Arriving when the sun was just about to set, I motioned for Klang to stop as we reached the top end of a seemingly forever set of steps. It was a fleeting moment, but the sun played around behind the clouds and mountains before it retired just like you would when you toss and turn in your bed, pre-slumber.
It dawned on me, that my very first trip to Buscalan would have been one of the longest as I remembered preparing for the trip just a mere 24 hours before: braving through Manila traffic to get to Banaue, waiting for a ride to Bontoc, navigating the locality for that lone jeep to Buscalan, taking the chaotically arranged motorcycle ride all the way to the foot of the mountain and finally climbing the steps to this very moment, as the village prepares its nightly rituals.
Details of my trip here.
It seemed long but perfectly timed, with acceptable waiting periods between, that were spent having freshly brewed coffee and savouring a town’s local harvest. It also proved opportune, having met Klang inside the jeep we were in while in Bontoc, and who happened to be an important piece in the sequence.
I hear a bustle behind me and hear Klang talk to someone in her dialect. With the night fast approaching, I turned to see who it was and was instantly taken aback. Making her way to sit on the dimly-lit bench to join her family was the famed Whang-Od, the very reason for my visit. She was done for the day, having crafted more than 10 tattoos since the early hours. She had a loose air about her, greenjoked quite a bit – Klang tells me and had gifted me with her smile as she peered with trusting eyes. For a moment, I was welcomed into their simple village, their casual life, in such a muted but grand way.
Of all the trips I’ve taken, this would have to be one of the most memorable seeing the last mambabatok in this unscripted, informal way and being able to take photos of her without the notorious crowd. It was quiet and surreal, like a backstage pass to meet a legend. And legend she is and very much alive at that. Today, she gives life to the lost art by passing it on to the Butbut tribe’s youngest maidens to ensure its longevity, the first recipient being her grandniece, Grace. Although traditional tattoos can be locally acquired even further south of the country, nothing can replace having one done by the oldest in the Philippines as Whang Od is famously known for. She is a national treasure, even without the recognition, stamping devoted travellers with traditional art passed on through the millenias.
I woke up the next day, refreshed and surprised that I did despite the unfamilar wooden floor I slept in, the eerie sharpness of the dark and Klang’s just-ground coffee served before bedtime. I took a cold tabo bath, which was easily -10°, unnecessarily jolting me awake. Soon enough, there was an audible buzz from the houses around me, their make-shift exhaust pipes moving the crisp air around as the locals put on a morning fire.
Nothing spoke to me. I was quite alarmed. I asked if I should just let Apo choose one for me, likened to the promise of Disney grandmotherly figures.
I excitedly waited for Klang in the dark, ready to go, as she wipes the sleep in her eyes. I honestly wanted to be the first in line as I’ve heard how busy Apo gets. She makes another round of coffee, the second cup of many that day, disappears and comes back with a book. I scanned through pages of tattoo designs and immersed myself into the meanings of each. Nothing spoke to me. I was quite alarmed. I asked if I should just let Apo choose one for me, likened to the promise of Disney grandmotherly figures. I took a receipt out of my wallet and started scribbling on the back of it making sure there’s nothing solidly filled in. I made my way to Apo’s house but still unsure of my design and upon arriving in the vicinity, I was surprised there were a lot of people queueing already. I heeded the universal energy I got in the morning and resumed my drawing as I joined a legion of people. There must have been 20 people before me. Gosh, I had a bus to catch at 11am.
Under my breath, I muttered appreciation for my journey thus far. In situations like these, I have learned in my travels to trust. Almost immediately, like Moses and his staff, the crowd suddenly evaporated after paying their respects to Whang Od and eventually descended from the mountain. I was suddenly 5th in line and I didn’t know who the universe had to sleep with to give me this ticket.
Then, I noticed along one of her walls, a drawing of two figures I haven’t seen anywhere in the book. They had their hand held up in gratitude, with some saying, in prayer. I knew then that it was picked especially for me.I continued to draw the essence of my tattoo in large clean lines, supplementing this with a traditional centipede design which I liked and later found out was called gayaman or safety for travellers. It was perfect. Even more so, when Apo Whang Od rendered my design traditionally, adding more lines to what I originally had. It became a unique, collaborative symbol, etched forever on my skin. I describe what it meant to me then in my social media:
Ang drama ko lang beshy. May hashtags pa yan:
#thankyou #feels #cleansing #tattoo #kalinga #buscalan
At eto pa: