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!




Crystal Mingle


My favorite part of Crystal Beach in San Narciso, Zambales is the part where you go through a thicket of pine trees, bend low as you wade through the needles that gently slap your face, follow the light at the end of the furry tunnel and emerge in a cozy hang-out labeled Mingle in the Jungle.  Mingle in the Pine Forest doesn’t sound as good, so jungle it is.  Two hammocks among the pine trees wait for you not to mention a set of sungka invites plus music from guests who just grilled their dinner.  A few steps away is the beach with perfectly angled lounge chairs for chatting the night away.   We could stay here forever but we had a bonfire roast (hotdogs, smores, marshmallows) planned.

Crystal Beach had another surprise waiting for us: they set up a movie screen on the beach with low tables and banig and they showed back to back two animated features: Home and A Bug’s Life.  What are the chances that they chose these on the night our children’s camp was there?  On a usual night, it would be surfer type movies.  They know how to please their guests.  I remember talking to the owner’s daughter some months back and she said how her dad blended in with the staff because he would pick up trash and wanted people to have doses of thoughtful service.

We stayed, nay cheated a bit in their glamping tents — tents where you can fully stand up and that come equipped with electric fan, light and outlet to plug your gadgets.  On nearby trees, swings hang made of tires and plastic blue barrels for barreling through the air finding your balance.  Wide open sandy space beckons you to play frisbee and volleyball.  I’m glad Camile convinced me to hold the much-awaited laser tag at the obstacle course.  I pictured in my mind that the kids will run a race through the half-burried tires and climbing net but instead, they played the classic camp favorite.  Sometimes, maybe most of the time, reality presents us something more interesting than what we imagined.

At Home at Casa


We could come home to it again and again and it would welcome us with open arms despite anything that’s happened in the past.  That is home.  That is Casa.  Casa San Miguel of my dreams and now, yours.

This time around, it’s twelve kids without their parents.  Only one Mom came and she graciously helped us record everything in photos and videos so that parents back in China can be assured of how well their children are cared for, and more than that, how they are having a rollicking, crazy good time frolicking in the beaches of Zambales, catching tadpoles in the pond, directing a surprise for their fellow camper, making puppets come alive, chilling out with Lego and the piano, riding the Pinoy tricycle, eating pizza, biko and suman, and going round Coke’s mental and physical labyrinth.

In my over 20 years of visiting Casa and its surroundings, I’ve never been to Anawangin Cove and this time, we took the guests there but it’s probably not the pretty, pristine cove it was way back then.  We took the boat to Capones which still rule our hearts because we can own the island for the afternoon and pick shells and tiny bits of coral as much as we want.  Even if we can’t swim or safely ride the waves like in Anawangin, it was enough to feel like ship wrecked adventurers on our very own island.

A 3-minute tricycle ride plus a good sand trek away from Casa, we also had an afternoon swimming in the river with it’s fresh, unsalted, calm waters in sharp contrast to the salty ocean with powerful waves just parallel it and with merely a sandy strip dividing the two bodies. Nature is a miracle worker.

Dingdong from SPIT Manila facilitated the process of drawing stories from the children which were then translated into shadow play through the guidance of Taj.  Camile, Francis, Danise and Maebel joined the fray, gently coaxing the storylines out of the kids and even coming up with their own wacky presentation.  It’s amazing to see how shadow play stamps out inhibitions and brings out confidence as you remain hidden behind a screen.  After a day and a half of workshops, the kids jumped into performance which brought out enthusiastic voices.  After garnering the applause and bowing on stage, the kids went behind the screen and continued weaving their own stories and dialogues like what they do in free play.


Read other articles about Casa San Miguel:

Coming Home to Casa

Hero’s Journey Version 2.0

Culmination and the Awesomeness of Ensemble

Casa of My Dreams

The Ballad of Coke Bolipata

And you can watch this on Youtube: The Story of the Filipino: Coke Bolipata

Look at Casa through the lens of Hero’s Journey 2017 and 2018 and you see the big difference in the structure.  Coke, ever the genius creator, added a bold, radical roof with green wall and hanging woven lamps, pushing boundaries all the time.  I know there are people who miss the iconic silhouette but it always makes me wonder what Coke will cook up next.




Peace at Prado


Luck was on our side driving from Manila to Lubao, Pampanga on a Sunday when we breezed through normally choked EDSA.  After one full day of flying from Tianjin to Xiamen to Manila, leaving very early morning and arriving way late at night, it was good for the travelers to relax the next day in a serene farm dotted with art works, creativity bursting from each detail.  Among the trees, kids played on and under colorful sculptures.  At first they were tentative and scared to go into the pig pen but once they started offering leaves to the pigs, it was hard to get them to stop so the next group can take their turn after the carabao ride.  They brought out a ping pong table for our group to use near the big tree with vines from which it was a joy to swing.

Except for one, all twenty of us stayed in a dormitory which was great for bonding.  Camile and her team of camp counselors, Francis, Maebel and Danise played charades, tag and read the kids bed time stories.  We felt that one day and a night in Prado Farms is too short to fully soak in the trees, sky and fields into our system and next time, we’ll stay longer.

Check out Prado Farms

Hero’s Journey at Prado Farms last year (2017)


Hero’s Journey 2018 Version 3.0


From February 3 to 10, a dozen kids from China, majority unaccompanied by their parents, flew to Manila with three teachers from Tianjin and joined the Hero’s Journey camp 2018.  The third we have had thus far, it combines the best features from the first and second camps, striking a balance between fun outdoor activities and art.  Combining improvisational theater and shadow play, facilitators drew stories from the children that were woven into a performance that brought out their voices and imagination.

We started from Manila, drove to Prado Farms in Lubao, Pampanga where the kids fed pigs, rode a carabao-pulled cart and swam in the pool.  Next stop was Casa San Miguel in San Antonio, Zambales where we had river trek, cove and island hopping, workshops, performances, games on the lawn, tricycle rides and a surprise birthday party orchestrated by the children themselves.  We wished we all could have stayed longer at the next destination at Crystal Beach, San Narciso where we had bonfire, movie night, sungka, swings, frisbee and loads of time chasing the waves.  Treetop Adventure at Subic produced the usual effect of fear first and pure ecstatic enjoyment after.   Last stop was MOA where Kultura (pasalubong shopping), Jollibee (the favorite meal) and Toy Kingdom (Mom, I need more money) were the orders of the day.

We look forward to more Hero’s Journeys in the future and there will be more detailed accounts coming up from this quite dormant blog.   Since my family and I made a transition from China back to the Philippines, I have remained silent on WordPress but will soon be back with reports about the camp as well as updates about self-directed education.