The Ivatans of Batanes live life in tune with the seasons, and a hardy, forthright, and friendly people emerges
Beside me on the prow of the ferry is an attractive young guide. She listens politely as I recall my first experience crossing the Sabtang channel 22 years ago. Back then, it was a small, roofless falowa belonging to the Department of Public Works and Highways. The falowa, a round-bottomed boat of the Ivatans, bobs and rolls with the waves.
Near me was a cow attempting to break free of its bindings. It was late February, and the swirling waters whipped up by the amihan winds were mountains of froth. Nothing was visible except for monster swells ready to engulf the boat. The local passengers and the crew seemed unperturbed. A boatman suddenly yanked his fishing line and landed a small tuna right at my feet, splattering me with blood. By then, I was petrified beyond nausea. Land seemed nowhere in sight. Death to me seemed inevitable.
The guide giggles. I ask how old she is, 22, she says. I smile back and wonder if she’d been born when I was last in Batanes. Today’s ferry to Sabtang is a large boat with powerful engines. It carries 80 people. The Coast Guard requires everyone to wear a life vest. Each soul is accounted for in a passenger manifest. There is a lovely magic this golden morning as we spot what looks like a slim dolphin leap briefly alongside the boat while flying fish skim the water gracefully. We are delighted by the show, but the significance is lost on us. It is mid-April, the tempestuous channel is passive, and the island is laughably near.
Much progress has been made since that day, 22 years ago, but the Ivatans remain the same — hardy, forthright, open, and friendly. Anthropologists debate their ethnic origins. The language, classified as Austronesian, is similar to other dialects spoken in the Philippines. Unquestionably, the harsh environment they thrive in shapes the Ivatan culture. These isolated islands regularly battle ferocious storms or endure crippling drought. Their way of life is in tune with seasons they recognize as cold and windy, hot and dry, rainy and wet. In Batanes, nature is impossible to ignore.
The Spaniards in the17th century easily subjugated the peace-loving Ivatans. They readily embraced Catholicism, according to Spanish accounts at the time. They did away with superstition, infighting, and their traditional form of justice, except in the island of Sabtang, where a mighty warrior chief, the feared Aman Dangat, resisted the colonizers and led an uprising. He and his followers were caught and hanged, sealing Spanish rule in the islands. Presumably before his execution, the Spaniards baptized him as Kenan Aman Dangat Buenaventura. His statue stands incongruously by the Basco Cathedral. I contemplate the irony of this.
Batanes is the smallest province in the country, with a population of 20,000. It has one of the highest literacy rates. Crime is virtually unheard of. Very few suffer from malnutrition. The practice of organic farming and artisanal fishing methods ensure them a consistent food supply even during lean months. The Spaniards added fowl and cattle to supplement their diet and livelihood. Protected by angry seas that surround them, they’ve escaped the destructive fishing practices of coastal communities in the mainland. Daily incursion by Taiwanese poachers in these rich waters are the direst threat they face today.
The calmer months of March till May signal the start of the northern migration of flying fish, and the Dorado (dolphin fish) that chase after them. Ivatans consider this the most significant event of the entire year. They have strict communal rules and rituals governing Dorado fishing. It is forbidden to sell fresh Dorado meat, transport it by wheels or airplane, or bottle it during the summer months lest the fish disappear the subsequent year. It is so highly valued that in the past Dorado meat was bartered for a variety of goods and services, even real estate. I am fortunate enough to try an exquisite ceviche
(lataven) of fresh Dorado marinated in the best local vinegar, ginger, garlic, and onion. I am unaware that I partake of forbidden fruit.
The Ivatan meal consists of root crops like the prized white ube, camote, taro, luñiz (pork marinated in its own lard), dried flying fish (dibang) or the highly valued dried Dorado. Rice of the upland variety is a fairly recent addition. The capital city of Basco has a few restaurants where the summer tourist can sample authentic local cuisine, although the once- plentiful lobster and coconut crab are now scarce and endangered.
Conversation with the locals is effortless; almost all are fluent in Tagalog. I stop at a sari-sari store high up by the windswept Tukon PAGASA Radar Station. There is a stunning 360-degree view of Batan Island here. The store is gaily decorated in the style of the late world-famous artist Pacita Abad. Fundacion Pacita, the five-star lodge named after her, can be seen in the distance. I casually ask the storeowner about life in Batanes and she shrugs, answering with an Ivatan proverb: “There is no strong man when the sea is at its worst.” I ponder this for a moment and thank the Universe. I am here, now, with these unspoiled people in their slice of paradise.