Testing Mortality in the Name of Tattoos

I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege in the last weeks (who am I kidding, for the last years), and how easy it is for me to roam around the world and “find myself” while other people from places like the Philippines are not as free to travel. They have families to provide for and lower wages in the jobs that they do, which doesn’t allow them to just buy a plane ticket on a whim. The plane ticket that I find so cheap may seem unattainably expensive to them. It feels icky, unfair. A lot of the Filipinos I meet tell me about their brother, cousin, aunt, or friend(s) that moved to Canada: the promise land. They move so they can make more money and be supported by a government system that actually provides useful services, instead of killing people who use drugs (yes, the current President of the Philippines does that). So I listen and I sympathize, because it would be fucking hard to have a social/health/money problem and not feel the confidence to be able to get help from your government and instead fear their wrath. And the Filipinos really don’t deserve that, everyone that I’ve met has shown me incredible warmth, hospitality, and shared their beautiful smiles with me. They truly are lovely human beings. My week working at Layog Farm was a perfect example of their amazing hospitality. Every meal, I was served first. This has never been a thing on my radar before (ie. we just dig in at home, even if we have guests), but somehow you feel so taken care of when everyone is insisting you take your portion before them! They were always checking in and making sure I was ok and comfortable. Such thoughtful and considerate people! I was actually a bit teary when I left, they really warmed my heart.

The day I left the farm and began the schlep to Buscalan (the famous tattoo village) was kind of insane. Probably one of the more harrowing drives of late (basically since rainy motorcycle drives in Vietnam). It started off as a beautiful, hot day – I actually had to change into shorts when I arrived in Bontoc, about 1.5 hours from the farm. Only 10 minutes after leaving town in the jeepney (see photo below), it starts to rain, incredibly hard. Pouring down. The road is a river, the windshield is a river, the rivers are brown; man has no wipers, but is somehow navigating this wet plane of existence in which we find ourselves. We’re winding and twisting along a harsh cut in the mountainside, a road that was made by hands and tools. The raw earth and green that reaches up to the sky beside us contrasts the plunging cliff, the imminent drop, to our right. The jeepney rocks and bounces over the loose earth that has fallen onto the road. Just as we pass through a small lake that has formed on the cement, we round a bend and come to a halt behind two cars, each idling, waiting for something. We all crane our necks to look out through the wetness and see a river of earth and stones. A landslide. No one is too concerned. We get out with our things and are given the options: walk across the undulating mass of dirt or go back to Bontoc with the jeepney. We all choose the former. So about 10 Filipinos, two babies, and a white girl make their way to the other side. Right before we set off, an omen of good luck, three massive rocks come crashing down the mountain and explode on the pavement, rocket debris over the cliff and send mud splattering directly in the path we need to take. I’m shitting my pants a bit. Me and the guy to my left share a look, he whistles. I decide I’m going to run. So with a pack on my back and my front, like a pregnant turtle, I’m running (to the best of my ability) next to a mountain that looks about ready to collapse, across a river of dirt and stones, towards a future that is murky at best. I’ve realized that I had not idea what I was doing when I set off to have an old lady stick me with a thorn. I was lucky enough that a local guide was riding on the same jeepney and introduced herself to me: Racquel. After she heard I was travelling to see Whang-Od the tattoo legend, she offered to house me and show me around. You must have a guide if you want to visit Buscalan, as it is a very small village. You would not be welcome without someone who is already known in the community.

So after the dirt-river crossing, we waited. For a while. It appeared everyone was waiting, stuck in the mud, trying to get to one place or the other. In the time we waited, I was offered betel nut, a local speciality: the OG chewing gum. They wrap it in a sort of leaf, with some dried, powdered lime, and chew – a spicy, bitter flavour that is incredibly dry and chunky. Generally unpleasant and makes your mouth turn red. It gives you a kind of ‘warm’ feeling (aka a body high), but if you wanna get really messed up, mix that bad boy with some tobacco or alcohol. They start chewing really young, I’ve seen some boys that couldn’t be older than 10 spitting globs of red saliva on the ground. Old ladies chew it, boy or girl, young or old, everyone chews it. So we’re chewing betel nut (I’m spitting it out as quickly as possible), and eventually this truck is turning around to go back towards Buscalan. Everybody jumps in the back, babies and mommas in the passenger seats. Early on in the game I had resigned to letting everything just happen, going with the flow as they say, because I was in the middle of nowhere, with a dead cell phone and very few expectations. Lets see where this goes shall we? So the truck takes us about 6kms to the bottom of the hill leading up the Buscalan. Then we wait again because it’s 5kms straight up to the turning point, where the hike to the village begins. Eventually a van comes down and rescues the 5 remaining Filipinos, 1 baby and a tired white girl. We get 3/4 of the way up and bam: another landslide. So we walk the rest of the road up to the beginning of this incredibly slippery, gruelling 1 hour hike that the people of Buscalan need to conquer anytime they want to leave or come back to their village. I haven’t worked out in months. It was a wet time all around, but we made it by nightfall.


That first night it felt weird coming to the village as it has been so affected by tourism over the last ten years, I wasn’t sure if I felt welcomed. People would just give me a side-eye glance when I would say hello. The second day felt different, walking around with my guide I got to explore the nooks and crannies of the village and spend time in the beautiful rice paddies. People were generous with their smiles and hellos, and it gave me a real sense of warmth (different than the betel nut tho). As I spent longer time in the village, and hung out at Selma’s Eatery, I got to know some locals as well as travellers that ‘got stuck’ there. The lifestyle in Buscalan is easy to get accustomed to as it’s incredibly laid back and is based in sharing, community, and togetherness. I think a lot of tourists come here for the notoriety of trekking into the mountains of the Philippines to get a cultural tattoo and an even cooler story, but rarely take the time to get to know the place or the people that inhabit it. I could imagine getting tired of people peering into my life and not giving a damn about anything except getting the famous signature of Whang-Od: three dots tattooed in a line. This woman has been doing it for ages and I feel like before it used to be a more significant experience. Like you would’ve had to spend some time with her so she could decide if she wanted to tattoo you, then she would choose a design for you. Now pretty much any able-bodied bloke or lass can hike up and down the slippery ass cliffs to get her to poke them with an inky thorn.

Watching some tourists get it done and then get the obligatory photo with her afterwards felt a bit strange, like she is a road side attraction that people visit during their initiation into being an adventurous backpacker. I was also there for an experience, although I was more interested in the village culture and surrounding natural beauty, I still perpetuate the industry (and I still got a tattoo). And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, by coming here I’m feeding their local economy and providing business for the homestay. I know that there are foreigners who care to learn about their local culture, because I’ve met them, instead of just coming for the inevitable instagram post of their rad new tattoo. And the local vibe I think can be defined by the word ‘chill’. The pace of life is super mellow and relaxed here, and the way that people interact reflects this. Some people have commented on “Filipino time”, just like Spanish time, it moves at a slower pace than in the West. People do their laundry, work in the rice fields, build new houses or mend fences, but a lot of the time they’re just chilling: talking with their families and other people, watching TV, or playing games. The amount of weed and betel nut consumed here probably doesn’t hurt either.

There’s something special about village life – it’s like that deeply interwoven community/family vibe that is just intrinsically understood by everyone and so they treat each other as such. Racquel told me that everyone in Buscalan is somehow related (third to fourth cousin kinda relation in some cases), which helps solidify the connection between each other. But there was the same kind of attitude at the farm, where everyone treated each other like family, worked closely together, and passed baby Gian around without hesitation. Something you would never ask in the West: is that your baby? Because generally you are the only one holding your baby out in public. I actually asked someone that the other day at Selma’s eatery, but no, it was actually her friends, brothers baby and she was just taking care of him during lunch. There’s that old saying “it takes a village to raise child”, which is taken literally here. Holding babies is like is like playing hot potato, always being passed from one person to the next, tickled, then teased, coddled, then back to mum to get fed.

The tattoo experience itself was a mix of amazing and terrible. It started off great, wasn’t too painful, and I actually found the sound of wood hitting the bamboo stick kind of meditative. I entered a state of equanimity for a while, where I felt the pain but didn’t feel averse to it or really want it to go away – I actually appreciated how present it made me feel! I felt so aware of every sensation around me: the beautiful way the light hit the plants in hanging pots, the sound of pigs nuzzling each other, the smell of FRESH mountain air. The technique goes where a thorn from an orange tree is placed in the hole of a small bamboo stick. The artist dips her finger in some charcoal mixed with water and dabs it on the end of the thorn. To pierce your skin, she whacks the bamboo stick holding the thorn with another, bigger stick. It’s a lot slower work than your average tattoo with a gun, but (I think) is less painful. Apparently my body didn’t agree. Somewhere between the equanimity, channeling Buddha, all that, and the arrival of 10 loud tourists, I started to feel some tightness in my chest. I tried to breathe through it and thought I was doing fine, but all of a sudden I was hit with wave of intense nausea and a headache. I was sweating bullets and my face went completely ghost white. Everyone was low key worried so they made me some ginger tea and started fanning me to calm down my nervous system – I honestly thought it wasn’t even related to the tattoo and was something I had eaten. On the way to the bathroom I almost passed out actually, which was so weird! Mentally I wasn’t that bent outta shape, but my body had a super intense reaction. The artist, Jona, and everyone at Selma’s was incredibly kind and caring so I just took some deep breaths and recovered after 20 minutes or so. We ended up finishing the tattoo and I’m incredibly happy with it! Although it was intense, and physically a bad time, still one of my top tattoo experiences as made by the beautiful people I was surrounded with along with the amazing view.

To cap off a pretty amazing, but intense saga of events that went on this weekend, I took a heavy fall on my way to the bus in Taguguerao. Being a pregnant turtle sandwiched between 20kilos of stuff isn’t my most delicate form, and when suddenly the pavement changed depth my ankle rolled in a direction it really shouldn’t go. This story is reminiscent of the bike accident in Amsterdam two years ago – actually it is the same exact injury, just on my left ankle instead of my right – but this time no one stole all my shit while I was on the ground screaming in pain! Yeah, in Amsterdam someone rode off with my bike while I was distracted by my possibly shattered ankle. It’s a harsh world folks.

Luckily the Filipinos are sweet as pie and there was immediately a group of people around me a) in shock there was a white girl in butt-fuck no where Philippines and b) that she was yelling FUCK over and over again. A tricycle driver brought me back to the bus station, went to get me ice, and didn’t even want my money for the ride or ice when I offered! So, laying on the pavement with my foot elevated on multiple sacks of potatoes, an incredibly nice couple took to my struggle and while the guy went to buy a pressure wrap, Edna (the girlfriend) talked me through the bitter why-is-this-happening-again tears until the pain killers kicked in. If you’re reading this Edna and boyfriend: I love you both. And if I see you again, I will force you to have a beer with me so that I can repay you for the favour. Pro tip also, to Harold the preacher: if someone is angry crying while laying on the ground with a messed up ankle, might not be the best time to try and save their soul through prayer – especially after they explicitly tell you they are NOT religious. So now, truly, honest to god exhausted, I write from a sleeper bus headed back to Manila: the big city, because I need to lay the fuck down and put my foot way the fuck up in the air until this tennis ball exits my ankle and I can walk again. I guess missing out on Vigan City is just another reason to come back to the Philippines!! There is so much more to do and experience here. Hopefully this ankle business blows over by the time I am supposed to start volunteering at San Fermin in Pamplona (aka 1 week from now). Maybe I should have let Harold save my soul… that’s how you get what you want right? You pray?? Right?! I guess I’ll never know, I think I said the F-werd at least 30 times in the last 3 hours so it’s probably too late for me anyways.

Some fave quotes from Buscalan:

Don’t panic, it’s organic! (when talking about weed, chicken, dirt, pig poop, rice, etc)

Stop it Trump, you dumb dog!
(The dog’s name is Trump, because he’s an idiot)

Kids chanting and bowing “apple juice! apple juice!”
Me: why are they praying for apple juice?
Turns out Jesus in But-But sounds identical to apple juice.

If you smoke weed you die, if you don’t smoke weed you die: might as well smoke weed.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. OMG Kaya you are a born storyteller. God what a time you’ve had. I so admire your bravery. Hope the ankle’s getting better. Love the tat.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. kayalemaire says:

      Thank yooouuu xoxo

      Liked by 1 person

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