Penman for Monday, June 10, 2013
LAST WEEK, I realized another lifelong dream. Nearing 60, I’ve had the privilege of traipsing all over the planet, but I’d never been to Batanes, the northern spearpoint of our vast archipelago. The occasion was a seminar held by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, specifically its Literary Arts committee, for the province’s teachers and writers on the development of local and regional literature. Truth to tell, we went there less to teach than to learn, so remote and strange was Batanes to me and my fellow committee members, who had come from as far down south as Zamboanga.
I can’t pretend to have discovered everything good and bad about Batanes in the few days we spent there, but we saw and heard enough to make us want to both rejoice and, occasionally, shake our heads in anger and sadness.
Happily there’s much, much more to celebrate about Batanes than to mourn. “Breathtaking” is almost an understatement for this cluster of islands. If there was such a thing as “panoramania,” or landscape overload, Batanes would be the cause of it, with seemingly endless and unfailingly spectacular views coming one after the other, just around the bend. The greenery covering the undulating hills is marked by a latticework of hedgerows, which act both as property boundary markers and as windbreakers. Despite the many first-class concrete roads beribboning the islands, Batanes is still clearly 4X4 country, better suited for cattle and goats than people, and no Batanes landscape would be complete without a cow or two in the picture, grazing placidly away even on the steepest of hillsides. Nearly everything on the main island of Batan happens in the shadow of the cloud-capped, 1,009-meter Mt. Iraya, although it should be fairly easy to find an undisturbed corner in one of the many coves around the island.
With a near-nonexistent crime rate, Batanes is one of those places where residents still keep their doors unlocked, where you can walk the highway at night without fear of being waylaid, and where—on my early morning strolls in the capital of Basco—I was greeted more than once with a beaming “Good morning!”
The “Basco Hymn”, with words and music penned by the mayor himself, Demy Marag, captures this lightheartedness well: “Hampas ng alon mo ay musika sa pandinig ko / Luntiang bundok mo, ginhawa’y dulot nito / Ihip ng hangin mo, haplos sa katawang hapo / Ngiting nasasalubong, ligayang totoo.”
You can find those words on one of the most useful and inexpensive PR giveaways I’ve come across, handed to us by Mayor Demy’s staff: a cardboard fan shaped like a kavaya, the leaf of the breadfruit tree, which the local people use as plates and food wrappers. Practical to begin with because of the withering heat, the fan was also very informative, in that it contained interesting facts about Basco—among them, that the population of the entire province is just somewhere above 16,000, half of whom live in Basco. The fan also highlighted Basco’s and Batan Island’s major tourist attractions.
Only in his mid-thirties, the poetically gifted Demy Marag is a Broadcast Communication graduate from UP; after graduation in 1998, he worked in the industry and with an NGO for a few years before eventually answering the calling that lodged his grandfather in the governor’s office decades earlier. A big sign just outside the municipal hall posts the mayor’s cell phone number and those of other key municipal offices; you can call them anytime. Now on his last term, Demy says that his biggest headache in Basco is zoning, with new buildings cropping up all over town, likely in response to the surge in tourism and commerce.
There are, of course, many other problems a remote province like Batanes has to contend with. Over a light merienda at the impossibly picturesque (had enough of these superlatives yet?) Fundacion Pacita, Basco’s energetic vice mayor, Ann Viola, explained how the typical Batanes resident, though not wealthy, was basically self-sufficient, producing enough for oneself and one’s family through fishing and farming. (You can appreciate this wiry self-containment in the fact that you’d be hard put to find an obese or even chubby Ivatan, and they don’t look emaciated, either.) Since transport costs are prohibitively high, producing goods for export poses a huge problem.
Indeed, there’s literally a price to pay for all that glorious isolation: a liter of gas costs P70—which was cheap, said our guide, considering that it had shot up to P150 at some point a year ago. Bewilderingly, there are hardly any fresh fruits to be found in Basco—no bananas, pineapples, star apples, or jackfruit—and the only fruit that kept turning up on the dessert tray was the obviously imported apple, very likely from nearby Taiwan, which is closer to Batanes than much of the rest of the Philippines.
Tourism should be the province’s logical economic booster, and good, affordable bed-and-breakfast places like the Amboy Hometel, where we stayed, can be found. (For those with more elastic budgets, the Fundacion Pacita is a matchless choice.) Tours by van are readily available, taking you to the best spots—the Vayang rolling hills, the boulder-strewn Valugan beach, and the lighthouse on Naidi Hill, among many others. A day trip to nearby Sabtang Island, just half-an-hour away by ferry, is also well worth it, particularly for the stone houses of Savidug.
It’s getting there that’s the big hurdle for most people. PAL Express and SkyJet fly three times a week from Manila to Basco, and a local airline called NorthSky makes a hop to Cagayan, but flights are sometimes canceled for lack of passengers. Only cargo vessels now dock in the harbor. As a regular one-way plane ticket to Manila costs about P9,000, a Basco native could spend his or her whole life without ever stepping on Luzon. “If you have a medical emergency and can’t be treated here, or airlifted to Manila, you’ll die,” said the vice mayor.
Another problem is the pernicious presence of poachers from Taiwan, who come down to the islands to steal the pretty arius tree, which they use for bonsai, and also fish the waters using state-of-the-art detectors—intrusions against which the local fishermen and Coast Guard are no match. It’s too bad that these criminal acts should spoil the relationship between Batanes and Taiwan, whose people—linguistically, for one—have much in common.
That remoteness and expensiveness, however, has its pluses for the locals. “It keeps the riff-raff away,” said a resident. “If it were that cheap to come to Batanes, we’d have drug dealers coming here before you know it.”
My message for the teachers and writers of Batanes was the same one I gave at the closing ceremonies of the recent Iligan National Writers Workshop. I was, I told them, an island boy, and proudly so—I was delivered by a midwife a short walk from the water’s edge in an island in Romblon, in a house with a straw roof and a bamboo-slat floor—and we Filipinos, come to think of it, all live on islands, some of them just bigger than others. But the challenge to our writers and teachers is to help us become more than a collection of islands. Our writers have to find and emphasize what we share in common as a people, even as we celebrate the things that make us unique. By building a bridge of words, Batanes can come much closer to the rest of the country.
I’d like to thank our guides—Chriz Annmarie Bayaras and Juliet Gulaga of the Batanes Heritage Foundation, Inc.—for a most productive week.
SPEAKING OF Iligan, MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology is capably led by Chancellor Sukarno Tanggol, a public-administration expert and another UP graduate who chose to return to his roots in Mindanao after serving as Ambassador to Kuwait to help raise the quality of education there. Dr. Tanggol recalled, jokingly, how he had lost all his poems and therefore his literary ambitions when his laptop got stolen years ago, but he’s making up for that by pledging his strong support for cultural programs in MSU-IIT, most notably the writers’ workshop and the institute’s resident performing company, IPAG.
The wonderful thing about attending a region-based workshop like Iligan’s is being able to listen to commentary and criticism in a flurry of languages—Filipino, English, Cebuano, Hiligaynon, and even more obscure ones like Higaunon (spoken in parts of Bukidnon)—and somehow, with some effort and patience—to make sense of it all. This is the nation in progress, the nation at work, rightly de-centered from Manila, celebrating the vibrancy and vitality of literary talent beyond the metropolitan mainstream.
A fantastic discovery in Iligan was the talent of a young Higaunon poet named Shem Linohon from Central Mindanao University. Though perfectly fluent in English, Shem has chosen to write in Higaunon, to help preserve his people’s language and experience. At one point, Shem broke down in tears as he recalled the depredations his people have had to go through at the hands of oppressors and landgrabbers; but more than anger, Shem has the skill with which to fight back, and we can only wish him and his people well. Another happy find was Carmie Flor Ortego of Leyte Normal University, who can write about a Homeric character like Penelope in Catbalogan. Bright and earnest, young writers like Shem and Carmie make me proud and happy to be a teacher of writing.