Note: This is the second in an occasional series of chance encounters I’ve had with famous people while traveling. The first was with anthropologist Margaret Mead in Kenya as she hesitated to cross a busy Nairobi boulevard.
Several years ago I was in Manila, capital of the Philippines, and in a bit of a funk.
I was traveling with a group of journalists and we had just finished dinner at a mediocre Chinese restaurant that was located in a nondescript mall way across town from our hotel –a two-hour bus ride, or should I say crawl, away. (Without traffic it would have been maybe 20-30 minutes, but Manila traffic is notoriously brutal.) The dinner was as bland as its surroundings.
As we walked back to the bus all I could think about was the long return ride that awaited. Our Philippines Department of Tourism guide was leading the way when he stopped, turned around, and excitedly addressed our group.
“You won’t believe this,” he said, “but that’s Imelda Marcos coming this way. Would you like to see if we can meet her?”
Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines, married to the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, famed for her lavish spending on clothes — especially expensive designer shoes, of which she was reputed to have 3,000 pairs?
That Imelda Marcos?
Why, yes. That’s the kind of event that could turn a chow mein and egg roll buffet into a Peking duck banquet– something I could write about!
Imelda Stops to Chat
The guide approached Imelda, who was accompanied by several steely-eyed bodyguards, and asked if she would like to meet some American travel writers.
She graciously accepted. We all introduced ourselves and stammered through a few innocuous comments and questions. What, exactly, does one say to one of the world’s most notorious women, who had been accused — along with her late husband — of possibly looting the country’s treasury of up to $10 billion while many Filipinos lived in poverty?
When Ferdinand Marcos was deposed in 1986 after 20 years in power , he and Imelda fled the Philippines — having to abandon her prize shoe collection in the closets of the presidential palace, where they became a symbol of her extravagance — and lived in Hawaii until his death three years later. Imelda had then returned to the Philippines, where she was convicted of corruption in 1993 before her sentence was overturned.
She had since been elected to the Philippines’ House of Representatives and regained a measure of respectability. Now 86 years of age — she was in her late 70s when I met her — she remains a glamorous figure, beautifully clad and coiffed. She was wearing green that evening — quite a dressy outfit, I thought, for dinner at the mall. But then you never know when paparazzi or camera-wielding American travel writers are going to show up.
It’s All About the Shoes
Still, as we chatted about the Philippines — “There are lots of not good things happening in our country, but the people are very warm,” she told us — I couldn’t stop thinking about those shoes. Three-thousand pairs! (She claims it was more like 1,200, and that many were gifts from foreign dignitaries.)
I desperately wanted to look down to see what shoes she was wearing, but after my last question we had made eye contact. Couldn’t she look at someone else for a moment? All I needed was a glimpse.
Then someone else asked a question and she turned to answer. This was my chance!
I glanced down at her feet. She was wearing flip-flops! Albeit green flip-flops to match her dress, and rather flashy ones at that, but nonetheless — flip-flops.
I then looked up, to find Imelda glaring at me. Her expression said it all: these **** journalists — all they care about is my shoes! I’m sure I looked guilty as charged.
After a few pictures were snapped, our little gathering broke up shortly thereafter. We went our way and she went hers — in flip-flops.
You might also like: Close Encounters on the Road: Margaret Mead