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Blow Ur Horn, Batanes

(Article published in the June 6,2012 issue of Manila Standard Today)   

“Why Batanes?” was the question uniformly asked by those whom I had to advise that I was not going to be at the office on Thursday and Friday of last week.  My identical answer was, purposely trying to seem politely responsive but really being privacy protective, “Because for a change, I would like to visit a place less travelled, at least for now.” 

Geography and weather are the reasons often cited why not many have not gone to the province of Batanes.  Batanes (and not Appari) is at the northern most tip of the Philippines and it is the country’s smallest province, both in land area and population.  It has ten main islands, but only three of which (Batan, Itbayat and Sabtang) are inhabited; the rest are either occupied by tadpols or are reserved for tradpols (“tradpols” is Filipino English’s abbreviation of “traditional politician”). The residents, during recorded times, had never numbered more than 18,000.   Unsullied by the environmental and moral pollution disgorged 24/7 by the smoke stacks and sidewalks of Metro Manila, it has zero crime rate and is home to the country’s most senior citizens.

Marcelo Hostallero is 105 years old when I met him at his house in Barangay Chavayan, in Sabtang Island.  I was tempted to pose for a photo with him, but backed out at the last minute when it suddently occurred to me that it will be I who would be considered by urban viewers as the elder one.   The oldest woman is Prudencia Capito who lives in Barangay Sta. Rosa, on Itbayat  Island.  She will turn 100 years old this month.  Since I had no intentions of playing matchmaker, I have no information on whether they each have their own significant others.  Living in what is said to be the oldest house in the province, known as the House of Dakay (Jose Dakay was the original owner) is Florestida Estrella, who is said to be 85 years old.  The House of Dakay is in Ivana, Batan Island and is a UNESCO heritage building.


It was not always that Batanes was considered part of the Philippines.  The Spaniards were in Batanes only from October 1682 to September 1889, when the Katipuneros came to  drive them out.  It is thus debatable whether Batanes was part of the territory sold by the Spain to the United States in the Treaty of Paris of 1902. By 1902 Batanes was no longer in Spanish hands, so how could the Spain have sold it?  In any case, it was only in 1909 during the American regime that the islands were official recognized as part of the Philippines.

Batanes, antedating the Spanish and American occupations, has always been home to the Ivatans, a frugal and gentle people, known from their hospitality and honesty.  Just to illustrate: I was taken by my very knowledgeable and accommodating tour guide, Jacklord Nola Labrador, to Honesty Coffee Shop in Barangay Radiwan in the Municipality of Ivana. Ivana was the first founded municipality in Batanes.  It was the provincial capital until 1820 when the capital was changed to Basco which is Batanes’ capital to this day. 

The owner of Honesty Coffee Shop is Elena Gabilo who retired as a school teacher in 1995.  She thought of putting up, with her retirement pay, an eatery near Radiwan port that was then being used to go to Sabtang Island.  She had an assured clientele since passengers usually gather at the port very early in the morning to wait for their boat.  A typhoon hit the area in 1995  and destroyed the store.  But the owner was undaunted; she rebuilt it and continued the business there until 2001 at which time she moved it to its present location. 

Why is the cafe called Honesty? Because no one stays to mind the store.  After the boat has left for Sabtang, there is no one for the store to serve except the very few who resided nearby. Consequently, their purchases from the store were few and far between.  Waiting the whole day at the store for just a handful to come and buy her wares seemed to the good teacher retiree an utter waste of precious time.

Closing the store was not an option because it did serve a function for the community. So, she decided to leave the store unattended. As a result, the store had its all its merchandise in open display with their prices written nearby.  Anyone who wanted to buy an item could simply pick it up and drop his payment in a kitty before walking away with his purchase.  By nightfall, the owner returns to collect the proceeds of her sales and close the store for the night.

 Since the time Honesty Coffee Shop was established, not a single day had passed during which the cash in the kitty turned out to be less than the total price of the goods taken for that day.  The Honesty Coffee Shop remains standing today as a concrete affirmation of the owner’s faith and trust in her community’s honesty and a testament of the community’s corresponding acceptance of the responsibility to be honest and deserving of her trust.  Operating viably despite its disregard of the principles of Doing Business 101, the Honesty Coffee Shop demonstrates the value of mutual trust and the benefit of not betraying it.

How the people of Batanes got to be called “Ivatan” is a interesting story by itself.  The letter “i” means the same thing as the word “taga” of the Tagalogs; it signifies from where the people haled. I suspect it is a native variation of “de” that was attached to Batan to categorize the people as from Batan.  But why then was “B” turned to “V”?  The reason it seems is that the Spanish pronunciation of “B” sounded very close, if identical to the sound of “V”.   In any case, “Ivatan” now means people who come from Batan.

Just exactly how many Ivatan tribes there were before the Spaniards came is not known.  But research has found that there were more or less 19 villages or old settlements at that time.  In an island in the southern part of Taiwan, called Lan Yu, there lives a people believed to be the aborigines of the Ivatans.  Consisting of about 13 tribes, they speak the same dialect as our Ivatans and they come over to visit their relatives of sorts every year  on Batanes day which falls on the 26th of June. Many are expected to come at this year’s big event, to enjoy the sports competition of amongst the municipalities of Batanes, relish the people’s cultural presentations, and, witness the pageant crowing Miss. Batanes, a ceremony no Filipino fiesta could afford to be without.  On June 26 and for a full week thereafter, Batanes blows, rightfully, its horn.