I Volunteer (?)

So you want to volunteer while travelling.

We volunteered for the first time while staying in Chiang Rai where we had a so-so volunteering experience. Up until now looking back, I can’t help but laugh at what I was thinking then when despite hesitating due to some conditions, I still agreed to volunteer.

Some backpackers volunteer to save some travel mullah while doing a good deed for the community. Sites like World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (www.wwooof.net) and Friends for Asia (www.volunteerasia.org) offer a wide array of volunteering opportunities. Most of these organizations, though, require fees to be paid. While volunteering provides an opportunity to learn and help, payments from volunteers sometimes turns down prospective volunteers.

Volunteering, in its rooted sense, generally means you sweat the stuff in exchange for something valuable whether it’s food, accommodation or both. The reason for fees, according to the organizations, was for the basic necessities of volunteers while immersing in the programs they choose. The reasoning didn’t work for me. It meant I had to pay to work instead of getting paid in kind for my industry.

I learned about fees when I started searching for a volunteering opportunity in Thailand. It was solely to sustain a few days more of staying in the country. The search took longer than expected but I finally found one that offered free accommodation in exchange for maintaining a park. I contacted the owner and agreed to meet in the place to discuss the terms.

He was an agreeable Australian man in his sixties who owned three big properties in Chiang Rai. He decided to live in Chiang Rai since he set foot in South East Asia in the eighties.

We visited all his properties. All had potential for business and growth but all needed serious maintenance. We chose the most accessible property – an untended rock climbing park – with neighboring houses. We only had to clean and maintain it for the four days that we intended to stay. It was an okay deal although I hesitated for a few hours when I started thinking about the return for us. Nevertheless, we started the following day.

adventure awaited!
The moment we set foot in the park, we started securing what we needed for our stay.

First, water and electricity. He taught us how to operate the main switch. We filled the tanks. The result?

chocolate water, anyone?
The water tanks weren’t washed for so long. We decided to drain the first and second fill until the water coming out of the faucet cleared. Of course, it wasn’t potable for drinking.

All things and common placed needed thorough cleaning.

There were two shacks. One contained the rock climbing equipments which were locked the entire time except when there were backpackers who came to climb. The other shack had a room for volunteers with two adjacent toilets. We had to clean it thoroughly before it became livable based on my standards of a basic room! I can’t imagine how the previous volunteer stayed in that room for a month, or maybe he added to the mess.

our shack for 4 days and 3 nights
My consolation was it felt like Bramasole when it was first acquired by Diane Lane’s character in “Under the Tuscan Sun” where everything needed fixing at the start. She was able to bring back its former glory with the help of the original carpenter of the house and his small team.  If only I owned the place!

I support volunteering for the contribution it provides a community. However, we just need to choose what best fits us to be able to serve better. Our experience in Chiang Rai was not what I envisioned it but I learned a lot from the experience.

Everyday was survival-mode camping.  Good thing I learned how to start a fire during my girl scouting days. My brother learned it when we were there. See, those little things they teach you in your elementary years are the most useful! *wink*wink*

cooking breakfast over bonfire
cooking breakfast over bonfire

Cleaning the park was fine because there were available tools.

removing some dead bamboos
removing some dead bamboos

Even the kitchen area needed a whole lot of cleaning which we cleaned up the first day we were there. Most of the kitchen equipments weren’t functioning but at least, we had usable utensils.

washed, cleaned and organized
washed, cleaned and organized

The upsides?

Waking up to this

cows feeding on green grass in the park
cows feeding on green grass in the park

and seeing this.

farm horses of a neighbor we met along the way to the owner's other property
farm horses of a neighbor we met along the way to the owner’s other property

Lucky herederos!

And I learned bouldering from the backpackers who visited the park on the second day. The advice given before by a climber, in order for you to be safe (especially if you have no gear), is to “feel the rocks” so that you know where to step or hold. I find it effective until today when I hike.

can you see me? resting after bouldering mid-way
can you see me? resting after bouldering mid-way

Given the chance, I will still join a volunteering activity but next time, it had to be with a bigger team helping a bigger community. It takes more courage to do volunteering on your own or with someone. :-)



Beauty is Skin Deep

For the love of tanned or fair skin!

I and Laura, our German friend, had an interesting discussion one time in our shared room about skin. It started with me worrying a bit about how seriously tanned I became since we started travelling. It should have been okay if it wasn’t uneven especially on my face. She complimented by saying, “I actually love your color. Why are you worried? I would be so happy if I had that tan.”

Well, that was before I realized how I liked the golden glow of my tan when I was back in the Philippines. My temporary skin color was way different compared to the tan I’d get from sun-bathing in a Philippine beach.

I don’t really mind getting darker or walking under the heat of the sun for hours or days so long as it’s not searing because overexposure to the sun also has bad effects.

Laura told me that Germans get jealous at someone slightly tanned after being away for sometime because they know that she came from vacation somewhere sunny.

Then the comparison happened.

Here in the East, fair skin is one determinant of beauty for women. Men and women get attracted to someone who’s fairer. I actually received comments from friends about how dark I became when I started posting photos from our travels.  That’s why majority get conscious once they stay under the sun even just for a few minutes.

I met a lot of Asian women during our trip strolling fully-covered while I was all open to heat and dust.

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My first time to see women dressed in full swim gear and colorful hats to avoid getting tanned while swimming in Kuang Si Falls, Luang Prabang!

The Asian market is full of whitening products from soaps to facial cleansers to lotions. This “trend” goes further to the influx of glutathione pills and injections to address the growing market, especially of women, who want to become fairer.

Whitening soaps and lotions fill the grocery shelves. I don’t want to be fairer. I just need a moisturizer!

She can’t believe the pills and injections.

On her side of the world, they only have a short summer time. So during the summer, everyone goes out and lie on the beach hoping for a little blush. Most of the time though, they only turn red. For those who wanted to get a temporary tan even during winter, they have tanning sprays, beds and salons to the rescue.

left: post-backpacking tan beside my fair-skinned sister. love my golden tan! | right: slowly recovering my original skin color
left: post-backpacking tan beside my fair-skinned sister. love my golden tan! | right: slowly recovering my original skin color

It is true, you want to have what you don’t – including skin color! I love my not-so-fair skin and how it changes as I travel. :-)

De Ja Vu

I’m pretty sure everyone of us experienced it. That weird feeling when you are in a situation and you say to yourself, “Hmm, I think this happened before”, or you saw something and you begin to remember where you’ve seen it, or you met someone and whisper, “I think I met that person somewhere”.

Parallel universes. De ja vu. Fate. Whatever we call it, we get amazed by how connected we are with people and places somewhere in the world.

I’ve been comparing some photos from our backpacking trip in South East Asia with photos I took in the northern islands of the Philippines, and saw undeniable similarities.

Here are some examples:

1. The Historic Towns/ Places

I felt I would somewhat find myself in Vigan, Ilocos Sur after walking on an alley in Luang Prabang, Laos. Then appear later in an old house’s living room in Hoi An, Vietnam upon entering a door in one of Calle Crisologo’s villas.

clockwise from left: Luang Prabang Historic Town in Laos; Vigan Heritage Village in Ilocos Sur, Philippines; Intramuros , Manila; ancient town in Hoi An, Vietnam
clockwise from left: Luang Prabang Historic Town in Laos; Vigan Heritage Village in Ilocos Sur, Philippines; Intramuros in Manila, Philippines; and ancient town in Hoi An, Vietnam

The cobblestone streets and ancient, well-preserved houses makes you nostalgic knowing that you are walking along paths trod by merchants, royals and mestizos ages ago.

The Spanish, French, Chinese and Japanese really left their marks on these historic towns.

2. Tribal Garbs

I belong to an ethnic tribe in the Philippine highlands; thus, when they talked about tours involving visiting hill tribes during our SEA Trip, I wasn’t as ecstatic as someone from the lowlands.

top photo was taken during a friend's wedding in the city, and bottom photo was during a cousin's wedding in the province
top photo was taken during a friend’s wedding in the city, and bottom photo was during a cousin’s wedding in the province.

Since we concentrated more on the places we visited, we didn’t discover much of the hill tribe’s customs and traditions. But meeting some of them while in northern Laos made me prouder that, just like them, I belong to a unique group.

left is a Tai Dam woman selling her crafts in the local market in Muang Sing; right photo are two Akha women leaving the night market in Luang Namtha
left is a Tai Dam woman selling her crafts in the local market in Muang Sing; right photo are two Akha women leaving the night market in Luang Namtha

The only difference is, except for the older women, we use our traditional garbs only during special occasions while the hill tribes in Laos wear it on a daily basis.

3. Pottery

We rode on a small boat to cross from Luang Prabang to Ban Xieng Man with the intention of visiting the caves. Incidentally, we met a group of Chinese women in fashionable clothes who wanted to visit the pottery village. I and my brother agreed to check out the place the following day.

my brother and Laura, our German friend, with colorful Chinese group of friends
my brother and Laura, our German friend, with a group of colorful Chinese friends

The village of Ban Chan can be reached after a three-kilometre walk in a rural road.

The warm weather challenged my ability to walk further after almost an hour of walking but finally, we reached the village. There were a few houses making pots and bricks. My brother tried his luck at shaping a pot but alas.

The Laotians put on some moist clay in a spinning flat surface and form the pots and vases with the help of a damp cloth on one hand supported by the other bare hand.

pots in various sizes on display in Ban Chan, Laos
pots in various sizes on display in Ban Chan, Laos

There is also a pottery place in Vigan, Ilocos Sur. The Ilocanos have moister clay and gradually shape the pots and vases also in a spinning flat surface with their bare hands, gradually wetting it more as it takes shape.

Vigan, Ilocos pottery place
Vigan, Ilocos pottery place

4. Ethnic Jewelries

I love antique jewelries so I got excited when I saw some in the Lop Buri Museum in Thailand.

The one thing I noticed was how similar some of the beaded necklaces on display were with our native beads we call bongors.

wearing it proudly with lolas (grandmothers) in the tribe
wearing it proudly with lolas (grandmothers) in the tribe

Ours were beaded by our great grandmothers and grandmothers that were then passed to our mothers. Now, we (daughters) have it safely kept in a storage before the next grand occasion, awaiting future daughters who’ll soon inherit it.

the similar beads of the ancient Thais displayed in the Lop Buri Museum, Thailand
the similar beads of the ancient Thais displayed in the Lop Buri Museum, Thailand

Jewelries aren’t meant to stay in a woman’s jewelry box. It is meant to be passed down to generations. That’s why these ethnic beads become more expensive as time passes.

5. Hill Stations

I already wrote in a previous post about Dalat in Vietnam and how similar it is to Baguio City in the Philippines.

The below photos justify a part of more similarities.

Left photo is in the Valley of Love, Dalat, Vietnam. Right photo is in the Botanical Garden, Baguio City, Philippines
Left photo is the Valley of Love, Dalat, Vietnam | Right photo is the Botanical Garden, Baguio City, Philippines
BAguio and Dalat Lake
top photo: fancy boats await customers in Xuan Huong Lake, Dalat, Vietnam | bottom photo: boats rest during a drizzly morning in Burnham Lake, Baguio City, Philippines

We talk similarities in produce, souvenirs, people, the market place, the climate, pine trees, bicycles, etc.

Tagaytay and Sagada also count for their climate just like Dalat and Baguio.

Baguio Tagaytay
younger sister posing at dusk in cool Tagaytay, Philippines

6. Spitting red

I remember the first time I saw red impressions on the pavement was in Mae Sot, Thailand. This is one of the border towns with Myanmar.

I then began to notice the Burmese locals chewing something that made their lips red and suddenly realized that it could be the reason. They were also chewing betel nuts and leaves! See #2 bottom photo of an uncle with red lips (2nd from left). He was chewing while playing the gongs.

I smiled as I recall new laws in some of the mountain provinces in the Philippines banning the people from spitting on the ground after chewing betel nuts and leaves.

Yes, I also belong to the tribe of betel lovers.

my late grandma pouring lime powder on the betel nuts and leaves before chewing
my late grandma pouring lime powder on the betel nuts and leaves before chewing

The ingredients are the same with the Burmese but the preparation is different. The mixture consists of betel leaves, betel nuts and lime powder.

Igorots use snail shells that are crushed, dried and processed to make the lime powder. We wrap the betel nuts in betel leaves, after pouring some lime powder, and chewing it. The Burmese use liquid lime, painting the betel nuts and leaves and wrapping it before chewing. The mixture turns red as they gradually chew it.

a Burmese woman prepares a pack of the famed betel mix in her mobile cart
a Burmese woman prepares a pack of the famed betel mix in her mobile cart

It’s like bubblegum that’s fully chewed until there’s no flavor anymore, but the difference is you spit the saliva formed in the process instead of swallowing it. It is the “cigarette” of elders.

The downside is when you get addicted, it will be hard for you to stop. And those pearly whites will have permanent stains that may take long time to clean even if you go to the dentist.

So the next time you see those red spatters on the ground when you’re in the Philippine highlands or in Myanmar, then you know where those came from.

7. Topload

We term people riding on top of transports or goods placed on top of public transports as “topload”. I thought it was only in the Philippines but I saw it too in Myanmar. Surprise!

riding fearlessly on the truck | Bagan, Myanmar
riding fearlessly on the truck | Bagan, Myanmar
beat this | Bagan, Myanmar
beat this | Bagan, Myanmar

I haven’t been to India and Sri Lanka but I saw pictures of the same that are even crazier than the photos.

photograb from a cousin's page | Philippines
photograb from a cousin’s page | Philippines

Have you experienced the same during your travels? :-)


Featured in Expat PH Magazine

My South East Asian backpacking adventure is featured in three spreads in the Global Section of Expat Philippines Quarterly Magazine. Yay!

Grab a copy now! :-)

2015-07-07 07.34.20

It’s available in PH bookstores like National Bookstore and Powerbooks for Php199. Just look for this boy wonder who graces the cover of the mag.

2015-07-07 10.24.05

I’m more than motivated to share my compilations through a book before this year ends.

Keep posted!

Of Books and Writing

Well, hi there!

I’ve been off the radar for some days again due to ongoing various activities and projects which makes me realize “Hmm, I’ve been ‘busier’ now than when I was working the eight-hour shift. How come?”

It’s true what they say that taking control of your time and energy allows you to see more of what you’ve been stalling on for the past few years. Some even appear to you as if saying, “Hey, I need some repair here.” or “I need to get out of this drawer”. And here I am looking at my plate, thinking, “Okay, what needs priority?”.

I’m currently editing my grandfather’s bio that my dad wrote for his upcoming 97th birthday! Yep, you heard that number right. He’s turning a year older past the mortality age range in the Philippines and the best way to honor him is through a book. Way to go dad for thinking about the idea!

It’s just now that I began to appreciate editing. Man, it’s a challenging job! Apart from the perks of reading the story firsthand, it requires energy to focus and the ability to add sense to the written word.

With a tight two-week deadline from now, I’m nearly done editing but I have to sort photos next and finally discuss with our printing press of choice.

Apart from the editing job that I accepted, I’m also working on my own authorship (*wink*) which I hope to share soon. :-)


Travel stories will continue to form a major part of this blog, of course. I still have a lot of back stories from South East Asia while preparing for my next backpacking plan in the Philippines before this year ends. Coming soon!



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