Monday, April 25, 2005

Oh Batanes! - The Basco Walk

The Basco Walk
Having seen how far (or just how near) the town proper was to Batanes Resort, we decided we would all walk our way to see the town of Basco that afternoon. At first, the resort crews protested as it was some two or three kilometers away. But, we the guests, prevailed! We wanted to catch the natural scenery on the way to town. So walking was the best option. All they could say was, “if you get tired, just tell those passing tricycles to advise the resort and we will fetch you wherever you are”!

Walking around the town of Basco is like doing it in many of the provinces around the country. There are a scattering of little sari-sari stores, bike-shops, hardware stores, snack bars, etc., every few meters. When visitors (that’s us) are passing by, people would usually pause from whatever it was they were doing then nod with smile or actually greet us “hello”! Not once did I get mobbed by hawkers like the ugly way it is at the Batangas Pier! There is also a scattering of souvenir shops for native products like baskets, shells, hats, the famous Vakul and other things made locally in Batanes. There was even a shop that sold “plastic flowers” made from cut Coke or Sprite or RTO plastic bottles, then painted green, yellow and red!

There was also a house that sold “souvenir greeting cards”. The matron of the house says her darling teenager son does them cards! The cards are actually nothing different from those that are made by secondary school students starting out on how to use computers! But then of course, the printed sceneries are all pictures about Batanes. There were shops that sold beads and shops that sold beer! Nonetheless, we go to these shops if and when we wanted to, without being harassed by a platoon of hawkers shouting out their wares like it is (again) at the ugly Batangas Pier!

Tricycles, the main transport mode within town come and go. Motorbikes and bicycles are common. There are all sorts of vehicles in this town from the latest corollas and civics to the spanking Pajeros but they are few and do not really need to be zooming around. We could walk the town from end to end very easily! We did ask how those vehicles big and small are able to set their bodies on this land! Well, via the princess they say. That is the Ivatan Princess – the boat!

In the afternoon, children play on the streets like children do in Metro Manila’s suburban villages. In many a street corner or side-walk, we could find people selling street food like barbecues, halo-halo, bibingka and other snacks. But there is no busy public market like you see in many towns! We chanced upon a house that had a sign saying they will butcher pig on December 23 and 24. People were checking with them to have their “orders” listed. Thus, we learned that for you to have a “crispy-pata” you have to check-out the schedules as to when anyone in town will kill their pigs for sale! Those dates would usually be posted outside of the house a month or so before the “kill” date!

Still in another house, we saw a gathering of like twenty to thirty people by its yard. This house is located in the middle of town and a bit distant to a pier or the seaside. Curious, we went inside to see what it was all about. The fresh catch from the sea was being distributed according to a “list-of-orders”. We could hear the woman who looked like the owner of the house reading from a notebook: “five kilos lapulapu for Mr. X”; “three kilos of tanguigue for Mrs. Y”. When we asked what that list was all about, the people there gladly told us that this was how they buy produce from the sea! Fishermen go out to sea already aware of what it was that the people wanted them to bring back. And these were the first to be distributed. All that is left are for the “walk-in buyers” like us! They are nonetheless still the same fresh seafood that anyone would like to take home. We bought different kinds of fish to be made into kilawin, tinola and inihaw! All those “good-for-six” kinds of fish that we bought did not even cost us five hundred pesos! And they were ALL FRESH as some of them fishes were still either breathing or moving their tails! Because we found the fish rather cheap, we added two kilos of large prawns! Of course those prawns were also from the sea as there is no fresh-water fish-farm in this place. No need for that as of yet anyway!

As the sun started to hide by the China Sea, we caught some farm-workers, tricycle drivers and other members of the working class drinking in street-corner stores or the little snack bars and restaurants. Interestingly, there was a common drink among these different sets of “day-enders”, and it was not beer! We were told that for a long time now, Ginebra San Miguel, the gin that comes in either the “bilog” (round) or “kwatro cantos” (square) bottles has been the staple drink of the menfolk in Batanes. And they say it is not just the local lower class people who are fond of the drink but even the government officials and “well-to-do-dudes” of the town. I happened to strike a conversation with one of the store-owners (who has a commerce degree from UST) and she told me that at any given day of the year, there are always more bottles of unopened Ginebra in the entire Basco than its total population!

Telecommunications was another interesting find in Batanes! As we were roaming around, we knew that all our cell phones were useless as there is no cell site in the whole province. But we were told there are “calling places” in Basco – and we saw a number of them! There is one by Bayantel, another by Smart, still another by PT&T and still others by some other companies (resellers probably). The “style” in these public calling places is: you go inside the office (or store! howsoever it is called), then you pick a small form from the counter, you fill out the name and number of the person you want to call (e.g., your mom in Manila or London) and also fill in your name; you give the little sheet to the people manning those counters, and you sit and wait in some kind of a “waiting lounge”.

When your turn is up, the attendant will call you: “Mr. XXX , booth number 5 please”. The booths that are usually lined along the walls of their office resemble a number of public phone booths beside each other! The only difference to what we are used to seeing as public phone booths is that all their booths are inside an office and have big numbers (i.e., Booth #1, Booth #2) printed on the booth doors. Oh yes, some have glass doors, some have wooden doors and others have none! Each booth has a telephone and a chair for you to use. They actually look more like confessional boxes to me! Oh, so when you are called, you proceed to the booth, sit down, lift the handset and voila – your intended call is already on the line!

By the way, you will notice that the attendants have a number of stop-watches in front of them. These are used to time the ensuing call in each booth! And the clock starts ticking the moment you say “hello?”. That then becomes the basis of how much you will be charged for the call! Interesting!

I actually thought this was everything I had to be amused-with regarding telephones in Batanes. However, while still walking along the streets after our “calling booth” experience, we chanced upon a man who was by his yard and talking on a cellular phone! Surprised, we looked at each other in bewilderment! How could that be?! All our phones did not indicate that there was any signal! And we were told that there was no cell site in Batanes. And we just came from a public calling place! Half joking and half bewildered, I said “maybe that guy is just acting or plainly out of his mind”! But he did not at all look stupid to us!

A few houses away, there was another public calling place and I could not help but ask the staff there why we saw that man talking to somebody on his cellular phone. Well, I got my answer! The staff told us that it was a satellite phone and those things were the “in” thing in Batanes at that time! So we sat down and eagerly listened for more explanation.

We learned that SMART has equipped the islands with satellite phone services. The phones and satellite antennas (really more like a junction box) are sold to households so they can have their own communications straight from their houses. The staff showed us two telephones on his table and said those were satellite phones. Then he traced for us the wires that connected to the “antenna” just right above him (not even on the ceiling). He said, “people can call directly to anywhere on earth without going to the public calling stations”. The catch: each satellite phone user (whether the desk phones or cellular phones) must buy prepaid cards from them to be able to use the services. The cards do work like the common prepaid (or top-up) cards in many parts of the country. But those cards are dedicated to satellite-phone use only. Naturally, we each called our families and friends in Manila again, just to get a feel of how this thing works! Pretty much like calling on a regular cell phone!

Satisfied, we all went out of the place telling each other that it was ironic we had to be in Basco Batanes to learn about what satellite phones are, how they work and actually use one to make a call! Cool!

After that “very educational” walk around town, we headed to the resort, had our fresh catch cooked by the resort’s chef and enjoyed our dinner in the same spot where we had lunch – al fresco on a clear moonlit evening!


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