In Batanes, Sabtang Island celebrates first ever Vakul-Kanayi Festival

BATANES, Philippines – Gathering hundreds of excited Ivatans and tourists, the small island of Sabtang became the heart of fun in the entire Batanes isles as it celebrated the first Vakul-Kanayi Festival last April 25 to 27.

Vakul is the quintessential headgear worn by women and kanayi are the vests draped on men when they work in the field. Made from shredded leaves of voyavoy or Philippine date palm, this all-weather gear is unique to the Ivatans and are still worn to this day. 

For 3 days, Sabtang was packed with a whole slew of activities from indigenous games and cultural shows to fluvial parades and street dancing competition. Despite being a small town fiesta, it captured the essence of Ivatan lifestyle highlighted with new spectacles that wowed its guests.

As an avid cultural festivalgoer, I stayed in the island for weeks to observe how they shaped the celebration. Day and night, everyone in the community helped in prepping the program, mindless of the fact that they were competing with each other in various inter-barangay contests.

Everyone’s effort and dedication to stage Sabtang’s first ever festival proved to be their biggest strength in pulling off a great fiesta. Coming from a very small town without any experience of mounting a festival of this scale was something good and beyond imagination.

Sabtang mayor Max Babalo admits that it was an ambitious project. With very little time to prepare and limited resources to use, they were hoping to initiate something new and meaningful for the island. 

With a good cause, massive support poured in from institutions like the Department of Tourism, the Tourism Promotions Board and the provincial government to small-time local enterprises.

And in the ways of the Ivatans where real-life bayanihan is still practiced, many Ivatan-owned companies rolled in their help, like Wakay Air that provided additional chartered flights from Manila. More boats also sailed nonstop from the capital island in Batan ferrying tourists, locals and goods. Tour operators developed special itineraries to time tourist arrivals in Sabtang during the festival season.

CHIPPING IN. Everyone helped make the festival a success. In the photo are DOT Region II Director, Vir Maguigad together with representatives from the Tourism Promotions Board, Batanes Tourism Office, Wakay Tours u0026 members of the media. Photo by Potpot Pinili/Rappler

CHIPPING IN. Everyone helped make the festival a success. In the photo are DOT Region II Director, Vir Maguigad together with representatives from the Tourism Promotions Board, Batanes Tourism Office, Wakay Tours u0026 members of the media.

Photo by Potpot Pinili/Rappler

Many residents also opened their homes to accommodate more guests. Even their electricity service that is normally rationed only until 12 midnight was extended to almost 24 hours. 

But the best thing was that there was not even a single brand sponsor's banner in sight. Local politicians were in full attendance but surprisingly no one took the opportunity to campaign for votes. The event was a classic display of Ivatan culture, being honest, humble and respectful.

Street dancing, a novelty in Batanes was the most anticipated part of the festival. With the help of artistic consultants, Sabtang’s PE and music teachers developed narratives, movements and music that expressed the wonders of voyavoy and how it represents their identity as Ivatans. 

PERFORMANCES. Vakul and kanayi are more than just farming accessories but a representation of the Ivatans' way of life. Photo by Potpot Pinili/Rappler

PERFORMANCES. Vakul and kanayi are more than just farming accessories but a representation of the Ivatans' way of life.

Photo by Potpot Pinili/Rappler

For 3 days, we witnessed indigenous games like chasing pigs and goats, a sheep rodeo and barefooted sprint for kids. The fisherfolks also wowed the cheering crowd in tataya racing or traditional boat rowing that screamed of their skills and power in paddling through the wild waters.

WINNERS. The grand champion of the 1st Vakul-Kanayi Festival from Barangay Sinakan in their winning moment. Photo by Potpot Pinili/Rappler

WINNERS. The grand champion of the 1st Vakul-Kanayi Festival from Barangay Sinakan in their winning moment.

Photo by Potpot Pinili/Rappler

In a rare experience, guests were treated to various cultural performances like the singing of the Ivatan oral poetry called laji and the sagala that narrates a part of the life of Sabtang’s patron saint, San Vicente Ferrer.

“Vakul-Kanayi Festival is a wonderful attraction to an already spectacle-filled province”, says DOT Regional Director Virgilio Maguigad. “With its successful first, it happily puts the northernmost province on the festival map of the Philippines.”

OPENING DAY. The fluvial procession in honor of San Vicente Ferrer formally opened the 3-day festivity. Photo by Potpot Pinili/Rappler

OPENING DAY. The fluvial procession in honor of San Vicente Ferrer formally opened the 3-day festivity.

Photo by Potpot Pinili/Rappler

Sabtang is one of the favorite parts of anyone’s trip to Batanes. It does not only offer a wealth of natural attractions like rolling hills and beaches but also unique heritage sites like the stone house communities in Savidug and Chavayan.

It is also the homeland of the finest weavers of vakul, kanayi and talugong, a farmer’s hat known as salakot in the mainland. For the first time in their history, the weavers took the centerstage and were honored as the pillars of Ivatan crafts. Among them was Emilia Habana, the oldest weaver now close 90 years old.

The island is now quiet and back to its usual chill. But everyone still reminisces the best 3 days they have ever had in a long time. “We will make it better next year”, closes Yvonne Candel, Sabtang’s Municipal Tourism Officer. – Rappler.com