Whang-Od the Mambabatok / Traditional Tattoo Artist: Kalinga’s Best Kept Secret
Sometimes, we get so caught up in our urban lives, our Facebook profiles, and the horrendous traffic and the blinding city lights that we forget there is a whole different world out there. We forget that on the other side of the country, there are people who don’t know the taste of expensive coffee, but know the taste of “nga-nga” or betel nut wrapped in mint leaves and spices, which leave the mouth a nasty red color including the spit… but that doesn’t make them vampires; it’s just their regular caffeine fix. We forget that there are mountain ranges waiting to be explored, and in the deep shadows of the jungle, the concrete jungle where dreams are made of seems so small. And so are we, and our drama.
I went away for two days – not to rest, but to travel, explore, smile at the mountains, punish my legs, sleep on the floor and somewhere in-between all of that, I got inked. The road to Buscalan is not easy, but I was thinking, neither is life. My friend and I took the 7:30 PM trip by bus and we arrived in Tabuk, the capital of Kalinga, at 5:45 AM.
At 7AM, we found a jeepney going to Bugnay where we took the top-load. I am using the term “top-load” to paint a fun-filled picture. But in reality, while being fun, it was also very dangerous. We sat on the roof of the jeepney, sitting on sacks of rice, almost rubbing elbows with the chicken and other livestock and liquefied petroleum gas while the old man behind me was smoking like a charmer, all while traversing the narrow road, ravines and cliffs. For three hours we sat there, and I was thinking, yes, it’s more fun in the Philippines! Everything was forgotten, the view was breathtaking. God is so good.
When we reached Bugnay, we took another top-load ride for an hour to reach Buscalan. At some point, we had to get off and that was when we started the one and a half hour trek up the mountains. Now that was the real challenge. It was me versus my legs and my legs versus my will power. The climb was steep I wanted to cry. And just when I thought I was going to pass out, we finally saw the huts. Yes, Buscalan, baby! It was 2:00PM.
For over a year, I’ve been reading a lot about Buscalan, Kalinga and the Butbut tribe. I’ve read about the tradition called “batok” which is the term used for tattooing. “Batok” is a symbol of beauty for women, while it is a symbol of fierceness and strength for men. It was said that the number of tattoos on a man’s body would account for the number of wars he won, and the number of heads he has taken. Which is where the word “Kalinga” is taken from, meaning the “headhunters.” The word “Kalinga” was coined from the Ybanag and Gaddang words, an ethno-linguistic minority group from the Cagayan Valley which is located an hour away from Tabuk. Incidentally, I am an Ybanag through and through.
Kalinga’s Best Kept Secret: Whang-Od, the Mambabatok
For years, “batok” has been practiced among the tribesmen and women of Kalinga, and as I would hate to say it, this practice may be forgotten in the near future. So I went to Kalinga to meet the last living “mambabatok.” Her name is Whang-Od and she is 95 years old. She is a small old woman, with brown skin, her arms filled with tattoo, long white hair and knowing eyes. It pierces you, just like the “siit” or the thorn she uses to ink people.
What was one night with the Butbut tribe like? Well, it wasn’t easy. But it was… how do I describe it? The words are overflowing in my head I don’t really know how to. It was tiring and humbling. It was a commune with the earth. It was going back to basic. It was joy and bliss and heartache put together. There was simplicity and happiness up there, and so was poverty. When we brought out all of the candies, medicine and school supplies for the villagers, the old and young flocked around us. I wish I could show you how it looked like or make you feel what it felt like. To me, it was indescribable. All I know is how it felt. And that it is something I want to share when I am old and grey and full of wisdom. I hope.
So, what am I saying here? That sometimes it’s fun to get out of our comfort zone, to get downright dirty, to travel cheap, to go to someplace remote and with character, and to enjoy the simplest, and even the hardest things in life.
That, and that it’s more fun in the Philippines!