Coffee and Community: Photos from Buscalan, Kalinga

Coffee is free in Buscalan.

It is served about three times a day, sometimes more. When there’s nothing else to do, when there’s just too much going on, when there are visitors to welcome, early in the morning, before going to bed — there are never too many excuses to have a steaming vat of Kalinga brew, served black and piping hot.

And if its coffee is any indication, Buscalan is a place for strangers to feel right at home.

Kalinga Coffee
Kalinga is a coffee producer. Ground to a talcum consistency, coffee is cooked with brown sugar and is served black.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Kids gather around a man playing a local song on the guitar. There is only one guitar in the entire village, and its sound usually draws children to wherever it is played.

Buscalan, Kalinga /
Locals simply call this game chess, although it is played with dice.

Village children wash dishes at communal washing areas placed in between houses. Households do not have individual water systems.
Kids wash dirty dishes at communal water sources scattered throughout the village. Households in Buscalan do not have individual water pipe lines, but supply is plentiful as it comes from a nearby waterfall.

Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Villagers haul food and cooking implements along rice terraces for a picnic.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Men butcher a small pig by the river. In so-called picnics such as this, everyone who participates makes a contribution, either in kind or through labor.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Men cleave the pig’s body for cooking. Some parts are grilled, others boiled. The head was especially reserved for Whang-od, the tribe’s tattoo artist many tourists come to Buscalan for.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Portions of the cooked pig are evenly distributed to everyone who is present.

Buscalan, Kalinga /

Buscalan, Kalinga /
Students line up for a prayer at the start of a school program. The village has school buildings for elementary kids, but these are in dire need of instructional materials.

Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino Photography / Two2Travel
Small kids race to the top of a small wall in the village. Playtime often looks like this in Buscalan.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Kids play the flute in front of a guest house while other kids look on. Impromptu performances like this draw the attention of villagers.

Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino Photography / Two2Travel
Villagers gather around after dinner, like they usually do with or without electricity.

Buscalan, Kalinga /

Buscalan, Kalinga /

Buscalan, Kalinga /

Buscalan, Kalinga /

Photos by Owen and Nikka

Kannao

Kannao - Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel

Beans and rice — that was our first square meal the day we arrived in Buscalan, a tiny village in Kalinga. It was offered to us by Kannao, the 70-year-old sister of Whang-od, Kalinga’s famous mambabatok.

We met Kannao just as she was making her way up the ladder to her hut, plastic plate on one hand. We had just deposited our bags in the house where we were staying and knew nobody in the village. Our guide made the introductions, and she smiled and motioned us to come up, speaking in the Butbut language we did not understand.

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

Kannao’s house stands on a mix of wooden and cemented stilts, underneath which were several native pigs. Inside were a clay stove, a table for pots and plates, and not much more.

She was wearing a polo shirt and animal print pants that clung to her thin frame like a tattoo. But these were nothing compared to what she had on her arms: both of them were covered in the familiar dark patterns of traditional Kalinga scars: snakeskin, ladder, and rice fields, from the wrist all the way up. She had another on her collar too—a beautiful, thick band of even more snakeskin and rice fields, curving from one shoulder to the next.

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

Kannao - Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel

Kannao - Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel

Although we couldn’t stop staring at the tattoos, we tried to make conversation. She kept smiling, nodding, and talking, but we did not understand anything she was saying.

Finally, we attempted the only thing left that can help us understand one another. We spoke in Ilocano, telling her we are from Baguio.

It worked.

Well, sort of. It turns out, Kannao—and most of the other tribespeople—understood Ilocano quite well. Turns out we wouldn’t have to make do with feeble sign language after all.

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

She sat on the floor right next to the stove, picked up a thin iron rod, poked the cinders, and started tracing the base of the plastic plate with the end of the rod. She seemed to have been working on this before we arrived, because a rough letter K already shone on the green plastic, and she was halfway through what looked like the letter A. She was writing her name on the plate ‘so nobody will get it,’ she laughed.

Kannao - Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel

People would regularly pass by her hut and they would converse in the Butbut tongue. I tried making out anything that resembled Ilocano, but it still sounded too strange. It was already noon, and we could hear the chatter of more and more people next-door—the house of Kannao’s daughter, Abuk, the mother of 18-year-old Grace. This is where Whang-od usually tattoos visitors, and the day’s sessions will most likely be starting soon.

Buscalan, Kalinga - Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

‘Mangan,’ she told us (‘mangan’ is Ilocano for ‘eat’). Owen and I didn’t really know what to say. We didn’t want to bother her, but we were famished since we haven’t had anything else the whole day apart from water and coffee.

She didn’t wait for a response and busied herself with the plates. Soon a bowl of what looked like beans in clear soup and more rice than we can eat were on the floor in front of us. We thanked her and dug in. The beans, which, despite looking plain and pale, were actually quite excellent. We ended up finishing everything rather shamelessly (and over the next few days, Owen and I would be eating more than our usual intake, thanks to their family’s excellent cooking).

Buscalan, Kalinga - Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel

We would talk about her tattoos and her sister a bit later. “Whang-od is not pretty because she has a small nose,” she joked. When I asked her what she thought of my tattoos, she shook her head and told me they were pangit. She then pointed to those on her arms. ‘Napintas,’ she smiled (napintas is Ilocano for ‘beautiful’).

In the days of her youth, Butbut women had tattoos done because they believed these made them more attractive to suitors. It was rather different for the men, who had to earn theirs from victories in battle.

I asked Kannao how much she had to pay for them. She raised two fingers: two pesos for each sleeve. Each sleeve took one day to finish.

Kannao - Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel

She looked at the photos of her we had taken all that time, but mostly she would just shake her head and tell us she looked ugly in them. We insisted on the opposite, even offering to give her copies when we return, but she wouldn’t hear any of it.

Buscalan, Kalinga - Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

The day before we left—our fifth day in Buscalan—we decided it was time for a tattoo. Later that day, after returning from her farm duties, she asked to see my forearm, where Whang-od has tattooed two jagged lines of the karayan (river), representing constant movement.

’Napintas,’ she smiled.

A little later that same day, while we were sitting on the steps to her hut watching Whang-od tattoo more visitors, she asked us to take a picture of her and Hunter, the family’s dog, who was then nursing a bad cut on one of his paws.

We did, and she smiled a smile for the camera we have been waiting for since we arrived.

She looked at the photos, laughed, and told us to bring a copy when we come back.

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

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 Words by Nikka, Photos by Owen and Nikka

Faces of Batanes

The winds and the seas have perfected the Ivatans of Batanes.

We see it in their lined faces, wrinkled hands, and bare feet. We see it on the veined, muscular arms of men as they pull fishing boats back to land. We see it in children’s sun-kissed skin and their legs so adept at biking hilly terrain for hours on end.

Despite living so far away from the rest of the country they belong to, Ivatans find it easy to give away smiles to strangers. They open their homes, they share their stories, they oblige with a photograph. Sometimes they also say I love you when they are drunk.

We spent 12 days in Batanes this year. And on those days, we went to four islands and met countless people. We hitchhiked on a truck, walked in on at least six homes to eat, and downed brandy—the province’s preferred liquor—with a few men.

Each encounter with the people was different, but somehow they all fit together to help us understand, through photographs, who the Ivatans are. This is our retelling of their stories.

FACES OF BATANES

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

The life of the Ivatans revolve around their vast lands and rich oceans. People farm their own fields and pasture their own cattle, men and women both. Most of the men also go out into the sea to fish. Those who fish also build roads, as in the case of Itbayat, so it’s not unusual to find men on a tataya one day and by the roadside the next.

Faces from the fields

Nanay Fely was coming back from her farm on the hills very early in the morning. Slung on her head was a basket of wakay, a root crop the Ivatans consider their staple food.

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang Island, Batanes, Philippines

Outside Batanes, wakay is synonymous with Ivatan, at least among the locals. “When I tell you Wakay ka, I mean to say you’re Ivatan,” tells Jun, a fisherman at a village in Batan.

TWO2TRAVEL: Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

The women—or at least those in Itbayat—use the vakul, a protective headgear made from dried vuyavuy, a wild palm endemic to Batanes.

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

Ivatans produce garlic, their cash crop, as well as an assortment of other root crops and yams. They do not grow rice, so whatever supply comes all the way from the mainland. This is why rice remains largely a luxury, and for most Ivatans, it’s still wakay all the way.

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

We met this woman by the roadside as our group of three, accompanied by our land lady, made our way up the port (yes, in Itbayat, you need to climb the hill and then descend rather steeply to get to where the boats are) to wait for returning fishermen.

The woman, upon learning we are tourists, tells us quite eagerly that her children are in Manila and abroad. “I go and visit them in Manila when I get the chance,” she tells us. “I don’t get to exercise there though, because I only stay inside the house.”

“I love it better here in the fields,” she adds.

Page 1: Faces from the fields Page 2: Faces from the seas Page 3: Life under construction Page 4: Faces of the future Page 5: Faces from everyday


Faces from the seas

“Life here is simple. When you learn how to fish, you will never go hungry,” another man, also named Jun, told us a few months back.

He is from Isabela who married an Ivatan woman in Sabtang. They live in a two-storey concrete house right at Sabtang’s sentro with their little boy. Jun fishes most times, when the waters are friendly. Apart from ridiculous airfare prices—which prevents the rest of his family from visiting, he says—he seems to have no complaints about his new home.

Batanes’ waters are as rich as they are violent, and fishing is something the men learn from an early age.

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

Jun, a fisherman from Diura, a fishing village in Batan, tells us, “When we were kids, we would sneak on a boat to fish before everyone else was up. We would return with a big catch and the older ones would be left speechless.”

Conditions are harder in Itbayat, where men sometimes stay on islands for days to bring home substantial catch, most of which are only for sustenance.

TWO2TRAVEL: Vuhus Island, Batanes, Philippines

There is also the continuous competition with poachers, who have bigger vessels and far more advanced fishing equipment.

Of course, there is always the matter of coming back home from sea—which in Itbayat isn’t as easy as docking on the shore, because it doesn’t have one to begin with.

Cargo boats—three of them—connect Basco with Itbayat daily except on Sundays and when Mother Nature (and the Philippine Coast Guard) says no. This is also the cheapest (P450) way for visitors to get to Itbayat—a journey which, many fondly and laughingly recall, will ‘let you remember all the saints’ names you learned in school’ while the wooden vessel navigates perhaps the biggest waves in the Philippines.

Take the cue from the crew, most of them would also say. “If they look relaxed, if they’re lying around, there is no need to worry…”

Getting from the boat to the port is another matter too, and depends again on the waves. Itbayat, a contiguous coral reef, has no coastline. Ports are built sloping sharply from the mountains to the seas, so that boats have to wait for the waves to propel them up to the edge —

before a passenger can jump—

before cargo is thrown—

into the waiting hands of people on the other side.

Everything—mattresses, a stack of Monobloc chairs, sacks of cement, and large LPG tanks get transported this way —

one by one.

TWO2TRAVEL: Ibayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

Page 1: Faces from the fields Page 2: Faces from the seas Page 3: Life under construction Page 4: Faces of the future Page 5: Faces from everyday

Life under construction

Although most native Ivatans farm and fish, not everyone does—at least not anymore. Batanes is changing, and with it, the way people make a living. With it, their lives. Roads are being built, little by little, one faluwa trip at a time. And those who are fishing one day are the same ones shoveling the next. When it is time to plant, they will ride their carabao to the fields.

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

Just the day prior, we saw these men helping their neighbors get back to land at one of the ports, unloading the fishing boat and pulling it up foot by foot for hours. Here they are building their island home’s roads.

TWO2TRAVEL: Batan Island, Batanes, Philippines

This man, Mang Eduardo, works for the local Public Works office. He was cleaning up dead leaves and burning them by the roadside.

ATWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

Tourism is also picking up, giving birth to jobs that pay directly in cash. Tourists now have guides, drivers, caterers, boatmen, and even dive masters.

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Mahatao, Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Mahatao, Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes, Philippines

TWO2TRAVEL: Mahatao, Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Mahatao, Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Batan Island, Batanes

two2travel: faces of batanes

two2travel: faces of batanes

Tourists also have places to stay, from vernacular homes to brightly painted concrete hotels with tiled floors and air-conditioning.

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes, Philippines

This is Faustina Cano, a retired schoolteacher who now manages a homestay in Itbayat. Most people in Batanes call her Nanay Cano. Immediately after arriving, she gathers her guests at her yard’s al-fresco dining area where she has plastered a framed illustration of Itbayat’s map, covered in shiny plastic. Over repeated offers of coffee, she spends the next 30 minutes delivering a well practiced litany (in English) of Itbayat’s history, mysteries, and tourist spots.

two2travel: faces of batanes

Inside one of Nanay Cano’s rooms, where beds are comfortable, walls are thick, and sleep is always pleasant and mosquito-free even without the nets.

two2travel: faces of batanes

This is Mang Felix, who works on benches that come in the iconic blue color we have come to associate with Batanes. He works for the only (and most expensive) hotel in the province.

two2travel: faces of batanes

Inside a typical vernacular house in Sabtang — a wooden divider separates one small room from the rest of the floor space, where tourists sleep on mats and pray the wind doesn’t blow too hard during the night, when all power on the island would be turned off.

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

Woven baskets, placemats, and hats from Ivatan homes make their way into shelves, ready for purchase. That, and wakay chips and vakul, both neatly packed in clear plastic, ready for air transport.

TWO2TRAVEL: Mahatao, Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Chavayan, Sabtang Island, Batanes, Philippines

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

Page 1: Faces from the fields Page 2: Faces from the seas Page 3: Life under construction Page 4: Faces of the future Page 5: Faces from everyday

Faces of the future

Ivatan kids are another matter altogether. Some are shy, others are game. Some stare at strangers squarely, others hide behind windows and curtains. All of them had been a joy to photograph. All of them also knew how to ride a bike.

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang Island, Batanes

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TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

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TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Mahatao, Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL Batan Island, Batanes

Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Mahatao, Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

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There is one encounter though that would stick with us long after we’ve forgotten their names and faces: It was just 7 in the evening, but most of the lights at the town plaza were out. Hardly anyone was around.

It was Valentine’s Day, and we were in Batanes, on an island called Itbayat, where the northernmost community of the Philippines lives. And tonight was their prom night.

We walked uphill to the local high school and saw what appeared to be the whole community in attendance. The girls were wearing silk dresses—white for the juniors and pink for the seniors—looking like they came from a single tailor. They formed a square on the grounds, and at the back were their parents, and on some parents’ arms were younger children. All of them were wearing jackets. It was a chilly Valentine’s night, and the moon was full.

And then they were lighting candles and singing Miley Cyrus’ The Climb, which, according to them, was symbolic of many things: conquering mountains, keeping the faith.

With hardly a stable Internet connection, Itbayat was the last place anyone would have expected to hear pop music. It’s less than 200 kilometers from the southern tip of Taiwan, nearer that country than its own. But times seem to be changing—the Itbayat National Agricultural High School, it turns out, has a Facebook page, albeit the last post was from three years back. Its first post was the lyrics of its loyalty song:

“We’ll travel our ways for your side
To seek the golden shores that await
I-N-A-H-S, we leave you behind
With memories so dear, we shall keep”

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TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

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Page 1: Faces from the fields Page 2: Faces from the seas Page 3: Life under construction Page 4: Faces of the future Page 5: Faces from everyday

Faces from everyday

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

Ship crew of MB Itransa take their day’s first meal onboard. Can also be taken as a good sign for an uneventful passage.

two2travel: faces of batanes

two2travel: faces of batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Cockfight in Ivana, Batan Island, Batanes

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TWO2TRAVEL: Mahatao, Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

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TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

two2travel: faces of batanes

Meanwhile, all over the islands, people drink brandy on cold nights. On Sundays, they watch cocks fight.

They wait for their brothers to come home from sea before sundown. They till their lands, they wait for a big one to take their bait.

They bike to school most days. On other days, they get a haircut.

Life goes on.  

Page 1: Faces from the fields Page 2: Faces from the seas Page 3: Life under construction Page 4: Faces of the future Page 5: Faces from everyday


Words by Nikka, Photos by Owen and Nikka

Coming home

It was too early for sunset, but we went anyway. The concrete uphill path was glistening in the afternoon sun after a brief shower earlier. It was, as it has been for the past week, biting cold in Batanes.
Continue reading “Coming home”

Encounters in Sabtang

“You have to go there tomorrow because they’re celebrating their fiesta,” our host told us matter-of-factly as we settled at her two-storey lodge that would be our home in Batanes for the next few days. We were in no rush to plan our days, but we couldn’t blame her: Batanes had just come from a very strong typhoon, the strongest in more than 20 years they say, and our host seemed hell-bent at making us enjoy whatever sunshine we could.

She was referring to Sabtang Island, one of the only three inhabited in Batanes province. Thirty minutes by boat, she said, and more stone houses than we could count.
Continue reading “Encounters in Sabtang”

Boracay on the cheap

During Happy Hour, beer in Boracay averages P70 for two, which makes it P35—or less than a dollar—a bottle. We don’t know about you, but that’s cheap, especially if you factor in the ambiance—beautiful sunset, fine sand on your toes, cushy chairs under coconut trees. Meanwhile, a tricycle ride is P10, a filling meal P50, a liter of water P5, a bed for the night P400—that is, if you’re not picky. And, not to forget, four kilometers of white sand—one of the best in the world—costs absolutely nothing.

Diniwid Beach, Boracay, Philippines - by www.Two2Travel.com
Continue reading “Boracay on the cheap”