"Freelancing abroad" is an IJNet series that explores the lives of freelance journalists who have relocated abroad. Check out the rest of the series here.
When Aurora Almendral moved to Manila in 2013, she thought she would only stay for a few months. Five years and many bylines later, the California native has made the city her home.
Almendral had worked at the United Nations and a New York startup before she was recommended for a journalism fellowship, which introduced her to the field. Shortly after it ended, she moved to the Philippines.
“I liked the idea of being a foreign correspondent and my family is from the Philippines. I thought I'd go to the Philippines for a couple of months to do some stories,” she said.
By November 2013, Almendral was preparing to pack and go home when Typhoon Haiyan — one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded — hit the Southeast Asian country.
“I was one of the few journalists who was reporting for foreign outlets that was on the ground,” she said. “I covered the disaster from the most devastated cities for NPR.”
Since then, Almendral has become a regular contributor to The New York Times and National Geographic Magazine and a producer for NBC News. She received prizes for her her work, including the Regional Edward R. Murrow award for audio news documentary in 2017 and the Overseas Press Club of America Award for international reporting in 2018.
One of Almendral’s strengths lies in her ability to speak fluent Tagalog, one of the Philippines official languages, which she learned as a child but hadn’t practiced in many years.
“When I landed in the Philippines, I sounded like a baby,” she said. “But [the language] was in [my memory] somewhere, so I forced myself to start speaking it and listen to a lot of local radio.”
The country’s other official language is English, and while Almendral said reporting can be done in English, Tagalog enables her to produce richer stories.
“Some communities speak better English and some don't,” she said. “[In other places] the way they use the language [changes]. They'll talk about concepts like the economy and politics in English, but when it comes to heartfelt realizations and emotional issues, it comes out better in Tagalog.”
While the community of foreign journalists is small, Almendral feels that connecting with other journalists working in the country is important. Most connections happen through word of mouth, and Almendral recommended that newcomers should reach out in order to form relationships.
“If you're thinking of moving to a country, start reading who's doing work there that you like and email them to ask them out for a coffee or a beer,” she said.
Local journalists are especially helpful to get a sense of the political situation in the country.
“There are some major problems with violence against journalists. However, it's contained so [journalists] want to know where those issues are,” she said. “For the most part, [violence is] in far provincial places [against] local journalists who are covering corruption and environmental abuse. You might not want to step into [these communities] as an international journalist.”
Overall, Almendral has found that the Philippines — especially Manila — is a friendly and exciting place from which to cover changing dynamics in Southeast Asia. The city is affordable for Almendral since she works for American outlets which pay her in U.S. dollars.
“[Many people] would be surprised by how many stories are in the Philippines and how easy and satisfying it is to report from the country given some of the ugly things that are going on and the bad reputation that the Philippines and Manila has,” she said.
Almendral also added that flying to other countries from Manila was relatively affordable and only a matter of a few hours, making it easy to report on other countries in the region.