For the Trees!

A jeepney drove us all the way to Sagada where Challenge 160 would start. This is a walk from Sagada to Baguio to promote the importance of trees and to protest against the cutting of these trees in the City of Pines especially at Luneta Hill.DSCN2059

It’s been ages since the last time I was in this part of Mountain Province. So many things have changed and I’m referring to these inns and cafes and establishments meant to take advantage of the booming influx of tourists, a good mix of Caucasians, Koreans, and locals enjoying the still pristine forest of this mountain resort, reminiscent of Baguio’s glorious past.

It is unfortunate that so-called development is creeping in but it’s a good thing that they still maintain their indigenous way of forest management – the “lakun” or “batangan.” This is a practice where a piece of land planted with trees is taken care of by families through generations. Trees are only cut to build a house. Lumber should never be sold. The trees cut, which is of limited number, are replaced. Their care and appreciation of the environment is admirable. I hope city folks could learn from them.

About 20 people joined the challenge and I’m sure the walk meant differently to each of us. To some a vacation, to others a physical test. A few saw it as early penitence and a time to reflect about life. But for me, more than anything else, I did it for the trees. Yes, I’m a self-professed tree hugger. My being an environmentalist didn’t come from the emerging trend of cool environmentalism. It’s an expression of my faith as I believe we should be stewards of God’s creation.    DSCN1943

I’m a hiker and I love walking. So I thought a six-day 160 km walk would be “chicken,” as easy as eating peanuts. Boy was I wrong. Imagine walking on hot, hard concrete for around 10 hours to cover more than 30 kilometers a day. Not to mention the sizzling hot sun at noon time and the freezing cold wind in the early morning and evening. They’ve been with us, as if mocking us, making every step miserable. But we pressed on anyway.

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We dodged buses and cars rushing by seemingly unmindful of pedestrians. Some would honk and smile and wave at us in encouragement. We had a feast of magnificent views of mountains and trees as far as the eyes could see. We enjoyed the fresh air but the smoke from passing vehicles would always have us cover our noses. We get curious stares and we just smile back. They ask us why we’re walking and we explain the cause for the trees.DSCN1981

I talked to the other walkers whom I have just met. I asked about their backgrounds, their reasons of joining the walk. We talked about books, and movies, and music. We even had a sort of game of naming as many cartoons as we could. Sometimes, conversations would go serious as we discuss issues of mining, pollution, politics, capitalism, and the like.

We talked about food, those that we were craving at that moment. I craved for fishballs and we did have a chance to eat some. It was as hard as rocks but I couldn’t care less. It’s funny that at these times, we get to appreciate the simple joys of life – cold drinks, warm bath, the convenience of eating whatever you want, the comfort of a bed.

Along the way, we saw forest fires. Intentional, I’m afraid to say, but I couldn’t really blame those who did it. They have to make a living, mostly through farming. That explains the many ads and posters of pesticides of all kinds and names; and the “chicken dung perfume” which we somehow got used to.DSCN1977DSCN1944

We spent nights in schools, churches, and homes of people kind enough to host us. I would always welcome the break and check if my feet are still there. We would attend to blisters, sore feet, and muscle cramps. I sometimes fear waking up, unable to stand. But surprisingly, after a night’s sleep, I would be okay and ready to go.

Challenge 160 was indeed a challenge in all aspects. But I realized this is nothing compared to the challenge of changing people’s minds. Of getting rid of their apathy. Of making them understand that if we take the environment for granted, nature’s wrath would be upon us, as always.

Challenge 160 happened two years ago in February 2013. And for two years, those trees around SM Baguio stood in peace. I thought they would be there much longer. But they’re gone now. They got rid of the trees to make way for a Sky Park that features so-called environment-friendly facilities. Wait, what?! And they also boast of this “Grow a Million Trees” campaign. I mean, really?! How absurd can you get?!

To those trees, I give my sad good-bye. Challenge 160 is not over. I shall walk on.

Listening Quietly… Connect

Photography 101 Assignment 6: Connect & Tags

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We’re easily connected but even more disconnected.

“You’re so quiet.” Indeed, I am. I usually just keep to myself and observe. But I guess it also depends on the people I am with. In certain groups, I do most of the talking, seemingly facilitating a discussion group of some sort. Around intimidating personalities, I let them just blabber away which they mostly prefer anyway. And in other groups, I become my pensive self.

I feel like I have multiple personalities sometimes. I think we all do. Although certain personalities become dominant. It’s just amusing how I surprise people when I become that perky crazy guy. I surprise myself even knowing that I have that crazy streak. Is it just me wearing a mask? Hiding what really is there. Or is it simply as it is?

But back to being quiet and serious. I was told there is a need for more of me. More ears that are willing to listen. And I mean to really listen, not just hearing. These two are completely different. Lisa Kirk said, “A gossip is one who talks to you about others, a bore is one who talks to you about himself and a brilliant conversationalist is one who talks to you about yourself.” That makes me a brilliant conversationalist then. It just so happens that I am genuinely interested in people. Eager to know what their life is like. How it is similar or different to mine.

It always amazes me how topics could jump from the most trivial to a complex dissection of a certain social issue. These conversations can appear shallow or pretentious at times. But in the end, there’s always a take away. Perhaps a quotable quote that sums up how things are. An encouragement that helps you get through challenges. A lesson you could apply in different circumstances. Or it could simply be just an entertaining exchange of thoughts which could help you forget, even for a while, how sucky life can be.

In an age where communication is reduced to cold electronic shout-outs and emoticons, It’s always nice to have those now becoming rare moments of conversations with real people. Like Mason’s longing in Richard Linklater’s 12-year movie in the making, Boyhood, “I just want to try and not to live my life through a screen. I want some kind of interaction. A real person, not just the profile they put up.”

My GX Volunteering Journey

“Get ready for the most challenging six months of your life,” read the ad on volunteering. The most challenging six months of my life? Bring it on!

Global Xchange (GX) is a youth volunteering program of the Voluntary Service Overseas that allows young people to initiate positive change by helping organizations and communities both in the Philippines and the United Kingdom. I feel a sense of fulfillment by volunteering, knowing that I can do something good for others without cost in our dog-eat-dog world. I decided that the corporate world was not my place, resigned from my job, and took the challenge of the GX.

After all the rigors of application, assessment, training, and clearances (I had to gain weight before I was medically cleared), we were off for the first phase of the program. Our destination – Bradford, West Yorkshire, located in the northern part of England. It is a small, friendly city with diverse people and culture, very similar to my home city, Baguio, in terms of size, weather, and the general feel of the place.

Our group comprised of 10 British and 10 Filipinos. Each one had a counterpart with whom we lived and worked with in a cross-cultural environment.

I had to get used to the language and the food. Bradford had its own British accent where “funny” is “foony” and “sunny” is “soony”. Rice-eating Filipinos learned to eat bread or cereals for breakfast and sandwich with fruits or crisps (that’s how the Brits call their chips) for lunch.

My first volunteer placement was at Seen and Heard, a program of Barnardo’s, a national charity organization that takes care of young people. My British counterpart and I interviewed some of the organization’s independent visitors and produced a promotional video from it.

My second volunteer work was at Abigail’s Project, an organization that provides accommodation for destitute asylum seekers, people who fled their countries due to political or religious persecution but became impoverished in the places where they sought protection. We helped set up the house where they would be staying and assisted establishing the office of the organization.

The Community Action Days (CADs) afforded the whole team to work on various community projects and activities from cleaning up and gardening to advocacy projects such as the peace display and presentations in an arms museum. We showcased Filipino games and dances, songs and poetry during our Filipino Fun Day and Night. We got a bit serious and discussed global issues like poverty, peace and development during Global Citizenship Days.

We tried to make sense of what we did. We needed to validate that our volunteer work was actually making a difference. For instance, we asked how gardening could be significant. We may not understand now neither see the results of what we did but I’m sure that the effects of volunteering are exponential, if not for others then for the inner self.

After more than 7,200 collective hours of volunteering in Bradford, we traveled to Mindanao for the second phase of the program.

Mindanao is an impression of danger and war, but the conflict in this Land of Promise is complex and historical. It is conflict over the rich natural resources of the region where greed and ignorance fuel all the negativity associated to the place.

My volunteer work in Iligan City was totally different from what we had in Bradford. We helped the Lanao Educational Arts for Development, Inc., a non-government organization that uses music and the arts for peace advocacy, organize a music festival for peace that promotes Iligan City and Mindanao as Zones of Peace.

During our CADs here, we had a sports fest at the School for the Deaf, tree planting with students and community locals, a fundraising gig, and play time with children in a disability rehabilitation center and kindergarten.

Because Iligan is such a small city, boredom set into me until the city was placed on yellow alert. We became anxious but had to be vigilant as the supposed ambush of the Philippine Marines by the Abu Sayyaf brewed war in Basilan. At that time I was reading Gracia Burnham’s “In the Presence of My Enemies,” an account of her kidnapping experience in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf. We felt relieved when the situation sort of improved.

All in all my GX volunteering journey has been challenging, frustrating, rewarding, and fun. I think I gained more than what I offered. Volunteers would usually think they could change the world but in the end, they wouldn’t have quite changed others. Others change them instead.

This journey is a prelude to simply be the change I wish to see in the world.