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A Journey To Buscalan : Meeting The Oldest And Youngest Tattoo Artists Of Kalinga (PROLOGUE)


I recently posted an entry on how can you make your travel a lot more meaningful through a so-called Voluntourism (Check : Start Making Your Travel More Meaningful Through Voluntourism). It is where travelers are visiting places not just for the adventures alone but also a way to help to develop local communities through charity works. It was truly a rewarding experience to be part of such meaningful tour and allow me to share you my recent and possibly one of my longest travel so far. Last May, I was lucky enough to spot a group tour organized by “Yabang Outdoor“. They hosted a Three-day tour to Buscalan. It has been my dream to meet Whang-Od in person so I instantly grabbed the opportunity to be part of their group. Little did I know, it was also an outreach program. They encouraged us all to participate in their Back-To-School program which aimed to bring some school supplies for the kids of Buscalan village and also to organized some activities for them. Of course, aside from it we also get the chance to meet Whang-Od and leet her inked our tattoos! (So yeah, that’s two checks on my bucket list! One is to see the oldest Tattoo artist in the country and the second one is to have my very first tattoo!). I thought it is just going to be a long journey but I didn’t know that it is going to be a tough one.20170528_140332ty

The small village of Buscalan is located up in the mountains of Kalinga. It is well known as the home of the Butbut Tribe. Reaching the village or the small barangay of Buscalan is indeed a challenge because the only way to access the village is through the narrow trails on steep mountain slopes. It requires a long trek that will take more or less 45 minutes. Not to mention the travel time from Manila to the province of Kalinga. The organizer picked the Bontoc route which took us about 15 hours of travel just to reach our destination. It was one crazy long ride and the seemingly endless curves made me feel sick and exhausted. Not to mention the insane narrow roads to Kalinga. It was even raining non-stop that day which made me feel so worried but thanks God, we managed to make it through.
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Banaue Rice Terraces

Before reaching Kalinga, we had numerous stopovers. We had our first breakfast in the province of Ifugao and had a quick stopover in Banaue to view the majestic Rice Terraces. I’m so happy that I finally got the chance to witness this so-called “eighth wonder of the world”. I only get to see this popular tourist destination through the text books and magazine and now I had a chance to witness it on my naked eyes! The fact that these terraces were built largely by hand is truly amusing and I still wonder how long did it take for our ancestors to come up with such  brilliant work! It is said that if the steps were put end to end, it would encircle half the globe! Wow!

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We had our lunch in Bontoc, Mountain Province. Bontoc is a 2nd class municipality of the province and is also the home of the so-called Bontoc Tribe. They are  feared war-like group of indigenous people who actively indulged in tribal wars with its neighbours until the 1930s. It’s fascinating that the people of Bontoc are also aware of using Tagalog so we didn’t had a hard time communicating with the locals. They said that younger generations of Bontoc can speak a mixture of IlocanoTagalog, and Kankanaey Dialects. We didn’t stay that long. We just had a quick lunch in a simple carinderia on Bontoc’s town proper before heading back on the road.
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Cathedral of All Saints in Bontoc, Mountain Province.
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It was almost 3Pm when we have reached the barangay of Tinglayan. It was our drop off point because cars can no longer access the muddy mountain side.  This is where the trekking will begin. It was a muddy trail and the rain started to drizzle so we really had to move fast before the heavy rain falls, otherwise, it would be risky for us to continue the climb. It is interesting to note that most part of the trail were already cemented except on the first half where we really need to step down cautiously because of the slippery steps. One mistake and we will slide down the creek! Yikes!
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It was a tiring journey but the serene and relaxing atmosphere that you will encounter along the way will keep all those stress away! My feet and my hips were already giving up and I started to catch up my breath but I just keep on convincing my self that I am just five minutes away from the village (and that five minutes will literally extend for 10 or 15 more haha). It was a great relief when I finally reached the last step and I started to spot houses nearby. Yey! Finally we are now in Buscalan village!
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Our group was warmly welcomed by Mr Atong Laguiao and his family. We were separated in two groups in which we had to stay in two different houses and we were welcomed by two different families. It started to rain and the fog started to cover the mountain nearby yet it still gave us that relaxing atmosphere that made me realize that I made a right decision for this tour despite the challenging weather condition.
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The view from our window
IMG_3948tThe second day was my decision-making day. Should I get the tattoo or not? There’s a part of my brain that tells me that I should not because my mom is not in favor of it and since I am a diabetic, having a tattoo would be a big risk but there’s also a fearless part of my brain that tells me that I should go for it. I spent 15 hours of exhausting ride and almost and hour of stressful trek for no reason so make it all worth it my having a tattoo. So yeah, i faced my fear and conquered it. I had a tattoo! Interestingly, Whang-od is not the only tattoo artists of Kalinga. She is the oldest indeed but everyone on her lineage were all tattoo artists. Some of them were personally trained by Whang-Od while others learned it just by watching their elders! Yes, you heard it right. I actually got my tattoo from a 12 year old girl named San Chai (don’t tell me where the name was inspired from hehe).
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Georgia and San Chai were two of the youngest tattoo artist of Kalinga who keep this ancient tradition. It is more commonly known as Pambabatok. It is a traditional tattooeing, a practice that is older than the Spanish Regime. The batok or the tattoo was actually applied by the tattoo artists of the Butbut tribe to their so-called warriors and headhunters. Even though such practice no longer exist, pambabatok is still being performed by Whang-od and anyone on her lineage not for the warriors but for the Buscalan tourists. Unlike the traditional tattoo, this ancient method uses charcoal as an ink which is tapped into the skin via thorn end (usually from Pomelo tree). They use an improvise tool to hold the thorn and another stick to tap it repeatedly. With no anesthesia or any medication, this method is relatively painful compare to the conventional technique. Most of the time, your tattoo will be made by the young artists of Kalinga. They will present you a set of design (which has meanings) or you can also suggest one (but I suggest you to stick to the ancient patterns). After the tattoo is done, you have the option to proceed to Whang-Od so she can apply her signature (the three dots).
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After our tattoo session with the youngest tattoo artists, we proceed to our main goal and that was the outreach program. The team prepared all the materials and things to be given away. All kids were gathered near their school and we were assisted by the locals so that everything will work smoothly as planned. We realized that we are not the only group that will organize an outreach that day so our time was quite limited yet fruitful enough.
IMG_4095tSchool supplies and the food were successfully distributed and we were able to organized a couple of games that all kids enjoyed. Seeing their happy faces made us all feel proud and happy too! I wish may organization will initiate such kind of outreach program to help the locals of Buscalan.
IMG_4124tWe’ve heard that Whang-Od’s tattoo was way more painful for some reason despite the fact that they were only three dots. Again, I had this decision making thing on whether I should go for Whang Od’s painful tattoo or not. I just said to myself that I already had a painful batok session from Georgia so why should I be afraid of another tattoo session… it will just feel the same anyway. When we reached the house of Whang-Od, we were welcomed by an overwhelming crowd queuing for their respective turn. It was our last day and if the queuing will take much time, we had to stay for another day which is not feasible since we all have works. What worried us the most is the fact that Whang-Od was known to be moody sometimes. There were times that she will just stop the session and those in queue will have to wait for another day UNLESS we are joined by COCO MARTIN, that’s something she will never resist and will change her mood instantly haha (she’s a big fan of Coco Martin apparently)
IMG_4173tKidding aside, seeing Whang Od and being inked by her is like witnessing a living treasure. She just celebrated her 100th birthday early this year and yet she is still strong (contrary to the reports that she is already ill and weak). Just look at her eyes, you know that there’s a lot of stories in there. There were many organizations that are proposing to nominate her as a national artists and I guess she truly deserve such recognition.

It was truly an amazing journey but just when we thought that everything is done, we just had the most nerve-wracking experience on our way back. We left the Kalinga around 3pm and the rain is started to fall. It was raining non stop the whole day. We just got a report through radio that there was a series of landslides in Baguio (we were supposed to conclude our tour in Baguio) so we had a change of plans. We decided to go back to Bontoc and stayed there for awhile. We were blessed enough that some locals saw that we’re already running on a flat tire so our group were transferred to another van and we had to wait in Bontoc before we proceed. UNFORTUNATELY, it was already dark and the rain is still pouring heavily. We all head back to the road and were all praying that nothing will happen to us. While on our way to Banaue, we just got another report that a massive landslide occurred and fatality were reported. The road are no longer passable so we had to think of something because we stayed for too long, we might find ourselves being buried alive  (we are on the mountain side so landslide is a huge possibility). We were lucky enough to find a resort nearby and that’s where we stayed for another day. We got stranded so even all of us have commitments the following day, we have no choice but to cancel it for our own safety.
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Some devastating scenes we encountered along the way

I’m going to share more details about this shocking experience and my tattoo and how it turns out and more about Whang Od on my next Journey To Buscalan Entry.

For the mean time, feel free to watch this video summary

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5 Comments

  1. OMG! This is my dream destination actually. One reason is because I want to get a tattoo by Whang Od and another, to see the majestic view that comes with the journey. I honestly, was so excited when I saw this on your blog. Now, I couldn’t wait for the next Buscalan entries! How I wish you could tag me along 😆

  2. This is actually one of my dream destinations. I’ve been planning to visit Banaue since I was 18, but I couldn’t find a leisure time for it, hopefully soon. Anyway, I’m so happy to read another journey that has a genuine heart to reach people in the mountain area. You truly have owned a heart to touch people’s lives in a simple way.
    Meeting the famous youngest and the oldest tatoo artist is also an amazing experience and this must really a fulfilling journey and adventure of yours. I wish I can traipse my two little itchy feet here soon. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

  3. Voluntourism is a really great cause to travel.While having a positive attitude towards the people and society,you will also get the chance to explore new places.It seems Buscalan is a beautiful place with nature’s blessings.Rice fields are really beautiful!

  4. I would like to know more about the Butbut tribes, their languages, customs, gods etc. The word , ‘batok’ is also present in the Thai culture ( batik work). Tattooes are worldwide practices, even in India , there are several people who apply tattoes to their bodies and palms.

  5. Wow! This is truly an experience of a lifetime. Having a tattoo done by Whang Od is part of my bucket list and I would absolutely love to experience Kalinga and its wonders with my boys one of these days! I wish you showed us your tatt, though! 🙂

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