Would you take a 12-hour bus journey up a mountain, sit on top of a jeep whilst driving through the mountain range, ride a motorbike to another mountain, to hike for an hour and a half to the mountain opposite to get a tattoo? Because that’s what I did. Well, that’s not completely true. It’s not just any tattoo and even if it was, I didn’t just do it for the tattoo.
Ever since I found out about Apo Whang-Od, (if you don’t know who she is look her up, it’s worth the extra 5 minutes) I’ve yearned to travel to the mountains of The Philippines to see her, hopefully get her signature tattoo and see the place she lived, Buscalan. You see Buscalan isn’t just any place you can get to so easily. It’s do-able of course, but it isn’t exactly a stroll around the park.
I started my trip in Cubao, Quezon City, Metro Manila, where I was to take an 11-hour coach ride to the Capital of the Mountain Province, Bontoc. After almost losing my seat on the coach due to a malfunction in the booking system, (if you’re reading this Melanie Valdez of Coda Lines, you’re awesome and thank you for fighting for my seat), I arrived nice and early at the coach station to mentally prepare myself for my journey ahead. I had that feeling again you see, that feeling of fear and excitement dancing together in my chest, the feeling I get whenever I was to embark on a new adventure to the unknown, travel into the depths, all on my own. However this time, my fear lead the dance. I’m not new to being by myself and nor was I new to going to places I have never been to before by myself, but for some reason I was scared. I sat on the 45 seater coach and watched the people pile on, speaking a provincial language which was completely different to my mother tongue “Tagalog”. More people piled in, carrying small plastic chairs and proceeded to sit on the aisle and as the bus was finally “full”, we set of towards the north. That’s when my excitement started to take the lead. The feeling of motion rushed through me as the coach roared passed the other vehicles on the motorway.
I was in and out of sleep. Which is pretty normal when you’re sitting on a coach but this was something I was used to, so it didn’t bother me. What did however, was the temperature when I stepped outside to have a cigarette when the coach took our last break. We were well into the mountains at this point and there I was in a tank top and shorts with only a thin jacket that served as my protection from the cold. It wasn’t exactly the worst but I would have been a lot more comfortable if I wasn’t ill prepared. Packing light comes at a price if you don’t take clever assumptions and don’t do research. But at the end, all was well.
Upon arriving at Bontoc, I got talking to a man named Lutput whose mother tongue was “Igorot” fortunately he spoke “Tagalog” so that we were able to understand each other. I told him about my travels and my desired destination and offered to show me where I needed to go to. I politely accepted as he told me that he adored the fact that people are willing to visit these places of the country. He lead me around the humble town of Bontoc, talking to me about the way of life until we arrived at our destination. Surely enough there was a jeep with people sitting on the roof. This was my ride. We said our goodbyes as I climbed on the jeep and sat with the others.
The view from this ride was phenomenal. Rolling mountains of green with a river running in between. Rice terraces all around the long winding road ahead. I have to admit, it was quite scary when the jeep would rock side to side with us right being next to the drop, but I was too focused on the beautiful view to actually be scared of anything. They dropped me off in “Bugnay” where I took a motorbike ride all the way up the mountain to begin my walk. There I was met with a man named “Sammy” who was the brother of my contact to guide me through the hike. (It is forbidden to enter Buscalan without one)
The hike. The village of Buscalan was on the other mountain I was on and the bridge was at the bottom. It wasn’t so difficult on the way down but I had to be cautious as it had been raining and was quite slippery. If I was to slip, then I would have fallen onto my untimely death and my body with be lost, taken by the mountains. Fortunately, this was not the case. Just after the bridge, there was a waterfall where you could swim in which and it looked so amazing. I wanted to get in but I decided to continue on. About over a hundred steps up a steep hill on the way up to the village and finally I made it. I was welcomed by the locals and shown into my homestay. Here, I was introduced to Sammy’s sister Lalaine who was to be my guide around the village. She told me that Apo Whang-Od was very busy as it was Friday and most people come to visit Buscalan around this time as it was the weekend, but we proceeded to go and see.
She was right. The queue to get Apo Whang-Od’s signature dots was too long so Lalaine suggested to get a designed tattoo from one of Apo Whang-Od’s apprentices (and grand-niece) and do the signature tattoo later. I agreed as she led me to the other side of the village. (I ate a big meal before I did any of this as I hadn’t eaten in more than 12 hours and after that hike, I needed something in my body if I was to keep on walking around). Whilst waiting for my tattoo from one of Apo Whang-Od’s apprentice Renalyn, I chatted with the locals which were full of fun and energy, constantly joking around and generally really happy. They were extremely friendly and was very welcoming not just of me, but of all the guests. They even passed around bowls of noodles and juice for those who were feeling peckish during the wait.
The tattoo. Using a bamboo stick as a hammer, a thorn of a “Calamansi” tree as the needle and charcoal as ink, I laid down and experienced a very therapeutic kind of pain which almost sent me to sleep. It hurt sure, but pain is nothing if it’s all worth it in the end. She was fast and after 10 minutes or so, she was done with my chosen design, The Mountains, which represented the mountains where this village was situated and a love of nature and the land. I smiled and thanked her for this wonderful opportunity and made my way back to Apo Whang-Od.
The queue was still too long and it was getting closer to the end. I wasn’t sure if I was still able to get a tattoo but I patiently waited in line and chatted with the other travellers, visitors and locals who were around. Almost an hour later Apo Whang-Od told everyone that she was getting tired and was soon to finish. I didn’t think I was gonna get a chance to get marked but Lalaine was adamant that I was. Just before Apo Whang-Od was to finish, she spoke to her and gently pushed me to sit down. There were still people waiting but Lalaine told them all that I was the last one. This was it. It was my turn and the last person to get a tattoo from Apo Whang-Od on that day. My chance to get marked by Philippines’ National Artist, the “Last Mambabatok”‘of the Kalinga tribe. Though a hundred years old, she was still strong and was able to mark me with her signature dots. It didn’t take long to finish and at the end, I was happy to be here and to see this culture I only heard of in stories.
Read part two for the continuation of my thoughts and experiences in this beautiful mountain village.