A small plane, a costly airfare, and the wild, windy (and wavy) northern isles of the Philippines put you on equal footing with the first Spanish missionaries when they made the difficult trip to the Batanes from Manila more than 200 years ago.
While the Batanes may well vie for Instagram-worthy capital of the Philippines, the greatest attractions come from the little things that are simple and yet hard to find in everyday life.
1) Honesty Coffee Shop
In a world where trust is often like rain in the Atacama or Sahara, honesty is at a premium. Have they included its charge in your pricey plane ticket to Basco too? We chanced upon the often talked-about Honesty Coffee Shop on our way to tiny Ivana harbor from Basco. No shopkeeper, not a single soul in sight. But all the soda, biscuits, and grocery stuff were at your disposal. Just don’t forget to leave the correct amount of payment in exchange for the things you get as reminded by a written instruction.
2) Savidug Ijang
Kings and queens, castles, and all in-betweens are not difficult to daydream of in the Batanes with the islands’ semi-temperate climate and green rocky landscape. When in Sabtang request a visit to Savidug Ijang, an archaeological site on top of a hill. Scholars believe that long before the islands were incorporated into the Philippines starting with the missionaries’ prayer meetings among local folk in the 1700s, these stones were part of defensive structures where ancient ruling chiefs guarded their wealth and power. There are several of these across the Batanes archipelago, remains of which tell us that the Ivatan (native of the Batanes) may have had several different tiny kingdoms governing their islands.
3) Sleeping in an Ivatan house
This is roughing it out in a traditionally authentic accommodation. It is your chance to be part of the pre-modern Ivatan village, which means that house amenities will only include a light bulb for electricity and perhaps one socket in which you can recharge your mobile phone, pillows and blankets for the bed, and that’s all. Few lights and noise can be found in the village at night. A manual water pump outside is available for washing and bathing. Air-conditioning will be nature’s responsibility – no cooler or heater in the house – and your apparel’s as well. The Batanes climate is a cross of the tropical and the temperate. The winds are gorgeous. The food is expensive for imported items, but reasonable enough for those that can be produced in the province. During mealtimes we were called to eat prepared meals in another house. For those who love nightly videokes, it will be a great disappointment.
4) A Village Fiesta
Efforts of the first missionaries were not in vain because Roman Catholicism is now firmly rooted here as seen in the white-washed churches by the sea and a devout Christian tradition. In Sabtang we stumbled upon a fiesta. In the cool morning of January, villagers were already prepared to meet visitors on the feast day of Thomas Aquinas, their patron saint. Rice served on fiestas is made special by colouring it yellow with turmeric. Uved, which is bits of pork, fish, and banana corm rolled into balls, is also an Ivatan innovation.
The mainstream Filipino feasting dishes were there: glutinous rice cake, adobo (meat stew cooked in vinegar and salt or soy sauce), halayang ube (yam pudding), seafood, macaroni salad, and sweet spaghetti. Gin flowed freely. Plates came in the form of large leaves of the breadfruit tree.
5) Snacking on fruit and nut at the beach or roadside
This is for free. There are at least two plants that can help you with this – Seashore Pandan and Sea Almonds. The Seashore Pandan goes by the scientific name Pandanus tectorius. If you can skillfully wrest the pineapple-like fruit from the confines of its thorny leaves, then you can eat it by separating the individual carpels that make up the fruit. A ripened fruit will appear reddish-orangey. This plant is a brother of the pandan used in giving rice a fragrant aroma while being cooked.
Sea almond or talisay (Terminalia catappa) is also abundant in the Batanes and can grow into a tall tree. I remember climbing it in childhood, and because it looks like a multi-storeyed tree you can choose which branch you want to laze on. Its fruit (or nut) may be higher to reach, in which case you need to climb the tree or to ask some advice from the locals. You need to crack open the nutshell to gain access to the edible part.
6) Beaches all to yourself
Provided that you enjoy looking at or wading in shorelines with big waves, then the beaches of the island province will be a perfect venue for you. The seashore presents mostly as either rocky cliff or sandy beach battered by strong waves. This is not surprising for a favorite path of typhoons in the west Pacific, and where the monsoons blow unimpeded.
The trip itself between Batan and Sabtang may be a wavy preview of the beach getaway you are thinking of, in which most passengers cling to some post or edge for the whole duration. You will however be rewarded with perfect serenity, pristine seashores save for the occasional buoy, and a chance to know the lives of industrious Ivatan fishermen.
7) Villagers’ honesty
There are times – it’s really all the time – when you wish all places were like the Batanes. People who are experts in losing sorts of things will be happy with this. At the School of Fisheries in Sabtang where we slept the night before, we were waiting for the boat for the return trip back to Batan. A young man came to me and asked my name. When I replied, he took out a mobile phone from his pocket and asked if it’s mine. I swiftly glanced at the object he was holding and was surprised to find out that I unknowingly dropped my mobile phone along the way from Savidug village to the municipal center of Sabtang.
“We found it three kilometres from here,” he said and gave it back to me.
“Thank you so much,” I excitedly uttered with a sigh of relief.
Text and photos by Jack G. L. Medrana
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