MADTravels: Leaving Your Mark
Sometimes, even traveling can become monotonous. Sure, you get to experience a new place, maybe a brand-new beach to discover, a new route to hike, but when it comes down to it, as a tourist, experiences can blur into one another, especially when it’s somewhere like the Philippines where the landscape is generally the same. I’ve experienced this on more than one occasion. Of course, our country is beautiful, I’ve seen it firsthand. But what then? What sets apart my journey in one province from another? As responsible travelers, we are taught to “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.” But making sure that the place we visit is exactly as it is when we depart may not be enough today. We cannot deny that our planet is in a war that we cannot afford to stay out of. In this day and age, maybe we have to leave our mark.
Always ready to pose
A month ago, I was invited to experience something quite unlike my usual trips. MADTravel (Make A Difference), a group that runs tours that advocate voluntourism, offered a chance to make a difference, to really learn something new about a place that’s not limited to its tourist attractions. A way to encounter the locals in a special way — to help them preserve what they have, and not just leave it the way it is found.
I was thoroughly thrilled to learn that after months of being away from the ocean (working in the corporate world can sometimes do that), I was going to Zambales. The first thing that came to mind was that I was FINALLY going to get rid of my “office tan”, I just didn’t expect that I was going to achieve that the way we did. We travelled to The Circle Hostel in Zambales on a Friday night. We arrived in the wee hours of Saturday morning and immediately got ready for bed, eager to rest up for what awaited us the next day. I honestly thought we were going to give surfing a go first thing, after all, what else was there to do in Liwliwa, San Felipe, Zambales? We were asked to be in the common area at 7am, so I set my alarm at 6am and went straight to bed.
After a breakfast of bananas, bread, peanut butter and coffee with the other guests, we were given an orientation of what the day’s agenda would be. We were going to trek for about an hour to an Aeta community in Yangil Village, their ancestral lands. We were told to bring lots of water, sunblock and wear slippers. After a short drive, we arrived at our starting point, our stuff was loaded on to a cart being pulled by a carabao (GRAB Carabao, they joked!) and we were off. So, this was how I was going to get my tan this weekend.
Wear slippers… Yes, slippers, not trekkers, not hiking shoes—trust me on this one
The trek was not bad, this was quite enjoyable. It was mostly flat, albeit very hot and sandy. We crossed two rivers and some streams on the way and we took a dip in the second one to rest while Raf Dionisio, co-founder of MADTravel, explained how they were helping this community be self-sufficient, preserve their culture, as well as their ancestral lands through reforestation among other things. He explained how these all come together, what the long-term impact was, and what we can do to help. Under the perfectly blue sky while soaking in the cool river, he imparted the challenges they encounter like pollution and poverty, and how it is being addressed.
Our welcoming committee
When we arrived in the village, we were greeted by beautiful, welcoming smiles of the children in the village. We were introduced to the elders and their leaders. They gave us a snack of kamote chips and some lemongrass tea, which they grow themselves. We also tried our hand at archery with their hand-made bows and arrows. They explained how they hunted and they taught us how to shoot arrows using a banana tree stump as a target practice.
Chieftain Erese, the head of the Yangil tribe. He loved to joke and share anecdotes while teaching us about the different plants they grow
We then went around their lands with Chieftain Erese of the Yangil tribe teaching us the different plants they are growing and what their uses are. I learned what plant to use when I have a wound (bayabas or guava) and that there’s actually another kind of Moringa that’s different from the Malunggay we’re used to that grows into trees, among a lot of other things. While walking he also told us about how he survived the eruption of mount Pinatubo in 1991, how their lives were irrevocably changed that day and how they’ve been rebuilding ever since. These tours help them, he said. It organizes their efforts to reap tangible, sustainable results.
Time for lunch!
By the time we got back, the community had prepared a relative feast for lunch. Adobo, Ensalada, Pritong Isda, Nilaga with papaya for dessert was served and we all shared the meal exchanging stories. We were having fun—and it was only noon.
We potted about 500 seedlings
When we were full to bursting, it was our turn to help them out. We started planting seedlings. Did you know that reforestation isn’t just about re-populating the bald forest areas with as much plants as possible? No, it must be the right kind of trees for that area, or else, they won’t thrive, they won’t provide nearly enough cover for the underbrush and will do little to stop the effects of deforestation. MADTravels works with the community to get the right kind of fast-growing trees from the mountains—in this case, a species of Acacia does the trick.
Watering the seedlings
The community has nurseries where the 500 or so seedlings that we potted and watered were going to be housed before they are brought up to the mountains to their permanent spots. 500 seedlings in one day among 15 or so people… Imagine the difference that makes in about 10 years not only for the Yangil tribe, but for our planet!
Rice paddies on the way to the drop off point
When we were done, we hung out with the locals. I learned that, Princess, the girl who braided my friend’s hair after lunch, walked to school every day. Through the same route we took. That’s about 2 hours trek daily. When it rains, sometimes the river gets too deep that they just don’t go to school. I learned that her father isn’t with them anymore, and they only have their mother supporting all of them, so she really wants to finish school. That kind of put me to shame. I used to feign illness when I was in high school because I was lazy to take a bath early enough before the school bus picked me up. I mean, we all know these struggles are a reality for a lot of people, but it’s different when you meet someone who is actually going through it. I decided to suck it up and endure the trek back to town.
Tribal dances passed on from their ancestors
Personally, directly interacting with the members of the community made me more invested in this cause. It made things more real, knowing the impact it has on people I’ve met. They Yangil shared themselves with us eagerly, taught us their traditions (my favorite was the dancing) and in return, we shared our time with them. It’s seems an unfair trade because I know that we are capable of so much more.
Back at the hostel, we stayed up with the other guests. We got to know each other and more bonds were formed. We now have a group chat to keep in touch. My friend and I ended up riding home with a couple we met there. We learned about their advocacies and I was deeply inspired by how much they were doing to help others and the environment.
We not only gained new experiences, we also made friends in the process—from the Yangil to the other guests. So yes, on this trip, we made a very small dent in the much bigger problem of the tribe. But more than that, they had left a mark in us as well.
To join the tours and have “adventures that matter”, visit this site for details: http://madtravel.org/