The Philippines: Tales from a distant shore
The smallest of the Philippines' provinces is a place of dramatic coasts and stormy seas. Carl Thompson lands in Batanes
Saturday 05 July 2008
A familiar scene of velvety highlands and soft moor unfolds as the plane approaches the far north of this island nation, entering a proudly independent province where a resilient people guard their distinctive language, dress and culture. But I'm not touching down in Scotland, as the thousand-metre volcano at the end of the crumbling runway confirms: this is Batanes, the Philippines' last frontier.
The contrast with Manila, just 70 minutes of flying time behind me, could hardly be greater. The smog of the capital is swept away on a warm, salty breeze and the honking highways give way to the whirr of bicycles, the cluck of chickens and the constant rumble of the all-embracing ocean. Adjusting to this languid new reality takes a matter of minutes, as does familiarising myself with Basco, the main town on Batan, foremost island in the 11-strong Batanes group. The hospital, school, town hall and police station parade smartly down the main street to the coastguard station; connecting at right angles is the "commercial" street, comprising a pair of dusty grocery stores, a jeweller's operating out of a tin shed, an umbrella repair shop and a nondescript shuttered business bearing a closed sign. And that's it – everything else has to arrive on the monthly cargo boat from Manila. I won't be needing my credit card for a while.
Wandering up a side street to the shyly curious looks of locals, I'm surprised to find an internet café installed in an old trailer. Although the connection is erratic , this represents the most exciting revolution in Batanes since cable television was plugged in five years ago. Anyone over 30 remembers the days when the telegraph station was the sole link to the outside; now mobile phones are commonplace.
Maybe it's down to the cheerful weather, but most people are grinning from ear to ear. The sea is calm, and neatly uniformed children turning out of school hurry down to the port to help their fisherman fathers with the day's haul; others make for the basketball court, the social hub for teenagers. As the light fades, smoke from roadside barbecue stalls drifts around the alleys, and another day of simple living is done. By 9pm the entire town is asleep, and I'm left alone under the incredible night sky. With no street lighting or illuminated shop fronts to diminish the purply blackness, Orion beams down in glittering detail. Rooted to the spot, I begin making plans for my retirement villa.
The next day is a washout. My plastic mac flaps around my legs, and I end up taking my umbrella to the repair shop. The retirement villa is mentally downgraded to a holiday cottage. With little incentive to venture out, I turn to the radio. There are several Chinese voices, but the island's only channel is what local radio is all about. One woman appeals for her lost kitten; another tells her husband to get home quick.
These domestic dramas are interpreted for me by Eduardo, head of a body dedicated to preserving the culture of the indigenous Ivatan people. Batanes, he tells me, could have been a British colony. "There was an English explorer and buccaneer called William Dampier who landed here in the late 17th century, but he found the climate and the people hostile, and didn't hang around." The business of colonisation fell instead to the Spanish conquistadors, from whom the Ivatan are descended.
The next day is bright and blustery: perfect for a motorbike ride. The first man I ask hands over the keys to his Honda Dream for a small fee, and I head out of Basco on the single 33km track that circles the island. Thanks to the negligible number of vehicles on the National Road, I'm soon exposed to the full charm of Batanes. There may be a more dreamlike coastline somewhere, but I've yet to see it. Every twist in the road reveals another vista of surreal beauty. Time and again I'm brought to a halt by the brilliance of light green waves foaming over serrated volcanic outcrops.
Eventually I come to Ivana village and meet 81-year-old Lola, sole inhabitant of the oldest Ivatan house in existence since 1936. "Life here is a contest with nature," she tells me. If so, it's one the islanders are winning: there has never been a weather-related fatality, even in Songsong village, abandoned after being hit by typhoons and tidal waves in 1953. Her thick-walled cottage needs a new thatched roof, she tells me with imploring eyes. "They could do the job in a day, and it would see me through another 30 years, but I don't have the money." I hand over a few pesos and she thanks me with a heartfelt "dios mamajes".
I'm soon making another voluntary donation at the Honesty Cafe. Visitors to this tiny establishment can make a coffee and help themselves to a snack on trust of depositing the right money in a box.
Thus fortified, I turn on to a cattle path and slither between meadows of cogon grass into a landscape of hedges that demarcate fields of root vegetables. Soon I'm high enough to drink in the churning sea whichever way I look: the Pacific to the east and the South China Sea to the west.
The point at which these two bodies of water meet is the choppy channel that separates Batan from its two inhabited neighbours. Navigating it is not easy: one luckless fisherman was recently swept to Taiwan in a rowing boat. I can't find anyone willing to attempt the 45km crossing to the forbidding mesa of Itbayat, so I join a tour group heading for Sabtang, 45 minutes away by motorboat.
If Batan has little time for 21st-century trappings, Sabtang stands altogether outside of time. Heavy stone cottages cluster around Spanish-era churches to form barrios in the shelter of rugged valleys; several women wear the vakul, a kind of waist-length protective wig made from palm fibres, while men wear a similar waistcoat-style garment called a kanayi.
Standing on a limestone clifftop gazing down at yet another perfect stretch of coastline, I wonder at how many of these bays would be submerged by five-star development elsewhere. Despite the weekly influx of wealthy Manileños, stunning beaches strewn with sky-blue chunks of coral teem only with hermit crabs; restaurants and cafés are also absent, instead there are excellent seafood buffets at the few basic hotels. Looking more closely, I notice tiny 10-year-olds herding muscular water buffalo up steep hillsides, prior to starting their own treks to school across the same hills. These idyllic surroundings come at a price.
On my final night back on Batan the locals let their hair down. The Port karaoke bar was recently relocated owing to noise complaints – noise to which I contribute, with a woeful rendering of "If you leave me now" by Chicago.
It's only 8pm but everyone, from the 15-year-olds with bottles of Red Horse, to their schoolteacher, is quite drunk. The yellow beam from the lighthouse skids across the windows as the fairy lights flicker around the bar. Plates of coconut crab and yam salad appear, and promises of enduring friendship are made.
There are no direct flights between the UK and the Philippines. Airlines such as Emirates (0844 800 2777; www.emirates.com), Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; www.cathaypacific.com), Qatar (0870 770 4215; www.qatarairways.com) and Gulf Air (0870 777 1717; www.gulfairco.com) fly to Manila via their hub cities.
Asian Spirit (00 63 2855 3333; www.asianspirit.com) flies from Manila to Basco three times weekly; returns start at around 3,000 pesos (£35).
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
Pension Ivatan, Basco (00 63 920 281 1278; pensionivatan.com) is near the airport and has the best food. Doubles start at 1,100 pesos (£13), including breakfast.
Batanes Resort, 2km south of Basco (00 63 927 582 9078). Offers unbeatable sea views from the recently renovated duplex cabins, which start at 1,100 pesos (£13), including breakfast.
Philippines Department of Tourism: 020-7835 1100; www.wowphilippines.co.uk
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