MANILA, Philippines — La Union is about four hours and 170 miles from Metro Manila — a tedious journey made even more difficult by soaring gas prices. But this is the trip that some La Union residents make at least once a week, as their offices have urged their staff to return to the office.
Erika Dionisio is a Business Development Coordinator working for an international law firm based in Makati. Since July, she has been traveling back and forth from La Union to Manila as her company transitions to a hybrid facility where employees are encouraged to work in the office three times a week.
Without a car, Erika takes the bus, although she is sometimes lucky and carpools with friends.
Erika grew up in Quezon City but moved to La Union in November 2020, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She had been living alone in a 25 square meter condominium in Makati, where the harsh lockdown had taken a toll on her health both physically and mentally.
“Sobrang nakaka-ano na, claustrophobic. Sobrang hindi na helpful sa mental health because I was alone. I can not get out kasi siyempre takot ka lumabas. Can park sa harapan namin pero nakakatakot par rin lumabas. It was very strict in Makati back then…sarado din lahat everywhere,” she told Rappler in a La Union Zoom interview.
(It got claustrophobic. It really wasn’t helpful for my mental health because I was alone. I couldn’t go out because of course we were scared to go out. There was a park in front of us but it was still scary going out. In Makati was it was very strict at that time…everything was closed everywhere.)
She also shared that she even developed a skin condition, a vitamin deficiency caused by lack of sun that turned her skin red.
Back then, she joined a gym just to do something, but the gym closed. With nothing else to look forward to, she ended up only working up to 16 hours a day.
“Parang naisip ko, wala naman ibang gagawin eh (I thought I had nothing else to do)…what should I do? social media? Netflix? So sobrang intensely na (it was really intense)” she said.
make the move
Her friends also noticed that her lifestyle was no longer healthy for her and urged her to move to San Juan, La Union, the surf town in north Luzon, where they lived.
Before the pandemic, Erika was a regular at La Union. Before joining her current company, she would visit Surftown and stay for a month at a time, drawn to the surf.
When she started her job in 2018, she made it her mission to go to La Union every weekend. She took the bus as soon as she got off work, went straight to surfing when she got to La Union, and drove back to Manila early Monday morning and went straight to the office.
As someone visiting La Union, moving there was a natural choice. It wasn’t easy because border controls were strict back then, but as soon as she found the opportunity, Erika grabbed it.
She was blown away for the first few days as she adjusted to Surftown’s vibrant social scene. However, after a while, she was able to relax and create a healthy routine for herself.
She moved to a place just in front of the beach where she could surf regularly or, when there were no waves, watch the sunset. Her neighbor was also very active, so they went to the gym or jogged together.
Aside from being healthier both physically and mentally, she found that living in La Union was also easier on the pocket.
“Naging fit yung lifestyle ko tas pati eating nagging healthy kasi at that time, no delivery of fast food. So bibili ka talaga ng lutong bahay. Or magluluto ka talaga. Mura Yung cost of living sobra,” She said.
(My lifestyle got fit and my food got healthy because there were no fast food deliveries back then. So you bought really homemade food or cooked yourself. The cost of living was really cheap.)
“It basically saved me,” she said.
Like Erika, Allen Aligam, who works for an IT company based in Bonifacio Global City in Taguig, lives between La Union and Manila after his company required employees to return to the office twice a week.
He sometimes carpools with other people, but if he can’t find a ride, he drives to Manila Monday afternoon and back to La Union Wednesday night.
Allen also made a full-time move to La Union during the pandemic. He first visited Surftown in 2010 after befriending the residents of La Union while conducting relief efforts for Typhoon Ondoy. Until 2014, he rented a house with friends, and they traveled there every weekend or every other weekend.
As a Surftown regular, it was natural for him to finally move there full-time. In Manila, he was living with his mother, who is at high risk for COVID, so he rarely went out. Instead, he stayed indoors and played video games in between work.
He moved in February 2021 and hasn’t looked back since. He only visited Manila twice in over a year, once for vaccinations and again for vacations.
While Allen stays mostly indoors in Manila, he gets to hang out more in La Union, where he also pursues his hobby of sports photography, photographing surfers and cyclists.
“Sa Manila, san ka puunta? Wala kang pupuntahan. Dun (La Union), tatawid ka lang, may beach … You can ride a bike, dami mo na pwede puntahan or lakad ka lang sa beach madami ka na makikita. Mas nakakarelax siya kaysa nasa bahay ka lang diba?” he told Rappler in an interview in Mandaluyong.
(In Manila, where can you go? There’s nowhere to go. In La Union, you just cross the street and there’s a beach. You can ride a bike, there are so many places to go. You can walk along the beach walking and so many things to see. It’s more relaxing than just staying at home, isn’t it?)
He also shared that he can get more out of his time when he’s at La Union. He can start work and go there earlier and he can catch the sunset because the beach is near. In Manila, he said he’ll get up early but be in the office around 9 a.m. because of traffic. Even if he checks out early, he still comes home late.
Harder than it looks
While it seems like Erika and Allen are tackling the long commute, their setup isn’t without its challenges.
“Nagstart ako (I started) in the second week of July, and it’s really harder than I imagined. Pinicture ko siya na (I figured it out) ‘Okay, I’ll take the bus,’ but it’s a lot harder,” shared Erika.
Above all, it is about the costs. As Allen explained, when he drives from La Union to Manila, he spends about 2,000 pesos on gas and 750 pesos on tolls — and that’s just one possibility. To save money, he will carpool or let others ride, but this is not always guaranteed.
Erika also carpools when she can, but relies on the bus as her primary mode of transportation. Since direct booking from Manila to La Union is not possible online, she has to buy a ticket to Vigan or Laoag, which costs significantly more.
Since they spend half their time in Manila, their cost of living has also increased.
“I think my budget for a week in La Union is just two days in Manila. Ganun kamahal yung bilihin (those things are so expensive),” said Erika.
On top of that, she still pays rent for her condominium in Makati, but is just waiting for the contract to expire before she gives up her apartment and shares an apartment with her colleagues who also live in the province.
In addition to the financial aspect, Erika is also concerned about her carbon footprint.
“An honest concern is emissions, yung carbon footprint ko talaga (my carbon footprint). Imagine going back and forth the dami kong ineemit na carbon kasi (I emit a lot of carbon because) I have to travel,” she said.
Sit down to stay
Despite the challenges, both Erika and Allen are determined to stay at La Union and make their current setup work. Moving back to Manila is not an option.
Allen says it’s better for his mental health to be able to go home to La Union.
“Walang gagawin ditto (Manila) eh. Literally na work long,he said. He added that La Union is more casual and relaxed and there is a lot to do and see.
“Kung gusto mo magdagat andyan lang, gusto mo mamundok, andyan lang. Kung baga accessible lahat yun, kasi ditto, manila, kailangan mo mas can endeavor to bypass dahil una, traffic, tas walang malapit … Eh pag nasa La Union ka, wala pang five minutes nasa beach ka. Ten minutes Nasa Bundok Ka Na, 30 minutes Waterfalls. Diba? A few hours Nasa Ilocos ka na,” he said.
(If you want to go to the beach, it’s right there. If you want to go to the mountains, it’s there. Everything is accessible. Here in Manila, you have to make more effort to get around because it’s mostly traffic and nothing is nearby. If you’re in La Union, you’ll be at the beach in under five minutes. In ten minutes you’ll be in the mountains. In 30 minutes you’ll be at the water. Right? In a couple of hours you’re already in Ilocus.)
Erika shared the same feelings, saying that after changing her lifestyle in La Union, she couldn’t imagine living in Manila anymore.
“I have been trying to stay na 10 days in manila and hindi na talaga siya fits a lifestyle or life i want kasi what i want to do hindi siya available in manila. There is no nature… it keeps me sane ditto sat La Union,” she said.
(I tried to stay in Manila for 10 days and it really doesn’t fit my lifestyle or the life I want because what I want to do is not available in Manila. There is no nature. It keeps me sane here in La Union.)
With the return-to-office policy leading to a “major resignation” among Filipino workers, it’s almost unbelievable that professionals like Erika and Allen continue to make the effort to show up for work as needed.
But as Erika shared, her love for her job also matters.
“I think it’s also a factor that the law firm I work for is very people-friendly. Spoiled Kami (we’re spoiled) is clear to me. Everything was taken care of during the pandemic,” she said. “So it’s worth it na magbalik-balik (that I’m going back and forth) because I can’t give up the benefits of my job, nor can I give up my life in La Union. – Rappler.com