When my friend, Bernice, and I started talking about going up to Kalinga, she was still unsure of whether to get a tattoo. She wanted one but her parents were against it, and so she didn’t know if getting permanently inked was worth the trouble.

As we went through the harrowing journey however, and finally reached the tiny village nestled at the mountaintop, it gradually became a different story for her.

Bernice’s parents were protective and quite conservative, as was common with Filipinos. It took them a while to warm up to the idea that she wasn’t intent on pursuing a life like theirs; a life with stable income produced from routine hours at a secure job. When she decided to travel alone for the first time last year, it wasn’t easy to get them to allow her to go. But she persisted.

It was our trek up the mountain that cemented her decision this time around. It almost became symbolic. More than getting a badge for an achievement; more than being part of a lost tradition; she was conquering a challenge, shaking off impediments and, in the process, claiming herself.

She got a tattoo in Baybayin, an ancient Filipino script, that says “Malaya“. And malaya means free.