Written by Hannah Manalo 

When you call something a “journey of the heart,” you’d better live up to it. ABS-CBN Foundation recently launched the second installment of its Samar and Leyte tour. Dubbed “Journey of the Heart,” the Foundation brought its guests to community-led ecotourism sites it sponsored over the years.  

As a city girl used to urban chaos, I found the trip both exciting and comforting. It was a personal journey, even as I opened my heart to my fellow guests and the community members. If you’ve been looking for a break from the toxicity of urban life, this article is for you.  

In a span of 4 days, our group experienced the Sohoton Caves and Natural Bridge in Basey Samar, San Juan by the Bay Floating Cottages and Boardwalk in Santa Rita, Samar, and the Leyte Peace Corridor, composed of the Lanawan Nature Farm, Mahagnao Garden Paradise by the Lake, San Vicente Garden Café, and the Kagbana Mountain View.  

Here are three things I learned as a city girl travelling in Samar and Leyte:  

#1 The roads are rough, but the journey is worthwhile.  

I’ve lived all my life in Metro Manila. I’ve become used to the availability of every possible mode of transport. Even in the worst of traffic jams, there’s always a car, bus, UV express, jeep, taxi, or even a motor to bring you home. Di mo nga lang alam anong oras ka makakauwi! In Samar & Leyte, our vans could only take us so far! On the way to the Kagbana Mountain View, the habal-habal is the king of the road. At San Juan by the Bay and the Sohoton Caves and Natural Bridge, trust that boats and kayaks will bring you across peaceful waters. 

The road to Kagbana is rough, with steep, cemented roads and path-breaking rivers. It’s a trip for dry conditions without rain-drenched slippery roads hindering your travel. It’s a reflection of how far up Kagbana is. However, the Kagbana Mountain View experience would not be complete without it. Manila streets are easier to traverse even with potholes galore, but the Kagbana view trumps Commonwealth and EDSA, bar none. The road to Kagbana LITERALLY sits in a forest! 

HABAL-HABAL. Some of our habal-habal drivers in Kagbana pose for a pic before we embark on our trip. Our vans await in San Vicente.

Kap. Rogelio, who leads the barangay, told us it used to take 15 hours to reach the next hospital. Today, transportation is still a challenge as motorcycles can only carry so much. While the journey remains rough, new roads give locals hope for more tourist encounters. They hope to be discovered for their breathtaking views and heartfelt hospitality.   

#2 Women are taking the lead! It’s a new but welcome development.  

Times are changing. Society grows ever more comfortable with the idea of women taking the lead. This comes as no surprise in the city, where women have steadily been joining the workforce. While barriers to entry still exist, city women still find it easier to find employment. 

Across the four communities in the Leyte Peace Corridor, women were either leading the cooperative or working alongside their husbands.  

GIRL POWER. Some of the power women in Lanawan posing with our Journey of the Heart guests. Prior to the photo, our guests were perusing the many offerings of the Lanawan Farmers’ Association. Standing tall in yellow is Claire Ablan, the association’s President.

In Lanawan, Claire Ablan leads in brainstorming ways to provide their guests with beautiful flower and vegetable farms. Despite having her hands full with 5 children, she is a pillar in the community.  

PERSEVERANCE. Ana Balaga shares with ABS-CBN Anchor how the San Vicente Garden Café came about despite its various trials.

In San Vicente, Ana Balaga leads their association. She has fought to keep the San Vicente Garden Café up and running despite FOUR (!) location changes.  

THE LENGTHS WE GO FOR LOVE. Jeneth Cañega shares how she joined ABS-CBN Foundation’s needs assessment team in crossing 13 rivers and some mountains in Leyte.

In Mahagnao, Jeneth Cañega helped the ABS-CBN Foundation’s Integrated Area Development team cross mountains and rivers to assess the areas that would one day become the Leyte Peace Corridor.  

KURATSA! Prospira Gloria poses for a photo before she danced the kuratsa, a traditional Filipino dance of courtship.

 In Kagbana, Prospira Gloria stands as the President of the association. She leads their active members, mostly women, in providing comfort and hospitality.  

These scenarios may seem normal in the city, but to most women in these communities, it is their first time generating their own income. Much like city women, they now juggle roles in the community and in their homes. These women greet guests at the entrance, cook delicious meals and kakanin, and tend to farm areas. On off-duty days, they stay home or take other jobs.  

 The Leyte Peace Corridor is a labor of love, much like how a mother nurtures her home. Women take the lead, working to better their lives and create opportunities for their community. More than the beauty of each site, I came home inspired by the heart these women have for their work. 

 #3 Community and livelihood ALWAYS go together.  

SMILES LIGHT UP THE DARKNESS. Our group smiles brightly for a photo in the famed Sohoton Caves. Larry Rambacod stands at the far-right, proudly wearing the cooperative’s uniform.

Through Larry Rambacod and Kemie Jacosalem, the President and Vice President of the Sohoton Service Cooperative, I learned about the deep history of the Sohoton Caves and Natural Bridge as a tourist site and the cooperative’s many challenges over the years.  

The cooperative model is core to these ecoutourism sites. In a cooperative, work is divided across its members. Members often work in rotations, which evenly divides the labor required to run each site. Income is collectively earned and divided across its members. 

RIDING IN STYLE. On the way to the floating restaurant at San Juan by the Bay, guests are treated to a beautiful boat ride by the San Juan by the Bay Service Cooperative. Both the buffet itself and the ocean view are a treat.

While this model runs across all six sites, the Sohoton Service Cooperative and the San Juan by the Bay Service Cooperative are great examples of what a mature community can achieve when trust is established and when challenges are overcome together.  

City life reminds me of the saying “it’s a dog-eat-dog world.” Prioritizing oneself becomes key to survival. After visiting the six communities, I learned that the community is part and parcel of their livelihood. There is no progress when only one progresses. We do it together or not at all.  

People. Planet. Progress.  

Writing this piece reminded me of ABS-CBN Foundation’s Tulong-Tulong sa Pag-Ahon campaign. The community sites we visited are a result of the Foundation’s desire to channel Kapamilyas’ support toward helping Filipinos after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).  

This year marks 10 years after Typhoon Yolanda. More than ever, it becomes evident that people, planet, and progress must always go together. As a city girl, I feel this is often overlooked. In such a fast-paced urban environment, people and planet often take a back seat to progress. This visit to Samar and Leyte serves as a reminder to nurture communities and the environment to achieve progress and better circumstances.  

EARLY BIRDS. Some members of our team caught an early flight to Tacloban to help with preps for the Journey of the Heart. Thanks, AirAsia!

Aside from ABS-CBN Foundation, other institutions support the work that communities do. One of its partners, AirAsia Philippines, is instrumental in advocating for communities. They’ve brought the Foundation all over the Philippines in support of its advocacies.  

Today, I’m back in Manila, far away from the beautiful sites of Samar and Leyte. I sit in my office chair and take inspiration from the communities. Despite how different the lives we lead may be, I am reminded of the power of collective action. It truly is a journey of the heart, one that takes you back to what it means to be a Kapamilya.