Monday, April 25, 2005

Oh Batanes! - Batan Island Tour

Panoramas everywhere – for the eyes, for the intellect and for the soul!
Skirting around Batan was such an extraordinary tour that took us to most parts of the island. This is the island where Basco, the capital, and some other towns are settled. Batan is still too far from the northern-most island of the province and yet also already too far away from the main island of Luzon!

Early one morning, the resort crews woke us up to breakfast and advised us that the ‘commissioned’ vehicle, actually the same sarao jeep that met us at the airport, was ready for a tour around the island. Breakfast was more than continental! It consisted of our canned goods (corned beef, sausage pork-and-beans) plus fresh eggs, bread, fried rice, dried fish, fresh fruit-juice, hot chocolate and coffee from the resort!

We requested that lunch be packed for us and loaded unto the jeep as we were told the leisurely trip would take a whole day. Aside from the driver, another of the resort’s staff went with us. He actually served as our waiter, guide, historian and at times photographer all rolled into one! And then we were off to a grand tour of Batan Island!

We were not even 200 meters away from the resort’s gate and we were already in awe at the great countryside! Hills rolled into fields of green and then the sea. Looking at our resort from a distance, we realized the hill where the cottages are erected has nothing but grass on it! No trees! Just a few shrubs on the edges but green grass all over. Going south of Basco and passing through an asphalted road that seems to have been carved from the cliffs just at the water’s edge, we descended upon a quiet town called Mahatao. On the way to this town, many of the traffic signs were actually also carved right into the limestones along the road! Just a gentle hint: when touring around Batanes, do not depend too much on the locals or your driver for the best sights! Too many things that may seem out of the ordinary to us visitors are very common things to them that if you don’t open your eyes well enough, you could be missing on a lot of memorable sights and sounds. Example: those traffic signs “inscribed” onto the stones!

Mahatao Visit
Mahatao, being a town with more than 2,000 inhabitants was surprisingly too quiet we initially joked everyone went off for a vacation somewhere. We learned the children were attending school, the menfolk were out tending to their farms and the ladies of the house were either doing the laundry, tending to house chores or off to a community handicraft project. The streets were literally devoid of humanity. I saw at most 7 people on the streets at different parts of the town. The jeep stopped right beside the Mahatao Church that looks rather imposing as it is the biggest structure in the whole area. It was closed so we contented ourselves on taking pictures from outside. It has such a big frontage that looks like a park or playground but at 9AM, walang tao! Common to many localities in the country, the main door of the church faces the road. But perpendicular to it is a building almost the size of the church which we were told houses the convent and a school. Thus what faces the road is the church entrance which now looks small since it is overshadowed by the convent-and-school building that has its side also facing the road.

By command of our guide and the driver, we were preparing to leave the place when one of our companions announced: “this seems to be the town where they took a picture of a house with its walls all covered by a vine so that the magazine called it a “green-house”. The driver pointed us in the direction of that house – which to our surprise was not even 20 steps away, just across the road from the church! And so we marveled at the sight, even touched the plant that hugs the stone walls then of course took pictures! We sensed there were people in the house since we heard sounds from inside, but we did not bother them as we could be disturbing them on whatever it was they were doing.

From the green-house, we walked further down the street just to see what more was there in the neighborhood. And, just about another 20 steps we chanced upon a charming two-storey stone house that resembled the way Jose Rizal’s house looked. The difference is that this Spanish-style house was stone all over while Rizal’s in Laguna is made of wood. But the windows are the same Spanish style wooden frames with little squares of capiz shells on the main panel. This house seemed to have its side facing the road since we could not see any doors. All were windows both on the ground and second floors. What really attracted me most to this structure was the big yard from the side of the road to the house which can easily fit a basketball court. But instead of a court, the grounds are planted to a teeming growth of Bermuda grass. We could not help but dive into the grass and laze around as we took pictures!

Just as we were about done taking pictures of the house and its attractive Bermuda grass grounds, out came the owner! He is a retiree in his seventies and walks around with a cane like he was just in his early 60’s. With such enthusiasm, he proudly welcomed us to his house and showed us everything about it – from the back of the house (also carpeted with Bermuda grass right up to where the washing machine stands) to all the rooms in the first and second floors!

This proud white-haired man we noticed is not just a so-so resident of the country. He speaks current events and is familiar with almost every place in the Philippines. Pictures, plaques and other memorabilia on the walls, shelves and tables told us he actually lived in Metro Manila for most of his professional life. And there were pictures of him with high government officials either in a meeting, an awarding ceremony, a conference or just a souvenir pose. Thus he told us, he was the vice President at one of the biggest oil companies with offices in Makati and upon retiring chose to live here! His roots were not actually from anywhere near Batanes but he fell in love with the place that upon retiring he opted to settle here. His children and grand children, who he says are always eager to come here at every opportunity, have their own families in Dasmarinas Village (Makati), Texas, Italy and some other place else. With his chin right up, he declared, “until now, none of my children could convince me to live with them in any of those cities where they are now! Thanks to my grandchildren who, like me, also thinks this place is the best to live in! In fact, even my children would like to eventually come back here when they retire”. Then he hides his walking-stick behind my back as we posed for a souvenir picture!

Such a proud wise man and a great conversationalist! We actually wanted to hear more of his stories and he was already asking the house-help to prepare “merienda” when the driver courteously advised us “we still have a long way to go, we have just started”. So we left the grand old dad in his grand stone house, but not after exchanging contact numbers. As we walked towards the street, he exclaimed (in English pa ha?!), “guys if you need anything in Batanes, my house is always open, none of us lock our doors”!

We moved onwards, farther south to a town called Ivana. The leisurely ride had to be interrupted many times by us requesting the driver to stop so we could take pictures of ourselves in the area and/or at the breathtaking sceneries. Along the way, we noticed that the hills were becoming flat and the road elevation was getting to be at sea level.

As with Mahatao, to call Ivana “quiet” would seem inappropriate. The town is almost literally silent save for the occasional sound of a tricycle engine roaring by. Noticeably, unlike in Mahatao, Ivana’s equally remarkable church is not right at the center of town. It is also a very old church. However, you can count on one hand the houses that stand within a 50 meter radius of the church! I did wonder how come the residents chose to stay away from the immediate vicinity of the church. This is not as if the church was built just a few decades ago. It is quite old.

Looking around, I found a probable answer. The Ivana church is right at the foot of a hill. A few steps down from the church is the road, and the other side of that road is the great expanse that is the China Sea! No big trees or boulders to cover anyone from strong winds – even waves. Thus, people probably chose to build their houses elsewhere instead of beside this church as it bravely faces the sea without any natural barrier from sea winds and waves. The church structure do seem to be very strong as it is made of stone. But our guide told us its tin roof has many times over been ripped by typhoons.

Onwards, as we traveled through the main road, we spotted some bicycles “parked” on the side of the road where there were no houses within a distance hundreds of meters in any direction. Well, we were told by the driver and guide that those bicycles were owned by farmers out tending to their farms far from the road! No danger of those things being stolen. Everyone in the island knows who has what. And virtually everyone would know where someone else’s bike may have gone if ever stolen. More importantly, “theft” does not seem to be part of the Ivatan vocabulary. These folks do still practice the righteous principles of our forebears.

More Sights!
As we moved forward to circle the island, we stumbled upon a beach like no other! This is a long stretch of white sand with a cool breeze and the waters are clear blue-green. But unlike other beaches around the country, this winding strip of sand that lines the southern shore of Batan is peppered with all sizes of stones from the tiniest that sinks into your fingernails to about the size of fire trucks! The stones are generally dark-brown to black in color and smooth! We heard the driver tell us that a movie or two have already been shot in this remote but scenic paradise. Looking around, all we could see was the vast sea, the rocks, the creamy colored sand and the hills behind us. No people, no animals, no vehicles!

Lunch was served on this “rocky” beach! Our fare was brought down from the jeep to a big boulder with a smooth flat top that from a distance really looked like a table. It was such a picnic, we wished every lunchtime we could be in this place. After lunch we strolled along the beach going further south-eastward. Stretches of white beaches with fine sand and without people! As we walked along the portion where the rocks and boulders are not anymore present, we could not help but wonder why people are all too gaga trooping to Boracay when here lies an equally alluring paradise sanz the hustle and bustle of saturated tourismic activities!

Uyugan and Marlboro!
When the road seemed farther up from the beach and it started to climb up the hills, our driver had to call us in for the ride. We could only look at the beaches down below. But the sights were all so wonderful that we just absorbed the sceneries without much talking to each other. Passing by the town of Uyugan was fairly the same experience – virtually no people around.

Then the road started to go steeper up to the hills where our views went even grander! The sea kissing the beaches or the stone-cliffs on a fine day was really a beholding sight. Then we reached the place they call “Marlboro Country”. Naturally we asked why it was called such! And it was readily answered. As with many other parts of the island, trees – even shrubs – do not readily grow on hills because of the winds. Thus, them hills become the domain of nothing but grass. But for the same reason, grass (in whatever kind) cannot also grow tall as they would be blown down or uprooted by the constant winds. And so we have kilometers upon kilometers of hills with an abundance of grass no taller than my knee at their highest and just carpeting the ground at their lowest. This makes the place indeed a beautiful sight! And people (the few that there is anyway) have resorted to grazing their cattle in this endless vistas of grassy hills overlooking the beaches and the sea below. The total effect – just like what you see in those Marlboro Cigerette ads on TV. Thus the name!

Eerie Itbud
Oh we are now at the eastern shores of the island but the roads are higher up in the hills. The afternoon sun illuminating the seas while the hills’ covering us from its heat makes the scene a little bit more dramatic! All we could do was to keep on shooting with our cameras! The road descends to a place called Itbud where we were shown what they call a ‘no-man’s-land’. It is just actually the remnants of what seemed to have been a cluster of stone-houses – probably a barrio or a town. But the story is so dear to the people of Batanes and it goes: sometime ago, this was a part of the town of Itbud where all houses, people and everything there was were wiped clean by a tidal wave. All that is left are just the remnants of stone-walls left to the elements. We noticed our driver and our waiter do the sign-of-the-cross as we slowed down to stop at this place. They told us, people in Batanes never forget the memory of those who perished in this town. And no one has ever attempted to touch anything in this place – much less build a house and live there since the waves could come again.

Hi-way with a gate!
Up on the hills, the Marlboro Country continues. At a certain portion, the road was blocked by a gate that literally stopped vehicles. I found it absurd that such a gate will be built right on a main provincial road and unmanned. As explained by our waiter, the gate was built by the owner of the land and the cattle grazing on its vastness. It is not actually locked. Any person can just go down from his vehicle and open the latch that will spring the gate open. But as a rule, after the vehicle crosses over, he must go back to re-close the gate. Why? So that cattle – that are basically allowed to roam free – may not go beyond that point, because if they did, they could already be circling to the other areas of the island where it will be harder to herd them!

...and Back to Batanes Resort
The hilly ride continued until the road led us to a hillier part but this time teemed with trees and other shrubberies common to a virgin forest. As we moved on, it started to get dark and the surroundings grew noisier with a cacophony of so many shrills, squawks and shouts of various forest-dwelling animals. Their sounds do sometimes overpower the roar of our jeep! We relized we were crossing the island via a forest. After the dark foresty ride, we emerged on the island of Mahatao again. So we veered right towards Basco to headed home to Batanes Resort for another dinner al-fresco amongst the stars, the fireflies, the fog, the kambings and the pusa! What a grand day!


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