With more than 7,100 islands (depending on the tide), the Philippines is the kind of place where it's easy for outsiders to assume that isolation comes naturally. Over the course of the pandemic, its capital, Manila, along with a handful of provinces, have been subject to one of the world's longest and strictest lockdowns - measures which have left many stranded on nearby islands.
As the northern hemisphere gears up for a cold and isolated winter, we chat to three creatives who have spent the last six or so months locked down, surrounded by white-sand beaches and the rhythmic crashing of waves. They share with us the highs and lows of being locked down in a proverbial paradise, and reveal if it really is as good as it sounds on paper.
Summer Puertollano, Surfer and Founder of Para Sa Diwà
Once a sleepy surfing enclave, Siargao has recently become a much-hyped destination among locals and visitors. Since lockdown began, multi-hyphenate Summer Puertollano - a surfer-cum-photographer-cum-creative - has spent 300 days on the island. "I got on the last plane available," she says. "There was no way I was getting stuck in the city."
A 300-day spell in Siargao may sound like a dream for most, but for Summer, it wasn't all piña coladas and perfect waves. "The worst part was that it was illegal to surf during those first few months. Those who rebelled were reprimanded by the coastguard and had their surfboards confiscated."
"I got to see the other side of paradise," she adds. "The reality of people living on basic daily wages and struggling to feed their families. That said, seeing that sad reality helped me create bonds with new people. I also started volunteering at the Siargao Community Kitchen."
What we see on social media about paradise is not always true. There are many issues that never make it online.Summer Puertollano
Summer recounts how some people on the island suffered from anxiety, boredom and money issues. "Everyone here has found ways to survive," she continues. "Being part of a community is essential. What we see on social media about paradise is not always true. There are many issues that never make it online."
Summer's extended stay in Siargao gave her the time to explore a number of creative pursuits. "I developed my baking skills and sold my creations at a local café. I also worked on my art, writing and photography and took on some projects that pushed me creatively. All of this while still making and developing products for my body-care brand, Para Sa Diwà."
In the meantime, Summer has collected some great local food recommendations, including Coco Frio for after-surf hydration, Siargao Curry Club (the garlic naan here is exceptional, she says) and Soyah Siargao for great taho, a sweet, Filipino comfort food of silken tofu, sago pearls and syrup.
"CEV, which is known for its kinilaw (a Filipino variation of ceviche), began serving sandwiches during lockdown, while Wabi Swabi and Kurvada Siargao are excellent for vegan fare," she adds. "Balai Uno serves homemade Filipino dishes that remind me of my grandmother's cooking and, on rainy island mornings, The Beachbaby Café is my spot of choice for a chai latte and a stack of pancakes."
Tarish Zamora, Photographer and Surfer
La Union, Luzon
At a glance, San Juan, La Union may just seem like one stretch of road embracing the gentle coastline of the Ilocos province. On closer inspection, however, reveals a tight-knit surfing community as well as much scope for exploration.
This community became food photographer and surfer Tarish Zamora's new home over the past seven months, her retreat from pandemic blues. "The best part for me was that I was near the ocean. Even if we weren't allowed to surf, I was in nature," Tarish says.
"I was staying in a house up in the mountains that had a great view of the sunset. That helped me breathe a lot. It was easier for me to calm my mind when the anxiety started to hit. The worst thing about it was that I couldn't see my family."
Still, island life came with its own sets of challenges. "To be honest, we also had our fair share of struggles in La Union," she says. "It wasn't easy to get supplies and we didn't really have any food delivery services on the island."
"We had to cook all of our meals at home and get different people to do our groceries as we couldn't access shops of the barangay [the local municipality]."
For Tarish, an stay in La Union proved that even the most familiar places can reveal something new if you know where to look. "Thai restaurant Sawadeeka and Sabong Fried Chicken kept me fed in lockdown, as did the smoothie bowls at Seabuds" she says. "Clean Beach and El Union satisfied my coffee cravings and proved excellent spots to chill out."
Despite the logistical challenges, Tarish wouldn't swap her island paradise for the city any time soon. "I would rather stay in La Union and be surrounded by nature than be locked down in the city any day."
Dane Gonzales, Social Media Consultant and Founder of Tala the Label and Paradis Swimwear
Boracay regularly tops the list for the world's best beaches, but for Dane Gonzales, founder and owner of ethical-fashion brands Tala the Label and Paradis Swimwear, it's the island she now calls home. When the Philippines went into lockdown, Dane jumped through countless bureaucratic hoops to get back to her little slice of paradise. "I was actually in Bali when the crisis hit and I was forced to travel back to the Philippines mid-pandemic," she recounts. "Just days before I left Bali, Manila went into total lockdown and I was stuck in Metro Manila quarantining for two weeks, before self-isolating in Boracay for 14 days."
"I think being locked down on an island is just a little healthier for the soul," Dane adds. "You can see the sun outside your window and the energy is lighter and brighter. Being stuck in Manila was awful because even on the hottest days, the sun doesn't seem to shine. You're surrounded by cold structures and grey buildings. As soon as I landed in Boracay, I felt better, even with the 14-day quarantine ahead."
being locked down on an island is just a little healthier for the soulDane Gonzales
A popular South-East Asian tourist spot, Boracay is often packed with visitors in summer months. Lockdown, however, has given the island a chance to pause, and allowed Dane to rekindle her love for local haunts. "My usual spot, just around the corner from my house, is Levantin Boracay, one of the few beach bars that has maintained that old Boracay vibe."
"My neighbour, Lazy Dog Boracay, has an amazing Filipino menu, while Nonies Boracay has a really creative vegan menu. Its owners recently opened Little Taj Boracay - order curry and paratha if you ever visit; I survived self-isolation on these. DiniBeach is awesome for music, food and drinks - especially on Sunday. Valhalla, a local favourite, also reopened its doors and Banana Bay Boracay on Bolabog Beach serves excellent fusion cuisine."
So, was being locked down in paradise all it's cracked up to be? According to Dane: "Being locked down sucks, but if you have to be, it may as well be in paradise!"