Nervousness battled with excitement as I rode on top of a full jeepney along the mountains of Cordillera. It was my first time to ride topload style. With goods surrounding us, we tried our best to hold on lest we fall into the river or cliffs below. We were strangers starting out on a journey to reach Buscalan. What’s in there you ask? Not what, but who. No other than Apo Whang-od, the last mambabatok.
As early as high school, I knew I’ve always wanted to get inked – maybe it’s the rebel in me. Having an inclination towards the arts, I’ve long dreamed that I would be wearing a permanent and profound symbol of my choosing. What that image was yet unknown. It started out with butterflies and stars and eventually evolved into something related to travel in the later years.When I heard of Apo Whang-od during university days, I knew then that my first ink would have to come from the oldest living master of batek. It is an ancient tradition carried out by the Butbut tribe in Tinglayan, Kalinga. Over the years, the small village was featured in various documentaries and publications because of the backhand tap tattoo unique to the Kalingas. Tourists braved the long and tiring travel just to be tattooed by the now 97-year old living legend.
That dream finally came into fruition in April this year – with strangers no less. See, I have never traveled solo with strangers before this. I had no clue how it was going to turn out. The fact that I have a low threshold for pain and needles was burning at the back of my mind.
The journey started in Ohayami Trans that brought us to Banaue. After an arctic 10-hour bus ride, a side trip to the famous Banaue Rice Terraces was in order. From there, we took a van to Bontoc to meet up with Will, The Broke Backpacker, who was to join us to meet the famous traditional tattoo master.
After arming ourselves with provisions (TIP: bring candies and bread) and a hearty lunch, our party of four searched for the jeepney heading to Tabuk. But luck was on our side and we stumbled upon the jeepney that heads to Buscalan instead.
Our party of four soon turned into a fellowship of seven. Seven strangers all aiming to be inked with a tattoo previously reserved for the headhunters and women of the Butbut tribe.
With the Chico River below and the Cordillera mountains on the other side, we bid adieu to Bontoc. The party was only getting started.
I couldn’t recall now how many times I held my breath and prayed every time we had to pass by a narrow road. One miscalculation and we’d all be tumbling down the river and rocky cliffs. Afraid of heights, I begged to be seated at the middle of them all. With the wind whipping our hair and the strong summer sun bearing down on us, there was no other choice but to enjoy the ride. The saving grace, of course, was the scenic view of endless mountains, valleys, rice paddies, and the fresh air that you won’t get in the concrete jungle.
We finally got to sit inside the jeepney when we arrived in the town of Bugnay. The fun part was getting to see and chase the native pigs running around in the middle road as if they were like dogs playing with each other or scratching their itch by the cement. The other fun part? Sharing the jeepney with a native sickly chicken ill-fated to become dinner later.
Tattoo pilgrims usually trek from the road up to the turning point. But since we got lucky, we bypassed that and alighted right in front of the end of the road. Although most of the path is already cemented, one wrong foot placement and you could be plunging to your demise. I had to take extra care with my jelly legs and fear of heights.
Around the mountains and the rice paddies, we marched on in a single pile, eager to reach the village before sunset. Finally, by 5 PM, we stopped for a dip in the waterfalls. Well, they swam. I was content to rest and watch them enjoy themselves.
Deciding not to take the time to dry themselves up, we continued the rest of our journey. Up, up we go, climbing the concrete stairs towards Buscalan.
We all breathed one huge sigh of relief when we laid eyes on the village that was to be our home for a night.
Besides the children running up and down the mountain, one of the first few who greeted us was Apo herself. It was a surreal moment. Her body is a real work of art, with her arms showcasing the tribal designs. Tongue-tied because I was too star-struck to utter anything intelligible other than a good afternoon in Tagalog.
After a round of brewed Kalinga coffee, the rain came pouring in. And that was our cue to head towards Kuya Charlie’s house. We ended the night with a dinner of local food and pancit canton, mingling with the locals under the new moon.
Come morning, we made our way towards the small hut perched on the mountainside. This is where the magic happened. A few people were already eagerly waiting for Apo and Grace’s arrival. Since Apo has no children of our own, she passed down the knowledge to her sister’s granddaughter, Grace Palicas.
Another addition to Apo and Grace was Ilyang, who’s also presently training to preserve the art of batek. For a small design, I was lucky to be worked on by all three, from the master to the new trainees. Ilyang did the stencil, Grace started the tapping and of course Apo took it halfway to the end. It was an efficient system because sometimes there were 2 or 3 people currently being inked at the same time.
The needle, in this case, is a lemon thorn stuck on a bamboo stick. The ink is charcoal and is tattooed on the skin by tapping the bamboo stick with another. Hands clammy with cold sweat, I tried to even my breathing. This anxiety won’t help with the whole experience, I thought. The first few taps weren’t painful but as it went on, the sting manifested. I tried hard to lose myself in the rhythm of the tapping. I tried hard not to let all that blood bother me. Soon my skin started to swell. With the charcoal ink now embedded inside it.
So this is what it felt like. My fears of fainting and crying were unfounded. Soon enough I was numb with the occasional bouts of pain when Apo tapped it harder than normal. All too soon, it was over. Apo wiped it with a wet tissue for the last time before applying oil over the new tattoo.
To be sure that we catch the last bus going back to Bontoc, we had to immediately go down the mountain after getting our tattoos. We had a tight schedule to work with. It was no easy feat walking along the sides of the rice terraces with a leg tattoo. It definitely made everything challenging. It almost made me feel regretful that I chose that location.
As much as we, Potpot, Jindra, and I, want to stay longer, luck was not on our side this time. Maybe when I go back, my heavy heart will be no more.
And in the middle of that cramped, cliff-hanging but scenic bus ride, I realized one thing. That not even getting a backhand tap tattoo from a living legend trumps the pain of getting your heart broken.
This physical pain, though it hurt like hell, can never compare with emotional pain. Like getting your heart broken. Or maybe I shouldn’t even compare them at all. But still, unlike emotional pain, the physical hurt goes away after the ordeal. You are only left with a scar or in this case, a mark. Getting you heart broken, you carry with you the pain even after everything is said and done.