REVERSED PUNCH: From the outside looking in to a Speaker’s lavish birthday party

I had no second thoughts when his eminence, Serafin “Jun” Ledesma, Davao’s most senior journalist, called up to say he was picking me up on the way to Tagum City.

He said he had been invited by no less than House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez to his birthday celebration and that he was told to bring along one of the guys.

The date was January 12 and that the day’s affair was to wrap up a three-day celebration that saw a train of dignitaries, national and local officials and supporters trooping to Tagum’s City Hall to pay their respects to the House Speaker. The main guest was President Rodrigo R. Duterte himself.

We lost no time joining the queue of guests who were asked to register upon entry.

In that queue, I spotted several cabinet secretaries, department heads, members of the House of the Representatives and local officials. Some had packages with him while some brought bottles presumably as gifts to the Speaker.

I learned later that several foreign dignitaries in fact showed up, taking advantage of the several flights bound in and out for Davao City. To accommodate the guests, several vans were hired to ferry them straight to Tagum City.

Following procedure, Jun and I presented ourselves at the media desk for registration and clearing. His name cleared out but mine did not. I showed my press card that identified me as associate editor of Edge Davao but it was turned down.

So I told Jun to proceed and that I would have to wait for him outside. And with that, I stepped out and took a seat at a concrete structure that served as a bench, in the company of security people and escorts.

Jun tried to locate the Speaker but failed by the sheer size of the gathering that filled the main hall. He said later it would be impossible to get close to the Speaker considering the thousands of people that filled the hall.

My plan to ask the Speaker a couple of questions, given the chance even if it would take the whole night to wait, fizzled out into the night.

With that popped out the opportunity to size up him at close range. It was back to square one in so far as comparing him to some of his predecessors, as I remembered the likes of  Ramon “Monching” Mitra, Jr., Jose De Venecia and Prospero Nograles with whom I had the chance to interact with in the past.

And how would he stack up as a PDP-Laban heavyweight to such PDP-Laban hard cores as Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, (the late) Rey Magno Teves and Cris Lanorias with whom I brushed elbows in the past?

On a personal note, will he not take the initiative as a House Speaker of the Republic of the Philippines, in burying the hatchet with erstwhile buddy Rep. Antonio “Tonyboy” Floirendo once and for all?

All that was water under the bridge as Jun and I headed back to Davao City.

Yet there is no denying the cloud that hovered over the event. That it was by far the most expensive and longest (it took three days) birthday celebration tendered by a member of the Duterte official family.   That government officials and foreign dignitaries have to fly all the way from somewhere just to pay their respects in Tagum City. That three flights have been actually chartered just to ensure the flow of dignitaries and guests.

It was an act of extravagance that was plain as day. In an island where nine of the country’s 20 poorest provinces are located, the affair stacks up as an anomaly. It mirrors in part the gap that separates the majority of Mindanao’s residents who are poor and the few who are very rich, the dichotomy that continues to breed poverty, underdevelopment and extremism.

If he was pleased or if he was displeased, President Duterte did not show it.

And if some of the Chinese dignitaries who came noticed it too, they were the perfect guests not to show it.  Yet probably one or two must have wondered (in Mandarin translated to Tagalog): “Aba’y masyado namang en grande and handaan na ito. Akala ko ba’y naghihirap ang bansang ito?”