People of the Elements
The Ivatan People of the Philippines
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
From the back, they look like giant haystacks, and when you first meet the Ivatan people on the remote Batanes Islands of the Philippines you might think they all have shaggy golden manes of hair.
Then you get up close and realise that their headgear is a huge hat made of palm leaves, designed to protect them from the volatile climate. The hats and similar jackets are essential on the tiny islands which are battered by up to 30 typhoons a year.
With only 17,000 inhabitants, the Batanes are the remotest and least inhabited of the 7,106 Philippine islands. So remote, that the islands are actually closer to Taiwan than to the Philippines’ main island of Luzon. With its bare cliffs, verdant hilly inland and stone-hewn cottages, the Batanes are reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands.
And just like remote Scottish communities, the Ivatan have preserved much of their original culture.
The distant location, the inclement weather, the rough sea and meagre resources have not only shaped Ivatan culture; it has also kept mass tourism at bay, reinforcing the separateness of the Ivatan.
Local authorities estimate that about 50 tourists make it to their islands every year but most of those are Philippinos from Manila.
One of the first eyewitness accounts of the Ivatan is that of British buccaneer William Dampier in 1687. He described the natives as “short, squat people: generally round visaged, hazel eyes, small yet bigger than Chinese; low foreheads; thick eyebrows; short low noses; white teeth; black thick hair, lank that is worn short, just covering the ears, cut round, very even; and very dark, copper-coloured skin.”
Still, the Batanes are almost uniformly Catholic, a lasting testimony to the Spanish colonisation and the resulting influx of Dominican friars. As early as 1772, the Spaniards sent expeditions to the islands. Only a year later, the Ivatan consented to become subjects of the King of Spain and the islands were renamed Provincia de Concepcion.
Batanes consists of ten islands of which only three of them – Batan, Sabtang and Itbayat - are inhabited. And whoever wants to visit the latter island has to be fairly limber.
There are no ports, pier or beaches.
To get off the boat – the only way to get to the island – the visitor needs to wait until a giant wave brings the boat level with the shore and jump off. Getting back on the boat requires a similar procedure.
The province’s capital is Basco on the main island Batan. Unlike much of the remainder of the islands, Basco has electricity, phone lines and several forms of public transport. Batan has also recently been blessed with the Internet although the Ivatan are not taking to the electronic highway as enthusiastically as the authorities had hoped. BatanesConnect, as the Internet-café it is grandly called, has one rickety computer and sending an email can take up to ten minutes.
Still, the local students who set it up need not despair.
The introduction of the telephone took years and was only realised in 1997.
There are still no cars on the island and the inhabitants make do with two jeepneys that are used both as taxis and to transport heavy goods. Most people will ride their bicycles or tricycles.
Unfortunately, the two jeepneys recently bumped into each other and they are now out of commission.
Ivatan society still revolves around the principle of kayvayvanan, or cooperativism. Every family belongs to a kayvayvanan and can be called upon for large undertakings like the raising of a house, clearing or planting large agricultural plots. Traditionally, the Ivatan houses are built with limestone walls, reed and a thatched roof made of cogon grass. The roof should last 25 to 30 years and should be able to withstand the typhoons which ravage the islands with an average of about eight times a year. Only three of the four walls have windows. The fourth wall faces the direction the wind usually blows from.
Some residents nowadays opt to use cement – which is cheaper – to repair and renovate their cottages but limestone and cement do not bind well, so that the results are rather ramshackle.
Every Batanes resident has his or her favourite typhoon story. The governor of Batanes, for instance, tells of a stormy night long ago when the family gathered in the kitchen around the fire to wait out the storm. As the gale gathered force, a cow fell through the thatched roof in their midst. The next day, the governor’s family enjoyed a feast. The typhoon season in this part of the Philippines can last up to eight months and storms can reach 300 kilometres per hour.
Even the Ivatan’s traditional dress is aimed at keeping the nasty weather at bay. Women wear a vukul, which looks like a shaggy golden mane and is made of the leaves of a palm tree, the Phoenix hanceana philippinensis, or voyavoy. Putting together the vukul can take up to a month and they are a prized possession. Vukuls are kept in mint condition by combing their strands constantly, and hanging them on the wall when not worn. Vukuls are traditionally made by the elderly women of the town of Chavayan on Sabtang Island. Many women also carry a basket, or alat, which is then worn underneath the vukul. Alats are used to carry farm tools and produce. Men wear traditional vests made of banana leaves called tadidi and wear a talugung, a conical and more modest hat.
The Batanes authorities have realised the value of the traditional craft of weaving and have embarked on a plan to replant the coastal plains with voyavoy to ensure a steady supply of raw material. The people of Batanes might be surprised to learn that their local costume is a hit with Western fashion designers. Philippino designer Ignacio Loyola won the Smirnoff Fashion Awards International with a vakul-inspired jacket paired with a paper skirt and a corset made of metal coils. He used Batanes grass to create a bag to go with the outfit.