I arrive in Batanes expecting Heathcliff and Catherine of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
Wuthering was a word made for Batanes, on the northernmost tip of the Philippines, closer to Taiwan than it is to Manila.
In the novel, the character Lockwood defines wuthering as “a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather.” The island where I am, Batan, is almost inhospitable to the itinerant photographer. Rolling hills, strong winds that can topple a tripod, and sharp cliffs make it a difficult place to navigate and photograph. From the hotel Fundacion Pacita where I am staying, there are no public vehicles available; one reserves a car in advance. And a vehicle is necessary, if only for shelter when the numerous storms hit. On my first day, I think I am doomed to photographing the landscape through waterproofing plastic bags held together with rubber bands: the rain slashes down and the only shelter is an open hut on top of a cliff.
Below the hill where the Fundacion perches, the waves roll madly to the cliffs, pounding their breakwater repetitively against its bare face. The wind over the Pacific Ocean skates quickly, at midday appearing a dark shadow moving across the blue water, and comes to rattle the trees near my balcony. The few tall trees nearby sing, shaken by these winds from the east.
Despite the weather, or maybe because of it, Batanes is breathtakingly beautiful. Under blue skies or cloud cover, the hills glow with green; the frequent rainfall renders the hillsides lush with short shrubs, cogon grass and endless pasture—a paradise of sorts for the cows and goats that roam the hillsides, where sometimes they stand at a 45-degree angle to the hill. Visiting the retired Tayid Lighthouse, my Ivatan companion says of a carabao, a water buffalo, grazing, “He’s happy; no work, and so much to eat.” It’s different in the plowing season. The carabaos and farmers plow the fields in preparation for days and days of nonstop rain.
And yet with the annual average rainfall of over 220mm, Basco has a water problem. “It’s not a supply problem,” says Ryan Bala, transport and tours coordinator at the Fundacion, “but the connection to the fresh water source is probably old and needs to be replaced.” The other, smaller municipalities on the main island don’t have the same issue. Mahatao, Ivana and Uyugan also all have their own water supplies from natural springs, Mahatao having an abundant eight.
Batan also experiences a different kind of drought. I can’t help but notice the further south we go, the more we see of broken, abandoned stone houses, roofless, cadavers of culture. “When the young people finish college, they can’t find a good enough job here,” my friend says, “so they go to Manila, where they might find better paying jobs. They take their families with them, and just leave their houses, until the roof collapses.”
The Ivatan stone house is made with volcanic rocks from the island, spewn from Mount Iraya, the cloud covered volcano that sits in the center of Batan Island. The huge boulders, a lot of which are found on Valugan Bay are smoothed by years of waves. Standing on Valugan Bay, I listen for the sound of the rocks knocking together, a dull clicking in time with the pull and crash of the waves on the shore.
The rhythm of the sea is hypnotic. One can almost spend the whole day sitting on a balcony, staring out at the Pacific Ocean, lulled into meditative silence by the waves. I am tempted to do just this, except everything is so beautiful that I must use my camera.
For days I make my way around the island of Batan in a rented car. The North part of the island is a short distance away from the Fundacion Pacita. A motorcab ride around this part of the island costs 700 Pesos. The motorcab is a small roofed cab attached to a motorbike; it’s cramped and the motorbike is often straining noisily on the uphill climbs, but it’s a cheap way to get around. There are also jeepneys that travel the National Highway, a two-lane road that snakes around the island from Basco to the southernmost Barangay Imnajbu and back, but for these you have to get on at the highway after waiting for as long as a 30 minutes. For someone staying at a place closer to the east coast, a hilly three and a half kilometers from the highway, a private vehicle is the only way to get around.
A short distance away from Basco is the Naidi Lighthouse. Jhun tells me, “Fisherman just line up the nose of their boat to the lighthouse, and then they know they’re headed back home.” Beside the lighthouse are some hulls of old concrete buildings.
A communications tower used to stand here. There is no tower now, destroyed by Japanese bombs during World War II. The office buildings that once flanked the tower stand empty but for one that’s been converted into a bar and restaurant. I climb to the lighthouse for sunset shots to find hiphop music blasting inside the restaurant with its colorful walls and windows. Outside, cows graze and a teenaged couple hold hands, climbing down to the slope near the waves for a bit of privacy.
As the sky darkens, the lighthouse begins to blink regularly. Just when the sun drops over the horizon, giant clouds pile on in a strong wind; every shot I take of the lighthouse has a different background of billowy clouds. The teenagers leave; the bar continues pulsing with music, its tables set with dinnerware as if expecting a crowd to come and fill the cliff with merriment.
Further south in Ivana is an establishment that sees more traffic on any given day. The Honesty Café has no one watching it. To buy our drinks, the driver and I help ourselves to softdrinks from the fridge, record our purchases and the money we paid in a little notebook by the counter, and drop the money into a box. There is nothing with which to make change, and all I have is a large Peso bill. I drop in a US dollar to pay for the two bottles of softdrinks that cost 30 Pesos total and hope foreign exchange won’t be too much of a hassle for the Café’s owner.
“She’s a retired teacher,” the driver says of the proprietress Elena Gabilo, “and she didn’t have time to watch the store.” So she taught school and tagged everything in her store with its price, set up the payment system, and left her café to the honesty of the Ivatan people who make purchases. The sign above the fridge says, This Store is Too Small for Dishonest People. Beside it is a framed award given to Gabilo for being a “Living Ivatan Tradition.”
A tradition that lives on albeit with difficulty is the Ivatan stone house. Made from volcanic rock cemented together with lime, the house’s walls are about three feet thick and can withstand the numerous typhoons that visit this part of the Philippines. The stone house is difficult to make, requiring the year-long aging of the lime that cements it together and community help in constructing the house.
One of the best preserved examples of the Ivatan stone house is The House of Dakay, the oldest standing stone house in Batanes. Built in 1887, it survived the earthquake of 1918, one of only three houses that were not toppled by the catastrophe. Although the cogon roof is replaced every 30 years, the shutters and floor of the House of Dakay have never had to be replaced.
The old lady who lives there smiles at me through the open door as I walk in her yard. The inside of her narrow house is clean, with a bed in the front area, a table with a cake box on it, the windows just squares cut in the walls, curtains fluttering. It looks bigger in the postcards and snapshots I’ve seen of it online. Outside, like in the wide-angle photos I’ve seen, it’s imposing. The Ivatan stone house is a symbolic resident of the Batanes islands.
In the Romantic period, when Bronte’s novel was written, people valued the individual’s imagination and nature’s magnificence and might. Bronte’s landscapes were predominant elements in her novel, shaping the story and the characters. I think it must be this way with Batanes. Florentino Hornedo in his monograph Taming the Wind, about the Ivatan culture, puts it succinctly, “The Ivatan take their relation to their homeland and its natural conditions as a contest, and their culture as an extended chain of triumphs over a basically benevolent but wild Nature—a mountain to climb, a wave to row over, a wind to sail by. In each case, the Ivatan could go places.”
I leave Batanes fleeing the notion that geographically rough places breed cruel and rude people, much like what happened to the characters of Heathcliff and Catherine in the wild-weathered moors in Wuthering Heights. In Batanes, I discover that in their contest with wind and rain, droughts, an economic and intellectual drain from the exodus of people seeking fortunes in Manila, the people of Batanes remain like their landmark stone houses—enduring change and catastrophe, resilient in strong winds, staunch in the face of violent storms.
This article was previously published by Readers Digest Asia Publications and has been adapted to the author’s blog.