Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Wow Philippines * Sabtang, Batanes: Brought Me Back In Time

There isn't a place that reminds me more of how simple life can be than in Sabtang, one of the only three inhabited islands in Batanes, a series of islands in the northernmost point of the Philippines.

Progress, development, commercialization, etcetera, has made most of the environment we live in ironically, more complex.  For an urbanite like me, the visit to Sabtang has rekindled my passion for simplicity and I begin to ask myself, why can't we live like that anymore?

Sabtang Island is a 30 minute boat ride from Batan Island, which is the main island of Batanes that people usually fly into via the Basco Airport.  As soon as we arrived, we went to drop off our bags at our temporary home in Batanes, the DDD Habitat.  We immediately headed off to the port in Vayang to catch our falowa to Sabtang.  Falowa is what they call their boats which compared to a typical Philippine banca or outrigger boat, the falowa does not have the outriggers, as the heavy waves that are typical of the waters along Batanes render them useless and even dangerous.

Although the waves were strong, it was consistent, making the ride quite stable.  Save for a bit of clouds, the weather was great, with sunny blue skies. One thing that bothered us would be the fumes coming from the engine, as well as having to wear those orange lifejackets on a hot summer day.  I concentrated instead on the breeze and the infinite view of the sea along the horizon.  While on the boat, I couldn't help but notice our captain skillfully navigating the boat only with his two feet: one to handle the steering and the other to control the accelerator, while he gazes above the falowa's roofdeck at where we're heading.  I realized that somehow there is something wrong with the design of the boat, since the view of the navigator when seated is blocked by the front bow of the boat.  And you can see here a perfect example of how resourcefulness can emerge as a result of a limitation.    Simply amazing!

As we jump off at the San Vicente Port in Sabtang, we emerge into a small quiet town.  We barely saw people here even if this is the center of town.  We made a quick stop at the Town Hall to allow those who haven't eaten to  have their packed breakfast, and I got an opportunity to look around the port area where I could see a newly painted San Vicente Church as well as the Sabtang Lighthouse which sits at the edge of the cliff north of the port area.  In the area, we could also see the Municipal Hall and a school.

The group then headed down further to Barangay Savidug, and instantly, we were brought back in time.  We got down from our jeep and walked around the rows of stone houses that is so typical of Batanes.  The place was quiet, and I can only see a person or two as I peeked inside one of the windows.  Oftentimes, an old lady or a child would peek out and smile at us.  As I moved through the small alleyways, I found a lone carabao (water buffalo) having his meal in one of the backyards, while another had a family of goats playing together.

The stone houses were quite interesting, often two-storey units with lowered first levels.  I learned that they were made of limestones, and when you hold them on your hands and apply pressure, they crumble.  The roofings were made of layers of dried cogon grass that form almost a foot thick of material.  And the windows were made of wood.  Ironically, though the materials themselves look weak, these materials when put together, provide a great strong foundation for the houses, sturdy enough to brave the strong winds of Batanes.

In Barangay Savidug also stands a small white church with simple architecture but with character, very similar to the white buildings in Santorini, Greece.  With the blue skies above and the green grass below, the white Savidug Church looks even more stunning.  As I entered the church, I see a simple interior, a few pews and an almost bare altar.  I stand there trying to imagine this small church with the local community.  It must feel very cozy.

Before heading to the next village, we stopped by Tiñan Hills.  We were awestruck by the vast green fields sitting on top of the hills leading to the cliffs down to the rocky coastal shores of the island, which is a terrain very typical of the Batanes islands.  We leisurely walked around and followed the trail towards the edge where you can see the shore straight down.  It takes a while to take it all in as you stand there: the space, the clean air, the sounds of nature, and just the simple life that surrounds it.

We then headed further to Barangay Chavayan, which is another quaint town full of stone houses.  Here, the green mountains were so near that they seem to be enveloping this small town.  What a sight to see!

We stopped by Nanay Fely's hut to get some fresh buco (young coconut) juice.  Either we were hallucinating from the heat, or the buco juice really tastes sweeter here than back in Manila!  I guess it's just fresher.  Nanay Fely also offered simple merienda (snacks) like the roasted/grilled sweet potato (healthier than the usual deep fried version) and suman (glutinous rice wrapped in leaves).  While on our break, Nanay Fely told us stories of the place, and introduced  us to the traditional clothing: the Vakul (headress for women) and Talugong (vest for men) which is made of the local palm called Vuyavoy, and the slippers made of abaca.  Although the textures looked rough and hard, it was actually quite smooth and comfortable upon closer look and touch.  In fact, those hanging on her hut, were being prepared for a film shooting with Aga Muhlach, a popular Philippine actor, which was to happen a bit later in the day.  We joked that we should wear it first :-)

Nanay Fely showing us the Talugong that Aga Muhlach will use later that day

Nanay Fely then ask that we should try the coffee which was brewed from herbs rather than the usual coffee bean.  She told us that this herb is grown up in the mountains, usually green but turns brown as it dries.  And best of all, it's the secret to long life.  Her father, who is the oldest man in the Batanes now at 105 years old, drinks this everyday.  The drink tasted more like strong tea rather than coffee.  Later, she offered for us to taste the local wine which is like the equivalent of the Ilocos Basi.  Just the smell of it gave us a hint that it was too much for a middle of the day drink :-)

After that nice break, we went to visit Lolo Marcelo, the oldest man in Batanes, in his home just a few blocks away.  He is 105 years old this year.  As we entered his home, we see him seated on a bench doing handicraft.  According to his daughter, this is what he does to pass time.  At this age, he has eyes as sharp as a hawk and he looks more like he's in his 70's or 80's.  He holds a sharp knife as he scrapes of the excess from the straw fibers which he later weaves into a basket.  When he doesn't make baskets, he also sews the fish nets.  Lolo Marcelo, when asked about his secret to long life, told us to eat healthy: sweet potato, vegetables, and no meat.  Her daughter also shared with us Lolo's philosophy, and mentioned that Lolo questions the younger generation for complaining that there's nothing to do, when there are a lot of simple things to do to keep busy like he does.  In his home, we also met his family which already consists of six generations.  A baby girl we saw is called his "apo sa talampakan" which is basically a great-great-great granddaughter.

In this place, you'll see that they all know each other.  His grandson actually drove the jeep we rode to get here.  When you walk the streets, people would say hello and have a quick chat with each other.  And as we were leaving, we saw a lady in the traditional Vakul walking toward us.  We were going to ask permission to take her photo, and as she nears, we learned that it was actually Nanay Fely walking home with her dog.  In just a few hours in the island, we had already gotten to know several of the locals.  What more for those who live there!

For our final stop, we headed down to Nakabuang White Beach, a popular stop for those visiting Sabtang.  This place got really white fine sand, and probably offers one of the widest fine sand beach areas in Batanes, which tempted us to jump in for a swim.  Swimming in Batanes is rare though as waters are know to have undertows.  The landmark that also made this place popular is the Natural Arc, a stone structure forming an arc along the beach, just like a gate, and most importantly, it's a natural formation, not manmade.  We spent some time here to just breathe the clean air, listen to the waves, and gaze as far as we can over the horizon.

This is also where we had our first lunch in Batanes, over in the small hut alongside the beach area.  We were pretty excited to taste the local food, which usually included the tatus (coconut crab), lunis (Ivatan version of Philippine's famous pork adobo), and fish lumpia (spring roll).  Instead of the coconut crab though which they didn't have for the day, we had lobster, which for us was even more of a luxury.  For dessert, we had bucayo which is a sweet coconut dessert. The food was simply delicious, and we had to top it off with an ice cold glass of Coke to cool us from the hot summer weather.

It would have been nice to stay a little bit more in this quaint little place which has brought us back in time, even for just a few hours; but it was time for us to go back to Basco.  Till next time!

Camera-shy local kids sitting on a tricycle at the port area

You can also read my other trip reports on Batanes:
Itbayat, Batanes: Adventure at Sea

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