8/8 – A Bittersweet Goodbye

Although by the end of my internship the homesickness was starting to set in, I was also saddened to have to leave my adventurous lifestyle of the past two months behind and return to Illinois. Boring, flat, Illinois.

Living in a “developing” nation is absolutely an important experience I’d recommend to anyone living in the global north. Before coming here, it was hard to exactly grasp what billions of people living on less than one dollar a day actually looks like. I have my privileged life in America to return to, while millions will continue to deal with the struggles of poverty every day.

You will witness the harmful impacts of colonialism which persist to modern day, years after the Philippines gained independence. Eurocentric beauty standards are held to the highest ideal, entire aisles in stores are dedicated to skin bleaching products. You may see old, white men holding the hands of young filipino women in red light districts, using their powerful western currency to exploit local women. And the American way of life is seen as ideal- our consumption oriented, wasteful lifestyles. But you also can’t blame people for wanting the higher standards of living that people such as myself enjoy. It seems unfair to expect developing nations to develop sustainably if wealthy western nations refuse to take the lead, invest in green technology, and set an example. If the wealthiest nation in the world isn’t doing it, in the eyes of a developing nation, why should they too?

I made more friends than I’ve probably ever made in my life in a short time while living in the Philippines. Even at brief hostel stays, people were full of warmth and friendliness, and I made friends that I still talk to this day. Initially I was scared to get out of my comfort zone, but I ended up having a great time. I actually felt more safe living in the Philippines than I did in America, especially with all the news of mass shootings. In my condo in Mandaluyong I befriended some of my neighbors, and we attended Manila Pride together. She brought me soup when she heard I was sick, and we had dinner together many times. I hope I can return to Manila someday to visit her again.

As I looked out the window of my taxi the morning of the return flight, I remember seeing dozens of young mothers holding their babies in the morning sun, standing next to the river. It was a peaceful scene in an otherwise chaotic city, before the traffic sets in, before the street vendors had their grills smoking meat, before the stray cats and dogs had awakened to wander the streets. I was eager to return to my family after these months, and yet, I felt sadness in my heart, for the friends I was leaving behind, for having to leave this new and exciting lifestyle, for having to leave the interesting work I was doing at MAD.

On the way to the airport, a giant, kind of horrifying Jollibee inflatable sat on top of a building with it’s arm outstretched, as if waving goodbye.

7/28 – Going MAD in America

After returning from Bohol, I adjusted to life in Metro Manila once again. One of our last assignments while working at MAD Travel was assisting with marketing towards the American market. MAD has done marketing for Europe and the rest of Asia, but cracking the American market was going to be a tough challenge. Since MAD focuses mostly on smaller, more community centric tours, it can be difficult convincing people to come all the way from America to come on one of the tours. Additionally, getting to Asia from America can be quite expensive, and we had to keep in mind the people most likely able to afford the tours would already be wealthy to a degree.

We wanted to emphasize that MAD is not “voluntourism”, that is, tourism for the sole purpose of donating or volunteering. MAD is not interested in being a charity, but instead wants to focus on breaking the cycle of poverty by giving local people livelihoods and careers. Sometimes, charities can actually keep people in poverty conditions if nothing is being done to help the people have their own careers and ways to make money. Coming up with a marketing plan to separate MAD travel from forms of voluntourism proved difficult. It is also important to MAD that the local people are not used or seen as props simply to advertise their tours. On the other hand, getting to help and interact with the local people and tribes is one of the unique aspects of a MAD tour, so we had to be careful in the message we were communicating.

We also did a lot of research on how to advertise towards certain demographics, so we knew which strategies would be most efficient. I focused on researching Millennials and Gen X. For example, 98 percent of Millennials will share their travel experiences on some form of social media, and overall people are becoming more interested in engaging in tourism which is sustainable and ethical.

Nearing the end of my internship, I was starting to get a little homesick, but was also not exactly excited to go back to America either. The people in the Philippines are so warm and welcoming that some Americans can seem cold in comparison.

7/21 – Island Life

A beach in Bohol.

Living in Manila 24/7 can become quite overwhelming, with the abundance of cars, pollution, and bustle of the city. With the daily walk to the office becoming quite routine after getting settled in to life in the city, Quentin and I decided to take a 5 day trip to Bohol an island located south of Luzon (the largest island in the Philippines, where Manila is situated). Being about an hour flight from Manila, traveling to Bohol was recommended to us by several friends and fellow interns we had made working at MAD. Additionally, one of our good friends and fellow interns, Max, was currently living at a hostel in Bohol, doing his company work from there. We were invited to stay at the same hostel, named Coco farm. The area in Bohol that we stayed was actually a very small island named Panglao, connected by bridge to the main, larger island.

Dotted with white sand beaches, colorful coral reefs, and limestone hills, Bohol was the closest I ever felt to being in paradise. We spent many of our days lounging in hammocks at the hostel, working on MAD projects on our laptops to the sounds of numerous chirping geckos. During my stay, I worked mainly on sustainability guides for partners of MAD, such as hotels and transportation partners. MAD is most interested in partnering with companies that would similarly meet our sustainability goals, as partnering with wasteful organizations would kind of defeat the purpose of the work we are trying to accomplish. Some of the guidelines we decided upon were only partnering with hotels/hostels that had recycling programs, telling driver sustainability partners not to idle their cars, and making sure that guides we hire educate guests on the importance of sustainability.

While on the island, we spent a lot of our time on the gorgeous beaches, the water feeling like warm bathwater, which was shocking to me having mostly swam in the chilly Lake Michigan. Bohol is also the native home of the tarsier, one of the smallest primates in the world, with huge eyes. If you visit, make sure to visit the Tarsier Sanctuary, not the Tarsier Conservation area. The Tarsier Conservation area is more of a tourist spot than interested in true conservation, and the conditions for the tarsiers at the reserve have been questioned.

A few days into our stay, I got a pretty nasty ear infection in both ears. I had an ear infection a few weeks earlier, and it cleared up nicely after some antibiotics. However, it seemed to return to torment me on my island getaway. Having the ear infection made it difficult to enjoy some of my time there, as I didn’t want to go swimming and risk the infection getting worse. I had to cancel my snorkeling trip, which was saddening as snorkeling was one of the top things I wanted to experience. I traveled to a hospital in Tagbilaran, about a half hour away, where I got a dose of stronger antibiotics.

A word of caution about Bohol, and any more remote areas in general – be sure to use bug spray, and reapply throughout the day. I used some, but I would sometimes forget to reapply and ended up with mosquito bites all over my legs. Dengue fever is a disease transmitted by mosquitos that is becoming an epidemic in mosquito infested regions in the Philippines, so keeping away from mosquitos is extremely important.

I headed back to Manila with a longing for a simpler, slower, more peaceful life like I had experienced on Bohol compared to the fast paced chaos of Manila.

A view from the plane.

7/14 – So what have I been doing at MAD, anyways?

Nighttime in Manila.

I’ve realized that I haven’t written much about the actual work I’ve been doing at MAD, so I’ll attempt to catch you all up to speed. I was introduced to my lovely supervisors, Romina and Pecco, by the founder of MAD, Tom Graham. The first project I was assigned was to help create the structure of a sustainability workshop. The idea of the workshop is that companies and corporations would sign up to attend a series of seminars focused on improving sustainability and promoting environmental awareness. MAD is going to be collaborating with a shared office space company called WeWork to host the seminars, and by hosting the workshops MAD hopes that they can be viewed as a leader in sustainability. Another key idea of the workshop is figuring out how to make sustainability trendy among corporations, and using new strategies to create a collaborative, interactive environment where we’re not just lecturing people. We also had to come up with a general project timeline for the conference to pan out, which was challenging since I had never done anything of the sort. We ended up coming up with a lot of ideas for the sustainability conference, such as a sustainable fashion gala aimed at educating fashion indutry partners, and sustainable food and cooking classes led by the local businesses at Gawad-Kalinga. The main groups we were targeting with the event are the clothing/fashion industry, food industry, beauty industry, and transportation industry, as we determined these industries all could be improved greatly in regards to sustainability with the advice of MAD. With the beauty industry alone, over 60 billion sachets are used a year in the Philippines, which are small, single use plastic packets, popular for their cheapness and availability. If they could be made biodegradable, it would be a huge breakthrough. Our ultimate goal is a way to influence the influencers, promote collaboration and learning, and make being ecologically sustainable and the workshop in itself trendy and cool allowing the influence of the workshop to spread.

7/7 – Things to expect living in Manila

Manila, being one of the most densely populated cities in the world, can definitely take some time to adjust to live in, and has it’s own set of challenges to adapt to.

The traffic: Being so densely populated with little public transport, many people rely on cars and busses, leading to sometimes disastrous traffic. The longest time I spent in traffic was 3 hours to travel somewhere that would’ve normally been around 30 minutes away. A driver I conversed with once said that it took him 12 hours to travel 40km. Tip: If it’s within 5 km, it might be better to walk instead of call a Grab (the Philippines version of Uber). Additionally, the traffic laws are still a bit of a mystery to me. Bikes and trikes weave throughout traffic. Many intersections lack stoplights and rely on police to direct it during the busiest hours. Oftentimes roads lack proper crosswalks and you kind of just have to go for it, so be careful. 

Transportation: Jeepneys and trikes were two forms of transport that were completely new to me. Jeepneys, becoming a popular form of public transportation after the US left thousands of old jeeps in the Philippines, have become an iconic part of Filipino culture, often decorated with their own unique street art. Trikes consist of a motorbike which is attached to a sidecar with wheels, and can fit three riders, with two sitting in the car and one riding on the back. They can be a very cost efficient and quicker form of transportation than taking a car, so keep that in mind. 

The pollution: I commute to work walking along a bridge packed with cars every morning, and I’d find myself feeling quite ill from all of the air pollution at times. Waking up to polluted air every morning can be draining, so make sure to find time to get away from the city. I’d definitely recommend EcoPark in Quezon City, about an hour away from where I was living in Mandaluyong. In our condo and in many places throughout Manila, water is not safe to drink from the tap, and people rely on water deliveries instead. It can also be jarring to see how much trash and plastics are openly discarded in the street (which leads to it be crawling with massive roaches at night), but Manila lacks a lot of the infrastructure needed for people to properly dispose of their garbage. Also, there are stray animals pretty much everywhere. 

The wealth gap: Don’t be surprised if you see security or police with huge guns guarding wealthy areas of Manila. The divide between the wealthy and poor is massive in the Philippines, and one can tell just by living here. One block may be a neighborhood of small, shack like houses, while the next may have massive skyscrapers and luxurious malls home to brands like Gucci. 

The food: One of my favorite things about living in the Philippines is definitely the amount of cheap, delicious food available. Some of my favorite local dishes:

Beef Tapa: A common breakfast dish, marinated beef with rice and eggs. 

Lumpia: Like a spring roll but containing fried bananas. 

Sisig: Minced pork face, chicken liver, peppers, onions, and egg, brought to you sizzling hot. Quite fatty but delicious.

Chicken or Pork Adobo: The national dish of the Philippines, meat cooked with vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic. 

Jolibee Spicy Fried Chicken: Jolibee is the only chain in the world to actually surpass McDonald’s in terms of number of stores and local popularity in a single country. The spicy variation of their signature fried chicken is delicious. 

Halo Halo: A mix of ube ice cream (purple sweet potato), jelly, boba, milk, rice crisps, and beans. 

I could see how it could be difficult to be a vegetarian here. There is a ton of variety in Manila in terms of international food, such as Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, and Indian, so be sure to try something new as well.

Beef Tapa.

6/23 – Tribes and Treks

The next weekend, I made my way with the other MAD interns to the province of Zambales to experience another one of MAD’s signature tours, this time “Tribes and Treks”. The main focus of the tour was hiking to a village of the Aeta people in order to assist them in replanting their forest, which was destroyed in the devastating Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991.

But first, a little history about the Aeta and their culture. The Aeta are thought to be among the earliest inhabitants of the Philippines, closely related to other indigenous inhabitants of the Indo-Pacific, such as the Aborigines, Papuans, and Melanesians. They reside in the mountainous regions of Luzon, the northernmost island in the Philippines, and an estimated 20-30,000 Aeta live in the Philippines today, which mining, illegal logging, and slash and burn farming have caused the numbers of to steadily decrease over the past century. The lifestyle of the Aeta has become quite nomadic due to social and economic strain on their way of life, and the eruption of Mount Pinatubo destroying the landscape, mainly forest, they relied on for hunting, foraging, and shelter.

Waking up at the crack of dawn, we made our way towards the Aeta village, nestled in a valley between mountains. The first leg of our journey was about an hour hike through vast plains, crisscrossed with ponds and rivers, surrounding the countryside. When we were about 15 minutes away from reaching the village, an Aeta man with a carabao (a domestic water buffalo native to the Philippines) pulling a cart offered to take some of us the rest of the way, which was very appreciated due to the number of rivers we had to cross on the way there.

An Aeta girl stands in the scenery on the way to the tree nursery.

Before we went to the main village, we made a stop at the tree and plant nursery which MAD helped create for the Aeta to assist with reforestation efforts in the area. Many of the seeds in the nursery are recycled from eaten and used fruits and sent to MAD. Seed saving is currently one of the main focuses that MAD wants to promote, having created Seed Nation, a program to educate people on the benefits of seed saving and how to assist in the replanting of trees themselves by sending their own seeds. I also worked on the “Tipsy with Sustainability” program, which is a cocktail-making event that individuals or corporations can book to educate groups on the benefits of saving and sending their seeds to us. 

At the nursery, our group spent about an hour planting almost 400 of the donated seeds. Since 2014, MAD has assisted in the reforestation of nearly 40,000 trees to the region overall. It felt great contributing to something which was making a tangible positive environmental difference. The trees don’t only provide food and places for animals to live, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and store water, but also keep the temperature of the surrounding area cooler during the intensive heatwaves that SE Asia is prone to. 

The tree nursery.

After our planting, we headed to the village. The Aeta greeted us with open smiles, and the children curiosity. We were welcomed to have a meal that the tribe prepared for us, consisting of rice, marinated fish, pork, fresh mango, and vegetable stew, all made with their own harvested ingredients. The Aeta are largely self-sufficient, relying on their livestock and grown vegetables for sustenance. It was a great honor to be able to share a meal and be welcomed with open arms by culture I wasn’t even aware existed until I joined MAD, and to learn about their struggles and assist in helping them replant their forest. After the dinner, they performed traditional songs and dances for the guests, inviting us to join in and to share any of our own talents if we wanted. The Aeta chief said that they loved to perform songs and dances for the guests to share their culture with others, since often they don’t have the opportunity to even have time or reason to perform them in the first place. They also offered us their handmade goods to purchase if we wished, such as bamboo straws and harvested nuts. 

The meal we shared with the Aeta.

With a bittersweet feeling, it was time to depart after our cultural exchange. The sky started to rumble with signs of rain, and we hopped back onto the carabao carts, trekking across the vast valleys and plains while we got rained on. 

Prospective interns reading this who aren’t sure whether they should apply for MAD, I would say this cemented by decision as being the right one. It was not exploitation, not treating the locals like props, not voluntourism, just genuine cultural exchange with the opportunity to contribute some help to the problems the Aeta face. 

6/16 – Silver Heights and The Enchanted Farm

Dinner at Silver Heights.

Hello all!

My first weekend in the Philippines, the new interns and I visited a few of the locations that MAD works with so we could learn more about the communities they engage with, namely Silver Heights and the Enchanted Farm. MAD Travel is a travel company based on promoting social and sustainable tourism. Social tourism does not mean being a charity, but rather helping the local people become entrepreneurs and share their skills and goods with tourists that MAD brings to their communities, while also being paid to be tour guides to share their stories and culture. Instead of simply giving donations, MAD hopes to help those in poverty develop skills (such as creating products to sell) needed to break the cycle of poverty.

The first community we visited was on the way to the Enchanted Farm, named Silver Heights. Silver Heights was originally an area in Caloocan City which the government selected to relocate poor Filipinos displaced from sites marked for government infrastructure projects and those occupying dangerous areas. It suffered a devastating fire in 2011, destroying all of the government housing, and Gawad Kalinga, a Filipino poverty alleviation movement largely utilizing volunteer labor, stepped in to help create a new community from the ashes. From the moment we arrived, our group was greeted by bunches of enthusiastic children, whose favorite thing to do is greet the visitors that MAD brings. We spent most of the time at the colorful complex hanging out with the kids, playing games, satisfying their endless curiosities about where we come from and our families, and dancing. Lots of dancing. Befriending the Silver Heights kids was one of the highlights of the entire trip. Even though they had little, they were filled with joyful enthusiasm for just about everything, asking endless questions about our lives and homes, each answer met with amazement. After hanging out with the kids for a while and touring the area, we shared a delicious adobo dinner with some of the women of the community. Our next leg of the journey would be a visit to the Enchanted Farm.

The fields of the Enchanted Farm.

The Enchanted Farm was a few hours drive from our stop in Silver Heights, and we arrived late into the evening. The Enchanted Farm, another GK project, serves as a space to help promote social entrepreneurship among local Filipinos in poverty. We awoke early the next morning to eat breakfast at our Tito and Tita’s house (Tagalog for aunt and uncle, but also a term of endearment for an older person one is friendly with). Each small group at the Enchanted Farm had Titos and Titas we would be eating breakfast and dinner with in their homes situated in the community next to the farm. Being a rice lover, having rice with practically every meal including breakfast has been heavenly for me. Throughout the rest of the day, we toured the farm, seeing the different social enterprises that have been created there, such as silk products, stuffed animals and toys, bamboo straws, and carabao ice cream. At the end of the day we headed back to Tito and Tita’s house for dinner, always being encouraged to “don’t cry, eat more” even after several plates, and finished up the night playing UNO together. One of my strongest impressions from visiting the Philippines so far has been the strong commitment to welcoming foreigners. We’ve been treated like family by people we barely know, no questions asked. Anthony Bourdain once described Filipinos as “the friendliest people in the world” and I wouldn’t say he was exaggerating. The next morning, we headed out at 6 am to work on the farm, pulling weeds and setting up trellises. After eating breakfast at Tito and Tita’s house one last time, we made the journey away from the quiet farmland back to crowded Manila.

The trellises we worked on.
Dinner at Tito and Tita’s house!

First Impressions

Hello to friends, family, colleagues from IWU, and anyone else who happens to stumble across this blog! This is the beginning of my blog which will chronicle my time spent in the Philippines.

The first day I arrived, despite extensive preparation, I didn’t really know what to expect to encounter in Southeast Asia. I have travelled to Japan before, but was well aware that Japan and the Philippines are worlds apart in difference, the main similarities being that they’re both in Asia. As the plane descended, I looked down upon sprawling neighborhoods composed of nothing but shacks, and felt as if I had gazed upon true poverty for the first time in my life. Even the worst parts of Chicago didn’t have people living in shacks with dirt floors, and streets crawling with stray animals. I had never been to a developing nation, and I will admit I was not prepared for the amount of poverty I would witness. After landing in Manila, I was picked up and transported to a hotel where I would join the other interns in Los Baños, a rural area located about an hour away from Metro Manila (but about two hours with the infamous sprawling traffic of the city). Being from Chicago, I was also not truly prepared for the intensity of the heat and humidity in the tropical climate! When you step outside, it always feels like a thin layer of sweat is covering every part of your body.

A view from Los Baños.

The next few days were dedicated to a brief orientation on Filipino culture, history, and language. The night before we were deployed, we enjoyed a delicious traditional Filipino kamayan style dinner by our hosts, including braised pork belly and grilled whole tilapia.

Before we knew it, me and my fellow interns arrived in Manila, after waking at 5:30 am to beat the notorious traffic. The traffic is one aspect about Manila that was definitely not exaggerated. People freely walking across the street and kids playing right next to busy freeways definitely spiked my anxiety, but eventually we learned how to maneuver around the bustling city. Being the most densely populated city in the world, its also hard to put into words just how crowded the city is, and how that affects the populace. Although the heat peaks near 100 degrees fahrenheit, and it rains nearly every day, the people remain incredibly resilient, welcoming and friendly. We’ve gotten a lot of friendly greetings and welcomes, as we stick out as foreigners. Walking down the street, I almost feel more welcomed by warm smiles than I have in New York or Chicago. The first night we arrived, we were searching for a way to get across the river into the neighborhood of Makati for dinner, and a group of enthusiastic children showed us the way. “Take the boat! You must take the boat!” they told us eagerly, their faces brightly lit up, running ahead of us to direct us towards the boat station. This has been one of my favorite experiences by far. As I write this, I’ve gone to a few days of our internship, getting acquainted with my tasks and goals at MAD Travel, a sustainable tourism company. Currently, I’m preparing to travel to the GK Enchanted Farm, a partner of MAD, with my fellow interns. I will be staying there for a few days to experience part of the social tourism and volunteer work MAD partakes in.

Until next time,
Lee.