Dining with the Locals of KalingaDecember 25, 2019
Up in the mountains of Kalinga-Apayao is a little village called Buscalan, known for coffee, vegetation, knife makers, and tribal tattoo artists.
The road to Buscalan used to be a dangerous one. Accidents involving buses and jeepneys falling into the ravines have made travelers think twice about venturing into the mountains, but thankfully, roads have been paved, reassuring people that “it’s safer now”. I spent 80% of my time asleep in the bus, waking up occasionally with a frightening jolt as some rocks hit the sides of the vehicle and…woops, I guess they forgot to fix that side of the road. Trying to keep one’s cool is incredibly difficult, especially after seeing a woman muttering a prayer, finishing off with a very frantic sign of the cross. The breathtaking view of the mountains makes you wonder a lot about life—your demise included.
Getting to Buscalan from Manila takes roughly 17 hours. From Manila, you take a bus to Baguio, then from Baguio, take another bus to Bontoc, then hop on a jeep to Buscalan. It is recommended that you get in touch with a local from Buscalan to guide you through. Ours was Charlie, and he has the swag of Bob Marley with the face of a retired local matinee idol. He told us to grab some canned goods in the local market before heading up to Buscalan, which we did, and some Etag (or Itag)—pungent-tasting meat that’s cured and preserved inside earthen jars buried underground. You can find this in the Bontoc wet markets.
If you go here during December, it is mandatory that you bundle up. The cold weather is no joke. I came underdressed with a mere hoodie, and the wind punished me. I felt like a huge can of lard left in the freezer. Rain started to pour, slapping my face in icy wisps, as if to reprimand me about why I was so ignorant of the weather conditions and failing to dress the part. Finally, we reached the drop-off point where we did a hike to Buscalan. Stepping into this part of Kalinga feels very sacred, you feel lucky to behold such a view—it is insanely beautiful.
Hands scrambled to grab a mug filled with piping-hot coffee once we got to our kubo. Buscalan is one of the few villages in Kalinga. It is a tightly knit community that is occasionally visited by foreigners and local travelers, particularly to get a tattoo done by Whang-Od, who is known to be the last surviving mambabatok of Kalinga. Trained by Huagay himself, she is 95 years old today, and using a pomelo thorn with soot as ink, she shares this sacred ritual with curious and eager individuals who wouldn’t mind having a Kalinga tattoo of their own.
Kalinga translates to “enemy” and in here resides those who belonged to the notorious Butbut tribe. They were known for hunting heads, and were feared by the neighboring villages. Apart from Whang-Od, Baydon, the oldest man in Kalinga and veteran knife maker, also lives here. He has a few tattoos on his face, an indication that he has killed. According to his story, it was a Japanese.
When it comes to the food, the people of Kalinga thrive on whatever they can get in the mountains during the season. White beans are a staple here, as well as two kinds of palay: unoy (white) and intan (red). Coffee is free-flowing throughout the day, and during New Year’s, rice is cooked malagkit (sticky), as a representation of togetherness. Native pigs and chickens are also an ubiquitous sight. Ate Rebecca, one of the village locals, tells me that during Soob, a coming-of-age celebration for the boys, native pigs are speared through bamboo and roasted under fire. The pig is then passed on to each house as part of the festivities.
The knife makers though, tell me their favorite way of consuming pig. Completely sober, they first tell me that it is a secret, but a few swigs of gin during their 2 p.m. break slowly unveil the most simple of recipes—“we cut the pig into cubes, boil them a bit, then cook them on a pan with just salt. Only salt!”
That is what we stuff ourselves with that evening for our last dinner at Charlie’s home. It was one unforgettable porcine experience. Tender and falling off the bone, the pork felt like it was melting in your mouth without even having to use your teeth. The flavors were straightforward and meaty—simplicity at its most exceptional. To go with the pork was a string of ampalaya (bitter gourd) leaves that were a bit tough to swallow down.
It’s places like Buscalan that make me realize how much of the world there is yet to see, the Philippines especially. There are people whose stories are waiting to be told, and rare and secret dishes to be enjoyed with the locals. But most importantly, it made me realize how much we forget the sheer simplicity of life. How we have forgotten what it was like to run barefoot and feel the dew-kissed grass on our feet, the soil clinging to our toes, reminding us of our roots. In Buscalan, forget the idea of bringing your laptop. Signal is non-existent. All you have is the view of the mountains, and you realize how it is (and was) possible to live in a world that’s Internet-free. How the body can become such a beautiful canvas, and how rock, fire, and steel can produce the sharpest knives—no machinery needed. And how salt, the most simple of ingredients, is enough to bring out all the goodness in a single slab of meat and turn it into a phenomenal dish. Simple is great.