Whang Od and Her Village

On Whang Od, the oldest living tribal tattooist in the Philippines, and her village

Jona Branzuela Bering

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Photo by Rondell Chaz Mabunga on Unsplash

She sighed.

She was crouching on the floor, shifting some leaves with her frail-looking wrinkled hands. She then slit the middle of one elongated leaf, which looked like pandan, and inserted the base of another. She repeated the process until she made a beautiful mandala of leaves. She then pushed the heart of the foliage into the sooty bottomed casserole and then poured rice grains in it.

“It is her own way to avoid the rice getting scorched,” Tommy, Whang Od’s frequent visitor, explained. She cut the pinewood into splinters and fed them in the hearth. The fire illuminated her tattooed arms.

“You were lucky to see that,” Tommy looked as amused as I did. He was there with Ruel, another photographer from Baguio. I saw their black-and-white works on villages and tribes adorning the walls of Yoghurt House at Sagada. They were at Buscalan once again to document and oversee the whole process of disassembling a traditional Ifugao house Ruel bought from a local family for about P60, 000.

Again, Whang Od sighed.

There was a stove on the small counter, but her nephew’s wife whose name escaped me now, said it was only for the visitors like us. She used the traditional hearth at the far end of her small kitchen.

Later on, while we were having dinner of instant noodles and sayote tops with sardines on her kitchen floor, we encouraged her to have some. Her face scowled upon eating the noodles and mumbled a word I could not understand.

Her language is a terrain of guttural sounds that momentarily reminded me of thunders and raging rivers. It is confusing, like the wh in her name is pronounced as f — her name is Fang Od to the tongue, Whang Od to the eye.

“Maalat daw. Salty,” her nephew’s wife translated. She was content with her boiled sayote tops, which tasted bland for me whose taste bud prefers the salty and the bitter.

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Jona Branzuela Bering

Fictionist. Poet. Content and SEO strategist. Work-in-progress. Flawed. Support my Medium writings ➤ shorturl.at/glnzK Open to gigs 📥 jonabering@gmail.com