Face-to-Face with a Legend: The Journey to Whang-Od and The First Tattoo

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A circular "Filig" or mountain pattern
There is fascination. There is awe. And then there is fascination and awe that spring from somewhere so deep that you feel it in your gut and along your spine, spreading to envelop every molecule in you with a stratum of desire to act upon it. I can think of only one word, the closest thing to a name for this state. And it is this: reverence.

I've been frequenting the state of utter reverence. I am sure I've always done this, especially when it comes to ethnic culture. I've always maintained that the best way to dress is with the garbs of our ancestors, with clothes made from hand-woven fabric and jewelry that mean something. One day, I'll discard all my shoes and walk the earth barefooted, just like the people in the hidden mountains. I believe the best songs are the songs of the tribes; the best dance moves, the graceful flicks of the wrist and the subtle inclines of the neck by the women of the hills. I believe that living off the land, only taking what one needs and leaving the rest for others, is the best way to live. Yes, I have the utmost reverence for ethnic culture.

This reverence is so fierce that I want so badly to be a part of anything ethnically cultural, however briefly and/or temporarily. I've always thought reading tales and watching documentaries would never be enough to satiate the desire to partake. I needed to actually be there. I needed to be immersed.

So, off I went to meet Whang-Od.

(For directions, expenses, and tips on going to a Buscalan adventure, click here.)

The road to the "last" tribal tattoo artist of Kalinga almost ended before it even began. The three-day hike to Mount Pulag and back, indeed, had taught us several lessons, and we were all truly tired. But because, like Nenya, I am adamant and I refuse to be denied, the plan pushed through. Dennis and I headed back to Baguio after we survived the second third highest peak in the Philippines. We didn't have any choice but to spend the night in the City of Pines, for the last bus trip to Bontoc had already gone. For Php300 each, we were let in into the house of a stranger where we were able to have proper sleep on a proper bed, without worrying about staying dry and the threat of hypothermia. We slept in a house of a stranger. It was worlds better than my initial plan of spending the night at the bus station. Furthermore, we were able to wash our clothes, for, at that moment, the only clean clothes we had were the ones on our back. The next morning, we were feeling better, not aching all over anymore.

We left the house at 6AM and hailed a taxi to the Dangwa Station. Here was where we boarded a GL bus bound for the province of Bontoc. I was pleasantly surprised when the bus left at exactly 7AM.

The busride took, more or less, five hours. It wasn't a problem because we had incredible vistas going past our window. Also, we opted to steal precious hours of sleep along the way.

Upon arriving in Bontoc, a little past noon, we found out that the last jeepney trip to Tinglayan was set to leave very shortly. Thus, what was supposed to be a dine-in experience at the Churya-a Hotel turned into a harried take-out. We arrived literally seconds before the jeepney left. Thank goodness.

In true Tinglayan style, we climbed unto the topload of the jeepney. It was a two-hour journey filled with incredible and unbelievable scenes of green and blue. Mountain ranges with its graceful slopes that never seemed to end. The sky was my favorite shade of blue, bright and unimpeded. The occasional glimpses of rice terraces and the Chico River made me think of one thing: so worth it
Top view of the topload
It was a two-hour journey filled with scenic views
The vistas made me think of one thing: so worth it
The jeepney plied along a road that moved with the mountains. For quite a number of times, we found ourselves looking over the edge. Literally. The jeepney was inches away from going over the cliff. It was quite exhilarating to know that your life was tethered to the driver's maneuvers and feet skills.

It started to rain and we found ourselves under a tarp and the smell of chickens right before our nose. It felt like we were being smuggled. One good thing came out of this: we managed to have our packed lunch under the covers of the tarp - whilst on the topload of the jeepney.

Our seatmate: The chicken

Two hours later, we arrived in Tinglayan where our guide Kuya Francis met with us. He explained that we won't be able to hike to the tattoo artist's village of Buscalan, for a harvest ceremony called Tu-or was taking place and it prohibited anyone from going in and out of the village. We were left with no choice but to spend the night at a local inn.

I should note that, by this time, our cash-on-hand was worrying me.

At any rate, we decided to just go with it. By 6:30PM, we were already asleep.

The next morning at 7AM, we met with Kuya Francis and waited for the first jeepney trip bound for Bontoc. We had to take a 30-minute ride back to the foot of the hill to Buscalan. The trip could've been shorter if the jeepney did not make regular stops. It turned out that the villagers were handing out money and lists of supplies which the driver will then buy for them in Bontoc. It was interesting to watch the transactions.

When we alighted at the jump-off point, we left our bags in the care of one of Kuya Francis's friend's house. We were hoping to catch the last jeepney to Bontoc at 1PM. It was almost 9AM, at this point.

We began our hike. 
Our welcoming committee
Surrounded by yellow. These flowers are ubiquitous in the Cordilleras
Howdy, "Traders"!
After the two-hour trek, I heard a tap-tap-tap resonating in the air. Kuya Francis announced that we have arrived in Buscalan.
The village of Buscalan is nested on a mountaintop
We walked towards the sound as we murmured our greetings to the locals. Once we found the source of the sound, these were the sights that greeted us: there was Rhian Ramos, a local actress, sitting on the ground and having a cheerful conversation with the members of the Butbut tribe - their laughter seemed melodious with the tap-tap-tap; there was also Lancer, a friend of Rhian, lugging an impressive-looking camera and ready to take pictures.

And then there was she.

On the far corner, away from the small cluster of villagers that was delighted by Rhian's presence, was Whang-Od. Eyebrows furrowed, arms poised in the famed backhand position. A Polish guy sat with his back to her, his knees drawn to his forehead. The two pieces of tattooing implements she wielded were working in a fast one-two beat, pricking his skin in a hypnotic rhythm.

Whang-Od tattooing a Polish guy
I was handed magazines where I can choose what pattern I'd like to be tattooed. I chose a quarter moon, which Dennis drew, right between my shoulder blades.

When the Polish's tattoo was done, we waited for Whang-Od who retreated to her house for a change of clothes.

At this point, I realized that we would have had to stay the night as it was already noon. As much as we wanted to leave that day, we couldn't. The only public transport available would make its last journey for the day in about an hour. Again, our dwindling monetary budget was worrying me.

And then Whang-Od walked in silence towards us. She motioned me to sit down. I did as I was told. "This is it," I thought. I am about to get my first and probably last tattoo. I am going to be inked by the legend that is Apo Whang-Od.

The first pricks were painful, I'm not going to lie. For the few initial taps, there was a small part of me that wanted to shove Whang-Od away. But I figured that would be very inappropriate. I clenched my jaws and focused on one thought: I am privileged to be here. What a great honor to have the dying art of the Kalingas on my body!
I tried to match the taps with my index finger against my knuckles. The pain started to subside, my system finally deciding it was best to just go numb. My mind went blank. All I could hear and feel was the sound of Whang-Od's instruments. The experience was akin to going under a trance.

"It's done," announced Rhian, after what seemed like a lifetime. "She's already applied coconut oil."

Forty-five minutes. That's how long it took Apo Whang-Od to make my first tattoo. And she added, upon my advice, the Filig pattern within the crescent moon. Mountains within the moon. Poetic. And fitting.

And you know what made this even more special? My tattoo was "blessed", like in the days of the Kalinga warriors.

A local told Rhian about an old tradition of the Kalingas. It was said that in the days of yore, a tattoo was not so easily given. And when it was, a pig is butchered. The pig's blood daubed into the tattoo as some sort of unguent to help speed the healing. Whang-Od uttered some words which sounded like incantations to me. Someone translated that they meant as a thanks and to wish us health and safety. It was another great honor. I thank Rhian for making this possible.

Everything turned out better than expected. There was really nothing to worry about. As Paulo Coelho would say: when you want something, all the Universe conspires in helping you achieve it. Even the money dilemma turned out okay in the end. (There is an atm in Bontoc.)

So, I wish to leave this piece at a close, for I feel that any event that had come after this - however remarkable - will pale in comparison.

I now have a tattoo. Mountains within a Moon. And above all, I've met Whang-Od. Or Fang-Od to the locals. A graceful woman of the Butbut tribe who walks in quiet dignity. 

A legend
Cheers to the next adventure!

PS: Check out this quick guide for a Buscalan adventure of your own.

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  1. Amazing! I can't wait to get inked by Whang Od. I hope she can.
    Uhm.. So you can choose the design from the magazines and what part of the body you want to be tattooed? Some blogs say that only Whang Od can choose the design and which part of your body she wants to put it. I just wanna confirm. Happy traveling!

  2. Hi, Tyrone!

    The case used to be that Apo is the one who'd choose the design and where to ink it, but that's not so anymore. You can choose traditional designs from magazines and/or have someone draw a simple design (like mine) and Apo will "trace" it. You can choose where you want to be tattooed. I think it's "commercialization" which is a little sad but there it is. :)

    Let me know how it turned out. Thanks for dropping by. Take care and have fun on yout travels!



  3. Yey! Thanks for responding, ate Celine. I want to get inked before leaving my teenage life this December, but we don't have any long weekends before my birthday. So I'm planning to go there during our sembreak in October. I hope I could find someone who'd wander up there with me before the date. else I'll be getting my first tattoo alone. Sad, haha

    I do have a photoblog on tumblr and I'm just wandering if I can follow your website through tumblr? Anyway, would really appreciate if you'd drop by my blog. http://tinyrurouni.tumblr.com Thank you, and yes. I will take care and have fun on my travels. Kayo din po, ate. Cheers!