TREK Casiguran: Beginning the Love Affair with Aurora

October 30, 2012 Voluntourism

I am often asked what I get out of mountaineering.  The legendary George Mallory said "It is no use. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever... What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life."

That joy is really something that is best experienced.  Words and photos are often not enough to express the joy we experience when we climb. Part of that joy is the goodness of people who live in the mountains.  That is why we give back.

After the joy of TREK Itogon, we decided we would continue with this mission. Our group is called Trails to Empower Kids or TREK.

One of our co-founders, Noel, suggested a site from his home province, Aurora. 

During our first project, we didn't have time to conduct a recon and we realized we have to do it for all the projects, for proper evaluation of the sites.

I traveled to Aurora by myself.  The bus trip from Manila to Maria Aurora was around eight hours then. From Maria Aurora, where I was joined by our co-founder Noel, it was another eight hours from Maria Aurora to Casiguran (around 125 kilometers).  During that time, most of the road was unpaved and only a few Delica vans ply that route.  It was a scenic route, nonetheless, and I had to stop the vans a few times to take photos of Aurora's beautiful coastline and verdant mountains.

Casiguran is a quaint, little town. It sits in front of the Pacific Ocean with the Sierra Mountain Range straddling at its backdrop.  From the jump-off point, it was a relaxed 45 minutes’ walk, mostly river crossing.

When we arrived at the school, the students were lined up, donning bright floral garments wrapped around the body, on the waist for the male students. They were obviously prepared for our arrival. When we were settled, they welcomed us with a song "Welcome to our Family," which they sang so beautifully.

Posing with the students of Sentrong Paaralan ng mga Agta

The students are Agtas, with negrito physical traits of dark skin and curly hairs.  The Agtas, according to Noel, are mountain dwellers, compared to Dumagats, who are coastal dwellers.  They were the early settlers in Casiguran.

After the song, Teacher Glen Maceda formally welcomed us. She was wearing a shirt with a writing that says, “Ako ay isang Agta, May isang gatang kasya sa marami, sa iisa ay kulang” (I am an Agta.  I have a cupful enough for many, but not enough for just one).  She led us to this medium sized multi-purpose room, which doubles as a kitchen and meeting area. The students joined us. Noel asked me to do a brief introduction about the group.

I really didn't know what to say and how to introduce the group.

We are not a big NGO. We do not have corporate backings. We also do not have big bank accounts to finance everything. All we have are the willingness to help and families and friends who are willing to support us.

Introducing TREK to the students

I didn't want to get their hopes high. I also didn't know if the rest of the group would approve this site but I had a good feeling about this.  We decided that we would employ some criteria in choosing our project sites.  We chose to help communities that are inaccessible to major forms of transportations, have a lack of support from government and other groups and of course and have an obvious need for assistance.

So, I started by introducing myself, then Noel, then our group. The students were all looking at me and I wanted to give them hope. I wanted to tell them that I would come back with the books they need and that my friends would be with me next time and we would prepare a feast for them. I can't remember now what I said.

Maricel, Ruffa, Sharon, Ruffa Mae, Soren, Regine are enrolled at SPA

With one of the students
Agtas are nomads, which also explains why there are dormitories inside the school compound. They just go home during weekends.

They follow the homeschool system of the Department of Education and they merge this with a lot of discussion about the culture of the cultural group, which is really impressive.

After that, we went around the school compound. We noticed slippers scattered around.  The students were not really used to wearing footwear.

After our goodbyes, we headed back to the trail and waded again on those small rivers and streams on the trail.

The Outreach

We timed the sharing of our gifts during the long weekend of May 1. It was actually a special date for me as I met most of my fellow TREK founders, except for Rex, May 1 during the friendship climb of Pilipinas Sierra in Bolinao, Pangasinan. 

Our TREK Casiguran participants from Manila crammed in two small Delica vans we rented from Cabanatuan to Casiguran. We arrived late in the afternoon, which was spent preparing for the following day’s activities.

We arranged for a small pig, which we bought and cooked for the community. His name was Junjun.  The little boy who owned Junjun watched him be butchered.  I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for the little boy to see his pet go this way.

One of the things that I really enjoy during our projects is the meal preparation time.  While we slice, dice and mince, we enjoy good conversations with our friends, and bond with our new participants and some of the locals.  Of course, shots of local liquor are also being passed around.

Our campsite was actually really nice, with a good view of the beach and facilities like flowing water and a comfort room. The barangay officials also allowed us to use their hall to store our things. Some also opted to sleep there.

The following day, we started our trek early.

The program

When we arrived, the students were already lined up at the steps leading to the school. I once again heard a beautiful rendition of the song "Welcome to the Family." That was so heartwarming. Some of the participants were already teary eyed. We all agreed the children's voices were so angelic.

The kids welcome us

Our welcome committee

they also prepared leis

The students of the school, Sentrong Paaralan ng mga Agta prepared a small program, which we started with a prayer.

I, once again, had an impromptu speech.  I remember reiterating that it is our group's hope that through our small donations, they will pursue their studies and do something to help their cultural group and community.  I told them that we traveled far and we have a genuine interest to help them and see them succeed and eventually give back to their community.

The head of the cultural community, the parents-teachers association, and Teacher Glen spoke also. Much of their messages were filled with appreciation of our group's effort.

The program ended with this song.  After that, we had some games, which is my most-awaited part of the program.  That is the time we let go of the formalities, just have fun and bond more with the students.  The participants joined in the games, either as assistants or participants. 

We were all teary eyed after hearing them sing

We turned over the donations after we distributed the prizes for the games, then ate.

Some of the food we prepared was again a failure.  We didn't want to change their palate or even their way of life, but we wanted them to experience something we are hoping they will remember for the rest of their lives.  That is the kindness, which we hope they will share later on in their lives.

the students with their new school materials

the volunteers and the kids

our kitchen committee

After lunch, we bid them goodbye. I couldn't forget how the students called me Ate Kelly and asked for souvenir photos. I know it is typical but coming from them, it means that they have accepted me.

Enjoying the beaches of Dilasag and Casiguran

After the outreach, we had a side trip in Dilasag, which is the next municipality.
The tourism officer welcomed us and he prepared our campsite, complete with welcome streamers. The highlight of the night was the bucket of lobster we got for a very small amount.

The next day, we woke up early. That was when we were able to appreciate the Dilasag coastline. A short hike on a hill led us to these amazing rock formations and natural pools.  In the afternoon, we went back to Casiguran.  There, we were allured by its cream-colored sand touching the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean surrounded by the Sierra Madre Mountains. 

posing with the mayor of Casiguran who allowed us to camp at his beach property


Casiguran, Aurora

That was a nice cap to another awesome TREK.

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