A Solo Batanes Trip, and the Culture of the Ivatans (January 2019)

I arrived in Basco early in the morning, checked in B&G Guesthouse, and waited for the tour van to pick me up.

Batanes has a different culture of its own. Being disjointed from the mainland, the sheer distance necessitates being independent from aid from the rest of the country, and strong dependence to the community.

While waiting for my tour to begin, I decided to rent a bicycle to ride through nearby streets. As I clumsily cycled my way to the viewpoint, I chanced upon a group of children picking cherries to feed the island’s frequent visitors—the migratory birds. Thankfully, they weren’t too shy to take a couple of photographs with a stranger who struggled on two wheels. I went around the town for half an hour more, quite unimpressed by the structures I saw, until I accepted how it would have served me better to just walk.

While waiting in the one-table dining hut, I got to chat with Noli, a well-known Ivatan photographer, who had the coming day booked for a seminar. He grew up in Basco, pursued photography in Manila, followed by a successful career which frequently led him back to his hometown. He wasn’t training upcoming photographers from the city, he was teaching tour guides how to shoot with purpose–nailing the composition, finding the best light, and accentuating the subject. That was how serious the tour companies are about offering an authentic travel experience, as should be the intention behind all tourism initiatives. In the middle of our conversation, a white van arrived in front of B&G to pick me up for lunch.

Day 1: North of Batan

  • Lunch at Vunong Dinette
  • Mt. Carmel Chapel
  • PAGASA “Tukun” Weather Station
  • Fundacion Pacita Nature Lodge
  • Basco Idjang Didawud
  • Dipnaysuhuan Japanese Tunnel & Hideout
  • Valugan Boulder Bay
  • Casa Real (Provincial Capitol) & the Kilometer “0”
  • Immaculate Concepcion Cathedral
  • Vayang Rolling Hills
  • Abad Street (Commercial Street in Basco)
  • Basco Lighthouse and Bunker Complex Sunset Viewing at Naidi Hills

Nanay Jessica went out of the kitchen with a smile. In her garden, she first served us vunong, two banana leaf packets. One carried the staple Supas–rice cooked yellow ginger. The other had Uved, mashed balls of ground meat and minced fish, a traditional comfort food, and Luñis, dry pork cooked with rock salt–best dipped in garlic and vinegar. Along with this was a plate of Tamiduk, fern salad, and a bowl of Bulalo with seaweed for sharing. We completed the meal with kamote (sweet potato) fritters. Over lunch, I got acquainted with my tour mates. I was a lone ranger along with three pairs. There was a young couple in their twenties, a Filipino and his girlfriend from Kazakhstan, an older couple in their fiftees (I later found out they were high school sweethearts who re-acquainted after the death of the man’s wife), and a grade school English teacher who took her daughter on an educational trip to appreciate more about rural culture.

Batanes was declared a protected area in 2001. Thirteen years later, as more passenger planes landed, tourism quickly became a major industry. To this day, the locals, called Ivatans, are still transitioning to the sudden influx of new cultures and sensibilities. The visitors, locally termed the Ipaula, on the other hand, can instantly sense the warmth within the close-knit community. Locals exchanged a greeting in every encounter, and it was disrespectful not to. “We are a population of about two thousand people, so it’s easy to tell whether someone is a local or not. We can tell the difference by their color and facial features.” I tried to differentiate them from other Filipinos, and the only characteristic I could make sense of was the color of their skin–brown with a seeming gold undertone.

Throughout the afternoon, we toured the north of Batan, one of the three islands of Batanes.

Batan had been raining for weeks prior to the day I arrived. We witnessed the year’s first clear and golden sunset. On the rolling hills, I was speechless at the sight of barren hills, over which I could clearly see the pastel sky. I looked down to enjoy the seascape, the goats on lower hills, and the point from which we went up. It was an adventure for the eyes, and the place spoke straight to my soul.

During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, Batanes was a war camp, and most of the guerilla warriors were Ivatans. That explained the length of the human maze that was the Dipnaysuhuan Japanese Tunnel and Hideout. Rina, the group’s little princess, was persistently encouraged by her mother to climb up and down the slippery steps. “I make it a point to take her on an adventure trip each year. She needs to exposed to the world, otherwise, she won’t learn.” I nodded in agreement. Books can only take one so far. To see, feel, taste, smell, and hear the nuances of a place builds a more intimate connection and a memory one can carry with her for the rest of her life–unconsciously or not. A young mind, plotted with all those ideas and experiences, can unlock a constellation of possibilities in her mind. She will, at the very least, sustain all her youthful energy in exploration, and, after brushing heads with various others, develop up a more certain sense of self.

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Nanay Joan, who put up B&G Guesthouse, asked me what I wanted for almusal the following day. “Beef and pork are available, I haven’t shopped for fish yet.” So we hopped on the motorcycle and circled the blocks to search for fresh catch from the local vendors. One of the stalls scattered around the small town sold flying fish, so I decided that’s what I wanted. And they were going to serve it fried. Being exposed to the open sea, the weather was often tough and unpredictable, which leads them to use simple methods to prepare their meals. I had fried meat that evening, and unusually, I had nothing to complain about.

Day 2: Sabtang Island

  • Sabtang Lighthouse
  • Sinakan Stone Houses
  • Brgy. Savidug Stone Houses
  • Lime Kiln & Savidug Idjang
  • Sto. Thomas de Aquinas Chapel
  • Chamantad-Tiñan Viewing Point
  • Sabtang Weavers Association
  • Brgy. Chavayan Stone Houses
  • Sta. Rosa de Lima Chapel
  • Morong Beach
  • Ahaw Arch Formation
  • Pananayan Caterings in Morong Beach
  • Nakanmuan and Sumnanga Village
  • • Duvek Bay

It took us thirty minutes to cross the sea to Sabtang, another one of the Batanes Islands. We took photos by the arch, some cliffs, a stone chapel, a cemented chapel. We went to see more viewpoints and lighthouses, walked on more hills and rode by the sea cliff. Batanes is different for the vastness and accessibility of its virgin beauty. You don’t need to be a seasoned mountaineer to navigate its friendly terrain. It is a place for everyone–the morning light for the infant, the redemptive sunset for the troubled, the ravaging waves for the dogged spirit, or the generous, starry night sky for the bright-eyed girl.

The most memorable part of the tour was visiting the concentration of stone houses in Brgy. Chavayan. I walked along the narrow alleyway as I greeted hello to the residents. I received warm smiles in return. It felt roomy inside. Often, there was nothing more than a wooden chair and a mattress in a cemented room. There is simplicity in structure as spirit of the town lies in its relationships. The stone houses are a refuge from the storms and the winter cold, but they are also a symbol of solidarity in this small community. In merry and troubling times, one’s catch was everyone’s catch. One’s house was everyone’s house. Their (spirit) is as strong as the typhoons of the Pacific.

Having gone to many scenic places and their viewpoints, Batanes is peculiar for its walkability. Sightseeing is a meditative exercise for one who enjoys being close to nature. I was led to pray, at every turn, for the beauty of God’s creation. I absorbed the energy of the sun and the wind, in order that my soul be recharged. As I tread through the grass and enjoyed the sights in isolation, I was made to remember the most essential things in life–beyond mere survival, relationships, an affinity for nature, and a faithful dependence on an outside Force which commands the coherence of all the wonderful things He made. Nature has a spirit, yet it is not of its own. The grass bends and bows in God’s presence. He hums through the wind and against the trees. Nature reflects not its own spirit, but the spirit of its Creator.

After another hearty lunch by the beach, my tour mates left the island for Batan. The drowsiness kicked in from the height of the afternoon sun, hence, I took a nap when I arrived at the lodging house and woke up to take a tour of the island.

Kuya Joseph, my tour guide, and I set out north to visit two Barangays, Nakanmuan and Sumnanga Village. Then we went up and down the hills, through zigzags, to reach the tip of Sabtang, Duvek Bay. On our way back, we stopped for a majestic hilltop, where I took in the golden sunset. The open sea stood before it, with no other islands in sight. In prayer, I whispered in thanksgiving, for the feeling of awe, which moved me ten times more in that view than in any other place in the country. I turned right to see a herd of goats on a plateau, grazing over the low grass.

I stayed in a lodging house close to the town plaza, just a minute away from the port. Its balcony has a pleasant view of the lighthouse on a cliff, by the lively open sea. Choosing to spend the night there (an option not many tourists take) was one of the best decisions I’ve made all my life. There were no establishments in town save for sari-sari stories, which had closed at six. My host family did not hold back in serving their best home-cooked dishes to a lone party of one, and I savored every dish–beef strips, pork menudo, fish a la pobre, and kangkong. Accompanying Willie Revillame’s nasal voice on cable television is the kareoke blasting “Di ko kayang tanggapin!” a well-known Filipino pop song from the year 2002. I went out to see pitch black, and with that, a sky full of stars. That moment, I thought to myself, I must be dreaming.

At five-thirty in the morning, the head of my host family, a tall, burly man, took me to the port in his tricycle. It was the most lively I’ve ever seen the place. People were scurrying about, in their long sleeves and caps, carrying life jackets and colorful plastic bags. The conductor called out for the next batch of passengers. Shortly after, I was in on the boat back to Batan Island.

Batan Island

I was greeted by a smiling kuya Jose. I was the only passenger in his van, so we engaged in conversation through the hour-long ride back to Basco. I regret not having taken notes about our exchange, because I couldn’t recall much of his stories, but I remember having the impression that Ivatans, despite living a simple life, are people of substance.

Warmth may be common among rural folk, but they are uniquely dignified, prudent, and independent-minded. The tough weather conditions have played a large part in forming these values. Perhaps, being detached from the worldliness that civilization brings, they have fewer distractions, and thus, being closer to what is truly essential, they strike others as different, and more enlightened. Thank-yous (“Dios mamajes!”), hellos (“Kapian capa nu dios!”) and goodbyes (“Dios madividin!”) have the word God in them, which bring out the prayerful essence in the language and consciousness of the Ivatans. God is ever-present in nature, and, should we be rid of all our man-made distractions and selfish pursuits, we find Him in the simplest things. It is through this intimacy that we become our best selves, the selves we were originally created for.

Batan South Tour

Day 3: South of Batan

  • Paderes View Point
  • Chawa View Deck
  • Mahatao Shelter Port
  • Mahatahataw Idjang
  • Busbusan Lighthouse
  • Tayid Lighthouse
  • San Carlos Borromeo Church
  • Spanish Lighthouse & blank book archive
  • Racuh a Payaman (Marlboro Country) by Marconines Catering
  • San Lorenzo Ruiz Chapel
  • Alapad Hills & Rock Formation
  • LORAN (Naval Base)
  • Our Lady of  Miraculous Medal in Itbud
  • Song Song Ruins
  • Motchong Viewpoint
  • San Antonino De Florencia in Uyugan
  • Honesty Coffee Shop
  • San Jose el Obrero in Ivana in Ivana
  • Church Ruins
  • House of Dakay
  • Tuhel Spanish Bridge
  • White Beach and Hohmoron Blue lagoon

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I had breakfast back in the guesthouse, having a conversation with Jona, one of the innkeepers, who works a half-day shift seven days a week. It was a Sunday, so I asked her how Sundays were like in the town. “We spend the time with our families at home. There is nothing much to do here.” She said this as matter-of-fact, and I truly believe that there was no yearning for anything more than what they could already enjoy. Her response led me to ponder. Where is their sense of adventure? How could this routine be enough? Upon being more aware of the experience, upbringing, and education that influenced my question, I recognized how they are living more of an idyllic life than we, in the city, could ever come close to. The urban jungle holds within it the selfish aspirations, consumerism, and trivial happiness, all of which this lifestyle doesn’t come with. The joyfulness came from moderation and belongingness, taking only what is necessary and sharing the rest of the blessings with others.

The morning was packed for sightseeing. We visited more view decks, lighthouses, and the picturesque Marlboro County. The place resembles the backdrop of a famous commercial. Locals call it Pasteur Land, which more accurately describes it as a sanctuary of free-range cattle, roaming freely on the hills and valleys, encouraging adventurous humans such as I to do the same. I wanted to know how Jack and Jill had done it so I rolled down just a few cycles before I could no longer control gravity’s pull.

Batanes is a place to introspect, but because of all the sightseeing, I didn’t have the time to sit down and meditate. In my solitary moments, a string of thoughts came into mind, which was coherent in essence. Nature plays symphonic music to my ears, it flashes paintings before my eyes. I am but an inhabitant in a vast and abundant universe; as such, I must regard it with the utmost care and respect. It is a source, not a resource. It is meant for all to enjoy equitably, not unscrupulously. It is the work of the Master Artist.

“(The solitary man) can remember that all beauty in animals and plants is a silent, enduring form of love and yearning, and he can see the animal, as he sees plants, patiently and willingly uniting and multiplying and growing, not out of physical pleasure, not out of physical pain, but bowing to the necessities that are greater than pleasure and pain, and more powerful than will and withstanding. If only human beings could more humbly receive this mystery — which the world is filled with, even in its smallest Things–, could bear it, endure it, more solemnly, feel how terribly heavy it is, instead of taking it lightly.” -Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to A Young Poet

Honesty Coffee Shop

“Take what you like, but pay what you must. Your integrity is your currency.” May the Ipulas that come this way bring with them, apart from the coconut bread and taro chips, the virtue that this place holds.

Fundacion Pacita

We ended our tour after lunch, so the group agreed on re-convening in Fundacion Pacita’s Cafe Tukon for dinner. The place was a memorial to Pacita Abad and her colorful life as an artist. Through the opening to the public of her Basco home, prestige is shed on a part of the world that not many people know about.

The Ivatans were Austronesians, built for the most extreme weather–cold Siberian winds and the strength of the open sea. When I started this post, I decided against merely making this a photo dump with a few captions. I wanted to extract my lingering thoughts about my time there, and in so doing, remember the novel things about living in this part of the world, and what it taught me.

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Indeed, the Ivatans were brown on the outside, and golden on the inside.

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