When my colleague Cristina told me she was going to Buscalan, to know Whang Od, I remember I immediately felt a great amazement (and a bit of envy, I admit).
I always knew that Cristina did not like the idea of permanently marking her body, and yet I knew that meeting Whang Od would help changing her perspective. In part, it worked!
I have always dreamed of being able to meet this woman. So tiny, so wise, so sweet and at the same time so strong in what she does. She still continues to tattoo the dozens of people who go to see her, facing a wild trip among the local flora in order to reach the small village of Buscalan. Interviews, documentaries, reportage: I had already read a lot about Whang Od, but being there to look through her eyes…well, it must be magical.
So, after returning from their trip, I asked Cristina and her boyfriend Giovanni to share what they had experienced.
It was their first tattoo, but even if it had not been, I’m sure all of us would have doubled the intensity of the emotion felt.
You will find their different point of views, I think they are both very interesting.
I hope this article will bring you at least some of that exciting tribal atmosphere that embraced them.
I have always been what I call “hard traveller” who loves discovering and studying people behaviours and history. I do all this by travelling. Before taking a journey I study what type of population I am going to find in the chosen country I will visit. Normally this process takes a few months as I need to gather books, search on the web and talk to people from the chosen country. I work in the tourism industry so it is quite easy for me to bump into foreign people and ask information about their culture, religion and way of life. This is what I did once I decided I would have gone to the Philippines at the beginning of this year.
Once I started to read about the Philippines I was very fascinated by the history of the Kalinga’s tribe: ancient headhunter warriors who believed that all things were animated by spirits both good and bad ones. For these people the tattoo had a very profound meaning being a means of communication of their values and beliefs. The value of a person part of the Kalingas was measured by the number of won battles fought against other tribes. All this was translated into a symbol being part of a tattoo.
Nowadays there is only one person left who descends from the Headhunter Tribe and who still keeps passing on their values by tattooing. This person is Whang Od. She is a mid ninties woman who lives in a small village called Buscolan.
So I started to read more and more about the HeadHunters and Whang Od and I bumped into a book written by Lars Krutak who described and analysed very carefully all the meanings of the Kalingas’s Tatto Symbols. This is how I came to know about Whang Od and after reading a few books and blogs on the web I decided that was the place where I wanted to go!
Before leaving to the Philippines I had already decided what type of tattoo I wanted even though I was aware that once I would have arrived at the village it was all up to Whang Od. She takes the lead and she decides! To me it was absolutely fine and fascinating at the same time: she would have done whatever she felt on the moment that we would have met.
Once arrived at the village, the guide offered us a “home made coffee” (terribly strong!) at her house and after chilling for about half an hour, we went to meet Whang Od. She was already making tattoos, very busy woman there at the village. There were about 5 people waiting for her! Whang Od looked at us, she smiled and then went back to work! The scenary was amazing: Whang Od made her Tattoo Studio on a wooden terrace built on the edge of a valley. Whang Od told our guide to go back after lunch and so we did: at 1.00 pm we were there in front of her!
I showed her the drawing I had made (a mixture of their symbols which I carefully studied before the journey) and she looked at me and started to shake her head as if she was not approving. She started speaking to a guy from the village and he translated to me that she was not strong enough to make the whole tattoo but she would have made a part of it. Her back is sore and she could not do it all. I nodded and respected her willing.
Whang Od started to draw the profile of the tattoo with some small black wooden sticks, similar to a toothpick.
First she put the sticks on a bowl where there was the ink made with tree ashes and some sort of liquid (no idea what it was). After that she started to hit a bamboo stick against another bamboo stick with a cedric needle at the end, along the drawing she had just made with the black stick. The needle by penetrating the skin left the black ink inside starting to become an amazing drawing. The tattoo took 2 hours and by the end I was in pain very much indeed…
Whang Od finished off the tattoo by making 3 dots on the top of my drawing… it was her signature!
Once finished my tattoo I stopped there and stared at Whang Od while making other tattoos. Unfortunately it was almost dark and the guide asked us if we wanted to stay for the night or leave. We decided to leave as the following day we would have headed to the Rice Terrraces. The journey back from Buscolan was extremely hard because of the pain of the tattoo. The leg started to swallow and the pain spreaded along the whole leg. But we made it!
Fist of all I shall admit that I have never been keen on tattoos. I have always been a little sceptic about them and the idea of having something tattooed on my skin for all the rest of my life really freaked me out. So, yes I am not a tattoo fan and before this experience I used to think that I would never tattoo my skin, remaining one of a few people in the whole planet! My opinion regarding tattoos has not changed so far as I consider what I did last January something which goes well beyond the mere action of tattooing, but a broader experience which I will try to explain to you in the next few lines.
My boyfriend Giovanni has always loved organising his “off-limits” travels. Every country he decided to experience, he always found some off-the-beaten-track places where just a few people had been. The travel to the Philippines was just another stamp to add to his passport, but if a stamp is added to his passport, be sure that something special will happen along the way. So I replied “yes, I am coming with you!” and so we were off to Manila.
I had no idea of the itinerary but I had plenty of confidence that he would do a good job! So after a while Giovanni came to me with a book of Whang Od and her tattoos and he said: “We should go there and have a tattoo done by Whang Od”. Honestly I laughed at him and I answered “never”.
Then, somehow I became curios regarding this 90 y.o. woman who tattoos in her native village in the middle of the jungle up North to the Philippines. Therefore I started to read blogs, books, experience regarding other people and get informed on the technique used. I started to like the idea of having a unique tattoo done in a special place by a special woman but still I was a little unsure and so I decided that I would have taken my final decision once I was there in front of Whang Od!
Here we go! We decided to start to get informed on the method, what to do before, after… we had absolutely no idea of what to do as neither Giovanni nor I never had a tattoo before! Can you imagine? So we started to ask some information to a few friends but Ilaria was the one that gave us the most important information: the tetanus injection! Being the hygenic conditions very precarious and instruments rudimental, Ilaria got some great feedbacks from other people who got a Whang Od tattoo. These were life saver! So, before leaving we got our Dream Cream from Lush, one roll of cling film, anti-bacteria soap and so on. Unfortunately we did not think what Ilaria told us via message once we were in the Philippines already: the tetanus injections! At the time we were at “El Nido” so we went to a local doctor who gave us the tetanus injections and antibiotics to start to take 1 day before the tattoo. Thank God! We were ready but I still was not sure about having this tattoo or not!
The night before we booked in Tabuk and we had organised a car with a driver to take us to the village. Christalyne our guide met us at the Hotel and she gave directions to the driver so as to where to go. The journey lasted about 3 hours… 3 hours of fear driving along very narrow roads up on the mountains but we managed and we finally arrived to Bugnay where we met 2 guys who gave us a ride on their motorbikes to the beginning of the forest, from there we started to hike to Buscalan. The hike was fairly difficult: 1 hour of steep trail among trees, rocks and mountain creeks. It was hard and we had to stop a few time to take a breath. Our guide Christalyne (native from Buscalan) was really nice and she had a lot of patience!
When we arrived at the village we were exhausted but overwhelmed by the peace and quite that this village gave us at the very first step we put in it. The feelings are very difficult to describe as it was the first time of my life where I had no thoughts, I felt in peace, that is all. The scenary was astonishing and I felt totally relaxed. Christalyn invited us to go to her house and offered us a coffee. She advised us that Whang Od was waiting for us to make the tattos, so after a little time of relaxation we headed to Whang Od. She was there, a terrace built on the cliff with an extraordinary view of the green mountains. All you needed was there. I felt that I wanted to have the tatto made by this very odd 90 y.o. woman…
The choice was very easy, Christalyn gave me two big boards with all the typical tribe signs so that I could choose, I had no doubt, I wanted the centipede on my ankle. The process of decision was very simple as it all came natural, spontaneously.
At the beginning I explained to Christalyn, who was my official translator, that I wanted the centipede all around my ankle but Whang Od refused to do it as it was too hard for her and her back hurt. So I just said, anything she would have done it had be fine to me.
I sat on the terrace in front of this singular woman and she looked straight to my eyes, I stared at her and I smiled.
It was like we established a connection which would have taken us through an extraordinary journey.
The world stopped at that right moment and nothing was left on my head: I felt light, I felt free and I felt happy.
It was just her and I on the terrace. A light breeze was coming in through the wooden sticks which supported the terrace on the cliff. I could not stop staring at the ease she was using her equipment: a bamboo stick with a small citrus needle and another bamboo stick which she used to hit the other so that the needle could insert into the skin and leave that black ink made of ash. I know it might sound a little sadomasochist but I enjoyed every single little tap against that needle I could not stop stare at her I was fascinated by the whole scenario.
We left the village after a few hours. My boyfriend had his tatto done as well by Whang Od but his was a little bigger than mine and it took 2 hours. Still amazed I kept watching her making dots, then lines which would have taken part of a bigger plan!
We went back and after an hour the pain started to feel stronger and stronger, my ankle was swollen and by the evening I could hardly walk. Well, I know that this part would spoil the charm of what I have just written on the last paragraphs but at the third day I became very worried as my ankle kept swelling and the pain was unbearable! All the people I read about said it took one week to recover, well, for me it took a month to fully recover and still afterwards when I slightly pressed the tattooed skin, it hurt. Not easy to cope with it especially if you think that I am not a tattoo fan!
All in all what I could say…this experience did enriched me, I am happy that it happened, it was amazing, would I do it again? Who knows!