volunTOURISM in the boondocks (travel with a heart)

photography | RV ESCATRON
Bugoy in action!
I just got back from the mountains! Sweat, mud, blisters and all but with a joy in my heart and a smile painted on my face. It was three days in the work camp laying the foundations of an organic chicken coop which in the long run will transfer technology and alleviate an impoverished village tucked in the wilderness of Negros.
Hanep. Three days was a test of patience and endurance for me and my students. Mornings were spent in the work camp (concentration camp nga eh, sabi ni bossing) while the afternoons were spent working with the local elementary (multi-grade sila dito at hanggang grade four lang due to lack of teachers and facilities. multi-grade ibig sabihin combined ang grade I at II and grade III and IV) school students. And the fourth day’s plan is to chill. Simply to lie down in a strip of white sandbar near Bais Bay.

Sanay na ako sa ganitong mga gawain. I grew up in the countryside as well. Nakapagtapos ako ng elementarya sa isang nayonIba ang feeling, parang bumabalik ang dati. Bittersweet, ika nga. Yong nagbubungkal kami ng lupa para sa hardin sa paaralan. Ang summer job ko nuon, nag-aararo nga eh, at nagtatanim pa ng palay at kamoteng kahoy. No regrets. I have a happy childhood. And probably the reason why I easily get adjusted dahil early on, exposed na ako sa samut-saring realities. I had classmates who barely had food to eat at lunchtime. Most of them had dried fish for lunch. Others only had salt and rice. There was a time when my lunch box was not a box but banana leaves. Looking back, it was a happy childhood.

During this trip, on day one, I saw three girls who look exactly the same.Magkakamukha talaga. I just shrugged the idea that they are triplets or sisters. But on our last day, while the girls were lining up for lunch (we prepared simpleng food for everyone), I finally asked one of them. The reply surprised me. I was not ready for it! Read on to find out.
photography| RV ESCATRON

Before that story na na dig ko, let me ask if any of you here have heard about the concept of voluntourism? To keep things simple, it’s a healthy marriage between volunteer work and tourism.

“Volunteer travel, volunteer vacations, voluntourism, or vacanteerism is travel which includes volunteering for a charitable cause. In recent years, “bite-sized” volunteer vacations have grown in popularity. The types of volunteer vacations are diverse, from low-skill work cleaning up local wildlife areas to providing high-skill medical aid in a foreign country. Volunteer vacations participants are diverse but typically share a desire to “do something good” while also experiencing new places and challenges in locales they might not otherwise visit.–wikipedia”

This is one of my pet projects in the school where I teach. It’s actually my boss’s idea. My job was just to throw in the fine details and to coin a catchy title of the program. I did my homework and a little tweaking here and there. And as they say, the rest is history and what a history we just made!
Casaroro Falls in Valencia | RV ESCATRON
  • We had to work under an unfavorable weather. In any given day, an incessant downpour would just wipe out the spillway rending us stranded in a village (the poorest barangay in town) known to be the last frontier of a rebel group. Though we secured the necessary permits and waiver from the offices of the police chief and town mayor, it is not a guarantee of anything. My students are all expats. All of them.  Imagine how myself and the students would hog the headlines! Simbaku intawun! 
  • We started from scratch, from digging the hole to (hopefully) pile up the hollow blocks. Since we can only do so much in three days, we weren’t able to do the latter. The rain came the night before. Apparently, the ground was soft so it was easier for us to dig. But the rain came again by mid morning and so we had to seek shelter nearby. The pattern was the same days ahead. The toughest part was to get back to working again after a break when our (tired) bodies just wanted to snap. Herding the students back to work was one of the toughest task. Their adrenaline and tolerance (like the teachers) level halfway thru the morning were beginning to dip.
  • Here are the photos. Look how happy everyone dito!:
But beyond the edges of these seemingly happy faces are sad realities. Those kinds of stories that pinched our hearts. It’s easy to pick one face in this sea of humanity and learn a back story. On this trip, that story belonged to the three sisters shown in the photo below. They are not just triplets but quadruplets in a brood of eight.
The FAROLE SISTERS of Malabo, Valencia  | Maria Gloria, Maria Fe and Maria Lyn, 11 years old

I first noticed the three sisters on day one. They were lining up to get the hook for the new accessories they made with the help of my students. What caught my attention aside from the stark similarities of their faces was their being inseparable.

The first time I noticed the tres marias

I wasn’t able to see them during the second day since everyone, due to a game, just ran in every direction for the most part of the afternoon.

On our final day, I saw the two sisters lining up for lunch and asked them if they are twins. I just got a nod. The classmate behind them told me there’s one more. So, they are triplets, I asked. The classmate said yes. By the time I finished the conversation with their classmate, they were gone.

lining up for lunch

I found them inside the classroom having lunch.

small talk over lunch

I planned to wear my journalist hat that time. I had to probe for that inside story. At first, the painfully shy triplets were hesitant to answer my questions. An outspoken classmate who was seated next to them initially filled in some information. The classmate volunteered to share that the three sisters actually live a few mountains away. That translates to a daily walk of roughly two hours per day, one-way! The girls wake up at four in the morning to help in the family’s small plot. The kind of work we expect adults do. A kind of work typical in a small mountain slope farm–taking the weeds off or digging sweet potato. By 5:30am, they begin their walk to school. I was taken aback. That got me more curious about their story.

While I was taking a picture, I overheard the teachers talking about how the sisters’ father declined an offer for a full scholarship of the girls saying “the sponsors might sell my children!”

Over lunch, I found out from the tres Marias that their father is jobless while their mother works as a cleaning lady (whose work comes sparingly). They have four other siblings but only two (elder) siblings are staying with the family now. And then, when I asked who among the three of them is the oldest, the answer surprised me the most: a brother.  They have a brother. His name is Felixberto named after Felix their father and Berto their uncle. Felixberto completes the quadruplets. The boy, who was not around when I visited the school, has a special need being born deaf and mute. He lives away from his family since he studies in Dumaguete on a special grant. Felixberto was followed by Maria Gloria, then Maria Fe and then the youngest, Maria Lyn.

Outside, the program was about to start. The students were distributing school supplies already when I got out. The sisters got their share plus an extra, for their brother.

The program started with everyone in high spirits. From a comfortable distance, I can see the local students and my students being able to connect in spite of the language barrier. It’s learning at work, beyond the confines of the classrooms. It’s about same same. It’s about learning different realities but the same humanity. It’s about unlearning prejudices and paradigms. And above all, its all about learning how to pay it forward.

In the end, deep in everyone’s heart is happiness–one of the things that can not be learned but can only be felt and experienced.

Meanwhile, the three sisters walk their way home. It makes me wonder if the the hut they live in is wrapped around by fog, if the spring water they drink and the scent of air they breath are sweeter and if heaven is closer to their home.

*NO CELLPHONE signal there. So, for information on how you can help, contact:

Malabo Elementary School
Malabo, 6215 Valencia
Negros Oriental, Philippines

this post has been republished 
for Pinoy Travel Bloggers’ 
Blog Carnival hosted by 
Marky Ramone Go of 
Its a healthy mix. Read all the entries by clicking this link >>>

(July 2011)

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