Ever since Apo Whang Od gained tremendous popularity because of her exquisite hand-tapped tattoos, tourists from around the world flooded her home in Buscalan, Ifugao. It took me 5 years to actually meet her in person, until my good friend JP Cruz of Vagabond Pinas Travels and Tours, invited me to participate in his soup kitchen/ outreach program in Apo Whang-Od’s village.
The Long and Winding Road
I met with JP and the rest of the volunteers in Cubao at around 8:30 PM. I was informed that it takes 12-15 hours (depending on the traffic) to get to Buscalan. I suggest that you prepare the following items so you can be comfortable in the long haul.
- Inflatable pillow: inflate or deflate for easy storage and usage; will save you from getting a stiff neck or resting your head on somebody else shoulder
- Bonamine/ Serc: the zigzag road is really dizzying. Better consume a tablet of Bonamine or Serc to prevent yourself from getting motion sickness during the trip.
- Sarong/ Small blanket: It tends to get very cold in the van and in Buscalan at night. Bringing an extra sarong/malong/blanket can make you feel warm and snug during the trip.
- Mints: will keep your breath smelling fresh (your fellow traveler will talk you in the van and you don’t want to smell like morning breath)
- Water for hydration and snacks for fuel
- Earphones: because boredom sucks.
Hike For Your Life
Most of the tourists visiting Apo Whang-Od’s village gets surprised with the hour-long hike. The old path is currently closed and the new one is quite challenging especially for first timers. I suggest a little bit of conditioning exercises two weeks before the trip to prepare your body for the hike. I did cardio, squats, and lunges to strengthen my leg muscles and increase my stamina. You can also eat bananas and trail food such as nuts, granola bars, chocolates for that extra energy boost. Do not forget to bring your own water bottle to keep yourself hydrated at all times.
Another thing I observed with unprepared guests are the type of clothing worn during the hike. Most of the tourists were wearing the wrong type of footwear (slippers, LEATHER SHOES, fashion sandals, sneakers etc.) . Please make sure that you wear shoes that are meant for hiking, those with good traction, heavy duty soles, and excellent support. Also, wear breathable clothes that won’t limit your range of motion and prevent your skin from rubbing. I have seen guests wearing jeans, skirts, and even a DRESS and they all had trouble traversing the trail. Always remember, function over fashion.
You will be surprised on how many tourists are lining up in the trails just to meet Apo Whang Od. It is good to know a little bit of etiquette so you can enjoy the trip. Here are 5 tips on how you can keep the peace and order in the trail.
- Stay to the Right, Pass on the Left. – If you want to overtake someone, make sure to politely inform the hiker before you so they could prepare themselves for a quick stop. You don’t want to accidentally push someone of the cliff just because you are in a hurry.
- Yield to uphill traffic.
- Leave no trace
- Use technology safely. Avoid hassling other hikers just for one photo or selfie.
- Greet one another. – You’d be surprised on how polite regular hikers are to anyone they come across on the trail. Just return the greeting and smile.
When Meeting the Legend Herself, Apo Whang Od
I was told by JP that Apo Whang Od tends to have mood swings because of her old age. As visitors , we should all be wary of our actions. Avoid crowding around her because she gets irritated with unecessary movement and noise. She also needs natural light so she could see where she is tattooing. The village has already developed a systematic way of lining up guests if they want to have a tattoo with Apo or with her two grandchildren Grace and Elyang. Make sure you register yourself so you will be included in the cue. Apo Whang Od can only do her signature which consists of three dots because she already has poor eyesight. In case you want to have the elaborate Kalinga tattoo, ask Elyang, Grace, or Liezel to do it instead.
What to Prepare and Expect in Getting a Traditional Tattoo
The Kalinga tattoo uses thorns and soot which makes it quite unhygienic. Be prepared with wipes and an anti-bacterial ointment in case you want to get one. My friend Aimee of Aimee’s Premium Soaps, developed a natural coconut-turmeric balm which I carry in my purse wherever I go. This balm work wonders because of its soothing and anti-bacterial properties. My tattoo was extremely swollen the following day and just a rub of this wonder balm made the inflammation go away in a jiffy. If you want to get yourself one, just check out her IG @aimeesoaps and most of her products are handmade and very affordable.
I got myself an arrow head tattoo from Liezel, one of Whang Od’s grandchildren. Honestly, the tattoo was really cheap at Php 200 so I made sure I doubled the donations given to her. It pains me to see people haggling for the price (while others run away without payment) because these artists depend on these tattoos for a living. The price of the tattoos do not cost an arm and a leg so, I am quite confused with the other visitors who ask for a lower price as if they are in some public market. Please, please, please, do not do this if you are getting a tattoo in Kalinga. What you are given is a piece of their culture and not just merely ink. Try to ponder on that.
Make the Most Out of Your Journey
Going to Buscalan for a tattoo may sound like a pilgrimage. To make the most out of your journey, try bringing extra donations to the people of Buscalan. What really fascinated me is their appreciation for matches. Yes, M-A-T-C-H-E-S! It is because they still use the primitive way of making fire! Giving them a box of matches changes everything because it makes their life easier.
There are also plenty of kids in the area and most of them are school-aged. Vagabond Pinas had pouring donations from friends and family and they were able to provide basic school supplies to at least 80 kids in the village.
Medicines and sanitary napkins are also needed in the area since these are all hard to acquire. I was also surprised with the requests for condoms because the people here are very much aware of responsible family planning! If your friends are going, try to individually carry a box or two of these things and then give it as a group. You’d be surprised on the overwhelming happiness of the natives once you hand it over to them.
Photo Credits: Brayan Maglalang
The Humble Brag
My Kalinga tattoo became a conversation starter and people are very fascinated on the story behind it. I always tell them that the tat was secondary because my main priority was to extend a helping hand to our katutubos. This piece of art imprinted on my skin will always be a constant reminder on how beautiful and rich our culture is and that there is pure joy in giving.
If I were you, the best time to visit Apo Whang Od is NOW. Our National Treasure may be 102 years old but, she is still kicking it! She is a sweetheart and tends to get cheeky with the boys after getting a tattoo with her. Go pack your bags and hurry up in the mountains because we’ll never know when she’ll officially retire.
It was surreal sitting beside Apo Whang Od. Looking through her eyes, the windows to her soul, showed me how her life is filled with depth, memories, and a rich cultural heritage that took the world by storm. I am proud to have met a legend, the last of her kind, Apo Whang Od.