A story of braving crowded trains, stuffed jeepneys, treacherous roads, and a trek through the mountains to remote village to meet the oldest traditional tattoo artist in the Philippines.
I felt refreshed rather than tired. The 10-hour bus ride was way more comfortable than the 30-minute train ride to the bus terminal the prior night. Friday night train rides in the metro are beyond stressful.
I was woken up by my husband a few minutes before we got off the bus. I couldn’t remember how many stopovers we had. After the first stopover, I was already off to dreamland. I could only recall how my body swayed from side to side when the bus navigated through sharp curves. Thank you for that stressful train ride that knocked me out to a deep slumber through the night.
The sun was already up and the sky was clear but it was a chilly morning in Tabuk City, the capital of Kalinga province in the far north of the Philippines. No sign of rain meant safer travel in this part of the country. The narrow roads that hang on mountainsides could get really muddy and more treacherous when it rains, not to mention the landslides.
It was 6am when we sat down at an eatery to have breakfast and coffee. The lady in the eatery said that jeepneys and buses to Tinglayan arrive around 7:30am. A little later, two jeepneys arrived and parked nearby. I asked the lady which one would pass through Tinglayan and she pointed to the green one.
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It was empty. The driver and conductor who were sitting on the front hood of the jeepney confirmed that it was going to Tinglayan, where we were going to meet our tour guide. We took the seats nearest the door. Some of the seats were vacant, some were reserved by the bags sitting on them. It was notable that the bags were just left there without anyone’s watching. You cannot do that in Manila.
Minutes passed and another passenger appeared at the step of the jeepney, about to climb in. I gasped and felt ripples of awe widen my eyes. I watched her climb the higher-than-usual step of the jeepney effortlessly. I never anticipated seeing this so early in this trip:
A tattooed old lady.
My reaction was unexpected. I stroked her smooth tattooed arm to feel it, not even thinking she might feel strange about it. She didn’t mind.
“Where did you get your tattoo?” my husband asked.
“I got this long time ago,” she replied smiling.
I asked if she lived in Tinglayan too but she gave me the blank face. She couldn’t understand much Tagalog. She sat on the other end of the jeepney and I resorted to just marvelling at her tattooed arms. Though old, she was still strong and beautiful.
People started to fill the jeepney. We waited for more than an hour but we didn’t feel the need to kill time. Listening to a different dialect, watching people and observing culture isn’t boring.
At around 8:30am, the jeepney was full with passengers, small and big cartons, sacks and plastic bags. Some passengers were sitting on the roof with more cartons — they call this top-loading. The number of jeepneys and buses that make trips to remote areas is limited, so the locals, men and women alike, and even kids, resort to top-loading despite it being unsafe. In this part of the Philippines it’s normal.
Locals do their bulk shopping either in Tabuk City or Bontoc. They shop for their necessities and the ride revealed what locals in that jeepney bought in the city. We saw live chickens, huge plastic drawers for clothing storage, poultry feeds, fruits, vegetables, bread and junk food meant for reselling.
The jeepney finally left. I wasn’t certain if everyone there knew everybody but it was evident all were not close friends but they did share their snacks with each other. They ate corn, bread, rambutan etc. Again, in Manila, it doesn’t work like that. I hadn’t even been in any province yet where everyone in the jeepney shares their food with everybody. That was refreshing. And just when we thought the locals’ shopping was over, the jeepney stopped at a poultry shop and some passengers got off to buy live chickens.
Suddenly something was scratching my feet. I panicked for a second but I realized, two struggling chickens were being thrust between my legs. They were riding in the space below my seat. My reaction to it made some of the locals laugh and we laughed along with them. Later in the trip the jeepney smelled of chicken shit. Two more shopping stops and the jeepney was finally leaving Tabuk. It picked up more passengers along the way and during the few stopovers, more vegetable and fruit shopping ensued.
We traversed the one-way winding road of the Cordillera mountains. There were towering cliff on one side, a deep ravine on the other. One wrong steer and any vehicle will be sent plunging to the depths below. We passed by a couple of landslides and we had to avoid the debris that weren’t yet cleared and were blocking the way. I spotted tiny waterfalls along the road and big ones among the lush greens of the mountain across the valley. Waterfalls are common in this landlocked region of the country.
After 3 hours we arrived in Tinglayan and met Francis Pa-in, our tour guide. We had lunch and he brought us to his house where we waited for another jeepney that would bring us to Bugnay, where the trek to Buscalan was to begin. We met his mother who was also tattooed. We spent more than an hour waiting outside their house while the sound of the rushing water of the Chico River below lulled us into to sleepiness.
The jeepney came at 2 pm when the Chico River had successfully put me to nap. It was the 3rd and the last jeepney from Tabuk. It fortunately had space for the three of us. Just like the first jeepney we took that day, we occasionally had to get off for the passengers to unload some boxes.
Kuya Francis said we were lucky that there was a jeepney going to Bugnay that day. Otherwise, we would have needed to walk for more than two hours to reach Buscalan. The jeepney was hired because a passenger bought a lot of stuff and there were several boxes that needed to be dropped to where we were getting off.
After an hour, we started trekking. The vast expanse of greens made me feel like we were in the middle of nowhere. I spotted another waterfall and some houses from a village were already visible. It wasn’t Buscalan yet though. The start of the trek was pretty easy. The terrain flat and the locals have already paved a narrow trail.
As we got nearer the village the sound of the rushing waterfall was getting louder. We crossed a bridge that didn’t have a rail; not good for people who have acrophobia or fear of heights. We continued trekking downhill until we reached the first rice paddy. The waterfall was on the left so my husband and I went to wash our faces. It was refreshing. It was past 3pm and the last time we washed our faces was the morning before that day. I relished the brief dip unaware of the impending hardship.
There were two kids at the rice paddy. They must be the kids of the man harvesting rice who Kuya Francis was chatting with while we were enjoying the waterfall. After I gave them candies, I picked up my backpack to resume the trek.
From the waterfall, the trek was all uphill. I was fine with the first 20 steps or so, catching up with the tour guide and my husband. Then the steps seemed never-ending. They grew steeper and I could already hear my heart hammering my chest bone, too loud that each step started to scare me. I was worried that if I pushed myself farther I’d have a heart attack and collapse then and there. So I took a rest. The woman we were with in the jeepney had by this time caught up with me. She told me I should have done it more slowly.
Before she continued ahead of us, she said, “We’re almost there; it’s the last zigzag already.”
I didn’t find comfort from what she said. I didn’t want to get excited about nearing the end. What’s near for her might be miles for me. I enjoyed taking in the view of the trail where we came from before reaching the spot we were standing on at that moment. After a few minutes of rest we carried on. I climbed as slow as I could but my legs were already too tired and I could barely catch my breath despite just having a rest.
Then a fence came into view. They crossed over it and I followed. Still uphill, I dragged myself very slowly. I was left far behind.
Then I heard Kuya Francis shout, “Fang Od! Fang Od!”
It was the last zigzag indeed. I couldn’t suppress a smile.
After a 10-hour bus ride, 4-hour jeepney ride and an hour of downhill and uphill trek, we had arrived and were about to meet the oldest traditional tattoo artist in the Philippines.