“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.
Early the next day we took what would be our most scenic tricycle ride yet—a 30-minute stretch of roads teetering on slopes from Basco, the province’s capital, to the port of another town called Ivana.
But Sabtang, we heard, was a different beauty.
To reach this island, we had to go by the province’s outrigger-free boat called faluwa, akin to Noah’s Ark (and rightly so, as it’s designed to withstand waves of Old Testament proportions, or in this case, the treacherous Balintang Channel).
Just as it is in remoter areas with limited transportation, the boat carries everything from people to sacks of rice to GI sheets to—yes—motorcycles. Locals would also be quick to point out that bigger vehicles cross this way too, as there really is no other option.
We signed on the manifesto, which at that time felt like a death-list-in-waiting, but noticed that nobody collected payments yet. We took our seats, waited, departed, went back to the port to fetch a couple more people who had just arrived, and were invited for lunch by a man we just met who was attending a christening that day on the island. All the while, the skies were faithfully blue, the waves teased but didn’t threaten, and Sabtang Island drew ever closer.
“That’s Sleeping Beauty,” the man announced, especially for our benefit it would seem, since we appeared to be the only tourists that day. He was pointing to a clump of hills forming—if you tried looking really hard—a profile of a woman in slumber right in front of us.
“But isn’t that Sabtang?”
“It is Sabtang.”
Of tricycles with thatched roofs
The port was a few steps from the plaza, and the plaza a few steps more from the church. We spied banderitas, elderly people in—wait for it—barong tagalog.
But there was no time to take it all in, because the most unusual tricycle just arrived in front of us. It had a two-sided cogon roof held up by four thin wooden poles. The seats were two wooden planks padded with thin rubber. It was open-aired. And it was to be our ride for the day.
“Makikikain tayo mamaya!” was the greeting of the driver, Rudy, who would also be our tour guide. Another invitation for lunch, and we weren’t even hungry yet.
Of rough roads south
We began making our way south of the island, since we had missed the procession by a few minutes. Our tricycle labored under the hot sun and the bad roads. While Basco’s roads are mostly good, Sabtang’s—or at least those which we passed—were not. Kuya Rudy was apologetic. “Hiniram muna ni Napoles yung pampagawa ng daan.”
Chavayan’s welcome rotunda was the smallest we’ve seen yet. We could walk around it in less than five seconds, three if we ran.
On one side of it was a weaver’s shop for vakul, a traditional Ivatan protective headwear for women. There we found a well-heeled lady in thick makeup fitting a vakul, a chatty old tour guide, and an elderly woman weaver, Lola Emilia.
Each vakul costs P500. Prices get jacked up in Basco, they told us, so we better buy one here, direct from the source. A vakul takes about a month to finish—from gathering of vuyavuy, to drying, to assembling. Imagine a senior citizen living off just P500 per month if she sells just one, we were told. We didn’t have the budget for a full-size vakul, but we did buy a smaller version of it.
Chavayan: Of quaint houses and deserted streets
We pushed on to the heart of Chavayan—the quaint village of stone houses with meter-thick walls, colorful windows, small but well-manicured lawns, and pastel-colored public spaces. It sits beside the sea, at the base of a mountain. And it was quiet—so quiet. Where was everybody?
Chavayan’s stone houses
Savidug’s Stone Houses
Of land-dwelling crabs
Coconut crabs or lobster, or both. Within the first 50 meters of our tour, we had asked Kuya Rudy where we could buy these.
“Let’s see if we run into somebody selling them at this time.” We were thinking we would find it in some sort of a market, but apparently it wasn’t the case here.
At the end of the road in Chavayan, a man lumbered toward us, carrying a clump of shelled creatures. Their legs and pincers were moving, they were blue, and they looked like lobsters. Tatus, or coconut crabs.
They feed on coconuts. They’re difficult to hunt. Yes, they live on land. “You can keep these creatures as pets but they will still pierce you the first chance they get.” Three pieces, 330 pesos. Sold.
Of lost tripods and NPAs
We passed by the same road on the way back, but for some reason it seemed dustier and bumpier, although that could easily have been our grumbling stomachs. And then Owen noticed that his tripod was missing.
We searched quickly (it wasn’t that hard to do in a tricycle like that). The tripod still nowhere to be found, we were quite convinced it skidded out of the tricycle on the bumpy way back.
We went back for it, but was spared the trouble when we met a man driving another tricycle towards us, Owen’s tripod strapped neatly on the sidecar. He was smiling as we approached.
Everyone in Sabtang forwards any found item to the parish priest, who then announces it after the mass, Kuya Rudy told us as we made our way back to the sentro. The tripod was back in its bag, and the bag was securely strapped to one of the grilles, right next to the tatus.
“How about money?”
“The priest announces just the same, but does not disclose the amount.”
“We are all NPAs here,” Kuya Rudy added as the tricycle continued negotiating rocks and dirt roads. “Nice People Around,” he followed up after a second, sensing that his *stupid* tourists missed the joke.
Of fiestas, free lunches, and new friends
We were finally back at the sentro, the sun directly overhead and our stomachs famished from the day’s walking. We were at the house of Rudy’s cousin, and that, according to him, is where we were having lunch.
We removed our slippers and greeted everyone in the house. Ryzza Mae was blaring on television, there was really good buko pandan salad, and there was also Kuya Jun, who, we learned, is an Ilocano from Isabela who married Kuya Rudy’s cousin and now lives in Batanes.
“Life here is simple. When you know how to fish, you will never go hungry.”
“There are also many teachers who get assigned here, and some of them decide to stay. There are many Ilocanos here too, mostly from Cagayan and Isabela.”
(There are direct flights to Batanes from Cagayan, the only other place with such, apart from Manila.)
Of people you’ll probably never meet again
We bade our gracious hosts goodbye and made our way to the other side of the port. We passed by the lighthouse, hills, and more cows than houses before reaching Morong Beach.
Morong Beach had a long coastline, beautiful white sand, and big waves. That afternoon, it also had a family who, they claimed, has been traveling around Batanes for the last four months. They are from Ilocos Norte, and they had been to Itbayat, have just arrived in Sabtang, and didn’t really like Batan. “Not too many good views out there,” the woman told us.
They had a blackened pot on the fire by the arch, and a friend of theirs was out on the beach spearfishing. Their two kids, who wore matching clothes, swam close to shore.
No, they didn’t seem the filthy rich type of tourists who were there on an extended vacation. In fact, if we didn’t talk to them at all, we would have easily assumed they were local people spending their siesta at the beach.
Of lighthouses and cows
Of course, our last images of Sabtang had to be those of grazing white cows and lighthouses that seemed to come from another world.
Faluwa—once again, with feelings
All too soon, we were pulling over at the port, waiting for the faluwa ride back. We would be boarding the newest—and apparently the biggest— faluwa plying Batan and Sabtang. This was to be its last trip for its first day in the seas. It was thrice as big as the one we rode earlier, and it was filled with passengers to the bow.
That same afternoon, we found out how Balintang was in the wake of a drizzle. Big clouds have rolled in, and it was not even raining—not anymore. The waves, however, were angry—or at least that’s how they looked like to us. Everyone didn’t seem to mind—everyone, except the one sitting between the two of us—a middle-aged man holding on to his side of the boat like his life depended on it.
Back in Batan
The minute we stepped back on land, it was all I could do not to expel the buko pandan salad we shamelessly gobbled up hours earlier. Everyone else was spilling out of the boat, and they were handing their fare to somebody in the crowd. If it were elsewhere, without so much as a gate, or a ticket, or a ticket collector’s uniform, anybody could have easily walked past the man and ended up riding for free.
But we were in Batanes, and that made all the difference.
We were waiting for a ride and, in the minutes that passed, watched a funeral mass from across the street and spotted one or two funny-looking bikes pedaled by old women. We saw a young girl get her parked (pink?) bike from the church grounds after being dropped off by her companions, and then pedal her own way home (wherever home was, it was probably within biking distance?).
The coconut crabs were still squirming, the afternoon light was fading, and finally we managed to hitch a ride with our host’s husband, who had attended the funeral with relatives.
Back in Basco
We were in the middle of cracking open the shell of the biggest coconut crab we had bought earlier when our housemates for the night arrived. They are young doctors from Manila assigned to Batanes, and they are flying back home, after many months, the following day.
We exchange pleasantries, and within minutes, one of them—the one assigned in Sabtang—tells us: “Ah, so you’re the tourists Kuya Rudy took around a while ago.”
She knew too that we had lunch at Kuya Rudy’s cousin’s house.
By this time, back on the island, they probably already knew about the tourists who dropped their tripod in the middle of nowhere.
Spotting what’s on the table, one of them told us they threw away the aligue the first time they tried tatus. “Because there was just too much of it.”
A scary prospect for doctors, but not for us.
So Owen pinched the plump sack of the biggest one, tore it open, and true enough, out came the most beautiful thing in the whole wide world.