islands descent, says while he certainly experienced culture shock on arrival, he was somewhat prepared after working and studying in Auckland.

“I already knew that [Filipino culture] was a collective culture, as my previous job at PAK’nSAVE Wairau was largely Filipino employees. I knew the food was delicious, the culture was inclusive and the landscapes were beautiful.” 

In August he arrived in Manila, home to almost two million people (24 million when you take in the wider metropolitan area) and the most densely populated city in the world. 

“Even though we are worlds apart, I noticed similarities to New Zealand culture, especially to Māori and Pasifika culture, being both collective cultures. It is all about community (and food!). People will go out of their way to ensure you are accommodated and comfortable.

"People are so genuinely kind, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what to do, they will guide you in the most beautiful way."

A boy using a hand pump to pump well water

Meeting locals and seeing how they lived was an eye-opening and moving experience for Tim

Tim says his experiences with the people he met in the Philippines reminded him of the Māori proverb, 'He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata,' which translates to, 'What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people'.

While he made friends, picked up new work skills, learned Tagalog (a local language) and had madcap adventures outside Manila, Tim says the biggest impact came from reflecting on his own fortune.

“I met a family, and the nanay – mother – said her dream came true when they moved into a home where the door locks and the floor was stable.

“It really brought out the reality of my privilege. I have been so incredibly heartbroken at the reality of my upbringing and where I am from – I have the fundamental basics to life, where here access isn’t as easy. To me, education, healthcare, a safe home and food and water are a given.” 

Tim and colleagues on a cart being pulled by a water buffalo

Tim: "It was an easy fit commencing work with MAD; their values are so aligned with my own and I don’t mind a bit of ‘MADness’ (if you will)."

Tim says seeing the potential that social enterprise has to disrupt the poverty cycle was a great revelation.

“I heard the story of one young lady living below the poverty line earning just 25 peso a day (less than 70 NZ cents) who is now a CEO, a social entrepreneur, a business owner. This is incredible change and is so inspiring.”

Due to the small size of the team, Tim had a hand in many projects at MAD Travel; however, he worked predominantly with the marketing and PR team.

"It was an easy fit commencing work with MAD; their values are so aligned with my own and I don’t mind a bit of ‘MADness’ (if you will).

"There was no typical work day - one day you find yourself having a bucket shower hundreds of kilometres from metro Manila and the next day you are sitting in an air-conditioned office working on a new project."

Tim says that at his core he is "just a small-town boy with huge aspirations."

"I was raised in the humble town of Ngunguru. There were more people that resided in my apartment complex in Mandaluyong than my entire hometown.  

"However, you are not defined by your hometown or your up-bringing, you have the opportunity to create a life that you want.

"It is clear that this internship wasn’t about applying my university learnings and business knowledge to a new organisation but bringing my full self and immersing into the culture."