Life Extraordinary: The Butbut of Kalinga

The village of Buscalan is 17 hours from Manila. Although our journey was considerably shorter — 10 hours in all from Baguio via Bontoc, Mountain Province — this did not make the last leg of the ascent, which we trod by foot, any less difficult. On our first trip, this climb took two hours. Subsequent trips cut the travel time by at least half, but we still found ourselves out of breath by the end of it. That is what visiting the village means.

But imagine sacks of rice — two 25-kilogram pieces, to be exact — being hoisted up the same unforgiving slope on a person’s back. Or an LPG tank. Or hollow blocks and sacks of cement.

That is what living in the village means for the members of the Butbut tribe.

Buscalan’s isolation — it is two mountains from the nearest concrete road — means supplies have to be either produced right there or procured manually from the lower-lying areas of the town of Tinglayan, to which Buscalan belongs, and manually carried, piece by piece, up to the village. And just like so many people in communities we have visited in the Philippines, the Butbuts’ adaptability was such that even women could carry an LPG tank on their heads, up the mountain, and into their respective homes.

For them, this walk seems negligible.

Without any cellular reception, Buscalan has little in the way of instant communication with the outside. Post is claimed once a week from the Post Office downhill by a villager, who takes the mail up and distributes them to recipients. Cable TV seems available, but in the numerous times we have stayed in the village, we have yet to see a single TV turned on. Even with the kids, TV didn’t seem too appealing, although we noticed that they do like their candies.

Life is unhurried but not idle; in fact, we would always marvel at how long a single day here can last, how much everybody else seemed to accomplish while having more than enough time for siesta.

Buscalan also has some of the oldest – and most agile — people we have ever met. Some of them are so old nobody—even their family members—seemed to know the exact age anymore. And this is not surprising. The Butbut people grow their own food; there is no pollution to grapple with everyday; their daily activities allow them ample exercise. What else, really, do you need to enjoy a good long life?

Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino Photography / Two2Travel
A Butbut woman walks to her home in Buscalan, Kalinga. Buscalan is surrounded by the Cordillera mountains and rice terraces.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino
Whang-od, the tribe’s 95-year-old tattoo artist, wields a scythe as she weeds out a portion of her farm land to plant beans. It is common for old people like Whang-od to still attend to their farms, located a good distance from their huts.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
A Butbut woman tends to her rice crops just before the harvest season.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino
Bundles of rice are dried outside following the harvest in July.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
A Butbut woman sifts through rice before cooking.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Whang-od cooks rice over wood fire on a crude stove in her kitchen. Although the kitchen is equipped with a gas stove, Whang-od prefers cooking this way.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
A Butbut woman manually weeds out bad beans for the day’s lunch.

Hands of Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino
Whang-od bundles corn from this season’s harvest. An agricultural community, Buscalan is surrounded by farm lands terraced from mountain slopes, where villagers plant rice, root crops, and vegetables.

Buscalan, Kalinga
Whang-od peels yam for boiling. Unable to chew because all her teeth have fallen off, she resorts to soft, boiled food instead.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino
Butbut kids in elementary level slice vegetables for a school competition to end the Nutrition Month. Diet in the village usually comprises vegetables and rice, and kids are taught from a young age how to cook.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino

Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino Photography / Two2Travel
A family shares a meal on the floor of their kitchen.

Kids of Buscalan munch on sugar cane, their equivalent of candy.
Local kids nibble on strips of sugar cane, their equivalent of candy.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Whang-od feeds her pigs outside her home in Buscalan. Pigs play a central role in village life. Families grow and then sell them to other villagers, who may need it for special ceremonies or gatherings.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
A Butbut woman starts the ascent to her village while balancing her load on top of her head. Local people can get to the village in as little as 15 minutes.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Apo Baydon, foreground, is believed to be over a century old and is Buscalan’s oldest living person. He still makes brooms and small scythes, and does not look over 80.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino
A Butbut tribeswoman carries newly laundered clothes from downstream — where she did her laundry — all the way up to the village, which takes about 20 minutes along very steep slopes.

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Photos by Owen and Nikka

Coffee and Community: Photos from Buscalan, Kalinga

Coffee is free in Buscalan.

It is served about three times a day, sometimes more. When there’s nothing else to do, when there’s just too much going on, when there are visitors to welcome, early in the morning, before going to bed — there are never too many excuses to have a steaming vat of Kalinga brew, served black and piping hot.

And if its coffee is any indication, Buscalan is a place for strangers to feel right at home.

Kalinga Coffee
Kalinga is a coffee producer. Ground to a talcum consistency, coffee is cooked with brown sugar and is served black.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Kids gather around a man playing a local song on the guitar. There is only one guitar in the entire village, and its sound usually draws children to wherever it is played.

Buscalan, Kalinga /
Locals simply call this game chess, although it is played with dice.

Village children wash dishes at communal washing areas placed in between houses. Households do not have individual water systems.
Kids wash dirty dishes at communal water sources scattered throughout the village. Households in Buscalan do not have individual water pipe lines, but supply is plentiful as it comes from a nearby waterfall.

Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Villagers haul food and cooking implements along rice terraces for a picnic.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Men butcher a small pig by the river. In so-called picnics such as this, everyone who participates makes a contribution, either in kind or through labor.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Men cleave the pig’s body for cooking. Some parts are grilled, others boiled. The head was especially reserved for Whang-od, the tribe’s tattoo artist many tourists come to Buscalan for.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Portions of the cooked pig are evenly distributed to everyone who is present.

Buscalan, Kalinga /

Buscalan, Kalinga /
Students line up for a prayer at the start of a school program. The village has school buildings for elementary kids, but these are in dire need of instructional materials.

Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino Photography / Two2Travel
Small kids race to the top of a small wall in the village. Playtime often looks like this in Buscalan.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Kids play the flute in front of a guest house while other kids look on. Impromptu performances like this draw the attention of villagers.

Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino Photography / Two2Travel
Villagers gather around after dinner, like they usually do with or without electricity.

Buscalan, Kalinga /

Buscalan, Kalinga /

Buscalan, Kalinga /

Buscalan, Kalinga /

Photos by Owen and Nikka

Kannao

Kannao - Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel

Beans and rice — that was our first square meal the day we arrived in Buscalan, a tiny village in Kalinga. It was offered to us by Kannao, the 70-year-old sister of Whang-od, Kalinga’s famous mambabatok.

We met Kannao just as she was making her way up the ladder to her hut, plastic plate on one hand. We had just deposited our bags in the house where we were staying and knew nobody in the village. Our guide made the introductions, and she smiled and motioned us to come up, speaking in the Butbut language we did not understand.

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

Kannao’s house stands on a mix of wooden and cemented stilts, underneath which were several native pigs. Inside were a clay stove, a table for pots and plates, and not much more.

She was wearing a polo shirt and animal print pants that clung to her thin frame like a tattoo. But these were nothing compared to what she had on her arms: both of them were covered in the familiar dark patterns of traditional Kalinga scars: snakeskin, ladder, and rice fields, from the wrist all the way up. She had another on her collar too—a beautiful, thick band of even more snakeskin and rice fields, curving from one shoulder to the next.

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

Kannao - Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel

Kannao - Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel

Although we couldn’t stop staring at the tattoos, we tried to make conversation. She kept smiling, nodding, and talking, but we did not understand anything she was saying.

Finally, we attempted the only thing left that can help us understand one another. We spoke in Ilocano, telling her we are from Baguio.

It worked.

Well, sort of. It turns out, Kannao—and most of the other tribespeople—understood Ilocano quite well. Turns out we wouldn’t have to make do with feeble sign language after all.

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

She sat on the floor right next to the stove, picked up a thin iron rod, poked the cinders, and started tracing the base of the plastic plate with the end of the rod. She seemed to have been working on this before we arrived, because a rough letter K already shone on the green plastic, and she was halfway through what looked like the letter A. She was writing her name on the plate ‘so nobody will get it,’ she laughed.

Kannao - Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel

People would regularly pass by her hut and they would converse in the Butbut tongue. I tried making out anything that resembled Ilocano, but it still sounded too strange. It was already noon, and we could hear the chatter of more and more people next-door—the house of Kannao’s daughter, Abuk, the mother of 18-year-old Grace. This is where Whang-od usually tattoos visitors, and the day’s sessions will most likely be starting soon.

Buscalan, Kalinga - Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

‘Mangan,’ she told us (‘mangan’ is Ilocano for ‘eat’). Owen and I didn’t really know what to say. We didn’t want to bother her, but we were famished since we haven’t had anything else the whole day apart from water and coffee.

She didn’t wait for a response and busied herself with the plates. Soon a bowl of what looked like beans in clear soup and more rice than we can eat were on the floor in front of us. We thanked her and dug in. The beans, which, despite looking plain and pale, were actually quite excellent. We ended up finishing everything rather shamelessly (and over the next few days, Owen and I would be eating more than our usual intake, thanks to their family’s excellent cooking).

Buscalan, Kalinga - Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel

We would talk about her tattoos and her sister a bit later. “Whang-od is not pretty because she has a small nose,” she joked. When I asked her what she thought of my tattoos, she shook her head and told me they were pangit. She then pointed to those on her arms. ‘Napintas,’ she smiled (napintas is Ilocano for ‘beautiful’).

In the days of her youth, Butbut women had tattoos done because they believed these made them more attractive to suitors. It was rather different for the men, who had to earn theirs from victories in battle.

I asked Kannao how much she had to pay for them. She raised two fingers: two pesos for each sleeve. Each sleeve took one day to finish.

Kannao - Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel

She looked at the photos of her we had taken all that time, but mostly she would just shake her head and tell us she looked ugly in them. We insisted on the opposite, even offering to give her copies when we return, but she wouldn’t hear any of it.

Buscalan, Kalinga - Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

The day before we left—our fifth day in Buscalan—we decided it was time for a tattoo. Later that day, after returning from her farm duties, she asked to see my forearm, where Whang-od has tattooed two jagged lines of the karayan (river), representing constant movement.

’Napintas,’ she smiled.

A little later that same day, while we were sitting on the steps to her hut watching Whang-od tattoo more visitors, she asked us to take a picture of her and Hunter, the family’s dog, who was then nursing a bad cut on one of his paws.

We did, and she smiled a smile for the camera we have been waiting for since we arrived.

She looked at the photos, laughed, and told us to bring a copy when we come back.

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

Kannao, Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

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 Words by Nikka, Photos by Owen and Nikka