Batanes on the
By Bibsy M. Carballo
of Naidi Hill, Basco Bay (photo by Michael Adalla)
ONE SUMMER WAY BACK IN THE '70S, WE MUST
HAVE been among the few intrepid souls who ventured into yet uncharted
seas and unexplored lands when we took off on a whim for Basco, Batanes.
Armed with nothing but our sense of adventure,
we boarded a PAL plane, then the only carrier servicing the island weekly.
With us was the late great director Lino Brocka and two of his friends,
as he was then interested in scouring the country for locations for
After an hour-and-a-half flight, we caught
sight of what appeared to be the dirt runway, a couple of carabaos lazing
about, and a group of grade school children running around, clapping
their hands in welcome of the aircraft. The plane made several circles
around the runway as we glimpsed the children shooing away the carabaos
before we made our historic landing.
Upon deplaning, the kids were still there
crowding us with silent curiosity. Who were these strangers, their eyes
seemed to ask, and why were they here? This served as our unique introduction
to the island, and what was to follow.
We boarded a jeepney, which we were later
told was the only one on the island, and asked the driver to take us
to the church in town. The Filipino parish priest, whose name we have
already forgotten, was surprised to see us. Immediately, he offered
to house us even before we asked and serve as our unofficial tour guide
during the week-long visit.
We were told Batanes is the smallest Philippine
province in terms of population and land area (209 sq km, half of which
are hills and mountains). The population then all over the province
was a little over 11,000, with 40 percent concentrated in the capital
Ten small volcanic islands make up the
province, only three of them inhabited-Sabtang, Itbayat and Batan with
the capital Basco, plus Ivana, Uyugan, and Mahatao which we visited.
The islands of Sabtang and Itbayat were supposedly interesting locations,
but we were not that adventurous as to venture out after hearing stories
that one had to jump from the boat to the cliff at Itbayat, which didn't
have a pier at that time. We also heard of people getting stranded in
Sabtang due to bad weather and having to stay for months on the island.
Mahatao viewed from Charatayan hills (Photo by Ace Meriel)
Batan was sufficient for us at the moment.
Taking the only jeep on the island, we toured the rolling hills that
could only remind one of the Scottish highlands with similar small stone
houses, except that the houses had thick cogon roofing, with carabaos
and cattle grazing in the rolling hills. The entire scenario was of
another country. There were no nipa huts to remind us that we were in
the Philippines, and the radio blasted away with broadcasts from Taiwan.
We found women in the fields garbed in
the vacul, a traditional woven headgear of grass that kept the wearer
cool during the day and warm during the rainy season. We never found
this particular headgear in any other province.
Batanes is the northernmost cluster of
islands in the Philippines, home of the typhoons, closer to Taiwan than
to the Philippine mainland (190 km south of Taiwan, and 280 km from
Aparri). It is said that one could hear the cock crow all the way from
Taiwan in Batanes, and it is the only province with winter from November
to February, summer from March to May, the rainy season from June to
October, and a two-week Indian summer sometime between September and
Apart from the weekly flight, with erratic
schedules depending on the weather, a navy boat came once a year with
supplies from Manila. Batanes was therefore as remote from the mainland
as it was in culture and language. Anthropologists described Ivatan
as an Austronesian language (not a dialect, but a language, the residents
30 years later
The Batanes of today is totally
different from our memories of 30 years ago. Although still ravaged
by typhoons, still small in population (only over 16,000 province-wide),
still our only province with "winter" as a season, still blessed
with unpolluted air, waters and picture-pretty rolling hills and natural
rock formations, we can count on our fingers the number of traditional
stone houses and can no longer find women wearing the vacul.
Instead, the homes are of cement, especially
in town centers, and the vacul is found for sale in the marketplace
as tourist mementos, and in the new Globe commercial. Technology has
obviously arrived in the form of Internet cafés, and the cell
phone and ukay-ukay from Manila litter the many small shops in Basco.
The rolling hills are still as attractive
as they were in "Hihintayin Ka Sa Langit" which beat Brocka
to being the first to do a film on the islands. But today some of the
hills are dubbed "Marlboro Country" and pretty soon, perhaps
we will find there a "Brokeback Mountain."
The Department of Tourism has listed the
province as an "emerging destination." There are various inns,
led by the Batanes Resort with its six duplex-type cottages perched
on a hill overlooking the rocky beach, and the Ivatan Lodge in town
with its modest rates, both operated by the provincial government.
|Just before San
Vicente, a town before Ivana during low tide (Photo by Ace Meriel)
There are now more forms of transport-at
least 50 jeepneys in Basco and 30 more in the other municipalities,
and tricycles all over Basco. However, there is still no moviehouse
in Basco, and fastfood chains are unknown in this province.
Asian Spirit operates a twice-weekly direct
flight from Manila, its other flights of the week include a stop-over
in Tuguegarao. Batanes' roads are paved, and carabaos no longer roam
the runway. Package tours are becoming popular with domestic and foreign
travelers. Apart from its natural attractions, the province's other
tourist stops include vestiges of the Dominican presence in churches
all over the islands, lighthouses that are always a photographic delight,
and the house of the late international Ivatan artist Pacita Abad that
now stands against the landscape and the skies as a loving tribute to
the artist who has finally come home to rest.
The crime rate is low with most crimes
committed by transients, mostly Taiwanese who find it so easy to get
to the islands. Along with crime and the tourists come the threat of
destruction of the environment and cultural heritage. And this is what
this "emerging destination" has to face now.
In 2001, Congress passed a law declaring
the province as a permanently protected zone. That same year, the province
also applied to be included in the Unesco World Cultural Heritage list.
According the elders in the province, there are 539 cultural sites and
138 natural sites in the province up for consideration.
The unique wildlife of the province qualifies
Batanes as a landscape and seascape deserving of protection due to its
importance to migratory birds from Northeast Asia and Japan. The valichit,
a small brown bird found only in Batanes every September, has of late
diminished in numbers, a fate similarly suffered by the kuyab or grey-faced
in Mahatao a fishing village featuring a traditional house. (Photo
by Ace Meriel)
The traditional stone dwellings of limestone,
reeds and grass roofs are also disappearing, although there are some
to be found in Ivana and Uyugan, and on the island of Sabtang.
The median age in Batanes is 22. It is
obviously a young population even if a good percentage leave for the
mainland to pursue a career. However, there are quite a number who acquire
education in Manila and return home to practice what they have learned.
Like the young and articulate OIC of Batanes Resort, Tess Delatado.
After graduating with a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management at
Arellano University in Manila, she quickly returned to Basco and now
is one of the more vocal advocates of responsible tourism in the area.
She tells us stories of how foreigners
have been showing such interest in the place that they have offered
to buy the resort as well as portions of the province, with promises
of helping the islanders protect their natural resources. But she is
not easily swayed by their glib tongues. Perhaps her education in Manila
has taught her that-not to be too trusting and too naïve.
Tess is caught in a dilemma that faces
many of the young residents of this island paradise. Would they succumb
to the temptation of letting in the moneyed investors who will develop
the islands for commercial tourism and ultimately destroy its natural
beauty? Or will they hang on to what they have and be content with being
the backward province it still is today?
Or is there a middle ground, a way for
responsible progress and eco-tourism? Only time and the next decade
(Published with permission from INQ7 Global Nation - http://www.inq7.net/globalnation/sec_phe/2006/apr/05-01.htm)