My next destination was Manila in the Philippines. I found a volunteering project that really caught my eye through STA Travel. It was to work on the first farm – university in Asia that brings together entrepreneurs to develop social enterprises.
The Philippines has a huge amount of land that is underused, lots of people wanting jobs and yet the country imports a large amount of food and products. The aim of this hub is to gather entrepreneurs in a melting pot of ideas, give them food, accommodation, land and networking possibilities to encourage good business that addresses all three of these challenges.
The first half of the trip was a chance to relax in an area called Zambales, near the unspoilt west coastline, staying in a beach side hostel.
I met two lovely, up and coming Filipino musicians who had volunteered to play cello and piano for us for a couple of days and a brave 19 year old German girl who was taking a gap year before starting university, plus a large contingent of STA travel agents from around the world who had come to experience the trip and the country so they could sell it to customers back home. We met with the fantastic staff organizing the trip, part of a company called Make a Difference or MADtravel who are themselves a social enterprise.
We were thrown straight in to Filipino life; with delicious home cooking of fruit, vegetables and fish I had never tasted before served on banana leaves, followed by a fire complete with marshmallows on the shoreline in amongst the beach dogs who roam the area. I slept for my first night in a hammock.
In our time here we visited the Aeta – an indigenous hill tribe who live in the forest around Mount Pinatubo, a live volcano that last erupted in the 1980’s forcing a large number of the tribes out of the inner forest and nearer to urban areas. We trekked for over an hour and a half, wading through rivers and assisted by a carabao (water buffalo) and cart and helped to paint the village school pink and yellow.
This was an immense privilege, we were the largest group of westerners the tribe had ever seen. We met the oldest villager who was in his 80’s and proudly announced he could still “squat” and lived through the volcanic eruption.
The Chief told us about life in the village, his memories of surviving the volcano and demonstrated his hunting skills with a bow and arrow. The two musicians from Manila – Coeli and Aman, played music for the children. A boy with special needs who lived in the village loved it when they performed “Flashlight”.
After a small amount of teaching English in a couple of rural schools we were treated to a homestay at Silver Heights community within what was a slum in Manila. Our welcome and hospitality were wonderful. This is a vibrant, colourful and kind place. Set up by an organisation called Gawad Kalinga. It helped slum dwellers build their own homes and create a beautiful and safe place to live.
I really enjoyed this experience, especially singing karaoke with the Cabico family I stayed with. The following day, we helped out preparing and delivering meals for around 2000 children in schools around Manila who otherwise would go hungry.
The rest of the trip was spent with Lea, the German girl at Gawad Kalinga’s enchanted farm. We did a mix of practical hands on work, meeting and talking to entrepreneurs and teaching 2 hours of English each day to two schools. The experience was a wonderful mix of interaction with local people, children and business leaders. Really informative and rewarding. The warm heart of the Filipinos I met will stay with me forever.
After 10 days of volunteering I headed to Subic Bay, 4 hours North of Manila to meet with the Head of Forestry and Conservation. I was greeted with wonderful hospitality and treated to a lunch at the Yacht club. I spent the next 3 days learning about the forest and bay in this area, once an American military base.
I was treated to the sight of a hundreds of fruit bats leaving their tree at dusk to hunt, trekking with an indigenous guide in the woods, seeing the largest solar farm project being undertaken in South East Asia in a bid to provide renewable energy to the Philippines and being treated to a huge Thanksgiving meal with American ex-pats. I am humbled by the generosity and hospitality I was given throughout my stay here.
My final stop was in the North of the Philippines. I headed to the mountains via local bus and got to experience one of the most breath-taking, stunning and potentially dangerous roads in the world with 300km of hair pin bends around the mountains to Sagada.
People in this region are so used to risk. Every day they travel with steep drops and navigate around rough roads, many areas of which have experienced rock falls or land slides in the rain. I was amazed by their resilience and acceptance of this way of life. Sagada was set up well for tourists – and I went on a number of short tours and met some lovely people.
I went to a sunset tour, without a sunset due to cloud and a sunrise tour, without a sunrise due to cloud! We swam in a waterfall pool and saw hanging wooden coffins attached to rocks and cliffs in the valley.
The adventure increased on my route to get to Banaue. I took a Jeepney, an ex-American bus, to try to get there. It stopped half way and dropped off a load of locals and told me to wait until the bus filled up again. I waited 2 hours but only a handful of people wanted to go in the same direction. The Jeepney driver got on his phone and an old Landover turned up and we all squashed in. I got a front seat, which was hair raising when we were going around some of the bends.
Banaue was fantastic. Lots of adventure was had exploring the local villages and World Heritage status rice terraces. I had a memorable ride in a motorbike side car with a Dutch brain surgeon and his friend. I had to laugh when the motorbike driver said we all had to lean forward up the mountain slope to stop the bike flipping backwards.
The rice terraces challenged me significantly. I have a fear of edges – and rice terraces are all edges, narrow ledges and large drops. I am forever thankful for my local guide Vincent, who held my hand at scary points and gave me a big stick for balance. I am proud that I faced my fear and did it.