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A new lease on life in Baguio

By WAYA ARAOS-WIJANGCO Published Jul 27, 2022 5:05 am


Hope is the currency I trade in. In the past couple of years, through the worst times of the pandemic and the political tornado we were in, hope was the only thing I held on to. But there were plenty of times in the last couple of years when I felt bankrupt; I once told a restaurant colleague that I had 86’d on hope.

Paradoxically, many times I was invited by various media outlets and organizations to talk about how we had pivoted our business to survive the pandemic. When I did those talks, I sometimes felt like a fraud. How could I tell others what to do when I myself felt like I was drowning half the time? We did not do just one pivot — “kembot nang kembot,” I would tell my friends. Just keep moving to stay above water.

Read what Waya Araos-Wijangco wrote about her restaurant business in InBetween: A serving of kindness through 50,000 meals in 35 hospitals for 50 days

We tried doing a grocery. It worked for a while, until the real groceries opened up and it became easier for people to shop there. We went into takeout and delivery, bubble dining, limited socially distant dining, meal plans. You name the pivot, we tried it. Some worked, some didn’t. The government-mandated lockdowns almost killed our spirits. Just when we felt something was working, we had to close down again.

Gypsy Baguio by Chef Waya opened its doors in 2021.

But we kept fighting. We wanted to make sure that our staff would not lose their jobs. So even if with all the work we put in, all we were making was payroll, we pushed on.

In the first nine months of the pandemic, my husband was stranded in Baguio where he worked. I was in Quezon City, first feeding frontliners then trying to make sense of what to do with the business. When Baguio eased restrictions for returning residents in December, I took a trip to see my husband.

Getting out of Manila and being in Baguio was a literal breath of fresh air for me. I didn’t realize how trapped I had felt. All the frontline feeding and work I was doing suddenly felt like an escape from the reality I had to face: a business I had to save. And being away from it for a short time gave me the clarity and perspective I needed to make better decisions.

The restaurant celebrated its first anniversary last May.

Seeing the way the pandemic was managed by the local government in Baguio, I realized that this city would probably recover much faster than Metro Manila. I also saw how people would gravitate toward traveling north since air travel would be riskier and would have more restrictions. I had filial roots in Baguio; my mother was born and raised here, I still had family here and I spoke the local language. I decided to open a restaurant in the City of Pines.

Funny how the universe works. Once I verbalized the desire to open in Baguio, things started to fall into place. A location presented itself, funding materialized and we were able to start renovations at the end of March. Then boom... I got severe COVID-19 and landed in the ICU.

This must have been my lowest possible point. Despair dragged me down like a rock tied to a drowning person. I had to draw on every ounce of strength and courage to make it through. Friends and family called daily, egging me on, helping me find the medications I needed, sending food, drinks, and pajamas.

In the past couple of years, I realized hope is not currency. You cannot trade hope to gain profit. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. Hope is resilience in the face of adversity, staying the course despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

I came out of the hospital and into recovery with great trepidation. Manila was raging with a horrible COVID-19 surge that had people desperately looking for ambulances, hospitals, oxygen tanks, and people I know had family members dying almost daily. I had to ask myself, “What the hell are you doing opening a restaurant in the midst of all this desperation?”

Still, we pressed on. We were too far invested to give up by then. We had to finish the restaurant or suffer a huge financial setback that we could no longer afford. We gingerly, quietly opened our doors on Friday, May 28, 2021. By Sunday, we were sold out, and we had to close on Monday to replenish our stocks.

We could not believe the warm welcome we received from Baguio and the tourists that came up, desperate to breathe and be away from the stifling Manila atmosphere. June and July 2021 were incredibly busy. Then August rolled around with the Delta variant in its wake. Lockdowns loomed again and we found ourselves twiddling thumbs while it rained buckets for three straight weeks in Baguio. It was as if the heavens were crying with us through this difficult time.

The restaurant received a warm welcome from Baguio tourists and locals alike.

Recovery was very slow after the Delta surge. Baguio reopened to tourists late in October, a little too late for comfort for restaurants trying to build up reserves for 13th-month payments in December and business renewals in January. Still, we persisted and had a good couple of months and made our payments.

We quietly celebrated our first anniversary in Baguio in May, deeply grateful for new leases on life and opportunities to keep growing and building our communities. We are cautiously optimistic, given the uncertainties presented by the new government and global upheavals causing rising inflation and supply shortages.

In the past couple of years, I realized hope is not currency. You cannot trade hope to gain profit. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. Hope is resilience in the face of adversity, staying the course despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

Nelson Mandela, in his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” said: “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

Despite the odds we faced in the last two years, every day had been a choice not to give up to despair. Hope springs eternal, we just need to keep the faith.