Before my much-awaited, long overdue trip to Batanes, I already had years of backgrounder from the Ivatan himself, Bhing’s Tatay. Over lunches together he helped sew the fibers of my imagination on how life in Sabtang truly is.
And so when the day arrived to leave Manila for Sabtang, I had preconditioned myself to spending 6 days there.
Simple. Stark. Spartan.
But first, what was in my bag that departed Manila?
- a pair of flip-flops
- my lightweight Saucony walking/running shoes
- light sleepwear
- basic tees, shorts
- hat and sports cap
- small toiletries, camera + 2 lenses, tripod, action cam with chest strap, chargers and phones.
- a JACKET?! Yes, even during the summer. The wind was crazy cold up the hills when the weather suddenly changed.
- more importantly – CASH. Sabtang does not have automated teller machines. You transact strictly with cash or gratis (lol).
As we set foot on the island after the fallowa ride with the bags of cement, there was an apparent shift to the maze (like that in The Maze Runner). Men, women and even children at the port politely nodded at us with timid smiles.
And then at a glance, there was an ensemble of a bare, unpainted port and a vast landscape of the lighthouse on a hill, the blue sea, the quaint Ivatan stonehouses with cogon roofs and the off-white to beige, San Vicente Ferrer Church. Things you don’t get in Manila in one sitting.
In an instant what was in front of me seemed to be a microcosm of Sabtang. But there was more to that.
Since my luggage casters (or was it my untoned arms?) were probably not built to last a 5-minute uphill trek to our host’s abode, we hailed an ingeniously remodeled tricycle to take us all to our home. Unlike in most situations in Manila the whole 54-kilo 5-piece luggage plus Tatay’s weight did not require bargaining powers. In Sabtang, the tariff rules. No pluses, no tipping.
We arrived at Tatay’s ancestral stone house hungry. Steamed coconut crab, lobster, rice, fish in hot soup with vegetables were our welcome treat. We dined al fresco fanned by the unpolluted Sabtang breeze. I jumped up and thoroughly washed my hands as I enjoyed the fare, metal-free.
We lodged our stuff in a bedroom. Well, there was only one bedroom. All the rest of the house are the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, the storage room where firewood, onions, flying fish and garlic were kept to dry. The bathroom/toilet is about 10 steps away from the house. And we’ve been warned – water supply is cut at night, electricity is shut off from 12 midnight to 6 AM, there’s no bulb or lamp affixed in the bathroom. Tatay joyfully packed a flashlight to share. We didn’t go looking for a shower because we knew there was just a pail and a dipper to use. No sweat! Plus, Bhing is a dipper fan, hands down :).
If at this juncture this whole thing puts you off, then it is important to know that Sabtang may not be for you. To add, there’s no Internet and phone signals are weak. Well as for me, I got even more pumped up. This is the life that I sought.
We followed our semi-plotted itinerary, but some parts of it were unplanned. Moreover, the daily walking came out with surprises which we eventually got used to – we reciprocated the nodding-and-smiling of the Ivatans with every single encounter.
We got used to the rolling hills, the consistent breathtaking views, the fresh seafood, the organic and naturally sweet root crops, the diligent people, even the hard wooden floor we all slept on.
From appreciating the street life of one barangay after another to watching 80- to 90 year-old lady farmers with their baskets, the turquoise water, the up and down hilly roads, our bodies automatically adjusted to retiring at 9 PM.
The mayor, Max Babalo, seemed omnipresent. We’ve seen him drive a jeepney to tour visitors, patted someone’s shoulders once in a while (including mine), lasted the whole day festival and mingled with the people. In Manila, that’s a rare sight!
For 6 Days, Bhing and I immersed ourselves with the pristine, unsurpassed beauty of the island. We had the privilege not every Ipula (non-Ivatan) could have.
I’ve never felt so full of life. I laughed with the Ivatan kids, greeted the locals as if we’ve known each other, ate naturally grown and caught food, walked under the sun to watch the festivities, sipped unlimited coconut juice from the shell.
On the night before our departure back to Manila, takeaway flying fish, onions, garlic and root crops came parading into our doors. All from the kind hearts of Tatay’s Ivatan kindred to take back home.
For 6 days, we found ourselves not needing the Internet, not reaching for the TV remote, not agog with receiving Whatsapp or Viber messages. We were simply soaked up with the splendor and austerity of the place and culture that is Sabtang.
If you’re looking to see things to do in El Nido, Palawan, you can check out one of my blog posts at the Australian travel site, Gourmet Getaways. Read about Fishing in El Nido here.