by Sky Luna Eda Serafica and Pinky Serafica

Traveling, in general, is pretty difficult. All the packing, all the planning, all the booking, and especially all the picking of photo-worthy outfits (which is arguably the hardest part in my opinion–Sky), make traveling a huge hassle.

Not that our family is the plan-to-the-last-minutiae type. We’re basic. Since we go to places that are not commonly on most people’s bucket lists, we just need to know if there are inns, if not, we bring a tent or check on homestays. We verify if there are roads (not that this has stopped us before) and ask locals if the routes we are interested in trying are at least passable. We check the weather (again not that this held us back in any way before), just so we know if we should bring shorts or rain gear. 

On a trip to Lake Mapanuepe in San Marcelino, Zambales, Waze and Google maps warned that we were on water, not along the banks but right on the Sto. Tomas River. We off-roaded on lahar that may have been on top of what was once a riverbed. Had we relied on technology and not on our local guide, we would have been dissuaded since there was no road to the lake, or better yet, we made our own road with only rocks and rain as our companions.  

When map apps show you are travelling on water but the terrain changed.

Long checklists and requirements

During the pandemic, travel preparations were even more grueling with the longer checklist. The excitement of going to the actual place and enjoying ourselves is often overshadowed by factors to consider before we could even think of leaving the house.

In 2020, before we could drive to Banaue in Ifugao, we had to get travel passes from the barangay, police, and health center, and then register in S-Pass to get out of the North Expressway into Pangasinan, and onwards to Nueva Ecija where there were random checkpoints in some municipalities. On top of Dalton Pass, there was a checkpoint at the border entering Nueva Vizcaya and another checkpoint in Lamut upon entering Ifugao, and then at the Banaue arch where dad met us so we could be let through.

There were too many things to consider that we were exhausted even before the trip had begun. Even with all the permits, not everyone was allowed to pass through, more so stay, just because they wanted to cut the trip and rest.    

We couldn’t just walk into hotels and inns or restaurants anymore. They were either closed or had too many requirements (such as RT/PCR tests, not just antigen tests, for every family member) that it became too expensive to travel for ordinary families who badly needed the break. Since all of us are fully vaccinated (with boosters), we didn’t have problems with being stopped and checked for vaccination cards.    

We always needed to anticipate the number of people at places we go to, making sure we masked up (double when indoors, and single when outdoors except when on mountain trails or on beaches). Ordinary errands like going to groceries required airport-level security. All that was missing were the metal detectors and K9 units.

Cutest K9 scrutinizing strange object at the Banaue arch checkpoint. Photo from the Facebook page of Doc Wes Dulawan.

Returning home, we removed shoes at the garage and sprayed every bit of package from the outside world until our skin permanently smelled like a hospital. Clothes we used outside were hung on the clothesline to soak in some UV before they were dumped for laundry. And before we could hug the grandparents or our dogs, we had to take a bath.  

We ventured outside to restore our sanity, but with the many health considerations, we returned with our sanity chipped away and back to quarantine jail. The travel checklist got a little relaxed in 2021, and even more now, but we are still on orange alert. 

Taking care of those who could get sicker

Call us paranoid but we live with grandparents. We plan around them as they are both immuno-compromised. If they aren’t traveling with us, we have to make sure they have enough food so that they won’t go out (which does not work by the way as they seize the freedom every time we leave; “master has given dobby [grandparents] a sock, dobby is free!!” – Sky). If they are coming with us, we go secret service-level policing, shadowing what they touch (everything!) and go through bottles upon bottles of sanitizer, spraying their hands, bags, and clothes every few minutes.

When mom rode an airconditioned CODA bus to Banaue, she got so tired of reminding the conductor to remind the foreign tourists to mask-up which they refused to do. All the locals were masked, she pointed out. One foreign tourist was even coughing, she remembered, so for eight hours, she hid under her malong (tube blanket) with her double masks to protect herself and people she loved whom she knew could get sicker if she gets sick or if she brings the virus home.    

One of our lessons in this pandemic is that we are so connected with each other through the air we breathe and the spaces we touch that if we have a weak link in upholding the health protocols, everyone is compromised. It works with everything really, if we consider others especially those most vulnerable, we also take care of ourselves. 

Lower tourism standards

On our way to Abra’s Kaparkan Falls (which didn’t happen because the epicenter of the July 2022 earthquake was in…Abra), we passed by Sagada, one of the more touristy spots we love. With no tourists in the past two years, many places have simply shut down or let the quality of their services suffer.

We anticipated that with the relaxing of travel requirements, more inns and restaurants would welcome tourists with higher quality standards in food and hospitality. St.Joseph Rest House’s aunties gave the same level of warmth and welcome, and their resto was among the few places where there was a reliable supply of quality food at not so exorbitant cost. Yikes though, hot water was PhP10 a mug.

Sadly, food in one of the oldest restaurants was so bad–fishballs sold at a stall right outside the door seemed to have been defrosted and refrigerated back (repeat, for two years); the “BLT” was expensive and disappointing; and what we thought could have been a safe choice in the chicken adobo made our assumption that nobody gets adobo wrong, well, wrong–that we left the food barely eaten and fled to have a second lunch somewhere else. The newer, smaller restos served better food faster, and cheaper, and staff had a more welcoming vibe.  

Quaint touches of the Sagada we knew were still there with self-service tiny wooden casks of Bignay and rice wine beside the road at PhP40 a shot. Daplipay coffee was still open with George Daplipay at the cafe ready to regale with his stories. We passed off on Yoghurt House which was too full for comfort, and had limited outdoor space where we preferred to eat.

We searched for the quality food (especially the Yoghurt Lime Tart from Baey Bakery) that we order from Sustainable Towns (formerly Sustainable Sagada), the social enterprise that tided over many restos in Sagada during the pandemic by bringing food and veggies to Manila consumers–but the suppliers needed advance orders. With more demanding local travelers than foreign tourists testing the waters, you’d think tried and tested hospitality providers would have more supplies, or have improved their services and welcomed people more.

Maybe these are just for spots like Boracay and Baguio where much of the Tourism Department’s budget was poured so hotels and restos can fully roll out the carpet. With quarantine regulations loosening and classes (including cooking) returning to face-to-face, we can only hope that the virus takes a chill pill and that businesses boost the quality of their food and stop serving disappointing adobo before all the tourists come skipping back in. WWW

Watch: Catching Summer, our mini travelogue when we tried to go to where typhoons first hit Luzon.