PHILIPPINES _ Former President Joseph "Erap" Estrada had always maintained that giving generously to friends and forgiving opponents are the secrets to staying young.
But time has a way of catching up with even the most formidable leading men.
Since he entered national politics 25 years ago, Estrada has struggled with the attributes of old age-weight gain, a painful knee here, a cataract there.
He needed some kind of elixir of youth to put to right what nature has put asunder. And to get back on his feet in time "to serve the people," he said which has "no age limit."
So he did it, and is very open about it. What is it?
At the prodding of friends, the 75-year-old Estrada flew to Frankfurt, Germany, last month to undergo fresh cell therapy (also known as stem cell treatment), an innovative albeit controversial procedure where fresh cells from donor animals are injected into the human body to treat diseases or reverse the aging process.
Fresh cell therapy operates under the principle of "like heals like."
The fresh cells from a donor animal's organ are infused into the human counterpart.
Substances in the donor's blood are supposed to reactivate the human body's immune system and defense mechanism, a reaction that would eventually rebuild and revitalize aging tissues.
Blood from unborn sheep
Estrada said he received 14 shots of blood from unborn sheep in his buttocks during the visit. "It was a one-time thing, there will be no follow-ups," he added.
"I used to have insomnia. I can't sleep. Before it was only three hours. Now I sleep better-six to seven hours. So far, that's it," the former President said in an exclusive interview with Inquirer in his Polk Street residence Friday night.
Estrada was told it would take three months before he can experience the full effects of the procedure.
A brochure from the German clinic that Estrada visited claimed fresh cell therapy improves skin tone and complexion, reduces wrinkles, stabilizes mental power and increases "vitality, energy levels and physical power."
A sheaf of papers attached to the brochure had a page containing the computer printouts of the pictures of American pop star Madonna and actresses Sharon Stone and Halle Berry, identified there as celebrities who are "cell therapy patients."
In another page, Estrada pointed to a picture of South African President Nelson Mandela.
Told that his skin looked radiant, the ex-President said: "My skin has been like this ever since."
"I went there just wanting to keep healthy. My knees are no longer a problem since I had my replacement therapy six years ago. My friends said it is very effective. Nothing wrong in trying so I went," Estrada added.
The former President said those who suggested the treatment to him claim they now enjoy more variety in food choices.
"They feel more energized. According to them, they cannot walk a quarter of a kilometer before. Now they can walk three or four," he said.
Estrada noted that fresh cell therapy is becoming popular in the country.
"I know of politicians, businessmen, friends in the Chinese community who also did it. But I'm not at liberty to tell you," he chuckled.
Estrada asserted that the full benefits of fresh cell therapy would be appreciated when he challenges incumbent Mayor Alfredo Lim in the Manila mayoralty race in 12 months.
Estrada said his sons Jinggoy, a senator, and JV, a congressman, are "not so happy" with his plan.
"They insist I have nothing to prove anymore, so why demote myself? As far as I'm concerned, service to the people has no boundaries. Definitely, it has no age limits. It just requires sincerity," he said.
The former President had already commissioned a study by the University of the Philippines College of Public Administration identifying the urgent issues facing the capital.
"There is lack of governance. The city government has no direction. There is congestion. Squatters, double parking in the streets, sidewalk vendors all over. The peace and order situation discourages business. What Manila needs is a complete urban renewal," Estrada said.
Even before the former actor registered formally as a voter in the city, he had already convinced 28 of the 36 elected councilors to switch loyalties and take their oath as members of his Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino.
Estrada initially was evasive about Lim.
"If this is about the councilors going to me, you should ask them why. Although I heard the common complaint that Manila is decaying," he said.
Reminded that Lim used to be his interior secretary, Estrada turned pensive.
"I have forgiven Lim several times. At the height of Edsa Dos, when my opponents wanted to attack Malacañang, he asked permission to fix the police, to see to it that I'm secured. Instead of fixing the police and Malacañang security, his group went and joined Edsa Dos. When President Cory (Aquino) saw him, she said, 'You are too late,'" the ex-President recalled with a laugh.
Estrada said that while he was under house arrest in his Tanay rest house, Lim visited him sometime before the 2004 elections.
"He went there crying and apologizing for what he did to me in Edsa Dos. Gen. Bobby Calinisan witnessed the whole thing. I told him to just forget it. Tapos na 'yan (That's a thing of the past). Before leaving, he asked that he be included in the senatorial lineup of [opposition presidential bet Fernando Poe, Jr.] OK, I called FPJ (Poe's initials). Eh, nanalo (He won)," the ex-President narrated.
Three years after winning a Senate seat in 2004, Lim went back to Estrada, this time to inform the ex-President of his plan to run for Manila mayor again.
"He felt sleepy in the Senate, he was bored with the debates. He wanted action. I guess he was restless. His 'Dirty Harry' image does not worry me a bit. He's already 82. That's why when people discourage me saying I'm 75…" Estrada trailed off.
Throughout the interview, Estrada repeatedly mentioned his frustration and disappointment that his term for President was abbreviated.
"(Then Philippine National Police Director General Panfilo) Ping Lacson already had the peace and order situation in Metro Manila under control. We were already winning the war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The next target was the New People's Army," he said.
Estrada intends to execute what he failed to do on a macro level to Manila. Being the country's capital, it is a reflection of the situation of the entire Philippines. An overhaul is in order, he insisted.
"Imagine a small town like San Juan, I was able to turn it into a very prosperous municipality. Now, it's a city. To think Manila has a P10-billion annual budget. An executive should go out of his way to find ways and means to improve the city," he noted.
The strategy would be to distill Estrada's experience in both national and local governance and apply it to Manila. He stressed he is limiting himself to one three-year term.
Would the Manila mayoralty serve as his closure, a substitute for his aborted presidency? "Yeah, you can say that," he said.
Estrada laughed off questions that he is not a Manileño.
"My father Emilio L. Ejercito served City Hall for 30 long years with an unblemished record when he was appointed chief of the Department of Public Sanitation by no less than President (Elpidio) Quirino," he argued.
"I was born in Tondo, at Manuguit General Hospital to be precise. I became a box-office star from doing movies based in Tondo like 'Asiong Salonga, the Robinhood of Tondo,'" he said.
"I made so many pictures with FPJ-'Tatak ng Tondo,' 'Tondo Boy,' 'Ito ang Maynila,' all box office hits," Estrada recalled.
Concerns about residency have already been addressed through the purchase of an old mansion along Mangga Street in Alturra at the heart of Sta. Mesa district.
Acquired through a bank loan, the house sits on a 5,000-square-meter lot and has 12 rooms constructed in two storys with a floor area of 2,000 square meters.
Since he moved last Wednesday, Estrada has slept in the property only once.
It is still undergoing repairs. The toilets, for example, have to be fixed.
"The house is very historical because when President Ramon Magsaysay was campaigning, it used to be his headquarters. Magsaysay was also a man of the masses so I find that inspiring. The big trees surrounding the property are a plus," he said.
Estrada plans to convert some of the bedrooms into offices to accommodate his campaign teams and strategists.
"I'm more identified with Manila. My public service in San Juan (as mayor for 17 years) should not be used as an issue to dispute my being a Manileño. Think of it, it is only San Juan Bridge that separates the two cities. Manila is very close to my heart," the ex-President added.
He then returned to the subject of forgiveness.
While he was incarcerated, he said a friend gave him a book by Mahatma Gandhi. A quote there struck him: "The weak cannot forgive but forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."
"I had no one to turn to except God during my incarceration. Every day I prayed The Lord's Prayer. We forgive those who trespass against us. I realized, I might as well practice this," Estrada recalled.
Among the estranged allies and supporters whom Estrada reconciled with are the late President Cory Aquino, former Securities and Exchange Commissioner Perfecto Yasay, Ilocos Sur Gov. Chavit Singson, Sen. Manuel Villar, former Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr. and Lacson.
"I wanted to be strong so I can look young. So I always forgive. That's why I have no burdens. What kind of life would it be if I wake up in the morning thinking who I shall get back at? Tatanda lang ako (I'll just grow old). In order to be happy, give and forgive. That keeps me young," Estrada said, smiling.
Once the three-year local term expires, Estrada vows to devote the rest of his life "developing character" among his 14 grandchildren.
"By then, I would be 79. That's enough. Then, I'd just go around helping the masa that supported my films, those who stood out in the rain or searing heat outside movie theaters, waiting to be seated in a surot (bedbug)-infested movie house," he said.