Mark of a Woman

Two days on a trip.
One day without signal.
Three-fourths of a day at a village, welcomed by its indigenous peoples.
Half an hour under the hands of the Grand Master.
And my life has been changed

I have a lot to say
About this trip, but I’ll save the other
Two topics I have in mind for
The next two days. In the meantime, I’m going to
Jump straight in to
The core of my journey.

As I mentioned in a couple of earlier entries, this was
My first solo trip, though I was
Part of a tour group organized by GalaPH (review forthcoming, in Part II). We were
Twelve participants, plus the Tour Leader and the Driver, with
Four of us being solo travelers, another
Four being from one group and the other
Four being from another group.

In summary, our itinerary looked something like this:

We left Manila at 10:30 PM on Wednesday evening;

Arrived at Banaue around 6 in the morning, where we made a short stop
For breakfast and to take pictures of the world-famous
Banaue Rice Terraces,
IMG_9549_EditedMan-made terraces for planting rice in the Mountain Provinces of the Philippines;

Continued on to Bontoc and Kalinga, where we had to disembark from our van and
Make the fairly arduous trek up to Buscalan—the destination of this trip—and where
We spent the night and half of the next day; until

Around 2 PM, when we journeyed back down to the van and spent the
Next few hours on the winding roads up to Baguio, where we had
Dinner and bought a few souvenirs; and,

Finally arrived back in Manila at 3 AM on Saturday morning.

More specifically though, the purpose of this trip was to
Get a tattoo, one done by
The oldest surviving Kalinga tattoo artist in the Philippines,
Apo* Whang Od.

(*Note: “Apo” is a term of respect for an elder, if I’m not mistaken. Whang Od is referred to either as “Apo” or “Grand Master”.)

Her story started to become known when
A National Geographic journalist made the journey to get a tattoo from every country in the world. Originally, Apo Whang Od did not bestow these tattoos to
Outsiders; the honor was meant for the warriors and the women of her tribe. After
Proving himself for one month in the village of Buscalan, this journalist
Opened this door for himself and other outsiders, as well as
Bringing in a new source of income to this small village
The more Apo’s story was shared, both by foreign and local news / documentary channels.

Currently at 98, Apo Whang Od has begun
To pass on her knowledge to a younger generation:
Her sister’s granddaughter, Grace,
As well as another family member,
Grace’s cousin, Elyang.

But how exactly is this tattoo
Different from those you get at any other tattoo parlor?

Besides the fact that it is done by a 98-year-old woman, it is done
First, by marking the skin with charcoal ink, using a piece of straw;
Then, hammering a stick of bamboo, with a thorn attached
That is coated with the same ink, into the skin of the person, following the drawn design.

Something we noticed while watching the three tattoo artists at work is that:

The Grand Master, Apo Whang Od, inks the darkest and hammers the hardest,
Perhaps due to her experience of having before done this for
True warriors of the tribe.

On the other hand,
Grace, the Grand Daughter, and Elyang, the Young Master,
Seem to be more careful, more particular when they work.

After getting tattooed, those
Done by Apo Whang Od

Bled more,

Swell more, and

Sting for longer.

Those whose tattoos were solely done by her (some of our companions were
Tattooed by Grace or Elyang, and they simply had Apo Whang Od “sign” them afterwards)
Agree, though, that
The pain was worth it.

(A side note about the pain, for those who are interested to know,
The most painful part was the start—
That shock to your body when Apo begins her work—but
Gradually, you either become
Used to, or
Numb to the pain.)

Then, there are the
Designs. Each design has
Some written in a book nearby on Kalinga tattoo art, while others
Known only to The Masters.

Before, depending on the
Achievement of the tribe member, Apo Whang Od would
Tattoo them accordingly.
Now, there is a
Board provided with the possible designs;
Though for the
Meaning, you still have
To ask The Master.

For me, I chose to completely
Let Apo decide. With the help of Kuya Dante to interpret my wishes,
She began her work—and
Neither I nor my companions knew just
How it would turn out
Until the end, that is when she puts those
Three dots—
The “signature” of all the Masters,
To represent the three generations of Kalinga tattoo artists,
All of whom come from the same
Family (as Apo had said that the next Kalinga tattoo artists
Must come from her family).

As it turns out, everyone was
In awe of the design she had bestowed me with—
Kuya Dante and the other villagers agree that it is
The most beautiful among those of the others in my group.
The meaning?



Beautiful. (Or so Kuya Dante says.)

The other villagers even say, and Apo herself jokes, it is a
Blessing, that I will have “many boys” coming after me. (Apparently, Apo
Enjoys green jokes. Haha!)

But honestly, I feel blessed indeed, more so because Apo actually
Asked about the scar on my stomach from my operation (a story for another time)
As she was doing my tattoo; and, I feel that this was
Also a factor in her bestowing on me such a blessing. (At least, that is what
I would like to believe.)

In the end, not only have I
Ticked off one box on my bucket list, but I now also
Carry a piece of cultural tradition and history with me,
Something I will forever carry


  1. For more pictures on this trip, feel free to browse through my IG @ovsdunder.
  2. Part II of this trip, a review on the travel agency I used, GalaPH, has been posted. You may read it here.
  3. Part III will soon follow, about my packing mistake on this trip, is now posted over here.
  4. Part IV is a discussion on feminism and modesty, based on my experiences on this trip. You may read the entry here.
  5. Part V is the final part, on traveling solo. Check it out here.
  6. The pictures OF me were taken by one of my fellow solo travelers, Darwin. You can check him out at his IG @dharzie_travellingcup, and/or his blog
  7. Prior to my trip, I did a bit of research on Apo Whang Od. I have added links to these sites for your reference, should you want to learn more.

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