Style/Travel Diaries

Batanes: Where even the grazing cattle look happy and fit—’like they frequent the gym’

Batanes is a different world between the Pacific Ocean and the West Philippine Sea, and home of the refuge that is Fundacion Pacita

Guided tour on a taksicle

The West Philippine Sea

This was not exactly revenge travel—just picking up where we left off when the March 2020 lockdown  made our early April trip to Batanes impossible.  So when travel was more relaxed, we finally made it to Fundacion Pacita.  To be fair to the staff, they were constantly emailing to check when we would use our paid booking, with the advice that February to March is best when it is breezy and not too cold.  What was not mentioned is that Batanes, the northernmost point of the country, is so prone to flight cancellations.

I remember asking Butch Abad, who first encouraged me to visit his home province, how to prepare for such a trip.  He brushed that off and said, “One does not need to prepare for it—just be open to it.” That was indeed a stupid question, because one just had to have the willingness to be transported to a different world.

The author with Butch Abad in his art-filled home, with painting of his wife Dina by son Pio Abad

And what a different world it was.  My daughter Aina and I knew it would be off the beaten track when travel reminders (“We Need Your Help in Making Sure Batanes Remains Special”) were emailed to us prior to arrival: bring a refillable water bottle so you don’t add to plastic waste; bring a reusable bag for shopping; take back with you your plastic waste; bring cash because ATM and credit card facilities are limited; and book a guided tour to learn more about the Ivatans and Batanes.

That last requirement showed how proud they were as a people and so protective of their tourism industry.  And if you have plans of taking drone photos, clearance from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Protected Area Management Board in Basco is necessary.

One was further convinced this destination was special because upon landing in Basco, one felt a certain quaintness in the air, from the homey one-story airport terminal with a Full Disclosure bulletin board detailing government operations, to the artistic white board with the Fundacion Pacita tropical colors summoning me upon arrival—auguries of the art immersion to come.  One was met by nature’s bounty, the mountains, the low clouds, the waters, the greenery.

Fundacion Pacita

One initially clarified the price of the room assigned to us, but how to further quibble when it was described as having a “private balcony overlooking the Pacific Ocean and hills”?   It lived up to expectations—what a refuge of a room with picture windows, a private garden where one can just keep still… and read.  Or listen to the ocean waves.  A big thrill too that it is part of the most important building in the estate, the home artist Pacita Abad planned as her retirement home.

You’re asked to bring a refillable water bottle so you don’t add to plastic waste; bring a reusable bag for shopping; and take back with you your plastic waste

Our visit formally began as it properly should, by paying tribute to the artist brought to life by sculptor Julie Lluch, set on an elevated platform one cannot miss, by a marker indicating where her ashes are interred.

The romance with this province,  flanked by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the West Philippine Sea on the other, begins with more to discover on a guided tricycle or taksicle tour of Batan, the second largest of 11 islands of Batanes, where Basco is located.  The tricycle was our preferred option, though no less costly than the van option—there was just much more to see on a tricycle and the tricycles themselves are pretty, with special woodwork.

The stone houses of Batanes were an architectural wonder, but becoming more difficult to replicate as there are restrictions now on the corals and lime needed to hold the stones in place.  The roofs of dried cogon are so sturdy they can stand the strong winds Batanes is exposed to (don’t most, if not all typhoons originate in Batanes?) and do not need replacement for decades.

Even the native rainwear, the vakul, was not easy to purchase because it requires a tedious process to make.  They were our best souvenirs, made for cumbersome luggage, but the airline staff knew how to handle them.

Getting to know Batan meant getting to know Ivatan hero Kenan Aman Dangat of Sabtang Island, who fought Spanish colonial rule, was arrested and hanged in 1791.

It may seem like a luxurious refuge, but being environmentally conscious, Fundacion has done away with the usual frills of complimentary toiletries, slippers, even tour flyers or a map of the islands.  They are available only upon request, knowing the wastage that often happens.

It was a minor shock to ask to go downtown, and instead of the lively town centers in most places, one was just brought to a dark street and led to a well-lit house, the only evidence of “commerce.” One such pleasant discovery was Vunong at Jessica’s Place. Vunong is the traditional Ivatan complete organic meal of fish, beef, pork, and ubod meatballs with turmeric rice wrapped in kabaya leaves.  Every household likes to grow the tipuyu tree because the leaves are large and sturdy, and are ideal plates which can be washed and reused, especially for large gatherings.

Traditional Ivatan meal on ‘kabaya’ leaves

Jessica has made it her mission to ensure that all first-timers to Batan are introduced to the vunong. Chicken is not part of the meal, as this is not raised in Batanes, and she cannot guarantee that it is organic.

Jessica takes pride in the Ivatan way of life and their having learned what it means to be self-reliant.  Having weathered (pun intended) all crises, Ivatans have had little need for relief goods from the government when disaster strikes—they have learned to be so independent and self-sufficient.

As we relished more meals “downtown” or at the Fundacion’s Café du Tukon (Café by the Hills), we loved all the fish dishes, which were also the least expensive on the menu—and the freshest. And again, because of the province’s geography, root crops are a staple in their meals.  Maruya had sweet potatoes rather than bananas, and even the leche flan used sweet potatoes.

Having weathered (pun intended) all crises, Ivatans have had little need for relief goods from the government when disaster strikes—they have learned to be so independent and self-sufficient

If downtown seemed nowhere, so were souvenir shops and places for arts and crafts.  Nor was there a market to speak of, as staples and goods could be bought from neighborhood shops.

The gallery on the ground floor of Fundacion, where a large mural and cathedral-like doors welcome you, does not house the paintings of Pacita Abad, as one would expect.  It recreates her living room area and a few choice framed artworks.  Her studio is said to be on the top of the stone building. The bulk of her paintings are large-sized murals in private collections here and in museums abroad.  In fact, a first major retrospective exhibit travelling to Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Toronto curated by her artist-nephew Pio Abad  opened on April 15.  Aptly called Pacita Abad’s Art of Excess, it captures her zest for life and color and the Filipino “borloloy.”

Paying homage to Pacita Abad, with the Pacific Ocean in the background

The Fundacion building, colorful and majestic and easily sighted in whatever part of the island one is in, is perched high on a hill, on a prime spot.  Pacita’s brother, Butch Abad, recounts that when he was a little boy, he was on a similarly scenic spot in their ancestral property with a construction worker.  He expressed his dream to have a house at that exact location overlooking the Pacific.  The worker told him that could be done, but that there was an even better place in a higher location.  That was the location Pacita fell in love with and built Fundacion on.  Butch has also realized his boyhood dream because his art-filled Batanes home, with no wall space to spare, has been built too on his first pick.  And who can blame him when he prefers to spend more time in Batanes than Manila these days?  When lockdown happened in 2020, he wished he had been caught in Batanes.

He holds dear what Pacita wanted for Fundacion after she is gone:  promote the conservation of Ivatan heritage and culture and support young Ivatan artists. An intimidating legacy to live up to, but fortunately, the younger generation—two children of Butch–have shown willingness to take over the management of The Jorge, Aurora and  Pacita Abad Memorial Foundation Inc.  Luis is president, while Patsy is managing director and runs the kitchen and the gallery.

Patsy Abad, Fundacion’s managing director

One cannot go to Batanes and not meet with Butch. Our meeting was unplanned, but writ in the stars. So it was wonderful to reconnect with this former public official who seems happier talking about rescued wood from century-old homes and his gift for building furniture that he would like to revive.  He says Pacita, who began to study law, was meant to be the politician in the family, while he would have happily been the artist.  Pacita turned her back on her law studies at the University of the Philippines because of a heartbreak—and discovered the artist in her.  Such are the ways of destiny.

Butch Abad says his artist sister Pacita, who began to study law, was meant to be the politician in the family, while he would have happily been the artist

On the side where Butch’s house is located are many secret gardens.  One chances upon two more Lluch sculptures of the Abad patriarch and matriarch, Jorge and Aurora.  Aurora is cast in stone with a cigarette in her hand—a habit she never gave up even when it caused her illness.  She is remembered not only for raising 14 children but also for being the first woman governor of Batanes, a Cory Aquino appointee.

The proximity of Batanes to Taiwan on the West Philippine Sea side is again talked about these days, with the current political scenarios.  It brings to mind that when the Spaniards were colonizing the island, some Ivatans easily fled to Taiwan, where they have settled to this date.

Batanes has left us with too many images.  The most charming barangay office is temporarily housed in a stone edifice on the island of Sabtang, one of three major islands accessible by boat.  A beach with fine white sand has a natural arch that only receding waters over the centuries revealed.  The Batanes wines of sugarcane and an assortment of local fruits were there for the tasting at a sidewalk stall, with the ritual of putting rock salt on the glass rim a la margarita.  On the south side of Batan was the 1787 San Carlos Borromeo Church, with an archive of visitors’ messages—a practice that Spanish friars began and which continues on today, with bound volumes in a library that welcomes visitors to write whatever is in their hearts. The House of Dakay, a well preserved 156-year-old Ivatan stone house that continues to be lived in by a descendant of the Estrellas, is only one of five such houses which survived an 8.3-magnitude earthquake in 1918.

The ubiquitous Blow UR Horn street markers dating back to the American Occupation remain a precaution for Batan’s dangerously sharp curves.  Hedge farming protects the crops from wildlife and nature.  The Honesty Café is thriving well on its honor system operations with just the reminder that “This store is too small for dishonest people.”  The Marlboro Hills have their picturesque view where, from the distance, the Fundacion edifice could be seen.

At the Honesty Cafe

It is such a serene, idyllic place where everything seems to be where it should be, and where even the grazing cattle look so happy and so fit, as Aina says, like they frequent the gym.  It is a place where one does not quite know where to look, for the many scenic views of seascape and landscape compete for attention.  Tourists have compared it to a Wuthering Heights setting, while I am reminded of Edinburgh’s landscape, a setting for a Shakespearean play.

A blessing that the Internet was unreliable and there were no television sets in the rooms—but there were the sunrises, the sunsets, the Pacific Ocean, and the West Philippine Sea to more than make up for it.

About author


Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is founding director of the creative writing center, Write Things, and was former chair of the National Book Development Board.

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