We all thought it rained throughout the night. That's what happens when you stay at a lovely inn right beside the river. After a few hours of refreshing sleep, it was time to go on our way to finally meet Fang-Od. We bid the ladies of the Sleeping Beauty Inn goodbye and said thank you to the gracious owner, the town mayor, who in return sent us his well-wishes.

Our guide, Francis, hailed a jeep to take us to Bugnay, the jump-off point to Buscalan. Thirty minutes later, we stood in the middle of the town with the lying-in clinic to the left and the trail to Buscalan on the right.

It was a leisurely trek from Bugnay to Buscalan, with the views of Mt. Patukan (aka Sleeping Beauty) and the Chico river keeping us company. Francis entertained us with stories of the Kalinga culture and belted out to a few country songs for an added flair. We spotted several water falls on the mountain sides which I thought were probably nameless, so I took the liberty of naming the largest falls I saw as Ruby falls. No-brainer 'no?

By the time we walked along the rice terraces and saw people harvesting the grains, we knew we were nearing the village. It took us two hours to reach Buscalan, picture-taking and slacking included.

The moment we step foot on the other side of the fence, we were greeted by the people who were seating on the silong for some midday snacks. As it turned out, we were just in time to watch Fang-od and Grace tattooing 2 guests from Manila.

Imagine our astonished faces when we saw the art of traditional tattooing.

For a 92-year old woman, Fang-od has the eyes of a pilot. Her lines were straight and precise. First she draws the pattern using a stick dipped in a mixture of soot and water, then she takes a pomelo thorn, uses it like a nail, and starts hammering away.

Pomelo thorn transforms into a needle
Fang-Od hammering away

I came to Buscalan thinking that I was game enough to have myself inked, but seeing the blood dripping on the girl's arm and the dazed look on her face, I had to think twice. Did I mention that she already has several machine-made tattoos on her body? And despite of that she said that the traditional tattoo hurt even more? Her words were, "Parang injection ng maraming beses." Uh-oh. But I knew that if ever I was going to get myself a tattoo, it has to be really significant to me and it has to be made by someone like Fang-od. Never mind the pain.

The problem was: I tried my best to come up with something that means so much to me that I would actually want to put it in my body permanently, but unfortunately, I could not think of any. And so did my friends. You should have seen our designs of curly Qs and dots.

Francis was convincing us to get a small tattoo, but when he realized that not anyone from us is willing to have one, he quickly decided to have his Sleeping Beauty tattoo retouched! Not only that, he asked us to redraw his chest tattoo.

The retouch expert
Fang-od doing her magic on Francis

I don't think Francis will forget us, the group who actually made his Sleeping Beauty chest tattoo look like the mountain it was named after!

After the session, Fang-Od was still convincing us to get a tattoo so we girls could get married real soon. It would have been believable if Fang-od herself was married, but she never tied the knot. We joked that she must have not married because she had a hard time choosing. With her body covered in tattoos, she must have had men at her beck and call!

The best part of the trip? Staying at her house and spending the night with her family.

She does not speak Tagalog and Francis translated for us, but one look in her eyes and I could see a happy, wise woman with a hint of mischief. 😉 She is strong for a 92-year-old, walking around her house not needing any assistance from her family. She is the embodiment of aging gracefully. She might have the lines of her age showing on her face but no amount of anti-aging cream can give off the same glow.

Photos by Aaron Manila.

To meet the last tattoo artist Fang-od in the village of Buscalan, one has to board a bus to Tabuk for 12 hours, and take a 3-hr ride from Tabuk to Tinglayan.

There are regular trips from Tabuk to Tinglayan at 7 and 8 in the morning, but since misadventures seem to love us, we missed both trips. At 10AM, we stood at the jeepney stop waiting for any form of transportation. I asked around if there were jeeps stopping by anytime soon but I was just advised to sit and wait. And so we did.

Luckily, thirty minutes later, a jeep stopped in front of us, the driver asked the people where they were headed, and finally, he nodded and decided to go to Tinglayan. On the way to Tinglayan we were greeted with sweeping views of the mountains with the endless flow of the Chico River at its feet. The jeep went further upstream for 3 hours.
Chico River

Kalinga Tribes

It was late in the afternoon when the jeepney pulled to a stop and told us that we were finally at Sleeping Beauty Inn. Francis Pa-in, our guide, came out to meet us and ushered us in for a late lunch.

While waiting for lunch, Francis, who by the way is one of the few guides in Kalinga, pulled out a map and drew our game plan. My heart sank when I realized we would not be able to fit everything in. There were several things that we could experience and visiting the different Kalinga tribes alone could take 2-3 days, and taking a dip at the Palan-ah Falls and hot spring would take half a day. Sadly, we had to choose our battles.

I roamed around the place and was puzzled by the fact that nearby stores also had Sleeping Beauty in their signage. Why is this town so hooked with Sleeping Beauty? Turns out, I didn't get to research the fact that the mountain right behind us in the photo was named after the Disney princess. See how the ridges look like a side view of lady lying on her back? 

The town center is smaller than that of Sagada, and only a few houses offered lodging. I think I only spotted two and one of those was Sleeping Beauty Inn, owned by the town mayor (who also owned Sleeping Beauty Restaurant and Sleeping Beauty Grocery, because tough guys dig Disney princesses!). We chose the inn because of its nice location, right smack in a piece of land in the middle of the river. If ever you have fears of crossing hanging bridges like my friend Lea below, you will probably get over it by the time you leave Kalinga. There were no other guests that day so we had the whole house to ourselves.

Sleeping Beauty Inn
Another noticeable thing about this Sleeping Beauty town is that pigs rule the streets. Pigs were roaming around walking like your usual askals. There were more pigs in the streets than dogs. Tinglayan was Babe territory. We were still fascinated about this fact until the day we left that we already thought of a name for them... babkals (no surprise). What's more fascinating is that the native pigs that all look the same can all find their way home. Francis said there's no trouble with the similar-looking pigs since the owners know their pets and the pigs know their owners. Must be love!

We own the streets!
Cozying up for warmth

Since it was late in the afternoon and it was drizzling, we asked Francis to take us around the small town. From one hanging bridge to the next, we made our way to the village of Old Tinglayan donning our rain gear. After 20 minutes, we found the marker for the village. There we met our first tattooed Kalinga woman.

Meet Tu-yo. A woman who when asked about her age would say that she does not know because she did not learn to count. She was cooking for dinner when we came and her daughter and grandchildren also came out to meet us. We sat with her at the kitchen and talked with her for a while, with the help of Francis who was translating for us. She was the first person to urge us ladies to get a tattoo so we could get married. Fact: In the olden times, men of the tribes found ink-decorated women attractive.

What we saw in Old Tinglayan was a primer of what we were about to experience up in the village of Buscalan. We left Old Tinglayan before the sun set and slowly made our way back to the town center. It was still raining and it was starting to get cold so we gladly accepted Francis' invitation of coffee followed by a few shots of Tanduay and Coke to warm up the night. He regaled us with his stories of more than 10 years of guiding guests in the province of Kalinga.

After a couple of rounds, we called it a night. We brought our headlamps out and crossed the hanging bridge for the nth time.

The next day was a big one. Time to finally meet the famed mambabatok.

How to Get to Tinglayan:
1. Board a bus to Tabuk. (via Victory Liner in Kamias)
2. From Tabuk, ride a bus or jeepney bound to Tinglayan or Bontoc.

Francis Pa-in- Kalinga Guide- Contact him at 0915.769.0843

**Superb photos by Aaron Arvin Manila.
There is absolutely nothing that could go wrong with a 12-hour bus ride. Or so I thought.
Earlier this year I took a smooth 13-hour bus ride to Tuguegarao. I boarded the bus and slept all the hours away. This time around, it was a different story.
It all started with a plan to go to Kalinga with a new friend we've met at Batad. I called Victory Liner a day prior to the long weekend and the representative said that there were plenty of seats in all four trips to Tabuk. For the life of me, I don't know what prompted me to think that pretty sure there will be seats for four. Tabuk is just too far for a 4-day weekend, right?

So there we were. 8PM on a Friday night. Four people standing at Victory Liner Kamias Terminal begging for seats along with a hundred more chance passengers bound to Tabuk.

Most looked like they were seeing their families and they deserved a seat on the bus more than we did. I wanted to kick myself for not getting our tickets. I was racking my brains for Plans Bs. Cross the street to JAM Liner, ride a bus to Batangas and take a ferry to Romblon? Or to Puerto Galera and party all the 4-days away? Or why not go home and try again the next day? 

None of the Plan Bs worked for us. Not when you have an American who flew all the way from Cebu (technically from Minnesota) just to be in the mountains of North Luzon. Besides, what will she do with Puerto Galera's White Beach when she has seen some of the best beaches down south? This time I was sure that I really messed up. What have I done? 

Lesson #1: Always buy tickets in advance. Never, ever assume that they can always squeeze you in. Remember that there are no aisle seats in provincial buses. 

We stood there with long faces while we waved goodbye to the third bus. The last bus pulled up in front of us. It was our only hope. I was grateful that we had a foreigner with us who told people that she really wanted to see the mountains and the rice terraces. In a country where everyone can suddenly turn into a tour guide, it was definitely a good idea to work on. Plus it's not everyday that you see a foreigner pleading for a seat on a bus to Tabuk.

Lesson #2: When stuck in a situation like this, remember that the bus conductor is king. You can plead all you want with the ticketing personnel, the security guard, or any one who looks powerful enough to squeeze you in but at the end, the bus conductor gets to decide. Appeal to the conductor's compassionate heart early on!

And the bus conductor happened to be Mr. Tourism himself. He was nice and we felt that he really wanted to get the foreigner and her companions in the bus so she could tell her friends how lovely our country is. Finally, he called the four of us in. The "It's more fun in the Philippines!" ploy worked.

And just when I thought things were looking up for us, there's a catch.

There were no more seats. We can ride the bus we had to figure out how to spend the next 12 hours without a seat. We were so desperate we agreed to sort ourselves out on the floor. I was dismayed but half of me was laughing at the humor of things.. how often do you get to sit on the bus floor? For possibly 12 hours?

Lesson #3: If you really want to get to your destination bad enough, you'll never know what you can give in exchange for that. Like taking the floor seat. The point is, give in!

Photo from here

I wanted to smack myself for not planning the trip well, leaving everything to chance. For hours we were sitting on our bags on the floor. Our foreigner friend even curled up on the floor sometime during the night. I would have warned her about the crawling insects but she slept like a baby. We spent eight hours on the floor, trying hard to get some sleep, leaning our heads on someone else's armrest, and trying to keep ourselves warm. It's specially colder and a lot bumpier when you're sitting on the floor. The passengers were nice to us, lending us their luggage to lean on. It was  dawn before finally, some passengers started to get off the bus.

Lesson #4: Prepare to bundle up for the bus weather (that's the third season BTW). And if you plan to take some floor seat, layer up. Even Westerners don't get our relationship with air condition. Why does it have to be always turned ON, full blast?

Finally, seats! They felt like bum-heaven. I hurriedly caught on my sleep.

I woke up a couple of hours later to a sweeping view of Kalinga. Less than fifteen people were left on the bus. A lady was kind enough to assist us in finding Bayle's Supermart in Bulanao, Tabuk.

We were set to ride a jeepney to Tinglayan at 8AM, but since we did not catch the 7PM bus, we arrived in Tabuk at 9:30AM. We had to again try our luck in catching a jeep to Tinglayan. Forunately, a jeepney came by around 10:30 in the morning.

Before leaving for Tinglayan, we booked our tickets going back to Manila. I don't think we can ever risk the floor meeting our tushies again.

Lesson #5: Learn from your booboos. There is always time for your.. first time. 

A few hours and a 3-hr jeepney ride later, when we finally reached our destination, the whole unfortunate bus scenario was simply tucked into our minds. We all deserve the bragging rights for being the only person we know to take the elite floor seats.. for eight hours.

What's your bus horror story?

Photos by Aaron Arvin Manila