Our long-time cook, Ursula, was from Batanes--from the town at the farthest end of Batan island--Uyugan. Twenty years ago she was still working with us when I visited Batanes the first time. I told her we went to Uyugan. She was shocked. "But it's so far away from Basco, how did you get there?!"
By this time, she had been with our family for 35 years and Batanes being quite remote, only went back every few years. She told me the only way to get around was to walk and was surprised when I told her we were able to hire a jeepney for the week we were there.
Then I told her I went to Sabtang, and she flipped.
"Sabtang?!? I never went there in my whole life! You rode the falowa?!" I remember how big her eyes got as she asked this. She told me how the waves were always so huge and only the very brave ventured out to Sabtang in those small round-bottomed boats that could roll and sway with the waves. In 1995, these falowas were only big enough to carry 20 people.
But for the young and the restless like us (then...), Sabtang was the highlight of our week-long Batanes trip because it was so different from anything we had ever seen.
I had to describe it to her in detail: People lived in one-room stone houses, there were roads but no vehicles except for one or two motorcycles that belonged to the mayor. There was electricity only up to 8 hours a day, a few people had refrigerators but they were gas-powered. I then realized that I was just describing her hometown, Uyugan, because even if it was in the main island, it was still considered remote from the capital, Basco.
Being an outlying island, Sabtang was just a little more remote than Uyugan.
Gilbert our "guide"
My friends and I walked from San Vicente port, or Centro, to the first town, Savidug, then from Savidug to Chavayan. In each town we'd spend an hour or so, talking to the locals, resting on any grassy ground we could find before trekking on to the next town.
We set off towards the south, where the first town was, and were hoping to trek around the whole island in two days. After reaching Chavayan, the third town, half of us gave up and walked all the way back to Centro. Here we spent the night in classrooms which had beds set up for visitors like us.
the mayor saves the day with his motorcycle, bringing some of us back to Centro
That trip made quite an impact on us that we didn't stop talking about it for many years after that.
Here we are now in Sabtang, almost twenty years later. The roads are asphalted and there are vehicles bringing groups around.
There are places that are now easily reachable by vehicle, like this beach which lies to the north of Centro. This was our first stop before heading the opposite direction towards the towns.
On our old trekking route, this would've been the last stop for those who circled the island.
The old homes in Savidug don't look inhabited anymore, but I can't really tell. There was very little activity in the streets and there were a some newer hollow-block houses among the old stone homes.
Many parts are cleaned up and seemed maintained for the tourists-- like this house below where we could go in and take pictures.
From Savidug to Chavayan is a scenic stop called Tinyan View which faces the Pacific Ocean.
There are a couple of huts where you could rent (for 20 pesos) the grass headgear for photo ops. if you buy something from the store, like coconut for P25, or a hard boiled egg for P10, they'll lend you the vakul for free.
On the hut to the left is a woman selling tea that she has dried herself. It tastes just like African rooibos tea. She says it's popular with the foreigners.
With good roads and a vehicle, it took only a few minutes to get from Centro to Savidug to Chavayan, even stopping by Tinyan view.
Before, it took us almost a day of walking...and walking...and walking...
There were more people around the town then. Today, I couldn't tell if people still really lived in those stone houses. G was wondering if we were being rude walking through the town peering into houses.
In Chavayan we bumped into mayor Max of Sabtang and we all chatted for a few minutes. He mentioned that the challenge of local goverment officials today is to find ways to preserve the heritage of Batanes. Now that the province has become more accessible, there are big real estate companies who've been eyeing vast tracts of land for resort developments.
With the influx of more tourists and possibly more luxurious developments, I just hope Batanes will be able to retain its unique character.
We headed back towards the pier and stopped at a beach for lunch. Apparently when you hire a guide to take you around Batanes, it will include a couple of lunches and dinner in a few restaurants. The dishes were pre-chosen for us and it took a while to figure out that we could order other things if we told them ahead.
We saw other tables having lobster while we had fish and pork. We were able to order their last four lobsters for P600.
Sabtang lobster is very good, but not as sweet as Coron spiny lobster, which I think is the best lobster I've had so far. But this is a far cry from the flying fish we had everyday long ago. The food is still simple but there is more variety now.
Soon it was time to catch the last boat back to Basco. These big falowas nowadays hold 60 to 80 people and each passenger is supplied with a life-jacket.
Twenty years ago there were only small falowas and no life vests.
When Ursula retired and finally went home to Batanes, she also just stayed in Uyugan--where she eventually passed away. I can just hear her now, "Susmaryosep!?! You brought the kids to Sabtang?! Is that even safe?!"
Yes it is. And I'm sure up there, she is happy that I brought B and the kids to see her beautiful province, including the 'unreachable" Sabtang. If she only knew that hardcore travelers are even going farther up north to Itbayat ...