Best of 2012

Forgive the silence… would you believe that I ushered in the New Year with colds and fever?  But that didn’t stop me from having friends over for the count down. No.  I hope you all had a wonderful holiday.

This-is-forever

Credits:  Quickpage from JSprague’s 4ever kit, created by Brenda Neuberger

2012 has been good to me.  Even with much less travels this year, I’ve managed a few unforgettable firsts.  Here they are; some I have not even posted but will pre-empt:

1.  The Bus Ride to Vang Vieng

bus-to-VV

A 4-hour bus ride from Vientaine on a sleeper bus made for petite Laotians.  Worst was the bunks were meant for (yes) 2 petite Laotians.  We’re definitely far from petite.  So imagine the trip.

2.  First time on a Hot Air Balloon

vang-vieng

Soaring high in Vang Vieng, watching the town wake up.  You get the best view in town, if you ask me.

3.  The Boat Ride to Y’ami

boat-ride-to-Y'ami

An idea that came to fruition had us journeying to the northernmost island of the Philippines on a grueling 3-hour boat ride off Itbayat Island in Batanes.  Why?  I ask the same question many times over.  An experience hard to topple.

4.  A Night in Siayan

siayan

We had to break the grueling boat ride and stay overnight in an island about 1 hour away from Itbayat (the farthest inhabited island of Batanes) because the waters along the Bashi Channel can be treacherous particularly in the late afternoon.  Getting to the island, beautiful as it is, is an adventure in its self.

5.  Hiking Up to Cape Engaño

Palaui-view

Beautiful sight, up there.  That’s all I will say for now.  Watch out for my post – coming soon.

6.  Enjoying an Onsen Bath

hirayu-onsen

While it snowed too.  A totally exhilarating and liberating experience, I dipped in those pools two nights in a row.  Awesomeness.

As for 2013, I’ve got some exciting plans already in the pipeline. I’ve been working hard to get that to fruition over the holidays, truth to tell.  It is going to be an exciting year.  I feel it in the air.  How is your 2013 looking so far?

Torongan Cave: Not To Miss in Itbayat

When asked about the places I have liked the most in my travels, high up there with Africa, my answer would always include Batanes. When I look back at the adventures I had in this northernmost province of the Philippines,

our trek to Torongan cave in Itbayat was a highlight for sure… the state of wonderment, unforgettable.

It was a 20-30 minute hike from a gate to the cave entrance, passing through a forest.

And from this spectacular cave entrance is a relatively easy walk down the large cavern leading to a wall that opens to the sea.

This opening is believed to be the entry point of the Austronesians from Taiwan to the island some 4000 years ago. An excavation done on Torongan cave in 2004 uncovered the oldest artifacts so far found in Batanes.

But it isn’t the cave per se that impressed me.  We exited the cave where we entered,

we walked further and found ourselves climbing up some boulders to a rocky pasture land,

revealing the coast, and Dinem Island in the distance, a view so jaw-dropping beautiful.

The dramatic change in scenery atop the cave was an experience stuck in my memory to this day.

We wandered around in awe.

The view majestic at every turn.

Walking back, we passed through several ancient burial grounds shaped like a boat, albeit hard to discern.

If you have limited time in Itbayat, make Torongan cave your first stop and be awed.

Itbayat: On a Hunt for Halo-Halo

It was the middle of May; the blistering heat was rapidly zapping my energy… I wanted halo-halo.  We knocked on Nanay Laura’s house as her canteen was closed.

A keepsake with Nanay Laura.

Her charming Larez Carinderia beside her house was a favorite back then.  Who can forget her cooking?

A retired municipal treasury officer, Nanay Laura is an exceptional cook.

In my opinion, she makes the best Turmeric (or Yellow) Rice  (a Batanes Specialty) in the whole of Batanes.

She whips up creative dishes with the limited ingredients Itbayat has to offer her.  In 2006 and again last May, we were witness to that.

She was in Raele that day and didn’t have halo-halo.  I asked to see the twins instead. I remembered them from 6 years ago and was curious to see how they have turned out.

Now in their “tweens”, they have become beautiful, confident young girls.  We asked where we might find some halo-halo; Eva Marie offered to bring us there.

Each store we went to would apologetically shake their heads.  Ok, what about some ice cream then?  No success in that area too, although there is a store that actually has a soft serve machine but they weren’t serving any that day.

It is, after all, the farthest inhabited island of the north. Supplies don’t come easily, and often, especially if the falowa from Basco don’t come.

This bell is used to tell the town if the boat from Basco has left or not.

In Mayan Centro, Itbayat’s town center, a few trucks would occasionally ply the streets as townsfolk use these as transport to other towns.

There are those also who would go around in bikes, but these are rare.  People walk everywhere, to other towns even, if trucks aren’t available.  Eva Marie mentioned that she walked all the way to Raele yesterday where there was a fiesta.  She said she walked for hours and was so tired and bored.  I asked her how many hours; she shrugged and replied, “hindi ko alam, basta matagal, I don’t know, all I know is it took a long time”.

School break means that the kids are free to play, if not helping out the family.

Some of us even joined (or shall I say disrupted) their game.

Eva Marie likes hanging out with us.

Walking around town, she provided nuggets of information about her town.  Six degrees of separation definitely apply here.  Everyone is an aunt, uncle or a cousin.

She has ten siblings (eight, six years ago). She has been to Basco but has never left Batanes even if her mother works in Manila.

Along with some of her siblings, she stays with her grandmother, Nanay Laura.

Mayan Centro holds its own appeal, set in a bowl between hills.

The town center from the PAGASA tower.

At the centro, a basketball court and an open field play center-stage.

It is perhaps the only form of leisure in Itbayat; children of all ages are often seen playing in the field.

Across Larez Carinderia is an Old Spanish church, Sta. Maria Immaculada and the school beside it.  On one side is the municipal office

and on the opposite end of the field is its guesthouse, where we previously stayed.

While the town has many traditional Ivatan houses with its cogon roofs, many opted to use galvanized roof.  Cheaper upkeep and it’s less prone to fire, says Nanay Cano.

But the Itbayats love their gardens.

An Arius Tree, indigenous to Batanes. 

No matter the type of house they may have, their gardens are always verdant, some are even quite creative.

We practically roamed the entire town center in search of something cold and alas, we found a heat-quenching treat in some ice candy.

Siayan

We scrambled through rocks, walked through pastureland until we reached a beautiful beach.

As with Y’ami, a shore entry wasn’t possible.

The boat took shelter at one side of the island, hidden by a cove of volcanic rocks; the boat is safe there for the night.

We, on the other hand, had only a tarp to shelter us for the night.

If it rains, we’re doomed.  And as thunder rumbled and lightning flashed through the night, deep sleep eluded me.

Siayan Island is about 1km in diameter.  It is 164m high and is considered an inactive volcano hence the rocky path to the beach.

Lying about 8 km north-northeast of Itbayat, it is just an hour away from the farthest inhabited island of Batanes.

Itbayat in the distance.

The water can become turbulent however and our guides took precaution and insisted we stay the night in Siayan.

When they said that the island has a water source, I had in my mind a stream tucked away in a forest somewhere.  Instead, it is more of a concrete rain catchment built on top of a hill.  The water stored there is only for bathing, not for drinking.  We took turns rinsing ourselves and I should add that the view on this hill is spectacular.  I meant to take a photo but unfortunately never got around to doing so because I don’t normally bring a camera with me when I take a bath, do you?  So I keep forgetting.

Dinner and bedtime was early because we were tired from the day’s excitement and there really wasn’t much to do after dark.

Breakfast Feast prepared by our guides.

The walk back after breakfast was another struggle – going down this time.

Definitely not a walk in the park.

A glimpse of our boat from the top.

Back in Paganaman port, we walked up steep steps (with our stuff) to the road where our truck will return for us.

Waiting for our ride.  Tired from the journey and the sleepless night.

A grueling trip worth all the experience.  Will I do it again?  Perhaps not back to Y’ami, but to other unexplored territories, hell yes.  As I always say, I’ll do (almost) anything at least once in my life.

A Trip to Y’ami: Philippine’s Northernmost Tip

A truck waits for us at the corner of Nanay Cano’s house.

It will be taking us to Paganaman Port where we will embark on a trip to Y’ami Island.   The northernmost island of Batanes, it is closer to Taiwan than it is to Aparri.  An idea I never really took seriously until an email came my way one day in March.  “He wasn’t joking”, I thought.

We had to trek down to the port with our drinking water and overnight kits.  It was a long way down.

There it was waiting for us at the landing.  The boat, also called a falowa that Nanay Cano arranged for us was unbelievably small.

Could it really bring us safely to Y’ami on treacherous waters?  The sea was calmest in May, which was why this expedition happened then.  So along with treacherous waters is scorching sun.  That boat has no cover whatsoever.  So I ask myself for the nth time, how far do I go really?  Is this so-called adventure worth the trouble?

No one spoke a word when we reached the landing.  One by one, we got on the boat with much effort.  The water was rough, making it difficult to mount.  It was the biggest fishing boat on the island, we were told, costing us a mere P6,000 for the 2-day journey.

Looking back at Itbayat.

Composed of 3 major inhabited islands, Batan, Sabtang and Itbayat, Batanes also has smaller uninhatbited islands.  These are Siayan, Di-nem, Dequey, North, Mavudis, and Y’ami (also called Mavulis by locals).  Y’ami being the farthest, we will pass all these islands on the way.

The plan was to drop off our stuff at Siayan, the island closest to Itbayat.  Because Y’ami has no water source, we will stay the night at Siayan before heading back to Itbayat the next day.

The water became quite rough at one point, I wanted to get off with our stuff in Siayan but as fate would have it, the captain (they actually call him piloto) decided that we were light enough to travel the long haul.  Stopping at Siayan would take up time (you’ll soon find out why) and he’d rather be out of the water before late afternoon. If truth be told, the rough sea exhibited how capable our captain was and that there was nothing to fear.  One of us noticed that they only have one engine.  “What happens if the engine breaks”, he asked.  They shrugged, “we will use the sail”.  Simple as that!

Am I glad there was no need for that.  Needless to say, the journey to Y’ami was grueling with me getting perhaps the lousiest seat – the middle seat with nothing to hold on to.  I slip and slide as the boat ride the waves.  The fiberglass boat is slippery when wet, leg room was limited, the sun scorching…

But the scenery along the way somewhat eased the uneasiness.

Three hours after we left Paganaman port, we see Y’ami in the distance. As we approach it, we realized that getting off was a problem.

The water was too rough for a shore entry so we anchored far from shore and waded to the island.

“This better be worth it”, my thought balloon goes.

Under those rocks we found shelter from the scorching heat of mid-day sun.
And there we had lunch.

Trekking to the other side of the hill where there is some sort of landing, albeit on sharp rocks.

The island is beautiful, pure, unspoiled.  Sadly though, we saw a baby shark with its fins cut off from a fishing boat.

Except for some fishermen (including the corrupted ones) taking a break from fishing, hardly anyone sets foot in this uninhabited island.  It is, after all, a long way from home.

Nanay Cano and Coconut Crabs

Faustina Cano, Tina or simply “Nanay” is the woman to call when you’re headed to Itbayat.  She can arrange almost anything.  We needed a boat to take us to the farthest island of Batanes – an idea out of the ordinary that turned to fruition through Nanay’s help.   A retired teacher, Nanay is now the tourism officer of the island and is perfect for her role.  You’ll soon find out why.

Flying was not always possible for this northernmost inhabited island.  When there was still no airport or when it recently went for a refurbishment, one has no choice but to take a grueling 4-hour boat ride.

Because it is a giant uplifted coral reef as research claims, it does not have a shoreline to land on.  When the water is rough (which is almost always), getting oneself to the port is a challenge.

Chinalopiran Port, Itbayat

One has to time the boat and jump as it levels with the landing.  Whew!  Glad I never had to do this although it would have been an interesting trip if ever.

The motley crew on a mission.

Arriving on an 8-seater plane, we landed at the Itbayat Airport only 12 minutes after we took off from Basco.  The airport is far from town and when I first came in 2007, a truck picked us up and took us to town on bumpy, unpaved roads.  This time, we hitched a ride with the ambulance that was going back after bringing an old woman to the airport.

Road conditions had improved with some roads paved along the way.  Classified as a community airport, it provides one pick-up to take passengers to and from the airport.

Needless to say, we booked our rooms at Nanay Cano’s Homestay.  Our home for the next few days had 5 beds, one bathroom and several fans to keep us cool although it is rendered useless after midnight when the power goes off till 6 the following morning.  On hot summer’s nights in May, we miserably sweltered through the night, truth to tell.  How far do I go for adventure, I often ask myself.

Nanay Cano is an excellent host, she knows the history of the place, and she explains it with so much gusto too.  As soon as we got settled, she called us together to explain the following day’s agenda, the islands we are visiting and its logistics etc.   It is not going to be easy, and again I ask, how far do I go for adventure?

Coconut crabs.  A delicacy and found most in this island.  Walking around town waiting for lunch to be served at Nanay Cano’s, we came across some fishermen selling these crabs and a delicious dinner it made.

The crab is said to climb coconut trees and husks coconuts with their powerful claws hence the name.  It is however not a significant part of their diet.

When cooked, the claws are hard and needs a good bashing to break, the meat sweet and firm.  Although I still prefer Alimango (mud crabs) and Alimasag (blue crabs), Coconut crabs is a priced delicacy and is widely hunted, its population dwindling.  The IUCN has classified them on the red list of threatened species.  This means (as I understand it) that they can only be consumed locally and is not to be sold outside of the island.  Or am I just justifying for having a scrumptious meal?   😉

Aside from the coconut crabs, Itbayat produces garlic, a lot of them.  Nanay explains that the different varieties are a result of bartering with Taiwan, who has an extensive production of garlic as well.

Between some of us, we brought home a total of 12 kilo worth – Nanay arranged to have it shipped to Basco lest we go over the weight limit.  These are good garlic, folks.  If you find your way to this corner of the globe, do get yourself some of these.  I am loving it and will miss it once I run out.

With that lovely dinner, we were off to bed early… before the fan shuts down.  A long, challenging day awaits us tomorrow.

Useful Info:

Nanay Faustina Cano: +63 919 300-4787
Air Republique Booking Office: +63 908 120-2548

Batanes

Located more than 860 km from Manila, you can see Taiwan on a clear day.  The island looks more like the Scottish Highland.  Typhoons are common, hitting the archipelago between July and November.  The sheer isolation and location, in the middle of typhoon alley, keeps mass tourism at bay.

My journeys to Batanes have been a series of milestones.  I first set foot on this northernmost part of the Philippines, the home of the Ivatans, in 1997.  That trip started it all.  It catapulted my zeal for adventure.  I found myself back nine years after, this time to explore the farthest inhabited island of Batanes called Itbayat.  And very recently, another dream brought us back to this pretty corner of the world.  A new milestone to achieve.

Batanes continue to enchant despite commercialization.  More frequent flights fetch more tourists albeit still miniscule compared to other destinations.  The size of the plane allowed to land at the Batanes airport prevents mass tourism from flocking in still.  With its rolling hills, ancient cultures, traditional stone houses, and breathtaking landscapes, Batanes is worth exploring again and again.  Let this post be a prelude to an ultimate adventure.  Stay tuned.

Survival of the Fastest

Credits:  J Sprague Digi in Deeper Course Material

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death.  It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle, when the sun comes up, you better be running.

African Proverb

Exaggerated perhaps but essentially true.  Survival is the name of the game in the African Savannah.

In the lion’s world, its prey generally consists of wildebeests, zebras, and a variety of ungulates (giraffe, buffalo, and gazelles).   Dubbed the king of the jungle, lions are the 2nd largest cat after the tiger and are vicious predator commanding respect from other wildlife.  They kill to live, and they live a life of feast or famine.  They usually catch something to eat every 3-4 hours but may perhaps not able to catch an animal for a week so they stuff themselves when they can.

They are the most charismatic of all the animals that roam the savannahs of East Africa and safari enthusiasts bend over backwards and are patient for a sighting.  Ngorongoro and Serengeti in Tanzania, Amboseli in Nairobi, Lake Nakuru and Maasai Mara in Kenya are the best sighting places.

They too become prey to humans who for centuries have killed lions in rituals of gallantry, as hunting trophies, or for their perceived medicinal and magical powers.

Gazelles on the other hand are small antelopes noted for its grace, speed and beauty.  Most species have horns and are generally fawn colored with white or dark markings.  Rarely having to drink and only receives water from the leaves that they eat, they are grazers and mainly inhabit lowland thorn-bush, woodlands and grasslands.

In the gazelle’s world, they stay clear of their predators, which include lions but cheetahs and African hunting dogs are the most prevalent.  They rely on their keen sense to avoid their predators.  Their large lustrous eyes are on the sides and their pupil elongated horizontally, giving them a broad view of danger from both the back and front.  This aside, they were also created with a sharp sense of smell and hearing.

The great migration is one of the most impressive natural events worldwide, involving wildebeests, gazelles, topis, eland, and zebras.  These migrants are followed along their annual circular route by hungry predators, most notably lions and hyenas.  I was lucky enough to witness, well… not exactly the great migration per se, but the start of it at least.

That visit in 2006 has made me more aware of animals in the wild, how they live and survive in the wilderness.  I am amazed at how they are individually created with the instinct and distinct features to survive.

Random Travel Snaps: Spotted Eagle Ray

Photo courtesy of R.Rellosa

Somewhere near Blue Corner off the waters of Palau, a creature gracefully glided its way towards us.  It was my first encounter with rays and it was intoxicating.  Stupefied, I watched its flat disk-shape body with its soaring wings fly towards us.  It was identified as a Spotted Eagle Ray because it has white spots on its deep blue body.  Their long rounded snout, almost like a pig’s snout, distinguishes it from other rays.  The one encountered was quite big but it is said that a Spotted Eagle Ray can grow to nearly nine feet (3M) from wingtip to wingtip.

Rays are some the most fascinating creatures to soar through the world’s ocean and they are found worldwide in tropical waters, most commonly in shallow inshore waters, around reefs.  To come across them in Palau is quite common, thanks to the island formation and currents.  Made up of over 100 islands with low-lying oval islands ringed by barrier reefs, it is world renown for its marine bio-diversity.  Outside of the pelagic (such as sharks and rays), the water is teeming with barracuda, jacks and tuna.  Over 600 coral species smother the reefs overflowing with small fish.  Definitely a must for every diver.

As a new diver in 2007, my trip to Palau was a series of firsts – it was my first time to dive outside of the Philippines, to drift in strong currents, to use a reef hook, to see big fishes like sharks and rays…  And these firsts gave me the confidence underwater.  But truth be known, that Spotted Eagle Ray made my Palau dive experience impossible to forget.

Spelunking

Many, many years ago, 1994 I think it was, we made a day trip to Sagada from Banaue.  We found ourselves a guide and he suggested that we do the caves.  That was 18 years ago, I was not the same person I am today.  I hesitated, “I’ll stay in the jeep”, I told my friends.  They looked at me, “that’s a 3-hour wait”.  “But my shoes (a trekking boots) will get dirty”, I said.  Bewildered, they just looked at me and started walking down the steep stairs leading to the opening of Sumaging.  A friend stayed with me but when the last of them disappeared from our sight, she convinced me to do it as she has already decided to go for it.  Long story short, I gave in.

Slippery step after slippery step, I was cursing.  “I will never EVER listen to you guys again”.  But at least I didn’t cry like one of our companions.  I was too angry to cry.  Yes, it was terrifying, especially for a first timer.

But it gets better as you walk pass the guano covered rocks.  Yes again, those rocks aren’t only slippery, they’re stinky as hell too.

As we walk those boulders with only a gasera (gas lamp) lighting our way, I would imagine slipping and falling into a deep pit – for all you know, it ain’t that deep but the surroundings were pitch dark so imaginations can get wild, believe me.

At a certain point, we were asked to take off our shoes.  Well, at least my (trek) boots won’t get wet, I thought.  But my next worry though was how on earth are we to manage those slippery rocks barefooted.  Best. Thing. Ever.

The pumice-like rocks had enough traction that your feet practically stick to those boulders.  Amazing.

Still cursing though as we not only rappel up and down to get to other chambers, we had to step on our guides too, if no other options will do (shoulders or thighs lang naman).

Beautiful stone formations with names like King’s curtain, pig pen, pregnant woman, rice terraces formation etc. are found in those chambers.

It was definitely the saving grace of this “craziness”, truth to tell.

Recounting our adventure that evening, I started with “Next time we do this again, I will…”, they all looked at me, “I thought you will never EVER do this again?”  Oh well.

I was somewhat true to my word, I never entered Sumaging since.  Not saying though that I haven’t done Cueba de Oro, San Carlos, Sierra, Baggao caves since that fateful day.  Unbeknownst to me then, Sumaging would be my intro to the outdoors and life has never been the same since.  Although caving or spelunking, as they call it, will never really be a favorite activity but if push comes to shove, I’ll do it.  Anything for camaraderie.

Fast forward to 2005, I heard of the Lumiang-Sumaging traverse.  Curious and not wanting anything new to pass me by, I ventured once more to the uncomfortable with friends in tow.

We started early as this would take us 4-5 hours, they said.  More experienced this time, it wasn’t as daunting but to say it was challenging might be an understatement.

Not recommended for the faint of heart or the inexperienced.  That said, many of the friends with me that day had never experienced Sumaging or any caves for that matter… so who am I to discourage.  Did they ever enter another cave?  No.

The obstacles that we went through would consist of rappelling down small openings with the use of ropes – squeezing and contorting sometimes,

sitting on our butts and inch our way down if ropes were unavailable, hugging rocks,

walking along narrow ridges with only a rope to hold on to –this I can guarantee are steep cliffs and falling can be fatal, and a lot of listening and following (mostly the guides’ instructions).

Halfway and nearing Sumaging, the chambers would have icy cold pools where one can take a dip or rest on the banks.

Like Sumaging, Lumiang is beautiful, breathtaking even but unlike Sumaging, it can really test your limits.  A bragging right of sort, me think.

Would I do it again?  Perhaps.  I always believe though that the first time is always the most memorable.  It stays vivid in your memory like it was yesterday.  I remember more my first descent on Sumaging 18 years ago than the more recent Lumiang-Sumaging traverse.

Early this year, I accompanied friends to Sumaguing.  These friends of mine have never gone into a cave ever.  It was as I remembered it but less intimidating – I didn’t have to step on anyone’s shoulders, to say the least.

I didn’t push Lumiang… Sumaging was bittersweet for them – challenging yet a source of pride for finishing.  Exactly my sentiments each time – Sumaging or Lumiang.

Useful Tips:

1.  Aquasocks or river shoes proves best inside the cave.  I used my Five Fingers on my last trip and I didn’t have to take them off.  But sandals are good too.

2.  Wear quick drying shirts. Rash guards would keep you warmer.

3.  Never go in the cave without a guide.  Register for a guide at the Tourist Information Center at the Municipal Hall.

4.  Best is to bring headlamps and helmets (for Lumiang).

5.  Water and towel is likewise advised.

6.  Always follow your guide’s instructions.  They know best.