Last Stretch: Jungle Joy & Jollibee

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Casa San Miguel was home to Hero’s Journey for a couple of days and its theater hosted the camp’s shadow play-improvisation program.  This time, however, our group grew too big to fit in the available rooms but we still wanted to take the campers to marvel at genius Coke Bolipata’s ever-evolving creation.

From Casa San Miguel, we drove to another Hero’s Journey home: Camayan beach resort in Subic where the kids could snorkel near the shore, see and feed fishes.  It was our jump-off point to the Pamulaklakin Forest Trail where we do a jungle survival course with Marc and his team of outdoor adventurers.  They taught the kids to make fire, cook a mean-tasting sinigang and rice in bamboo, eat heartily using bamboo plates and utensils.  They taught them how to build an a-frame, lean-to and convertible shelters.  The guides built animal traps that the kids played with, pretending to be clueless chickens walking into a trap.  After that came the freedom we longed for: to hop from rock to rock, wade and swim in the water flowing through a dense jungle, swing on vines like a tamer Tarzan.

Society has taught our kids to be overly-cautious.  Parents and grandparents might have passed on a finicky attitude. Sometimes kids don’t seem to be the kids that embrace what childhood is all about: jumping at the opportunity to try something new, exploring and having an adventure, gleeful at getting wet and dirty. Hopefully they carry that spirit all the way to adulthood.

Originally, I didn’t want to go to Ocean Adventure Park because I just wanted to stare at the sea at Camayan Beach but then Ocean Adventure also faces the same side of the ocean. The amphitheater and the whole park backdrop IS the mountain-sea-sky. I could sit and wait in the air-conditioned restaurant, work on my laptop while looking out at the infinite blue horizon.  Someday, I want to have a name card that indicates what I do for work: Staring at the Sea.

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. . . . and my office has a view like this:

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P.S. Jollibee never fails.  Neither does Cheetos or dolphins.

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P.P.S.  It was doubly good that our group went to Pamulaklakin forest because tourism in the area was affected by the Taal eruption so the skilled guides needed the business that the guests from China brought.  The local guides made tall cups and spoons out of bamboo for each of us and made the jungle survival course possible, together with Marc Gana and his team of facilitators for wilderness adventure learning camps.

 

Finding Home: Magical Macampao

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In our four years and five camps of doing Hero’s Journey, we have been dreaming of having a base camp where we can stay for several days straight instead of moving from one place to another.  It was getting tiring hopping in and out of vehicles, packing and unpacking, herding kids from resort to resort even if those were by beautiful beaches.  Time could be better spent playing more games, having more outdoor activities, just chilling, chatting, creating and savoring moments.

When we reached Macampao Beach Resort also in Zambales, it felt like we found home, like everything we wanted our camp to be was there.  It was magical. The rooms felt like your very own treehouse and the view to the sea felt you were standing at the prow of an ocean ship. The activities available included kayaking, rafting, carabao sled ride, horseback riding, fishing and they had the most amazing food serving us pumpkin flower tempura, too many delicious dishes to mention, a rich variety of fruits and superb suman. They topped all in cleanliness and personalized attention.  They wrote each of our names in pink on a shiny black slate by each room door; they had flowers in bottles labeled Hero’s Journey 2020 and welcome Hero’s Journey on the chalkboard by a canopied queen daybed.  And to top it all off – it was all ours, at least for the two days and one night that we were there.  It was ours exclusively including the beach that had hammocks, wooden swing seats and huts festooned with capiz shells that tinkled and sang with the wind.

 

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Taj is our resident artist who in the past, made art works with the kids using objects from the beach.  For this camp, they made headdresses from natural and man-made materials. They did printmaking on paper and on t-shirts.  Each kid designed their names and cut them out to be silkscreen printed on any extra shirt they had.  There were “mistakes” that in Taj’s artistic hands turned out happy.  In Macampao, Taj settled in an ideal art workshop studio nestled among trees, open yet still protected from the elements.

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All About the 4×4

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The first part of our trip with the group of kids from China turned out to be about going off-road. We rode a 45-seater bus from Prado Farms to Crystal Beach and the roads were too narrow for the bulky behemoth to maneuver.  Always with impeccable service, Crystal beach sent us a tricycle with a staff to lift the low-hanging electric wires to allow the bus to pass.  On the part where our bus couldn’t make a turn just a minute away from the resort’s gate, three vehicles fetched us including a shiny red pick-up that was the same truck that brought us to the surfing area that afternoon.  Usually, we surfed at the resort but this time, they took us further north, past Zambawood to a more secluded place with ideal waves for beginner surfers.  Wind in our faces, we rode at the back of the pick-up and had a beach stretch all to ourselves.  The day after, the 4×4 adventure in Botolan we booked was more than what I had imagined, going through terrain with an army Saddam and three other rough and tumble 4x4s.  At some points, it felt like going to a war-torn country in the desert, under the shadow of Pinatubo and its gray-white lahar.  At some points, we were Bear Grylls survivalists or contestants in a reality TV show that had to go up against nature.

We added a trip to Tukal Tukal waterfalls to replace our typical boat ride to Capones island.  Googling online and talking to two people who knew the area, I thought it would be easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy but boy was I wrong.  The ride from Crystal Beach to Botolan was double what the internet told me.  To get to the waterfall, I thought it would be a short 4×4 ride followed by a one-hour trek shaded by trees but turns out it’s a longer but rollicking fun with gorgeous, gorgeous views.  The one-hour trek they told me after the drop-off point was certainly not going to be only one hour with 18 kids in tow, 4 of whom are 6 years old.  Another person informed us, it was a two-hour hike but regardless of the time, the other unfactored fact was that a big chunk of the trek had few trees to protect the troop from the searing heat of the sun.  If we wanted to really do this, we had to be there at 6am, not 11am.  We had to abandon ship, retreat from this Hero’s Journey challenge and leave it for another time.

It must be di regueur that I check each and every place that we visit for our camp.  This time around, I had to juggle more things than usual because of a start-up enterprise that required more from me so the time left to take care of the camp was less than I wanted.  I felt guilty for not preparing adequately with a proper ocular beforehand but we were heaped with rewards. Even if we did not make it to our goal of Tukal Tukal waterfalls, our 4×4 drivers let us off at a river with mini-falls of clear, cold water.  Kids navigated through huge rocks, picked beautiful stones on the river bed and had a fantastic ball.  We filled our tummies with spaghetti and tuna melt sandwich prior to entering the cool stream.

The other rewarding discovery was Camp Kainomayan which was a treasure trove for kids: ATV, zipline, obstacle course, paintball, playground and swimming pool with slide. Sadly, we didn’t have enough time to do those but we are definitely coming back here in our next camp or as family doing an ocular inspection.  (Who do you think has the best job in the world?)

Crystal Beach Resort in San Narciso, Zambales really walks their talk when it comes to environmental protection.  Their round cake of soap does not come in any package.  The soap dispensers in the shower stalls save on those pesky shampoo sachets that pollute.  The drinks come with edible straws.  When they packed us lunch, everything came in a paper box within a paper bag plus they gave us cloth bags.

Carl, our Hero’s Journey partner and teacher from America was looking forward to seeing a pawikan laying eggs.  In my inspection visit to Pawicare a few minutes away from Crystal Beach, they didn’t have anything set up that month in particular.  So Carl and I rode a tricycle the night before we were scheduled for a visit with the kids to check what they had.  In a big, blue palanggana, they only had 3 baby turtles left because a group had come before us and released 30 to the sea.  We promised to return the next day with the kids but that didn’t happen because we took our time in Botolan.  Next year, we will make sure to book and tell them to keep at least 30 hatchlings for the kids to see, not touch.  With stars against the night sky overhead, Carl and I walked back to Crystal Beach trying to see if we could spot pawikan tracks. The volunteers of Pawicare taught us what the tracks looked like and drew the pattern on the sand. What are the chances that we will see pawikan laying eggs or tracks that a mother left?  I was amazed at Carl’s optimism and followed his lead.

 

Beyond Taal and into the Hero’s Journey

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The first Hero’s Journey camp in 2017 was held in Club Balai Isabel fronting the Taal Lake where in January 2020, the volcano within the volcano of the lake spewed ashfall that had people evacuating to higher ground.  Our camp had moved to the Pampanga and Zambales areas so it was far and relatively safe from Taal’s rumblings underneath.  However, one dad and his son cancelled their trip but 17 kids and 4 adults from China went through with the journey with our team of 5 from the Philippines eagerly waiting for their arrival at the Clark airport, praying Taal would hold whatever grudge it held inside or figure out how to let it dissipate in non-explosive ways.

The camp is improving year by year with new activities and revised programs, tweaks here and there but no matter the preparation, the essence of the journey is still the unexpected and dealing with them with grace and wisdom.

Three days in (with 4 to go), and a lot has happened – the usual and unusual adventures – minor airport inefficiencies, improvisation, farm time at Prado, bonding time in between, troubleshooting coordination, surfing and the new addition of 4×4 rides in the mountains of Botolan.

Three days after Taal’s alboroto, the camp participants’ plane arrived on January 15 at 12:30am.  They got out after an hour and a half and the kids were tucked in bed at 3am at the nearby Royce Hotel in Clark.  We proceeded to our go-to fave farm, Prado at Lubao, Pampanga.

For foodies and quirky-creative interior design enthusiasts, Prado thrills with works of recycled objects turned into art, light through the leaves of tall trees, shadows moving with the still water of the pond, the sky over the rice fields promising peace.  The kids bike to their hearts content on our second day after feeding the pigs.

I find this treasure of a book from the owner’s collection.  As I told Reimon, it’s probably one of the reasons why I came there — to receive its message.

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Mayon and the Last Stretch (RORO Part 5)

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We thought that there would be no ROROs on January 1.  In San Isidro port, there was none but further north in Allen, it turns out they operate 24 hours non-stop.  Night caught us hungry and tired on the road so we thought we’d look for a place to stay but luckily, ferries still plied and we caught the 9:30pm to Matnog, saving us from staying in a creepy place.  We arrived in Matnog near midnight and the places were either deserted or full.  We thought we’d have to go to the next bigger town of Irosin but fortunately, we found Villa de Sanj Homestay ran by the friendliest family who welcomed us on a late, rainy night.  They were no strangers to helping out strangers as they hosted a lot of people stuck due to Typhoon Ursula.  Shirly, the woman behind this homey place was all-out superb and hospitable, spoiling us by lending us slippers, sharing tourist tips, giving me her own hair tie because mine got washed away in the rapids, plus she granted my craving for tuyo!  Early riser Jimmy played with a lot of children in the river behind their house.

Rested from the tough night thanks so much to Shirly and the Bongons, we proceeded to Mayon Volcano where Joshua and Jimmy rode the zipline at Lignon Hill and we drove ATVs on a short river course at the foot of the mighty,  looming legend.  We found Sarung Banggi resort in Sto. Domingo not far from Legazpi City.  Whenever I see or read the name, the old song plays in my head.  The melody holds me tight and I can’t separate it from the phrase.

Jason cooks dinner for us in the beach cabana while a karaoke party accompanies our makeshift hotpot.  We enjoy staring at the sea and stoking the bonfire so it doesn’t die.  Joshua experiments with his own barbeque.  Jimmy chases chickens and collects treasures from the garbage washed up onto the shore.  The state of our public beaches makes me sad, but the ocean is so big, it can hold all our sorrows.

Someday, I’ll be old and maybe I’ll forget these details so I’m writing them all down.  Joshua and Jimmy will read them and we’ll laugh at our adventures and be happy, tearful that we made it.  We are grateful that their daddy and daddy’s friend were patient enough to drive us all over Southern Luzon and the Visayas.  We are grateful to be safe and guided throughout.

 

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In summary, our RORO road trip brought us to the following places from December 20, 2019 to January 3, 2020:

  1. Drive from Taguig to Batangas Port
  2. RORO from Batangas City to Calapan, Mindoro
  3. Drive from Calapan to Roxas, Mindoro (Can’t remember the name of the hotel)
  4. RORO from Roxas to Caticlan
  5. Boat ride from Caticlan to Boracay (Hey Jude and Grand Blue) and back to Caticlan
  6. Drive from Caticlan to Iloilo (J7 Hotel)
  7. Drive from Iloilo City to Bucari campsite
  8. RORO from Iloilo to Bacolod City (Joan’s house)
  9. Drive from Bacolod City to Guintubdan campsite and waterfalls
  10. Drive from Bacolod City to Cafe La Guada, Don Salvador to San Carlos Port
  11. RORO from San Carlos, Bacolod to Toledo, Cebu (Estrella Beach Resort)
  12. Drive from Toledo Cebu to Cebu City
  13. RORO from Cebu City to Ormoc, Leyte
  14. Drive from Ormoc to Calbiga, Samar (Lola Rosa)
  15. Drive from Calbiga to Paranas Torpedo Boat Ride and to Allen Port
  16. RORO from Allen, Samar to Matnog, Sorsogon (Villa de Sanj Homestay)
  17. Drive from Matnog to Mayon Volcano, Albay (Sarung Banggi Beach Resort)
  18. Drive from Legazpi City to Manila – longest drive of the trip at around 12 hours

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Quite appropriate karaoke song of our last night:

What has life to offer me
When I grow old
What’s there to look forward to
Beyond the biting cold
‘Cause they say it’s difficult
Yes, stereotypical
What’s there beyond sleep, eat, work in this cruel life
Ain’t there nothing else ’round here but human strife
They say it’s difficult
Yes, stereotypical
You gotta be conventional
You can’t be so radical
So I sing this song to all of my age
For these are the questions
We’ve got to face
For in this cycle that we call life
We are the ones who are next in line
We are next in lineWe are next in line… Oooh… Ohh…
We are next in lineAnd we gotta work, we gotta feel
Let’s open our eyes and do whatever it takes
And we gotta work, we gotta feel
Let’s open our eyes (ooohhh)

And I sing this song to all of my age
For these are the questions
We’ve got to face
For in this cycle that we call life
We are the ones who are next in line
We are next in line

 

Samar is Something Else (RORO Part 4)

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Samar surprises us and exceeds our expectations.

First, perhaps not accidentally but through divine intervention (because somebody up there knows I LOVE Architecture), we discover a gem of a lovingly restored ancestral home called Lola Rosa.  Second, we rode motorcyles to reach what they call the mini-version of Niagara falls called Luluguyan.  Third, we might not have done the whitewater rafting we wanted but the Torpedo boat ride at Paranas with waterfall jumping at Deni point more than made up for the online misinformation.

We had just taken the 11pm RORO from Cebu to Ormoc and arrived around 5am and from the port drove straight for 5 hours to reach Calbiga, Samar so we rested for a while at Lola Rosa’s before venturing out to Lulugayan falls.  We wanted to go caving after but we reached the spot past 4pm and it was a one or two hour trek to the mouth of the cave so we had to cross that off our list and reserve it for next time.  That needs a lot more preparation to execute.

Originally, Cagayan de Oro was included in our itinerary because of whitewater rafting but because it’s too far and since Samar offered it, we went to Samar instead.  I kept showing people the screenshot of the inflatable raft over the rapids that’s supposedly in Calbiga but we found out that it’s an internet “untruth” and what they had was a boat ride called TORPEDO.  It’s a wooden boat with a motor going through a relatively flat river.  It wasn’t what we envisioned but since we were there, might as well give it a try.  Life proves once again that you only need to say “yes” to it.

After more than half an hour going through a river with lush mountain forests on either side and with some adrenaline-pumping, scream-inducing dips, we stopped at Deni point.   Our guides tied a rope between two rocks downstream and then upstream with the not-so-high waterfalls, we jumped over the raging water.  There’s no inflatable raft here but it turns out, our body was the raft that was to be swept away by the roaring current.  The guides were very safety conscious and they told us which rocks we could jump from.  They were always alert assisting us especially the kids.  Jimmy couldn’t stop jumping.  The adults stopped after a while but Jimmy still kept coming back saying, “one last time” several times.

The town of Calbiga had a number of beautiful but crumbling, teetering old houses but one house was lavished with so much love and attention and was turned into a veritable museum cum bed and breakfast by the family as a tribute to their matriarch, Lola Rosa.  Art works, pottery, paintings, artifacts, antiques, documents, framed photos, restored furniture, solid wood floors that shone bright, a fruit and flowered themed Christmas tree, a chair fit for a queen, knick knacks, bric-a-brac  — these filled the house but what was even more surprising was how the level of cleanliness in the main rooms were carried over in the glass cabinets for holding materials for the maintenance and upkeep of the house.  The tools and items used for repair were lined up perfectly like somebody obsessive-compulsive is wonderfully guilty of intentional care.

This home is where we spent our New Year’s eve with Jason and his friend, Lele cooking a feast in a spacious kitchen.  Walking distance away was the market where they could easily get ingredients and where Jimmy could get a colorful horn to welcome 2020.  Joshua, Jimmy and I ended up watching the movie that we started in one RORO ship but didn’t finish.  Now, it was quite meaningful to usher in the next 365 days with V for Vendetta, a film that celebrates anarchist rebellion.

 

I’ve always wanted to watch V for Vendetta because I used the short monologue in my English class in China.  Even if I hadn’t seen the movie then, I had the students come up with their own crazy alliterations.  New year is not only for making wishes but for making them come true.

But on this most auspicious of nights, permit me then, in lieu of the more commonplace sobriquet, to suggest the character of this dramatis persona.

 

Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a bygone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin van-guarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition. The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it’s my very good honor to meet you and you may call me V.

 

Check out the video of the waterfall jump here.

Unbeatable Bacolod; Passing through Cebu (RORO Part 3)

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There are five reasons why Bacolod can never be beat:  Joan, Xiaowu, Andy, Kylie and Dylan.  On our last night, after a big family meal in a Chinese restaurant, the kids had a blast playing in the park fronting the city hall, feeding the fish, tossing the plastic slingshot as high as they could so it swooshed up and swirled down with a blue light.  On our last day, Joan brought us to the hot springs which Jimmy says is his favorite spot because we ate on a table perched on a bamboo raft and he can swoop up tiny fish with an empty water bottle.  Amongst the trees, rocks and small waterfalls, we gobbled up a Filipino lunch.  Jimmy went with all the kids to the super crowded, noisy kiddie pool while Joshua joined the adults in the super hot, calming spring where you could cool down with a hose of cold water.   Joan couldn’t let us leave without coffee and more food.  She took us to Cafe La Guada in Don Salvador which has an amazing view and we may have found Jason’s dream home – a bamboo deck hugging the mountain with the sound of flowing stream below.   From there to San Carlos port, the drive was the most gorgeous stretch of road thus far in this adventure journey.

We rode our fourth RORO to Toledo, Cebu where we arrived late at night and had a difficult time looking for a place to stay but were rewarded with an available room at the Estrella Beach resort.  After the kids had their fill of the sand and jumping into pool, we headed straight to Cebu City where we took our fifth RORO to Ormoc.  Leyte was just a way for us to get to the San Juanico Bridge.  Spanning 2.16 km, I remember studying about it in gradeschool so I was quite excited to see it.  I wanted to stop and take pictures but we didn’t since it wasn’t at all impressive to my companions who are probably used to the engineering feats of China.  We just went through without stopping and at the end of it, waiting for us explorers, was Samar which deserves a whole blog entry of its own.

 

Number six and seven reason why Bacolod will always be special in our hearts — this romantic couple’s love for each other and their family:

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