Off to the province. On my way to the Outlaws, up north, to a indigenous landlocked province of the Kalinga tribes. I made my way to the busstation exactly on point, jumped out of the taxi, stucked in an endless emerging traffic jam on a friday evening in Manila, ran the last half a mile, lightly packed, to the bus terminal, putting some keen efforts, rising from the awakening explorer, in this trip, which from the start felt like a path of enlightment. Not that spiritual purifying I-need-to-believe missions, cross-coat, whatever. – A root-coat, to my roots, to the forefront of the top of the variety brushes, dipping in a peaceful silence into the darkest deep of the color palette, baring my self-portrait. I felt, struggling with the necessity to sleep, squeezed between the window, a snoring filipino and the AC above – never get used of these night trips, but anyway, I felt a gratefulness, to be on my way to a changing experience, a palm-read foreseeing, just without palms and the reader. Arrived in Tabuk, the capital of Luzon for sunrise. Dropped off, exhausted of my efforts to sleep. Freezing. Not even a dog was barking or towing its lazy coat across the street. Couple of minutes later a bus arrived with a plate at the front screen, Bugnay. I heard this name before. I was searching for my notebook, my personalized travel guide, best one. – My bus! Two hours later, packing the bus with people and goods like chickens or wasted bums returning to their home in the countryside. Of course one of the guys seated next to me, started questioning, leaning over me to the opened window of the creaky bus frequently to spit out Momma. Haven´t seen it in Manila, because it is forbidden to spit on the streets, not like in Myanmar, but here, even if it is against the law as well, but less controlled – fee is 500 pesos, I saw some men chewing. Filipinos mostly don´t wrap it in front, they take a bite of the nut and plug the leave and the hydrated lime in the corner of their mouth and start to paint the streets red. “Where you go?” “To Buscalan.” “Where?” He is asking the other locals around us, listening curious. They discuss some ideas and point north, south, wherever west here is. I suppose they speak in Tagalog, a sort of weird but welcoming language, mixed up with english expressions. But I could be wrong, on the Philippines there are some 150 languages, but with english you are best prepared, some 90 years old speaking more proper than me. Following their discussion I add, “Kalinga, you know Kalinga tribes?” Solved, nodding heads, some of them turn around, seemed to loosing their interest. “Kalinga, hm, not good, far away and people are…”, gesturing, they are mad. “I like mad people, like you.” No comment, no laugh. Bad joke. So I had all my senses to enjoy the ride, curving uphill in serpentines, passing small communities, living next to the road, selling food, herbs and tools for agriculture. Passing steep and difficult passages, affected by landslides, especially during Typhoon season. I am not sure how high this road crawls up, 1.500, 2.000, nobody on the bus could tell me, but I have never seen such a beauty of nature before. Hills as wide and long you can see. Built into the hillside hundreds, thousands of terraces to grow vegetables and rice, colouring the bright green of the valleys, streamed by cracking rivers. The feeling of a changing experience freaks my whole awareness. The bus trip took nearly 5 hours, consistently fighting for a smooth seat on this bouncing skyway tickling the clouds. Time for lunch, ate a roasted bird with rice and a bowl of soup, best asian dish since weeks, for less than a dollar. – In some areas I stopped to ask for a vegetarian dish. I eat and enjoy the simplicity and freshness of the regional cuisine. 30 minutes later I was told to hop off, at Bugnay, in company with a lady, who was presented as my guide, to bring me up tho Buscalan. Telling them that I don´t need a guide was too late though and she was too friendly to discuss about her or more my appearance. “We wait here for transport to the gate of Buscalan.” And we had a Gatorade and talked. This was the first time that the name “Johnny” popped up. “Do you know Johnny?” “You mean the guy from Switzerland? Yes, I met him in Manila.” A bit of a mistake, turning myself into a mobile information desk. We shall return later to it.
After a ride with a jeepney, less than an one hour a trekk up and downhill, passing a crew of kids, mostly boys, with long, no, huge machetes, cutting bamboo like cutting paper, now, staring at me, but not in a very interested way, sort of used of visiting strangers, recognizing some tattoos on the their wrists, a dot and a squared bracket, I arrived. At the gate of the village an elder welcomed me,, with a smile and a rifle in his hand. One of the first houses is adored by a sign, Tattoo Art Whang, adored by a skull of a buffalo head. I heard straight away the tapping – tak-tak-tak-tak. Some white and filipino tourists surrounded her, sitting on a tiny wooden bench, working on a woman´s neck. The first thought crossed my mind was, “She is soooo cute and in an overwhelming way charismatic.” I felt in love with her, from the first eye contact, which was as short as a tap. And I was not even a second of my arrival involved in a conversation, a pleasant one, with some guys, with whom I will spend my next days here. Even though my behaviour was ignorant. But before I had the possibilty to introduce myself to Whang-Od in a descent way, a 95 years old lady, probably one of the oldest tattoo artists in the world and one of the last practicing the old school way, the Kalinga way, decorating men and women, in the former days warriors and headhunters and their families with coded signs – today more or less only tourist I suppose, my bag was already in their sleeping room. I was invited to stay at her house, just me. Less because of me, more to earn a bit money, for sure. But I felt so honored, even still aware of this. Stay at my loved ones house, I mean, what else can you expect, after ten minutes of your arrival. I was so stunned by stepping into this world, on muddy rough ground, shaken by chickens, dogs, pigs and the rhythm of Whang-Od´s art, that I can barely remember how stupid I must have looked like, straight investigated by tourists and tribe members, in particular because of my tattooed head, always trying to pick Whang-Od up, watching her, her work and her energetic appearance. I reached another edge of my world, of my understanding, of my perception and concept, realizing, edges don´t mean to protect, prevent or isolate, but they release a view on a more inner horizon, dissecting your believes, the seed of your inspiration. And this all just happened in less than 24 hours. And I knew I will extend my stay here.
Whang-Od was tapping. I decided to have a night of sleep first after crumbling my arse off on buses for about 15 hours. Being just arrived and haven´t seen more than a corner yet, I felt not to join the audience, bunch of posh kids from Manila, local artists, tribe members, following still her work perceptual, and other visiting bums, on their search for roots and self-awareness, expats escaping the metropolitan state of mind, breathing some coal and green, which grows and covers here exactly everything. So I took a walk to explore a bit the village and to find my guide, questioning villagers, without a name a pretty stupid and embarrassing plan. “Describe her.” – “Oh, so, dark hair, looks like filipino –” The women around me start to laugh. I will discover later and more and more they share a beautiful sense of humor, sarcastic, playing games to show others up, but never in a selfish and boasting way, as entertainment and to learn from each other more matches-games, which are very popular and I would always love to burn this heads up before telling me the challenge, driving me furious – note for the next visit, bring a book along. 700 plus inhabitants counts this village, during dry season flooded with visitors, for one or two days mostly to get a tattoo from Whang-Od, enjoy the freedom of consumption and walk away, feeling like a warrior – actually tribeless, never arrived here, I experienced by watching them and investigating the wall of pictures in the sleeping room. “What is your name?” “Florian.” “Hello Florian. You know Johnny?” The fact, that I know Johnny already worked a circuit.
I would love to freeze the village for a walk-through to shoot each and ever corner and wrinkle. It arises to me like a perfect body you want to touch with all your senses and strength to rest in weakness and balance. Everything seems to be there for a reason. A symbosis of form and function. No plastic. No redundancy. No wasted consumption. Only the pigs are rampaging sometimes but constantly through. Photographing for me here feels wrong, violating and humiliating, disrespecting their hospitality. I don´t even know their names, their life stories, their past, how could I dare to shoot them straight in their faces. I don´t speak their language. I would rather give them my camera to explore the neutral perspective on their daily life. Even I have to admit it is a tough challenge. I starve to portrait every member, from the youngest to the eldest, two months to 102 years old. The older generations had in average about 4 kids, today because of economic reasons, meaning poverty, around two. They get married with around twenty, at the church, donated by koreans, like the main cement pathways guiding through the labyrinth of the infrastructure of the village, randomly interrupted by huge grounding gravestones, where the dead are burried, in an embryo position. The houses are sometimes not a shoulder wide from each other, enough for passing or to open your legs and let the rampaging pigs do their work. It´s not harmony or romantic. But it´s perfect. Each pottery, every crafted chair, fireplace, pigsty, skull, jewellery, handcraft, doorstep, wooden plank, window, unclosing another world of beauty, all the alleys, every shadow of existence. This is an existing utopia! I love this village from the very first. I found a tribe, who teaches me lessons, still. I feel honoured and blessed to be their guest. They live nowadays in peace. The period of the headhunting during tribal wars is history. A microcosm, which wants to live in peace. Isolated. But with enough to be in touch with the outside world. Some families have since not more than a couple of years a TV. Electricity, if I remember correctly, since around 8 years. I would love to install a tremendous red M, contoured in yellow, at the hill straight opposite. This is the strongest contrast I can think about, even if it is a stupid idea. They would wisely never risk the walls of their tribe by painting its walls with blood, even though they do it already with Momma, extensively.
So I was browsing around, chatting with a blacksmith – “Wow, you got a long machete!” “To kill you.” – found my guide, still alive, paid her off and running constantly into the same question, “Do you know Johnny?” I would never mention this here, because I consider also Johnny as a friend, even if I don´t know him for a long time, but it was such a strong impact for the tribe and him, so even if this questioning was bothering me a lot during my stay, dealing with the legacy of Johnny, a guy I met in Manila on his last day, who actually told me about this place, so without him, without his experience I would never have ended up here, in this green kaleidoscoping beauty of a community. I accepted it thu as my duty to fix the story, to narrate the end of Ed´s story, a happy end basically, for him and relief for the tribe. – So what the fuck happend? I won´t tell his story and not in general or coded, which I mostly do, to remind myself. The tribe, Johnny and me won´t forget the story, caused, created by what I would call a panic attack at a very wrong place. I won´t tell the story, because it just touched me, but guided me up here. It is not my task to judge, nobody should accuse anyone. Shit happens, sometimes a big hill of shit. And to reflect, the vitalization of the trigger and its source, which had an heavy influence on the tribe´s daily life and spiritual world till now, until my arrival, this is not the purpose of my story. But to present the tribe a possible explanation, which cut the strings of the trauma. And on the other hand it showed me how sensible and caring they are, worrying and keen. Gosh! They did it again, moving me to tears. Faces are crossing my mind. Smiling. Spitting Momma. Red teeths. Men on their way to work, armed with axes and machetes. Rice. Vegetables. And green, lots of other green. Tattooed elders. No teeths at all. Sitting on the balcony of their tiny wooden houses, combing their grey streaked long hair. Whang-Od carrying a two years old kid on her back, steps up and down. Kids everywhere, playing, yelling, preparing for school in the morning. More babys bounded on backs, for hours, sleeping, resting, watching. Me, sitting under the wooden floor of the neighbours house, being baptized by their youngest, peeing on my shoulders through the plank´s rips. Elders, men or women, pregnant or not, pounding rice, smashing with thick, long and heavy wooden sticks. Salting pork meat – never ate such a delicious meat, next to the fire place, where they prepare the food. It´s a come and go. I mostly placed myself at a corner next to, standing on the sidelines. Neighbours, relatives, members – however they call each other, sticking together like coal and iron, bringing food, staying for food, joining the family, chatting, watching TV. No fences, no walls, only the tribe, the community, the strategy for survival. Whang-Od her knees drawn-up, like a indigenious statue, laughing, pointing at me, motivating to look at what just happened in the movie “The Lone Ranger”. I laugh out loud, from the deep deep bottom of my heart, would love to hug her.
On the third day, it was a rainy day, forerunner of the first typhoon, its tail hitting the north of the Philippines. Alert level 3. No school. Men are resting in a sort of unexcitedly silence under a porch, playing chess, the women sitting couple of corners away, maintaining normal bodily hygiene and trying to marry their daughters off to passing by foreigners, giggling, all together, till, “Ah you know Johnny?” – replay. “No kissing before you are married. No child if you are not married.” I was told by the elders, the younger ones lifting their eyebrows, receiving nasty looks from the elders. Kids are playing a game, I forgot the name – like so many names and terms and phrases and – what a shame my memory is, with pressed to coins crown caps, which rules I was not able to identify. Whang-Od was tired. She tattooed in the last 2 days more than 10 visitors. She was shooted and filmed probably over a 100 times. In her eyes, I dare to claim, is a deep emptiness and exhaustion, gaze of a wanderer, a pitch black coal chamber of a warrior woman, on her path, leaving this life. Only when she laughs, which happens very rare, through endless penetration, encounters of the past, she enlightens again, inflames her surrounding, scattering starry-eyed spears, flames of a craven´s fortune. When I asked her if I can take a picture, it felt like I stinged through with the lense, no reflection, no echo. I felt sorry. “No no, ok, no problem, go ahead.” I didn´t know how to react, not shooting would possibly mean I don´t like to shoot her, shooting her disrespecting her privacy, which obviously is not a matter here, but in her chamber, for me, invading. So I stopped and explained. They understood more than I expected. When she will descend, only her niece will be left, to fullfill the legacy. Her own daughter died at the age of 25. And a village fearing les visitors, foreigners and filipinos, taking the long way from Manila mostly to Buscalan. With Whang-Od not only a branch of the tribe´s bloodline will set to black, also a commercial sector will break.
I didn´t sleep the second night at all, not because of the wooden floor and the not even nailthick straw mattress, which treated my back in a kind of uncomfortable way – note, next time, bring a hammock, or the short blanket, not because of the fact, that there was a proper bed with a common mattress, not on step from my sleeping place away, with a snoring aunt in it, not because of the squeaking and gurgling, fucking piggish pigs straight under me, not really because of my pumping lower leg, trying to handle the penetrated coaled burned flesh, but because of all this, in my head and in my heart. I feel like I arrived after more than 18 months on the road. I know where I will arrive when I leave Europe again next year. There is so much to tell more. I didn´t even know where to start. I left the village after 3 days, on the fifth. Crying at the inside. Couldn´t hide my sadness. Got teary-eyed. Left with the kids in the early morning, lovely walk, distracting… Bugnay. Bontoc. Baguio. Manila.
One of the most intense moments was, when Whang-Od saw herself for the first time on TV. Eight years ago a team of Discovery Channel went up to Buscalan and filmed for a couple of days – “The Tattoo Hunter”, bit pimped of course, but worth seeing though. Watching her, watching the TV show, which made her famous around the globe, was one of the most precious moments I ever experienced.
And, trying to pitch a woman of the tribe to me, “She has a body like a Coca Cola bottle.” – “As far as she doesn´t look like a can.” Roaring laughter.
Got teary-eyed, again.
Thank you, you nasty tribe, thank you for teaching me a lesson. I will be back, teach you a lesson – not with empty hands.
In deepest respect and love.
I could write about me and my feelings hours more, but it´s like with the photography… I found a place I´d love to call a home.