Sabtang Island is one of three inhabited islands of Batanes, the northernmost province in the Philippines. It is here where you can see traditional stone houses that Batanes is known for. It is also here where you can find the finest weavers of Batanes known for making the vakul, a traditional headdress worn by farmers in the fields to protect them from the sun and rain. While women traditionally wear the vakul, men wear vests known as kanayi and talugong, a traditional wide-brimmed farmer’s hat.
These unique traditional garments, woven from shredded leaves known as voyavoy or Philippine date palm, are symbols of the Ivatan people’s creativity and resilience. They serve various purposes aside from protection from the elements. Locals use it as a sleeping mat, container and even a crib for babies in the field. It’s a long, laborious process to make the vakul. The palm leaves are dried under the sun, shredded into thin parts and woven carefully. It can take a month for a weaver to finish making one vakul.
I’ve been to Sabtang Island once before. Back then I was backpacking solo on a personal trip and joined a day trip tour handled by BISUMI Tours along with other tourists I just met. We were all eager to see everything the island had to offer in the span of a few hours. I felt extremely grateful to be invited by the Tourism Promotions Board (TPB) to cover the 1st Vakul-Kanayi Festival, the first festival of its kind held on Sabtang Island last April 2016.
We flew to Basco via Wakay Air, a locally operated airline which offers chartered flights to Basco from Manila with special rates for Ivatans. After a day in Batan Island, we spent three days in Sabtang, visiting unique heritage sights including the stone house communities in Savidug and Chavayan, the breathtaking Chamantad-Tinyan Viewpoint and participating in the festivities.
The days were filled with small town revelry celebrated through the meaningful display of customs and rituals beyond the usual photo op stops during tours.
The festival kicked off with a Maritime Parade, where decorated boats sailed near the shore of the island. Faluwas, the traditional boats without any outriggers that are used in areas with strong waves, danced on the sea treating us to a roller-coaster ride on the water. Unlike the ride going to Sabtang in the morning, the waves were pretty strong towards noon.
A Float Parade showcased creatively designed floats including model Ivatan stone houses. I really liked how all of the competing floats made use of indigenous materials in their float’s design.
The biggest produce from different farms were displayed in booths during the Agro-Trade Fair. Instead of the usual tarp tents, the booths were likewise decorated in an eco-friendly manner, with woven coconut leaves and stalks of plants decorating the stalls. Dried flying fish were strung up like lanterns, and unique souvenir products like bottled flying fish, turmeric powder and seaweed chips were sold.
We were invited to take part in the parlor games, where locals had to catch chickens, pigs and goats. Whoever caught the animals would get to keep it, showing the importance of farming in the community. Another game was sheep riding, where local kids competed for the longest time they could ride a sheep.
Fiesta time in the Philippines always means food. During our stay, we got a taste of Ivatan specialties and learned how many of the dishes evolved because of the need for survival. Dibang or flying fish and dorado are traditionally dried in the summer so that people have food to eat when fishermen can’t go out to sea during the rainy season.
Uvud are little balls made of minced banana pith or roots (sometime the only part of the tree that’s left after a typhoon hits) cooked with fish flakes and pork. Beef is plentiful on the island because of all the cattle ranches, so bistek (beefsteak) was served in almost all our meals. In honor of the fiesta, locals also slaughtered several pigs, to make lunis, a crispy and dry Ivatan version of adobo, which is cooked and preserved in its own oil, and is often kept in a jar in the household. It lasts a long time and is usually only served during special occasions or when there are guests.
Because of the soil, rice doesn’t really grow well on the island, so most of the rice is imported from the mainland and brought in via cargo ships. During the typhoon season, when cargo ships can’t come in, locals go without rice. One way they have shown its value, is by mixing it with special spices. Turmeric rice is an Ivatan specialty, where rice is cooked with turmeric powder and ginger, giving the rice its signature yellow color. Meals are traditionally served in a vunung, a package using large kabaya or breadfruit leaves, so people can easily wrap it up to take it out in the field.
Traditionally a local delicacy, tatus or coconut crab has become endangered and overharvested because of the high demand from tourists. Though it is still served in some restaurants, local tourism officials are discouraging visitors from eating this. There are always regular crabs, lobster and other types of seafood to go around.
There were no loud concerts or wild rave parties that have become synonymous with the larger fiestas in the Philippines. Instead, we were treated to rarely heard cultural performances. While sitting on the grassy field next to the town church, we watched locals perform Ivatan oral poetry called laji and the sagala narrating the life of Sabtang’s patron saint, San Vicente Ferrer.
Walking home at night to our homestay, we saw how serious the children and performers were practicing for the street dance and dance showdown, the major highlights of the festival. It was a privilege to see the hard work of the four competing groups during the dance showdown. The women from the Sabtang Weavers Association also prepared a special dance number.
During the street dance and dance showdown, each group illustrated the importance of the vakul to the Ivatan people’s lifestyle and unique traditions and rituals. Team Panikal, named after the process for splitting flying fish, highlighted the rich fishing culture of the Island.
Team Sarwap, showcased how the vakul and kanayi are made from harvest to production, and their different uses in the fields and the daily lives of farmers. They also paid tribute to San Vicente Ferrer, the island’s patron saint, whose feast day coincides with the festival.
Team Aman Dagat focused on a legend of how their local heroes fought against the Spaniards and the daily lives of Ivatan farmers.
Team Vuyavuy used the same material for making the vakul for their tribal inspired costumes and dance number.
The 1st Vakul-Kanayi Festival in Sabtang Island was really one of the most charming festivals I’ve had the honor of attending. This is really the essence of what a Philippine fiesta should be – community spirit, paying tribute to age-old customs and traditions and just soaking in the simple way of life on an island.