Style/Travel DiariesVideo

My Boracay now: Fade to blue

Pack light. All you need are an RT-PCR test, a mask and shield to face the brave new world—Boracay hailed as one of the best beaches in the world. The best just got better

The paraw sails again. (Photo by Jack Jarilla)

Serenity and freedom. In a mad pandemic world, no two words ring louder in our stressed-out minds as a mantra for survival. Breaking free from the shackles of fear, uncertainty and unrelenting quarantine lockdowns and travel bans is top of mind.

 
The deep blue sea in Boracay today (Photo by Freida Dario-Santiago)

 
The sand is fine, the sky is finer. (Photos by Jack Jarilla)

No matter how enriching it has been to discover your creative happy homemaker side, there’s only so much peace to be had from baking and gardening. And now that travel restrictions are slowly being lifted across the globe, virtual travel simply won’t do.

The vast open blue liberates the mind, body and spirit, with that hypnotic sound of crashing waves.

Untouched by the coronavirus and by tourism these past seven-months, Boracay island in the Philippines remains inarguably the first choice for those wanting to break free and to bask in pure vitamin sea, sky and loads of anti-disease and anti-depression vitamin D.

These days, we head out to the beach, wait for friends to pass by so we could wave at them from a distance. A highlight is always getting first dibs on the fishermen’s catch of the day

Since reopening to tourists from General Community Quarantine (GCQ) and Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ) areas last October 1, data from the Malay Municipal Tourism Office showed 1,937 tourists arrived on the island from October 1 to 25 (with 50 tourists on day 1). (For tourist arrival numbers and updates visit: https://web.facebook.com/malaytourism)

Beautiful Boracay: Better than ever, perfectly deserted and waiting for you (Freida Dario-Santiago)

(Raring to travel to Boracay, watch: https://youtu.be/27UyZjRFRbs)

(Here is a link to the Department of Tourism’s guidelines for traveling to Boracay Island: https://www.philippines.travel/destinations/boracay)

When lifestyle editor/writer TSS (Thelma Sioson San Juan, my forever mentor and ex-boss at ABS-CBN Publishing Inc.’s Metro Magazine) asked me to collaborate on this project, I was beyond honored. Her indefatigable “chief of staff” Joseph Uy gave me the broad strokes: an online diary on “My Boracay Now.” It so happens that I’ve been documenting my quarantine life from day 1 of the lockdown (March 17) on my Marooned in Boracay Diary 2020 👣”.

484 pages to-date, it is more a day-by-day list of highlights. I really just wanted to be able to look back on this unprecedented time and tell myself or future generations that, “yes, it did happen. We survived it, and how.”

From my last Editor’s Note for the Boracay Sun News (https://www.boracaysunnews.com) dated April 14, 2020):


Boracay Island’s White Beach on lockdown (Photo taken by Freida Dario-Santiago on April 13, 2020)

These days, we have entered the precipice of a new age—our “NEW NORMAL” when priorities in life are no longer work, vanity, luxury, social life / partying, or power. As if the reboot button has been pressed, people have begun to rethink their priorities and values. The quarantine has put the world in the same mindset, one of introspection. Hopefully, when this is all over, the world doesn’t go back to its selfish ways. At ground zero, we have the opportunity to build a new world order with all the infinite new ways of being, living, caring and loving. The possibilities are endless when we get to the other side….

Today is 21 days into the enhanced community quarantine on Boracay Island. Since then, we’ve shifted our paradigms inward while coming out of the safety of our shells by reaching out to those in need… For the full note, visit: https://www.boracaysunnews.com/post/editor-s-note-april-2020?fbclid=IwAR3du2yTtM29baQEdwoQFciMsEUpyXgNH-JBLKubYr7TBA8uH5AbnjoT9pI

BORACAY ATI

This was my diary entry for that glorious day: 26 March: Day 4 of ECQ – TODAY I FED A VILLAGE! My heart is full and so are their bellies

As the community and its workers continued to wait for the financial assistance from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), the hunger became real and rising, with business owners struggling to provide for their staff.

I immediately called Sr. Elvie Olamiot of the Daughters of Charity mission that cares for our Boracay Ati brethren at the Boracay Ati Village, and found out that it was becoming very challenging to feed the community of 52 families with a population of roughly 262 individuals (over half of them children). They were hungry and apart from occasional rice donations that they used to cook lugaw, they had no food.
With no work due to the lockdown, they had no money to buy food. Their garden farm was dry because the water tank had been destroyed by typhoon Ursula on Christmas day. When they tried to gather vegetables like kangkong and root crops in the gulayan or to catch kuray (land crabs), they would be stopped due to the quarantine. They were also not allowed to go fishing on their beachfront of Lugutan, at the time.

With no other means of finding sustenance to feed their families, I posted a shoutout on Facebook. They received a deluge of responses, and people began delivering sacks of rice and boxes of food and groceries in the next few days! This inspired private groups to initiate feeding programs for their neighborhoods and local barangays.

Private groups continue their outreaches from home and through the various initiatives by the Philippine Red Cross Boracay-Malay chapter (https://www.facebook.com/PhilippineRedCrossBoracayMalayChapter/). Truly, what we do speaks volumes about who we are. #ItTakesAVillage

The Ati Tribal Organization’s farm today and my source for fresh veggies during harvest time, thanks to the mentoring and assistance from the Department of Agrarian Reform

By April, in lieu of the newspaper that publisher Victor Jeffery sadly had to put on hiatus, we launched Boracay Sun News’ “Life in Quarantine” Diaries online, to offer glimpses of what life on Boracay Island was like under the current Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ). The special ongoing series was our little way of helping the community cope as one through empathy and solidarity. My first entry:

https://www.boracaysunnews.com/post/7th-of-april-2020-day-16-of-boracay-enhanced-community-quarantine-ecq

 
Tranquil White Beach as Boracay Island takes another beauty rest. (Photo By Mark Santiago)

The months that followed are now a Groundhog Day blur, with extreme highs and lows, swinging from fear and anxiety to gratitude, from moment to doldrum moment.

We learned new habits to stay healthy and safe; we explored new ways of surviving from home. The world retreated indoors and we had barangay-issued Quarantine IDs and covered-up from head-to-toe, just to buy essentials in the store.

We tightened our belts (and took off our bras), and learned to live simply and to prepare for the worst and the long haul. It was common to see people fishing and catching kuray (crabs), tuway (clams), and sasing (sand worms) during the low tide, with face masks on.

In the beginning there was bedhead hair and domestic bliss, getting up at the crack of dawn to catch the sunrise, the fitness (I’ve gotten into Zumba with friends Erich Edralin and Miko Valenzuela’s online Zumbalicious classes via Zoom: https://www.facebook.com/IamZumbalicious/), short-lived yoga sessions with Mark, and the healthy eating craze, then we dropped the “healthy” and just went full-on pandemic food mania, and the men grew beards and impressed us with their booze-finding “skillz” during the liquor ban! Everyone was turning home chef and baker, selling and buying food online like there was no tomorrow, not to mention every imaginable DIY-hobby to keep ourselves busy. Then tomorrow brought us GCash and Zoom, only to be slapped on the face by the reality of the worsening pandemic situation, but this time, it was no longer just a global crisis on television, it was right here.

We tried to stay informed until news fatigue crept in, and we tried to stay in-touch, until chat group fatigue set in.

   
Sunrise after sunrise

Liquor ban? Not a problem

Left frozen in passivity, the best we could do was to continue searching for online jobs, and ideas to make a living. We had moments of indifference and introspection, spiritual fervor, hope and gratitude; until we didn’t, and we crashed into states of despair deep down in our own versions of a rabbit hole. Mostly it was an endless limbo punctuated by anti-climactic announcements of community quarantine phases—extended, over and over again. In between, our minds raced with best and worst-case scenarios, fueled by the insanity of it all and dwindling funds.

AMAZING GRACE

For my husband Mark and me, it has been tough, to say the least, mentally and financially. But the worst part was the uncertainty.

We have found comfort in this prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, daily:

Prayer for Serenity

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;
taking, as Jesus did,
this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it;
trusting that You will make all things right
if I surrender to Your will;
so that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

We have kept to ourselves and have been keeping busy, he by taking care of our small leisure boat and the crew (we run a private boat charter that has been dead in the water since the lockdown), and by being the designated home cook; and I have been doing the one thing I can’t do without: I write. I’ve been lucky enough to have been commissioned by CNN International  (Warner Media) and by Discovery Channel (Discovery Networks Asia Pacific) for projects that coincided with the Department of Tourism’s (DOT) reopening campaigns for Boracay Island.

With photographers Jack Jarilla and John Paul Dela Cruz, hard at work on the DOT campaigns with CNN International and Discovery Channel

In 2018 when the island was closed for rehabilitation for six months, we at least knew when it would reopen, when businesses could resume, and we were able to plan for it. We’re very lucky that Boracay has remained coronavirus-free, especially since there were regular flights directly from Wuhan, China, when the pandemic struck back in January. It really is a mystery how we were spared from the virus.

Sheltered by the clear blue waters that we were not allowed to swim in throughout the lockdown, the island was isolated and we only had each other to survive. Though physically apart, the community came together in finding ways to support those in need with feeding drives and all sorts of support programs for the less fortunate.

On March 31, Mark and I started a Facebook group called Boracay Eats Directory (https://web.facebook.com/groups/boracayeatsdirectory/) as a community service and non-profit initiative to stimulate the economy and to help  promote income-generation for the member sellers, and to satisfy member buyer cravings!

ABOUT:

Boracay EATS Directory

(E)dible * (A)rtisanal * (T)rade * (S)upplies 

BORACAY EATS DIRECTORY is a community of Boracay Island-based foodies, home-based cooks and entrepreneurs, artisanal (or homemade / crafted / made-to-order) food, fresh produce, market and deli goods, restaurants /dining outlets that offer take-out and delivery, food and beverage traders and suppliers. 

This group serves as your curated go-to directory for anything and everything  food, beverage, kitchen-related goods – all in one place. By connecting sellers and buyers, we would like to offer this platform to help bridge the gap and support and sustain homegrown small to medium enterprises (from home cooks to private businesses), and to help boost the local economy during these trying times. 

The group also offers tourists the novelty of trying out homegrown and home-cooked meals (like our favorite lechon belly from Moonshadow Grill that we look forward to every week, at Php200 for 400-grams), to eat like a local; to stay-in especially when it’s raining; to enjoy some Boracay favorites delivered to you such as Aria Cucina Italiana’s wood-fired pizzas, Lemoni Café’s pastries and breads, Dos Mestizos’ famous paellas and their Gusto y Gusto Deli’s freshly baked pan de sal and glazed donuts; and from places that are not yet open, such as the original chori burgers from Merly’s. We have over 1,000 members.

As everyone coped by taking it a day at a time, we heavily took to social media and chat groups to stay connected. As each day passed, funds dwindled and the uncertainty and fear grew. Now that domestic tourism has begun, we are hopeful again. The truth of the matter is, without a C-19 vaccine, there really is no end in sight, no clear or definite answers. But that said, we refuse to be defeated! We’ve got to make this work.

LIFE GOES ON….BEACH POLICE

“How are you?” Three very innocent words that drive me mad. It seems to be the polite thing to say in messages, emails and conversations, but it never fails to leave me stumped and a little pained. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the courtesy, although I choose to not ask it myself and instead wish people well.

It’s a tough question to answer because there’s no simple answer, and one is left wondering if this person really wants to know how you’re doing, or is just being polite… How does one answer without getting into a lot of detail?

But the next time someone asks me, I just might indulge them like so:

I’m usually up and about before 8 a.m. Coffee in hand, I try to have a quiet moment and let the day gently awaken my senses. Our day unfolds slowly, then our chat groups start coming alive and we go about with our other routines and errands throughout the day.

Perhaps the most unforgettable day for us all on the island was June 1, when the beach swimming ban was lifted. Not without strict guidelines, everyone had to register at lifeguard stations at designated swimming areas with temperature checking, social distancing of at least two meters (believe me there was and is ample space on all the beaches), the age restriction, and swimming schedule from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. when the beach police blew their whistles.

I’m amazed at how the locals made it so easy for the enforcers. I guess we were all just too happy to be allowed this “privilege” after being deprived of it for two torturous months. I was not alone in shedding tears while basking in the sheer joy of communing with nature out in the open sea.

Quiet mornings

From July to mid-August, we moved next door while the house was repaired. To this day, I am still spring-cleaning and decluttering, and unearthing equal measures of sentimental treasures and junk. In July, we joined the nation in mourning the loss of ABS-CBN. As I watched the noise barrages on TV, in solidarity, I disturbed the peace with my vuvuzela, by my lonesome.

These days, we would head out to the beach and just wait for friends to pass by as they walked or jogged as a family so we could wave at them from a distance. A highlight would always be getting first dibs on the fishermen’s catch of the day— huge and gorgeous Tuna, Maya-Maya (red snapper), Aloy or Tulingan (mackerel tuna), Hasa-Hasa (grouper), and Lapu-Lapu, for example, that brought back fond memories of our trips to the Tsukiji market in Tokyo—but this was much better (and cheaper!). Fishing is actually not allowed within 1-kilometer from the shore, and small fish should be left alone. If you see Parrotfish being sold, do not support this by buying it as they are crucial to Boracay’s coral reefs and help create our fine white sand.


Whenever possible, Mark and I try to support our friends by dining out on rare occasions, like in the newly opened True Home Hotel & Bistro. The spanking new restaurant was built where the much-loved True Home Hotel stood along Station 1. To accommodate the restaurant, the hotel now has two gorgeous deluxe rooms each tastefully decorated with modern amenities, all designed to ensure you can feel right “at home,” and a presidential suite with its own private dipping pool overlooking White Beach, and an outdoor dining and lounge area under the great blue sky.

It was our first experience in dining out in the “new normal” with all the safety precautions such as digital QR code menus, and seats arranged to accommodate the allowed capacity, so seamlessly blended with the understated tropical elegance. Here, one can enjoy the coastal setting from any table, day to night. The menu will make you wish you had more mouths than one so let me choose for you. Try the Gai Satay platter as starter, Shrimp Laksa Soup or Beef Phó, and make room for Mie Goreng with handmade egg noodles. Or maybe go for Tuna or Salmon Poke bowl with quinoa, which I can only describe as a big bowl of happiness!

Managing partner and executive chef Peter Montemayor in charge of True Bistro’s East- and Southeast-Asian cuisine (Photo by Jack Jarilla)

At least once a week, we have sunset meet-ups followed by dinner and drinks with our “Still Standing” group of nine, and we’re all home (or staying the night) by curfew time at 11 p.m.

On alternate days, there’s a private yoga class that my best friend Louise teaches.

Private yoga class

A deep “blue space” odyssey. I feel that my own experiences and meanderings these past seven- going on eight-months is a shared one. “My” Boracay is mostly a collection of communal realities—the good, the bad and the cliff-hangers, as the world as we knew it had shrunk, having confined us to our small communities.

And within each community  are even tighter, more intimate bubbles of people that pretty much share a lot of the battles, business losses (many have closed shop for good, a second round of permanent closures after the 2018 island closure), and tragedies.

But we all share some wonderful victories, such as births, pregnancies, online graduations, and reunions. I was overjoyed when my two soul sisters, Louise and Susi, returned to the island with their families (as Locally Stranded Individuals (LSIs), and when my niece Jenny and nephew Luis returned safely home from Spain. We’ve all had our fair share of pandemic dramas, family and domestic scenarios that would surely make for good original Netflix series material.

On August 25 we said “farewell for now” to an icon as True Food Indian Cuisine closed its doors after 30 years of true island love, spiced with great vibes.

The pandemic had magnified everything for everyone with nothing else to do on lockdown, and whose only window to the outside word was social media. In the humdrum of our mundane lives and relatively uneventful days, we would go through a range of emotions from zero to max in a flash, from hearing the tragic news about a family member or friend contracting Covid-19, from touching base on video chats, from a surprise basket of fruit delivered to our doorstep, sunsets bursting with a kaleidoscope of colors, dog day afternoons watching the Supermoon moonrise with the Gassers in the family compound we live in, and storytelling while cooking at the grill, the romantic home dates and “house parties” with my husband, then turning our living room into a club by switching on our one trusty LED “disco” light (and “late nights” ending before midnight), and well, from receiving our monthly bills.

Sunset


We’ve all got tons of survival stories to tell and battle scars to show when we see each other again.

How many of you can say that they wore an arm cast during the lockdown? I did, after developing De Quervain’s tenosynovitis, a painful condition affecting the tendons on the thumb side of the wrist—thankfully my left (I’m righthanded)—caused by chronic overuse of the wrist which turns out to be not uncommon for writers, musicians, and athletes. My new normal involves wearing a brace for life, but I’ve got a super cool trophy to brag about!

For our family, the biggest victory was our 82-year-old Tita Ann’s recovery from coronavirus. She suffers from Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home in the US. The shock and reality that someone you know contracted the virus is devastating and so painful that you can’t breathe because you feel utterly helpless and defeated. Whether it was a false positive or a miraculous recovery, our faith, awe and gratitude to God is restored, and I just wanted to share that there is hope and victory over this pandemic.


Thank God that Boracay Island remains Covid-free. The government has put in place very strict rules to keep it this way, and is very particular about preventing contact between local residents and tourists, to avoid community transmission.

OPEN FOR BUSINESS

After a six-month pause, the DOT embarked on the gargantuan task of reopening to domestic tourism, pulling all the stops as it remains committed to its “slow but sure” approach.

Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said, “Last year, Boracay was a model of sustainable tourism. This time, let us work hand-in-hand to make it a model of safe travel as well. We will open our doors to tourism slowly but surely. And slowly but surely, we will recover as one.” (Source: http://www.tourism.gov.ph/news_features/SafeAndSustainableTourismInBoracay.aspx)

I choose to be optimistic that “my Boracay now” has emerged from the long tunnel, never to regress to lockdowns or closures, that we have put the virus in its place (in history) and are forging ahead “business as usual” (in the “new normal”). We’ve got our game faces on behind our masks, wearing bigger-sized swimsuits and with toes and fingers crossed!

I sincerely believe that it is safe to say that Boracay is a “SAFE GREEN ZONE”. Whether there be coronavirus cases in the future or not, we will soldier on in the direction of rebuilding steadily, safely, slowly but surely.

Imagine Boracay Island as a snow globe (or water globe), waiting for visitors to shake up our world and to infuse life-saving vitality into the economy. The island’s opening to domestic tourism has taken us all on a dramatic shift as we began to emerge from our homes to dust-off the cobwebs and to slowly open shop.

If I were living in the city, I would definitely jump at the chance to get away to the beach–Boracay if I could afford it. But chances are, I would not travel alone. Then you do the math: roundtrip airfare + accommodations + daily expenses + RT-PCR swab test multiplied by the number of your family members (kids included). Add to this all the requirements for travelers, it has yet to become the game changer we are hoping for.

It is no wonder that the first few weeks of reopening were anticlimactic. Business owners decry it as a huge disappointment so far.

I would be remiss if I did not warn you all that some tourists have been disappointed after seeing so many closed shops, restaurants, bars, little or no water sports, and a huge lack of things to do. Not to mention limited swimming hours and a strict daily curfew. This, after the expensive swab test and cumbersome paperwork required, is turning a lot of people off—then the pre-departure delays with QR Code scanning and document checking in no less than 11 different places at NAIA (Manila airport).

But it’s not all bad at all, far from it. At least five visiting friends a few weekends ago agreed: “It was difficult but worth it.”

The weather is generally glorious and the beaches incredibly magnificent. More places are starting to open up almost daily, and we are seeing more and more tourists wandering around. Please manage your expectations.

If you’re expecting to experience the pre-pandemic Boracay from day to night, don’t. Expect a very subdued vibe, more reminiscent of the ‘80s, and set your mind on having a gloriously uneventful vacation savoring the island’s natural grandeur in unadulterated peace and quiet. Pack light. Toss half the kaftans and instead, bring a beach blanket, a good book, and a sarong.

A general rule when traveling these days is to try to keep an open mind. Pride and self-importance have no place outdoors. Remember, there is no cure so all we’ve got is prevention.

In a letter to Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat dated October 16, the Boracay Foundation, Inc. commended the department for taking the lead in reopening tourism domestically that “has given us hope that the island economy is finally on the road to recovery during this pandemic” and requested for more affordable requirements for travel:

“….the Boracay Foundation, Inc. would like to request your good

office to reconsider other options aside from the RT-PCR Test as a requirement for

entry into the island. There are several alternatives that have been considered to be

acceptable by the World Health Organization.

“These FDA approved Antigen Tests can alleviate the burden of cost as well

as time. In behalf of the island and its stakeholders BFI will always be grateful to the

Department of Tourism for consistently prioritizing our safety and well-being during

these difficult times…”

But until tourism numbers pick up, we really are just sitting ducks on one of the best islands in the world. Covid-19 is not our biggest threat now; it’s hopelessness and poverty suffered by thousands of retrenched and unemployed workers, with mental health issues on the rise.

BORACAY MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN EVER

But don’t take my word for it—best to see for yourselves!

Picture a blue tropical horizon, palm-tree fringed beaches, pristine waters, and the finest talcum white sand. Imagine your toes slowly sinking beneath the powdery sand, and as you wade waist-deep in the crystalline waters, you see a school of little fish so vividly as they swish around your legs, breaking your reverie as you gaze into the endless horizon that presents equally endless possibilities. At that moment, you know that this is exactly what you needed, and it stays with you forever.

Rejuvenated back to her pristine glory and unspoilt reputation as one of the best beaches in the world, the Philippines’ beach capital is topping travel bucket lists in a world looking for peace of mind. There is no better time than now to travel to Boracay Island! (Did I mention the incredible discounts from 50% to as high as 75% for accommodations and restaurants?)

Picture yourself right there, breathing it all in, and casting your cares to the wind with hardly a person in sight. Then the selfie: #longtimenoSEA

I often think about the DOT campaign “Wake up in the Philippines / Boracay” and can’t help but be ecstatic how this is my everyday reality.

If you’re expecting to experience the pre-pandemic Boracay from day to night, don’t. Expect a very subdued vibe, more reminiscent of the ‘80s

About author

Articles

A Boracay Island resident since 2003, she is the author of “The Complete Guide to Boracay Island” (first to fourth editions), and editor-in-chief of Boracay Sun News community newspaper. She left a successful career in Manila as magazine editor to immerse herself in Boracay Island’s tropical subculture as a free-spirited travel and lifestyle journalist, and brand marketing and PR consultant with over 25 years in the publishing and communications business.

@boracaysunnews / boracaysunnews.com
@fvdario
@Freida Dario-Santiago

#beautifulboracayisbackinbusiness
#wakeupinboracay
#itsmorefuninthephilippines
#itsmorefuninboracay
#travellocal
#restarttheeconomy

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