We got into a packed Jeepney and drove an hour to Bontoc, then boarded the roof of a bus. It’s crazy how many people can fit inside and onto the roof of a bus here. I hung on for dear life sake, as we wound down mountain roads, ducking quickly out of the way of tree branches and low lying cables. A dog in a cage on the roof just close to me, my legs dangling off the side with rice terraces stretching for miles, following the route of the river. A sheer drop from the cliff under my feet. After two hours we reached Bugnay, where Aldrin would take us to his magical village Kalinga. The road is damaged because of land slides so we jumped on the back of motor bike to get up the mountain, the wind in my face cooling from the heat from being on top of the bus. Soon the road became so bad that even the motor bike could go no further so the three of us did the last part of the trek by foot. Kalinga is so remote that many do not know about it, mainly only because of the reason we were making this journey, to get tattooed by the famous 98 year old Whang Od. In her 20’s she lost the love of her life and dedicated her life to learning traditional tattooing, she started making tattoos for the warriors who killed men in tribal conflicts between villages.
A reward for bravery, I was making this journey to receive my tattoo as a gift from this special lady. As we began the trek I started to feel the magic of the land, narrow paths with stone steps leading further and further up into the remote mountains, far away from civilisation. We passed men carrying food up on their heads. The climb up was hard, sweat poured from us, but the excitement of meeting Whang Od kept us going up and up and up. Reaching the top I felt overwhelmed to have reached this special place. Native pigs ran around wooden huts, the Filipinos of the village washed pots, cooked food and kids played in the dust. The smell of bonfires in the air and this would be our home for two days and a night. I ate traditional foods with my hands, drank Kalinga coffee and coffee wine and just walked around the village it felt like I’d been transported to a fairytale land a place where I could only imagine it in my dreams. I felt euphoric every second I was there and kept having to pinch myself to make sure it was real. We shared drunken laughter with the locals and I soaked in the simplistic but happy lives of those that lived there, something I dream of for my own life and family.
Oh to live in a place like this in my own hut and family would make me the happiest person alive. It was time to meet Whang Od, Ryan ran to her and hugged her, I just stared into her caring eyes, showing a life of wisdom and kindness. Her eyes smiled without her mouth moving, I was a little shy, in awe really to be there in front of the last traditional Kalinga tattoo artist. Soon I was perched on a tiny wooden stool in front of her tiny body, her own skin decorated with the native tattoos she was about to put onto my back. My tattoo was the LingLing-O the symbol for fertility to hopefully bring me one day my own children. She placed an orange tree pine needle into the end of a wooden stick and placed a mixture of ash and water from the fire onto her fingers and then she began tapping it into my skin over and over again. The pain for me was drowned out by the euphoria of being there being tattooed by this special woman. I felt blood trickle down my back and I felt alive, more alive than I’ve ever felt in my life. The area I was being tattooed had views of the mountains and rain came from the sky, I felt truly at peace in this moment and didn’t want the process of getting the tattoo to end. But it was over and I was just staring at the photo Ryan had taken on my phone, feeling so lucky to have it on my skin. Whang Od gave me my needle as a souvenir from getting my tattoo.
The day after we all got up at 5am to just walk about the town, the night before we had been drinking with Wang Od’s grand daughter Grace who had been learning to tattoo since the age of 10 and now at the age of 20 was a master now herself. I asked her if she would tattoo the symbol for traveller on me, to my wrist that morning and was so happy she said yes. Again I got to live the happy feeling of breathlessness of the magic into my skin. Grace was far more gentle in her tattooing and by the end I was left with such a beautiful tattoo I almost cried. Finally I let my guide Ryan take the needle and tattoo two dots on my hand, a symbol of our friendship, he banged the needle into my hand whilst his own trembled from the fear of doing it wrong, but I love it equally as much as the other two, it holds the meaning of him being my special guide on my travels around the best country I have ever visited in my years. I will never forget these days, the memories I’ve collected, the laughter, things my eyes have seen, the tastes I have tried even the smells of bonfires and fresh morning air and mid afternoon rain.