Batanes discovered

- Rey Gamboa - The Philippine Star

I must admit that, without an official invitation from Columbian Autocar Corp. (CAC) exclusive distributors of KIA vehicles in the country, I wouldn’t have found myself in this northernmost province of the Philippines out of my own accord. Batanes is not your usual destination, nor is it among the popular ones hereabout. The very name conjures images of typhoons so fierce that traditional dwellings have been uniformly designed over centuries to meet these challenges of nature. They are built low, as if to hunker from the howling, brutal winds, and they are made of coral, stone, mortar and lime.

I spent three full days in Batanes with my son Wee and 40 other journalists plus executives of KIA Philippines just a couple of weeks ago, the timing just right so as to catch the tail end of the cold spell and the beginning of summer. It was a completely different test drive experience, a commune with nature, a trip to a distant past when provincial life was untouched by modern complexities. What an exhilarating change from cosmopolitan Metro Manila.

The pleasant surprise was Fundacion Pacita owned by the family of Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad where we stayed for three days. From the outside, it looked rather small, but it accommodated everyone in the large group. My room which I shared with Wee was large enough and opened to a charming terrace that overlooked the sea, hills and mountains, all green and verdant and, may I add, far enough from the ocean. Fundacion Pacita was very quaint, charming in a provincial way but spacious enough and had all the modern conveniences and amenities. On those chilly, chilly nights, the cottages were bathed in a warm yellow light against a backdrop of a black skyline. We had some excellent footages of this.

It turns out, from my conversation with Batanes governor Vicente Gato, that things have changed for the better for this tiny province with the advent of climate change — they have not had a taste of nature’s fury in some four or five years now, where before they had one big typhoon after another during the year. The Malintang Channel is one of the three places in the world known for the biggest waves. Gov. Gato also shared that Batanes is soon to be conscripted into the UNESCO.

We drove our KIAs to several of Batanes’ tourist spots, on roads that were narrow and winding, much of them cemented and smooth. Those that cut through the towns were all trimmed with simple flowering plants and were all neat.

We visited the San Jose de Ivana Church built in 1784 in the smallest town of Batanes, and nearby was the Honesty Coffee Shop built by Elena Gabilo upon her retirement in 1995. It’s a wonder in itself — travelers are welcome to stop by and rest, get drinks and chips and novelty/souvenir items and pay, just on the basis of honesty. There is no shop keeper on duty here.

The San Carlos Borromeo Church, aka Mahatao Church, Batanes’ oldest national treasure, was built in 1789, destroyed in 1872, and rebuilt in 1873. Modeled after the Basco Cathedral, it is one of the National Cultural Heritage Treasures of the National Commission for Culture & the Arts.

The House of Dakay, the oldest existing stone house here built in 1887 was our next destination. This simple house made of stone and corals with narrow shuttered windows, walls made of lime and bare hard wood floors was one of only five houses that survived the deadly earthquake of Sept. 13, 1918. Like most of the other traditional houses here, the roof is thatched cogon, and I suppose this needs to be changed every so often.  A lone old woman lives here now, surviving on family’s and neighbors’ kindness.

We also visited the Tukon Radar Station located on a hilltop, a US weather facility built atop a hill to monitor typhoons, the Tayid Lighthouse built only in 2000, and the much older one the Basco Lighthouse in Naldi hills, Brgy San Antonio, one of three lighthouses proposed by then Rep. Butch Abad. It stands six-story tall, with a spiral staircase leading up to the viewing deck on the fifth floor. From this vantage point, one could clearly see the islands of Batan, Atbayan and Sabtang and Mt. Iraya.

Batanes is not without its natural wonders — at the Alapag Viewpoint is a magnificent natural sculpture by the sea, and huge forlorn sentinel and at the bottom of the road lies the empty shell of LORAN (Long Range Aid to Navigation Station) built by the Americans in the ’60s for coastguard purposes and later abandoned in the ’70s.

The Valugan Boulder Beach had boulders strewn out all along the beach, reputedly andecite rocks from the volcanic eruption of Mt. Iraya in 1454. The boulders have been rendered smooth over time by the relentless waves that constantly pummel the beach.

The province is not short on hills either — the Vayang Rolling Hills which had a breathtaking view of the open sea, and the Mahatao Marlboro Hills with a continuous mountain range nearby had acres and acres of verdant grass, with a few cattle grazing. Batanes, I heard, is supposed to be cattle country, though I only saw a smattering of lean cows on endless stretches of grass.

Batanes is surrounded by water (the Pacific Ocean and the China Sea), yet their cuisine is not rich with sea food. On good fishing days, the catch is reportedly already spoken for, made “pakyaw” by the Taiwanese. Pork is conspicuously absent too, though I don’t understand why backyard pig farming cannot be done if cattle growing is viable here. Maybe now that climate change has smiled upon Batanes, things will be different for these hardy folks. The cuisine is mostly beef and vegetables, though our gracious hosts at KIA feted us with two lechons and loads of lobsters one fine dinner.

It was an exhilarating three-day adventure, not so much excitement as it was a gentle revelation of warm, hospitable folks who have learned to live with nature’s fits, and the unspoiled beauty of nature in the far-away North.

Mabuhay!!! Be proud to be a Filipino.

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