An hour before the time that I intended to board the bus going somewhere up north, I was still undecided on where I should go. I was asking the advice of two well-travelled mountaineers. They were recommending Ilocos Norte, Vigan, Ilocos Sur and other more places, but the one that really caught my interest was Kalinga. It was supposedly the home of indigenous, topless and tattooed old women.
According to the mountaineers, Kalinga is not an advisable tourist destination, especially for a lone female traveler. A lot of open-fire wars were taking place there between various tribes and between the Philippine army and the Communist rebels. The locals are not used to tourists and the place is so remote that your only chance of actually getting there having someone within the village to guide you, and even then it's dangerous. The more that they were giving me reasons not to go, the more that I felt like I should go. I'd like to think it was some reverse-psychology trick they were pulling on me and so I am very grateful for their advice that were mixture of discouragement and support.
My plan was to go to Sagada and somehow beg my local friends there to refer me to someone who would be willing to take me to Kalinga. It turned out a easier than I expected and even better because, I found out about the existence of an old Kalinga woman still practicing the traditional way of tattooing. By the time I knew it, I was on a truck headed to a certain village where she currently lives.
The place was serene and picturesque. The tribal wars have died down a few years back and it barely left any trace in the area. It was fascinating to experience life, even for just 2 days and one night, in a self-sufficient community where all the vegetables we consumed were freshly picked from the fields, the meat came from slaughtered free-range domestic animals and the water came from the mountain springs. There were no inns for guests, so all visitors were hosted by a local family. Communal watering holes were stationed at every corner. Locals would use these watering holes to collect their drinking water, wash their dirty laundry and dishes, take a bath, clean their soiled feet and hands and all other imaginable activities having to do with water, that, interestingly enough, would sometimes all happen simultaneously. We relieved ourselves anywhere that seemed isolated enough depending on our personal standards but we have to be careful because the free-range pigs would consume not only their own feces but also the local's so it's very advisable to carry a stick to drive them away when they find you squatting somewhere you thought was safe. I always thought cyclical concepts made sense, but it's really different when you're experiencing it in actuality.
The legendary Kalinga tattooed woman looked like a typical lola if not for her tattoos that intricately covered her arms and chest. She had a humble but very regal demeanor. Fang-od got her tattoos at the age of 15 and she's been continuing the art ever since.
Getting a tattoo from her was such a remarkable and overwhelming experience. My only frustration was that we had to rely to a translator as she can't speak in english or tagalog while I can't speak in the Kalinga language. Although she had a book published about her life and the Kalinga art of tattooing, it would've been a lot better if we were able to communicate properly. She seemed like such an enthralling character, being about 90 years old, never been married and never had children.
Ironically she's been getting more European, American and Canadian clients over the course of her career than actual Filipinos. People from all over the world would travel for miles just to meet her, while someone like me who've lived all her life in the Philippines have never heard of her. It made me think of the unfortunate fact that our traditional tattoo culture is slowly dying away. She's only one of the last few who are still practicing the traditional way. There's been a stigma against tattoos, especially the traditional ones all over the Philippines. Not a lot of the younger locals were tattooed, even the ones in the nearby provinces and villages. They said that they will be discriminated against when they go to the cities when people find the markings on their skin. I hope this will change at some point because there's so much history and culture infused in tattooing, and with so much significance too that have to wear them on your skin permanently. These tattoos are not something you can easily get out of an ordinary tattoo shop. You must literally be willing to go on a pilgrimage to get them and when you do, it's not just the ink you'll bring home with you, but also the inspiring stories, discoveries and secrets you'll learn and experience along the way.