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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Happy Campers at Last and Forever (RORO Part 2)

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Jason’s dream for us to resume our camping life at last comes true and the tent we have not used for more than a year (or two) is brought out, gets wet with cold morning dew and feasted on by greedy ants while we slept.  It’s in our family DNA to backpack and bask in nature’s glory.  Why did we ever wait this long to rediscover this old truth?  All thanks to a typhoon that got us stuck in Iloilo and after two nights of living too comfortably in a hotel walking distance from the usual gigantic SM mall, we thought too much convenience is not good for the soul and sought the mountains.

At first, it was quite a bummer not being able to take the RORO to Bacolod where we ideally wanted to celebrate Christmas with our friends who have become family.   Ferries were canceled because of the impending typhoon Ursula.  Somehow, we managed to squeeze joy out of the hassle because right across the hotel was a street side restaurant that served fresh oysters for P80 a bucket.  Jason and Lele, his friend from China and our travel companion, insisted on having both lunch and dinner back to back in the oyster place, since where else can you get such a bargain?  Our friend from Bacolod tipped us off about Bucari, the Baguio of Iloilo where we found a campsite.  Though we didn’t stay in a tent that rainy night, the facilities were only for those willing to rough it out.

Jason was back in his element cooking for us.  Instead of eyes glued on a hotel TV, the kids played chess with their dad.  Two sets of bunk beds served as Jimmy’s gym.  The next morning we hiked up the fourteen stations of the cross and were treated to one gorgeous vista after another.

After calling the coast guard every day to check on the ferry service, we were given the go signal on December 26 and took the third RORO of this trip, and once again experienced the chaos and inefficiency that’s sadly the hallmark and trademark of our nation.  Par for the course, expected, psyche yourself up — we smile through it all because a reward awaits on the other side.  Joan and her family prepared our favorite Chinese hotpot and it was amazing relief to plop our exhausted bodies in what felt like second home.  Giddy with excitement, Joshua and Jimmy were reunited with playmates Andy, Dylan and Kylie.  Joshua dared to eat balut because he saw Kylie relishing it.  We have homemade youtiao for breakfast and corned beef far from the blandness of budget inns.

Joan’s husband, my husband and Lele belonged to an outdoor club in China so it’s only fitting that our three families would celebrate the season with a camping trip with two treks to the waterfalls of Guintubdan.  Three men from China showed their cooking prowess on the grill and portable stove.  Six kids ran amok playing hide and seek in a wide, lush, terraced area.   One Superwoman from Bacolod orchestrated it all while one Filipina couldn’t stop eating.

Jason chose a spot to pitch our tent further away from the noise of other campers.  It was a spot suffused with the scent of flowers more intense at night than the day, a spot were the stars were closer and brighter, a spot where Jason could build his own fire and toast his feet above the coal.

Our First Airbnbs

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I’ve always wanted to try Airbnbs and now that I have, how can I ever go back to staying in hotels?  This is way, way, way better — much more space and the feeling of home for much less cost.  It gets addicting poring over the choices but once you’ve made the choice and dive into it, the rewards are enormous.

The first one we stayed in Ho Chi Minh was in a little alley in the older part of town and even though the roads are noisy, you are completely protected once inside.  The space was a celebration of light, of getting light through to the inner areas and of simple and honest construction.  Joshua can’t forget the banh mi on the street corner down the road and I can’t forget the pho.

The second one was in Nha Trang, a bit off the central area.   The unit was on the 35th floor of a tower block and it was a bit inconvenient going up and down because there were too many people and it made me yearn for being in a low building like the first bnb.  The reason I chose this over the others was rather silly but practical.  It was because it had Netflix!  This location had another unexpected advantage: the beach is quieter and less populated than the longer stretch of sand Nha Trang is famous for.

The third was back in Ho Chi Minh but this time we picked a spot near where James lived which is where a lot of expats are concentrated where there are a number of International Schools.  Modern areas meet the older parts of town in a healthy jumble.  The owner of this Airbnb enjoyed adding touches of home that even the WiFi password, “welcomehomemydear” makes you feel exactly that way.

Three Airbnbs, two nights each, allowed us to vegetate, chillax, do a good share of study and work in the comforts of homes that don’t make you feel like a total stranger in a strange land at all.

After writing that, we went to the airport where too belatedly, I realized rather sheepishly that 1:35 does not mean PM but AM.  I needed to scrounge for a fourth Airbnb and if the first three were a walk in the park, the fourth one was anything but — giving me more lessons in an already learning-laden trip.  The owner of the condominium unit was from Korea and because I had booked on the same day, the cleaners arrived late so the owner did not know on the ground what was happening.  I kept messaging him and he assured me everything was okay when it was not.  Anyway, long story short, there is the side of Airbnb that may not be as idyllic and it’s as business-driven as any.  They seem to raise prices on weekend and the more you search like other algorithm maximizing platforms.

Still, adventures into the unknown are beset with uncertainty and the more you experience, the better it is for your learning curve.  The lesson learned in this case is — it’s better to book in advance when it’s Airbnb.  However, when you do need the Airbnb right away, be careful of owners who have multiple units in the same building because there might be a mix-up and be ready to accept that it might not be cleaned up on time.

Still would choose Airbnbs over hotels if given the option.

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In Love With Design Again

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It’s me and my ex-boyfriend again, my on-and-off — Architecture — because Vietnam reminds me this one is a keeper and I’d be foolish to let it go — design that sparks joy because love is at the root.

This is just one restaurant with gorgeous interior-exterior and equally superb food:

 

The name of the place is:

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I wish I could go back to Hum during the day time and take pictures of the crazy fun sculptural tree house in the middle of the courtyard.  There’s a swing and boxes filled with wooden blocks and toys to entertain the kids while their parents dined on vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.   If it weren’t for James, I would’ve just been too lazy and chosen a place in the mall because it was right across the Airbnb.  There are many more like this gem where attention is paid to details but I didn’t have enough time to discover them since the kids were too tired to explore.  However, it’s more than enough to see glimpses and snippets, to feel gratitude and feel revived.

 

Well, I got my wish in an odd sort of way that the universe plays almost a mean joke.  I made the mistake of thinking 1:35 meant PM, not AM and we had to stay in Saigon an extra day.   So I was able to take more pictures:

 

I see parks like these in other countries and I wish I can be Bill Gates rich and buy all the land and turn them into parks with libraries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Chill and Not-So-Chill

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We settled on a totally chill, lazy holiday pattern of waking up late, doing a bit of writing and reading exercises for the kids to make up for the sin that is to come — binging on Netflix and games, plus drinking too much bubble milk tea simply because it was there and there were no lines unlike in Manila.  We managed the minimum of sightseeing — just enjoying what’s there in front of us although we took the effort to fly to Nha Trang from Ho Chi Minh and suffered the regular flight delays that brought us back to Saigon at 4 am instead of the expected, ticketed midnight.  In Nha Trang, we stayed in the quieter part of the long stretch of beach towards the north.  Huge tower blocks housing tourists still loomed overhead but the shoreline is not as inundated with bodies as the famous lengthy stretch of sand south of the bridge.

The food, of course, is the best thing about Vietnam as Anthony Bourdain would probably agree, salivating over the plethora of street food that celebrates the bounty of the land.  Oh those generous plates of mint and greens that come with everything!  That beautifully soft Pho that is not supposed to be pronounced with an “oh” sound but an “uh.”  And I have passed on my love for Banh Mi to Joshua and Jimmy but where will we ever get that perfect baguette when we go home.  The kids were intrigued by ice cream made on a metal table that instantly freezes fruits, oreo, chocolate powder, together with milk to make thin crepes rolled and slid into cups.  The fish with big bones cooked in foil sealing in layers and layers of flavor — the cost is unbelievably low for all these.  I wonder and lament how can we get good food so way overpriced in our own country.

What’s not so chill is being the referee between a 9-year old and a 6-year old who are at each other’s throat, ready to kill each other.  What’s not so chill is being the only parent there with no reliever.  I appreciated my husband’s role even more because it gets too tiring to keep the two apart when they fight.  What’s not so chill is losing my temper because I’m sick of the whining and ugly attitude.  What’s not so chill is resorting repeatedly to reward and punishment and wishing there was a better way based on intrinsic motivation more than anything else. What’s not so chill is the nagging complaints about flight delay that I just promise them I’ll never make such arrangements and we’ll just stick to one place next time.  I’ll probably be tempted to organize another crazy schedule in the future so then I’ll need to remind myself of the three-hour delay and the sleepy eyed, slumping lumps who almost refused to carry their own weights up and down the plane.

Still the best part of the trip for me is spending time with James and bonding with the kids.  James solved the problem of Joshua’s PUB-G not being able to update.  We were able to listen to James’ reading of the Lorax in celebration of Earth Day at the school where he works.   The night time breeze, swinging in the park, flowers that smell divine, enjoying an extra hour with Amani at Jump Arena, riding two grab motorcycles, watching footballers on the sand, creating a temporary masterpiece that can’t be captured by my camera, finding the perfect luggage and Pikachu in the airport — like layers of flavor build up a dish, layers of moments build up our lives.  The chill parts still override those that are not so chill.

 

Escape to Vietnam

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The escape to Vietnam started on the wrong foot.  We erroneously thought that visa on arrival meant that Jason could literally get a visa “on arrival” but it actually meant applying online days in advance.   Jason stayed behind while the three of us flew and arrived after midnight in a strange, seemingly unfriendly city because the immigration officer was gruff — yes, that’s their job — but to shout, “I don’t care!” like a tantrum-throwing child is quite another thing.  Then against all travel wisdom, I got hoodwinked by a driver who approached us in the airport and overcharged us but not by much since I fought with him each step of the way.  I wanted to step out of the car but it was nearly three in the morning and I had to get the kids to the Airbnb.  These unpleasantries were completely erased the morning after by the sheer joy of seeing James, a friend from TEDA, China days whom I haven’t seen since Joshua was a year old.

This is the perfect holiday for me — just to reunite, catch up with life stories with an old friend.  And for Joshua and Jimmy’s perfect day, James arranged a mega playdate with four other boys — Amani, Thyrdy, Raighne, Rafee, complete with swimming, giant sandbox playground, chips, cupcakes, skateboarding on a rooftop and late night movies.  It was great to meet fellow Filipinos, Rasul and Dianne from James’ school plus Mei and her three-year old daughter, Ella.

Joshua and Jimmy took turns riding with James on the Vietnamese’s preferred mode of transportation – the motorbike.  How complete can one’s experience of Ho Chi Minh be?  With James, the bad impression in the first few hours in Saigon flipped over to “I want to live here!”  I totally understood why James, Rasul and Dianne loved being here and how more relaxed and uncomplicated life is.

 

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Hero’s Journey Version 4.0

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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.

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