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<

7 comments:

miya said...

hey
just wanted to say hello to you :)
your article makes me that i should travel to Batanes in real soon. i just came back from the phils after travelling to San Juan, La Union and Vigan. i just loved those cities, and staying in manila, unnecessary to speak.
I'll come by your blog and read your lovely article some time, ok?
let's be a friend so that we can see each other someday, haha.
have a good day there and take care always.

best wishes, miya

Gridcrosser said...

Dear Miya,

Thank you very much for your positive comments. I hope you are having fun traveling the Philippines, and I do hope you get to visit Batanes. I also love Vigan. Keep me posted.

Jimmy said...

Roel,
i love the place so much, itlooks very peaceful.another masterpiece.. lakay

Tony said...

Hi Roel,

I'm stricken with envy... Your travels and exploits are something I would covet and willingly trade at a whim.... You fortunate soul!

Waaahhhh!!!!!

Miss you....

Your friend always.
Tony V.

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