Monday, February 2, 2009

Itbayat 1: It's the Journey AND the Destination.

Before I move on to describe my other journeys around the Batanes islands, I’d like to backtrack a bit and give you an idea about Itbayat.

I’ve read somewhere, written by some egotistical Filipino adventure-hound, that there are only two types of Pinoy travelers: those who have been to Batanes and those who haven’t. While I contend that this is just one of the countless ways of classifying this breed (for example, those who have been to Boracay and those who haven’t, where I, in a mix of pride and embarrassment, belong to the latter class), let us just agree with this for now, for the purposes of this blog entry. Since I’m one of the luckier ones who have already walked on Ivatan soil, I’ll further bloat my head by claiming that there are only two types of Batanes travelers: those who have been to Itbayat and those who haven’t.

I’m also fortunate enough to be among the latter. While I’d like to claim that going to Itbayat needs sheer guts, a very strong sense of adventure and a little bit of recklessness, I’ll be humble enough to admit that the only vital resource an Itbayat traveler must have is time. Most people can go to Itbayat. As a matter of fact, I think anyone can. Fear of the alone can be easily remedied by good, reliable company. The seasickness can be averted by a strong sedative, and those who can’t endure the ocean can avail of the 8-seater planes (currently not in service now since they are converting the runway into concrete. Yes, the runway used to be a dirtroad along the hills of Raele). Time, however, is an absolute necessity. Some travelers get stranded for weeks during bad weather. If you want to conquer Itbayat, assume to be stranded, unless proven otherwise.

I was one of those unwise enough to believe that the winds would look on me with favor and behave. I brought my daypack with a couple of clothes, a jacket, a bottle of water, and several hard-boiled eggs to equip me for a trip to southern Sabtang, 40-minutes away. The weather was perfect then. I had planned to stay overnight in Sabtang for a day or two. However, when I got to the Port of Basco, I was told that boats for Sabtang dock in San Vicente Pier in Ivana town, 30-minutes away by jeep. I found a tataya almost ready to sail so I asked one of the crew, “Saan po ‘to papunta?". He told me “Papuntang Itbayat po ito” "Di po ba mahirap ang byahe dun?" "Ma'am eto na po ang pinakamagandang panahon na pumunta. Wala po masyadong hangin." So I figured, “Oh well... My stupidity brought me here, I might as well make the most out of it." I got on the tataya, received she-must-be-crazy looks from the crew, and the rest was history.

The tataya to Itbayat. The boat is a motor-driven, outriggerless, shallow-hulled, open decked boat that would navigate the 25 miles to the northernmost inhabited island of the Philippines. The Lonely Planet describes the trip as “four hours of sheer hell, packed in with livestock and often seasick people”. It turned out to be the greatest sea trip of my life, so far.

The tataya bound for Basco, the same that took me to Itbayat five days before. They have everything you can imagine on board: pigs, chickens, lumber, empty gin bottles (the province of Batanes contributes P40M to San Miguel in gin alone, with Itbayat being the chief consumer!). The sea was tougher on the way back, but they say it’s the normal ride. Being jumpy when it comes to water since I was a child, this trip cured me of my hydrophobia. Though even if I appear scared and stupid, I still wear my life vest all throughout the trip while the everyone else is dozing it off.

They say Itbayat is a coral reef island that rose out of the ocean millions of years ago, one of the biggest in the world. It has a jagged shoreline and not a single beach or a cubit of sand could be found. It is a continuous massive wall of cliffs riddled with caves, underground rivers, most likely still unexplored until now. These cliffs form a rim, and along with the hills, they serve as a fortress to the town that lies in its basin.

Because of the beach-less terrain, the ports were constructed this way. When the boats dock, you have to follow the crew’s instructions on when you will jump off the boat and towards the port. Since huge waves continue whacking against the boat, your jump has to be perfectly timed or you’ll get sandwiched between the boat and the concrete slabs of the port.

You then start your long climb up. If the winds are strong, you may need to crouch or it feels as if they can blow you away. They say that this concrete port is a recent innovation. They used to clamber up these rocks to get to the plain on top. You may ask, “What happens to the cargo?” How they get the cargo up is a very fascinating innovation that I have resolved to describe in detail in the next entry.

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