top of page
  • thatfuturebum

At some point, we all make a heavy course correction in our lives. If you’re lucky, you can pin point the exact frames where the gears began to shift. An about-face in your story that unknowingly in the moment, would cast an enduring ripple into your future self. Before we begin jumping timelines within this whole adventure thing, I feel that it might be best to share some brief context.

Summer of 2015

POV: You're on a secluded beach in Isle of Palms, South Carolina. There are perhaps a total of five other people on the beach that day. Your wife is quietly enjoying her book while sun bathing on a towel, and you decide to go for a swim. The waves are a bit choppy and larger than you're used to, but you have the entire bank to yourself. Slowly, the waves urge you farther and farther away from shore. Without warning, you plunge into the deep water as if an all-powerful sea creature had grabbed you by the feet. Your body is pulled into a violent whirlpool.

You resurface. Looking back to shore, you realize that you've gone quite a distance from where you were just a few moments ago. You've taken an awful lot of of salt water into your lungs as well. A massive wave greets you, reminding you just how badly you've fucked up this time. Waving like a lunatic, you try and catch your wife's attention. No matter how loud you scream, you realize you're too far out for anyone on the beach to hear you now. You pause. Watching her reclined on the beach, you realize this may be the last time you get to see her. Suddenly she looks up! Waving both arms, you try and send the signal that this may be serious. Sadly, it appears that she thinks you're just showing off.

Your chest tightens and you begin to have difficulty breathing. This is certainly the onset of a panic attack. You begin swimming against the current, crashing into the waves, like some kind of shitty salmon. Having grown up in landlocked Kentucky, you have absolutely no idea that you're doing everything wrong in this scenario. Each time you gain headway, you're properly ushered back to sea by the dissenting waves. Muscle exhaustion sets in, and both arms feel more like noodles than anything that could help you out of this mess. Flipping onto your back you switch to paddling with your legs, while gazing upward. The sky is wide open, decorated by a few sparse clouds. Each minute that passes feels as though it’s been stretched thinly into an hour. As you continue paddling backwards toward the shore, it begins to feel more like a meditation for an out of body experience. Suddenly your shoulders brush up against warm, wet sand. A woman you don't know is standing over you and she happens to be a doctor. You hear her on her cell, urging the paramedics to get there right away.

I obviously didn't die that day. I was rushed to a nearby hospital. My lips were blue and my fingernails, blackened. At the hospital, I was told that another man that day had also been swept under by a strong rip current, but he wasn't so lucky. We left Charleston later that evening, and it wasn't until we reached Kentucky that I noticed I was having more and more trouble breathing. When we got back into Lexington, we went straight to the emergency room. It turned out that I had A.R.D.S. (acute respiratory distress syndrome), and they immediately put me on a breathing treatment.

It's taken me a while to process that day. My life didn't flash before my eyes as it apparently does for some. But it has forced me to reevaluate my life. This trip to Charleston was our wedding anniversary. I had been married for eight years. We were living a comfortable life. Bought a nice house in a quiet neighborhood that we made into a home. But as the years passed, it became increasingly clear that our life goals were no longer aligned. In the year that followed the near-drowning incident, I realized how lucky I was. Living a comfortable life wasn't the same as leading a happy and fulfilling life. Marrying as young as we did, we had no idea how our world views might change over time. So I did what I thought was best for both of us and filed for divorce.

Summer of 2016

The divorce was finalized, and we were in the process of selling our house. I met up with one of my close friends, Joe, at a local bar for a few drinks. He knew I was going through it, and told me how he and his then fiancée had moved to Thailand for a year. He had been teaching English at a school just outside of Bangkok and suggested that I look into getting a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate. That maybe it would be good to get out of the country for a bit and clear my head.

I started doing some research. There was a TEFL program in Cusco, Peru that looked promising. I never thought I would ever see Machu Picchu with my own eyes, let alone travel to Peru. After finally getting our house off the market, I said fuck it, and signed up for the TEFL course.

Being that it was the first time I'd ever traveled outside the U.S. as an adult (and solo), Peru was one of the most vibrant of locations that I could have possibly chosen for a first jump. The city of Cusco sits about 3,400 meters above Lima (the capital). As I walked through the mountain town, even the air felt different. It could have been the altitude, but it's difficult to put into words. It honestly felt like waking up for the first time to a new kind of freedom that I hadn't tasted yet. Suddenly I was transported to a place where both ancient ruins and 16th century cathedrals were within arms reach. On the same day, I encountered both street protests and massive celebrations alike. Llamas and alpacas, adorned in colorful attire were courted by their owners through the streets. I settled into my new apartment and began the TEFL course.

The group of folks that I met during that time became a solid circle of friends, most of whom I've stayed in touch with to this day. A big part of the course was sharing about ourselves, and I wasn't shy about being into hallucinogens. One day Kat, one of the girls in the group, told me after class that she was also into psychedelics.

Kat had been to Cusco many times and told me about a compound run by a South African woman and her twin sons in San Blas ( a more rural area tucked up above downtown Cusco). She told me that they work with the local Pacos (Peruvian shamans) at the compound and hold various ceremonies using sacred plants. Kat invited me to a San Pedro ceremony on the grounds. Little did I know, this sacred cactus would be the catalyst that literally sent me across the globe.

  • thatfuturebum

Updated: Dec 9, 2022

This year, I turned 40. Marking this new chapter of my life, I made the pilgrimage up into the mountains of the Philippines to meet with the legendary Apo Whang-Od, herself.

At 105 years old, Whang-Od has been practicing batok, a traditional hand-tap style of tattooing, for the past 80 years. She's part of the Butbut tribe, locally known and respected for their head hunters within the tribe. These were fierce protectors of the land and their people. So much so, that during the time of Spanish colonization, the Conquistadors knew better than to make moves up north into the Kalinga region of Luzon.

Reaching Whang-Od's village is not an easy trek, by any means. It's about 25 hours north, by bus from Manila. For roughly half a year, I'd already been living in the Philippines, but I hadn't spent any time on the island of Luzon up until this point. Due to the long journey up north to Buscalan, I decided to break the trip into four legs, staying at each point for at least one to two weeks. Kicking off in Manila (the capital city of Luzon), then a couple hours north to the red light district of Angeles City, then further north to the quaint mountain town of Bagiuo. Finally reaching Whang-Od's mountain village, Tinglayan.

Once you reach the furthest point that you can by vehicle in Buscalan, you sign in at a police check point and begin the hike up to the village. The mountain air is noticeably different from the heavily polluted/populated cities further south. You're surrounded by majestic valleys, decorated with tiers of rice paddies. As we slowly made our way further up, we passed locals from the village, some balancing an impressive amount of goods on their head as they hiked up alongside us.

Upon arriving up to the village, we were instantly treated like family. Many in the village rent out shared rooms and prepare large feasts each night. Another perk of Tinglayan is that they grow/smoke quite a bit of marijuana. Anywhere else in the Philippines, it's not worth the risk to smoke, but it seemed that the purpose of the police check point before the trailhead was more so to make sure that nothing was being taken out of the village and trafficked back down into the cities.

Whang-Od never married or had children, but she does have two nieces in the village that apprenticed under her tutelage, honing their skills in the batok tattoo tradition. In the Butbut tribe, it would be considered a corruption of the tradition to teach someone outside of the bloodline. There were probably a total of fifty people that made the trek there for a Kalinga tattoo and many were already lining up for a first initial tattoo, via one of Whang-Od's nieces. They were passing around a wooden menu, displaying possible designs and the meanings behind each one. The main reason that you might get a tattoo from one of her nieces is that Whang-Od no longer gives any of the larger tattoo designs. These days, she limits her work to her signature, alone. Three simple black dots. Three dots that are instantly recognized anywhere in the Philippines with the utmost respect.

I was tempted to get a full design by one of her nieces. After watching a few people receive their designs, I noticed that they didn't always come out looking as proportionate on their body (I'm being kind here). So it was a bit of a gamble. I ended up discussing a possible design with one of the nieces and after asking the price, she paused for a moment and quoted me about three times the price I'd seen her charge for the locals in line ahead of me. Although I had brought enough cash to lock it in, it was the principle of it that turned me off. Also, my original plan was simply to get work done by Whang-Od herself, anyhow. I decided to skip the additional work from one of the nieces and instead I spent the day exploring the village and going to a nearby waterfall.

Exploring the village, I realized quickly how easy it was to get lost. There were so many twists and turns that getting turned around was more likely than not. I came across many grave sites that were underneath the various raised housings. I'd read that Whang-Od's grave site has already been prepared for years now, in what will be a museum dedicated to her and her work. However, immediately after meeting her, you realize just how healthy and vibrant she is. There's something to be said about her way of life, as many elders in her tribe reach above the one hundred year mark in life.

The next day, I waited patiently in the area of the village where she was putting in her trademark work. I watched everyone gather around her, in awe of simply witnessing her in action. Instant goosebumps. It was mostly all Filipinos there, but I did meet another traveler from Switzerland that had come to the Philippines, specifically to visit Whang-Od. I should also note that another feature of her fame is cupping your balls after completing her three dotted signature. In her tribe, the testicles are considered to be the power center of the male human body. In handling your balls, she's getting back some of the energy that she put forth from your initial tattoo.

I was fully prepared and not bothered in the least by this. However, I noticed that one by one, she had been completing her work on different men and not a single instance of ball grabbing took place. I leaned in to one of the locals that could speak English and asked them why she was bypassing that whole ritual. Apparently, due to her internet fandom in recent years, there has been an outcry by some in the west that she's sexually assaulting folks, or just being generally creepy by cupping her visitors balls. After hearing about this response, she decided to end the practice altogether. I would argue that perhaps there's something to her vitality that could be attributed to the ball handling.

In terms of the process and technique of Kalinga tattoos, the set up is nice and minimal. She uses a bamboo stick that's been narrowed down, with a thorn from a calamansi tree affixed to the end of it. Imagine a tiny lime, the size and shape of a pinball, but the inside is basically the innards of an orange. This is a Calamansi. A popular fruit in the Philippines and apparently even its thorns are equally important. The ink itself is made up of a mixture of charcoal and water. After dipping the thorn in the ink, she spends a decent bit of time on one dot, making sure it gets deep enough to become a permanent addition on the skin.

Getting the opportunity to meet Whang-Od and so many other incredible people on this trek was well worth the journey up and I couldn't have asked for a better 40th. I wish her many more years to come and I hope she gets back to grabbing balls in the future. If she kicks it in the mean time, that is on you, internet.

bottom of page