Coming back to life

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

On Good Friday, the news from the United States was that the country was facing yet another COVID surge, after a two-month decline. The culprit is BA.2, a mutation of Omicron that is said to be 30 percent more contagious than the variant.

While US health experts don’t expect BA.2 cases to surpass the worst of the Omicron surge (partly because of the natural immunity developed during the Omicron wave), they worry about increased hospitalizations, which are already up in certain states.

Since our borders are almost fully open, it’s probably just a matter of time before BA.2 enters our country, and we see infections similar to what’s happening now in the US and in highly vaccinated South Korea, China and several countries in Western Europe.

I don’t know if it’s lingering fear of coronavirus infection or the scary cost of fuel these days, or perhaps a combination of both, but there seemed to be more people who stayed put in Metro Manila during the Holy Week.

Having been fully vaccinated and boosted, I went out of Metro Manila for the Lenten break for the first time in two years, but only to destinations just about an hour’s drive from my house, and which are good for a half-day visit after lunch. I’m still wary of taking my mask off to sit down for a meal outside my home.

On Maundy Thursday I went with my mother and some household members to the Antipolo Cathedral, home of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage. I knew the pre-pandemic crowd still wasn’t fully back because it was easy to find a parking space near the church along one of the narrow streets.

But at least there were enough devotees to fill the church (with masks on and distancing voluntarily observed) and to light votive candles outside. Most important for livelihoods and the local economy, there were enough visitors buying mangoes and suman (ordinary or with latik), roasted cashew and all the other native delicacies of Antipolo and the rest of Calabarzon, plus the religious souvenirs.

Driving back we stopped by a strip mall in Metro Manila that was packed with people shopping, eating in the fast-food outlets, or simply strolling with their families and dogs.

*      *      *

On Good Friday our destination was Los Baños, Laguna, where traffic was light for a holiday. The vendors of plastic pool floats were there in full force so business must be returning.

Looking for the main entrance to the University of the Philippines campus we accidentally ended up at the Boy Scouts of the Philippines campgrounds, and then to the picturesque winding road leading up to the National Arts Center and the Philippine High School for the Arts.

The view from the peak of Mount Makiling was worth missing the main UPLB entrance. Along the winding mountain road there was also a lovely stop at the Pook ni Bathala open chapel. I’ve been to the UPLB many times but I didn’t know this place existed. There was a vendor’s stall at the entrance but we were the only visitors around. Driving up the steep road we chanced upon a handful of joggers. At the peak there were only two families enjoying a picnic. The public toilets were open and clean, with running water.

The arts center is connected to the UPLB main complex, our next stop. The crowd was sparse in the campus Freedom Park. But it was fine by me, since it was easier to take photographs again with the same landmarks as backdrop – the Carillon Tower, the massive acacia dubbed the “fertility tree” because, according to campus lore, many babies were made under the shade of the tree.

Besides taking photos, my mission during the visit was to buy carabao milk produced on campus. Unfortunately, the Philippine Carabao Center Dairy Corner near Freedom Park was closed. So I was glad to find the souvenir shops in the Los Baños town center outside the campus open and selling fresh carabao milk.

There was a long waiting line at the adjacent Original Buco Pie shop, so the owners and staff must be glad for Alert Level 1. But I didn’t want to wait in line in the time of COVID so I just settled for the stuff sold by buco pie scalpers outside, whose sales pitch was that it was the same product minus the waiting in line (it wasn’t).

What I missed, being a long-time plantita, were the gardening suppliers along the main road whose stalls have been replaced by commercial centers and resorts.

Driving home we bought the sweetest steamed Japanese corn along a roadside stall. Throughout the pandemic I avoided buying such food for fear of infection, but now we all happily ate the steaming corn.

*      *      *

Saturday was almost rest day; we simply went to neighboring Cavite to buy fresh and dried seafood.

In Kawit we found our favorite stall selling mussels and shucked fresh oysters, but now it had several competitors lining the road. The elderly woman told us that with more visitors due to the lower alert level, more vendors also resumed business. She said she and her household all caught COVID twice last year, during the deadly Alpha and Delta surges. Fortunately, they all survived.

In Noveleta it was good to see that business was back for the beach resorts. Along both sides of the main road there were long lines of parked private cars and jeepneys with painted routes from all over Metro Manila and neighboring provinces.

I bought fresh shrimp and squid as usual. But it was disappointing to find out that our favorite merienda stop in Cavite City, the Lago de Dalahican bar and grill, has been converted into an e-sabong outlet. In the seaside al fresco area, bettors watching the cockfight on TV were smoking and spewing pathogens into the air, and some had their feet up on the seats.

The gambling must have also poisoned the service. When I asked the waiter for additional knives for our Hawaiian pizza, he told me they had only one knife available in the entire place. Maybe cockfight bettors have lunged at each other with knives. That’s the last time I’m returning to that restaurant.

Driving home we stopped by an open-air flea market in Bacoor, which was packed with families and pet dogs.

Slowly, business is picking up. If there is no surge next month as a result of the Lenten opening up and campaign gatherings, full recovery is ahead, and we can have our life back.


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