Going MAD in the Philippines

I just returned from an amazing 10-day tour put on by Make-a-Difference (MAD) Travel. The tour is called the Bayani Tour, bayani meaning hero. This was one of the most eye-opening and touching experiences I’ve had, so let me go over what we did each day. Be prepared for a long post!

Day 1- Saturday was the first day of our tour. As this tour is aimed for international travelers, there is nothing planned until the evening to allow the guests to have enough time to get to the accommodation from the airport. We went to the Hineleban Cafe for coffee and dinner, where we learned all about the Hineleban Foundation. The Hineleban Foundation works with a tribe in the Philippines to help with reforestation, environmental conservation, and sustainable farming practices. We got to try coffee made from the coffee beans that are grown by this tribe, as well as a grain dish containing adlai. Both the coffee and the dinner were very delicious, and it was a simple way for me to get to know the other guests I would be spending the next week with. I knew that at the end of this tour we were going to plant trees for a different tribe in the Philippines, so I thought this was a good, brief introduction to the topic.

Day 2- Sunday was one of my favorite days on the tour. The morning started with a bike tour of Intramuros, or the walled city. This history-rich city is the only walled city in Manila, created by the Spanish during their colonization of the Philippines. Besides the great information I learned, I really enjoyed that the bikes we rode on the tour were bambikes. These are bikes made from bamboo by local Filipinos, offering them employment. On top of one of the hotels in the city, the Bay Leaf Hotel, we could see a 360 degree view of Manila, which reminded me just how big the city really is. After having lunch, we drove about an hour to a Gawad Kalinga community called Silver Heights. Gawad Kalinga is a foundation created to alleviate poverty and help build-up the nation. The smiles on the childrens’ faces when they saw us get off the van were priceless, and that was just the beginning. While we were getting a tour of the area, the kids did not let go of our hands. After the tour, we were able to see what the kids do during the day to have fun. Even though I used to work with kids daily, it still amazes me how creative children are. We all danced and played various hand-clapping games (I am very good at “Faster!” for the record) and later they showed us their choreography to their favorite songs. Some of these kids really got moves, we were all impressed. Unfortunately, we had to say our goodbyes after dinner. We all left with smiling hearts and drove to our next destination.

Day 3- We woke up in another Gawak Kalinga (GK) community in Angat, Bulucan. This community is known as GK Enchanted Farms, and is the world’s first farm village university. Since being built, it is now a productive farm and offers university schooling in social entrepreneurship to scholars from other GK villages. We got a tour of the farm after having breakfast in the home of one of the community members. Being welcomed into someone’s house is so heartwarming, especially when they have so little but willingly give us everything they have. I loved hearing the advice and stories from all the titos and titas (titos and titas translate to uncles and aunts, but it’s a term used to refer to people older than you with respect) I met here. Later on, we got to design our own t-shirts from Tinta Ni Juan, one of the products developed by some of the university’s graduates. It was really cool to see the thought process before designing their items and learning how to press designs on as well. The shirt I made says “walang iwanan” meaning “no one left behind”, a common saying in GK communities. We had dinner in the community again, and after that we all went to bed because we were to have an early start the next morning.

Day 4- Bright and early at 6am, we went to the university’s farm to help the students with some tasks in the garden. We helped pull weeds around the basil plants while also getting to know the students better. They do this every morning from 6-7:30, so I could tell they appreciated our help. After washing up, we went to the kitchen to help the titas prepare lunch. We peeled garlic, cut string beans, and helped make palitaw, a Filipino dessert made from sticky rice and, in our case, coated in coconut shavings. I enjoyed doing this because when it came time to eat lunch, I felt like I really deserved my food. I also gained a lot of respect for how much work goes into cooking for so many people! I have obviously cooked for myself or my family before, but doing it for so many people is a lot more work. After lunch, we went to a local school and taught students about deforestation. They learned that simple things such as saving the seeds from fruits and vegetables can help combat this problem. As a demonstration, we all ate mangoes (my favorite!) and saved the seeds to be planted at a later time. We had dinner in the community, like every night, and went to bed early again because another early morning was to come.

Day 5- We helped the students on the farm again this morning, this time by harvesting mung bean. I liked this better than the pulling of the weeds because finding the ripe mung beans was like solving a puzzle to me, making sure to only pick the ones that were ready. Again, we helped out in the kitchen after rinsing off the dirt, but today we made crepes! Getting the crepe perfectly paper thin is so hard, and I don’t think any of us ended up mastering it, but there was significant improvement in the end. Once again, we felt we earned our lunch and took pride in seeing everyone enjoy our creations. We packed up our bags and headed off on a 5-hour ride to our next destination. We arrived in San Felipe, Zambales in time to watch the sunset on the beach. Watching the sunset is one of my favorite things and being at the beach makes it that much more beautiful. Once it went down completely, we had dinner at Mommy Phoebe’s, the restaurant where we would have lunch and dinner everyday. The hostel we stayed at was made out of ecobricks, which is a very innovative solution for reusing plastic waste (picture below!). We knew Thursday was going to be a busy day, so we all went to bed pretty early to ensure we were refreshed for the it.

Day 6- Thursday had another early start, but by now we were all used to it. Also, all of the animals around the hostel do a very good job of informing you when they are awake (thank you Mr. Rooster). Around 7am, we headed off to a local farm to help out for the morning. There we chopped banana trunk to be made into an organic fertilizer for the crops and helped spray fertilizer on the rice field. They do everything by hand, making me respect all their hard work even more. With a 3-liter canteen of fertilizer on my back, I headed to the rice field and sprayed for a whopping total of 5 minutes. Pumping the lever while guiding the nozzle and watching where you are walking is lot to think about at once, not to mention it is a workout! After we all had our turns, we handed the reigns back to the owner of the farm. We then headed to another part of the farm where we harvested string beans. I enjoyed this again for the same reasons as the mung bean, I see it as a game. I liked looking through all of the plants and trying to decipher what is a vine and what is a string bean while also trying to find the longest ones. After we picked more than we could carry, we headed over to the local market to pick out some fruit so we could make smoothie bowls on Friday. We had lunch at Mommy Phoebe’s again after making our way home from the market. The last thing we had to do today was a beach clean-up, but since the sun was so hot, we waited until just before sunset to begin. We quickly noticed that the biggest source of waste on LiwLiwa beach was cigarette butts. It was one of those things where we didn’t quite see them at first because they blended in with the sand, but once you saw one, you saw all of them. After picking up what felt like hundreds of cigarette butts and other trash, we called it a day and watched the sunset before heading to dinner.

Day 7- We altered the original itinerary a little to have a busier Thursday, so our Friday could be free. With the whole day to ourselves, we decided to go island hopping. We rode this little boat that, to me, was like a canoe with a motor and off we went exploring in the ocean. We first went to Camera Island, where it was as if we rented the whole thing to ourselves. There was no one else there, so we got to enjoy the white sands and blue waters without any interference. We then sailed over to Capones Island, which was bigger than the first one. We found a little section of shade and observed the beauty of the nature before us. This was one of my favorite moments because I felt so connected with everything around me while floating in the water, with no worries from the outside world bothering me. It was just me and what I was presently surrounded by. After some time, we headed back to the hostel to have lunch at Mommy Phoebe’s. As a late afternoon snack, or merienda, we made smoothie bowls using the fruit we got from the market the day before and continued to enjoy our free time. We got to bed pretty early again, in preparation for the big Tribes and Trek tour we were doing on Saturday.

Day 8- We were joined by other local travelers to go on the all-day Tribes and Treks tour. This journey consisted of visiting a local community that was almost wiped out due to the eruption of Mount Pinatubo 28 years ago. It is imperative for them to rebuild the 3,000 hectares (about 7,400 acres) of forest that was lost to provide food, shelter, and clean air. We started the journey via jeepney at about 7am and drove towards the mountains. After an about an hour of walking and wading through water, we reached the Aeta tribe’s nursery. Here, we planted seeds that will help with the reforestation. We were also able to plant the mango seeds that we saved from the teaching on Tuesday, which I loved because seeing things come full-circle is very satisfying and rewarding. Since this project was started in 2016, there has been over 40,000 trees planted, so we were luckily covered by shade while planting. The trees do such a good job of cooling the area down that there was actually a 15 degree celcius (27 degree fahrenheit) difference between direct sunlight and the shade! After planting over 450 seeds, we headed over to the community for lunch. They generously made us all food and even incorporated the string beans we harvested earlier in the week! We were able to engage with the kids after lunch, and also learn how to shoot a bow and arrow. The community members shared cultural traditions with us, showing that they trusted us with these stories. After the hour trek back to the jeepney and the drive back to where we were staying, we made it to the beach in time for sunset. Everyone felt happiness this night knowing we helped empower a local community and were able to share precious memories with them.

Day 9- This was our last day in Zambales! We went to the beach in the morning and I took a nice walk along the water. We headed back for one last meal at Mommy Phoebe’s and I got my last mango shake (miss them already) before we loaded up the van to go back to Manila.

Day 10- This tour is intended for international travelers so this day is when a person would normally fly to their next destination, but since I didn’t have to go further than a 10-minute drive, I’m back in Makati!

Reflecting on this tour reminded how impactful it was for both the communities we worked with and for myself. Disconnecting from the outside world and focusing on who and what are around you at a particular moment was very necessary for me and I encourage everyone to try doing this every once in a while (or more, you do you!). This trip was so much more than I expected it to be and I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to go. I feel like I really have evaluated what I prioritize in life and I feel so blessed to have who and what I have. Below are just a few of the memories caught on camera that I thought I’d add in. Hopefully I have more exciting stories to share later in my internship, but topping this tour may be hard!

Day 1- Making coffee with an aeropress
Day 2- Riding Bambikes in Intramuros
Day 2- Having fun with the kids in Silver Heights
Day 3- The tshirt I made! Walang Iwanan is a common phrase meaning “no one left behind”
Day 4- Weeding on the farm
Day 4- Teaching about deforestation
Day 5- Harvesting mung beans
Day 6- Fertilizing rice fields
Day 6- Harvesting string beans
Day 7- Island hopping!
Day 8- Tribes and Treks tour
Ecobricks! They used recycled plastic bottles and tightly stuff them with loose plastic wrappers or bags to make them strong enough to be used in place of cinder blocks and to reduce the plastic in the ocean!

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