Year of Grace, Day 193. Itbayat Island and I

I’ve been going over photos of a trip made some years ago to the Batanes Islands, and the island that touched me the most was Itbayat, the farthest from Luzon, and the last inhabited northern island of the Philippines. Just a few more kilometers further on by sea is Yami, otherwise known as Orchid Island, which falls within Taiwanese territory and whose original residents sailed from the Batanes more than century or so ago. Now there’s a story worth pursuing… but, I digress.

I’d been warned of the perils of getting to Itbayat. There was the speedy way, which was by plane, but that didn’t take off unless all 12 or so seats were taken. Or… if one were prepared to pay for all unsold seats, there and back.  And, what’s more, no flights unless weather conditions were ideal. In this region, typhoons are a fact of daily life, so chances of making it to the island but being stuck there afterwards were great. Not too bad a prospect, but I had a plane to catch back to Manila.

And there’s the usual way, of course — by falowa, a motorized boat from Batan Island. Sailing on this route is exceedingly rough and choppy, because this is where the West Philippine Sea meets the Pacific Ocean: waves occasionally tower over the falowa and have been known to cause it to capsize.  Sailing time is over 4 hours. But people do it all the time, don’t they, I said. Yes, but…, friends of my host on Batan Island said, there have been horrendous accidents with everyone on board lost within sight of land. A whole family, relatives of these friends. Hmmm… when would I have the opportunity again of such an adventure? Who knows? And the risk of getting who knows what that strikes people of a certain age so they can no longer walk or do adventurous things was equally great. If not greater.  No time like the present… so to adventure then!

The ride itself was pleasant and not as rough as I had been warned about. It was brilliantly sunny, and there were flying fish that skimmed across the waves and the occasional dolphin too. There were bags though, plentiful and conspicuous, to hand for the inevitable. I had prepared myself with chunks of candied ginger that my Batan Island host’s cook had prepared for me: my standard travel sickness remedy. She’d never heard of ginger being used in this way before, nor of sweet ginger either. I described the procedure, and her brilliant ingenuity supplied the rest. I blessed her countless times as I sucked on the candied ginger intermittently throughout the journey. There were no seats — just a flat deck — which was great. Lying down and with the ginger candy, I managed to thoroughly stave off nausea. Other passengers, mostly local, weren’t as fortunate. I believe I was the only tourist on board.

Once there, landing is a bit tricky. There’s the small matter of timing one’s jump to get off. The crew was quite helpful, giving you enough encouragement and the right time to make it across. Now! they said, and you could jump just then, or wait for the next right time to gather up courage and mentally prepare yourself and stiff muscles to make the leap. There’s no rush or pressure. Whenever you’re ready, they said. All this while the baggage is being off-loaded relay style, as you can see — being thrown from boat to land, from one crew person to another and another.  Meanwhile the boat keeps bobbing up and down with the waves, nudging but never quite getting close and then backing off. Occasionally the boat gets carried off too far. Stories of women starting off to jump and never making it haunted me. It’s not that far a leap. Best to overestimate the distance, I thought. And I made it! Another ten or so years, and my knees and/or legs might not have been nimble enough for the task.

As you can see, it’s quite a steep slope up from the boat landing to get into the town of Mayan.

Itbayat is an uplifted coral island, which is why there is no beach. And Mayan town itself is sited in a deep bowl-like depression, protecting its inhabitants and houses from the worst ravages of typhoons. Please click on each photo to enlarge.

Thatched huts valley

The charming taro patch in front of this cottage makes it evident that this is indeed a Pacific Island in the middle of the typhoon belt, had you been in any doubt. Taro and other root crops can survive the damaging winds of typhoons better than fruits on trees.

In the more exposed parts of Itbayat however, construction is more robust — of coral rock.

Coral rock walls

Beyond Itbayat is Siayan Island. Hearing it for the first time, I thought of it spelled as Cheyenne, but of course that was highly unlikely.

The sea, viewed from the cliffs, is an inviting cobalt and turquoise. And there on the horizon is Siayan. And beyond that, way beyond, is Taiwan.

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