A pilgrimage – that is how I would call my journey to Buscalan, a hidden village in the mountains of Kalinga. After all, the horrors and pains we had to endure to get there remain unthinkable, but I would still do it again in a heartbeat.
I only see my best friend a couple of times a year, because life keeps getting in the way. So after almost two decades of friendship, we decided that this would be the year we’d go on an adventure together. I said we could go to Sagada, and she said I could accompany her straight to Buscalan Village after to get inked by the famous Apo Whang Od, the last “mambabatok.”
Of course I had heard of her, and while it amused me, unlike most people, I was not quick to add it to my Bucket List. Not to mention, getting a tattoo was a non-negotiable in our very conservative household. And quite honestly, the trace of mass tourism disgusted me. But then again, I am not one to say no to an adventure. And what did I know, really?
The Road Less Traveled (and for good reasons)
I embrace all kinds of surprises when traveling, but I hate not knowing what l am about to get myself into. I had possibly read all blogs about it. The pictures of blood and cowering faces were enough to discourage any little attempt I had to get myself a tattoo. There was even a blog I read about a foreigner who put her life at risk, because her open wound got infected. Of course I pointed this out to my best friend, who apparently had made up her mind.
From a very laid-back Sagada trip, we went to Bontoc to get on a bus to Buscalan. I was not prepared to see a run down ordinary bus, which quickly filled to capacity. To my horror, more people prepared to stand on the aisle, while others crawled to the top of the bus. “Toploading”, I heard, was fun. Well, they clearly did not see this particular bus. The bus, with all its might, snaked through the mountains, picking up more passengers along the way much to my horror. We passed by some falling rocks and rough roads. We were sitting by the window by the cliffs, and I honestly feared for my life, seeing that some roads didn’t have railings. We could have easily fallen into oblivion.
After over 2 hours of holding my breath and watching locals, in disbelief, sleep like babies, we were so relieved to get off the bus. Only to find out that we had to endure this time a motorbike ride. I usually enjoy a motorbike back ride, but that one felt nauseous. I was still not spared from the sight of immense beauty and where my body would have been found had we suddenly fallen from the ridge.
After traversing some kilometers on a raging motorcycle, we met Kuya Francis, our tour guide and porter. Now here comes real work. We started the downhill-uphill trek, catching our breaths once in a while. After almost an hour of me repeatedly reminding myself to work on having stronger legs and lungs, we finally arrived.
The Land Where You Travel Back to Time
We were met by young kids asking for candies and some, surprise, wild boars. We first settled in Kuya Charlie’s guesthouse, had Kalinga brew, and ate lunch. After stuffing ourselves, we went to where all the action was going on.
We met JP, a retired nurse who has been to the village at least four times in the last 6 months, Dorothy and Luigi, two graduating students who were clearly having the time of their lives, Luanne who extended her supposedly overnight stay to a few more days to witness a birthday. Turns out, birthdays or weddings are big celebrations there. They were just a few of the people we have exchanged stories with, and each story always started with either “what tattoo did you get” or “what tattoo are you getting.” As predicted, my “I’m only accompanying my friend” response was met with a standard follow-up question of, “why?! You’ve traveled far enough, might as well make the most of it.” I was not at all shaken; I was quite convinced I’d pass.
After some time, along came Apo Whang Od. Her presence really is so powerful. Also, I had seen photos of her, but she really is a sight to behold. Her concentration, her meek smile, “her squint – they seem to mean something. When she meets your eyes and hold her gaze, you feel like you’re under a spell.
On the opposite side were her grand daughters Eliang and Grace. You couldn’t deny the traces of modernity, the perfect awareness of what lies beyond the mountains. They talk about boys and sing along pop and hiphop music playing on their smart phones. At one point, Grace even pointed out to a sticker of Kanye West on a visitor’s mobile phone and remarked that she doesn’t like him.
One Second of Immense Courage
All the while, I was a happy spectator. I’d go around asking people what their tattoo meant and asking them to rate the pain.
I was sitting beside my best friend, taking photos, while she was being tattooed by Grace. Someone asked Grace what time their daily sessions end, and she said 4PM. It was quarter to 4 then, and she pointed out to me and said I’d be her last for the day if I would get one. For the first time that day, I actually considered it. I don’t know what washed over me, but in my mind, I was saying, “Why not?!” I had no time to argue with myself so I took the seat that my best friend just emptied, handed my arm to her, and told her I’d get a bird, a small one.
Partly, I wanted to test whether I could handle the pain, but mostly, I was washed with all these feelings of disbelief, that I was actually there in that moment, and there really is no other way to embed that feeling of gratitude to have experienced something very special than with a tribal tattoo – the use of pomelo thorn instead of needle, bamboo, and melted charcoal mixed in a coconut bowl.
Within their tribe, the tattoo symbolized beauty for the women and bravery for the men. Women were given tattoos as accessories. On the other hand, when it comes to men, the tattoos held much more meaning. Only the true warriors were worthy of an indelible mark. They were the headhunters who had to show the enemy’s head before they could celebrate and culminate the victory with a tattoo.
We spent the rest of the night going around houses, and being offered fresh coffee in every one of them. We played with the kids, talked with the women of the houses, and shared folktales with the men. We shared meals, swapped stories, gave smiles and laughters – notwithstanding the absence of TV, phone signal, and hot shower. When it was time to call it a night, we climbed up Kuya Charlie’s tiny guest room, spent a good few minutes trying to kill flying insects with a slipper, and slept surprisingly sound.
The next morning, we got up early so my best friend could have her tattoo made by Apo Whang Od. After painfully watching her skin bleed, we packed and started our journey back to real life. As we encounter travelers who were jut trekking up the village, we wished them well. I hope you have a heart that is prepared to take it all in.
My tattoo was not from Apo Whang Od, it may be too small and insignificant, and my decision may be a bit too rushed, but none of that makes it less meaningful. If anything, for me, it reminds me of courage, a sense of adventure, and a remembrance of an experience of a lifetime.
So, that’s the story of how I got my first (and probably last) tattoo. It was one of the few things I did impulsively that I don’t ever regret.
As of this writing, Apo Whang Od still does tattoo at 97, give or take, but she’s passed on the tradition to her siblings’ granddaughters. There’s a petition to make her a National Artist, and I hope she lives to see the day that her name is written alongside the other artists in the Philippines that we truly honor and admire.