Five Ways to Look at the Home of the Winds

(2 of 5)

“Peace.” says Ina. The formation of hills called Alapad, greenery on one side, exposed limestone on the other, is steep but it’s not a difficult climb. The group – a mixed bunch, all searching for a spot to call their own – hops from stone to stone, avoiding goat droppings and other unrecognizables.

But 53-year old Ina is tired. She insists she’ll stay on the base of the hill until tour guide, Arthemus, drops this clinching trivia: that this Imnajbu vista is where Richard Gomez carried a dying Dawn Zulueta in his arms in the Filipino cult classic, Hihintayin Kita sa Langit.

“Sige na.” she calls out as Art goes back for her. “I-Dawn Zulueta mo na rin ako.”

Nanay, as we’ve come to fondly call her, goes first. She takes a series of photos with Arthemus as her prop. She is nestled in his arms, her head resting on his shoulders.

Arthemus’ muscles bulge. He takes a deep breath as he attempts to fight gravity. The weight of his load battles with wind resistance.

The sea behind them is a mirror, reflecting the heat of a Batanes afternoon, the treeless rock formation a direct hit to warm air on all sides.

And as I sit on Alapad’s edge, I wonder, as I look at this postcard moment, if a windswept Dawn Zulueta ever sweated this much.

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Nanay Ina
I had a pre-written Batanes in my mind. There, in that imagined lacuna, I would find peace brought about by isolation and radical individualism.

This statement is flawed on many levels, of course. Mostly because I don’t really know what peace is. Except that the closest thing that I’ve come to it, a state of non-sensation almost, happens in escape.

What traveler has never imagined treading on land that has yet to be mapped, or blogged? What traveler has never selfishly imagined the exhilaration of earlier explorers unlocking a piece of himself the rest cannot check into, or track through Google Earth?

Solitude suspends the need to compromise. To deal with outside stimuli. To dilute the self. In my imagined Batanes, I have become the island; and, consequently, in Jonathan Franzen’s words “it seemed, the island was becoming the world.”

This was the Batanes I was holding on to as my mind reels back to a possible misencounter brought about by a box of donuts.

I liked the look of Batan from the air. All greens. Very few houses. A month or so prior to the trip, I anticipated the sensation of arrival.

Liveng, thatch-like wind breakers outlining the boundaries of private property, cross through fields and fields of land. They were the only delineation in the unending grass that stretched for kilometers in all directions.

Picture out my chagrin then as a Yuppie cuts in front of me, carrying a bright mustard box of donuts. We both struggle to cram out of the 36-seater into a minuscule Basco airport.

Batanes, to me, has always been a touchstone to the unchanged, a frontier whose distance seals the noise of consumerism.

But there he was, unaware of the perception he just ruined, carrying a dozen artificially-flavored worlds. My immediate reaction was to snatch the box before it contaminates the rest of the place.

This would have still been futile. There seems to be no escape from it.

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“May banko na pala. Ang rami nang bahay! Akala ko pupunta ako sa isla pero ang rami na palang tao. ” says a lady on the passenger seat of our van.

Nanay and I took the same flight from Manila and are now tourmates. Taking a seat beside the laconic driver, she had, in retrospect, cunningly excused herself from polite small talk throughout the trip, hidden behind dark glasses and a straw hat.

Both of us were hoping perhaps to experience Batanes solo. Do-it-yourselfers that didn’t like conceding to the other. But both us though never considered the price to pay for the place’s inaccessibility either.

A liter of gas in Batanes is a whopping P59.00. To give a staunch comparison, gas in the expensive metropolis that is Manila is P42.00 . A typical rice meal in Batanes is P180. It is P120.00 in Manila. A tricycle ride to the next town from Basco is P300.00. It is P50.00 in Manila. By economic necessity, Nanay and I were stuck together. For frugality’s sake, there was no other way to see Batanes than to conquer our discomfort of the symbolic “other”.

Basco is a tightly-knit community with a masonry of stones and streets. Yet it wasn’t the isolated village I pictured it out to be. When we arrive at Marfel’s Lodge, an internet representative is sitting in the living room, infecting the air with the nasal voice of Kris Aquino.

As defense, I retreat back to the van, ready to take Nanay and I away to South Batan.

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The Uninhabited Ones

Batanes is made up of 10 islands. Only three of these islands are inhabited – Batan, Sabtang and Itbayat – while the rest – Mavulis, Ivuhoy, Dequey among others – fall into obscurity, too difficult to get to by plane or boat.

To get to the more uninhabited ones, you would have to set aside several weeks for a willing boatman and good weather conducive for landing on rocky shores. And again several weeks to actually escape the same islands which are devoid of infrastructure and trivial conveniences. While the Ivatans are skilled seafaring people, even they are mindful of the wrath of the West Philippine Sea.

But already, as soon as I get to what may very well be one of the least inhabited islands in the Philippines, I become restless again and look for something farther away.

As we pass by farm to market roads on our way to Tayid Lighthouse, I question Arthemus endlessly about the possibility of going to the northernmost island, Mavulis.

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The lighthouse temporarily satiates this clamor though. Tayid is a looker. A mesmeric combination of stone walls, red roofs and wooden, bolted doors. Cows graze in its pasture. Mount Iraya looms in the background. And down below is a secluded beachfront meeting an ironed-out sea. A companion describes it as “parang screensaver ng Windows XP.”

Several times over the course of the tour, Arthemus has to warn me about standing dangerously close to edges as in here in Tayid. “Papayagan kita, peru yung iba, hindi.” exempting me from supposedly cut-and-dried rules as I sit on jagged rocks, a foot dangling in the air. He seemed to understand that part of my happiness came from what lay beyond.

Nanay takes out her digital camera, proceeding to take photos of everything.

Nanay Ina or Filipina Mendoza is a travel blogger from Batangas but in her Facebook account, she dubs herself a Flyer at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

At 53, she has been to almost all of the provinces in the Philippines, lacking only 12 from Mindanao.

She asks me to take a photo of her in front of the rolling hills. For posterity as today’s her birthday, after all.

Taken aback, I ask her the same question most people I’ve encountered on my trips ask me. “Bakit ka nag-sosolo, Nay? Birthday mo pa naman.”

As soon as it came out, I knew I had become one of the very people I’d secretly been amused with, people who didn’t seem to understand solitude.

She smiles and says “Mas madali kasi mag-plano pag.solo.”, then proceeds to take more selfies, three quarters of which is her profile and a small quarter of it the outland.

I look at her from afar and realize I may very well be looking at myself 25 years from now.

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This is the depth of my relationship with Nanay, and this is what solitude seems to bring to two people looking for it – a distant view of a separate island, always blurred and unfamiliar. I do not know if what I made of her is fiction or a heavy-handed representation of myself in her. Whatever it was, I related to her clamor for human depravity.

I always seem to spot her, separating herself as she takes a photo of the mini-replica of the San Carlos Borromeo church or looking around the port of Ivana.

There never seems to be enough space to escape to but Mahatao fitted us both. Unlike compact Basco, Mahatao is commodious, a ghost town to any tourist who doesn’t peer closer.

When you do, you’ll find that a larger cosmos thrives separately from it. The town is around 30 kilometers away from Basco but it might as well have been a different sphere.

Here, three boys are shooting hoops in the basketball court while just beside it, at the police station, two policemen are writing reports in the front desk, the brunt of their work considering Batanes has zero-crime rate.

Traffic, Arthemus says, is defined as when three vehicles meet on the road. Otherwise, there is no use for the word at all.

As we walk towards the San Carlos Borromeo Church, adjacent to the Book of Blank Archives, the Vice – Governor whizzes by in his motorcycle in his khaki shorts and shirt, without the airs of escorts.

“Kaplan ka pa nu Dios si Chamakuyab aya.”, greets Arthemus, a lengthy afternoon greeting that barely reaches the ears of the Vice-Governor, already a length away.

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The Mayaang a Libro du Vatan or the Blank Book Archives is a collection of bound blank pages beside the National Culture Treasure, the San Carlos Borromeo Church. While some gravitate towards the magnanimity of the altar, I veer towards the quieter companionship of books.

The Blank Archives is where visitors can write in free form their thoughts about Batanes.

There are around 400 sets in the collection, all hardbound in blue. Messages range from gratitude for the place’s easy acceptance of outsiders to professions of love to a muse who might not even get the chance to read it.

I choose book number 199. There is something about its incompleteness that speaks to me. For the first time, scanning through the words of those who came before me, I feel a certain closeness.

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The Insatiable Lacuna

It is 7:00 in the evening, but the sky is still half-way between twilight and shadow. The moon peaks out with a promise of fullness.

We invite Nanay to the park for dinner but the beauty of Batanes has seeped out her energy, and she retires to a small side street with access to the sea.

When I ask her though what the best part of her day was, she says to me with conviction “New friends.”

Here lies the difference perhaps between Nanay and I. People like her are fortunate in the sense that they are able to make peace with their solitude, realizing it is a choice rather than circumstance. She can get out of it if she wants to for I later on, through Facebook, that while this need to be a company of one exists, she also lives in a far more concrete island where she recognizes she is needed by a husband, children and grandchildren; that a structured corporate job with mandatory interaction takes up her everydays.

In a sort of Stockholm Syndromesque relationship, I have trapped myself inside mine.

The constant search for isolation is really just the search for a world that will allow your experiences to be fully your own. To customize. To personalize. To constantly fulfill whims at your time and how your want to do it. And when inconvenience is set on its path, like expecting a place to be what it never really was, the entitled solitude seeker becomes bereft and dissatisfied.

This is what Franzen, once again, calls the symptoms of a world that is now too small and is built on hyperspeed.

The problem with is that the need to find a personal lacuna is often insatiable, and unstoppable. Mine certainly is. Nanay has perhaps learned to control hers.

No matter how solitude protects us of hurt and want, it is also self-defeating by the very notion that we will always want more of it.

Every time I dare think of wanting the realities to change for me, instead of the other way around, I now think of Nanay.

Her legs are pumped in the air in surrender. Her arms are fully stretched in openness. And her iconic words, echoes through my hollowed mind, addressing the cosmos that now deviates from human interaction in order to go deeper to that sense of self.

“Sige na. I-Dawn Zulueta mo ako.”

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Five Ways to Look at the Home of the Winds

(Part 1 of 5)

“Innocence.” tour guide, Arthemus, might have told me, if we could talk through the ruckus.

Early morning in Basco, the van careens through karst mountains 70 meters above sea level on the way to Mahatao where a boat waits in the port, ready to take passengers to Sabtang .

The van carries with it a slew of anxiety, nostalgia, sexual tension, and soap, emanating from the ten passengers cramped in in its seats.

If yesterday, these strangers, forced together by circumstance and a cheap tour package, talked in muffled duos, now they were a reverse juxtaposition to the stillness of the highlands.

As if to legitimize this new-found closeness, each has been given a nickname, taking the formality out of a Ronnel Victor or a Julius Ceazar.

Instead, Ronnel Victor, a 24-year old Bank Officer in Taguig, is now The Mayor.

The oldest in the bunch, celebrating her birthday (for what age, she won’t tell), is now Nanay.

Christian and Marie, week-old newlyweds, are collectively called Bagong Kasal.

A penchant for dresses and walking barefoot through rolling hills has made me Miss Cebu.

And Arthemus, with his patrician nose and moreno skintone, so similar to a well-known TV actor, is now JM de Guzman.

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Halfway through the port of Mahatao, passing through the Spanish Lagoon, I let out a gasp followed by a facepalm.

“Kuya Art! Nakalimutan ko yung camera ko!” I tell him, an image of the device still fastened to a charger flashing through my mind. But there was also the rudeness of making everyone late to what might be the only boat to Sabtang for the day. I lie and tell him that the camera phone will do.

Ai, hindi pwede, Maam. What if hindi mo na mababalikan ang Mordor?”, Art prods.
Mordor is his own moniker for Sabtang, this otherworldly cross between a UNESCO World Heritage site and Marlboro Country. He has been to most parts of Batanes, he says, but even Sabtang was paradise to him – endless green pastures with the West Philippine Sea as backdrop. It is the island where we would find our new profile photos.

So, we head back. The others in the van politely hiss instead of groan as we make a U-Turn to retrieve this non-negotiable from Marfel’s Lodge.

“Okay lang yan, Miss Cebu.”, Mayor pacifies. And in a mock aristocratic voice loud enough for everyone to hear says to the driver, “Sabihan mo hintayin tayo ng barko. Late si Mayor. Pak! Ganun!”

The whole van, used to him by now, chuckles like kids on a carpool as we count the number of “Blow Ur Horn” signs, another Batanes landmark, on the left.

Somewhere, there must be a crash of waves, disturbing unaware boulders on the shore. But we are oblivious to all of this, as if the height of Batanes has made us untouchable to all things that are hurting, including ourselves.

Never mind the delayed cross to Sabtang.

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JM de Guzman
To the non-comical, Arthemus Castillejos is just Art. And when he was six, his father moved the whole family from the hubbub that is Quezon City – a city constantly changing and in motion – to the posthumous stillness that is Batanes.

His playmates took him to the very spots that he takes tourists to now. Boulder Beach. The Basco Lighthouse. The Spanish Lagoon. Children kept on touching his face like they would a diety, so enamored were they by his fair skin and foreign tongue.

“Tagalog lang yung alam ko noon.”, he tells me, his only language an offbeat trifecta to the syllabic, prayer-like chant of Ivatan where a street greeting sounds like a prolific bearing of soul. Kup ka Nu Dios. God bless you.

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Art witnessed the Batanes of 20 years ago. Nothing much has changed, he says. It was just less inhabited, and people managed to live without modern luxuries like satellite TV and ice-cold Coke.

Most companies from mainland Luzon never considered expanding to Batanes for fear that its distance will be a hindrance to operations, but with the coming of cheap flights, Batanes has somehow become more accessible.

Internet companies send in representatives, urging residents to finally attach to the rest of the world. Boatloads of Coke come in from Tuguegarao.

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There were only three movies Art’s neighbors, the sole owners of a television set, routinely played on Betamax then : Benhur, The Ten Commandments, and The Sound of Music. Epic cinematic efforts that tried to equal the magnanimity of the place. Tried to. But never really succeeded.

For as epic trips go, most Filipino travelers agree, what could be more epic than Batanes?

Geographically, this is inarguable with Batanes being the Northernmost province in the archipelago. Ivatans, I imagine, must have channeled Maria and ran through its steep hills, hat tossed to the air in surrender.

But those so used to this landscape are oblivious to the grandiosity of cinema or of Batanes.

“Wala na. Para sa kanila, pare-pareho lang naman yung nakikita nila. Bato dito. Bato doon. Kung minsan, nakikita lang nila yung kagandahan pag lumabas sa Rated K o sa Kris TV.”, Art tells me as the faluwa – a round-bottomed boat crossing the Balintang Channel on its way to Sabtang- bobs through unusually-calm waters.

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It is standing room only. Locals are cramped between motorcycles, tires and construction supplies. The whir of the motor cuts our conversation but locals are unperturbed by to the noise. Just as they are, Art says, unperturbed to the feverish clamor for the island.

These might be the very same locals who stare at the trigger – happy set of tourists this morning who, even before the faluwa arrives at the port, has already filled up half of their memory space with photos of the outriggerless vessel and its foot-controlled steering pole.

But Art knows too well why Batanes shouldn’t be underestimated even by its locals.

After an obligatory visit to the Tourism Office, he takes us to the sinadumparans – two-sloped traditional houses – in the village of Chavayan. Usually quiet, Chavayan especially today is a ghost town. Abandoned cats and chickens own the stone roads. Clustered garlic cloves and papery, dried gabi leaves rustle in the wind. Vintage Japanese bicycles are strewn on the ground. Chopped wood and coconut shells pile up outside homes. The remaining functioning houses that supposedly still held residents are, today, uninhibited.

The men have apparently crossed to mainland Basco for an inter-island basketball cup. The women are in the fields. The children in school.

The only signs of life are found on the beachside where a group of kids are holding some sort of forum underneath a thatch hut heavily tilted to the right.

We walk through the village, stopping every few seconds, to take photos of brightly-painted doors and vine-covered walls.

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“Okay lang. Pasok lang kayo.” Art urges as we see a particularly well-preserved structure with a bright cerulean door, , its thick cogon roof covered by a green net.

It begs to be entered but the city dwellers in us, mindful of boundaries, tethers our own curiosity. But Art insists.

In Batanes generally, he says, it’s uncommon practice to lock doors, even if you were leaving for weeks on end. They are purposely left open for neighbors to check the whereabouts of your possessions.

This virtue of unbroken trust is what influenced the concept of Honesty Cafe in mainland Basco, its visitors and residents allowed to pay without the scrupulous eye of an attendant.
In the cafe, visitors drop their payments on a wooden box and write what was consumed on a ledger for everything from cassava cookies to motorcycle rentals, its keys left hanging in the keyhole for convenience.

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This practice isn’t true to Honesty Cafe alone. Sabtang has its very own Conscience Cafe where we seek shade now from the mid-morning sun. A bunch of bikers and a priest testing out their lungs’ strength by belting out videoke hits inside. The quiet-seeking set of the group, wait in the arc outside, sipping their sodas and Minute Maids. Original black and white photographs are hung on the walls of the arc, showing the Sabtang of a hundred years ago when it was nothing but a 20-house village.

Across us is a government building that reminds passersby that, truly, “Honesty is the best policy; it begins with me.” It’s also reflected in battered school signs all around Batanes, constantly reminding young Ivatans of Batanes’ common virtue.

It is again in Timyan Viewpoint, Art’s Mordor, a wooden sign marks the vendor’s plea in black ink “Dios Mamajes. For Sale. Ladies T-Shirt. 250. But I want po “honest.”

While we while away the time, tricycle drivers with thatch roofs over their vehicles join us and share accounts of P40,000 left by tourists in the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel returned days after with nothing out of place.

P10,000. P20,000. P30,000. The denominations change. But the results were always the same. They were returned to their owners intact.

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No surprise that Batanes has zero-crime rate. It’s the outsiders, Art says, who are often jailed.

This somehow sealed, purer world where neighborly motives are unquestioned is enough to make Ivatans think of it as a norm rather than an archipelagic exception.

They question why Batanes holds a talismanic magic to outsiders when they themselves are, as soon as they find a way around the expensive airfares, ready to depart.

But if Art is so verbose to say there is nothing special to this collective virtue, he need only be reminded of his first few hours back in Quezon City.

With his rent and food allowance tucked too tightly in the back of his jeans, the neighborly thing to do, a city dweller presumed, was to help him pick it. Then, run away with it.
Art recounts this encounter as we find shade in the front arches of the Conscience Cafe.

In an embarassed gesture, JM de Guzman wrings his baseball cap and then puts it on backwards. A boy recounting his snafu.

“Sige nalang. Mas kailangan nya siguro.”