Reporting from General Santos City, Philippines — The five-car convoy heads south, warning lights flashing, weaving dangerously around the ever-present, slow-moving civilian traffic and on toward the province of Sarangani and its most famous resident, Manny Pacquiao.
There will be a political rally at 3 p.m. and Pacquiao will be the star, much as he is in the boxing ring.
The convoy includes Pacquiao advisors, managers and friends, as well as his famous boxing promoter, Bob Arum. It also includes members of the media. Once the domain of mere sportswriters, Pacquiao now draws no less than the Asian bureau chief of the Times of London.
Pacquiao is arguably the biggest name in boxing, having just been honored as fighter of the decade by the U.S. Boxing Writers Assn. In March, he drew nearly 60,000 people to the new stadium built for the Dallas Cowboys, fighting someone who had little chance of beating him.
In his last 12 pay-per-view fights, he has gotten 6.25 million people to spend at least $50 to watch him, generating $320 million in revenue. But as big as he is in the United States, he is even bigger in his home country.
When he travels about the countryside, it is in a bulletproof van. In this Pacquiao procession — minus Pacquiao — two police officers are present and packing. That is mostly for Arum, whose fame and worth greatly exceed that of the rest of the caravan.
If that seems excessive, it could be noted that, last November, several hours to the north in Maguindanao, 57 people traveling in a convoy were ambushed, slain and tossed into a hastily dug grave, where they were covered with banana leaves. Their sin, apparently, was to become part of a group that was traveling to file papers to run for election. Several members of the family that was set to oppose those filing are now in jail.
Of the 57 who were killed, 34 were journalists, 12 from Pacquiao's birthplace and main residence, General Santos City. Those 12 are buried in a special plot surrounded by a brick walkway at a cemetery less than five minutes from Pacquiao's house.
An election-related incident such as this is less surprising here than most places. This country is election-crazed, even though the consensus is that many results are tainted.
The political system is modeled on that of the United States, with an elected Congress and Senate. Pacquiao is running for a congressional seat. In 2007, he campaigned for one in the larger General Santos City district to the north and lost, 60% to 40%.
"Last time," Pacquiao says, "I started just a month before the election. This time, I am better prepared."
Pacquiao is running against Roy Chiongbian, who is from the family that owns the most land in the district. Chiongbian, who at 61 is 30 years Pacquiao's senior, is running to replace his brother, who is leaving office because of term limits.
The trip snakes through beauty and beasts. There is ocean and beaches on the left, much of the way, and oxen, dogs, cats, horses and cows wandering about, occasionally down the middle of the highway. It is a barnyard in paradise. The convoy is heading to the far southern reaches of the island of Mindanao, two hours from General Santos City, which is a 90-minute flight from Manila, the heart of Mindanao and the country.
Pacquiao's house, surrounded by others but larger, is also surrounded by people. They are on the patio, in the driveway. Inside, every room is crowded. It is 2:15 p.m. and the convoy party wanders about, some settling in a room adjacent to a closed bedroom door. Pacquiao, a noted night owl, is inside, asleep.
Pacquiao sleeps through the 3 p.m. rally, and it becomes a 4:45 p.m. rally. Pacquiao's wife, Jinkee, emerges first and answers a few questions. She looks shy and tired. She says she dislikes her loss of privacy but that Manny likes lots of people around him, so she has no choice.
Pacquiao emerges, smiling his magic smile. He says, "I believe I can be a great politician. If I can make it as a boxer, why not in politics?"
He also says, "I think they should vote for me, because in my heart I really want to help them."
At the rally a few miles north in Kiamba, Pacquiao, the star of the show, speaks forcefully, much more so than in interviews. He gestures, changes inflection, pumps his fist. Like any good politician, he builds the crowd to a fever pitch. He speaks in the local dialect, one of seven he knows. Nobody on the stage behind him, including the Filipino media, has any idea what he is saying.
The stage is a dirty wooden platform, with three peeling white plywood squares indicating speakers' spots. Children wiggle their way to the front of the stage, as close to Pacquiao as they can get. They have come to see their hero, somebody larger than life. A later translation tells members of the convoy that Pacquiao told the crowd he was once like them, that he was poor, that he wanted to help them make it too.