It was a cold Thursday night of February 25th when I jumped on the bus with my favorite backpack and a bag of medicines. I was going on another solo trip, this time to Buscalan, a small village in Kalinga province, about 340 miles away from Manila. I was having mixed emotions; happy because I’m on the road again, but gloomy because I expected to be with someone on this 4-day and 3-night journey.
For the first time, I didn’t reserve a seat with Ohayami, which I normally do whenever I go to the Cordillera Region because I was skeptical if I should push through with this travel. Then I thought, I shouldn’t live life with regrets, also, I told myself that Apo Whang-od couldn’t wait for me any longer. I should get my batok (tattoo) soon.
The bus leaves at exactly 10 p.m. from Manila bound to Banaue. I spent the 9-hour journey watching the world slides by the window. The people inside are a curious mixt of bored and comfortable. I could feel everyone’s excitement to get to our destination. By the way, don’t forget to bring your jacket because Ohayami Bus is consistently cold based from my experience.
7:00 a.m – We were greeted by a chilly weather of Ifugao. People fell in line to pay for what I believed as tourism fee (20php) at the bus station. I couldn’t contain my excitement, maybe because I was also very hungry. All I could think about was the hot Sinigang served at Banaue Hotel, which is my favorite place to eat whenever I’m there.
9:00 a.m – I decided to leave Banaue and take a jeep going to Bontoc (150php). I chose this route instead of Manila to Tabuk because the road offers one of the best landscapes; a winding road with a view of a sea of clouds, mountains, rice terraces, and river. There I met Marie, an American volunteer living in the small village of Hungduan, Ifugao.
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We arrived in Bontoc before noon time and said goodbye to each other because she was heading to Baguio. I walked around the town of Bontoc and bought some canned goods, noodles, bread, and water. I also bought rice, which I knew shouldn’t buy considering the fact that they have an overflowing supply of organic rice in the mountain. I bought rice anyway to make sure I would have something to eat during my stay.
Reminder: Please stop bringing candies in the mountain, instead bring children bread or biscuits. We have to understand that there is no regular dentist or doctor in Buscalan. These children are so used to receiving candies, they are now fighting for a piece.
The jeep bound to Buscalan (80php) is located beside the Mountain Province State Polytechnic College. As per blogs that I read, it leaves Bontoc at 2:00 p.m., which didn’t happen for some unknown reason. I was patiently waiting for hours when a guy with his girlfriend shouted my name inside the jeep, “Cai! Cai! Sino si Cai?” (Who’s Cai?) I looked at him and introduced myself. The man said that Kuya Charlie texted him to include me in a group.
This is how I met this couple, Meanne and Malvin. They became my housemates for a day in the village. For someone going solo in Buscalan, it is advisable to join a small group to share the mandatory guide fee of 1,000php for a group of 1-5pax. Kuya Charlie, my contact to Buscalan (0998-1888697), informed me that he can’t accommodate us since his house was already full. Nonetheless, he endorsed us to Elmer to be our host during our stay.
Going to Kalinga was another opportunity to do top load, one of the best activities to do in this part of the Philippines. It was more than an hour of a death-defying zigzag road with a stunning view of Chico River, mountains, trees, and terraces. It was scary but fun. This is where I met Lorena, one of the reasons why I became closer to the people of Buscalan.
The sun has already set when we arrived in the Village; a small community with at least a hundred houses and less than a thousand residents. We were welcomed by our host family with Kalinga coffee. I’m not a coffee drinker but I loved their coffee. I informed Lorena that I brought medicine with me and asked her if there’s a health officer in the area. She told me to look for Minerva, a registered midwife of their tribe.
With the help of Elmer, I was able to meet Minerva who arrived with a big smile. I could feel the excitement poured out of her like the sunshine. I oriented her on some of the medicines that I brought. My friend, Wendy a Licensed Pharmacist labeled it before I went to Buscalan.
It was passed 8 p.m. when we started to prepare for dinner. I gave my sardines to Elmer and our host family cooked it for us. They ate vegetables every day fresh from their backyard, so you can expect that whatever food you will give to them they will cook it with vegetables. The next time you visit their village, don’t forget to bring some grocery for your host family. It is not required but highly appreciated.
When I was about to sleep, I heard Lorena calling me from the outside. She invited me to spend a few hours with three other travelers. I asked Lorena which tattoo design represents water. The guys told me to ask this girl wearing a pink shirt who was sitting beside me. Then I heard someone said, “Hindi mo ba sya kilala?” (Don’t you recognize her?).
I said “Hindi” (No).They said “
They said “Seryoso ka?” (Are you serious?)
“Yes!” I replied, noticing that they wanted to laugh at my ignorance.
It felt so awkward, more so when I finally realized that they girl they were referring to was Grace. Yes! The young master, Gracia Palicas. I immediately fished my phone and asked for a selfie. The feeling was a bit awkward since we’d been talking for quite some time yet I didn’t recognize her.
The night was full of fun while we were drinking, sharing stories and jokes, and singing songs that I only heard in Buscalan. If you’re planning to visit, bring lots of jokes. Butbut tribe has a high sense of humor. The conversation always starts and ends with laughter.
The next day, I woke up to the feeling of cold weather embracing my body and the strong aroma of Kalinga coffee. I immediately went down hoping to get my tattoo with Whang-od. It was almost lunch time and my guide’s name has not been called yet. You see, that’s the current system for the queue works,when someone calls the name of the guide it means it’s the turn of his guests to get tattooed.
It was passed noon when I decided to get my tattoo with Elyang, Apo Whang-od’s niece. Because there were a lot of visitors falling in line to get inked by Whang-Od, my chance of getting a batok (tattoo) from Apo was getting slimmer and slimmer. That day was my only chance because I was set to leave tomorrow morning to catch the jeep back to Bontoc.
The feeling was a mixture of fear and excitement. This was my first time to have a tattoo and I had no idea how painful it would be. My turn has come and I told Elyang to place a water symbol on my right upper back. To make the atmosphere light, I tried to make fun of myself but deep inside I was scared. Then I thought, “Why should I be scared?” According to som people it’s painful but tolerable, so I set my mind that it wouldn’t hurt. I remained silent while Elyang was performing batok on my back.
At first, it felt almost nothing, I thought “mind over matter” was working on me. I was convincing myself that it was not painful but as time went by, it was getting more and more painful. Despite the pain, I still think it was tolerable.
After getting the tattoo, I saw Ma’am Isabel, the teacher I met in Bontoc. She introduced me to her family and toured me around her house. She also showed me the tribal style nipa hut; still under construction but it is soon to be a guest house.
Out of curiosity, I walked towards the rice terraces and discovered an awesome view of the mountain, the sky, and the village. It was breathtaking added with people planting rice and children playing around the rice field. This was heaven on earth. I walked over to get a better view on how people plant rice. I asked them if I could join. They said “Oo naman Sir!” (Of course Sir!).
It was my first time to dip my legs on a knee high mud and I swear I loved it. They were all laughing while watching me struggle as I walked on the rice field; it wasn’t easy to move. They taught me how to plant rice and we shared stories for more than 2 hours.
It was surprising to hear some of their stories like how hard the life in the community is, that many of them have never been to Manila and that they only see it on TV, and the closest thing they could ever have to a city is Bontoc. I felt their excitement as they answered their queries about my life in the Metro; what I do in life, what is my job, where do I live, how’s life and working in Makati, and a lot more.
Likewise, I learned a lot about their culture and lifestyle. I found that they are not allowed to sell their rice or bring it down to the village. The rice that they will harvest this coming July or August will be placed inside like a rice warehouse then everyone on tribe will just get their supply.
When we were about to finish, one lady told me “Sir Cai, mag pa-mirienda ka naman dahil maganda naman ang trabaho mo sa Makati” (Sir Cai, please treat us for a snack since you have a nice job in Makati). Then everyone started laughing. Without hesitation, I said yes and went back to the village with Minerva, the owner of the rice field who accompanied me to look for the nearest store. This once in a lifetime experience made me feel closer to the local people of Buscalan. They even invited me to have dinner with them.
When I was about to go home, I saw another group of travelers who invited me to walk around the rice terraces. Another perk of traveling solo, a chance to meet awesome people.
The night was still young and my host family was preparing our dinner when I arrived back home. They were preparing beans boiled in salt. That’s how simple life in Buscalan is. While we were eating on the floor, I took the opportunity to know my host family even better. Based on all the medals displayed inside their house, it is obvious that the family members are high achievers in school. Unfortunately, Elmer had to stop from studying after graduating from High school to give way to her sister who was still in college taking up Engineering.
I was impressed knowing that they can send their daughter to college but in exchange, they needed to sell all their lands to support her education. A big part of their earning today comes from hosting and tour guiding and a big part of it is saved to support her schooling, allowance, apartment, and food because she’s studying in Tabuk.
I felt heartbroken when I heard that they don’t know if they can still support her in the upcoming semesters because their earnings aren’t enough to cover her expenses. They no longer have lands to sell. I didn’t show my feelings and instead tried to give them words of encouragement, that everything is possible as long as they help each other. Sooner or later when she graduates, I’m positive that she would give back all their sacrifices to them, her family.
After our dinner, I heard Grace calling and inviting me to have dinner with them. I couldn’t say no because I appreciate their hospitality. We spent the rest of the night with her friends and some guests, sharing stories and jokes just like how I spent my first night in the village.
It’s my last day and I woke up early still hoping to get a batok from Whang-od. Unfortunately, she was still inside her house and looks like she was not yet ready to start the session anytime soon. Before I left, I visited her to give the bangle from Marge. I felt privileged to hold her hand as I slowly slide up the bangle on her wrist.
In my head I was whispering that she would not leave anytime soon. I promised to go back; I need to feel the pain from her hand, to get that batok from the legend herself. I hugged her then said goodbye.
I left the village with an unexplainable happiness but also with a heavy heart. It’s hard to leave a place that became close to you and made you feel like home. I know that this is not the last time that I will visit your humble village. They told me to revisit this coming August to harvest the rice that we planted. Also, people reminded me to print all our photos once I get back and give them a copy.
Thank you Butbut tribe for extending your home and letting me feel that I’m part of your family. I’m really excited to go back and see you again.