The hills are alive in Batanes, verdant rolling hills sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the West Philippine Sea.
Photos by Noel Novicio
The bounties of Batanes
Dorothy Delgado Novicio (The Philippine Star) - February 3, 2019 - 12:00am

Alluring articles about the island paradise, a profound admiration for the acclaimed artist Pacita Abad plus enticing stories of friends who have been there were more than enough reasons for us to plan a holiday in Batanes.

MANILA, Philippines — With our frenzied schedule vis-à-vis the availability of rooms at Fundacion Pacita, it took almost a year for the trip to materialize. But it was all worth the wait because once one sets foot on idyllic Batanes, to linger is to be in a state of bliss.

Driving from the airport to our resort, it didn’t matter whether I gazed to the right or to the left. Everywhere I looked, the vistas were purely majestic. A welcome treat was alternating scenes of emerald rolling hills speckled with dominantly white cattle – some grazing with their calves – and zigzagging roads in between open fields. The vast azure seas, I earlier read, were the West Philippine Sea on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. These were our everyday backdrop for four easygoing days in bucolic Batanes.

Heaven answered our prayers for good weather (read: no typhoon), as fair weather could also mean unpredictable showers any time of the day, which is all part of Batanes’ charm. We were not surprised to arrive on a sunny day and be roused by the gentle patter of rain the next morning. Half awake, I smiled at the thought of raindrops trickling down the fruit-laden papaya tree by the garden where our cottage stood.

Lighthouses in Batanes are not just tourist attractions but functioning beacons for fisherfolk.

We did the two-day compressed package, which offered Batanes’ one-of-a-kind ecotourism tours and delighted in the vibrant mix of art cum nature in the comforts of Fundacion Pacita. 

On our second day, we relished the stillness of our long leisurely drive across the southern side of Batan  (one of only three inhabited, the two others being Sabtang and Itbayat, of the 11 islands of Batanes). Our guide Jerome only interjected to introduce and give a brief background of each place we explored or to answer even the queerest questions we asked.

It is on this side of the island where the Chawa view deck, a perfect location for a breathtaking view of the open seas, the Spanish blue lagoon, said to be an exclusive swimming place in the olden days, the Mahatao port where colorful boats are safely moored during typhoons, the Diura fishing village and a kilometric stretch of the province’s marine sanctuary are located. 

More than just safety nets, the ubiquitous road signs BLOW UR HORN accentuate the blind curves leading to seemingly precarious winding roads. I thought of these signs as the Ivatans’ polite way of saying, “pardon the noise and be safe” – talk of road courtesy and caring, which is now almost unheard of in the metropolis.   

Along the way, we stopped by the House of Dakay, a quintessential bahay na bato built in 1877 with the entire parts of the original house still intact, except for the cogon roof which has to be replaced every 30 years. With the approval of Uncle Francisco Estrella, the affable owner and caretaker of the house, we donned the vakul and kana-i, the Ivatans’ all-weather headdresses.  As he helped us with our outfits, Uncle Francisco entertained us with family anecdotes and his love for the sea, the reason he left a promising job in Manila to spend the rest of his life in his hometown. 

The concept of the Honesty store, run by Elena Gabilo, works in Batanes.

One of the things that I looked forward to was to eat and shop at the Honesty Coffee Shop, which now has its own share of global prominence. Auntie Elena Gabilo, the store’s founder, was busy tending her orchids when we arrived. But she graciously agreed to our request for a photo, quite oblivious of her inspiring stature and the honor we felt to stand beside her.

We snacked on newly cooked camote cue and a cake called pianono. I picked an assortment of turmeric, camote, ube and coconut cookies, then listed down all the items with their corresponding amounts in the notebook sprawled on the table. Beside it was a calculator while on top of the nearby counter was a box where I dropped the exact amount for everything we ate and bought.

Extremely delighted with the novelty of the shopping experience, I thought of how relaxed our daily life would be if purchasing is done the Honesty Store way.

“We have plenty of time,” was Jerome’s oft-repeated mantra as we carried on with the tour. While the hubby fastidiously snapped spellbinding sceneries and captured fascinating subjects, I indulged in my appreciation of a blessed experience of connecting with nature.

The iconic bahay na bato built in 1877.

As our eyes feasted on stretch upon stretch of shorelines and turquoise waters, our heart and lungs felt decades younger as we hiked steep and verdant hills. Wind swept, I halted and panted at some points and made sure the cleats of my hiking shoes were firmly set on the ground. I’m petite and while the thought of me sloping off the hills rolling on cow or goat dung was funny – and quite frightening – I nevertheless mustered enough courage to follow our guide as he brought us to the best vantage points of the huge expanse of rolling hills. Whether it was at the stunning Imnajbu point or the picturesque Racuh A Payaman, I felt a great sense of awe and pride at how lovely this part of our country is!

In Batanes, lighthouses are storied structures. From their location to their make, each of the four lighthouses we visited had its own appeal. For tourists, they serve as picture-perfect backdrops for the best selfies, jumps or dreamy shots. But for the Ivatans, these weather-beaten towers never fail to serve their purpose as beacons to lead fishermen home safely. I beamed in gratitude at how we coincidentally ended that day: safely at the Basco lighthouse.

With the sun still up, we had covered a lot and still made time to write about our lasting impressions of Batanes at the Blank Books Archive, visit the newly established National Museum (a former US Coast Guard station), build stone imageries at the Boulder Beach and meander through a Japanese tunnel, all without mishap. At 3 p.m. we headed “home” to Fundacion for afternoon tea. 

The churches of Batanes

My mother once told me that when traveling to a place for the first time, one of the first things we must do is visit and pray in a church. We did this on our first day at the Basco Cathedral. In the ensuing days we realized that beyond the serene seascapes and lush landscapes, what add to the splendor and mystique of Batanes are its century-old Catholic churches and charmingly humble chapels.

More than 90 percent of the population of Batanes is Catholic. They have a deep devotion to Mother Mary. Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is a province-wide feast.

As we visited almost 10 churches in two days, three of which were in the island of Sabtang, I thought of how blessed we were for the pilgrimage. It was sheer joy to lift prayers and contemplate in the sacred halls of the sprawling San Carlos Borromeo church in Mahatao, the modest Saint Anthony church in Uyugan (with its unpretentious reliquary on the side) and learn a bit of the history of Christianity in the province through the cross marker at the quaint San Lorenzo Chapel in Imnajbu.

A timely reminder when driving the winding roads.

As I stepped out of the San Jose de Obrero church in Ivana, I marveled at God’s splendid creation from the church’s elevation. With the placid view of the sea and the calming sight of hills from afar, how can one not be grateful? 

While each church has its unique architecture, the Batanes look is present in every structure. Most of the ancient churches are made of limestone and coral or are built with stair-like ledges on the sides that serve as protective beams from harsh weather. For example, the façade of San Lorenzo Ruiz chapel and the charming Mt. Carmel church in Tukon (my favorite so far, although it was partially destroyed by the devastating Typhoon Ferdie in 2016 and is currently being renovated) mimic the archetypal stone houses of Batanes. In Sabtang, the roof of the Sta. Rosa de Lima church is still made of cogon grass, while the St. Thomas Aquinas chapel stands out from afar with its eye-catching blue door, also a very Batanes feature.

Sabtang is also home to century-old stone houses, with a few still in their original form while others are being carefully restored.  Stone carvings of the 10 Commandments in the Ivatan language is noticeable in front of most churches. I’m convinced that the Ivatans take the fifth and seventh decrees by heart as evidenced by the zero crime rate the province is known for up to this day.

To be continued

The writer is the author of the recently published book, JOURNEYS, The Rosary in the Lives of Wandering Women.

BATANES JOURNEYS PACITA ABAD THE ROSARY IN THE LIVES OF WANDERING WOMEN
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