JULIE TOLENTINO: REMOTE TRAVELING
PHOTOS COURTESY OF JULIE TOLENTINO
JULIE TOLENTINO: WHO IS WHANG OD? JULIE TOLENTINO: WHANG OD'S TATTOO PROCESS
  What was it like traveling in this remote area?
Regardless of one’s heritage, origins and orientations, the physical journey itself is extremely challenging - for foreigners and Filipinos alike. Most Filipinos that we know or met, unless they were from or had ties to Cordillera, had not yet, though expressed the desire to, traveled to this region. Besides rigorous trekking in thick mountain jungle, alighting multiple forms of transport in order to contend with the unstable roads and terrain, the main challenge was bridging the very precise regional tribal dialects and local customs that prevailed in each neighboring province. Our on-the-ground research included a meeting upon arrival in Tabuk with National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) Naty Sugguiya, who linked us to our guide, Tinglayan-born, Lilibeth Atumpa. Lili, who is an extended relative of Whang Od, conveyed, translated and facilitated a respectful and integrated approach. Traveling with a local guide familiar with Whang Od’s tribe and their traditions, as well as linguistic and cultural overlaps was absolutely critical. In terms of the physical expedition, the four-day trip was a thrilling combination: breathtaking and death defying. Emerald, steep, verdant, fantastic jungle. The remote regional artists are also famous for their intricate weaving and designs, evident in textile displays and sometimes in both men’s and women’s daily wear or tablecloths or bed linens during our crossing.

From urban city to remote northern region:
From Manila, we flew on a small plane to Tuguegarao, a town just south of Ilocos Norte. Ilocos Norte is the burial place of former president/dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Like many global dictators his body is kept in a glass coffin in a mausoleum, on-view to the public. Colonialism and its residue.

After landing, we were transported to the town center via a pedal-drive tricycle, which is capable of transporting three adults - similar in style to the Thai tuk-tuk. We then packed into an 80’s style Econoline Van with at least a dozen other people crammed into every available inch of space, driving two hours towards an overnight hotel stay in the town of Tabuk. Upon arrival, a sliver of afternoon remains to search for food offerings for Whang Od and her family. Our offerings include two pounds of salt, 4 pounds of sugar, sacks of rice, beans and coffee, canned sardines, fruit leather (in lieu of candy) and granola bars.
 
The next morning we held on for our lives in the back of a 4x4 pickup truck, embarking on at least three-hours of rugged miles of mountain hugging, twisted roads. Forging overhanging cliffs, multi-story waterfalls cascading into deep ravines of the Chico River (named “The River of Life” by the Kalingas) as well as holding our breath over rickety, one-lane, wooden bridges and muddy, curving, rocky and slippery paths. At a stop for lunch, we are able to procure our final gifts to Whang Od; a live chicken, fresh vegetables and garlic.
 
The truck continues its ascent for approximately 30 miles, when it stops to let us out. Past a wooden fence at the side of the main road we bid our goodbyes to the truck’s passengers. Lilibeth leads Stosh, Vanessa and I on a 20-inch wide footpath with a stream of water running alongside its edge. We trek through jungle for close to two hours. Again, we are hugging the walls of the mountains. This time with our bodies, the backpacks, and a now wiped-out, but still alive, chicken. Almost there, we approach a bridge connecting two jungle mountainsides, separated by steep falls. No rails, just the twenty-inch slab of poured concrete footbridge connecting the two sides of land. There were known risks: I knew that there was no guarantee that we would be tattooed until we arrived in Buscalan, and if so, it would be Whang Od who would choose the design and the location on my body. But this was another kind of risk. Deathly afraid of heights, this was one extreme element of the trek that I wasn’t fully aware of. I couldn’t/wouldn’t turn back now but had no idea how I was going to actually make it.
 
After crossing the bridge several times to drop all of our bags, belongings and offerings on the destination side, Stosh, took one more trip across. Walking backwards for forty feet, face-to-face, guiding me diligently across. Finally, with everyone’s generous patience and rationed sips of water, we hike up hundreds of steps, switch backing up a steep cliff to reach the village.

Many of the Buscalan children and townspeople are familiar with travelers, mostly backpackers passing through with guides in hopes of witnessing remote tribal life and Batok tattooing. Word quickly spreads that we are Fil-Am, which piqued the villager’s curiosities. Apparently we looked like some kind of well-tattooed, gender ambiguous band since apparently I look like a Filipina pop singer/comedienne named “Ai Ai”. Did I mention that school had just let out and an eager and brave cohort of 15 teenage girls herded past, giggling, pointing up to a clearing at the top of the mountain above their village, repeating to us as they trailed away: “Do you want to go to Paradise?” This scene burned into our memories like a scene from a film. Our cameras couldn’t have captured it...

After witnessing Whang Od tend to her animals, household duties and food preparation, she graciously invited us into her home, where we stayed for two nights.


August 2012