I Spent 5 Months Volunteering In The Philippines: This Is What You Need To Know
Paola Martinez Parente volunteered for 20 weeks in the Philippines on the Environmental project. The 20-year-old lives in the United States and is passionate about environmental conservation.
Volunteering in the Philippines
I recently came back home after spending almost five months volunteering on the incredibly beautiful and exciting island of Palawan in the Philippines. Now, I know you’re probably wondering why and how I chose to volunteer in the Philippines, especially considering the extensive list of destinations available, and why I chose to stay there for so long. Choosing the length of my stay was easy – I had the time and I wanted to commit to a cause long enough to truly make a difference.
I first stumbled upon IVHQ after a simple Google search: things to do during a gap year. After extensive research, I found myself browsing their website over and over, trying to picture myself taking the leap and traveling to the other side of the globe to do what all the volunteers in the pictures were doing. But I took a leap of faith and made a chart listing the locations I wanted to volunteer at the most, the programs available there, and the plane ticket price. My requirements? I wanted to explore places I’d never been to before. I wanted to choose a program that would challenge me. I wanted to go somewhere I’d never even thought of visiting before – I wanted to go somewhere that would push me far out of my comfort zone. I also wanted to choose a place within my very limited budget.
The environmental program in the Philippines seemed to be the perfect fit for me. I’d never really considered going to Asia, but the archipelago is incredibly budget friendly, and as a person who would rather stay home curled up reading a good book rather than going for a hike, I knew this experience would help me push my own boundaries. Two days later I booked with IVHQ and got my plane ticket. And boy, did it turn out to be the best decision I’ve ever made, even if at the time I didn’t know it yet.
The weeks leading up to my departure were a whirlwind of anxiety, nerves and a healthy dose of fear. I’ve never considered myself a spontaneous person or a risk taker. I like set plans and routine; I like playing it safe. Traveling to the other side of the world for five months seemed out of character for me. I think I emailed my IVHQ coordinator (who has the patience of a Saint) around eight or nine times. It was when I boarded my flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa, and when I saw the hundreds of islands from the air, and recognized the beauty of the place that would be my home for the next few months that all the anxiety and fear faded and was replaced by pure joy and excitement. In that moment, I don’t know why, but I knew I’d made the right decision and I knew everything was going to be okay.
You may arrive solo, but you’ll never be alone
At first, I had been unsure of whether or not I would like traveling alone, but now I am so glad I did. I ended up making so many more friends than I would’ve made if I had already been traveling with someone I knew. Also, there was no pressure of having to constantly discuss what to do with someone else. I was free to do what I wanted with no outside pressures. The last and most important aspect of traveling alone, and probably what I loved the most, was that out there, on the other side of the world where nobody knew I was or expected me to act a certain way I could be whoever I wanted. It truly gave me the chance to discover more about who I am and the person I like being.
It will change the way you travel
This experience also completely transformed the way I look at traveling. Whereas before it had been simply about appreciating the beauty and culture of other countries, for me it became an opportunity to help people all over the world. The key to making an impact? Give it your all. Whether it’s in the classroom, or in the vegetable farm, or the mangroves, or a neighboring village, knowing you did everything you could will help you see the impact you’re making in the community.
Also, go the extra mile. Take the initiative to go further with your involvement. For example, in December the environmental team noticed that there were no recycling initiatives, so we decided to build a compost bin and three separate walled off areas to separate our glass, plastics and cans, and after that, we began collecting bottles from the entire village in an effort to reduce waste. The program ended up being pretty successful and we were able to see how our involvement and ideas were helping our little village.
Volunteering while traveling is a great way to immerse yourself more fully into the culture of wherever you are. While you’re living in Tigman Village, you’ll be eating homemade meals prepared by the amazing local cooking staff, you’ll live among the locals, you’ll be surrounded by the language and you’ll get a close look at how Filipinos survive day by day.
What can you expect when you volunteer in the Philippines?
Great news: you get to live right on the beach, the food is amazing and the locals are so of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. Expect karaoke night every Thursday, close friendships and lots of weekend travels with your new best friends. If you’re in the teaching or kindergarten program, expect to fall in love with the most exceptional group of kids you’ll ever meet. If you’re in construction just remember this: Mark (the coordinator), is the man. This will make sense once you meet him.
A lot of people are sometimes confused by the schedule, or by their first-week orientation. Let me help. Your first week there you won’t be volunteering, you will be attending cultural, language and cooking classes, going to the city to see historical sites and observe the culture, going to a local market in Narra (a nearby town), going to the Estrella Waterfalls for a nice, cool swim and going to the sandbar (although this last one may change depending on the season). It lets you settle in and adjust to the Filipino way of life. Enjoy it.
What are the projects like?
For the teaching project, you can expect to be placed in a classroom either in the school right next to the volunteer accommodation or in a nearby village school. Construction will typically work on projects either in Tigman itself or travel around helping other communities.
The Environmental project (and I may be slightly biased since this was my project and the best one to chose from) has a very varied schedule– sometimes you’ll be volunteering at a coconut farm, other days you’ll go to the rice fields, you’ll do mangrove rehabilitation, beach cleanups and environmental studies teaching to the local kids. While I was there, we even started a village-wide recycling program and built bins and a compost cubicle.
You’ll be volunteering from 9am-11am, then having lunch at noon, followed by another shift of volunteering from 2pm-4pm. It may not sound like you volunteer for long, but by the end of the day, you will be exhausted thanks to how physically and mentally demanding the projects are and you’ll be ready for yet another nap on one of the hammocks on the camp.
What to bring to the Philippines?
- Mosquito repellent. Mosquito repellent. MOSQUITO REPELLENT.
- You only need clothes that cover your knees and shoulders if you are in the teaching program
- Because of the mosquito situation, bring long loose pants.
- Girls – tampons are hard to come by so plan ahead
- Water shoes, especially if you are doing the environmental program
- Flip flops
- Travel towel
- If you’re gonna stay long, bring a laptop with movies
- Books/ Reading tablet
- First aid kit, antibiotics
- Nice outfit to go out during the weekend
- Mosquito net, recommended but not super important
- Playing cards
- Water bottle
- Shower towel
- Basic toiletries to last until you can go into the city
- Jacket to wear in your room, sometimes it gets cold
- Waterproof bag for your phone
What to do in your weekends
Another amazing opportunity you will have while in Palawan is the weekend traveling. Within the island, there are several popular spots among volunteers where you will be able to travel during the weekends. A few words of advice. The best places to go for the weekend are El Nido, which is 8 hours away, and Port Barton, which is 4 hours away. The easiest way to get there is either by renting a private van (recommended for large groups, will cost around 700-800 for El Nido and around 400 pesos for Port Barton each way) or by getting on a public van at the San Jose Van Terminal. The local team will be able to help you book a van.
The best part about traveling around Palawan? It requires little to zero planning. Upon arriving at both locations, you will be able to find cheap accommodation relatively easily. You shouldn’t stay anywhere that charges more than 700-800 pesos per night (this amount can be divided among several people if you share a room).
In El Nido, Casa Carlotta, Hakuna Matata, and OMP, are just a few of the places frequented by IVHQers. As for an itinerary, the best thing to do is to leave on Friday, book your tours for island hopping – which you can do either through a company the local team uses or once you get to El Nido, since there are a million places which offer them. The best tours to do are A and C, and a good deal will be around 1200P and will include lunch, snorkeling equipment, the tour itself, and an environmental permit (make sure you get a copy of it so you don’t have to pay for it multiple times). Another activity available is the zipline, which is worth it. Just grab a tricycle, and head over to Las Cabanas beach for amazing views and a great swimming spot. The tricycle ride both ways should add up to a maximum of 300P. Last but not least, you could also take a tricycle or rent a bike (which I do not recommend) and head over to Nacpan Beach.
As for Port Barton, while it is the less popular location, it is equally as amazing, with superior snorkeling and a spot to swim with giant turtles. This is a quieter town, less touristy, very small and without the vibrant nightlife you can find in El Nido. They only get electricity from 6pm to 12 am, so if electricity is completely necessary for you, make sure you book a hostel that has a backup generator. Princess Makayla, and Monkey Family Inn are both great and affordable choices. As for the activity for the weekend – I 100% recommend booking an overnight tour at the tourist center. You will get to do two full days of touring and camp on an island. The tour guide will provide 3 meals, tents, snorkeling gear and the environmental permit. This should end up costing around 2000P.
Regardless of where you travel to, the incredible sights and company of the other volunteers will make those weekends the best of your life.
The ultimate reason you should volunteer in the Philippines
While volunteering here you won’t just learn about the local culture: you’ll discover you’re capable of doing things you never thought you’d be able to do. You’ll realize the impact you have reflects the effort you put in. You’ll find that you don’t have to be blood-related to people to consider them family. You’ll learn that sometimes people with completely different backgrounds can become the best of friends. You’ll see that you don’t need months or years to form the closest friendships you’ll ever have. You’ll gain a new appreciation for things you always took for granted. But most importantly, you’ll discover that volunteering in Palawan is the best thing you’ll ever do.
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