On Travel With Purpose To Manila, A Farm And Ancestral Lands - Episode Transcript
Find the transcript to my episode "On Travel With Purpose To Manila, A Farm And Ancestral Lands" below.
Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens. I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.
This episode, we’re going off the usual path - actually, quite a ways off from my studio in Toronto, back to where it all begins - the Philippines.
We can’t really explore Filipino kitchens, without going to the motherland, right?
So today, no interviews - just some raw thoughts from my trip, instead - and you’ll hear horns rise above the traffic of Manila, tricycles speeding by, the calm of the countryside and horses on the cobbled streets of Vigan, Ilocos Sur.
ON TRAVEL WITH PURPOSE
Hello everyone! It is now Friday. I’ve been in Manila for about a week now. I landed on Sunday morning and, to be honest, everything is a bit of a whirlwind. It’s such a barrage on the senses to be back here amidst the traffic and noise you could probably hear just outside the window. I’m staying in Makati City which is the central business district of Manila.
Over the last couple of days, I’ve been meeting with people for interviews for the podcast and to reconnect with some friends I’m so glad to have been able to meet.
01:54 A walk through the old walled city
The city can swallow you up, and that’s the case for any big city, whether you grew up in it or moved there for school or for work. Yesterday, I went on a tour of Intramuros, which is the old walled city of Manila. I took a tour of Intramuros that’s run by a friend of mine, and it was really interesting because we talked about Philippine history in a completely different context than what we were taught in schools, from grade school all the way up to high school, and even college.
There’s such a big gap in all of this. How food, culture and traditions to be specific, is communicated to young people. I really hope that at some point, the educational curriculum in high schools and all the way through college, and especially if you go to a culinary institution like I did... it would just make such a big difference to have that type of content where you talk about the history of Philippine cuisines, providing context around the culture of how and why our food traditions have developed in this particular way. It’s something that just doesn’t exist right now.
It’s not to say the people aren’t doing something about it. They definitely are. And the big part of the reason I’m here is because I wanna talk to these people, and try in my little way, to bring these stories to life a bit more. To show people all over the world, whether you’re local or somebody who’s just visiting the Philippines - one of the many backpackers who are traveling through this area I’m in right now - that the Philippines has such a unique food culture and heritage and traditions that are kind of buried under the surface, they’re hidden. They’re there but they definitely need a bit of explanation. Telling those stories through a local’s perspective is necessary, because foreign food writers coming into the city and talking about the latest Filipino heritage restaurant that’s opened is important, but it doesn’t paint the right picture. Filipino people have such a deep story to tell. Their experiences are what you can’t really replicate, and telling those stories in our voices, I think, is something that’s really lacking.
05:12 Why “the middles” matter
How it affects me is that, growing up here I always think about why would I spend several thousand pesos on a meal, when I could go down the road and not have the same ambiance or the same quality of food, but... [it’s] still sinigang, still adobo, still lumpia, all that stuff that you want in a Filipino restaurant.
I really, really wanna be able to find a way to bridge that gap between what people see, what people understand of Philippine cuisine and culture because that story of “the middles,” they need to be told.
But what exactly do I mean by “the middles?” Well, from a food perspective - I mean, stories about what the hundred thousand people who work at night in call centers around the country, eat for “lunch” at four in the morning. Or the history of street food staples like fish balls, kikiam (made with tofu skins), “adidas” and “PAL” that are honestly my favorite examples of odd bits and ends transformed into truly Filipino foods by their taste, preparation, affordability and name. Who else shouts, “Adidas please!” when they want some grilled chicken feet?
Probably not the handful of tycoons who basically run the Philippines, but people like those call center workers, who spend hours in traffic on the way home during the morning rush.
Those are people who I grew up with. Many of my friends worked and have built their careers and their adult lives around that industry. It’s a big driver of the Philippine economy now to be sure. Walking around the city, driving through the major highways, I see these large condo towers that are very similar to the way the condo boom in Toronto is happening and in many centers around the world, where you have people who were coming in from the provinces...and finding that prosperity and financial stability they didn’t have. That means a lot to them.
This is why the story of the middles matter. Because we now have the technology and the ability to reach so many people with stories of the food the sustains us – like, a fried chicken rice meal from the corner store, and the food that we celebrate with, like the sizzling sisig at spots like Manam or Sarsa in Manila that your Instagram-loving friend just has to have for their birthday.
This stuff is popular for a reason. It’s not just because we love fatty, salty foods. But, because it’s within reach and embedded in everyday Filipino’s definition of “comfort food,” and it’s been that way for decades, which is not a long time, actually. Coming from mass marketing that’s pushed American deep fried chicken into the cores of our hearts, and of economic conditions that turned chopped up pig’s cheeks, ears and skin, from leftovers into a restaurant specialty. That’s Filipino ingenuity.
But it’s not all rosy. If you look at things a little deeper - like I tend to do - you’ll notice class distinctions arise even when we talk about food. Like, for example, how certain kinds of food are so closely associated with the people who tend to make and eat them.
While I was in Manila, I stayed at this little bed and breakfast, a restored heritage house with a really cozy, kind of Spanish-era feel. The front desk got my request for a room with a balcony, adding that the neighbor next door made steamed rice cakes, called puto, every morning. “It might get a little loud,” she said, “when he starts grinding the rice.”
And then she goes, “Ma’am, you know they do that at four in the morning. We asked them if they could be quiet, but they said that they also have their business to run.” My first instinct was, I don’t want these people to have to change what they’re doing. That’s their way of life, that’s their living! That disparity is jarring sometimes.
It took me awhile to understand why this particular thing stuck with me. On a base level, it’s because I felt uneasy that as a guest at this boutique hotel - I’m awarded this kind of superiority, some kind of outward power over the puto maker. The guy who wakes up at three a.m. every morning to grind rice, make batches of batter, steam the cakes, wrap them in banana leaves, load them onto his cart, and then actually walk around the neighborhood for several hours in the hot sun hawking the rice cakes he’s made. That takes so much work, and an artisanship on the maker’s behalf. This guy doesn’t measure, and somehow the rice cakes turn out consistently fluffy even when the weather’s crazy humid and there’s a torrential downpour.
In place of apologies that a maker of native delicacies may possibly wake guests with the sound of their work, I hope that someday the front desk says something like, “By the way, you’re in the best part of town. There’s a native rice cake maker right next door, and if you want freshly steamed rice cakes with some butter or salted eggs for breakfast, all you have to do is ask.”
11:38 At the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm
Next, we’re off to the farm, because I love going to farms.
I’m at the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm. It is someplace in Angat, Bulacan which is about two hours or so outside Manila, give or take. This place is amazing. It’s got a working farm and there’s a couple of other buildings down the road where a lot of the students who are part of a program here called SEED, which is the School for Experiential [and Entrepreneurial] Development. They have been so overwhelmingly amazing, and I can’t even begin to describe how floored I am by a lot of these kids and what they’re doing.
12:35 Growing SEED (The School for Experiential and Entrepreneurial Development)
This is not a regular school. According to Gawad Kalinga - the non-profit that houses this school - it’s “an education based solution to rural development.” I highly encourage you to visit gk1world.com/seed for more information.
In short, it stands for “School for Experiential and Entrepreneurial Development.” It’s a two-year program developed by a range of innovators in the education, social enterprise and agriculture industries. The school is positioned as an alternative to community college. Basically, instead of taking generic courses, students apply for SEED and get housing, food, and an education for free, covered by a scholarship at the farm.
The program covers character and community development, business management, communications, financial literacy and courses on agriculture. While all of this seems pretty standard, the important thing to remember is who applies to be a SEED scholar. Those students are 18-20 year olds from some of the most poverty-stricken areas of the Philippines, from slums in big cities to parts of Mindanao where armed conflict is a part of everyday life.
The goal is to show these students how and why they are “world-class Filipinos,” an idea that Gawad Kalinga’s founder, Tony Meloto, stands proudly behind. To develop the countryside and uplift millions of farming families who live way below the poverty line, they say the focus needs to go back to farming sustainably and to growing crops that thrive in Philippine soil.
SEED follows a holistic approach to solving these kinds of issues. By providing young people from poor communities - the only ones who understand their problems best - what they need to succeed, they become more than a social entrepreneur or business owner. They become people who live with dignity and have an immense pride in their work. That was something I could see from the titas who served us meals and the people who manned the corner store. They become community builders who organize weekly volleyball matches and who, like a cog in the machine of empowering other people, think of themselves as more than just “a poor person.”
And so, back to the farm…
15:36 Why I love the countryside
The place where I’m sitting at right now is at the top level of a spot that faces this:
“I’m sitting in front of a tranquil rice field, with plots of land stretching as far as the eye can see, through the hills and into the horizon. It was late afternoon and the sun looked like a Sunkist orange, with carabaos and farmers dotting the field. I imagine, for a second, this is what it might have felt like for a plantation owner.”
Just to give you a better rundown of the people I’ve met here so far. I have been at the farm by taking a week-long tour with a company called MAD Travel, which stands for “Make A Difference” Travel. They are a social enterprise that also started at the farm. People who come here say that it’s life-changing and I understand and see why...because coming here throws you into the deep end of things.
But what exactly do I mean by that? Well, when you arrive at the farm, you start with a tour of the grounds. That includes the main assembly halls, the dorms, the cafeteria, the pool and basketball court, and further on something called “The Bamboo Palace” which I quickly fell in love with. Depending the kind of tour you get, you either spend an afternoon, several days or a full week with different entrepreneurs at the farm - preparing things like peanut brittle or carabao milk cheese, locally made iced teas, chocolate pastries or vegetables for community dinners.
You will meet so many different kinds of people at the farm. I get emotional thinking how, even in my short visit, I learned so much from the people I met. There was Christine - shout out! - our MAD travel guide and all around awesomest 18-year-old I know, well, after my sisters. She arranged our dinners, hung out with us and talked about her community at the farm, and had the prettiest pixie outfit hands down at the Halloween party - and yes, it was the best Halloween party I’ve been to in ages. There was tita Jenny and tito Jun, a bit of a power couple and host family for a number of French interns throughout the years. We saw beautiful pictures of their kids and the kids who’ve lived them, and on more than one occasion, was treated to jokes like this from tito Jun:
18:34 “What song does a centipede hate?”
“Are you familiar with the centipede? You know centipede?”
“What is the most hated song by that centipede or millipede? You want a clue?”
“It’s a nursery rhyme, children’s song. Imagine the centipede singing, I have two hands, the left and the right, the left and the right, the left and the right…”
I legit cannot stop laughing every time I’ve listen to this clip. It’s just such a really good reflection of what our week was like there at the farm.
19:29 “Walang iwanan,” or no one is left behind
The two girls I’m living with here, both from the UK. They’re traveling throughout Southeast Asia and they booked the tour without much background about what Gawad Kalinga is, what the farm is about, and even I had a little bit of difficulty explaining to them at the beginning, know what’s to expect, because frankly I had no idea either. Everyone I’ve talk to so far from the dozens of French interns were here – there’s a lot of them – people who live in the community and the Gawad Kalinga communities, that very simple concept of “walang iwanan,” which in English means that ‘no one is left behind,’ is really the driving force to everything here. It allows people to approach problems and challenges and really different ways. Everyone who’ve we met, it just shows you on a really basic level how accommodating, warm-hearted, hospitable, and humbling it can be to live in the Philippines.
21:05 The stories that get to the heart of me
Many people go through tons of different challenges. This afternoon I was speaking with a student from that school I was talking about earlier. Many students have had started all these amazing businesses. Throughout the course of the week that I’ve been here, I’ve cried several times just listening to the passion and drive these people have. People who work in fancy startups in the big cities could learn more than a thing or two from them.
The person who I was talking with this afternoon developed a brand of flavored sweet potato chips and banana chips. She’s funny, she’s telling me that she dropped out of school for a couple of years due to a number of things going on at home. Really did not think that she would have the confidence at all to do much more than that.
I just have to stop here for a second, because there’s a reason I’m telling this story. This girl, who just so gamely agreed to sit down with me and tell me about this vegetable chip business they started - she later tells me, in Tagalog, that she was adopted and up until high school, didn’t really have any problems with the family who took her in. She did very well and got top honors in her class, and that allowed her to attend a private school on scholarship. But when her adoptive dad lost his job, things started to go south. Money became scarce to the point that – although she received another scholarship to go to college – the adoptive parents chose to send her sibling, their own child, to higher education. What you need to remember is that along with tuition, there are a lot of other costs that come out of pocket with attending college in the Philippines, like daily living expenses, books, supplies, money for transportation, etc. They couldn’t afford to give two kids that, so they chose one.
Depression set in, and in the two years she lived at home, she was abused by a relative.
Her story isn’t singular, as I learned many kids have similar reasons for coming here. I say that I’m floored by them, because beyond of all this – that sheer determination, that will to succeed and make a difference for themselves – it drives these students to do more with the help of others. Everything is done together here, and repeatedly, she tells me that without her family here at Gawad Kalinga, there’s no way her business and her life would have turned out the way it has. It’s a support group and for these young adults, it’s the strongest, strongest kind. People who have already faced insurmountable difficulties in their lives find a home and an environment for them to grow in.
She’s talking about putting all her products through prototyping, spending so much time on product development marketing, learning the financial end of things. She mentioned that they used to take tricycles just around town and now they are going to Manila and Makati, places in the city where big corporations and big companies are based. One of their co-founders has gone to France and Australia. I met her briefly the other day. She said that she used to be a street vendor and after two years of the program – through very hard work, perseverance, dedication – has managed to put up her business, speak on behalf of her fellow students, to go places in France and Australia that they’ve gone to. As I’ve spoken to people over time, you just see that, coming here, if you expect this beautiful orchard – with organic vegetables and farm-fresh meals everyday – it’s not necessarily the case, but that’s not the point.
The point is that you have to come with open mind and heart as you possibly can because that is what’s most rewarding. You get to meet people from so many different backgrounds. People who come here for very different reasons, but have found their purpose and place by immersing themselves in the communities. I think the biggest takeaway from this is that, if the students who come into that SEED program are faced with so many things that would make so many people just falter and fall...it’s never a barrier for them, and they don’t even think of it as a reason to not do things and not keep going. That determination to succeed is driven by the fact that they want to make a difference for their family, then for themselves, as a secondary thing. It’s always the family first.
The great thing about traveling is that, you get all these opportunities to be exposed to other people and ideas that hopefully provide enough food for thought for you to learn from. If the only thing that I can do for now is to share these stories with you, and if you’re willing to listen, I hope you are inspired to learn more about it and realize that the Philippines is so rich in products that are really good. I’ve had some carabao milk butter that’s bloody fantastic and is served in Amanpulo, in some of the top restaurants in Manila right now by one of the city’s top pastry chefs. I’ve also tasted ice cream made from carabao milk, flavoured with ube.
There’s so much untapped potential in the Philippines, in general, and I truly, truly believe that.
28:59 A journey to ancestral lands
Finally, we head to Zambales, a coastal province also within a few hours’ drive of Manila. I found out about this trip called Tribes and Treks online, and the idea behind the tour just seemed totally up my alley.
Going through the ancestral lands of the Yangil tribe was such an experience; it was just why I travel. We met an amazing group of people who were there for something called “Life Stories,” which is what MAD Travel organizes in coordination with ‘Where To Next’ – a online group of people who want to travel with purpose, who are curious about the Philippines. It’s a group of people in their 20s and 30s – young professionals – who wanted to participate in the kind tour that allowed to see things a little bit differently and share a little bit about their life story, any challenges they’re facing, what things are on their mind that mean something to them.
This whole process of learning about ancestral Philippine cultures, about indigenous tribes whose livelihoods are very close to the brink of disappearing, it just highlights the need for sustainable travel and supporting those types of communities. For the Yangil tribe, for example, their lands were nearly wiped off the map when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991.
Lots of land was just covered in ash and sand. You have these pictures of churches where the only thing that’s left are tall belfries that are several stories off the ground. Trekking through that terrain where the sun is just punishingly hot, for the while you are walking though it...as a traveler from the city or even out of the country – you go, “who lives in these types of conditions?”
You trek through these rivers that just cut through the lands. You have the mountain ranges in your backdrop. You can see it if you look left or right, walking alongside carabaos and the chief of the tribe who has accompanied us from the drop-off point up to their village. The first thing we did when we got there was we planted seedlings. As they explained, much of this terrain really took a very long time to regenerate because, what once was fertile soil was just covered by sand and ash, and nothing grows there.
Just listening to their stories of how, after the first several years, life was very, very hard for them because it was a day-to-day struggle of surviving. What they were able to previously rely on – things as simple as root crops, fruit from trees – all gone. These ancestral lands are at the risk of losing their traditional food ways, their traditional ways of living. Younger people are more and more leaving their tribes and going off to the city.
One story that one of the elders shared was with regard to schooling. At the community they have a multi-purpose hall which serves as community center, a place where people gather to talk about any visitors who are coming to town, stuff that happens around. It also serves as the classroom for kids, basically up until first or second grade.
There’s about 30 kids there right now, and once you go past that, they basically have to make this 10-kilometer trek – the same trek we were on – up to the drop-off point where they would have to walk into town to attend school. Everybody does this. From when you’re eight or nine years old, in the second grade all the way up to high school if you make it there.
34:27 Planting black-eyed peas in a nursery in a valley
Going back to what we did, we planted some seedlings – black-eyed peas – called kadyos in the local dialect. We stuck them into little black bags where we had some potting soil. The goal is to just regenerate as much of it as possible. For some of the trees – mango trees, rattan trees – their eventual goal is to be able to plant these trees back into the slopes of the mountains, which, as beautiful as they were...you could totally see the contours of the mountain ranges, you realize they’re beautiful and you could see so much detail from them. But that’s because they’re completely empty of trees. It’s going to take many years and a lot of heroic effort on behalf of visitors and locals together, to begin that process of replanting. Being there just makes you realize how much of this is very much a big picture, but also very localized and concentrated.
35:49 The Yangil Tribe
After we planted the seedlings, we bathed in the river for a little while. By ‘bathe’, I mean, we just got in there with our trekking gear, little rocks everywhere in our clothing. And then we headed off into the village of the Yangil tribe. We were met by a small community of about 35-50 families. Lots of kids around with the biggest smiles on their faces. The elders of the tribe had prepared this beautiful feast for us with their version of tinola, a chicken soup with green papayas, chili leaves, ginger. And we had chicken adobo, which was very tasty, a salad with some locally grown tomatoes and onions – everything has to be locally grown because, again, really the only way to get into the village is through that trek and hauling stuff in, like actual groceries and whatnot, requires the use of a carabao and a cart.
They performed some traditional dances for us. We got to shoot bows and arrows. Just the openness of every person in that community that they shared with us, people in the city who were just coming in for an afternoon...to see a genuine appreciation from the kids who were there, is the kind of stuff that makes such an impression on you. It really does make for real travel with purpose. With MAD Travel, their mission is to promote sustainable social tourism, which means that, we go there to learn about traditional indigenous cultures and also to provide a form of income for the community where there previously was none.
37:46 The importance of a light switch
Just to give you a bit of the impact of this, one day before we got there, there was a group of guests who came with Globe Telecom, one of the two big mobile phone carriers in the Philippines. Someone from that team had visited or heard about the place and had a fundraiser to donate a solar panel to the community. The chief was proudly showing us that they now have electricity in their little town hall. Over time, people have donated books for kids, little sets of chairs and tables. Very simple stuff you need for a classroom.
And just that, bringing a solar panel to provide light and a charging station for their mobile phones, that in itself is a big thing for them because that’s their way of communicating with the outside world.
38:41 Tourism that gives back
In 2017, that is a very concrete example of the benefit that this type of income generation can sustain for communities because it’s the combination of being there and learning from other travelers that really, really gives me hope for the future of this type of tourism in the Philippines. Of tourism that gives back, bringing a livelihood into areas that have struggled through very long periods of time preserving the Aetas’ culture.
One way that made very much sense to me, as our guide from MAD Travel had put it, is that, in the past, with so much of the struggle of each person in the community put towards staying afloat, towards living, your focus gets shifted away from preserving the knowledge of what their ancestors have passed on to them through generations.
Another activity we did was just walking around the forest and having elders of the tribe point out different plants and how to use it. A lot of them only have native names. They’d pick something up, let us crush the leaves, and then they’d explain that “this is used if you have colds, if kids have a stomach ache, as a source of food, from different trees and root crops and plants.”
The important thing is that, we recognize at this point that this type of knowledge is something that has to be preserved. If we don’t provide communities a means of livelihood to take care of their basic necessities, they have no other choice but resort to instant noodle packets because that is what’s available to them, that’s what they can get from town. Doing that diminishes the knowledge and the pride that older folks in the community have, and it just doesn’t allow them to pass on that knowledge to younger people. Younger people then in turn, don’t see the value in preserving all this.
I think that’s a great effect of having visitors come into the community with a stated purpose. Not for us to bring in luxury facilities or whatnot...but to understand that all this is “for you” because, as much as we’re there to experience how people live there on a day-to-day basis, we go in with the knowledge that we want to do this to help preserve that heritage. It’s something that I would really like more people to experience, especially Filipinos who are living abroad or have not grown up in the Philippines.
If you travel any place with the mindset of just learning as much as you can from that area, I think you do walk away with so much more than that day’s experience.
Special thanks this episode to my friend Dustin of Manila for a Day Tours. Please check them out online at manilaforaday.com. I highly recommend his 3G or God, Gold and Glory tour, for an experience walking around the old city of Intramuros like no other.
Also my warmest thanks to the folks behind MAD Travel. You guys, you’ve got a place in my heart and I look forward to working with you on bringing more guests to experience what the Philippines has to offer! Visit madtravel.org for more information about upcoming trips and the amazing partners they work with, like the super chill Circle Hostel in Zambales where we stayed. Find them on Facebook and Instagram, where you can also follow Where to Next at wtn_wheretonext. You will love this feed.
Our theme music is by David Szestay, other music for this episode is by Eric and Magill, Komiku, JBlanked and Blue Dot Sessions. Visit fma.org to hear their music and more.
As always, you can find me online at exploringfilipinokitchens.com. We’ve got past episodes on this site and you can also find Exploring Filipino Kitchens on Facebook and Instagram. If you liked what you hear, I would really, really love it if you told a friend!
Maraming, maraming salamat, and thank you, for listening.