The Village Up There

Revisiting Buscalan, Kalinga’s living treasure and other tribe traditions

Text and photos by Jacquiline Go Laruan

Kalinga during the earlier days is not your typical tourist’s destination. Aside from the remoteness, insurgency issues and long cliff side roads make people, especially the local tourists, not to include it on their bucket list.

One village in Tinglayan has become one of the most visited places in Kalinga province for the last two years. Buscalan village is the home of Whang Od, locally pronounced as Fang Od, the famous ethnic tattoo artist or mambabatok.

The 95-year-old Apo Whang Od is the oldest indigenous tattoo artist in the Philippines. She uses lemon thorn as a needle, coal as an ink, a stick and meticulous hand to perform tattooing. Many foreigners, local tourists and even celebrities go to Buscalan to meet the living treasure.

Kalinga tribe is perceived as fierce warriors and “strong people of Cordilleras” by fellow Cordillerans. Heavy body tattoos is one of their known traits. Tattoos on men during the old days display the pride of finishing a successful conquest or hunting. The more tattoos you have, the stronger you are supposed by others.

Tattoos on women are like branded clothes or make-up that beautify. Apo Whang Od is one of the most beautiful women in Buscalan for she has big part of her body tattooed at a very young age.

Kalinga tattoo designs present meanings related to life and beliefs of Kalinga like rice for bountiful harvest, centipede for protection, among others.

If you want spectacular view, some cultural experience and learning, and warm people to be with, Buscalan is for you. It is a village on a mountain which can be reached after 12-hour travel time and 30-minute hiking.

It is home to around 175 families belonging to the Kalinga Butbut tribe that greatly value family and kinship. That’s why a household is extended to the kinship circle, which can be easily observed through the village structure with an aura of territoriality. The latter is one of the most dominant traits of the Kalinga people.

Buscalan has houses built very near from one another just like most indigenous tribes are. Going from one point to another is through a narrow cemented and connected paths and stairs in and around the village. Black native pigs walking around like street dogs are common sights in Buscalan, as well as, tattooed men and women, especially the elderlies.

There are no hotels in Buscalan. Homestay or immersion with the families is the nicest accommodation that you can get. Electricity came in 2007 and there were some people who have TV with satellite cable already. Stores are available. Home staying gets you to learn the dynamics of the Butbut tribe.

Although modernity is present among the village, some good indigenous things never
left. They still do contour farming with rice terraces, gangsa or gong and nose flute playing, indigenous tattooing, and no family planning. Kids are everywhere.

Just like other Cordillerans, Butbut bury their dead very near their house. Not on the backyard because houses in Buscalan rarely have backyards, so they bury the dead under their houses after three days of mourning. If they fail to bury the dead after three days, they have to do it after another three days. It always comes in three.

What is more remarkable about their burial practice is how they care for their own. When a person dies in a hospital or outside the village, all men – as in everyone except the elders and kids – go down and fetch the body. The men carry it all the way to the village without stopping or putting down the coffin strapped to two bamboo poles. They take turns in carrying. Those left in the village, women, children, and elders patiently wait for the men at the village.

Apart from Apo Whang Od and getting a tat, there is a lot to see in Buscalan which makes you wonder how we have forgotten to be patient and to sacrifice some comfort for our own people. The village up there may teach you a lesson more than just the meaning of those tattoos.