I’d read up online about people’s experiences with Whang Od – they were invariably called stuff like “Getting Inked by Whang Od – last living Kalinga tattoo artist” and referred to the spirituality of both the pilgrimage to reach her and that of the experience generally. Many talked of meeting her in peaceful tranquillity on a remote platform overlooking the rice paddies and told of how she had spoken with them and then decreed which tattoo they should have, as though she had some sort of mystical insight into their personality and was bestowing upon them something particular to themselves and their life journey. Load of bullshit. If that is the experience you are looking for, you will not find it in Buscalan, certainly not outside of your rose tinted spectacles at any rate. She is not even the last living Kalinga tattoo artist. What you’ll encounter when you get there – most likely in a half boiled mess of exhaustion and heat stroke, having lugged your pack across the largely perpendicular trek that is the only way to access Buscalan – is a 30 strong gaggle of tourists, largely Philippino/a, with a smattering of Europeans and North Americans, crammed loudly onto a narrow verandah and, yes, a little platform overhanging the mountainside (though no rice paddies are to be glimpsed from that particular angle).
Someone will have got their portable speaker out and be playing something horrendous, possibly by Justin Beeber. Should Pink Floyd accidentally sneak in there (or anything remotely good actually), they will hastily hit skip. Tranquil it is not. Punctuating the general melee is the sound of persistent tapping and if you look hard you’ll see not one, but three Kalinga tattoo artists crouched on tiny stools, doggedly hammering away to incorporate charcoal into the various limbs of those present and game.
Whang Od herself is variously rumoured to be 92, 93, 95, 97, 98… You get the idea. Whatever her actual age, she is definitely Very Old. And Very Small. As old ladies go, she’s pretty hot – tales of her prowess in the field of men do not seem far-fetched. And she seems sharp as a tack. A slightly rheumy eyed tack, with motor coordination, while better than you’d expect in the Very Old, not entirely what you’d look for in a person about to mark you for life via the medium of charcoal and a pomelo thorn on a stick… We were intrigued to watch the tattooing process – interestingly, despite the many assertions of those who blog, the expressions of those under the thorn were not entirely in line with the experience being “at least ten times more painful than a conventional tattoo.” Which was reassuring. Most seemed at ease and were enjoying animated chats with those around them.
The three tattoo artists are collectively referred to as The Mambabatok and comprise Whang Od herself, her granddaughter Ellie (granddaughter in the loosest sense we surmise, given that rumour has it Whang Od never had children) and Grace – the Young Master. As we watched it became apparent that getting inked by Whang Od was a significantly more bloody affair, with a much higher likelihood of contracting some form of blood borne disease. She would halt periodically to wipe the blood and excess charcoal off her work (presumably to better see what see was doing), with a baby wipe. Granted she used a new baby wipe for each client. But after each wiping, this would be unceremoniously dunked into a cut off plastic bottle of water tinged pink with the blood of however many baby wipes had previously received the same treatment. Her work was impressive in so far as she was effectively using pointillation to etch identifiable designs onto skin, with very rudimentary equipment and very watery eyes. It looked much as you would expect the work of an octogenarian plus, who has been hard at it for the many hours since 8am without a break to look. We found it slightly distressing to witness local guides remonstrating with her whenever she made any sort of move for a break and foisting their clients upon her in what was beginning to feel like a never ending stream. She’s a tough old bird and would wipe her running eyes and get on with it. Now I don’t know whether or not it’s actually as exploitative as it looked, but it surely felt that way.
Also of note are those who had clearly read the same blog posts I did and presented themselves requesting Whang Od to choose which tattoo would be most fitting for them. Never having spoken to or met her prior to sitting in front of her, proffering whichever limb for the thorn, they’d explain their request, in English mostly, whereupon their guide or some other helpful local would indicate to Whang Od that she had free reign over design on this occasion. Those who preferred a little less spontaineity to their life long body art would simply point at whatever they wanted on a wooden board covered in rather poorly executed approximations of the elements of traditional Kalinga tattooing. Everyone else invariably got a centipede. So much for personal mysticism…
It turns out our attachment to the authentic is not actually entirely steadfast. Our vanity being a different story. On spending several hours observing the various works from both Whang Od and her Acolytes, we made a swift about turn and decided firmly against getting inked by Whang Od, the last surviving Kalinga tattoo artist. I could have tried to justify this though the common sense of not exposing myself to the blood borne disease potential of what was floating around that water bottle. But in reality, I just wanted a nicer looking tattoo. It would be my first one and I am nothing if not tending towards obsessive compulsive when it comes to having something on me (even if it’s just clothes) that I’m not entirely comfortable with. Having made it all the way up there, we were damned if we were leaving without tattoos however. So, having watched and been impressed by various incidences of her work, we asked Grace if she would do ours for us the following day.
I may have mentioned the whole thing not being quite the romantically spiritual experience you may well have read about elsewhere. And it isn’t. But damn it’s beautiful up there. Forget tattoos and the mysticism of Kalinga symbolism and get yourself out to those rice paddies (not the one’s Whang Od’s place doesn’t overlook – there are plenty of actual ones all around the village). The landscape is breath-taking, the engineering mind-blowing, the greens dazzling – proper soul stirring stuff.
Wend your way through precariously clinging little wooden houses (you yourself will also need to precariously cling at times), go looking for the firefly bushes, wash in the public washing waterfall, try not to trip over all the babies.
Baby pigs, baby chickens, baby humans, just everywhere – very fecund place is Buscalan. Also very smiley. Seeing it all is a real joy and all the more poignant for its fragility – it’s clear that things have not changed much up there in a very long time. A real rarity for most of us.
But people like us and the reaction to our being there is going to gradually put paid to that I suspect. Tourist as cash cow is already an innately embraced concept and you may well find yourself commanded to pay a rather ridiculous daily sum for guiding services, the value of which is somewhat unclear if all you wish to do is visit Whang Od and wonder around the village. You do not, as may be stated “have” to pay this because it is “the rules” – the rules we later found are that you must be accompanied to the village by a guide (following some unfortunate French chick who hurt her leg wondering about alone in a landslide last year). Beyond that it is up to you if you wish to employ the services of a guide. So stand your ground if you don’t – and make sure you can communicate with them first if you do. Be sympathetic to the villagers’ attempts to organise this escalating invasion of their home ground. No, they don’t quite have it spot on yet, but they are trying. My hope is that they’ll hit upon something reasonable for both parties and manage to sustain the underlying fabric of their community without selling the magic out from under it.
The following day we got up early, very easy given we were sleeping on a floor (literally) directly above the entire family who hosted us. 5 children ranging from 1 – 13 years was not really possible to sleep through by around 5am. We lay on our floor listening to the sounds of the village coming to life around us. These consisted predominantly of farting, peeing, spitting and laughter. After some rice and the ever present local coffee (which is really not bad at all), we went to Whang Od’s to wait for our turn with Grace. By this stage I’d thought quite a lot about what to ask for. Not so the boyfriend. But while I was taking myriad pictures of small chickens,
he managed to come to a solid conclusion at some stage during the 3 hour wait for Grace to get to us. He went first. And seemed pretty genuine when he said it didn’t hurt. And it doesn’t. We had our shin and just to the left of the spine done, so both areas quite close to the bone, and even so, it was moderately uncomfortable rather than painful. I have no idea what a needle tattoo feels like, so can’t compare.
Whether it was too much coffee, not enough coffee, not enough rice, not enough water, general anxiety or what, I don’t know, but around 10 minutes in, having relaxed and started to enjoy the process, I suddenly realised I was about to pass out. Rather embarrassing given that none of the other 40 odd people we’d witnessed getting a tattoo had shown the slightest sign of such wuss-like behaviour. Lying down did the trick, so we just carried on.
After your tattoo is finished, you are sent to Whang Od who will give you a price. She’ll look at you, she’ll look at your tattoo and she’ll tell you how many pesos you owe. Now this is where it does get personal – there doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation between tattoo done and pesos charged – we saw people with the same tattoo being charged vastly different sums. We were both relieved to find that ours cost very little in comparison with some of similar size and time spent. Whang Od looked at me, looked at my tattoo, laughed a little, stood up, pointed to the waistband of my knickers, which she could see because I had to lift my top to show her my tattoo, then proceeded to ask questions. Que much chuckling among those who could understand the Kalinga dialect. I’d almost got as far as wondering what was going on, when it became clear, from the tweaking of said waistband that Whang Od was somewhat keen to check the contents of said knickers. Which she then proceeded to do. I didn’t mind. Odd given the watching crowd. I realised that what she was intrigued by was the lack of hair – I suspect The Brazilian has yet to hit Buscalan… Then she grinned at me, said “300” (about four pounds fifty) and smiled knowingly at the boyfriend. He’d paid 600 for his, bigger, more time consuming tattoo. But we saw others with far smaller, less time consuming designs being charged well into the thousands – so be prepared.