Manila Warfare

I moved to Wyoming from San Francisco 21 years ago for a couple of simple reasons: increased personal freedom; and decreased population. I wanted elbow room to spare. I liked the idea that I could drive with an open container and have a loaded firearm on the seat next to me. Not that I ever exploited those options, but the fact that I could somehow appealed to me back then; when I was much more naïve; suffering from commuter fatigue; and what seemed like too much Big Brother breathing down on me.

As I arrive at the airport in Manila, I see armed guards everywhere. Not the typically bloated and dumbed down NSA employees one usually encounters at most American airports, but rather fit looking Asians with machine guns.

Before making this trip, my friend Mike told me about how he and his bride to be were robbed at the airport upon arrival. Terrorists and kidnappers and thieves, oh my–no joke.

Clearly freaked out by the possibilities of danger, full cavity searches and proper edict when scribing a ransom note, I made sure my liquids and lotion quotas weren’t excessive; and that nothing sharper than my wit passed through the security scanners. Ugh. Not that sharp the machine determined, and so I was in.

At the hotel downtown, it was the same drill. Another dose of X-ray eyes had to blast through my bones each time I re-entered the building. A team of guards rifled through my camera bag while another touched me like it was Friday night. I was only to be in Manila 72 hours, but by the end of the first day, I felt the urge to strike up a cigarette after each session and get his home number. I took to acting giddy when being padded down, chanting: “Show me some love fellas.” Eventually I got a few smiles.

The guards with machine guns would nod, knowing I was okay–not here to pillage or plant unwanted devices in the toilettes. But the one thing I really wanted to do was photograph this process which I’m sorry to say, never happened. I didn’t have the courage. Next time I might, but frankly it is intimidating being under an oppressive eye in a third world country. I almost longed to be back in the frozen wasteland of that empty square that is Wyoming … almost.

On the last day in Manila, I made my way over to the nearby Casino to exchange some currency and prepare for my domestic flight to the southern parts of the Philippines and again, had to pass through the gauntlet of guns and frisky fingers. The one-pound bag of sunflower seeds I’d brought into this land had not been eaten. I don’t know what possessed me to think cracking and spewing shells into a cup on a 17-hour flight next to an annoyed stranger on a plane would work, and so the seeds became a fixture next to my camera–occasionally spilling out and filling a lens pocket.

“Please take these,” I said to the guards as I went in for my last free prostate exam, “my gift to you and your friends. Please share with all.”

You’d have thought I’d brought fine spices from a distant land–treasures beyond measure. The guard smiled wide and waved me on, spilling handfuls into the palms of the others around him. THAT was the best photo I never took.

Once I hit the smaller provinces south of Manila, the sense of being watched by Big Brother, shifted to that of wide-eyed curiosity by some of the most peaceful and gentle souls on Earth. Although impoverished, their constant offer of food and assistance without asking for anything in return made me feel at ease and at home.

Well, more than a few times I did get hit-up with the classic plea, “You got gum Joe?” But shamefully, I didn’t have a stick. If Singapore and the fear of public flogging wasn’t next on my adventure in Asia, I would have stocked up on everything Wrigley had to offer …