Too good an excuse

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The day the Pope came to town...

Submitted: December 11, 2011

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Submitted: December 11, 2011

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The Philippines is the largest Catholic country in Asia, so when Pope John Paul II visited the country in January 1995, hundreds of thousands of people descended on Ninoy Aquino International Airport to greet him. Understandably, the hysteria and excitement surpassed anything the most famous of rock bands might have expected, and the police estimated around 3.5 to 4 million people turned out on to the streets of Manila to catch a glimpse of His Holiness as he made his way into the city.

At the time I was the Editor-in-Chief of Expat Newspaper in Manila and, like every other Editor-in-Chief in the city, I had sent one of my reporters and a photographer to the airport to cover the story. The rest of the country had taken the day off so I did the same, and just after lunch I got into my car and headed off to meet some fellow atheists for a very pious beer drinking session at one of our favourite hotels in Makati. Of course the traffic was chaotic beyond belief and every intersection seemed to be in a state of total gridlock as the superbly disciplined and very polite Filipino drivers gave way to each other and patiently waited their turn. Very soon my patience was running low and I was worried about missing my share of the beer, so I decided to allow myself to take some liberties with the traffic laws. As I passed through a red light behind four other cars that had done the same thing, a traffic cop leaped out into the road and waved for me to stop. I decided to ignore him and carried on along the ten yards of open road in front of me, before stopping behind the other outlaws who had jumped the red light in front of me. At that moment I realised that ignoring him had not been such a good idea in the circumstances, so I looked in my rear view mirror and, sure enough, there he was sauntering up behind me, using his best John Wayne walk, sporting  mirror Raybans, baseball cap and all. He flipped the cover off his traffic ticket pad as he walked and reached towards his breast pocket for a pen. It became all too clear that valuable beer drinking time was about to be wasted. I searched my mind quickly for an excuse… Then I got it – I reached into the glove box for my press pass and hung it quickly round my neck as he tapped on the window.

“I’m sorry officer” I said, holding up my pass for his inspection. “I am a journalist and I’m on my way to the airport to cover the Pope’s arrival but this traffic is making me late!” He leaned down and inspected the pass. Then he took off his Raybans and and inspected it more closely. He looked at the picture then looked up at me, then repeated the same neck exercise several times. Eventually he gestured for me to give him the pass, told me to pull my vehicle over to the side of the road and walked back to the intersection to consult with his colleagues. I waited in my car, trying to calculate how much my transgression of the law might cost me and wondering if my excuse might actually work and get me off with nothing more than a warning. After all, he hadn’t even asked to see my driver’s license – which was a good thing because I didn’t have one.

A few minutes later, to my utter disbelief, the cop and one of his colleagues pulled up next to my car on motorbikes. He leaned towards my window. “Follow us, sir” he said, “we will escort you to the airport.” My jaw slowly dropped as they positioned themselves in front of my car and waited for me to follow them. Oh no… I had no choice. They had no blue lights or sirens but they blew their horns and motioned with their arms for the traffic in front of us to part, and the drivers dutifully and miraculously pulled over to let us through, like the Red Sea parting before Moses. I followed them to the airport, swearing all the way, and when we got there they found me a place to park in the staff car park. I got out of the car quickly, intending to say thanks and make good my escape as soon as they were gone – but no such luck. They walked me to a staff entrance where several police and security guards were stationed, and the one who had stopped me spoke secretively to the oldest guy with the most ribbons on his chest and the most spaghetti on the peak of his baseball cap. The old guy looked at me suspiciously over the cop’s shoulder. “What is your name sir?” he asked. I told him and he double checked it on my press pass. Luckily I passed that little test and he was convinced. “Come with me sir”, he said and started off towards the staff security check point. When we got there he nodded at the security guards and motioned for them to let me go through. “My man will stay with you sir” he said, and indicated for a policeman standing next to him to go with me. Next thing I knew my police escort and I were in the back of the airport with hundreds of members of airport staff, looking out of a huge window at the vast expanse of tarmac upon which Pope John Paul II would shortly set foot. I was well and truly screwed. It was then that I realised I didn’t even have a pen or a scrap of paper to write on, not to mention a camera. I tried to look studiously and knowledgeably out of the window while pulling my best “seriously interested reporter” face, hoping that my policeman would eventually get bored and disappear. Thankfully, after about half an hour he said “Excuse me sir, I must go for my break now.” I gave him a suitably disappointed look then graciously granted him permission to leave my presence. As soon as he was out of sight I walked quickly to the exit (which thankfully was nowhere near the entrance where medals and spaghetti still lurked) and headed for the car park. I arrived at the hotel to meet my friends just as the Pope was kissing the ground at the bottom of the aircraft steps. Many millions of people would have loved to have had the chance to be that close to Pope John Paul II – but I chose San Miguel!

A few days later I found out about the “Bojinka” plot, a plan devised by Moslem extremists to blow up the Pope that day, utilising a one of the faithful dressed as a priest to get a device close to him. The plot was only discovered because the terrorists’ flat mysteriously caught fire and the bomb making paraphernalia was discovered. How different that whole day could have been for everyone.


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