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Volunteering in the Jungle
21 August 2008
by Liu Hai

Hai Liu collects seeds while volunteering for for Hands On Manila, an NGO in the Philippines. (H. Liu)Hai Liu collects seeds while volunteering for for Hands On Manila, an NGO in the Philippines. (H. Liu)
Manila, The Philippines: Tired of spending vacations following a tourist map and being squeezed in the crowds at the tourism spots? What about enjoying your holiday with great responsibility?

My friend and I are working for Hands On Manila, an NGO in the Philippines this summer. Our organization has a programme called Hands On Volunteer Vacations (HOVV) which combine volunteering with travelling opportunities. We got a chance to participate in one of the projects and what we experienced was really a unique challenge.

Our mission was to help with the Halcon Heritage Forest Museum Project during a three-day trip. The Halcon Heritage Museum advocates for the conservation of biodiversity through trees, specifically the fight against alien species invasion. As these species have naturally taken over most of the country's localities of native species, the project hopes to bring back indigenous trees, which have been depleted as a result of the invasive tree species.

The Forest Museum will showcase the collections of endemic and indigenous tree species and will be set up in 500 hectares of forest land at the foothills of Mt. Halcon, in the town of San Teodoro, Oriental Mindoro. This project will not only be a mere collection of trees, but rather it will be a way of living for the people of the communities around the project site, as it will offer them livelihood opportunities in the maintenance of the site. The Halcon Heritage Forest project hopes to be the source of exploration for a multi-level of cultural and scientific legacy for the Filipino heritage.

Our specific task this time was to collect the seeds of indigenous trees.

On the first day, we tried almost every Filipino transportation mode such as a train (which is usually unimaginably crowded), a jeepney (a funny cart that is composed of the wreckage left from WWII), a tricycle (a motor with a cart beside, a bit dangerous), and a boat. Feeling the breeze from the sea on the deck, I realized it was a true 'Survival' or ' Amazing Race' for us. We took detours, we bumped into incidents, we hurried on our way, and finally we arrived at the destination after six hours' trip, by ourselves.

The municipal mayor was kind enough to invite us to stay in his compound. This was the first time for me to live in a Kubo (a tropical style wooden house which you might have seen in National Geographic but never thought of living in it yourself!) It was such a nice place for us to experience a peaceful, primitive way of jungle life.

On the second day, we started our volunteer work. We went into the forest with three local officials to collect the seeds of indigenous trees like Agupanga and Lan Sones. There are no paved roads and we got pretty muddy. We had to walk through water as deep as my thighs to move forward. But all this made the hiking more exciting. We saw a variety of plants, clean and green rivers along the way: when we got to the waterfall, my friend was just in the mood to take a swim in it!

We hiked the whole morning for about four hours. The seeds we collected will be sent to a nursery and finally transplanted in the forest. In the afternoon, we went to visit the nursery of Magrobe, which is planted by the beach to protect it from being washed away by waves and floods since it has twisted and strong roots. This is also a project in Mindoro.

There was so much to see, to discover, to explore and to experience. We tasted the young coconut and fresh fruits directly picked from the trees. We had a meal with leaves from the plant in our yard. We are obsessed with the hammocks (wooden hanging beds). All in all, we loved to hike in the mountains and witness the beauty of nature.

Moreover, the trip had a cause. Even what we did was not much work, we did contribute our help. We enjoyed it all the more, because we are volunteers.

I have been in the Philippines for almost two months. During my stay, I kept in touch with different groups of people such as street children, deaf people, smart public school students and many other volunteers from students to working staff. What I found is that the more involved I was into the projects, the more fun and impressions I would have. I always consider that 'noble' is a very plain word to describe volunteerism if people think it's just work without pay. Volunteers not only donate their time and energy while others are grabbing for money or fleeting pleasures, they should never stop trying to understand what they see and have a capacity of empathy. That's why we often find ourselves become more open-minded and get a wider picture of the world through volunteering.

Yes, I can observe the country from a deeper perspective which I have no way to gain through a superficial sightseeing trip. Besides that, I am always in company of other volunteers who will make my work much more interesting. And that makes a totally different journey.

Hands on Manila(HOM)is a non-profit organization that provides flexible volunteer opportunities for community service in Metro Manila. Find out more on the website:
www.handsonmanila.org