High up in the Cordilleras where there are still no roads, the path narrow and steep, Buscalan sits. Home of the now 100 year old legendary Apo Whang-Od, she overlooks the valley below as people trudge on to receive a timeless piece of art.
This has become sort of a pilgrimage for me. I’ve been twice now to the Philippines and made not just an effort, but a point of reaching the solitude of Buscalan. No longer a tattoo as my only goal, this is a place of detachment for me.
Away from the digital world and phone reception, it is a place to quiet the mind and enjoy the simple things. I find myself staring out over the Cordilleras from the rustic wooden shop and listening to the tapping of batok tattooing for hours at a time. Devouring with gusto the deliciously simplistic food prepared by Rose, the kind hearted women who took me in on my first visit here when I was without a guide. It is a place where I am alone, but amongst a community and oddly enough the most at peace in years.
The near day journey, multiple buses and steep climb wasn’t daunting this time. Instead I was filled with a sense of joy.
Walking down to the tattoo shop was a burst of fresh air. The mountain air, crisp and clean. The clouds kissing the tops of the Cordilleras. The buzz of likeminded people awaiting to be marked. The melodic noise as Apo Whang-Od and Grace tirelessly worked. The sound of red betel spittle from the laughing guides. Memories of my previous visit flooded back to me.
I took a seat along the wooden benches wanting to briefly bask in the atmosphere before dinner. Both Apo Whang-Od and Grace recognized me, probably with the help of their previous work on my ankle. I was touched as they welcomed me back, inspecting their distinguished piece of art and questioning where my long hair had gone.
It was dinnertime as the sun set and I was excited for one of Rose’s home cooked meals again. Always making sure I was well fed, she had quite the first meal ready. Black beans served in their cooking broth, sautéed greens, rice and a nice treat – boiled whole, locally caught frogs. With my first bite of frog liver and nibbling the last bit of flesh off the legs, it wasn’t long before I was in bed anxious to go back under the thorn.
I woke up with the sun and watched the mist dissipate from the mountain valleys. Making my way down to the shop, I was in time to watch Grace bring out the still glowing charcoal and prepare the ‘ink’. Adding some water to the small bowl putting out the embers, she mixed it with what seemed like a piece of plant stem into a jet black paste. Adjusting the consistency, the tools of the trade were laid out ready to begin.
Ultimately, I was returning to see Grace, Apo Whang Od’s grandniece and protégé. Getting the traditional snake skin design, Grace’s modern touch and finer lines is what I was looking for. Not only is it great to support the younger generation of batok artists, Apo Whang Od is overwhelmed with travelers looking to attain a piece of her legacy. While I was watching and waiting she needed to break due to a headache from aching eyes. As much of an inspiration as she is doing what she has loved for so many years, I can only imagine the toll the constant expectation and work must take.
The moment I was looking forward to since the moment I left was here. Dipping her finger slightly in the ink, she coated her ‘stencil’, a rice frond bent to particular sizes for certain designs. With a few lines in place the meditative tapping began. As intimidating as it may look, I enjoyed watching the thorn pierce my skin leaving another of thousands of dots that would meld into my tattoo. Switching my attention from the thorn to the serenity of the Cordilleras, I knew in this moment I would be back again to continue this piece of art I had winding up my shin. 4 hours passed and the new addition to my body and mind was complete.
It had only been 8 months since I was first there and in this short time there has been some minor, yet significant changes to its dynamic. More and more each month people are flooding here. Understandably so, but it is to a place that cannot keep up with this influx of tourism. Getting in touch with a guide is becoming more difficult and places to lay your head are limited. An environment fee has been introduced at the entrance to Buscalan and even a small souvenir shop has been built.
Most noticeably, a queue system was put in place instead of first come, first serve. Opposed to waking up with the rooster’s crow with patience, enthusiasm and dedication to receiving this invaluable artwork, it is now more like a doctor’s office. Take a number.
Buscalan will always hold a special place in my heart and it is not for me to decide if these changes have a positive or negative effect, but I know my views have changed. I only hope not too much changes while I await my inevitable return.