Faith and patience in Batanes

I am writing this column from a terrace facing the sea in Basco while waiting for the return flight to Manila. Behind me are wind-swept mountains rising majestically from the sea, rolling hills and verdant valleys dotted with grazing animals, and ribbons of roads without vehicles.

A few days ago, I told my wife Karina, who has come to these northernmost islands on an official mission, “Well, we finally got here; the problem is whether we will make it back to Manila.” I had prepared for an open-ended holiday, packing enough clothes and bringing enough books to cover the contingency of being stranded in an island known for its unpredictable weather.

We had tried to go in late February, waking up early for the twice-aweek Asian Spirit flight to Basco.  Though the skies were clear over Metro Manila, the flight was canceled because of the weather over Cagayan.  This is not unusual. The Batan islands are cut off from the rest of the country by strong winds that make both air and water channels linking Batanes to the rest of the archipelago impassable for about eight months of the year.

I don’t like traveling with no assurance of leaving, and so I wasn’t sure I wanted to make another attempt.  But Karina has the kind of patience that grows with years of working in government. Without second thoughts, she re-booked our flights and accommodations, and urged me not to unpack the bag I was bringing to Batanes.  “If we’re going to Batanes,” she said wisely, “we have to let the weather decide for us.”

The skies over Basco were starting to fill with threatening clouds when we landed.  Elsewhere in the country it is summer. But not in Batanes, where you can wake up to a sunny and crispy Decemberlike morning, bake in the coastal humidity and heat of a tropical sun in the afternoon, and retire in the evening with a baby typhoon banging at your door and windows. Provided one has patience and a lot of faith, a visit to these isolated islands and the beautiful Ivatans, all 16 thousand of them, is a most rewarding experience.

The terrain is stunning.  I have never seen anything so picturesque. While Karina was giving talks to public officials as the first Chair of the Civil Service Commission to visit these parts, I toured the capital town of Basco on a borrowed motorcycle — the best way I think to see any island.  Everywhere I went I was treated to a landscape washed on one side by the South China Sea and on the other by the Pacific Ocean.  On the advice of Butch Abad, the province’s three-term congressman, I followed the national road circling the Batan coast and ventured into the little alleys leading up to the interior valleys.  In a few minutes I found myself looking down at gently sloping communal pasturelands as well trimmed as the best kept golf courses.

Itbayat, the largest of the islands and the most isolated, is also the most pristinely pastoral.  One can cross the channel by boat from Basco port, in 4 hours, if the sea is calm.  Or buy a ticket in an 8seater plane and make the crossing in 12 minutes.  The trip to Itbayat is worth the effort and the anxiety of flying in small planes. The land is of red clay.  Limestone cliffs rise sharply from the sea; there are no beaches in this island.  The road from the unpaved airstrip to the center of town bobs up and down like an endless motocross track.

A beautiful church with thick limestone walls dominates the town plaza.  To this day, a Spanish Dominican missionary, Fr. Domingo Deniz, who came to Itbayat in 1967, serves the parish.  Still sprightly at 70, the bearded Fr. Deniz showed me the church and its historic belfry and regaled me with stories of faith and survival in a frontier land.  The Catholic Church retains a commanding presence in these islands.

We spent a day in Sabtang island, 20 minutes by ferryboat from the port of Ivana in Batan.  A small but imposing white-painted church built in 1844 is the focal point of the Sabtang plaza.  All the roads radiate from it.  Sabtang’s villages are the most picturesque in all of Batanes.  This fishing town has the most number of traditional Ivatan houses built with rocks bound together by limestone paste.  In the name of preserving such homes and the culture that nourished these over centuries, Batanes has applied for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The Batanes economy is highly dependent on government, which employs more than 60% of the labor force. At the moment there isn’t much around here to prevent well-educated young Ivatans from migrating. Though the provincial government operates the well-run Batanes Resort, tourist facilities are not adequate for the volume of arrivals it seeks to attract.  Yet, it is precisely this unspoiled character of the place that gives it its charm and intrinsic friendliness.  I began to wonder how long it would take before investors from Taiwan, less than 200 kilometers away, colonize these islands and convert them into a paradise for golfers and casino players.

“Here is a textbook development dilemma if there is one,” Dina Abad tells me.  She is running for the lone congressional seat held by husband Butch. Dina was until recently the dean of Ateneo’s School of Government.  She understands the perils of being excluded from the circuits of growth in a globalized world.  But she also knows what it means to balance the need for economic growth against the other things that matter to people  – local control of the pace and direction of development, preservation of heritage, ecological sustainability. It is heartening to see people like Dina give new meaning to governance in a province as unique and as precious as Batanes.


Comments to <>