letters to the future

Buscalan Stories

My desire to visit Buscalan stemmed from my want to visit all the provinces of Cordillera region. This goal started when I went to Mountain Province last September 2016 and since then, I had set a goal to visit Kalinga, Apayao and Abra – the only remaining provinces of the region that I haven’t set a foot on. Why the Cordilleras? Well, maybe it’s because everytime we go there I am so awestruck by all the mountains surrounding me. It feels so relaxing – very different from when you just stare on the line where the sky meets the sea. I mean, it’s like a paradox when you move to and from mountains and well, I can’t explain that “certain calm” I feel.Β 

So last September 22-24, 2017, my older sister organised a trip to Buscalan, Kalinga. Buscalan is known as the place where you can meet Apo Whang Od, the oldest traditional tattooist. She does the tattoo using charcoal and the thorn of suha. But for me, I just wanted to visit to tick off my bucket list. Haha πŸ™‚ But then I was in for a surprise.

Visiting Buscalan and getting a tattoo are two different ideas that never collided in my brain. In my head, I’ve always wanted to get a tattoo but I didn’t know when. Before coming into the trip I’ve made up my mind not to get one because I was so undecided and I am still scared and to be honest, my mother certainly wouldn’t approve. So yeah, I decided to go there just to experience what it’s like to live in Buscalan village far up north, far up in the mountains with no cellphone signals. πŸ™‚

Long Hour Car Rides
The trip started at 9pm on a Friday night, we were blessed that it rained earlier in the day and we wouldn’t suffer the traffic resulting from rain + friday mixed up. I was travelling with my sister, cousins and friends and it couldn’t get any better than that. But curse the nightshift body clock, I cannot sleep until 2am. Ha! I think maybe I drifted to a nap once or twice or thrice but then I saw the light streaking from the sky and it was morning already, sleep deprived trip. Our route was via Nueva Vizcaya to Ifugao. It was raining in Ifugao when we got there and Banaue rice terraces was somewhat engulfed in fog. Of course, we had to eat breakfast! The place was near the Banaue public market and it was also there that they bought our food for the trip. This was the place we’ve (me and my sister) eaten back in 2013 when we went to Sagada. Because it was raining we decided to view the Banaue rice terraces on our way back, also because there was traffic back along Vizcaya, we were running a bit late – we cannot reach our target of getting to Bontoc by 10am.


The Hike UP
You cannot reach Buscalan village via public transport. Since it was up in the mountains – you need to hike up. (I think the reason why Buscalan is strategically located up in the mountains is to prevent outsiders from invading their village) So, it was almost 12 noon when we reach the place of our dropoff. And it is no longer raining, I don’t know which is worse – hiking up when it’s raining or hiking up when the sun is directly on top of our heads. My biggest mistake is that I didn’t have my water with me. So, that was what it felt like to hike up without water, I was paranoid that I’d get dehydrated. πŸ™‚ Looking back, I think the hike up was somewhat easy, its just that the odds was not in our favor: no water and then it was 12 noon, sleep deprived and we’re carrying our bags. It was funny, they kept telling us that it was near but my body also kept telling me to rest and it’s an internal struggle at all costs.


My ate told me to take a photo here and I can’t believe I still look decent after the climb.
Feeling achieved πŸ™‚

At the Top

Finally, we reached the top a little over 1am, if my memory serves me right. We took a break while they prepare the lunch (Adobo and Tinola πŸ™‚ ) and took turns in taking a bath in which the water is very cold. πŸ™‚ After that is the free time where you can look around the village or watch the artists doing the tattooing, you’re free on what to choose actually. On our part, we chose to watch Whang Od but she ended that day’s session a bit early (around past 4pm) since she was very tired already. That was the time when the idea of getting a tattoo sparked again in my mind. Because there was this girl who wanted it etched on the side of her palm (which is the only place I wanted to get inked on) and she actually endured it and me thinking was that well, ‘it is possible’. πŸ™‚ Actually, tinanong pa namin siya right after, ano ang level ng sakit and if first time ba niya? In which sabi niya hindi naman sobrang sakit and it was her first time. Elyang (Whang Od’s grandniece) is still inking a man when Whang Od left to go to her home and we go back to our house where there is still a tattoo session ongoing. I think that was the time we saw Whang Od as a person and not as an icon, etc., she was tired and she stopped early and wanted to rest and all these people were a bit inconsiderate requesting for photos when she no longer wants to and they kept on taking pictures and selfies kahit na ayaw na niya magpa-picture and whatnots. Medyo nakakalungkot lang from that point on. I mean, yes, we (myself included) travelled far, hiked up and got tired just so we can see her BUT if that person is tired, we shouldn’t be imposing and ipilit ang gusto natin just to get a picture, I mean if you were on the other side, would you want other people taking photos of you when you’re tired and not feeling good? Besides meron pa namang bukas (of which I’ll tell later what happened). We stayed for minute or so, after Whang Od go to her home and I just marvelled on how it feels nice being up in the mountains, in this little village and its simplicity.

Tattoo Sessions. And Socials. And Kwentuhan. Until the End of Day
I think this is the best part for me of the trip – the most enjoyable, the funniest part, and all the superlatives you can think of. At first I didn’t know – pagbalik namin from place ni Apo Whang Od, there were two people getting a tattoo sa baba ng homestay – the serpent eagle on their back. And of course, wala naman kaming ibang gagawin so we just watched. At first it was scary to watch other persons being tattooed – you see the stick going in and out of their skin and the blood and the skin sticking into the stick and you see it repeat over and over again. But I got used to it. It was unusual but also a bit wonderful and awesome. And then it was getting darker and soon, may kanya-kanya nang nakatutok na flashlight un bawat isa para makita pa nila kahit medyo dumidilim na. Mind you, I forgot to watch the sunset just because I am so occupied by watching the tattooing. And then, after they were finished, my friends decided to have one too. And they said sa loob na lang ng bahay kasi madilim na. When we went up to the house/room – behold – nagpapalagay na pala ng tattoo ‘yung isa kong pinsan. πŸ™‚ And the design she wanted was my favorite one: the circle sun and moon which means life. Soon after, there were three tattoo sessions being done in that small room, my cousin and two friends. Tagahawak lang kami ng flashlight. It was an hour or two or less, I don’t know how the hours went by and actually, looking back – what made that moment feel special? I don’t really know. Is it because (1) ang kulit lang kasi nagkasya kaming lahat- together with the other people in that one room wherein tatlong tao un nagpapalagay ng tattoo; (2) the kwentuhan moments because we don’t have the luxury of the signal so our cellphones were left as picture takers or flashlight; (3) ‘yung time na pinagttrip-an na nila ung kasama naming bata, si Vince, na lalagyan din siya ng tattoo, although ballpen lang naman un; lastly (4) I don’t know – siguro masaya kasi at that moment we’re just hanging out, for lack of a better term, nakatambay and all of us made fun of each other.

And after they were done, I get to talk to the kids that were doing the tattooing and they were like 12, 14 and 16 years old. And siguro masaya lang kasi nga madami silang bata dun and masaya talaga ung walang ginagawa (OR mas masaya ‘yung walang ginagawa kapag wala sa office). I just took some pictures and then that’s the time na etong mga batang to gusto bumalik ako at pagbalik ko daw dapat naprint ko na un mga pictures nila. Haha. Medyo demanding lang. But, naisip ko, well, they were not as blessed as I or as me and my sisters are – having a photographer as a father and having all our pictures taken and printed and put into a photo album. That’s when reality kicks in and I realise we really live different lives.

Also funny-hugot conversation with this little kid (I think kinwento ko na to one-too-many times before- benta sa akin eh!)

Her: Bakit ayaw mo magpatattoo?
Me: Ayoko eh, masakit!
Her: Hindi naman. Ang masakit, ‘yung maiwan!

Ayown. Oh, di ba – mga bata dun marunong na rin humugot. After that, we had dinner, akala ko sobrang tagal naming nakatambay and it feels like 10pm na pero lo and behold! 8pm pa lang pala. Our dinner is sinigang and pinakbet – which tastes a legit Ilocano pinakbet not the Manila pinakbet. πŸ™‚ (approved by my Ilocana cousins)

There, and we had group picture taking with the Pirata T-shirts and tambay pa din. But we had to leave the house kasi hindi kami kasya. So we went to another house – tapos may MMK pala silang pinapanood kaya nakinood din kami but then nung nakakita ako ng kutson (kutson lang walang kama, but it’s more than enough!) ayun parang tinawag na ako ng kutson para humiga.Β It was there na kwentuhan ulit kami, me and my ate and my ate’s friend and my two cousins. Until nagbrownout. Aun. We slept at 11pm – hindi na namin inabutan ang birthday salubong para sa isang kasama sa group na magbbirthday. πŸ™‚ I even remember myself after sleeping na namalayan ko na lang hindi na pala ako nananaginip, nag-iisip na pala ako, and I realised I am already awake and it’s just 3am in the morning!

The Unbelievable Lane that Led Us to Apo Whang Od
It was morning, but the weird thing is that, it was not cold. Only then did I realise that sa Mountain Province lang pala malamig – sa Kalinga, not so much. I wanted to take a bath pero malamig ‘yung tubig and we went to the main homestay and medyo wala pang breakfast and then that’s the time that we decided na pumila kay Apo Whang Od. And when we got there, ang haba pala ng pila. 😦 So, our guide told us to take a breakfast first. After that, bumalik kami and then mga dalawang hakbang lang ung inusog ng pila. Nakakatawa ung mga kasama namin sa pila and then tumambay ako saglit kung nasan ung area nila Elyang and Grace and then I realised matagal pa kami makarating sa dulo, so every one of us take turns in taking a bath and even there, I was still undecided. And then my very good friend brought a pack of toothpastes to be given to the children there. That time I thought (about 15 minutes to 10am) tapos na sila sa pila. (Having second thoughts and we think ayaw na namin bumalik sa pila)Β But again, I was amazed to find that hindi pa rin sila tapos sa pila! That was then, we waited. Though hindi pa kami – umuusad na ung pila.

Pero, mukhang medyo matagal pa so we decided to have lunch na din. So we were in line at sa sobrang haba ng pila nakapagbreakfast, nakaligo, nakapaglunch na kami, including na ung paggala-gala at pagdadalawang-isip. And then nung feeling namin “medyo” malapit na kami isang group na lang sa harap namin pero madami pala sila (dito ung merong nagpa-ink sa likod ng tenga and all of us were like “wow!”) and just when we thought it couldn’t get any better – ‘yung pinsan ko na ung nasa harap but suddenly, Whang Od decides to take a break exactly at that time. πŸ™‚ Plot-twist. We were supposed to go at 10am and it was 12:30pm at that time and then suddenly it’s lunch break and we haven’t even finished. So, they decided na lang na ibigay ung Coco Martin-Probinsiyano T-shirt to Whang Od and that was after my cousin and Whang Od were conversing in Ilocano and all of us around need subtitles. πŸ™‚ It turns out that they agreed na kakain muna and babalik siya agad. She said that. In Ilocano siyempre. Pero wala, nakakatuwa lang, those were the times that I felt so bad I didn’t understand Ilocano when Papa knows it well. Sana natuto ako but oh, well.


Medyo nakakatawa pa nung sinabihan nila na dyan ka lang – para hindi kami masingitan sa pila. That time I really feel like cause-of-delay. Kasi naman 10am kami dapat bababa pero 12:30pm na and we’re still requesting for more time. Akala ko mga one hour pa bago bumalik si Whang Od PERO 30 minutes lang siya kumain at nagpahinga. And we were surprised and very touched. Why? One thing na ung ang bilis niya bumalik but we were delighted to find out that sinuot na niya agad ung T-shirt na binigay namin before the break. (But technically, sila ate ko ung nagbigay nun pero we’re the same group so I think that’s the same :))

And that was why, it was really worth it kahit na natamaan kami ng lunch break. Why? Let me count the ways:

  1. If hindi kami nag-stay, hindi namin makikita na isusuot pala ni Whang Od ung t-shirt na binigay namin.
  2. Kahit na may inuna pang isa sa amin, it felt good kasi we found out, true to her word si Whang Od.
  3. The best part is, maganda ‘yung mood nia. Masaya siya. πŸ™‚

And that was all it took for me to also feel happy while getting inked. Looking back, hindi ko na actually naisip kabahan, we were five at pangatlo ako but while the first two of us were getting inked, we’re just there laughing and taking pictures and etc. I was a bit sad kasi umalis na ‘yung ate ko and her friends to arrange for our departure. Ang gagawin kasi namin after ng pila diretso baba na para maghabol ng oras. So when I sat there to get inked – imagine my surprise nung biglang dumami ‘yung tao and turns out andun na pala ung ate ko and her friends. Moral support. I was happy.

And I didn’t realise it but all the time pala nakangiti ako. I had gotten inked in the side of my left palm and nung p-inoint ko nga kay Whang Od she said not there kasi masakit dun, but she adjusted it near to the bone – dun daw hindi masakit. So there. I thought that would be the hardest three minutes of my life, but it was not. (Inisip ko pa nga kumanta on my mind but hindi ko ginawa because it was not that bad) If anything it was a time where even if I was second-thinking I still did it and whenever I look back, I guess even if I regret it, I won’t have it any other way. That’s how you learn. And it also helped na maganda ‘yung mood ni Apo and when I was finished nagulat pa kami na ang daming pictures and Apo even joked. We laughed even if I couldn’t understand. AT nakalimutan ko pa magbayad! Narealise ko lang na nasa bulsa ko pa pala ung pera ko so I gave it when my cousin (the one next to me) was finished.

After that arduous line – we still bought souvenirs where we were going to put the stick used in inking our skin. But never was there a better souvenir than the one inked on your skin. The hike down was easier and the steps were not a pain (not like the Mt. Ulap way) and in a matter of minutes we were down. We were going back. It is a bit sad when I am down there, and looking up at the tiny but beautiful village of Buscalan. We were going back to the same place but we are somehow different.

The Perfect Road Trip

I don’t know about you but a road trip is not a road trip if it is not in the Cordilleras. But that’s not to say that a road trip in Tagaytay or Batangas is any less. It’s just that for me, the road trip in Cordilleras is the perfect road trip: (1) It is long like eight hours or more; (2) You swerve from right to left and up and down and it makes you dizzy but it also feels like you’re flying (very similar to when you’re on the front of a boat and the air just passes you and you’re flying); (3) You see the sun rise and the sun sets and you see all these roads and houses and villages and mountains and people and animals; (4) Didn’t I tell you about the mountains!?; lastly (5) It is satisfying that in my life, I am moving so fast – it’s therapeutic, a bit scary, but also because I like that feeling of moving fast while everything around me blurs in a sea of colors – blues and green and its a metaphor for moving on.

We move on from our life regularly, from old works, old habits, childhood, immaturity, enemies, problems, confusions, love, heartbreak, actually, we move on more times than we care to think about. Haha. But not to sound so serious or melodramatic or whatnots but well, moving on is a part of life. πŸ™‚

I think I’ve written it before in the Mt. Kupapey’s trip:

And here I also realised that I am made for long travels, on road trips and of sleeping in cars, of waking into sunrises and of the simpler things in life. I am blessed to have discovered another side of me – that the best part still is the feeling of yourself looking at the window to see the view – the world speeding away from you and you know that you are destined somewhere and I like the time it takes to get there.

Final Thoughts
I think that’s why they say “go to places” because experiencing different things opens you to a lot of possibilities. I might have gone to a lot of places this 2017 but every place is more different than the next one, more distinct and gets closer to my heart and it felt nice, scattering pieces of myself into different places knowing I can’t cover all the places even when I try to, in this life.
I guess, I can never be everything I wanted to be, time is limiting and so is my beliefs and fears restrict me but I was thankful to find bits and pieces of the world that I think I am just collecting but in a way, I am also pouring myself out there. It was like I find myself taking in all of the world but at the same time I am giving a part of myself – time and emotions – that I cannot get back. Life is a wonderful thing and even if I didn’t get to lead a life I’ve dreamed of (because my dreams are always changing) and a part of me want to live different lives (but I can’t do it because I only have one) I’ll always be thankful of this amazing gift. And that I get to do it with the people I love and things I love.
And I guess, I am still, like the young me promising that I will never take life halfheartedly, I am still trying to live out that promise. πŸ™‚
I asked God for all things that I might enjoy life but I was given life that I might enjoy all things. ❀

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