International · Travel Tips

Picking up a Language Abroad: Dos and Don’ts

Whether you’re planning a vacation, preparing for a business trip, or possibly relocating to a foreign country, here are my best tips for picking up a new language before your trip and while abroad.

Let’s start with what not to do. Having lived in the Philippines for eight years and speaking shamefully little of the local language, Tagalog (or Filipino), I consider myself somewhat of an expert on this subject.

1. Don’t be shy; own your embarrassment

I am shy and quite stubborn. Let’s be honest, shyness is usually a pride thing and I don’t like to be embarrassed. However, if you want to be successful in learning a new language the first thing you’ll need to do is get very comfortable with making mistakes, getting laughed at, and being embarrassed.

Why not be the first to laugh at yourself? You and everyone around you will have lots of fun and you’ll be learning in the process.

2. Don’t take the easy way out

Here in Manila, everyone and their mother speaks English. When I first moved here I learned how to say please, thank you, how much, and how to direct my tricycle driver to go left, right, or straight ahead.

After that, though, I didn’t actually need anything else and more often than not I took the easy route and communicated almost exclusively in English.

Chances are you will have to use a bit of English when learning to communicate in a new language but don’t let it become a habit. Keep pushing yourself to use any and every word you know, even if you’re mixing it up.

You learned the word apple in French class but don’t know how to say “Do you have?” yet, so ask if they have pommes with any French words in your arsenal, English if you must, and plenty of exaggerated hand movements.

Well, French might not be the best example. Don’t speak French in France unless it’s impeccable; you’ll be fine in Africa, though.

Anyway, you’ll learn by making mistakes and getting feedback, so start making them!

3. Don’t ignore the foundation of the language

If you’re in China, for example, you may be tempted to ignore the daunting plethora of characters and focus solely on learning to speak the language. However, you may regret that choice down the line as you will be missing an important piece of the puzzle when trying to grasp the language.

The same goes for grammar. We all know that sitting through grammar lectures will not teach you how to speak a language on the street. Conversely, picking up words and phrases as you go will not help you understand how they fit together.

4. Do learn these 10 phrases before your trip and start using them as soon as you land

  • Hello
  • Goodbye
  • Please
  • Thank you
  • Sorry
  • Can you help me…?
  • Where is…?
  • How much? (as in how much does this cost)
  • A little but I’m trying to learn (in response to “Do you speak…?”)
  • Can you teach me a new word/phrase?

As a foreigner in the Philippines, I’m always being asked if I speak Tagalog. If I reply, “kaunti lang,” meaning just a little, the Filipino conversation typically ends there and switches back to English. That’s why I’ve been trying to add, “pero sinusubukan kong matuto,” I’m trying to learn.

Saying this in Tagalog and not in English shows that I’m serious about it. Even if I have to use English after that, I’ve at least made it clear that I want as much of the conversation as possible to progress in their language and not mine.

After all, it doesn’t matter how much of a beginner you are; if people keep talking at you in a foreign language you’ll be forced to pick it up eventually.

5. Do learn some expression you won’t find in a phrasebook

–If you know what I mean.

It’s good fun and people are likely to acknowledge your effort to speak like a local and offer to teach you a few more of their favorite phrases.

For example, if you’re in the Manila and something shocking or frustrating happens, try saying: “Susmaryosep!”

In the predominantly Catholic country of the Philippines, this commonly heard exclamation is a contraction of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and coming from a foreigner it is certain to generate laughs.

6. Do study the building blocks of the language

What you’ll want before throwing yourself into a language is an understanding of its foundation, which we already talked about not ignoring. You might be able to learn this on a useful website or app, from a friend, or with a private tutor depending on how serious you are.

The point I’m reiterating here is: find out what the language is built on and make at least some effort to understand that.

In addition to speaking Dutch as a second language, I learned some French and German in high school and since then have picked up a little Spanish and Portuguese here and there.

Something I regret is not taking the opportunity to learn Latin while in high school, as it seemed pointless at the time to learn a dead language.

However, it is the basis of at least five European languages and a source of vocabulary for many others, English included. Personally, I think a basic knowledge of Latin would have helped me advance my knowledge of a couple other languages I’ve been interested in learning.

That doesn’t mean I’d recommend studying Latin before learning, say, French or Italian. If you’re interested in learning multiple Romance languages, however, it would make sense. Regardless, understanding where a language comes from can be useful.

When learning Korean, as another example, you’ll find literal building blocks within each character. Hangul, the native script of Korea, was actually invented by an ancient King as a simplified and more practical alternative to Chinese characters, which has thousands of unique characters and 214 radicals on which they are based. All Korean characters, on the other hand, can be assembled using the 24 “building blocks” of the Hangul alphabet.

7. Do take the time to learn a little history

A language isn’t just a way of speaking: it reflects the way people think and behave. One of the most interesting ways to learn a new language is through understanding the history and culture that have shaped it.

A few interesting anecdotes on where a word or phrase came from or how it became a part of popular speech make the whole experience of learning a language more fun and engaging. Susmaryosep, am I right?

It might be interesting for someone learning English to know that goodbye is short for “God be with you.” This tells you something about the language’s cultural roots as well, which brings me to my final tip.

8. Do use language to understand the country’s culture

An Aussie will casually cuss at a friendly acquaintance and call their boss “mate”. It is, after all, a casual culture. Australian businessmen here in the Philippines are known to go to the office in shorts and flip-flops.

Many languages have special grammar rules for addressing someone with respect and/or formality, and showing such respect is fairly important in these cultures. English does not have this.

In Tagalog (or Filipino), the word “po” is added onto everything you say to an elder to show your respect for them. Respect for the elderly is, after all, a building block of Filipino culture.

Japanese is full of honorifics and formalities used not only when addressing the elderly but for talking to more or less anyone who isn’t a close friend or family member. Politeness is indeed a building block of Japanese culture.

As you make the effort to embrace these elements of a foreign language, your understanding of the people who speak it will grow and they, in turn, will be more likely to embrace you. Whether on holiday or business and staying for a short time or a long while, immersing yourself in the culture through your use of language is guaranteed to enrich your experience.


Special thanks to the yoli teacher community for their input on this post!

My MMA Journey · Philippines

My Amateur MMA Journey, Part 8: Yaw-Yan, Jiu-Jitsu, and My New Gym

In all honesty, I’ve been a bit slow in picking up my MMA journey since returning to Manila. Maybe I miss the training at Lakay or the fresh mountain air. Perhaps the inferior Manila diet is what’s been leaving my body feeling drained, or perhaps it’s purely emotional. A lot has happened in the past week or two.

Today, however, I am happy to announce that the search for a new gym–and with it my training slump–has ended.

Not long after returning to the metro, a friend invited me to iGym Yaw-Yan Fervilleon at a wellness facility offering everything from yoga and meditation with an in-house guru to tai chi and aikido to the full MMA experience of boxing, Muay Thai, and jiu-jitsu.

Since I had never heard of or tried yaw-yan–a Filipino style of kickboxing–before, I took a session with their expert trainer for only 300 pesos (less than $6).

I enjoyed training at this gym, even though it was a bit far away. It’s hidden deep in a dirty side street off of Sucat Avenue but once you step inside the gate you’ll find a hidden sanctuary with a grassy lawn, a pergola for yoga and meditation, and a semi-open-air training area.

I definitely enjoyed the fresh air coming through the screen–a nice alternative to training in a walled-in space. What was unfortunate, however, was the strong smell of sewage in the air. This might have been a temporary issue in that part of the city but, along with the distance, it was enough to make me hesitant to sign up for regular classes here.

And it’s a good thing I didn’t because it wasn’t long before I met a jiu-jitsu purple belt who teaches at a gym right down the road from where I live. Score! He invited me to take a free trial class at Fitness Unlimited Submission Sport Parañaque and join his class there, which I did.

They were expecting me when I got to the gym and I received a warm welcome. The owner, John, gave me the lowdown on the types of training they offer and gave me an excellent deal on enrollment.


For the monthly fee of 2,500 pesos (barely $50) for jiu-jitsu classes, I get the registration, plus an additional month of jiu-jitsu, plus one month of circuit training for free. Sold!

Of course, when it comes to jiu-jitsu in the south B.A.M.F. is great but let’s be honest, it’s a bit pricey. Unless you commit to a six month training period or longer, you’ll pay 4,500 pesos (almost $90) per month for two sessions a week and I don’t even think that includes the membership fee.

As much as I enjoyed the jiu-jitsu classes there, I’ll only be in the Philippines for three more months so it’s not worth it for me. How fortunate, then, that I found Fitness Unlimited.

Our purple-belted instructor in fact trains at Atos Jiu-Jitsu Greenhills, one of the best teams in Asia and a fast-growing worldwide jiu-jitsu community. That’s a whole ‘nother part of town though, and with Manila traffic, it would take me forever to get there and back.

I am a beginner anyway and I quite enjoy the intimacy of smaller classes at the gym in my part of town.

In my first class at Fitness Unlimited, I impressed myself by pulling off a complicated flip-your-opponent-over-your-head-then-roll-over-your-own-head-and-end-up-on-top move that I never thought I would get thanks to the coach’s straightforward method: “Do it 10 times.” “Ok, good. Do it 10 more times.”


Yes, jiu-jitsu is all kinds of fun.

So far the circuit training has been great too and I have lots of sore muscles to attest to that. I’ve been meaning to build up my core strength in particular–you really do need that for MMA–and the circuits have been great for that already.

I’m looking forward to my second jiu-jitsu class this evening. We’ll have a new coach today but hopefully my sparring buddies from last time will be there again. Those girls were fierce. They will be competing in Quezon City next Saturday and if I can I will definitely watch.

One last reason to come to Fitness Unlimited Submission Sport Paranaque (as if that promo isn’t reason enough) is that they have a proper, functioning speed bag.

I haven’t had one of those to train with since my first boxing gym. Now I bring my wraps every day for speed bag drills before the circuits and jiu-jitsu classes.


By the way, you can also do Muay Thai (or boxing) instead of jiu-jitsu for the same price.

Lots of reasons to come and find these guys in on 118 Armstrong Avenue, Moonwalk Parañaque, Metro Manila.


P.S. They have a water cooler, bathrooms with toilet paper, and nice clean showers.


Eight Years in the Philippines

Ah Manila, my stomping grounds. Such a terrible and fascinating city you are. Your days may be unbearably hot but your nights are cool and long, with the lawlessness of the road and the wind in my hair, the fear and the rush, the terrors and the beauty. I will miss you, wretched beast. Your stench, by God, and the fumes you belch out, but the smiles you produce, there’s nothing quite like it, no, no doubt. Oh, what the sweat, the tears, the blood on your cracked pavement, and all those years tearing through you and circumventing the grave meant. Accept these, our last hurrahs, as we escape from the belly of the beast and wrestle through your jowls. I came to you all on my own, braved you independent and strong, but I leave having been broken to pieces and reassembled as part of a much greater thesis. I’m not just me anymore, I’m a part of my daughter and her father, and together we three have fought through the slaughter and we’ve done it with laughter in the face of disaster. Indeed, Manila, you are no longer our master.


Today it’s official: I’ve been living in Metropolitan Manila for eight years. It’s significant because that’s actually the longest I’ve ever stayed in one city and the most consecutive years spent in any country.

Yes, I’m 26 and I came here eight years ago; that means I moved here at 18. I suppose my “gap year” out of high school to volunteer abroad turned into a bit more than that.


First descent upon Metropolitan Manila


So much has happened in the past eight years and so much of who I am now has been shaped in the Philippines that it’s a bit of a challenge to wrap my head around it.

From volunteering to becoming a teacher to studying and starting a family to founding a corporation and running a nonprofit, I’ve had quite the life here.

Leaving, however, will be bittersweet. I met my companion here, eight years ago. For part of them, we were married; we moved into a cute little house and I gave birth to our daughter in it.

First, it was just the two of us on a motorbike; then we had a car and a baby, then a dog, then a cat. We had a garden and we planted trees in it. We had an aquaponics system full of fish and they were part of the family too, even though we ate them.




“Huisje, beestje, boompje.”

Little house, little animal, little tree.

I will leave my companion here at the end of this year. He will continue practicing permaculture but for the time being, he will do so alone–something we have come to realize is necessary for both of us.

As people, as parents, we must have the courage to make choices that will tear our hearts out, turn our lives upside-down, and force us to move beyond our comfort zone into the place where we become who we are meant to be.

I do find comfort in the knowledge that a part of my heart will remain here, living, breathing, and doing amazing things to make the Philippines a better place–a dream we have shared for years but can no longer pursue together.

Truthfully I cannot imagine it will be long before I return to these islands, if only for a visit, although we never do know what the future will hold.

Nonetheless, the memories will always be there.

Stepping out of the airport into the heavy heat and looking out the window of my ride transported me back to my family’s arrival in the tropical Ivory Coast from the cold, gray Netherlands when I was seven.

Making my way around Manila, I sat many a time in the front of open-air buses on the congested highways, riding alongside daily commuters and truckloads of pigs, getting ear-to-ear smiles from the boys behind me.

I laughed in shock at “KKK” monuments, the “MILF” rebels down south, and “Let’s Talk Dirty” laundromats and tried to keep a straight face when addressing formal acquaintances by their frankly ludicrous nicknames.

I bought a motorcycle that I didn’t know how to ride because I was jealous of watching how easily they zipped around in this potholed maze of a city. On the ride home, I learned how to shift gears while navigating road traffic for the first time in my life.

Only in the Philippines, indeed.

We spent our first new years eve together on the beaches of Puerto Galera, talking and dancing, laughing and crying.

We traveled to mountains and waterfalls, desert islands and white-sand beaches.

We sat at the breakfast table and shared our biggest, boldest dreams. We wrote two business plans together.

We took shifts pacing the living room all through the night and into the early hours of the morning with our newborn baby who refused to sleep.

My little girl and I, we leave the Philippines in good hands and I look forward to bringing her back here to see her father and the world-changing work he has begun.

To continue this moment of nostalgic indulgence, then, here are a few more of the most memorable pictures from my first year in the Philippines.

From wonderful experiences volunteering in Manila and Cebu to enjoying affairs more unique to the Philippines, there has always been lots to see and do.


Cubao 003
The Farmer’s Market in Cubao
Katsana 013
A Flooded Mall after Typhoon Ondoy
Mall of Asia 015
Live performance of “Under the Sea” in Mall of Asia


Indeed, if there is one thing I can say about Manila, and the people of the Philippines, it’s that they know just how to laugh and sing in the face of just about anything.


Silantro, Mojito, Molito

It’s an easy trike ride from anywhere inside BF Homes to “Toyota”. The dealership is long gone but, by name, it still marks the intersection of Concha Cruz and Alabang Zapote Road, as well as the BF Homes gate. From there you can hop into a jeep and get off at Madrigal Avenue but my people and I prefer to walk.

Most of this stretch has decent sidewalks, lined with overarching trees to keep the air cool. Of course, if you dislike the adventure of communing in Manila you can get an Uber straight here.

Either way, you’ll want to make your way over to Silantro Fil-Mex for the longest wait but certainly some of the best food you can get for the price in the South. On Madrigal Avenue, you’ll find the Sykes building, newly erected in front of Alabang Town Center, and Silantro is along the outside on the ground level.

Let me see, my friends got there around a quarter to eight and it’s now half past but we are not yet close to food. Thing is, the rainy season has started so they’ve had to get rid of their outdoor seating. Here we are, in a country with likely the world’s highest umbrella usage per capita, and they hadn’t thought to put some up.

The server sounded so genuine, too, when he said: “Oh, that’s a good idea!”. I’ve probably always had to wait at least half an hour to get seated here but tonight we’re in for the long haul. At least I know the food is worth it.

The tacos, starting at only 75 pesos a pair, are chock full of fresh vegetables and deliciously prepared fish, chicken, or beef. The beef nachos are a must and it’s not for nothing that you’ll see them on every table. The burrito is quite alright, although they only have one option and I personally find it lacking in a few key ingredients. (Beans!) Skip the quesadillas though, they’re a bit too messy to eat and disappointing overall. I only tried them once and found the dish greasy and plain.

Now that we’ve covered the essentials, let’s talk condiments. We’ve got a garlic sauce, a spicy sauce, and a guacamole sauce (not quite a legitimate guacamole). I really do miss big ol’ chunks of avocado in all the food but plenty of cilantro in the sauce keeps it fresh. The spicy sauce (You don’t suppose it has an actual name, do you?) is very manageable, I find. The garlic sauce always runs out first, and it is a little unfortunate that all three sauces come in such tiny saucers.

The mojitos then. Take it from a friend who has evidently had his mind blown by the mojitos at a boutique in Phuket (an experience that included partially dissolved sugar cubes for added mouth feel) that no Manila Mojito will match. These ones, then, are a bit heavy on the rum and lacking in mint to be enjoyed properly but they do get the job done and it’s only 250 pesos for a pitcher.

Some service slip ups included water dripping from the air conditioning in the ceiling and a mix up of the beef and pork tacos. Mistakes in the orders are fairly common here but they do fix them pretty quickly once it’s brought to their attention.

At the table, with our party of five–my daughter, her father, two friends, and myself–I was complaining about how servers often ignored the kid’s presence at the table and wouldn’t bring her, for example, her own cup.

She’s nearly four and eats with her own utensils, mind you. Silantro scores in this department by bringing five cups of water but then they take it a bit far by bringing our mojito pitcher on a tray with five cups as well. Pardon me, boss, my daughter won’t be indulging tonight. She’ll have to be a little bigger for that experience but to her credit, she is certainly not too small to put away most of a burrito.

Why do we keep coming back? Maybe it’s the perfectly prepared and succulent meat or the bursts of flavor in every bite. It could be the fact that the servers, no matter the long wait or occasional mistakes, always stay friendly and helpful. But more than anything, what keeps me coming back is that lingering of silantro on my tongue when the meal is over.

Where to go after dinner? I’m glad you asked. Head across the street to Molito, sit on a bench or in the grass and watch the fountains change colors as they move from bubbling spurts to towering bursts. Watch the big kids yelp as their fancy shoes get wet, or maybe you’ll see a toddler charging through every spout, soaked from head to toe. That one is probably my daughter.


The color-changing fountains
A beautiful spot for watching the sunset.
There’s the new Sykes building in the background, where you’ll find Silantro Fil-Mex and many other food options.
Molito has a variety of places for all ages, from indoor playgrounds to puzzle lounges and sushi restaurants to draft pubs


My MMA Journey · Philippines

My Amateur MMA Journey, Part 7: URCC XXX


Last night, four champions defended their titles in stunning fashion at URCC XXX at the Araneta Coliseum.


SMART Araneta Coliseum from the upper box


This was my first time attending a live MMA or fighting event of any kind, in fact, and I was not disappointed by the action.


The night’s warriors


I arrived just in time to see the lineup, followed by my friend Kiko Matos’ quick and easy wipe out on his cocky challenger Billy Jack Sanchez.


Pro-am celebrity fighter Kiko Matos makes his entrance



Matos and Sanchez in the cage


With a solid takedown, Matos took full mount and pounded his jiu-jitsu blue-belt opponent until he gave him back control, where Matos finished the fight only two minutes into the first round with a rear-naked choke–my own favorite move.

(Was it a black belt that Sanchez held? Whatever the color, it didn’t help him much.)

In fact, four of the nights nine fights ended in an RNC. Korean grappler Do Gyeom Lee’s submission was certainly a crowd favorite. He took his opponent down so many times in the fight’s one and only round I felt bad for the floor. Jojo Orao got out and got up time after time, but once Lee secured had him down in the RNC there was no escape.

Korean grappler Do Gyeom Lee’s submission was certainly a crowd favorite. He took his opponent down so many times in the fight’s one and only round I felt bad for the floor. Jojo “El Matador” Orao got out and got up time after time, but once Lee the “Undead” secured had him down in the RNC there was no escape.

The longest and in my opinion most well-matched fight of the night was between two flyweight kids, Fritz Biagtan and Solomon Dultra. For three rounds they gave and took one beating after another, with flurries of kicks, knees, punches, and a brutal elbow. The fight was stopped by the referee near the four-minute mark of the third round after a barrage of strikes from Biagtan annihilated Dultra.

For three rounds they gave and took one beating after another, with flurries of kicks, knees, punches, and a brutal elbow. The fight was stopped by the referee near the four-minute mark of the third round after a barrage of strikes from Biagtan annihilated Dultra.

Another remarkable victory was taken by Filipino-American Derrick Easterling, who won by knock out in the second round and flaunted his victory astride the cage. Being part African-American, Easterling didn’t quite look the Filipino but he put an end to any confusion by walking out with the flag to a song about Filipino roots. I suppose he wanted to be sure that the crowd knew they could cheer for him and his victory over the full-blooded Jiar “The Twister” Castillo.

On to the night’s main event, DEFTAC’s very own Swiss-Filipino Chris Hofmann, who I’ve had the pleasure of training with once or twice at B.A.M.F., rose to defend his middleweight title from Canadian fighter Robert Sothmann.

Despite his challenger’s taunts that he was “in for a rude awakening”, Hofmann withstood a couple of strong kicks, a choke hold, and a knee to the face from Sothmann and went on to dominate the fight, which was stopped by the referee seconds before the end of the first round. Hofmann brought Sothmann down against the cage with a stunning straight to the face and unleashed such a fury of punches that, after half a minute of trying to take it, his opponent tapped out.

Hofmann brought Sothmann down against the cage with a stunning straight to the face and unleashed such a fury of punches that, after half a minute of trying to take it, his opponent tapped out.

The night wasn’t over yet, however. Next up, URCC presented live on television for the first time in the Philippines a most-ridiculous three-on-three team fight.

Yes, it was ridiculous and it didn’t last very long. After that, there was a Red Horse drinking game on stage and I took that as my cue to get going. I don’t think I will ever be desperate enough to drink Red Horse.

And that was the night. Despite some glitches, delays, and scheduling issues, it was quite entertaining.

My favorite move of the night was when one fighter was on his back with his legs in guard while the other, standing, launched himself into the air and came crashing down on his opponent with a flying fist. Now that’s commitment.

Yes, good fun and a good night.

Congratulations to all four champions for defending their titles in such spectacular fashion!

Permaculture · Philippines

Permaculture at Lily of the Valley Organic Farm, Part 2

Implementing Permaculture Desing: Building a Dam and Swale

On our last day in La Trinidad, my daughter and I returned to Lily of the Valley to see how my companion Andy’s work of building a dam and swale was coming along.

Upon our arrival in the mountains last month, Andy visited the farm and created a pro bono permaculture design for the owners, Jeff and Lisa: pillars in this farming community.

At the beginning of this week, he met with Jeff to discuss the implementation of the design and on Tuesday they began clearing, surveying, mapping, and digging.

Andy has designed a dam and swale system that will catch rain water as it runs down the mountain, which will provide a sustainable source of water for the farm.

The swale will run along the side of the mountain and connect to the dam. If water levels in the dam are lower than in the swale, the swale will spill over a side wall into the dam. However, if water levels get too high, the dam will empty into the swale and over a spill way to the river below without damaging any crops.


Three workers came to help dig and build the dam wall today



Now we can get some work done



This is where the swale will meet the dam


After helping use a bubble level to determine how high to build the spillway for the swale, my daughter and I returned to the farm’s bed & breakfast to lounge in her favorite room.

Our Stay at Lily of the Valley Bed & Breakfast


Teddy bear love



This is where I did my writing while my daughter played with the stuffed animals


We spent one night at Lily of the Valley, enjoying their cozy accommodations and deliciously healthy food. Every room is so peaceful.


A garden view from the main dining room



Quaint accommodations



Beautiful lofts



A reading nook

If you find yourself in Baguio or La Trinidad, there is really no reason not to visit Lily of the Valley. Whether it’s for a relaxing stay in the loft, a camping trip, or just to have a bite to eat and a look around the farm, you won’t regret stopping by.


My MMA Journey · Philippines

My Amateur MMA Journey, Part 6: Last Days at Lakay

Check out Gina Iniong of Team Lakay in red: that is one fierce striker! Fighting goals.

And it is settled: I’m going to need tiny braids or cornrows if I want to be an MMA fighter. A bun can almost cut it for kickboxing but it is hugely impractical when you’re rolling on the ground.

Yesterday, I went to the Team Lakay La Trinidad gym one last time (for now) to train with coach JC. Seriously, this guy is a badass and one hard-working trainer as well. He handles all the 9:30-11am and 5-6:30 pm classes and does one-on-one sessions in between.

Jonchris Corton, known around the gym as coach JC, is a fighter too. The kind that does this sort of damage to his opponent and walks away looking like this.

Brutal! (Photo courtesy of Jonchris Corton’s Facebook page)

He makes every move he demonstrates in the gym look as easy as flipping a pancake, only instead of a pancake it’s more likely his opponent being tossed in the air.


What I’ve Learned at Lakay

After ten classes and a one-on-one session with coach JC just this Friday morning, to say I’ve learned a lot may be the understatement of my year.

I’ve learned how to spar, how to land hits, and how to take them: pretty basic stuff if we’re talking about MMA but I hadn’t actually done any of this before.

I’ve learned how to execute deadly combinations, fake moves, and not show my opponent what’s coming next. I’ve learned how to target sweet spots like the liver or solar plexus.

I’ve learned how to grapple and get a submission by locking my arms and legs in just the right holds and squeezing the breath right out of my opponent and I’ve had a bit of practice toughening up my neck, arms, and torso to hold off on tapping out.

Yesterday’s private lesson on defensive movement was especially enlightening and I will go back to Manila with lots to practice. In my last group session that evening I learned a few more takedowns and tried to get better at falling.


My Final Sessions

Having come back to Baguio late last Thursday after a few Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu lessons at B.A.M.F. and taking a family day on Friday, I planned my three remaining sessions at Lakay on Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday.

Honestly, ever since I first grappled at Lakay three weeks ago my ribcage has been in some state of mild-to-moderate injury. Add a few kicks to the bruised areas from sparring at Lakay and some rolling at B.A.M.F., and I’m starting to wince when I move around.

A bit of stretching, occasional rest, and a painkiller when needed usually does the trick and allows me to keep training. During my second grappling lesson at Lakay last Saturday I made it through the takedowns and rolling but toward the end of the session, the girl I was sparring with got her knees locked around my lower ribs and with barely a squeeze I tapped right out and was momentarily in enough pain that I teared up a little.

I sat out the last few rounds of that training, looking forward to mandatory rest on Sunday when the gym is closed.

On Monday we did conditioning, kicking drills, and shadow boxing: no problems there.

However, when I came in for what would have been my tenth session on Tuesday and we started rolling in the warm-up, I did a front roll on what I must say are some hard mats, landed poorly, and somehow managed to sustain some kind of injury to my ribs and side that rendered me entirely useless for the rest of the training.

After resting on Wednesday, and knowing I would be returning to Manila with my daughter Friday night, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity for a private lesson; I know that I still need to do a lot of work on my defense.

While I couldn’t quite put my full strength into the moves JC taught me Thursday morning, I did learn an entirely new defensive stance and style for my height and range that will be totally awesome once I practice it more.

I planned to return that evening to talk with the famous coach Mark and since I would be there any way I asked if I could redo my last class and join the 5 pm training.

I was a bit nervous when we started rolling again in the warm up–and even more so when JC demonstrated the takedowns we would be practicing after that–but everything went fine. The group was five guys and me, but fortunately, they all tried to be mindful of my poor injured ribs.

My last class at Lakay ended with three round of grappling. I am proud to say that in the last round I got the third guy to submit. I got him in back control–so far this is my best move–and executed a rear naked choke. I wouldn’t have gotten the submission, however, if coach JC hadn’t explained that I needed to get my legs in a triangle. I didn’t quite understand this at first, so my grappling partner–whilst in RNC–helped me put my leg in the right position.

Once I had the triangle and a full RNC, I squeezed as hard as I could and the guy held out for a good while before he tapped.

After that, the tables turned and he had me in a choke but I held out until the end of the round: ending my training at Lakay on a high!

Training at Lakay gets serious when the sun starts to go down.

Interviewing the Famous Coach Mark

Before leaving the gym, I spent some time watching the pro fighters start on their 6:30-9pm training and sat down with coach Mark to talk about the amazing team he built from the ground up.

He couldn’t have been more matter-of-fact when I asked him what has made Team Lakay so famous: “We win fights.”

They do indeed. Team Lakay has put the Philippines on the international stage when it comes to MMA, winning championships in Asia and around the world and sending three fighters to the UFC.

I met one of them, Dave “Scarecrow” Galera, here at the gym when he brought his submission grapplers from Team Gridlock for a group training. The other former UFC fighters are now trainers in Macau and Australia, respectively. Maybe I’ll look the latter up when I go down under later this year.

Coach Mark Sangiao, who is an international MMA and wushu trainer, tells me about his own MMA journey. He was on the national wushu team and he pursued an interest in kickboxing, Muay Thai, and finally, MMA as such fighting sports came into popularity in this region.

(Wushu differs from MMA is that it includes kickboxing and takedowns no ground work; instead, one can throw their opponent off the platform because there is no ring or cage. Now that’s entertainment.)

Starting the first Team Lakay gym in Central Baguio in 2002 was simply a matter of taking his hobby and passion and turning it into his work. Never did he imagine it would become what it is today.

The gym here in La Trinidad opened only four years ago in 2013 but since it is the larger branch it is where the main fighter training happens. In addition to training two-and-a-half hours in the evening, the fighters also have two sparring sessions and two outdoor training sessions every week.

They train some badass women here too. Go, Gina Iniong in Lakay red! (Photo courtesy of SunStar Baguio)

When talking about what makes Team Lakay the best, one cannot ignore the mountain air. In addition, Sangiao points out that the fighters here have a healthy diet of vegetables and meat. Ah, yes, I’m going to miss the abundance of fresh vegetables here when I return to Manila tonight.

Another factor I’m interested to learn more about is Lakay’s warrior roots. Coach Mark explains that here in the mountains, their ancestors were Igorot warriors who fought over the land in tribal wars. Fighting, then, is in their blood.

Joshua Pacio, 21-year-old Team Lakay fighter, recently competed in Macau (Photo courtesy of ONE Championship)

I’m sure he was joking when he suggested that I fight pro-am for Lakay to promote the team. I don’t even think I’m ready to join the 6:30 training, although he invited me to if I return–definitely something to consider and work up to one of these days.

Here at Lakay, they invite kids as young as eight years old to join classes on the weekend and many who train during the week are high school kids. In a country where drugs and alcohol are major social problems, the growing popularity of MMA motivates kids and young people to keep fit and focused and I believe we have Team Lakay and people like Mark Sangiao and other dedicated coaches and trainers to thank for that.

Personally, I would like to thank everyone at the La Trinidad gym–coaches, trainers, sparring partners, the girls who played with my daughter when I had to take her with me–for welcoming me to your gym and pushing me further along on what is hopefully still just the beginning of my MMA journey. It has been a privilege and an experience I will never forget.

Champions are not born. They are made.