HANDs! Project: Looking back and looking forward

People often choose to forget the past as looking back can be painful. But when it comes to disasters, lessons from history should always be remembered. This could help you survive when disasters strike again.

This is one lesson I got from the second and final leg of the HANDs! (Hope and Dreams) Project, a research trip organized by the Japan Foundation Asia Center, focusing on disaster and environmental education + creativity.

In 2016, the HANDs fellows visited Manila, Philippines and Bali, Indonesia. This year, we headed to Phuket and Phang Nga, Thailand and Kobe, Japan.

The Thailand phase started with a site visit and dialogue at the Bangla Village Mangrove Forest. Members of the community expressed how the mangroves helped protect them from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and are therefore very motivated in preserving the forest.

We then headed to Baan Nam Kem where we listened to stories of the tsunami survivors and learned about community based disaster risk management.

The rest of our stay in Thailand was spent in Yaowawit School, a real-life education facility for orphans and less privileged, which was founded by German philanthropist Philipp Graf von Hardenberg initially meant to help tsunami victims.

Lectures and workshops on sustainability and gamification were given by Robert Steele, a sustainability expert, and Ruttikorn Vuttikorn, a game designer. After which, fellows had to design games and activities for the “Alarm Cat,” a disaster and environmental education program for students of Yaowawit. It was a joy to interact with the children of the school and be able to promote disaster preparedness and environmentalism through creative means.

We said our khop kun krap (thank you) and bid goodbye to the heat of Thailand as Kobe, Japan’s cold embrace welcomed us.

The trip in Japan began with a tour of the Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institute (DRI) which was established to archive and preserve the memories and lessons from the 1995 Great Hanshin-awaji earthquake. Hearing stories and going through the interactive exhibition of DRI was emotional but the importance of learning from the past to minimize risk and damage in the future is further emphasized.

A session and site visit of another disaster, the Toga River flash flood highlighted how providing sufficient information and education on disaster could save lives.

We learned about local initiatives on disaster prevention and environmental education from non-profit organizations namely Plus Arts, Kiko Network, and Tamba Greenpartner. We also participated in the “Iza! Kaeru Caravan,” a disaster drill program of Plus Arts, and facilitated games and activities for children.

Guided by HANDs adviser, Hirokazu Nagata, the fellows developed disaster and environmental education action plans to be implemented in our respective countries. We got additional inspiration to be more creative and to think outside the box from Kiito, Design and Creative Center in Kobe, which served as our work station.

HANDs Project provided a rare opportunity of visiting many places, learning from various experts and institutions, and forging friendships with co-fellows. And though the research trips ended, this is simply the beginning of more collaborations as we continue building our hopes and dreams towards a more resilient and more environmentally sustainable future.

Photos from HANDs! Project for Disaster Education Facebook Page.

Learn more about HANDs! Project here.

An Energizing Weekend

Riding a solar-powered trike, boating and kayaking, lake clean-up, stargazing, fire flies watching, good food, plus, a yoga session. All these became part of my awesome weekend getaway when I attended the MakeSense Retreat held at Pusod Taal Lake Conservation Center, at Lipa, Batangas.

It took us less than two hours to get to Lipa City from Manila and once there, we got to ride sunEtrike’s solar-powered vehicle which brought us to Pusod Center. Pusod is an environment group that aims to protect the Taal Volcano Protected Landscape by engaging local communities and helping them find livelihood while taking care of nature. The Center was the venue of the MakeSense Retreat, a gathering of social entrepreneurs and community builders who had meaningful discussions on social entrepreneurship and other opportunities for engagement.

The participants also had a chance to go boating and kayaking at the Taal Lake. Sadly, we discovered a lot of garbage in the lake so we decided to do a mini clean-up. I wish people could do a better job at managing their trash.

In the evening, it was a treat to look at the stars and watch fireflies dance. To enjoy the calmness of the lake. And to have a friendly visit from a frog and a beetle.

Of course, let’s not forget the sumptuous dishes prepared by Ka Betty. The pako (fern) and pansit-pansitan (shiny bush) salad was my favorite.

The following day, we welcomed the morning with a yoga session which was a good workout. I felt like I had a better posture after that.

It was nice to get to do all these activities with like-minded people. People who are driven and passionate. People who do their part to make this a better world.

With all the bad things seemingly sprouting from everywhere, there are still beautiful places, good people, and wonderful experiences to appreciate. And so I went back to Manila energized with a happy body, happy spirit, and a happy heart.

Photos from Rachel Eilbott and Marvin Almonte



My HANDs! Project Experience

Putting a ballet dancer, a political cartoonist, a zero waste expert, and a teacher all in one room seems to be an odd combination. But that’s what HANDs! (Hope and Dreams) Project is all about. It brings people together from different backgrounds and help them leverage art and culture to address issues. Organized by the Japan Foundation Asia Center, the HANDs! Project explores how disaster and environmental education can be made more effective through creativity.

The program began in the Philippines where I met other HANDs! fellows for this year. It is a diverse group of young professionals and students from Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Myanmar, India, and Nepal. The passion and drive coming from every single person were invigorating. Hearing their personal stories and the work that they do for the community made me feel inspired and hopeful.

As a starting point, we were introduced to the idea of how “wind-water-soil” types of people help a community. The wind-types provide seeds of inspiration, the soil-types are the ones rooted in the community nurturing the seeds, and the water-types bridge the gap between the two aiding in the growth of the seeds of change.

To further understand social issues, Habi Education Lab, a Manila-based design and research group, conducted a design thinking workshop with the participants. We then had to put design thinking into action as we developed project ideas and prototypes for a relocation community in Navotas, a coastal town in Metro Manila. Being the local, I had to be the translator for the foreigners and I realized how tough a job that is. I had fun nonetheless and once again, it didn’t come as a surprise how our guests noticed the genuine happiness Filipinos have regardless of what situation they are in. I guess it truly is more fun here.

After a week in the Philippines, we all flew to Bali, Indonesia. I once heard you don’t choose Bali, Bali chooses you so we must have all been chosen! Balinese Hinduism is predominantly practiced in this part of Indonesia evident from sculptures, traditions, and altars everywhere meant for daily offerings known as canang sari.

We were able to visit rice paddy fields practicing Subak, a water management system that incorporates the Balinese concept “Tri Hita Karana” – the harmony among people, nature, and God. Pretty much like the Banaue Rice Terraces of the Philippines.

As an environmentalist, I was so happy to learn about best practices of some environmental organizations in Bali. IDEP Foundation shared about permaculture and community-based disaster management. Kopernik talked about project management and how they raise money to fund their community projects. Green School showed how sustainability can be integrated in the classroom and the school system. Navicula, an indie band, illustrated how music can be used for activism.

Additionally, the fellows conducted creative disaster education activities at PAUD Cemara Kasih, a kindergarten school.

It was an enriching experience but it doesn’t end there as we’ll have the second phase of the HANDs! Project study trip in Thailand and Japan next year. After which, we would come up with our respective action plans on creative disaster and environmental education programs. So many things to look forward to. And the best thing is I’m on this journey with amazing people keeping the hope and dreams in me alive.

Photos from HANDs Project for Disaster Education Facebook Page.

The Awesomeness that is Batanes

Funny how Filipinos remark, “It’s like you’re not in the Philippines!” when referring to beautiful places. Like Batanes which is compared to New Zealand because of its rolling hills, and some areas are even dubbed Marlboro Country by foreigners. I’d say it’s the Bhutan of the Philippines, not because it looks like Bhutan but because this could be how it feels like being in Bhutan considering their environmental conservation efforts and how its people seem to live a simple, peaceful, happy life. Pretty much like how the Ivatan people of Batanes are.

Batanes is a protected area in its entirety which helped preserve the natural beauty of the place. It is also an organic zone, has high literacy rate, with low poverty incidence, and almost zero crime rate. Now who wouldn’t want to visit a place like that?

Last week, I was able to enjoy what the province has to offer. The weather was sunny and nice with occasional cloudy skies and rain showers. This used to be the typical path of typhoons but it’s been storm free for the past 10 years now.

A lot of Filipinos have Batanes included in their dream destinations. It is part of my list and sometimes I wonder what the hype is all about. It could be any other landscape or seascape but Batanes gives that feeling which I can’t really fully explain – a mix of happiness, serenity, gratitude, and nostalgia. One thing’s for sure. It’s a perfect marriage of the land, the sky, and the sea. It’s where couples plan their future, solo travelers reflect or meditate, and photographers take the best pictures.

Batanes is made up of 10 islands and we were able to explore the three inhabited ones – Batan, Sabtang, and Itbayat. Touring the north and south parts of Batan provided an overabundance of picturesque views of hills and lighthouses. You can’t help but snap away with your camera so as not to waste the photo-worthy opportunities. I had to remind myself to just take it all in.

Walking around the centuries old village of Savidug in Sabtang made us appreciate traditional houses that survived time and countless typhoons from the past.

Itbayat is the least visited island. I’m thinking it’s because of its reputation of having to go through a two to three-hour boat ride in the treacherous, open sea. And the possibility of being stranded in the island due to bad weather.

It felt like a million hands were trying to tip the vessel over. Getting on and off the boat was also a challenge. Even while docked on the port, the boat was not steady. We had to move quickly as the porters and boat men expertly guided us, carrying us, almost, to get both our feet on solid ground. I’d say this makes the Itbayat experience more memorable and special. But a warning to people who easily get motion sickness, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

As a mountain person, I enjoyed the hike at Itbayat especially the early morning trek, and I mean early, as in 3 AM early, for us to catch the sunrise.

Truly, Batanes is an amazing place made even better by its friendly, honest people. Honesty shops abound, smiles and greetings from the locals is a welcome surprise, cows and goats and horses roam about, and there are just so many spots to visit. Oh and you can even ride the bike on the Basco Airport runway. How cool is that? Definitely one of the best places I’ve been to and yes, it’s in the Philippines!



El Paraiso

It’s the best beach in the Philippines and the world according to CNNGo and Conde Nast Traveler, respectively. It inspired the writing of “The Beach” which eventually was turned into a movie. TV shows like “Survivor” and films like “Bourne Legacy” were filmed here. It is even called “Heaven on Earth.”

The place I’m talking about is El Nido, meaning The Nest referring to the edible nests of swiftlets found in the crannies of limestone cliffs. This is the main ingredient of the gourmet nido soup.

My friends and I traveled to this piece of heaven via Puerto Princesa. The five-hour trip would lull you to sleep as you see verdant trees and plants on both sides of the well-paved road. I saw a squirrel and group of birds along the way so I thought we must be really on our way to paradise.

I was pretty disappointed when we reached the town proper as it appeared like any other congested city with houses and business establishments on top of each other. My vision of a simple, sleepy little town vanished and the environmentalist in me protested this exploitation for the sake of economic gain.

To be fair, El Nido and the whole of Palawan do their best to practice ecotourism. They see the importance of protecting natural resources not only because it’s the source of their income but because they genuinely care for it. Tour guides would constantly remind tourists not to leave trash, not to take sand, shells, or corals, to avoid stepping on corals, etc. Indeed, we should always remember to leave nothing but footprints, to take nothing but pictures, and to kill nothing but time.

Our first day of island hopping brought us to the small and big lagoons, Shimizu Island (named after Japanese divers who died there), and Seven Commandos (so-called due to seven commandos stranded in the island).

On our second day, we went to Helicopter Island (because it looks like a helicopter, or a dog, or a submerged Chickenjoy depending on how you would want to see it), Matinloc Island (which has a shrine and abandoned church which was a front for treasure hunting then), Tapiutan Island, and Hidden Beach.

Aside from the magnificent view of crystal-clear waters in different shades of blue dotted with enormous mountains of limestone rocks softened by trees and vegetation, I really enjoyed snorkeling around the islands. I found Nemo and Dory and different species of fish of all sizes and colors. Each snorkeling site would boast of different sets of fish and you can’t help but wonder how many species there are. Apparently thousands.

One thing that saddened me is the state of the corals which weren’t as alive and colorful as I expected them to be. It could be due to coral bleaching as caused by climate change. It could also be attributed to the frequency of tourists (hundreds each day the whole year round) which entails countless boats anchoring and possibly damaging the corals, plus swimmers stepping intentionally or unintentionally on these corals.

Again, props to El Nido for making an effort to educate its guides and coming up with environmental conservation programs. Admittedly though, it’s difficult to keep the balance between economic development and environmental protection. Most often than not, economics and tourism would always be prioritized.

El Nido is truly a paradise. I just wish it will stay that way for a long time so that the future could still explore and enjoy its grandeur and beauty.


Colors, smells, tastes – intoxicating
Expose me to the bowels of the unfamiliar
Let me embrace the nuances of the peculiar
My itching feet are waiting
Bring me to places yet unseen
To the wild and the serene
As I get lost in the moment
In an instant’s lingering scent
I commune with people and nature
And is hypnotized by its allure
I pay homage to its revelations
Of life’s reverberations

A Golden Country

Deserts. That’s what I thought I’d see in Brunei Darussalam. I don’t know where that idea came from. The country is located in Borneo, duh! I guess the fact that it is rich in oil might have given me an image of the Middle East.

It’s not a surprise then how wealthy the country is. In turn, the standard and quality of living is quite high. Basic services are provided for free – education, health, even housing. And they don’t pay taxes! How cool is that?!

Bruneians put the Sultan in high esteem. Who wouldn’t, with such kindness evident in the prosperous lives of the people. He even opens up his home, his palace, once a year and welcomes everyone, even foreigners, for a feast and celebration.


Driving around Brunei is quite convenient and cheap, I would say, since fuel is cheaper than water. The roads are wide and are structurally similar to those in England, a trace of the British influence which once colonized Brunei.

After all these years, you could still see houses on stilts in the Water Village or the Kampong Ayer. In the past, the main job of Bruneians is fishing which makes it practical for them to live right in the water. Later on, they decided to settle on land although some chose to stay in these water villages.

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Food in Brunei is very similar to Pinoy food. During meals, rice is served with a viand of meat or fi sh and vegetables. Offered food should never be turned down. Unless you’ve already eaten in which case you say so and briefly touch the pots or bowls of food to show respect.

“It’s so quiet and peaceful here,” I remarked. It’s like a province-city. Maybe because you don’t see the usual sights and sounds – the bright lights at night, the blazing music from bars or clubs, and those sorts of things. Well, they obviously wouldn’t have that in a country where Islam is the official religion.

What do they do for fun here? They hang-out in coffee shops, bowling alleys, and billiard places. One night, we played pool and had chocolate shake for a drink. Seemed like an odd combination because usually they would be serving beer in these places. But for a non-drinker like me, I didn’t mind this at all.

Brunei didn’t feel all too foreign to me, with the laid back lifestyle, the flavorful food, the close-knit extended families. Felt like right at home. And yeah, didn’t see any deserts anywhere.