Batanes and the Search for Purity

There was nothing flat and straight in Batanes. Even its fields rolled down hills only to rise again on the other end.

My stomach lurched as our tricycle veered through the hairpin curve. For a millisecond I could see nothing but sky and sea; there was no vehicle left around me, no road beneath, not even the jagged cliff below baring its fangs and waiting.  I could look no more so I focused my gaze on the mountain face to my left from which the narrow highway was carved. That way I didn’t literally face imminent death at every turn. And boy, were there turns!

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The cabs of Sabtang tricycles are made with wood and thatched roofs. They are left completely open, giving passengers a great view of the highway.

There was nothing flat and straight in Batanes. Even its fields rolled down hills only to rise again on the other end. Certainly not the vast waters surrounding it either. The archipelago’s ten islands sat where the South China Sea met the Philippine Sea, and thus the Pacific Ocean. Their tides were infamous for being strong and unpredictable, their waves large and powerful. They were so feared, in fact, that on the once-daily trips from the island of Batan to the island of Itbayat, passengers were asked to sleep before they began their passage. It was the only way to make the voyage comfortable, the locals said.

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That day in the tricycle felt no different. With the dips and climbs, the sharp turns one after the other, we might as well have been at sea being buffeted around – at the edge of the road, no less. We were in the island of Sabtang in the midst of a day tour, which included visiting some of the most removed villages in the whole Philippines and, apparently,  near death experiences. Looking back, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I saw vans snaking their way through the island. Their occupants were safely encased within, cooled by the air-conditioning and shielded from the ravines that draped the road. I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry. They missed the fresh sea breeze. They missed the hum of lapping surf. They missed bluest blue sky and the turquoise waters, so clear I could see what’s beneath from a hundred feet above. What would they have experienced in their generic vehicles? How would it have been any different from the smell, the sound, the feel of the very same ones they rode back in the big city?

23243132383940As the country’s northernmost province, Batanes was quite a distance from the mainland of Luzon. If not for the Babuyan Islands linking it to the rest of the Philippines, it could have easily belonged to Taiwan, geographically. Taiwan’s radio stations could be heard in Itbayat Island, while the glow of their city lights could be glimpsed as far as Batan. The same could certainly not be said from the Philippine side.

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Itbayat: the Philippines’ northernmost inhabited island

Maybe it was thanks to this distance that the Ivatan people of Batanes were able to preserve their culture. While the capital, Basco, and the rest of Batan had all the modern amenities, the smaller towns in neighboring islands were far more rustic. Our tricycle driver from Sabtang  Island proudly announced that they finally had round-the-clock electricity as of early this year. However, Itbayat still had to deal with daily six-hour rations. Cell service was spotty at best, and internet addicts would certainly die from withdrawals.

As a result, the claws of capitalist and “imperialist” Manila couldn’t grip the small archipelago. Life stayed simple and quiet. Rolling hills stayed green. The oceans remained virgin. People remained kind and gentle.

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They did their jobs and they did it very well, because it was the decent thing to do. Not because they were waiting to get rewarded for it.

When we were taught Philippine geography growing up, two things were always emphasized about Batanes: first were their traditional stone houses, which were famous for keeping interiors cool when it was hot outside, and vise versa; second was how they left their doors unlocked and windows opened because they were honest people.

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Honesty Coffee Shop is the only known store in the Philippines that is unmanned. Here visitors are supposed to pay what they owe without being told or asked, and to do so even if they would not be caught otherwise.

I saw this firsthand in our hotel when a coin sitting idly in one of the tables stayed on the same spot from the day we arrived until the day we left. I witnessed this too with our tricycyle drivers. When we tipped one of them after a day of driving us around, he tried to return the excess cash, thinking we made a mistake. The others who knew it was a tip thanked us so profusely, it’s like we had done them an unimaginable favor. Not once did any local show entitlement or expectation. They did their jobs and they did it very well, because it was the decent thing to do. Not because they were waiting to get rewarded for it. It was a refreshing, albeit surprising, change from city life.

As for their homes, they were indeed a marvel. The Ivatan stone houses were unique in the country. They were very low, made up of very thick walls and equally thick thatched roofs. Amazingly though, some of the original houses were also built with corals. They were constructed this way to withstand the brutal winds and typhoons that wreaked havoc on the province all year.

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More than their quaintness, they were famous for their perfect insulation. It was definitely in the high thirties when we were there, not to mention humid and windless. Yet when I entered the houses, it was so cool I not only felt immediate relief, but I also wanted to stay put. There were no fans or any form of ventilation except for tiny windows and low doorways. Likewise, it’s said that in the cooler months where temperatures could drop well below twenty degrees Celsius (freezing by tropical standards), the houses could provide so much warmth that there was no need for heaters.

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Nope, that is not the chicken’s house
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me beside a doorway for scale

The stone wasn’t limited to their homes either. Everything from churches to lighthouses to commercial establishments used the same materials. While Batan had more modern houses these days, the islands of Sabtang and Itbayat kept to their traditional architecture.

Seeing the rows of stone houses set in the Batanes landscape was so fascinating. I had hoped that all of the province would look like this, but with the costs of construction and labor, it was understandable why many now opted for concrete and galvanized roofs.

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That said, Batanes also had historical structures not built with stone. A church in southern Batan, for instance, reminded me so much of a church I visited in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico that I stood there for a good while just staring at it. Manila might not have reached Batanes, but the Spanish certainly did.

41b41c50But perhaps the most distinct characteristic of Batanes, more than its geography or people, was its development. It was so untouched, so raw and real, that I ardently wished it would remain so forever. That was not to say that there shouldn’t be any progress, of course. Just not the unchecked, unregulated kind going on in many popular tourist spots in the Philippines.

Batanes was known as one of the most breathtaking places in the country and it was because the grand views remained unobstructed. Whichever direction you turned wherever you were on the islands, something majestic was waiting for you. And this was what ultimately drew me, and perhaps now bound me, to Batanes.

The magnitude of the place left me in absolute awe, put me back in my place, small and insignificant as I was. Its grandeur felt so pure in its unaided glory, which in turn made it even more magnificent. I could seriously wax poetic about Batanes all day. From all my travels around the Philippines, Batanes was second in beauty only to Coron – and even then it could stand its ground.

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What I wrote was less a story than a prayer. For this place that had seized me to remain pure, to become constant, so that I could return one day and find its place in my heart still intact.

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In the southern part of the island of Batan was a very unique library. Instead of published works, it had rows of books containing blank pages. Every single visitor to Batanes was brought to this library. Here we were told to pick a book – any book, pick a page – any page, and fill it with our own story.

What I wrote was less a story than a prayer. For this place that had seized me to remain pure, to become constant, so that I could return one day and find its place in my heart still intact.

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