Sharing Soul Stories in Sabtang

by Noel Pingoy (Essay)

Far over the right shoulder as the faluwa leaves Ivana Port in the main island of Batan to thread the treacherous waves of the Pacific Ocean that lead to Sabtang, one can easily spot the ghostly crest of Mt. Iraya looming in a cerulean distance, robed in an incessant pallor that mirrors the breathtaking beauty of this northernmost of the Philippines’ provinces. In a balmy May daylight, the waves glisten even as they briefly petrify the visitors with both their height and their unpredictability, surging onwards from out of nowhere when they are least expected, then remain like petulant juveniles to momentarily shake the boat and its stunned passengers, only to vanish with nary a whimper minutes later. And a peaceful ride is casually resumed.

The faluwa is a seaworthy motorized dinghy that traverses the vast expanse of the waters of Bashi Channel and Balintang Channel, where the Pacific Ocean merges with the China Sea. The boat connects residents from the main islands of Batan, Itbayat, and Sabtang to each other, providing reliable means of transportation for culture and commerce in the islands, the burgeoning tourism industry included. Midway through the trip, our group chances upon enormous waves that whitened the knuckles of some passengers as they held tightly to the railings while ardently mumbling entreaties to the deities. But the steady hands of the skipper and his crew effortlessly steer the boat to slither through the waves like a surgeon precisely and adeptly cutting through the tissue, smooth as a blade, that the faluwa barely trembled in its ascent. A solitary flying fish darts from a distance like some sinewy sliver of silver that skims over the surface as if to taunt the travelers about passing up the exhilaration of the moment just because of a tenuous unease.

The trip to Sabtang takes a little less than an hour, our guide Roger tells us, so enjoy the ride. The group met him the day before, a proud Ivatan in his mid-fifties who knows the infinitesimal details of his proud heritage like the back of his hefty palms. A virtual repository of historical facts and folk trivia, including what sounds like indigenous yarn, he is at ease talking to both the visitors and the locals. The spirit of fun is there all right, but his animated annotations of facts, half-truths and downright trivia are nowhere near mendacity and pretense. Having reached college, his English is almost unsullied despite the obvious trace of the guttural nature of the northern tongues. Sometimes he appears to be chiding the boatmen about not skimming competently enough though this crest of a wave to obviate the vessel’s fretful shudder.

The boatmen are hardy chaps, bronzed from relentless exposure to the elements, the almost mystical mélange of the sun, the wind and the saltwater enfolding the islands and their environs; they are a proud offspring of a race that has been molded by centuries of geographical solitude from the rest of the incessantly shifting world. The Ivatans are typically Malayan but whose features are softer, perhaps gentler is a better word to describe them, than the rest in the northern part of the country. The Ilocanos come across as edgier given the harsh landscape of undulating plains that are amplified by blistering winds, while the tribesmen of the Cordillera ranges are as morose and dour as the cold weather that they are attuned to.

Roger likes to talk a lot, probably comes with the job description I tell myself, but there is nary a trace of contrived earnestness or even perfunctory candor that I would expect from someone who has done this same routine several times in years. His enthusiasm is incredible, but his love for the islands he calls home is even more amazing. Near the end of the trip, when the novelty of the enormous waves is starting to wear out and most of the passengers are lulled to private introspection by the gentle lurching of the faluwa over the waves, Roger stops speaking with a far-off cadence in his voice, and for a long time we sit in silence listening to the waves that beat against the sides of the boat and the winds that thrash the jib. The eloquence of the moment simply distills every person from the frailty of words and everyone allows silence to take sovereignty when it really matters most.

With the near-noontime sunlight the sky is incredibly translucent and the ragged coastlines of Sabtang are now etched sharply against the azure west, assuming an overwhelming loveliness. An imposing lighthouse that stands pompously near the dock provides a picture-perfect preface to the many charms and surprises of the island, the off-white lookout hub sharply demarcating its russet top from the taupe base.

Over the next precious hours, the group will ride through the four towns of Sabtang and be amazed at the simplicity of the Ivatan way of life that has not significantly changed over the centuries, courtesy of its remote location, its tempestuous climate and the tenacity of its people to safeguard the indigenous lifestyle without necessarily preventing outsiders from taking an attentive peek into the heart of their culture. Traces of the old way of life, particularly the fortified mountain refuge called idjang where people hide sometimes for months during the bloody clan wars, are still preserved. Palek, a local wine made from sugar cane, is still consumed by the males to fend off cold and probably tedium especially during the stormy season when they could not head off the coast to catch fish.

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