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MANILA, Philippines -- A young French couple will trek 350 kilometers over 24 days next month in Iloilo, Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental provinces to learn from the “genius of the poor” they meet in the communities along their way.
HEC (short for Haute École de Commerce or "higher business education") Paris students Alexis Buffet and Laure de Buyer, both 22, are an intern and volunteer, respectively, for Gawad Kalinga (GK).
Buffet, who is taking up entrepreneurship, and De Buyer, an alternative management student, hope to study "social tourism and alternative energies," among other things, during their expedition.
"The main guideline is to make the poor our teachers," said the mild-mannered Buffet. "Because we have the feeling that they have many things to teach us, from different points of view. For example, for a business point of view, we feel that they have such a great capacity for innovation."
Buffet has been based at the GK Enchanted Farm in Angat, Bulacan for four months now. The resident community runs the farm, which is home to various social enterprises initiated by GK volunteers. Some of the products created here have found their way into the menu of the GK Enchanted Farm Cafe along Commonwealth Avenue.
"For the four months that I have spent at the Enchanted Farm, many poor people have brought innovation," Buffet said. "For example, the Enchanted Burger which is on display at the Enchanted Farm is made by Kael, the cook in the Enchanted Farm Café. The Enchantea recipe that was made by another GK beneficiary."
Enchantea is a beverage brand born at the GK farm. The beneficiary who concocted it receives royalties for the use of her recipe.
"We really think that the poor have such undiscovered skills. But more generally, from the human point of view, we feel that they have so much to teach us in how to enter relationships, how to overcome difficulties," said Buffet.
The two will begin their trip in Iloilo City, walking toward Ajuy town for seven days.
They will then take a boat to Victorias City in Negros Occidental and walking south to Kabankalan City over 11 days. From here, they will travel to Mabinay City in Negros Oriental and walk from there toward Dumaguete City for six days.
They will stop at 19 GK communities during their trip.
Walking: More Fun in the Philippines
"We decided to walk which may sound strange for Filipinos because Filipinos don't seem to be used to walking here," said Buffet.
When this writer suggested it was probably because of the heat, he replied: "‘Cause it's so hot! Yeah, exactly."
"So that's why when I was talking about this project before Laure arrived, everyone was really surprised, like, what? Why don't you take buses or jeepneys? What's the point?” he said. "The first reason is that we just love trekking. It's kind of selfish. We're used to trekking and we love that. And the second reason is that it makes relationships easier to create. It makes meetings more easy to find, to take advantage of."
"When you make efforts to see people, it shows that you are interested in meeting them. [If you are coming] by foot, you are tired and you are really happy to be in the village," De Buyer explained. "It will be only three hours of walk each day, so it's not so bad. We want to spend a lot of time in the villages and meet people. [It's] not a physical challenge, really."
"It's more fun in the Philippines when you walk," said Buffet.
"We'll see in one month," retorted De Buyer, laughing.
The couple plans to write a booklet to spread the word about GK, especially since founder Tony Meloto will be speaking at European business schools in October.
The Bridge between Europe and Asia
The influx of foreign interns and volunteers like Buffet and de Buyer began last year, after Meloto headlined various conferences and speaking engagements in some of Europe's top universities.
A batch of French interns from SKEMA Business School had just returned to Manila from Ajuy this week, filled with praises for the "most amazing people [they've] met."
The students shared photos and videos of the families they lived with, as they taught segregation practices to the community, played games with the children, and planted crops in the area.
Another GK worker, Clarisse Simonneau, came back to the Philippines after returning to France a few months ago. She missed the community.
"I love this country. [You have the] most friendly [people] that I found in the world. You sing, you dance, [and] you enjoy the life," she said.
Today, the Frenchwoman, who likes to speak entire sentences in Tagalog manages the internship program of GK, and stays at the GK Enchanted Farm in Angat, Bulacan.
"I want you to see the opportunities in your country."