The day If-Pe-Ji (FPJ) visited and charmed my hometown

by Bibeth Orteza
Dec 22, 2019
Here’s a pic of three guys now sharing a beer in heaven, taken from when FPJ and Eddie Garcia visited Chiz Escudero’s Tatay Sonny, who slipped and fractured his elbow in a men’s room of a restaurant in Catbalogan, Samar.
PHOTO/S: courtesy of Bibeth Orteza

Hello, po. Welcome ulit to Labandera Chronicles.

I am still in New York.

This is my third and, for this year, the last of my FPJ pieces, again from the article I wrote for Rogue Magazine in 2016, “Remembering FPJ’s Campaign.”

On board with TAPE, Inc. and Eat Bulaga!’s Tony Tuviera and FPJ scriptwriter Manny Buising in the FPJ media group that put ideas for FPJ ads together, I wanted to do more.

So when one day in January of 2004, I was informed by FPJ spokesman, Congressman Chiz Escudero, that I’d be master of ceremonies in sorties and rallies in Borongan, Calbayog, and Catbalogan in Samar, Tacloban in Leyte, Bacolod in Negros Occidental, and La Union for FPJ’s campaign for the presidency, I immediately said yes.

For this trip, we went by helicopter three times. Twice on the same day, from Tacloban to Borongan, then from Borongan to Calbayog.

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From Calbayog we went by land to Catbalogan via the Maharlika Highway, then we took the helicopter again to Tacloban the next day.

FPJ fretted in the closed van assigned to us, for the road trip to Catbalogan. He kept squirming in his seat, “People won’t see us here. They won’t know we’re inside. Sayang.”

His sighs got longer. And louder. Finally, he told the driver, “Erap, ihinto mo.”

The driver did as told. FPJ went down. We all did.

FPJ paced the highway, his forehead deeply furrowed, making a plan he didn’t share with us. He stepped aside to let vehicles pass. Then from a distance, he saw a truck coming through, with an open load bed and wooden railings. He rushed to the middle of the road, flailing his arms.

The truck pulled to a stop. I recall the driver’s jaw falling down, in disbelief. Was this THE FPJ before him?

FPJ asked to rent the truck, a room in a nearby house to serve as holding place for the goods the truck driver was originally transporting to Catbalogan, and got the truck driver’s services, too. “Erap, OK ba sa iyo kung ikaw na rin ang magmaneho sa amin?”

By now the other vehicles in our convoy had arrived. Up we went the truck. We’d suddenly become a much bigger group of around 20.

Suddenly out there lining the Maharlika Highway, from Calbayog, passing by Sta. Margarita, then Gandara, then San Jorge, were people. People who came from literally out of nowhere, running in from stretches of forests, of trees and more trees.

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Where did they come from? From whose houses? From what communities? How did they know FPJ was passing through, in pre-smartphone days, when the phenomenon of every barrio folk and his mother having a cellphone each had yet to take place?

FPJ stopped the truck only twice on the way to Catbalogan.

He chatted with the owner of a horse and then in the next town, the owner of a carabao, both of whom had “FPJ” painted on their animals’ bodies. “Water paint man la iton,” they reasoned out in Waray, then promised to wash the paint away before the day was over.

We reached Catbalogan a little over two hours, from Calbayog, at around 4 p.m. The plaza was so crowded, I wept openly to see my birthplace welcome my president, wept even more when I saw older people in the throng crying as well, heard them shouting his initials out, the only time I didn’t laugh at my ig-kasi Waray’s talent at mispronouncing, interchanging “i” for “e” and vice-versa: “If-Pe-Ji! If-Pe-Ji! If-Pe-Ji!”

Soon as he heard that, If-Pe-Ji turned to me with twinkling eyes.

November of that same year, he visited me in the hospital, when I had a mastectomy.

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Three weeks later, he said goodbye. He was just too good for this world.

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Here’s a pic of three guys now sharing a beer in heaven, taken from when FPJ and Eddie Garcia visited Chiz Escudero’s Tatay Sonny, who slipped and fractured his elbow in a men’s room of a restaurant in Catbalogan, Samar.
PHOTO/S: courtesy of Bibeth Orteza
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