What’s your plan for today, sir, my host, Rowena asked me. Just walk or bike around town siguro, I said. OK, I have a spare bike there in the garage, you can use it.
Without hint of where exactly the town center was, I pedaled my way to the north and hoped to locate a plaza or a church, knowing I would most likely find both next to each other. The Basco morning sky was overcast. Steve Harvey’s voice was blasting from the television set of a house I passed by. Nearing the town center, I caught a glimpse of a lighthouse perched on top of a hill. I followed the road until I noticed the lighthouse was coming closer and closer. I went past the capitol building, a Rizal monument park, a state high school and college campus and the Basco cathedral. When it became too difficult for my chicken legs to bike uphill, I walked the bike all the way up.
Basco Lighthouse, Naidi Hills
Not long after, I reached the top of Naidi Hills. There were only a handful visitors. I parked my bike beside the building on the right, the old American telegraph building and the house in Sakaling Hindi Makarating, walls painted white and wooden windows and door a mix of blue and teal. There was a broken fence on the left that opens up to a most marvelous scene: the proverbial Batanes vista of undulating green hills and grazing cows. The sky was still gray and the wind kept howling.
The next morning at dawn, I opened the door to a mildly windy and cold garden of the homestay, a stone villa modeled after the traditional Ivatan stone house. The ground was not too wet so it must not have rained in the last 4 hours. I walked past the garden on to the common dining area, a hut with a cogon roof and a long table surrounded by plastic stools. I refilled my water bottle and drank most of it. I checked the surroundings of the main house area to observe any trace of anyone already awake. Nothing. I saw the bike I used yesterday. I walked back to the garden and soaked in the tranquil breaking of dawn. The grey sky was getting ripped apart by light, revealing patches of blue. You can only hear the chorus of the loud rustling of the leaves in the trees that hover above the stone villas.
I thought about the Ivatan people and how for one day I saw their gentle and kind ways. The man at the municipal office offered me a chair to sit when I sought for shelter when it rained. He came back later with an umbrella when I asked for the location of the post office. My host helped me look for food in the middle of the stormy night. The shopkeeper at the water refilling station refilled my small bottle for free. Everyone I came across with in the narrow streets of town had either a smile or a nod that acknowledged my presence.
Lito, a tour driver and my host’s brother, picked me up that morning to take me around northern Batan. We started from the southernmost part in Tukon where the charming Mount Carmel chapel and artsy Fundacion Pacita hotel are located. Lito’s trike then revved up and down the waving hills that pass by Boulder Beach all the way to the north to Vayang Hills.
The rolling hills of Vayang looked like it was a lush carpet flown in by the Pacific winds and landed to rest and give honor at the foot of Mount Iraya, a dormant volcano and the tallest summit in the island, also the town’s source of water. On a clear day, one can see both Sabtang and Itbayat islands, the other two inhabited islands of the Batanes archipelago. On an even clearer day, Lito said, kita din daw ang Taiwan mula sa Itbayat.
Lito is a tall man, likely in his late 20s, married with two kids, with a dark brown skin owing to his work as a tour driver. He spoke slowly and spoke English with a good diction, enunciating his v’s and f’s correctly. He likes taking guests around the island, he confessed, much better than his previous work. He used to work as a security guard for a government office. He didn’t have much rest days then, he said, even on important occasions like Christmas. His wife, who manages a sari-sari store asked him to be around often, more firmly expressed, he stressed, when the second child arrived. One day, he hopes to complete a TESDA certification to qualify as a legitimate tour guide, like some of his friends.
School kids sharing a laugh at Tukon Chapel
Many Ivatans now enjoy the improvement in their lives when tourism picked up in one of the most isolated islands in the country. There are many construction projects around town, Lito said. Business is good. He shared his hope and what he exactly thinks the local government is already doing: making sure only the Ivatans benefit from all of it. He remembered that a piece of land was already bought by San Miguel Corporation from a local farmer and was supposed to be a location for a 300-room hotel. When the authorities learned about it, the sale was canceled.
House balcony and potted garden, Basco town
One early afternoon, I walked to the town oval and settled under the shade of a big tree to write notes. The view of the lighthouse on the Naidi Hills greeted me with a smile in the way hills and lighthouses smile. At the basketball court across the field, there was a group of people in athletic clothing learning Javelin throws. On the other end of the field, another group, an older lot, was jogging and chanting at the same time.
Save from the occasional fits of laughter from school kids and the hushed sound of a karaoke blasting from a distance, the town further slowed into a mood of afternoon siesta.