NOTL Writers’ Circle
Some still call it the greatest fight in the history of boxing. Muhammad Ali called it the “Thrilla in Manila” when he defeated Joe Frazier for the world heavyweight boxing title in 1975.
I remember how people around the world huddled in front of their TV sets to watch the drama and brutality of that powerful encounter in Manila. All else I knew about the capital city of the Philippines was that it was a steamy, impoverished, overcrowded city and that now, my oldest son lives there.
Matthew met my husband Bill French and I at the airport with a smile, a bouquet of orchids and an agenda that would keep us on the run. Historic sites, museums, vibrant markets, specialty shops, churches, parks, jeeps, motorcycle sidecars, ferries, snorkelling, jungle hikes, Indigenous villages, exotic resorts … we’d hardly have time to breathe, but we’d do it all. The grand finale was a plan to hike a nearby lake and volcano.
On a crowded plaza outside a Catholic church, we watched tarot readers, candle sellers and amulet dealers work their trade. Matthew bought us agimats — triangular-shaped amulets, “for protection from evil forces,” he said.
To prepare for our hike, we had dinner at the spooky Filipino Agimat Foraging Restaurant and Bar in “Party Town” to set the mood. To the sound of pounding congos, masked servers chanted and carried in our specialty cocktails. Flaming, red hot, and steaming – unlike anything I’d ever seen in NOTL.
“Wow!” The exotic spectacle overwhelmed me. “They look like erupting volcanoes!”
I did my best with the food – Balut (Duck’s Eggs) and Pork Crackling, Pigs Ears Terrine, Ox Tongue … When I closed my eyes and swallowed more magical drink, everything went down easier.
Afterward, we stepped out into the hot, darkened street to head back to our Airbnb. Odd. Something was falling on me! Was it raining? Why was it black?
Bryan, our Filipino friend and guide, stared open-mouthed at the big TV screen in the open bar behind us. Wide-eyed, he interpreted the terse Tagalog newscast.
The Taal Volcano had erupted. Behind us, jagged flashes of lightning ripped the southern sky. People on the street rushed by, umbrellas raised to shield themselves from the ash fall. We donned face masks.
Frightened and clutching our agimats, we grabbed a taxi home. Nothing in our intensive pre-trip planning had prepared us for this. We were on the ropes and watched helplessly as the TV pounded us with terrifying images.
Over the next few days, air flights were cancelled, schools were closed and a large zone was evacuated as poisonous fumes and ash destroyed homes, livestock and farms. The surrounding lake disappeared, over 700 earthquakes occurred and large-scale damage was inflicted. Police blockaded the displaced communities.
Our planned hike up the volcano was knocked out and for many, it destroyed a way of life.
We scanned the papers from home and abroad, aware that our location and situation was one of the top world news items. Other stories became trivial in comparison with the devastation in the capital area of the Philippines. Our special restaurant, the Filipino Agimat Bar, started a drive for humanitarian relief.
Like a cocky prize fighter, the restless volcano simmered and steamed, daily threatening to inflict more violence.
Spellbound, we watched from our safe corners a distance away. Once again a heavyweight power captured world attention. Despite our protective charms, no human magic could negate the heavyweight power of nature to create a new, and terrible … thriller in Manilla.