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Northern Luzon
The province of Batanes is a world seemingly frozen in time. It is composed of a group of islands defined by the splash of sea against rugged cliffs, verdant hills dominated by grass and stunted trees, and the great Mt. Iraya. Its people are friendly to anybody who comes to their homes. With its sights and sounds, Batanes possesses a hypnotic quality that makes visitors want to come back.
These far-flung islands’ isolation has preserved their old captivating charm. South China Sea borders the west, the Babuyan Islands to the south and the Pacific Ocean to the east. The province lies even closer to neighboring Taiwan rather than to the Luzon mainland. Over the centuries, harsh weather conditions and rough seas have shaped the islands’ picturesque cliffs and land formations. Unfortunately, there is a misconception that the islands are inaccessibile. The yearly visits of ravaging typhoons have affected the province’s tourism industry keeping many tourists away from the place.
However, the province offers much more than the storms it has become known for. Located 860 kilometers from Manila, it is the least populated and smallest province of the country occupying a total of 230 square kilometers and inhabiting almost 15,000 people. Of the ten islands, only three are inhabited: Batan, Sabtang and Itbayat. Batan Island is the most populated since Basco, the province’s capital, is located here. It is the point of entry to the province, housing both the airport and the main seaport. Resorts, lodges and home stays are mostly found here with prices that range from P100-600 a room per night.
Unlike the smaller towns, Basco enjoys certain utilities like electricity, phone lines, and a variety of public transportation. Other municipalities in the province are Mahatao, Ivana and Uyugan in the Batan Island and the island municipalities of Sabtang and Itbayat. The mighty dormant volcano, Mt. Iraya, is located beside Basco where food, timber and fresh water generally come from.
There is only one mode of transportation to get from one island to another, and this is through falowa boats. Falowa boat-making, has been a tradition for Ivatans. The boats, which look like Noah’s Ark, are big and have rounded bottoms that pitch and roll with the waves. From Batan to Sabtang, a 30-minute boat ride costs P20, while it is P80 for a 4-hour boat ride to Itbayat.
Since centuries ago, the Ivatans or natives of Batanes have preferred to live in their traditional dwellings. An Ivatan house is built with limestone walls, reeds and cogon roofs, which are sturdy enough to withstand the numerous typhoons and earthquakes that ravage the islands an average of eight times a year. The roof usually lasts from 25 to 30 years if there are roof nets to protect them during typhoon season.
Only three walls of the house have windows. The wall that doesn’t have one faces the direction of the strongest winds during typhoons. The temperature within its interior is conditioned. It is relatively cool during the summer and warm during the cold stormy season. Most of the time, the doors and windows are left open when the owners leave to do their daily chores. When they get back, everything is the way they left it even if there are numerous tourists that pass by to take pictures of its unique and quaint architecture.
The Ivatans live a simple life devoid of the characteristics that define modern living. They are gentle, amiable, peace-loving and polite. It is second nature for Ivatans to greet strangers by wishing them the best for the day. They are also hardworking people, each holding more than one job. Civil servants and teachers are also busy with farming, fishing and livestock raising which they have learned when they were young.
The hills that tourists use as a perfect background for picture taking, the farmers use as their main source of livelihood. The farmers have evenly divided the hills into square fields, using trees as demarcation lines. They plant root crops, rice, corn and garlic.
Batanes is famous for the old women’s headgear called vakul. It is ordinarily made large and waist length to cover the old women from the heat of the sun and the rain. It is made from the abaca fiber of the palm found only in Batanes that locals call vuyavuy. It takes three weeks to a month to make the headgear, but it lasts a lifetime.
Vakul owners maintain their headgear by constantly combing its strands and hanging it on the walls of their house when not in use. Although the vakuls are mostly sold in Basco for P300 to P350, they are traditionally woven by old women in the small barangay of Chavayan in the Sabtang Island. Makers also sell vakuls cheaper by P100-150. When old women wear them, under it is a rattan backpack connected to a headstrap called yuvuk. It contains their belongings for farming as they walk to town from the fields. While women wear the vakul, old men wear a traditional vest made from dried banana leaves called tadidi. They wear it along with a salakot to cover themselves, the same way the vakul serves the women.
Despite of the province’s remoteness, Catholicism is very strong among the Ivatans. As early as 1772, the Spaniards already sent expeditions to the islands. By 1773, the Ivatans consented to become subjects of the King of Spain and became officially a province of the country. It was named Provincia de la Concepcion with Joseph Huelva y Melgarjo as its first governor.
Then Philippine Governor General Jose Basco became the “Conde de la Conquista de Batanes”. The capital town was named after him. They built a church in the center of each town named after various patron saints – San Carlos Borromeo in the town of Mahatao, San Jose El Obrero in Ivana and San Vicenter Ferrer in Sabtang. The churches were constructed from lime and stone, baroque-style, strong enough to endure the most powerful natural calamities. Until today, the 200-year-old churches remain the houses of worship of many Ivatans.
The Ivatans live in simple ways, like how they have for many centuries. It is one of the traditions that the have been successfully passed on for generations. But as Batanes becomes more popular with tourists, change will be inevitable. Modern influences will slowly creep into the lives of the natives. Perhaps, the yearly visits of strong storms will end up saving the old glory of Batanes, after all.