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Previously in Atlantic Abroad:

Crossing to Kinshasa (Jeffrey Tayler, Zaire, November 16, 2000).

Among the Ruins (Tom Haines, Serbia and Montenegro, October 27, 2000).

Only Today (Michael Carr, Morocco, October 4, 2000).

Going to Meet Aleksandrovsky (Tom Haines, Ukraine, August 31, 2000).

Snowed-in in Shangri-La (Mike Meyer, China, August 2, 2000).

India's Road Cool (Mike Youngblood, India, July 7, 2000).

Manhood and Bureaucracy in Ozyory (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, June 1, 2000).

Soccer in the City (Erik Barmack, Italy, May 10, 2000).

This Goat Goes to Market (Joshua Kurlantzick, Oman, March 29, 2000).

Monsoon Time (Rahul Goswami, Dubai, March 1, 2000).

Rank Strangers (Jeff Biggers, Italy, February 9, 2000).

Midnight Express (Akash Kapur, Romania, January 5, 2000).

For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad index.

Share your tales of life abroad in Post & Riposte.

December 6, 2000

At Home With Mayor Baby

Every Filipino has a nickname. Imelda Marcos is Meldy; her erstwhile rival Corazón Aquino is Cory. Dingdong was the moniker of a chief justice of the Supreme Court. Grown women are Peachie, Poochie, and Ballsie. Too many firstborn sons are Boy. And a family's youngest is Babes, Beboy, or the ever-popular Baby. I met a high-society, jewelry-dripping, fifty-something Baby Tesodoro in Manila and a militant left-wing priest, Father Baby, in Bacolod. But my favorite Baby of all time is Bernadette "Baby" Escalante, the mayor of Tudela.

Tudela, a tiny town on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, is not a tourist destination, nor is it anywhere near a tourist destination. I traveled there from my apartment in Manila to investigate human-rights violations for an American non-governmental organization. Filipino activists had reported several brutal murders in the vicinity.

Philippine Airlines brought me to nearby Ozamis City, where the mayor and her two teenage sons were waiting to greet me. Mayor Baby, as she introduced herself, was a short, roly-poly woman in her mid-forties who had a mole on her cheek that bounced every time she laughed. And I soon discovered she laughed a lot. But I had lived in the Philippines long enough not to confuse an overly cheery persona with a lack of seriousness or resolve.

"I rarely use this car," she said as we squeezed into a battered blue VW Beetle. "They know it's mine."


"The vigilantes."

From the rear-view mirror a rosary dangled alongside a pine-tree air freshener. We drove out of the airport, past a solitary man standing by the road.

"He's a member of Ongcoy's vigilantes. Ongcoy was just a local thug until the military started giving him Armalites." Armalites too was a nickname, for U.S. M-16 assault rifles. "Ah-ya. Now they shoot suspected leftists. That man on the street shot and killed the guard at my house."

Mayor Baby said that in addition to being Tudela's chief executive, she was the area's only human-rights lawyer and defended many accused leftist rebels. As a result she was on the military's secret blacklist. "Three vigilante groups have me marked!" she told me.

Tudela was twenty minutes away. The mayor's home was typical of the rural elite -- stucco-walled and spacious with touches of waning colonial charm. Mango trees and out-of-control bougainvillea crowded the enclosed yard.

Inside were the usual rattan furnishings, a shrine to the child Jesus, Santo Niño, in the corner, and a piano bedecked with family photos. "That is my ex-husband, Bing. That's my brother Romy; he also is an attorney. The woman next to me? That's Chuchi, a second cousin on my mother's side. She heads vigilantes too."

"One of the groups after you?"

Mayor Baby nodded. "Ah, but they are not so powerful."

We sat down at an intricately carved teak table that was the centerpiece of the living room. I took notes as the mayor detailed killing after horrific killing. Her elderly mother served merienda, the late afternoon snack of tea and cookies, while she passed me color photos of bodies with massive, ugly hack wounds.

"Those responsible are vigilantes called Tad Tad." Mayor Baby explained that they were a fanatical religious group who wore amulets, applied special oils to protect them from bullets, and carried two-foot-long machetes. Tad Tad meant chop chop. She karate-chopped the table twice in case I hadn't gotten the point.

"Jimmy," she said, using a diminutive I had shunned since age five. "No need to worry about the Tad Tad. They commit ritual killings only on Monday and Thursday nights." It was Tuesday.

The younger son, a Lito or Tito, tugged on his mother's sleeve. "Tuesdays and Thursdays, mommy. They kill on Tuesdays and Thursdays." She didn't correct him.

Dinner that evening was a stupefying array of meaty festival fare: Morcon, rolled beef stuffed with vegetables and eggs. Lechon, whole roast pig, shiny and brown. Mounds of chicken fried rice. Mayor Baby happily regaled me with stories of the threats she had received: shots fired at her home by drive-by gunmen; a live bullet received in the mail. Admittedly my appetite waned as I pondered my immediate future. But I gave in to the motherly exhortations to eat -- I would be no less nervous on an empty stomach than a full one.

There was a loud knock on the front door and my mind quickly conjured up an array of unwelcome visitors. The man who appeared was no Tad Tad, fortunately, but with his camouflage uniform and pistol at his side he seemed no less threatening.

"Colonel!" Mayor Baby cheerfully greeted the visitor, who was introduced as Redempto, short for Redemption. The mayor explained that he was one of her friends in the army. I secretly hoped he was our security detail. But if protection was on my mind, partying was on his. He downed shots of whiskey, chain-smoked Camels, and sang bouncy duets on the piano with the mayor. Real crooners, both of them, and talented too, another Filipino hallmark. I demurred on the singing ("Americans can't sing," I insisted), but joined my hosts for the nerve-calming smokes and booze.

It was getting late. The colonel collapsed on a pink loveseat and started to snore.

"Jimmy, you can have my bedroom to sleep," said Mayor Baby. "I will sleep here on the sofa."

"Of course not," I protested. I wasn't a visiting dignitary but a colleague and perhaps now a friend. "I'll take the sofa."

"Ah, no, you don't understand, I never use my bedroom. Ongcoy's gang, my cousin's vigilantes, and the Tad Tad, they…"

"Know it's yours..."

"Yes of course. Don't worry, the bed has clean sheets."

I didn't sleep very well that night. But I did wake up the next morning with all my body parts in one piece.

And I had my revenge on Mayor Baby. A few months after my visit I got her invited to a human-rights conference in big bad New York City. Never was a small-town girl, notwithstanding the dangers back home, more frightened in her life. And no one -- absolutely no one -- called her Baby.

James Ross is currently traveling in Southeast Asia. He has completed a novel, Holiday in Cambodia.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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