Apart from the occasional grunting of pigs, the only sound that broke the silence of the misty morning was the rhythmic tapping of a 102 year old woman tattooing my brother, Luke. The bamboo rod with a pomelo thorn affixed to the center produced a small trickle of blood from one of the three dots that he had just received on the back of his right ankle. The symbol, the legendary tattoo artist’s mark (see Blog 17: The Last Mambabatok), adorned both of us in the same spot. It now signified more than it had when I got it several months ago. To me the subtle charcoal ink represented perhaps the single most defining part of my identity, brotherhood. It would likely be the only tattoo I would ever get.
Three days earlier I had arrived at Clark, an unimpressive backwater of an airfield five hours north of Manila, to link up with Luke after nearly eight months on the road. Seeing him stroll out of baggage claim with an ear-to-ear grin was almost more than my old heart could bare. We gave each other a big hug. Although it takes a bit of higher math to find the balance between untethered adventuring and the grounding warmth of contact with loved ones, I think I’m starting to get the hang of it.
"To me the subtle charcoal ink represented perhaps the single most defining part of my identity, brotherhood."
Rubbing the sleep from our eyes and shouldering our packs, we walked over to an airport ATM to take out some local currency, Filipino Pesos. My withdraw went off without a hitch but when Luke used the same machine it malfunctioned, failing to dispense the cash. A quick glance at Luke’s bank showed that the ATM had succeeded, however, in removing $200 from his account. Ugh, well we’ll have to unfuck that situation later. One step to the right yielded a properly functioning ATM which carried out the requested transaction.
Energetically swapping eight months worth of stories, reunited brothers began the pilgrimage north to visit the world’s oldest living tattoo artist, Apo Whang-Od. It was 2am but we figured we could sleep on the buses. No point in waiting around. A jeepney, two buses, and 12 hours later we arrived at the mountain town of Sagada. Having been here several months ago, I felt like a local showing a newcomer around. We checked into the rustic Green House Inn with its mountain views, timeworn floorboards, and towering coffee plants before flopping down onto a proper bed. We were exhausted. The old mattress felt like something an angel might nap on.
Sleeping on buses and beds, hanging coffins, and a healthy breakfast
After a short horizontal stint on our respective clouds, we walked over to check out the hanging coffins, a gravity defying burial custom in the mountainous regions of North Luzon, picked up some fresh fruit for breakfast, and grabbed a local chicken and vegetable dinner. Facetiming with our parents in the morning over oatmeal, a colorful dish including avocados, dragon fruit, and bananas, made me realize how much I missed spending time with family. We sipped our pour over coffee and had some laughs before climbing onto the back of a Jeepney from Sagada to Bontoc. Safety be damned. Whipping along the cutback roads while hanging onto the metal roof rack bars and standing on the bumper is a hell of a way to take in the mountain landscape. In neighboring Bontoc we linked up with Roland, our guide and interpreter for our time in Buscalan, who I met on my last trip.
This time, instead of hanging onto the back, we climbed onto the top of the Jeepney and claimed the coveted spot at the front. Sheer cliffs along the road granted us vistas of the river valley as well as the towering mountains rising from it. We chugged along, ever higher until the asphalt abruptly ended underneath the arch of a backhoe arm, where road construction has yet to extend.
Luke pays respect to the timelessly beautiful Whang-Od
Feeling excited to reach our goal, we bounded along the footpath, weighed down only by daypacks with the bare essentials. The Green House Inn in Sagada had generously allowed us to leave the majority of our things in our room without paying for the extra days. Along the way we passed people carrying a large slaughtered pig and bundles of freshly harvested crops from the surrounding terraces. A bit winded but not terribly sweaty thanks to the cool breeze, we arrived to the labyrinth of footpaths through bustling Buscalan. Curious faces peered out of doorways and smiled at us as we made our way through the village. The perimeter wall we walked along to reach our homestay was only two feet wide but dropped off 12 feet to the rice paddy below.
"It would end up taking me multiple trips to different DHL international courier offices to find an unscrupulous employee who didn’t mind shipping weapons abroad but we pulled it off."
After a refreshingly cool “bucket shower” we changed into long pants and hoodies before a simple dinner that we ate cross legged on the floor. Afterwards, we walked down to another homestay to imbibe a few San Miguel Pilsners and goodnaturedly entertain the notion, proposed by the matriarch of the homestay, that we marry into the local But-But tribe. As the sunrise painted the sky behind the jagged silhouettes of the peaks around us, we enjoyed some locally grown coffee before strolling down to Whang-Od’s house. On the way we picked up some fresh tattooing sticks to avoid the rather common sanitary nightmare of being pierced by one of the master’s favorite reused pomelo thorns.
Drinking coffee at our with Roland, Roland's wife and child, rice terrace views, and the tattoos
Two minutes and $1.25 later Luke’s tattoo was done. He was surprised, almost disappointed, it hadn’t taken longer or hurt more. Musing about our new permanent adornments, we picked up a handful of locally crafted knives as Luke’s groomsmen gifts from a blacksmith whose workshop was accessible through a comically small, hobbit-sized door. It would end up taking me multiple trips to different DHL international courier offices to find an unscrupulous employee who didn’t mind shipping weapons abroad but we pulled it off.
When me made it back to Sagada we had dinner at Log Cabin, a restaurant whose architecture, menu, and stone hearth are true to its name. As we waited for our meals to come out, Luke introduced me to a new game, “Hive”, which has the strategic aspects of chess but instead of being confined to a board, the tiles build upon themselves like dominoes. Beginners luck would get me hooked on the game and then subsequently run out, leading to a humbling series of defeats at the hands of my younger brother.
"Recalibrating our expectations to salvage our remaining week together required some mental gymnastics, but we pulled it off."
The next morning kicked off 30 hours of travel from Sagada, North Luzon to El Nido, Palawan. It sucked. When we finally arrived, exhausted and eager to stretch our legs in an island paradise, we were greeted by three, back-to-back, Typhoons. The pictures of El Nido we had been drooling over, complete with turquoise waters, brilliant white beaches, and towering limestone cliffs, clearly hadn’t been snapped during the rainy season. Well, shit. We fucked that one up.
Making the best of a rainy situation
After kicking ourselves for haphazardly booking our flights without so much as glancing at the weather forecast, we accepted our fate. Recalibrating our expectations to salvage our remaining week together required some mental gymnastics, but we pulled it off. To make the best of the situation we got a place right on the beach with a balcony looking out over the lagoon that was far cheaper during the off season. Even during a torrential downpour we could drink coffee under the partially covered deck and watch the storms roll through. Wading through the flooded streets, we hit the gym, played beach soccer in the rain, rode dirt bikes, hiked to a waterfall, watched stranger things, planned Luke’s bachelor party, checked out cool cafes, made friends at the hostel next door, and just kicked it. Getting to hang out together after eight months was just what the doctor ordered.
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