Kalinga Making Marks

In late January, my good friend, Bernice, and I traveled way up north of the Philippines to the mountains of Buscalan, Kalinga. Getting there took one night and one day, three different vehicles on countless cliffs, and so many miles on foot, all totaling 15 hours of travel from Manila. Buscalan, Kalinga made for an epic journey though. It wasn’t just because it was so isolated and untouched that it’s yet to have cellphone coverage; or because the village was so small and intimate that living among the tribe was such a unique experience; or because I’m a sucker for greens and having it as far as the eye can see by default calms my soul. It was because, in essence, we literally took some of Kalinga onto our skin. Permanently. Yup, we got tattoos.

The place is most known for Fang-od, a 93-year-old woman of the local Butbut tribe, who’s now only one of two people in the Philippines practicing traditional tribal tattooing – the other person being her grand niece and apprentice, Grace. They use charcoal paste as ink, thorns as needles, and bamboo sticks as implements. It looked scary to be honest, but it looked much worse than it really was. It  was perhaps this method, and the romance at having a woman who once tattooed tribal warriors and heroes do the same for you, that enticed travelers to journey to the remote Kalinga mountain village.

Ours began at 7pm at Victory Liner’s Kamias Station, since this was the only station that had buses to Tabuk, Kalinga’s capital. We arrived just before the following sunrise to a city that’s barely awake. Here and there were groups of bikers, joggers, walkers, or just straight up early risers. Drivers and market-goers dotted the streets as well. And, of course, the ever-present dogs.

We immediately set out to find the station where we could take the bus to Tinglayan, our next stop. It turns out though that the “station” wasn’t really one in the traditional sense. It was more of a seemingly random spot along the street where various vehicles were parked. So early in the morning however, only one could be seen. It was definitely easy to miss. Facing the big church, the station was several meters to the right, at the corner of a smaller street.

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When traveling from Tabuk, Kalinga the best thing to do is to top-load. Sitting on the roof of a…(I’m not really sure what our vehicle was called).. while winding through mountains and snaking through ravines, all the while being battered by the cold wind for 3 hours, might seem harrowing. But the unobstructed panoramas jumping at you at every corner are more than sufficient distractions from whatever paranoid fears (of falling over) or discomforts (from your butt, thighs, and legs as they bounce on the cold metal bars of the roof rack) you’re feeling. It was a challenge, but it was worth it.

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Eventually we made it to the little town of Tinglayan where we met-up with our guide Francis Pa-in. He was the internet’s only and most-loved guide to Buscalan, Kalinga – and for good reason. He led us to our last bus of the journey, a sweet one-hour roof-ride to the even smaller town of Bugnay. From there we started the rough and treacherous hike to Buscalan. Just kidding, the hike wasn’t rough or treacherous AT ALL. We were just grossly out-of-shape and sucked at it big-time. The two girls we climbed with though made it to the village in probably an hour. We took 3. There was no rush though since the views were grand as well.

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When we finally arrived in Buscalan, I was a little surprised to see how many people were there for tattoos. It was barely anything on a commercial tourist scale, but for a far-flung village in the middle of nowhere, it was a good handful (about nine each day).

We settled down at our homestay, shared a meal with the other travelers, then it was time to watch all the people getting tattooed and, hopefully, not psyche ourselves out. Over the course of the two and a half days we were there, that was pretty much all we did. It was great cos you got to share stories with the others, about their trip to the village, how far they’ve traveled, about the tattoos their getting and why. It had such a cozy and homey atmosphere, and had zero distractions from the outside world, that you felt nestled in a cocoon while you’re there, transforming, along with your fellow travelers, as you all shared something you will never find anywhere else.

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We shared a meal with Grace, who was to do Bernice’s tattoo, and then, it was time.

I read in one of the blogs that it wasn’t as painful as it looked. That’s true. Pardon me for being so graphic, but this is just to illustrate. I imagined it would feel like a sharp knife stabbing your skin again and again , but it wasn’t. It was more like a dull pin scraping through it. And yes, the latter still sounds painful, but still nowhere near as painful as the thought of knives.

For the lucky majority it was also pretty quick. Bernice’s three Baybayin characters took around a quarter of an hour. On the other hand, my skin didn’t absorb the ink so well. So my simple, geometric tribal bird tattoo took a good portion of 30 Seconds to Mars’ This is War album. Towards the end I just had my eyes closed and willed myself to focus on Closer to the Edge, whose lyrics I could no longer recall, despite knowing it by heart for years. That is until my tattoo took ages to finish.

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After tattoos it was time to explore the village of Buscalan a little more. The clusters of houses, despite its size, were bursting with activity. Children playing, men and women working or gathering. There was singing that filled the village for a while thanks to a wedding ritual taking place.

Kids came up to us and asked for candies, before running off again to play. The adults gave us smiles, some chatted a bit. It was all very welcoming and familiar, despite it being the first time I’ve ever stayed with a mountain tribe.

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The next day it was time to leave. It was another hike down, though shorter this time, and then a bus to the city of Bontoc en route to Baguio en route to Manila. My tattoo still stung, but in a good way; like a constant pinching to remind me where I was, what I was doing, what I have just accomplished, and what grand things lay waiting for me. It was going to be a new chapter, and the village of Buscalan, Kalinga was the perfect marker for it.