Coming home to Manila in the pandemic: inward journeys

Coming home to Manila in the pandemic: inward journeys
Marte Tagle feels at home within admiring distance of Mayon Volcano. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

SYDNEY—This is your captain speaking. We shall soon commence our descent into Melbourne …” I felt a lump in my throat. Every year when I visit my daughter here, I make a side trip to Victoria’s capital to see a dear friend from college. The pandemic paused the practice, and now, after three years, I was returning to what had been tagged the world’s most locked-down city.

Imagine a similar moment, with an expatriate Filipino about to touch down in Manila. It must rouse a welter of emotions: excitement at reuniting with loved ones, apprehension over the Covid situation, anxiety triggered by unsettling news from home. Constantly changing travel requirements in the countries of origin and destination also aggravate matters.    

Six Filipinos living in Australia who recently visited the Philippines braced for flight delays or diversions and confusion over protocols. 

But soon after they deplaned at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia), their fears dissipated as they saw people everywhere wearing face masks and following safety practices. One arrival, a nurse, quickly noted the clear dividers and sneeze guards installed at airport counters. Another said the level of safety consciousness boosted her confidence. 

Coming from Australia, a country ranked among the best in its handling of the pandemic, they were impressed! It augured well for their three-years-overdue homecoming.  

I asked each of them about their experiences, and from their responses crafted these vignettes. In one of life’s poignant ironies, the pandemic that spawned heartbreaking separations from loved ones drew everyone closer.    

Newfound endearment (Olivia Villanueva) 

Coming home
Olivia Villanueva (right) with parents Manny and Joule and sister Princess in “a sea of clouds” in the mountains of Tanay, Rizal. —Coming homeCONTRIBUTED PHOTO

I grew up in a family that doesn’t express much affection. A hello kiss is my usual greeting to my parents, but no word or gesture between my sister and me 

When I saw my mom getting out of the car at the airport, I hugged her. Holding her tight, I observed that she had lost weight. My Ate came over to help me with my luggage, and I hugged her as well. 

It all happened casually. I think they were surprised. We are not good at being sentimental. 

“Yes, I am really home,” I thought, and felt it in my heart. It was a relief to see them, especially my mom. 

They waited three hours because my flight was delayed. It was nearly 9 p.m. The crowd of passengers and welcomers had thinned and only a few cars were left. At that hour I was also spared what I expected to be agonizing heat.

My dad, who teaches English online to Chinese students in the evening, was waiting at home. I gave him a tight hug and a kiss. We all stayed up until 3 a.m. There was so much catching up to do; I was last home in December 2019, after all. 

And my pet dog had just turned 17!

I spent most of my time with family. In the past whenever I was home, my mom would often plead that I not go out too much. I’d drive her wherever she wanted to go. This time, she tagged along with me on my errands. 

I met up with only a few friends from high school, partly to be Covid-safe. They booked a bar in BGC with al fresco dining. One even took a rapid antigen test (RAT) along with her husband prior to our reunion and posted photos of their negative test results on our Whatsapp group. The others followed their lead, agreeing it was a requisite for a safe get-together.

Being a nurse and coming from overseas, I’d have done it anyway, although I caused some confusion by referring to the test as “RAT” (as we do in Australia), instead of “antigen test.”  

Those planning to travel should bring antigen test kits wherever they go, and take lots of vitamins. 

Related: From pandemic to epic: amazing graces

My sister, being a dentist, is also a healthcare professional. Our home is well-stocked with alcohol, hand sanitizers, face shields and face masks. It’s reassuring to know that our parents have ample protection. We constantly remind them to wear face masks even when they’re only stepping out the door. 

My sister works in Antipolo City and has discovered interesting and Instagrammable cafes, resorts and scenic spots in Rizal. She took me and my parents there. We visited the Regina Rica (Rosarii Institute for Contemplation in Asia), a place for worship and meditation on a hilltop in Tanay, with a towering image of the Virgin Mary holding the Child Jesus and a rosary. I had never even heard of it.   

We returned a few days later and stayed overnight at Viewscape Nature’s Park, a glamping site in the mountains of Tanay with awesome views of the Sierra Madre and dragon fruit plantations. At sunrise we woke up in “a sea of clouds.” I have not seen anything like it. Experiencing it with my parents and sister was the most memorable moment of my visit.

Like Christmas in April (Nanette Fisher)

Coming home
Nanette Fisher captures on film the sunset in La Union, the most beautiful she has seen. —Coming homeCONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Every year I go home to Manila with my husband and our two children to celebrate Christmas and New Year with my family. Then the pandemic struck, and for the first time in 26 years we failed to go on what had become our annual pilgrimage. 

After two-and-a-half years, I was able to resume it last April but only on my own. Besides conflicts in my husband and kids’ work and study schedules, there was also uncertainty about possibly getting held up overseas and barred from reentering Australia if restrictions changed. 

But I was just too happy to see my mother and my three sisters, one of whom flew in from the United States at the same time. We decided to spend as much of our two-month holiday as we could with our mother, who remarked that with her four daughters home, it was like Christmas in April! 

For the first time, too, I held in my hands a copy of my mother’s memoir, handwritten by her over the years and published last year by my sisters and me, with illustrations by my son. The book bearing her name in the title, “Hiwaga: A Life of Grace and Gratitude,” was launched via Zoom with relatives and close friends on her 98th birthday last January.

We visited the graves of our father and close relatives, some of whom I could have seen one last time were it not for the pandemic. We spent a day in Subic to watch our nephew participate in a triathlon. We had such admiration for those with disabilities who joined the competition despite all odds.

The few times I went out in Manila, it struck me that just about everyone wore a face mask. It appeared to me that whether or not restrictions were imposed, they followed the protocol. I was actually impressed. 

People are afraid to get sick because hospitalization is expensive, and it seems that what limited free public health care is available is hard to access.  

In our own household in Manila, we have masks in our pocket or purse and near the front door so that any time the doorbell rings, we can put one on before seeing who is at the door. It has become part of everyday life.

(In Sydney, my family and I always wear a mask whenever we step out even if it is not mandatory, constantly wash our hands, and avoid crowds. Others find it a nuisance and a violation of human rights. Being a health professional, I find that attitude selfish.)

Venturing farther from Manila, I noted many new roads and skyways, making travel possible in much less time.

I had a memorable time with my first cousins during an overnight stay in our country home in Tagaytay City, reminiscing about our childhood and promising to meet up there again the next time I’m in town. My US-based sister and I also spent a week in La Union, where our niece and her husband had decided to settle. It was our first time there, and we were amazed at its beauty, with one of the best sunsets I have seen! 

There are many places in the Philippines we can be proud of. I hope, though, that people would respect and preserve their natural beauty for the enjoyment of future generations. 

My advice to people travelling to the Philippines: check the requirements (proof of vaccination, One Health Pass registration); complete documentation before checking in at the airport; and make hard copies of documents if you are not tech-savvy, so you can just hand them over and not hold up the line. 

Everyone looks forward to their holiday, and this is one way to stay in the right mood.   

Good to the last bite (Yvonne Corpuz)

Coming home
Yvonne Corpuz at The Farm at San Benito, her go-to for physical and spiritual health boost.

The lifting of the quarantine requirement may have eased my travel preparations, but the One Health Pass posed a challenge. The video of instructions was delivered by the speaker solely in Tagalog at a pace faster than I was comfortable with, so I strained to catch certain words. The registration took three stages, the last of which I completed during the layover in Singapore.

I advise travelers to take a screenshot of their registration and print it, besides keeping updated on requirements. They may also wish to book the FastTrack VIP meet-and-greet service at the Naia for smoother immigration processing.  

My reward for hurdling the pre-arrival challenge was two amazing weeks of wonderful hospitality and delicious cuisine for which I had travelled back to the Philippines. There couldn’t have been a better way to celebrate my birthday than with dear family and friends I had not seen since my last visit in January 2020. 

It was also the me-time I needed to be better prepared to provide care for my husband who was scheduled for a medical procedure in one month.  

I spent my first week with my sister Ging Asprer at The Farm at San Benito in Batangas, my go-to resort for a physical, mental and spiritual health boost. I am a believer in its holistic approach to healing and wellness. That it is also a beautiful place for rest and relaxation is a bonus. Not only are the staff competent and well-trained, they also exude typical Filipino charm and care. 

Once, I developed a cough and lost my voice. With Covid ruled out, I got some tender loving care with traditional natural treatment—warm salabat (ginger tea), pure oregano juice, a ginger chest compress, plus a combination of herbal and traditional steam bath, followed by a massage.  

After a day trip to Tagaytay where my sister lives, I spent my second week at Serendra in BGC, where my brother Nat and his wife Merlie live. As in the wellness resort, almost everyone in the streets and in SM Aura Mall wore a face mask. When once I forgot to put one on, the condo security guard reminded me about it. 

The most memorable moments were dinners with family and close friends, reminiscing good times over sumptuous Filipino food. I had my fill of crispy boneless bangus with mangga salad, pinakbet with bangus belly, laing, crispy pata, sinigang na baboy, even Jollibee Chickenjoy. The last, I rationalized, helped balance out the strictly vegan meals I had the previous week (though it undid the progress I was making on my weight-loss goals}. 

The food was as good as the company of family members and longtime friends. It’s remarkable how Filipinos can have so much fun and laughter despite daily concerns and challenges. 

Compared to previous visits, this time around there seemed to be more joy and excitement in my reunions. Perhaps because people just wanted to revel in the opportunity to gather again, with lots of story swapping and laughter. It reminded me yet again how much we value filial ties and enduring friendships in the Philippines no matter the distance.  

I had brought some small pasalubong for people I would meet, but I was outdone! They had more goodies for me, such as Mary Grace ensaymada, 7D dried mangoes, some Iloilo goodies from my in-laws, homemade araro (arrowroot cookies), and “yung pinakamasarap na puto sa Lipa na may latik pa,” to quote one giver.   

On the day of my return to Australia, I skipped the business class lounge and headed straight to Tapa King at Naia Terminal 3 for one last taste of daing na bangus and garlic rice with fried egg.

Grief and consolation (Marte Tagle) 

Coming home
Marte Tagle (fourth, from left) with aunt, Sister Ester Basilia, and siblings Gil Barion, Ruby Rosa Arezza, and Eva Barion. —Coming homeCONTRIBUTED PHOTO

I had mixed emotions coming home this year because it was the first time that I saw my family following my mother’s death five months prior. I was the only one among her children absent at the funeral. 

For the first time I was able to embrace my siblings and other family members after enduring three years of uncertainty—a period when we deeply needed to be there for each other but couldn’t.

My brother and two sisters and I made up for lost time by constantly being together, whatever we were doing. I took my share of errands and paperwork pertaining to our mother’s death.  

As though to ease my regret over missing her final moments, I was able to attend the 93rd birthday celebration of her only surviving sibling, Sister Ester Basilia. My siblings and I went to Sorsogon, where her congregation, the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, is based.

I was told that my aunt had been inconsolable since our mother died. She was quite close to our mother; she had helped raise my siblings and me. We did our best to cheer her up. She was so happy to see all four of us on her special day. 

We also went to Albay, our parents’ birthplace. Seeing the majestic Mayon Volcano every day gave me the feeling of being home. 

Two weeks before I left for Manila, the Philippine government scrapped the Covid test requirement for incoming travelers. I only had to register on the One Health Pass 48 hours before my flight and upload my vaccination certificate.

At the Naia, the checking of passengers’ vaccination certificates was rather slow but it did not bother me. I anticipated it and appreciated the staff’s diligence in ensuring everyone’s safety. 

We live in different times, and everyone is trying to cope with the situation. Some systems will work, others will need reworking. Travelers should acknowledge this and be prepared for challenges. We all need to be patient and cooperative, and most of all, keep our Filipino sense of humor.   

People we care about (Elmer Cagape)

Elmer Cagape (right) with siblings Eileen, Erwin and niece Lorraine Isabelle.–Coming home

At six weeks, my first homecoming since the pandemic was easily thrice longer than my usual stay. But unlike previous visits, I did not go wandering around. I spent part of the time working remotely; the rest I devoted to my main mission: to look after my wife Babes before, during and after her kidney transplant. 

The last time Babes and I were together was when she was in Sydney on holiday early in 2020. But she had to go home to Davao to get immediate medical care. She left Sydney the day before lockdowns and travel restrictions were imposed here and in the Philippines.

Over the past decade, we were privileged to visit several countries, having both worked overseas. But with her medical condition and the pandemic, travel was out of the question. I would only review photos of our journeys and be transported to those places and cherished moments.

During our separation, Babes and I stayed in touch daily, talking, praying, even cooking together via videocall—she’d give instructions while I worked in the kitchen. 

Family and friends took over what I could not do with and for my wife. Among them were neighbors and classmates from grade school through college. Lourdes helped arrange Babes’ dialysis sessions at Southern Philippines Medical Center when she caught Covid and was in isolation; Fe and sister Leah assisted with food arrangements in the hospital; and Evangeline, a bank manager, extended financial support. Childhood buddy Rey, a radio DJ and now our punong barangay in Mintal, also arranged ambulance service for my mother. 

I knew I would see them all again during my visit, but I was not prepared for what awaited me on my arrival. 

My wife surprised me at the airport! After 27 months of being away from her, I was elated to see her again in person. But it was a bittersweet moment, seeing her emaciated.  

I think she made the effort because we had bought a new house, and she must have thought it would be tricky for me to get there on my own. (I am still amazed at how comparatively affordable it is to live in the Philippines, even with inflation biting into the value of every hard-earned peso.)

On the way home, I noted that my hometown looked progressive, with more banks, a new shopping mall, and functioning traffic lights. At the same time, some things remained the same, good and bad—the familiar birdsong I used to hear on my way to school, and pedestrians’ uncurbed habits like littering, despite poster warnings to offenders.

It struck me that people were wearing face masks despite no visible enforcement. I thought it was borne out of habit combined with fear of an outbreak (none during my stay there). On one hand, it was a relief; on the other hand, it looked eerily like the time when I lived in fear of SARS in Hong Kong.  

I’ve never been comfortable wearing a face mask, but I accept that it is critical to keep Babes protected. I stayed with her in the hospital for 10 days. While she was recovering, I did house chores while working remotely (challenging, with erratic internet).

While out on errands, I noted the ubiquitous men in blue uniform at the entrance to public places: security guards. In Australia you hardly see them around; no bag checking in malls here. 

In the Philippines they are on the job, whatever the weather, with little pay. Feeling sorry for them, I wrote a tribute in my blog about their multiple roles: bag/car scanners, school/work attendance checkers, customer inquiry assistants, queue number and document form dispensers, traffic guides, wheelchair pushers, even tidying up the premises. 

The pandemic added a new assignment as health checkers, with new tools, digital thermometer kits.

My visit was too brief for my liking, but there was enough time for catch-ups with my siblings and the friends I have known all my life. I was able to join a long-delayed celebration of my brother and sister-in-law’s wedding anniversary. It was a chance to thank them all in person for blessing me with their labor of love and support. 

Growing up, I wasn’t so close to my siblings, but now I feel comforted that we have each other despite my being away from them.

Choices we make (Joy Vega) 

Joy Vega (left) with parents Dr. Domingo and Celia Vega, and sister Hope. —Coming homeCONTRIBUTED PHOTO

It took a year to plan my trip last June. Not only were there few flights available initially, travel requirements in Manila also were different from those in Bacolod City, where I was headed. It seemed there was no coordination among local governments, let alone a unified national registration system.  

After weighing the pros and cons, I dropped my original plan to stay a few days in Manila to see friends and went straightaway to Bacolod. I wanted to stay Covid-safe, particularly for my parents’ sake. They were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. 

I couldn’t wait to see them, but I advised them not to pick me up at the airport because I wanted to freshen up first and take an antigen test (I did it daily for the first five days). My relatives were also excited to see me, but we all had to hold our enthusiasm until the special day lest the celebration be cancelled because someone had gotten sick.  

In situations like this, we give up a bit of the spontaneity in exchange for mindfulness.   

To make sure I had enough time to quarantine in case I caught Covid, I took one month’s leave from work and stayed the whole time in Bacolod. I did not take side trips. 

The best part was seeing both sides of my family come together. About 150 attended the celebration, many among them vulnerable seniors, like my 90-year-old aunt. 

I prepared a spiel requesting guests to keep their face masks on when they’re not eating. But I had no use for it. I was pleasantly surprised that the guests policed themselves. For the next seven days I monitored if anyone had developed symptoms. Thankfully, no one did.

When I travel in natural areas, I try to adhere to the “Leave No Trace” principle.  Now, I advise adopting it everywhere.  We should all have the mindset of making minimum impact on the environment and the health and well-being of people we encounter in our travels. We can be mindful and still enjoy ourselves. 

While it is wise to have a plan, we should also be flexible in case it does not pan out. Living with uncertainty is the new normal.

Homeward bound

In a few months, I myself will be homeward-bound. I will heed the lessons they learned. What I will prepare for most of all is the absence of one dearly beloved.

Angelina G. Goloy is a former newspaper editor and PR consultant. She is temporarily staying with her daughter in Sydney. —Ed.

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