A few years ago, I thought of getting a tattoo. I gave myself three years to think and look for designs that would reflect my personality, my dreams, my goals in life. Of course, I consulted my dear mother about this. I knew I’d get a violent reaction. Her exact words were “Panitan jud tika!” which roughly translates to “I will skin you alive!”. To lighten the mood, my only comeback was telling her that my tattoo would say I LOVE MOMMA FOREVER! And, that was the end of the consultation.
So in the three years of waiting, I was able to funnel my choices to three – paper airplane, lotus, and a swallow. I even had a special folder in my laptop for design variations. I already picked a tattoo artist and a date. But as fate would have it, those three choices didn’t end up anywhere near my skin.
It all started when my friend Gwen and I were chatting about our travel plans and one of which is her desire to head up North of Luzon to see the living legend Whang-Od – the oldest tattoo artist of the warrior tribe in Buscalan. I’ve heard of Whang-Od but I never really bothered to research. Gwen, on the other hand, has had quite a few tattoos and this topic being right up her alley, influenced me to look up this famed artist. To cut the story short, our chat ended with her buying return tickets from Cebu to Manila and me committing to join her in this trip. My only goal was to spend my long weekend in the mountains and fulfill my topload dreams. This means being able to ride atop a jeepney along the road which snakes through the majestic mountains of the Kalinga.
What was supposed to be a 9 hour ride to Banaue turned to 13 when we encountered heavy traffic jam near Nueva Vizcaya not to mention our bus breaking down thereafter. From Banaue, we took another 2 hour van ride to Bontoc hoping to make the 3pm last jeepney trip to Buscalan. Thankfully the slowpoke driver took his dear time filling up the jeepney with passengers so we were able to secure a seat. Gwen and I were already considering riding up the top but it was too hot and we were tired from the buttload bus torture. The sun slowly mellowed as we reached the town of Bugnay, 30 minutes away from our destination. The passengers were thinning and Gwen and I were feeling a little brave so we, along with a few other travelers, climbed up the top.
Believe me it was quite a thrill. Riding on top of the jeepney in itself is cool but if that jeepney passes through a dirt road inches away from a deathly cliff then that’s a whole new story. My topload dreams alone was already a return-on-investment.
From the turning point in Buscalan, there was a short trek up the village of Whang-Od. It wasn’t much of a challenge until we started climbing up the steep foot paths. By the time we reached the village, we were hungry, tired, and famished. Good thing our super friendly local guide Jonathan got us a place to stay.
Our first night in the village was quite a treat. The home-owner prepared a two-course meal of sardines with cabbage and hot instant noodles plus delicious local rice grown in their terraces. One couple staying in the room downstairs also joined us for dinner and before we knew it, several other local guides and boys came upstairs to socialize with us. At first it was kind of odd because they all just started appearing – small talks turned to boisterous laughter to mind games and puzzles. Since there was very limited form of entertainment in the village, people have a penchant for solving matchstick puzzles, trivia, word plays and puns, jokes, and guitar playing. You can see their genuine interest in solving puzzles. It was quite cute and amusing seeing them discussing and trying to solve my fish puzzle. So the trick is to make the fish face the other way by moving only three matches (see if you can solve this too).
Next door, kids and teens were having their social night – singing songs and playing games. They regularly do this once a week. How lovely is that?! While most kids in the city are glued to their gadgets and hardly even know how to socialize, Buscalan kids have regular play dates. Not to mention the immense amount of exposure they get from local and foreign visitors. The cultural exchange and social interaction that happens in this village is far better than Facebook.
The next day, my crew and I (yes it has expanded since we made friends with other travelers wanting to get tattoos with Whang-Od) woke up at the crack of dawn to line-up for the tattoo session. We thought that it was first come first served but turns out some guides are simply more influential and aggressive than our shy boy Jonathan so we ended up waiting for four hours for our turn with Whang-Od. Yes, I said it right – our turn. I decided that morning. Heck I’ll traveled far and wide to get here, might as well get my first tattoo with a living legend. I wasn’t exactly thinking straight but yolo.
While waiting we browsed through coffee table books made by Europeans documenting the art of tattoo in the Philippines. One design spoke to me – Karayan which means river. This design means constant movement; the waters of life feeding the land and people. It represents TRAVEL of all streams and rivers down the mountains and hills to the ocean abyss which, in Itneg belief, is the entrance to the underworld of the dead. So without much thought, I showed Whang-Od this design. I was feeling anxious so I was chitchatting half the time to calm my nerves while the batok was going on. And while Whang-Od was hammering my arm with the pomelo thorn, I kept thinking how my mother would kill me – will she skin me alive or stuff me in a sack of rice, hang it upside down our nangka tree and let fire ants feast on me? Even before Whang-Od was done, I was already regretting my seemingly stupid and spontaneous decision. The enormous amount of blood that trickled down my arm didn’t help my troubled mind.
I left Buscalan not only with thoughts of my mom killing me in many ways but also with immense gratitude to the people in that peaceful village for opening their homes to us, for reminding us not to obsess about living a high life and most of all to listen to our mother.