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Annotations on Travel

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After two years of closed borders, the world is finally gearing up to move again. But what has changed in the way we travel, and is any of it for the best?

Story and Media by

Denise Gonsalves

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“You’ll need to do the interview first before you can buy a ticket,” says the lady inside the booth, gesturing to the building entrance to our right.

“Oh,” I say, voice muffled behind my mask. I try to sound as cool as possible, but my eyes betray a hint of surprise. The lady shrugs before turning her attention back to her phone. 

It’s 7:30 in the morning and my family and I are at CityMall Parola, hoping to catch a ferry from Iloilo to Guimaras. It’s been two years since we last traveled here, and while everything pretty much looks the same, it was clear there was something different in the air. 

For starters, we couldn’t just buy ourselves a ticket now—somebody needs to decide whether or not we had the right papers to, first. 

It used to be so easy to get to Guimaras: you went to the port, bought a ticket, and waited for the next boat to leave (which happened every 30 minutes, more or less). It was a journey I always tried to take whenever I found myself in Iloilo—Guimaras was only 15 minutes away by boat, which meant I could find myself standing in a nice beach in less than an hour, or, though I’ve yet to actually try it, cycling around the island’s trails.

It was a route I was well-familiar with; one I was confident enough to take even on my own. But as I stood there in line for the nth screening interview I’ve had to undergo during this vacation, I couldn’t help but feel slightly out of my depth. Prior to our trip, I knew that traveling back to Iloilo was going to be different—temperature checks, QR codes, vaccine cards, you name it—but nothing had really prepared me for what things would be like on the ground. 

Case in point.

“Here, fill this up,” my dad says as he hands me a flimsy travel form. “And get your vax card ready.” 

The departure area is divided into two: at the front stands a row of monoblock chairs and tables with plastic barriers, where each passenger is screened. At the back are five rows of departure chairs with a few people—some still wearing face shields—sitting on them. Our travel forms ask for the usual range of information: name, address, date of birth, contact number. But another question makes me pause: “purpose of visit”.

It wasn’t multiple choice, so I had to write an answer. I put down “leisure”, even though I know the word doesn’t exactly cut it; true enough, I realize I’d written the wrong thing as we’re being screened, and the interviewer asks me where we’ll be staying. 

It’ll take quite some time before traveling ever feels the same as it did before.

“We’re just going on a day trip,” I say in Ilonggo. “I’m going with my family.” But he insists on an address or tour operator—even day trippers need to have their activities pre-booked. Fortunately, my dad intervened, clarifying that we were meeting a friend who owned property in Guisi. He gave the man all the details, and he eventually lets me pass. 

“You should’ve written ‘property visit’,” my dad tells me as we walk back to the ticket booth.

It was likely a stroke of luck that my dad decided to be very particular about his answer; after all, his intentions of traveling to Guimaras were as he had written. But I was only tagging along for the ride—I wrote “leisure” because that’s what I wanted to do; to explore and wander the island the way I used to. 

Is wanderlust still a good enough reason to travel these days? Or must every visit to a new place now come with a purpose?

I’ve always taken pride in learning how to travel at a young age: I was fortunate enough to have a province to come home to before the idea ever became cool, and this shaped my instincts around travel and adventure. My early travels to Iloilo taught me a sort of resilience that helped me adapt to new environments, so I was never scared of riding a plane on my own, or exploring a city with a different language. At the same time, my parents valued travel as a form of education, so they always brought us on leisure trips whenever we had the resources to spare. 

In college, my travels became less planned and more random, in part because I’d grown more confident in riding public transport. Even when trips weren’t particularly pleasant, I enjoyed the freedom of being able to find myself in a classroom in Quezon City in one moment and in a teahouse in Binondo within the next hour; or in a party in Taguig, and on a bus on the way to Zambales four hours later. Once, classes were canceled on the morning I was due to fly to Iloilo for my grandmother’s birthday. I hurried to the airport in the hopes of booking a chance passenger flight—I did, and got there four hours earlier than planned.

If travel is about leisure—about breaking away from the hurries of everyday life while enjoying the luxuries of a nice hotel—then you can tell the traveling habits I formed in college were anything but. Spontaneous travel became my favorite kind: rushing from one place to another without a plan or itinerary in mind, asking for directions, befriending strangers on the way. 

Is wanderlust still a good enough reason to travel these days? Or must every visit to a new place now come with a purpose?

To this day, one of my favorite travel memories is from when my friends and I met a local guide named Rodney in Dumaguete. He was referred to us by a public bus operator, whom we spoke to as we sleepily stumbled into the bus station one morning and asked how to get to Manjuyod Sandbar from the city. Once he learned that we had no pre-booked activities, he suggested we hire his friend Rodney, and arranged for him to pick us up at the port. 

Rodney picked us up, and we fell into easy conversation as we sailed towards the sandbar. He found out we were doing a side trip to Siquijor in a few days, since the island was only a ferry ride away from Dumaguete. “My brother lives there and he’s also a tour guide!” he told us excitedly. “Have you already hired someone?”

We hadn’t—and Rodney was happy to give us his brother’s number. I can’t remember his brother’s name anymore, but I remember that he picked us up at the seaport, brought us to our inn, and toured us for three days around the island. On our last day, he brought us to a shallow marine sanctuary that we hadn’t known about, and we spent the whole morning enjoying the ocean by ourselves. 

I count these moments as rare magic; ones that would be impossible to experience if every travel itinerary was planned to the T. The chance of encountering these moments is what always inspires me to leave room for the unknown. 

But Covid-19 has changed all that, and sometimes I wonder if we could still ever go back. While there have always been risks to traveling, nowadays they require you to sit longer with the questions: What if you get sick? What if you get sick and then pass it on to someone else? What if the person you infected doesn't have adequate access to healthcare? 

This isn’t the first time in history that traveling became more cumbersome due to world events. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US, airports around the world tightened security, banning items like liquids above 4oz and sharp objects in carry-on luggages. Passengers had to walk through multiple metal detectors and have each of their bags and electronics thoroughly scanned. In the past, you could arrive at the airport an hour before your flight and still make good time, or even come to the airport with a bag on a whim and pick a destination once you get there. Now, you need to be there at least three hours earlier, and only passengers with tickets are allowed through the gate. 

In many ways, the pandemic has done the same. In our attempts to delay the spread of Covid-19, travel checkpoints had to be tightened, RT-PCR tests required. It complicated things, and for a while, the purpose of travel was divided into essential and non-essential to identify those who could and couldn’t cross borders. It took so long for us to return to Iloilo because our travel fell under the latter, which meant we were the most affected whenever borders swung from “open” to “closed”. We also wanted to visit two elderly women—and they belonged among the most vulnerable to the disease. 

With the help of vaccines, we see that things are slowly getting better. Many local destinations now welcome travelers without an RT-PCR test as long as they’re fully vaccinated, and recently the Philippines has also decided to drop the mandatory quarantine requirement for vaccinated international travelers. But the marks of Covid-19 aren’t so easily removed: there are still long lines to brave, vaccine cards to show, and QR codes to scan—even though the effectiveness of these local contact tracing measures have always been dubious at best.

It’ll take quite some time before traveling ever feels the same as it did before. As I came to realize while riding the ferry to Guimaras, no matter how navigable our borders have become since 2020, there are still things we lose out on in how we travel now: the joy of the in-between, the aimless meandering, the ability to lean in freely while in the moment. Not everyone enjoys this kind of travel, but those who do know and understand the childlike wonder that comes with stumbling across the new and unexpected. 

It’s yet to be seen whether this kind of travel is still ever possible in the New Normal, with all the risks that need to be weighed—not just for oneself but for the people we encounter in the places we visit. But I’d like to believe that one day, we will find ourselves back on the road—and freely wander where it takes us.

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