TREK Casiguran: Beginning the Love Affair with Aurora

June 12, 2008 Voluntourism

I am often asked about what I gain from mountaineering. The legendary George Mallory once 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.'

Experiencing that joy is something words and photos often fail to capture adequately. Part of that joy stems from the goodness of the people living in the mountains, which is why we believe in giving back.

Following the joy of TREK Itogon, we committed to continuing this mission with our group, Trails to Empower Kids or TREK.

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

After our first project, where we didn't have time to conduct a recon, we realized the importance of doing it for all our projects for proper site evaluation.

I traveled to Aurora by myself. The eight-hour bus trip from Manila to Maria Aurora was followed by another eight hours from Maria Aurora to Casiguran (approximately 125 kilometers), where I was joined by our co-founder Noel. Most of the road during that time was unpaved, and only a few Delica vans plied that route. Nevertheless, it was a scenic journey, and I had to stop the vans a few times to capture photos of Aurora's beautiful coastline and verdant mountains.

Casiguran is a quaint, little town situated in front of the Pacific Ocean, with the Sierra Mountain Range providing a stunning backdrop. From the jump-off point, it was a relaxed 45-minute walk, mostly involving river crossings.

Upon arriving at the school, the students were lined up, adorned in bright floral garments wrapped around their bodies, and around their waists for the male students. They were evidently prepared for our arrival. Once we were settled, they welcomed us with a beautiful rendition of the song 'Welcome to our Family.'

Posing with the students of Sentrong Paaralan ng mga Agta

The students, known as Agtas, exhibit Negrito physical traits with dark skin and curly hair. According to Noel, the Agtas are mountain dwellers, distinct from the Dumagats, who are coastal dwellers and were the early settlers in Casiguran.

Following the welcoming song, Teacher Glen Maceda formally greeted us. She wore a shirt with a meaningful message that read, '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). Leading us to a medium-sized multi-purpose room serving as a kitchen and meeting area, she was accompanied by the students. Noel then requested me to provide a brief introduction about our group.

Uncertain about what to say, I found myself explaining that we are not a large NGO and lack corporate backing or substantial bank accounts. Instead, all we have is a genuine willingness to help and the support of families and friends who share in our mission.

Introducing TREK to the students

I hesitated to raise their hopes too high, uncertain if the rest of the group would approve of this site, but I had a positive feeling about it. We had decided on specific criteria for choosing our project sites: communities inaccessible to major forms of transportation, lacking support from the government and other groups, and clearly in need of assistance.

I began the introduction, followed by Noel and details about our group. As the students looked at me, I felt a strong desire to offer them hope. I wanted to assure them that I would return with the books they needed and that my friends would join me next time to prepare a feast for them. Although I can't recall the exact words, I aimed to convey a message of support and a promise for assistance.

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

With one of the students

Agtas are nomads, explaining the presence of dormitories within the school compound, as they only go home during weekends. They follow the homeschool system of the Department of Education, incorporating discussions about their cultural group, which is truly impressive.

Afterward, we toured the school compound and noticed slippers scattered around; the students were not accustomed to wearing footwear.

Following our goodbyes, we returned to the trail, once again wading through small rivers and streams.

The Outreach

We scheduled the sharing of our gifts during the long weekend of May 1. This date held special significance for me as I had met most of my fellow TREK founders on May 1 during the friendship climb of Pilipinas Sierra in Bolinao, Pangasinan.

Our TREK Casiguran participants from Manila crowded into two small Delica vans we rented from Cabanatuan. We arrived late in the afternoon, spending the time preparing for the following day's activities.

We arranged for a small pig, whom we named Junjun, to be cooked for the community. The little boy who owned Junjun witnessed the butchering, and I couldn't imagine how difficult it must have been for him to see his pet go this way.

One aspect I thoroughly enjoy during our projects is the meal preparation time. As we slice, dice, and mince, we engage in good conversations with our friends and bond with our new participants and some of the locals. Shots of local liquor are also passed around.

Our campsite was quite pleasant, offering a good view of the beach, flowing water, and a comfort room. The barangay officials graciously allowed us to use their hall to store our things, and some chose to sleep there.

The next day, we commenced our trek early.

The Program

Upon arrival, the students were already lined up at the steps leading to the school. Once again, we heard a beautiful rendition of the song 'Welcome to the Family,' which was heartwarming. Some participants were teary-eyed, agreeing that the children's voices were truly angelic.

The kids welcome us

Our welcome committee

they also prepared leis

The students of Sentrong Paaralan ng mga Agta prepared a small program that began with a prayer.

Once again, I found myself giving an impromptu speech. I remember emphasizing that our group's hope is that through our small donations, they can pursue their studies and contribute to the betterment of their cultural group and community. I expressed our genuine interest in helping them, seeing them succeed, and eventually giving back to their community.

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

The program concluded with a song. Following that, we engaged in some games, which is my most-awaited part of the program. It's the time when we let go of formalities, have fun, and bond more with the students. Participants joined in the games, either as assistants or active participants.

We were all teary eyed after hearing them sing

After distributing prizes for the games, we turned over the donations and then enjoyed a meal together.

Some of the food we prepared may not have met their taste preferences, but we weren't aiming to change their palate or way of life. Instead, our intention was for them to experience something memorable, a gesture of kindness that we hope will stay with them throughout their lives and inspire them to share similar acts of kindness in the future.

the students with their new school materials

the volunteers and the kids

our kitchen committee

After lunch, we said our goodbyes. The students calling me 'Ate Kelly' and asking for souvenir photos stuck with me. Though it may be typical, it felt like a sign of acceptance from them.

Enjoying the Beaches of Dilasag and Casiguran

Following the outreach, we had a side trip to Dilasag, the next municipality. The tourism officer warmly welcomed us and had our campsite prepared with welcome streamers. The highlight of the night was a bucket of lobster we obtained for a very reasonable price.

The next morning, we rose early and had the opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the Dilasag coastline. A short hike led us to incredible rock formations and natural pools. In the afternoon, we returned to Casiguran, drawn in by its cream-colored sand meeting 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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