Whang Od looks barely able to lift the cup of coffee she is drinking let alone spend an hour tapping ink into my skin. At 93 years old, the Kalinga tribeswoman stands at four feet, five inches and looks like she could be blown away by a gust of wind. Her elfin face is consumed by wrinkles, which almost engulf a tiny button nose and weepy eyes. The tattoos that cover her arms, legs and face have long since lost their definition and bleed into the tough bronze of her skin.
I heard her name long before I met her. Stories of the last tattoo artist of the Kalinga tribe have travelled far and wide across the Philippines. She has become a legend of sorts among Filipino culture enthusiasts in search of quirky souvenirs of their tribal heritage, tattoo aficion-ados and travellers with a penchant for the unusual.
The Kalinga tribe were once feared headhunters who marked their bravery by tattooing themselves. The tattoos formed a visual road map of milestones achieved throughout a person's life. When women married or became pregnant they were marked with a small "x" tattooed on their foreheads, cheeks and nose. For men, achievements such as bringing home the heads of enemies were rewarded with etchings into their skin. Inking was also carried out for protection against disease. Snakes were drawn to shield tribespeople from malaria and cholera, and their throats were tattooed as a cure for goiter.
Kalinga designs are simple. Natural objects and creatures such as trees, centipedes and snakes, and geometric designs such as diamonds and squares take on symbolic meanings depending on where and when they are tattooed on the body.
As members of the tribe have adapted to the modern world and put their headhunting ways behind them, this tradition, among others, has slowly disappeared. Now it is only the elders who wear their personal history on their skin. And Od is the only member of the Kalinga carrying on the tradition, tattooing visitors who make the 16-hour-plus trip from Manila.
In the traditional style of "tapping", which dates back more than 1,000 years, she hammers ink into the skin using the spike of a calamansi (lime) tree attached to a bamboo stick and dipped in wetted charcoal.
GETTING TO OD'S home, in the northern tip of the Philippines, is no easy feat. It involves a 12-hour bus ride from Manila to Tabuk, the capital of the mountainous province of Kalinga. From there it's a dusty jeep journey tracing the contours of the mountains to the small village of Tinglayan and then a four-hour trek to Od's village, Buscalan.
For the trekking leg of the trip, I seek the help of Victor, a tour guide and translator who has been recommended by other travellers. I was told that to find him I would just need to say his name enough times to passing villagers. Sure enough, I soon find Victor, sitting with a motley crew of elders passing around a bottle of ginebra (a 90 per cent-proof local tipple) and a plate of pork. The 70-year-old's crude sense of humour and tendency towards the vulgar does not complement his wizen, sage-like appearance.
True to Filipino hospitality, I am invited me to join the banter and it isn't long before the conversation degenerates into lewd jokes about wives and other local men. Before I make a polite exit from what is turning into a rowdy singalong, Victor instructs me to meet him at 8am in front of the Luplupa Riverside Inn.
Although bleary eyed, Victor is waiting for me the next morning.
We traverse rice terraces and scramble up and down mountain edges overlooking the Chico river as he happily recounts gory stories from the headhunting days. As interesting as his tales are, I am distracted by the surroundings: verdant stepped valleys fringed by rugged stone walls that shape the contours of this otherwise wild landscape. Mountains form a striking layered backdrop to our rocky climb into the cordillera.
After four hours or so, we arrive at what appears to be a village but is, in fact, just a couple of wooden huts. Pigs scurry around my feet followed by naked boys making for a waterfall nearby. Od's tiny frame appears in the doorway to her house.
She wastes no time in getting down to business. Her hunched body seems agile as she goes about retrieving her tools of the trade. Her portfolio comes in the form of engravings on the wall in front of her hut. I choose the centipede, and my left foot as the location.
"Are you sure?" Victor translates for me as Od's bony fingers begin stroking my foot. "It's going to be painful."
As she lays the pattern out on my foot, the whole village gathers round, gossiping, berating children and braiding each other's hair.
The minute it starts I understand what she meant about the pain. Every tap feels like a nail being drilled into my bone. In front of an audience of tattooed women I try to put on my bravest face, gritting my teeth and grinning insanely whenever someone makes a gesture towards my foot. Unfazed by my shaking leg, Od continues to tap away, stopping only occasionally to wipe her weeping eyes or wash blood from my foot. Occasionally her spike gets stuck mid tap and she has to rip it out, along with a little chunk of skin.
After what has probably been the longest hour of my life, she puts her tools down, pours water over my now throbbing foot and places her hands over it in a form of prayer. She gets up, hobbles into her house and puts the kettle on the stove to brew a cup of coffee as if she has just come in from weeding the garden.
I spend the rest of the day with a swollen, aching foot, barely able to move, watching ants march in pairs along the ground and getting to know the interior of Od's home in intimate detail. I am told to spend the night, to give my foot some time to heal before making the trek back.
The next day I struggle to put my foot into my shoe and a fever is already setting in. I look imploringly at Od for sympathy or advice on how to lessen the pain. She just feeds me breakfast and tells me stories of how women as young as 13 would receive their tattoos then go straight into the field to work, ploughing through the pain barrier and ignoring any infection. I look down into my bowl of rice and say no more.
Tradition dictates that the art of batek (tattooing) can only be passed down family lines. After having lost the love of her life at the age of 25 in a logging accident, Od didn't marry again and bore no children. She is training her niece, Grace, but the latter is studying to become a teacher and, so far, hasn't shown any enthusiasm for the art.
While Od shows no sign of slowing down, the art of tribal tattooing in the Kalinga style may soon become lost, a slice of history that I now proudly carry etched into my skin.
Getting there: Cable Tours buses leave Manila for Bontoc (12 hours) daily at 8.30pm from a terminal along E. Rodriguez Avenue, Quezon City. At Bontoc, buses bound for Tabuk, Kalinga, which pass through Tinglayan (2.5 to three hours), leave at 9am.