"SHE sighed. She was crouching on the floor, sifting some leaves with her frail-looking, wrinkled hands. She then slit the middle of one elongated leaf, which looked like pandan, and inserted the base of another. She repeated the process until she made a beautiful mandala of leaves. She pushed the heart of the foliage into the soot-bottomed casserole and then poured rice grains in it. "

“It is her own way to keep the rice from getting scorched,” Tommy, Whang Od’s frequent visitor, explained. She cut the pinewood into splinters and fed them into the hearth.

The fire illuminated her tattooed arms.

“You were lucky to see that,” Tommy looked as amused as I. He was there with Ruel, another photographer from Baguio. I saw their black-and-white works on villages and tribes adorning the walls of Yoghurt House at Sagada. They were at Buscalan once again to document and oversee the whole process of disassembling a traditional Ifugao house Ruel bought from a local family for about P60, 000.

Again, Whang Od sighed.

There was a stove on the small counter, but her nephew’s wife, whose name escapes me now, said its was only for visitors like us. She used the traditional hearth at the far end of her small kitchen.

Later on, while we were having a dinner of instant noodles and sayote tops with sardines on her kitchen floor, we encouraged her to have some. She scowled upon eating the noodles, and mumbled a word I could not understand.

Her language is a terrain of guttural sounds that momentarily remind me of thunder and raging rivers. It is confusing, like the wh in her name is pronounced as f—her name is Fang Od to the tongue, Whang Od to the eye.

“Maalat daw. Salty,” her nephew’s wife translated. She was content with her boiled sayote tops, which tasted bland to me, whose taste buds prefer the salty and the bitter.

“No wonder, she reached 92!” Alex exclaimed. Whang Od must be 94 by now.

Chance passengers

I met the Spanish-speaking Alex and Chris and their guide, Jerry from Sagada, in the narrow road in Bontoc, where the bus going to Butbut was parked. We both had the same intention: to meet Whang Od. On the top of the bus, Alex kept on cursing and held onto the bar tight. The newly paved road to Butbut snaked through the steep slope of the ranges. On our right was a 90-degree cliff, and below was the rage of the Chico River.

Alex’s swears were the only explicit language of saying the unsaid, the unsayable:

what if the bus toppled and somersaulted down the gorge? Is meeting Whang Od worth the danger?

As the bus pelted along the road, the rice fields sprawling beyond the cliff stole our attention. Most fields were emptied and muddy, some had new seedlings planted. It looked very surreal: the dreamy variations of yellow and green boxed in the field. It felt like looking at a realistic approach to Mondrian. This must be our reward for choosing the top instead of the seats inside.

Whang Od herself farmed the fields down the slopes of their village; and for her, this must be an ordinary scene. Her brother, whom we met on our way up, called her from the valley.

We rested in a shack along the small path. She was silent when she arrived, and remained so throughout the trek to the village. All I could hear from her was her heaving from climbing the slope. I wonder if she was uncomfortable with us around.

She would always be stooping by the wall or sitting on the ladder with her hand supporting her chin. For a moment, she would fix her hair then resume her usual position. Her eyes looked glassy. This must be the reason why she looked sullen most

of the time.

One time, she held my left hand and pointed to the lines at the base of my pinkie. She sighed.

“Marami ka rawng lalaki,” translated the nephew’s wife.

“Ha? Isa lang!” I defended and laughed. She thought Chris, who was much younger than me, was either my husband or boyfriend.

“Marami dawng darating.” I had a hard time grasping such possibility then. I was too in love and romantic to entertain such.

Whang Od then joked about the different sizes of men’s delicate parts. She started with her own pinkie, then eventually progressed to her wrist. This was not the Whang Od I had read about online—the woman consumed by sadness of a lost love: a story spread by a certain guide named Francis. I dared not ask about her heartbreak, which somehow appeared to me as mythologized. I preferred listening to and laughing at her dirty jokes.

When Ruel made some lewd hand gestures, Whang Od could not contain herself and showed her baby-like gums, then covered her face with her tattooed arm like a teenage girl.

Her sighs, I must admit, were the most constant throughout the day.

One time, she did my hair like hers: braiding both sides, loosely tying the tails by my forehead. It resembled a laurel wreath. The ‘do did not last long.

She said something in her guttural language once again, talking to me directly, although she knew I would not understand anything.

“Buhok mo daw sobrang bagsak,” translated the nephew’s wife, while holding a months-old baby by the kitchen’s door.

Whang Od styled her hair in different ways. She would embed colorful beads in her braid or wrap a scarf around her head. She looked queenly and fashionable with her heirlooms, while feeding her black hogs by the incomplete concrete structure in front of her semi-concrete house. She was the only one of her age in the hood I saw who regularly combed her salt-and-pepper hair.

Let your hair down

I could not exactly recall when she started loosening up around us. Perhaps it was the moment when she let her hair loose and I snapped a photo of her. The genuine curve in her lips, almost mischievous, as if I caught her doing something naughty. Perhaps because it is rare to see her with her hair down. It was just at the moment when she combed her locks before tying them again.

Or it must have been the time she started inking the base of my left hip.

She said something like “ajug-ajug.”

“Bilbil mo daw nag-sha-shake!” That cracked me up. I laughed, she noted, like there was no tomorrow. Laughter, later on I realized, was the only language we both spoke and understood.

She was silent most of the time while working. All I could hear was the tok tok tok—the sound of wood tapping against wood. I was silenced by the searing pain of the pomelo thorn prickling, piercing my skin. She hammered the stalk’s head as gentle as possible. Tok tok tok. She was old, and her pulse was not even. Some taps ended up more painful than the rest.

Earlier, I saw her insert the thorn between the slit of what appeared to be a thinly-stalked bamboo. She scraped the soot that accumulated on the pan’s bottom, gathered it in a small, used bowl, and mixed it with a bit of water. She said something to Grace while mixing. Grace, schooled at Kalinga Apayao State College, is her niece and said to be the next mambabatok. While revisiting my field notes, Grace actually scrolled down her Facebook account. Whang Od trained her. Her aging hands cannot keep up with the influx of visitors wanting a tattoo from her.

Ruel said, on holidays, she could earn about P50,000 from tattooing alone. She was able to buy the surrounding lands and carabaos. Sometimes the neighbors would borrow money from her.

Whang Od’s short stature was always wrapped in silence, regardless of the domestic noises around her: kids crying, black hogs squealing.

She said the centipede, the design I chose for myself, is the guide for the lost.

There is nothing, I guess, more fitting for someone who has a terrible sense of direction, who, later on, would find herself at a loss after a heartbreak.

Heartbreak is one of the many trips I have taken. Whang Od has been there as well.

*When not traveling, Jona Branzuela Bering teaches, gardens, writes, and becomes a slave to Hip and Carbon, the cat royals. She is a plant thief and reader by midnight.

Follow her travels on Instagram@travelingjona or on her blog Backpacking With a Book.

For collaboration and inquiries, one may email backpackingwithabook@gmail.com.