Full of wonder wandering in Batanes Islands
“Kuha lang, kuha lang (Just get what you can),” the old Ivatan woman said, wide smile baring tiny, almost mouse-like, yet perfect teeth that easily contrasted with her sun burnt skin, appearing like coconut flesh pressed against dried husks. Hands on hips while sweating profusely, the salty water of her skin cascading, as if like rivers, from her face to her neck before disappearing under the collar of her blouse, she signaled towards some baskets lining the road in front of her, many filled to the brim with crops still coated in dried mud, and fruits still attached to branches teeming with black ants.
“Magkano (How much)?” I asked, face already voraciously pressed against a juicy kaimito (star apple), sucking the milky juices while eating the fibrous flesh, even more famished instead of feeling full with every bite. In between spitting seeds, I looked at her askance, trying to look cute for whatever it’s worth to get a fair price, though feeling the fruit’s juices escaping my mouth to embarrassingly flow down my chin.
Once again signaling towards the food on display, the old woman repeated, “Kuha lang, kuha lang.” Everything was for free.
Embarrassed, my companion offered her a bagful of choc chips, what was left of our food, thus our stopping by her place in the first place, which she took, immediately pocketing it in the wide mud-stained apron wrapped around her scrawny waist. Then, waving at us dismissively, she turned and walked away, heading towards a group of women braving the scorching heat of the sun to till the land, their only protection the vakul (cape) over their heads. Like the kanayi (vest), the headgear is made of combed dried voyavuy (palm leaves), normally used for protection from the pounding rain, though also used to protect them from the harmful rays of the sun.
It was a peculiar experience, this bartering, like harking back in the olden times, a scene straight out of old movies – a common occurrence, they say, locally, since people grow their own crops, with the extras displayed for those who may need them.
But this is Batanes, after all, the islands left by time. Fortunately.
“At night you can even see the lights from Taiwan. Vice versa, the Taiwanese who visit us say that they can hear our roosters crow at daybreak,” a tourist guide provided me by the local government once told me, seated somewhere near the shores of Valugan Bay, at the foot of the 1,008-meter tall Iraya Volcano. “The tendency to exaggerate is there, of course, but you get the concept.”
I nodded, didn’t know what to say, the landscape before me taking every word out of my mouth. We were overlooking the forested area of Mt. Iraya – a picture-perfect scene straight out of a postcard, I remembered thinking then – which is not far from the truth, though not a postcard of the Philippines. More like New Zealand in the fresh milk TV commercials. Or Texas in the Marlboro advertisements. Or anything else to this strain, though definitely not the Philippines.
“We are closer to Taiwan than to mainland Luzon,” he added, his eyes squinting as he looked in the distance. “They’re that way,” he pointed at distant islands mostly covered in mists so they could be hardly made out, like the mythical Avalon coming and then going from view.
The Ivatans, of course, trace their roots to the Taiwanese immigrants who inter-married with the Spaniards who went to the islands in the 16th century – a combination most obvious in their peculiar dialect that is “pidgin Spanish, spoken with the rhythm of the Chinese language.” Seemingly isolated in their own world, most of the things never changed in Itbayat, Batan and Sabtang, the three main islands of Batanes, and its only over 15,000 inhabitants. In fact, fast forward to another time, when the sky was still amazingly clear, as if mocking the rain said to frequent the island to arrive, everything looked unreal, even surreal, though the distinction between the two is hard to find there. From the mountains seemingly trying to overlap each other, occasionally giving way to cascading bodies of water, at times hardly making any noise as they placidly flow though some suddenly merging with wild rivers that crush at everything on their way, to the largely untouched still lush forests, divided here and there by prairies, wild flowers swaying with the tall grasses when the wind blew, and then everything abruptly ends when the view is shortly cut by cliffs that plunge to the seas below. Nothing looked as foreign to me, especially knowing I was right at home.
Standing atop one of the hills of Payaman (a.k.a. Marlboro Country, supposedly because the area is said to be any rancher’s idea of a paradise), my companion started singing on top of his voice, without a care since no one else was around except for the horses running free, mingling with cows and some kalabaw (water buffalo) with their calves, that the hills are alive. And maybe they were, with memories as old as time, though are now exposed with the long-overdue interest in Batanes (and yet legally protected from abuse by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 335 (under former Pres. Fidel V. Ramos) that recognizes Batanes as a Protected Area).
Seated on a blanket, trying to enjoy the tough flesh of pating (shark) that still managed to look menacing even when already dead and wholly cooked, a feeling of dislocation came over me – like not knowing where one exactly is, though, in this case, I did know where I was: atop one of Batanes’ hills, enjoying the warmth of the sun as it kissed my naked torso, immediately tanning at its smallest provocations, while savoring the best that the place has to offer, peculiar food that are delectable ulam (viand) that add to the impression that one is elsewhere but locally located. And it never felt as good feeling lost.
STILL IN THE PHILIPPINES…
Spanish architect, and former director of the Instituto Cervantes de Manila, Javier Galvan, once commented that, in his dealings with the country’s historical treasures, the Filipino architecture never fails to pique his interest because it is “quite unique as it is filled with various influences.” “(Reflecting this) in the same way, (I find) the Filipino culture as very interesting because it is filled with various influences,” Galvan said, stressing that it is the “blend” that helps define the uniqueness of the Filipino.
After all, the Philippines has long been criticized for not having its own cultural identity, that it is but a combination of various influences that aren’t its own. But an opposing perspective is the contention that this – the hodge-podge of influences – is the very definition of the Filipino culture. And, often, this point is driven home by the peculiarity of various local practices that combine the traditions and the influences, making up something that is not either of the two, but both at the same time. In this, Batanes is an ideal subject to study.
In Diura, a fishing village, the locals still gather before the men brave the seas to catch fish. They hold a katayan (slaughtering) of pig, and then check, even foretell, the luck for that trip by looking at the lamang loob (viscera). Considering that some fishing villages fish only enough for their consumption, with the catch also often communal, abundant catch to see them through is the ideal. And yet, despite the seeming animalistic ritual, come Sunday, many flock to the old Roman Catholic churches of Uyugan and Ivana, seeing no conflict in their ways of living, their beliefs now carved in stone as they were passed from generation to another, safely practiced without being doubted as if their validity was proven by time.
The churches, the latter built in 1791 while the former less than 100 years later, are ideal representations of Galvan’s perspective of potpourri Filipinism – perfection in the combination, the parts making up the whole. And yet, like the bahay na bato (stonehouses) still common in the area, they signify the undaunted spirit of the Ivatans, who, consistently beleaguered by the strong blowing of the winds, continue to make it through come hell or high water.
A stone throw away is the improvised wharf, housing a gathering of bancas (dinghies) that don’t look like they are strong enough to go out in the sea, young men were flaunting what they caught, presumably while only going for a swim, mainly colorful fish that would have looked more comfy in well-kept aquariums that in a frying pan.
“Masarap tingnan (Looks delicious),” I said to a young boy, getting off our vehicle as soon as I spotted him carrying some gigantic tatus (coconut crab), which abound in the islands, making it the major ingredient of some of Batanes’ famous delicacies. But when asked to sell, he giggled, hiding the scrawny and odd-looking tatus behind him.
“Limang piso (Five pesos),” he said, apparently joking. Like most, these weren’t for sale, but to be cooked for his family’s meal later.
A WORLD ON ITS OWN…
Once, I was hopping from one rock to another in Valugan (sand is a rarity at most beaches because the strong blowing of the wind pushes towards shore big boulders), when, seemingly out of nowhere, an old woman emerged, complete with a yuvok (crop container) tied around her neck, as if its weight didn’t bother her at all. She was an interesting sight as she, herself, hopped from one big rock to another, then stopped on the smaller ones to overturn them, picking up seashells hiding from under them to place them in her basket.
“Ulam (viand),” she said, toothy grin directed at me, before she went back to overturning stones. It was almost lunchtime and here she was, still gathering what she will still be cooking for her family to eat, not in any hurry at all. But then, it crossed my mind, why would she when she was in Batanes, a part surviving detached from the whole, a world on its own in so many ways.
An acquaintance, asked what the most underrated tourist destination in the Philippines is, offhandedly said, “It would have to be Batanes.” And he could well be right.
Aboard a plane to head back to Metro Manila, the islands looked like giant green quilts from under us, sections of which were darker than the others, with the occasional spray of golden wildflowers, all closely knit by shrubs that form lines like divisions in a map. At the ends were cliffs, hiding caves, perhaps, like Chawa, said to be haunted by an engkanto (supernatural being) that shows herself to those she likes. Or giving way to beaches, at times sandy though more often rocky. Or enclosing villages where, for ages, and despite what they have been through, the people continued to live and even thrive, little worlds on their own, aware of the outside world yet surviving without its interference.
Just before the islands were completely hidden from view by the clouds as the plane continued its ascent, I had a quick last look of the islands from afar, seemingly as Wendy may have seen Never Never Land when Peter Pan first took her, John and Michael there. It was distant, as if unreachable – if not physically, at least a feel of it, as if it would rather be kept hidden, its many wonders would rather not be discovered. Having grown up fed with folkloric tales, Batanes could well be the island to visit to see the characters of tall tales of wonder – duwende (dwarf) running from boulder to boulder, avoiding detection, leprechauns dancing in the openness of the vast fields, sirena (mermaid) hiding behind giant boulders, and more. The place, definitely, was more than idyllic, a representation of things naturally beautiful when left untarnished.
This land lost and found thrived for long. It will for more, too. This is Batanes, after all, the islands left by time – only to be discovered over and over and over again, never ceasing to cast its spell on whoever does so.