From the window of a private plane in a drizzly morning, I saw Batanes as a bunch of windswept islands rising where two great oceans tryst, with a volcano sleeping above and another hiding beneath.
As the plane swung closer, Batan and Sabtang sprawled under me, all verdant hills and mountains fringed with black and white beaches. Huddled in the coasts and in the inner valleys, I made out Ivatan stone houses, clusters of gray, typhoon-proof, cogon-maned mini-fortresses.
When we touched down at Batan’s Basco airport, the 5,000-foot majesty of Mount Iraya greeted me. “Iraya”, which means “Northerly”, stood sentry to the North of the island. Behind him lurked the treacherous Bashi Channel whose currents have swept away many native fisher folk to the Pacific.
I longed to climb Iraya’s cloud-shrouded peak right away. “Tomorrow,” our guide promised. For now, the first item in our agenda was breakfast.
Our host’s home is a modern stronghold of wood and concrete that sits on a green bluff, with the ocean in front and the mountain behind. But it was the fireplace at the living room which caught my attention. It’s fully functional, too, our hostess confirmed. “We light it in February, when temperatures drop to nine degrees.”
Today was mercifully warm. A gentle wind blew through the French windows with double shutters – an outer one of wood and an inner one of glass. “So they won’t shatter in the gale-force winds,” our host explained.
Breakfast consisted of rice, egg tortillas, an enormous grouper in sweet and sour sauce, native fern salad – “paco”, plump boiled “tatus” – coconut crab, plus Batanes-style dry “adobo” from the surprisingly sugary pork of hogs fed on sweet potatoes – “camote”.
Bellies full, my companions and I checked in at the government-owned Batanes Resort, in a duplex type of stone cottage up a hill overlooking the South China Sea. But we are not sleeping there until tomorrow. We just packed our overnight bags and were off to the Ivana Seaport.
We boarded a “falowa”, a ten-seater wooden boat with rounded sides, to take us across to Sabtang island. I noted the lack of outriggers and was told they were of no use here. The current will just rip them to shreds. “The ‘falowa’ dances with the waves,” our guide said.
What I did not know was that three currents crash against each other in the middle of the Sabtang Channel. The first hurtles in from the Pacific Ocean; the second, from the South China Sea, and the third is a backlash of the two great oceans slamming against each other.
As we neared the channel’s center, the wind began to blow mightily, trailing rain. Batanes was not called the Home of the Winds for nothing. But as the gale gained force, the seas swelled and heaved into mountains of gun-metal gray water.
Still, I dangled ecstatically over one side of our “falowa” as it mounted and slid off the face of the gigantic swells. One twenty-foot wave after another picked us up and bore us aloft on its dizzying crest before receding beneath us, leaving the boat momentarily suspended in mid-air before plunging us into its trough.
“I love this,” I whooped as the boat climbed and fell, lurching and rolling in the mad aqueous roller-coaster.
Then I realized that most of my companions have gone deathly pale and silent, huddled around our single inboard motor.
At the end of 45 minutes, the sea spat us out into Savidug beach.
“Oh, those waves are normal,” our guide cheerfully assured me. “Nobody’s been killed recently. You should see them in the monsoon. When the boatmen start panicking, you’re in trouble. And next time, take a boat with a double motor. It’s more stable.”
He escorted us to the School of Fisheries, an old Spanish vintage building which offers dormitory style accommodations. This early, oil lamps had been set out for us on the hall and in our sleeping quarters. Power in the island goes off exactly at midnight and returns only after twelve hours, the caretaker warned.
Off we go again, up and down the narrow roads carved on the flanks of Sabtang’s cliffs, overlooking rugged shorelines, tidal reefs and volcanic rock formations sculptured by water and wind.
Some slopes have been planted with garlic, fenced in by hedges to guard against fierce gales and hungry grazers. But most are communal pastures. Pandan trees and the Philippine date palm called “voyavoy” grow here in wild abandon, along with the “cogon” grass which the natives use to thatch their roof.
Aside from the coconut, the wild pandan’s fruit is a favorite of the huge “tatus” crabs. The “voyavoy’s” golden dates, clusters of tiny elongated beads which blacken when ripe, taste like pears.
But it’s the “voyavoy” leaves which Ivatans value. They dry them, strip off the fibers and sew them together to make the “vakul” head gear for their women and the “kana-yi” vest for their men to protect them against sun and rain.
Even now, the island was misty and wet as we headed North below the black sandstone hills, to the fishing town of Chavayan.
Only a couple of men lingered on the beach, repairing nylon nets. To one side, they have piled huge rust-encrusted iron chains and pieces of hull – scrap metal salvaged from sunken Japanese ships. “For buyers in Manila,” our guide explained.
In the interior, we strolled down the narrow street between the Ivatan cottages, marvelling at the two-feet thick masonry that can withstand not just typhoons but tsunamis and the meter-thick cogon roofs that can last a good half century.
Unfortunately, no new stone houses are being built these days. Considering the cost and the labor, it is not surprising.
It takes two years and the entire neighborhood to construct a single house, “bayanihan” style. Just the making of the lime to cement the stones takes a whole year. The Ivatans burn coral fossils in communal pits dug from the ground, feeding the fire for many days until everything has turned to ash. Then they allow the lime powder to settle for 12 months until it is sticky enough.
The house itself is two separate structures, a dirty kitchen segregated from the sleeping quarters by a narrow aisle used as a drying and working area. There are no foundations and only three walls have windows. The one facing the strongest winds during typhoons is solid stone.
Nature around these parts could be unforgiving. Yet the Ivatans look as indestructible and as timeless as their houses.
A sun-roasted octogenarian mouthing a tobacco passed us in the street with a basket full of sweet potato tops strapped on her back. In another turn, we met an ashen-haired septuagenarian lugging a sack of tubers in one hand and holding a huge taro leaf on the other to shield himself from the rain.
“We have a 98-year old woman here who still farms taro and yam,” our guide noted. “She can even thread the ‘voyavoy’ without glasses when she makes the ‘vakul’.”
The head gear requires more than sharp eyes and takes two weeks to finish. But young Ivatans do not use them anymore. It’s the tourists who snap up most of the “vakul” and the vests, he added.
Sadly, only the old, the children and couples saddled with big families stay behind in Batanes. All of its youth migrate as soon as they graduate. They can’t find jobs in the islands, except as teachers or government workers. The ones who made it rich here are politicians and outsiders. They own the resorts, run the boats and the chartered planes.
And while tourism is alive, the islands can’t host too many. Take the case of Batan. With just 6,000 residents, it can accommodate no more than 3,000 tourists. And they need more waste disposal and transport facilities.
Nothing is cheap here. Food and basic necessities are double the price of Manila. Youths now prefer rice over root crops – the former staple, but they can’t grow enough of it and have to import from the mainland.
Even the “tatus” crabs are endangered. They fetch P1,000 apiece and are caught in the unpopulated satellite islands as they moult and lay their eggs. But they are fast becoming extinct as natives indiscriminately harvest juveniles and gravid females.
Still, Ivatans woo the sea. The local shaman sacrifices a pig before sunrise, signalling the start of each fishing season and divines things from its innards.
But today, even the shaman refused to go out in the raging waters. He repaired his “tataya” instead, recounting how he once hauled a bounty of 15 dolphin fish -“dorados” as big as his boat in a single, 3-hour fishing trip. Now, he’s lucky to catch two in a month, he lamented.
Perhaps tomorrow, before sunrise, he’ll fish again, he muttered. Perhaps the sea will be kinder then.