Bulletproof and Back from the Grave
In one of the guidebooks someone wrote some to the effect "Manila is not a series of landmarks, rather a series of anecdotes." This is a slight oversimplification of things, of course, but if you are at all familiar with World War II history, you are aware that the Japanese bombed most of what would be considered landmarks in Metro Manila, leaving the current architectural landscape relatively modern in nature- besides the ruins of the walled city of Intramuros, many guide books overlook Manila in favor of putting emphasis of the considerable ecotourism that lies outside of Manila and on other islands in the archipelago. My tour has been less of the site-seeing and more of the personal connections made in the art scene.
Although I find my self comfy and cosy here near middle class digs around Ateneo University in a very safe part of town, Wild Tales of the Nitty Gritty still come up in conversations here- they are both sensationalistic and also a reflection of the bloody past Filipinos have endured from the beginning of their written history.
One of the most compelling subjects I have heard about, through anecdotes and historical reference, is that of the Mystic Warrior, people who fight beyond the level of mere mortals through worship and using amulets imbued with the power to protect the warrior from death.
The islands of Mindanao and the Jolo island chain have always been a wild frontier in the minds of Filipinos, containing some of the most biologically diverse jungles and unspoiled nature as well as rambo-like warriors who have withstood attacks from several generations of assailants with much greater resources at their disposal, including the United States. To this day, for a Westerner to travel to parts of Western Mindanao or the Jolos is the best way to come back home headless in a body bag.
Jeremy, one of my many hosts here in Manila, served as vice-mayor during one of the more unstable times in the Lanao Province on the island of Mindanao, and was the only Christian politician in a Muslim area. He, of course, needed to win of the trust of Muslims in his area, and he was successful in this, fighting for the rights of the Muslim population by acting as a liaison who moderated skirmishes between rebels and the Feds. As a result of his deeds, he had what seems to be unparalleled access to rebel units living in the jungles around Lake Lanao- he had actually accompanied an international reporter as she covered a MNLF unit, living with them for a month.
Mindanao, an area that for anyone who knows anything about Filipino politics knows is a region of great strife between the Muslim population and the Christian settlers who were given premium lowland acreage for farming in the Western half of the island. This appropriation of land forced farmers into the surrounding hills and jungles to form guerilla fighting units that coalesced into political entity currently known as the as the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front), a splinter group from the late sixties formed MNLF (Muslim National Liberation Front) that through the years have had an on-again, off-again peace/war with Federal troups, depending upon the whims and political favor that could be gained by sitting presidents.
The US government claims ties between MILF and Al-Quaida, and this seems to more reality than illusion.
From our first conversation, Jeremy has known my interest in Mindanao, and he's shared many anecdotes of that time with me, a couple of which relate to this idea of the mystical warrior- he's a believer who is also an eye witness to this kind of Crusader:
Jeremy was walking the main drag of a small town in Lanao with a Muslim bodyguard from the MNLF and they were ambushed by a would-be Christian assassin- Jeremy explained the scenario in what seemed to be a very populated center of town- he hit the ground when he heard gunshots, and turned to see his Christian assailant empty a magazine of bullets into his bodyguard, literally blowing him away into a nearby vendor stand. After a moment of lying apparently dead, the Muslim bodyguard rose from the ground and approached the assassin who had left him for dead- he in turn emptied a magazine into the assassin, felling him. Incredibly, and Jeremy swears up and down on this point, the assassin then opened his eyes after being shot, scrambled to his feet and ran from the scene!
The other was an initiation ritual that he witnessed while living with a MNLF rebel unit- to prove their imperviousness to injury, an initiate put his bared arm out on a large table, surrounded by unit leaders. One of the members, armed with a bolo knife, would approach the initiate and with a mighty plunge, would strike him across the arm hard enough to spill mugs on the table- instead of a gaping wound or amputation, the arm would only the signs of a pressure line on the arm, you know that kind of white line and indentation that you would get if you would, say tie a rubber band around your arm when you were a kid. Nothing else. How this was possible, or how a human could prepare themself for this is still unknown to Jeremy, and me for that matter.