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Published: March 8th 2019
It had been a tough journey, yet here I was in the remote village of Buscalan in the North Philippine Mountains, about to receive a tribal tattoo from a young woman under the tutelage of the 102 year old living legend, Whang Od. I had heard about this remarkable elder, the last of the “mambabatok”, traditional tattoo artists who use citrus thorns and natural charcoal the way their headhunting ancestors had for 1000 years.
On a recent 3 week walkabout in this glorious country, I trekked beautiful Mount Apo in Mindanao, hitchhiked and took buses across Samar, Bicol and Catanduanes provinces. While traveling, I learned of the legend of this woman Whang Od from numerous people and wondered if somehow I could meet her. It was a shot in the dark but with 5 days left at the end of my trip, I decided to give it a try. I caught a plane into the steamy, humid town of Angeles, hopped on a bus 2 hours to the bustling city of Baguio. I was extremely fortunate to transition right onto a 6 hour bus, headed to the northern Cordillera town of Bontoc. Not many travelers go this way, the curious
locals engaged me about my plans.
As the day got long and the sun went down, we climbed slowly into the mountains, the roads very winding with steep drop-offs on each side. We stopped once for gas and food, it was quite cold at this altitude. After many hours and a few detours, we rolled into Bontoc, a pleasant, friendly place of about 25,000 people. I found a small room (about $10), some good food, cold beer, even some live music as it was Friday night. I began to hatch my plan, went to the local market and stocked up on matches, gin and sea salt, all things that would be appreciated in the village and might help me on my mission.
The next morning, after a few hours visiting the stunning Maligcong Rice Terraces, my innkeeper introduced me to a friend who had a tricycle, similar to a tuk tuk. This great guy drove me 2 hours for a small fee, dropped me at a junction seemingly in the middle of nowhere. He told me to wait, a motorcycle would come along. Indeed it did, I hopped on the back and I was whisked up a rutted
road about 15 minutes. At the end, there were a number of buses parked, groups had come on tours from Manila to the village. Everyone said, “you aren’t part of a group, you won’t be allowed in or have a place to sleep for the night”. I just ignored them, walked on with the other travelers, hoping for good things. The way was steep, very steep, about a 40 minute walk on a super hot day.
I got into the village, amazingly had the chance to meet Whang Od right away, very unusual as she is quite popular. I gave her a special necklace I had brought her for her 102nd birthday, she smiled and put it on. I strolled through the village, this super kind Filipino guy saw me looking confused and invited me to join his group. Now, I just had to convince the reluctant homestay owner: the salt, matches and other goodies came in handy. Success, it worked. I got settled, over the next two days met great people here for the same reason as me in this beautiful mountain setting. We shared food, songs, campfires, smiles and the fear and excitement about the process.
Then finally, it was my turn. I chose an ancient symbol of a crab, symbolizing a traveler. The young woman, trained specially by the aging Whang Od, slowly traced and retraced the design I had chosen on my left ankle bone. She told me clearly that it would hurt and to be calm when she was working. I bought a sharp new calamansi (citrus) thorn, which comes inserted through a little bamboo rod. The thorn is dipped repeatedly in charcoal and tap, tap, tapped into all parts of the drawn on design. Little blood beads come to the surface during the process, they are wiped off and the work continues. I was light headed, dreamily reflected during the pain about the arduous journey I had made and the ancient process that I was part of. Other travelers sat and talked me through the pain.
After about 30 minutes, the artist smiled and told me she was finished, gave me instructions about how to care for the wound/tattoo. She said “no oil, no lotion, no shower for a day, just brush it off with handi wipes, keep it clean”. I wandered around the village happily, looked at the patterns others
had chosen, comforted them as they had done for me. It was quite a community, other people who had been drawn to this village for the experience, the culture, the history of this special technique. One of the other groups invited me to have brandy with them, everyone was sharing their food.
As I lay down to sleep on my little mat on the homestay floor, it had gotten cool and I appreciated the heavy blanket that had been given to me. The guy next to me was snoring very loudly, I went outside and slept in a hammock under the stars, muted noises of the village in the background. The next morning, I packed my backpack, said goodbye to my new friends and strolled through the village. To my surprise, I had the chance to visit again with Whang Od again, she was still wearing the gift I gave her the day before. I walked down the dirt path and continued on my trip, heart full and feeling joyous.
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