Years ago, I interviewed Navy SEAL Randy Hetrick, who, while deployed on a mission and in need of a way to train, came up with the prototype of what would become his massively successful invention: the TRX training system, otherwise known as those black straps with the handles you now see in almost every gym in the world. I use the set he gave me all the time.
One of the things I remember from our conversation was how he said that he and his fellow SEALs were “in storage” waiting for the mission to start. I thought the idea of that was so intensely utilitarian and badass, I wasn’t able to get it out of my mind. Whenever I pick up and leave for somewhere without an audience waiting, I consider wherever I park myself to be the place where I’m “stored.”
This week, I’ve stored myself in Manila, capital of the Philippines.
Once, while stored in Beijing for a few days, I watched a documentary that featured a graveyard in Manila called the North Cemetery. It’s approximately 130,000 acres and its mausoleums hold thousands of the dead. It’s also home to thousands of living people who live in and around the mausoleums. I was fascinated how the living and the non-living mingled so practically and thought that one day I should pay a visit.
Manila is densely populated and traffic barely moves. The taxi ride going to the cemetery was just under two hours; the cost, about $6. I gave the driver a 1,000-peso note, worth a little more than $19. When I told him to keep it, he grabbed my hand and shook it. “Thank you! Happy New Year!”
I walked through the gate, up the main road and, at the second traffic circle, went right. There were mausoleums as well as headstones, laundry drying, kids playing, residents who checked me out with wary curiosity. “Hey! What’s your name?” I would say to them. They would laugh and nod.
I heard music behind me, turned around and saw a hearse coming with a bunch of people walking behind it. I stood on the side to let it pass. It parked a few yards ahead of me. People of all ages gathered around the hearse. Two men got out and opened the back to reveal a white casket. The song blaring from the hearse had an emotional male vocal that steadily rose with intensity. Combined with the heat, the onlookers and the dogs, it made the environment oddly alienating toward the bereaved, who had to wade through the locals to get to the casket.
Two men in sleeveless T-shirts lifted the lid off and everyone leaned in for a look. It was at this moment that I saw something simultaneously sad and beautiful. A woman standing right up front wailed upon sight of the deceased, an elderly man, and her legs went out from underneath her. Relatives on either side caught her before she hit the ground. The purity of her grief was so profound, so human, all I could do was stare. I looked up and saw a young man observing the scene from the top of a mausoleum; his T-shirt said, “Vape it up!”
After a moment, the lid was closed and the casket was carried by the two men into a mausoleum, with the relatives following.
I turned and walked the other way. The further I went, the less friendly the locals seemed to get. A little boy stopped me and yelled, “I’m gonna fuck you up!” over and over. Right after that, a small group of young men in makeup got in front of me and one of them asked me my name. I told him. He asked me where I was going. I pointed up the road and said, “That way.” Then I told them all that they had a great look going and they went nuts. “Thank you!”
I walked for a little while longer and heard the music again. Another funeral. I watched pretty much the same thing happen as I had moments before. After a while, I turned back. The guys in the makeup had left. I made my way back to the main gate in time to see police cars and motorcycles swarm the area. Local news was there to cover it. A reporter recognized me and told me that the police were there to inspect the cemetery in preparation for ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) 2017.
The hotel I’m staying in is crawling with security as a lot of representatives have already shown up. America’s greatest president will be arriving this later this month.
Almost every day, there’s something eye-catching on the front page of The Philippine Star, the newspaper (its motto: “Truth shall prevail”) that waits for me in the morning. Yesterday, below the fold, Ding Cervantes filed a column about Marius Roque, exorcist for the Archdiocese of San Fernando, who warned against the wearing of Halloween costumes as they can lead to demonic possession. He gave as an example “the case of a teenage girl who wore a black lady costume for a Halloween party in San Matias.” After a few weeks, she was brought to Roque’s parish, “her mouth and belly button emitting froth.” In the same story, Father John Hampsch, a psychologist, noted increased cases of “demonic interference” in the Philippines, and people dealing with “serious contamination with the forces of evil.”
The Philippines has a drug problem. President Duterte is retooling his efforts to solve it. This time, he says he’s going to try to keep the killing of drug dealers and users down from the estimated 7,000 from last time around. His most recent initiative was called “Double Barrel Reloaded.” Somehow, Steven Seagal wasn't involved.
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Soon we’ll get that shot of Trump and Duterte finally meeting. Big smiles, best words.
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