The bleached whale skeleton propped against an Ivatan’s home was so huge I mistook it for a boat.
Seeing me aghast, our guide hastened to explain. “We don’t molest whales and dolphins here,” he assured me. These are the remains of a cetacean stranded on Sabtang’s shore many years ago. It was dead when the natives found it.
Whales have beached themselves in the islands many times. In one instance, two adults and a juvenile washed ashore. One adult died right away but town folks managed to shove the other two into deeper waters. However, the second adult came back for its dead mate and perished. Only the juvenile swam free. But no one knew what became of it.
Around October each year, during the islands’ brief second summer, whales come in the vicinity to calve. But they do not tarry long and take their young to forage further out in the Pacific.
Migratory birds also take advantage of this season, flying in from as far away as Siberia. The heavens used to darken with Valichits, small brown birds which the Ivatans stick-trap by the hundreds.
Japan’s grey-faced buzzard or “kuyab” also stops here to rest. This hawk, which looks more like an owl, has a blackish stripe over its face, white eyebrows and white throat with long slender wings and long squared tail. But it has become rare, as of late.
Some years before, my guide found three very rare black-faced spoonbills in the island. Today, less than half a thousand of these large migratory wading birds native to Eastern China and Korea survive worldwide. The last spoonbills were seen in the Philippines in 1914.
Our last stop before twilight was the white beach of Nakabuang at the South end of Sabtang, a cove with scatterings of volcanic boulders and a natural sandstone arch. Giant sea turtles come to lay their eggs here and juvenile tiger sharks patrol the waters.
I waded barefooted in the soothingly warm sea but it was getting dark and we have to go back to our lodgings. As we returned to our vehicle, brown-breasted bulbul and wild pigeons rustled about in the bushes seeking their roost for the night.
Dinner consisted of freshly caught lobster boiled in their shells, which our guide himself speared, fried eggplant, squid, “supas” – yellow rice and slices of fresh pineapples. It was like a picnic as we used the broad green “sabaya” – bread leaf, for our plates.
Afterwards, everyone was forced to an abnormally early bedtime. Batanes has no malls, bars, discos or cinemas.
I enjoyed the remoteness though and retired at nine without complaint. Besides, I knew I need to rest. We have to go back across the channel to Batan by five A.M. tomorrow and I have an appointment with Mt. Iraya at six.
In the middle of the night, the wind woke me up with its howling. Just as I opened my eyes, the whole island was plunged in darkness. It was the twelve o’clock blackout on the dot.
But from my window, I can make out the white of surf pounding the shore.
Far away, on the opposite bank, a funnel of light pierced the night – the Batan lighthouse. The island has two – one in the North, facing the Pacific Ocean; the other in the South, facing the China Sea. The beacon of the South lighthouse flashed faint and distant, alternating with the brighter one of the North across the Sabtang Channel.
And then I noticed two more pin points of white incandescence dancing over my head, one pulsing and pursuing, the other holding steady. Fireflies. Mesmerized by their blinking lights, I drifted back to sleep.
Next morning, we went back to Batan via the same single-motored “falowa” boat, though without the wind, our crossing was calmer.
However, I was crestfallen when our guide canceled my Mt. Iraya climb. Too dangerous, she insisted. There were landslides in the slopes and the trail is extremely slippery after it rained all night.
Later, I learned that a group tried to assault the peak but failed. They started out at 9:30 AM but did not even get halfway up. After eight hours of struggling in the mud, they limped back to the resort at 5:30 PM. On the average, the ascent takes six hours; two and a half hours for climbers in top shape.
So, I had to settle for sightseeing in the midst of a downpour. Fog blanketed the oceans. On the slopes, cows and horses huddled against each other in the rain, unmoving, their backs to the wind.
It felt alien and eerie, like being in the Scottish highlands. And totally isolated. Batan is supposed to be home to six thousand folks, but we saw only a couple tending to their herds in the hills. In the three and a half hours we drove around four towns, we run into a total of three vehicles. We had the island to ourselves.
From the road, over the pastures, we could see the “idjang”, the mountaintop stone citadels where the Ivatans kept watch over marauding tribes and pirates thousands of years before the Spanish conquistadores.
Close to the citadels lay the “tampan” – stone boat-shaped burial mounds similar to those of Europe’s Vikings, with stone grave markers laid out in a pattern resembling the boats which Ivatans used to this day.
At Ivana, it was a jump forward in time. Saint Joseph the Worker’s 17th century Church, was definitely Spanish and the unmanned Honesty Coffee Shop, was modern – at least in concept.
For the past decade, the shop literally ran on honesty. One can get anything here, serve-yourself-style, from coffee, bottled water and soft drinks to bread, hard boiled eggs and instant noodles, souvenirs – from shirts to native fans and little baskets.
The prices are listed on a small piece of cardboard. Customers drop their payment in a box. They ask for exact bills now when before, they just left out a tin can where you can get your own change. Nobody mans the store but the old couple who owns it live nearby.
Anyway, the Ivatans are honest and industrious. The crime rate in the island is zero. Visitors can camp outdoors or sleep in the beaches with no fear of being robbed. The doors of houses are left open while the owners go out to work. Lost items are turned over to the local Radyo ng Bayan Station.
And they are real survivors in a land ravaged by typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis. I realized that after seeing the Song Song ruins – a ghost town of roofless stone cottages abandoned on a long stretch of beach after a tidal wave hit in the 1950’s. The stone ramparts held and nobody was killed.
But the sea is still rich. We stopped by the Alapadanatural cliff edge, a favorite location for movies, and went down the 150 stone steps to the water’s edge. Just in time, a giant hawksbill turtle surfaced thrice to breathe a few yards from where we stood.
My guide, a fisherman who moonlights as a tourist officer, often hunts here at night, shining a flashlight in the rock crevices to spear lobsters. One time, he even caught an almost five-foot long moray eel.
It was raining again when we got back on top of the overlook. But three “tataya” fishing boats, are combing the waters for flying fish, groupers, dorado, blue marlin, sailfish and tuna. The lethal delicacy of the Japanese – the puffer fish or “fugu” also abound here and its non-venomous but spiny cousin, the blowerfish. The “fugu” has already claimed at least one Ivatan.
The rain did not let up until evening. But around seven, as if giving me a peek on my last night, the skies cleared, momentarily. For the first time, I saw the North Star – Polaris, the Mariner’s Star. How brightly it shines over Batanes.
I resolved that if the good weather holds, I’ll climb Mount Iraya the next morning, before I leave. But still it rained, so I just snorkeled in the South China Sea a couple of hours before takeoff.
Batan’s sea doesn’t favour water sports and its big breaks are not suitable for surfing. In fact, they have already dashed one white woman surfer to death in the rocks. But corals abound on the shelves beneath the waves. One local has already set up a dive shop here though nobody has followed suit yet in Sabtang or Itbayat.
Strangely, even under the sea, the mountain followed me. I traced the outlines of calcified lava flows from Iraya when he last blew up in 505 AD on the sea floor, giant black ridges radiating outwards against the white sand in the blue murk.
I was loathe to leave. But the lure of Batanes is strong. I know one day I will be back where the two oceans meet, to this land of the North Star, this home of the wind.