TREK Balbalan: Rediscovering the Trails

January 15, 2016 Voluntourism

Our previous TREKs had been quite forgiving. The terrain wasn't too challenging, and the hikes were relatively easy on my legs. Having recently had my implants removed as part of my recovery from a mountain climbing accident in 2013, I was gradually regaining my confidence.

However, a sense of apprehension crept in as I began feeling a bit rusty. My legs weren't entirely trustworthy, and the trekking shoes I owned, purchased before the accident, had been untouched in their box since then.

Despite my uncertainties, I entrusted myself to the trails, knowing that every path has its rewards, and this one was no exception. Our motivation was clear – we were doing this for the kids. Additionally, I relied on the assurance of my friends who guaranteed that the trek would be straightforward.

It turned out to be manageable, except for navigating through a landslide, tackling steep ascents and descents, crossing several hanging bridges, and navigating a few river crossings. 

photo by Judy May Saracho 

However, all is well, and there is a reason I voluntarily went through these challenges.

It was Trails to Empower Kids or TREK's 8th Anniversary Outreach in Balbalan, Kalinga.

Balbalan was not an easy place to reach. We endured a ten-hour bus ride from Manila, took a truck to the jump-off point, and trekked through the rain. Some of our volunteers even had to cross a wrecked hanging bridge.

The locals were also wary of tourists. We faced a thorough interrogation at a military checkpoint, and one of our volunteers conducting the initial recon was even mistaken for a member of the NPA (New People’s Army).

But these are just part of the travails of the trails. Our story revolves around the kids, the beauty of Balbalan, and the kind of community the elders have built for their children.

One of the things that impressed us about the community is their strong commitment to environmental conservation. Trash cans are strategically placed and properly labeled, the kids exhibit discipline, and the elders ensure the community remains tidy. Abundance of signs reminding everyone to take care of the environment signals that we are nearing the community.

We camped at Tawang Elementary School, one of our beneficiaries. The students from other schools—Buaya Elementary School, Bassao Primary School, Bonong Community School, and Ubual Primary School—trekked to our campsite during the turnover ceremony. We scheduled it the day after our arrival at the campsite to allow time for preparation for a full-day program.

Outreach Day

We started our day early, excited to welcome the kids and witness their reactions to our gifts. While waiting for all the students, we engaged them in preparing some artwork.

By mid-morning, the program began with a heartfelt prayer. Mrs. Ines Bayudang, who played a key role in organizing this outreach, led the prayer, which felt like an invocation of the spirits of the mountains to pour out blessings for everyone.

Each school also had its unique contribution to the program. Our host school presented Kalinga’s traditional dance, accompanied by their traditional instruments.

The bodong, a traditional Kalinga peace pact ritual, was also performed. The participation also extended beyond students, involving barangay officials, teachers, and parents, each contributing their own performances.

Throughout the morning, the rhythmic beats of their gongs resonated, capturing our hearts. We were invited to dance with them, an honor that made us feel embraced as part of the community. I was also privileged to receive a traditional weave as a token from the community, wearable as a skirt.

Following the program, a hearty lunch ensued (special thanks to our dedicated volunteers, including the members of the Kalinga Mountaineering Society who managed the kitchen). Subsequently, the field came alive with the joyous activities of children, running, jumping, and laughing—a truly glorious sight.


The highlight of the event unfolded as we handed over a two-kilometer hose to our host school, ensuring the school's access to clean, drinking water. Additionally, we presented books, teaching materials, and thoughtful gifts for the teachers. Every child received their personal toys, backpacks, school supplies, and loot bags.

The program concluded with the excitement of an art contest award ceremony, followed by an impromptu concert. The children from the mountain showcased their remarkable voices, a recurring delight we've experienced in our previous TREKs.

The day's exertions concluded with a well-deserved reward – a refreshing dip in the cool, clear river beside the school. As the evening unfolded, we gathered around a bonfire, sharing numerous stories and experiences.

The following day, we embarked on our journey back to Manila with lighter loads on our backs but with hearts brimming with joy. 

I left Balbalan wearing that big, familiar smile, knowing that I am back on the trails for good. Despite a momentary concern about my swollen legs, it was all okay. The swelling subsided after a few days, yet the memories of those three days with Tribong Buaya will forever remain etched in me.

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