Batanes Cultural Travel Agency (BCTA)
By Earl D.C. Bracamonte
In the northernmost frontier of the archipelago, everything seems to be in a perpetual solstice. Except for the generations that have lived there and passed on, the topography has remained as it has been decades and centuries ago.
And whenever you check the advisories prior to your planned departure, forget what the weather forecasts say; because here, Nature works on its own course. Nothing is predictable about the weather. If it were, then try explaining where the rains came from on a hot summer day. One minute it’s sunny, then the next thing you know, the skies are suddenly overcast.
Some blame it on the north Siberian wind; while the Ivatans simply brace their shoulders and say it always has been this way. Weather reading in these parts is far more accurate than PAG-ASA, which by the way has their own weather station perched at the topmost hills of Brgy. Tukon.
The townsfolk simply know when the storm is coming. They say it’s when the sun turns pinkish orange and when cattle or avian creatures seek shelter in the crevices of rocks and over the gullies on a perfectly clear day. Ivatans, too, follow suit and take shelter in advance. This is just one of the many enigmas engulfing the myth and magic that’s Batanes.
The island group comprising the province of Batanes came to be 35 million years ago through coral reef formations; uplifted by tectonic plate movements. It is a very young land mass when compared to the rest of mainland Luzon. It was only in 1783, 200 years after Magellan landed on our shores, that Batanes was annexed to the Spanish government. That’s how far removed it was then from the rest of the country. After all, the island group is closer to Taiwan than it is to Metro Manila.
If there is one thing the Spaniards could take credit for, it is the savidug or chavayan, the stones houses built during the era. The most famous of these stone structures is the House of Dacay, a UNESCO Heritage Site built in 1887, where its equally popular resident, 88-year-old Florestida Estrella (aka Lady Mother), still regales tourists with her bittersweet stories of yesteryears.
The Filipino bayanihan spirit was then, and still is, a safety net of the Ivatans. They rely on each other for the accomplishment of home building, harvesting, and even in burying their dead. There’s now a conscious effort to preserve the Nakamaya burial grounds. Shaped in the traditional wooden boats of the Ivatans called the tataya, these resting places are testimonies to the values of the pre-historic island dwellers who believed in life after death. The general direction of the boat-shaped burial grounds faces the sea which, according to an old folktale, is the final resting place of man. Radioactive carbon dating tests on the human skeletons discovered in the burial site markers in Chuhangin and Sabtang show a date of practice to these burials between 355-70 B.P. (before the present) or approximately A.D. 1600. This manner of laying the dead can only be found in Batanes and the remote areas of Scandinavian countries in Europe.
It is the Ivatans’ surviving culture, way of life, and the untouched, intact landscape that won for the island province three citations for the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2009. However, efforts must be sustained so Batanes will not be de-listed after being inscribed.
It is for this very reason that the BCTA (Batanes Cultural Travel Agency) has remained in the forefront of preserving and protecting the cultural heritage of Batanes, especially the many features that make up the Ivatan culture.
The liveng, or hedgerows, shrubs marking property boundaries are maintained as they shelter various types of habitat from the mountaintops down to the lowland plains. These mosaic-looking delineators, made up mostly of nitrogen-fixing shrubs, low trees and reeds, have provided sustainable agriculture for a long time to the Ivatans, aside from acting as erosion control and windbreaker.
Of the many trees that is of peculiar interest is the Arius or the century tree, an endangered species the world over yet grows in profusion all throughout the islands. Of the reeds, the endemic variety voyavoy stands out. Likened to the pandan but actually a part of the palm family, its leaves are made into a vakul, the women’s farming gear that covers the head and back from wind and rain; and the vanayi, the men’s planting vest that covers the head and torso.
In Batanes, every family has land to till, not small plots though, but acres upon acres of arable land. The custom has been that even those with gainful employment still tend their crops early in the morning before reporting for work. They then check their grazing animals after work in the late afternoons. This practice of sustainable agricultural land technology (SALT) has been around for centuries much like the farming practices used on the Rice Terraces in the Cordillera region.
Of the 11 islands comprising the Batanes Group, only three are habitable: Batan (where the capital town of Basco is), Sabtang (where the most number of stone houses are beautifully preserved) and Itbayat (the furthest of the islands, and the one nearest Taiwan). The rest serve as grazing lands. The first cave in Itbayat Island, the Torongan Cave, was discovered 4500 years ago, a thousand years earlier than the one found in Indonesia. This shows that Austranesians moved and passed through our islands before the rest of Southeast Asia. Ivatan, by the way, is part of the Austranesian family of languages and is simply not a local Batanes dialect.
To fully maximize the tourism potential of Batanes by attracting the right visitors, the provincial government under the leadership of its former governor, Hon. Telesforo F. Castillejos, embarked on a campaign dubbed “Visit Batanes,” from a master plan anchored on conservation, i.e., local practices, traditions and values.
“Isolation has been the island province’s biggest problem for the longest time. Usually, we experience five typhoons a year but, luckily, for the last decade, no major storm has visited our islands. As a tourist destination showcasing eco-cultural tourism, we enjoy a high percentage of returning tourists. And to accommodate this influx, we promote the homestay program wherein our visitors live in Ivatan dwellings with the entire locale as their hotel lobby,” shared the former provincial chief executive, who now sits as vice-president to the Batanes Cultural Travel Agency (BCTA).
“Orchid Island in Taiwan has preserved the Ivatan culture to this day through the immigrants who sojourned to Formosa during the Spanish era,” he added.
With 16,000 very hospitable and indomitable people, growing at a rate of 1.5 percent annually, the island province is far from becoming over-populated. Twenty years ago, Batanes was part of the country’s Top 20 poorest provinces, not to mention its widespread malnutrition scare. But not anymore! The latest Human Development Index (HDI) shows Batanes as one of the Top 10 provinces of the Philippines and one of the best places to live in!
Throughout our several day trips around, we got to sample sumptuous local fare. And one of the delectable merienda delicacies I particularly liked was their camote fries at Brgy, Itvud, where pilgrims flock in droves to the Church of the Miraculous Medal. The delectable fries were served on the folded, albeit crease-resistant, leaf of the endemic Tipoho tree.
We also got to pass by Honesty Café where no vendor guides the merchandise on display. And since ‘honesty’ is the best policy, one simply pays the right amount for goods taken or gets the right change from the sales canister. “The name of the store came from one local radio program that so-named it as such. I don’t want to know if people are cheating when they drop by my store. Besides, the Almighty pays me in another form as this is not a revenue earner but an outreach,” enthused 77-year-old Elena C. Gabilo, owner of the famous stopover. A Philippine Normal University alumna, she taught Mathematics to grades IV and V pupils for forty years until she retired in 1995. She taught catechism for five years after she left public school teaching and now enjoys farming tubers and sugar cane at the family’s farm plots. One passed away from her brood of seven and his eldest son took over the post she vacated to teach young Ivatans the importance of numbers.
“Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer,” says one of her many quotes adorning the café’s walls.
Adventurous palates might want to check a bottle or two of palek, a strong local brew from sugar cane. And never leave the islands without sampling dibang, the flying fish daing or, if still allowed, the endangered coconut crab tatus, and the sought-after sun-dried Dorado fish; it’s highly prized by the locals that it hardly gets to tourists unless they get lucky and buy some.
Our sightseeing around Batan Island afforded us closer views to its tempestuous waters. You actually need a permit if you wish to swim and wade into its aquamarine-colored clear waters! This is because most of the seas around are protected marine areas so only a few areas are designated for public swimming.
Valugan Beach manifests the volcanic effusions from Mt. Iraya and is considered an important geologic formation in the country. The geomorphic resource provided by Valugan Beach gives rich information in the land formation of Batanes’ isles. The beach consists of smooth boulders in different sizes found along the seashore on the eastern foot of Mt. Iraya. They are andesite stones and cover the entire shoreline. These stones are hosts to several shellfish and mollusks that provide food and sustenance to the fisher-folk, especially those living near, and around, the area.
The stones provide a natural shore protection for the eastern side of Basco and they contribute subsequently in the enhancement of the aesthetic value to the seascape, as well as the landscape, of Batan Island. The presence of the element Strontium proves that the rocks all over the island came from the upper crust of the earth’s mantle; spewed out through volcanic eruption.
Visitors can capture picture-perfect panoramic vistas at the Chawa Mahatao view deck. And if you want to feel the island’s 8-wind direction that changes most often during inclement weather, go to the verdant rolling hills of Naidi. You can also get a similar view at Racuh-a-Payaman, a communal grazing and pastureland of domestic livestock while enjoying lunch at a makeshift refectory.
Many devastated homesteads are now being rebuilt and repopulated. One of these is the Ruins of Soong Soong, near the western end of the island that was wrecked by a tsunami in the 1950s.
It could be the distance from mainland Luzon or simply its inaccessibility by water travel that makes Batanes intact to this day and time. It is, for lack of a better phrase to describe it, a land where time stands still.
“Batanes is still a seasonal destination as it is, for the most part, a missionary route. So we appeal for the leniency of aviation regulating agencies in allowing us to service the route regularly. We have the best aircraft for this type of runway so we address the safety of the riding public.
“We also have the lowest fares at P5,500 so now entire families fly as a whole. Children below two years old are free of charge while those below 12 only pay P3,500. Our flights concentrate on the Manila to Basco route only; sending our passengers to and fro with a reliable and secure vessel. We are a local carrier so we welcome support from pertinent regulatory agencies. Even with our added service, there is still scarcity of flights plying this route until now. Besides, we don’t just do the utmost service by providing means of transportation but more importantly in being a part in the campaign for cultural preservation,” intoned BCTA president Dr. Joel Mendoza.
BCTA’s chartered flights via Lion Air’s 94-seater Sky Jet service flies to and from Batanes on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. For more detailed information on BCTA’s many travel promotions, including chartered flight schedules, simply log-on to their Web site, www.batanestravel.com and/or through www.facebook.com/bctabatanes.