Postcard: Back from Saigon

Lady on the street of Saigon, Vietnam by Owen Ballesteros

We had a day in Vietnam after almost two weeks in Cambodia, and what can we say, Ho Chi Minh really is on a league of its own. But for all its chaos, this city does have its quiet moments.

For now, we’re finally back home after 16 hours on the road. We’ll be back with more stories and photos soon!

<3 Owen & Nikka Photo © Owen Ballesteros

Basco Port, Basco, Batanes

Basco Port, Basco, Batanes © Owen Ballesteros

The port of Basco in Batanes is not just any other docking area. For the northernmost province of the Philippines, this means supplies—eggs, cement, rice—from mainland Luzon, traveling days along turbulent seas to get there. This means a whole lot more to Itbayat, a community of 3,000 living three more hours from the port, the northernmost habitation in the country: it is their only reliable and affordable channel to the rest of the world.

Photo by Owen Ballesteros

Postcards from Vigan

Horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping on cobblestone streets past Spanish-era houses called bahay na bato — there are only a few places in the Philippines as nostalgic as Vigan. The city, a World Heritage Site, is “an exceptionally intact and well preserved example of a European trading town in East and Southeast Asia,” according to UNESCO.
Continue reading “Postcards from Vigan”

Life Extraordinary: The Butbut of Kalinga

The village of Buscalan is 17 hours from Manila. Although our journey was considerably shorter — 10 hours in all from Baguio via Bontoc, Mountain Province — this did not make the last leg of the ascent, which we trod by foot, any less difficult. On our first trip, this climb took two hours. Subsequent trips cut the travel time by at least half, but we still found ourselves out of breath by the end of it. That is what visiting the village means.

But imagine sacks of rice — two 25-kilogram pieces, to be exact — being hoisted up the same unforgiving slope on a person’s back. Or an LPG tank. Or hollow blocks and sacks of cement.

That is what living in the village means for the members of the Butbut tribe.

Buscalan’s isolation — it is two mountains from the nearest concrete road — means supplies have to be either produced right there or procured manually from the lower-lying areas of the town of Tinglayan, to which Buscalan belongs, and manually carried, piece by piece, up to the village. And just like so many people in communities we have visited in the Philippines, the Butbuts’ adaptability was such that even women could carry an LPG tank on their heads, up the mountain, and into their respective homes.

For them, this walk seems negligible.

Without any cellular reception, Buscalan has little in the way of instant communication with the outside. Post is claimed once a week from the Post Office downhill by a villager, who takes the mail up and distributes them to recipients. Cable TV seems available, but in the numerous times we have stayed in the village, we have yet to see a single TV turned on. Even with the kids, TV didn’t seem too appealing, although we noticed that they do like their candies.

Life is unhurried but not idle; in fact, we would always marvel at how long a single day here can last, how much everybody else seemed to accomplish while having more than enough time for siesta.

Buscalan also has some of the oldest – and most agile — people we have ever met. Some of them are so old nobody—even their family members—seemed to know the exact age anymore. And this is not surprising. The Butbut people grow their own food; there is no pollution to grapple with everyday; their daily activities allow them ample exercise. What else, really, do you need to enjoy a good long life?

Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino Photography / Two2Travel
A Butbut woman walks to her home in Buscalan, Kalinga. Buscalan is surrounded by the Cordillera mountains and rice terraces.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino
Whang-od, the tribe’s 95-year-old tattoo artist, wields a scythe as she weeds out a portion of her farm land to plant beans. It is common for old people like Whang-od to still attend to their farms, located a good distance from their huts.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
A Butbut woman tends to her rice crops just before the harvest season.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino
Bundles of rice are dried outside following the harvest in July.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
A Butbut woman sifts through rice before cooking.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Whang-od cooks rice over wood fire on a crude stove in her kitchen. Although the kitchen is equipped with a gas stove, Whang-od prefers cooking this way.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
A Butbut woman manually weeds out bad beans for the day’s lunch.

Hands of Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino
Whang-od bundles corn from this season’s harvest. An agricultural community, Buscalan is surrounded by farm lands terraced from mountain slopes, where villagers plant rice, root crops, and vegetables.

Buscalan, Kalinga
Whang-od peels yam for boiling. Unable to chew because all her teeth have fallen off, she resorts to soft, boiled food instead.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino
Butbut kids in elementary level slice vegetables for a school competition to end the Nutrition Month. Diet in the village usually comprises vegetables and rice, and kids are taught from a young age how to cook.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino

Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino Photography / Two2Travel
A family shares a meal on the floor of their kitchen.

Kids of Buscalan munch on sugar cane, their equivalent of candy.
Local kids nibble on strips of sugar cane, their equivalent of candy.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Whang-od feeds her pigs outside her home in Buscalan. Pigs play a central role in village life. Families grow and then sell them to other villagers, who may need it for special ceremonies or gatherings.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
A Butbut woman starts the ascent to her village while balancing her load on top of her head. Local people can get to the village in as little as 15 minutes.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Apo Baydon, foreground, is believed to be over a century old and is Buscalan’s oldest living person. He still makes brooms and small scythes, and does not look over 80.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino
A Butbut tribeswoman carries newly laundered clothes from downstream — where she did her laundry — all the way up to the village, which takes about 20 minutes along very steep slopes.

~
Photos by Owen and Nikka

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

Whang-Od

There is so much we want to say about this lady named Whang-Od and her little village in the mountains of Buscalan in Kalinga province. But there will be time for lengthy writing; today is not it. Because though we are back home, our minds are still deep in the mountains, looking at her as she tattoos a visitor for the nth time today.

TWO2TRAVEL | Portrait of Whang-Od, mambabatok of Buscalan, Kalinga, Philippines

~
Photo © Owen / Featured Image © Nikka

Back from neverland

You don’t go to Batanes for pizza. Heck, you don’t go to Batanes to eat.

But then again, sometimes, pizza becomes the only logical choice, especially when you just got out of the boat from Itbayat, enduring three hours of lying on your back while waves buffet the faluwa from all directions, sometimes causing you to roll over so suddenly to one side like a piece of log.

So yes, it’s pizza. It’s not even the best pizza in Basco (the crust was too thick). But for weak-kneed city dwellers who just got from one of their most daring rides yet, this freaking pizza will do.

Black and white pizza

Black and white pizza

Black and white pizza

Black and white pizza

Black and white pizza

Black and white pizza

Black and white pizza

Black and white pizza


Words by Nikka, Photos by Owen

Smokey Mountain: A day in Manila’s slums

We approached her and asked if we could take her picture.

“But I look filthy,” she said in Filipino, looking embarrassed.

Her face was covered with soot and so were her hands, her clothes, and her feet.

But she wiped the soot off her face with her hands anyway, looked directly into the camera, and smiled.

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

We were at Barangay 105 in Tondo, Manila, more commonly known as Smokey Mountain, where people like her live in the middle of thick black smoke and garbage—two things that also mean cash for their families on a daily basis.

At Smokey Mountain, Manila’s largest dumpsite, people scavenge for garbage and make charcoal for a living. Scavengers can take home as much as P300 or as little as P150 for putting in eight to 10 hours of work a day. Charcoal-makers can rake in just as much (or as little), but it can go up to P500 on a particularly good day.

But this is not without hazards: pneumonia is the leading cause of death among residents in the community, says Nympha Flores, our guide for the day.

Smokey Tours

Nympha is also a resident of Tondo. She works for Smokey Tours, an organization that offers experiential tours around Manila’s slums, cockfight areas, and markets. It also offers bicycle tours around the city.

“Smokey Tours are not just tours. We offer experiences, believing that deep experience equals deep insight,” the organization says on its website.

Proceeds from these tours go to the Bahay at Yaman ni San Martin De Porres, an NGO providing food and education for kids and livelihood for mothers of impoverished families in Tondo.

The San Martin de Porres building—a tricycle ride from Smokey Mountain—is brightly painted in green, pink, and blue. By noon, the ground floor is filled with the chatter of kids having their lunch. The upper floors have classrooms, dressmaking rooms, and craft rooms. The top floor offers a sweeping view of colorful Manila covered in grey urban haze. Paper cranes made by the kids hang from its walls.

It is a far cry from the neighborhood of Smokey Mountain—at least at face value—with its open drains and narrow, dark, and garbage-strewn alleyways. The shanties are clumped together—a maze of wood, GI sheets, tarpaulins, and electric wires. People eat pagpag, food scraps from fastfood outlets recooked and sold to residents.

It is a very busy place and everything can get overwhelming fast–the smell from the garbage, the thick smoke from the ulingan, the hot summer sun; garbage trucks coming in and out, people pushing sikads containing pieces of discarded wood.

But although Smokey Mountain is far from ideal, there is a semblance of a typical neighborhood: there are sari-sari stores, day care centers, police, and NGO offices interrupting the garbage dumps. There is also karaoke.

People greet strangers with warm smiles, and some scold their dogs for barking at what they call are visitors. There are handwritten signs offering haircut, and women have their pedicure right outside their homes. There are children everywhere, and at least one monkey in a cage too. And perhaps because of all these, Smokey Mountain didn’t strike us as unfamiliar.

Nympha is also very keen to point out that the community is safe and drug-free—a distinction that we think needs to be made in order to separate it from the stereotypical Manila neighborhood that is as poor as it is dangerous.

Smokey Mountain also happens to have a beach—a garbage-littered one, just behind the ulingan. Here, boys in their underwear take turns jumping into the waters, coaxing and cheering, unmindful of anything else. It looked just like any other scene from any other beach with any other group of kids trying to take a break from the heat.

That’s when we realized that although there are a lot of things Smokey Mountain is not, there is one thing it is: a home where people live, work, and probably even dream big dreams. Whether that involves getting out of its carpet of garbage and cloud of smoke, only time—or the government—can tell.

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

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Thank you to Smokey Tours for making this visit possible. For more information on their tours, please visit their website.

Words by Nikka; Photos by Owen & 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

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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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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