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Batanes Another World

For Batanes - for those three numinous syllables that conjure the distant, the forbidding, the beautiful - one tempts fate.

The Batanes Archipelago lies on the northernmost tip of the Philippines, on a vast expanse of surging waters where the Pacific Ocean meets the China Sea. It is only 525 miles from Manila, but it may as well be another world.

From the air, as the Fokker 50 glides down the landing strip at the foot of Mount Iraya, the land serves up a breathtaking welcome. Pastoral hills rolling down savage seas. Sea birds riding the waves. Puffs of foliage of the deepest green. The wind's way on tall grasses. Low clouds now held in their place by a rainbow with its fragile promise of fine weather. Villages of stone huddled on tractable shores. The morning sun swaddling the land with golden light. An island inchoate, still warm, it seems, with the force of creation.

Always, the sea. It rams against limestone rocks, crashes onto shores and, in Valugan, laps on an incredible beach overlaid with smooth stones. It never rests. On fine days it froths. Roiling, it can send waves thirty feet to the crest, haul ashore from the seafloor rocks as big as houses, or bury an entire village under sand. Most Batanes families have lost a member to the sea.

Always, the hills. Up in what folks call Marlboro Country one half expects a tattooed cowboy or Julie Andrews singing a paean to nature to materialize among the cattle grazing by.

Batanes is the Philippines' smallest province both in terms of area (21,099 hectares) and population (14,663). It is made up of three islands and seven islets including Y'ami, where, on a clear day, the folk say, one can see Taiwan.

Batan, the largest island, contains the capital town Basco. One can circle it in two hours by car. In Sabtang island hillside homes hang above the sea, allowing the folk to fish from their window. Strong current prevent boats from ferrying commuters regularly to Itbayat island. Also, there is a technique to getting on or off shore. There are no piers or beaches. The island is reined in by towering cliffs that drop sharply into the sea. To go ashore, one waits for a strong wave to thrust the boat up to ground level then jump off. One goes through the same acrobatic feat to climb aboard.

The Ivatan, the people of Batanes, have inherited the land's insular character; Unlike most Filipinos who emerged from an eclectic gene pool through intermarriages, the Ivatan are of purer stock. They uniformly bear the features of their ancestors: the Malay's brown skin, the Chinese almond eyes, the Spaniard's aquiline nose.

The anin, or typhoon, is the central fact of Ivatan life. That Batanes is constantly battered by typhoons is a myth; when a typhoon does come, it lashes with a velocity that can break the barometer.

Every Ivatan has a favorite typhoon story. In 1921, the cathedral was unroofed and the wireless tower twisted. In 1905, strong winds suffocated cattle to death. In 1918, a fishing boat was swept away to Annam; five years ago, a fisherman was set adrift to Taiwan. In 1952, someone determined to recover his GI roof chased after it; he got it back at the town plaza, rolled into a ball, driven about like tumbleweed. In 1987, a Philippine Navy landing ship tank ran aground in Basco and a school building was blown away in Mahatao. The governor tells of that stormy night long ago, with the family gathered in the living room waiting for the typhoon to pass. The roof gave way, disgorging in their midst a cow. Next day, there was a feast.

In defiance of nature, the Ivatan have built fortress like homes. The typical Avatar house is made of limestone quarried from the hills and roofed with grass. Walls and roof are a meter thick; windows and doors small and narrow. During a typhoon, rope nets secure homes.

The kitchen, a separate structure, is the most important part of the house. Built around a great stove, it is very like a campfire - warm, safe, a source of communal well-being. When the aruyo trees grow unusually long, tender leaves, the Ivatan are sure a typhoon will hit them in a few days; it is time to fill the kitchen with provisions. Come the typhoon, the entire family lives there.

Life is fundamental. The Ivatan live without television, moviehouses, shopping malls or restaurants. If the frippery of the twentieth century has passed them by so have its ills. Nobody locks his door. No one is too rich or too poor. Every one is a farmer or a fisherman. Besides a spartan life, the Ivatan are bound together by religion. In their uncertain universe God is the only certainty.

Many Ivatan, especially the young, have moved to more hospitable shores but they return on occasions, as did Juliet Ponce, now a Manilan, who came home to wed. Many stay by choice. The governor's wife, an outsider, fell in love with Batanes at first sight and made it her home. Allowed a second life, Gregorio Delatado, 88, will live it again in Batanes, the best place he knows.

Batanes is not for tourists out to shoot Kodakchrome views. It is rather for those still blessed with a sense of wonder, for whom uncharted roads lead to discovery. There are plans to urbanize Batanes. The young are agog: the old dread change. In the old days, the Ivatan believed that when they die they become stars. On cloudless nights, the Ivatan's dark world is lit by hundreds of brilliant stars. Up there is balm to pain of change. Up there is a cairn to folk memory.

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