The Pilgrim

My second short story came out in Philippines Graphic this month. Entitled The Pilgrim, it is an exploration of Filipino identity.

Tony Ahn

The trip was arduous. Instead of the usual eleven hour overnight bus ride to Tabuk, the provincial capitol of Kalinga Province, Jason flew into Tuguegarao, thinking it would save time. Instead, it meant an expensive three hour drive to Tabuk (which Google Maps had indicated would take 54 minutes). He was American, after all, and his smartphone was his Bible. He read daily from the Book of Wikipedia, and studied the mysteries of the letters to the faithful that various travel bloggers had penned on trips like this one. Unfortunately, neither Google nor bloggers were infallible.

By the time he arrived in Tabuk, it was 3pm. Public transportation outside the city had ceased hours ago. There were no trips to Tinglayan, the municipality of rustic villages that included Buscalan, Jason’s final destination, where he would become more Filipino.

He devoured two orders of ganiling in a carinderia, then turned heads when he asked the proprietor in decent Tagalog if she knew of anyone traveling to Tinglayan. Before she could recover from her surprise, a customer indicated he was headed that way. Two hundred pesos later, Jason found himself in a van with two guys headed to the penultimate stop on his pilgrimage.

Hitching a ride to Tinglayan with these guys.

The only thing pristine about the old van was the radio, which, although equally ancient, was obviously well maintained, and alternated between blaring 80’s power ballads and 60’s country ballads. The dashboard was covered in carpet, stapled into place, and the rain found its way in through steady drips from the rear door posts. Jason noticed the seals were intact but the door edge curiously no longer fit the shape of the door post. He shrunk away from his door on the outside turns, lest the latching mechanism give way and he fall 50 feet to his death. Not bereft of decoration, a rosary dangled from the van’s rear view mirror, the crucifix perpetually flagellated by the red Chinese tassle that hung beside it. The suspension had long since capitulated, with a shrill creak complaining about every hairpin turn and a staccato crash announcing potholes. The driver navigated comfortably.

“Why are you going to Tinglayan?” the driver asked him as he careened up the mountain.

“I’m headed to Buscalan, to get a tattoo from Whang-od.”

“Ah. I thought so. Many foreigners come here for that. Where are you from?”

“I’m American, but I’ve lived in Manila for five years.”

“How long will you stay in the Philippines?”

“Forever, I hope.”

“Ah. You want to be Filipino?”

“Yes. I plan to become a Filipino citizen one day. And when I do, I will renounce my U.S. citizenship.”

“Really? I know many Filipinos that would do anything to have a U.S. passport. And you just want to give yours up. Why?”

Jason didn’t really want to get into a long discussion about this. His reasons required intimate disclosures about subjects close to his heart. He attempted to summarize. “The Philippines has problems because it doesn’t have enough. The United States has problems because it has too much. I prefer the problems of a country that doesn’t have enough.”

“Wow, that’s good. Marunog ng Tagalog?

Hindi pa ako nakakapagsalitang Tagalog, pero nakakaintindi na ako.” But Jason knew full well he was speaking Tagalog. It was how he showed off, self-deprecating in his denial of his ability to speak the language, while actually speaking it, and with a fair accent. It was more Tagalog than many foreigners knew after a decade in the country. Jason quietly looked down on those people; he found it disrespectful to the local culture.

“Whoa. Galing!” the driver and his buddy both exclaimed.

They spent the rest of the ride in silence. Jason texted his guide Willie (whom he had been introduced to via text message by a blogger who had made this trip previously) that he would be arriving soon. 

Willie was one of those guys who was always smiling, whether he was happy, sad, or murderously angry. This put Jason at ease, as he didn’t expect to ever make his guide murderously angry, so he figured he could assume all the smiles were genuine. The focal point of any photograph taken of Willie was the large pink Russian-style faux-fur cap he wore. Jason appreciated his individualism. He didn’t see a lot of that in this country.

Willie and the author

From Tinglayan, it was a one hour ride behind Willie on his motorcycle to a place called Turning Point, so named because it was where motorized vehicles had to turn back. A five kilometer hike into the forest was all that stood between him and his destination now.

Stay on the path!

The first half of the hike was along a concrete path about sixteen inches wide. On one side was a small irrigation canal, on the other was a fifty foot drop. One mis-step to the left would soak your feet. A mis-step to the right would kill you. Jason wondered if anyone had ever fallen.

“You know,” said Willie, as he led Jason down towards the valley floor, “The village school children make this trip twice a day.”

Jason was concentrating too hard on not falling to his death to answer.

They chatted about the village as they crossed the valley floor, but Jason was too out of breath to carry on a conversation as they began to climb the other side. They were advancing along a series of rice terraces that belonged to the village of Buscalan. Jason knew that meant they were close, so he pressed on.

The home of Whang-od Oggay, last mambabatok [master tattooist] of her tribe. She was 97 years of age when the author visited her in 2014.

Arriving in the village, Jason found that Buscalan was a collection of sturdy houses, islands in a porcine sea, with humans moving between the pigs from time to time. They were everywhere, and one waded through them as one navigated the village paths. Curious children stared at Jason as he passed, but unlike the poorer areas of Metro Manila, never asked him for anything.  When he smiled at them, they smiled back. Willie led Jason to a single-level house on stilts, accessed by a set of stairs that rose to a porch that stood about six feet above the ground. Jason was greeted warmly by Willie’s brother, Edgar, on the porch and invited inside.

“You’ll be staying with me while you’re here.”

“Thank you so much,” said Jason. “How much does it cost?”

“It’s up to you.”

Jason inwardly cringed. While this was a common response, in fact it really wasn’t up to him and he knew it. If he offered to little, he’d be asked for more. That phrase “It’s up to you” meant “There is a minimum, but no maximum. Please be generous.”

“Um, I really don’t know what I should pay. What do other people pay?”

“Well, the last person who Willie guided paid 400 pesos per day. We feed you all your meals for that price too.”

“Okay, that sounds fair.” In fact, Jason thought that was more than fair. A room and three meals for the cost of two drinks in a mid-range Manila bar?

“Do you smoke ganja?” Edgar asked with a bright smile.

“Ganja?” Jason was surprised to hear a Jamaican word in a tiny Philippine village in the middle of nowhere.

“Yes, you know, weeds?”

“I know ganja. Yes, I smoke sometimes.”

“Woul you like to smoke? I have some.”

Jason wasn’t really in the mood but he didn’t want to refuse his host. “Sure.”

Edgar produced a bowl and a pipe and proceded to pack it. They talked as they smoked.

“So what kind of tattoo do you want to get from Apo Whang-od tomorrow?”

Jason noticed when locals said the world-famous tattooist’s name, the Wh- in Whang sounded more like a Japanese “F”, like how they say Fuji. “-od” also seemed to rhyme with “food” not “cod.”

“I’m not sure. I’ll see what she picks for me.”

“How did you learn about her, anyway?”

“I read about her on the Internet. How she was the last member of a headhunting tribe to practice the traditional tattoo arts, and how she was 95 years old—“

“—she’s 97.”

“Ah, thank you, she’s 97 years old and when she dies, the art may die with her. For me, it is part of becoming Filipino.”

“Do you think getting a tattoo from her makes you Filipino?”

“Not exactly. I think that becoming Filipino is a process, over time, and I’m not getting this tattoo to convince anyone. I’m getting it over my heart, which is a place most people cannot see. I’m doing it for myself, which is the only reason someone should have to get a tattoo.”

“So what do you mean when you say you want to become Filipino?”

“As soon as I’m eligible, I want to become a Filipino citizen.”

“So that’s what will make you Filipino?”

“Not exactly. It will make me a Filipino citizen. Assuming a new cultural identity takes a lifetime, I think.”

“So what does it mean to be Filipino? When will you be Filipino?”

“It’s a big question. I’ve spent hours and hours of thinking about it. I think there are a number of things, but in the end it will always be up to whomever is deciding.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, for example, one thing that makes you a member of a group is other members of that group saying you are a member. So as long as there are other Filipinos that know me and say ‘He’s one of us,’ or ‘He’s not one of us,’ it will be up to each one of them whether or not I’m really Filipino. But really that’s just part of the answer. People talk about your heart and your loyalty, too. I think part of being Filipino is waking up and seeing all the problems every day, and remaining here because they are our problems. I could go back to a place with less traffic, and less pollution, and a higher standard of living, better plumbing, better infrastructure, less corruption, better social services, but if I did that, then I’m abandoning my chosen land. I need to stay here to improve things as best I can. So that’s another aspect of assuming a Filipino identity.”

“Wow, that’s good. But a lot of Filipinos go overseas and never live here again because they don’t like it here. Are they less Filipino?”

“In a way, yes. But being Filipino isn’t just one thing, it is many things. That’s why I’m learning Tagalog. That’s why I pay attention to politics, why I study Philippine history. I wasn’t born Filipino, so I have to work at it.”

“And a tattoo from Whang-od will help?”

“A tattoo from Whang-od will leave an ancient mark on my body that serves to remind me of the commitment I’ve made to this country. And that makes me feel more Filipino.”

“I think maybe you are already Filipino in your heart.”

“Thanks, but the heart is the easy part. The mind is the last part to change. We think the way we were raised to think. And I think like an American.”

“But maybe that’s good. Filipino thinking is not good sometimes.”

“Every culture’s thinking is not good sometimes. What is important to to keep the parts that are good and change the parts that are not.”

“What part of Filipino thinking do you think is not good?”

Jason knew this was a dangerous question. While his host was asking innocently enough, the answer could offend him. Jason wasn’t sure how such offense would be handled in this place.

“Well, sometimes Filipinos don’t like others that stand out and do things differently from the group. There is a sense of ‘Why does he have to be different? Does he think he is special or better?’ I think that can be problematic sometimes.”

“Hmm. I don’t think so.”

“Have you ever seen someone share a deep thought and heard someone say ‘Ang dami mong alam’ in response? Or ‘Ikaw na ang magaling’? When you hear a word you don’t know, do you ask the speaker what it means or resent him for using it?”

His host grew quiet; Jason suspected he had ventured too far. This made him anxious, which wasn’t a good way to feel while high. In fact, the marijuana was so potent that Jason had accidentally gotten a little higher than he intended.

“Do you mind if I lay down for a minute?” he asked Edgar.

“Please go ahead. There is a bed made up for you in that room, behind you.”

What he thought would be a two hour nap ended up becoming 10 hours through the night, which was fine, as he was awakened for his tattoo at 6am. After coffeee and a breakfast consisting of two eggs and rice, Jason talked about what a great night’s sleep he’d gotten and thanked his host profusely for yesterday’s recreation as well as this morning’s breakfast. He felt a little guilty about the direction the conversation took the previous evening and was trying to make up for it. He hoped it had been forgotten.

Willie arrived and led him to Whang-od’s house. The rear of it faced a valley, providing a beautiful vista to observe the mountains and rice terraces of other villages.

“She will be out soon,” Willie said. “We will wait. Do you know what you are getting?”

“I thought I’d let her choose for me.”

“Ah, the traditional style. If you want to be completely traditional, she will also pick the place on your body.”

“I’d like to get it over my heart. It will make me feel more Filipino.”

“You are getting this tattoo to be more Filipino?”

“Not exactly to BE more Filipino. But when I see it I will be reminded of this ancient tribal practice that I participated in, and it will make me feel closer to the culture. So its for me, not anyone else. It doesn’t prove anything. It just means I came and participated.”

“That is good. A good reason.”

Whang-od appeared at this point, from the back door of her house. She was short and slender, her face a beautiful roadmap of wrinkles. There was a piercing clarity to her bright eyes, which appeared ageless. She was beautiful, and her arms and legs were covered in faded tattoos. She smiled at Jason, and said something in a language he didn’t understand. She had a strong voice and nothing about her seemed frail. Willie answered her, then spoke to Jason.

Apo Whang-od does not speak much English or much Tagalog. She speaks Butbut, the language of our tribe.”

“That’s what I heard.”

“She wants to know if you are ready, and what you would like. I told her you wanted her to choose something for you, over your heart.”

As Willie explained, Jason watched the old woman prepare a the traditional tattooing implements: a nine inch long stick with a hole fashioned towards one end, a pomelo thorn that was pushed into the hole and protruded from the other side, and another, slightly larger stick used as a hammer to tap the thorn into the skin. The only other implement was a small bowl that held the ink, which appeared to be soot mixed with water.

Whang-od motioned for Jason to remove his shirt, and she sat on a low stool in front of him, drawing a spiral pattern on his chest.

“What is it?” he asked Willie.

She must have understood the question because she smiled, and pantomimed something crawling along his arm.

“A centipede,” Willie said. “It is a symbol of protection in our tribe.”

As Whang-od applied ink to the thorn, several other tribe members gathered to watch.

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. She began to tap the thorn with a quick rhythm, injecting ink into Jason’s skin along the pattern she’d drawn. As Jason heard the tapping he could associate the sound of each tap with a new piercing twinge in his chest, which fell endlessly. The pain was not as intense as various bloggers had made it out to be, but it was still painful nonetheless. A group of three little old ladies was watching him intently as Whang-od worked. At one point, when a look of pain passed across his face, one of them pointed and exclaimed something, then all threee of them cackled. He laughed along with them and resolved to better hide the pain. Luckily the rhythmic twinges of pain were punctuated every minute or two by short breaks as Whang-od wiped the area to survey her handiwork.

Whang-od’s great grand-niece Grace outlining the author’s tattoo.

As his tattoo began to take shape, it occurred to Jason that something Filipino, the ink itself, was now going to be a part of him and he would carry that small part of the Philippines with him wherever he went. Whether he was Filipino or not was a question for other people to decide according to their own values. Jason knew though that he now carried an ancient Filipino protection symbol over his heart, and that made him feel connected to his chosen land in a new way. Filipino or not, he was permanently marked by these people.

Apo Whang-od tattooing a tribal star over the author’s heart
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