Philippines: Fun, Frights and Whale Sharks

By Alex Akel and Ayden Arcillas

TRIP OF A LIFETIME – Students and teachers visit local village near Sophie’s Farm, pictured with locals, RSCJ sisters, and provincial police. The students experienced great connection between themselves and others on this trip. (Michael Campos)

On February 17th, 17 students and six faculty members embarked on a nine day trip to Taipei and the Philippines. For some, it was a homecoming to their ancestral lands. For others, it was their first time in Asia. But for everyone, it was a service and cultural immersion trip which would provide lifelong memories and expand their outlook on the world.

After a 14 hour flight over the Pacific Ocean, the group landed in Taipei, Taiwan for a 9 hour layover. Taking advantage of this time, they embarked on a tour including stops at the Nanya Strange Rock which is an example of the volcanic rock the island was built on. They then went to Jinguashi thirteen-story ruins which is an old Japanese mining facility along the Yin Yang Sea, and Jiufen Old Village where they experienced a traditional tea ceremony at A-Mei Tea House.  “It was a special occasion for sure,” says Freshman Danny Loy. “It was very peaceful making tea from scratch, and I think if given the chance, I’d do it again!”. After lunch they returned to the airport for their two hour flight to Manila.

After arriving in Manila, the students and chaperones got to the hotel, the Peninsula Manila and began their two day stay. Over their time in Manila, the students saw many sites, such as the US World War 2 memorial, Fort Santiago, and Manila Cathedral.

Having taken another flight to Catarman, the group was greeted by Sister Lydia Collado, RSCJ, who heads the Sacred Heart Institute for Transformative Education (SHIFT) Foundation, which manages the farm.  They took a short bus ride to Sophie’s Farm and upon entering the gates were enthusiastically welcomed by the many immersion students and farm workers.

After unpacking and getting settled in their rooms, the students were guided to “Stuart Hall,” a building which was the main gathering place on the farm. Being so far from home, this familiar name brought comfort to the students. After eating a delicious dinner including many traditional Filipino dishes, students were treated to a night filled with singing and dancing with the farm’s students.  This was such a wonderful experience, truly giving the group a task of local cultures.

“It was definitely a fun experience. The people there aren’t that different from us here [in the United States]. We all basically have the same energy. Dancing and learning their culture was an eye opening experience, and it was a welcome change,” says Freshman Daniel Montejano.

The following day, before beginning the farm work, the group visited a local village which consisted of many small shacks locals lived in. Despite these challenging conditions, the group quickly realized they had much more in common with the locals than they realized when Dr. Krejcarek organized a 3 on 3 pickup basketball game, which then evolved into a full on 5 on 5 game.

“I appreciated how welcoming the Filipino boys were when we joined their game,” said Chaperone Dr. Clint Hackenburg who participated in the  game. “Despite us interrupting their game, they didn’t seem to mind, and we were able to jump right in. As we played, I noticed more and more people, especially young kids from the village, trickling in to watch the game. Overall, it was a fun experience for everyone involved. It was interesting to learn how much basketball is loved in the Philippines, as Dr. Campos, Ms. Franco, and several of the sisters at the farm explained to us after the game.”

What was beautiful about this encounter was neither group focused on where their opponent was from, but rather focused on having fun playing basketball, a sport everyone seemed to love.  “When you are open to encounter with others, then these divisions and gaps close”, says Sister Digna Dacanay, RSCJ Former District Superior of the Religious of the Sacred Heart. “When you build up prejudices or wrong ideas about people, it is because you do not actually know them. But when you get close to them, when you get to know them, they are just as human as you are. That creates one heart, and a common humanity.”

“Our journey to Sophie’s Farm in Samar literally brought us to the periphery, the edge of our known world,” says Michael Campos, another trip chaperone. “But among other students, farming families, and sisters of the Sacred Heart, we realized that the distance between the Center and Periphery was not as vast as we thought. In our prayers for well-being, the dances we shared, and the games played he center and periphery were actually intimate to the other.”

This is what was experienced, an encounter with a common humanity, and because of that the “center and periphery” visions of lives merged, and instead of being Americans against Filipinos, it became people vs. people.

Following the village experience, students returned to the farm, and worked, planting lettuce, a rather strenuous task.

“Flipping dirt (and planting) was difficult especially with the sun beating down on our backs with limited shade. It took 30 minutes to overturn all the dirt, but it was worth it to see the smiles on the farmers’ faces in the end”, says Junior Claytoon Voong, a member of the 18 student crew that went on the trip.

After some sad goodbyes, the students continued their journey to the beautiful island of Cebu. There they planned to finish their stay and explore the Philippines even more. After the one hour flight to Cebu, the students were welcomed by the tour guide and two ladies ready to place welcome necklaces on our heads. The hospitality was endless and so was the food!

Before lunch, the students had time to spare, so they took a tour and learned the history of Lapu-Lapu. The rich history of the churches and land were extremely interesting as it really tells a story of the Filipinos and their cultural roots and backgrounds. Cebu was an amazing experience for all as they were able to journey and through once in a lifetime experiences like swimming with whale-sharks!

The students woke up at 3:00 am and took a four hour bus ride to Oslob in order to swim with the whale sharks. It was a very long wait but it was definitely worth every second. Groups were split into eight and were taken on boats deeper into the ocean. Once they arrived at the site, they jumped in and waited for the whale shark to pass by. It was definitely scary but you only live once! Each student was able to get an underwater photo with the whale-sharks and some even touched it. It’s safe to say that it was a breathtaking experience for all. After that, they also went snorkeling with many fishes and were lucky enough to see a big and beautiful turtle. The days were tiring as the fun activities were never ending.

The students also went canyoneering and jumped off of seven waterfalls. The beautiful blue water was definitely out of this world. It was cold at first but then you get used to it. The majestic falls in nature was a sight that is a must see because it really highlights the beauty of the Philippines. Lunch was then served at the falls after a long, exhausting, and fun day. The Pancit Canton was definitely a crowd favorite with a side of freshly cut mangoes and a sprite. Words would not be able to describe how amazing the food was!

Lastly, on the last day of their trip in the Philippines, the students and faculty had a big goodbye dinner. The dinner was located on the private beach with more lechon! Everyone was dressed up and enjoyed some cultural dancing. The students were also invited to be a part of the show and learn some dances while making friends. The night ended with an amazing and culturally transformational workout! Sadly the students left the beautiful island the next morning and journeyed their way back to San Francisco where they brought a piece of the Philippines with them. Mabuhay!