Words + Photos by Matt Robertson
Edits by PSQ
The village of Buscalan in Kalinga, Philippines is currently only reachable by foot. However, that hasn’t stopped devoted travellers from the Philippines and abroad from making the journey. The opportunity to escape the hectic pace of city life draws some, but most travellers come on a pilgrimage to visit the village’s most famous resident: Apo Whang-od. Whang-od is the oldest tattooist in the Philippines and the last mambabatok in the Butbut tribe. Her status as a master of traditional tattooing has made her famous worldwide and brought an influx of visitors to her small village.
Various forms of transportation can be found for the first stage of the journey—I chose to ride on top of a fully-loaded Jeepney, my feet hanging over 200 ft. drops as we took hairpin turns on the narrow road. The Jeepney was bound for Tinglayan, but I exited at ‘Turning Point’ and hired a motorcycle to drive up the under-construction road as far as the excavator had made it. From here, I travelled by foot.
In the village, you can wander through rice terraces, play a game of basketball (the preferred local sport), or hike to a nearby waterfall. Pigs and chickens run freely through the village, often drinking from the runoff water produced by washing dishes and clothes. The pace of life is slower than in urban areas, and locals tend to sleep and wake with the sun.
Tattoos are performed with thorns and bamboo rods. The ink used is a mixture of charcoal and water. Whang-od has been tattooing for over 80 years, initially tattooing headhunters and women in her tribe. She now adorns the many foreign and Filipino visitors.
Due to her age and health, she does not leave the village. In an emergency, she may leave for healthcare, but she mainly practises traditional medicine and says she is likely to remain in the village until she dies. The hills are too steep and there is nothing for her beyond them—she is happy where she is.
As the road to Buscalan is built, it will become easier for visitors to arrive. This could be potentially overwhelming for the small village, but the influx of money from tourists’ homestays, guide fees, and tattoos is currently benefiting everyone. Whang-od, herself, has been able to purchase livestock as a result of it. As more visitors arrive, the cultural impact will become broader. Aside from the local dialect, most residents speak Tagalog and many speak at least some English. But as the small village continues to globalise, it will be interesting to see if it can sustain tourism after Whang-od’s passing.
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