I once had the opportunity to visit one of my friends who currently has been backpacking for a while now. I was able to experience some of his journey in Vietnam for a week. It was such an eye opening experience. I thought it would be interesting for him to share some of his journey. Check out what he has to say below!
I’ve been at this traveling thing for about 287 days now. In just over 9 months I have been to 2 continents for a total of 12 countries. I tried to no avail to write a single post that could capture a highlight reel-like summary of this journey, but after some reflection, I felt it best to tell you about a single experience that I think captures what this trip has been all about.
On July 10, 2015 I stumbled upon a video about a woman named Whang Od. She is the last tattoo artist that carries on the Kalinga style and tradition. For this feature, she was mentioned in National Geographic in 2008. At age 97, it is unclear how much longer both Whang OD and this tradition will exist. Coincidently (or as a matter of fate), I was traveling to the Philippines, where she lives, in just 5 days. After watching this video, I made last minute changes to my to trip to ensure I would see Whang Od. This is the story of one of the many times I felt the clear sense that I was walking the path meant for me.
Journeys in real life aren’t like in the movies. The long hard parts aren’t reduced to a few seconds of B-roll with an uplifting music playing in the background (because you’re probably saving your phone battery and can’t even play music). You can actually feel the discomfort and sometimes it lasts for a really long time. And most importantly, you don’t actually know that it’s all going to work out in the end.
I was in the midst of a 3-hour jeep ride, about 10 hours north of Manila, when I really started to feel all of these things. I was tried, cold, sore all over, and was growing more unsure by the minute about this “journey into the mountains” to meet the Last Kalinga. There I was in what can only be described as a bus and jeep hybrid used for public transportation in the Philippines. Surrounded by strangers that for the most part were rightfully curious about why I was traveling on a jeepney to one of the most remote parts of the Philippines, away from all the usual tourist attractions and English-speaking areas. My bag had become heavy in my arms from pulling it close between my legs to make space on the narrow floor for the feet of the people sitting across from me. Lacking enough space to move my own legs, they slowly became cramped with my feet tightly squeezed into a fixed position between huge bags of rice and my own bag.
The previous 27 hours had not been much better. I landed at 7am in Manila on the previous day. I had my airport routine down by now. Go through customs. Buy a local sim card. Look for a train if available. Usually settle for a cab. I knew the first bus north wouldn’t leave for 12 hours and I had little idea what do in Manila for that long while having to lug around my 30lb bag. After a quick call to the bus station, I was quickly in a cab to purchase 1 of only 4 remaining tickets. If someone tells you Manila’s traffic is bad – believe it! I fell sleep for an hour and checked my map to find out we had moved about 1 mile. 30 minutes after my second nap I have my ticket and no plan for the remaining 10 hours.
After 30 minutes of walking I find a mall, but it doesn’t open for 2 hours. My bag is getting heavy. It’s getting hotter by the minute, and I still have no plan.
Stranger- “Are you lost?”
Me- “No. Just… frustrated?”
Saved. In a twist of fate I met a young guy who was in the area for an interview. For the next 5 hours Adel sits in Starbucks with me and then takes me around the mall and helps translate for me while I buy a GoPro. I can’t emphasize enough how bad my day would have been if I didn’t meet Adel. 2 hours is a long time to sit in the heat without knowing an air-conditioned Starbucks is literally around the corner. 8 hours later I’m in the cab line watching minutes slip away as I quickly go from “I definitely have enough time to get to the bus station” to “I can’t believe I am going to miss this f-ing bus. The next bus isn’t until tomorrow evening”. It’s finally my turn to get a cab. As we crawl through traffic, I look up from my phone’s map and notice there is a street we can take that would get me close enough to the bus station that I could run. I plead with the driver to take this route but the cabdriver adamantly insists that we go another way. The way I’m asking “has too much traffic”. Well… he was wrong. As soon as he turns on the next street to take “his way” we immediately run into bumper-to-bumper traffic as far as I can see. Guess my mood. It’s all I can do to not throw the money in the drivers face as I take off running through cars to the bus station.
Still running, I manage to call the station as I dodge pedestrians and vehicles. “The bus to Tabuk has left already. It leaves right at 7pm”. Heart hits the floor. Anger rises. Phone almost thrown. Still running. I arrive at the bus station to discover why you always keep trying when hope seems lost- the bus had not left. It actually hadn’t even made it to the station yet.
Now on the bus explaining for the first of many times why I’m going to the most random, remote part of the Philippines, I’m literally freezing through my jacket for what would be a 10-hour ride.
“Why are you going to Tabuk?”
“To go to Tinglayan”
“(laughter)… and why are you going to Tinglayan?”
“To go to Buscalan… To get a Tattoo from Whang Od”
At 6am the following morning I make it to Tabuk. I had been so cold that my knees began to cramp. After waiting in the rain for an hour I caught the jeepney to Tinglayan where I sat cramped for 3 hours before arriving at the Sleeping Beauty Inn. I asked for the wifi information only to have the receptionist laugh at the thought that they would even have internet. Lucky I had a local sim card… Unluckily there was no service in that area of the mountains. (Chrissy Teigen struggle face… actually as you can imagine I had this face for basically the entirety of the last 27 hours). Due to the rain I had to wait until the next day to trek to Whang Od’s village. So… 21 hours and 1 power outage later, I was on my way. One more hour on a crowded jeepeny and 2 more hours of treacherous hiking. I don’t use the word treacherous lightly either. There were multiple points where if I slipped, my story would have earned its final period.
I can still remember walking into her house; the “Tattoo Artist Whang Od” sign posted near the door. When she saw me walk in, she chuckled a little bit in a way that some how reminded me of my grandma. They offered coffee. I never drink it but I accepted this time for obvious reasons. Then I looked through the book and in true Justin fashion had to pick 2 designs because I’m indecisive. Thirty minutes later, a lemon needle is repeatedly piercing into my forearm. Looking back, I know the process was painful, but honestly, I couldn’t really feel it most of the time. Sitting there, pride on 100, a familiar lyric crept into my head providing me with enough nostalgia and joy that the pain was welcomed as proof that it was all real.
“I fantasized about this back in Chicago”- Kanye West