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Promoting cultural understanding through travel

“When in Rome, live as the Romans do; when elsewhere, live as they live elsewhere,” advises the patron saint of Milan, Saint Ambrose. This has also been adopted as a motto by many travelers all over the world who want to embrace the unique culture of the places they visit.

This is also what 14 Australian students and their program head, Jeanne McConachie, did when they visited Bohol as part of their Global Leadership Program at Griffith University.

Visiting the Abatan River Community in Sto. Rosario, Antequerra, the students were made to experience several aspects of the community’s rural lifestyle. The Abatan River Community depends on ecotourism and community-based tourism as additional means of earning income aside from farming. They offer river cruise tours and serves authentic Filipino meals to their guests.

Cultural Immersion

The students, who are from Queensland, Australia, helped out in the local farms by harvesting crops such as sweet potatoes and cassava. The students then learned how to cook Filipino delicacies using the root crops they harvested. They cooked ginataan using coconut milk manually extracted from a real coconut, rather than canned coconut milk, the product they use in Australia.

“We enjoyed making coconut milk and Filipino sweets, and can’t wait to share these memories with our friends and families,” Lily Weir, one of the students, wrote to the Antequerra community.

They also got to meet the local community’s farm animals like the carabao (water buffalo), the women taught them how to make toys out of coconut leaves, and they also got to witness the weaving of nipa.

“I realized that it wasn’t hard [to make] the kids happy. When we had a time to sit and play with them, they were happy playing with pinwheels they created from the coconut leaves. Back home, some kids want expensive toys,” said another student Eliza Childs.

Filipino Interaction

Aside from learning about the local culture, the students also got to engage with the community members, especially the mothers and children, whose company they found enjoyable.

“I really love exchanging stories with the nanays and we hope that we could have more of it. Although they were having a hard time communicating in English, they were trying their best to communicate with us,” shared Bella Hunting.

At the same time, the community members enjoyed talking with and serving their guests, which speaks volumes of Filipino hospitality. The President of the Santo Rosario Women’s Association, Melaluna Edol, told the guests, “We are happy you are here. We love to serve you. We love cooking your food. I hope you come back here.”

Rest and Relaxation

The guests’ stay in the Philippines won’t be complete without going to beautiful beaches and rivers that make them feel like they are in paradise. With Abatan River as the main tourist site, the students highly enjoyed swimming in the river and riding the local bamboo raft. At night, they also took a cruise to check out the thousands of fireflies in the area. Beyond Abatan, the students went to Mag-Aso Falls and to Panglao beach.

Companies such as Pushpin Movement help bring tourists to the Abatan River community through cultural immersion trips that combine educational yet fun experiences with volunteering. Pushpin Movement aims to educate tourists about rural Filipino culture, to bridge two different cultures and bring as much interaction, connection, and understanding within the two.

“We follow a certain program to ensure that tourists are able to learn as much as they can about Filipino culture such as cooking or planting or even meeting our local animals.” said Miday Umali, Pushpin Movement’s lead facilitator.

According to Ann Marie Cunanan, program head from Pushpin Movement, these trips have encouraged local women and children to be more confident about their own local culture. “Before they would ask me what the guests would like to eat. I would always tell them to prepare the local delicacies—vegetables, langka (jackfruit), fish, kamote (sweet potato).” The locals were therefore surprised with the positive reaction from the students who finally got to taste authentic Filipino food.

Weir said that prior to visiting Abatan, she was struggling to understand what Filipino food is since they mostly ate fried chicken. She thus appreciated the local food prepared in Abatan, including maruya and bibingka.

Pushpin Movement is a social enterprise that began in 2015 to connect and inspire individuals and communities through immersive volunteer experiences and meaningful travel in the Philippines. The company has already brought in two sets of Australian tourists into the community over the past year and seeks to bring in more this year. (Cheenee Otarra)