While we mourn the loss of human lives and age-old structures during the recent earthquake that rocked Itbayat Island in Batanes, my mind and pen go back to Sabtang, a neighboring island that was spared.)
1992. Savage beauty. Tucked at the foot of storm-swept hills, there where ocean meets cliff, where the brightness of blue meets the softness of black, is a place, a secret place. Here, the marriage of water and rock. Here, the fire of the sea embraces the coldness of stone.
Here, somewhere on the edges of Sabtang Island in Batanes, is a place seldom seen by human eyes. You must set sail on a bright day and go around the island for a couple of hours to find it and then to behold its terrifying beauty.
You know you are a lighthouse away when the small round-bottomed “falowa,” the Ivatan’s contribution to seafaring, starts tossing itself to the sky. Here, even on a clear, windless day, is a sea-a-boil. Here, the waters of the West Philippine Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet, hug and pull at each other, creating a turbulence so heart-pounding and so awesome.
From the hapless bobbing falowa, the stouthearted explorer gets a privileged view of that secret place. Craggy cliffs dripping bridal veils. Waters surging, frothing, dancing, rolling. Yea, this one is made in heaven. This one is original, untouched since the day God bade it to unfold. As the psalmist had gushed: “How lovely is your dwelling place.”
A slow, symphonic movement makes a sudden turn and climaxes with a roll of drums and a clash of cymbals. The sea quakes to a crescendo, then hurls itself against the cliffs and the rocks. Whaaam! Here before your eyes is a concerto at its most tempestuous peak. Water breaking into a million crystalline pieces. It is pure music. Salt melts in your eyes. Suddenly, you are no longer afraid.
You can hardly wait for the next one.
Finding the secret place is not for the faint of heart. And when at last you find it, you realize you can gaze at the scene for only so long, not a minute more. The blue bids you go. And you leave the place to the creatures of the sea, for them to forever guard it.
You have seen the secret of Sabtang. (A photographer has captured this secret in black and white.)
Sabtang, which is 45 minutes of tumultuous ride from Batan, the main island of the Batanes group, has “a feel of a different place,” as a foreigner once mused. Rows of lime-and-stone houses, cows meditating on soft pastureland, people so polite (every other person on the street says “Good morning” to the stranger) and hospitable (they’d let the stranger in to give “pabaon” of kilos of their garlic harvest) and religious (almost every barangay has an 18th-century style Dominican-built church; the town has produced several nuns and priests.)
Quiet, clean, peaceful. Sleep under the stars with soft grass for a bed and wake up with dew on your eyelids. Population: 1,737. Everybody is a Catholic. Almost all the dogs are lime-white. No crime. If gin is a popular drink among males, it’s because of the stormy weather (typhoon winds can relocate cows). There is electricity. The fish is good, the beef plenty.
How to get to this northernmost group of Philippine islands? You should first fly Manila-Tuguegarao (or Laoag)-Basco. (There are straight flights now.) If you start hearing Chinese from your pocket radio, it’s because you are nearer Taiwan than you are to Manila. From Basco, the capital of the Batanes Group of Islands, you take a 30-minute ride to the town of Ivana, where the falowa waits to ferry you to Sabtang. From the front of the church of Ivana (where the boats dock), you can see the peak of Sabtang island. Very near, except the boat ride is something else.
Sabtang has its share of secret places waiting to be discovered. But nothing as awesome as the one that — seafarers had warned — can be seen only from the rough sea, and only if you have a strong heart. That hallowed place where sea and mountain wed in one turbulent embrace, where there is only the sound of the cathedral waves eternally folding and unfolding.
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