I was greeted at the local provincial airport by the woman who had organized my stay in Batanes. She was a middle aged Filipino woman with a hearty laugh and an infectious smile.
“That means welcome to Batanes,” she said, joyfully, as she moved my bags into her SUV.
A few weeks prior I’d found myself at the wrong end of a bad breakup. I needed to get out of Manila again. But this time I needed to really get away. As in go completely off grid.
Batanes, the northern most group of islands of the Philippines, is just such a place. The essentially untouched islands offered up nearly complete isolation from the outside world. It was hailed by the locals as the premiere vacation destination. A famous telenovela had an entire wedding plotline based on the islands. That right there had me sold, truly.
My tour organizer took me to a café she ran alongside her tour business.
“Are you hungry? You look skinny. You should eat. I’ll make you some corned beef!”
I wasn’t exactly starving, but I’ll never pass up some good Filipino style corned beef. The hospitality of the island was already proving to be a step ahead.
The island didn’t have much by way of civilization. What few towns there were had little more than a couple homes and perhaps a shop or restaurant. The rest of the island had either been converted to farmland or just left untouched. This offered me a chance to see true tropical beauty at its most rugged and most beautiful. Scenes I’d only ever heard stories of prior.
My trip organizer had passed me off to her 20-year-old neighbor. He’d recently bought himself a bike with a sidecar in hopes to make some extra money touring people like me around the island.
“What brings you here, sir?” he asked at one of our stops.
“I just needed to get out of Manila for a while. Have you been?”
“No, sir. I always live here.”
“You know, you don’t have to call me sir. We’re basically the same age.”
On the second day of my trip, I found myself in my new friend’s sidecar at 5am. We were bustling down a seaside road on our way to the harbor going to Sabtang Island.
Sabtang Island is an even more remote island that sits a couple miles off shore of the main island. If the main island was considered untouched, then Sabtang would’ve been considered truly virgin territory.
There were only two safe time windows you could make the journey across the sea to this even more remote, even more uninhabited island. Too late in the morning, and the sea is too choppy, boats are likely to capsize. Too late in the evening, you can’t make the journey back to the mainland for the same reason. You had better be at the dock ready to board by 6am sharp.
I wasn’t too thrilled about the boat ride, but getting a chance to see the sun rising over such a wild and remote place…that proved to be worth every unsettling wave.
Sabtang Island itself proved to be beyond measure, though. Truly untouched tropical beauty.
It was here I found a local shop selling what a hard worked elderly man called “sugar wine”. It didn’t look or smell like any wine I’d ever known. Light bulbs went off in my head. Christmas was near, and I’d recently gained a sister in law whose job it was to make wine. This seemed like my chance to become the best brother-in-law in the world. Mysterious wine from a place like this? It was either going to be a total hit or a total fail.
Given that the wine only cost about $2 USD, that should’ve been a clue as to which it would be.
Long story short, come Christmas time, the bottle of mystery wine had converted to pure vinegar. Quality and preservation wasn’t exactly on the mind of such a remote village. The recycled cork top had deteriorated and let too much outside air in. One whiff and the sister in law couldn’t work up the courage to try a swig. I don’t blame her.
The novelty of the gift, though, was well appreciated by all involved.
“Sir, this is Safety Harbor, sir,” my friend informed me.
“Why is it called that?”
“To keep the boats safe, sir.”
Even across language and cultural boundaries, responses to stupid questions could still be quite sharp.
Perhaps the most memorable and remarkable scene from Batanes was this one taken from “Marlboro Country”. A place so named, supposedly, because of its resemblance to a location used in old Marlboro cigarette commercials.
More officially, it’s known as “Racuh a Payaman”, translated “wide pasture”. Expansive pastures is right.
But little did I expect, as I made my way up and over a little hill, to find this scene. Animals grazing across the pasture. Rising and falling hills. And to have it all set before this stunning backdrop of the island’s bare beauty? I felt as if I was dreaming. No way such a scene could possibly exist, right? And yet here it was. I was breathing it all in, and thankfully it didn’t smell of cigarettes.
Looking back, Batanes does feel like a dream. The stunning people, the once-in-a-lifetime scenery, and the remoteness of it all…just feels unreal. How could such a place exist? And yet here are the photos and videos. It’s hard facing the fact: it does exist. And I desperately long to go back.