Bay Area Family Stranded on Tiny Philippine Island Since the Start of COVID
Guest post by Forrest Day
Back in November 2019, my wife Joyce and I decided to go to Palawan, her home island in the Philippines, to have our daughter Valley. I’m a professional musician, so I came back to California for most of February to play shows and make as much money as I could before returning to finish the process of getting Valley’s American Passport and bringing them home.
On February 27th I met Joyce and Valley in Manila so we could report her birth to the American Embassy and get her passport. It was a stressful interview process but we came out successful and on top of the world. They told us we would have the passport in two weeks, which was a big relief. This meant I could bring my family back to America soon and be able to earn. We flew back to Palawan to wait for Valley’s passport and pack our things for the move back to Oakland.
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During this time we were going to the beach, home decorating, taking nice walks, and having some of the happiest moments of my life. New family, bliss really. The safety of taking my family home began to come up more and more, and gradually it started weighing heavier on my mind. COVID was a hot topic on the internet, and I felt split down the middle on it. Normally, I would have shrugged it off. I’ve never been a big worrier of such things. However now, with an infant and a wife to care for, I was pretty conflicted on whether to wait a while or just go home.
Somewhat to my relief, the decision was made for me. On March 14th the government said we had 48 hours to leave the island before it was locked down. We received Valley’s passport that very day. Timing is everything. Many foreigners didn’t get the memo, or got it too late. The airport was filled with travelers desperate to leave and a lot of folks were left stranded. Given the madness of the moment, trying to squeeze my family into one of those flights and go to Manila did not even register as an option, so I braced myself for the long haul.
On March 16th we went into what’s called an Enhanced Community Quarantine, or ECQ. The guidelines were strict. Each home was given one Quarantine Pass to the head of the household. Only that one person could travel outside their homes for supplies. Armed military checkpoints popped up every couple miles where your ID and Quarantine Pass were examined. Curfew from 6pm-5am. Liquor ban. No travel between towns, and of course no leaving the island.
It was a lot to get used to. A few days into ECQ I became pretty anxious. The military checkpoints and the large automatic weapons were unnerving, and being a foreigner maybe added a little extra amplification too. Plus, the whole thing was quite an inconvenience. To get where I needed to go I’d often have to get through 3-4 checkpoints and keep repeating this process, and of course, it often created traffic.
Of all the things to get used to, the biggest challenge was being/feeling trapped. Island Fever. It’s a thing. I generally pride myself in staying cool, but this one shook me a bit. I held it together, but I wasn’t cool on the inside. This was a test, so I constantly reminded myself of the bright side: I was with my wife and daughter and if I had come a few weeks later we would have been separated. And THAT would have been the real nightmare.
We got hit with a huge water shortage around this time, with running water only a few hours a day. During that time we filled up buckets for bathing and washing dishes. Drinking water was also low, so I was paranoid about filling up as many containers as I could at water stations as a precaution.
We also have frequent blackouts, which means no internet. The internet at our place was too slow to watch a youtube video, but I could still get news and updates, and of course keep up with what was happening in America. I told my wife that I thought I would lose my mind if we lost internet for any real length of time. She laughed, but I meant it. It felt like my only tie to the world at home. My link to my family and friends. And most important, INFORMATION! The internet felt like my “Wilson” in that Tom Hanks movie.
And of course there were financial concerns too. Rental car, rent, studio rent, blah blah. I had a couple days of panic regarding money. My landlord in Oakland is very cool and said that while I was stranded I wouldn’t need to pay rent, which massively set my mind at ease. And then all of a sudden, a ten year old song of mine, Sleepwalk got used by a cartoonist and subsequently placed on some Spotify playlists. Across all platforms it was a minor viral moment. So I started getting checks. My cost of living here is so cheap that I could survive off these royalties. Not super comfortable, but enough to support a quarantined life with no restaurants/movies/concerts etc. Then the $1200 stimulus check was deposited in my account, I picked up some mixing clients, and ding ding ding I’m alright. Miraculous.
The island got its first confirmed case, an Australian man who was quickly quarantined and shipped home. I became concerned that our hospitals would so easily be overwhelmed and that if Valley or Joyce needed medical attention for anything it would be very hard to come by. Testing was real limited, and all sent to Manila for results where there was a large delay. So we never really knew if it was spreading or not.
Fortunately, due to the aggressive nature of the government action here, the virus seems to be completely contained and didn’t spread across the island. Not being able to travel even to a neighboring town probably paid dividends. I knew from the start that this was either going to be the best or worst place to be in terms of infection. One could argue that, in times or emergency, there are benefits to living in a country with fewer rights. The actions the Filipino government took would never fly in America.
For the first couple weeks of ECQ I was too full of anxiety to work on the music that I was supposed to be finishing. So I did what I’ve always done when I’m stressed and I started creating something and working single-mindedly on it. It gave me purpose and my mind started to clear again. I made a true quarantine song, not to be cute or timely, but to stay sane. And sometimes to stay sane, you have to express a little insanity. Here it is:
I decided I would make a video so I started reaching out to dance crews and a particular model that I thought had something special. Most people were unresponsive or too sketched out to film during quarantine. I felt like a weirdo, but I was on a mission. So I went around town and filmed things. Tirelessly. What else did I have to do? Eventually I had the cast together and just in time we were moved from ECQ to GCQ (General Community Quarantine). The rules loosened a bit to a 9pm curfew, no more liquor ban, and military checkpoints mostly gone. And most importantly I could continue shooting the important parts of my video legally.
I can honestly say without this song and video I would have lost my marbles in ECQ. It was an incredible experience working with the local talent and directing for the first time.
So here I sit in front of my computer on May 29th, 2020 still with no idea when I can come home with my family. I’m alright with that. I have to be. I’m making inspired art and keeping myself busy. I’ve got royalties magically rolling in and a new single that was just released. I’m feeling positive and inspired. I’m going to shoot more videos and release more music. Something I haven’t done enough of.
2020 baby, helluva year.