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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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).
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.
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.
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.