Surviving in Cebu

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

I returned to the Philippines last Sept. 30, 2020, after working for three years as Head of School-English and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. I returned to a country that was not yet rolling out its COVID-19 vaccinations for people with co-morbidities like myself. I only left the house to buy my medicines and my provisions. When it was Alert Level 4, I would just ask my friendly vendor to drop by the house and bring my provisions of chicken, fish and vegetables. Or else, I bought my food at the neighborhood food stalls; they were safe because they didn’t have walls and the people practiced social distancing.

Several of my friends died from this terrible pandemic. My Facebook walls turned black with posts about their dying. It got so bad that I actually looked for a cheap flight for the United States. I heard that upon landing at the airport, you would automatically get a Johnson vaccine, just one powerful dose, to shield you from this virus. But the airfare was just too expensive. So I stayed home and hunkered down for survival. One of my nephews suffered a heart attack and died days after he got his vaccine; I’m not a cardiologist but there must be a trigger there, somewhere.

Then one day, Atty. Marvin Aceron, my publisher at San Anselmo Press, sent me a message that was like a godsend. He said that he had reserved one Moderna vaccine assigned to his office for me, since I’m one of their writers and editors. So I finally got jabbed at Ayala Technohub. It was one of the few days I ventured out of the house. The roads seemed wider and, of course, there were lesser people and vehicles clogging the highway.

My Moderna vaccine gave me terrible headaches that at one point, I felt my head being sawed into half. I had body pains, fever and chills for three days. I was assured that it meant the vaccine was working. After three days (it is always three days), I woke up one fine day and all the pains were gone. I just waited for another month and finally had my second vaccine. It was a such a relief to have been vaccinated twice against this dreadful virus.

Since March of 2020, when I was living in Malaysia, until now, when I am living in Cebu, I never bought anything: no new shirts, trousers, shoes and bottles of perfume. I only bought the essentials, and bought them in big bottles or packs, so I would venture out less often. And of course, I never traveled outside of Quezon City.

I haven’t seen my partner, who lives in Cebu, for almost two years. I did not want to go through the swab test here and then again in Cebu; and upon landing in Cebu, I would say in a hotel for quarantine. What was the point then of flying?

So when it was announced that beginning Oct. 31, domestic tourists who were fully vaccinated could fly to Cebu without the requisite tests, I booked a ticket and flew.

I felt my heart throbbing when my cab swung into the international airport in Manila. It was a strange feeling. When I was working in Malaysia, I traveled a lot for work: I went to the United Kingdom twice, to attend meetings at the home school in Nottingham. I visited the United States, as a General Participant in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury College, Vermont. I also saw my friends in New York, my cousins and classmates in Maryland and my sisters in Los Angeles. I made sure that my one-month stay was worth the airfare and the time.

Moreover, I attended the George Town International Literary Festival in Penang form 2017 to 2019, to represent my university and to moderate some panels. I also went to the University of Macau and the Vietnam National University to attend conferences on creative writing and on eco-literature. I even got a free trip to the Philippines, when my new acting dean, bless his kind soul, gave me airfare to attend the World English Conference at Ateneo de Manila University. It felt strange delivering a paper on the Malaysian poet, Salleh Ben Joned, and the Filipino poet, Federico Licsi Espino, mavericks both, on the green and beautiful campus of Ateneo, where I studied and taught full-time for 20 years. But this time, my name card said I was representing a foreign university.

All that changed when the pandemic came, like a great and terrible axe swinging down and cutting us all to pieces. That was why I was excited to fly again. I planned on staying in Cebu only for one month – to see my partner; finish translating into Filipino the book, “The First Filipino,” the biography of Jose Rizal, for Anvil Publishing; and see some friends. I only brought five shirts and two trousers.

I stayed in a small hotel near Fuente Osmena, where I finished the translation, took lunch at a nearby stall that offered the freshest scallops and vegetables, then hied off to Ayala Center to do more work at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, since it was near the taxi stand and was convenient for me. It also had a lamp shade made of graceful rattan and clean tables but no WiFi, that is why in the Philippines, you should always have data in your cell phone. Or better yet, a pocket WiFi. Mine is always from Smart, which has served me in good stead in my work as an online teacher and writer.

After one week, my friend, Hendri Go, invited me to stay at his house in San Remigio, a quiet coastal town in northern Cebu. We drove for four hours and the familiar towns of Cebu rolled past my eyes again. When I finally saw the sea in Carmen, I was thrilled beyond words. There was the blue water, clear as glass, and a horizon shaped like a straight line that went on into infinity.

I didn’t know that my one month here would stretch to three months, or more. I’ve survived an accident, a super typhoon and what looked like Omicron, although my test proved negative. I’m still in Cebu, Ce-boom, Sugbu: surviving is the name of the game.

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