Sep 10 2020

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Balikbayans in the time of COVID

Balikbayans in the Time of COVID, by Homer Abiad MD


The pandemic has upended everyone’s lives and plans in so many ways, and we are facing restrictions we would never have dreamed of barely six months ago. But sometimes there are things we need to do, pandemic be damned, and sometimes things fall into place that allow us to briefly move on with our lives.


I live in Chicago with my wife Lorraine (UPCM ’91) and our college-age daughter Alia. My father-in-law, Teofilo Bangayan (UPCM ’58) turned 90 last month, and, we had long planned on traveling to Manila to celebrate that milestone with the whole family. Those plans were jeopardized by the pandemic that swept the world in the spring. With widespread travel bans and international flight cancellations, it looked like the trip would be out of the question. But then Daddy’s battle with cancer took a turn for the worse, and the journey became more imperative – not just to celebrate a birthday with him, but to see him and say goodbye for maybe the last time. 

Fortunately, the Philippines began allowing limited international flights in May, with a requirement that all arriving passengers be tested for COVID-19 and quarantined while awaiting the test results. Arrivals were strictly limited to Filipino citizens, but fortunately once again, we had obtained dual citizenship four years ago. Suddenly our Philippine passports, which we had not used since they were issued, became our golden tickets home. To avoid having to stop over in a third country, we booked seats on a PAL flight from San Francisco to Manila. Because many flights were being cancelled and rescheduled, we waited for our departure date with fingers crossed.


Thankfully, we departed Chicago on schedule on July 15. O’Hare was eerily quiet, and we breezed through security. Our American Airlines flight to San Francisco turned out to be packed, with little room for social distancing on board. But we carefully wiped down our seat areas, everyone on board wore their masks, and not a cough was to be heard all flight. At SFO there were extra procedures at the PAL check in counters – there was a temperature check, and multiple paper and online forms to fill out for the quarantine process on arrival, but everything went smoothly. Our transpacific flight was less crowded, and felt fairly normal, save for the flight attendants in full PPE and everyone wearing masks the whole flight, except for mealtimes.


We had been notified two days before departure that our outbound flight had been rerouted to Cebu, where we would be tested and quarantined for COVID. Initially we were upset at the unexpected detour, but it turned out to be serendipitous. The new Cebu International airport is clean and beautiful, the ground staff were cheery and helpful, and the testing process was organized and efficient. Barely two hours after touching down, we had gone through health screening and immigration, had our noses swabbed, collected our luggage, and were on our way to our hotel.


All international arrivals are required to quarantine in an officially accredited hotel while awaiting results of PCR testing. The stay is at the traveler’s expense, but rates are officially set, and much lower than the usual rates. We were pleased to find the seaside Plantation Bay resort on the list – with its tropical greenery and low colonial-style villas clustered around lagoons and pools, we couldn’t have asked for a more idyllic place to quarantine. While we were initially confined to our rooms, they were very comfortable, with speedy wifi, and poolside verandas where we could sit and dine. All meals were included in the package, and were delivered to our rooms. There was a somewhat limited range of choices – tapa or longanisa for breakfast; grilled tangigue, grilled liempo, or roast chicken for lunch and dinner. But for boxed meals they were very tasty, and felt more like picnic provisions than the rations of detainees.


Best of all our nasal swab results – all negative, thankfully – were emailed to us within twelve hours, after which we were cleared to leave our rooms. Our onward flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until two days after our arrival in Cebu, so we had a whole day to explore and enjoy the resort. Because of the pandemic, many of the hotel facilities were closed, but that also meant we pretty much had the resort to ourselves. We strolled and birdwatched along lanes shaded with acacia and kalachuchi, went tide-pooling on the small beach, and took a serene afternoon swim with nobody else in sight. That evening we feasted on the famous Cebu lechon, delivered from a local restaurant. There is much truth to the tourism slogan: with quarantining as with many other things, it’s more fun in the Philippines.


Refreshed after the unexpected break from the pandemic, we flew to Manila the next morning. There we were pleasantly surprised by the clear, smog-free sky, and the freely flowing traffic on EDSA. We were happily reunited with our families, though with the requisite physical distancing, and without the usual hugs and kisses.


Our weeklong stay in Manila was very different from our usual visits. There were no get-togethers with friends or more distant relatives, no shopping or dining at malls or restaurants, no sightseeing out-of-town excursions. But with Lorraine’s family home all day, with grown-ups working remotely, and kids out of school, we had much more quality family time than we usually do. And so the days flew by, spent at home with family, with many happy hours of chatting and eating, enjoying long-missed favorites like lanzones and mangosteen, and discovering new ones, like ube cheese pan de sal. We spent much time playing board games, and reliving old memories. Just like old times, but with masks on our faces.


Most importantly we got to spend time with Daddy, who was thankfully still up and about, though easily fatigued. We heard him recount stories about his childhood and youth, pored over old photos with him, and listened as he spoke about how he is at peace, and ready for meeting his maker. And we did get to celebrate his 90th birthday with him. In normal times it would have been a massive celebration, with extended family and numerous friends and colleagues in attendance. But with the pandemic in full swing, it was an intimate but no less joyous affair, with just the immediate family. We asked him during the party how he felt. He said, “With all of my children and grandchildren here, this is one of the happiest days of my life.” Which made the perils of travel in the time of a pandemic all worthwhile.

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