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A few days before our trip to Batangas—the first time either of us would leave Manila in eight months—photographer Sonny Thakur sent me a message: “How are you?” to which I replied, “Stressed.”
Some time in the year we all spent indoors, I had forgotten how to travel.
The requirements had changed. We still needed a destination (diving hotspot Anilao in Batangas) and a route (the long way through Tagaytay and Taal Heritage Town), but now we also needed a new set of documents, including a negative Covid-19 test result and a medical certificate. Without them, all our planning and packing may be for nothing—so we spent days frantically tracking down doctors who took online appointments and looking for cheap testing sites.
Would these documents even be checked? I received mixed reports — some people claimed the checkpoint at Anilao was very strict, while others said they breezed through an unmanned booth. But this was all speculation and hearsay. As tourist destinations around the Philippines opened up, their respective local government units made their own protocols, and advice by word of mouth happened often. The only way to know for sure was to head to Anilao ourselves.
Fortunately, Anilao is an easy two- to three-hour road trip from Manila, so close you can practically hear it calling. When the reopening was announced, there were many Manileños—like us—that booked a resort and left the city, as though they were just waiting for an excuse enticing enough to travel again.
Still, up until the moments before we left Manila, I felt the effects of having been rooted to one place, isolated from the world, for so many months. My rusty travel skills led to mistakes left and right, from forgetting my driver’s license to not knowing to pack an extra face shield.
But finally on a sunny Friday morning, Sonny and I threw five packed bags into the back of a giant, shiny blue Ford Ranger Raptor. Two brown envelopes held our medical certificates, negative swab test results, resort booking confirmations, and letters confirming that we were harmless media folk going on assignment.
<quote-alt-sidebar>The Ford Raptor is meant to be a super truck—a high-performance pickup truck, the biggest and widest (150mm taller and 50mm wider) in the Ford Ranger series, with 33-inch all-terrain tires and a powerful 2.0L Bi-Turbo diesel engine. All in all, sitting behind its wheel is enough to feel ready to tower over anything on the road.<quote-alt-sidebar></quote-alt-sidebar></quote-alt-sidebar>
By 7:30AM, we were cruising down SLEX—Sonny in the driver’s seat, me guiltily sipping on Starbucks—remarking on how light the Raptor felt for such a big vehicle.
It had been a while since either of us had been on the road, so we decided to take our time getting to our destination, coming off SLEX to Tagaytay, then taking the long way down so that we could enjoy Taal before heading into Anilao.
Around 9:00AM, we took our first stop in Tagaytay, just off the Tagaytay-Nasugbu Highway, at Breakfast at Antonio’s.
Breakfast at Antonio’s is laid out as a stately country house overlooking Taal Lake—it’s easy to see what makes it a popular choice for eager diners. At the entrance, we were asked to scan a QR code for the menu and wait behind a booth barriered by plastic. We were led down a flight of stairs to the blue-and-white veranda on the lower deck, where next to open wide-framed windows we were the only two people sharing air. For a moment, over eggs benedict and hot chocolate, it felt like peace.
Some time in the year we all spent indoors, I had forgotten how to travel.
I tried to hold onto that peaceful moment (admittedly, my first dine-out experience since the pandemic began) but we had to carry on; from Tagaytay’s main road, we turned into Diokno Highway and drove south til we entered Taal.
We headed for the Basilica of St. Martin of Tours, the biggest church in the Philippines. And it was here, in a very large church with a very empty parking lot, that I remembered tourism had cast a shadow in its absence; there was no comforting plastic barrier. There were scarcely any people, save for us and the sudden swarm of souvenir vendors who crowded us, trying to sell their wares. It was difficult not to revert back into distancing—I felt my pockets for a bottle of alcohol, walking away quickly.
At this time last year, Taal town would have made for a pleasant afternoon walk with beautiful ancestral homes dotting the way—as 2020 began with the eruption of Taal volcano, followed closely by the pandemic, Taal today offered only closed doors. The only venue open was the private vintage camera museum, Galleria Taal, at the opposite end of Calle Gliceria Marella (the street that marked the way through Heritage Town) which saw us sweaty and thirsty by the time we got there.
So we returned to the parking lot of the Basilica of St. Martin of Tours, bought an armful of souvenirs, and left. Back on the road, I poked through the plastic bag of dried fish and peanut brittle, silently doing the math for how much must have been left unsold through the year—there was no hard figure for this part of the equation, for all the places and people that we did not see when we were not traveling.
But we do know that, just the first seven months of the year, foreign tourist arrivals in the country dropped by 73 percent, which in turn means we lost around P318 billion in tourist revenue. In 2019, tourism made up almost 13 percent of the Philippine’s GDP—that missing piece affects not only the millions of people who rely directly or indirectly on travel for their livelihood, but the entire economy.
The Department of Tourism (DOT) has been clear about how optimistic they are about domestic tourism. A survey they conducted back in June reported that up to 77 percent of Filipinos would be willing to travel local, even without a Covid-19 vaccine.
Our ultimate destination, Anilao, is one of the many places the DOT has high hopes for. Just a few days ago, DOT Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat spoke from Batangas, offering support to the dive industry. Perhaps the tide is turning. Still, reopening Anilao involved a lot of push and pull, and plenty of prodding from the residents that were directly affected by the losses.
“Over the last couple of weekends I’ve noticed a gradual increase in dive boats and divers. It’s nowhere near what it used to be, but people are cautiously being encouraged to come back,” Robert “Bobbit” Suntay had told me over the phone in early November. Bobbit is the President of the SEA-VIP Institute, a foundation that protects the Verde Island Passage, and he spends his time back and forth between Anilao and Manila.
The DOT has been clear about how optimistic they are about domestic tourism. A survey they conducted back in June reported that up to 77 percent of Filipinos would be willing to travel local, even without a Covid-19 vaccine.
“The locals need their jobs,” Bobbit said. “Ang daming resorts that either completely shut down or drastically changed operations, which you'll see when you get there. When you look out at the bay, ang dami-daming fishermen, and they are really just subsistence fishing.”
There is only one road—the Mabini Circumferential Road—that goes into Anilao. In a way, it makes the tourism strip ideal for the current “safety first” atmosphere: one exit and one entrance, total control over the people who get to come in.
We arrived mid-afternoon, when there were gray clouds in the sky and the fishermen were back indoors, no boats out at sea. A little more than 10 kilometers from our destination, we found the checkpoint; it was a small booth to the right of the road, next to several kubo. Though no one flagged us down, we stopped.
A uniformed man approached our car, calling for another representative when he heard that we were tourists (there were maybe three people who appeared to be medical staff, resting inside a kubo). She asked for our Covid-19 test results, and we handed her the stack of documents. We paid 50 pesos each as an environmental fee.
And that was it. The entire thing took all of five minutes. As we made our way to Lilom Resort, I wondered if they would have cared if we didn’t stop.
The road through Anilao is fairly winding, and the resorts that lined the way didn’t appear to be shuttered, like Bobbit had warned. There were, however, four landslides along the way, what appeared to be the leftovers of the recent Typhoon Ulysses. Even from the comforts of the Ford Raptor, it was clear we were still in strange times.
The road eventually led us to a little wooden sign that welcomed us to Lilom. We parked the car and made our way down 200 rocky steps to the villas by the water, greeted with a temperature scan, then hot chocolate and the most delicious suman. Shortly after, a member of the staff approached and asked what time she should serve the sunset mojitos.
Lilom is one of the rare exceptions among resorts in Anilao that does not anchor itself on diving; instead, Lilom is a happy, restful place, the kind you just live in for three or four days while in awe of how beautiful the world looks from its vantage point. It was likely the closest to a vacation—a getaway—that we could get. And for the time being, it put our minds back at ease. The rest of our day was made up of snacks and sleep; we kicked up our feet and recovered under the shade of a beautiful tree. Time slowed down. Sky and sea met in one scene for the first time in what seemed like an era. Periodically, a member of the staff approached to offer us food.
In between snacks, I asked Sonny, “Do you feel like we’re traveling yet?”
We talked about trips in the past that we loved best, the ones that allowed us to discover cities by charging through them, walking into tiny shops, or making conversation with strangers we would meet on the way; these were the same things that made me hopeful about the push for domestic travel. It’s wonderful to think that could be the future—for Filipinos to explore and bond with places so close to home.
We had reached our destination (despite all the bumps along the way) but I still didn’t feel like I was traveling. We had food and scenery, good drinks and company. And yet, our guards were up—we bristled whenever a stranger got too close, which happened enough in Lilom’s small, intimate garden, the same way I bristled when the souvenir vendors approached our car. Our guards needed to stay up, I knew, for this trip to even be possible, but it put a distance in between us and Anilao.
In the midst of our nostalgia, I noticed a pearl vendor waiting by the shore, peering over the fence; his eyes staunchly on us and the rest of the guests. It reminded me of one of my favorite trips, when I had spent a week in Donsol, Sorsogon. Every morning, on cue, an old white-haired man sold jewelry by the shore, where he walked with his teenage son every morning. Some days, I watched as they approached tourists and tourists walked away. When we finally spoke, they told me about how hard life was when tourist season ended: how their daily wages changed depending on the number of travelers in town and whether or not those travelers were in the mood to spend. It was the line between a good day and a bad one. Tourism, which had blown up in Donsol at the time, was the entire reason they migrated there.
It’s wonderful to think that could be the future of travel: for Filipinos to explore and bond with places so close to home.
With them in mind, I approached the man by the water. I recoiled when I realized that I had forgotten to put on my mask; covering my face with my hand, I purchased something and then retreated, not making any conversation.