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The simple, soft side of Duterte

Twenty-seven years ago, I sat with Mayor Rodrigo R. Duterte through many breakfasts, lunches, and dinners – listening to his plans, poring over documents, and balancing issues which needed his attention first. Those were heavy topics that started his day and to give him energy for the long day ahead, he started with a simple breakfast of fried bananas and tinolang native chicken, downed by strong black coffee.

I was then his Deputy Mayor (1989 to 1996). For breakfast, I would bring a stack of documents that needed his attention to his house. Those were requests for his presence, complaints on government services, project proposals from private organizations, and sometimes but not often, a thank you letter for his attention getting a job done.

It did not cross my mind then that today, the simple mayor who I’ve never seen eating bacon, croissant, or pancakes, would be the 16th President of the Philippines.  I will likely never have another chance to sit and enjoy coffee and boiled bananas for breakfast with the man who taught me many things about helping the poor. But I will have the rare honor of knowing the simple and soft side of President Duterte.

MB FILE - Philippines' president Rodrigo Duterte/ AFP PHOTO / MANMAN DEJETO

MB FILE – Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte/ AFP PHOTO / MANMAN DEJETO

Working with Mayor Duterte always started in his kitchen where I had coffee while waiting for him to start his day. Still vivid in my mind is a scene of me having maruya while the mayor read through the papers I brought.  His comments showed signs of exasperation that he could not help everybody and attend to all that needed to be done.  And yet, he did not look forward to retirement, even running for re-election. He said there was still much to be done to help the poor.

Sometimes, he would give a long sigh and say he was tired of being mayor, while he munched a boiled banana dipped in bagoong.

Lunch with the mayor was more simple food. I remember the first time he invited me for lunch, and I followed his pickup to a carinderia in a poor area.

The owner of the carinderia, Manang Sana excitedly barked at her helpers: “Nia si Meyor Rody! Pag andam og kalabaw na tapa og hinalang na sabaw (Mayor Rody is here. Prepare the carabao tapa and spicy carabao meat stew).”

I learned that the menu was Duterte’s favorite which attracted him to eat there when he was a prosecutor, mayor and congressman. It didn’t take much time for me to enjoy the same menu and now I find that the shredded tapang kalabaw has become my comfort food.

The lunch would open a discussion forum with the common people, I soon learned.  Duterte would talk to the people who gathered around him, and he offered them lunch, too.

Today, Sana’s Carenderia still stands where Duterte had found it. Once, it was under threat of demolition because of the property’s legal issues. Meanwhile, Manang Sana has taken on a celebrity status, with several television stations interviewing her about the President-elect’s food choices, especially the tapang kalabaw.

The mayor is now a busy man and his visits will be rare, Sana said.  But she understands that the simple mayor has gone to become the country’s president.  Meanwhile, she is happy to welcome his children – Sara and Pulong – who still pass by to eat their father’s favorite food.

With pride, Sana told me that there are 25 local and international chefs who are scheduled to watch her cook her now famous Kalabaw na Tapa, Hinalang, balbacua and tenolang manok na bisaya.

“The mayor has been kind to us since the late 1980s, that is why we campaigned hard for him,” she said.

Sana is only one of the thousands of people in Davao who have fond thoughts of having shared simple moments with the country’s next President.

Another would be a jeepney driver (whose name I did not get) who drove Mayor Duterte to a special event one fine morning.  The mayor had suddenly remembered that he would be delivering a speech somewhere, so he went out of city hall and hailed the first jeepney that passed by.

Sitting beside the surprised jeepney driver, Duterte made himself comfortable, and started a conversation.  Meanwhile, I followed him on my motorcycle and watched him have an animated conversation with the passengers. That was classic Duterte.

In my heart, I remember the mayor’s face in tears while he held a child bathed in blood, a victim of a grenade explosion in the bombing of the Davao San Pedro Cathedral in 1993.  But that is not the only time I saw the mayor shed tears. There were times when children with cancer sang for him, and the time his daughter Sara passed the bar.  Of course the public had seen him also shed tears recently, when he visited his parents’ gravesite the morning after the elections when the partial counting had shown that he would be the next president.

Just before I left city hall, I had lunch with him in a place he refused to divulge, only asking me to follow him. We headed to the vicinity of San Pedro Hospital and I followed him deep in a dense urban poor community. Along the way, I could hear people saying “Ang atong pinalangang meyor, ania!”  Then to my amazement, we ducked into a dilapidated carenderia to eat inunonan isda and ginataang mongo.

Who would have thought that the man I followed around for many years would take his oath of office as President of the Philippines about two weeks from now?