An unforgettable cross-continental journey to my couch

Getting stranded on an island, chartering a private plane, and emigrating halfway across the world in the time of COVID-19: Lessons in making the most of what you’ve got to reach your desired destination.

As I write this, I’m nestled in a bright little apartment in the heart of Amsterdam. The place my boyfriend and I now happily (and dare I say triumphantly) call ‘home’.

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Because let me tell you, it was one hell of a journey to get on this couch.

The ‘good old days’

It was supposed to be simple:

  • Finish my master’s degree in Australia in February.
  • Go on a two-month holiday in the Philippines.
  • Move to the Netherlands by the end of May.

Well, I did finish my degree. And my boyfriend Jor and I did end up in the Philippines. Stationed on a small little island town, we spent our days enjoying the surf and basking in the sunshine.

By early March I’d passed my mandatory Dutch language test, rounded up almost all of my visa requirements, and overall didn’t have many worries in sight.

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Photo by me

…that was then. Before COVID-19 started to really dominate the world. The Philippines went on lockdown in mid-March, and suddenly life turned upside down.

Getting stranded and separated

It didn’t take long before the Dutch government helped Jor out of the Philippines. He was back in Amsterdam by the end of the month. I, on the other hand, remained stuck. And Jor and I became unexpectedly separated for three months.

The thing is, Jor had to leave without me. In March we found out that he needed to be in Amsterdam to secure his employment contract, which according to Dutch law is just one of the many requirements that come with sponsoring one’s foreign and unmarried partner (🙋🏾‍♀️). So, off to Amsterdam he went to go and get it! Because the sooner he could do that, the sooner we would be reunited again.

Luckily for me, I happened to be in one of the best places ever to get stuck during a global pandemic. Actually, one of the best places ever. Full stop. I had my friends, their dogs, incredible weather, and the absolute majesty that is the ocean. Surf and sunshine make a recipe for one hell of a beautiful life after all. Not to mention that the island is and has been virus-free since day one.

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Yet, while definitely and gratefully being one of the lucky ones, I did still struggle with a few things.

Apart from the coronavirus, the whole world just seemed to be going to shit. The socio-political situation in the Philippines, my motherland. The #blacklivesmatter movement. The continuing acceleration of mass extinction. The list goes on and on.

Personally, I also missed my family. I missed Jor. I selfishly longed to start my new life in Amsterdam, which was now clouded with all this crippling uncertainty. When would my visa be approved? When would commercial flights be allowed again? When would all this be over?

I struggled to convince Dutch employers I was going to make it to the Netherlands at all, which made job hunting a bust. I didn’t know when Jor and I would be reunited again. I worried about my parents in their older age. I stressed about eating up too much into my savings. And with one cancelled flight after another (of which I had eight), each one seemed to chip further away at my already fragile sense of control and stability.

Two months in and life stands still

Throughout March and April, the Philippine government and some foreign embassies organized a couple of ‘sweeper flights’. Non-commercial flights that ‘sweep up’ and transport stranded individuals. They cost around US$200 to 400 per passenger, with probably a handful coming free for a couple hundred stranded Filipinos across the country.

To join, the process and requirements vary depending on who’s organizing it. But in any case, it isn’t as simple as just signing up and going. At least, it wasn’t for me.

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Eduardo Velazco Guart, Unsplash

If organized by a foreign (non-Filipino) embassy, they notify their citizens and that’s pretty much that. If you’re a ‘non-citizen’ and you want to join, you’d have to find out about the flight on your own (usually by word-of-mouth), and then call both the embassy and their chosen airline to fight for a spot. If you’re quick, lucky, and able to pay the fees, you get on.

If organized by the Philippine government, it’s a bit messier. You’d need to register yourself on their list of stranded individuals and then wait for updates. Although, based on my experience, I wouldn’t get updates unless I chased people for them. I called and messaged several people from several different organizations nearly every single day. But in the end, to no avail.

And at some point in late April, all the sweepers had gone and simply stopped being organized. Meanwhile, I and thousands of others across the country stayed very much stranded.

Also around this time, Jor and I got a visa update. The Dutch government said my application was pretty much good to go apart from a few more documents I needed to provide. After this, they could approve my application.

The tricky part was, most of these documents were only really available in Manila. And to get my visa, I needed to report to the Dutch embassy… in Manila. But June arrives and commercial flights still aren’t happening. Rumor has it they resume to and from the island only in September. And I’m at a loss on what to do.

Taking matters into our own hands: We charter our own plane!

One day I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw a post: “Does anyone have any information about any sweeper flights?” It was by a girl named Sabs, an island resident and local café owner who was seven months pregnant at the time and desperate to fly to Manila where she could access better healthcare.

I and several others commented. And among those others was Sanne. Also an island resident and the founder of a local non-profit, Sanne was in the loop for her parents. They’d been visiting from Sweden when all this corona craziness happened and they wanted to get home.

The three of us unassumingly got together on a group chat, and I could say the rest is history. It wasn’t long before we started referring to ourselves as our own little ‘flight crew’. Because somehow in the course of our conversation one night, there was a moment when it clicked: What if we organized our own sweeper flight?

Despite our cluelessness, doubts, and consistently unreliable WIFI, we got to work. Day and night, for two weeks.

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Wesley Tingey, Unsplash

If you think privately organizing a flight in two weeks to accommodate over 150 stranded people in the middle of a global pandemic is difficult and complicated, then you are right.

We started simple enough. We’d heard someone named Quincy had done this before (albeit on a much smaller scale, for around ten people), so we got in touch. Quincy is a Manila-based doctor who ended up giving us a lot of advice and useful information throughout. But she also warned us early on that it would be a lot of work. Tons of documents, bureaucratic processes, stress, headaches. But we were adamant. And somehow, we were even determined enough to take on the challenge of getting as many people un-stranded as possible.

In hindsight, definitely very ambitious.

Over 150 foreigners and Filipinos registered their interest in flying with us. We guessed only about 100 of them were actually serious, so that’s what we worked with: How do we get these 100 people (including ourselves) home?

Now, if I went into detail about every single thing that we had to do and go through to pull off this flight, we’d be here much too long a time. So, here’s a ‘quick’ overview:

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By the end of our first week organizing, everything was moving along relatively well enough. That is, until…

We got ourselves a SCAMMER

Week two hits and we reach a critical stage of the process: Time to pay the airline (let’s call them L-Air).

As we were getting ready to transfer the money, some person (or group) intercepted our email communications. They created fake and nearly identical email addresses of both our main contact at L-Air and of Sanne, and then started sending strange emails under their names.

Naturally, we chose to drop the company as soon as we noticed all the sketchiness and realized that we had a scammer in our midst. But mind you, this was less than a week before our scheduled departure and we’d already sent out all the formal letters to the government requesting for flight approval under L-Air’s name.

It wasn’t impossible to re-schedule the flight to a later date, but we weren’t going to do it. Two major reasons: First, waiting one more week would’ve restricted Sabs from flying (you can’t fly if you’re over 32 weeks pregnant). And second, we believed that the longer we waited, the greater we risked staying stranded. Policies and restrictions were just changing too much all the time. One minute Manila airport is open and the next it could close off. One day you’re allowed to fly internationally, and the next borders have shut. Keeping our June 20 flight date was therefore non-negotiable because as far as we could tell the flight at this date was still workable.

In the end, we figured out the government requests and switched to SkyJet Airlines. Which, by the way, turned out incredible to work with –quick, efficient, accommodating, and organized.

We were back on track.

Well, kind of.

Unexpected cancellations and an island-wide power outage

In the beginning of the process, we’d actually already considered SkyJet. It was either them or L-Air. They both cost the same per passenger (Php13,000 or ~US$ 270), but just offered different sized planes. And this was a critical detail.

Working with a small airport, authorities told us that the biggest sized plane that can land on the island is one that fits only 72 people. SkyJet had those 72-seaters planes, while L-Air could fit 50. But 72 was just too awkward.

With a 72-seater, either we chartered one plane and forgot the remaining 28 (=100–72), or we chartered two and risked not being able to fill the second. So that’s why we originally chose L-Air –two 50-seaters for 100 people. But now that we’d switched, we needed to shift our passenger list.

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Suhyeon Choi, Unsplash

All this to say: We had to bump off 28 people. People who’d fully paid and gone through all the trouble of securing their documents –and trust me, I went through that process myself; it will test you.

Sadly, we had neither the time nor the confidence to fill up two 72-seater planes. And even if we did, the Philippine government wouldn’t have allowed it. They said that we couldn’t add any more to the confirmed passenger list we’d already submitted. It was only possible to remove. And given the amount of time it takes for each passenger to secure all the required travel documents (a few days to a week) new passengers would probably not have made it on time anyway.

We prioritized senior citizens, pregnant women, people with disabilities, and families traveling with young children. After that, we honored a ‘first paid, first serve’ policy. Then, once we finalized the list of 28 people to bump off, we had to figure out how to refund them.

Non-cash refunds would have been too costly (a lot of international transfer fees), not to mention a major administrative pain in the butt. So we chose the lesser evil: refunds in person, in cash. We set a time and place.

Two days before the flight, refund day arrived. And along with it… a two-day power outage across the entire island.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there was also a storm happening at the time, because it had been raining hard for days and was flooded everywhere. Just our luck, of course.

On the morning of refund day, Sanne spent hours sitting at the foot of the bank, at some point crying in near defeat. She couldn’t withdraw anything and we didn’t have the time nor the literal power to notify everyone about what was going on. And even if we did, rescheduling refund day would have been a nightmare. Not to mention that Sabs and I were set to leave in just two days.

The bank had a generator to fight the blackout, but something else was going wrong that prevented Sanne from withdrawing the money. Although, she must have looked a bit forlorn because after a few hours the bank eventually decided to just lend her Php364,000 (~US $7,300), right there on the spot. So… eventually that got sorted.

Apart from having to deal with two slightly aggressive and highly emotional people, the day then went by painlessly enough. Now, all we had to do was wait in anxious anticipation.

Taking flight and lifelong lessons learned

It’s June 19. One (one!) day before our designated departure date, and we got it. The very last of all the government approvals we needed. The flight was officially 100% CONFIRMED.

I want to give a very special mention to Sanne and Sabs here, because they are utter superwomen. This flight would not have happened without them, not even close, and I feel so lucky to have been able to work with them and learn so much along the way. I need also mention, they managed this entire operation whilst also taking care of their toddlers and managing their own actual jobs. So let’s take a moment: 👏🏽. Thank you to the moon and back, Sanne and Sabs. You two are incredible.

After the flight got approved, things pretty much fell into place. Not at all smoothly, but into place nonetheless. The day of the flight was a bit of a mess, as neither we nor the authorities had much of a clue on what to do. But it didn’t really matter. The flight took off on June 20, at around 12 pm. And that was that. As I sat there at the terminal, seeing all those people and watching the plane land on-site, I couldn’t believe we made this happen. Our little flight crew.

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Some of our passengers
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The actual plane from the day of the flight

I spent a little over two weeks in Manila to spend time with my family and get all my documents in order. I got my visa stamped at the embassy, booked my flight to the Netherlands for the 7th of July, and now, here I am. Reunited with Jor, sitting in our cozy little apartment by the water, and seated on my beloved grey couch.

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It has been a whirlwind of a ride. Regular power outages, unreliable wifi, constantly changing government policies, truckloads of paperwork, elaborate mazes of bureaucratic hurdles, scammers, unhappy (and a number of entitled) passengers, numerous delays, eight canceled flights, countless emails and phone calls…

Altogether, a three-month test of character.

Granted, my experiences are minuscule in the grander scheme of our pandemic-ridden world. And I don’t doubt for one second that I’m one of the privileged ones. But this story, while neither ‘tragic’ nor ‘revolutionary’, still does in my belief have something worthwhile to offer.

It’s a story about taking ownership over what is within one’s control and coming to workable terms with what is not. A testament to the power of taking initiative towards a desired outcome, even if the odds are against you. About learning how to navigate through an environment of constant change, uncertainty, and disappointment. About teamwork, patience, and perseverance.

If this experience drilled any one thing in my mind, it’s this:

You may not always have control over the cards that you’re dealt, but you do always have control over how to play them. How you perceive and respond to change, how you pick yourself up after getting beaten down. And that’s the bit that makes all the difference between living your own life as a passive spectator to it, and intentionally building the life you really want –as your own leading role.

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