The culture around Manny Pacquiao, even as he trains at an altitude of 1,500 metres, proves so uncommonly warm and welcoming that, as an interloper, you can begin to dread your eventual leave-taking. Somehow after only a few days around all these people-who-like-people, the thought of departure seems akin to some melancholy last day of school.
It could be that Manny's younger brother, Bobby, himself a former professional boxer, gently pats you on the shoulder each morning before joining the workout even though he has seen your face only about thrice ever.
It could be that the characters around Manny prove so open and vivid that they hurriedly become familiar, as in, "Wow, that Buboy really has some comic timing."
More on the Manny Pacquiao Story
• Interactive: The Manny Pacquiao story
• Part one of the Pacquiao story: In Mannyland
• Part two of the Pacquiao story: Unchanged by fame
• Part four of the Pacquiao story: A farewell to Mannyland
• Manny Pacquiao's greatest fights
• Pacquiao's promoters keen to push through fight in Abu Dhabi
• He's the best, but Manny Pacquiao is still learning to be better
It could be that only three days in, smack amid jumping rope, Manny spots you on a bench and gives you a sideways wink-and-grin as if knowing you since his days making 150 pesos (Dh12) a day selling iced buko - frozen coconut - down south in the city of General Santos, his home from the age of 10 to 15.
It could be that Manny's childhood friend and assistant trainer, Buboy Fernandez, takes you to his favourite restaurant near the slaughterhouse for kilawing and bulalo and sublime mango, never mind that kilawing means "goat".
It could be that Fernandez cracks up the table while explaining to Filipinos that in Las Vegas, you can drive up to a chapel and get married in 15 minutes and, if you reconsider, drive back around and get divorced in another 15.
Or it could be that seemingly anyone can become part of the Manny culture, such that one day at the mall with Manny's chosen Starbucks, a security guard supplies a pat-down at entry and says suddenly: "Why aren't you with Manny today?" Whatever, you can know that when you return to the less-jovial world, you will miss things grown familiar, even that sound of a stealthy Manny slapping his chums hard enough to cause sharp winces and mass guffaws.
You will miss the dawn-time game at Manny's hotel, with the roosters crowing and the reporters watching to learn if Manny's departing vehicle will turn left or right to foretell a run at the lake or in the mountains. You will miss the chase in the white truck of the Philippines television network GMA, with the excellent cameraman, Darius Bajo, and the excellent reporter, Sheilla Finuliar, for Manny knows them and jokes with them and tires not of them and apologises if forgetting their names.
You might even miss standing around watching Manny do lurid abdominal crunches before gawking spectators, or the ongoing physical pranks Filipinos call "lambing" according to Bajo, as when Manny's friends sneak up and yank each other's shorts or sneak tree branches into each other's hoods.
In Mannyland come moments of actual enchantment.
Here at a packed cathedral high above Baguio City, Manny has gone to 3pm Mass on Sunday, and he has sat in the front row in his yellow-and-white polo shirt, and the priest has acknowledged him twice, and he has nodded gently in gratitude. Now the whole Manny apparatus leaves 45 minutes later, and the champion edges out, greets fans, climbs in to the black Cadillac Escalade and disappears behind tinted windows.
Around the other side at the exit driveway, fans have massed three-deep on both sides of Manny's vehicle. It slides on by. So if you have seen a hundred major athletes slide on by in a hundred fortified vehicles, you get a goose bump when Manny yanks open the sliding door, leans out, pivots and waves to everybody. What superstar does this?
And here at the hotel at dawn on a Monday, reporters wait but so does a newlywed Filipino couple, Anna Palawan, who works in Toronto, and Domingo Rigor who works in Khartoum. Third-grade schoolmates who lost touch, they reunited on Facebook and married two months later. They learned of Pacquiao's presence in Baguio and altered their honeymoon for some Manny-viewing.
Within moments, they will be up in the mountains, viewing Manny emerging over ridges as he runs, standing three feet away for the abdominal crunches, posing with him for a photograph, putting Bobby on the telephone to say hello to Palawan's brother in Toronto.
And here at a beautifully kept running track on a Tuesday, people stand on nearby ridges and stare at Manny running. Word spreads to police students, who pour out of buildings to a fence and stand, occasionally cheering.
Just then, Manny's star Jack Russell terrier, Pacman, goes tearing away from his handler, Noel Lautenaco - a Manny friend from his Manila days - and across the track infield toward Manny and his fellow runners, joining the jogging scrum and bounding along in front. It wreaks a roar from the prospective police.
All around, you meet people who share glimpses of Manny. This guy here in blue running shorts, a graphic designer who is 54 and runs like he is 29, has helped start Baguio's first marathon, and back in September 2009 as Pacquiao prepared to fight Miguel Cotto, this Philip Pacle turned up in Baguio's Burnham Park for a jog.
"That was a Monday," Pacle says. "September 27th. Five days after my birthday. I'm doing stretching. I saw his car. As soon as he started to run, I just go with him. 'Good morning, Manny, how are you?' 'I am fine.' 'Where are you staying?'
"Who am I to speak to him like this! But we have a good conversation, five rounds [around the lake]. When someone is with him, he will make sure he will run faster. And that others are left behind. But I am not left behind. I was with him."
Manny liked that, and so: "The following day, again we met, but I was one-and-a-half hours late. He saw me, and he said, 'Why are you late?'" By now Pacle graces the Manny tapestry, welcomed right in.
And this guy here with the businesslike countenance and the sturdy build, this would be Alex Ariza, Pacquiao's Colombian-American strength-and-conditioning coach. He says that at first he had trouble getting Manny to take any rest, that Manny possesses extremely unusual balance that lets him punch from quirky angles and that, well, "I think he'll die in there before he'll give up. He'll break your will before you'll break his. And I think that's what he does to fighters."
Ariza also will tell you that even though Pacquiao's mushrooming fame since decking Ricky Hatton in May 2009 has thwarted their nights out for billiards and karaoke, "I guess the best way to describe him is just to keep it short and to say he's the kind that will give you the shirt off his back." And: "Still the same guy." And: "He's still the jokester." And this one here watching Manny play basketball yet again is Nonoy Neri, a mainstay from the early days of the 1990s whose manifold tasks include holding Manny's feet flat during crunches, wiping his sweat, weathering his slaps and waking at a ruthless hour.
"I wake up at three o'clock in the morning every day, except Sunday when I wake up at five," says Neri, 42, from Davao City. In the hotel kitchen, "I start making the food. I cook three different meals for Manny. Every day you think, 'What is the best food for Manny?'"
That day, it had been a "beef soup" with "cabbage, potato, beef."
"He treats me as a friend, as an older brother," Nonoy says. "Very humble. It's good, the heart."
Bajo, the GMA cameraman, says he feels welcome everywhere around Manny, that sometimes Manny has grabbed his camera and tries to do the shoot himself, and: "When his dog's inside his room and when he plays around with his dog, you can see him play like a boy," Bajo says. "He rolls around with his dog."
A reporter from Manila says Manny serially asked about his ill father. Brother Bobby says Manny does get mad sometimes but never sustains it. Freddie Roach, the trainer, says Manny once ignored him for two days because Roach would not divulge the informant who told of Manny and friends playing darts until 2.30am in Los Angeles. Roach wondered if Pacquiao would fire him. He did not.
And as if all that did not paint enough humanity in this storytelling wonderland, in walks Bob Arum, the 79-year-old boxing promoter with the riveting candour and the voluminous memory. For the former, he regales Filipino reporters by referring to one boxer's wife as a "witch" and for the latter, he places Pacquiao's up-from-stark-poverty story in perspective.
"Manny is unlike any fighter I've ever promoted, including Muhammad Ali," Arum says, "because if I tried to invent Manny's story and Manny's history, people wouldn't believe it because it would seem to be a corny Hollywood movie. It's something that has resonated around the world.
"I mean, you cannot imagine how everybody around the world knows Manny Pacquiao. … I've been to dinner parties with people that didn't even watch the sport on TV, and they know Manny Pacquiao. And they're fascinated with him because of his story. It is so unique."
The distinction of Pacquiao's resonance, Arum says, could be its appeal to the entire Third World.
By now, your brain might swim with the characters and stories and concepts, yet you happen by David Rodela, Pacquiao's Mexican-American sparring partner from California, in a corner of the gym. In August, Rodela got married. The following week, Pacquiao asked Rodela if he had bought his wife a house. Rodela said he was saving. That night at dinner, Pacquiao wrote Rodela a cheque for $9,000 (Dh 33,000) for the down payment.
Rodela and his wife Eileen moved in by December. Rodela loves the curved driveway, the wood floors, the backyard palm trees and the karma, for there is a new pregnancy and an ultrasound which shows the fetus with dukes up as if boxing.
No, really. Yeah, this place could be hard to leave.
Sport columnist Chuck Culpepper and sport photo editor Mike Young spent six days at Manny Pacquiao’s training camp in the Philippines, meeting the world champion and the getting to know the people, places and culture that shaped him.
This is the third of their four-part report, which will continue until Tuesday.
Culpepper is an award-winning writer from the US who spent several years in London, researching and writing an acclaimed book about Portsmouth football club. He has been with The National since September.
Young has a passion for photography of sports events and the people involved. He joined The National in 2008 after working in newspapers and television in the US as a photographer, editor and producer.
Other tories in the series