When you are not allowed to go anywhere, your relationship to place becomes something to consider. During a global pandemic when the possibilities for mobility have grown smaller and smaller as the numbers continue to rise higher and higher, I wonder about the shrinking circles you are allowed to travel in from the city to the town to the barangay to your neighborhood to the boundaries defined by the four walls that keep me safe each night.
I wonder about the places outside these circles. Will I ever see them again? For now, I make do with photos and memories of travel. I remember a trip with friends to the Abatan River in Bohol. The fact that I could not take a photo of that experience meant there was no way of forgetting it. No camera could capture the glowing plankton we saw underneath nor the fireflies dancing on my palm as we sat down on our kayaks at sunset to start the river tour. The guide said they were bioluminescent, a new word I learned to describe living creatures that produced light.
They lived in the thirty-three mangrove species that existed in the great expanse of the river. Kayaks were the best way to see them said our guide without disturbing their habitat. We were led to a grand spindly tree lit up with fireflies like a billboard sign. They were mating. The male fireflies were glowing to attract mates. We carefully paddled our way under one of the roots open like a canal entry and spent a moment lying down to see the fireflies above us twinkling like stars within reach.
Will I have another chance to visit Bohol? Or any place for that matter? These are some of the things I think about because I didn’t know it would be possible not to have choices. It seems even going to the grocery now feels like handling a grenade. If I do get to go; who would I be then? Probably still someone with a bottle of alcohol in the bag. Who knows? Since the pandemic began, travelers spending in the country dropped by a dizzying 83 percent while foreign arrivals were slashed by 82 percent. Tourism provides five million jobs which contributed an estimated 12.7 percent to the country’s GDP before Covid-19. Like the other big numbers thrown around by experts during lockdown, these figures are hard to fathom fully because the reality is just too terrible to face.
I wonder too if these spaces devoid of people are still the same. The best trips in remembrance always came with the pleasure of meeting the people who continued to live in the place where they were born. Without them and their living culture, travel would just be another image you saved on your phone and uploaded on the internet without context or meaning. Even with the advantages of technology, it cannot replace the living, breathing actuality of being there.
Rikka Mestiola Atole, a regional tour guide who began a vlog and Bicolana Facebook page promoting destinations in the region when lockdown began says she misses everything about her work: From being exposed to places, people, and culture to waking up early in the morning and preparing her commentary for the day.
For Jecel Sanchez, a mountaineering guide in Bukidnon, it was missing hiking, camping, and climbing the rocks of the Kitanglad Mountain Range, an ASEAN Heritage Park home to 600 endemic species including the second-largest flower in the world and the Philippine eagle.
One learns a lot from leaving home teaching you that there are many ways to lead a good life different from what you know. In an uncertain world, when it is safe to move again from one place to another, travel can help heal places changed by the circumstances of the pandemic. There is the pride of place and determination to endure.
Siquijor homestay owner, Joy Dominie U. Chan says, “It makes me feel good to know that I have helped and assisted my fellow stakeholders in fulfilling requirements for us to operate successfully and even garner awards…Most of all, I love being who I am, speaking my mind, sharing creative ideas and finding solutions to the present crisis.”
There also continues a sense of hope in the places they live in amid a world in flux. James Allen Santiago, a tour guide and culture worker in San Fernando, Pampanga started producing virtual tours for the city in anticipation of the time when the situation improves. He sees his role as curator of the San Fernando Train Station as preserving Kapampangan heritage by rooting for local artists, lantern makers, and even kutseros.
Second generation silver jewelry maker, Rommel Marcelo from Baguio expresses a similar sentiment when it comes to craft heritage. He says, “Our pride is boosted by the acceptance we have received from clients. It justifies the handcrafting skills we put in our creations and the quality we apply to everything we produce. Be it from a simple ring to the most intricate of filigree works.”
To work in tourism is to look out for the well-being of the guests who travel far to be there and to be a guest is to also contribute to the economic well-being of the people you visit. Lemon Dines, president of the La Union Surf Club and surf instructor since 1999 says he recalls the time when people would do their best to get ready on Friday in anticipation of the tourists arriving during the weekend. He says: “I’ve been to a lot of surfing areas but nothing beats the hospitality of the La Union community. We take care of our tourists and make sure they have a memorable time.”
At its best when travel takes into account concerns about the environment and the way of life it opens to others, it is an act of friendship for the traveler to go, to be there not just in page views or clicks and appreciate the joy of place once taken for granted, now valued even more.
Joy Dominie U. Chan tells me Siquijor is an island known for its sunsets and mystical healing traditions. I might just go there instead of Bohol when this is all over, to rid myself of bad juju from months of isolation. If you get there before I do; tell them I am on my way.