“Hi, my name is Vivian. I come from the USA. Both of my parents are Chinese. I am 21 years old.

I have no tattoos and never saw myself getting one. I saw a photo of you one month ago, and was so fascinated by the history and culture of your art that I couldn’t stop thinking about the Kalinga batok.

I changed all my plans and missed five flights, and I’m finally here.

If you want, you are welcome to tattoo me. Although I didn’t perform any rituals, I would like to stay with the tradition of the artist picking the design and location.”

And that is how I began my diet of overcooked rice and heavily-sugared coffee in a tiny mountain village completely off the map.

 

The path to Buscalan.

 

This blog post is a very personal account of seeking the world’s last mambabatok. I wanted to ask for the honor of having her hammer into my flesh a permanent batok, the tattoo of the ancient Kalinga warriors of the Philippines. This art stems from technique that had been practiced for centuries. These paragraphs detail the fight to form my own opinion and experience regarding a human being who is receiving increasing amounts of international attention. While every source contradicts the next, I have tried to be as factual as possible.

Living history. Living treasure. Artist. Beauty. Where to begin?

 

Source- Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art. Royal Ontario Museum.

 

Just days before I flew to the Philippines I was in Chiang Mai, where I was struck by a photo from my Instagram feed.

It was a photograph of a very, very old woman covered in gruesomely beautiful traditional tattoos. Her name was Whang Od. The caption described how her art was dying and she had been giving tattoos to warriors for eight decades. She was the last person who knew how. It also said she lived in the Philippines. I shrugged it off as a coincidence. Her village would be inaccessible, and I wasn’t possibly going to be one of those go-to-Southeast-Asia-return-with-tattoo backpackers.

 

Souce- does Instagram count?

 

Two days later, I was leaving my hostel to go to Bangkok and catch my international flight. I met Stef, who revealed he was going to the Philippines one day before me and that he was going to get his next tattoo.

I’ll admit, ever since I read Expert Vagabond’s post on his Yak Sant tattoo from Thailand (was I still in high school?), the thought of getting a traditional tattoo where the artist chose the design had fleeting moments in my brain. But these days I find the Yak Sant far too mainstream and it almost seems to be an easy business gimmick for monks to profit from. And the blood-borne pathogens thing. And HIV.

But with the batok, I was first told we had to spend two days climbing up a mountain, offer Apo (“grandma” in Tagalog) Whang Od half a kilo of rice, get a tattoo of her choice if she liked us, let her rub some coconut oil on the fresh ink, and descend back to civilization. Stef made me watch this video and read this article, but I already knew that I had to go for it. As the words “there’s no way” left my mouth, I could feel the adrenaline flushing through me. I knew I really meant “there’s no way that I won’t try my best.”

To be continued after some crucial information…

 

Source: Dr. Lars Krutak.

The Woman Herself

Whang Od is the last living tattoo master of the Kalinga Butbut tribe. She is between 92 and 100 years old, depending on your source. I choose to believe that she is 97 for no good reason. She has been tattooing head-hunting warriors and girlfriends for the last eight decades. She learned the trade from her father, who tattooed her when she was a teenager. Each of her arms allegedly took a full day.

Whang Od has been featured by Discovery Channel, National Geographic, BBC, and CNN. She was officially nominated to be a National Living Treasure of the Philippines in October 2017, which was so recent it was actually after my own visit. If approved, she would receive financial and medical benefits for the rest of her life.

For further perspective on Whang Od’s extreme fame contrasting the media giving her near-nonexistent credit, portraits of her have been on display in tattoo exhibits around the world. One Canadian exhibit chose photos from a French exhibit and did not know who she was until a visitor informed those in charge.

More importantly, Whang Od is a strong and vibrant woman. Frankly, she’s superhuman. I saw her beauty in her smile and her full head of thick, pin-straight hair. Her eyes held wisdom. I had no idea how her vision was still good enough to make tattoos with such precision.

There is something enlightened about her presence. It was her obvious independence and bold spirit that initially drew me to her. Despite coming from the opposite end of the world, I found her relatable.

 

Whang Od and her newest Coco Martin shirt.

 

Most indigenous tattoo artists are men. Whang Od is effortlessly a symbol of feminism. I hope to be half of what she is when I reach her age.

Whang Od was in love with her boyfriend who she personally tattooed after his victories as a warrior. He was killed in an accident when she was in her 20s. She never married and has no children. For that reason, she is officially the last batok maker (mambabatok).

During my visit, every morning Apo Whang Od began tattooing tourists around 7am and finished around 4pm. She took one break for lunch. I never witnessed her drink a sip of water, much less eat a snack. However, what would be impossible to miss were her spits over the edge of the tattooing platform. Because she’s a badass.

She fangirls over Coco Martin, a Filipino actor I have never heard of. His face was printed across her shirt which she never changed out of during my visit. In piecing together the facts later on, I saw that Coco had shipped her a personal gift package just days before I arrived. Her new treasures moved her to tears, and among them was that beloved shirt with Coco’s face on it. Whang Od can play the nose flute. Like the other villagers, Whang Od cares for her pigs and chickens, rice terraces, and family members.

She declined invitations to tattoo at events in Manila because she refused to expose herself to any air pollution. Until October 2017 that is, when she was escorted by the Philippine Air Force into the capital. She inked hundreds of people over two days, stirring up lots of concern across the internet. More on this later. At the event, Manila FAME, she also finally met Coco in person and was absolutely beaming when he hugged her.

 

20th century photo of a Kalinga warrior. Source- Dr. Lars Krutak.

Some Batok History

Batoks fully adorning the bodies of indigenous Filipinos have been observed by Spanish explorers since the 16th century. Once practiced throughout the islands, Westernization has resulted in the near-extinction of batoks and they are rarely found today.

There was a time when every Kaling village had a designated mambabatok. Warriors traditionally received breast tattoos when they made kills. With very few exceptions that still involve killing enemies, breast tattoos can now only be seen in veterans of World War II, when the Kalinga relocated deep into the Cordillera mountains and successfully avoided being conquered by Japanese forces. Women in the village were tattooed in the name of beauty or for reaching womanhood.

Each design has a meaning. Most are inspired by nature. The tattoo receiver had to earn it and prove that they were worthy of being accepted by the tribe. Traditionally the artist would read one’s blood and perform protective chants. This has since been removed and foreigners are now allowed to pick their own design in exchange for pesos. Payments used to be livestock or heirloom beads. Interestingly enough, I did watch her tattoo someone who descended from a tribe that the Butbut had a peace pact with, and he received a discount or something.

Yes, there is a design that means “traveler.”

Whang Od believes that if someone outside of the bloodline makes the batok then it will become infected. The initial trickle of foreigners who stumbled upon her village made her aware just how endangered her art was, and her grand-niece named Grace picked it up at around age 12. The gorgeous Grace was 21 when I visited. Some sources have claimed she was 33, but I asked her myself. She’s my age.

 

Grace and Stef. Photo donated by Stef.

 

Most visitors do not have the chance to spend much time with Whang Od and opt for Grace, or Elyang, another relative. Others settle for the dozen or so rumored villagers who have picked up the batok technique. Then Whang Od will sign the tattoo, but only if she approves of it and has time. Seeking her three dots signature is where everyone fights over having a turn for a meaningless interaction.

The bottom line is that the only authentic aspect remaining is Whang Od herself. The lines of her work are much coarser than those of the newer artists. Her style is unique. She is the only person left in the world who has practiced the ancient rituals of the batok for her whole life. It was Whang Od who tattooed WWII vets and the elders in her village. Others might be able to make a modern batok. Whang Od is the last mambabatok.

 

 

Buscalan Village

So just how rural was Buscalan, after tourism brought in electricity and chocolate from all over the world?

It was a community where the houses were so fused together that I was constantly lost within the maze they formed.

 

 

Like any proper village, I opened the windows to scenes of chickens, pigs, and dogs fighting over the (pig) intestines floating in the water running through the ditches.

The people of the village descended from warriors. The Kalinga were one of the only groups in the Philippines to have never been subjected to foreign rule during colonialism or the world wars. It was normal to take the jaws of enemies and use them for striking gongs. Festivals featured human tug-of-war, snail-eating contests, and thigh-slapping contests.

According to the internet, back in the day Buscalan was locally known to grow marijuana and occasionally travelers would show up for this reason, before the tattoo craze. Buscalan continues to produce great coffee that many visitors swear by. They brewed it in large batches and there was a never-ending supply of pitchers of caffeine, always pre-mixed with loads of sugar. The village sat among rice terraces. Tourism has resulted in the pop-up of some convenience stores, but it was all processed food and there was a general lack of vegetables.

 

Continued…

Some research during the following week quickly informed me that the journey to Apo Whang Od was unfortunately no longer the exhausting adventure that had originally enticed me. Most tattoo seekers picked their designs and locations. It surprised me how few people ever researched the heritage behind the batok before deciding that they, too, needed one to show off to their friends and social media followers.

At times I wondered if I would be the first American (I wasn’t), or Floridian, or surely the first American-born Chinese to have received Whang Od’s blessing.

With a month to premeditate my first tattoo, I did a lot of searching within myself. I found that I was pursuing the raw experience of meeting one of the most remote and gifted artists in the world. I pre-accepted whatever might result. If things felt artificial or forced when I met her, I was going to enjoy the village and leave without any ink. It was a huge personal challenge of asking myself what I want, outside of the stigma and judgement surrounding tattoos.

 

Whang Od with Katrina and I. Photo credit- Mav.

 

I was going for what I hoped were the right reasons, which meant that they were my own reasons.

And because it was such a private thing, I confessed to only two friends, both of whom I had met while abroad.

I didn’t want to hear fifty people tell me how unemployable I would be. Or open the Health Risks conversation.

I just wasn’t going to deal with it.

Yeah, when other travelers around me asked about my next steps, I sometimes disclosed my fantasy of Buscalan batoks. It’s funny how instantaneously people, who usually had not heard of this tradition before, will dive into “I think you should…” as if they had a chance of swaying my interpretation or intention.

Three years of solo travel have made me too  stubborn for that. Actually, it all came down to just one thing:

I had to know what she was going to choose.

I was faced with a slurry of uncertainties from my own fear and from people from around the world:

“Things have gotten so busy in the past year that she won’t tattoo you. You can’t even meet her.”
“What if you hate the tattoo?”
“What if she’s in a shit mood and messes up and it looks like marijuana?”
“What if she tattoos your back and you can’t wear your backpack?”
“What if she tattoos your face?”
“What if it gets infected from her tools?”
“What if you get HIV?”
“What if it gets infected during the rest of your trip?”
“What about the pain?”

My response was always the same: I am fine with that.

I did my research, regularly bothered Stef for advice on preparation and on healing the tattoo, and like I said I accepted any consequences. By default, I wouldn’t leave with regrets or dislike for the design because I genuinely just wanted her to give me what she felt worked for me so that her art could live on. With that said, I particularly didn’t want animal motifs for the design and told myself she wouldn’t pick the centipede or the eagle or the scorpion because that was just how the universe worked.

She picked the centipede. And put it on my back.

 

 

The centipede, or gayaman, means protection wherever you may go. It also wards off cholera. Perhaps she knew that I am idiotic enough to go hobo-ing all these years without having travel insurance.

After further research for this post, I realized it must be one of her favorite designs. In this 2009 documentary, when she tattoos her first foreigner in the original footage that shook the world, she tells him that the centipede is special because it is so powerful. It is not for everyone. To teach Dr. Lars Krutak the batok process, she first showed him how to draw the centipede. Later she asked him to tattoo her hand with the centipede. Her first tattoos were the python and centipede. She has said she would love to tattoo a python or centipede onto Coco Martin.

 

 

I also messed up a golden chance to ask her myself. Some annoying foreigner with his private guide was interviewing her and trying to profit from the village by proposing to make a film. Anyway, I patiently waited and suddenly the translator turned to me and said it was my turn to ask her anything.

How about why she gave me the centipede, or what it means, or what her favorite design is? How about why she picked my back, the place I secretly wanted, when most people get one on their lateral deltoid? How about what her age was, to but an end to the debate once and for all? No, in that moment I was so taken aback that I said I just wanted to say thank you and goodbye. These burning questions began to hit me when I was about halfway down the mountain and I started kicking myself. But hey, when you pre-accept everything, that means everything. And I don’t think I can ask for more than I already got.

 

 

Photo credit- Mav.

 

I often forget it’s there, sometimes it scares me, and I hope it scares you. The appearance of my tattoo is not why I did this, but I have to say I have never seen another like it. I blindly trusted her ability to do beautiful work and for it to heal with no problems. I could feel the love she was putting into my ink with every sting of the thorn.

I cherish my centipede and Apo Whang Od wholeheartedly. I wouldn’t have it any other way. This gift is from a human who is hardly mortal. I named it manjamana, which means “thank you” in Butbut. No one can replicate it. It is staying with me until the day I die.

Trust and non-attachment were the foundations of my journey. I am proud of myself for further removing myself from societal standards. Whang Od’s legacy lives through my skin.

 

 

The Controversy

To be blunt, ever since the publicity of Whang Od turned her into a sensation around 2015, everything has become a circus.

Apo Whang Od is overworked, making tattoos every day of the week unless she is sick. Her hours are full-time—brutal for anyone anywhere close to her age. However, I feel the pressure to be productive and earn money for her people comes from within herself. She has performed hard labor her whole life, and refuses to retire until her eyesight goes. In the episode of Tattoo Hunter hosted by Dr. Lars Krutak, he couldn’t keep up with Whang Od’s pace of rice pounding, even though he was a stronger, larger American and over 50 years her junior.

The younger men in the village certainly profit from creating bullshit rules, such as the requirement of having a guide or the creation of a queue for a tattoo. They can be rude to Whang Od. They were drunk when I arrived. I think that’s what gets me—how impolite and demanding both locals and foreigners can be. Despite this, doing tattoos to bring development to Buscalan is ultimately what Whang Od wants.

In addition to money and greed, tourism has also brought noise pollution and litter to the village. Whang Od hates smokers and glares at those who are disrespectful enough to light cigarettes at her workshop. The youngest villagers are showered with candy. Some tourists even try to party and drink at night, pissing off the women who want to protect their children.

The weekends are the worst. Hundreds of people show up in tour vans from Manila. They are clueless about the local culture and feel entitled to a tattoo. The men of the village coordinate how to distribute everyone by using walkie talkies. Everyone is competing in a mad rush to shove their flesh in front of Whang Od before they go back to work on Monday.

 

Roof of tattoo platform/ storage for cushion and tools.

 

Things are changing so fast. I think I caught the situation at the end of its magic. I knew I was involving myself in delicate ethics, but did not expect things to be as crude and crowded as they were. Though I would have loved to earn my tattoo by shedding blood and sweat the Kalinga way, I’m happy that Apo Whang Od is loyal to her roots and remains hard to reach.

Going back to her visit to Manila after I left, public outrage declared that she was exploited and that her culture was further commercialized. The event wanted to celebrate her, but she was giving tattoos nonstop. The event took advantage of the fact that she is indigenous and turned her into a live exhibit. The organizers say she wanted to do so many tattoos and that she kept every cent of her earnings (around 800K pesos). My opinion?

Of course she was exploited.

The guy who first publicized Whang Od, Dr. Lars Krutak, has even publicly apologized for the changes in the Kalinga lifestyle that his work has contributed to. From the looks of the disclaimers at the top of his articles on batoks, people commonly mistake him for a mambabatok and email him for traditional tattoos.

 

 

The Batok Process

Apo Whang Od uses a small wooden bowl to scrape the soot off of her cooking pots, collecting the base of the ink in the early morning. She mixes it with water until it is the right consistency.

In her newly built tattooing platform, she nimbly grabs her tools from their storage spot in the roof. A couple cardboard sheets display the possible designs. This is the time to offer any gifts and discuss where and what the receiver wants. Depending on the receiver, zero to three electronic devices will begin recording every moment.

The chosen design is partially outlined onto the receiver’s skin, using thin sticks or flexible twigs of bamboo dipped in ink.

 

 

Whang Od then inserts a lemon thorn into the end of a bamboo stick, and uses a wooden stick to hit the first stick into the skin of whoever is receiving a tattoo. She goes over the outline several times, pausing to spit out her saliva, or to use the thorn to scrape more ink off her finger so that it will fall into the open wound when she starts hammering again.

 

 

This is repeated until the whole design has been drawn and inked. My tattoo took about 40 minutes to finish. A signature takes five minutes. She smears coconut oil on every tattoo immediately after it is complete. Then smiles and photos.

Blood is cleaned using baby wipes. The wipe is dipped in a bucket of water and reused until it is a soiled rag of black and red. Then it gets trashed into a ziploc bag, which Whang Od empties at the end of the session. No one helps her clean up.

 

 

Everything is done with her bare hands and she sits in a deep squatted position. She has tiny wooden stools she might sit on, but that’s about it.

 

 

Other Concerns

Does it hurt?

While an elder is giving all her time to labor over our vanity, the primary concern of visitors seems to be the pain. The answer is, it depends on you and the location of your tattoo. Some people say they feel nothing, others compare it to childbirth. I saw plenty of visitors with blood streaming down their skin as they closed their eyes or bit their lips. Her tattoos hurt more than Grace’s.

I felt bee stings over and over, and it was like a meditative massage. It hurt. I could have stayed there all day. Leave me alone and let me be weird.

How do you communicate?

Whang Od speaks Butbut and a few words Tagalog. The guides, or males of the village, are always hanging around and available for translation and will probably flirt with you.

How do you pay?

Once upon a time my tattoo would have cost lots of rice or beads worthy of purchasing a water buffalo or a couple pigs. At least I would like to believe that, since she also gave Dr. Lars Krutak a centipede and that’s what she told him in 2009. My tattoo was $20, my signature was $2. I handed the money in pesos directly to her when my tattoo was done. As of July 2017 prices ranged from $5-20. When she went to Manila in October, tattoos cost up to $50.

Entry and guide?

A kiosk at the front of the village collects $1.50 for entry. You’ll also receive a piece of paper with a number on it that is your place in queue, but it is more or less just a piece of paper.

Guides are circling for business as soon as you get off the bus, and you really should just find one and settle on the $10-ish price so you stay on the good side of the Kalinga. He will take you to and from the village, and help you find a host. Pay him when you leave.

 

Sleeping on my side was never more important nor more painful.

 

Where do you sleep?

There are so many families willing to host foreigners for $6 per night. It includes rice and coffee and maybe welcome shots that you shouldn’t take because it’ll thin your blood and affect the outcome of your tattoo. To bathe, we scooped cold water from a bucket. To excrete, a real ceramic toilet bowl was available, which I guarantee you was not true five years ago, and flushing was done by scooping water from a bucket into the bowl. I stayed in Charlie’s extra house. Mats were laid on the wooden floor and sheets and blankets were spread on top. One room had two pillows so the gay exes I was with took that. One room had three pillows so I shared it with the Spanish couple I was also with. My life is so bizarre that I didn’t bat an eye.

What if you can’t make it to Buscalan?

What does that mean? We make time for what we want. We can do anything. If you have other priorities, I have heard of artists in Manila. I also had friends who found success by persistently asking locals in Sagada. They finally located the one artist, and he agreed to tattoo a design they created themselves for just under $100 each.

 

Month 5- Colombia.

Healthy Healing

Some end up with indents or bumpy scarring in their batok. Others get infections. One infamous blog post recounts an adventure to the emergency room.

Everyone had their own trick, cream, timing, or antibiotic that they swore by. Some said don’t wash it yet, others said wash it all the time.

I turned to my usual practice when it comes to open wounds, which happens to also be the Kalinga way: do nothing. After Whang Od blessed me with her coconut oil on my finished centipede, I went home and got annoyed at our dirty dishes and squatted outside the toilets and scrubbed. My friend Maki convinced me to gently rinse my wound with natural soap and water that night. Later, other people convinced me to not wash the area for days which turned into weeks.

I went by three rules: keep it dry, keep it out of the sun, and never touch it. No different from preventing scarring on any other cut. I was paranoid about these for the rest of my trip, with little success on the first rule in Vietnam, where life was 100+ºF and my centipede was swimming in sweat more often than not.

 

Day 9- Found an air vent and squeezed among grocery aisles to the perfect spot for drying the wound.

 

My hips dug into the wooden floor as I couldn’t have the luxuries of laying on my back or leaning back in my chair for the next two weeks. I slept on so many busses on my side. I walked around the village with my arms out of their sleeves. I loosened the shoulder straps of my backpack and tightened its waist strap to leave. I wore a regular shirt which didn’t seem to bother my wound.

My tattoo eventually itched me to hell and I got furious as the scabs started falling. I never picked at it once. Stef convinced me to buy Panthenol which I only applied if I remembered to. That stuff is so sticky it’s almost just as infuriating.

At the same time I was having panic attacks because the skin underneath the tattoo looked like a faint gray. The lines were indistinguishable. I thought I had messed everything up. Vietnam made it too soggy and the ink washed out.  All that effort to obtain and care for the tattoo and it was going to look like shit. People in my hostels couldn’t help me because they said their machine tattoos were solid black when the scabs fell.

Even the others who were in Buscalan with me had darker tattoos, but mine did look like one blog on Whang Od I found. It was fine in the end because batoks will darken over time.

With zero problems to report and a tattoo of smooth, dark, and clear lines, I currently feel that whatever I did it wouldn’t have changed things because I had Whang Od’s protection.

 

 

What to Bring

Bring respect—It is truly incredulous that only a handful of the thousands of visitors who have a chance to connect with Whang Od have bothered to look into the history and meaning behind the batok. Is it not fascinating? If she is living treasure, why do so many treat her like an automated machine or a doll for photo-ops? Please research and respect both Apo Whang Od and the rest of Buscalan. Live as they live. Don’t litter or smoke, behave in front of the children. No one is entitled to an indigenous tattoo so leaving with one should not be the goal of your visit.

Bring exact change—Banks are far away so have smaller bills for the Buscalan entrance fee and for tattoo and housing services unless you like to burden others.

Bring hiking shoes—Wear whatever you prefer for hikes that are potentially slippery or muddy. Getting to the village involves some staircases and trails. I wore Chaco sandals for the whole summer. Others use sneakers. Others like flip flops.

Bring fresh produce—The Kalinga specialize in rice terracing so fruits and vegetables are scarce. A stove was provided for my roommates and I to cook with, and we compiled the canned and fresh foods we carried up the mountain with us. Funnily enough, I had a sack of mandarins and tomatoes and in unexpectedly meeting Whang Od in her house within minutes of arriving to Buscalan, I was too flustered and full of English when I offered her fruit and she just took the whole thing. No complaints there.

Bring baby wipes—there is a constant need for wiping away fresh blood in the life of a mambabatok. Back in the day she used the same rag for everyone. I brought one pack for her and one pack for myself, but my fresh tattoo stayed dry, so Whang Od got both.

Bring Chocomucho—For emotions.

 

I ended up bringing baby wipes, natural peanut butter, Chocomucho, lipstick, and for the kids, dental floss picks.

 

On Gifts

Almost nobody showed up empty-handed, but having no gifts is perfectly fine. Frankly, unless your name is Coco Martin, Whang Od doesn’t give a shit. Other blogs talk about her love of Chocomucho bars or lipstick which I was scrambling to find in my limited options in Sagada, but after her sessions she takes the pile of gifts and hands them to villagers and children she happens to pass by. And of course the trash gets littered and  young teeth develop cavities. One visitor gave her a beautiful, minimalist pencil sketch of her which was left flapping in the breeze on an empty bench at the end of the day, entirely unloved.

However, Grace does appreciate Chocomucho according to my friend Stef, who got tattooed by her and hung out with her. Every time Apo Whang Od walked by them, she insisted that they “kiss kiss, marry now” in Butbut language. Grace also invited Stef to be her date for an upcoming local wedding… but Stef had to go to Australia and get a work visa and has been picking blueberries for the last four months.

I realized a good solution would have been multivitamins. Whang Od has tattooed villagers for medical reasons and one example given in Dr. Lars’s Ted Talk was to treat goiter, because of the common case of iodine deficiency in Buscalan. Vitamins or ibuprofen or fruit would be so much better than candy. As a nutrition major, I know that supplemental vitamin D, calcium, and iron can also make huge differences. At a Myanmar refuge I worked in, it was common for volunteers to leave behind everything they owned related to first-aid, so that could be an idea for visitors who want to show gratitude in Buscalan.

With that said, don’t show up with boxes of wet wipes and medical supplies because that’s tacky. One or two items will do. Remember that the Kalinga are warriors who have fended for themselves just fine for thousands of years.

 

 

Getting There & Away

The goal is to catch the 2pm-ish bus with a sign reading “Bugnay” that departs from Bontoc and stops at the junction for hiking up to Buscalan. Literally ask every Bontoc local you can for help. Breath-taking views included if successful. $2.

At the drop-off point, a guide will lead you through the 40-minute mountain hike to the village.

From Manila, I took an Ohayami night bus to Banaue. Other possible companies include Florida and Autobus. I took a shuttle to Sagada to visit hanging coffins, and reached Bontoc via jeepney from Sagada for 80 cents. If skipping Sagada, vans run directly from Banaue to Bontoc, 2 hours.

To beeline for the Manila airport as my visa time was running out, I hiked down with my guide and bussed back Bontoc. In Bontoc, I found a bus to Baguio for $3.50. I stayed a night in Baguio before going to the bus station and booking Joybus directly to the airport, $15, be sure to tell them which airport terminal you need.

 

Filipino Cordilleras.

 

Diary

Day 86

Nina was wrong. The yellow shirted one was not her. I had taken my tanned and insect-bitten body up the mountains of the Cordilleras because that is where the last Kalinga mambabatok lived. Now, I was standing outside her house. Three aged women peered from behind the wooden planks at my group. People rarely saw Whang Od outside of her workshop these days. We shouldn’t bother her because she was definitely exhausted. I turned to go onward, but suddenly she was there, as unmistakable and beautiful as she was in all the professional photos circulating the internet.

For the rest of my life, I will always look back on my 21-year-old self finding the confidence to greet Whang Od, letting the English words and facial expressions come naturally, giving her all the fruit I was holding, and even reaching for a handshake. She couldn’t understand a thing, but her face broke into a wide grin.

That was all I needed. Tattoo or not, I got what I was looking for.

*****

In the hot town of Bontoc earlier that day, the lady who served me halo-halo with the most peculiar contents I have encountered to date helped me with my transport options. In a nearby jeepney I recognized Carlos and Nina, a couple from Spain, and together we figured out the best we could do was sit on the road next to a shaggy, parked bus and hope it really was going to Buscalan the way (almost) everyone insisted it was.

 

A halo-halo with avocado, pasta, sweet potato, jellies, beans, and more.

 

Pretty soon two other guys who were obviously not indigenous showed up. Maki, a half Filipino half Israeli living on his own farm in Romblon, Philippines, had been several times before. He was dirt-bagging the northern Philippines five years ago and accidentally found Buscalan. Before Whang Od would give him his first batok, he had to kill a chicken and sleep with his arm drenched in its blood. He kept returning to visit his Kalinga bros and usually stayed with Charlie, one of the first “guides” for doing tattoos. With him was his ex-boyfriend B, a Nepali living in Hong Kong who was finally paying a visit to the Philippines.

Our questionable vehicle eventually boarded passengers and ran its engine. I contemplated the terraced scenery and my irrational dreams to the rhythm of my mouth chewing on a pack of Oreos. Maki leaned over and told me we were close. He knew this because we passed the telltale “Jesus on a hill.”

We followed Jake, a 19-year-old sent by Charlie, winding along mountain edges until the skies began pouring and we had to take cover. Wading through a river, we waited in a cramped cave until the rain faded to a drizzle. None of this mattered—it was more important that we didn’t come across any snakes, because this was a bad omen for batok seekers.

 

 

Victor, another of the original guides, and Charlie, welcomed us into their home with coffee and gin. Charlie sported an algebraic shirt that informed me how to subtract 80 from 500. Children and pigs ran around. I don’t know if these men have vision, or if they ruined the future of Buscalan.

 

Maki, B, and I chilling at Charlie’s.

Day 87

I was shaking and the Kalinga coffee wasn’t helping.

All or nothing. In high school, I refused to join National Honor Society unless I became its president. Now, if Whang Od had told me no, I would go home and write about how she told me no.

I showed up the the tattoo platform before 7am and told Victor that I needed to talk to her. He took me to her house while she was having breakfast and I said the words at the beginning of this post. He translated. She was more than willing to express herself through my skin. I was more than honored.

I watched as two Filipinas got their designs of choice, their blood falling down their deltoids. In between their sessions, Apo quickly tacked her signature onto four or five other Filipino tourists. The fine lines of their art told me that they were done by the new artists—one “batok” was so polluted with modern symbols that it had an electrocardiogram in it.

It was surreal for me to see her cataracts and wrinkles, and to know I let someone at her age decide the fate of my skin. The scabbed sores on her feet gave me the familiar pang of desire to be a doctor. Like when Andrew was slashed by barbed wire in Kenya, I wanted to have training so I could make a difference.

I was up next. A full day or two earlier than what I had planned for. I thanked myself for having all my stuff in case the moment arose.

I stood in front of her, waiting for her to grab my arm and do a small 20-minute piece that I had seen on everyone else. Imagine my surprise when the translator turned to her, then turned to me.

“The back.”

 

 

 

I knew it wouldn’t be so bad after the hit. I could feel the love she put in with every new wound she was inflicting. If people enjoy acupuncture, then could I compare my short bursts of stinging pain to a massage?

I was surrounded by more than a dozen others. Some were helpful, others jammed out with guitars and terrible singing, taking away from the spiritual aspect of the experience. Those who did listen when I asked everyone to leave and give me some privacy slowly trickled back.

I had no idea what she was doing. I thought for sure my tattoo was reaching from shoulder blade to shoulder blade. It felt as if my whole upper back were being etched with her soot. I couldn’t feel myself bleeding.

 

I thought I heard someone say “centipede” but was trying to block out everything outside of my own mind and Whang Od. I saw a picture and thanked her. I can’t remember if I hugged her but I imagine I did.

Dazed and trying to come down from my high, I watched Whang Od tattoo a fern onto the neck of a Swiss girl, and her signature, vertical, onto the twin of the previous girl. I don’t know how many others I stayed for.

 

 

Finally B came and got me for lunch. I covered my drying tattoo with a scarf. Without him I wouldn’t have been able to find my way to our house. Maki had made everyone shakshuka 🙂

 

Salamat Maki!

 

For sure I was the only one who would squat outside a bathroom among the flies and wash five people’s dishes over two meals with a tiny chunk of soap and two basins of very shallow water?

I returned to watch more. At the end of the long day she wasn’t skimping at all on being thorough and careful. Again I marveled at how able-bodied she was. I noted her apprehension at the cigarettes being lit around us. I thought of all the patients I have witnessed suffering from dementia, hypertension, diabetes… all decades younger. All with more money and more access to resources.

I would have never picked this design, but she did. I am so happy with everything. I know she did it with the skill she is famed for because I was being paranoid as hell and having everyone examine it. With all of them having plenty of tattoo experiences, they made fun of me and said it was healing well. So well. I have never seen my tattoo with my naked eye, always through the lens of a camera.

 

Day 88

Having assumed Apo’s English was limited to “signature,” I was impressed to watch her count quickly from 1-10 that morning.

I made myself a meal of canned tuna, onion, and stale leftover rice by frying all of it in oil from yesterday’s canned corned beef. It was delicious.

I watched some footage of my tattoo session and couldn’t get the sound to work. I was frustrated.

I went back down, expecting to see Apo tired, wiping her eyes, and yet as focused as ever. I instead found another type of bloodshed. My mind was still considering my conversation I had just had with Abs, a village mother. She said while they usually had 12 kids per family in Buscalan, she only had five because rice was expensive at the time.

Therefore I was unprepared for the young man informing me they were just about to kill a pig. I silently watched in horror as a pig was tied to a stake by its four legs, and taken upside-down to the construction site right next to the tattoo treehouse. It was held down and repeatedly gouged between its neck and shoulder until a pot of blood was collected. The ritual brings good omens to the house being built. It was the opposite of a quick death. The pig never stopped struggling and screaming. When it was done, I could still see its abdomen rising and falling from labored breathing.

 

Kalinga tradition.

 

They carried the half-alive carcass uphill so it could be transformed into supper. For the remainder of my stay, the bloodstains on the plywood would remain as the backdrop to Whang Od’s tapping.

 

Day 89

I had to get to Baguio. On my way out, she was sitting at the entrance of my house mid-interview. I yelled “huay yoo” to her, referring to both herself and my tattoo, which meant “beautiful” in her language.

 

 

A dozen steps later I told Jake I needed another 10 and ran back. I listened to her re-tell, for what was probably the thousandth time, the story of her boyfriend. A guide translated at her side. Then I had a chance to say whatever I wanted.

I could only muster up “thank you, goodbye, I will never forget you” in the moment.

“And I will never forget you!”

She added, “I advise you to take a boyfriend from here,” motioning to Jake, who was in the distance wearing my backpack and bored out of his mind.

My steps felt light as I hurried down the mountain. I fought the urge to run back once more and ask all the actual good questions that were coming to me and eating me alive.

“Jake? Apo said I need a Buscalan boyfriend, so that has to be you, is that alright?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, it’s okay.”

 

 

 

 

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