HEAR NO EVIL
HH and I started right off on New Year’s Day. The shipping line was falling into place and my presence would soon be required in the Prince’s part of the planet.
Since he had already visited the States, a return engagement seemed only just. After all, fair is fair.
My stay would be an extended one. A great deal had to be settled before I left the country. I also had to stop by Canada on the way out the door and pick up some last minute documents. After having been ‘domestic’ for a while, it felt good to know that I was going back on ‘international.’
The Prince and I spoke daily. As my departure approached, HH began to let me know, bit by bit, that our circumstances were going to be unusual. We would be living rural, not urban.
We would only head to the Metropolis when it was needed. We would be living ‘incognito.’ In my multitude of sojourns, I had packed for cold weather, hot weather, business and pleasure, formal and informal. However, I had never packed for ‘incognito.’
The Prince informed me that living ‘incognito’ was safer. All of a sudden, ‘incognito’ worked for me. Big time.
On February 4th, 1997, the Abu Sayyaf Group fell off their pedestal and assassinated the Catholic Bishop of Jolo. It was a long fall.
HH and I agreed not to discuss it over the phone. We would wait until we were together. It was ‘safer.’ I was beginning to dislike that word.
I set off for Southeast Asia. My visit to Canada was brief and initially unfriendly. For the first time in eons, I had a run-in with Canadian Customs. After visiting over a hundred different countries during my 25 plus years on the road, I had developed the mistaken perception that I had been certified as a ‘non-entity,’ a ‘person of non-interest.’
Perhaps it was my ‘incognito’ clothing. It got interesting for a while. We finally got everything sorted out and I went off to meet my associate. It was good to see him again. It had been quite some time, probably in Moscow.
Having collected the documents, I returned to the airport. Leaving Canada was infinitely easier than leaving. No fuss, no muss.
A couple of days and a passel of hours later, the plane touched down in Southeast Asia. The Pacific has not shrunk much in my absence. Arriving at 6:00 o’clock in the morning after an eternity in transit had never been one of my favourite pastimes. I was looking forward to a hot shower, cool sheets and a long sleep.
HH and his entourage met me at the airport with some unpleasant news. We had just enough time for me to grab a shower and change clothes before we all headed off to meet with some government officials. This was NOT what I had planned.
The meeting was typical. The Prince, myself and a gaggle of government goons went to great pains to speak in gibberish on a myriad of non-germane issues.
Having decided that hey had donated a sufficient amount of time to the non-issues, the bureaucratic buffoons mercifully ended the meeting after a mere four hours of doubletalk.
HH, his entourage and I headed back to the hotel. When, most of the entourage followed the Prince and me back to my room, I was a bit surprized. His Highness explained that he never slept alone. Henceforth, nor would I. This was going to take some getting used to.
The following day, after another round of government gabble, we headed out to the hinterlands. Fifteen hours, a taxi, bus, boat and care later, we finally arrived, in the dead of night, on home turf. It gave new meaning to the word ‘rural.’ The concept of ‘incognito’ was beginning to sink in.
Despite the lateness of the hour, no less than 50 people turned out to greet us, complete with banner. This was ‘incognito?’
A caravan was formed and we moved out. People with guns were hanging off from every vehicle. This was ‘incognito?’
The compound was concrete, solid and secure. It was also heavily guarded. More bodyguards blossomed upon arrival. It turned out that I was the only person not ‘packing heat.’ Even HH has a ‘piece.’
After extended introductions, I was taken to my quarters, which was somewhere between austere and Zen. Reinforced concrete was an architectural must and all the rage. This was another aspect of living ‘incognito.’
Having been shown the sole amenity, we finally retired. Sometime during the short remainder of the night, Mother Nature called and I responded. Walking out my door, I stumbled over a body and flew across the hall. I had understood that I would have bodyguards. I had not understood that they would sleep across the front of my door. This was living ‘incognito.’
The following morning, we received our assignments: i.e. which bodyguards were to be assigned to whom. I was assigned Dante, Boy, Odo, Hakim and Abdul. Dante and Boy spoke some form of English. The rest did not. Dante took lead.
Dante had been a bodyguard for a Princess in Saudi Arabia for many years. She had committed the unpardonable sin of touching him in front of a third party. She got sent to her room without supper. He got sent to jail for 12 years.
Dante was also known as “Mad Dog.” Apparently, in the past, one of the critters had bitten him. He had bitten back. Dante was vigilant, faithful and THERE. Going to the bath became a group event. This was living ‘incognito.’
Boy was anything but ‘incognito.’ He had his molars had long since parted company. It made his English rather unintelligible. He was small, feisty and vocal. Since I rarely understood what he was saying, it didn’t matter much what he said.
Odo was young and lethal. I had boots that were older than he was. He had no English and little sense of humour. His ‘day job’ was with a group which violently disagreed with the Manila government. The nine notches on his gun belt testified to the fact. With the possible exception of Dante, I felt the ‘safest’ with Odo.
A routine was quickly established. Short of the weekly cold shower, ablutions were kept to a minimum. No running water or electricity shortened the process.
We always traveled in a caravan with outriders. The preferred time of travel was nighttime or early morning unless business necessitated a daytime excursion. This was living ‘incognito.’
Since I was the only “white guy” within a hundred mile radius and we traveled by caravan; we did attract some attention. We endeavoured to it to a minimum and overall, we were pretty successful. This was living ‘incognito.’
A few weeks into my stay, HH and I had an evening intelligence meeting with our security team. The security team kept us apprised of who and who wasn’t in the neighborhood. All strangers and non-identified locals were fully checked out. There were a lot more people out there protecting us than I had or ever would see.
After the ‘formal’ meeting, we relaxed over drinks. Odo produced a beaded black-and-white necklace from his pocket and through a not-so-talented translator informed me that I should wear it. I attempted to explain that I had given up beaded necklaces in the late 60s when I had joined the military and moved to Southeast Asia. Uncle Sam had frowned upon beads and bangles and all forms of jewelry. Odo spoke briefly to the translator, who said nonchalantly: “this will keep you from being killed by accident.”
My black-and-white beaded necklace immediately became my favourite piece of personal adornment. At least, now I knew that it I was killed, it would not be ‘by accident.’ It would be on purpose. Being killed ‘by accident’ seemed so wasteful somehow. I drew comfort from that fact. After all, this was all part of living ‘incognito.”
The Prince always seemed to have a lot of visitors. Most of them arrived and/or left during the night. Some stayed for a short while; other for several days. Since none of them spoke English, I usually remained in the dark unless HH cared to share the moment. This was part of living ‘incognito.’
Whenever we went to the Metropolis, we changed bodyguards. Dante, Odo and the others were better suited to Mother Nature’s jungle than the asphalt one. We traveled light, usually with only one of two men, and then collected more in the City. The Prince had folk everywhere. This was part of living ‘incognito.’
Election season had already begun when HH and I made one of our fifteen hour, care, boat, bus and taxi treks to the Metropolis. Just before we left the depot, uniformed men got on the bus. They were checking for guns.
Apparently, guns were outlawed during the national election season. It somehow affected the voting and/or the candidates. Before the law was enacted, successful candidates had the habit of showing up dead a couple of days before the election.
Women were sacrosanct. ‘White guys’ weren’t. I was extremely frisked. My doctor hadn’t given me such a thorough checkup in years. This inspection made the security procedures of El Al look like a Brownie initiation. I guess that this was part of living ‘incognito’ during election season.
During one of our down times, Odo and I had another one of our three-way conversations, this time concerning his ‘day job.’ The government took one position: Odo’s group took another. Their differences were usually settled by guns, bombs and mortars. It was a very interesting day job.
Since I had made it through my first month alive, without a serious case of jungle rot, Odo had decided that for a “white Guy” I was O.K. He opened up a bit.
Down the path, some children were flying kites. It reminded him of something which he proceeded to share.
Kites were very popular and very useful. Odo’s group used them for communication. When the ‘federales’ (government troops) were around, the children flew a certain coloured kite. When they were not around, the children flew a different coloured kite. Certain colours denoted certain things, like troop strength and/or location. I was lead to believe that more information could be reflected in the kites.
Odo became silent. I respected that. He probably would have had to kill me if he had told me everything. It was interesting living ‘incognito.’
Another month into my stay and my birthday began to loom large on the horizon. Normally, my birthday was privileged information which I kept to myself. Unfortunately, glitches in my visa had made my natal day a matter of common knowledge. Since there were enough Christians and/or heathens in the entourage, a party was planned, despite my objections.
On the evening of my birthday, food, music and alcohol flowed freely, accompanied by a few requisite speeches and many toasts. Everyone had a good time. The party ran into the wee hours of the morning. This was a pleasant part of living ‘incognito.’
The following morning arrived earlier than usual, bringing bad and sad news. My main bodyguard, Dante, had died just after the party – of natural causes. Since he was one of the few Christians in the group; I, as a fellow practitioner, would be the Official Representative for HH, his family and his Clan.
In the Prince’s neighborhood, there were neither funeral homes nor embalmers. The female family members prepared the body while the male members made the coffin. Equipment was rented from special establishments so ‘vigil’ could be held in the home of the departed.
Multi-people funerals were held once a week. There were no exceptions. Dante had died on Tuesday. His funeral was to be held on Saturday.
By the time our caravan arrived, Dante had already been laid out in the ‘living room.’ A battery of tapers blazed on either side of the coffin. Incense pots, holding joss sticks, were strategically placed around the room. Dante’s family must have worked straight through the reminder of the night to get everything set up in time.
‘Vigil’ ran 3 to 4 hours a day, depending on who you were. Since I was the Official Representative, Chief Pallbearer and the only resident “White Guy,” my presence was required more often and for a longer time than most of the others.
It had been decades since I had lived in the Tropics and attended a funeral. I had forgotten what 95 degree heat with equal humidity could do to the process of decomposition. The dozen tapers, burning in the small concrete room with little to no ventilation, did not improve matters.
As the days aged, so did Dante. I soon became the incense Vendor’s most valued customer. He had thoughtfully moved his cart to a convenient location just outside the entrance. I could pop out, buy a bunch and pop back into the room without being missed. Towards the end of the day, the Vendor and I had agreed to settle accounts on a daily basis. It took too long to swap change back and forth.
Finally, the day of the funeral arrived. I was truly looking forward to the funeral. I had begun to wonder if I was going to outlast the ‘vigil’ or if the ‘vigil’ was going to outlast me.
Because Dante had been in the Prince’s employ, an additional set of protocol was intermeshed with the local ritual. HH’s caravan was melded into Dante’s cortege. Weapons were holstered out of respect for the dead.
Since the Prince’s religious persuasion precluded him from entering the church, I, as the local ‘White Guy,’ lead the squad which carried Dante from the hearse into the church. Head in, feet out.
Either way, we managed it do it correctly and placed Dante on two sawhorses which had been set up in the middle of six other caskets. Dante had been given top billing. In my opinion, he had deserved it.
My squad and I took our pre-assigned seats and the service began. Fortunately, the services were not conducted in English. That had saved me from giving the eulogy.
The service lasted forever. Handling seven funerals at one time took longer. At least the church was open air with cross ventilation. There was some crying and wailing, especially from one young women sitting towards the back of the church.
Finally, the service ended. Since Dante had been the last one in, he was the first one out. The attendees all remained in their seats. The squad and I headed up the steps to close the lid of the coffin and prepare to take Dante back to the awaiting hearse.
The young woman, who had been weeping and a-wailing in the back, jumped up from her seat, flew down the aisle and up the steps and threw herself across the coffin.
Fortunately, we had been able to close the lid before the attack. Since Dante’s wife was sitting in the front row; I knew who this young woman wasn’t.
I told the Deputy Chief Pallbearer directly across from me to have one of the squad ‘gently’ remove her. This ‘White Guy’ was not going to be grappling with any local woman in public. ‘Gently’ didn’t work. It finally took several squad members to pry her fingers loose and then escort her down the steps.
The squad reassembled. I was on the left side of Dante’s feet. We picked up the coffin and began heading down the steps. The wailing woman rebounded and once again, threw herself across the coffin. This time there were no sawhorses to hold Dante up, just we six pallbearers.
Dante had no been the smallest of fellows on two feet. He had stood about 6’ 3”. The rest of us stood well under 6’. The impact and weight of an extra flailing body did not help matters. Divine intervention was the only explanation as to why we did not drop Dante.
The pallbearer immediately behind me let go of the coffin. The other pallbearer and I stabilized our side while our third member wrestled the girl off the coffin and hustled her once more down the steps. The ‘wrestler’ returned, resumed his position and once more we headed out; this time at a faster clip.
It was worse this time. We were half way down the steps when the wailing woman hit again. Since we were speeding Dante out of the church, she misjudged her leap. She only partially hit the coffin and then proceeded to slip under both the coffin and my feet. To make matters worse, she then grabbed me around the waist. Visions of that evening’s news headlines exploded in my brain:
“White Guy tramples local lady.”
“White Guy drops (and desecrates) coffin of respected local citizen.”
“White Guy depantsed at public funeral.”
Help finally arrived from Dante’s family. Three of his male kin rode to the rescue and forcibly hauled off the wailing woman. It had become extremely obvious that the six pallbearers could not control one wailing woman and carry a coffin simultaneously.
Once the wailer was gone, the squad reset its bearings and headed down the aisle at a faster-than-sedate pace. As I looked towards the doors, I saw the Prince standing in the center of the doorway. He was holding his sides in silent laughter. I was less-than-thrilled that he found it so royally amusing.
The rest was a piece of cake. We made it successfully to the cemetery. In the Prince’s part of the planet, they did not plant people in the ground. They placed them on top and built a mini-mausoleum around the coffin. After fighting off the whirling wailer and successfully hauling Dante out of the church; a little cinderblock and cement were child’s play.
Four or five days later, we all trooped back to the cemetery and picnicked on Dante’s tomb. As I understood it, this was his ‘bon voyage’ party. Dante was beginning his journey to wherever he was going.
The wailing woman was not present. I kept checking to make certain that she didn’t show up.
Funerals in the Tropics were highly overrated.
Later on, HH and I made a few more treks to visit certain people, some of whom the Bureau would have designated as “persons of interest.” We finally wended our way back to the compound.
The governmental part of the shipping line was not going to be settled before I left. I would therefore need to plan on a second round of living ‘incognito.’
Just prior to my departure, Odo came to see me and we had another of our three-way conversations. He asked me to find him some ‘seven-colour’ pants. I could not fathom what he was talking about. I kept envisioning the bottom half of some vintage 1980s polyester pantsuit.
We finally sorted it out. Odo wanted ‘camouflage’ pants in jungle colours. I had never counted the colours, even during Nam. Odo was right: there were seven colours. Who knew?
Having finished my finals rounds of farewells, HH and I headed for the international airport. This was one of the few times that I did not mind clearing emigration hour early or heading directly to the executive departure lounge.
In air-conditioned luxury, I quickly divested myself of my clothing and took the first hot shower in many months. It was glorious. I leisurely dressed and basked in the filtered air conditioning while I savoured succulent western appetizers. Later on, even the plastic food on the plane tasted good. It must have been one of the perks or living ‘incognito.’
During our long time together, the Prince and I had been able to have in-depth conversations about Abu Sayyaf, the situation in the Southern Philippines, terrorism in Southeast Asia, the Catholic-Muslim problem in the Philippines, the Malay-Indian-Chinese problem in Malaysia and the Christian-Muslim/stability/East Timor issues in Indonesia.
HH gave me a brief synopsis of the situation in the southern Philippines. Before independence, the southern Philippines (Mindanao, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and Sulu) were predominately Muslim. After independence, the Manila regimes transmigrated millions of Christians into the region. Islamic ownership of land fell from over 75% to under 17%.
The Moros (Muslim Filipinos) reacted, establishing the Moro National Liberation Front in 1971. The MNLF fought for the complete independence of ‘Moroland’ from Manila and the re-establishment of the Sultanate of Sulu which had ethnic and family ties with North Borneo and Brunei.
When the MNLF gave up the battle for independence, disgruntled members formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The Abu Sayyaf Group was reconstituted in the early 1990s after its leader had returned from fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. From inception the ASG had always been the most radical of the three groups.
All the racial problems in Southeast Asia had their roots in economics. At one time, improved economies could have repaired the problem: now, it would take more than economics to repair it.
Until our talks together, I had never understood that beneath all the hustle and glitz, Southeast Asia was basically a small, multi-tribal town. For HH, everything fell into on of two groups: family and non-family. Since the size of his family was probably only rivaled by that of the Royals Saudi clan, most everything dealt with or around his family.
Abu Sayyaf was no different. Part of his family was and had been involved in the ASG since the beginning. It did not seem to make a difference that the ASG folk were twelfth cousins, eleven times removed, though his great-great-great-step-grandfather on his mother’s side.
I was amazed that he even knew of them, let alone knew the nature of the relationship. I had finally come to understand how he could say what he said and do what he did.
Family was a whole different concept in Southeast Asia. Family was everything and took precedence over everything else.
Some of Dante’s family had spend 3 to 4 days in transit to attend his funeral. Everybody had shown up. How many people in America would have spent 3-4 days hopping buses and ferries to attend a distant cousin’s funeral?
Southeast Asia was different. It was a good ‘different’ in this case.
The government had been tardy and tacky with the shipping line. Nonetheless, the months spent with the Prince and his clan had been priceless. It had been well worth the investment in both time and money. It had even been worth living ‘incognito.’
Later on that year, Uncle Sam finally awakened from his stupor and took notice of his surroundings. On October 6th, 1997, the Abu Sayyaf Group was formally designated as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.”
When I informed the Prince, he became ecstatic. He was certain that Uncle Sam would now take him up on his three year old offer of ‘dismantlement.’ I did not hold my breath.
It was a good thing that I didn’t. Asphyxiation had never been one of my favourite ways to cash in my chips.
About this time, Osama bin Laden came out of hiding and began issuing his infamous Fatwas. Apparently, ‘Holihood’ had gone to his head.
HH waxed eloquently on the subject of bin Laden. It began with a specific desert beast-of-burden, its natural byproducts and rapidly ran down hill from there. The Prince detested bin Laden and it showed.
The Prince did agree with ‘Father Fatwa’ on one point. They both believed in bombing in general and nuclear bombs in particular. They differed totally with one another on the optimal target.
Bin Laden had selected the White House, the World Trade Center and America. HH has selected bin Laden and whoever else was within a hundred mile radius. I gathered that ‘Islamic Brotherhood’ ran only so deep. From what I could ascertain, the two of them should not perform Hadj at the same time. Neither Mecca nor Medina could handle it.
The year came to a close. The Prince and I exchanged our customary New Year’s best wishes and closed communication for the year.