The Buscalan Experience

I have always wanted to go to Buscalan and see the famous Kalinga tattoo artist, Apo Whang Od. I promised myself I’m going to see her before I turn 25 and get a tattoo. Now I’m less than a month away from my quarter life and timing can’t be any better because I’m also graduating from Med school in a few days–it’s time to keep my promise.

Shortly after being diagnosed with MDD, I just wanted to take a break and escape. I was overwhelmed by my thoughts and all I wanted was to shut it off. Some graduates would want a trip around the world or material things, all I want is some peace of mind. This trip may just be the best gift I can ever give myself. If you’re expecting this to be something like “That thing called tadhana,” I’m sorry to disappoint you. 


The trip to Kalinga is quite long. I endured a 16-hr drive together with my younger brother and high school best friend, I was asleep for most of the ride anyway but just imagine how our backs and butts ache.


Upon arriving at Tinglayan, Kalinga, we still have to trek to the other side of the mountain where the Butbut tribe is situated. It has been 5 years since I last climbed the mountain of the Cordilleras, I almost forgot how exhilarating it was to be that close to nature.

We joined a group of people from around Luzon in a home-stay just near Apo Whang Od’s place. We arrived around 9pm, had dinner cooked by our group’s hosts and I basically passed out as soon as my back hit the mattress. Yes, there’s a mattress!


I woke up around 5am and waited for at least an hour to bathe with ice-cold water. We went to see Apo Whang-Od after breakfast and there were a lot of people around her already just waiting for their turn. Some have waited even from the day before just to get tattooed.


There’s a board where you can choose a design. Most people would usually get a crab design which meant “traveller” or the scorpion which signifies “protection.” The line for Apo Whang Od is long enough but the line for her granddaughter, Grace is often longer. Some would get terrified with how hard Apo hits the stick and opts for Grace to do their tattoos instead and will have Apo do just her signature of 3 dots or ellipsis.

Being my stubborn self, of course I would want Apo Whang Od to do mine. I literally waited beside Apo for about 9 hours just waiting for my turn. For some people it would be really boring to just sit around doing nothing for 9 hours (Some people, meaning “me.” I can’t even sit still for 1 hour in class) but it was the best 9 hours of my life. I watched her impeccable technique and every face of people she tattooed from all over the world. I’m just amazed at how culture unites people and just watching her calms me.


Just imagine my excitement when it was my turn to sit in front of her. Of all the people who got their tattoos that day, I was the only one who chose the “arrow” design. Apo even asked to look at it a few times while drawing mine because she doesn’t usually do it. It was the first thing that caught my eye when I looked at the board and maybe it was just meant to be. I originally wanted a “sun” which meant “new beginning” for me but the arrow is more significant at this time of my life.

“An arrow can only be shot by pulling it backward. So when life is dragging you back with difficulties, it means that it’s going to launch you into something great. So just focus, and keep aiming.”

When she started hitting her stick, I was surprised. I expected it to be more painful… But then again, maybe my pain tolerance is just too high. She finished mine for just about 10 mins. Most people would ask me if it was painful, of course it was. It felt like being tattooed for like 30 minutes under the machine but every second of that is so worth it.

For the 9 hours that I waited, I kept praying. I have always believed that being up in the mountain meant being closer to the heavens. I kept praying for God to grant me the courage to forgive people, to face my fears and to let go of the pain, to keep the darkness away from my mind and to help me breathe a little better.  

This trip taught me a lot about myself and my life. My thoughts weren’t silenced but I’m sure I got the peace I needed. I remember one of the foreign visitors there saying “The bleeding will stop but the tattoo is forever. I just want to cry because it’s truly an honor to be tattooed by her.” I will always look back to this day and be grateful that I have made her a part of my journey to getting better. Yes it’s true that the pain is temporary and the bleeding will stop but this will be part of me until my last breath. This is part of who I am now and I have no regrets.

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