Traveling companion
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - February 19, 2020 - 12:00am

Last Saturday, for the first time since Taal Volcano’s phreatic explosion on Jan. 12, I went to Tagaytay.

Saturdays are usually the most crowded day in the resort city. But on Valentine’s Day weekend, there were still too few visitors.

At least there was a 40-minute wait for a table even for a late lunch at Antonio’s Balay Dako. In another restaurant also on the ridge overlooking Taal where I finally had lunch of bulalo and adobong pusit (no more tawilis, of course), all the tables were also full.

A waiter said it was the first time since they shut down on Jan. 12 and reopened on Jan. 31 that they had a large crowd.

From Tagaytay, Volcano Island looks different and barren from the explosion. At the Mahogany Market, many of the plant vendors told me they were evacuees from Talisay town by Taal Lake. It was a good sales talk, except I’ve been to the market often enough to know the plant stalls have been there years before the eruption. Still, I was the only customer around so I bought a lot of plants anyway.

At the neighboring meat stalls, I knew business wasn’t good because it was mid-afternoon and yet I was still able to buy quality beef shanks laden with bone marrow for bulalo plus brisket to go with my stewed tendon, at good prices. In the past, the best meat cuts would be gone before noon.

Taal’s ashfall has ruined this summer’s harvest of Tagaytay pineapples, my favorite variety. Ash still swirls around the city, making tiles dangerously slippery.

Driving back to Manila through the Santa Rosa-Tagaytay Highway in Silang, Cavite, the usual snaking lines at The Original Buko Pie Bakeshop were gone. I headed straight for the counter and got my orders in an instant.

Such is the impact of disruptions in the travel industry. With the coronavirus disease or COVID-19 leading to trip cancellations in many countries, recovery of the travel industry could prove as difficult as revitalizing the ash-devastated plantations of pineapples, coffee and coconut in Batangas and Cavite.

At least the mango trees seem to like the ashfall. But Tagaytay, Batangas and Cavite aren’t known for quality mangoes.

*      *      *

With foreign tourist arrivals dropping precipitously, President Duterte has found it necessary to appeal to Filipinos to travel domestically.

“To my fellow Filipinos, I encourage you to travel with me around the Philippines,” Duterte said in a video message. “I assure you that everything is safe in our country, be it an issue of health, be it an issue of law and order, and be it an issue of accessibility.”

More from the tourism booster-in-chief:  “There are a lot of beautiful places in the Philippines… Come with me and be my travel companion. I’ll be traveling around the Philippines. Let’s travel in our own country. Our home should be our priority. Long live Filipinos, long live Philippine tourism.”

He said airlines and hoteliers have agreed to lower their rates.

Not surprisingly, the invitation to be his traveling companion has spawned many hilarious comments. But the need to boost domestic tourism makes sense.

This, unfortunately, is easier said than done in the season of COVID-19. Even shopping malls are suffering as people avoid crowded places. Considering the continued spread of COVID-19 in China and the rate of contagion on the quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess in Yokohama, people aren’t taking chances.

Despite repeated reassurances and clarifications from the World Health Organization, suspicions linger that airborne transmission of the deadly virus is possible.

And so, until a vaccine is released for mass application, there will be little enthusiasm for travel.

The best hope – if no Filipino is added to the list of COVID-19 fatalities in the coming weeks – is that people will get bored being confined to home-school or office-home, throw caution to the wind and return to business as usual.

*      *      *

I’m guessing, however, that if people get tired of being cooped up at home, non-essential trips by plane or ship will still be shunned at least until midyear. The sight of people wearing face masks takes the fun out of leisure travel.

But traveling with relatives and friends in private vehicles can still be fun. And there are many places worth visiting, even right here in traffic-choked and polluted Metro Manila.

With Ash Wednesday approaching, you might want to do your Visita Iglesia early. Throughout Metro Manila itself, there are numerous churches with an interesting history.

Or you can start your church hopping in Taal town itself, with the Basilica that was opened in 1878. It is said to be the largest Catholic church in the Philippines and Asia, and I don’t think it was heavily damaged by the ashfall and earthquake swarm around Volcano Island. While there, you can contribute to the local economy by buying embroidered fabrics for barong and terno-inspired outfits. The fabrics cost about triple in shopping mall outlets. After shopping at the town center, you can enjoy Batangas barako coffee, one of the best varieties in the country.

I’ve done Holy Week Visita Iglesia around Taal lake, and it was a wonderful drive. With the lockdown lifted, this can still be possible, just to revive the local economy. People appreciate emergency relief donations, but I’m sure they appreciate even more any effort to help them get back on their feet with their livelihood sources revitalized.

*      *      *

Those who prefer to stay in Metro Manila can help make up for the loss of foreign tourism receipts. San Juan, under its energetic Mayor Francis Zamora, is soon opening a heritage tour that will include the restored El Deposito, the Spanish-era tunnel network that served as water reservoir that runs under the Pinaglabanan Memorial Shrine.

You can try the relaunched Pasig River ferry service, from Marikina to the western end across Binondo. The ferry service was surprisingly pleasant even with the old boats; it should be even better with the new ones.

From the Plaza Mexico station, you can cap your day of travel with a tour of Intramuros and surrounding areas. For those who still haven’t seen the dramatic changes since Isko Moreno became mayor, you’re in for a delightful surprise, especially at night.

Before COVID-19 hit the travel industry, you could see the marked increase in the number of foreigners strolling around the area even at night. Now the lights are still on, but there are hardly any foreign visitors to appreciate the sights.

With reasonable precautions, such as observing proper hygiene and cough etiquette, we can do our part in keeping businesses afloat in the age of COVID-19.

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