Important: This is a travelogue about my journey of getting a bâtok (tattoo) from Apo Whang Od. If you are interested on a travel itinerary or a travel guide, you can read that here.
The fog enveloping the mountainside, the sunshine slightly cutting through the clouds, the locals and tourists sipping their coffees – steam slowly rising from the cups. I was seeing these in grey-scale, I was remembering these in slow motion. There I was in the workshop. Patiently sitting. Quietly sitting. The fog hazing my memory.
Then the sound of two wooden sticks hitting reverberated. The thorn of a citrus plant pierced through my skin. Stinging, Twinging, Burning. Painful. It was painful but bearable – painful, all the same. It was through the pain, and through the melodic sound of the wooden sticks rhythmically hitting, that the recent memory of my journey rushed-in.
The memory of the journey towards getting my most desired bâtok (tattoo; referred also as batek, batuk) from Apo Whang Od – at 98 years old, the last mambabatok (traditional tattooist) of Kalinga, Philippines. The memory of a journey which destination I was now, then.
Whang Od And My Journey To Buscalan
“Enjoy the pain!” This greeted me, together with my five other companions – my girlfriend included – after we arrived muddied from walking over puddles, from dangerously riding a habal-habal (motorcycle) on at least a foot-deep mud over a ravine, from crossing a broken bridge, from enduring almost an hour of arduous trek. It was drizzling, my mind was blurred by the rain, and this was Junmar’s – a local of the community assigned at briefing tourists – way of welcoming us to Buscalan.
Buscalan, located in the town of Tinglayan in Kalinga, was the home of the Butbut people, home of Apo Whang Od, and once home to the fiercest warriors of the Cordilleras whose victories were measured in severed heads of enemies and bâtoks. It had been our home for a night and a couple of days while we’re waiting for our turn to get our bâtok. Buscalan was a place where the locals were friendly and welcoming, and brutally honest – like Junmar. It was a place where life was simple and where you can get the best coffee in the world – for free. It was a place that’s peaceful and quiet besides the measured tapping sound…
Whang Od And The Traveler
And it stopped. I was in the workshop again. Whang Od set aside the wooden sticks and, using a strip of dried coconut leaf soaked in liquid charcoal, stenciled the pincers of the crab – the sign of the traveler, the design of my tattoo. There were six designs for the traveler. I picked the most intricate. It was the traveler with love, the locals said. I chose it for obvious reasons – because of its beauty and meaning, because it promised safe travel.
Whang Od pulsatingly strike the wood again. The thorn pierced through my skin once more. Throbbing pain. I thought, “I’ll be sharing this exact same design with a hundred people, easily.” One of the guides explained that the traveler was one of the most sought designs. I don’t care. My traveler will be unique. It’ll be embedded on my skin. It’ll be genuinely mine – and mine alone.
Then my mind drift to the traveler last night.
Whang Od And Her Overtime
I was on Apo Whang Od’s humble abode, slumped on the floor. It was around 9 o’clock the night before. I was watching as she worked on another crab, as she worked on another traveler tattoo, as she worked ‘overtime’ – still working late at night amidst her frailty and old age just to accommodate tourists who hurriedly wanted to go home. I was included, that’s why I was there. After about five minutes, a shadow towered us people who were seated – it was Junmar, “let’s all wait for our turn tomorrow, let’s follow the rules.” That’s when I realized that it was a clandestine operation led by the local guides which, I learned afterwards, Apo Whang Od ‘illegally’ but willingly partook understanding the fast-paced life of tourists who just want to get a tattoo and get going, missing the whole point of the journey.
“Two more then she’s last” said Apo Whang Od in her Butbut dialect, pointing to my companion whom she grew fond of being a look-alike of her granddaughter, Lucky. I gave my companion a smile and a tap on the shoulder and find my way out. I won’t overwork Apo, I’ll let her rest. That’s the least I can do since I want to see her turn 150 – strong and still able.
I slumbered only finding myself awake…
Whang Od and My Bâtok
…In the workshop, Apo Whang Od finished my bâtok by putting her signature, the three dots • • • . It was beautiful – and bloodied and painful. It was never what I expected, in a good way.
After Apo placed a dab of coconut oil to help the healing process – marking the end of our fleeting relationship, the relationship of the mambabatok and the tattooed – I paid and took the chance to take photos with her. I thank her and bid farewell. I then rested while waiting for my two friends – one old and one new – who were getting their tattoo from another tattooist in the village.
We packed, we ate lunch, and we trek down the mountain home-bound. The sky was clearer – no rains, the sun downright shining – no more mud and puddles. The day was unparalleled. It was perfect in all terms. Faultless. It was like the gods were celebrating with us, sharing our moment of euphoria.
By 6 AM the next day, I was on-board a plane returning to the island paradise where I work, bringing a piece of Apo Whang Od with me (the relationship was not fleeting after-all, it was steadfast, it was eternal) as I was also certain that I left a piece of my soul on the village up above the clouds.
I’ll make sure to return and find what I purposefully left behind.
Featured Image courtesy of Caloy Llamas