Apo Whang Od and The Buscalan Tribe

by - Sunday, March 06, 2016

It has always been my fascination to discover such a place that will break your heart when you leave. That tingling feeling inside your heart that aches while walking away on place you’ve grown to love. I never thought I would find such in the early days of 2016 and on my birthday month.

Our trip to Kalinga is just to meet the last mambabatok, have inked by her, experience the place, and do outreach program for my birthday. I never imagined that this place will give me more than that.

It was seven in the evening of January 23, 2016 when we left Manila and head on at Tabuk, the Province’s first ever City. I love long rides. It gives me an excuse to succumb to my troubled and shattered mind. Yes, there are a lot going on inside my head than you can imagine. 9 long hours on the road and we are at Tabuk at dawn. So quite. So peaceful. The sun isn’t up yet and as it breaks to rise, the beautiful city of Tabuk shines through our eyes and I know great adventures awaits us in a few more hours.

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When we left Tabuk City and head to Buscalan I was still sleepy but decided not to sleep for I want to admire the view along the way. You will never know what you will see out there and I’m glad I did. The view is just magnificent and breath taking! I’m talking about the Chico River. I’ve read about it when I was doing the research about Kalinga but seeing it with my own eyes is far different than just reading it. It became our companion along the road for it is visible on every turn of the van going up to Buscalan. It was a 4 long hours drive from the city so imagine how long the river is. It was so pure and beautiful that I can’t imagine what more when I’m on foot on the river feeling the cold water up to my nerves. Hopefully, I will get to experience water rafting there one day.

Arriving at Buscalan and meeting our guide is the first step to our quest. Riding the habal-habal on a very narrow road with a few bumps is the second. Trekking for an hour on a narrow and steep hill is the third. Yes, meeting the last mambabatok requires a lot of effort, I must say. I’ve posted a detailed guide on how to meet Apo Whang Od. Here’s the link. If you are so eager to meet her you will dedicate your time and patience and every energy you’ve got inside of you and once you reach the top you will be amaze not just for what your eyes will see but the feeling of satisfaction and pride that after 14 long hours of travel all the way from Manila you can say to yourself that you made it! And that’s exactly what I’ve felt that time. I’ve been hiking for a time but this one is different. And I think, every destination is different even if you’ve been to place more than once.

GMA 7 was having an interview that time so all scheduled people in the morning were moved in the afternoon and the rest too. Giving us no choice but to wait the following of the afternoon.

What welcomed us was the smiles of the local looking so excited about the tourist coming and visiting their place and it is far more than a good site from anything. Knowing that a completely stranger to you makes you feel wanted and welcome at their place.

The initial plan is to be inked by afternoon of the day we arrive or at least in the morning of the following day, which is Monday, and goes home after that. But, we didn’t anticipate the interview, so we were moved Monday afternoon, and no trip later than 3 pm for the road is dangerous at night (blind curves and no street lights) So, we discussed everything with our guide and he told us that he can have a van going to Bontoc where we can get a bus ride to Baguio and from there board a Bus going back to Manila. That is, if we will be able to finish until 3 pm.

When we learned about our situation, we take advantage of the rest of the afternoon exploring the place. They have a rice field, a rice terraces, almost similar to Banaue, they coffee farms, a lot of pigs everywhere roaming around, and a very smiling and hospitable people of the tribe. There are no signals here so quality time with your friends and a few locals is a guarantee.

We packed canned goods and few breads with us and that’s what we eat the entire trip. Rice and coffee is unlimited and is included on the 250 per night stay at the guest house. There are few sari-sari store where we buy additional canned goods and noodles and there is this one family who sell vegetables but we managed to buy only cabbage for our last night.

Our first night is bang! We had a drink with other locals. Most are men, but are very kind and funny. They were explaining and telling their history and we are asking more about their place and how it was started. And I read somewhere that they are from a line of warrior so I asked them about it. I have a huge fascination on every warrior related thing and they are more than willing to narrate it to me. We ended the night very late and succumb to sleep by 1 in the morning.

We woke up early the following day, explore a bit more, visit Apo Whang Od’s house, and after eating our breakfast we head to the tattoo shop and check our schedule for that day. Since there are still long queues, we visit the school where we are going to give the school supplies we bring for the kids. As you know, this trip is also serves as an outreach for my birthday. After having a great time with the kids we go back at the tattoo shop and watch other people get their tattoos. Waiting is not boring. That is, if you are waiting at the tattoo shop. The shop are full of locals watching the session and having some small talks and entertaining the visitors. From time to time, some locals were singing old songs I never heard of before, it was in their dialect, but though I am not understanding it, and though no music accompaniment but the strong cold breeze and sound of the wind blowing, it is so good to the ears, the wind is in rhythm with their voices and it echoes down to everyone in the shop. More laughs of course, some of the locals were entertaining us with a lot of mind games and stories of their history and anything about Apo. It feels like a long day! And I am very excited for my turn.

The plan is to have two tattoos that day, one from Apo Whang Od and one from Grace. I did manage to have each from them. More than that, it seems like I have twice for Apo. Why? Here goes. There are few people now on the queues, most are foreigners and there are only two groups of Filipinos, the couple and us four and one backpacker. When it is my turn to Grace it was so light and easy. I didn’t feel any pain, none at all. It was like that for almost half an hour and then she rose up and exclaimed to Apo about something and it feels like she is talking about my tattoo, yes, they have different dialect, which we know nothing about, she is pointing at me and my tattoo and the locals asked me to go near Apo for her to see. It was when our guide explained to us in a few more seconds that the charcoal doesn’t inked on my skin and for that it doesn’t bleed at all. For the charcoal to stain the skin should bled. It was when I realized that Grace seek for Apo’s help and have it redo by Apo, by that time she pause on tattooing one backpacker to give way to me. So it was another pukpok session with Apo, and in no time, it was bleeding.

Apo is a beautiful woman and looks very delicate and warm. Though we did not understand her because of dialect barrier her aura is like any other grand mother. She smiles from time to time, when a tourist gives her gifts she smiled like a child who has been given the most precious gift, very simple, its as if for her, you did not just go there just because it’s the norm now, not because you’re in on the trend, but because you take time to visit her and gives her something you planned ahead on and exert time and effort on that and I think most of us will feel the same if we are given such treatment like that. Plus still tattooing at her age proves that she loves what she do and it is her passion.

It was lunch time when I was finished and Apo will have to eat her lunch first before she continue. After we had ours, we go fix our things for we are leaving right after having our tattoos. When we got back to the shop, one foreigner take advantage of no one in the shop so he was able to get head on first before us. By that time, my friend Bella is having her tattoo session with Grace too, like me she also plan on having one for each.

It was 3 in the afternoon when Apo started tattooing my friend JM, and after her is Ibeng, and then Me, and then Bella. So, obviously, we will not be able to leave for Manila that day and we accept the fact that we will be staying for another night at Buscalan. We mourn at first for we have work waiting back at Manila but all the same, this inevitable are all part of a great journey. Plus, another excuse to be away from the busy streets and polluted Manila. And getting to know more of the place.

It was almost 6 in the evening when Bella was done with her tattoo. Getting a tattoo from Grace and Apo Whang Od is different. They have different attack. I felt pain when Apo starts at my back. I don’t know if its because there are bones that was hit on but it was tolerable. I felt pain at the first hit but after that it was numb and I get the vibe already and doesn’t hurt at all.

For our last night, we drink again, but little this time for we need to wake up early in the morning.

Me and Bella, wake up early that day and we were talking about how a part of us doesn’t want to leave the place. On our few talks with our guide, we asked him if we can buy land at their place even if we are not originally from there and he said yes, we asked about how much and how it was done. Yes, we planned on buying a few meter lands there. We are planning to retire at that place one day. Oh, how we love that place so much. No signal, far from everyone, very simple living, very admirable tribe. Their culture is very rich and the people are all kind.

Every step descending takes looking back at the place from time to time. And as I am writing this one now I can’t help but remember the time when I was at the point where you can already see the tattoo shop, it was so small from where I stand, and its only few hours back when I was sitting at the nipa hut and now I am just staring at it at far leaving in a few more minutes and it struck my heart so much. Its like dragging my feet to the terminal and you are fighting back and holding on to the surface. This feeling continues all the way from Buscalan to Bontoc to Baguio and until we reach Manila. It continues until now. And I am looking forward to go back to that place again.

My journey to meet Apo Whang Od dated January 23-26, 2016; an official entry to my 81 before 30 challenge.

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Thanks for the wonderful message!