I am an art enthusiast (from sketching, painting, drawing, photography, anything that my hands can do), the reason why I admired and appreciated Apo Whang-Od, the woman of ingenuity. She caught my heart that is why when I was invited by Cy (my favorite travel buddy) to visit her place, in a flash, I said Yes! After all, I waited for years to meet her and set foot to tattoo village in Buscalan as well.
With our colleague, Pauline, we joined a group tour headed by Hency of Backla travel and tours for a fee of Php3,000.
- 2-day and 1-night stay in a homestay
- van transportation
- 3 hosted meals (lunch, dinner and breakfast)
- unli Buscalan coffee
- swimming to waterfalls
- costume pictorial
- side trip to Baguio
Meet-up place: McDonald’s Eton Centris, Quezon Ave., Quezon City
Meet-up time: 9:00 pm
Trivia about Apo Whang-od
Apo Whang-od also known as Maria Oggay is the country’s oldest mambabatok (traditional tattooist) of the Butbut tribe in Buscalan, Kalinga. She is using a mixture of charcoal and water that will be tapped (batok) into the skin through a thorn (siit) of a calamansi or pomelo attached to a small bamboo. As of now, the 103-year old lady is no longer doing the regular tattoo design due to her health condition.
However, do not worry. Upon your visit, you can have a candid picture with her and the signature tattoo which is composed of three dots. This represents herself and her two successors who will continue the tradition for her and their people.
We head off at around 9:22 pm. By 4:00 am, we arrived in Banaue and had a hearty breakfast of red rice, hotdog, and egg complemented with 3-in-1 coffee at Garden Snack Hauz and Restaurant. When the sun had risen, we had group photo ops with the wonderful backdrop of the iconic rice terraces. It felt surreal to see in person this view, which I only saw in my Social Studies book when I was in my high school days.
I tried the iconic wooden scooter for a fee of Php10. It was a challenge to drive this vehicle as I rolled down fast the highway. It was fun! Haha! A race of wooden scooters is one of the activities being held during Imbayah Festival.
The trip to Buscalan
The journey continues. The view was getting ecstatic. We passed by rolling hills, rice paddies, deep gorges, farmers, and children playing near their houses. Not to mention the one-way road perched beside a deep ravine! Indeed, it was a joyful ride but then, I felt dizzy as we set out to the sinuous road. The same thing happened to me when I went to Mt. Pulag. Thanks to one of our co-joiners who offered me a bonamine. For little later, I felt better.
We reached the jump-off point in Buscalan by 11:30 am (a four-hour trip from Benguet). We had a brief orientation from our organizer and later we traversed the jungle-like trail headed by four trail guides. The trail is a combination of downhill and steep uphill but paved. It took us about thirty minutes in getting to our destination because of several stops. I understand the slow pace because not all joiners were trekkers.
Buscalan has no internet connection, no network, only a Smart connection. So be ready to get disconnected!
We rested a bit upon reaching Selma’s Homestay. I was expecting that Buscalan is as cold as Baguio, but it was not. There is no electric fan inside but the weather is tolerable. The homestay has two bathrooms only. The downside in joining group tours (we are two groups anyway) is waiting for our turns, which sometimes take a bit longer. On the brighter side, it was fun meeting new friends and hearing their stories.
Our lunch consists of plain rice and chicken adobo. Amidst the afternoon heat and out of curiosity, everyone tasted the brewing coffee, which smells so good. I was not a fan of coffee, but its aroma and its taste, this Buscalan kapeng barako was deliciously great!
Plans for tattoo
Pau and I decided on the signature tattoo only. Unfortunately, we were told that Apo Whang-Od was sick and is available only for picture taking. We were offered by other artists but I refused. If it is not Apo Whang-od, I rather have no signature because the tattoo experience is not complete if it is not through the hands of the genuine artist. Cy has no plan, she was after the trip only.
To suppress my sadness, I bought the iconic “torn”, as my souvenir of Apo Whang-Od.
We learned that Grace and Elyang, the grandnieces of Apo Whang-Od who was said to be her successors were not in the area as of that time. The former had given birth to her child while the latter was in another location. However, there is no problem with that as there were about hundreds of tattoo artists now in the community who were trained by the master who can do the job for tattoo enthusiasts.
Apo Whang-Od in person
By 3:00 pm we came to meet Apo Whang-Od in person for picture taking. Excited and full of anticipation. Believe it or not, I was starstruck! Her arms are covered with a tattoo, a ladder, and a python. But she wasn’t smiling like the ones I saw on the net. Her eyes were drooping, an indication that she was sick.
When it was my turn, I savored the moment watching her face. Every line in it, every tattoo in her arms tells the exciting story of her life. She smiled a bit when Cy told us to smile. I was so grateful to have a photo with the greatest artist and famous tattoo master.
The Afternoon Walk
While most of the joiners were having their chosen tattoos, we spent the afternoon walking in the rice field. It was so nice to laze around in the serene community where we breathed clean and fresh air. It made me smile watching the children playing happily in the dried area. Though they lack the modern comfort the city can offer, I could feel in my heart their genuine happiness, the same feeling I had when I was a child.
As Evening Calls
When nighttime came, we all gathered in two long tables for a noisy but happy dinner. We were served plain rice and chicken tinola. After we eat, we washed-up and went early to bed. It was a miracle for me to sleep as early as 9:00 pm! Sometimes I have to thank this kind of community where the internet is out of reach! Haha!
Good Morning Buscalan!
We woke up early for the morning and costume picture taking in the rice field where the sun streamed beautifully. Then we toured the small community and ended up for another picture taking in the cemented area where houses painted by foreign tourists. After this is done, we had our breakfast of rice, longganisa and again, the unli Buscalan brewed coffee.
It was almost 11:00 am when we were told that Apo Whang-od felt a bit better and is available for tattooing. Everyone got so excited and hurried to take money and cellphones. We headed fast to Apo Whang-od’s house for the iconic signature tattoo.
The Signature Tattoo
When it was my turn, I sat on a small wooden chair in the middle of the curious and excited crowd. I pointed to Apo Whang-od where exactly I want to be inked. I looked at her with fascination as she started pounding the stick in my right elbow. I was a bit nervous at first.
I watched how the thorn, forcing the charcoal pierced my skin. The first dot spills no blood, the second had, and the third had none.
Was it painful? My pain tolerance was high the reason it hurt me a bit only. Had I decided on a regular design, I am sure I can bear the pain. The tattoo ceremony lasted for two minutes.
I was so lucky that I was the privileged few that had been tattooed by the last Kalinga tattoo master. The long journey to Buscalan, the simple life in the village, the laughter of the children, the kind-hearted people, and my signature tattoo are my cherished memories of this visit.
And I was so happy and proud!
Special thanks to Selma and Jing Jing for their warm hospitality and funny stories.
Where we stay?
Selma’s Homestay: Contact numbers: 09185596348/09975500853 – Php300.00/per night
1) If this is your first time to get ink, be ready physically and emotionally.
2) If you have no intention of getting ink, you may tour the small village and mingle with the locals. They are friendly and can speak Tagalog.
3) There is no signal for the internet, enjoy nature and tranquility.
4) Picture taking is Php50.00, the signature tattoo is Php100.
5) They only entertain their own tattoo designs.
6) Bring candies or biscuits to the children. They will be happy to receive it from you.
7) Tattoo’s rate starts from Php400 up to Php3,000, depending on your choice. Please do not haggle anymore, help the local tourism. Anyway, you are after their uniqueness and ingenuity.
8) There is no posh accommodations nor facilities in Buscalan. They only offer homestays, which is just perfect to sleep for the night.
9) Enjoy the taste of their iconic coffee, it somehow resembled the taste of Kape Barako of Batangas.
10) Souvenir prices: Keychain-Php35.00/Ref Magnet-Php75.00/Bagtag-Php500/Hammer-Php100
In getting there through Public Transportation:
Ride a bus Coda Line in Cubao Terminal in getting to Bontoc. Ride a jeep going to Bugnay (Php80.00) then ride a habal-habal to a turning point to Buscalan (Php100.). From there, you will trek downhill and steep uphill for 20 to 30 minutes.
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