(Sorry I haven’t been posting for a long time. I’ve been busy cramming all my reservations for my Vietnam/Cambodia trip and this has consumed my online time. This is the last entry in the Batanes series, and hopefully, I’ll finish this one before I leave for my trip to Vietnam & Cambodia.)
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I’ve once said that no matter where I go in this country, I never really feel too far away from home because there is a certain familiarity when encountering fellow Filipinos even when they speak a different local language. Generally speaking, and from my limited traveling experience, I find that no single group of Filipinos occupying a particular geographic area is much kinder or more unscrupulous than all the others.
However, as most other travelers would be able to attest, Batanes is quite an exception to the rule in the sense that Ivatans seem to be a different breed of Filipinos. What sets them apart is their honesty and their almost total absence of an inclination to take advantage of others. And this apparently rubs off on the tourists themselves. Personally, in the 2 times I’ve been there, I found myself to be more courteous in dealing with the locals and fellow tourists, warmly greeting them with a smile and even initiating small talk. (And for those who know me would attest, this is vastly different from my personality, where I won’t even look at someone if I don’t see the need to talk to him/her.)
FREE DINNER ON THE FIRST NIGHT
The very moment I stepped in Ivatan Lodge upon arriving at Basco during my last visit, I immediately made 3 new friends: Richie, Chef Jianjie and Bimbi (?) – fellow tourists who were actually on their last day in Batanes and were supposed to fly back to Manila the next day. There was no one manning the front desk so they kept me company while waiting for the person in charge to arrive and get myself checked in.
Later that afternoon, while I was pondering on where to have dinner, I had a chance meeting with Richie at the Naidi Lighthouse. I asked in passing if he knows of any canteen or resto where I could have dinner. He then told me not to look for any other place to eat anymore because Chef Jianjie (who was apparently a real chef) was preparing a sumptuous dinner for the Ivatan Lodge staff as a big “thank you” to them.
Great! My first dinner was free. And it wasn’t just any dinner. It was a feast. Here’s what was on the menu:
Aside from the lodge staff, they also invited 2 young policemen and their female companion to share in the blessings. There were 11 of us all in all. I had to try to stop myself from eating too much because I was conscious of the fact that I was just a late minute-addition. (I think I failed in this regard. Chef’s cooking was just so good.)
(* Richie, Chef, if you’re reading this, please tell me if I spelled Bimbi’s nickname wrong so that I can make a correction.)
(Update 7/10/12 – My apologies to Raymond whose real name I have forgotten and who was referred to as “Bimbi” as a joke by Richie. I never got to ask him what his real name was in Batanes because I assumed it was “Bimbi”.)
THE DAROCA FARM
I’ve already told you in a previous entry how my guide Romy went above and beyond his guide duties in helping me get to the summit and back down from Mt. Iraya. You can read about it again here if you want. But Romy’s kindness didn’t end there, and he turned out to be like no other tour guide I’ve ever hired.
In my conversations with him, it seemed to me that he had a genuine interest in showing me that Batanes is much, much more than it’s beautiful surroundings. I hired him to bring me from one place to another, but he went the extra mile to reveal something about Ivatans that tourists usually bypass in their haste to get the perfect photo opportunity.
For example, prior to catching the sunset in the Naidi Rolling Hills, he brought me to his parents’ farm in the far side of Barangay San Antonio in Basco to rest our feet after our trek to the Nakamaya Burial Grounds. The farm’s land area was sizable. Romy told me that he spent part of his childhood growing up there (the other part he spent in faraway Bukidnon in Mindanao, where he lived in a community of Ivatan agricultural workers) and even showed me the ruins of the house built by his grandfather where his family used to live.
When he told me that his parents owned the farm, I thought they were already retired and had their other children work on the farm instead. As it turns out, they still toiled on the land and I was able to meet them just as they were coming in after a whole day’s work. Take note that these people were older than my parents, probably in their late 60s (and possibly early 70s), browned by the sun, and who still did the actual farming in their own land. And at the end of the day, they were still gracious enough to welcome me to their home and insisted on me having merienda with them with the fruit of their own land.
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
Due to circumstances I previously explained, Romy was aware that my last day in Batanes was pretty much free, so he made me promise to attend his son’s 3rd birthday party on my last night. Romy actually has 5 children (or was it 7?) including twin girls. The eldest child is in high school, and the youngest is the birthday boy.
Since I was afraid of getting lost, Romy went out of his way to pick me up from the Basco athletic field to bring me to his house. I felt stupid when I realized that the house was less than 500 steps away from where I was waiting, and for making Romy spend precious gas just to pick me up.
Anyway, there were around 30 other guests, half of whom were children. These children reminded me of growing up in the 1980s when all children in family gatherings had to ask for blessings or mano an older relative or family friend. (This practice has seemingly died off in Metro Manila, but it is still in full swing in overwhelmingly Catholic Batanes.) This time though, I was on the other end of the tradition as each of those children eagerly took my hand to their foreheads for my blessings.
I got so disoriented with all this that I started replying in the most traditional way I knew – by saying “Kaawaan ka ng Diyos” to each of the more than 10 children who sought my blessing one after the other. That definitely made me feel old. Haha!
THE DRINKING SESSION
After the blowing of the candle and the birthday dinner, the house became the territory of all the children. And so all the adult males retired to the back of the house where they engaged in a favorite pasttime among Ivatans – drinking huge amounts of alcohol on a weekend night. (And oftentimes, even on weekday nights.)
All the leftover food that didn’t get consumed at the dinner were placed alongside the Emperador bottles as pulutan and the tagay glass was passed around. I was actually exempted by Romy due to my flight back to Manila athe following morning, but I insisted on drinking with them up to a certain hour.
One of my frustrations is that in my 2 visits to Batanes, not once did I ever see a native Ivatan wearing a Vakul. However, on my last night there, I learned a greater deal on what it means to be an Ivatan in the modern world. There was of course a language barrier, but occasionally, I get the idea of what they are saying and singing, and when they speak to me directly in Tagalog. Not once did I feel out of place, as they continually chatted me up and made me feel like a guest of honor.
I can definitely say that whatever it is one learns about Ivatans in books and articles is just a miniscule fraction of what one would learn when one takes the time to actually sit and dine/drink/talk with them. News and academic literature can never fully capture the hardships experienced by Ivatans in a harsh land as well as when you see how they themselves talk about their struggles. I also had a front seat view of how they view modernity and how they are fighting to preserve what remains of their olden traditions, which other nearby barangays in Basco have already lost.
I initially was critical of the seemingly prevalent alcoholism among the Ivatans, especially the youth (a number of times, I’ve encountered high school students drinking after school hours.) I discovered though that all the excuses people give for drinking alcohol in any other place is somewhat valid in Batanes. Hardship here is a given and an almost daily occurrence and Alcohol helps them deal with this. The making of their own wine, palek, has mostly died out in the Basco area, but the void was filled by manufactured liquor shipped from Luzon, which is available everywhere in Batanes. In a sense, alcohol strengthens the bond of the community.
What astounded me was the fact that while environments generally shape the people that live in them, the same did not seem to be true in Batanes. The harsh land did not result in harsh Ivatans. While the sun burnt their skin to a golden brown and their statures and postures betray the ruggedness of the land they toil, their difficult environment did not affect the kindness and good nature that everyone is born with.
I might have not been able to visit Itbayat like I originally intended, but I was able to accomplish something I did set out to do, which was to immerse myself in Ivatan culture. My admiration for Ivatans grew all the more because of this last visit.
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This entry is part of the Batanes II series dated September 10-14, 2011:
1. Return to Batanes (a prologue)
2. Hiking in Northern Batan
3. Preview: Mt. Iraya
4. The Back-breaking Mt. Iraya Climb
5. Mahatao’s Lighthouses: Setting the Facts Straight
6. Stuck in Batan: New Sites & Sentimental Favorites
7. In search of Batanes’ prehispanic past
8. The 2-lie system of SEAir’s Manila-Basco flights (a warning)
9. Everyone’s kinder in Batanes (even the tourists).