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.”

Facing the Pacific

“Mahirap ang buhay dito.” Noynoy tells me. We sit on a small crevice in Magasang, waiting for the wind to die down. In the distance is Nalangoy, a displaced chunk of rock in the middle of the open Pacific. It stands there like a sentinel, in constant battle with the waves, unafraid of their wrath.

Noynoy and I sit there for what seemed like hours , just a meter away from the edge of the cliff where down below, water that packs a velocity of 70 km/ hr. collides with a barrier of rocks to form a high curtain of sea spray. Even at 36 ft. above sea level, the water reaches the crevice and makes our strides more susceptible to slips. We flatten our backs against the jagged formations to gain more stability. If you want to feel especially small, just look to the waves or look straight down. There is bound to be a natural element more powerful than you.

BEL-AT. Noynoy makes his way to the bottom of Bel-at. Difficult as it may look, Bel-at is the most  accessible of the rock formations. It is easily reachable through a wooden boardwalk that crosses some  mangroves and shallow waters.

BEL-AT. Noynoy makes his way to the bottom of Bel-at. Difficult as it may look, Bel-at is the most
accessible of the rock formations. It is easily reachable through a wooden boardwalk that crosses some
mangroves and shallow waters.

But human woes get the better of both of us. When Noynoy says that life is hard here, he doesn’t mean so much that Biri is isolated from its bigger sisters Luzon in the North and Visayas in the South and so, is very often in the forefront of storms, although there is that too.

When he says that that life is hard, he means more that he is just one of around 100 habal-habal drivers in an island that may well have more supply rather than demand, and that when he gets home, he is met by a wife who has far bigger dreams than he. There is plenty of kamoteng kahoy to go around, but all the rest is never enough.

Once in a while, she complains of a life not lived. Other times she complains of a life lived too much, too long. “Pumunta ako Manila. Nag-apply ako sa Happy. Binigay ko naman yung number ko. Hindi naman tumawag.”, he says.

I meet Noynoy’s partner, Sharon, and his son, Mark, their own house just across from Noynoy’s mother’s house where I am staying. The house is dangerously close to the water’s edge, so close that most of the front yard is considered a jumpoff point to the nearby island across, via boat or via a long swim if you can muster it. We wave goodbye to Sharon and Mark before riding off to the first rock formation, Bel-at.

O, ano, Ma’am. Nakita mo na si Misis, ha. Mabuti at nakapag-asawa sya ng Angelito. December 24 pa naman birthday ko.”, he shouts through the noise of the engine.

Ayaw siguro ni Lord maki-birthday sayo kaya lumabas ka ng maaga.”, I answered him. We banter all the way to Bel-at.

TINAMPAGAN. There is a particular set of rocks Noynoy considers the 6th formation. These are big  boulders that fell overnight during slight tremors in the earth. Consequently, they fell into the sea and  created new formations. Noynoy names this new set “Tinampagan”, which in Waray means “What was toppled upon.”

TINAMPAGAN. There is a particular set of rocks Noynoy considers the 6th formation. These are big
boulders that fell overnight during slight tremors in the earth. Consequently, they fell into the sea and
created new formations. Noynoy names this new set “Tinampagan”, which in Waray means “What was toppled upon.”

Life Was Hard, Love was Harder

Formed by persistent waves, the five formations of Biri – Bel-at, Puhunan, Makadlaw, Magsapad and Magasang – form a natural, otherworldly set of sculptures. Each rock formation has a distinct geography, and each requires a different skill set. Slide. Crawl. Hike. Climb. And in my case, crawl some more.

In Bel-at, we spot a group of foreigners on their way back to town. They are the last set of visitors at the rock formations we will spot for the next three days. Past mangroves and overgrowth, Noynoy navigates through huge boulders and jumps off straight to holed flatbeds. He climbs like his feet have grown some suction cups. I climb like a toddler, unsure of every step.

He points out to what he calls the 6th rock formation. He dubs the set Tinampagan for a series of rocks who have fallen and have made a new set of abstract sculptures.

Maraming kuwento and mga bato na ‘to. Kaso lang hindi ko alam maski isa.” Noynoy tells me cheekily. He starts off with a story of a man named Berbenote, a noted townsman who eventually gave Biri its name. As to why and how, he doesn’t know. All he knew with surety was that life was hard and love was harder.

I laugh off his dramatics, and mine, and prod him for a more difficult climb.

“Eh, ikaw, ba’t ikaw lang mag-isa pumunta dito?”, he asks suspiciously. How do I tell him that I had come here, not because life had seemed especially hard, but because it had seemed too good, and it had gotten the better of me?

I was presented with opportunities that I didn’t know what to do with, and they eventually turned into baggage. And so at the beginning of the year, as part of a personal purging, I promised to travel less, but to travel with more consciousness, to make travel less of a running away from, but a running to. I was going to live each experience, I resolved, because of its relevance and not just because of the novelty it presented me.

All these though seemed like such prissy city sentimentalities when spoken in front of Noynoy who finds his fate back to his hometown after a sad stead in urban Manila. So, I remained mum.

In between climbs, Noynoy reviews the photos in my camera and eavesdrops on the life I have stored in memory cards. A photographer once told him, one of the many who visit to see the island’s formations, that each photo could fetch as much as P500.00. “Pwede mo to ibenta.” he says of the photograph he takes with my camera. His work might just hang in a wall somewhere. I tell him it just might.

In times like these, when the awkwardness of our woes surround us, we stare at the ocean, Magsapad jutting across, and move on.

 

THE POUNDING PACIFIC. This is Biri on a good day. On stormy seasons, waves can reach up to 36 feet high, forming the naturally-sculpted faces of the rocks that range from smooth and wavy to gnarled and jagged.

THE POUNDING PACIFIC. This is Biri on a good day. On stormy seasons, waves can reach up to 36 feet high, forming the naturally-sculpted faces of the rocks that range from smooth and wavy to gnarled and jagged.

Waves and Rocks Collide

What makes climbing difficult is Biri’s erratic weather. It can rain heavily early in the morning, heat up again midday, drizzle in the early afternoon, calm down for a couple of minutes and rain heavily again at the end. Weather passes Biri as if it were busy for another appointment. It seems like it was constantly just passing by.

“Dapat positive tayo, para lumabas ang init.”, I prod Noynoy, who has looked far too many times to the sky as a former fisherman to determine the weather more accurately than my affirmative mindset ever will.

“Positive nalang.”, he calls out.

For Noynoy, who finds harshness a constant companion, the climb is nothing. He constantly meanders ahead as if to say to “What? You find that inclination steep?” Feminist stubbornness comes out and so I climb alone, constantly looking at the back of his head meters away.

The formations end in a 36-foot drop straight to rocks and waves. I teeter on the edge, watching sea spray break intimidatingly on the barriers.

O, ano, kayo mo pa?” Noynoy asks with a smirk.

Just a meter a way was the edge of the cliff. I swallow my building vertigo and climb up a five-foot opening with no foothold, requiring an upper body strength I simply didn’t have. Returning Noynoy’s grin, I ask him to pull me up.

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By the second day though, I find my bearings and we reach the top of the more difficult Magasang and the most difficult Makadlaw.

Every crag is a knife . Every formation has millions of knives. The jaggedness of the rocks may well save you from rolling completely to the bottom but a misstep means a gash in the foot, a scrape in the elbows or a plummet several feet to the bottom.

What is exhausting is not the physical exertion but the sheer concentration needed in every step. The rocks are deceptive, slippery even when apparently dry. Then, there’s the constant intimidating thrash of the Pacific, a thunderous clap indicating that waves and rocks have collided again.

Makadlaw’s side has a completely different topography, a smooth surface with no handles and a steep inclination going to the top. Makadlaw is partly a grazing area for cows who stay for the abundant cogon. We teeter between their equally-abundant excrement to lie on the grass and look at nothing in particular.

By late afternoon, both of us are spent. Noynoy sheepishly asks if we could take a break to get a snack at the town square. There are very few eating establishments in the area. Biri has the occasional carenderia and burger joint. Other than those, their restaurants are waylaid in hotels. Noynoy and I eat in silence, watching the statue of Jose Rizal sculpted by their very own Mayor stare back at us across the square.

Trying to catch the sunset, we make our way Magsapad, the most scenic amongst the formations. Unlike the last four, which only have rocks and a sprouting of cogon, Magsapad is green with lush Bermuda grass covering the top and a sprinkle of coconuts and egg-shaped boulders.

Magpagulong-gulong ka na.” Noynoy jokes.

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We lie down in separate corners of Magsapad, trapped in our own thoughts. He faces eastward to watch the pounding waves. I face the opposite for the last rays of the sun. Look closer between these two and you will find a landscape that doesn’t back down from the elements. It has perhaps even developed a certain immunity to it.

“Sa susunod mong pagpunta dito, dapat may boyfriend ka na. Ako naman, dapat naka-break na.”, he instructs me.

We sit beside each other, trading stories of loss, the only language I know how to reach Noynoy with. Then we sit away from each other again until darkness has laid its claim.

I do not know what greater consciousness means really, whether it’s the ability to feel so much more heartbreak to commune with the world or the ability to feel enough gratitude without the guilt of being the only figure feeling it, but if it should mean this glorious empty, this silence in the mind, the absence of both heartbreak and happiness if only for a while, then I’ll take it.