ABOUT: “Casa Bayanihan” (meaning “A House of Welcome”) was the LMU mission trip I was blessed to go on in the Fall of 2011, with a group of 8 other students and 2 LMU staff members. I spent a week in Manila, Philippines (my first time in the motherland!) visiting praxis sites, meeting different and inspiring people, and immersing myself in the culture I had been brought up in. The experience was life-changing and incredible, and it only fueled my passion to travel the world and help others in faith, service, and love.

These are all letters I wrote to my parents while I was away in the PI, documenting my whole experience abroad. And here is a link to all of my photos from the trip!



(Day 1): LOS ANGELES TRAFFIC, YOU MEAN NOTHING TO ME NOW. Also, the weather here is ridiculous. I literally just took a shower & not even ten minutes & my hair’s already steaming. (I’ve never been more grateful for the air-conditioning in our suite!) But aside from all that, I’m having a blast 🙂 It’s funny how I was so nervous/anxious before. we’ve only been here a day and already i’ve been affected. Our first praxis site visit, Sito sa Payong, was heart-breaking. The people there are living in such poverty, in shacks made from scrap and metal and whatever they can find. Some residing in abandoned old buildings that they transformed into houses. It was starting to rain, and the roads were literally mud and unpaved mountain dirt. & the weirdest part was that while we were driving, the poor neighborhoods all of a sudden turned into a gated community with these really wealthy, multi-million $ homes. Not even a single little line separated the poor, dilapidated shack-homes from the mansion-like houses of the rich (except the guards at the gate, who were carrying guns). And we found out the owners of these homes were politicians, govt officials, artists, musicians, famous actors/actresses.. we saw Kim Chiu’shouse with her bright pink buggy, and Claudine Barreto, Christine Hermosa, and Kris Aquino also live in the neighborhood. Their houses were literally feet away from a well at the entrance site, where the poor people of Sito Payong come every morning to draw water. It made me upset that these rich & wealthy people could live so comfortably next to the poorest of the poor of the Philippines.. it’s like, how could you even feel good about yourself with your pink little car & your swimming pool when there are people living next door who don’t even have clean water and concrete walls?! Ugh. Anyway, after walking around the site for a white, we started interacting with some of the people. I had to whip out my—really bad, unaccented—Tagalog just to talk to some of them. We met this really nice lady named Ate Faye who invited us into her humble home made of thin walls, no pavement, and scrap metal for a roof. She served all of the students vegetable lumpia (beats my mom’s) and a sticky rice pasty dish, I forgot what it’s called. She is an amazing cook! Ate Faye and her friend Ate Jess told us the story of Sito Payong and how they got involved with the community. It turns out the place is owned by the Philippine government but they refuse to do anything about it, since it’s surrounded by all the rich homes and rice fields. The residents aren’t allowed to develop or make construction on their homes; there’s no electricity, and water has to be pumped from a well all the way at the end of the village. They use unpotable rain water to wash their clothes, and their “kitchens” are carts outside of the house. Honestly, it was both fascinating and heart-breaking to see. But the thing about Sito Payong that stood out to me the most..? The people, seeing how friendly & happy they were to see us. The kids were so cute, & it was really inspiring to see their smiling, happy faces, despite the living conditions they’re in. It made me realize how lucky we as Americans are to have a home, food, clean water, and a nice house to live in. We take all of the basic things for granted & yet we STILL ask for more, but there are people out there who don’t even have these luxuries. I’ll never forget the happy smiles on the children’s faces, & I know i’m going to see a lot more. It’s one thing to simply hear about these things, about my culture. But to actually witness & experience it firsthand? (Not to mention my first try at authentic Filipino food!? SO GOOD) Absolutely incredible. I’m so blessed to be here. Only been a day, and I can already see this trip is changing my perspectives! <3

With gratitude,

PS. There’s a typhoon expected to hit tomorrow, so pray for us!)

(Day 2): EXHAUSTED. Its been a long but incredible day. We started off with complimentary breakfast at the hotel (I had the longanisa, of course) & then got into the vans to our first praxis site of the day, Lingap Pangabataan. It’s this non-profit org and daycare center, kind of like a Champions where they take care of the kids from the elementary school across the street. We walked around the neighborhood and visited some of the homes of the partners of Lingap, & we visited this one home that was made up of ladders and metal and little rooms for families left and right. Ate Leah was our host and she was very gracious. We also met her kids, both babies, who were adorable! The little baby girl named Carla was precious, she kept taking my camera and taking pictures with it.  It’s amazing to see what kind of homes these families are living in, such small spaces, to see how they adapt and how they are still happy with what they have. Many of the home-owners are Taho-sellers, and we got to have some Taho! it was yummy, like warm boba milk tea. It’s crazy how these people earn their livings selling Taho across the streets, & they only make around 80 to 100 pesos a day, on good days. Wow. Later after walking around, the Lingap staff served us Puto and my favorite, PANCIT PALABOK! Mom, no offense but authentic FIlipino Palabok is SOOOO GOOD. So flavorful and way more eggs than you usually put. Hehe. It was delicious. We also had chocolate cake from that Sweet Inspirations bakery, & it was deliciouss. Afterwards we visited the second praxis site, Tahanang Walang Hagdangan, which is another organization founded by a German nun for people with disabilities to live & work to provie for themselves and their families. Instead of being useless, the disabled people are put to work: making wood crafts, sewing bags, screenprinting, and even packaging pills! Whats crazy is that despite their disabilities and unableness to walk, they do everything so well with their hands. Even if they are old. They package pills and work with dangerous machinery all day long, for 8 hours a day, and they love it. There was this younger man with muscular dystrophy who even sang for us, and he had an amazing voice! He sang “Say That You Love Me” by Martin Nievera. It’s really cool how easily these disabled people could share their talents with us and with the rest of the world. We really take it for granted esp in America, where we don’t realize it’s people like them who package the cereal we’re eating or hand-stitch the bag we’re wearing. It was such an eye-opening thing. Finally, it was around 4pm and we had a snack at Cerealicious, where they mix milk with shaved ice and add cereal – ITS SO GOOD, so much better than pinkberry. Then we rested for about an hour before going to dinner at the Casa Bayanihan house in the neighborhood behind Ateneo, & we met the students who are living there and studying abroad at Ateneo. They’re all college students from different Jesuit universities, Boston College, USF, Santa Clara U. They shared with us their experiences & how happy there are to be there. They’re just really cool, positive people. It’s how I feel everyone has been here in the PI. Really friendly, faith-based, and really just grateful to be alive. The weirdest thing about being here is that everyone thinks I’m a Filipina celebrity. Without even knowing i’m filipino, the kids and teenagers think I’m a celeb. The ladies at the Lingap thought I was a TFC dancer! They kept saying “maganda!” . And then this group of students at TWH must’ve thought I was famous, because they wanted to take pictures with me. We took like 20 in a big group, and they kept saying I was “very very maganda.” Also, being here has forced me to communicate in Tagalog, at least, what little I know. I usually say the basics to everyone I meet (“kumusta ka?” “po” “magandan umaga/hapon”) and they always ask me if i’m full Filipina, they’re very interested in me particularly. I have so much more to say but, updates on that later. Anyway, I’m really sleepy so I’m gonna knock out in our air-conditioned suite. (Hilarious that we have one, right? Oh LMU..) Night!

(Days 3, 4, & 5): Hey guys, sorry I haven’t written in a while. The days have been really long and eventful & everytime we’d return to the hotel I was so exhausted that I’d just knock out on the couch. Happily exhausted. But here is the rest of my trip! Since I’m all packed/ready to go & finally have some downtime before we leave for the Manila airport for our flight home.

So on Friday was our “cultural/touristy day.” In the morning we ate breakfast at the hotel & then to Ateneo for about an hour, where we sat in for our second class, Philippine Political Science. We learned about the Philippine govt, how much of it is run by powerful political families like the Aquinos, & how it is also corrupt and sometimes ineffective. Much diff from the US govt! We also talked about the presidency and the way Filipinos have a direct vote in elections, & also a little about the life of current president Noynoy Aquino. It was an interesting class, & it was super cool hearing about the way politics run in the Philippines, & how they are currently trying to change that model. Then the vans took us all the way to Manila Bay, like the downtown Manila area by the ocean, and with all the traffic it was nearly an hour trip. (Manila traffic is so much worse than LA!) We arrived around lunch, and the first place we go is to Max’s house of chicken… Yes I know, I was a bit disappointed. I told them there was a Max’s 15 min from my house. Oh well. I had their chicken & then a halo-halo! Mmm sarap. The rest of the group all loved it, but it was too “fruity” for them too. Also what was weird was that the restaurant was playing all this Christmas music! I guess the Philippines celebrates the holidays for four months, September/October/November/December, which they call the Burr months because I guess its the “coldest” time of year. They had all their decorations up & everything, made me forget it was mid-October! After lunch we walked around downtown, first stopping in the beautiful Manila Cathedral. It’s a little old and musty, but the history of that church is amazing. It was burned down and destroyed in the war with the Japanese  & Americans, but later rebuilt in commemoration. The inside is magnificent, I took so many pictures ! & they have the traditional stained glass look, which I like. Outside the church we bought some beautiful handmade rosaries from the street vendors, I got a pair of sunglasses, and then we walked a little ways to Fort Santiago. All I can say is WOW. we saw the marching place where the Japanese had held many Filipinos captive, & even shot them to death during the war. We saw the prison cell of Jose Rizal, the infamous filipino missionary. & the saddest thing was seeing the dungeons where the Japanese would imprison filipinos… Literal barred cages set in the ground, like sealed ditches where they would cram hundreds of internees. It was so heart-breaking & I learned so much history I didn’t previously know about the Philippine-American war and the battle for independence! Wow. After, we went to the Philippine cultural center & took a tour of the convention center and surrounding area. We had this wacky tour guide who told us the story of the corrupted rule of President Marcos & his crazy wife, Imelda, back in the 1970s. The story is funny to me, but Marcos was a terrible, selfish & absent-minded man towards his people. After the tour, we got to ride a jeepney for a little bit! That was fun, & I took tons of pictures. Later we had dinner at this fancy resturant in Makati, the financial district of Manila, in a pretty nice area of town. One of the guys in our group tried the Diniguan after I told him it was good. He loved it! It was a long day, and finally we headed back to the hotel. After resting 6 of us students went downstairs where we took “ballroom dancing lessons” courtesy of the hotel at a little club on the 5th floor. It was like a zumba class! Fun way to end the night.

Then on Saturday morning was our last praxis site day. But first, we got up early and went across the street back to Ateneo for our third and final class… Boxing lessons! We went to the Ateneo  sports center & gym, where the Ateneo basketball team plays, and got lessons for 2 hours from this guy names “The Punisher.” HE WAS CRAZY! But it was so much fun! We stretched and did cardio on the treadmills, then he wrapped our fists up & each of us got to go in the ring and punch around for a little bit. Yeah, I’m not that good… But I learned how to make a jab! Woo. After, we went back to the hotel, showered, then went to a quick lunch at this place down the street called Ken Afford, & guess what I had? My fave, beef kalderetta! It was good, but not as good as Mom’s or Tita Baby’s. But still really good. Finally after lunch, we headed to our first site of the day, ANCOP, in the heart of Quezon City. & what was the first thing I saw when we pulled up to the community? A CFC sign! (Not FFL of course.) ANCOP stands for Answering the Cry of the Poor, and it’s this organization run by various groups like CFC. The little run-down villages made of steel were in the lower part of town, & it’s sad to think that just a week ago during the typhoon, that whole place was underwater. When we got there, it was hot and the first thing we did was sit at the main leader’s house, where she introduced herself as Ate Tess (she looked a little like my Tita Baby!) and told us all about ANCOP and the program run by the village. They are basically like a town within themselves, with over 150 poor families, & are working on getting the land mortgage from the current owners of the land. The parents have their own little CFC within the community, and there’s also a Youth for Christ. The thing that struck me the most while at ANCOP was seeing the children. They were EVERYWHERE, & the curiosity and hope on their faces was so uplifting. They welcomed all of us with open arms. There was this little girl who looked just like me when i was little! She was sooo cute. She and her friend kept tugging on my hair & saying, “ang gusto sa buhok mo.” The little babies in their mother’s arms were so cute!  Everyone was just so welcoming and happy to see us over there; they had even prepared us pancit, lumpia, & this thing called quek-quek to eat. I didn’t eat the quek-quek; those are quail eggs! One of the students tried fried balout though. He was brave. Watching his face while he chewed on certain parts was entertaining, but disgusting! Eww balout. The Titas over there were extremely generous over there. They told me to take care & to come back and visit them with my parents. Tita Tess in particular was so nice to me, especially when I told her I was filipino & that my parents were in CFC in the states. She was beyond thrilled! Her uplifiting and always positive spirit as a leader in the community was inspiring. I felt like I was back at home being spoiled by all my Titas in CFC. :’)

So after ANCOP, which was hard to leave because all the kids kept saying bye and wanting to play with us, we war straight to the colorful villages of Gawad Kalinga (GK). you know about this one already! But did you know there are over 65,000 GK villages in the Philippines? & in quezon city alone, one of the biggest areas of Metro Manila & where we went, there are already over 3,000 GK villages? Wow. Tito Frank really started something powerful. Anyway, the village we went to was tucked away in a part of the city you would never know about unless you crawled through a narrow street with many tiny shops along the side. Like ANCOP, the whole thing had been underwater previously. But the houses! They were so tall & colorful, lining the dim streets of Manila with bright color, pinks and purples and blues and yellows. We even saw some builders working on another house, & were told that most of these houses are built in just under 2 weeks! Incredible. So Fr Mark, the Jesuit priest accompanying us told us the story of GK, how it was once part of CFC but now has separated & become it’s own organization and community. Everyone in the GK Tribu village knows each other. Old ladies were washing their clothes and children playing and you could just tell that everyone was one and equal. When you live in a GK house, you are given the house & you are responsible for furnishing the inside. But you are also automatically part of a great community, a big GK family. It’s pretty cool! The houses were neat to see and I took tons of pictures. I’ll upload when I have time later. We had dinner again at the Casa Bayanihan house with the students abroad, & also some Filipino scholars from Ateneo. We sang magic mic, of course, and just hung out with all the young adults until almost midnight. So that was the end of Saturday.

Finally, Sunday! Our last day in the Philippines! Our schedule was just jam packed the whole week, so it went by  fast. First thing we did after packing up our stuff was go to Cubao for the Farmers Market! All I can say is, WOW. that place was interesting. First we were at the fruit stands, & guess what I had Mom? FRESH LONSONES! Mmmm so yummy! So fresh and better than the ones we had in Canada. I wanted to buy them for you Mom! 🙂 We also tried the Rambutan, & a lot of the boys loved durian (though not the smell!). All the fruits were yummy! Going inside was crazy though, I’d never been to such a huge and lively farmers market. Stands EVERYWHERE selling fresh fruit, vegetables, meat & very fresh (meaning, still alive) fish. Wow! The meat section was gross; I’d never seen so many pig and goat heads and fresh intestine hanging off the wall. The fish was cool to see! They had live squid, octopus, crab, even frog legs fresh from the morning’s catch. It was so gross but cool. But the whole place was really unsanitary and probably the FDA would find a million health code violations, but it was still really interesting to walk through & see everyone basically grocery shopping for the freshest stuff in Manila. It was crowded and hot, just like in the teleseryas! After Farmers Market (I bought dried mangos for 60 and fresh pan de sal), we went back to the hotel for an intimate Casa Bayanihan mass & final reflection led by Fr. Mark. It was really nice and intimate, held in the small living room of our suite. During mass we talked about different themes of the readings & how they relate to our Casa Bayanihan experience, and we reflected on how short but amazing of a time we had in the Philippines. Then we packed up our belongings and checked out, stuffed everything in the vans, & headed back to Makati to… the SM Mega Mall! You guys were right, it was HUGE (& nuts!). Traffic was ridiculous and they were having a giant 70% off sale in the stores, so the mall was packed like sardines. It was sooo hard to shop. But we found some stuff at the Kultura store on the 1st floor, including mom’s pastillas! Yum. The mall was way too crazy though, so I didn’t really walk around & see the whole thing, which was impossible anyway. But I was so surprised with all the American influence going on! So many familiar stores, like Gap and Forever 21 and stuff we have here in the States. Even pizza hut and krispy kreme donuts! It was almost like being back home, but so much bigger. The SM department store itself was insane. Five floors of brand names AND a supermarket?! Too much, Finally we escaped the craziness & went to a much smaller little outlet nearby, the Tiendecitas, where they sold just about everything— books, crafts, grocery, clothing, & even pets! Ohmygosh so sad though… they had all these cute dogs in the tiniest cages, even rare breeds like huskies and chow chows! SO CUTE, BUT SO WRONG. They are probably trafficked and illegal puppies! But the business must be doing great because there were so many people. I walked around and bought a few things like a fake designer bag for myself & banana chips for my friends. (3 for 100 pesos!) By the time we all finished, it was almost 6 and time to go. After repacking and gathering our things, we went back to the Pinoy Airport for our final goodbye. It was so sad; feels like I’d just arrived yesterday! We ate jollibee for our final meal & our flight was delayed an hour. We boarded around 1045 and arrived safely in Los Angeles at 8pm, Sunday evening.

In Reflection

Now, all I can do is look back and remember what an amazing experience I had on this program. Instead of seeing the “touristy” part of the Philippines, I was immersed in the  culture in a whole different way, by seeing the sites and meeting the people & just being touched by their presence. I now know what the word “Accompanyment” means, which is what Casa Bayanihan is truly all about. Rather than just helping out and doing service, we are being THERE for these people, meeting them & getting to know them & being a part of their lives. Seeing how happy they are in their living conditions and situations (the extreme poverty at Sitio sa Payong, the youthfulness at Lingap, the life of purpose at TWH, the community at ANCOP, & the togetherness at GK) was so enriching & moving. Oftentimes we are so caught up in the busyness of our own world, we forget there is another world somewhere else. Especially a third-world country like the philippines. We think our problems are the worst, the center of the universe, when really there are people across the world with no proper shelter or electricity or even water & they are STILL happy. They make the most of their situations with a bright smile & a positive attitude, and to me that was most inspiring of all. It made me realize, my own problems really arent that big at all, & that I should really be grateful for the things I have, the things we most often take for granted. Instead  of wanting more, doing more. Giving more. & being more actively involved with the community, with these people who show so much faith in God and give praise to Him for even what seems like the littlest things to us, like food and shelter and clean water. These can mean everything in a little child’s world.

So with that, I close. It’s safe to say i’ve been emotionally changed by this trip, and may never look at life the same way again. So, so blessed.

Check out all the pictures from the trip HERE!

With love,

PS. I want more lanzones.

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