What do Apo Whang-Od and I have in common? Let me (presumptuously) try to count the ways.
Apo Whang-Od, the oldest living tattoo artist—mambabatok—has become Vogue’s oldest cover star, and I have branded myself as the oldest stariray with tattooed arms in my clan.
And like her, I have a following, too! My relatives want to follow in my footsteps: I randomly joined a group tour, hopped on a 14-seat van for a grueling 12-hour trip, and hiked to the mountain slope of Buscalan Village to meet the grand old lady of batok.
I was also the grand old lady in our group tour. Being the senior passenger among the millennial adventurers, I got much attention and respect during the trip. Of course, Apo Whang-Od is the center of attention in Buscalan and way beyond its borders, and commands widespread respect.
During our tour group’s two-days-one-night weekend escapade in late March, hundreds of other people also flocked to the northern province of Kalinga to get that precious three-dot signature poked and inked by the 106-year-old Apo Whang-Od with a bamboo stick and pomelo thorn.
At 2 a.m., our tour group was the sixth in the village registry; we waited for four hours in the van until Buscalan opened for visitors.
Our local guide was a petite woman who was carrying on her head a 20-pound bag of fresh produce and groceries, which would constitute our meals for the next 36 hours. We trekked down and up the hilly and dusty footpaths and on rice fields for 45 minutes. Then we continued to line up and tread along a sinuous trail through small Buscalan.
The village folks seemed unperturbed, as if they had seen our faces a hundred times before. They were engrossed in their morning routines—sweeping their tiny front yards, bathing the children, and doing their laundry at water stations. I shyly smiled at and greeted them, minding my steps, trying not to trip over the crisscrossed water pipes.
The home where we stayed had two floors—the kitchen, dining room and two small rooms on the ground floor, and on the upper floor, a balcony with a partial view of the village and rice terraces, and two big rooms and two small rooms with a neat spread of covered mattresses.
Water was not a problem at the adjacent outhouse with a separate bathroom and toilet. I called it basic glamping. If you’re not ready to rough it, tough luck!
With the seasoned two-man tour team, driver, and assistant/cook, I thought the 13 of us first-timers were in good hands.
Seizing the moment
While we waited for our turn to meet Apo Whang-Od, which was estimated to happen around mid-afternoon, a group of perky teenagers popped up and proceeded to sit on the balcony floor, ready to do their thing: hand-tapping. They were said to be grandnieces of Apo Whang-Od, who has passed on knowledge of the ancient artform to her chosen female apprentices.
It took some moxie to seize the moment. But after a while, I was handing over my bamboo stick with a pomelo thorn to this demure youngster, pointing at the design and indicating which body part I wanted tatted. Both of us were into it for the next hour. That was smooth, I later confessed to the young tattoo artist.
After a short break, a carpe diem moment hit me again and I was ready for another tattoo.
We were told that Apo had a busy day and was ready to retire after meeting the fourth group. That was okay, we thought, because we had our fresh tattoos to take care of.
Next morning, we joined the line of “tourists” to meet the living legend. Her casual demeanor was calming, even though I saw some drops of blood oozing as she hand-tapped her three-dot signature just above my heart. All that mattered was I was in the zone with the vaunted oldest tattoo artist alive.
And repeating in my mind what somebody had said, “It was another day plucked, and never in an instant troubled myself about the future!”
Hats off to the organizer of our escapade, a caring Facebook group bluntly called “Travel Now, Pulubi Later (Joiners Tour).”