I was surprised to know I already have more than 2K subscribers with hardly any content, which made me feel like this was an untapped platform for me;
 I’ve been looking for a YouTube video essayist [parang Vox] on Philippine arts and culture, and there’s none, so I felt there is an unfilled niche;
 I need to somehow have an outlet for my teaching persona since I’m not teaching anymore;
 I had to find a way to learn to love my video voice [I hate it!]; and
 my recording and editing skills are very elementary [I’m only using my Photo Booth camera and my iMovie editing app], but I know all good things start small and that's how you learn anyway: jump off into the deep end.
I have two video essays up on my channel so far—and a bunch of older videos and Eddie Romero movies. Comments welcome, but please be gentle. Subscribe and hit the notification bell if you're so inclined.
This is my first attempt at a video essay. I was invited by the Renaissance Youth Leaders Forum of Silliman University to talk about LGBTQ representation in media and literature, and I decided to narrow it down to film, with some focus on Filipino film. [I plan to do this at least twice a month.]
My favorite music I have never heard in its entirety is Max Richter’s Sleep. It’s eight hours long. Most nights, when I go to sleep, I play it on Spotify. It’s so beautiful, and it also guarantees that within minutes I’d knock out. And since it’s eight hours long, it also measures the amount of sleep hours I’ve had. Today, I woke up way before it was finished. Oh, well.
I’m reading a friend’s COVID narrative they just sent me. [Thank God, they’re fine now.] They got it unknowingly from a friend they trusted who knew she had contact with someone infected but didn’t tell anyone. People in Dumaguete, please, just isolate. Or if you can’t, please wear mask. (Double mask if you can!) You cannot let your guard down even with friends and family. This is my constant fear: that I’d be an asymptomatic carrier without knowing it. I had COVID in December, and it was one the worst experiences of my life — and I think led to my final mental health reckoning beginning in 2021. (That’s the silver lining, I guess?)
It just got me thinking: the way you can show your best love for your friends right now is NOT to see them. A friend cancelled our BBQ get-together last month, and she just told me it was because she felt it shouldn’t happen in the middle of a pandemic. That’s love!
Today for the first time in a long while I feel like I have a stake in the future. A while ago, I was paying some bills and doing banking (which I have been doing for years of course) but I felt there was a shift in me while I did those things. A significant feeling of adulting? For a very long time, I was plagued by undiagnosed ADHD which fostered depression expressed in a feeling that every year was going to be my last year of being alive — so why bother planning and risking doing anything? I was going to die anyway. I remember on my 33rd birthday, I was on board a tricycle bound for home, and I suddenly burst into tears because I was so tired of being alive. [I wrote an essay on that, titled “My Christ Year.”] But I just realized I haven’t had these thoughts for a while now since I started treatment. Grateful that I can look forward to the future again.
I just went down the rabbit hole of going over 13 years worth of Facebook messages — to archive, to delete, to belatedly answer some missives. It was both enlightening and horrifying. There were messages from friends who are now dead. [Clinton, Luis, Jacqueline, Em, etc., a whole gamut of memories.] Messages from former friends who might as well be. Messages from people you seem to be very friendly with in the texts, but can no longer remember who they are anymore. Flirtations that went somewhere — and nowhere. Opportunities that went nowhere, or were totally missed. I’ve ghosted a lot, and have been ghosted back in equal measure. How do you measure a life in FB messages?
By all accounts, the transmission occurred at home, but its origin was somewhere else: her husband’s office. He worked in a BPO—it involved working as client services manager and supervisor for foreign firms—and like many BPOs of its kind, their workplace was a hermetically sealed environment (blasts of air-conditioning, work stations in close quarters) that, in the pre-pandemic, harkened to a typical corporate bubble. In the pandemic, however, those very conditions proved to be breeding grounds for disease.
Her husband already heard of some colleagues getting sick, in particular one of the tech agents who was suddenly absent one day. “Fever,” he was told. But like many people, he believed himself either impervious or lucky enough not to get COVID-19. After all, it had been more than a year since the pandemic began, and while COVID-19 felt like it was closing in around Dumaguete of late, it still felt like a disease that happened to other people. He also believed in the effectiveness of the protocols in place in his company—the requisite face masks and physical distancing. “You could not return to work anyway if you do not come back with a medical certificate and a fit-to-work document,” he told me.
And then one day, on April 29, at home, there came the fever that could not be denied.
He called in sick the next day, a Friday, and spent that weekend getting himself a battery of medical tests: CBC, urinalysis, x-ray. All results turned out normal. By this time, he heard that the colleague who had gone absent had been told to take a COVID swab test—and at the back of his head, he knew something was up. But the articulation of it, the acceptance of what seemed inevitable felt double-edged: he expected it, and he feared its consequence. The virus, after all, was of a tricky sort: for some people, it was an asymptomatic inconvenience; for others, it was a passing malaise—and at worst, getting ageusia (or the loss of the taste functions of the tongue) or anosmia (or smell blindness); and still for others, it was an unfortunate progression towards hospitalization, intubation, and death. It was a lottery of the worst kind.
He finally got the swab test three days later. On May 6, four medical technologists—all donned in standard PPE, immediately warning the rest of the neighborhood that something was going on in this particular residence—dropped by to administer the test. The next day, he got the dreaded confirmation from the contact tracer: he was COVID-positive.
By then it was too late: at home, he had passed on the virus to his wife and their three young children, including two daughters aged 13 and 9, and a son aged 7. Since the onset of his fever, he had already been infectious, and they lived in a small house without a spare room for isolation. For three days, they lived knowing all of them could be breathing in the virus. They alerted all their close contacts, especially the members of their church, who immediately isolated themselves at the barangay health center even without swab tests.
On social media, the Dumaguete COVID surge was surging as well in news, gossip, and conspiracy theories. The family knew they were caught in a maelstrom and did not know what to expect.
“I wanted the two of us to get the swab test on the same day, since I already developed a fever by May 4,” the wife told me. “And it was already set up. But when the medical technologists arrived, they decided my husband had to take the swab test first, and that mine would soon follow.”
They were told by the contact tracer that the LGU would soon be calling them to discuss what needed to be done.
On the afternoon of May 7, the City Health Office contacted them that they were getting extracted that evening from their residence to quarantine at “City High”—shorthand for the Dumaguete City High School located in Calindagan. They requested home isolation and for everyone in the family to get swabbed, but the request was denied. It was too risky, given the neighborhood they lived in. And then they learned it was only the husband who was going to be placed in quarantine, not all them together, since he was the only one so far who got a positive result.
They could not do anything else, except comply.
When extraction came, it was via a broken down L-300 van from the City Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office [CDRRMO]—and the driver and his companion could not locate their house. Her husband had to walk about 50 meters from their house to where the flashing lights of the van were. The walk felt like a perp walk, an announcement to the rest of the neighborhood that this guy walking was COVID-positive. He took in the absurd humor of the situation. There was nothing else he could do about it.
He quickly learned that he was going to have to fly blind in this situation. There were no prior instructions on what to bring to the quarantine camp, and no orientation over the phone on what to expect. He simply sat down inside the van extracting him, had it deliver him to City High, and that was that.
Once inside, there was no orientation on what to do or what was expected of him. He was vaguely told about a nurse in-charge who could be found on the second floor. (He never found the nurse.) There was only one guard on duty. He was ushered into a room in a very dark building, where he was completely alone. He felt a wave of anxiety take over him. Thirty minutes later, some more COVID-positives would arrive, and suddenly he had company.
He examined his bed—a standard cot with a mattress with no linens. He was sure this bed had been here since the quarantine camp opened a year ago when the city started preparing for the pandemic. He was sure this bed had accommodated many COVID-positive people since then. His instinct was to disinfect the whole thing before deciding to lay down on it.
He was mostly on his own. Going around the campus, he stumbled on a friend—someone from his old BPO days in Cebu—who was also quarantined and had been there for some time. It was a relief to have someone to talk to. Only then was he able to get the lay of the land from his friend: what to expect, where to get their meals, where to take their showers, where they could do laundry, where they could find the health worker assigned to monitor their condition.
Two words came to mind immediately:
* * *
The rule of thumb in swabbing was that only those who were showing symptoms could get the test. On May 11, his wife and their two daughters—who were already feverish—finally got their swab tests, and on May 13, they got their expected results: they were also COVID-positive. But by the evening of May 12, they were already told to prepare for extraction as well.
A little drama unfolded: since the 7-year-old was asymptomatic, he could not get a swab test. And since his status was in question, he could not be part of the extraction. The City Health officers determined over the phone that the son had to be left behind—perhaps with his 81-year-old lolo?
His mother resisted that decision. “I could not agree to that suggestion, with only the two of them left behind,” she said. “His lolo would not know how to take care of a 7-year-old. And there was the chance that my son could infect him. I was sure that if we were positive, he was also positive. And there was no one else we could turn to. My husband’s relatives had senior citizens among them, and a cousin was asthmatic. His siblings were all in Pamplona and Bacong, and they also had small children. One of them was also asthmatic.”
The City Heath officers relented: their son could be with them in quarantine camp.
“Grab some dinner first,” they were told. They would get extracted soon after. When they were ready, they were told to text the City Health Office, and the van—the same broken down L-300 van—would pick them up.
“In fairness to the City Health officers, they were generally nice,” she said. “And there was a difference in communication this time around: with my husband, it was done all so quickly. With us, there were several messages exchanged back and forth to prepare us. They were stepping up.”
They ate dinner.
They knew from what her husband had already told her what else to expect and what to bring.
They asked the van driver—through text—to pick them up exactly from where they were: they did not want to do the same perp walk her husband had been through, plus there were things to bring.
Clothes good for at least a week.
An electric stove.
“A thermometer was essential,” she said.
When the van deposited them at City High, she knew what not to expect already. There was still no orientation upon arrival, but the City Health Office had already given her instructions over the phone on what she could look forward to. She asked for her husband to be transferred with them to a new room, and they were housed in a building behind the gym, a relatively new one compared to the rest of the campus. And cleaner, too. The room they were in—which they shared with three other people—was essentially a typical public school classroom that was fairly large, with beds arranged around the room to simulate physical distance, and the armchairs all stacked to the side of the blackboard.
That was home for several days.
Quarantine lasted nine days for her and her two daughters, from the evening of May 12 to May 21. By their second swab tests, they tested negative and were sent home. Swabbing was done in intervals of five or seven days while in isolation. Her son was in quarantine for 20 days. Her husband, who was quarantined first, was there from May 7 to June 2—a total of 26 days. He tested positive still for his second swab test, and only tested negative for his third.
In isolation, life took a pause. They could not do anything except wait. The entire experience was a waiting game.
“It was hard, all those days in the camp. You had to take the initiative in order for you to get through the days. The City Health Office’s goal was to ensure that we were isolated so that we could not infect anyone else.”
Which meant entertaining them was not part of the plan. They were not required to participate in any activity, nor was any conceived. The only rule was to quarantine: they were not allowed to go out, they were not allowed to congregate with other people who were also COVID-positive.
“The good thing was, my husband came to camp earlier than us, so we knew what to do on a daily basis,” she said.
Her husband’s friends sent toys and games for the children—Snakes and Ladders, Word Factory, the works. The children were also sent books to read.
Other friends sent food—so eating became occupational therapy.
Her husband’s company soon sent a prepaid wifi kit (because he still had to work in isolation), and that gave them more leeway to access the world they could not reenter. There were many Facebook messages to read, and to respond to, all of them bearing good wishes for getting better. The children, when they were not schooling online, devoured YouTube.
And then, because her husband had brought over a guitar, they began to do sing-alongs: acoustic cover songs, old love songs, gospel songs. They began posting videos of themselves singing in isolation.
They also started cleaning their stations to pass the time. “We made such an effort in cleaning everything,” she said. “My husband insisted on it. We cleaned our room, we cleaned the communal bathroom assigned to us, we cleaned the CR where we did our laundry.” That CR was hideous in its dirtiness from the beginning of their stay—so they attacked it with their cleaning streak, even getting rid of the hair that was clogging the drain. But at least the water pressure was strong—that felt like a godsend.
All through this, they monitored their health. “All of us, except my husband, are asthmatic, so we brought our nebulizers. We had inhalers, our medicines, our vitamins,” she said. “For me, I felt sleepy most of the time. Sige ko gi-kutasan. I had body malaise—but I was generally okay.”
The City provided food for those in quarantine, with breakfast coming in around 8 AM (although most of the time, it was 9 AM), lunch between 11 AM to 12 noon, and dinner by 5 PM. Dinner had to come early, because after six, the skeleton staff manning the camp had to be gone.
And all throughout, the fare remained simple, and soon enough, fairly predictable: chicken. The meals were all chicken done in all sorts of ways. With soup, without soup. Done as adobo, or fried, or with batter. It was a feast of chicken.
To vary their meals, they resorted to ordering via Food Panda. “That was the first time my husband installed the Food Panda app in his cellphone,” she laughed.
She heard from the other people in quarantine that some have resorted to breaking the rules just to escape the blandness of the food. “This is in the tent city at the Perdices Coliseum, though,” she said. “I heard some people would escape their isolation to get food in neighboring restaurants—which was sad, because they were infecting other people. But I don’t remember anyone in City High doing the same. We stayed in, we ate chicken, we ordered from Food Panda.”
But there was one person in isolation with them who did escape.
He was apparently a relative of some person of rank at City Hall, and when he was extracted and placed in quarantine at City High, he began to throw a tantrum. He was throwing things, he was shouting, he was going wild. He found the conditions of quarantine camp insulting, and he was fighting with the staff. Then he escaped.
“I think it was in the news,” my friend said. “Later they found him in isolation at some hotel with his wife. Nag-maoy-maoy, busdak-busdak, saba kaayo. Nag-wild.”
In retrospect, for her, it was not all that bad. “Generally, City High was okay. It was not hot, it was well-ventilated, and we had a nice view from the second floor of our building of a very green soccer field, and a nice view of the mountains,” she said.
Certainly, the man who threw a tantrum was drama in quarantine camp. Most people isolated with them led ordinary lives with interesting stories.
There was the married couple her husband met when he first came in. They were all roommates, with another man, in the first six days. But then the husband had to be transferred to the Negros Oriental Provincial Hospital because his blood oxygen level was going low—and that left the wife alone with two men in the same room. She was the only woman left in that building, but she refused to be transferred to new quarters for one reason: she had brought work with her to isolation camp, and the set-up of all her equipment and office materials were already in place, and she could not spare the energy to uproot all that to another building. “Isog kayo nga bayhana, wala’y kahadlok,” my friend recalled. The woman kept on asking for swab tests, eager for a negative result so that she could go home. She also never hesitated to ask for updates on her husband’s condition at the hospital.
Then there was the long-haired dude with tattoos. He was a member of NORAD-7 and a volunteer for the CDRRMO, and he knew most of the people who worked at the City Health Office. When they extracted him to quarantine camp, it was his birthday. “He looked like a gangster,” my friend said, “but his personality was the exact opposite: he was so kind and considerate.”
Then there was the 14-year-old minor who stayed with them in the same room. She was their neighbor, and a member of the same church. “While she tested positive for COVID, her parents tested negative—so she had to come with us. She was extracted with us. And we treated her like our own daughter.” When she tested positive still with her second swab test, she burst into tears. By her third test, she was negative, and she went home together with my friend’s husband and their son.
At the time, my friend knew that the Provincial IATF was already getting overwhelmed with the surge of COVID cases all over Negros Oriental, and in particular, Dumaguete. It reflected in many ways in the conditions and procedures at camp—but she learned to accept even the inconveniences. “I think it was, overall, a fun experience—especially for the kids. Mura lang jud ga-camping. It was kinda boring, but it also gave us some time to do much-needed reflection, and a lot of heart-to-heart conversations with my husband,” she said. “I was also able to rest from household chores and from my work. I was also able to help out in the online schooling of my children. Our biggest deal was merely waiting for food to come.” She laughed.
If there was one thing she learned the most from the experience, it was that COVID was real. “Dili lalim,” she said. “I started praying with so much zeal. I can say that the whole experience strengthened my relationship with God. And with my husband, he learned to bond with our son, especially when it was only them left at camp. My son had always been a mama’s boy—and so it was great that they got to spend time alone together, doing things together.”
Going home was exactly the same as getting into quarantine camp.
“There was no debriefing, and no more instructions from City Health,” she said.
She rode home in the same run-down L-300 van, this time with a different driver.
When she got home, the first thing she did was to disinfect everything in her house.
“I sprayed Lysol all over. That was the advice I got from a Red Cross volunteer,” she said.
She still did not have her sense of smell back, so they waited outside the house for the strong Lysol smell to settle down—and then much later, her daughter told her it was now okay to get back inside.
Upon their return, her neighbors were largely welcoming—”Okay na mo?” was the constant refrain, to which they’d answer back: “Okay na!” Except for one cautious woman who avoided the family at all cost, by getting out of their way when they meet outside or by crossing the street altogether.
“It’s fine,” my friend told me. “We found it very funny.”
It is June 16, the first day of MECQ in Dumaguete City. It begins with some semblance of quiet. Journalist Raffy Cabristante, on the lookout for what he can share on the popular Facebook page of his radio station Yes The Best FM, sets out for the heart of downtown.
He takes photos of the usually busy intersection of San Jose Street and Perdices Street, where Lee Super Plaza, Jollibee, and other big stores are located, and takes a snapshot of the 9 AM scene. The scene is low-key in its bustle—there are only a few tricycles and motorcycles plying the street, and only a handful of people about. It is the same with the Rizal Boulevard stretch facing the sea. The same with Hibbard Avenue, which cuts through Silliman University and goes all the way north to the barangay of Bantayan. There’s more volume of traffic along Veterans Avenue, the stretch most locals call the National Highway, but that is to be expected. This is the artery that connects Dumaguete, a component city in the province of Negros Oriental, to the other towns—it is bound to be busy, if a little less than what it usually sees on any given day, even during the past few months of the pandemic.
Cabristante posts his finds on the radio station’s Facebook page—and immediately there are reactions. Someone comments below the photo of the national highway scene, with the Philippine National Bank building prominent in the center: “Naa ra lagi pedicab diha. All public utility vehicles including pedicabs for hire are not allowed.”
That kind of indignation is rampant everywhere in Dumaguete. It has only increased in the MECQ.
* * *
But it has been a rough few weeks for the city, which on June 7 was raised to the level of national notoriety when it was listed as the number one locality in the entire country with the most worrying trend of COVID-19 surge: new cases doubled by 206%, followed by Koronadal with 96%, Cotabato City with 62%, Bacolod with 56%, and Davao City with 54%, according to data provided by the OCTA Research Group.
By then, most Dumagueteños were already getting too used to—and increasingly getting apprehensive by—the rising daily totals put out by Provincial IATF ground commander Dr. Liland Estacion. May 14 was the day that apprehensions began. Estacion announced 168 new cases, at that time the highest number of new cases recorded in Negros Oriental since the pandemic began. She attributed the surge to “local transmissions within households, workplaces, and public places where people converged.”
By May 18, there were 98 new cases, raising the active cases to 615—the same day the Silliman University Medical Center stopped accepting COVID patients, declaring their capacity full.
By May 20, the vaccination rollout for senior citizens finally began—the same day the local IATF countered fake news rapidly circulating that Robinsons Place Dumaguete was a hotbed for the virus.
By May 21, 204 new cases, 709 total.
By May 23, the doctors started calling out for help. In a statement produced by the Negros Oriental Medical Society, they declared: “We call for an ECQ. We call for a lockdown. Call it whatever you like. We are doctors, we are not politicians or businessmen or even lawmakers. But these we know: there is this rapid rise in cases more than the hospitals can handle. We know that we are losing precious lives. We know that we have so many critically ill and not enough sources. We only know the value of saving a life. Please, people of Negros Oriental, do something. Stop parties. Stop gatherings. Don’t socialize. Wear masks. Give us curfews. Give us time to reset. Please do something before health care collapses. The end of health care will be the end of society. Help us health workers.”
It was a plea gunning for what had been the precarious status quo in Dumaguete. There was already a sense of a city relaxing a bit too much in its regard for pandemic dangers: people were going about unmasked, people were going about having parties and weddings and dinners, people were going about thinking they had become untouchable after more than a year of suffering in lockdown. Many would call it “pandemic fatigue”—and the penchant to wring back a sense of pre-pandemic “normal” was high.
By May 24, Dumaguete received a wake-up call: City Mayor Felipe Antonio Remollo was stricken with COVID, and was now in isolation. Later reports would indicate that he was going through a “cytokine storm,” an immune response exhibited by many COVID patients where the body starts to attack its own cells. It is often a fatal precursor.
That same day, Dumaguete learned that many members of the City Council were also stricken by the virus. And while President Rodrigo Duterte was in town to lead the Regional Peace and Order Council meeting at the Silliman University Gymnasium, the city began to fear for the health of its city leaders.
A few days later, in the morning of May 30, three days after a lunar eclipse that was also a blood moon, Vice Mayor Alan Gel Cordova collapsed on the way home to Dumaguete after joining a bike marathon in Tanjay—and died of cardiac arrest. He had just recovered from a bout of COVID a week earlier, and should have been convalescing. The city mourned. The city became rattled with what seemed like a crisis of leadership, delivered unexpectedly by a viral scourge.
By May 31, 313 new cases, 1,228 total. The public calls for tighter protocols grew more intense—but Duterte determined that Negros Oriental would remain under the most relaxed modified general community quarantine [MGCQ] from June 1 to 30.
By June 2, 138 new cases, 1,315 total.
By June 4, 429 new cases, 1,572 total. Meanwhile, a total of a 17,891 people in the province had gotten their first dose of the vaccine. Also on the same day, the Department of Health announced it was importing nurses from Cebu to help out the local hospitals with the surge. From his sick bed, Mayor Remollo made an “urgent and direct appeal” to the national government to give more vaccines to the city. Within 24 hours, Dumaguete would receive 10,000 vials of Sinovac straight from the national government. The LGU estimated that 108,624 city residents out of a total population of 137,214 needed to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity.
By June 8, 452 new cases, 1,714 total—a day after OCTA released their list of cities with the highest surges in the country. The PIATF recommended placing certain barangays in Dumaguete with high numbers of COVID-19 infections under granular lockdown—Piapi with 22, Bagacay and Daro with 16, Bajumpandan with 14, and Lo-oc with 12. No one knew exactly what that meant.
By June 9, 232 new cases, 1,808 total.
By June 11, 435 new cases, 1,837 total. By the next day, on Independence Day, the Dumaguete City Council requested Governor Roel Degamo to put in place a tightening of the quarantine status of the city, with the approval of the Regional IATF—perhaps a GCQ, or MECQ, or ECQ. The request was tricky to negotiate: Dumaguete being a component city, a change in its quarantine status would also include the entire Negros Oriental. Unlike independent cities like Cebu City or Bacolod City, Dumaguete could not have a quarantine status different from all the other places in the province. LGUs like Dumaguete could not change the quarantine status of their areas on their own.
By then, Cebu Province was again requiring travelers from Negros Oriental to secure a negative RT-PCR or antigen test result before entry. Negros Occidental was also prohibiting non-essential travel to its sister Negrense province.
“We cannot afford a total lockdown,” Gov. Degamo declared on June 14. He said that a total lockdown in the whole province was unsustainable and unaffordable—unless the national government stepped in to help. He saw granular lockdowns as the “best solution to balance both the containment of the coronavirus and preserving the local economy.”
But later that night, Duterte placed Negros Oriental under MECQ until June 30.
This was how we got here.
* * *
But how exactly?
A cursory look at many comments on the Yes The Best Facebook page gives us a picture of a community grappling with the varied realities of the pandemic, and could be instrumental in explaining the surge. One type of comment is that of the dismissive variety—that COVID-19 is not real, that people are being overly dramatic. “Just a little bit of coughing, COVID-19 na dayon,” is a typical post. A surprising number of these posts are from expats living in the province. “Exasperating expats,” some people began calling them—and you do see many of these expats in their usual haunts around the city flaunting pandemic protocols. Still, many of the establishments that cater to them have expressed a hesitance to remind them of health protocols. “They are our regular customers man gud,” one cashier in a popular restaurant told me.
Another type of comment is that of the conspiratorial variety—that doctors and hospitals and the LGU were in this scheme to make money. One vicious rumor spread that city leaders were withholding the vaccine to make profit. One Dan Adlawz posted on Facebook: “Malaki [naman] ang kikitain ang mga LGU dito. Curfew violators, pera na. Face shield violators, pera na. Facemask violators, pera na. Swab test, bayad sa laboratory, pera na. Mogawas ka sa balay, dakpan ka, pera. It’s about COVID-19 business.” [Quote edited for clarity.]
These two have been among the dominant mindsets in Dumaguete.
Around the city, you do see many people—a lot of them young—going about without masks, without social distancing. On social media, you do see pictures of people having weddings, having parties, having dinners in intimate places. A friend told me that they had a party in a private residence for friends she did Zumba with. Soon after, more than half of them developed COVID-19—with several needing hospitalization. Another friend confided to me, after her father died from COVID-19 while her mother was also in critical care at a local hospital—that no one in her family knew where her parents contracted the virus given that they mostly stayed at home.
On June 3, when Antonio Ramas Uypitching Sr., the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in the province died from COVID-19, the city again mourned—but also asked the inevitable question: “If those with means could suffer, how much more those of us without means?”
Meanwhile, there are valid complaints of the vaccination rollout being slow. But from the LGU, we learn that it’s the whole province, not just Dumaguete, bearing the burden of the process: “We are waiting for vaccines, and the process is national government-province-city/town. We have tried to procure vaccines on our own, but we’ve been told to wait for allocation from the national government. And we cannot compare ourselves to Siquijor, for example. They get the same number of vaccines, but they have less population per category. Thankfully, Mayor Ipe appealed to the National IATF and was given 10,000 vials just for Dumaguete. That is the only reason we are vaccinating again.”
From the City Health Office, we also learn that the number of vaccinated residents since June 10—from the 10,000 vials Mayor Remollo obtained—is more than that compared to the more than two months of vaccination using vaccines allocated by the IPHO.
And as of June 16, Dumaguete has begun vaccinating people under the A3 priority group. The LGU promises that it will continue the current pace of vaccination until the supplies are depleted, with Mayor Remollo pledging to find other ways to get more vaccines directly to Dumaguete. Walk-ins to vaccination centers, however, are still not allowed to ensure orderly vaccination and avoid overcrowding.
On June 15, a day after the province was placed under MECQ and a day before its implementation, someone posted a photo of people panic buying at Lee Plaza Hypermart. By then recuperated from his brush with COVID-19, Mayor Remollo implored: “There is no need for panic buying. The public market, supermarkets, grocery stores, and pharmacies will remain open under MECQ. Our health marshals will strictly enforce basic protocols of wearing facemasks and face shields, and physical distancing.”
But how do you keep people from doing what they want to do, at the risk of a further surge?
* * *
So this is where we are, on June 16, the first day of Dumaguete in MECQ.
It is 8 AM at the Tabo sa P.A.O. along E.J. Blanco Drive. If it weren’t for the pandemic, the bustle of the satellite market will have been considered completely ordinary. But the city is already at the cutting edge of pandemic tension, and yet—upon immediate observation of the marketplace—there are still many shoppers, and many vendors, not following health protocols: many are not wearing masks, or if they have put on masks, are wearing them improperly.
And then one woman at the tabo suddenly loses it, according to lawyer Golda Benjamin.
The woman is in her mid-40s, with the looks of a middle-class tita, one who could wear the most ordinary blouse and still come off sosyal, the type who’d buy basil and thyme at the tabo. She is wearing leggings and a shirt, complete with a face shield and mask for her ensemble. She is alone.
She begins raising her voice in protest: “Ngano man gyud mo dili magtarong sul-ob sa mask? Abi ninyo dili mo madutlan og COVID? Daghan na kaayong namatay. Mga dato gani wala kasagang. Magtabanganay ta. Hasta na inyong face shield, nganong naa sa inyong mga ulo. Gamita ninyo!”
It is an unexpected demonstration of exasperation completely untypical in the City of Gentle People. But others around her soon join in expressing a mix of frustration and anger: “It has been more than a year since our last strict lockdown in the city. And yet, here we still are!”
“Tinood!” others chime in. “Nag-antos na ta tanan. Balik na pud lockdown. Atong mga doctor, dili na makapauli sa ilang mga anak. Wala’y trabaho na pud ang mga isira na tindahan.”
It precedes a “slow mo” moment at the tabo.
The buluyagons do not say anything. Some go on to straighten their masks and their face shields. Some lower their heads. Some vendors go about accommodating customers, putting vegetables in plastic bags.
The woman then walks away, but not without parting words: “Maluoy mo sa inyong kaugalingon ug ma-COVID mo.”
Upon her wake, no one seems surprised at the outburst. No one goes, “Hala, na-unsa ‘to siya? Ngano siyang nag-wild?”
There is silence instead.
One can hope that this silence at this Dumaguete tabo is some sort of an affirmation: “Hala sa, sakto baya siya.”
There’s something incredibly rewarding in both the strangeness and familiarity you get as a package in a staycation. I’m not sure how I discovered the concept, but I’ve been doing this for a few years now in Dumaguete—and it has not lost its appeal every single time. It feels like a reward, a necessary change of place to reset without the hassle of travel, and a chance to rediscover your city once more with the oblique perspective of being a tourist in your own place.
For sure, it’s a privilege. Not everyone has access to this chance, to this privilege—and perhaps in a better world we can strive for, all of us can be afforded this pleasurable opportunity to “get away” without exactly going away.
I think it started for me as curiosity for the growing number of hotels and resorts in Dumaguete as well as in adjoining towns. Growing up here in the 1980s and coming to age in the 1990s, I never saw the hotels that were in existence then as areas where a local boy like me was welcome. These places felt like a refuge for the moneyed class, the hub of visiting friends who had cash to spare.
We lived in the Bantayan/Piapi area three times in the course of my family moving houses to rent through the years, and in the early years, my brothers and I, plus some neighborhood friends, would go to Silliman Beach to swim. Once, we had too much fun and barely noticed that the sky was darkening towards evening. I remember that in the dimming daylight, we suddenly saw the lights of South Seas Resort—now The Henry—go up in spectacular sparkle. We heard music, we heard the hubbub of bright conversation. In the darkness of the shore, we spied on the people in the resort, and it looked to me like a completely alien world full of unknown pleasures. I cannot recall what I thought then. Did I respond with awe? Most likely. But I must have felt an inner wish to someday be part of that rarified spectacle—to one day be “someone enough” to stay in a resort or a hotel. It was a strange sort of aspirational wish only a kid could muster.
I don’t think like that anymore—or at least I think I don’t. These days, I go and check in at local hotels to basically “reset.” Everyday living can have its small horrors of overfamiliarity. Being cooped up in one’s apartment can be suffocating. Sometimes one just needs to get away from all that in order to be able to refreshen. And sometimes, this gets compounded by the pressures and responsibilities we need to meet in the name of life and work. When I’ve done my part in meeting those, I long for just rewards: a feast at a good restaurant, or a long massage at a good spa, or a staycation. Dining out and getting the spa treatment are the usual escapes for me—but a staycation is something I do once in a while. That way it becomes somehow special, a rare treat to rejuvenate myself.
On a good queen-size bed with just the right amount of softness, surrounded by fluffy pillows, the air-conditioning steady, the light fixtures brightening the unfamiliar room with just the right amount of bright yellow, I feel most relaxed and excited at the same time. But then again, I’ve always liked hotel rooms. I like traveling for the most part—and settling in our temporary domiciles in strange cities after a long haul is always part of the pleasure.
But a staycation can also be a refuge, not for pleasure, but for work. I find that I cannot really write in the comforts of my own apartment. My own bed is too familiar, too ready, and too near, and I inevitably find myself drawn towards it—so instead of working, I fall asleep instead. Going to a hotel to work solves that because the unfamiliarity gives you a kind of edge. Sure, there’s a comfortable bed within your reach, but knowing that you’re paying for staying here somehow forces you to get right on the work. I know many writers who do this. There’s one playwright I know who goes to a love motel (Victoria Court, if I remember correctly) to write the pieces he needs to submit for competitions like the Palanca. He almost always wins, so these love motels are a significant part of his creative process. I go to hotels to do reports, to crunch grades, to read student papers, to write stories—and when I get hungry, there’s always room service to meet my dietary needs.
On rare occasions, always on weekends or holidays, I just want to feel like a tourist in my own city. Staying in a local hotel completes the illusion I need to take in that touristy vibe. After checking in and resting for a bit, I go out with my old and still trusty point-and-shoot digital camera to explore the neighborhood or street the hotel is on. Of course I’ve seen these Dumaguete neighborhoods and streets a thousand times before, but never with this special scrutiny. I get constantly surprised by what I discover when I look at nooks and crannies for real without the rush of merely passing by them in ordinary days, which blinds us to these things: a wooden house tucked in a small lot with an overgrown garden you’ve always taken for granted before, an old fading mural on a wall you’ve never seen up close, an alley that leads you to the interiors of a block that teems with living you have no idea about. My rule has always been this: stay within the barangay of the hotel throughout the duration of my stay, which includes selecting restaurants in the vicinity when I want to dine out, and going for local sights when I want to go around. The limitation can be fun—and I get to discover new things I would normally not go for.
The pandemic—and the long lockdown—has been an exhausting period for a lot of us. Being cooped up in one’s house or apartment for days on end felt like a strange adventure at first—but I bet, eventually, the grind of familiarity has driven some of us mad. Which is to be expected.
Last November, when things relaxed for a bit in Dumaguete, someone tipped me off that Rovira Suites in Bantayan was offering a weekend staycation promo for locals that included a two-night stay complete with complimentary breakfast, plus a selection of tokens that included a bottle of wine, or snacks good for P500 to be consumed pool-side, or take-out dinner from any restaurant via Food Panda. That was an opportunity I did not want to miss. I’d already stayed at Rovira Suites once before in pre-pandemic days, and loved the well-appointed rooms with their little balconies, the general quiet of Bantayan that embraces the property, and the pool. The exquisite pool was a huge draw. Swimming in it while the evening deepens and the hotel lights give everything a glow is quite an experience. So I took it to get away from the horrors of pandemic days, to pretend everything was all right. I went back again sometime in February 2021 to celebrate an eighth anniversary with the beloved—and as a gift to myself for surviving the harrowing two months preceding that, which led to a kind of breakdown on my part. Staycationing was a way to rejuvenate.
A few days ago, I tried out the newly-refurbished Dumaguete Royal Suites Inn, also along L. Rovira Drive in Bantayan. (What is it about Bantayan that calls to me?) This time, it was staycation for work—and the deluxe room we were given by the very friendly staff gave us that space for doing the grind while ensconced in fantastic comfort. The property has been around for so long, and it is only now that it is getting a significant facelift. The renovation shows in the new stylistic choices of bed, fixtures, and bath—and overall, a modern and bright feel for the entire hotel. There is of course the bonus of having one of Dumaguete’s best restaurants just downstairs to give us our fill of a good dinner. We did just that: we ordered the cream of mushroom soup, Hawaiian pork, grilled squid, Yangchow fried rice, and strawberry cheesecake—and did not count the calories.
I’m glad I get to do this once in a while—and it helps to think that we are also supporting the local economy by doing so. The pandemic has taught us that life is too short not to seek escape and pleasure—and if you can find both within your city, and will not break your bank account, I say go for it.
One of the first things I did when I started therapy was to change bags! The one on the right was my tattered old one I held on to because it felt emblematic of the pandemic—and I guess also my tattering psyche. It felt good discarding it.
It took a while — perhaps because there really is no sound infrastructure of a “literary industry” in the Philippines, but now that I’m making myself submit to international publications I’m developing a delight for both acceptances and rejections. I made three sales to the American market in the past year! Try lang ang peg. Padayon!
Embrace all the stepping stones of your growth. Including the cringey parts, the lows, the darkness. No one stops struggling, learning, adulting. No one stops proving oneself worthy despite the setbacks and doubts.
Something happened to me a long time ago that made me anxious, timid, doubtful of my skills, afraid of being heard, irresponsible with opportunities, scared of success. A shadow. I don’t know what that something was. But treatment is beginning to reverse a lot of that, and I feel like I’m making up for lost time and chances.
Dumaguete media people are brave. I need to say that, because the ganging up on local journalists is a little too dramatic. When they report the bad news, you hate on them for reporting without gloss. When they cannot report the bad news, you hate on them for the roadblocks they face. You have no idea what they are going through, the hoops they jump to be able to report truthfully. But they have also been targets of numerous, unsolved killings of late. Where was your outrage when news people like Rex Cornelio, Edmund Sestoso, and Dindo Generoso were killed? You’re enjoying your privilege of getting the news from the safety of your keyboard. Stop being a bitch. You don’t have a job that can get you killed.
8:52 PM |
Three Under-The-Radar Restaurants in Dumaguete You Must Try
For the longest time, it felt inevitable: lockdown in Dumaguete and neighboring towns meant lesser foot traffic, non-existent reservations, and newfound difficulties in securing supplies and upkeeping equipment. And so we lost a considerable number of our old culinary haunts. Most of us still miss KRI and Alima Café—although our old favorites from those places can still be had at Esturya along Hibbard Avenue in Tugas. Some opened with considerable promise but eventually proved short-lived, like Bakugo Ramen along EJ Blanco Drive and Sinati over at The Flying Fish Hostel along Hibbard Avenue, which will be mourned. Many closed for good, like Charlene Sweetness, and some closed at the beginning of lockdown and still show no signs of returning, like Halang-Halang and Kimstaurant. Some closed branches and consolidated their space, like Roti Boss and Qing Hia Town Cuisine. Others closed down their old venues only to reappear a few months later in another place, like Poppys, still offering much of the same but somehow lacking the magic of the familiar. It’s an upheaval only a pandemic as pervasive as this one could effect.
And yet, despite the pandemic still raging in Dumaguete City, there are new restaurants and cafes sprouting all over the place, which is something of a culinary miracle and could be the perfect demonstration that in times of great need, we turn to food for comfort—not just in the eating, but also in the making.
As far as I can remember, the first ones to open in the new uncertainty were Sobremesa in the old Daddy’s Gastro Park along West EJ Blanco Drive and Beyond Plants tucked in the premises of Hoy Lugaw along the Rizal Boulevard. Their opening was a gambit for the entrepreneurs behind each venture: if they managed to have some success in a time that was extremely challenging, pursuing more success in a world gone back to normal would be easier.
And now, that gambit has become a kind of a widespread call. There are now new bakeries and dessert shops, new milk tea corners and Korean dives, new coffee pop-ups and barbecue pop-ups, new swanky dining places in swankier venues. North Point along Escano Drive is a delightful dining-out beehive, the final word in the evolution of the Dumaguete food park.
There also seems to be a boom in Southeast Asian cuisine—a hankering for the Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, and Malaysian, which I will write about soon enough. There also seems to be another hankering for Japanese food and Persian food. And brunch. And coffee. And cakes.
Overall, this culinary explosion does not seem to be a bad thing: what we have is an abundance of choices in dining out, and it seems to be a good problem to have. Now, one’s attempt to sample every new fare in town has become a minor kind of mind-boggling. Truth to tell, if sampling every new eating place is your thing, you will not have to repeat restaurants for a very long time.
But with a smorgasbord of dining choices comes a less desirable outcome: eventually there will be those somehow overlooked by many people in favor of venues with splashier atmosphere, with better locations, with more intensive marketing strategies. As far as I know, the casualty is the often superior culinary offerings many under-the-radar restaurants actually offer.
The beef tacos at Beth's Kitchen.
I love, for example, Beth’s Kitchen along Sta. Catalina Street in Tinago. It’s easy to overlook, given that its location is not exactly known for having restaurants or cafes—and within its vicinity, Qyosko, which is a stone’s throw away, dominates. That’s how we discovered Beth’s Kitchen, actually: we were on our way to our usual dinner at Qyosko and we just happened to pass by a newly-opened Beth’s Kitchen and was struck by the newness of its lights. It felt promising.
“Is it a Mexican restaurant?” I asked Renz. “There’s a neon sign that says it’s a tacqueria. That means it offers tacos, right?”
“Let’s try it soon enough,” Renz replied.
Soon enough did not come sooner. We simply forgot it existed the minute it was out of our sight. We’d pass by it again and again on our way to Qyosko, and we’d always say, “Let’s really try that out soon.” We never did.
That is until a few days ago when, on our way once more to Qyosko and upon seeing the Beth’s Kitchen signage, Renz decided once and for all to park the car—and guided the both of us to the new restaurant’s interiors. We were the only ones inside—usually a bad sign for the intrepid foodie—but we soon liked the ambience of the place: it felt truly its own, a narrow space with three tables with a good view of the kitchen that was both intimate and roomy enough.
Renz had the beef tacos with tomato salsa and avocado cream, and I had the herbed pork chop. And we loved both dishes, even if they were a tad too pricey—but the taste was enough to make us want to return and have more.
The chicken wings at Ton Up Moto Café.
We also love Ton Up Moto Café, which is along Ramon Teves Pastor Street (colloquially, the South National Highway) in Banilad. We discovered it in one of our frequent OBTs around town during the pandemic—our locked down sense of adventure dictating a new variable in our search for the new: we’d look out for shiny, bright lights in places we’d never seen them before, and most likely, what those lights reveal is a new café. (We’d never been wrong in that regard.) During one such OBT, we decided to go as far as the borders of Bacong. Along the way, past Robinsonsplace, we found those bright lights—which led to Ton Up Moto Café.
The industrial aesthetic of the place was vastly appealing to us, plus a motorcycle-themed café felt different from our usual haunts in town. The ambience was relaxed, the wait staff was the most polite in the world, and the menu was stacked with everyone’s favorite dishes—from an array of all-day breakfast fares (like silogs and pancakes) to snacks (like crepes and chicken wings and burgers) to dining fare (like assorted pasta and chicken inasal and steak). And since it’s also a bar, all sorts of drinks you’d want. To be sure, it’s not a distinctive menu, but they make them with flare and the attitude reflective of the atmosphere they want to cultivate. We’ve been back at least four times, and we’ve never been disappointed.
“If this place was in downtown Dumaguete,” I told Renz, “I’d be a regular customer.”
“But I think that’s what makes this place special,” Renz said. “Out here in Banilad, it’s tuluyo-on, and that’s the appeal.”
He’s always right.
The hawker-style Hainanese chicken, kimchi rice, and seared fish in garlic oil at Smokingkong.
And then there’s our favorite of them all: Smokingkong, an alfresco grill house along Larena Drive, just past Bongo Junction going into Motong, and coming a few meters before Calvary Chapel—necessary directions because it has no lighted signage to mark the spot. But Smokingkong is beyond awesome: it has food so good—and so well plated and presented—they actually shame many local restaurants that have fine dining as their reason for being. The name, which recalls the famous cinematic giant ape with a dash of cigar-chomping signifier, is a bit unfortunate because it does sound like a dining place of comical significance.
On the contrary.
I find their menu eclectic and adventurous and deliciously made that I’m often moved to surprise in the dining. They have regular fares like the sizzling stuffed squid and the seafood pasta and the fish tinola and the grilled porkchop and the beef salpicao and the creamy garlic chicken—but they swing with the unexpected like the Hungarian beef goulash and the chicken biryani and the Vietnamese chicken and the satay and the hawker-style Hainanese chicken and the kimchi rice. (The Hainanese chicken! Which comes with clear soup so fresh, it’s amazing.) The honey crisp salad, with their apples, sunflower seeds, and ponkan over lettuce, is divine. They have an item that humbly presents itself as “the worst sisig”—but which is one of the best sisig in town, if you ask me. And for drinks? Not your usual at all. Four choices of mojitos. And blended specials that include coconut or strawberry cantaloupe shake, Thai iced coffee (my favorite), and Vietnamese egg coffee. The eclecticism is a delight—and they come in prices that are shockingly low for all the gustatory care that goes into their making.
Renz introduced me to Smokingkong last December after I recovered from COVID, a month after it opened in November. Reclaiming my taste buds and my post-quarantine sanity in Smokingkong proved a godsend, and I’ve been a fan since.
When Renz asks me these days, “Where do you want to have dinner?” he knows that half the time, I’ll answer back: “Take me to Smokingkong.”
Smokingkong. Ton Up Moto Café. Beth’s Kitchen. They’re lesser known to many Dumagueteños and they’re out of the way. But try them out and you’d be glad you have.
9:13 AM |
Anthony Bourdain, Other People, and Coping with Mental Health
The funniest and most disturbing thing I’ve ever heard about people commenting on my mental health struggles shows a lack of knowledge, understanding, and empathy: “How can Ian be depressed? He’s always writing and posting on Facebook.” [Sigh.] We all have weird coping mechanisms. Anthony Bourdain struggled with his mental health for years—but he was also doing three TV shows for three different networks, was writing books, was dining with people like Obama, was becoming famous. In 2016 in Buenos Aires, he held an on-camera therapy session and confessed: “I will find myself in an airport, for instance, and I’ll order an airport hamburger. It’s an insignificant thing, it’s a small thing, it’s a hamburger, but it’s not a good one. Suddenly, I look at the hamburger and I find myself in a spiral of depression that can last for days.”
He died of suicide in 2018.
Read Helen Rosner’s beautiful profile on Bourdain at the New Yorkerhere.
I’ve been a Cassandra shouting myself hoarse since forever about the complacency we in Dumaguete have been exhibiting regarding pandemic protocols. Daghan buluyagon. I’ve turned down parties and weddings and big events, I don’t attend openings if possible (opting to go the next day), I’ve tried to avoid restaurants with too many people (and have reported those who are lax)—but almost to no avail. So now we're currently the top city in community spread. Amping na lang.
On Grindr, a friend of mine—who will not be named—goes on a hunt. He takes on an avatar for this. On the pick-up app, he’s “David Ezra,” the theatre actor and singer and son of Dulce, complete with a few other candid snapshots of the man ready to send when a prospect asks for more pictures to seal the deal.
“It cushions the blows of rejection,” he tells me. “Before, without the avatar, they rejected me. Now it’s the avatar they reject—but me they accept, if they accept. I call it reverse catfishing.”
And then, after a while, he admits: “David Ezra gives me courage.”
He has been on Grindr with a passion equal to an obsession since February 2021, prodded by a mix of midlife crisis and pandemic anxieties—which snowballed to a kind of marathon of sexual conquests without inhibition, that even he has come to terms with it by philosophizing his need.
By June 6th, he tells me he’s on conquest #261, in a kind of race to accumulate numbers, of which he only has some vague reasons (“midlife crisis and pandemic anxieties”) for reaching. But the accumulation has become a personal goal. “I want to make it to 1,000 by December,” he says. “At the rate I’m going, it’s kaya ra.”
When he tells me this, I am not shocked—but I ask for elaboration. The fact that he is readily giving me his story means he is in need for someone to talk to, perhaps to even clarify for himself why it is something he has to do.
He tells me he has just gotten over his ex-boyfriend, the one he shared years of togetherness before they broke up almost a decade ago when the ex-boyfriend asked for firmer commitment and my friend was not ready to settle for a fully domesticated life regardless of love. They continued living together for sometime, until the ex-boyfriend moved abroad, and met another man—sending my friend to a tailspin of recriminations and regrets, and pushing him to midlife worries that did not seem to dissipate with the years.
But now he tells me he has gone past that.
And also this: “I realized I never whored around my entire life—all 42 years of it. Then on [my adopted son’s] birthday, I had sex with a guy who reminded me of me. Like me, he was young, Chinese, and closeted. And then I decided to get a haircut, after a year of not having one. Then, boom, something clicked. I looked at myself in the mirror, and said, ‘Hey, I’m actually cute. Actually gwapo. And a daddy. And Tsinoy. What stopped me before was all my restrictive social and intellectual filters. I decided right then and there to throw precautions away. I went to have sex. That’s my answer now to things. Damn the pandemic and midlife crisis: just go have sex.”
After Grindr, when the connection is made, he picks them up in his car. “Having a car is having power,” he tells me. The encounter is mostly what he calls “car fun.” Sometimes they go to a hotel. Often he takes them to a friend’s condominium, which is just right near his neighborhood. The friend is a former lover but now based somewhere else in the Philippines. He has given my friend the key to his apartment—and now it serves as a rendezvous for his Grindr pick-ups. But he likes doing the deed in his car. He takes them to different places—beside churches, on side streets, on mall parking lots, even on busy streets, and at different times, too, but mostly early morning or night. Most of the time, he uses a car that’s super-tinted. But he likes using another car that’s only medium-tinted car. “The medium tint is fun and dangerous,” he confesses, “because people can see.”
There are no real names exchanged in these encounters. When asked, he gives them an alias: he’s “Michael Tan,” whose mother is from Taiwan. (Sometimes, when he likes the guy, he does tell them his real name.)
“Are you happy with these encounters?” I ask him.
“Oh, yes,” he answers. “Very much so. I can tell you the stories. Grabe. I like listening to them. I like finding out what they do, where they’re from. I like listening to their love stories.”
There is this local singer he had crushed on for so long, but never had the courage to ask out on a date. “My avatar, David Ezra, made it possible,” he says. “When I finally unmasked myself, he knew who I was, of course. When I kissed him, it felt like one of those moments straight from YA novels.” The encounter, he tells me, was one for the books—they parked beside a church, and when they almost got caught, opted to go to a hotel. “It felt like young and careless sex, or love,” he says. “Wild abandon.”
Then there’s the muscled twink, a model. “One of the best bodies I’ve had partnered with. Iron abs,” he tells me. “He taught me about ‘vibe,’ that it’s not really how you looked—not a matter of being gwapo or panget—but all about your vibe. That was what he was looking for when he asked for photos over Grindr. I sent him three David Ezra photos. After we had sex, I dropped him at his mother’s place. And then he messaged me, that he had fun but was wondering why I didn’t send him my real pictures. He would have had sex with me anyway, because we vibed. I said my apologies and changed the topic.”
Then there’s the triathlete whose real name my friend does not want to know. He calls him “Runtime Error” instead. “He’s very memorable because he’s very gentle, very real—and we have the most intimate sex. He’s probably the person I’ve had sex with the most these days. Usually it’s just once or twice with most people—but this one made it past three. I don’t know his name. And he doesn’t bring a wallet so I can’t peek into it and get the name. And he doesn’t ask me as well. But I do know some details. Like I know he has a girlfriend in Manila, and that he wants to marry—but he is going to tell her that he’s bisexual before he proposes.”
There are so many others. He has a litany of names. “This one is the most beautiful of them all. This one is a staffer of a friend who blocked me on Facebook. This one is an events host and pageant boy. So many stories,” he says. There’s the banker who lives in a posh subdivision. There’s the guy who loves to sing Hamilton and who lives in Danao. There’s the guy who helped push his car when it ran out of gas. There’s the valedictorian from Negros who works for a car company. There’s the freediver. So many stories indeed.
“I like it when they are intelligent,” he tells me. “I don’t have to dumb down my language. I can be as verbose as I am with you.”
Are the boys different because of the pandemic?
“I don’t know,” he answers. “A lot of them are like me, emerging from hibernation. A lot of them haven’t had sex in a long time.”
I ask him why he thinks this sexual marathon is pandemic-related.
“Of course it’s the pandemic. It’s YOLO. You only live once,” he says. “I’ve never felt more YOLO in my life than now. And accepting of fate and magic.”
He is not that deathly afraid anymore of contracting COVID-19 from all these encounters—although aside from sex he is still very paranoid, demanding face masks, social distancing, and open-air spaces only. “I make an exception only for sex,” he says. “I’m not worried because we take lianhua in my family like vitamins. It’s traditional Chinese medicine for respiratory ails, worth about 200 pesos a box. We take it onset pa lang of any symptoms—cough, fever, chest pains, others.”
Any regrets so far?
“That maybe I may have overexposed myself—especially those who have recognized or may recognize me in the future. And that I’m not Michael Tan. Syaro wala’y mo-cross paths nako ani in the future. I wonder how I would handle myself when that happens. It will be awkward.”
I wish him well, “as long as you know what you’re doing,” I tell him.
“No, I don’t actually,” he says. “And that’s fine. YOLO, after all.” Then he quotes a line from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George: “There are only two worthwhile things to leave behind when you depart this world of ours: children and art.”
“You have your books,” he tells me. “I have my son. That’s all that matters.”
It’s a profound take on his rush to have all these encounters, all in the name of YOLO, all in the name of banishing away the fears of contagion in pandemic times.
* * *
What is the craziest thing you’ve done in the name of YOLO—“you only live once”—in the time of the pandemic?
The rush to risky behavior in (or after) stressful time is, in many ways, to be expected. Think of the Roaring 20s when the world burst into excess and the pursuit of hedonistic pleasures right after the Spanish flu and World War I ravaged the world. Today, many people are not even waiting for the end of the COVID-19 pandemic to pursue the crazy and the wild without filter. More than a year into the longest lockdown in the world, many people are too ready to party away their worries—with or without repercussions. On June 6, someone posted on social media a video of young people partying, sans masks and sans social distancing, in a Cebu bar. The backlash was intense, and the very next day, the Department of Health banned partying all over the country.
But YOLO is not just about partying. YOLO is doing something unique in your arsenal of experiences because tomorrow is not assured—and the riskier the experience, the better the high. Although for many others, YOLO is also as simple as gorging themselves on food, heedless of long-held diets, and gaining several pounds in the process. For others, it is becoming and pursuing something else entirely outside their old comfort zones.
My friend is hardly alone.
Other friends have confessed similar preoccupations, again in the name of YOLO in the pandemic.
A female friend, based in Thailand, tells me that a few days before the World Health Organization declared the pandemic, she met up with someone at Payathai Skytrain Station adjacent to the Airport Link in Bangkok. “Among people wearing masks, coming and leaving, we stood in the middle of the walkway, took off our masks, and hugged. [He was] a former student, British, ten years my junior, [and my relationship with him] had reached ‘sexting,’ not just flirting during the pandemic—actually, until now. In real life, when he was still in Bangkok, we met occasionally, over friendly lunch or coffee. But our online conversations were different.”
“It was spontaneous,” she continues. “He has been flirting with me via Messenger, and later WhatsApp. But during the pandemic, when he was back in the UK, it reached another level, we were ‘sexting’ almost every day... In one of our conversations, he [messaged me]: ‘I should have been more persistent.’ We were thinking that one day all of us would be wiped out. We promised to survive, to meet again, to have coffee, and to f--k. We both used the word. It was liberating. This was the first time that I engaged in this kind of online relationship. I’m married but sometimes a person needs to have some space and adventure. It helped me deal with the stress of the pandemic. We were both ‘satisfied’ with our sexting, [and] he would send me voice messages telling me how it helped him cope. But of course, it’s not only sexting, we talk about many things. We call each other at least twice a week.”
“No regrets,” she says. “Why would I? I think it helped me also to be a better lover to my husband. But, you know what, [the guy] doesn’t even know that I’m married and have three grown-up kids. He’s single and 36 years old. I don’t know if we will ever meet again. But when the pandemic ends, and he comes to visit, I will surely meet him for coffee; nothing else.”
Later, she adds: “Why is YOLO mostly sexual in nature? Is it because we are looking for a connection? Is it because we are sexual beings? Or because sex is essential, like food?”
There’s another friend, a doctor in Dumaguete, who has a paid go-to guy for her sexual needs and pleasures on a weekly basis. “I see him at my clinic, but when the ECQ closed our clinic back in April 2020, I had to sneak this guy on a weekly basis into our house in a family compound with a 24-hour, 8-camera recorded CCTV spanning the whole place.”
Once, immediately after seeing a COVID patient at the COVID ward in a private Dumaguete hospital, she took a shower, scrubbed down her body twice, gargled Betadine, threw her scrubs in a garbage bag, and prepped herself to meet up with her go-to guy at their usual loft inside her currently closed clinic. “I drove straight from hospital to clinic. And it did the trick! Snap! Drove home [afterwards] with half of the stress off my body.” But everything had to be planned, and nothing was spontaneous about it—“because considering my status in the community, being discrete is up there in the priority list,” she says.
She chalks it all up to the pandemic. “Heightened sexual desire and drive have always been my strong stress indicators,” she tells me, “and all this ‘creativity and risk taking’ behavior was heightened at the peak of COVID-19 in Dumaguete. YOLO! I must get laid or else!” And no regrets, absolutely—she intends to have the encounter again, or find ways to eventually have her much need time with her go-to guy. “It’s a no-strings-attached, transaction-based arrangement, nothing close to a romantic relationship.”
* * *
But pandemic YOLO does not always have to mean going on sexual thrills. It can mean willfully getting lost in a foreign place to stumble on new experiences. An artist friend did just that. “It was supposed to be an easy morning to think of nothing but just ride along the Yangon Circular Railway [in Myanmar] to observe the locality from the rail,” he tells me. “But when I struck a conversation with a baby boomer traveler from Norway who mentioned about the travel ban from Hong Kong to Manila, all I could think of was how to leave Yangon without passing through Hong Kong and avoid quarantine in Manila. So I decided to cancel my return flight via HK and willingly got stranded in Yangon for ten days—which allowed me to join a performance art event, and I painted murals with people in a village, and I visited more temples and art galleries. I departed Yangon for a flight via Kuala Lumpur to Manila and Bacolod.”
He reflects on what happened since then: “One year of the pandemic and the world is still grappling for a new normal, while Myanmar is under Martial Law. It was a spontaneous decision decided by the situation and intuition—with a certain degree of trust that the Universe will conspire and guide me through the next steps.”
“I was caught in the first wave of the pandemic in late January to early February,” he continues. “I remember a vlogger in the airplane asking people if COVID-19 is real. I think it was when the collective consciousness started living in the terms of the pandemic. It made me feel ‘secure’ during that time to avoid the hotspot of the pandemic, and the notion of getting stranded was partly exciting my adventurous spirit, while part of my consciousness was thinking of strategies to return safely home. I was happy to do creative works with creative friends in Yangon, and some of them have gone underground during this time of Martial Law in their country. So I have no regrets. I know that experience becomes a teaching tool.”
YOLO can also mean making the fateful decision of leaving everything that you know behind, and starting over somewhere else.
Another friend did just that—leave Manila altogether in lockdown, and live in Dumaguete. “I had to cancel my flight to Siargao with [my girlfriend] when the Philippines went into lockdown in March 2020. We assumed that we could simply rebook the flight and travel in a month or two. Then, four months later, I was still stuck in Manila, while [she] was stuck in Dumaguete,” he tells me. “We hadn’t seen each other in half a year, which is the longest we’ve ever gone without seeing each other. The pandemic reminded me of how short life is, and I told myself that I needed to start living the life I’d always wanted.”
So he purchased a one-way airfare to Dumaguete and resolved to make the most of what he calls “this beautiful existence by waking up next to [my girlfriend] every morning.” It was not without difficulty. He needed to meet many requirements in order to travel, to acquire authorization to enter Dumaguete. “I had to pretend I was an LSI (a Local Stranded Individual),” he admits. Eventually, he got to fly at the end of August after numerous attempts and cancelled flights.
“It was a spontaneous decision because at first I just really wanted to travel with [my girlfriend] to Siargao,” he says. “But then it all changed and I dropped everything to start living life with [her] in Dumaguete. I’ve always wanted to live in Dumaguete, but it wasn’t a plan in the near future. But, the pandemic made me realize how precious life is and that I only have one chance to live life to the fullest.”
The decision was spontaneous—but he considers it by far one of the best decisions he’s ever made. “I like to live life taking risks and be spontaneous,” he says, “so deciding to drop everything and move to Dumaguete made me extremely happy. Life here is simple and laid back, which is completely different from the life I had in the big city. But, now I wake up feeling extremely blessed because this is the life I’ve always prayed for. The only downside of moving here is being far from my family. I’ve always been close to my parents and brothers, so being far from them and not seeing them is kind of a downer.”
YOLO is risk. YOLO is a high. And in the pandemic, for many people, it is the one thing that keeps them alive.
[Note: Some details have been changed to protect the sources’ identities.]
One of the last photos of Dumaguete Vice Mayor Alan Cordova has him in Tanjay for a bike-a-thon. The latest issue of MetroPost is full of obituaries and think pieces about him and our loss, which is really telling how he was received by the Dumaguete community: a maverick who looked down at the casual corruption and ineptitude of some people in public offices. (One or two of those people also posted obits in the paper to honor him, which is ironic.)
Again in the interest of being vocal about my mental health journey. It’s not the new concentration I like best about this treatment I’m getting for my ADHD. It’s the new feeling of doing or embarking on something without the usual looming shadows of apprehension that paralyzed me the past few years. I’m corresponding with people now without the high anxiety long attached to doing that, for example. That’s a very good turn-around for me. But I’m also protective of my space, and culling what needs culling from my life. There’s clarity to things that matter. There are other things I’ve noticed that I’m thankful for, but I don’t want this post to be too long. I know I’m going to triumph over this. Note to others going through the same thing: seek professional help even if others [especially family!] dissuade you from doing so because of the cultural stigma attached to mental health management. You’ll be better off for it.
The last things we ate—or drank, if we have to be precise—before the world came to an end on the night of 12 March 2020 were blended drinks from a milk tea shop beside a gasoline station along EJ Blanco Drive. We always wanted to try it out when it opened—and now there was a strange urgency to do just that. The shop was called Chachago, and it was new and had barely opened, so it must have been a nightmare to the proprietor to know that almost overnight, Dumaguete was going into a lockdown—and everything would be forced to a close. Life as we knew it was about to grind down to a halt—but first, we had to have our Chachago specials.
I ordered an Oreo chocolate iced frappe and Renz ordered the lychee green tea. He wanted something else with pearls—he was a big milk tea drinker—but the shop was running out of supplies, including those beloved pearls, because the shipment they were expecting was suddenly held up by the abrupt changes in the world.
Chachago was also getting ready to close down for the lockdown. The chairs and tables in the milk tea shop were already stacked to one side of the place, looking forlorn in the anticipation of no dine-ins. We had no other choice but to line up in socially-distanced queue, to order out, and later, outside in the wide concrete space of the gasoline station, look up to the stars and wonder what was in store for all of us in the next few weeks.
“Do we like the drinks?” I asked Renz.
“I’m okay with mine. What about you?”
In fact it was a little too sweet for my taste, even though I had placed an order at 50% sugar. But I was not about to ruin my last Oreo chocolate iced frappe before the world ended.
“Look at the stars,” Renz said.
We liked looking at the stars. In the first months of our relationship, seven years ago, we made it a point to check in at a downtown boutique hotel which had a rooftop you could laze in, and we spent an early evening consulting my star map on my old iPad and trying to identify the constellations overhead. Renz was also into astrology—he knew all the predictive tricks for all the star signs, just for the fun of it, but was actually a disbeliever—and so he began to identify this star and that, and began to talk about the star season we were in. This time around, under the sign of the Pisces, he did not offer anything except only a directive to look at the night skies.
The stars blinked, sometimes hidden by clouds. They told me nothing.
It felt very much like a normal evening—and yet we knew there was something else gurgling in the din: an anticipation, a nervousness, an uncertainty. We stayed away from the people milling about as we drank our Chachago drinks, as we adjusted the new facemasks we were wearing.
“Did we forget anything from grocery shopping?”
Earlier that day, a Sunday, we had joined the rest of Dumaguete in the rush to buy groceries and household supplies at Lee Super Plaza. Only a few days ago, on March 12, the World Health Organization—after much unforgivable dilly-dallying, finally declared COVID-19 as a pandemic. (I wrote in my journal: “God bless us all”—because how else to greet that news?) By March 13, following Negros Oriental Provincial Governor Roel Degamo’s announcement of suspensions of much of our everyday lives and responsibilities, my university also canceled classes until the 17th. Now, everything felt like both a slowness and a rush.
I looked at Renz, and tried to remember what I had bought at Lee:
10 cans of assorted sardines
3 bottles of Spanish sardines
5 cans of beefloaf
10 cans of corned beef
3 cans of Vienna sausage
3 packs of bread
Lady’s Choice chicken spread
Assorted drinks—including several bottles of Coke and Sprite
This is the grocery list of a confirmed bachelor who can’t cook. (Or in my defense: a bachelor who has no functioning kitchen in his small apartment to cook in.)
At least Renz shared a big house with his mother somewhere in Taclobo, and he had a good kitchen—and he could cook. He’d been cooking meals for himself and his mother since college. The last time I cooked, it was years and years ago, and I had made pasta for a boy I liked during one Christmas noche buena. And while the pasta was good, the boy did not fancy me.
“I think I have enough food for two weeks. This whole thing should blow over soon,” I said. “Plus, didn’t they promise us passes for shopping and seeking medical help?”
“Yes, they did.”
“I’m good then.”
I could live on these grocery goods for the rest of my days. And I already checked: Chop’d, the high-end karinderia in my neighborhood in Tubod, would still be open during the pandemic to take in take-out orders, so that would be the source of my rice for all my meals. And if I felt adventurous enough to go beyond my supplies of sardines, etc., I could always buy what they offered for viands. But they closed on Sundays. (I could eat bread on Sundays, I thought.)
We finished our drinks and got into Renz’s car. It was nearing the newly imposed curfew at 10 PM. We were going home and locking our doors to await the end of the world. We would not be seeing each other for a while, we knew that. For how long? Two weeks? Three? A month? Two months? We had no idea. So our Oreo chocolate iced frappe and lychee green tea would be our last communion before we’d say, “See you.” (Not “Goodbye”—we didn’t like the sound of finality in that word.)
“Did you like your Oreo chocolate iced frappe?” Renz asked.
“I did,” I said. “Did you like your lychee green tea?”
We drove off as the city darkened down, the strange silence bearing down on us like an alien hug.
* * *
That first Monday of Dumaguete in ECQ, March 16, felt like a dawn of a very quiet apocalypse. I woke up early, strangely enough, because the silence of the day had gravity and pulse—no one and nothing stirred. I made myself a cup of coffee.
I booted up my laptop, and got immersed in the thousand voices of people in social media waking up to a world that had ended. There were posts of concerns, posts of indignations, posts of COVID-19 panic and news. On Facebook, I posted: “I think we just realized the folly of our previous status quo: we have more malls than hospitals, and we graduate so many health professionals ... in the service of other countries. Extraordinary times test our strengths and magnify our weaknesses, and highlight our capacity for becoming heroes and monsters.”
That felt righteous enough and made me happy.
I bought my rice from Chop’d—sizable enough for both lunch and dinner—and opened my first bottle of Montaño Spanish sardines. I relished at the small feast.
“Yum,” I moaned with pleasure when the spicy taste of the sardines hit my tongue.
* * *
On March 17, I found out Tom Hanks, his wife Rita Wilson, and Idris Elba just got COVID-19.
I felt a small ball of panic in my chest. “Oh, dear God. If these people could get it—anybody could get it.”
I still had three fries of Montaño Spanish sardines left, but had two more bottles to go. I decided I needed to pace myself, or else I’d quickly run out of stock in my little pantry. (I would not even call it a “pantry.” Pantry sounds like serious stocking of foodstuff, all arranged in nicely appointed cabinets in the kitchen. I had two square holes on the wall, 1 x 1 x 1 foot in dimension, somewhere near my sink where I stored what little I had.) I didn’t want to go on an unnecessary grocery run—plus I had no neighborhood pass yet. (We now have a cute name for it: a Q-pass, meaning “quarantine pass.”) I didn’t want to go out, whether I was hungry or not. Because if Tom Hanks could get COVID-19, so could I.
* * *
On March 23, I posted on Facebook: “Because my pad barely has a working kitchen, my daily sustenance comes via Chop’d in Tubod. I’d be the equivalent of the ravenous people in Level 200 in The Platform if it weren’t for them. Tonight I got lucky to have the last of their available fare for the day. I dread the day they will be forced to close.”
A colleague commented: “Food Panda.”
I replied: “I can’t.”
Truth to tell, my iPhone was too ancient and could not download the app.
I’ve been cooking in my dorm room,” my colleague said. “But from time to time, I order from Food Panda.”
I imagined his small dorm room in campus. ”You can cook in your room?” I responded.
“I have an induction stove,” he replied, and posted a photo of the meal he was cooking.
“Taymsa, palaway man ni!” I replied.
He gave me a laugh emoji.
Xandro, a dentist and one of my closest friends, also responded: “Let’s go grocery shopping!”
“I have groceries. But I’m saving them for real emergencies.”
“When is your next food foraging run?”
* * *
I was becoming paranoid of the outdoors. I was convinced I was becoming a hikikomori, one of those Japanese shut-ins who have foresworn the outside world for the gritty comforts of lives lived exclusively indoors. Nearing the end of March, my food stock was quicky dwindling—although not exactly: I had began to despair over having to eat the same increasingly bland canned food I’d been eating for days. The Spanish sardines were long gone. I loved the corned beef, but after six cans I never wanted to eat corned beef again. The rest of the other sardines proved ultimately revolting. And who invented beef loaf? Beef loaf is the spawn of culinary hell—a chunky meat-ish thing that smelled and tasted like anathema.
“Be thankful you have food,” Renz messaged me. “There are people out there who are getting hungry because they can’t work and they can’t buy food.”
Of course he’s right. He’s always right.
“Let’s go for a grocery run,” he said. “Maybe you can find alternatives to what you’ve been eating.”
“But I don’t have a Q-pass yet.”
“Let’s try anyway.”
I soon heard him honking his car horn outside my apartment—the sound reverberating in the quiet neighborhood, although it was no longer that quiet, not compared to the first few days of lockdown. People were starting to go out, tentatively at most—but they were out in the streets, if subdued and careful. I saw children going about flying kites. Flying kites! I thought then. What a strange thing to witness in a pandemic.
It was the first time I’d see Renz face to face in weeks—although we exchanged missives every single day over Facebook Messenger, our lifeline to human connection. We drove to Lee Super Plaza, opting to park inside its cavernous parking facility—that way we’d avoid the queue of people waiting at the main entrances. The lines we saw were long, and yet also very quiet. It felt very much like in the movies, the quietude of crowds in the face of apocalypse.
The security guard at the parking area entrance checked our bags, checked our facemasks, whipped out his thermometer gun—“36.6°” for Renz, “36.8°” for me—and asked us to log in with our contact details. “For contact tracing,” he said.
This was new.
Inside the grocery store, we saw many face-masked people shopping about in a kind of put-on nonchalance, moving in ways that suggested normalcy but betrayed by a slight nervousness as others invaded their personal spaces. You could see the tiny panic in their eyes. (All there was were eyes, to be honest. No faces, just eyes. In the beginning, it was all so disconcerting.) I felt instantly protective of my personal space as well. When someone got too near, I said with elevated gruffness in my voice: “Excuuuse me.” I glared at them when I needed to. Everyone was on tiptoes.
I bought more Spanish sardines.
And chicken sandwich spread.
Tons of drinks.
“Let’s go check out if Chicco’s Deli is open later. I’d like to buy some salami,” I told Renz.
“Salami is good.”
Salami is not corned beef, at least.
Later, back in the comforts of my bed, I felt an odd kind of relief. I realized this was where I felt most safe right now, in bed, in my own apartment. Having to go out for a grocery run felt like an ordeal.
But at least I got to see Renz—although we did make a deal that our level of intimacy will have to be on Pushing Daisies mode for the meantime.
* * *
I was still waiting for someone from the barangay (my neighborhood belongs to Lo-oc) to come and give me my quarantine pass. I’d done all I could for now to obtain one. I’d even posted a note outside my gate—which I found out later was posted upside-down. And I’d gone to the barangay hall to list down my name and phone number on their register. That was it, that was all I could do.
There would be no more grocery runs without a Q-pass.
And people were panicking online, throwing conspiracy theories and ugly accusations and what-not because Q-passes were still not forthcoming from the local government—or at least not yet widely distributed.
“Why do we need to share one Q-pass with families in the same neighborbood?”
“I live in a boarding house. Who gets the Q-pass?”
“I heard they’re selling Q-passes. Why?”
But I got the sense of the panic eventually. What was really happening was not a crisis of lack of Q-passes, but more a gap in communication. (Which always happens. How many times have I posted about events with complete information, with people still DMing, “What time? Pila ang ticket?”) I got that everyone thought you needed a Q-pass even if you were just going to stand on the sidewalk outside your house. That was what I thought as well—and that was why people panicked. But you didn’t have to have a Q-pass for that. You could still go out to buy things from your nearest sari-sari store or karinderia. But you needed a Q-pass if you wanted to go to Lee Plaza, for example, or any place out of your immediate neighborhood or barangay.
Also another source of panic: we never really took note of the barangay as an important component in our lives. Until now. And so we had no idea how to engage. Some of us didn’t even know where our barangay halls were, until only three days ago.
I wished people stayed calm, and stayed at home. If we really wanted it, kaya ni nato.
* * *
But now I was also seeing food stalls sprouting everywhere.
There were small tianggues in surprising spots around many neighborhoods that sold fish and pork and vegetables and fruits. All of them offshoots from the public market downtown, which had become a challenge to enter and navigate. What they sold were tempting to have, but alas I didn’t cook—so they were useless to me.
I saw a stand at the corner of Hibbard Avenue and EJ Blanco Drive selling puto maya and tsokolate for breakfast. When I asked the woman selling them where she came from, I learned that she had a stall at the painitan at the public market—“But doing business there has become so hard,” she said. “I live in this neighborhood anyway, and it’s easier to sell my puto maya and tsokolate here.”
And then there were the pop-ups! There were coffee pop-ups at the Rizal Boulevard, for the early morning joggers. And the tocino pop-ups. And the liempo and lechon manok pop-ups. People were also beginning to barter things for food and what-not. I saw one post on a Facebook barter group trying to exchange lawn grass for two sacks of rice.
What did I have in my apartment to exchange for food?
I had a library full of books.
Would that be enough for two sacks of rice?
If this was a real, honest-to-goodness war, like what my parents went through in World War II, I’d be dead from hunger but I’d be well-read.
* * *
The ensuing days became the hardest on my psyche so far. My insomnia came back in full force, although my depression had not (yet) returned. In the meantime, I’d stubbed my pinky toe twice and I began missing food. Real food.
On March 26, I began compiling and sharing on Facebook posts of local restaurants doing take-outs and deliveries. “Where to Order Food During the ECQ in Dumaguete,” I titled my working album. I listed down the phone numbers and the email addresses, together with the establishments’ preferences for take-out or pickup (sometimes curbside pickup) or delivery. Suddenly there were small nuances between those three options.
I shared them all on social media—and Dumaguete made my posts viral. Here was my list [with belated annotations about how they eventually fared].
3 Little Pigs
Alima Café [gone]
Ana Maria Bakeshop
Lechon Manok ni Sr. Pedro
Angkol’s Lechon Manok [recently reopened]
Bakugo Ramen [gone]
Boho Dreams Grill and Cafe
Cafe Filomena of Bethel Guest House
Cafe Laguna [still closed]
Caña of The Bricks Hotel
Charlene and Sweetness [gone]
Ehem’s Ta Bai [gone]
Falling Coconuts [gone]
Flamin’ Grill [transferred ownership]
Gabby’s Bistro [recently reopened]
Garahe Grillz [gone]
The Green Chef
Harbor City Dimsum House [closed]
Hayahay and Lab-as
Hukad sa Golden Cowrie
Jo’s Chicken Inato
Kape Lucio [closed]
La Chocolatine Artisanal Bakery
Lipay Mundo Co.
Lord Byron’s Backribs [gone]
Mamita’s Diner [gone]
Manang Siony’s Original Tocino
McNeloy’s and Chantilly Cakehaus
Mifune Japanese Restaurant
Mooon Café [opened a new branch]
The Naked Brew
Negrense Microbrewery and Food Lab
Negros Lechon Manok
One Bethany Place
Pasta King [transferred to a new location]
Poppy Coffee and Cupcakes [closed and transferred to a new location]
Redhouse Restaurant Taiwan
Rice Box Station to Go
The Rollin’ Pin
Roti Boss Curry House [one branch gone]
Royal Suite Inn
Salt and Pepper
Scooby’s and The Bean Connection [recently reopened]
Sebastian Study Hub Cafe
Si, Senor! [recently reopened]
Soban Korean Restaurant
Sta. Teresa Restaurant
Soo Wan Asian Fusion Bistro
The Tiny Chef
Tom n Toms Coffee
I shared the list to help out people exactly like me—people who could not cook and people who could not do the Food Panda app but had access to phones anyway. The response was ecstatic—my Messenger inbox was full of “Thank you’s,” and it felt like a mission fulfilled.
In lockdown, food became alternative entertainment. “What will I eat today?” became an abiding decision to make every single lockdown day.
(In hindsight, many of the restaurants and cafes above never made it in the rolling months of the pandemic. Many would close down, some for good. Some closed down at the very start of lockdown and never attempted to do take-out or delivery, and had never reopened. The lockdown was changing the food landscape of Dumaguete forever. There was a certain sadness to that. By April 3, Finbar announced on their Facebook page: “And that’s it! We have run out of stocks, our staff can’t get to work, and so we are finally admitting defeat. We still have lots of ready meals and bread, and will post a schedule of when someone will be at Finbar for you to be able to collect these to restock your supplies [once or twice a week]. Thank you so much for your continued support through these times and the lovely messages of support and encouragement. Fear not, we will be back as soon as we can. But for now, stay home and stay safe.”)
But this was also how I discovered three things:  the online ordering website of Jollibee was topnotch,  the Chowking downtown was within easy reach with just a text message, and  the menu at Neva’s tasted like good enough home-cooking, their delivery was fast, and they provided you with suki cards that gave you points towards freebies from their menu. They became my escape from the tyranny of canned food, and my alternative to Chop’d.
I was ordering from all three in rotation for the next three months. Soon their delivery boys knew my address and my face—and didn’t have to inquire anymore over text for landmarks in their delivery rounds. From Jollibee, I had my usual burger steak, something I always loved even before the pandemic. When I got tired of that, I went for the spaghetti and the chickenjoy and the palabok when it was available and sometimes the pancakes when I woke up early enough for breakfast. From Chowking, I timed my orders early enough to get their King’s Special for breakfast, and when I couldn’t, I’d go for their Chinese-style fried chicken or their sweet ‘n sour fish, and always with a side order of wonton soup and buchi.
But there was soon something remarkably off-putting about fast-food when you ate them day in and day out. They soon tasted of “corporate cuisine” incarnated, a certain soullessness which told you this was assembly line cooking, not real food. Soon I had to stop my Jollibee and Chowking streak, my third month into the lockdown. It had become unbearable.
That left Neva’s.
Neva’s never failed me. I rotated between their assortment of pasta and salad and Vietnamese phở and banh mi and soup (always seafood chowder) and vegetarian dishes and their Tuscan series (either the chicken or the porkchop) and their fish a la pobre and their fried chicken wings and their fish in banana leaves and their roast beef and their herbed pork chop and their liempo, and so much more.
I still order from Neva’s now and then.
Now, when friends would invite me to dine out in Neva’s, I’d say no. “That’s my regular food,” I’d tell them. “Take me somewhere else.”
* * *
When you’re hungry in challenging times, you find out soon enough how best to feed yourself given your specific difficulties.
I had my phone—that was good access enough to getting food.
I’d text my order, and 20 minutes later, I’d have my food delivered at my door, hot and ready to eat.
In the pandemic, “take-out” and “delivery” were words that defined best Dumaguete food.
And then I thought of the people who had no Food Panda, and no means to contact restaurants for take-out or delivery, and no work to afford their mealtime necessities from all these pop-ups. How were they faring? I never went fully hungry in pandemic time—but that was a privilege I knew I had and could never be thankful enough for having.
For that alone, I’d never complain about having to eat corned beef ever again.