In this new DG Traveler series, we unpack stories from couples, friends, families, and even strangers who go places together. The result is an ongoing exploration of how to make traveling with companions more harmonious, as well as a reminder that the company we keep and the people we call home are just as important as the destinations we set out to discover.
It isn’t every day that a remarkable, impactful, and long-lasting collaboration springs forth from a meeting of minds. This is precisely what happened between Ayen de la Torre and Rachel Halili, the founders of the travel brand and community Where to Next, when fate brought them together as college classmates in an Art Studies elective in University of the Philippines Diliman. In between studying notable fine arts photographers and journalists, they kept in touch and shared dreams of organizing an exhibit, creating a story series, or perhaps even authoring a book together. Little did they know that their lightbulb moment would come in the means of a Facebook message sent in 2014, wherein Ayen asked Rachel on a whim if she was interested in creating a travel planner as a gift to friends.
Ten frenetic days of collaboration and less than fifty copies printed later, the duo took to Instagram to see if the planner would pique the audience’s interest. This led to over a thousand copies sold by the end of January 2015, and fast forward to 2020, WTN has evolved from a brand that sells travel planners to a multifaceted powerhouse that organizes workshops, spreads meaningful stories online, and executes purpose-driven brand partnerships.
This National Women's Month, DG Traveler converses with the friends-slash-co-workers on dealing with travel burnout, a sun-drenched 3-day expedition in Visayas, and making the most out of the privilege that is travel.
What are your roles in WTN and how do you fit it into your schedules?
Rachel: Since 2019, we both decided to pursue WTN full-time while working on other projects as freelancers. We meet once or twice a week but talk daily online to discuss our projects, brand partnerships, and events. Ayen is in charge of the writing and marketing while I do all the design work. By not meeting in an office every day, we save time and pursue other crafts and hobbies. Ayen is currently co-hosting a podcast on sustainability called Muni On This, and creating educational outdoor trips with Eco Explorations, while I take on graphic design projects for enterprises and individuals.
How do you plan your travels together?
Rachel: Our work with brand and advocacy partners allows us to travel together so we almost never have to plan our trips. Logistics is also not our core strength so we are grateful to have friends who invite us to trips they’ve already planned.
Ayen: Being able to fly and explore beautiful places is a privilege, but it also produces waste and carbon emissions. Wherever we go, we will always create an impact. This privilege of being able to travel freely comes with the responsibility of choosing our travels more mindfully. We still enjoy a good vacation or fieldwork but generally, we have reduced the number of our travels and prefer more local trips.
Can you tell us about your first trip together?
Rachel: Our first trip together was a field trip to Ilocos as college students learning the art of photography while traveling. We documented our adventures and we had to individually produce a story series to be published on Tumblr as part of the final requirement.
Ayen: I think that trip fueled our love for storytelling. After that class, we found ourselves enlisting in more classes with field trip assignments. For students with limited allowances, a field trip is a convenient excuse to travel.
Is there a local trip that stands out for you?
Rachel: One of our most memorable trips was going to Biri Island to produce a campaign for AirAsia Philippines. It was a very visceral experience. We had the worst sunburn, brainstormed on the road for hours, got to bond with our good friends, ate delicious food, and witnessed a different side of Samar.
Ayen: It was my favorite trip as well. We covered around 850 kilometers as we traveled from Samar to Leyte. In the span of three days, we managed to turn a Hi-Ace van into a bedroom. Long trips can be rough when you're scrambling for legroom and trying your best not to vomit. But then you discover new songs. You start to invent stories with complex characters. And you find happiness in a box of cookies, surreal landscapes, and golden sunsets. It reminded me that this was the kind of life I dreamed of as a kid and now I get to live it with Rach and our other friends.
How has traveling together changed you and your relationship?
Rachel: Traveling together has made business meetings fun and interesting. Most of our ideas are discussed in transit, during long bus rides, and waiting for flights at the airport. We’ve learned to be more aware of each other’s needs in terms of health and lifestyle preferences.
Despite traveling together, we’ve learned to be independent and assert what we want in a foreign place. For instance, when we were traveling in Europe, there were days when Ayen felt like catching up with friends in coffee shops while I preferred to explore the city and try different physical activities. Since Ayen is into words and I’m more of a visual person, we try to give each other alone time during our shared travels so we can create and collect ideas in our preferred way.
Travel is not as glamorous as it seems. What are some of the biggest struggles you've encountered while traveling?
Rachel: We used to travel almost every week, may it be a work trip or a day hike with friends. But we realized that time and health are sacrificed when you move continuously. Through the years, we’ve learned to be more mindful of our travels. There is never a non-work related trip for us because we feel like we always have to create content for WTN. Even when I’m on a family trip, I store my memory card with lots of photos and videos and I try to get as much information about the places from locals.
Ayen: We find ourselves exhausted at times, especially when we blur the lines between passion and work. There are days when we get consumed by deadlines and target outputs that we no longer enjoy creating. When this happens, we remind ourselves to look at the situation through a different lens—you can stare long enough at a photo and notice all the tiny details, but if you set aside your screens and invest in the story, you will notice a lot more. We invest time to just experience the place, walk around, savor its sights and sounds, and get to know its story through its people. It reminds us why we travel in the first place.
Many things have changed in the world of travel since the launch of WTN in November 2014. Has your perspective on travel changed as well?
Rachel: Travel is no longer the desired end. Instead of just living for the weekend, we try to find ways to make every day an adventure by using what we’ve gathered from our travels to create.
Ayen: I was 25 when Rachel and I started Where To Next. All I wanted to do around that time was to travel. Every new place gave me a rush. I ticked off item after item on an imaginary checklist of experiences. But travel doesn't do that for me anymore. Not like how it used to. When the thing you love becomes part of what you do, it evolves. Travel is now the road that leads to new stories and perspectives. I no longer feel that quick thrill, but in its place is a slow burn, a yearning to understand this world and my place in it.
Travel, for you two, is a means to connect and change people through art. How do you hope your work affects your audience?
Ayen: Travel is not just a form of escape, it's an opportunity to grow. We hope that the stories we tell will make them stop and pay more attention. Pay attention to the time they spent on long bus rides, listening to every song on Spotify. We hope it makes them remember when they skipped that landmark, to catch up with friends over coffee. When it comes to reaching our goals, it may take a while before we get there, and maybe we never will, but perhaps it’s in the spaces we occupy between our dreams, that we find our lives well-lived.
From all the travel stories you've shared, what's that one local travel story that has stuck with you?
Ayen & Rachel: One of our favorite published stories is the story of Ka-Carling Domulot from Botolan. His dream was to see future generations of Aetas studying and growing in their own community school to learn and preserve their indigenous knowledge and practices. In 2012, LAKAS high school finally opened. Ka-Carling passed away last February 2, 2019 with an unrealized dream to establish a college—a place for young Aetas to continue to cultivate their customary law and culture, in this evolving world. We hope to help the LAKAS community make this dream a reality.
Working with indigenous communities and participating in advocacy work taught us the value of listening. Instead of thinking of solutions we can bring, we’re just paying attention to what they are already doing. They must take ownership of their own dreams, but there are always opportunities for us to be part of it.
For every Where to Next planner purchased, a portion of proceeds goes to projects of the Aeta communities in Yangil & Botolan, Zambales.
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