Of Love, Loss, Pain and Tattoos in Kalinga, Philippines

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Dara of The Traveller's Cookbook flew from Egypt to embark on an unforgettable and soulful journey to the Philippines with Zigzag Travelers to get a traditional tattoo from a living legend.

The times are a’changing in Buscalan. But the tattoo process remains the same: thorn, bamboo, charcoal, and courage.

When Isaac, our guide, ran into our home-stay to tell us it was time, I wasn’t afraid of the pain. I was afraid of a gush of air between my ears; of blacking out and subsequently, not being worthy. When I stood up, I was dizzy. But we anyways ran to the edge of the village, hopping over a fence and dodging a pig, to see what would come of our fate and if we were worthy.

I was supposed to go first, but I froze in front of her. Apo Whang Od sat on a small stool and turned to me. She was small, but strong and ready. Oh no, not me, I said. Someone else went first. And so I watched, trying to quell my fear.

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Whang Od took a thorn and soaked it in charcoal. She carefully drew the design on his back with a piece of grass. She gripped the bamboo handle and positioned the thorn against his skin. And then, as if pounding a drum, she began to hammer the design into his skin.

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“Which one do you want?” one of her friends asked me. I blinked. What?

“I’m scared,” I admitted to him. My pulse pounded in my head. I strained my eyes into the mountain mist.

He told me: “It doesn’t hurt that bad. She says that it hurts worse when you are left by someone you love.”

“Look at her arms,” he said to me. “She had fifteen boyfriends and none of them ever stayed. This was after her husband, who died before all that.”

That resonated with something in me. And while I could still feel my fear, when it was my turn again, I sat down in front of her.

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Before I thought I would go with the smallest one; it would be quick and the least painful. But instinctively I pointed at another one on the wooden board that felt right. It was larger than I anticipated.

“This one,” I said.

“Ah. This is the serpent eagle. It means freedom through bravery. I think it is a good choice for you,” he said.

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She drew on the symbol with a blade of grass and tapped my shoulders for me to be still. I straightened my back and braced myself for the sound of the bamboo hammer. And then it came: a violent pound onto the thorn and into fleshy meat of my upper back.

The pain had been described to me once like a horde of biting ants. It was far worse than a machine tattoo, they said. There were stories of people fainting, getting sick, or being unable to make it through the process. But the sound and bite of the bamboo stick put me into a state of unanticipated tranquility. I twisted a set of beads around my thumb and finger. Then the thorn pierced my skin again. And again. I felt a trickle of blood drip down my back.

“This is your right of passage,” a friend said. Pay attention to the pain.

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In a tiny mountain village in the Philippines, a three hours walk from the nearest hospital and very far away from home; I paid close attention to my pain.

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Buscalan used to be the stuff of backpacker legends and old Philippine folklore. They said that if you took the long journey into the Kalinga Province, and hiked up a certain mountain cliff, you would find the last mambabatok, the legendary traditional tattoo master, Apo Whang Od. And if she found you worthy, she would mark your skin with a thorn from a nearby citrus tree and charcoal from her pots and pan, hammering it repeatedly with a bamboo stick until it took the form of a traditional Kalinga symbol.

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But this ideology was many years ago, before Whang Od became well known throughout the Philippines and subsequently, the world. This was before backpackers, bloggers, and film crews trekked up the near-vertical pass to get a glimpse of her and her craft, and for some, even to be marked themselves.

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What used to be primarily a farming community located a two hour’s walk from the closest road, has now turned its focus to tourism. After only a few short years, tourism is now the number one source of income for the community of about 650 people. Before it became a backpacker lure, every few weeks an outsider would trickle into its borders, but now small groups of people are arriving each day.

When we arrived, a group arranged by ZigZag Tours, we arranged for a guide at the drop off point. Isaac was remarkably patient and kind, and only fifteen years old. He held himself like a much older man, eventually introducing us to local workers with thoughtfulness and care. While tourists are welcome in Buscalan, a middle man is essential to decipher, explore, and especially photograph within the village.

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The guides are just one of the ways that Buscalan is coping with the amount of tourists coming into the village. Every group that comes to the village will be assigned one. Additionally, there are no hotels or hostels; only home-stays. Which means staying with a local family in a simple room. Basic kitchen supplies and electricity are often available. A few of the home-stay options have a bathroom and toilet, but not all of them. You can drink and hang out- but lights out at 10 pm. This is a village-wide rule.

These simple and profound rules create an experience unique to Buscalan; instead of a community isolating outsiders to hotels and hostels, they pull them closer. This is even despite how much their presence is changing their land.

Additionally, small grassroots tour companies are beginning to arrange transport from Manila, home-stays, and guides, while working closely with local operators in the village. This creates a more symbiotic relationship with the tourists that come into Buscalan, and also gives the village more control over the amount of people coming in at a time.

Even just five years ago, outsiders were a rarity. Now they are easy to spot at Charlie’s popular guesthouse or at the tattoo spot, where around twenty people gather each day to watch or be marked.

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Despite all this change, Whang Od still goes about her days just the same. She feeds her chickens in the mornings, tattoos all morning and afternoon, and finishes her day with a cup of coffee. There is talk about her retiring soon and fear that the tradition will fade away after she is gone.

Her apprentice and niece, Grace, was recently named a Young Master, thankfully further preserving the tradition. Another niece of Whang Od, Elyang, has been taken on as an additional apprentice. The three of them tattoo together everyday, each with a distinct style. Whang Od is raw and tough, preferring to tattoo only the traditional designs. Grace and Elyang are both more delicate and draw lines as straight and narrow as a machine.

After just a few short days, we came back down the mountain; first by foot, then by motorcycle. We were waiting to load our bags into the jeepney when another bike approached. I recognized the man from the day before when he got off his bike.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey, how did it go?” he said as he got off his bike. “Let me see the tattoo.”

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I pulled off my scarf to show him, trying to avoid direct sunlight.

“See, the pain wasn’t that bad,” he smiled and held his bike at his side.

I said to him: “You told me that it hurt worse if someone you loved left you. I think you are right.”

“It’s not what I said. It is what Whang Od said. And I believe her.”

“She is right,” I told him. “Thank you.”

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I climbed up the ladder to hoist myself on top of the jeepney. We snaked slowly back to Bontoc, Banaue, and hopefully, Manila sometime in the night; leaving Buscalan behind us, changing and not.

Dara Denney is the author of The Traveller’s Cookbook. She has lived in New York City, West Africa, and India. She grew up in a small village in Ohio where her favourite meal was pizza and chicken fingers. Thankfully travelling changed all of that. She currently lives in Egypt where she teaches Kindergarten and writes at night.

Special thanks to Zigzag Travelers for making us part of this trip. Follow them on Facebook and InstagramSome images credited to Vin Anaras and Elpidio Guillermo Jr. with their permission.

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