Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Breathtaking Batanes - Part 2

Day 3, Wednesday

On this day, we went to the fishing village along with the Geigers. We met some of the locals and saw their stock of food saved for the rainy season. They dry their Dorado fishes and save sacks of sweet potatoes (Camote). I asked if I can buy some dried fish because I wanted to try their version of tuyo or daing. I was told that they are not for sale because they are saved for the community since they have a very short fishing season. Whatever extra a fishing family has is shared with a non-fishing neighbor in exchange for salt. I've never seen such a strong sense of community!

We trekked to the Spring of Youth. It took us about 30 minutes of uphill walking before we got to the place. Our German companions were out of breath and were very tired by the time we got to the spring. The spring itself was nothing spectacular, just a bit of trickling natural spring water that is fit for drinking. What I didn't like about it is that the locals attached pipes so the water can be easily harvested. It killed the "natural" beauty of the spring. What I liked is the view from the top. We could see the fishing village below. For that, I think the trek was worth it.

On the way down, we were able to catch the fishermen with their fresh catch of the day - some Dorado, and a couple of flying fishes which are abundant around Batanes. They looked like regular fishes up close and the wings looked like extra long fins. Nothing at all like the "hummingbird" features I imagined when I saw them flying along our boat.

Next up, we visited one of the light houses. Ariel and I were able to climb to the top. The Geigers stayed below as it was a steep climb. From the top, we could see the fishing village again.

We went to see the windmills. The construction of these windmills significantly reduced the island's consumption of fuel to generate electricity. Because of these, Batan Island is now able to enjoy 24 hours of electricity unlike its less populated neighbors with only 12 hours of electricity.

Our next stop was the Tukon Radar Station. This station spots typhoons before they enter the Philippine's area of responsibility. For this reason, our weather forecasts always refer to Batanes when it comes to the typhoon's location (e.g. 100 km. north of Batanes). From the radar station, we could see our next destination - the Abad residence.

The Abad family is perhaps the most prominent family in Batanes. The Abads are a family of politicians with generations serving in the Congress, and/or the local government. One family member who opted not to go into politics is world-renowned artist Pacita Abad. I never heard of her until I went to Batanes and visited her home which became a museum after her death in 2004. She had a magnificent home with a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean and the beautiful Batanes Hills. We were able to read about her life in the museum, and see some of her works. One project that struck me was the Alkaff Bridge in Singapore which she painted while battling cancer. She died shortly after completing this wonderful work of art. We had so much fun going around her home, also completed shortly before she succumbed to cancer.

We proceeded to the home of then Education Secretary Florencio Abad. It was beautiful! While the house itself was closed to tourists, we were able to go around the lush garden and we took lots of photos! As we admire the Abads' garden, I couldn't help but dream of having one as beautiful as this someday.

After that, we stopped by Boulder Beach. The reason for the name was quite obvious. Instead of a sandy shore, we found...you guessed it...boulders! The big boulders cost a fortune in Manila. I had to pay a few thousand bucks for a handful of these rocks to adorn our garden. In Batanes, all I would need is a municipal permit and I could fill my entire yard with these heavy garden ornaments. Of course, how I would get them out of Batanes is another issue altogether.

Hmm... I dont' remember where and at what point we actually had lunch. I'm sure it was a good one. :)

Our next stop was the beautiful Vayang hills. Acres of green, rolling hills, quite a feast for the eyes. I couldn't believe I was still in the Philippines. This is just what Batanes is so famous for.

Last stop is another lighthouse. I was trying to get a nice angle of the lighthouse so I decided to go around it. Surprise, surprise. A couple making out in the back! I didn't know who was more embarrassed. Haha!

That ended Day 3. At this point, we already heard about Batanes' biggest but least inhabited island, Itbayat. We were told it is the only island in Batanes that is completely surrounded by cliffs. That got us really interested so we booked a flight for the following day with plans of spending just one night. Before I write about that very adventurous trip, here are some photos from Day 3. Enjoy!

Day 4 - Thursday

We got up early and packed our stuff. From this day onwards, we are completely on our own. No definite itinerary. No hotel booking for Day 5 onwards. Our plan was to spend a night at Itbayat. We were given a name to look for in Itbayat. No phone number, no address. We didn't know what to expect, where to go, and what to do. All we knew was we wanted to see Itbayat.

At the airport, we were both excited and anxious. We were excited at the prospect of a totally spontaneous adventure. Anxious because this is a totally new experience for us. We were used to a well-planned vacation with comfortable facilities. Oh, did I tell you the flight was through a 6-seater plane? The alternatives were a 4-seater flight or a 4-hour boat ride in one of the country's roughest seas. Of course the safest choice for us was the 6-seater flight. It was nothing new for me. I already took an 8-seater flight from Manila to Coron, Palawan. How different could this be? After all, the flight would only take 10 minutes?

A few minutes into the flight and I could already see Itbayat. I was looking for the long landing strip but didn't see any. Apparently, the airport is a few meters of rough road in the middle of nowhere. There was no passenger terminal. Passengers wait under the tree for their flight. We were so shocked! How in the world will we find our contact person (forgot his name!)? Upon landing, we saw the backpacker couple we met going to Sabtang. They took the 4-seater flight and we heard them asking how to go to the municipal office. That's one key learning for us. When in a new place and no itinerary, look for the municipal office! Anyway, since everybody seems to be boarding a truck, we decided to board as well. In the truck, somebody must have asked us where we're going - I don't really remember - because next thing I know, someody was telling us that the person we were supposed to see was waiting a few meters away in the municipal ambulance. We immediately went to see him and ended up taking the ambulance on the way to the town proper.

We found out that the only lodging in Itbayat are homes with spare rooms rented out to tourists for P150 per person per night. Meals can be arranged at the local cooperative for a very affordable fee. Our contact person turned out to be one of the families renting a room. It was a nice room with a comfortable bed and its own toilet. Electricity is available from 12 noon to 12 midnight.

We finally met the backpacker couple - Jojo and Gina Antonio. We paid the tourist fee - can't remember how much. Our "tour guide" who also hosted Jojo and Gina offered to take us to mount Riposed. Expenses in Batanes are usually minimal. However, in Itbayat, transportation can be very expensive. There were only a handful of motor vehicles - most of them government owned (like the ambulance we rode in going to the town proper). As such, we had to pay a big amount to rent one for our afternoon tour of Mt. Riposed. Good thing there we have another couple to share the expenses with. Anyway, our guide was an older local lady. We went uphill to the tip of Mt. Riposed. I was panting by the time I got to the top, way behind our guide who seemed to be taking just a leisurely stroll. The top offered us a view of the small neighboring islands. According to our guide, these islands have beautiful beaches and are uninhabited. On the way back to town, we stopped by the new RORO (roll-on, roll-off) pier being built for Itbayat. This new pier would allow for bigger sea vessels to land in Itbayat and hopefully improve their living conditions with more supplies coming in. At that time, they had a small port where most of the supplies are brought in from Batan.

On the way back, we were told that we may have to take a courtesy call with the town mayor. Jojo, ever the clown, told our guide that he didn't bring his barong for this momentous occasion, and that the mayor should not be offended if he showed up in a t-shirt. :) Our guide also invited us to attend a local wedding and we obliged. The reception was held at the bride's residence. At the entrance, there were large cooking vessels (talyasi) where the food was kept. Each guest was given 2 layers of gigantic leaves where food was served. We had the option to eat the food or fold up the leaves to take the food home. We sampled the dishes before folding up the leaves. We gave them to our guide to take home to her family. The locals were quite delighted to see some "tourists" at the wedding reception. We were told that once dancing started, some of the old folks may come up and ask us to dance. We can dance with them or take a bow to decline and just give the couple some money (at least P50) as a gift. In a few minutes time, an elderly man came up to me and I politely declined, giving the couple a crisp P50 bill.

At that point, Jojo and Gina managed to convince us to stay another night so we could join them for a full day trek of the Itbayat hills. Since we weren't going back to Manila until two days later, we decided to stay. We went to the airline office to cancel our flights and told our host that we will be staying another night. That night, I saw Ariel get drunk for the very first time since we became a couple. Jojo loves to drink beer specially during a camping trip.

Day 5 - Friday

We woke up early to prepare our stuff for the trek. The local cooperative prepared our packed lunch. Jojo carried our food in his big back pack, while Ariel and I only had a small bag for our drinks. We didn't expect we would be trekking so we didn't bring any gear. We trekked all day from 7am up to 7 pm guided by Mang Ponce, a local farm and part-time guide. We went up hills and through forests. We met a snake along the way. We trod on mud (my new pair of Merrel shoes were barely recognizable at the end of the day!). We got a bit soaked in the rain. We marveled at the beautiful sceneries. Our guide said the Batan hills are normally likened to New Zealand. Itbayat hills are likened to the Scottish and Irish Highlands. I haven't been to those places but someday, I'll go there and I will proudly say that Batanes is just as, if not more, beautiful. As we trek through the hills, our guide constantly shared stories about Batanes and specifically Itbayat. He said that Itbayat just grew out from the sea, maybe through underwater volcanic erruptions. That's the reason why there are corals on top of the mountains. True enough, we saw lots of rough coral-like formations on the mountains. We also passed by an area where there were meters of man-made stonewalls. According to Mang Ponce, these were made by their ancestors to protect their land from invaders. Some parts of the wall were already gone but there were portions where the wall would cross our path and we had to go over them. It had been raining intermittently the whole day. At one point, we stayed under the Anito Shelter. It was a big rock protruding from the ground that forms a shelter. It is believed to be inhabited by spirits or anito, hence the name Anito shelter. We also saw a huge slab of rock which sounded like a bell when struck by a smaller rock. It is called a "stonebell". Again, our guide told stories of how the stonebell was used by their ancestors to warn the locals of Spanish invaders landing on the Itbayat perimeter. Now, the rock is being used by local shepherds to call on their goats and cattle. The trickiest part of the trek was going over Rafang cliff. I was on all fours trying to go over the giant rocks, with a lot of help from Ariel and Mang Ponce. Finally, we visited Saroccan cave. The Antonios lent us extra sets of headlamps so we could see our way through the cave. Getting down into the cave was easy. Getting back up and out was tough. Mang Ponce had to pull me from above while Ariel pushed me from below.

Early in the afternoon in the middle of our trek, we got a message that all flights the following day were canceled due to mechanical problems. No airline will be flying the next day. Uh oh! While we were so exhausted upon getting back from our trek, we had to find a way to get back to Batan Island by Saturday as we were supposed to fly back to Manila by Sunday. We had two options - take the 4-hour falowa (boat) ride to Batan. Or extend another day hoping that the flights will resume Sunday morning. We couldn't take the risk so we decided to take the boat. And so with some trepidation, our exhausted mind and body drifted off to sleep.

Day 6 - Saturday

This was to be the ADVENTURE of all our adventures. As we neared the port, I prayed fervently for God's protection. Our Sabtang trip had been rough and it was just a 30 minute ride. We had to endure the Batanes waters for 4 hours this time. First off, we were thankful that the boat only had people for passengers at that time. Other days, they'd take in pigs or cattle. Actually, the boats were really designed to carry supplies into the island. They weren't designed for passengers. So, they would just put wooden planks across the boat for people to sit in, with their feet dangling below. That's why we were thankful to be seated in front, at the side of the boat so we had lots of fresh air and we could rest our feet on a flat surface. This was very important because minutes into the trip, people started throwing up due to sea-sickness. Now, Ariel and I don't get seasick. However, the stench of vomit made us want to throw up too. Good thing our little tummies held on. After a while, a lady had seizures due to sheer fright. She passed out and the other folks carried her so she could lie down on the front portion of the boat. When she came to, she started throwing up right in front of us! At this point I could see that Ariel was seconds from emptying his stomach contents into the boat. So we inched closer to the side to get more fresh air. Thank God we got to Batan safely, and without puking all over our clothes. The only set back was that our ears were buzzing for some time because we were seated very close to the loud engine.

Here are the photos of our entire stay at Itbayat.

We were fortunate to get a room at the Ivatan Lodge, another government run lodging in Batanes. It's an old building which looked like a hospital from the outside. A bit creepy actually, but beggars can't be choosers. All other hotels were fully booked. Anyway, our room had airconditioning and hot water so it was comfortable. We just rested for most of the day and just went out for a stroll late in the afternoon to look for a place to eat. This was our last day in this beautiful island.

Day 7 - Sunday

Nothing much. We flew back to Manila via Tuguegarao. This was one of our best vacations ever!!!

A few more photos...

The airport at Basco, Batanes

The arrival area

Arrival of the Asian Spirit flight

I actually stitched two photos to come up with this one. Ariel and I were walking back to Batanes Resort (day 3) and we didn't have a tripod. So I took a solo of him on the right side of the sign and he took a photo of me on the left side. Then I stitched the two photos together. Cool huh?!

I stiched 3 photos to come up with this panoramic view of the hills. Beautiful ( I mean the hills, the photo didn't turn out so great)!

Thanks for your patience reading through our adventure. Ariel and I enjoyed this trip so much we are planning to go back - maybe in 2009.

Finally, here are some basic facts about Batanes, courtesy of the internet:

Basic Facts about Batanes
• It’s smallest province in the Philippines in terms of population and land area.
• It consists of ten tiny islands and islets located about 162 kms. north of the Luzon mainland
• The largest and most economically important of the Batanes islands are Itbayat, Batan and Sabtang – the three islands we explored during our trip.
• Batan island, with a land area of 35sq. kms., is generally mountainous on the north and southeast. It has a basin in the interior. Itbayat Island, which has a total area of 95 sq. kms., slopes gradually to the west, being mountainous and hilly along its northern, eastern coast. The entire island of Itbayat is surrounded by cliffs. As for Sabtang, mountains cover the central part of its 41 sq. km. area, making the island slope outward to the coast.
• The islands are situated between the vast expanse of the waters of Bashi Channel and Balintang Channel, where the Pacific Ocean, merges with the China Sea. The area is a sealane between the Philippines and Japan, China, Hongkong and Taiwan. It is rich with marine resources, including the rarest sea corals in the world.
• These islands have been compared to New Zealand, Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. They are not typically tropical. For some, they are a little too laid back, a little too unpredictable. The best laid travel plans have a way of going awry on these islands. So, you must make time for the Batanes. An Ivatan once said: "When you're on the Batanes, enjoy the Batanes. Don't worry about getting home". These islands grow on you, but you must wait and watch for your rewards - not a bad lesson for those of us who are sure we are the center of the universe. Once touched, you learn to enjoy the timelessness of these islands. For you, life can never be the same again. You know you'll return someday.

Land Area
• The total area of Batanes is estimated at 23,000 hectares (230 square kilometers), a size that is only a third of that Metro Manila. Batan, Itbayat, and Sabtang islands make up 90 percent of the province's land area.

• The province is hilly and mountainous, with only 1,631.50 hectares or 7.10% of its area level to undulating and 78.20% or 17,994.40 hectares varying in terms from rolling to steep and very steep. Forty two percent (42%) or 9,734.40 hectares are steep to very steep land.
• Because of the terrain of the province, drainage is good and prolonged flooding is non-existent. The main island of Batan has the largest share of level and nearly level lands, followed by Itbayat and Sabtang, respectively. Itbayat has gently rolling hills and nearly level areas on semi-plateaus surrounded by continuous massive cliffs rising from 20-70 meters above sea level, with no shorelines. Sabtang on the other hand, has its small flat areas spread sporadically on its coasts, while its interior is dominated by steep mountains and deep canyons. Batan Island and Sabtang have intermittent stretches of sandy beaches and rocky shorelines.

• The province is constantly swept by wind and rain, but the notion that it is battered by typhoons is wrong. If Batanes is always mentioned in connection with weather disturbances, it is because its capital, Basco, holds the last weather station in the north. It is a reference point for all typhoons that enter the Philippine area of responsibility. It has no pronounced wet or dry season. It is almost always raining, from the minimum of eight days to a maximum of 21 days a month. It enjoys practically four seasons, the best ones being summer (April-June) and winter (December-February), when the temperature dips as low as seven degrees centigrade.
• The best time to visit is mid-March to June. An Indian summer supposedly takes place in September. Sometimes, the weather is nice as early as February and as late as July. North or east winds bring in cooler air. They also bring in weather fronts and cloud build-ups that could cause flight cancellations. An indian summer supposedly takes place around September. Cool weather - a phenomenon Ivatans like to call winter - prevails from December to February. When dealing with Batanes, always remember that, on these islands, the weather often changes suddenly. Just be ready for whatever follows your way.

• Batanes lies in a typhoon path. It has been observed that typhoons could occur in any month, although they are most regular and frequent in June to September, with October to November sometimes experiencing extended stormy weather. In 1991, a total of 13 typhoons passed Batanes, 12 occuring from June to September and one in March. Seven of these occurred in August. These tropical storms blow in the general direction of Northwest and North Northwest from the Pacific Ocean to Taiwan and Japan and occur due to tropical cyclones that originate from the Pacific Ocean.
• While typhoons can occur in any month, the data points to their clustering is August. Thus, the notion that the islands are completely inaccessible due to typhoons for six months should be corrected.

• The natives of Batanes, the Ivatans, a sturdy, self-sufficient people with a very strong sense of community. These people trace their roots to prehistoric Formosan immigrants and latter-day Spanish conquistadors. Being out off from Luzon mainland, the Ivatan is of comparatively purer stock. They bear the features of their ancients; the Spaniards aquiline nose and the Formosan's almond eyes. The Ivatan lie in communities of stone houses laid out along narrow streets that follow the contour of the land. Completely impregnable, these houses can withstand the wind velocity that on bad days could beat the barometers mark.
• There are no movie houses, no markets, and no shopping centers. Newspaper is available only on flight days.

• Ivatan dishes use ingredients that are rich and unusual. During the off season, however, fresh food can be scarce and hot meals can be expensive. If you plan to visit during these months, and are not part of a package tour, bring alone some basic canned goods. Cows and goats are grazed extensively on the islands. Garlic is a leading export, second the cattle. Root crops such as camote (sweet potato) gabi and a unique variety of white ube, are raised for local consumpsion - especially in the lean months. Sugar cane is cultivated to produce the heady Ivatan brew, palek. From March to May, fish and seafood are available. Dorado (arayo) and Spanish mackerel (tanigi) are favorite summer catches. They are eaten fresh or salted for consumption during the typhoon months. Flying fish (dibang) is also a local specialty. Coconut crab (tatus), spiny lobster (payi), helmet urchins (unot), that can be enjoyed when available. Salads and vegetables dishes are made from fern fronds (pak o), heart of banana or dips with your food - bring your own, Batanes food is simple food. Unless you have brought your own food or are ready to help in the kitchen, don't expect to be served gourmet meals.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Breathtaking Batanes

I wrote the entry below almost two years ago with the intention of documenting the details of our Batanes trip. I never finished it. It ended with day 2 of our Bataned trip. Anyway, I will try to complete my entry here. Quite a long read but I want to remember every single detail -it's one of our best vacations after all - so bear with me.


Here it is. My long-delayed documentation of our Batanes sojourn last April 2006. As I always do, I meant to share our pictures through Kodak Gallery. However, since this vacation is so different from our usual Anniversary Beachcapade (for one, we didn’t go swimming, and our snorkeling gear never got out of our backpacks), I thought it deserves more than just the expected brief description of the picture. Our Batanes adventure, as I would aptly call it, is a story that deserves to be told in detail.

For our 5th anniversary this April, we decided to explore a new beach destination and we already had one in mind. As most of you already know, it is our mission to visit every single beach destination in the country, and, as I am beginning to discover (thanks to Beaches of the Philippines, a magazine issued every summer), there are so many of them. Indeed the Philippines is blessed with thousands of Edens waiting to be discovered, and at one to two beaches a year, it will probably take us a lifetime to see them all. Anyway, our target destination this year was Malapascua, an island paradise 3-4 hours from Mactan, Cebu. People who have been there described it as Boracay 20 years ago. We already had visions of the long stretch of fine white sand, hours on the beach, having a golden tan, getting our diver’s certificate and gaping in awe at the wonders of the ocean. Alas, our Malapascua dream was not meant to be, at least not this summer. As of February, the few comfortable accommodations in the island are already fully booked until end of May.

Disappointed but not defeated, we were still keen on having a great Anniversary vacation this summer. We thought it may be the best time to go to Batanes. Initially, we set a 5-day trip. The Batanes Resort contact person – Gemma Castillejos – recommended a four-day stay instead as she said it would be enough to experience Batanes. That includes a 3 day tour of Batan Island (the most developed and populated of the Batanes Islands) and a day tour to Sabtang Island (the smallest among the inhabited islands). At first, she had us convinced. We thought we’d just spend the rest of our vacation leave at home in Cavite. Then, we heard about Itbayat – the biggest but least populated of the Batanes islands. I read that this island is surrounded entirely by cliffs and there are numerous trekking and caving opportunities. We decided to explore that on our own. We booked a 7-day trip – the longest vacation we had in a local destination. We will stay at Batanes Resort (a government-run resort, said to be the best in Batanes) on days 1-4, with a day trip to Sabtang. Day 4-5 will be in Itbayat, and Days 5-7 back in Basco but this time we will stay in Ivatan Lodge, another government-run lodging.

Thus began an unforgettable journey to the beautiful land of Batanes.

Day 0

We had to go to the office the day before our trip to finish off some last minute work. Then we did some last minute shopping –medicines, toilet paper, other basic supplies. Finally, we finished packing, making sure that we have our swim gear – goggles, snorkeling gear, bathing suits, sunblock lotion, etc. Then we called for a home service massage for a relaxing night and dreamless sleep.

Day 1

Our plane was scheduled to depart at 9am and will fly for about 2 hours before reaching Batanes at around 11am. We will have an hour to rest before lunch at 12, then off to our tour at 1pm. We arrived at the airport at 7:30am, a little early since we want to beat the Monday morning rush hour traffic. The line to the Domestic Airport was so long, with a mix of Filipinos and Asian visitors, mainly Koreans. We guessed that these people would be going to Boracay, Cebu and Palawan.

At 8:30 am, there was still no advise as to which gate we would be boarding through. I had a strong feeling our flight would be delayed. At 9am, it was confirmed, most flights, including ours, going to various destinations were delayed. To kill time, Ariel and I amused ourselves playing spot the Korean couple. Ariel observed that most Korean couples were wearing matching outfits. True enough, when I looked around, we were surrounded by them. Some just wore matching shirts, jackets or caps. But others wore identical outfits from head to toe – cap, shirt, shorts and sandals!!!

Finally, at around 10:30, we started boarding. We took a direct flight to Basco, Batanes via Asian Spirit. The 68-seater plane was fully booked. I was a bit disappointed because I didn’t want to spend our vacation in an area crowded with tourists. I looked at the other passengers and thought that we would probably bump into some of them during our 7-day stay in Batanes. I knew there was another couple joining us in our Batan Island tour – a German guy married to a Filipina, but I didn’t expect to see a full flight.

The flight was uneventful, albeit quite long for a local trip. We landed smoothly and quickly deplaned. I was expecting a man holding a board with our names on it, the way we are normally greeted in airports during packaged tours. I was surprised to see that the arrival area is just a small tent outside of the main terminal. As we neared the tent, a man woman asked me if I was so and so and I said no. Then, the guy beside her asked me if we were Mr. and Mrs. Laran. The guy, I found out, was Nards, our tour coordinator for the next 3 days. We then met the other couple, Mr. and Mrs. Geiger, senior citizens who wanted to see a new destination for the summer. While still waiting for our bags, it started to rain. We had to run for cover, inside our tour van. The van is a government-issued vehicle, since we are staying in a government-run resort. It’s second-hand Mitsubishi Delica imported from Japan or Korea, converted to left-hand drive. The sliding door is on the wrong side of the road. ☺

It was already late and we were hungry. Fortunately, Batanes Resort is just a few minutes away from the airport. We were greeted by a picturesque view – rolling hills on one side, the beach on the other. From the outside, Batanes Resort is exactly how I imagined it to be. The lobby looks ok. There was one television with a cable connection. Surprise! Surprise! I found out that cable TV is available in the island through Dream Cable. Internet access is also available! Upon checking in our rooms, we discovered that the gardens are not well-maintained. The rooms are a bit dilapidated with the doors barely locking (I can easily kick it open), paints peeling, screens torn at the sides and the rooms having a musty smell. I checked the closet and found a cockroach hidden in the hanging rod, which we immediately “took care of”. We didn’t have time to unpack so we headed straight to the dining hall for our late lunch. Our meal is very simple – pako salad (fern), soup which I thought was cream of mushroom, and fried chicken. Despite the meal’s simplicity, it was very satisfying, and was enough to sustain us through our afternoon tour.

Nards met us at the hotel lobby after a quick trip to our rooms for a few minutes of freshening up. We soon found out that our tour guide for the day is Mang Romy, a local tricycle driver. At first I worried about how he could properly lead the tour with a German guy in our group. I soon realized that it was nothing we should worry about since Mang Romy was not only very fluent in English, but he also knows Batanes by heart.

I initially planned to bring a small travel diary with me so I can record all our destinations in Batanes. However, with my busy schedule leading to our vacation, I quickly forgot about it. I cannot remember the names of the places we’ve visited but I will try my best to describe them. We first stopped at the Municipal Hall of Mahatao where we paid a tourist fee of P50 each. We went to see a couple of Churches including San Calros Church. We went to Ivana where we saw the only remaining vernacular house in Batan Island. An old lady lives there. She was very warm and friendly, and just like the many locals in Batanes, she speaks English well and is able carry very interesting conversation with anyone. We also saw the San Jose De Ivana Church which at that time was under renovation. A few meters from the Church, we walked to Honesty Coffee Shop. It’s a small unmanned store, all products are labeled with the price. All we had to do was drop the money in a small locked box. If we require some change, we just need to write it down and the change will be available the next day. I took two bottles of Viva mineral water. Then we went to see SongSong ruins. It was a small community whose dwellings were destroyed by giant waves during an earthquake decades ago. All that remain are some walls of vernacular houses. It was drizzling when we got there which added to the eerie feel of the place. The ruins are situated along scenic hills facing the Pacific Ocean. The highlight of the day was our trip to the “Marlboro Country”. It is located in a restricted area, where wild cattle are free to roam around. The view was breathtaking – rolling hills, carpeted by a calming sea of greens. The grasses were perfect, as if they were mowed regularly. From our vantage point, we can see a lighthouse, a beautiful speck of white in the midst of the greeneries. I took advantage of my camera’s zoom lens and took a picture. We can also see the houses of Pacita Abad and Sec. Butch Abad. We will visit them on day 3. The beautiful landscape was so soothing, the fresh air so invigorating. It felt like all the stress I’ve accumulated from months of hectic lifestyle were washed away. And it was just our first day!

For dinner, we had beef stew (Nilagang baka), steamed fish, coleslaw and one other dish that I can’t seem to remember. Because it was so dark all around, we decided to retire early. And besides, we were scheduled to start early the next day – breakfast at 5:30! – so we thought it best to go to bed after dinner. We were dismayed to see thousands of insects flying around in our room. We unscrewed the bed lamps since there was only one light switch for all the lighting fixtures and turned on only the one near the entrance. That drew the little cockroach-like insects away from the bed. We also closed the windows beside our bed to prevent more insects from getting in. It wasn’t cold that night, but I slept under the covers for fear of having the insects fly all over me. Other than the insects, it had been altogether a great day!

Here's a collection of our Day 1 photos plus the wreck on day 2

Day 2

We woke up early today. This was our 5th wedding anniversary. Ariel and I greeted each other and prepared for our trip to Sabtang Island. Our breakfast was late. We were supposed to eat at 5:30 but was not served until almost 6am. Our German friends were a bit irked by this since we all made the effort to wake up early. By 6:30, we were already driving along the winding roads by the mountainside. We where admiring the view when we were hit by a jeepney. For a fleeting second, I thought we would spin and fall off the cliff but thankfully, we were not driving fast. The tires veered a little to the left and quickly came to a stop. The door of the van was ripped as the jeep hit us mid-way. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Our driver, Nards, was visibly upset since he may have to answer for the wrecked vehicle. It wasn’t our fault though. The jeepney was too far to its left with about 2 feet of clearance to its right side. Our van, on the other hand, was at the far right-end of the road. Because of the mishap, we were delayed by an hour. We had to wait for a policeman and then we transferred to another jeepney to continue our trip to San Vicente Pier where we would board a “Falowa”, a motorized passenger boat.

We soon learned that news travels fast in Batanes. We missed our boat because when the boatman heard about our little accident, he assumed that we will be late, which indeed we were. So he left on schedule with his other passengers. While waiting, a backpacker couple said hi to us. They were actually in the same jeep we took going to the pier. They arrived in Batanes the previous week and they were on their way to Sabtang to spend two nights there. They already climbed Mt. Iraya, Batanes’ extinct volcano, and spent a night there. Soon after, our guide to Sabtang, Chris, arrived also. After a few minutes, another boat arrived and we were to take that one to Sabtang. A man, who looked like a fisherman, alighted with a few bags. We were surprised to hear our guide greet him “Good morning Mayor”. We learned that he’s the Municipal Mayor of Sabtang. He was all alone, no body guards, no helpers. Another indication of how different life is in Batanes.

Having heard that Batanes has some of the roughest seas in the country, I was a bit nervous about our boat ride. Our itinerary specified “mandatory wearing of lifevest” during the boat ride. However, since we missed our original resort-accredited boat, the boat we took had no life vest. Well, we saw some life vests on the roof, but they were never offered to us. And besides, they looked old, dirty and smelly. A few minutes into the ocean and I thought it wasn’t so bad. However, our guide told us that it will get rougher as we near Sabtang. We will sail through that part of the ocean where the Pacific Ocean meets the South China Sea. True enough, after about 20 minutes, the waves got bigger. I closed my eyes to quell my fears. I prayed silently for the Lord’s traveling mercy, that we would reach Sabtang safely.

We reached the shores of Sabtang safely. However, getting off the boat was tricky. The waves were so strong that the boat was going up and down rapidly, as if in a giant seesaw. Jumping to the shore should be timed perfectly to avoid injury. It took us a couple of minutes before we were able to walk on solid ground. A jeepney was waiting for us with our driver. Our first stop was at the Municipal Hall where we registered as tourists. We paid P100 each to the policeman on duty. I also had to use the CR located at the back of the office – a bit dark and musty in there but I wasn’t complaining.

As we went around, we learned that Sabtang only has electricity from 12 noon to 12 midnight. The population is too small (about 4,000) to cover the cost of 24 hour electricity in the island. There were also no inns for overnight staying. Tourists who wish to spend the night will have to sleep at the local school.

We went around Chavayan, a community where most houses are still made of stone and lime. We went to see the local church and had our pictures taken in the adjacent vernacular house. The houses were cool inside due to the thick stone and lime walls (about 3 feet thick) and the 1-foot think thatch (cogon) roof. The structure of the house was designed to withstand the strong Batanes typhoons. While going around, we saw some old folks wearing a “vakul”, a handmade headdress used for protection against the sun and the rain.

We also stopped by the lime pit where our Chris explained the process of preparing the lime for the construction of the vernacular houses. Limestones where placed at the bottom of the pit. Then wood is dumped over them and burned for several months. Because of the tedious preparation of the lime, locals nowadays choose to use hollow blocks and cement with steel support instead of rocks and lime.

I would say that the highlight of our Sabtang trip is the white sand beach near the main town. A long stretch of white sand awaited us, with natural rock formations at the shore. One beautiful formation was an arched rock looking very much like the welcome arches when you enter a town or Barangay. The beach was also very clean, save from a few garbage washed from the ocean, obviously from Taiwan as the marking on the bottles are in Chinese. We were itching to take a dip but it was a bit scary due to the strong waves.

We drove back to the main town, were a sumptuous meal was prepared for us. Mouth watering lobsters, steamed Lapu-Lapu that’s super fresh, tender and flavorful, freshly-picked, crunchy vegetables cooked chopsuey style, and of course, nothing beats ice cold cola to refresh our weary bodies. Super soft, fried banana was the sweet ending to an already fabulous meal. It was the perfect anniversary lunch!

While having lunch, we were told that our boat will have to depart at 1 pm, much earlier than scheduled due to the strong current. The return trip will be much rougher. O dear! We had a full stomach this time!

Fortunately, this time, we boarded the resort-endorsed boat. We were given clean life vests each. As expected, the sea was a bit rougher going back to Batan island. Looking at the waves only made it much more scarier. The waves seemed higher than our own boat, and I couldn’t help thinking that our boat will be crushed by the waves. I had to close my eyes to rid myself of those bad thoughts. After a while, we saw some flying fish, well, flying, alongside our boat. I thought flying fishes were called as such because they can jump long distances. Just like a flying squirrel which glides from tree to tree. I never imagined to see fishes with wings fluttering. But that’s exactly what flying fishes are. They looked like giant humming birds with wings seemingly fluttering a hundred a minute, and they normally fly in groups. It was a sight to behold.

The shores of Batan Island were much calmer. When we got off the boat, I was so tempted to take the plunge right there and then. I just stopped myself because I didn’t want to take the van in wet clothes. Since we got back earlier than scheduled, we had to wait a while for our van at a sari-sari store across the pier. Nards picked us up after about 30 minutes of waiting, this time in a new government-issued AUV – blue Toyota Revo.

Here are some photos taken at Sabtang Island.

That's where my original entry ended. Now, continuing it will be a bit tricky since I've forgotten most of the tiny details. All I can remember now is the great feeling of being around nature's stark beauty. I'll try my best to fill in the details.

I don't remember much about what we did after getting back from Sabtang. We must have taken a nap and had our anniversary dinner afterwards. I remember eating at the Batanes Resort with the Geigers in another table. I remember we ordered the yellow rice which Batanes is famous for (the rice is steamed with turmeric and some other spices), and Uved (don't know the spelling, I just spelled it the way I heard it) - a local dish that looks like meatballs. It is actually made of flying fish, Banana core (ubod) and bits of meat. There were actually two versions - fired and steamed (or stewed?) - but on that night, we ate the steamed version. We tried the fried version a few days later. I enjoyed both but I prefer the steamed one.

That's it for now. Details of the next few days to follow.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

New Year 2008 Fireworks

Here's a sample of our fireworks for New Year 2008. Every year since our house was built, Ariel and I would set aside a little budget for fireworks and noisemakers. We're thankful for the good weather that allowed us to enjoy a few minutes out to view our and our neighbors' fireworks.