– LATE POST-
This adventure started back in 2010, when I chanced upon the Discovery Channel and a show called Tattoo Hunter by Dr. Lars Krutak. The documentary caught my attention when I heard Dr. Krutak mention the ‘Philippines’. I stayed on. I watched fascinated, and I know I’ll never forget this legendary 90-something year old lady called Apo Whang Od, the oldest mambabatok (traditional Kalinga tattoo artist) from the Butbut tribe in Buscalan in the municipality of Tinglayan, Kalinga Province.
As the years go by, more and more people recognize the importance of Apo Whang Od and the preservation of this Filipino tradition. Due to her status as the last mambabatok of her generation, netizens and recipients of her batok were lobbying to consider her a candidate to be one of the National Artists of the Philippines. Instead of National Artist, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago (RIP) urged her colleagues in the Senate through a resolution, that Apo Whang Od be nominated as one of the National Living Treasures or Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan. The National Living Treasures Award is conferred upon a “Filipino citizen or group of Filipino citizens engaged in any traditional art uniquely Filipino, whose distinctive skills have reached such a high level of technical and artistic excellence and have been passed on to and widely practiced by the present generations in his/her community with the same degree of technical and artistic competence. The Award shall be given in each, but not limited to the following categories of traditional folk arts, viz.: folk architecture, maritime transport, weaving carving, performing arts, literature, graphic and plastic arts, ornament, textile or fiber art, pottery and other artistic expressions of traditional culture.” (source: www.choosephilippines.com)
Before watching Dr. Krutak’s documentary, I have never considered getting a tattoo. When I was watching the show, I told myself if ever I will (stress on “will”) get a tattoo, it will only be by Apo Whang Od. WHY? My tattoos (batok) have a story. In the same way that you guys post stuff on your Facebook walls, I am telling a story through the tattoos. It is my way of expressing how I feel and how I want to feel whenever my mojo is at its minimum. Add to that my endless fascination of the unique culture that brings about this rare work of art.
It feels weird to have to explain myself to people. Getting a tattoo was a big deal for me, knowing that it would be permanent. I didn’t take the repercussions lightly. I prayed to God and to our Lady of Manaoag to join me in the journey. As I go through my own battles in this life, I felt like I was slowly lacking some fuel. I found myself questioning my abilities, my skills, and my drive. I don’t know if it was just a phase or the fact that I’ve got a million things to do and I haven’t accomplished anything. I felt like my mojo was quickly dwindling. I know we all go through this lull every so often…and pulling myself out of it is always so hard.
Reading blogs has always been my top reference before traveling. I found a Facebook page, Tattooed by Apo Whang-Od, for people who have received the gift of batok from Apo, and for those who dream of being tattooed by her. There are a lot of blogs about traveling to Buscalan and some helpful tips for would-be travellers. My research covered blogs, hashtags (Instagram and Twitter), Facebook, documentaries (Youtube), and news articles. As soon as I’ve decided that I’m going to get the tattoo on my birthday, I started to choose what mark(s) to put on my body.
I started reading blogs and planning for Buscalan about 3 months before my 32nd birthday. Preparation for me was emotional. I was still on the fence about getting ‘marked’ for life. I didn’t have any idea how to tell my parents. I started praying for guidance, knowing that Jesus would not let anything bad happen to me. I trusted Him. I read blogs (literally) every day, to help me prepare mentally. Honestly, I was (kind of) also looking for a reason to back out. It was a hard decision to say the least, but as the days went by the road to Apo Whang Od became more and more clear.
Road to Whang Od
The road to Whang Od started with Kuya Weber, our guide. Kuya Richard “Weber” Ayangao is also from the Butbut tribe. I came across his name and number from an Instagram post. There were several guides to choose from, some highly recommended. I chose the less popular guide to get a more personalized experience, also to give others a chance to earn a living for their families.
Kuya Weber proved very helpful as a guide even before our trip. He knew the ETA and ETD of all modes of transportation available. He picked us up from Tabuk, in front of St. Williams Cathedral. He didn’t have to pick us up from Tabuk, but he said he had some errands to do so we were lucky.
After about 10 hours of traveling from Cubao, we finally arrived at Tabuk. Kuya Weber was waiting for us just as planned. It was about 6:30am, and the jeepney that would take us to Tinglayan will leave about 7:30am, so we had some time.
We rode for about 4 hours and stopped over to eat lunch at a small eatery. Another 1 hour and we were at Tinglayan. We hired motorbikes to take us further up, and then we had to hike the rest of the way. That ‘hike’ was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life, I was not prepared physically. Needless to say my love for the beach was never more prominent as I climbed/crawled my way up the Kalinga Mountain.
The struggle was both physical and emotional. I was out of breathe most of the time, my legs were exhausted. I wanted to cry but was too ashamed to show the universe (this whole thing was my idea after all). I begged God to give me more strength, and to help me get through. I was a miserable shit as we near our 2nd hour of hiking. Mind you that Kuya Weber could go up the village in 45 minutes. Cardio beast!
The Legendary Mambabatok
So just before we reached the landing, we had to get over 2 very steep slopes. I was sitting on one of the slopes looking like a piece of crap. Several people from the village were climbing down, all of them looked at me encouragingly and promised me that we were SO NEAR.
We finally reached the village and what we saw immediately was (fresh) vomit. No, it was not mine. Someone actually vomited upon reaching the landing. God knows I would have thrown up if I was not semi-dehydrated at the time. Kuya Weber told us not to drink too much to avoid exactly that. I was catching my breath, thanking God I did not fall to my death, and then BAM…. I saw the incredible view. It was breathtaking.
The only thing that distracted me from that moment was the smell of coffee. Rich, pure, Kalinga coffee. Kuya Weber handed me a cup. It was invigorating, it was rich, and it was smooth.
We went directly to Apo Whang Od to schedule the batok. We passed through narrow passageways and finally got a glimpse of Brgy. Buscalan. The people did not seem to mind the visitors. I guess they were used to it by then. It was amazing to see some of the older folks with their own batok.
I was already familiar with how her tattoo area would look like from blogs, I knew we were close, and then I saw an old lady crouched at the side, cleaning her stuff. It was Apo Whang Od herself. I was awe-struck; honestly, I wanted to touch her, haha. But I kept my cool and just smiled at her. They said she’s done for the day, so Kuya Weber listed our names for the next day’s line up.
We headed straight to our homestay with our new friends, we met them while we (I mean, I) were (was) struggling on the slopes. I guess you could say we kind of struggled together.
The house was a two-storey semi-wooden structure that was big enough for a small group of 6-8 people. We were only 4 pax plus our guide, so it was a comfortable stay. We brought some canned goods which I cooked for dinner. We had electricity but there was no electric fan.
We woke up to this view.
Kuya Weber was quick to fix us coffee while I cooked another batch of our canned goods plus garlic rice. After eating and cleaning up, we went back to Apo Whang Od for our session. When we arrived at the tattoo area, there were already some people being tattooed by Grace and Apo Whang Od.
We were next, so we just had to wait. While waiting, I watched Apo Whang Od at work, and was terrified at the sound of her banging the stick. I watched her wipe off blood from the skin and watched how she continued to poke at that skin. The guides around us were exchanging stories of how some people fainted, peed, and even defecated at Apo Whang Od’s batok. Two ladies who flew from Cebu (and who owned the vomit I saw at the landing) were so terrified that they decided that they would just get their batok from Grace, and the signature of Apo Whang Od.
But I was a woman on a mission, and that was to get a batok from both Apo Whang Od and Grace. I was next in line for Grace and she was indeed so graceful and so skilled.
Grace and I were talking while she was doing my batok, I love that she’s funny and that she obviously loves what she’s doing. We were finished within 30 minutes.
Next up, my water batok by Apo Whang Od. I pointed to my right arm and showed her where I wanted it. She drew on the symbol, and I was shocked when I saw that her sketch was so big. I begged to have it smaller. I didn’t want to offend her, so I kind of used my puppy-dog eyes and asked for help from Grace and some of the guides around. She looked like she wanted to punch me, but she finally reached for the baby wipes and erased her first sketch. I was so relieved. I thanked her and just stayed silent the rest of the time. When she started, it felt like my hand was on fire.
I stared at the horizon and just focused on a tree, because otherwise I would have cried. It was painful. I felt the thorn on my skin. I really felt it. I suddenly wished that time would go faster, just to get it over with.
After thanking them, we gave our presents and headed back down to catch the jeepney going to Bontoc. If you think climbing down was easier than climbing up, think again! Maaaaan, I was so out of shape. It didn’t take us 2 hours to go down, maybe just an hour and a half-ish, but I still struggled. When we reached Tinglayan, we waited for quite a while for the jeepney to Bontoc. I paid Kuya Weber and gave him some stuff for his family.
It was a 2-hour jeepney ride from Tinglayan to Bontoc. From Bontoc, we had to ride a bus to Baguio for 4 hours (or was that 6, I couldn’t remember). It was a looooong ride. When we finally reached Baguio, we just ate dinner and went straight to the terminal to catch the bus to Cubao. We rode the 8pm bus and were home by 1am. Exhausting, was an understatement. But it was one of my most memorable birthday trips so far.
I am proud of my tattoo, my batok. I am planning to get another one soon.