The propeller-driven plane descended slowly. I looked out from the window and was greeted by the sight of a small group of islands surrounded by a vast sea. As the ground slowly came up, I prayed for a smooth landing. Even though the plane had a sturdy feel to it, it was still propeller-driven. That was the first time ever I went on a propeller-driven airplane. I had reasons to be slightly nervous during the entire flight. Maybe even more than slightly. Images of movies where the protagonist is trapped within a propeller-driven plane that had one of its engine broken down came into my mind so many times during the flight.
Despite my inappropriately-timed misgivings, the plane finally touched down smoothly on the tarmac of a relatively small airport in the small town of Basco in the island of Batan. It slowed to a crawl, and finally stopped right in front of a very small excuse of an airport building. I breathe a sigh of relief as another form of excitement crept out slowly from within. I was finally in Batanes.
My visit to the islands of Batanes in April of 2008 would probably be one of the most memorable events in my life.
It was a milestone that marked many ‘firsts’ in my life.
It was the first time I spent a large sum of personal money on traveling. Not because the company sent me on a business assignment and paid the fare. Not because someone else paid for it. No. I paid for it with my own money. A substantial amount of money in my opinion at that time.
Frankly, I was a bit of a cheapskate when it comes to traveling. Before that point in life my excuse for traveling would probably be company assignments or holiday with the family (guess who’s paying). Sure, there was that one time when I went to Vegas with a long-time friend and his family, but that was because I was already in the US on company assignment and anyways the plane ticket was less than 200 bucks (I went to LA first by plane and my friends picked me up at the airport and we drove to Vegas). It was unthinkable for me to spend more than 500 bucks to travel. I’d rather save them than use them, even though I had more than enough sitting around.
And then one day during a period in my life when I was living in the Philippines my father asked me what places I’d been to in that country. After listening to the very short list of places I’d been he told me not to be stingy with my money when it comes to traveling. Take the opportunity, he said, while you’re still young. One day when you’re married, have kids, and have a lot of obligations and other things on your hands, you might not have the chance to do so anymore. So when some colleagues from my project offered this rare chance of going on a 4-day-3-night photo safari trip to an island called Batanes in the Philippines, I heeded his advice. And yeah, it was quite a pricy journey for my standard at the time.
It was also the first time I traveled outside Luzon. It is the large island where Manila, the capital of the Philippines, is. I had been on a company assignment in the Philippines for roughly one and a half year then and up until that point I never traveled to other islands in that country.
The trip also marked the first time I traveled with my then first dSLR.
Before the trip I only had a point-and-shoot. I had 2 colleagues who happened to be amateur/enthusiast photographers. Both of them were going on the same trip as I was to Batanes. And both owned high-end, pro-grade dSLRs. Both of them kept urging me to get one as well. I took it as a compliment to my photography talent that they asked me to get dSLRs (they saw my photos from my old point-and-shoot). After all, dSLRs isn’t your daily casual cameras. At that time, these bad boys were quite expensive and they meant business. I assumed that people who got one probably came from money and were really serious photographers (though these days everyone seems to own one, thanks to manufacturers making them smaller, lighter, easier to use, and importantly, cheaper). So I caved in and spent another huge chunk of money to get my first ever dSLR. A serious amateur-grade dSLR camera. I’ve already used a substantial amount of money for the trip, so I thought why not spend more to get a good dSLR. It was one of those things where once you open the floodgate, there’s no stopping it.
Looking back, I have a suspicion that my friends just wanted me to experience the same financial conundrum as they were. dSLR camera bodies are expensive, the lenses even more so. They need to be complemented with plenty of essential tools and equipments, and these don’t come cheap as well. Maintenance for dSLRs and their equipments is also not easy, as it is time-consuming, demands meticulous and careful attention to details, and also quite costly. But even so, it was one of the best decisions in my life that I never regretted even for one second.
Batanes was said to be a very beautiful place. What better way to immortalize the experience than taking pictures of it using a highly capable camera such as a dSLR, right?
We traveled on a trip arranged by a photojournalist by the name of Mandy Navasero. She’d been arranging photo safari trips to Batanes annually, usually in April and May. Just a side note that the last time I heard from a friend she’s still doing this up until now. The trip also doubled as a photography workshop, meaning that aside from enjoying the view, we would also be working on our photography skill by taking lots of photographs. Mandy would, from time to time, gather us together for a session to coach us on how to take great photos.
A bit of primer regarding Batanes. It is the northernmost and smallest province (in terms of area and population) in the Philippines. Its location is smack dab in the middle between Luzon and Taiwan. There are 10 islands in the province. Basco, a city located in the island of Batan, is the provincial capital of Batanes. Itbayat and Sabtang are the only other islands in the province that are inhabited. Mid-March to June is a great time to visit the place.
If you want to know more about the island province you could head directly to its wiki page. It has more information and the ones I mentioned above are taken from there.
In any case, what mattered to me most was that I had heard from many people that the place has very beautiful landscapes.
A few weeks before the trip Mandy gave us a briefing regarding what Batanes was all about: the terrain that we would have to deal with; what things we need to prepare; what are the equipments and tools that we need to bring along; the agenda of the trip, what to expect during the trip and so on. I heard more good things about Batanes during that briefing. From my subsequent research in the net I also found out that a lot of people wrote good things about the place.
It was no wonder I had high expectations. And Batanes delivered. It delivered more than what I expected of it.
As I walked off the plane and onto the tarmac I remembered seeing the hills in the distance, a promise that the whole trip would be great. We then went inside the small airport building to collect our luggage. Mandy first took us to the hotel where we would be staying for the whole duration of our travel. The hotel’s name was Batanes Seaside Lodge. It was a small, simple and clean hotel. It was more like a hostel, actually. The humble lodging was located near a small stretch of beach in Basco. You could see a port and a lighthouse in the distance from the back of the hotel. I walked down to the beach while waiting for the whole group to settle down. As I was enjoying the view, the plane which dropped us off at the airport flew very low overhead, carrying passengers back to Manila. It was a grand view, and I missed taking a photograph of it because my stupid jaw was on the floor.
Mandy held a small ice-breaking session at the hotel’s modest living-room-slash-lobby once everyone was settled and ready to go off. We were asked to introduced ourselves to each other: who we are, where we came from, what we did for a living, etc. Mandy remarked that it was a rare thing to have Indonesian tourists (there were 3 of us) as her guests to Batanes, as even not many of the Filipinos had visited the province. She also stressed that even though the purpose of the whole trip was in part to hone our photography skills, it didn’t mean that it was necessary everyone should get pro-grade cameras. She probably mentioned this to make some members of the group feel better as not everyone had a dSLR with them. To make her point, she told the story of how in the previous year, a person won a photography award taking a photo using only a pocket point-and-shoot. She showed us the photo, and sure enough I knew why it won. It captured the perfect moment with excellent composition. It wasn’t easy to hear that for someone who just spent thousands of dollars for a camera, hoping that such investments would yield great photo results. However, now that I have had more experience I know this to be true: that tools and equipments are only complimentary to skill, talent, and creativity.
Santo Domingo de Basco
After the ice breaking session, we went off on a jeepney to our first destination. For the next 3 days the jeepney would be the mode of travel for most of the time. You might be asking, what is a jeepney? Well, a jeepney is a type of vehicle used by people in the Philippines as public transportation. Jeepneys are everywhere. It basically looks like a minibus, but the front part looks like a Jeep and the back part is stretched (imagine a dachshund) and people sit inside face-to-face and facing toward the side instead of the front. If you are from Indonesia, then I can tell you that a jeepney is similar to mikrolet in seating arrangement. However, instead of entering from the side, passengers go in through the back. The passenger compartment is also longer, making it possible to carry more people than a mikrolet.
Our first destination was an old church called Santo Domingo de Basco Church which was also called the Basco Cathedral. As we got down from the jeepney Mandy started giving us some photography pointers. Some of the group members started snapping pictures of the old church right away as she was giving her pointers. One of the things that she coached us early on was basic composition techniques such as the rule of third. She took us to meet the head pastor in charge of the church, invited us to go into the pastoral building at the back, and taught us on using natural light to take photos inside rooms. We had fun playing around with our cameras there and I was warming up to my then-new dSLR.
At the back of the main church building you could also find some other highlights of the complex aside from the church itself, which is the oldest church in the province. There was a very old and massive tree standing right in front of the pastoral building. On one of the main branches a small treehouse could be found. At the base of the same tree a Saint Mary statue could be found.
The Naidi Lighthouse
Mandy took us next to one of the lighthouses in Basco. One of the things you should know about Batanes is that it has a lot of lighthouses. The one that we visited that morning stood at the top of a hill named Naidi in Basco. No, I didn’t get to go to the top of the lighthouse, not because I could not or was not allowed to. It was because the beautiful rolling hills surrounding the lighthouse area and the view towards the sea had grabbed hold of my attention and would not let go. It was here that I started to truly appreciate Batanes. I broke off from the rest of the group to explore the rolling hills. I had to be careful walking about the area, aside from some rather treacherous slope there were also lots (and I mean lots) of cows and goat dungs that needed avoiding. Sheep and cows roamed freely and grazed the green pastures there. One of them even tried to get ‘friendly’ with me. My shirt probably looked delicious.
I must have looked funny as I ran away like a scared little girl from the approach of the docile and friendly cow as I could hear some friends laughing at me from afar. It was a very quiet place, with only the sound of the crashing wave and the whistling of the wind filling in the void. A small voice could have been easily heard from quite a distance. Laughter? You get the point.
The silence and the prevalent sense of peace was a good change from my usual hectic and noisy daily life. It was refreshing, and also one of the things I remember fondly from my trip there.
After navigating the landscape and taking lots of photos, I heard some calls for the group to go back to the lighthouse to gather about and leave for our next destination. Before we left for our next destination Mandy told us to gather for a group shot. I still don’t have a copy of any of the group shots with me till this day. Perhaps I’ll ask around whether or not anyone still has it. We took lots of group photos during that trip.
One thing interesting to note: Mandy was always the one who took our group shots. Whenever she was about to snap a picture she made this face where she pulled out her tongue and make silly expressions. It, of course, drew some reactions from us (mostly laughter) and when it did she clicked her camera shutter button. It was a weird, yet quite effective way, to draw out expressions from subjects in the photograph to make the result livelier.
But you won’t catch me doing that, I promise you.
Portraits and Cliffs (At The Chanarian Viewdeck)
Our next destination was some sort of platform/lookout located on top of a cliff facing the sea. There were stone stairs going down to the bottom of the cliff. We gathered around Mandy as she asked us to sit down on the stone chairs found at the platform and gave us some pointers on how to take portraits of people. I still remember the advice she gave: when taking a photo, if you need to frame only parts of the person (not the whole body, say, only the face, or the upper torso, and so on), make sure that the photo frame doesn’t ‘cut’ the person right in the joint. So for example, if you’re taking a photo of only the upper torso area of a person, make sure that you don’t frame it where the bottom edge of the photo is exactly at the waist, or that the arms don’t get ‘cut off’ by the frame exactly at the elbow or the wrist. She called some members of the group to volunteer as models as we experiment in taking portraits.
After the short lecture and the photo session we went down to the sea by the stony stairs. The water was shallow there, and the rocks were rough enough to give safe traction so some members of the group and I traversed along the base of the rocky cliff. We also took snapshots there while enjoying the view. It was a great view: tall rocky cliffs with a relatively calm sea beneath it. But my friends said that during the night the tide would probably come in and waves will crash against the face of the cliff. It’d make a great photo. My Indonesian colleagues and I along with some of the other travelers decided to go down here early morning before sunrise on one of the days. Mandy agreed to it and promised that she would provide the transportation.
The Tukon Church
We went back to our humble lodging in the afternoon. Our kind host had prepared us lunch. Since we were on a schedule, Mandy asked us to quickly wrap up our lunch session and soon enough we found ourselves on the road again. Our next destination was a small, then-in-repair chapel named the Tukon Church.
Our jeepney did not take us directly to the front door. Instead, we were taken to a quiet intersection on top of a hill with a clear and breathtaking view of a cloud-covered mountain nearby and the sea in the distance. We could see the unfinished chapel building from there as it was nearby. Our group took its time to reach the chapel, however. Some of us broke off from the main cluster from time to time to take photos of the cloud-covered mountain nearby or the breathtaking sky filled with clouds in dramatic arrangements. No one in their right mind would want to hurry when they are presented with such stunning vistas.
From that hill I could see more clearly how breathtaking the landscapes in Basco were. There were rolling hills with crisscrossing hedgerows as far as the eyes could see. There were cloud-rimmed mountains that stood tall against a clear blue sky. The air was cool and fresh, and there was a sense of calmness and silence so strong even a scream could not break.
And, of course, there were also the cows and the goats. Lots of them. And their dung.
Anyhow, we finally reached the chapel after a short, but pleasant walk. It was unfortunately in repair, as I’ve mentioned before. Workers were busy working on the stone-made building, and we could not go inside to see its interior. So we just walked around nearby, enjoyed the beautiful scenery and drank in the silence. Mandy still could be heard giving some pointers to the other members of the group. I, for most part, ignored many of her impromptu photography lessons. I am not ashamed of that. There were just too many other things to see and experience there.
The day was growing late as we headed towards our next destination. It was a stonehouse-like structure, not unlike the Tukon Church. All the traditional houses in Batanes were made of stone. Understandable, knowing that the islands have to endure harsh stormy weather for the most part of a year. This structure was being made adhering to such sensibility.
They could not choose a better location. The stone house was located on top of a cliff overlooking the sea and the valley in the distance. And not unlike the Tukon Church, it was surrounded by rolling hills and crisscrossing hedgerows. At that time, I thought that it was only a house, perhaps home to a wealthy personality in the area looking from the designs and the decorations. The owner would probably better off making it a hotel, perhaps a bed & breakfast. I would stay there. The view was simply to kill for.
(As it turned out, they were actually making it into a bed & breakfast, as pointed out by this blog).
Our stay there was short, as the the day was growing late. Mandy ushered us towards our last destination of the day.
Our last destination of the day was a beach full of large boulders called Valugan Bay. The boulders there were large and round and quite smooth. Despite the threatening thunderstorm cloud looming overhead my Indonesian colleague went ahead and gleefully set up his camera and tripod there as it was a nice spot for a long-exposure photo. The sun was low, the sky was very cloudy and the light had started to fade, making it possible for long shutter time exposures. I didn’t own a tripod back then, so I could only do simple, fast-shutter exposures. Unfortunately it started to drizzle not long after we got there. We only managed to spend a short time at the Bay as the drizzle turned to rain not long after.
We hurriedly seek shelter from the rain by going back to our jeepney. Mandy decided to call it a day and we all went back to our hotel.
Turning In for the Day
We returned to our humble hotel as our fist day turned to night. Our kind host has prepared dinner for us, and Mandy set up a projector should some of us would like to showcase the result of that day’s photo-hunting as we had our dinner. We had good discussions on some of the photos being displayed. After the discussions ended, we cleared up the tables and prepared ourselves to turn in for the night.
As I was sitting in my room and moving my photo files from the camera to my laptop, I heard a commotion outside, sounded like small explosions. Me and some of my friends went out and discovered that there was firework over the harbor that we could see out at the back of our hotel. We went there during Easter, and the Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country so that was probably the reason for the festive firework. I quickly ran back in and took out my dSLR and I managed to get a decent shot in. The railings on the second floor’s balcony made it possible form me to take a long exposure shot.
It was a great way to end an already excellent day.
That concludes the first day of my visit to Batanes. At that point in my life, I’d never been to a place more beautiful than Batanes. I wasn’t expecting anything much from the second day or the day after that. I had hoped that at least they would be as excellent as that first day, with clearer skies. Cloudy skies can really mess up the colors in photos. But even that I didn’t hope for too much, because of the nature of the weather in the area.
I was delighted to find out later that my prayer was answered.
More on that in a subsequent post.
For those of you who read this and are interested in going to Batanes, you can check this website out. That link was the first one that came up from a google session. A little bit of googling can get you far, and there are lots of other links you can find from a google search that might be useful that I don’t have to mention in this post. I also did a quick digging and found out that up until 2011 Mandy still arranges photo safari trip to Batanes. She hasn’t published any plans for 2012 but you can check her Multiply page later as she might come out with some plans. If you are interested in going to Batanes and happen to be living in Manila, I highly recommend taking her photo safari trip as she has more experience navigating the province and she’ll take you to the best places there. If you don’t live in the Philippines, perhaps you could contact her via her e-mail address (which you can find in her page) and see whether she has some arrangements for foreigners.
You may also check the following maps on the places I’ve visited during my trip there.
Additionally, this website provides a map of the island of Batan with all the key places highlighted. You can use it as your reference when visiting the island.