My parents, being the sacrificing providers that they were, haven’t left North America since I was born. Mind you, I have an uncle who has been working for the Foreign Service for longer than I’ve been alive. I thought it was high time we, as a family, paid the Good Ambassador a visit to his current post: Manila, Philippines.
This suggestion, of course, had nothing to do with the mention of the ridiculous house, maids who wash your clothes as soon as they hit your bedroom floor, chefs on call, body guards, drivers and the Good Ambassador’s rumored celebrity status.
My mother’s response: “Well, now that y’all are grown and out of the house, I can finally afford to take the trip!”
|image from homestretch-annie.blogspot.com|
Manila's time is 13 hours ahead of us, and with my layover in Hong Kong, my travel time totaled 20 hours (JFK to HKG was 16, then another 2 to Manila). In coach. Luckily, my magnetic personality and winning smile (read: begging for an upgrade) got me moved to an exit row on a full flight.
Did I mention drinks on the plane were free? Yeah.
. o O (Lady. You have a Louis Vuitton-printed carryon. You’re sitting in coach. And we’re flying to China. You’re lucky they didn’t confiscate that shit before takeoff.)
The flight attendants handed us customs forms to fill out, and, of course, I had no idea what the Good Ambassador’s address was. I was sure that I’d be detained and cavity searched. By a woman. So when we landed, I put my iPod on a fun mix, plugged in my headphones and prepared to stand in the customs line for an hour or so.
As I walked off the plane, the Good Ambassador and two Filipino men, whom I’d get to know as Niles (the head butler) and Brutus (the head bodyguard) were standing at the gate. After exchanging greetings and introductions, I handed my bag and passport to Niles, and we walked out of an emergency exit, directly to a Suburban. Another 2 bodyguards opened the doors for us to climb into the back seat (and they made sure that I never once touched the handle of the door from either side of any car throughout my stay).
Waiting in the back-back seat was the Good Ambassador’s girlfriend, whom we will refer to as the Duchess of Luzon. She and The Good Ambassador were already ready to go to a dinner party at a friend’s house, but they were taking me home to shower and change. And believe me: after 20 hours of traveling, that splash of soap under the arms in Hong Kong’s airport was not cutting it!
It may seem a bit extravagant for a government employee to have a driver and security detail, but first you have to realize 3 things. First, Filipino traffic laws and signs are merely suggestions. For example, there is no penalty for drunk driving. Secondly, the demands of any foreign-service employee are rather insane. And as a top-level officer with events to plan and attend on top of his office duties (i.e., running a damn embassy), there’s really no time for domestic matters. Thirdly, he’s literally a celebrity there. But more on that later.
We fought through the traffic, trailing the advance Suburban’s flashing lights (which I would learn was his own security and not a civic escort) to The Good Ambassador’s Makati residence (in an urban area just outside Manila proper). It wasn’t until we got to the house that I realized there was a security Suburban behind us, too. As much as I wanted to take in the sprawling 1-story’s beautiful woodwork and landscaping, I pretty much got a chance to glance at the pool from the living room on my way to my bedroom (with private changing room and full bathroom). Since I didn’t know what to expect at the upcoming event, I threw on something conservatively stylish.
The Good Ambassador briefed me on the host: Filipino perfume mogul Joel Cruz. He’d made millions selling perfumes, soaps, lotions, linen sprays and other scented products to the masses out of over 400 outlets. Part of his stragegy was to get famous actors and musicians to sign on for their own signature scents under his brand (among them, Charise Pempengco… that Filipina teenager that was on Glee and Oprah and Ellen singing “And I’m Telling You” while throwing the mic in the air and catching it).
We pulled up to a hotel on the bay of downtown Manila and took the elevator up to one of the condo levels. The only way to describe what we saw when we walked into Joel’s front door: OVERTHETOP (all caps, all one word). Gold painted, textured walls with white detail and trim. Crystal chandeliers with disco ball-like mock icicles. A large white tree covered in white and silver ornaments, the likes of which I’ve never even seen (apparently, it was covered in 100 bills of dollars and euros before). A portrait of Michael Jackson in the corner!
Then I met Joel. The first things I noticed: his perfectly flat-ironed, jet-black, layered hair and his 6” heels. Then I realized that the portrait in the corner was not Michael Jackson.
Oh, and there was a band. Now, this condo was a bit larger than an uptown New York City 2 bedroom (his living room was longer and wider than my large living room). And in this space, with about 15 of us at 2 tables, he had a catering staff that was about the size of the guest list and a four-piece band.
And that champagne was easily the best I’ve ever had. I would have asked him the brand, but let’s be real: I couldn’t afford an eye-dropper.
|image from manila.olx.com.ph|
It was mostly Joel’s family and senior officers from his company there. Everyone was extremely friendly, and they all wanted to know how I was finding the Philippines so far.
“Well, I just got off the plane an hour ago, but this is niiiiiiiiice!”
It wasn’t until we sat down at the table that the professional photographers came around. There was quite a bit of stopping between bites to pose, but luckily, the Good Ambassador and Joel, on the far side of the table from me, had most of the photo ops.
It was a beautiful, traditional Filipino meal, most of which I spent talking to Joel’s COO. The whole table had a good laugh when he explained to me what balut was.
Another (very good looking) guest arrived in the middle of dinner, Ronnie Liang. Joel informed me that he’s a popular singer and an endorser of his brand. Ronnie and I talked music a bit (did I mention I used to write pop music?) before he hooked up his backing track and sang “Sway” for us.
Ronnie didn't stay long, which was a good thing because another one of Joel's friends showed up after, started singing with the band and somehow convinced me (after 20 hours of traveling and no warming up) to sing with the band as well. That's definitely not on film.
After a few more
glasses of champagne photos by the
tree, the Good Ambassador, the Dutchess of Luzon and I said our farewells and
piled into the Suburban caravan back to Makati.
After a few more