Grace: The heir of the last mambabatok

Grace at the souvenir shop

Grace literally discontinued her tattoo sessions yesterday. Though many customers, like us, were waiting. She needed to do something more important—rest and feed the giant. And “…will need to feed the giant” were the words that awoke me early today. I even got up earlier than my alarm. So early the rooster hadn’t even announced the new day yet, or maybe they just don’t have a rooster here in Buscalan.

The other members of our tour group were probably still asleep. I checked my phone for the time: It was just 4 o’clock. I was 30 minutes ahead of my set alarm, so I closed my eyes once more.

My wife’s face was not more than an inch away from mine. Her breath gently brushed my cheeks. I stared at her face, trying to trace with every slide of my eyes the features I could easily recognize, though only slivers of light shone on them. It was cold, so I hugged and kissed her. It is always satisfying to sleep and wake up beside the one you love, though that sounds cliché.

The alarm rang. I knew I needed to get up and prepare. Grace starts tattooing at 8 o’clock. Surely, by that time, her nipa hut will be filled with people, so we needed to get there earlier.

When I went to the kitchen, which was adjacent to the common area where we slept, our host was preparing coffee. The smell of burnt rice and coffee beans seemed to elevate my consciousness. It was as if I was in a trance. That state of mind drove me back to the Banaue Rice Terraces we visited yesterday.

Our host smiled at me. I asked her if the bathroom was occupied and she said no. She added that I was the only one awake. I answered her in my mind. I needed to, so that I could get a slot for a tattoo session with Grace, Apo Whang Od’s grand-niece and the venerable tattoo artist’s heir to the ancient tradition. I went to take a bath and left our host while she waited for the coffee to brew fully.

The water was freezing cold, but it was not an unpleasant kind of cold. It was bracing, though it took a while for me to get accustomed to it. Looking around the bathroom, I was uncertain of what to feel. In this village of the Last Mambabatok, everything had become modernized. I didn’t know if I should be happy about that.

I remember when we were registering yesterday morning. Our friends from Germany, Jeanette and Denis, easily got into the village after filling a form from the local tourism office. I felt nostalgic, because before Buscalan became a tourist attraction, a ritual was required to decide whether a person was to be allowed to enter the village or not.

The ritual goes like this: A pig will be slaughtered and Apo Whang Od will check its liver. If her assessment of the liver is that it is a healthy organ (or as healthy as a freshly dead pig’s liver can be), the visitor would be allowed to stay. If not, even if the visitor traveled from across the globe, he or she would have to leave right away, because the mambabatok has read a bad omen for the tribe.

Jeanette Spadafina (foreground) at the registration of Buscalan with Engr. Sharlyn Base Borja (background)

As for the tattoo, because the Tribe of Butbot used to practice headhunting in their area, a person will need to earn a tattoo before getting any ink from the mambabatok.

Now everything has changed, aside from the pain that you feel every time a pomelo thorn hits your skin and pushes the charcoal into your dermis, which is how the tattooing is done. The pain, according to Apo Whang Od, is the same reason why there are people in her tribe who sport unfinished tattoos.

After I took a bath, most of the other participants were already awake. They said they also wanted to go to Grace early, so that they can get inked and just have the signature three dots from Apo Whang Od done.

At 6 o’clock, breakfast was ready. I was not in the mood to eat, so I just filled my tumbler with coffee and drank it while chatting with the other guests. When Amari exited the bathroom, she was already dressed. She asked for coffee, so I handed her my tumbler. She took a few sips and we went to Grace’s place.

Jonah Basanta García (left) and Grace (right) at the Souvenir Shop after the tattoo session

While we were walking, I noticed that there weren’t too many people outside the homestays yet, but all of the houses were full. This was one of the changes in the village: The houses of the tribe were converted into homestays for tourists. They now allow people to occupy their houses after those guests obtained reservations from the registration area. Just like a normal hotel setting, accomodations are on a first come, first served basis.

We were first in Grace’s nipa hut. She was not even there yet, since she was at the souvenir store beside it, watching the sunrise.

Engr. Sharlyn Base Borja getting inked from a local homestay mambabatok

I was hesitant to approach her, but I recalled tour organizer’s statement: Grace is kind and loves to talk to people. So I approached her, while Amari was left in the nipa hut with my camera, taking random photos.

Grace asked me if I wanted coffee and I told her that I’ve had mine. I took the opportunity to ask her about several things. First, how she learned tattooing. She said that Apo Whang Od began teaching her how to make tattoos when she was 10, because they were afraid that the tradition might die.

Denis Spadafina (left) and Apo Whang Od (right) after tattoo session

After the feature done by Tattoo Hunter, people started to come to their village to get inked. With that, more and more from the tribe started to learn how to tattoo. Now, most of the homestays have their own mambabatok, but, of course, getting tattooed by the first-generation heir is something special.

We were also able to talk about movies. I did not expect Grace to like movies. She knows more than I do about movies, actually. I promised to bring her some newly-released films on my return to Buscalan. She just warned me never to give her horror movies, because those make her spirit jump out of her body.

Jonah Basanta García (left) and Apo Whang Od (right) after tattoo session

Out of nowhere I was reminded of her statement, and without hesitation I asked her what she meant in saying “…will need to feed the giant”. She laughed and said her husband, who is from France, was sick and she needed to feed him. She calls him a giant because of his height, which is unusual in the Philippines. I was surprised at her answer. I did not expect her to be married.

While Grace was preparing her paraphernalia for the tattoo sessions, she said that if I want to see Apo Whang Od, I could visit her because the National Treasure lived just a few houses from hers. Grace added that this may be the best time to see Apo Whang Od. She might just be sitting outside her house sipping coffee. So I went with Amari, but, before we left, Grace assured us that we will be the first to get tattooed when we get back to her hut.

Grace was right; Whang Od was just outside her house, but not drinking coffee. She was putting lipstick on. I took some stolen shots and we went back to Grace.

We started the tattoo session earlier than expected and, just a few minutes after 8 o’clock, when my tattoo was halfway done, the people started to arrive, including the other members of our tour group, who lined up to get inked by Grace.

After my tattoo was finished, I told Grace that I would go to get Apo Whang Od’s signature. She asked me if I know why the signature contains three dots, a query I answered with “I don’t know.” She responded, “The three dots were us, Apo Whang Od, Elyang, and me.” G




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