Into the Land of the Headhunters, Part IV: Living Artifacts of the Mambabatok

Location: Buscalan Village, Kalinga, The Philippines

In the morning I was awoken by Ralley’s parents. The sun was rising and his mother had prepared potatoes, and rice for breakfast. I brushed my teeth in the outhouse then drank a cup of dark, bitter, sweetened coffee. I was a bit nervous about the pain and about possibly having a bad reaction to the tattoo. You never know, you? There wasn’t a real way to clean it off here except water and it wasn’t like Whang-Od was sterilizing the thorns she used. I wondered if anyone had ever had an infection from it. I’d noticed puppies licking the equipment the day before, but nobody had seemed overly concerned about it.

Craig and Tom’s tattoos looked clean, though, and not swollen at all. There was a bit of crust over each, but they wiped it off and rubbed neosporin over the raised black dot patterns. Richard came to the house to retrieve me and I followed him to Whang-Od’s home. We found her squatting by a fire, cooking pig gruel in a cauldron. I noticed that she slept in a simple twin mattress with an old school squat television set propped against one end.

Seeing her home made me wonder about her life. The villagers had told me she’d had 15 boyfriends over her lifetime, but never a husband. I wondered if she could get married or if her work didn’t allow that. I wanted to ask Richard these questions, but his revere of Whang-Od and the communication barrier made me wary of digging too deep. I didn’t want to offend him by asking what was really on my mind: was Whang-Od happy with her life? It seemed like she was in a position of intense responsibility. Over the past ten years, she’d become a huge source of income for the village, bringing in tourism and fame. When I really thought about it, I realized Richard’s job only existed because of her. That must be a heavy burden to bear, knowing that when you die, everything in your village will change. That you are the last of your kind. Was it a lonely kind of knowledge?

But if Whang-Od felt this way, she rarely showed it. Yesterday, she’d joked with us all, making several playful remarks whether I was dating Craig or Tom (even though I’d explained we were all just travel buddies). She’d also poked at my bee tattoo and asked if it was a fertility symbol.

Richard and I waited while Whang-Od stirred the gruel until she announced that before she began her day’s work, she wanted to get a coffee. Richard explained that Whang-Od didn’t like the village beans but rather preferred the powdered, pre-sweetened Kopiko packets. We decided to go up to the parlor and wait while she went and found herself a coffee.

And then I was sitting on a little stool with Whang-Od behind me, positioned over my right shoulder blade. I could feel her arms hovering just inches over me as she imagined where she wanted to place the design. I pointed to the tattoo from the book and she began her work, dipping a thin straw into the ink. It felt cold when she placed it against my skin. Then, she lifted her hammers into position. I heard the sharp tap of bamboo on bamboo and I felt the first pang of the thorn piercing my skin. And then, the steady rhythm of the clanking sticks and the constant pain as she banged out the design into my back. It really hurt halfway through, when the needle began to stick in my skin. She’d have to tug it loose, popping it back out. I could feel my skin pulling and stretching under her touch.

As she worked, she spoke to Richard, who repeated everything in English.

“Whang-Od says she does not want to tattoo much longer. She wants Grace to take over. This may be one of her last tattoos.”

When she finished, we took a photo together and Whang-Od once again gave me that soul-searching stare, the one that made me wonder about her happiness. I thanked her in Tagalog, but I wasn’t sure she’d understand, so I tried to communicate with my eyes. We ended up staring at each other for a long time.

Afterwards, Craig, Tom, and I headed back down the mountain, caught a jeepney to Bontoc, and then a bus to Baguio. We spent the night there and then took off to Manila the next day, where we all split off in different directions.