Fifteen Hours for a Living Legend

Jacqueline Dagelet, Exchange to Ateneo de Manila, The Philippines

Semester 2, 2017

One of the craziest things I’ve done since arriving in the Philippines, is to travel 15 hours north of Manila to meet a living legend. People from all walks of life, from all over the Philippines, and all over the world make the journey here to meet one remarkable person. Her name is Whang-Od Oggay. She is over 100 years old, and she is the last traditional hand-tap tattoo artist of her generation. She lives in a secluded village up in mountains of Buscalan, where the Kalinga people live. It takes at least an hour and a half to hike there, after a thirteen hour drive. This was probably the most challenging hike I’ve done in my life. Under the midday sun, me and twenty-four other eager international students decided to hike up a mountain. Funnily enough, I was the last person to make it up because of how unfit I was. This location was probably where I felt most far from home. There was no mobile phone reception and no internet. I regret nothing though, because what I witnessed there was amazing.


They didn’t have any hotels there, they only had humble accommodation travellers refer to as ‘home-stays’, wherein villagers offer up their own homes to visitors for a small fee. It wasn’t fancy. There was no aircon, the beds were only mattresses but the experience was special. It is not everyday that an Australian woman gets the opportunity to immerse and experience another culture that is obviously so different to ours.


I met Whang-Od the day after I arrived, which is the norm for people who want to receive a tattoo from her. This is a testament to the sheer volume of people who pass through the village just for this reason. I queued at her home at 6:30am, however I was not called until 12:30pm. To pass time, I attended a traditional Kalinga wedding, where I was made to feel so welcome. Where I was invited to partake in traditional dances infront of the bride and groom on their special day. After the wedding, one of the villagers so nicely told me that because of the amount of people waiting to be tattooed, it was advisable for me to approach another tattoo artist for the design I wanted, and then have it signed by Whang-Od afterwards. Whang-Od’s signature composed of three dots in a row. As crazy as it may seen, I chose a talented nine-year old tattoo artist and her work was magnificent. Being of Filipino ancestry, I felt closer to my roots. To be tattooed overlooking the colossal mountains, where I never thought I would be. I found the process so overwhelmingly beautiful. At 12:30pm, I was called to meet Whang-Od. She seemed to be in amazing health for someone over one-hundred years old. She could not speak Tagalog or English. However, with the help of another villager, we were able to break down the language barrier and understand each other enough to proceed.


After the unique experience, I began to hike back down the mountain, and continued on the long drive back to Manila.


Here I learnt about how Whang-Od’s fame has allowed the village to prosper. How people are so friendly and welcoming, that they would invite you to their wedding on the same day you meet them. How the Kalinga people brewed some of the best coffee. How parents allow children embrace age-old traditions from a young age. And most importantly, how small I am compared to a world I still have yet to completely discover. I wouldn’t have been able to do something like this without ACU Exchange.