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Two New Clubs Help Ambassadors Discover the Philippines

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Chuck Goldfarb of Friendship Force National Capital Area, USA, for this article on his experience leading this Discover Philippines Journey in October 2017.

Highlights of a Friendship Force Philippines Journey:

  • Seven ambassadors from four countries
  • The mile-high city of Baguio, with pine-covered mountain tops and houses seemingly stacked one upon another on every slope
  • The lowlands city of Naga, surrounded by rice paddies and sporting a volcano with hot springs and waterfalls
  • A two-day side trip for island-hopping to isolated beaches
  • Wonderful hosts in two newly-forming clubs who introduced ambassadors to local culture and daily life in their communities
  • As a special bonus, a new Friendship Force model – all the day hosting in Naga was performed by students in the Ateneo de Naga University’s Junior Eagles service club

Arriving from Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States, we converged upon the charming White Knight Hotel in Intramuros, the historic Spanish colonial section of Manila. We had two days to overcome jet lag, get to know one another, explore the city’s historic neighborhoods and markets, and begin to understand the relationship between the nation’s capital and dominant city and the provinces we would be exploring. The all-day, every-day traffic jams in Manila preclude establishment of a Friendship Force club there. But the city’s vibrant museums introduced us to the nation’s pre-colonial, colonial, independence, World War, and more recent eras, and showcased the country’s art, culture, and diversity. At a beautiful and delicious luncheon buffet at Barbara’s – a recreated colonial era restaurant – musicians came to our table to play songs from our respective countries, and we all got up to dance. Alas, we also were introduced to Manila’s extremes of poverty and wealth.

Our Baguio hosts sent a van and driver to take us on the six-hour ride to their mountain city. The rare highway led to an amazing mountain road, whose hairpin turns eventually brought us to a church hall where we were greeted by a canvas sign welcoming each of us by name, a stirring performance of traditional Ilocos dances, a great potluck dinner – and a typhoon. We learned about Baguio’s history, received all the details for our next five days, and met our home hosts. Then we wandered into the storm for two days with our hosts and their extended families, many of whom already had their Christmas decorations set up. I can now tell you a lot about Sprint cell phone service since several of my host’s family members work at the Sprint call center that serves the entire English-speaking world.

Each of us has tales of rain and wind whipping the tin roofs on our host homes and of traversing mountain roads through the fog to “see” the sights. Despite lots of water falling from the skies, some older neighborhoods are not served by water pipes, so water is delivered by large trucks that fill up large tanks next to each house. After 24 hours, the rain relented, and after another 24 hours the sun came out. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that the roads all followed the tops of ridges and there were colorful houses up and down all the mountains.

We explored the architecturally stunning BenCab Museum, built by a renowned local artist to showcase his works and his collection of traditional Ilocos carvings, which was located on a narrow ridge road with wood-carving studios teetering atop the sharp declines. The emotional high point of our stay was a visit to a local school and home for visually impaired children, whose sweet voices will stay with us forever.

We then took to the road for two days with our fabulous driver Jesse, chaperoned by Bernadette (Bernie) and Dan Galang, who head the Baguio club, to explore other parts of the Ilocos region. The roads zigzag in the mountains and are filled with pedaled vehicles in the lowlands, so the ride to the preserved Spanish colonial town of Vigan is long. We broke it up with an amazing uphill jeepney ride to a downhill path through a forest and rice paddies to Tangadan Falls. Keith, another ambassador, and I immediately dove into the beautiful pool below the falls. The uphill walk back to the jeepney, accompanied by a local dog and past a pool table, was quite challenging. After an evening and morning in Vigan, we continued north to Laoag, for a flight back to Manila. Along the way we discovered the amazing Paoay church, completed in 1710, and then Paula, Kayoko, and I took a wonderful dune buggy ride that surely would not meet safety standards back home. The ride to Laoag took us through Ferdinand Marcos’ home province, and it was clear that the dictator had channeled lots of government funds in that direction.

After overnighting at a hotel near the Manila airport, we flew to Naga for our second home stay. We were greeted by Naga club leader Leo Borras and a group of students from the Ateneo Junior Eagles, who had been waiting two hours for our delayed airplane.

It was final exam week and many of the students had not yet completed their exams, but they chose to spend their scarce free time with us.

They brought us by jeepney to a private room in a restaurant for a festive welcome dinner, introduction to our home and day hosts, and a brief explanation of the next week – three nights of home hosting, two nights in a Naga hotel, and two nights at a small resort on the beach in Caramoan. The students had a brilliant ice breaker, asking each of the seven ambassadors to show off a dance move, demonstrating for us the current Filipino dance craze, and then putting all the steps together and pulling everyone onto the dance floor to perform this wild new creation.

For three days, we explored in and around Naga, led by the students – more than 20 helped out at one time or another, some for multiple days. The first morning, an Ateneo professor gave a fascinating presentation on the culture and history of Bicol (Naga’s region). We toured the campus, including a building used by the Japanese to imprison and torture Filipinos during World War II. We headed out of town to Malabsay Falls near the base of volcanic Mount Isarog and then rested at nearby Panicuasan hot springs. At the falls, Keith and I again dove right in, Ambassador Paula joined us, and even Kayoko couldn’t resist ultimately. At the hot springs, we came across a group of young men similarly relaxing; they were seminary students who had just completed their final exams.

That evening I briefly left my home hosts to visit the family that had hosted me two years earlier when I had joined Colin and Janet Ridge on an exploratory visit to Naga, but I also got up early the next morning to walk with my hosts through their neighborhood. Most of their neighbors were poor; they had built basic houses on small plots of land that had been given to them, but many did not have enough money to pay the elementary school fees for their children. There were fruit, vegetable, meat, and fish stalls, and on that Sunday morning locals were supplementing their meager incomes by selling vegetables that they had grown in their tiny gardens. Every home was also surrounded by flowers.

During their freshman year, all students at the Ateneo de Naga are required to participate in an “immersion” program that includes a three-day homestay with a poor family, and must meet with their advisors each semester to discuss how they will apply their skills to help the poor.

The Junior Eagles do so by volunteering with several community-based organizations. They introduced us to the residents of the local Habitat for Humanity community, which houses 100 families and continues to grow. Then they brought us by jeepney and boat to Punta Tarawal, a very poor village that is accessible only by water. The Ateneo Juniors have created the award-winning TARPBAG program that makes use of tarpaulin scraps to fabricate book bags for the village elementary school children.  We met with the children and Warren taught them how to “do the hokey pokey.”

We departed early the next morning for two days in Caramoan, traveling by van and boat. The first afternoon, only three ambassadors – along with our fabulous Ateneo guides, Jade, Anne, and Faham – chose to brave the high seas from an earlier rain in pursuit of island-hopping. Still, the rain was gone, the air was warm, and the islands we visited were quite magical, with us frequently being the only ones at a beach. The next day the water was calmer, everyone joined the trip, we took off from the local beach and explored several more islands. On one island, Keith joined Jade, Anne, Faham, and our guide to climb steep rocks up to a lagoon overlooking the beach. All agreed it had been a challenging climb. The rest of us lazed and swam on the beach.

Our return to Naga was without surprises, and we had a few hours of rest before getting back into a van for a ride to our farewell dinner, at the home of a recent Junior Eagle alumna. With their final exams behind them, more than 20 students joined us and our home hosts for this final celebration of our new friendships. The students again put on a brilliant program, with traditional and contemporary dances, and lots of photos.

Cancellation of three consecutive flights out of Naga made connections in Manila rather difficult, but all ambassadors eventually made it safely home, with the most wonderful memories of the Philippines and incredible new friendships across cultures and generations.

Read here about how the “Engage Future Leaders” initiative of our 40th Anniversary Campaign will support scholarships for some of these Filipino students to travel on an upcoming Friendship Force Journey!

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