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The Philippines: the Batanes Islands
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“This is the one place in the Philippines,” the governor continues, “where you can see what the earth looked like before time. We have unique archaeological ruins, and ancient farming techniques are still practiced. This is why we have chosen a strategy of ecological and cultural tourism; it is the only way to preserve our heritage.”

He adds, “We have no drugs here, no crime. Only two people are in the municipal prison. And they,” he offers with a shy grin, “are only there because they fought over a woman.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above, from left: Bulbs of garlic, one of the islands’ staple crops, drying in the sun; Basco Harbor; catch of the day.

But there are huge challenges ahead, Castillejos laments. The biggest problem is underemployment and the out-migration it has sparked in recent years. Only 16,000 or so people live in Batanes—10,000 in Basco alone—and the population is dwindling quickly. A growing number of Ivatans are earning college degrees in Manila or overseas, but few return home after their studies.

Another issue is the preservation of Ivatan architecture. The laborious masonry introduced here by Spanish missionaries more than two centuries ago is being superseded by modern construction techniques, and more and more islanders are knocking down the old stone structures that housed their families for generations, replacing them with concrete boxes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above, from left: Blue Lagoon, a cove on Batan Island’s south coast; a farmer returning to his pasture; inside the owner’s cottage at The Fundacion Pacita.

The governor has introduced what he calls a “social marketing campaign” to counter the trend. The program includes tax holidays for Ivatans who preserve the facades of traditional buildings and renovate the interiors instead. It’s an uphill battle, he readily concedes. And he says that he is constantly turning down offers from Taiwanese investors wanting to build large-scale hotels and resorts on the islands. “We are not interested,” Castillejos tells me. “This is a very small place, and we want only local investment.”

I intend to ask around Basco that afternoon to find out if his constituents feel the same way. But a storm breaks, forcing me to flee back to my government-run hotel. With little else to do, I spend the rest of the evening thumbing through tourist brochures and listening to the rain drum against the windowpanes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above, from left: Altar boys leaving Mahatao’s San Carlos Borromeo Church after Sunday Mass; local law enforcement; ruminant with a view.

The sun appears the next morning and the beauty of Batan Island manifests itself. The waves that smashed into the coast so relentlessly the day before are now soft and rolling. I walk down to the hotel’s pebble beach and am amazed to find that the water is warm. I return moments later with my snorkel and mask and paddle out past the breaking waves.

What lies beneath leaves me breathless: a multicolored coral garden teeming with marine life that puts to shame the supposedly world-class dive sites I’ve visited in other parts of the Philippines. I see schools of parrotfish, angelfish, and countless other species: a sea snake, a turtle, a rare seahorse. I could happily spend the day exploring the reef, but Romy is waiting to show me the rest of the island.

We set off on bicycles along the coast road, before turning onto a track that climbs through undulating hills. Romy waves and calls out a hearty “Dius!” whenever we pass someone. Farmers of all ages are out tending their fields, some wearing shaggy vests and hats made from date-palm fiber. Their plots are bordered by hedgerows that provide wind cover for the root crops that are the Ivatans’ staples. Yam, sweet potato, and garlic are grown here, on land nourished by rich volcanic soil. We also see cattle and horses grazing on impossibly steep hills, negotiating the turf with the agility of mountain goats.

The road takes us to a stone mansion built on the edge of a windswept, 200-meter-high precipice. It’s the former gallery and studio of Basco-born Pacita Abad, one of the Philippines’ most acclaimed contemporary artists. Pacita died of cancer in 2004, but her name lives on in more than 3,500 works of art (including the multicolored paintwork of Singapore’s Alkaff Bridge, which she completed shortly before her death) and in this magnificent building. Recently refurbished by her brother Florencio “Butch” Abad, the property now doubles as both an arts center and the islands’ first luxury hotel, the Fundacion Pacita Batanes Nature Lodge.

Inside, I discover handmade furnishings, polished narra-wood flooring, 300-thread-count sheets, a lounge with a big fireplace, and a host of modern amenities, Wi-Fi included. The works of Ivatan artists adorn the walls of each individually designed room, and augment a display of Pacita’s own collages and abstract paintings. Butch, a former congressman and cabinet minister, says that the Fundacion is dedicated to preserving “three characteristics that, taken together, make Batanes the paradise that it is: the richness of its cultural heritage, the integrity of its environment, and the resilience of its social institutions.” But the real selling point for me is the views: picture windows and a sprawling sun deck offer breathtaking vistas of the ocean and endless gray cliffs that fade into the misty horizon.

Nearby, Romy and I visit the Tukon Chapel, constructed by the local community under Butch’s guidance. The pews are made of recycled hardwood, and the ceiling, painted by students of the arts center, depicts the patron saints of the province’s six municipalities. Continuing inland, we pass the remains of a centuries-old citadel, or idjang. Romy explains that it once served as the stronghold of one of the Batanes’ many warring clans, who would rain down boulders upon invaders’ heads. But such fighting came to an end with the arrival of the Spanish, who established Catholic missions in the islands and forced the Ivatans to leave their mountaintop settlements.

We also pass a series of tunnels dug using forced labor during World War II. On December 8, 1941, just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Batan Island became the site of the first Japanese landing in the Philippines. It was a grim time for the Ivatans; Butch Abad’s own uncle, then the islands’ governor, was beheaded in Basco’s town square for supporting the local resistance movement. The idjangs once again served as places of refuge. Romy also tells me about a massacre on neighboring Sabtang Island, where guerrilla fighting had broken out. Some resistance leaders, he says, escaped by swimming across the dangerous, shark-infested waters between Sabtang and Itbayat, clinging to pieces of wood.

Our next destination is Mahatao, a picturesque village perched halfway down Batan’s west coast. We follow a corniche that runs under colossal rock formations, at times cutting through sheer limestone walls that were dynamited by road workers more than half a century ago. As there are only about 100 cars on the island, the traffic is light, mostly scooters and bikes and brightly painted jeepneys.

With its Baroque church and backdrop of rolling green hills, Mahatao is vaguely reminiscent of Tuscany. The waves here are perfect and the water crystal clear; it doesn’t surprise me to learn that foreign surfers have begun to visit. At one point I’m greeted by a gaggle of children, who take my hand and press it gently against their heads as a blessing and a sign of respect.

At a nearby lookout point, an Ivatan named Evelyn has set up a makeshift restaurant. We lunch on banana-root salad, bok choy with oyster sauce, crisp sweet-potato fritters, and gabi (taro) stems blended with pork and octopus. If there’s one drawback to traveling in the Philippines, it’s the food—typically an assortment of fatty meats, cold rice, and little else. Before arriving in Basco, I went for days at a time eating nothing but biscuits and fruit, shedding several kilograms as a result. But today I eat until it comes out of my ears, and dub Evelyn the Minister of Food.

Afterward, we return to Mahatao to visit the home of Lou Byers and his Ivatan wife Dolly. Lou, an American, came here with the Peace Corps in 1966, married Dolly, and never looked back. I ask him what life was like in the Batanes when he first arrived, and how the islands have changed over the years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above, from left: Coconut crab features in local cooking; the front lawn at the Fundacion Pacita Lodge; Ivatan dress includes palm-fiber kanayi vests.

“It was a little difficult for outsiders back then because there were no stores or markets,” he recalls. “If someone needed something, be it vegetables or fish, they would ask their neighbors. It wasn’t even bartering—just people helping each other out. The thatched roofs everyone had on their houses also meant cooperative relationships were necessary as people had to work in groups to repair each others’ homes—especially after a typhoon. Now they have a cash-type economy. If someone has too many vegetables, they take them to the market in Basco.”

“But the people are still just as friendly,” Dolly interjects. “Farming is still the main livelihood, so people still work in the field and are reliant on others to help them at harvest time. One of our children got married recently. We were setting up a tent in the street and the neighbors came to help without being asked. And we didn’t send out invites. We did it the old way—verbally—by passing the message on to our relatives and friends. That way, everybody in the village could feel free to attend.”

The next morning I awaken sick. My sinuses are blocked, my throat is raw and throbbing, and I’ve lost my voice. The change in temperature between Manila and Batan has given me a nasty case of tonsillitis, I’m guessing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above, from left: Fertilized duck eggs for balut, the ubiquitous Filipino street snack; Elena Babilo at her Honesty Coffee Shop; a cockfighting derby.

Romy knocks on my door. He’s arranged a boat for the 45-minute crossing to the mountainous island of Sabtang, where traditional stone houses are still the norm. But he takes one look at my face, shakes his head, and calls the Basco General Hospital to let them know we’re coming.

The doctor on duty confirms my diagnosis and writes out a prescription for antibiotics and painkillers. When I pull out my wallet, she looks at me dumbfounded. The service is free, she tells me. Nor will the pharmacist accept my money. Then the governor gets wind of my illness and, believe it or not, calls me at my hotel, as does the director of the Batanes Cultural Tourism Association. It’s as if they blame themselves for my getting sick.

My strength returns after a couple of days of sipping crab soup and ginger tea—but so too does the rain. Like the Ivatans, I am forced to adapt to the environment, and trade in my bicycle for the relative shelter of a motorized tricycle. I use it to visit the remains of an old Spanish bridge in Ivana and to call in again on the governor and his son Dominique. I also drive it to the Honesty Coffee Shop, a thatched café near the San José de Ivana Church where customers serve themselves and leave money on the till. Soon I also get into the groove, leaving the keys in my tricycle wherever I park. No one lays a hand on it or siphons the fuel; Ivatan honesty, I can happily attest, is more than just a marketing ploy.

It’s also infectious. Like Romy, I’m soon greeting everyone I pass, asking how their day is going and wishing them good luck. I even  befriend the town drunk, who seems to spend most of his time planted in the middle of Basco’s main drag directing what little traffic there is. I respectfully salute whenever I pass and am rewarded with a smile that could pop the cap off a bottle of San Miguel beer.

fundamentally, the reason we travel goes beyond the desire to see pretty places or try new foods. We travel in order to broaden our horizons—to expose ourselves to new ways of thinking and behaving. We travel, in short, to better ourselves, to experience things that we can apply to our lives back home.

What I take away from Batanes is that getting along with your neighbors makes a whole lot more sense than ignoring them. This doesn’t mean I’m going to start leaving my house unlocked or join the Peace Corps. But when I return to my office, I plan to make a concerted effort to get to know the coworkers I’ve disregarded for years. If nothing else, I’ll invite them to join me for a drink, and tell them about a friendly little place on the horizon called the Home of the Winds.

THE DETAILS:
Batanes Islands

Getting There

Domestic carrier SEAir (flyseair.com) flies between Manila and Basco five times a week; the 80-minute journey costs about US$184 return. Fair warning: Flight cancellations due to bad weather are routine, particularly during the monsoon season.

When to Go

It’s always windy and often rainy in semi-temperate Batanes. The weather is relatively dry from November until June, when the typhoon season sets in for a good five months. Average temperatures range from 10 to 25ºC.

Where to Stay

Cheap but cheerful, the government-owned Batanes Resort (Kaychanarianan; 63-78/533-3444; doubles from US$20) outside Basco offers simple cobblestone bungalows with cable TV, hot water, and air-conditioning. The food is below average but the service is above par, and the coastal views, like at so many spots on the island, are stunning. But no visitor should pass up the chance to stay at the art-filled Fundacion Pacita Batanes Nature Lodge (Tukon; 63-921/ 7795-8153; fundacionpacita.ph; doubles from US$95), which occupies a cliffside perch in the hills north of the capital. Accommodations comprise seven handsomely furnished suites and a windowless loft in the main building, plus two cottages. The scenery is breathtaking, and the seclusion near-perfect.

What to Do

The Batanes Cultural Travel Agency (batanestravel.com; inquiries via the company’s Manila office at 63-2/810-988) offers a variety of four-day packages that include accommodation at the Batanes Resort, all meals, guided tours around Batan and Sabtang islands, and land and sea transfers, from US$180 per person. They can also organize tailor-made excursions for independent travelers.

Standard tourist sights on Batan, the main island in the group, include the 18th-century House of Dakay in Ivana, the province’s oldest stone dwelling; the ancient burial markers of Nakamaya; the ruins of Songsong (a village abandoned after a tidal wave in the 1950s), and any number of picturesque Spanish-colonial churches and lighthouses.

What to Bring

Warm clothes, including a waterproof jacket, are essential items during the colder months of December through February. Good trekking shoes are also a must. Snorkeling and scuba equipment are hard to find, so if you want to explore the reefs, bring your own gear.

Originally appeared in the June/July 2009 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Where the Wind Blows”)




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