Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dancing with the Waves

Ivatan Fishing Boat

Batanes Stone House

Mahatao 17th Century Church

Ruins of Songsong

Coastal Highway, Batan Island

Most Popular Coffee Shop

Batanes is a rather unique place in the Philippines. The 10 islands comprising Batanes is closer to Taiwan, roughly 200 km away, than to the nearest island of Luzon in the Philippines. The island province is in the tropics but depending on where you are, it looks and feels a bit like,the Oregon Coast or some countryside in the south of UK. Take away the occasional clumps of coconut trees and banana plants, one is lost in an unnamed island paradise.

The first thing I noticed while visiting the islands this year were the fishing boats of the Ivatans (people of Batanes). The boats were not the narrow hulled, Pacific or Southeast Asian variety with bamboo outriggers. These canoes or dinghies have bulbous or rounded bottom, shallow keel and little fins on each side. According to our guide, Lito, outrigger canoes won't last in the waters around the islands. The finned dinghies are meant to dance with the waves. As it happens, Batanes is where the Pacific meets and clashes with the South China Sea.

The other noticeable feature of the islands are the old thatched stone houses. The Ivatan houses are built right on the ground, with thick stone walls and thatched roofing made of date (a local variety) palm material, almost like old English cottages. There are no typical, island "resort" huts on stilts with woven bamboo or rattan walls and coconut palm roofing. What more, the original stone houses did not have doors. One simply went through the large windows.

Batanes bills itself as the land of the howling winds. Other than crashing waves, the islands experiences more than its share of high winds and typhoons. Where in other parts of the country, a typhoon or other natural disasters can level a village, the stone houses seem to withstand them. Except one time when a tsunami in early 1950's caused by a typhoon leveled the village of Songsong. The remaining walls of the stone houses along the highway serve as a memorial.

The rugged coast line, the seascape and landscape of the Batanes islands have merited UNESCO's attention. All 10 islands are under consideration for world heritage designation. Latest archaeological findings have added historical and cultural dimensions to its importance.

The Ivatans are direct descendants of the Austronesians who first landed on Itbayat island, ca 3,000-4,000 years BC. This one (only one) branch of Austronesians who are related to the Taiwanese aborigines with one language became the forefathers of Filipinos, Indonesians, Malays, and Polynesians. In time, the Austronesians became accomplished maritimers settling, colonizing, spreading their cultural, linguistic heritage and genetic markers to, as far as Madagascar, Easter Island, Hawaii and New Zealand in what anthropologists call the Austronesian express-train.

Exploring Batanes can take up to a week. Getting there and around can be a slight problem. Rough seas and inclement weather can strand a visitor. But the islands are very photogenic. On Batan island alone, the 24 kilometres of coastal highway yielded many little treasures from deserted beaches, marine sanctuaries, to little towns with quaint 17th century colonial churches, the ruins of Songsong and the deserted former US Coast Guard installation on the beach. The public ranch, Rakuh a Payaman, dubbed as "Marlboro Country" by visitors, with rolling hills, stone fences and hedgerows looked so English.

I wish I could have gone to Sabtang island. My 2 companions however managed to suffer the swells on the 30 minute boat journey. It has more of the archaelogical sites including more stone house, stone fortresses and boat shaped graves than any other island plus, I understand, a fantastic beach.

Beyond the scenic, cultural and touristy character of the islands, Batanes can boast of a very laid back, civil and genuinely hospitable spirit. First, there are no traffic jams with only a few motor vehicles; the airport is a quick 15 minute walk to downtown Basco, the capital; people say hello to strangers; common courtesy rules; people speak softly and gently as well move a little slower than city folks. The most popular coffee shop is not Starbuck's but a little establishment in Ivatan aptly named, Honesty Coffee Shop. It's literally self-serve: make yourself instant coffee, pick your items off the shelves, record your purchase, pay and give yourself change. How civilized.

A local resident told us a story relating to a foreign visitor who read something in National Geographic about the waves in Batanes. The visitor was eager to get on a boat and ride the waves to Itbayat, the northernmost island. The boatman refused because the waves can lift the boat so high that one loses sight of the water below. The visitor may not have danced with the waves but it was wise to heed local advice.

My review of Batanes in Trip Advisor, Weather Permitting.