by Metty Pellicer
There is no question that the allure of Batanes lies in its remoteness, authenticity,, unspoiled landscape and people. There are the plunging cliffs and rugged, rocky coastlines set off by sandy coves and breaking surf. There are the infinite verdant pastures and rolling hills, framing grazing cattle and carabaos, and goats effortlessly climbing steep slopes that seem to meet the clouds and blue sky. The morning mist casts a mystical spell on the cracks of canyons and blankets the valleys, and the evening comes after the sun sets in the southern China Sea, in kaleidoscopic splendor. On Tukon hill, where there is a chapel, patterned after the architecture of vernacular houses, and built by a local politician for his daughter’s wedding, one can see the Pacific Ocean in the east and the South China Sea in the west. On a clear day you might just see Taiwan from the northernmost island of the ten-island Batanes group, a mere one-hundred kilometers away, nearer than its distance from mainland Luzon.
There are no big hotel chains, and hopefully, they will stay away forever. There are no Jollibees or Starbucks. Basco, the capital, only recently had twenty-four-hour electric service. The other two inhabited islands, Sabtang, gets sixteen hours, and Itbayat, twelve hours. There are only hole-in-the-wall eating establishments but the food is uniformly delicious and organic. The only pizza place, Napoli, delivers gourmet pizzas out of the owner’s home. The inns accept walk-ins for meals and serve a du joire menu, depending on the daily catch and what was in the market, and what was slaughtered. You can ask the inns to purchase certain foods from the market and cook it for you and they will oblige cheerfully. We liked the pako (fern) salad, the marinated dried dibang (flying fish), lobster, and the exotic and hard to catch tatus (coconut crab). There is internet in the town center, cell phone reception, and TV, but no movie house. The B&B inns are pared down to basic amenities. The Honesty Cafe is an unattended convenience store and coffee shop, where you pick what you like, list it, then drop your payment in a slot, breathtaking! The local garlic is reputed to have the most fragrant and sweet flavor, and the sweet potato and taro are plump and firm. Everything else is imported from the mainland and has Manila prices. The traditionally woven baskets are exquisite.
Sabtang, a forty-minute boat trip from Basco, is served by a fifteen and thirty-passenger round-hulled boats, different from the outrigger bancas of the rest of the Philippines. They are more like the early Viking boats, more suited to ride the oftentimes choppy and strong currents of the channel, where the waters of the Pacific and China Sea collide and the strong winds from Siberia blow. We didn’t have time to visit Itbaya, where the ancient funeral caves of the Ivatans, the indigenous ancestors , were excavated. It is four hours away by these native boats or a fifteen-minute flight with a nine-seater plane, Skypasada, that also serves Tuguegarao. We met the ragtag crew of this airline at breakfast one morning.
Sabtang holds the most number of occupied vernacular houses in the province, and is nominated to be included in the UNESCO Heritage Sites, a must see for its uniqueness. These are houses made of limestone and coral with thatched cogon roof, with a distinct architecture, a fusion of the early ethnic houses and European technology introduced by the Spaniards. The houses have withstood the typhoons that regularly visit the islands and the test of time.
We embarked from the port of San Vicente, rising very early, and didn’t realize we will be using the public boat, not a chartered tourist boat. We were with locals, and sacks of produce, motorcycles, hogs, chickens and other cargo. There was a shipment of Ginebra San Miguel (gin), which we were told, hasn’t arrived at the port yet so we will all have to wait because the boatman does not want to lose his revenue. Norma, the ultimate problem-solver, negotiated to have our group reimburse the boatman for the cargo’s passage, so we can leave ASAP, without a second thought to the consequences that will result to the island’s inhabitants from the failure of delivery of this vital item. The sea was choppy on the return trip, the boat cresting and slamming on bigger waves, and hurling buckets of the ocean at us and soaking us to the bone. There were other suspenseful moments. Something sharp lacerated my ankle after stepping on canvas and fishing nets on the floor. The bleeding was out of proportion to the size of the cut (from low dose ASA intake prolonging coagulation) and Mars almost got decapitated by the bamboo steering pole that slipped from its mooring. However, the whole experience was authentic, and an adventure. Anchors, away!
I visited new friends staying at the Batanes Resort, one and a half miles away, to check out the accommodations (recommended, but get the ocean view Itbayat or Sabtang cottages) and to watch the sunset from their beach. It was dark when I walked back to where I was staying at Seaside Lodge. There are no taxis, very few cars, a couple of jeepneys for inter-town travel, some tricycles, and a number of scooters and some motorcycles. A couple of lone scooter riders stopped to offer me a ride, which I politely declined. Our tour guide certifies that the offer is sincere and without malice and no remuneration but a smile and thank you is expected. The authenticity and sincerity of the people beguiles and disarms, and is a breath of fresh air. We city slickers had to focus on going with the flow and being laid back and not sweating the small details. Going into zazen? The masseuse is two hours late, and she smiles and says she overslept. We rescheduled after dinner, and we were late, and relieved that she wasn’t there waiting. She knocks as we’re about to go to bed, says, she was called to Fundacion Pacita, and did three massages, she will do ours now? Our lunch caterer in Uyugan did not have lunch ready when we arrived, uh oh. She forgot to put it in her schedule but she’ll have one ready for us in thirty minutes. She called her husband back from the farm and put him to work, and had lunch on the table as she promised. She was a barangay chief for three terms and now she’s running for the council, and maybe town mayor someday. She is a multi-tasker and we empathize perfectly. We couldn’t get a manicure appointment from the three manicurist in town, because they’re all servicing a wedding, which by custom is attended by everyone. The party was on the street, so we asked if we could come, and we were warmly welcomed. The boom box was blaring carinyosa and they were dancing the traditional folk dance. We got in the mood and I danced with the groom, then another guest who had already too much palek, the local sugar cane brew. He wasn’t going to let me go, and I didn’t want to offend, so I was about to dance again, but Lida rescued me and took me away. It was the custom to give a gift of money to the bride and groom, and we were delighted to do the same.
People smile and greet you warmly on the street. I was poking around the vernacular houses, curious about an occupied interior and the man of the house introduced his family and invited me for coffee. The mayor stopped to say hello, and chatted.
A bucolic scene is displayed as you drive in the countryside. A man knee-deep in the receding tide casting his net, a young boy tethering his goat, the farmer in the field, the basket weaver at her craft, a family group laden with produce in baskets on their backs, leading their carabao, a leathered centenarian plus three gentleman weaving a fish net, children playing in the rice paddies, a man taking down coconuts, undulating pastures, cows and carabaos on hills and ridges grazing, surf breaking on the shore, or exploding against volcanic cliffs, the taste of the sea in the air, a calm blue lagoon, bright orange pandanus fruit, azure sky, warm sun, gentle breeze carrying the perfume of Ylang-Ylang, dollars in your pocket. Is this paradise?