“Honestly, okay lang sa ‘kin maging stranded sa Japan. Ang saya kaya nun!” I jokingly told TripZilla’s content specialist Joser Ferreras back in February 2020. At the time, we were scheduled for a work trip to Okinawa in early March. However, the world was starting to familiarise itself with a coronavirus disease by the name of COVID-19. We were faced with an unknown and didn’t know too much about it, especially because it only affected a handful of people in the Philippines then.
To be brutally honest, I wasn’t taking the virus seriously. I was a foolish, naive, and callous young man at the prime of his health, wishing to get stranded and selfishly looking forward to an extension of this short trip to Japan. Admittedly, I wasn’t paying much attention to the creeping onslaught of COVID-19 as infections began to rise globally. Despite this, I followed safety measures with a cloud of doubt in my mind, wondering if all of it was necessary.
Getting stranded during the COVID-19 pandemic: Dream come true or nightmare?
Luckily, Joser and I got home safe and sound; we immediately proceeded to self-quarantine for two weeks. Shortly after, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and Luzon was placed under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ). The idea that I or my loved ones could contract the virus was no longer alien to me, and I knew it as I rummaged through the grocery aisles looking for the last bottle of disinfectant I could find.
Equipped with new knowledge from researching on pandemics and viruses, I grew increasingly concerned for people who were far away from the comforts of their homes. Surely, there were people who weren’t able to get back from their travels due to the pandemic. I was able to have a few conversations with some Filipino travellers who found themselves stranded during COVID 19; and they were gracious enough to share their stories with us.
Kevin Romas, 27, Video Editor for TripZilla Philippines
Working for a travel and culture publication, I didn’t need to search far and wide for people who were passionate about travel. My colleague, Kevin, was off to London, England to visit his girlfriend Mikee, who is currently based there. He arrived on 8 March 2020 and is still currently in the United Kingdom as of writing.
Stranded in London during COVID-19
When he realised that he was going to be stranded, he decided that it would be best if he stayed after the lockdown announcement in the Philippines. For his family, it was safer for him to stay in London rather than travel back and expose himself to groups of people.
Since Kevin and Mikee had planned the trip long before the pandemic, they had several destinations which they planned to visit. However, due to COVID-19, they cancelled all their trips and headed back to Mikee’s London home to avoid being stuck elsewhere.
At the beginning, he was quite excited about the extended stay because it meant spending more time with Mikee. Since he’s been working remotely since 2019, he thought things would be no different from his life back home. But as time went by, he started to feel anxious and tired.
Adjusting to life away from home amid a pandemic
In order to adjust, he researched on how to keep in good health. “My research shows that I should be doing a routine to keep me busy and to regain myself,” he says. He’s also learned how to cook, do 20-minute exercises, meditate, and bake!
When asked about what life is like in London during a pandemic, he expressed that the lockdown measures made it difficult for him to keep his creative juices flowing for work. “Once in a while, when I’d run out of creative ideas or want to refresh my mind, I’d go to the beach. But now, it’s kind of impossible to do,” he expresses as a local of Baler, Aurora. Despite this, Kevin is happy that he is stuck with a loved one because he can’t imagine being stranded in a foreign country alone for months.
“The locals have taught me how to be cheerful and thankful despite living in a lockdown,” he adds. Kevin shares that they’ve promoted visual cues as well, to establish social distancing. Every week, a moment of silence echoes around London — followed by an applause to acknowledge the frontliners doing everything they can to fight the pandemic.
Fortunately for Kevin, he still has work to attend to, despite the massive effects of COVID-19 towards the economy. He adds, “Getting stuck in a foreign country makes me feel like I’m an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW). There is this feeling of loneliness from your loved ones… you miss the environment you were used to, and the dishes that you usually eat.”
Ultimately, Kevin is glad that he was able to travel as much as he could prior to the pandemic as it has been his lifelong goal to explore the world and experience the different cultures that come with it. His goal was to share this experience with his family, but is prudent enough to understand that this must be postponed until it is safe again.
A message to frontliners
Kevin expresses his gratitude to the millions of frontliners around the world and encourages us to do our share in content the COVID-19 virus. “The least we can do right now is to stay at home, stay healthy, wash our hands, and practice social distancing as we approach the “new normal” of living. You are in our prayers. Thank you for the courage and selflessness.”
Katrina Quejado, 26, Lawyer
Solo backpacking for six months around Asia was something Katrina was looking forward to. She had just recently taken the bar and was excited to celebrate the culmination of her hard work in law school. As of writing, she’s been in Bali, Indonesia for about four months.
Stranded in Bali during COVID-19
“When I learned about all my onward flights getting cancelled while borders were closing down, I was celebrating my 26th birthday in East Java,” she mentions. Due to this, she deemed it wiser to stay close to the airport in Bali so she could get home once normal airport operations resumed.
With the help of her new local friends, she was able to ride the last van from Java to Bali a couple of weeks later. She returned to her old villa back in Bali and rented a private room for one month. When she moved back, she was required by the Indonesian government to be tested for COVID-19 — for free!
“Every passenger in my shuttle went through a 45-minute process of getting tested, plus a 15 minute waiting period for the results. If it had turned out positive, I would not have been allowed to cross the seaport (border),” she discusses.
Finding a home away from home
Katrina’s vacation plans didn’t turn out as expected, as she cancelled subsequent flights to Myanmar and Sri Lanka, where she was supposed to travel after Indonesia. Despite this, she’s enjoyed living in Canggu, Bali because she’s found a group of like-minded individuals who are currently stuck on the island as well.
“It is so fun living here because I found a family composed of locals and stranded foreigners/expats. We live in a villa with a pool, a kitchen with a fridge, a billiard pool, guitar, board games, lots of books, big common areas where you can watch Netflix or play,” she notes.
Learning from locals and fellow stranded travellers
Living with people from all around the world has enabled her to learn quite a few things from her new friends, “I learned how to cook a lot of Javanese and Balinese food. The local friends I made taught me how to make sambal and soto. They brought me to a lot of restaurants and warungs that serve authentic dishes.”
She’s picked up some new skills along the way, too. “One Ukrainian friend I met taught me how to skateboard, a Chinese girl teaches me Mandarin during our morning jogs, and I re-learned how to ride a scooter.” She is also learning how to speak Bahasa, which to her surprise, has a lot of similarities with Tagalog!
Through her new community, she has found a home away from home; and that’s become her favourite part of the journey. She expresses that she’s never felt alone, that everyday she feels inspired, and that she’s learned so much that she could never learn inside a classroom. “I’m sure a part of my heart will always be [in] Bali when it’s finally time to go home,” she adds.
Reflections while stranded during COVID-19
While she’s enjoyed her adventure despite the pandemic, she’s also been able to reflect on her life. “I am constantly learning how to deal with life’s uncertainties. Tomorrow is never promised and the wisest thing for me to do is to enjoy every moment as if it were a gift. Everyday, I feel so lucky to be alive. To be healthy. To be breathing. I feel more and more grounded.”
A message to frontliners
As for Katrina’s message to the frontliners, she borrows a famous tagline from Rufa Mae Quinto that resonates, “Go go go! Fight lang ng fight!”
Jat Sison, 26, Account Manager for Globe Telecom
For Jat, being stuck in a tropical paradise was never a part of the plan. Together with his girlfriend Gianna and their friends, they booked a trip to Siargao Island in advance and decided to push through with it.
Stranded in Siargao during COVID-19
“When a lockdown was announced, we were on our second day of the trip and did try to go back home; but the prices for seats were too expensive and all our rebooking flights got cancelled,” he explains further.
As of writing, he has been in General Luna, Siargao for about two months. When the ECQ was imposed, he says, “I took it objectively and understood that it was the best situation to be in given the current state of Luzon.” His family, on the other hand, panicked a little due to the separation and uncertainty it brought. However, thanks to technology, he is able to communicate with his family regularly and they are more relaxed nowadays.
Life on the island amidst a pandemic
While getting used to an unfamiliar location proved to be a challenge for him, his biggest adjustments came in the form of the ECQ rules and regulations, as well as getting used to being away from his family for a long and unexpected period of time. He expressed that living in Siargao Island during a pandemic has been quiet, since international tourists rushed to the airports before the lockdown and most establishments have been shut down since then.
However, he explains that despite the lockdown measures, Siargao is a “beautiful beach paradise with great culture”, and that it has solidified its place as one of his favourite places in the world.
While he’s known Siargao to be a sought-after tourist destination, what amazes him is that he falls in love with the island more and more each day, despite having been stuck there for more than two months. “Everything from the people and culture, to the locations and activities on the island has just given me a deeper appreciation for it.”
Seeing travel with new eyes
Jat acknowledges that this experience has changed the way he views travel, and notes that travel is indeed a privilege that has been taken for granted by the general public. He shares that there is a responsible way to travel, and the pandemic has brought to light the importance of rules and regulations and the reasons for their existence.
A message to frontliners
To the frontliners, he says, “Thank you so much for your sacrifice and perseverance. I’ve always had a lot of respect for our health workers, and this whole pandemic has just given me a deeper appreciation for the work they do. You are the real heroes of this country and I could not be more grateful for the dedication they have to help others. All of you are an inspiration and words don’t give enough justice to the hard work and service you provide. Keep up the exceptional work!”
Elyoo, 34, Graphic Designer
Freelance graphic designer Elyoo describes herself as a slow traveller, one who stays and explores one place for longer periods of time — and she’s always preferred it that way. Due to her long-distance relationship, travelling back to Vienna, Austria was planned long before the first case of COVID-19. Her original plan was to stay for three months and come back to Manila after. She arrived on 5 March 2020, and is still in Vienna at the time of this article’s publication.
Stranded in Vienna during COVID-19
Once lockdown measures started to be implemented all around the world, Elyoo started to feel worried about her family’s safety back in Manila. Due to limitations in the healthcare system back home, she was more concerned for their health rather than her own.
Peace in the middle of the pandemic
For her, being stranded in Vienna during the COVID-19 pandemic has been “quite (for a lack of a better word) peaceful”. She elaborates: “I feel weird using this word to describe my experience in the midst of this pandemic, but the Austrian government reacted quickly and efficiently; they closed borders and imposed lockdown with clear information on what everyone can and cannot do.”
She felt reassured by the constant updates on the situation in Austria and didn’t have to worry much about her safety due to the country’s good healthcare system. She adds, “Now that they have managed to flatten the curve, the government has been slowly easing down restrictions and things are starting to feel a little bit ‘normal’ recently.”
Bumps in the road
However, there was another concern that she had to face: the possibility of overstaying inside the country. After all, a multiple-entry Schengen visa has its limitations on how long one can stay in the Schengen zone. Despite her efforts to book a flight back to Manila, it was cancelled and there were no other flights to book due to the ever-changing travel restrictions of the countries.
“My airline was supposed to book me on their June 28 flight, but apparently foreigners are still not allowed to transit in Taiwan,” she shares. Elyoo’s fears were allayed when she contacted the internal border control and visa police offices in Vienna and was given confirmation that she would be allowed to stay inside the country until she is able to leave.
Falling in love with a new city
Her favourite part about the experience is that she’s been able to explore the forests within the city, an activity we can’t really do back in Manila. She describes that almost half of Vienna is composed of green spaces, and people are allowed to go out to walk and exercise despite the lockdown. While she’s been captivated by the city’s beauty many times, she has now come to realise why Vienna always comes out on top as one of the most liveable cities in the world.
Message to frontliners
As for her message to the frontliners, she expresses her gratitude for all their hard work during these trying times. She hopes that everyone now realises how essential these people are in our day-to-day lives, and wishes that this recognition sparks positive change for their industries in the future.
Seeking refuge in a new home
The COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed the way we’ve looked at the world in more ways than one. As the world around us has slowed down, I’ve come to realise that many of us are adjusting to this new way of life in similar ways.
We’re all learning new skills: trying to find our way around the kitchen, supporting and even initiating efforts for relief, and forming new habits altogether. However, we shouldn’t forget that it has come at the expense of the safety of millions of frontliners around the world, who are working tirelessly to keep us healthy. While being stranded during COVID-19 isn’t the best predicament to be in during a pandemic, Filipino travellers have proven themselves skilful in finding ways to make themselves feel comfortable in their temporary homes.
As citizens in an interconnected world, we must realise that the seemingly inconsequential actions we take indeed have a great impact on others. While I ache for the countless planned trips that were cancelled and reunions that were postponed, I long for the day when we’ll finally be able to freely explore the world with no fear. I hope that when that time comes, we’ll all have a renewed sense of responsibility to stay safe and healthy — not only for ourselves, but for others, too.
Author’s note: All photos in this article were taken prior to strict quarantine and safety measures introduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.