Have I discovered the secret to long life? It seems the people living in this highland village of Buscalan in Kalinga have. It amazes me to see how elders living in the age bracket of 80-90 and above are still nimble, skillful and can still manage to contribute to work. I’m not just talking about the legendary mambatok (traditional tattoo artist) Whang Od (Fang Od), whom we wanted to meet when we went to Buscalan. While I was dumbfounded to find her working under the sun drying out some beans, then carefully carrying those in a small sack at the age of 93-yo, her peers in the village could still run around circles to any sedentary couch-potato in the metro.
From Tinglayan to Buscalan
It was a good idea that we decided to go to Buscalan the day after we arrived at Sleeping Beauty Inn because it would be disastrous to do the 2.5-3 hours hike with lack of sleep. We were with our local guide Francis Pa-in, who in his own right is quite a celebrity here already being featured in several blogs and a resource person from Lonely Planet Philippines. He knows the locals well and their language so it is easy to communicate with them.
We hopped on a jeep bound for Bontoc. The weather was fine and cool, just perfect for the top load experience. We had the best view of the road to Bontoc and I can’t help but be reminded of the rugged ridges of Batanes on this stretch. It took about 40 minutes until we reached the town of Bugnay, a historical town known for it’s brave villagers and birthplace of the tribal chief Macli-ing Dulag who led the charge against Marco’s plans about 4 decades ago to implement the Chico Dams Project, A four single-dam project that was supposed to be the largest in Southeast Asia at that time and generate about 1000mw of electricity but would also devastate the ancestral land leaving villages flooded forcing tribes to resettle. But the Kalinga were fiercely against it and fought the military to protect their ancestral home. Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA) was at the forefront of opposition led by Macli-ing Dulag who unfortunately died at the hands of the military but not before the Kalinga have beheaded a lot of soldiers. The Chico Dam project didn’t push through, the tribes saved their land but has already been tainted by this grim event which led to the reputation of Kalinga as land of the head hunters more known to many.
The initial 30 minutes ascent from the main road of Bugnay was steep and tiring. It was a short-cut but it doesn’t mean it is easy. Good thing the views of the mountains and terraces were spectacular. Then we reached the main road, large enough for vehicles to pass by. This goes on for more than an hour which was easy until we reached the end of the road where only a narrow pathway good enough for a person or two to pass by on the side of the mountain walls, the only trail to take. We could see Buscalan Village high up the opposite side of the mountains but we had to negotiate some steep paved trails and hell-of-a-lot of stairs past rice paddies. There was even a small waterfall before the main stair climb to the village but I was too weary to stay and take a photo. It was a relief when we finally reached Buscalan and immediately it was Fang Od, who stood from her chores to greet us personally.
Overnight at the Village
I am amused with Buscalan Village. With about 126 households and a voting population of 668, I enjoyed the sight of their traditional houses, the native pigs freely roaming around, the locals welcomed our presence and curious kids looking out to us strange visitors. Don’t be surprised if some elder lady adorning a beautiful sleeve of Kalinga tattoo walks past you topless while doing her chore. We stayed at the house of Abu, Fang-Od’s niece, their family, even Fang-Od’s sister’s house are just side by side.
We got a soothing welcome with a warm cup of Kalinga Coffee, it was really goody, nutty and chocolatey and I could still see the grains left on every cup. Abu let us stay in their main bedroom which made us really special because they had to sleep at the kitchen. We dined with them and ate what they usually have for meals while sitting on the floor. We had plenty of brown mountain rice harvested from their fields, lots of beans and even native chicken tinola (chicken stew).
Fang Od’s tattooing is not the only industry to see in the village. We visited some houses where at their silong (usually bottom of the houses serving as a multipurpose area either for work or storage) we saw some people dong steel work. They were making knives and axes, there was this pocket knife with neat rattan grip handle. Then one house caught my eye with this wonderfully lit old man making some brooms. “He’s also 93 years old” says our guide Francis. I couldn’t believe it. Yes I could feel his strength from our handshake and I inspected the intricate patterns he makes on the broom handle.
Simple But Hard Life
Come evening temperature drops a bit and windchil goes up a notch. Even inside the house, barred windows and doors, the interior of Abu’s house was cool enough even without a fan. They don’t have TV here but one of their neighbor does have Cable Satellite. Sometimes they would chip-in for the prepaid cable fee if there’s a special event on TV like a Gilas game or probably a Pacquiao fight. Otherwise they are fond of transistor radios or now some USB MP3 players for some good ‘ol country music. They wanted me to play guitar but it’s been years since I’ve touched one and didn’t bring any piece so I begged off. I just played a game of chess with Abu’s young son, which seems to be a bad idea, it was one of the villages favorite past time and I was easily clobbered after several games that evening.
The people of Buscalan have interesting beliefs as well. Graves of their relatives are buried within their land, shows how close knit family ties are. If you see a male sporting long hair, chances are, his wife may have died since husbands are not allowed to cut their hair for a period of 1 year. Buscalan is a beautiful village but its remoteness can be a challenge for them as well like if one gets sick. The locals actually encourage people to bring more medicine for their village as they have little. As for the secret to their long life? I don’t think their not doing anything special aside from eating healthy organic food, breathing clean air and most especially they get a lot of exercise just going through those numerous stairs!
We recommend you contact Mang Johnny of Riverside Inn to coordinate with guides. You may contact him at 0915.283.7885 or 0917.750.1204.
To go to Buscalan, take a Jeepney bound to Bontoc from Tinglayan (usually around 8am and 1pm and 9am for a bus) and alight at Bugnay, which is about 40 minutes away. Jeppney fare is Php 20/pax
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.