Monday, December 08, 2008

The Sun Shines in Singapore

The glowing magenta of the bougainvillea blossoms was what caught my attention first and would later remember, and the grand old trees, their trunks festooned with ferns, lining the neat highway. It was supposed to be so urban, crowded, all steel, concrete and glass, rigid and strict, its character diluted or washed down with a fixation for neatness. All these were hearsay, report Filipino friends who have been to the small, progressive state at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula.
I flew into Singapore in late October, the weather dismal with sporadic rain. We had caught the tail-end of the rainy season in Southeast Asia, I thought. But the weather only highlighted the bougainvillea flourishing in large flower boxes, many of them in a long, long row in the middle of the highway as we sped from the Changi International Airport to Conrad Centennial Hotel. After that, I would be in a swirl of fantastic flavors, soulful sounds, incredible shapes, stimulating excitement. My introduction to Singapore was one of sensory pleasure. It would not be the place that is so sanitized that it lost its character that I heard. Yes, the cleanliness you will notice, but it is very pleasing. After that there were so much more—the shapes of the buildings, the greenery that drapes around the whole island itself, the past in the future-looking, the melding of cultures, the excellent food, the people, the happening.
Singapore is a modern and well-oiled city with skyscrapers, apartments and malls. They are the usual, at least in shape and space. Notice the architecture, my companion advised, and indeed I could not tear myself from the car window. Modernist and post-modernist structures rise at every turn of the street. I noticed the abundance of public art and public space. But not all structures are new. Although there was a dearth of preservation policies in the 1960s to the 1980s, there are still many old and heritage buildings, carefully preserved and creatively updated.

Once in a while an art-deco building pops out. Going to the popular district of Orchard Road one morning, we took refuge in a mall, a strange mix of the old and the new. It turned out to be the Cathay Building, which opened on 1939. Designed by Frank Brewer it houses Singapore’s air-conditioned cinema, luxury apartments and a hotel.
Traditional Singapore can be seen in the rows of shophouses strewn all over the city. These are transformed into boutiques and offices that are colorful and full of character. There are temples, indicating the ethnic makeup of the state. Then there are the colonial civic and commercial buildings, showing the European neo-classical, gothic, Palladian and renaissance styles. These were made into art spaces. Streets, areas and buildings have signs telling its histories. Then there are the iconic landmarks like the Esplanade, showing Singapore’s desire to have a distinctive image as a brand.
And the skyline is changing still. There were many constructions when I went—resorts and hotels like Capella Singapore on Sentosa, the Marina Bay Sands, Resorts World, and Gardens by the Bay, and the National Art Gallery, set to open in 2013.
Singapore is one of the most happening places in Asia with high-profile events, as well as celebrations that attract people from countries in the region and beyond. There are the sports events like the inaugural Formula 1 SingTel Singapore Grand Prix, as well as entertainments and parties. There are numerous cultural and art events, which prove to be extremely appealing, including the large Singapore Biennale that showcases contemporary art from around the world. There are many art spaces, galleries, museums and venues for performances, the most prominent of which is the Esplanade Theaters on the Bay, two twin, spiky domes by the Marina Bay. The country attracted Sarah Chang, the world-renowned violinist who has performed here several times.

“I love the city. I love the shopping. I love the food. It’s so multicultural. I think it’s very, very cool,” she enthused. “And I love how many people from different genres [come to this] incredible city that is so diverse and so cosmopolitan. Actually what strikes me more than anything is the incredible interest in the arts here. It’s phenomenal. If you look at like the season brochure and what’s going on in Singapore, and the level of artists and conductors and orchestra and ballet and operas, it is really quite amazing. I think that actually shows a lot about the city and its character when you speak of the culture, the cultural life.”
She was here to perform at the Singapore Sun Festival. I was catching the last few days. The festival is one of the interesting events in the lively calendar of Singapore. Events being one of its tourist attractions, the country was promoting it.
“The festival undoubtedly boosts Singapore’s position as a global city for the arts and one of Asia’s leading premium entertainment lifestyle destinations,” commented Lim Neo Chian, deputy chairman and chief executive of the Singapore Tourism Board.
The prominence of the Sun Festival owes in large part to the high profile of its featured artists and celebrities. This year, it had actor Geoffrey Rush, opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa, singer-songwriters Peter Cincotti and Sergio Mendez, violinist Sarah Chang, author Cameron Forbes, pianist Yefim Bronfman, chefs Charlie Trotter and Luke Mangan, the Vienna Boys Choir and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
The inaugural last year was attended by about 3,000 people. This year, attendance increased to about 35,000, 10 percent of which is said to be foreign tourists.
But more than its tourism and publicity potential, the Singapore Sun Festival, which is the Asian version of the festival that started in Tuscany in Italy in 2003 and then in Napa Valley in 2006, celebrates the “art of living well,” and involves a diverse repertoire that encompasses music, literature, film, wine and cuisine, the visual arts and wellness. Because of this thrust, the festival is deemed a premium one, which means it is more expensive than usual and caters to the discerning audience. Going through some of the events, I found myself indulging in truffles and dishes prepared by star chefs, savoring wines and listening to a world-class orchestra, commonly perceived features of a luxurious life. For a few days, I was living it, and it happened at a time of an impending global financial crisis.
Just before coming to Singapore, I chanced upon an acquaintance at the Manila airport. Both of us were waiting to board for Singapore. He just planed in from New York and told me how the Americans were over-reacting to the crisis unlike us, Filipinos, who just go on as if there is nothing happening. I shrugged. It has not reached us yet, and Filipinos are wont to think that the crisis is too distant to reach them.
The news of the crisis seemed to underline the luxury aspect of the Sun Festival. Why hold it at such a time? I remembered the eternal debate about making and upholding art in a hunger- and poverty-stricken land, the answer of which I forgot because I seldom bother with the question. In the end, there is so much more than the crisis like life itself. And Sun Festival celebrates living it well, savoring it. Maybe the Filipinos’ indifference to the crisis has something to do with that reason.
While there is the perception that the Sun Festival attracts the moneyed set, it aims to welcome everybody.
“I don’t think there was an intent to do that. The notion of living well implies [being] well-off, but actually to have good style in life or to enjoy yourself or to eat well whenever… I think some of the events are expensive, but there are a lot that aren’t expensive,” said Barrett Wissman, chairman of the global talent management agency IMG Artists and founder of the festival. “From my perspective, there is no intent on making it an exclusive event. People may be intimidated when you think at that part, but that’s not the intent. I think by diversifying the programming more and more and having all the different kind of stuff we intend to make it fun for people to support.”
The 2008 Singapore Sun Festival was set for 10 days, from October 17 to 26, involving about 250 artists, musicians, chefs, writers and celebrities. Most events were held in the Marina Bay area and along the Singapore River. It opened with opera star Kiri Te Kanawa and the Vienna Boys Choir singing opera classics, and actor Geoffrey Rush, who replaced Robert Redford, narrating “Peter and the Wolf.” Sergio Mendez and Peter Cincotti had concerts. Chicago chef Charlie Trotter whipped up his signature dishes. There were tai chi lessons and yoga sessions at the Esplanade Park. Australian-Filipino writer Merlinda Bobis talked about food and writing, while the films shown in The Screening Room had food as theme. The prestigious Singapore Wine Auction and Gala Dinner raised funds for the Viva Foundation for Children with Cancer. This event was the “jewel of the festival’s crown,” having Trotter preparing the food and Kiri Te Kanawa performing.
The events were refined and diverse. It was when Wissman mentioned the book Under the Tuscan Sun that I understood. The book talks about the author’s experience in renovating an old house in Cortona, Italy, and living in Tuscany in general. It was a sensual and profound read that it became my bible for several weeks. The festival was named after the book, and the author Frances Mayes, Wissman’s neighbor in Cortona, is one of the founders of the festival together with Wissman’s wife, cellist Nina Kotova.

With Barrett Wissman
At the Fullerton Hotel one morning, Barrett Wissman appeared imposing, befitting a cultural impresario at the helm of a large global performing arts management agency, IMG Artists, with a stable of topnotch artists. He talked about the festival, touching on Singapore.

RHM: What inspired you to create the Sun Festival?
BW: I think several different things. Initially, my goal in life is—especially today when the world is moving so fast and we have all those electronic media hitting us all the time, three hundred channels to watch on television—I think people need to spend more time enjoying themselves, enjoying themselves with other people, talking to people, learning about things, experiencing things. Because we’re moving away from that. Because everybody can get everything they want on their computers, and they’re used to no interactions. So I also want to bring more listeners and more people back into music and events like these and experiencing things. So, those are two things that really made me want to create it…I find that artists of all kinds, whether musicians or painters or whatever, there’s always been a tie between the arts, whether it’s being a writer, a painter and things like that. But in the last hundred years, we’ve forgotten about that. And people being well-educated they do whatever they do; they don’t have time. So I like tying all these things together, and actually you find a lot of commonality. People who love going to dinners, to something special, go to see a writer then they’d become interested in music. We also try to get the musicians involved in the other activities. So, there’s a commonality among everything that we’re doing. So for me that’s really important and that’s why I do it. When we had the initial press conference in the beginning somebody asked why there’s a lack of focus. Well, I don’t see it as a lack of focus. I’m seeing it being a positive thing, a lot of diversity. So I think today that’s really important—to try to get people interested to what people are doing.

RHM: Did you intend for the festival to have no theme?
BW: You see the trouble is that the theme of what we do is to let the artists do what they want to do. Because then they do their best job. In theory, if you let artists do what they wanna do that’s when they’re gonna do best, and you go to them with ideas on how to do all these interesting ideas and tie things together. There can’t be a theme because I’m not telling them what to do. You have to choose one way or another. Theme is okay, but I find the choice of a theme to be by nature manufactured. So let’s say creative theme [like] passion, love, history, whatever that is, I often find it doesn’t really mean anything. And then you force that on people. So, you’re forcing something that doesn’t mean anything on people, and you end up with a thing that’s paying lip service to an idea. So I generally don’t like that anyway. Sometimes, it can work. But it doesn’t work with something like this where we let the people do what they want to do.

RHM: Did you have any inspiration for the festival like other festivals?
BW: Actually, no. I don’t think there is anything like it. It is more of the idea of trying to bring people together, trying to find a commonality. You know, it takes years to do this, to create something out of nothing. It is not easy. You don’t see people doing this today. I think we’ve already seen that. We were seeing people that came from the festival in New York enjoying Napa and going back and forth. The supporters of the festival, the people who are friends of the festival, they begin to know the artist and the artist know them. We see ties coming together, and now we’re in Singapore and we start seeing interesting ideas come out of that so it’s very interesting. In a way it’s stimulating the mind like for instance having the conservatory orchestra here come to one of the other events that brings an Asian orchestra. It’s very interesting to see how the story evolves, creating history.

RHM: How was the first festival in Tuscany? How does it compare to the festival in Singapore?
BW: It’s different because Singapore is a city, and it’s (Cortona in Tuscany) a little town. It was more intimate because everybody was there. It was a very organic feeling. It was a little theater, a rundown theater from the early nineteenth century. But we try to build the same kind of feeling of friendship among the artists and the listeners and everybody. I think we’ve achieved that here. Because people get to know each other, and you know you can either just go to a performance and then not come back or not do anything else. The food is just fine. Or people get more involved. I think we’ve achieved that even in a city like Singapore. That’s one of the reasons I created the tent. We created that tent so that people would have something to do after the concerts, after the activities. Singapore is a city which has restaurants, bars and places like that in very official-type locations, but nothing relaxed like that. That’s why I wanted to create that—to make it more intimate, to create a central place. So it is very different. Napa is more like Tuscany. But we try to keep the same values.

RHM: Why did you choose Singapore and these places like Tuscany and Napa Valley for the festival?
BW: Tuscany I chose because I live there. Napa…I wanted to choose a place in America. If I look at the entire country, I wanted it to be some place that’s a pleasant place to go to. The big cities in America already have a lot going on. So, I wanted to choose something where people can go away and be separate. It’s a wine region. It’s like Tuscany, and there was nothing there. And it’s a big tourist destination. So all those factors, and we had a lot of local people who wanted to help, which was really important because involving the community is extremely important. Singapore is different. There are a lot of different places in Asia where you can do this, but you know, Indonesia is Indonesia. China is China. Philippines is the Philippines. And Tokyo is Tokyo. In Tokyo, you find Japanese people, and in China there are Chinese people, and they speak one language. Singapore is really a melting pot. You have everything here. There are Indians. There are Chinese. You have Malays. You have Westerners. You have Americans. You have everything here. And everybody speaks their own language but at the same time choose to speak English too, which provides a commonality. That mixture allows you to explore Chinese subject or to explore Japanese subject or to explore French music or whatever it is, and feel very natural about doing it because it doesn’t need a built-in population that enjoys that that’s indigenous. That fact plus that there was nothing really like this here and also that it is a place that works very well for an operational standpoint, you know, made me attracted to it. Look, people are very nationalistic, all over the world but particularly in Asia. If you went to China and did this in China, it wouldn’t be so easy to do Indian music, for example, and to just explore bunch of concerts with Indian [theme]. To not feel like you were not tied down to anyone, and I like that diversity.

RHM: How do you choose what to put in and what not to put in in the festival?
BW: It’s a very difficult question to answer because it’s a process like making soup when you do not really know the recipe, and you start with few pieces and then with those pieces of the old menu, add on to them. Certain things don’t work together and certain things do. It’s a building process each year. It’s not as if we sit down day one and we say, okay, we’re going to have, you know, New Zealand mussels, we’re gonna explore New Zealand seafood for this period. We’re gonna do this; we’re gonna do that. And then we’re gonna have this orchestra. We don’t have everything planned at the beginning. It’s a process. So, it’s a difficult question to answer. It’s like a crazy cook who’s throwing things in and you taste it. You need a little bit more of something else. That’s more what it is like.

RHM: What is your vision for the festival?
BW: I think we had a good first two years here. I think we’ve learned a lot. We’ve had a lot more diversity in the concerts this year. I like that. I want to continue along that path. I think that we need to have more tying things together. We need to explore more creative programs, even though we had some but I’d like to do more, I think, along the same path but to always raise the bar like to expand the film section because the film section is quite simple now. We tried the food and everything, which is very nice but I’d like to build on that. So constantly we’ll build more, and more ideas, keeping the base of what we have and always trying to bring it to a higher level.

RHM: What is your favorite part of the festival?
BW: I don’t have any favorite one part. My favorite part is how all the different pieces come together. That’s my favorite part. Seeing that and seeing how we create an atmosphere where people are communicating. The word festival doesn’t mean anything anymore. What is a festival? People put the word festival like dance festival, and they put together six performances. One has nothing to do with the other, and people go have a good time and they leave. That’s not a festival. Festival is about celebrating. That’s what the word means, festive. My favorite part about it is seeing people come in and out of the activities, weaving in and out. That’s my favorite part. And seeing people enjoy and seeing people [being] accessible. Where else do you see something like this, where you can talk to the artists and this and that, and get involved? That’s my favorite part.

Coming into Colors
The magenta of the bougainvillea I saw along the highway blossomed into a visual experience at the Art House at The Parliament House. The Sun Festival brought in 16 pieces of German-American abstract artist Sibylle Szaggars’s large-scale paintings in an exhibit called “The Shape of Color.” The paintings depicted what looked like amoebas of different colors swimming in paint. I tried to figure out what they are.
Szaggars had an explanation: “These paintings are non-figurative inventions and they don’t carry a symbolic burden. My desire is create an intense optical sensation and to celebrate the exciting facts of the world of color.”
Relieved of the duty to find meaning, I let myself be engulfed the large paintings and float in a sea of bold colors, accompanied by music of Nina Kotova, composed especially for the exhibit. Housed in a small room, the exhibit was an intimate affair.
I was interested in the building itself: The Parliament House. I learned that it was constructed from 1826 to 1827, and was used as a public offices and court house. Then it was used by the general assembly. Now the numerous rooms are used for different exhibits and performances.
The Parliament House is among a cluster of colonial buildings by the Singapore River. The others house a theater, galleries, museums and cafes.

A Festival of Flavors
A big and important part of the Singapore Sun Festival is the food. The experience of food and cooking also dominates the book Under the Tuscan Sun. Singapore itself is famous for its food. From the hawker stalls to the fine-dining restaurant, the place offers exciting gustatory adventure. My Singapore sojourn was made memorable by different flavors from the festival’s three food events and occasional forays to some restaurants.

At the night of my arrival on October 24, Luke Mangan held a signature dinner at a function room by the rooftop pool of the Hilton Singapore along Orchard Road, with different wines to accompany each dish. Also, each dish was joyfully annotated by the Australian celebrity chef and restaurateur with the help of wine writer Curtis Marsh.
The dinner started interestingly with quail egg rolled in herbs. It burst with a refreshing broth when bit, a pleasant surprise. The tanginess was well counterbalanced by the chilled beetroot soup. Then the dinner proceeded: confit of Tasmanian ocean trout, pickled cucumber, ginger, soy and lemongrass dress, with 2006 Tarrawarra rose pinot noir from Yarra Valley, Australia, and 2006 Two Paddocks pinot noir from Central Otago, New Zealand; lobster raviolo, truffle, tomato and basil, Jerusalem artichoke with 2006 De Bortoli Estate pinot noir from Yarra Valley, and 2006 Neudorf, Mouterre pinot noir from Nelson, New Zealand; squab with maple syrup, white asparagus and wild mushrooms with 2006 Yabby Lake pinot noir from Mornington Peninsula, Australia, and 2006 Pegasus Bay pinot noir from Waipara, New Zealand; and lamb loin with basil and spiced parsnip, pickled turnip and date with 2006 Schubert, Marions pinot noir from Martinborough, New Zealand and 2006 Tarrawarra Reserve pinto noir from Yarra Valley. It ended with cherry frangipane, chocolate tart and a whole lot of good vibe.
I was to encounter Mangan again on Sunday for “Daytime Quaffing: The Art of the Long Aussie Branch” at Graze, one of the restaurants in Rochester Park.
Rochester Park looks like a leafy residential subdivision, and it really was. The 70-year-old white-washed bungalows were once homes of British army officers. Now they are made into nice restaurants and the Rochester Park into a heritage area.

The open-air dining area of Graze was abuzz with people. The atmosphere was like that of a family reunion. Fountains gurgled at a nearby pond with orange carps swim languidly. The food was served in generous portions in large tables to be shared by anyone around the table— poached Tasmanian ocean trout, curried chickpeas, beetroot and feta; grilled quail with zucchini, basil, pine nuts and currants; crab omelet, mushroom and miso broth; mini Australian wagyu burgers with onion confit; salt and pepper prawns with baby corn and chorizo; and buttermilk pancakes and caramelized banana.
The hearty was hearty and flavorful, and the atmosphere casual, different form yesterday’s brunch which had an air of delicateness. We had white truffles by the river.
The Truffle Decadence Brunch was prepared Italian chef Riccardo Genovesi, who had a restaurant called Il Girasole in Sirmione. He was now in Ricciotti, an Italian casual dining restaurant in Riverwalk Galleria by the banks of the Singapore River. While Genovesi cooked, we observed boats passing by and marveled at another old structure, the Hill Street Police Station, now MICA Building with its gray façade accented by multi-colored windows.
The brunch consisted of a lot of dishes with white truffle shavings. Truffles were in season in Italy, and good cooks know the way to savor it is by having shavings on simple dishes like plain scramble eggs, which we had.
For starters, there were croissant with truffle mayonnaise and soft goat cheese, vegetable truffle tempura, deep-fried rice croquette with robiolo cheese and truffle, cold bean soup with truffle, truffle scallop gratin, calamari salad with truffle, and wagyu burger carpaccio with celery and truffle. The scrambled egg came with poached egg and truffle sabayon.

This was followed by fettuccini with red chicory and truffle fondue, crepes cannelloni with mushroom and truffle cream, and risotto with asparagus, Taleggio cheese and truffle. The Prawn gratin with truffle and veal tenderloin with truffle sauce served as main course.
During that brunch, I met a group of local journalists who gave me their list of must-try dishes in Singapore, particularly in Geylang: beef rice noodles at Lorong 9; bean curd at Lorong 13; Hong Kong-style char siew bao at Lorong 15; and crab bee hoon, black pepper scallops and steamed squid at Sin Huat Seafood at Lorong 35.
I was not able to try them for lack of time, but kept the list and a promise to return. I did try the quintessential Hainanese chicken rice at one of the stalls in a food center on Amoy Street. It was simple and delicious.

Different Strains
As much as the food, music also is a highlight at the Singapore Sun Festival. This year it ranged from classical to jazz to Latin, and had Kiri Te Kanawa, the Vienna Boys Choir, UBS Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra, Gabor Takacs-Nagy, Federica Von Stade, Murray Perahia, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Sarah Chang, Yefim Bronfman, Jesse Cook, Peter Cincotti, Sergio Mendes and Spencer Day.
I spent Saturday night with Jesse Cook and Spencer Day at Timbre, the chic café is near the Arts House, near the river. A section was closed off, and a stage was constructed in a way the artists perform with the glittering skyline along the Singapore River, a spectacle. In the cloak of darkness, I did not notice the statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, among the audience.

I was not familiar with Cook and Day, but they were great discoveries. The Canadian flamenco guitarist Cook impressed with his dexterity, coaxing incredible sounds from the guitar and setting the air on fire. On the other hand, American Day coolly crooned, dripping with sincerity.
The highlight of my musical experience was going to the Esplanade and watching the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra perform with pianist Bronfman and conductor Salonen. The repertoire consisted of Igor Stravinsky’s Fireworks, Op. 4; Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23; and Stravinsky’s The Firebird, the complete score of 1910.

With Sarah Chang
I was not able to catch Sarah Chang, who performed the same time Day and Cook was on. The former Korean-American child prodigy has turned into very accomplished young musician. I was able to talk to her though, and she turned out to be effervescent.

RHM: You started very, very young. How was it? It doesn’t seem to be a normal kid’s life.
SC: It’s really not. Within the circumstances, my parents did what they could. They were very supportive. They made sure I went to a normal school so I have friends my own age because when I was working I was always with grownups and people twice my age, three times my age if not older. When I was working, touring, recording, doing concerts, that was one set of my life and then when I went home I was a kid. My mom expected me to do homework. I went to Juilliard on top of that so I would have all the musical training. I feel that it was very structured and categorized in a way that I really did try to get the most, the best of out of both worlds. In theory it works like that. Obviously going to high school that became really, really hard. Because it’s hard enough when you’re just a full time student, but to have a career, as long as it’s a recording career, and then trying to finish school and keep up with school, it’s not fun. It was at a time when email was just starting but not huge so I really did finish high school like that. I really did. It truly saved my sanity. That was the only way that I was able to finish school. I had great teachers, amazing professors, who were willing to work with me, you know, to fax this when I’m working extra in the classroom. They were usually supportive but you know at the end of the day their requirements have to be met. There were a few years of rehearsals, concerts, parties and dinners and all that great stuff and then having to rush back to the hotel to do my homework, and I did. Many years of that. I’m glad it’s over now.

RHM: How different is it performing in the festival in Tuscany from this one in Singapore?
SC: First of all, this is by far the biggest hall and this is the proper hall. This is an actual proper hall. You can bring any orchestra, any conductor, and this is at par with any of the great halls in the world. The one in Tuscany, it’s just small opera hall. It’s beautiful but it is not an opera hall. You can’t fit in a big orchestra. I have played with a reduced chamber orchestra. Of the opera halls in Europe and especially in Italy, they’re like little miniature jewel boxes. They’re very like visually beautiful but capacity-wise they’re smaller, and the number of seats are smaller as well. The stage there is so much smaller. You can’t fit a hundred and twenty on stage, whereas this (the Esplanade) is enormous. There are differences like that. I’ve gone to Cortona a few times. It’s just different because here like after yesterday’s concert we have this big thing at the tent, we all went out to dinner and we had drinks at the Raffles then we went clubbing. It’s really a cosmopolitan big city. There’s so much to do here. Whereas Cortona is rustic. It’s wine country. A lot of green stuff. Really, really beautiful but in a different way like all cobblestones. You don’t wear heels there because you’ll get stuck and stuff like that. It’s one of those places where there’s one strip of shops and that’s basically it. It is like in a lot of little Italian cities and you go there and you get vegetables and stuff, and there were a few shoe stores and clothing stores. I remember I was walking back after one of the rehearsals and there was this little shoe shop which is so cute, so great. The next day I tried to go back and it was closed, and that wasn’t like on a Sunday or anything else. It was just a regular Thursday, four in the afternoon. No big deal. I asked the guy the next day why were you closed, and he said my mom came so we went out, we had company and we had lunch and it sort of got late so I just closed the shop. It’s sort of like that—totally easy-going, slightly disorganized, which is charming in a way. They’re very laidback. It’s different being in small Italian city from being in a big city.

RHM: What’s your personal definition of music?
SC: For me, it’s my life. It’s a huge part of my life. It takes over most of my major decisions. In the music industry, we schedule really far in advance. So right now we’re doing my 2011 to 2012 calendar so you know what city you’ll be in, who you’ll be working with on a certain day on 2011. It adds a little bit of stability, which is really good. It’s a challenge just to live the rest of your normal life. With all this extra stuff that goes on and at the end of the day, when you go on stage and actually play and to be with an audience that is so enthusiastic, to be with an orchestra and conductor that you really click with and work really well with, then the chemistry is there, that really makes everything just click, you know. It really all works out.

RHM: If you weren’t a musician, what would you be? What other interests aside from music do you have?
SC: I was at one point really interested in journalism, not just because I do some interviews, but I love to write and all that about me. But if I wasn’t actually a violinist I would hope that I would be somehow involved in the music industry, the promotion side of it, the recording company side of it.

RHM: Who is the biggest source of inspiration in your musical career?
SC: I would say probably my teacher, Miss (Dorothy) DeLay. She passed away several years ago. But she was an incredible teacher who taught like a whole list of really wonderful, wonderful musicians. Her and Isaac Stern probably. He really had a wonderful way of keeping an eye on the next generation of musicians, and was constantly calling and asking what you are working on, when are you going to Europe, and I want to hear you playing. You know, keeping an eye out. That’s pretty impressive, to see somebody of that stature and that important and huge, and he was certainly making that effort.

RHM: Do you have one violin or several?
SC: I travel with one but back home I’ve got a few. I got one that I bring out for photo sessions. I have one sometimes for outdoor concerts. When it’s raining or really hot and humid, it’s not good for the instrument. I got another one for that. [But I have] one main, one main instrument.

RHM: How’s your relationship with your violin? Some artists can be protective of their instruments.
SC: I don’t think I would go that far, but it is pretty special. For me, it’s my life, almost like an extension of your body. You spend a lot of time with it so you get to know it pretty well. They get quite temperamental with the different climates that we’re in. It’s very, very sensitive. Over the years, you need to learn how to make it work for you, realize if you’re in a tropical climate what it will and it cannot do this for you. And if you’re somewhere really high up like in Aspen, Colorado, you realize what amazing things it can do for you. What you want to do you know after the climate but you should just be calm and just learn.

RHM: What’s your main violin?
SC: It’s a Guarneri, del Gesu. It is about 300 years old. I’m pretty lucky to have it.

RHM: What do you dream of doing?
SC: A vacation. Just a little bit of breathing time sometimes. Where I could just have a free day and like actually a free day. With my life right now I don’t know if I actually have a so-called free day. It gets jam-packed with things that my manager puts in without me knowing. At least it’s not complicated. You know what I love doing is when I finally go home like for Christmas, my little brother and I, we usually…because when you travel so much you can’t keep up with your TV shows. There’s no way, right? The weekly TV shows you try to follow like Prison Break, Lost or whatever. You go away for seven days and then like everybody’s dead. You don’t know what happened. And then your friends start telling me, and you don’t want to hear it. Normally, when I’m home for like a day and then I need to leave again, I barely had enough time to repack. Usually we went out on Christmas and get everything on DVD. My brother and I would just literally like go through all the seasons in one sitting, all day, all night. We don’t even get up for meals. We’re pretty serious about it. I love doing that. I love doing that when you just basically catch up on life.

With Spencer Day
Spencer Day, whom some critics have dubbed as the “male Norah Jones,” I got to know more the day after his performance. Like Chang, he was young, open and easygoing. We were in a room in one of the top floors of the Conrad Centennial. Against the backdrop of buildings, he gave some of his thoughts:

RHM: Any influences?
SD: I have a ton of different influences. I think it has been a challenge in the industry because I am not doing what I think a lot of people expect me to do. I had some challenges in my career because I think I am not as jazzy like Michael Buble, or I am not doing a big band thing but I am also not doing a rock thing. But I think ultimately, hopefully that would be a huge benefit, that I don’t fit into either of those categories. I also grew up listening to a lot of different sorts of good music—country or Western music. My favorite singers are Ella Fitzgerald and Chet Baker. I really think they both sing ballads so beautifully. I really consider myself a torch singer, a ballad singer. I don’t think there have been a lot of torch singers lately though, more of another time period. I want to try bring that spirit of another time but put it in a more modern context.

RHM: How does a song idea come to you?
SD: It starts with coffee. Nothing happens without coffee. So as long as the trees keep growing beans, I would have ideas hopefully. When I am stuck with an idea, what I do is listen to something, whether it’s bolero or Joni Mitchell, and listen to a song I really like and try to figure what it is that I enjoy about it, and start to play along with it. When I stop the CD, it kind of transforms to something else. Sometimes by the point that I am done, it does not sound like anything like what I have started to listen to. When I am stuck creatively, I’d like to go back to a catalog of songs that I really love and respect, and think of what it is that makes me feel good about it and try to come up with my own interpretation. Sometimes, if I am stuck creatively, to work up a challenge, I would write a love song but never use the word love in it or do something like that. Or maybe just write a song about a bottle of water and what makes you think about it. It is a great way to focus your self. I think there are a lot of artists who tend to be very scattered. I put a lot of discipline onto myself.

RHM: Do you have any idiosyncrasies or rituals before creating a song?
SD: I meditate a lot. I think creating an atmosphere wherein you can be creative is really important. That’s why I live now in the woods. I don’t live in the city. Usually I can find it when it is really quite which I do better too. I need to be alone, too. If I need to do any work calls or something like that, I have to do it on a different day. If I am going to be creative, I have to wake in the morning knowing that I have nothing else to do left to do because you are using the left part of your brain. Anytime I start thinking that I should write this song to make money or something else, it kind of ruins the creative impulse. You really need to be open and free. Yeah, I guess my real ritual is turning off my phone.
RHM: Do you have any favorite songs that you wrote?
SD: I love them all. They are like children. Even if you have one kid who’s in jail you would still love him the same. I am really proud of the song I did last night, called “Weeping Willow,” and some of the ones that are very melodically strong. I think those of the songs I most proud of. I think a lot of songwriters are saying the best song they have ever written they haven’t written it yet. It is yet to come. Maybe tonight, who knows.

RHM: Do you have a philosophy you follow?
SD: I think one of my main goals through music is to try to bring all the religions and philosophies in the world and show them what they have in common. I have been studying a lot of Buddhism recently, but I think they all have the values of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism, etc.

RHM: What do you want people to remember you for?
SD: That is a very good question. I think what I want people to remember me for, long after I have gone in the earth, I hope there is a little smile in their face. I think if I could leave people feeling something or thinking something, that is my main goal. I really want to encourage people to look at the world and human beings a little differently. Even if I could only do that with one person in an audience where after they go home and encourage them to view their lives in a more positive way. That is my goal. I think musically, to just leave them with something beautiful. It is a very simple goal.

The Independent Travellers guidebook says Singapore can be represented by Sentosa: “If you were blindfolded and taken on a mystery ride to anywhere in the world and then allowed to open your eyes on Sentosa you’d know it was part of Singapore. This mixture of exquisite tackiness, anally retentive cleanliness and nitpicking attention to detail could only be Singaporean. Having said that, you mustn’t miss a bit of it. It’s what Singapore is all about.”
Wesley Gunter, a publicist for the festival who accompanied us though the events, said Sentosa is made for tourist and does not represent Singapore. If he is to pick a place, it would be Orchard Road.
Orchard Road is a mercantile place, truly representing Singapore as an economic powerhouse. It is known as a shopping area, where a lot of people from different walks of life, with different ethnic backgrounds, converge. Most Filipinos converge in one mall there, the Lucky Plaza.
Wesley may be right. The guidebook may also be right. It is actually hard to pigeonhole Singapore.
Did I see Singapore in the Sun Festival? Considering the sophistication, the cosmopolitan feel, the arts, the striving to do good and the best, probably I did. The festival is global in nature and Singapore is global, a melting pot. It is open. Everybody from different parts of the world can feel at ease, can be at home and at the same time Singapore provides them with a venue to know the unfamiliar, the foreign. They say it has no character because it is too well-planned. But there is character in everything. That it is well-planned is a character. Singapore, in its seamlessness is beautiful, a universal beauty.
My first journey to Singapore was like what the guidebook describes, being blindfolded and taken on a mystery ride. There was much life when I opened my eyes. The weather turned bad the day we departed. Lighting shattered the gray sky while we drove to airport. Its started to rain. Despite the gloominess, there was a warm glow inside from the experience of the Sun Festival.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Finding Happiness at Alegre Beach Resort

In gay lingo, there is the phrase “Alona Alegre,” after the eighties sexy starlet, meaning alone. It describes my state when I stayed in Alegre Beach Resort, a posh getaway at the northeastern part of Cebu, not a very favorable thing especially with an aching heart and in a somber weather. Cold drizzle fell during my stay in late April, jabbing at my loneliness and doubts. The place’s honeymoon feel seemed to foment uneasiness. I often enjoyed solitude and serenity. Still involved in a trying affair, I was reacquainting myself with the sweetness of solitude, now in an exquisite setting.
Alegre is Spanish for “happiness,” so I tried to find it. I knew that it can be found in little things as much as in grand things—little things like dainty flowers on the bed and on the table, dewdrops on grass, the smell of old books and fresh soap, a faint smile, the softness of pillows and beds, a tiny seashell on the shore, the taste of a new dish with makopa, an old song, the fresh scent of rain, the falling of dried leaves on a windy day, the sight of an unfamiliar bird straying to the verandah, etc., and grand things like a spectacular sunset, a stretch of white-sand beach, a well-appointed room with spacious bathroom and bathtub all for yourself, etc. They may not solve problems but their beauty, if we can perceive and appreciate it, inspires us and invigorates to go on. There are many happinesses.

Alegre Beach Resort seems to have all the instruments for and embodiments of happiness. I opened the doors of my room, well-equipped, tasteful and promising an enjoyable stay. The wooden floors are polished and felt good on the feet. The furnishings were made of woven palms leaves or vines or had woven accents. The two beds were nice and comfortable. The room had amenities befitting a five-star resort— satellite television with in-house movies, tea and coffee maker, an in-room safe, IDD telephone, individually controlled air-conditioning system, a mini bar, among others. At the other end of the room was the spacious bathroom, a delight. The bathtub sat at the middle.

I let myself fall on the bed, smelled the clean bed sheet and hugged a large pillow, imbibing the serenity and the plushiness. Every now and then, I looked at the door and the verandah that opened to the view of the sky and sea.
Mostly I stayed this cocooned during my stay and roamed the resort premises. I did not venture out, uncharacteristic of me, especially being first time in this part of the Visayan island. Maybe I felt unadventurous or lazy. Alegre is located in the barangay of Calumboyan, a rather remote part of Sogod. There is a long trek out to the highway or town center. I procrastinated venturing out and ultimately reserved exploring Sogod to another trip.
“There is an attractive hot spring nearby, several waterfalls, a cottage industry producing woven products as well as other handicrafts, the local market with seafood products, several Old Spanish churches…” Alegre’s German-Austrian general manager Fritz Kahler enumerated the interesting sites in the area.
I could imagine them. Alegre’s “unusual” location is an attraction to me. In Cebu, most resorts clustered in or around the capital, Cebu City, and the nearby island of Mactan, including a Shangri-La property, the Plantation Bay Resort and Spa, the Pulchra Resort, the Hilton Resort and Spa, and the Maribago Bluewater Resort, all well-known. Resorts also are flourishing in the southern part of the province where there are numerous dive spots, the town of Moalboal in particular. There also is the beautiful Badian Island Resort and Spa in Badian, most well-known and posh among them.
The resorts in the city and in Mactan enjoy accessibility with the Mactan International Aiport just several minutes away. On the other hand, Sogod is about 80 kilometers away, about one-and-a-half hour drive.
“It seems to be a disadvantage [being in Sogod] when talking to travel agents due to the ‘long travel,’ but once guests travel [to the resort] they are generally enjoying the trip. We try to place emphasis on the fact that you get to see an interesting part of the island such as the fishing villages, the old Spanish churches etc.,” Kahler admitted.
“Most important is the natural white-sand beach. This is where Sogod got its name,” Kahler pointed to the one good quality of the town. “South of Sogod, all the sand is black.”
Kahler has been with Alegre Beach Resort for three years now and had been in the Philippines since 1978. “I have lived in the Philippines before, have a Filipina as my wife so I am traveling in and out for about 30 years,” he related.
Born in Klagenfurt, Austria, Kahler had been posted in many countries. Before Alegre, he “came from setting up a resort in Shenzhen, China, and “prior to that I was managing hotels and resorts in Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore among others.”
“I worked for ten years for Shangri-La and 15 years for InterContinental Hotels,” he added.
Also, he was the general manager of the Punta Baluarte InterContinental in Calatagan, Batangas, and the Davao Insular Hotel from 1978 to 1982.
“I had been to Cebu many times but am a bit disappointed how polluted and dirty it has become. Too much traffic and no solutions in sight,” Kahler lamented but added, “While Cebu is really the second largest city in the Philippines, it is in a way relatively small, and therefore despite heavy traffic one doesn’t spend hours stuck in traffic unlike in Manila. I go regularly to Manila; have been to Baguio, Boracay, Hundred Islands; traveled by car from Manila to Cebu, Davao, Batangas.”
Still, “the friendliness and smile of the people, the fact that they all speak English” made a good impression on the hospitality executive, perhaps enough to have a Filipina wife, Cynthia Valmonte, whom he met at Punta Baluarte while she was the food and beverage manager there.
Still, whenever he can he goes to the city to “try other restaurants and wines I haven’t tried before.” This he does during spare time if not listening to music, reading and playing golf and tennis, but “there isn’t so much time off since I live inside the resort,” he averred.
It may not be a very bad thing since the 17-year-old resort is lovely, an attraction itself despite the disadvantage of distance. You can go all the way only for the resort itself.
Alegre Beach Resort nestles on a slope that goes down to three coves with white sand. The whole property is actually 27 hectares, only seven hectares of which are developed. The developed area is beautifully landscaped with lush gardens.
“Its spacious layout offers privacy to its guests. Beautiful gardens with numerous flowering plants and trees complement the overall concept,” Kahler said.
Amidst the gardens are the accommodations—large huts they call cabanas. There are 19 of them, handsome with thick grass roof. Each has two separate rooms, totaling to 38.
“Alegre uses local and Spanish design features,” Kahler further explained. “Materials used are mainly from the area such as cogon, wood, etc, and the accommodation is spacious offering high-class comfort indoors and outdoors on the verandahs.”

The rooms can be called modern rustic. It is not the rustic in the sense that they are rough and plain. It is the kind that ensouls modern luxury. In the room, I loved the things that surrounded me. In the bathroom, I sniffed the soap that looked like a bar of white chocolate and smelled of peppermint candy. I almost ate it. The bathtub was strewn with flower petals, waiting for warm water and a warm body. I deemed a bath too luxurious for me at the moment. I opted to wander about.
The cabanas are connected by narrow paths made of coral stone and limestone, with thick and tall hedges bordering them. Sometimes, my walk took some time; I often stopped and looked at the fossils. The path goes to different cabanas, to the spa, to the three coves, to the restaurant, to the main reception area.
The Alegre Spa, once a guest cabana converted into the Serenity Cabana overlooking Talisay Beach, is of Zen Oriental design with hand-painted walls and embellished with handicrafts and tapestries from Indonesia. It offers massages, body wraps, body scrubs, facials and indulgences packages.
The three coves are named Talisay, Crescent and Fisherman’s with white sand and beach lounges with cobalt-blue cushions. The largest, Talisay, has the Cliff Seafood BBQ and Bar, also with a roof of dried grass, offering cocktails and beer, salads and freshly grilled meats and seafood catch of the day. Chairs and tables are set under the talisay trees with music, the Latin and reggae types, softly melding with the splashing of the shore.
At Fisherman’s Cove, the aqua sports center offer diving paraphernalia, diving tours and water activities. The list of diving sites in northern Cebu proves to be exciting—coral gardens, shipwrecks, a wreck of a lighthouse, and the marine sanctuary, which is maintained by the resort right at their marine doorstep.
“[The resort’s] owners are the Pathfinder Corporation, based in Manila and Hong Kong. Owners are divers hence the special emphasis on a dive station,” Kahler informed.
Non-divers can opt for snorkeling, kayaking, banana boating, Jet-skiing, plain boating, cruising, fishing and bird watching.
The sunset cruise and dolphin watching offer is particularly interesting. Bottle-nosed and long-snouted spinner dolphins are commonly spotted. Sometimes melon-headed and pilot whales show up. You can have island adventures to the Camotes, Calanggaman, Quatro Islas, Capitancillo and Olango, a bird sanctuary, which has restaurants on stilts in the barangay of Caw-oy. Olango Island is the destination for bird-watchers with the largest concentration of migratory birds found in the country, 48 out of the 77 species in the East Asian Migratory Flyway. This is aside from the 42 resident bird species. For fishing, one can expect to catch trevally, jacks, barracudas, groupers, snappers and mullets. From November to February, there are the additional Spanish mackerel, wahoo, bonito, mahi-mahi and small tuna species.
Alegre Beach Resort also offers a host of non-water tours and activities. Aside from the one-hole putting green of Alegre, the resort can take golfer guests to Mercedes Golf Course in Dayhagon, Medellin, and Club Filipino in Pulangyuta, Danao City. Their wives can have a shopping spree in Cebu City. There is a gift shop inside the resort, by the way.
On Sunday, the resort can take the religious to Sogod’s church and the non-religious to the cockfight at the town proper. The urban excursionist has a tour of Cebu City, while the outdoorsy types can have biking and trekking trips. Biking from Calumboyan to the town of Borbon is recommended. There is a tennis court for the Agassi wannabe. Indoor games and board games can be had at the game room. Look for interesting reads in its library. The resort also put up cultural shows. There are many diversions.

The conference rooms and the business center are for those who meant, well, business. They are at the airy, grass-roofed main reception hall with a chandelier made of a big wheel. It overlooks a 47-meter swimming pool with two children’s pools, which in turn overlook the Camotes Sea.
At one end of the resort is a gazebo overlooking the sea. The afternoon I stumbled on it, it was set up for a private romantic dinner. Bougainvillea blossoms were strewn on the path and the floor. The posts were adorned with fern leaves. The balls of light were on and the table carefully arranged. Someone will propose, I surmised.
There have been weddings here—“several dream weddings where guests from all over the world rented the whole resort for several days, an unforgettable way to get married,” Kahler recounted.
Beside the swimming pool is the resort’s main dining place, the Pavilion, an old but charming restaurant perched on a cliff. Its executive chef Martin Przewodnik oversees the preparation of Filipino, Asian and international dishes with pizza, pasta and seafood. There is a healthy “spa menu” and the chef’s specially selected items, slowly cooked in their wood-fired brick oven. Requiring advance order, the special items include baked fish of the day, U.S. beef top blade or pork leg in clay, and barbecued fish of the day, U.S. beef top blade or pork leg in banana trunk.
There is the regular buffet, which I largely partook. My food diary, April 25, 2008, entry listed mushroom salad, crabmeat and corn soup, rice salad, roasted potatoes, shrimp sisig Alegre style, chicken baked in tomato and pesto, macopa salad, chocolate cherry cake and seasonal fruits. The following night was largely Filipino—seafood sinigang, grilled liempo and parrotfish and kaldereta. There was my comment: “Delicious!”
During dinner, a band serenaded diners, who are mostly couples. I am okay with dining alone, but the though of people wondering about my solitude made my uneasy. I communed with my food, the flickering flame on the table and the night.
If not preoccupied with anything, I noted the other guests. Kahler said that Filipinos form three-fifth of their clientele and the rest are foreigners. “The Philippine nationals, either residing here or balikbayans,” he said. “Second is the Japanese, then the Koreans followed by Russians and others.”
“Local guests are mostly families, many for reunions, and balikbayans,” Kahler explained. “From the Korean market, it’s honeymooners. From the Japanese market, it’s mostly families as well as honeymooners. From Hong Kong, we get families who either purely come to relax or go diving and to play golf.”
All of course are in pursuit of happiness. Happiness though is always of the hedonistic kind. Pleasure can be derived from helping others and doing something for the community, which the resort itself also pursues.
“Alegre is firstly a very eco-friendly resort,” Kahler said. “It recycles all water for use in the gardens, collects rainwater for use in the laundry, staff accommodation and engineering, heats water for the kitchen using the excess heat of its pizza oven, grows organic vegetables and produces its own compost from leaves and grass.”
One manifestation of the resort’s ecological endeavor is the maintenance of a marine sanctuary, with a coral reef recovery and desiltation program that aims to preserve and protect the reef ecosystem and restore the biodiversity of the area. According to Kahler, it is a milestone for Algere, this “successful creation of our marine sanctuary, which contributed to a healthy increase in the fish population, which not only made the resort more attractive to guests but assists local fisherman in increasing their catch.”
Kahler further said, “Secondly, [the resort has] responsibility to the community. It supports community projects year round and subsidizes two schools. Thirdly, Alegre supports schools with a hospitality curriculum by accepting its students on a regular basis, training suitable candidates from the base up and hiring suitable candidates whenever a position is available. Promotion from within is a policy.”
I left Alegre Beach Resort very early morning. It was still dark, but we began our drive to the airport, passing by still sleeping towns, beautiful in their desolation. I did not think of the meaning of the name Alegre and instead had an image of Alegre as a place of quiet wonder.

Getting There
Several airlines travel to Cebu daily, landing at the Mactan International Airport. From the airport, Alegre is about 80 kilometers away (90 minutes by car). From Cebu City, Alegre is 66 kilometers away (85 minutes by car). Alegre Beach Resort is at Calumboyan, Sogod, Cebu.

Contact Information
Alegre Beach Resort’s reservation office at Sogod has telephone numbers (+63 32) 254-9800, 2549811 and 2549822 local 172, and direct line: (+63 32) 255-6388; fax: number (+63 32) 254-9833; emails and; postal address P.O. Box 1094, Cebu City Philippines.
The Cebu sales and reservation office is at Nivel Hills, Lahug, Cebu City, with telephone number (+63 32) 231-1198, fax number (+63 32) 233-7944, and email address
The Metro Manila sales and reservations office is at Unit 1204, Tycoon Center, Pearl Drive, Ortigas Center, Pasig City, with telephone numbers (+63 2) 634 7505 to 07, fax number (+63 2) 633-1833, and email address
The Tokyo general sales agent is Sanyo International with office at the fourth floor of Nonaka Bldg., 1-18-2 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo, Japan, with telephone number (+81 3) 3461-8585, fax number (+81 3) 3461-8550, and email address
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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Breathless in Batanes

It is everything they say it would be: Batanes is unlike any other place in the Philippines; it even doesn’t look like the Philippines.

“I never thought that there is such a place in the Philippines that mixes the beauty of Greece, Tibet and New Zealand,” said filmmaker Adolf Alix, Jr., who has made Batanes the location for two of his films. “The landscapes, mountains and the raging waves. Wow. No amount of words can actually describe the beauty of Batanes.”

“It is little Europe of the Philippines,” exclaimed Marivic del Pilar, thirty-six-year-old marketing manager of a bus company and mother of two, who was with us for the trip to Batanes. “I will never forget the hills, the view, the Ivatan houses, and the narrow and winding roads at the edge of the mountains. Fantastic and rustic.”

We were used to hills and mountains, whose views are obstructed by buildings and houses and covered in forests. We were used to calm beaches with sand. We were used to highways that that zip through rice fields and nondescript towns.

In Batanes, the roads skirt the sides of mountains and cliffs, offering a spectacular view of the untamed sea and the majestic mountains. Sometimes, one passes by a town or village, quaint and quiet, something out of storybooks. In Batanes, the sea often rages, lashing against cliffs and boulders. You can hear it while you sleep in your room along with the drone of the air conditioning or the whirr of a fan. In Batanes, the hills and mountains are covered mostly in grasses and stumpy plants, almost revealing the shape of the islands, the crust of the Earth itself. With the open space and on a vantage page, you can see them, rolling until they meet the sea with a series of savage splashes.

“It’s as if you’re standing at the end of the world if the world was flat!” described thirtysomething Mace Dugenia, also a marketing manager from Quezon City. She and her husband were on their first trip to Batanes, like we were and many others in the Asian Spirit plane early June.

Batanes may not be exactly at the edge of the world, but it is for the Philippines, the northernmost end. Aside from being the northernmost, it is the smallest province and the least populated.
The ten islands of Batanes, totaling to 210 square kilometers of land area, are strewn over the Luzon Strait, 4,500 square kilometers expanse of territorial waters, between the Taiwan and the Philippines. South of the province lies the Balintang Channel and the Babuyan Islands. The Luzon mainland is 162 kilometers south. On the other hand, Taiwan lies 218 kilometers to its north, with the Bashi Channel and other islands of Taiwan lying in between.
The islands are caught between the forces of two mighty bodies of water: the Pacific Ocean on the east and the South China Sea on the west. The waters around Batanes have become legendary for its ferocity, which is frequently recounted by tourists crossing Batan Island to Sabtang Island on the faluwa, the motorized boat.
About 16,000 people live in Batanes, on the islands of Batan, Sabtang and Itbayat. The rest—Misanga, Ditarem, Siayan, Dinem, Ivuhos, Diadekey and Mavudis, the northernmost—are uninhabited. The commercial and social center of the province is Basco, the capital, on Batan Island. It was where we landed.
The shape of Batan, on the map, looks like a bone—two lumps of land connected by a land bridge. Mount Iraya, rising to 1,517 meters above sea level, dominates the northern lump, while Mount Matarem nestles on the southern end, where the towns of Mahatao, Ivana and Uyugan lie on its foot. Basco takes the northern part.
The airport of Basco is near Mount Iraya. It is a charming affair—a small airstrip with a terminal of wood and boulders, made to look like the traditional houses of Batanes but with a modern touch. The ceiling of the waiting area is decorated with upturned umbrellas, painted by local artists. Marivic, with her two kids in tow, was impressed. “I realized that we can have a great yet simple, rustic airport that looks very Filipino, not pretentious,” she said later.
The weather was somber and there was a light rain. We were happy to finally make the trip. June, being at the end of summer and the beginning of the rainy season, can be a tricky time to go to Batanes, many said. The province has the reputation of being ridden by typhoons and is at the mercy of the fickleness of weather. Flights can be canceled at the sudden change of weather. I imagined weather near the peak of Mount Everest, where it can suddenly change and can mean life or death.
I had been wanting to go to Batanes. A few years back there was an opportunity but I was committed to another trip. A friend went and their group was stranded for several days, waiting for the weather to clear up. I wanted to get stranded. December last year, I was at the airport very early morning, waiting for my flight to Basco and ready to experience the so-called winter of Batanes. There was a typhoon coming and the last minute the flight was canceled. I found myself in Boracay instead, dazed and disoriented with cold-weather clothes, and had to content with excerpts of Batanes, Alix’s romantic movie shot in the province, to whose premiere I was attend in Batanes. Then on February, I had a trip but there were problems with the scheduling and booking until it came down to June. I thought I would never be able to go for the year, but June turned out to be an okay time to fly to the province.
I was told that the province being typhoon-ridden is not entirely true. It is frequently explained that Batanes is only frequently associated with typhoons because Basco, which holds the last weather station in the north, is always used as reference point for typhoons entering the Philippines. It is true though that the fickleness of the weather can have drastic effects like the cancellation of flights.
“If you get caught by storm, you will be stranded for days,” confirmed photographer Mandy Navasero, who frequents Batanes to conduct workshops. “That’s true. But only for a few days because when the sun shines you can fly back to Manila. When there is a storm, flights are cancelled instantly. It is an open channel.
“Butch Abad (a prominent political figure in the province) said at a time they were flying over [Batanes], the pilot could not see Batanes,” she related. “It was submerged in water from a storm. Ha ha ha! [There was] no indication where to land.”
I thought she meant the landing area and not the whole province. I thought the visibility is almost nil. Flooding is rare in the province, almost nonexistent, because of its terrain. If there is flood, it does not stay for long; drainage is good.
Rain and strong wind constantly sweep Batanes though. It almost always rains here. It rains eight to twenty-one days in a month. The day we arrived, we were blessed with a brief shower, but for the rest of our stay, the sun shone like it was summer. Sometimes it rained briefly in the afternoons. Batanes has no pronounced wet or dry season, they say, but people here often likens their weather to the four seasons of the West, including a winter that falls from December to February, and summer that falls from April to June.
It was still summer in Batanes, summer as we knew it. And we swam on the beach. It shocked Marivic. She never thought it could get warm on the islands and that we could go swimming. She brought cold-weather clothes and no swimsuits. I got sunburn, and I did not expect that.
Aside from swimming on the beach, our trip to Batanes included visits to churches and towns with traditional houses, going up lighthouses and hills, viewing a lot of hills and spectacular landscapes, crossing the sea to Sabtang, and eating lobsters and coconut crabs on the beach and on the hills. Frequently we were in awe. It always took our breath, the hiking and the scenery.
Batanes looks like what it really is in photographs and movies, and more. And Batanes is much photographed. The few films that were set there hyped up the beauty of the islands. It is a favorite place of photographers like Mandy Navasero.
Navasero has been conducting photography workshops on the islands since 2006. But she has been to Batanes way before that as a flight attendant. Being a flight attendant and photographer she has been around the country, but she holds a special place for Batanes in her heart.
“My first time in Batanes I was eighteen years old and was working as a flight attendant for Philippine Airlines. I remember flying in a DC-3, a two-engine plane, with just a few passengers,” she recalled. “The captain would call me to watch the dolphins jumping in unison. Viewing from the cockpit, it was a delightful show. We also dropped the newspapers from the air to the ground at a certain point from the cockpit. I remember huge boulders on the shoreline. Now I know it is called the Valugan Beach or Boulder Beach. They were andesite stones from a volcanic eruption.”
While her first impression of Batanes was significant, the encounters with the province were cursory, “seeing it only from the air and from the Basco airport where passengers disembarked and embarked.” It was only when she is already a photographer and is conducting workshops, which she calls “photo sarafis,” that she was able to become familiar with the glory of Batanes.

“I stumbled on my love affair with Batanes when on day one in April 2006, during my photo safari, I felt really free to roam its hills and trek along the seashore. There was pastureland as far as the eyes can see. After Coron, I decided to go to Batanes in 2006 for my summer photo safari instead of teaching in my studio in Makati. I have fallen in love with Batanes,” she said. “Then Butch Abad encouraged me to continue my photo workshop in Batanes.”

The following year she went to three times to Batanes to conduct workshops, then six times in 2008. “It is like my second home,” Navasero said, “like I am an adopted daughter, like I am an Ivatan. Callers to my Batanes photo safari say I am synonymous to Batanes. That is very flattering.”

Batanes is every photographer’s dream. It is “picturesque,” Navasero described. “Everywhere you look, it is a picture.”

“I thought Batanes is next to paradise,” she further gushed. “Pastureland as far as your eyes can see. Undulating, emerald hills; boulders strewn on beaches; and the changing colors of the sea, from turquoise to lapis lazuli; the Ivatan vernacular stone houses in Sabtang built to stand the lashing winds from the north—these are some of the images of Batanes that take my breath away.”

“You would not like to leave Batanes once you are there,” she emphasized.
Filmmakers are similarly taken by Batanes, especially Adolf Alix, Jr.
Known to make films with a sense of place like his first, Donsol, in 2006, Alix stumbled on Batanes while thinking of his next film, another entry to the Cinemalaya Film Festival like his first.

After writing Mga Munting Tinig in 2002, he saw an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, showing the popular American talk show host giving out cows, instead of money, to families in Africa to provide them with a source of livelihood. He played with the idea and decided on a story about a boy who searches for a goat, his family’s source of income. He then researched for a place where his story can be convincingly couched and came across Batanes. Kadin (Goat) was made.

Kadin really led me to discover Batanes,” Alix revealed. “I was looking for a place where goats are very important to the community. When I saw pictures of Batanes, I thought it was perfect. Also, the way of life of the Ivatans is the right backdrop for the lead character’s journey.”

Alix have been to Batanes five times already.
“The first time was to immerse myself in the Ivatans’ way of life before I write the screenplay of Kadin,” he related. “I was really in awe the first time because it was what I imagined the place to be—picturesque, bucolic and very serene—elements which will greatly resonate the journey of my lead character.”
While doing research for and filming Kadin, Alix was inspired to do a love story set in the place. For him, Batanes is “a perfect place to fall in love. It complements the beauty and heartache of love in general with its landscape and raging seas.”
Thus, his next Batanes film is a romantic one, taking the name of province itself as title because unlike Kadin the story was inspired by the place itself.
“So far, it’s the best place that I've been to,” Alix said. “It’s very difficult to describe the place because of its utmost beauty. Life is simple yet the place is grand.”
Alix though is not the first to see the potential of Batanes as a setting for a romantic film. Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s first film Hihintayin Kita sa Langit (1991) transplanted the story of Emily Bronte’s gothic novel Wuthering Heights into Batanes, making use of the place’s forlorn beauty.
These images and films have attracted many people to Batanes.
“It was the movie of Richard Gomez, Hihintayin Kita sa Langit (I will wait for you in heaven) that made me want to go here,” Marivic laughed, recalling the first images of Batanes she saw. “That was way back in high school, some twenty years ago. I swore I would go to Batanes one day. After twenty years, I did.”
On the other hand, Mace first learned about Batanes through travel shows more than two years ago, and decided to go here “because of the lovely pictures I’ve seen of the place. It was as if everywhere you turned, you can’t help but be taken in by the beauty of the place.”
We all agreed that Batanes fulfills its promises and does not disappoint.
This my first Batanes trip started with an itinerary for four days and three nights, with “interesting” names and descriptions.
“Ride all day through the four towns of Sabtang, which all like they were frozen in time,” I read in an itinerary emailed to me.

“View the Bundok Susong Dalaga (Sleeping Beauty) in Sumnanga where the Duvek Bay is found, also locally known as ‘Little Hongkong.’ Where you can see the breathtaking cove and that one would want to stay for fresh air and tranquil beauty,” it further said. “2:00 P.M. – Catch without fail the last trip of ferry back to Batan Island.”
There was also “a ride to Marlboro Country, local version, which breathtaking panoramic view, velvet green grass and tamed farm animals that could share pictures with you.”
Intrigued, I wanted to go even more.
Lydia Roberto, the imposing and amiable manager of the Batanes Seaside Resort and Restaurant where we stayed, introduced to us the author of the itinerary, Rogers Amboy. “The best tour guide in town,” she declared.
He and Lydia devised the best itinerary for us, the fifty-one-year-old, swarthy and rotund Rogers informed us. At his age and size, the guide was voluble and alert. Not only is he the best, he is also a pioneer, he said, with eighteen years of tour-guiding.
The father of six daughters is actually a chemical engineering graduate from Feati University in Manila. He eventually came back to Batanes to become a farmer and fisherman. He can catch lobsters for us, he said, which go for about 350 pesos a kilo, half the price of those in Manila.
His tour-guiding started when he was hired as driver during the shooting of Hihintayin Kita sa Langit, he said, and he drove its lead star Dawn Zulueta around. He also carried actress Lea Salonga to a big rock in Uyugan for a shampoo commercial.
And it seemed were going to be treated like stars.
The first day comprised naturally a tour of the capital Basco. Being the capital, Basco is the most “urbanized” place in the province where 6,717 people live. Urbanized here is relative. Basco actually is rustic and quiet. It is your ideal neighborhood where children bike in the afternoon, boys swim on the beach near the port and families stroll and have picnics on the plaza. Every afternoon, I took a stroll from the resort in the barangay of Kaychanarianan to the plaza, where the provincial capitol, municipal hall, the school and some government offices cluster around, and had barbecue at the canteen beside the Basco Cathedral. Public transportation seemed few and erratic but I did not mind the walk of a kilometer or so. There were very few good restaurants. Our resort was a plain one, a house with many rooms really, but the food was satisfactory. There are a few resorts and inns in Batanes, all in Basco, and none are fancy or posh. The marketplace was unbelievably small. But it was okay. Life seemed to be beautiful.
I felt a good vibe about the place, about the people. Every visitor feels the same way, feels that the people here are good.
“I was reminded that people in general are good. Zero crime rate is what they experience in Batanes,” commented Mace.
“People are friendly, hospitable, and I feel safe. Passing through the police station, [I feel] nothing is wrong with the world. Policemen are sitting quietly, and they are so fit in their uniforms. There is no crime in Batanes,” Navasero said.

“The Ivatans are very accommodating,” said Alix. “The simplicity of life and the way they live it is very admirable.”
One afternoon when light rain and mellow sunlight melded, I chanced upon a Flores de Mayo procession. Girls in gowns and boys in crisp barong Tagalog marched throughout the town, ending in Basco Cathedral. After that, the town became quiet as the dusk slow descended.
Attending the Sunday mass in the evening at the Basco Cathedral is a memorable experience for Navesero, who likes visiting old churches.

“Mass is impressive because the community is in attendance and some tourists. It was as if this mass was the last mass on Earth,” she related. “It is so complete. It has lectors, commentators, readers, lay ministers, sacristans and a priest totally dressed for the occasion, including a recessional, processional and everything in between. It is solemn and slowly celebrated with no rush unlike those in the city.”
Adding to that is the air of the cathedral itself, a beautiful one. A marker tells about the building of the church and the damages it suffered since 1783, when the first church was built. The Augustinian priest Pedro Galende, who is now with the historic San Agustin Church in Intramuros, Manila, describes its façade in the book Philippine Church Facades: “Father Nicolas Castano, O.P., constructed between 1812 and 1825 the façade of the present church of cal y canto (cut stone held together with mortar of lime and sand) in the espadana style. The church walls were buttressed with massive pilasters to give it strength against earthquakes and typhoons.

“The façade is a large rectangle surmounted by a triangular pediment. A line of broken cornices wind their way over wall panes and large pilasters which are at the height of the original eaves, separating the rectangle below and the pediment above. Massive pilasters serving as buttresses give stability and strength against earthquakes and notoriously strong winds typical of the Batanes islands.”
Most of the churches in Batanes were patterned after the Basco or Saint Dominic, the town’s patron saint, Cathedral.
The church is of course an indication of Spanish presence as with the rest of the country. Batanes came under Spanish rule in 1783 under the governor-general José Basco y Vargas. The capital, whose full name is Santo Domingo de Basco, is named after him.
North of the cathedral is the Basco Lighthouse. Standing on the Naidi Hills in the barangay of San Antonio, the lighthouse affords a panoramic view of Basco and the surrounding areas. This is where I had my first spectacular view of Batanes.
The lighthouses in Batanes are new, built more as ornaments to complement the landscape. They gave a more storybook feel to the province.

Old structures are strewn near the Basco Lighthouse: ruins of telecommunication buildings built by the Americans before World War II. Cows roam around them. They give the place a semblance to New Zealand, another place of stunning landscape with cows.

“View the ridges at the boundaries with similarities of the pasture lands of Holland,” Rogers wrote in his itinerary. I wondered if he has been to Holland.
Further north of the barangay, in the sitio of Vayang, there is an expanse of undulating landscape with a view of the Chadpidan Bay, which Rogers simply call Rolling Hills. Grass carpeted the hills, punctuated by a thorny plant called barwas. Its sap is used to heal wounds, he said.
On the way to the eastern side of the island, we passed by the Japanese tunnel, built during World War II, “an approximately 250 meters long bifurcating to five exits,” said a sign. We went inside through a small opening, walked though the darkness, went down the 32 steps, looked at the chambers and went out through another opening.
It was a hideout of the Japanese soldiers during the war, Rogers explained. He proceeded to cut up small watermelons he filched from a couple of fields in Rolling Hills to quench our thirst.
We drove to the barangay of San Joaquin, to Valugan Beach. Valugan, we later learned, is Ivatan for “east” or “where the sun rises.” There are several places in Batanes with that name including a fishing village.
Valugan Beach is notable for its boulders strewn on its shore. He hopped from one rock to another to get to the water. These were spewed by Mount Iraya, a dormant volcano whose last eruption was recorded in 505 A.D., said Navasero. “Valugan Beach manifests the volcanic effusions from Mount Iraya that is an impotent geologic formation in the archipelago,” a sign said.
The mountain loomed in the background with its thick cap of clouds.

“The stones provide protection for the eastern side of Basco and they contribute substantially to the enhancement of the aesthetic value to the seascape and landscape of Batan Island,” the sign, made by the local government of Basco, concludes.
They have an interesting way of saying things here. Perhaps intoxicated by the beauty of the islands, one cannot help but be effusive and pressured to be at par with the surrounding.
One is afforded a 360-degree view of Batan, the second largest island of Batanes, at the Radar Tukon, a weather station built on a hilltop by the United States presently used by the Basco Radar Station. About three kilometers from the town proper, Tukon is in the middle part of the island. Here one sees the Pacific Ocean on the side and the South China Sea on the other. The rolling hills and mountains seem to be at your feet. I was engulfed by heartbreaking beauty.
On the way back the resort, we passed by a small chapel of stone and hardwood. The Tukon chapel was built by the Abads, a prominent political family in Batanes. Aside from politicians, the family produced a prominent artist, the late Pacita Abad, who spent most of her life traveling and making art. Years before her death, she had been working on building a gallery and art center in Batanes. The Fundacion Pacita Abad now stands in Tukon, a charming stone house, an art center as well as a bed-and-breakfast place, perched on a hill, overlooking the sea.
Fundacion Pacita Abad was closed to visitors that day for repairs. We went inside the chapel instead. In other places, these are refuges for the soul. Since the whole of the province is a refuge for the soul, I tried to find other purposes for these places aside from the obvious. In the enclosed space of the chapel, I reconstituted myself before bursting and scattering all over the islands. I went into some sort of debriefing before retiring and tackling Sabtang tomorrow.
The smallest of the three main islands, Sabtang is nearest to Batan, reachable by a forty-five-minute boat ride from Ivana, a town at the southwestern part of Batan. At Ivana’s San Vicente Port, we rode the faluwa together with other tourists early morning. From the port, Sabtang is visible. This ride I had read much about—how the waves are gigantic, the size of houses, and how tourists pray while crossing.
The day was clear and nice when we crossed to Sabtang. It was not as frightening as I thought it would be. Maybe I was used to too much boat ride.
At the northeastern part of the island is Centro or San Vicente. An arch welcomes visitors to the quiet island town of Sabtang, the smallest of Batanes’s three main islands with forty-one square kilometers. Pass the arch, we saw Sabtang Church, a small one but radiant in its white paint and reverent in the serenity of the place. The church reminded me of old chapels in desolate and dusty Mexican towns I had seen in movies. A historical marker briefly told its history: the original church built by the Dominicans 1785 and then neglected when the townspeople were forced to relocate to Ivana after the revolt of Aman Dagat in 1791; the next church made of lime and stone in 1844; the belfry repaired in 1956 after being damaged by a storm; and the interior refurbished and the roof changed into galvanized iron from 1983 to 1984.
The church is flanked by two barangays, marked by their arches, Malakdang and Sinakan. A few jeepneys congregated near the church to pick up the visitors. Across the church, visitors registered, paid a fee and arranged for vehicles at a tourism office. After the bustle of choosing jeepneys, the town center became quiet again. Once in a while, a couple of farmers passed by with their carabaos, down the narrow stone road flanked by stone houses. It was again a bucolic scene out of storybooks.
The island of Sabtang is notable for its two villages of traditional stone houses, Savidug and Chayavan. These were the main destinations for the morning.

South of San Vicente, Savidug is a coastal village of 167 people and of mostly stone houses. We walked on its narrow roads. We passed by a house selling soot, the traditional Ivatan gear woven from a palm called vuyavuy. The women wear the vakul over their head and it looks like an oversized wig, while the men wear the kanayi over their shoulders. The weaver’s daughter peered curiously at the visitors and was asked to don a vakul for pictures.
The Ivatan houses, made of boulders and thick dried grass for the roofing, were so beautiful, huddling together against the backdrop of the jagged mountains. Squat and strong, they are suitable for the weather.

“In the Philippines, it is only in Batanes, where people have traditionally built low-slung sturdy stone houses capped by a thick thatch roof,” wrote noted architect and heritage conservation advocate Augusto Villalon. “Traditional houses in the rest of the country, and most of Southeast Asia for that matter, have always been impermanent dwellings of wood and bamboo and nipa palm roofing. The low-slung, thick-walled stone house capped by a mane of cogon is found only in Batanes.”

We went inside one house with the kitchen housed in a separate structure, the insides blackened by years of cooking. The kitchen is usually a separate area in an Ivatan house, Rogers said.
In another house, vinegar and wine are being made from sugar cane. A curious contraption sits in the middle of the yard, used for extracting juice from the canes. Inside, rows of earthen vats sit in the dark, fermenting.
We were to see more quaint houses in Chavayan, farther south. In his 2001 book Lugar: Essays on Philippine Heritage and Architecture, Villalon, who considers Chavayan the most beautiful town he has ever seen and has an “overdose of beauty” just thinking of it, gushed about the village: “Chavayan is literally the last town at the end of the road from nowhere. However, be careful about misleading descriptions. In truth, it is the place where our world ceases and pure magic takes over.”

The magical village of 152 people is wedged between the jagged mountains and the battered shore. At the outskirt, Rogers pointed to a pit where limestone is “cooked” and made into binder for the houses.
Visitors are welcomed by a diminutive rotunda. A map of the village can be seen at the entrance, a very simple sketch really showing about ten small roads. Everything in the village seemed small even the open-air theater in the middle of the village. Here we refreshed ourselves with fresh coconut water from a vendor. A few village children gathered curiously around us, an unusual “crowd” in an almost always beautifully people-less place. A boy followed me to the chapel, whispering something I could not understand. An incantation maybe. At the other end of the town is the chapel with thick grass roof. The only one in the country with such a roof, said Rogers. Like other structures in the village, the chapel is bantam, like a replica of the Basco Cathedral for a child.

Aside from being small, the structures here seemed old. “Accurate dating of Ivatan structures is difficult,” Villalon said, “but all of the Chavayan houses are clearly four to five generations old. The houses are all authentic, preserved with traditional masonry and carpentry method, without any modern interventions at all. No concrete patches, common in the rest of the province, ruin the integrity of the traditional stone walls. The remoteness of the village makes transporting anything from the outside world at least difficult, if not impossible.”

Between Savidug and Chavayan, we drove on a road that wound through mountains, passing by an idjang, the mountain citadel of ancient Ivatans. “Where people take refuge when attacked by other clans during the old times,” wrote Rogers in his itinerary. We stopped at the eastern side of the barangay of Sumnanga to see more cliffs, cove and the raging sea. It was Duvek Bay with a small hill called Susong Dalaga, meaning “maiden’s breast.”
The other half of the day we spent swimming in Morong Beach in Nakabuang. Under the arch-like rock formation we had lunch of lobsters and rice cooked in turmeric and other spices. They were served on large leaves, kabbaya, from the tipuho tree, a kind of breadfruit.

The small lobsters were steamed and served drenched with pork and beans in tomato sauce, the kind that comes in cans, a curious preparation. The yellow rice became a favorite. To make it, one has to sauté the rice in oil, garlic, onions, turmeric and pieces of leftover meat, said the waitress of the Pananayan Canteen, which catered our lunch. The restaurant, located at the main port, seemed to be the only one on the island. After sautéing, one has to pour in water or broth, and let the rice cook.
Max Babalo, the young, bespectacled mayor of Sabtang who spent part of his life in Canada, dropped by. Out into the sea, we can see the hazy outline of Batan Island. Farther north was Itbayat Island. It will require another trip to explore Itbayat. We had to contend with Sabtang and Batan. Those two were more than enough.
The following day we went around the rest of Batan.
In the town of Uyugan, in the south, the National Road winds though dramatic rock formations. Goats took refuge from the rain under clumps of wild pandanus and in large crevices of the cliffs. In the barangay of Imnajbu, 25 kilometers from Basco, there was a chapel with a dark, old wooden cross, a reminder of the first mass held in Batanes.
Spanish Dominican missionaries are said to have landed in Batanes in the late seventeenth century. But the Spaniards are not the first European to visit Batanes though.
Englishman William Dampier with a crew of English and Dutch freebooters is said to have visited the islands in 1687 and stayed for about three months, naming Itbayat Orange Isle in honor of William of Orange and Batan Grafton Isle for the first Duke of Grafton Henry FitzRoy and Sabtang Monmouth Isle for the Duke of Monmouth.
After the Dominicans landed in Batanes, spreading Christianity, Spain claimed Batanes as part of its territory in the Philippines in 1783. A ceremonial formal annexation was held in the plains of Vasay, in what is now Basco, declaring the new province of Provincia de la Conception.
In February 1900, USS Princeton berthed at Basco Bay, after the defeat of Spain. During the American rule, Batanes was reclassified as a town in 1901, part of Cagayan. Its provincial status though was restored in 1909.
Just outside the village, one can see the vestiges of American presence: an abandoned United States Coast Guard detachment called Loran Station. When it was operational, locals came to have a taste of America. Some Ivatans fondly remember watching Hollywood movies at the station every night and interacting with the Americans.
Now, the structure lay desolate, slowly being dismantled by the elements. Goats scamper around the rooms that reek of their dung. Here, with the furious waves and the drab weather, it can get gothic, very Wuthering Heights, only set by the sea.
There were more signs of beautiful desolation at the abandoned sitio of Songsong in the adjacent barangay of Itbud, with its ruins of stone houses. The sitio was ravaged typhoons and a tsunami in the 1950s, disheartening the villagers who accepted the offer to be resettled in Mindanao under President Ramon Magsaysay’s homesteading program.
A 2004 sign tells its story: “The sitio Songsong in the municipality of Uyugan probably had its origins in the American period in the 20th century when the people of Uyugan had greater freedom to resettle outside Uyugan Centro closer to their farms. It was a neat cluster of stone and lime houses with cogon roofs when in the strong typhoons of 1953 and 1954 the villagers were ravaged by tsunami. Deeply discouraged, the residents accepted the offer of resettlement in the homesteads under the Magsaysay resettlement program. The residents of Songsong left for Mindanao and the sitio became uninhabited for the next three decades. Repopulation of the sitio began towards the last years of the 20th century. Today it is a thriving community again.”
Our brief visit to Uyugan was marked by rain, heightening the somberness and solitude. But the sun broke from the clouds when we entered the next town, Ivana, a more thriving community. At its heart is the Saint Joseph the Worker Church in the barangay of Radiwan, the oldest Catholic church in Batanes. A historical marker lists the events in its history: “Established as a chapel, 1787. The stone church constructed by Fr. Francisco de Paula Esteban, O.P., 1795; the belfry by Fr. Jose Fausto de Cuevas, O.P., 1814-1817. The church was made smaller after the people of Sabtang left, 1844. The façade was refurbished by Fr. Fabian Martin, O.P., 1866-1869. The Katipuneros raised the flag of the Katipunan at the belfry, 18 September 1898. Damaged by earthquake, 2000. Have it repaired by Fr. Gumersindo Hernandez, O.P., 2001.”

The church faces the sea and the old port, luminous with its cream color accented by paint the color of mulberry tracing the pediments, the finials, the whole church. The quadrangular bell tower is crenellated looking more like a fort. It must be an experience to worship here, to emerge from the dim confines of the church into the vastness of the sea.
The words Since 1795 are painted on the upper part of its façade, under the cross. It refers to the founding of Ivana by Dominican missionaries. Behind the church are the ruins of a former church or perhaps the original breadth, covered with weeds, trees and vines. One can easily miss the ruins. A crude signboard tells of its existence and its history, written by a girl scout. It tells that the first church was “constructed of wood and other indigenous materials by Fr. Bartolome Artigues, O.P.,” on the site in 1785, 46 meters long and 16 meters wide.
“The walls, which is now part of the present church, is made of lime that measures two meters thick,” it further tells. “Following the return to Sabtang by its people, after four decades of exile in sitio San Felix, Fr. Fabian Martin reduced the size of the church in 1844 to make it more solid. These ruins used to be the altarpiece, sacristy and baptistery of the original church. Within its vicinity are also the ruins of what used to be the quarters of those in-charge of tolling the bells (campanile) and the beateria.”
Standing long enough in the middle of the ruins, one sees the vegetation giving way to old stones. I saw crumbling walls and vestiges of windows. I felt the stone floor where the altar used to stand under my feet. I lost my concentration and the grass bristled and the vines concealed the stones more. I wound my way out of the ruins, out of the church and to the front yard that opens to the sea.
In Radiwan, aside from the church, a store across it is also tourist spot. It has been written about several times. The store itself is simple affair, made of bamboo, grass, stone and concrete. Inside, there are a few plastic chairs and tables. A coin-operated karaoke machine sits at one corner, gathering dust. The counter has the usual snacks of chips, candies and biscuits. A small table has instant coffee and hot water. Souvenir items like T-shirts and vakuls hang from the ceiling. The refrigerator contains bottled water and softdrinks.
The store’s name is Honesty Coffee Shop and its mode of operation is what garners it attention. No one tends the store, and customers are expected to be honest, getting what they want and leaving the payment in a box.
“This store is too small for dishonest people,” says a sign on the wall. “The Lord is my security guard,” says another.

We had a couple of drinks and looked for the owner. She lives just behind the store but it took time before she emerged. We expected a cheery and amiable mother. Instead Elena Gabilo looked like she had been disturbed from sleep, taking her steps slowly and talking slowly almost grudgingly.
The seventy-three-year-old owner was a teacher at the Ivana Elementary School. Her husband Jose makes sugar cane vinegar, some which are sold in the store. She has six children, almost all became teachers. When she retired in 1995, she immediately opened a store, then nameless, a very apt business venture. The port of Radiwan, just beside the store, was still operating, ferrying people to and from Sabtang, and business was well. But the port was closed down and people go to the port of San Vicente to get to Sabtang. Business slowed down almost to halt. There were days when there were no customers. Soon, no one tended the store but it was left open. The occasional customers would leave their payment because no one was at the store. People asking for the name of the store would call the local radio station, Radyo ng Bayan, until it became to known as the Honesty Coffee Shop.

The store is open from six in the morning until six in the evening, and sells only a few items. There are no valuable items, Elena said, because if people get dishonest they won’t lose too much. The port of Radiwan is now being reconstructed, she said. Soon the ferry will return and she is expecting a boom.
On the other hand, 82-year-old Florestida Estrella does not have much to look forward to. We literally disturbed her from her afternoon nap to look around her house, said to be the oldest in Ivana and even in the whole of Batan. We hesitated by the doorway, peering inside, but she beckoned for us to come in. She sat by the window while we poked around. We felt like intruders but she is used to it, almost like a routine to her. Her house is an attraction and tourists frequently come. We asked about the pictures of a boy. A nephew, she said, who lives in Manila but has not visited for a long time. We asked how she makes a living. She and her younger brother Felino, who both live in the house and are both unmarried, grow sweet potatoes and purple yams in the hills. She looked weak and sick now, and had not been to the field for two years now. Look, she said, her vakul has deteriorated. She now depended on her neighbors for food and on pitying tourists for handouts. Even if sick, she has to wear a smile and welcome them. She had a logbook which visitors sign in.

She became used to it and expects it now, our guide grumbled. It should not be. We were sorry.
Florestida’s house is a traditional one, although a bit larger than the ones we’ve seen in Chavayan and Savidug. It was clean and almost spare. It had one room. A curtain separated her sleeping area from the rest of the house. She could not tell how old the house is. I read somewhere that it was built in the late nineteenth century.
Guides refer to it as Dakay’s house. Dakay is Florestida’s father who got the nickname when he was a child, from parakay, meaning burnt red from exposure to the sun.
His father was out a lot and his hair became reddish from sun exposure. His itinerant ways continued into adulthood. Dakay tried his luck as a sewer in Metro Manila and Iloilo in the Visayas. He then went to Silay in the neighboring island of Negros, where Florestida was born.

Florestida remembered that they went back to Batanes in 1939, when she was seven years old, when her spinster grandaunt Luisa Estrella bequeathed the house to her father. Here she live ever since until it became a tourist attraction, the oldest house in the island frequented more by strangers than relatives.
Residents of the little fishing village of Diura in the barangay of Uvoy, in the next town of Mahatao, are perhaps used to strangers, appearing suddenly and now frequently. The village itself is an attraction, an interesting stop on the way to the Fountain of Youth, a spring with a story of a miracle that flows its way to the sea.
Lying at the eastern shore of Mahatao, Diura is a quaint little village with houses unlike the stone ones that are customary in the islands. The houses are smaller and made entirely of dried grass. They are arranged along small roads, running on the dies of the hills. Running parallel to each other, each one is higher than the other.

The houses are decorated with fish left to dry. Dibangs, flying fishes, cleaned and splayed, dangle on a bamboo pole by the roof. They spin in the wind. Arayus, dolphin fishes or dorados, halved, salted and smoked, are arranged on a rack, catching the eyes of visitors already giddy with the scenery.
There are about thirty families, said feisty Magdalena Fabre. Engaging, informative and able to speak good English, she could be a guide. But she is a businesswoman and she can be no-nonsense. We stopped by her store to buy dried dolphin fish, a specialty of this village. Across the store was a shed with a papag, bamboo cot, or more precisely a big papag with a roof. The houses here had adjacent sheds. The shed, with a floor of bamboo slats raised from the ground, seems to be the social and living area, where they eat, take a nap, receive visitors and drink.
A man, perhaps her husband or lover, offered us palek, the local sugar-cane wine. We took a sip. It tasted sweet like molasses or honey spiked with rum. The fifty-two-year-old Magdalena came out of the house with three pieces of the dried fish, heavy and almost three feet long. She was selling them for five hundred pesos each. We thought it to be pricey but we were getting a good bargain. Dried dolphin fish fetches normally costs seven hundred pesos.
We are not supposed to be selling dried dolphin fish, she informed us. Any piece in the village right now is for their own consumption. It was not the season of catching dolphin fish.
Dolphin fish seems to be a special fish here. Magdalena explained the intricacies. There are the fishermen who specialize on catching dolphin fish called mataw. They can only catch them from March to May, the summer time. The mataws first catch shrimps and coconut crabs as bait for flying fishes, which in turn will be used as bait for the dolphin fish, a big, agile fish that looks like a flash of gold in the turquoise water, thus its other name, dorado. Its gold color though fades upon death.
Before the mataws embark on a dorado fishing expedition, the village shaman performs a ritual, slaughtering a pig and looking at its innards. He announces if the condition is favorable for fishing. Before launching their boats to the sea, the mataws speak to the sea, beckoning the fishes of the world to come to them. Their wives and daughters in their hearts hope they will come back to them alive. The sea can be unforgiving and the fish fierce and elusive. They only have lines, hooks, strength and good fortune. Their faces are stern when they start, and must remain so when they have the good fortune of catching several dolphin fishes. Fate does not favor the boastful.
On a good sunny weather, the dolphin fish takes about a week to dry. Every now and then, they are brought in to be smoked from the cooking fire.
It is a long process. With the price justified, we handed over five hundred pesos for each piece.
Dried arayu meat can be tough and very salty. At home I simply fried it and ate it with lots of streamed rice. A small salty sliver is enough to flavor a handful of rice. The waitresses at our resort suggested boiling it before frying, making it more tender and less salty. I tried it on another dish, sprinkling fried shreds on thick mung bean soup.
I was thinking of food when we got to the Fountain of Youth, about a kilometer from the village. We left the vehicles at the village and trek the narrow path to the spring, skirting the side of a mountain. We took a rest midway and the spot afforded a view of the village. But we had to move on. The sun was getting scorching. It was too hot to listen to Rogers telling the legend of the spring. A chieftain’s sick daughter was cured by drinking water from the spring, or something. Why it is called Fountain of Youth remained a mystery though. We passed by an area of big rocks and vegetation called Big Settlement, which is the remains of a, well, big settlement.
At the spring, we slaked our thirst and washed our sweaty faces. Cool water cascaded down the rocks, through a stream and into an artificial catch basin, where children swam, before meeting the sea. An image of the Virgin Mary was placed by the mouth of the spring, which was unimpressive. Still, there were many visitors and many were locals. Having too much sea, a spring is perhaps a novelty.
We met Rogers’ cousin, dripping with spring water, who could not believe he had come to know the place only recently, and this was his first visit. Numerous non-locals had visited before him, a local. He observed that Batanes is getting more and more visitors. During one plane ride, the cousin observed more non-locals than Ivatans. There is about two- to three-hundred percent increase a year in visitor influx, said Rogers.
While many welcome this, many are wary. Many, mostly visitors themselves, say that too many tourists can ruin the islands but encourage people to come before development happens. But the fact remains the future of the province lies in the hands of the locals.
Perhaps modern developments can sit side by side old structures, perhaps like wind turbines on traditional forts. At Mahatao’s interior, three wind turbines whirl on a former idjang.
Spearheaded by politician Florencio Abad, former secretary of the Department of Education, launched on August 7, 2004, the turbines in Mount Sumhao are part of a wind-diesel hybrid system project, the first commercially operated one in the country, which aims to supply electrical power to Batan. The turbines have been generating about five percent of the total energy requirement of the island.
But most visitors are not interested in the technology though. The turbines are in a vantage point where one is afforded a panoramic view, putting oneself again between two great bodies of water. The sensuous landscape is spread before you.
The view gets dramatic in Marlboro Country, actually a communal pastureland locally called racuh a payaman, about fifty hectares said Rogers. It is so called because it reminds people of the pastureland in old, popular Marlboro cigarette television commercial. Here, we feasted on tatus, coconut crabs, strange creatures that looked more like spiders than crabs, and traced the contours of the Earth as if we were walking on heaven.
From Marlboro Country, we went down to the western side of Mahatao where the town proper is. The lovely Mahatao Church, considered one of the country’s national treasures, figures prominently.

“In the early 19th century an ugly church was built, and was destroyed by the typhoon of 1872. Fr. Cresencio Opolo, O.P., led the construction of a new church, which stands to the present day,” wrote Galende.

The baroque-style church, dedicated to Saint Charles Borromeo, is awash in white, contrasting the verdant field beside it where people play games, stroll around and while the time away. Hidded among hedges around the church are old local lights, little structures that work like lighthouses. Rogers pointed them, rock structures with receptacles for fire. In the dark of the night in olden days, fishermen from the sea followed the light and moored safely.

We followed the ribbons of sunset scattered on the road and mountains on our way back to Basco. The road was a ribbon draped on a mountain, high enough as not to be reached by the sprays of the unruly sea. A view deck was built along the road between Mahatao and Basco, on top of a cliff. We basked in the last rays of the sun and imbibed the view until intoxication before going home.

Basco is heralded by a sign, welcoming those entering and bidding farewell those leaving with “Dios mamajes<