Pandemic in paradise: A slow, simple life without surf in Siargao

Amanda T. Lago
Pandemic in paradise: A slow, simple life without surf in Siargao
New mom and surfer Elaine Abonal Bayer shares how the coronavirus pandemic has affected her family's island life

MANILA, Philippines – Surfing has been banned in Siargao, the island in southern Philippines known for its choice waves.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, surfers from all over would make the journey to the teardrop-shaped island only to fall in love with its waters and its natural beauty – but its regular stream of visitors has been cut since parts of the country have been placed on strict quarantine.

Now, Siargao is populated by locals, transplants, and some tourists who are either stranded, or have made the choice to ride the pandemic out there. None of them are allowed to surf at the moment, so for now, they’re riding a different kind of wave.

Surf instructor Elaine Abonal Bayer has been living in Siargao for years, and has now settled in a small house rental in the town of General Luna with her husband Oliver and their 8-month old daughter, Tala.

When it was announced that Luzon would be placed under enhanced community quarantine, she was at a restaurant with friends, who panicked about their flights heading back to Manila. She said she didn’t realize how big a deal it was at the time.

PRE-LOCKDOWN. Oliver, Elaine, and Tala at a restaurant in Siargao before they heard of the lockdown. Photo courtesy of Elaine Abonal Bayer

“We don’t have TV and there was no official announcement. It was more like hearsay in the beginning for us so we weren’t really sure if it was a serious thing or not or if we would be affected on the island,” she said.

Since then, as it has been for a lot of people under quarantine, their family’s days have started to blend into each other, but their baby girl’s routine has been their anchor.

“We don’t know what day and date it is anymore. We also try to base our days on Tala’s schedule since we don’t have a yaya (nanny) and do everything at home and for her,” Elaine shared.

Days begin with household chores like cleaning or doing laundry. Then they put Tala in her tub in the garden, so she can have fun and stay cool in the summer heat, even if they can’t stay at the beach. Her husband cooks them a healthy meal – almost all fruits and vegetables – and Tala takes a nap, at which time mom and dad get some time to do their own thing.

AFTERNOON DIP. They may not be allowed to swim in Siargao for now – but Elaine keeps Tala cool with their trusty palanggana. Photo courtesy of Elaine Abonal Bayer

Afternoons are spent in their garden, or taking a short walk on their empty, coconut-tree lined street. When they can, they try bring Tala to catch the sunrise or sunset on the beach when it’s empty. 

“Our baby loves seeing nature and it also calms our hearts and minds during such an uncertain time,” Elaine said.

Once in a while, she or Oli will go on a grocery run – but they try to do it as little as possible.

NATURE TIME. Elaine and Oliver take their daughter Tala to see the sunset when the beach is empty. Photo courtesy of Elaine Abonal Bayer

While the pandemic has kept the Siargao community away from the beaches and the surf, it has brought the people closer together in many ways.

Elaine shared that before the pandemic people would be preoccupied with work or activities that they didn’t even know who their neighbors were – but now, they’ve managed to connect even without hanging out as they share homemade meals and homegrown fruits and vegetables. The community has even started a Facebook group where they are able to barter items that they have for things that they need and want.

KEEPING HEALTHY. Elaine's husband Oliver whips up healthy plant-based meals for their family. Photo courtesy of Elaine Abonal Bayer

“It’s amazing because it makes us feel closer despite the social distancing. Also there is less worry about money because people are willing to share what they have,” Elaine said.

Simpler, slower life

The slower pace, Elaine shared, is reminsicent of how Siargao used to be before it became a tourist hotspot. In the quiet, they are able to focus on community.

“Even if we were living on the island before, we were always so busy and the island was busy with tourists. The streets were always full. There were so many cars, motorbikes, noise and parties,” Elaine said. “Now Siargao is almost back to how it was the first time I came here where it is not about money anymore but about community, and what we can share with each other — except we only do it online or from a distance.”

These days, Elaine’s life is much more simple. Through their barter group she is able to let go of material things she doesn’t need in exchange for essentials – rice, vegetables, fruits, and milk for her baby. Staying at home has given her more perspective on the things she really needs.

“We only need basics to survive and the most important things we could ever really invest in is our health and our relationships,” she said.

BEACH BABY. Tala enjoys the sand on an empty Siargao beach. Photo courtesy of Elaine Abonal Bayer

While their simple life on a tourist-free island paradise may seem idyllic, Elaine isn’t spared from pandemic anxiety. The island’s lack of medical facilities and limited supply of baby essentials – not to mention the worry for her family in Manila – looms over Elaine’s picturesque days.

Elaine is also dealing with the longing for surf, swim, and sea – a frustration many people on the island share as they comply with the ban on water activities. She also misses being able to spend time with their friends.

STAYING INDOORS. Oliver keeps Tala occupied as the family spends most of their time indoors during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Elaine Abonal Bayer

“Siargao has such a close tight knit community especially for surfer moms with babies. Our babies are bored,” Elaine shared. “We also liked going outdoors and to restaurants as a family but we have to stay indoors in our hot tiny island home for now.”

Coping

As everyone else is doing these days, Elaine copes. One of the things that helps her stay on top of her physical mental health is to eat healthy plant-based meals with almost no meat. And while her main form of exercise (surfing) is unavailable to her at the moment, she bought a mountain bike, which allows her to move, clear her mind, and breathe in the fresh island air.

She also tries to limit her news intake as a way to keep her anxiety in check. “I try to keep positive and think of possibilities and hopeful stories because I need to be a happy and not worried mother for my baby,” Elaine said. “I just focus on my baby really, who has been my source of strength, hope and inspiration during these trying times.”

MOTHER-DAUGHTER. In these uncertain times, Elaine draws strength from her daughter Tala. Photo courtesy of Elaine Abonal Bayer

Through the ups and downs of riding out a pandemic in paradise, Elaine counts her blessings.

“I am grateful for our health, I am grateful that so far there is nobody infected on the island, that we have a safe house to live in while we can’t go back to Manila to visit family, that we have a garden so that my daughter can enjoy the sun and the outdoors,” Elaine said.

NATURE LOVERS. Elaine and her family take small opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. Photo courtesy of Elaine Abonal Bayer

“I am grateful for food on the table for every meal, that we do have the internet so we can keep in touch with our loved ones. I am grateful for a community that can stay connected despite the distancing — by sharing our passions other than surfing,” she added.

She is also grateful for the frontliners —”people who are sacrificing their time and time with their families to help fight the virus,” Elaine said. “Absolutely grateful for that.” – Rappler.com

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Amanda T. Lago

After avoiding long-term jobs in favor of travelling the world, Amanda finally learned to commit when she joined Rappler in July 2017. As a lifestyle and entertainment reporter, she writes about music, culture, and the occasional showbiz drama. She also hosts Rappler Live Jam, where she sometimes tries her best not to fan-girl on camera.