Last Stretch: Jungle Joy & Jollibee


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.


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


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



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


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.



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.



All About the 4×4


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


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.



The Hero’s Team

We were teaching at the same university when we met and who knew those casual conversations in the cafeteria would later evolve into the Hero’s Journey.  When Donna and I organized the first camp in 2017, we envisioned that it would eventually lead us to establishing alternative schools in the Philippines and China.  We also dreamed of making the camp as global as possible and we are truly grateful for finding partners who believe in the same thing.

Carl and Samantha run Level Up, an English learning center with several branches in Tianjin.  Like Donna and me, they are passionate about non-traditional forms of education.  We all love art, theater, the outdoors and we want kids to discover and enjoy the world.  We want them not to be limited by classroom walls and to feel free to explore and express themselves.  Practicing a second language is just a by-product.  The real meat is in the shared journey.  They get to practice English in fun, natural and organic settings rather than imposed and structured set-ups.

Carl is very much into science, drones, National Geographic, children’s book illustration, music and improvisation.  He taught kids about MPAs – Marine Protected Areas and flew drones on this trip that captured the elegance of Prado Farms, Casa San Miguel, surfing and the tropical rainforest.

Last year, the teacher who accompanied the kids from Level Up was Zena and this year, it’s Annie.  Both of them take care of the kids conscientiously and they take great pictures to boot.  Parents back in China feel fangxin (no need to worry) knowing their kids are in good hands.

Taj joined Hero’s Journey as the shadowplay workshop facilitator but he had other talents to share this year aside from that.  He spearheaded picking up stuff from the beach gingerly placed in improvised brown envelopes, brought out in Casa San Miguel to be transformed into artworks which Donna, the psychology professor, then proceeded to analyze each child’s personality and character based on their creations.  She just whispered the information to me.

What I love about seeing these artworks is how unique every child is, how each one is marvelously, stupendously one-of-a-kind.  Taj also taught the kids printmaking using the styrofoam covers of the packed meals we brought to the beach the day before.  As soon as somebody finished eating our baon of menudo, rice and lumpiang Shanghai, Taj would cut off the clean cover and collect them in a bag.  Who knew the texture of styrofoam had its own beauty, quite different from its bad reputation as a common pollutant.  Taj also facilitated silkscreen printing on t-shirts.  The kids who wanted to, designed their names that were emblazoned on shirts they brought along for the trip.

For more than twenty years, I’ve been visiting Casa San Miguel and didn’t know that my two favorite paintings were done by Taj — these red and black ones that remind me of The Cure.   The one on the right hangs on the theater where we hold the improvised shadowplay performances.

Carl calls Marc — Marc Gyver.  Marc joined us this year to lead the jungle survival course.  He was a last-minute replacement because we got locked out of JEST camp since a whole school booked it on the date we wanted. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because we got to meet Marc and his team, one of whom trains dolphins.  Marc specializes in organizing outdoor adventures.  He chose a gorgeous trail for us at Pamulaklakin and gave each kid a modern day equivalent of a flintstone (Yabadabadoo!) for producing sparks that can be used to start a fire.  Marc got the kids scrambling for dried twigs and leaves, and cooking rice, tinola and sinigang using bamboo.  Maybe we’ll try more Bear Grylls-type of activities with him next year, like how to convert your pee into drinking water.  Nah.

Hero’s Journey won’t be possible without the intrepid, fun-and-laughter inducing camp counselors headed by Camile.  Francis is the expert campfire ghost story teller who made the kids scream in fear.  (You won’t know that English is not their mother tongue.) Dan is the hang-out magnet — kids just want to hang out with him.  Maebel gets the kids addicted to sungka — a Filipino game played on a wooden board with small sea shells.  I learn a lot about parenting from Camile.  She could figure out my kids more than I could with her decade-long experience as summer camp director.  I’ve been a parent one year shy of a decade but I still feel clueless and inept a lot of times.

What I love about Camile and her team is how they prioritize safety.   They are like security guards on heightened alert in water, in public places, anywhere in general but more so in those two categories.  They have a pulse and heart for kids and kids hen she bu de when it comes to saying goodbye to them.  What does hen she bu de mean?  Is that a female chicken?  Nope.  It’s pronounced something like hun shuh boo duh.  It’s that feeling of not wanting to separate when it’s time to leave.


thank you

Find out how Hero’s Journey got it’s name:

Why Hero’s Journey

Hero’s Journey Version 4.0


A possible lost passport couldn’t stop the Hero’s Journey, nor could an extra-long bureaucratic nightmare of a process at the airport.  Fourteen kids and three teachers from China arrived in Manila last week, tired but relieved, ready to take on the adventure.  Despite the usual setbacks, these proverbial flies in the soup won’t matter since everyone is bound to have a great time!

This is our fourth Hero’s Journey – an English immersion program for kids coming from China.  They soak in an English environment with five camp counselors from the Philippines, having loads of fun outdoors, trying Filipino food, doing art, improvisation, shadow play, National Geographic lessons, island hopping and this year, we added a jungle survival course.

We have three favorite places for our troopers – Prado Farms in Lubao, Pampanga, Casa San Miguel and Crystal Beach, both in Zambales.  Prado Farms and Casa San Miguel are brain children of creative geniuses and artists, Reimon Gutierrez and Coke Bolipata respectively.  In Prado Farms, ordinary objects take on extraordinary form while in Casa San Miguel, music and architecture are evolving works in progress.  In Crystal Beach, “glamping” is the word.   Their glamp tent comes with light, electric fan and you don’t have to worry about charging your devices.  When you come out to greet the morning or brush your teeth, the sea and sky are your infinite windows.

But as in any camp, more than the place, it’s the relationship built among the kids and facilitators.  We celebrate nature but at the same time, it’s an excuse for bonding – trekking through a forest, crossing a river, cooking your own food in bamboo, waiting for the boat to fetch us from an island, assisting young swimmers reach the platform a considerable distance from the shore.  Sunsets, surfing, building sand castles, movie by the beach, roasting hotdogs and marshmallows, boodle fight — naturally fun stuff are balanced with output — printing using recycled styrofoam covers from the packed lunch eaten on the island the day before, silkscreen printing your own shirt, creating artwork from found objects on the beach, weaving spontaneously a story with puppets presented as a shadowplay, learning about Marine Protected Areas from a teacher working towards his National Geographic certification.  You can imagine how full a week can be but there’s room for free time, quiet contemplation, making friends, playing, laughing and horsing around with the counselors and kids doing what they do best being kids.

Often, school takes out the fun in childhood and we need to give it back to them.  A week may not be enough but it’s enough to remind us and re-fill ourselves.

We look forward to the next Hero’s Journey.  For the next one, we want to try what has always been at the back of our minds, brewing at the back burner — a camp with kids from abroad together with local kids.  Watch out for that!

At Prado Farms, you can grab a bike and explore to your heart’s content.

At Casa San Miguel, you can step inside the mind of an artist and celebrate art yourself.

At Capones Island, you are loved by the sea, salt, sand and sky.

At Crystal Beach, you can surf and glamp.

At Pamulaklakin Trail in Subic, the kids learned how to start a fire and cooked their own food using bamboo.

At Camayan Beach, master the art of R & R.



Treetop and Jollibee Joys


One is scrunched up in fear; the other raises his arm advanced in triumph at the starting line.  After the Superman rider zips them back and forth twice over the lush canopy of Subic rainforest, they all want another turn.  That’s like how we are at times with life – nervous, anxious, doubtful at the beginning but once we get the experience, we’re good to go another round and another.

In a visit to the Philippines, aside from enjoying the sand, water, sky, sea and trees, one must have a taste of the jolly bumblebee’s delight – Jollibee spaghetti and chicken joy.  There’s also Kultura for souvenir shopping – one stop and everything’s there.  The Manila Bay sunset, Toy Kingdom and National Bookstore are bonuses.  You have to let the guests try sinigang (tamarind broth) and halo-halo (mixture of shaved ice, milk, beans, jelly, fruits and other goodies).

We are grateful Camile, Francis, Maebel and Danise prioritize safety especially in crazy crowded areas like Mall of Asia on a Friday night.  We are grateful for the counselors’ generosity of spirit and energy.  We are grateful to Taj and Dingdong for the synergies they facilitated through the workshops.  We are grateful to Gabe and John for leading us to Dingdong.  We are grateful for Carl, Samantha and Zena for braving the exhausting plane rides to and excruciating airport of Manila and for bringing the children to experience something totally different.   We are grateful to all the parents and children for their trust and participation.  We are grateful for your laughter and your screams.  We are grateful to all the people behind Prado Farms, Casa San Miguel and Crystal Beach Resort for hosting us.

It’s quite fitting that “summer” camp (in this case, it’s really winter since it’s winter in China) ends with tearful goodbyes.  Till we meet again next time!