It was deep in the evening when we left the hustle and bustle of Manila to go on the 12-hour drive to Bontoc, Mountain Province. The bus went through several towns, provinces and countrysides; getting colder every hour we’re on the road. There were many tourists and people who were going home for the holidays. Tourists right at our back were on their way to the bonfire in Sagada.
9 AM – we arrived at Bontoc. It was cold. Mountains were in every corner of our sight. A town in the middle of the mountains. We missed the 9AM jeep to Tinglayan, Kalinga-Apayao so we had to wait for the 1PM jeep. It was already late in the afternoon when we arrived in Tinglayan. The guide told us we should stay the night in the town. We couldn’t trek the mountains in the dark and it was raining. It was the first moment we broke our itinerary. We stayed the night at the Sleeping Beauty Inn and cooked the noodles and canned goods we were supposed to eat up in the mountains. Two travelers were also at the inn when we got there who would come with us later to the village of Buscalan.
I was particularly excited when I woke up the following day. I have heard of the legendary Whang Od from other Anthropology students who have been in Buscalan before me. She is the last expert Mambabatok (tattoo artist) in Buscalan and she’s teaching a 16-year old apprentice, Grace, who is also getting to be a good Mambabatok. Whang Od has been teaching Grace since the girl was 10 years old. Six years in training and she didn’t flinch at the sight of blood and wounded skin.
Whang Od herself is over 90 years old, but her eyes and hands are still as keen as ever. She is amazingly quite strong for her age. The fruits of good diet and clean environment. I saw her feed her pigs and go up and down a ladder with the ease of a 20-year old. She also has the kindest face which reminded me so much of my late grandfather. She has a bright smile and twinkling eyes. Even though we couldn’t understand each other (she spoke her own native tongue and a few English phrases), I found myself reaching out to her.
A living legend (Image via Bruce Liron)
I was tattooed (or hammered) at 1PM; the third person that day to be tattooed. I asked her to decide the design for me and she chose the “eye” motif for spiritual guidance and awareness. It was a two-hour ordeal and I tried to steady myself as I was shaking from the pain and the impact of the thorn being hammered on my arm. I didn’t look as I never really liked the sight of blood, but I was very excited. I have a couple of tattoos on my body, but this was the first time I was getting one with a deep cultural and historical value. It was literally culture imprinted on my skin.
It was late when Whang Od finished tattooing us. I was still amazed how she was able to handle 4 people in one day. However, we couldn’t hike down the mountain as planned. We planned to meet other friends in Sagada that day to see the bonfire. But it was already getting dark and the trail was slippery. One wrong step and we’d be sending ourselves down a cliff and into eternity. We had to cancel. We spent the night at Whang Od’s house with the other travelers we hiked with in the morning. Anyway, it’s always nice to hear stories from strangers.
Early the next morning, we started descending from the village of Buscalan to Bugnay to wait for the jeep to Bontoc. It was high noon when we arrived in Bontoc and we were contemplating if we should go straight to Manila or claim our reserved bus tickets in Baguio. We settled for the latter.
We circled the beautiful mountains of Benguet. The sights were breathtaking. Terraces are sculpted at the sides of the mountains and they were filled with lush vegetables. Many a-times we caught ourselves looking down upon clouds and mists. It felt like being in The Hobbit really. Everything was so green and teeming with life. Eventually we got ourselves talking about Lorax and environmentalism. I wondered how much of the Philippines still look as green as the sights we were seeing from the bus.
It was a very dizzying ride as the roads were never straight, always in a zigzag. Baguio is distinct from the rest of Benguet. It was easily distinguishable that we were approaching the city as the trees and terraces were replaced with houses and structures that one can no longer recognize the mountains. I wonder if the spaces were thoroughly planned. Baguio is prone to earthquakes after all.
We started the trip at night and we also ended it at night. Three days in the mountains. We barely had a shower but it was indeed one of the most memorable experiences of our lives. As a friend said, the good thing about traveling up north is you’ll never know what to expect. There’s always something different and memorable in each visit.
Admittedly, I had troubles with the hike. Being a sedentary teacher, I was really out of shape. But I will indeed come back again and see the beautiful highlands and visit Whang Od too of course.
Note: Photos of the trip will be posted later. And a post about the trip from one of the travelers we were with: Kalinga: Buscalan’s Whang Od, the Pretty Tattoo Artist