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When the Fog Clears in Kalinga

The journey to Tulgao began the night before, with a decision to not go to Tulgao, a small community tucked in the highlands of Kalinga in northern Philippines that should have been famous for its rice terraces but isn’t—at least not yet. The weather forecast for the following morning was thunderstorms, so a detour was necessary. Thankfully, there were more than enough photo shoot-worthy rice terraces in the Cordilleras.

I pondered this as I found myself precariously balanced on the edge of muddy terraces the next day, trying, successfully, not to slip—three of the men I was with had already kissed the mud—but failing, unapologetically, to keep my temper in check.

“We should’ve stuck to our earlier agreement. This is not a wise call. What if somebody gets hurt? We’re in the middle of nowhere. And this project does not even come with insurance!” I rattled on, all the time keeping my eyes on the trail. I was NOT going to fall.

By the time we crossed a narrow gap that has been transformed into a gorge filled with gushing rainwater, I was cursing the publisher in my head. It was his brilliant idea to push through with the trek to Tulgao when the sun showed up briefly that morning. What an arrogant a$$, I mumbled. 

Nobody else said a word (I thought maybe because they couldn’t say “whiny bi^*#” out loud)

The way to Tulgao

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A sight for weary travelers

When I finally found enough space on the trail to safely stand on both feet, I paused to catch my breath and looked up, and around. And understood why everyone else was awfully quiet.

The heavy fog had just lifted to reveal quaint houses dotting the greenest green terraces you’ll ever see. Women deftly walked the same perilous path we were walking, with a half sack of rice on their head and a baby in their arms. Hardy grandmothers worked alongside men in the fields; kids ran around barefoot, playing with frogs in the rain. And the rugged mountains—they were as unapologetic as I was.

Nope, we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore. 

On a clear-sky morning

Tulgao, an emerging destination for tourists and anthropologists studying the Kalinga culture, is located in the municipality of Tinglayan in the province of Kalinga. It is divided into two villages: Tulgao East and Tulgao West. Tribal conflicts, which the locals shrug off, had made it easier to split the village than to have it governed by one head from one tribe.

Although the college-educated locals won’t admit it, tribal loyalties still mean a lot in Kalinga, especially among the elders.

Known as fierce warriors, the Kalingas—after which the province was named—have lived in isolation for centuries, shielded even from foreign colonizers by the harsh mountains and their legendary battle skills.

Kalinga’s warrior society deemed it heroic for a man to decapitate an enemy in defense of his tribe: those who brought home a head earned a tattoo. The headhunting has long been forsaken but the jawbones of slain enemies are sometimes still used to beat gongs and other instruments during local festivities.

Today, there are less than a hundred living Kalinga men and women who bear the unique body art that once signified beauty, bravery and wealth.

One of the few remaining tattooed women. The Kalinga use charcoal and thorns of citrus to create this body art.

One of the few remaining tattooed women. The Kalinga use charcoal and thorns of citrus to create this body art.

Most of these tattooed folk lead a quiet life in Tulgao and Buscalan, places that seem to have been trapped in time, the mountains of Tinglayan blocking cellphone signal and much of rural development. In Tulgao West, about 200 households share water from a spring; the area did not have electricity until 2008.

There is only one tourist inn in Tulgao, run by the Anglican Church, but residents say its availability to accommodate tourists depends on the presence of the Anglican priest, who comes in only occasionally. But you would want to stay in that Anglican inn when in Tulgao—because it has a bathroom, a rarity among hill-tribe homes.

We didn’t stay at the inn, but our host, the village chief of Tulgao West, thankfully had a toilet, however crude, in his house. He also had an old desktop computer for his wife, who is head teacher at the lone elementary school there, and a laptop for his sons.

Kalinga’s mountain tribes may be fierce but they are no models of hygiene. Even in their folklore, the concept of relieving one’s self is depicted as sitting under a tree with a wooden stick, which is used to ward off animals.

Local officials have been struggling to change this concept, going as far as to distribute free construction materials to those who would build toilets in their homes.

“I once had to threaten municipal staff that they would lose their jobs if they do not have toilets at home,” said a former mayor we met at what qualifies as a restaurant in that area, just before we started the trek to Tulgao.

Sunrise in Tinglayan

Endless green

Endless green

If your innards can take the crude toilets and your legs can survive the trek—it is much easier on a sunny day—Tulgao is a world worth visiting. Most travelers go the other way—to Buscalan, home of Whang Od (pronounced as Fang Od), said to be the last living body tattoo artist in the Philippines.

But Tulgao has a charm all its own—and its fair share of tattooed people, too.

The women try to hide it, wearing long sleeves and closed-neck tops, but if you ask politely, they will show you their marks, and they will invite you for coffee (Kalinga coffee, in my opinion, is the best in the Cordillera).

They will tell you that back in their day, it would cost you 20 pigs and several chickens to get that kind of tattoo, that it hurt to have your body as the canvass for an artist wielding thorns of citrus plants, dipped in charcoal, and pricking your chest, but that it was something you had to do to prove your worth.

Among the Kalingas, courage was not the monopoly of men. Marked women were not only rich—they were also brave.

When I asked the principal of Tulgao East Elementary School, a lovely lady who is educated in Cagayan, if she ever considered getting a tattoo, she laughed at me.

“That is SO painful. I cannot endure that kind of pain,” she said. Her tattooed mother, who is listening, merely smiles.

Kalinga is not for the faint of heart, it seems. Even they, who live there, know that. It made me feel a lot better about whining. ###

Topload provides the best views on the way back to the town center

Topload provides the best views on the way back to the town center

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