Ben Keller, International Man of Mystery



With apologies to Austin Powers, I write to you this week from Alabang, a thriving financial district in the greater Manila metropolitan area.  I figured since Roger wrote about home in last weeks blog, I figured I’d write about the furthest I’ve ever been from my home.  This is my second ever visit to the Philippines, and I’m struck by both the significant differences in daily life here, as well as differences in the process of investigations and security protocols.

The culture here represents the many influences from Spanish rule, Western colonization, and Japanese occupation.  The history of those influences is a violent one.  At the US Embassy in Manila, you can see bullet holes still in the flagpole, remnants over a disagreement between US and Japanese forces about who should occupy the embassy.  One of the most striking things is the sheer contrast in wealth.  My hotel is a typical high end place, with spacious rooms and a marble lined lobby.  Going out the west entrance, it looks like the financial district of any large U.S. city.  But on the east side, one sees a wide expanse of dilapidated lean-to shacks and hovels.

The Spanish influence is obvious, from local surnames to the food, and especially the language.  The primary local dialect, Tagalog, is replete with modified Spanish words and phrases.  A common greeting (the one I opened this post with) is “kumusta.”  When I did my research before coming here, I read and memorized the word.  But it was only when I got here and heard it in common usage did I realize that it descended from the Spanish “como esta.”  Words and language are a source of endless fascination to me.  Go figure… this is a blog site about writing!

From an investigation standpoint, I’d have to say the people here seem to adhere to more Asian cultural norms.  Personal space is not a huge priority:  my experience on a crowded train last night led to a level of physical contact with others that under other circumstances, I would have referred to as “second base.”

Eye contact is another huge difference.  Most of my interrogation and deception detection training suggests that avoiding direct eye contact may indicate a lack of truthfulness.  Not so here.  Prolonged eye contact in this culture can mean presumption of intimacy and can be downright rude.

Keeping people safe from harm is a major concern here.  Radical Islamic terrorist cells have found their way to the Philippines, particularly in the southern islands.  Each election cycle brings scores of violence and politically motivated assassinations.  And fueling the fire is Rodrigo Duterte, the recently elected President.  When he’s not calling for the outright murder of criminals, he’s bragging about his own violent past, claiming to have dropped someone from a helicopter.  We Americans simply can’t imagine what it’s like to have elected a President who shoots off his mouth irresponsibly with bluster and braggadocio… wait a minute…

While I’m here, I’ll be reviewing security protocols at a number of different types of buildings:  office plazas, hotels, personal residences, and more.  I’ll be meeting with representatives of the Regional Security Office from the U.S. State Department, and a Special Agent from the FBI’s local Legal Attaché.  Finally, I’ll be comparing notes with counterparts and experts in international intelligence.  The goal is to make sure everything possible is being done to keep people safe.

And when I think about it that way, I realize that the culture here isn’t so different after all.  People just want to be safe.  They want to do their job and spend time with their loved ones, all around the world.  On my last visit here, I spent a lot of time with one of my colleagues, a Filipina, and I learned more about her daily life.  She and her family live in a heavily Catholic area.  It’s very family-oriented.  They have frequent carnivals and celebrations, when not dodging a frequent hurricane.  They like to eat a lot, especially flavorful variations of unique seafood dishes.  And they drink a lot of beer!

They would fit right in among my people in South Louisiana.  And that’s a good thing!

-Ben Keller


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