My first visit to the Philippines was in December 1983.
In 1982 my father had married a Filippina nurse he met on a festival somewhere in Germany. She had been living and working in Germany already for some years before they met, so, for the sake of the feminists among you, she was no mail order bride. Do you guys of this age of filippinocupid.com even know what a mail order bride is?
But anyway, my stepmother was 47 at that time, never been married before and was eager for my father and me to meet her family in the Philippines. And boy, family did we meet!
Her maiden name was Abono, which, as they were quick to explain to me, means fertilizer in English. “That´s why we are so many!“, they joked.
The days were filled with an endless array of new names and faces. Suddenly I had more relatives in the Philippines than in Germany!
Me in my bespoke barong tagalog (courtesy of my stepmom) in the colonel´s house in Mandaluyong in January 1984 with relatives (photograph of an old print)
Very quickly I learned, that my stepmother was the grand dame of the family, having paid tuition fees and given so much support to her nieces nad nephews, the duty of the balikbayan.
Me, being a single child, I was very impressed with the sheer numbers of relatives I met, her eldest brother alone had twelve children and with him being much older than my stepmom, his eldest daughter was only a few years younger than she was.
He was a retired colonel of the Philippine army, who had fought already against the Japanese in WW II. During his later career as an officer he had one driver who married his second daughter.
So this former driver went on to become a lieutenant-of-staff for then-president Marcos.
He showed me his albums full of pictures of him and Marcos on foreign visits, he was the one responsible for checking Marcos´ plane and other security-related matters.
He sometimes drove me around in Manila in his jeep and my easily impressed 19 year old heart was very happy, to get an insight into the Philippines not many tourists get.
I was friends now with one of Marcos´ bodyguards, how cool was that?
So one day, he invited my father, my stepmom and me to see his workplace which happened to be Malacañan of course. In those days the palace was not open to the public yet, so I got in there even before Mang Pinoy was able to have a look.
We went inside without being searched, because we were the bodyguard´s relatives, so I made it into the lion´s den armed to the teeth with my Swiss army knife.
Now, I didn´t see Imelda´s shoes or some other outrageous stuff.
He brought us to some kind of representative hall with impressive wooden carved furniture, and my father and my stepmom took turns, sitting in Marcos chair and taking pictures of each other.
I´m sure, for a simple Filippina this must have been quite something, suddenly getting to sit in the President´s chair.
I myself refused though, because though still young, I had done some reading on Philippine politics and considered Marcos a dictator in whose chair I didn´t want to sit.
Suddenly the door flung open, but it was not Marcos entering the room but a livried servant with some refreshments on a silver tray, cookies and orange juice, if I remember correctly, but more than 30 years have passsed since then, and Marcos, his bodyguard, the colonel, my dad, my stepmom, they all have passed too, only me surviving to tell the tale.
“Unfortunately, Mr President is not here today, otherwise I would have loved to introduce you to him.“, the bodyguard said and I was quite happy about that. Being the young, revolutionary hotspur I was in those days, I cannot say what would have happened, if me and my Swiss army knife had met Marcos. I might have changed the course of Philippine history, who knows.
My next visit to the Philippines was in 1987, a lot had changed then.
One of the most important values for me is freedom of speech and I think that had improved a lot.
For example, when I went into my favorite bookstore in Manila, Solidaridad book shop on Padre Faura in 1983 and asked the lady there wether she had a book about the NPA, her eyes widened, she stared at my fearfully, looked around hastily wether anybody of the other customers had overheard our conversation and said „No, no we don´t have this kind of books here.“
That was the moment I knew I was in a dictatorship.
When I visited her again in 1987 she sold me the book!
When I asked her if she remembered me, she smiled and said „Yes, but times are better now.“
The bodyguard did not go to Hawaii with Marcos, but of course Cory didn´t want to take over anyone of Marcos´ praetorians, so he got laid off and was dabbling in electronics when I met him again.
Being inside the palace during Marcos´ last days as president he had quite some interesting stories to tell, remember, those were the 80s, no internet, no wikipedia, but a few days ago, wikipedia helped me to verify his story.
He told me that Marcos´chief of staff, General Ver, had wanted to let loose the tanks on the EDSA revolution and the airforce on the rebel soldiers but that Marcos had ordered him to stand down.
So, whatever people think about Marcos, many of my Filippino relatives were Marcos supporters at that time, at least he prevented probably thousands of deaths with his decision.
When I asked my relatives what they thought about the new Aquino administration, I got one of the best answers ever about regime change and one that describes one of the core problems of Philippine politics pretty accurately:
“The old guys had their pockets full already, the new guys still need to fill them.“