Buscalan, in Kalinga, was very much alive when Andrew and I arrived there one Sunday morning in September. We were greeted with the curious stares of the village’s young kids, freshly harvested rice terraces, and squealing black native pigs.
I soaked in the scenes before me and thought that our incredibly long journey to reach this remote village in Northern Luzon was worth the trouble after all. It started with a flight to Manila from Cebu and then abandoning our original itinerary when we arrived at a bus terminal in Pasay. Instead of heading for Tuguegarao, we boarded a six-hour bus bound for Baguio and another 4-hour ride to Bontoc. Finally, we spent two more hours on top of a jeepney that meandered through the precarious yet scenic sections of the Halsema Highway.
Charlie, our contact in Kalinga, would later tell us why their village was in high spirits that weekend. They were then celebrating the birth of his newborn son. He added that a fully grown carabao and some swine were slaughtered earlier that day. The fact that they could feed an entire village speaks of their family’s status in the community.
“This is nothing,” Charlie modestly downplayed the scale of their preparation.
I smiled back as I enjoyed my cup of Kalinga coffee. My stomach was also grumbling at that point, realizing that we had not yet eaten. It sounded like the gentle murmur I heard from the two cauldrons set up not far from where we would be staying that night.
One of the greenish-brown stews contained chopped innards, while the other one had meatier portions. I tried hard to hide my hunger as I watched the men taking turns in stirring the pots. This was thankfully interrupted by the sound of gongs which was the unofficial start of the celebration. We walked towards a small clearing in the village to witness a tadek, a traditional celebratory dance typical in the Philippine Cordilleras.
The locals huddled first to listen to the beat from each gong, harmonizing until they achieved the right rhythm and sound. They would then begin dancing- snaking in and out of an invisible spiral.
After one batch, another would take over and repeat the same set, albeit with various steps or hand movements inserted here and there. We admired each performing group from a distance until there was one that was interrupted by a heavy downpour. The dancers, the onlookers, and even the native pigs scrambled for cover.
Around this hour, my friend and I headed toward Whang-Od’s house. She is the mambabatok and is said to be the last of Kalinga’s revered traditional tattoo artists.
Tattoos in these parts are done by hand, using a stick with a citrus spike at one end for the needle and pine soot for ink. The mambabatok would then incessantly tap this contraption onto the skin sans any form of anesthetic to ease the pain.
Since Whang-od was already tired that afternoon, it was Grace’s, her niece and protegee, turn to be the mambabatok. She started tapping the stick on my friend’s back slowly, gradually increasing the frequency and stopping only to wipe out the oozing blood. The sound of it seemed to mimic the fading drops of rain.
“Dude, does it hurt?” I asked Andrew, who replied by shaking his head.
“It only feels like a few ant bites,” Grace said. “Would you like to be next?” she asked.
I politely begged off, and to this day, I am still scratching my head as to why I did not grab that opportunity.
After Grace was done, she applied something like wax on the tattooed skin. The design was a bit sore, but I could make out a centipede or locally known as gayaman. Grace explained that this symbol would provide my friend protection in all his adventures.
We walked back to Charlie’s place shortly. The celebratory mood picked up again with various tadek performances and a hearty dinner. Our first meal of the day consisted of a mound of rice and a generous slab of carabao meat. There were, of course, alternating rounds of coffee and beer to accompany our feast.
Later into the night, the locals invited a few Caucasian backpackers and us to participate in the tadek. The booze might be suspect because I blindly said yes to the invitation. I remember struggling to find the proper beat and dancing with each slippery step during our turn.
But I was relieved that someone in our circle slipped on the muddied dance floor. This ended everyone’s, including the onlooker’s collective agonies. Another group took over, and the party went on.
It was already past midnight when I climbed back to our hut. The exhaustion of our long trip began to kick in as well. The various sounds of Buscalan- from the squealing pigs to the bubbling cauldrons, from the banging of the gongs to the pitter-patter of the afternoon rain, and from the tapping motion of the mambabatok and the mesmerizing tune of the tadek – seemed to loop in my head as I stared blankly at the ceiling.
It was an imaginary playlist that was dizzying and sublime, cacophonous and melodious at the same time. It played on and on until all I could finally hear was the sound of my heavy breathing and the silence of the night.