NEW YORK—It felt like a Christmas miracle to all of us.
On Christmas Day, I had a concert at the Jubilee Stage at the Dubai Expo, along with musical director Gerard Salonga, band members Nikko Rivera, Ria Villena-Osorio, Jorge San Jose, Meong Pacana and Cezar Aguas, and backup vocalists Tanya Bustamante-Marquez, Marielle Mamaclay and Eugene Cailao. We performed a repertoire of Christmas favorites plus some fun popular material, and a medley of my own hits.
The ramp-up into this night was no small endeavor, however. Because of COVID-19 protocols in both Manila and Dubai (yup, I snuck into Manila first to visit my mom who I hadn’t seen since March 2020), heading to another country for a gig is a more complicated thing than just procuring visas and reserving hotels.
First off, here’s the procedure from New York to Manila. Note that because of the spread of the Omicron variant as of late, all these procedures may have changed.
My first requirement was an RT-PCR test, something I had gotten used to with working on “Pretty Little Liars” (I get tested the day before I report for work, whether on site or in the city). My Manila-based travel agent also provided me with additional documentation and paperwork that I’d have to print and present, namely: my Bureau of Quarantine One Health Pass that comes with an OSS number and QR code, and my quarantine hotel reservation (thanks to Shangri-la at the Fort for their hospitality).
Upon deplaning, I made sure to have these papers in my hand to expedite my arrival and make it as easy as possible for myself and the agents checking everything. After all of my documents were checked, I headed downstairs to go through immigration, baggage claim and customs, after which a representative from Shang met me and called the hotel car. The hotel arrival itself was uneventful, and I was escorted up to my room. There is no hotel key given because you can’t leave the hotel … three meals a day were served, inclusive of coffee or tea … Thankfully, I had access to Wi-Fi and television (I tuned in mostly to the news).
For five full days, this would be my home. No companion, no visitation, no heading out for any reason. My next contact would be with the PPE-clad folks that would be administering my next RT-PCR test that would come before my departure for home.
Quarantine isn’t meant to be fun, but thankfully, I’m used to solitude (as a natural introvert and as someone who chooses to live a monastic life when I’m doing a run of shows, I was ready for this). I stayed in touch with family and my gang of friends who kept me sane with humor and animated conversation.
But I’ll be honest, quarantine can be boring and lonely. Thankfully, I tested negative, and I was cleared to head back home. I then surprised my mom who couldn’t believe I actually made the trip!
Now home quarantine would begin, which is far less boring. I got back to baking sourdough for the remainder of my days, as well as organize my Christmas lists and deliveries.
Small travel blessing
On the 20th of December, Nicole and I headed to my mother’s home in Quezon City for an early Christmas dinner, then went back to our home on the 21st to pack and prepare for our trip to Dubai.
Early in the morning of the 22nd, Nic and I got our RT-PCR tests organized by Safeguard DNA Diagnostics (thanks, Didi Rodriguez), then finished up our packing, punctuated by lazing around with Stella, the family cat. On the morning of the 23rd, we headed to Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 1 to catch our PAL flight. By some miracle, the terminal wasn’t very busy, which Nic and I saw as a small travel blessing. While in line at security, a flight attendant leaving for Jeddah showed me her BT21 Tata phone case, which prompted me to show her my Tata mask lanyard charm! I think we were both quite giddy after that.
On Christmas Eve, Gerard, his wife DJ and their children Antonio and Carmen headed to our hotel room for an extended visit and dinner. We ordered room service and while the kids played games, we sat and just caught each other up on things. Once it struck midnight, we greeted each other a very Merry Christmas, exchanged gifts and headed to bed. Gerard knows me well … he got me BTS swag!
Sweet full-circle moment
Which brings us to the day of the concert. It took us around an hour from the Intercontinental Hotel to the Expo grounds and backstage of the Jubilee Stage. We were given an hour and a half to go through all our material (which included stuff we have never ever performed together), so this was going to be a challenge. At the end, we ran out of time; I guess we were going to do our encore without a proper rehearsal!
The last time we got together for a concert in front of an audience was in March of 2020 at the Dubai Opera, so it felt like a sweet full-circle moment being back in this city with most of the same group of people together onstage. We got to pick up right where we left off doing what we loved, never mind if we found ourselves quite nervous, a little rusty and thinking more than we normally do under these circumstances.
However, the overarching thought from all of us was gratitude that this night was possible, and that it happened at all. We all gathered for a late-night powwow back at the hotel and filled the space with raucous laughter.
And right now, I’m sitting in my apartment recounting this beautiful time not knowing when or even if we’ll get to come together and do this again. So, I’ll just sit and count my blessings and not take that precious time for granted.
Stay safe, everyone! Let’s have a fantastic 2022.
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