Outside my window, the morning skies were a muted gray, and I could see dark clouds in the horizon, but our 30-seater Dornier aircraft flew smoothly through the somewhat gloomy weather, thanks to our seasoned captain. Soon, the view gave way to Calayan’s famed Sibang Cove and lush green cliffs. It was my first time seeing them. It was not only my first time; it was also the first time for anyone, as our group was on board the first flight that would land in Calayan.
As our plane touched down the airport’s 800-meter runway for the first time, I felt a rush of emotion. I was now in one of my dream destinations! But it was not only that – there was something else, an inexplicable feeling I could not identify.
That feeling would make sense as I saw the lines upon lines of locals waving and greeting us in welcome, well into the hundreds. Many were standing at the airport grounds’ perimeter, well outside the area for check-in and boarding. The sea of people and the waves of emotion that came with them were too much to take in, but I noted some details – there were locals dressed in shirts in bold colors that look like uniforms, and there were men and women in brightly-colored outfits that look like the usual fare for festival street dances. There was a stage setup – I remember from our itinerary that there would be a program after the flight landing. A bright “Welcome to Calayan Island” sign also stood out among the crowd. Later, many of them would go near, or even enter the aircraft we rode in, to see for themselves the plane that touched Calayan’s ground for the first time. Some even told me there were happy tears among the people.
While I could not remember each visual detail at the airport that morning on the last week of March, I can still feel the people’s almost-palpable mix of emotions, among them pride and excitement, that morning.
The locals danced their traditional dances and plied us visitors with their kakanin (rice-based delicacies) like suman (sticky rice) and puto (rice cake). The dance inspired by the piding, a rare flightless bird endemic to Calayan, intrigued me particularly.
Locals’ take on Bicol Region’s Sarung Banggi (“One Night”)
Later, the reason behind the intensity of the locals’ emotions on this first flight to Calayan became clearer to me when Mayor Alfonso “Al” Llopis took the stage. He was happy with the first flight and the promise of more flights as these would translate to better safety in transportation for locals.
Currently, locals brave the seas on the local boat, lampitaw, for at least fours to travel to Cagayan mainland. Even during summer, there is no guarantee of smooth journeys. As locals are crossing the open seas, a slight change in weather can turn everything awry. Waves can get as big as houses or hills. Many have already died in the journey. Later, I would learn that the mayor also lost a relative traveling from Aparri to Calayan.
“Many lives have already been lost – those are enough,” Llopis said in Filipino. He said Calayan is dedicating the airport to all those who lost their lives crossing the sea between Calayan and Cagayan mainland and “who showed us the hard way why infrastructure development in transportation is important.”
“I cannot afford for the next generation, the children today, and the next generations to ride on that risky boat (lampitaw),” he said earnestly. “Before, I watched my children sleep and remember their desire for travel but I get scared when I think of them riding that boat.”
Now, his heart is more at ease, knowing that the first flight has already landed in Calayan, paving the way for regular flights in the future, a safer travel option for his children and other children.
Locals who could rarely go home because of the difficult sea crossing can now go home more often. One schoolteacher I talked to who has a son studying in Tuguegarao said the flights would give her son a chance to come home more often. Mayor Llopis himself said he also rarely went home during his student days because of the risky journey.
Getting to this point was not easy, as the airport itself was a challenge to build, Llopis recalled. It was a decades-old dream of locals, and of his grandfather, then-Mayor Benedicto Llopis, who tried to build it in the 1960s, but was stomped with logistics and funding issues. His grandson, the younger Llopis’ brother, also attempted during his term in 2001, but the project was not completed either. When Al Llopis took office in 2010, he was determined to continue and finish what his grandfather and brother began.
Getting approval for construction from the right authorities was not easy – the Department of Interior and Local Government, for example, argued that it was not the Calayan local government unit’s (LGU’s) mandate to build an airport. The LGU appealed, though, that the airport would mainly be a social service to locals given the dangers and difficulties traveling by sea.
Funding was also a challenge. Llopis said investors were not interested. He took out a bank loan to finance the construction. Eventually, others gave additional funds too, like the provincial government.
The airport became ready for flights January this year. Llopis turned to Jerry Cabalce, CEO of Wakay Air Transport, an agency which has experience chartering flights, to arrange the first flight to Calayan. Cabalce knew the risks given Calayan’s unpredictable weather but was happy to take on the task. He asked a seasoned pilot to fly the plane, a decision that would be pivotal to our flight later.
At 5 am in the morning of our flight, it was still unclear if our group would take off. Cabalce revealed this to our group later, when we were all relaxed after a lunch of Calayan’s fresh catch. It was still raining then in the island that early morning, he recalled. Still, the locals proceeded later with the airport blessing and Mass. And even as Cabalce heard on the radio that our plane had taken off and was later nearing Calayan, he still held his breath. From experience, he knew that even flights already close to the airport could get diverted. Fortunately, thanks also to the improved weather and the pilot’s skill, we were able to land, and Cabalce was finally able to relax when the aircraft touched Calayan’s solid ground.
Still, despite the weather challenge, Cabalce maintained flying to Calayan is easier and safer. “In flying, you just need 15 minutes of clear weather to land. In sea travel it can take one day or more for the waters to calm down to resume travel.”
Cabalce is hopeful that there would be regular flights soon, and at reasonable prices for locals. He is helping facilitate the paperwork for regular flights to operate, hopefully within the year.
In preparation for the regular flights and the arrival of more tourists, he is also doing research on Calayan for sustainable tourism activities. Also the CEO of Wakay Travel & Tours, a homegrown Batanes tour operator, Cabalce has an advocacy of sustainable tourism and helping communities plan this.
Meanwhile, Tourism Promotions Board (TPB) Chief Operations Officer (COO) Marie Venus Tan commended Calayan’s mayor and the rest of the local government on the new airport. “This would not have happened if not for the political will of the LGU,” she said empathically. “You have a visionary LGU.”
She only asked Calayan’s people to take care of the island. She is also keen on seeing sustainable development in Calayan, and said a master plan is essential. “There should be a zoning – which area should be developed, which should be left alone, which should have a low-impact tourism, and which should be a protected area,” she said.
Cabalce, together with the mayor and the local community, is working on Calayan’s tourism master plan. “We should anticipate problems before they come instead of being reactive when they do,” he said.
While investors may be interested in Calayan with the new airport and the promise of regular flights, the mayor is wary. He said sustainable tourism is still his priority, and that would be the lens he prefers the LGU would use when considering business proposals, even after his term ends next month. “I want to preserve the beauty of Calayan,” he said in Filipino. He added that he did not want Calayan to go the way of places like Boracay. In fact, he, Cabalce, and Tan have ascertained that Calayan won’t be able to accommodate mass tourism and is more appropriate for special interest visitors. These can be adventure travelers, game fishers, birdwatchers, among others.
In terms of tourism infrastructure, Llopis is just considering improving the current accommodations in the island and possibly adding new ones, and only up to two storeys high.
With the first flight landing, hopes are high among the LGU and the locals for Calayan. My hopes ride with them, too.
During our visit I witnessed the beauty of Calayan’s coves, cliffs, caves, and other natural attractions (Will write about this next!). I experienced the warmth, kindness, and the pride of locals on their island. I go back to some of the words of Calayan’s official song played on the loudspeakers before the program on Calayan’s first flight landing:
Minamahal kong bayang Calayan,
Pangalan mo’y aking pagsisigawan
Ikaw na aking bayang sinilangan
Kariktan mo’y aking napagmasdan
Bukod-tangi ang ganda mong taglay.
(My beloved hometown Calayan,
Your name I will shout out,
You the hometown I was born in,
Your loveliness I have beheld,
Your beauty one of a kind.)
Yaman mo’y aming iingatan
Katapatan sa yo’y ilalalaan,
Sa yo lamang minamahal na Calayan
Pagyayamanin bundok mo’t karagatan
Karapatan mo’y ipaglalaban.
(Your riches we will care for,
Our faithfulness we will devote to you,
Only for you, beloved Calayan.
We will enrich your mountains and seas,
Your rights we will fight for.)
Calayan’s beauty is indeed one of a kind. And I hope the people will preserve this beauty as they pledge so whenever they sing this song with the tune of a gentle folk love song.