It was a gloomy Thursday night, the air was cold, and it seems like the rain is about to fall. Cat and I are bound for Buscalan, a village high up in the mountains where Apo Whang Od, touted as the last mambabatok, lives. Cat was going for her history research on the ancient vanities and standards of beauty of the Butbut tribe, while I was the “kaladkarin” sister who wants to get a breath of fresh air from the crowded Manila scene and my clouded mind.
We sat in the first row of the bus going to Tabuk, readying ourselves for the 12-hour bus ride up north. Being the lover of long rides, I was excited seeing buildings, houses and noise turn to trees, mountains and the deafening sound of silence through the window. I had minor shuteye during the ride, the bus driver seemed he was in a hurry to reach Tabuk.
By dawn, I woke up to the sun casting its first light against the gloomy sky and decided to watch the sunrise from where I was seated. In a few minutes, the bus driver would announce we have arrived at our destination – Tabuk, the gateway to Buscalan.
From Tabuk, we took a five minute tricycle ride to NCIP for Cat’s research and went back by tricycle to where vans would take us to Bugnay – turning point to Buscalan. Sadly, the last van bound for Bugnay already left and the locals advised us that the next best thing is to ride a van bound for Tinglayan and ride another van bound for Bugnay, where we’ll meet our guide.
The van ride was a bit confusing, we were stopping at markets and locals would get off to buy stuff and we’d stop at every passenger’s doorstep when they get off. It seemed like everybody knows everyone and we’re sticking out like a sore thumb. At one point, some kid threw little flowers at me and they landed right on my face. Not cool. I uttered a curse.
We arrived at Tinglayan two and half hours later. Thankfully, our van driver knew who our tour guide was, verifying my hunch that everybody knows everyone in here. We told Kuya Gilbert, our tour guide, that we’re in Tinglayan and he said that he’ll meet us instead there.
Five minutes into the ride and we soon realized that this ride is going to be terrible. The road leading to Bugnay is rough and dangerous. And by dangerous, I mean your van can fall off the cliff in a single mishap dangerous. At one point, we almost collided with an oncoming truck, our driver turned the steering wheel to the right and we went to a screeching stop. I had my hand to my heart as I looked through the window and saw that we were few feet away from the cliff. I refused to take a nap after that.
We arrived at the turning point, had a quick rest and continued on the last few journey to the top.
The Point Of No Return
Prior to this trip, I didn’t have any idea on the trek up to the village, except that it would take 30-45 minutes depending on the person’s strength and stamina. Having been able to climb a mountain with two hours of sleep, I was confident enough that I could do it. But nobody told me that a wrong step can cost my life. The trek was too narrow and if you look down, you’d see how far you’d end up to your death. Could be a five second “aaaaaaah!” and then “thud!” You’re dead. So naturally, I just looked forward and held on to anything I could get my hands on.
A few minutes on and we were hearing a rush of water flowing. Kuya Gilbert said there’s a small waterfall that we can swim in if we want to, since there’s no water in the village, we need to freshen up because we need to get down just to swim again. He was joking, of course.
the most amazing swim I’ve had since Jomalig!
We finally reached the said waterfall. I took off my shoes and socks, dipped my foot in the water and was instantly refreshed. To say I was refreshed would be an understatement. It was glorious! Quickly, Cat and I took off our clothes (I took off my jacket and pants and changed into my shorts) and took a dip into the water. It was definitely one of the highlights of this trip, it was like bathing in the rain, carefree. It was going back to the happiest parts of your childhood after getting crashed and burned from adulthood. Lelz.
The second half of the trek was painful. It was like going back to reality. It seemed like Kuya Gilbert gave us a taste of fun, pulled us out of it and give us back pain. Fuck gravity, guys. The last twenty steps, Kuya Gilbert was pushing me from behind to force my feet to walk.
This was what greeted us when we arrived. The hike was worth it.
We arrived in Buscalan and I’d tell you it was different from what I pictured it would be. It was a labyrinth of houses that you could get lost into. There were more pigs than dogs. Kids run around asking for candies from tourists. Adults going on about their day, not the least bit interested on new tourists arriving, they come in dime a dozen anyway.
We turned left, right, went through little spaces and we suddenly heard “tak, tak, tak, tak, tak, tak” the continuous sound of wood kissing the bamboo and piercing right through the skin. We were ushered into Apo Whang Od’s lair. She was tattooing a guy while a group of people from the local tourism office is interviewing a local.
Apo Whang Od looked small and frail. She’s smaller and skinnier than I was, but you can see from her wrinkled skin that this woman is a force to be reckoned with. She commands respect even as she was sitting in a tiny stool hunched over a guy bigger than my father. Her forehead’s creased in concentration as she taps away at the man’s skin with the bamboo.
We decided to leave Apo and settle down in our homestay. Cat, however, was insistent in going back to start her research and finally get her tattoo from the master. She keeps on insisting that I get a tattoo with her. I wasn’t really keen in doing it until I finally decided that I’ll get Apo’s three-dot “autograph” instead.
Since it was a weekday, there was no queue when we got there. Cat went in first and got a “babalakaya” tattoo, believed to ward off evil spirits and to never get lost. Kinda like a compass. Let’s hope she’ll not get lost in life. LOL.
Afterwards, I got the autograph batok on my left wrist to complement the red semicolon tattoo on the right wrist I had done last year. I figured a machine meets traditional tattoo concept would look cool, lelz. I was done in under two minutes.
The Batok Process
this is where you choose your design
master at work
The process starts with Apo making a stencil on your skin with the ink – soot that came from her pans mixed with water to a pasty consistency. She then puts ink on the pomelo thorn and starts tapping away on the skin. She goes over the skin two to three times or until the skin absorbs the ink. Sometimes, the skin would snag to the thorn that would make you say, “aray ko beh.”I think she hit my bone when she did mine. I had a hard time flexing my arm for a few days after it.
Contrary to popular belief, the experience wasn’t as painful as the blogs say. Or maybe we were just used to all the pains life throws at us that this was nothing. Char. Seriously though, if I’d compare it to a machine tattoo, it was pretty much the same. The only difference was this would take a longer time to heal since the process requires hitting you countless times leaving you with bruises. Swelling is expected for days. Don’t fret, young one.
Cat interviewed Apo afterwards. She does not speak a lot of Tagalog so we were kind of lost in translation, but she was your typical old lady. She’s funny and a bit lascivious, confident in her sexuality, a poster child for feminism. Translation: she touches guys and girls in their private parts jokingly if she wants to. LOL. She gets snobbish when there are a lot of people, so we were lucky to see her light side.
I don’t think she knows how to write, as it wasn’t a required learning back in the day, but she still has a sharp memory. Though she does not know how old she is really, no one really knows. She says she’s 99, others say she’s 95. Most of the elders in the tribe don’t know their exact birthday and age; the oldest apo in the tribe says he’s 99, too, but his niece says he’s over a hundred. So they all celebrate their birthdays on the 1st of January and their tombstone would say January 1st for their day of birth.
Is there some kind of time-space warp in the mountains?
toast to the mountain
We slept early the previous night that I woke up well-rested and thought it was morning already. I checked my phone and saw it was just 2am. WTF. Went back to sleep and woke up again, thought it’s after seven. It was 4am. The hours are long in Buscalan.
I finally woke up at 7am. The weather in Buscalan is perfect. In fact, I think everything in Buscalan is perfect. You wake up to the stunning view of the rice terraces, the sound of rice hitting back the bilao when ladies do their daily “pag-iipa”, and the smell of freshly brewed rice coffee. This was the life.
No phones, no social media, no nothing. Only you and the environment. Amazing. I tried reading a book, but it was also the best time to catch up with my sister so we did just that.
The same day, my friend Jet arrived exhausted from the trip. She said she didn’t expected it to be this hard. LOL.
She also got her autograph from Apo and we hung out with two other solo travelers in the trip. The misty night was fuuuuun.
Normally, people would only need to spend a night in Buscalan to get their tattoo, except on peak days. There really was nothing to do here except to meet Apo Whang Od and get that coveted traditional tattoo. You can ask your guide to bring you to the rice terraces for a closer look of how they’re done, which we did, and you can also talk to the locals over a glass of coke (Carmina, pa-coks ka naman!) and get to know more about their culture, which is the best part of being a traveler – knowing their culture and how they live. You get out with a little bit knowledge on how the other side lives. Which is the whole point of traveling, right?
The Butbut Tribe, Up Close And Personal
In that afternoon of chitchatting with Ate Ana and other #titasofBuscalan, I found out that tribe wars still happen in the mountains. Sometimes, teens from different sides would meet in the lowlands, have a fight and that might ensue a war. In general, tribes are friendly with each other.
The elementary school in the mountain is funded by a foreign group, shame on the government, and if the kids want to finish college, the nearest university is in Tabuk. They have their own church in the community but they’re mostly Seventh Day Adventists. They used to believe in animism back in the olden days.
Back then, outsiders cannot just go up the community. A ritual has to be done before an outsider is permitted to stay. But after the village and Apo Whang Od was featured in National Geographic channel, all thanks to NCIP’s Ms. Naty, the village have become more welcoming to outsiders. They opened their doors to tourists and travelers, converted their houses to homestays and offered guides so people can go up and meet Apo Whang Od. Apo and her niece, Grace, had the trek paved and cemented so people wouldn’t have a hard time going to Buscalan.
Because of Apo Whang Od, tourism flourished and so is another kind of livelihood to the tribe. People who can speak Tagalog or English are automatically tour guides, homeowners earn a living with people who stay overnight and sari-sari stores sell canned goods and a souvenir shop was built where people can buy pasalubong for their loved ones.
with Apo Baydon, who still makes walis tambo! Buy one from him when you visit the village!
Before, Apo Whang Od would only put batok on tribe members who has shown valor and defended the tribe’s honor. The oldest man in the tribe, Apo Baydon has two lines of batok on his face. He said he got this when he killed two Japanese soldiers who want to go in the mountains during the Japanese occupation. If you’re a woman, a tattoo signifies beauty and wealth. Payment for a tattoo could be a pig or a cow, or if you’d agree to plant rice in exchange for it. Eezy, breezy, beautiful, Kalinga batok. Hehe.
Culture VS Commercialization
Today, the Kalinga tattoo is bestowed on anybody who has several hundreds of cash to burn and the courage to undergo an unhygienic and painful process. You can always take an antibiotic, you know. Gone are the days when a tattoo is something you’d be proud of because it has a significant meaning to the wearer. On our second day of batok-watching, a guy was getting a snake-skin/python tattoo, I think it used to mean you’re a war leader to get this kind, but this burly guy just shouted “OUCH!” in the middle of the process. LOL.
You want to know what’s the sadder part? I asked around and Butbut kids no longer want to have batok imprinted on their skin. The little kids say “masakit,” it was understandable, kids see blood dripping and the sound of “tak, tak, tak” would definitely make them think twice about it. Young adults say the same thing when I asked them why they wouldn’t want to get tattooed.
The youngest person I’ve seen with the batok was our host, Ate Ana, who’s around 35 years old. She said in one of our conversations that nobody in the tribe has ever stepped out of the country and went overseas to work. She said tattooed people cannot get a work abroad. They believe that getting inked would kill their dreams of becoming an OFW. But is it worth it?
It’s upsetting to find out that the new generation of Butbut tribe with their Americanized names (Darlene, Nicole, Yvonne, no one was named Baydon or Whang Od or traditional names anymore) no longer want their centuries old tradition because of their dreams. Not blaming them. Before long, nobody from the Butbut tribe would have a batok.
It’s ironic to me that once Apo Whang Od dies, the only people who would have her mark on their skin are us, mere outsiders who don’t even deserve what the python or the centipede meant. We will be left with people who only have the tattoos as decorations, their true meaning, lost in abyss along with the tribe’s history. All would be left of Whang Od’s legacy are inked on strangers, who don’t even know what the tattoos mean, just for art, or because hey, it looked cool. The batok would soon become just a tourist destination, a part on some traveler’s bucket list to tick off in this lifetime, or an Instagram post that would garner 25 likes.
I think this was also the reason why I only opted to get an autograph from the master. I don’t think I’m worthy of a tattoo that has been going on for centuries after only staying for three days and two nights with them.
Kuya Gilbert! Get him as your guide, here’s his number: 0908 479 2012
The trek back to civilization was easier. We took another swim in the waterfall before going, we just had to, and bid our goodbyes to Kuya Gilbert for his generosity and corny/sexist jokes. Buscalan was amazing. I love every bit of time I spent in it. If I could, I would have stayed one more month and immerse in the life of a Butbut tribe.
As I’m writing this, I’m missing Kalinga’s cold air, clouds kissing the mountain view, and the soothing sound of “tak,tak,tak” as Apo Whang Od yaps at a tourist skin marking a great culture forever etched on his skin.
Now, lemme get a steaming cup of Kalinga rice coffee to satiate my need for another travel.
Here’s the travel video from that trip:
HOW TO GET THERE:
- There are different ways to go to the village. You can go the Manila-Baguio-Bontoc-Buscalan route, Manila-Banaue-Bontoc-Buscalan route or Manila-Tabu-Buscalan route. We took the last option. Victory Liner have daily trips to Tabuk in all their bus stations. We rode the 8:30 PM trip via Dau. The good thing about Victory Liner is that they leave pronto whether or not the bus is full. We had two stopovers and we arrived in Tabuk at around 8 AM.
Bus to Tabuk: P621.00 – regular fare, P421 – student fare, you need to show your ID for this.
Travel time: 12 hours
- Ride a bus bound for Bugnay, if you get left behind, ride a van instead bound for Tinglayan.
Van to Tinglayan: P200 (I think we were ripped off, the van driver originally said 100 but later said 200 because he forgot to drop us off. Kairita, bes. But we decided not to castigate him for ripping us off, karma’s a bitch, anyway.)
Travel time: 2 hours
Van to Bugnay: P20
Travel time: 20-30 minutes
- Trek to Buscalan Village
Travel time: 30-45 minutes
BREAKDOWN OF EXPENSES:
Bus MNL to Tabuk – P621
Baon – P230
Meds – 105
Hotdog – 30
Washroom – 5/1
Trike (NCIP) – P20
Van to Tinglayan – P200
Van to Bugnay – P20
Pancit Canton – P20
Environmental fee – P75
Tattoo – P100 (Cat got the babalakaya (compass / to ward off evil spirits) P400; I got Apo Whang Od’s three dots signature P100)
Coffee – P100
Itlog – 20
Homestay – P500
Guide – P350
Coke – P110
Mtor to Bugnay – P100
Bontoc Bus – P100
Tricycle to jeep terminal – P9
Jeep to Sagada – 40
Lunch – 150
Tour fee – 35
Tour guide (hanging coffins) – P68
Merienda – 110
Breakfast – 120
Hostel – 300
Bus sagada to baguio – P220
Bonamine – P15
Lunch – P65
Taxi to Victory – P20 (shared with two other people)
Bus to Manila – P445
Dinner – P50
Washroom – P5
Jeep – 22