Is This Heaven? No, This Is Batanes

MANILA, Philippines - If the Ivatans of Batanes could have their way, they would like to freeze their beloved hometown in time, in exactly the way it is now - one where townsfolk smile even at strangers; where young people respectfully call their elders "auntie" or "uncle"; where locals gladly share their catch of the day without expecting remuneration or anything in return; where the crime rate is zero and the locks of the town jail are really rusty simply because the prison is unused.

If the 16,000 peace-loving Ivatans could have their way, they would leave their province the way it has always been - with landscapes and seascapes so breathtaking and beautiful that it hurts; with a simplicity that makes this province, largely untouched by commercialism and technology, even more magnificent; where the locals' simple measure of happiness is eating three times a day.

Former Batanes governor Telesforo Castillejos had his way and did everything in his power to keep his province the paradise that he had always known it to be, both environmentally and socio-culturally.

First, he worked for the entire province to be declared as a Protected Area. In 2003, it was declared by Congress as the Batanes Protected Landscapes and Seascapes, making Batanes the only province in the Philippines that was declared in its entirety as a protected area. Its continuous spectrum of habitat types from the mountains to the sea, the presence of rare and endangered flora and fauna, its role as a flyway of migratory birds, and its rich cultural and social heritage merited this unique distinction.

Second, Castillejos led in asking the Department of Education to indigenize the basic education curriculum in 2008.

"Through this way, young Ivatans will be able to learn about their roots and their culture. They will be able to understand themselves more," Castillejos said.

The indigenize curriculum includes teaching children in elementary and high school time-honored Ivatan art forms like laji (oral poetry) and traditional Ivatan house making.

"For instance, in elementary, children are taught how materials like the quarried limestones for the houses are collected. In high school, they are taught about the importance of symmetry in building the homes. In college, they are already asked to participate in actual house building. This way, the traditions are incorporated in practical living and the children are able to appreciate it more," Castillejos added.

But the four-term governor knows he can do more as he acknowledged that they are at a crossroads of a very strong challenge. "To preserve or to adopt a new culture, that is the question. The culture we have is typical but we have been able to preserve it and that is the advantage of being isolated," he said.

TIMELESS AND PURE

Castillejos has found an ally and a believer in his son-in-law, dentist Joel Mendoza, who at first did not even know where Batanes was when he set out to ask the hand of his now wife Rosan in marriage.

"I thought Batanes could be accessed via a boat from Pagudpud. That was how naïve I was. I just heard that it was always hit by typhoons. But when I first set foot in Batanes, I could hardly believe a place like it exists in the Philippines. And after interacting with the people, I just got blown away. Their honesty, simplicity, kindness and the whole of their culture is so different in a good way," Mendoza said.

The Province of Batanes is the northern frontier of the Philippines and is between Taiwan and the tip of the Luzon mainland. It is the smallest province in the country, with a land mass only one third of that of Metro Manila and vast territorial waters. It is bound by the Pacific Ocean in the east and the West Philippine Sea in the west and is composed of 11 islands, with three of these inhabited, namely Batan, the main island, Itbayat, the largest, and Sabtang.

Going around Batanes, we were treated to its rugged terrain, highlighted by steep hills, the green mountains and some flat lands. The farms can be seen thriving on hillsides, which all the more add to the beauty of the landscape. The thousands of species of plants and animals are endemic to the island, making the province an important bio-diversity conservation site.

With a place as diverse and interesting as Batanes, it is no surprise that Mendoza fell in love with the land of his wife's birth. He thus put up the Batanes Cultural Travel Agency (BCTA) as a social business that advocates the promotion and the preservation of the Ivatan culture. BCTA is the first and probably the only travel agency in the country focused on Batanes alone.

"But we realize that the great tourism potential of the province means nothing if it is inaccessible to the public mainly because of the lack of transportation. We have been in the travel industry since 2007 primarily promoting Batanes as a tourist destination. Back then, only Asian Spirit flew to Basco with irregular flights. I personally sought major airlines to consider flying to Basco but they have turned down our request for various reasons," he said.

The proactive entrepreneur that he is, Mendoza established SkyJet Airlines to serve the Manila-Basco-Manila route. SkyJet uses a 94-seater BAe 146-200 jet from British plane manufacturer BAe Systems, a size three times bigger than the airline that usually serves the same route.

"It is hard to sustain tourist influx when you are faced with problems such as high cost of airfares and unreliable flight schedules. To most airlines, Batanes is a "missionary" route. And it truly is, because the population alone cannot sustain the business. So we had to think of a win-win solution. Setting up Sky Jet ensures that we could continue with our advocacy of helping Batanes," he said.

Mendoza explained that because Basco has a short runway, only small planes can land. Likewise, Basco's runway has a four degree slope that requires special technical skills in landing. This factor and the strong winds in Batanes always caused problems to smaller aircrafts. Moreover, high cost of fuel brought a steep increase in airfares. From about P5,000 in 2006, all-in one way fare to Basco now costs between P7,500 - P8,500.

THE ONLY VIABLE WAY TO DISCOVER BATANES

With accessibility problem almost solved by Skyjet Airlines, Castillejos, Mendoza, and the BCTA are rolling up their sleeves to bring in visitors and experience eco-cultural tourism, the Batanes way.

"We want to present Batanes the way it is. Other places are wishing to change but we here want to maintain the structures and the living culture of the people. We wish to promote the preservation and the enhacement of the Batanes and Ivatan cultures," Castillejos said.

For one, they discourage the construction of hotels and resorts on the island, and encourage visitors to try the homestay program where tourists may stay in stone homes, with Ivatan families, and immerse themselves in the culture.

For another, since the whole province is a protected area, destructive tourists have no place on the island. They cannot just frolick on the beach, or bring home endemic plants like the arius tree without securing permit from the Department of Environment.

At the rate they are going, BCTA is fast gaining ground. More and more people are joining in their push and pull efforts to promote and preserve Batanes. Many young Ivatans, who studied in Manila for college, opt to return to Batanes and help promote the province. Ivatan families are also slowly opening up, both in terms of their attitude towards tourists and their own homes.

"If people want good beaches, that is not Batanes, that is Boracay. If they want good forests, that is Palawan or Davao. What we have here is what we all Filipinos had before things were changed by progress. We are very serious about cultural preservation and we hope people will appreciate our efforts. The beauty of Batanes will speak for itself," Castillejos stated.

(For details about Batanes and Skyjet schedules, visit batanestravel.com)

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