The Long Road to Old Fang-od

I adjusted my position in between the steel tubes, enough to give Pinky and nine other men room to wiggle on top of the overloaded jeepney bound for Tinglayan. At 8 o’clock, Kalinga was already ablaze with sunlight, sterilizing our skin, preparing the canvass for old Fang-od. Even with sunscreen, the sun stabbed sharply into my epidermis, as if prepping it for what was about to come.
In a (un)fortunate turn of events, the Victory Liner bus we took from Manila the night before stalled for three hours on the road, stretching our travel time to 14 hours instead of 11. We missed the last commute to Tinglayan by half an hour, but we got to indulge our sleep-deprived bodies in a long hot shower and a soft bed at Davidson Hotel. At six thirty the next day, we were on our way to the Dangwa Bus Station to catch the 7-A.M. trip, still groggy, hungry, puffy. I hate early-morning starts. But this was our last chance to meet the 93-year-old famed traditional tattooist, Fang-od (Whang-Od), before peak season. It was now or never.
The “No Swerving: Keep Foot from Evil” sign at the jeepney’s rear door reminded the passengers at the topload that it was going to be a bumpy ride. The vehicle was noticeably struggling as it drove endlessly up and down the edge of the Kalinga mountains. Burdened by the weight of people and sacks of rice and vegetables, boxes of supplies for the mountain folks.
How do the Kalinga people brave this journey, especially on rainy days when landslides are common? When the roads become more treacherous? Tales have it that it can take days to transport even the sick to the hospital in a place where healthcare is lacking and Western medicine hard to come by. Old men, their joints stiff from years of hard labor, still climb up the roof of jeepneys to bring a loaf of bread and a kilo of sugar on the table. Old women rest their shoulders, stiffened by carrying heavy loads on their back, on piles of vegetable baskets inside the stuffy vehicle. But well, they are the Kalingas—famed for their hard work and resilient spirit. Who am I to complain about numb behinds and sun-burnt skin?
My eyes scanned the cliff below. A sea of colorful shirts dotting the rice terraces under the unforgiving sun as the region’s princess—Sleeping Beauty—rested in peaceful slumber. The Chico River wound around her. Each gush of water calculated, humming a soft and hypnotic gurgling, as if not to wake her. Sadly beautiful, in a way.
The Chico River winds around mountains.
Her beauty sleeps peacefully.
Somehow we reached Tinglayan in one solid piece, just in time for a quick lunch at the Sleeping Beauty Restaurant. Ten minutes tops and we were already navigating an uphill climb to our guide’s house to catch the bus all the way to Bugnay. This cut the usual 3-hour trek to one. Pure bliss! Not that I won’t enjoy the hike. The scenery was breathtaking. Green everywhere. Rice and vegetable plots decorating the slopes. Water buffalos cooling themselves in ponds. Mountains, plain majestic mountains as far as your eyes can see. As I found out, my physical fitness (or lack thereof) was no match for the steep climb to Buscalan. My head was swimming from the altitude. At times, I thought I was going to roll downhill. I tripped. Gasp for air. Begged for breaks.
And then we saw it. Right before our very eyes. The sign. We have reached.
Silly. That would be their term for it. Them who frown upon these endless wanderings. As if they know where you’ve been, where you’re headed, and what is best for you. Why not save up for a new car, a house for your parents, a new degree? Why spend so much money on silly adventures and short-lived thrills? But this was more than a trip. 

Pleasantries and smiles were exchanged. Cups of coffee and a handful of jokes. A leisurely stroll in the village. Casual chats with women and old folks. A handshake here, a high-five there. The evening chill on your face. The golden sun casting shadows in the mountains. The laughter. Smiles. Warmth.

A good friend once mentioned he had been hit with sudden bouts of nostalgia of his childhood, his past. I thought he was just being sentimental. But it happened to me in Buscalan. There is something about the place that makes one long for simplicity. For lazy afternoons, Peter Cetera blasting from AM radios, and the soothing voice of old folks chattering about their day. I suddenly missed my grandma. Fang-od reminds me so much of her. 

So we have reached. Suddenly, the long journey was all worth it.
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