April 2014 – I’ve always wanted to explore the rich culture of the different ethnic groups of Cordillera. So the first time I had a few days off from work, I made up my mind to finally visit Kalinga to see Apo Whang-od (pronounced as Fang-od), the oldest living mambabatok (tattoo artist) in the country.
It was the first time that I spent more than 12 hours on the road. Since it was Holy Wednesday, everyone and their mother were trying to leave Metro Manila for the provinces. I forgot to make bus reservations to Tabuk, so my friend and I had to walk from Victory Kamias to the Dagupan Bus terminal a few kilometers away to check for available buses bound for the north. (Read my next post for more information on how to get to Buscalan.)
After we got to Baguio, we still had a few hours before we leave for Bontoc, so we killed time somewhere along Session Road. Around 4 AM, we hailed a taxi and went to the D’Rising Sun bus terminal, where we waited for an hour or so for the first bus headed for Bontoc. We reached Bontoc around lunchtime, so we had a quick bite in a small restaurant recommended by a tricycle driver. We went to Goldfish Cafe right after for dessert. Then, we headed to the edge of the town to catch the jeep to Tinglayan. By the time we got to Tinglayan, I was already too tired to socialize with the people there that I fell asleep right after I hit the sack. I even forgot to eat dinner.
We stayed at Luplupa Riverside Inn (09152837885) in Luplupa, which was a few kilometers away from Bugnay, the jump-off point to Buscalan, where Apo Whang-Od lives. Now this was not a very wise choice; I didn’t know that it was impractical not to stay in Buscalan or in its neighboring barrios. Another egregious error that could have had serious consequences was our choice in guide: Kuya Amboy (09275569119), our guide whom we contacted a week before our trip, is from the Butbut tribe, but in the village of Luplupa, whose residents are from the Tinglayan tribe, they had their own guide. Good thing the two of them are friends.
The following day was Good Friday, so naturally, there were no jeeps. We had no choice but to walk to Buscalan. It wasn’t that hard, but what was supposed to be a 3 to 4-hr hike became a glorious 6-hr hike as we had hundreds of mini breaks because we’re out of shape and I have asthma. Kuya Amboy was very nice; although we were basically crawling at a snail’s pace, he encouraged me by believing that I can make it to Buscalan, haha. During our trek, he shared many stories about their life in Kalinga in the 1980s. We talked about a lot of things, such as IPRA, Macli’ing Dulag, and what his tribe will do in case someone murders my friend and I during our stay in Tinglayan, among others. (He said they will avenge us.)
A sample of what we saw on the way to Butbut, the barrio next to Buscalan:
I had to admit that like Bilbo Baggins, I must have overestimated my capacity for an adventure: I was terrified of heights; I’m asthmatic; I am allergic to pollen and too much sunlight; and I am very clumsy. Several times, I felt that my knees were already dying to give up and I wanted nothing more than to lie down beside the road. By the time we got to Kuya Amboy’s house in Butbut, I felt like I could eat an entire horse so I ate my fill. Gutom lang pala hehe. Here in Butbut we had a few cups of my favorite Kalinga coffee and mama, or that which Tagalogs call nganga (elsewhere in Cordillera, it’s called moma). An hour after we left Butbut, we finally arrived at Buscalan. Below is Buscalan’s beautiful padyao (rice terraces).
It was such a tremendous honor to finally meet Apo Whang-od and her apprentice/granddaughter, Grace. When I saw her, I knew I was in the presence of a true artist. Whatever qualms I had about getting a tattoo dissipated when I met them. They seem to really love what they are doing. As for the batok (tattoo), it’s actually not as painful as it looks. Having a very low tolerance for pain, I thought that I would embarrass myself and faint once Apo Whang-od begins her work on my upper back, but I didn’t. Of course I’ve always wanted to post a photo of my back on the internet, so here’s what my batok looks like.
The symbol is called lufay (lingling-o in other parts of the Cordillera), an Austronesian symbol for fertility that’s also found in other parts of Southeast Asia and Taiwan. (The logo of this blog is another variation of the symbol that is found in Sagada, Mountain Province.) I chose this symbol because I want to be reminded that I come from a long line of women and mothers, and like them, I have a duty to my species to be productive. Although I do not plan to have children ever, I still owe it to myself and to my country to be fruitful as an artist. Or something, I don’t know. I’m just making this up.
After we got our tattoos, we went back to our inn at Luplupa. There were no jeeps so Kuya Amboy asked one of the manongs from Buscalan to take us home on his motorcycle. That makes it the second item to be ticked off my bucket list within the same day: first was to get inked by Apo Whang-Od, the other is to ride a motorcycle on a highway in the mountains.
On our last night, we had Kässpätzle mit Salat (Spätzle with cheese and green salad), a traditional Good Friday dinner in Germany. (The owner of the inn we stayed in is German.) After dinner, we had coffee outside the inn and socialized with the other guests. We listened to one of the locals’ stories about their customs and beliefs, as well as some of their social institutions. Mostly we talked about the complex bodong, or the peace pact, which is Kalinga’s own device for maintaining order among the tribes. It involves a verbal agreement between two tribes regarding territorial boundaries, business, safety of the people, and other social issues.
We also listened to stories about the tumultuous period when there were rebels and paramilitary groups in the area, and other things, such as headhunting, marriages, religion, and the people’s livelihood. I’ll write about this in the future after I conduct a more systematic study of the subject.
We checked out early on the following day to avoid the crowds in the bus stations. Although the trip back to Manila was even more troublesome than our trip to Tinglayan, it did not enervate me as much. I went home inspired by the stories of a proud people. In spite of the constant threat of tribal wars and the armed encounters between the military and the communist rebels, the Kalingas manage to thrive here as their ancestors have had for countless generations. I actually envy them their deep appreciation of their culture and traditions. I know that two days were not enough to learn as much as I can about them, so I plan to return sometime soon.