Ann Marie Cunanan: Spreading the Credo of Meaningful Travels

When I first met Ann Marie Cunanan more than a year ago, she took me inside Fort Bonifacio for a bit of an afternoon walk at the camp’s oval field. Mirroring our hurried pace around the field, are the conversation we shared which she commandeered into the topic of finding one’s role in life. Caught in an animated discussion with her throughout the few rounds we had circling the oval field, I have learned heaps of fascinating things about her which includes her voluntary departure from a high-paying corporate job –to pursue a social enterprise Master’s course in Australia. Cunanan is passionate about working with communities.

Ann Marie Cunanan of Meaningful Travels PH
Meaningful Travels PH tagline is ‘explore, immerse and connect’. Photo courtesy of Jacob Maentz 

Unlike most people our age – who went on a round-the-world trip after clambering out of the four walls of a corporate office, Cunanan stayed put and instead founded her fledging baby at that time—Meaningful Travels PH.

Pushing Pin and Paying it Forward

Prior to Meaningful Travels, she had already established with her friends, a social travel enterprise, called Pushpin Movement, which caters mostly to the foreign market.

Ann Marie Cunanan of Meaningful Travels PH
This writer joined the #MeaningfulTravelsPH December trip to Barlig, Mountain Province.
I started Meaningful Travels Ph last August 2015 to work on the local market. I tested it with my friends, the concept of exploring places, connecting with locals, and doing something good during a trip. It turned out really well. I kept on organizing trips little by little and kept on refining the activities within the trip experience.

Cunanan tells me. Even during her foray into the corporate world as an employee of Fortune 500 Company, she has fallen in love with traveling. She had backpacked Europe, the USA, Australia, and parts of Asia. But aside from ticking checkboxes in her bucket list, she felt there’s so much more into travel aside from fulfilling one’s wanderlust.

Ann Marie Cunanan Meaningful Travels PH
Meaningful Travels PH volunteers during a trip to Sadanga, Mountain Province. 
Ann went on to a soul searching trip, this time with a group of volunteer mountaineers and a Dominican missionary priest.

I went on mission trips to the Babuyan Islands and Mountain Province. I joined the team of Father Joemar Sibug, a Dominican Priest, and Mon Corpuz of the Black Pencil Project. The experience of exploring and serving communities really left a mark on me. It was really inspiring and life-changing that I decided to create, develop, and share more of these trips. These travels heal. Nature and the act of sharing never fail to invigorate one’s soul.

Ann Marie Cunanan of Meaningful Travels PH
Ann Marie Cunanan with students from DLSU during an earlier MTP trip to Ilocos Sur. 

Meaningful Travels Today

Today, Cunanan has organized a number of trips to off-the-beaten path destinations and along the way, has introduced other travelers into making their travel experiences more fun, personal and meaningful by designing itineraries which allow them to interact more with the local communities. She also includes a sharing concept in every trip she organizes.

Donna Virata with meaningful travels ph
MTP’s volunteers distributes the school supply kits to elementary students of Ogo-og in Barlig, Mountain Province
I recently joined Cunanan and eight other Meaningful Travels PH volunteers / participants to the towns of Kaleo and Ogoog in Barlig, Mountain Province where we also delivered school supply kits for the students of the two elementary schools situated in both highland towns.

I asked Ann how she selects the places for #MeaningfulTravelsPH to visit.

I normally look for three things when choosing a location. One, there should be beautiful sites to see and interesting things to do. Two, there are schools nearby that we can support. And lastly, the community and their leaders are willing to receive the guests in their village. The third one is very important because what we really want in every travel experience is the genuine interaction between the travelers and the communities we visit. It’s a very people-to-people thing.

MTP designs a trip that fuses together the opportunity to share blessing to communities and explore hidden natural gems such as Fowa-as falls in Sadanga, Mountain Province. 
The people-to-people thing she mentioned was in full display during our trip to Barlig last December – weaving a new narrative to which even my experienced traveler self, still found a bunch of wisdom to learn from.

Sharing blessings to kids through school supplies is always a part of every Meaningful Travels PH's trips
Organizing trips like these can be physically demanding and the task of raising funds for the schoolchildren can be nerve wracking. Cunanan’s motivation is best shared with touching stories — one she shared with me:

One time on a research trip to Ilocos Sur, I had to endure a 4-hour habal2x ride to Tirad Pass, and another 3-hour mountain trek under a rainy weather. That evening, I asked our homestay host if there were “hilots” or local masseuses in the village. He came back and brought one lady in her late 40s. The lady gave me a good traditional massage and made me feel better afterwards. After I gave her the payment which was 300 pesos, she was almost in tears. I asked her why and she said, she had been praying all day asking the heavens for money. Apparently, her daughter who was studying in Baguio needed 150 pesos for a school project. She had already sold all her vegetables early that week and there was no money left for her and her daughter.

Other community immersion activities includes tree planting
It dawned on me on how our presence as travelers can make a significant impact to these communities. In this case, it was bringing additional income to the local people.

More Voluntourism Trips in the Future

After our Barlig trip last December, Cunanan and Meaningful Travels PH made another trip to the Mountain Province and this time to the town of Sadanga. The group once again paired a wonderful travel experience with the act of sharing blessings to a couple of elementary schools through the help of donors from all over the country.

Four ways of becoming a part of Meaningful Travels PH. 
Right now Meaningful Travels mostly run trips in North Luzon, particularly in the Cordillera region, but Ann dreams cover more communities in the Philippines. Part of my plan is to bring guests to Mindanao, particularly in Bukidnon, to immerse and learn from the Tala-andig tribe community, as well as in a Muslim community in Davao. My wish is to create more meaningful experiences and encounters with local communities. We want these trips to also bridge cultural understanding between our people and to arouse more appreciation to the richness of our Filipino culture.

It has been a roller coaster ride for Cunanan as she broadens her passion to pay it forward - and after amassing wisdom-enriching trips on her own, she now brings along kindred souls to off-the-grid places, shaping a relationship with local communities, while creating wonderful moments and making one’s travels more meaningful.