It was early this month when I logged on to Facebook and saw myself tagged by three different friends to the same article by a prominent New Zealand publication. The headline read: “Philippine president Duterte to visit Auckland.”
These were non-Filipino associates of mine who all knew who President Rodrigo Roa Duterte is and are very aware of his reputation. Knowing that I am a politically-aware Filipino living in Auckland, they rushed to inform me of such a development.
I cannot deny that I was excited to hear of such news, not because I was a fanatical supporter of the president but because I knew that there would be much fanfare surrounding his visit.
Ever since he got elected last May, President Duterte has regularly featured in international headlines. From his firebrand demagoguery to his very vocal critique of prominent world leaders such as Barack Obama, the Filipino head-of-state has etched his name in global affairs.
For the first time since perhaps the era of Ferdinand Marcos, when the eccentricities of Imelda would garner international attention, the Philippines has a leader that is recognisable throughout the world.
This is not necessarily a good thing, there is such a thing as infamy of course. Basing it off media narrative alone, Duterte’s fame can be attributed to his notoriety. But what I saw first-hand on the day told a different narrative.
A day before the purported visit, I was told that I had a relative on Duterte’s management staff. This presented me with a chance to meet the much-acclaimed Philippine president, and I did not waste the opportunity.
I immediately got in touch with my relative and in exchange for showing him around Auckland, he agreed to allow me to meet President Duterte.
This meant going to the Langham hotel in the Auckland CBD, where Duterte and his staff were staying. When we got there at 10 p.m., there were approximately 10-15 other Filipinos waiting in the lobby with the same intention that I had.
This did not surprise me, I had seen many photos earlier on social media of fellow Auckland Filipinos charging the Langham trying to do the exact same thing.
I was informed by my contact that from the moment they arrived in the morning, to when the entourage left again in the afternoon there were scores of supporters camping out the hotel lobby.
The president and most of his entourage were having dinner at the Sky City, I later found out that he also met New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully at the same venue.
We were patiently idling at the lobby, hoping to – at the very least- catch a glimpse of the president when he returned from supper.
The moment finally happened two hours later, just after midnight New Zealand police officers and suit-clad Filipino men and women entered the hotel lobby – and Duterte was right behind them.
The hotel lobby erupted in cheers. The Filipinos that camped out, myself and my family included, jumped out of our seats and began snapping photos with the president.
To my amusement, there were several non-Filipinos as well – hotel guests who were also at the lobby – reaching out their phones taking photos alongside us.
I later found out that these non-Filipinos were also waiting for Duterte themselves. One of them told me that he was a fan because, “he [Duterte] is the Filipino Donald Trump.”
I was also amazed by the eagerness that everyone in that lobby had, asking the staff if we could get a photo opportunity with the president. To my relief, everyone was allowed to have a photo with the president – despite the jet lag and fatigue that he surely have felt that time.
Yet what really astounded me was the lengths that people went for a meagre few seconds with the president. That was a Tuesday night, a work night, and it was past midnight when Mr. Duterte arrived yet they stayed.
The experience was a testament to Duterte’s landslide victory in the last general elections – the man inspires people, not just us Filipinos, but even foreigners.
When I posted the photo with the president on my social media account, several non-Filipino friends I had expressed their jealousy – “I wish I were you!”, most of them told me. Not only did they know who he was, they adored him.
And while I started that day as a neutral, neither a supporter nor a hater of the president, I left that night as an inspired fan – at awe with his ability to inspire people.