BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Thursday, March 29, 2012


An intimate yet intensive photography workshop with Sonny Yabao, Ben Razon, and Jes Aznar.

The workshop is open to serious photographers (professional or non-professional; in any field). Sessions will be spread over flexible six-day schedules starting April 26 and will conclude on May 22, 2012.


Prepare a portfolio of up to 10 single or series of photographs (no captions required) together with your short bio and send to NOT LATER than April 16, 2012. Successful workshop applicants will receive an email confirming their slots and with details on how to pay the workshop fees, no later than April 21, 2012.

Slots are limited to only 12 participants. Of the twelve slots, two slots will be given as scholarships to deserving applicants. Images submitted by the participants will be subject to critique in one of the sessions. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Captain Javier

(This is a story about a day in the life of a policeman. I wrote it for Fookien Times in 2000. Found the hard copy gathering dust in my baul.)

BOY MUSLIM was a newcomer in Kahilom, Pandacan Manila's "Little Tondo," but he had already earned the ire of many of his neighbors. He harassed and intimidated bystanders and tricycle drivers. With arms outstretched, a tirador tucked in the pocket of his pants and a bolo on his right hand, he blocked the only entry and exit point of the narrow Apitong Street, one of Kahilom's main roads.

Alas, he met his match in Captain Danilo Javier, a police officer who happened to live in the area and who was a mere seven meters away from him. But not even Javier's warning shot slowed him down. He came on too fast.

"Walang pulis-pulis sa akin (There's no such creature as a policeman to me)!" shouted the sando-clad man armed with his bolo, as he sped towards the captain.

Some 30 bystanders held their breath. "It's my life against his," Javier thought as the fellow got nearer and nearer. Javier had to make a choice. He shot Boy Muslim five times.

"Yehey! Sa wakas! (Yahoo! At long last!)" the crowd of onlookers cheered and clapped as Boy Muslim fell on his own pool of blood.

In his almost three-decade career in the police service, Capt. Javier, 52, has had to deal with a lot of violence at the Makati Police Department -- Manila's business district, among them, bomb explosions, suicides, bank robberies, and physical injuries. From being an ordinary beat policeman, he rose from the ranks to become head of Makati's Homicide Section, Criminal Investigation Division.

The situation we just recounted was one of those life-and-death situations the police officer has had to deal with through the years. Once Captain Javier landed in the front pages of the newspaper for having shot a hostage taker in Estrella, Makati. It was his birthday and his family was waiting for him. What would have been a quiet birthday dinner with them at the Aloha hotel had to be cancelled because he had to file an incidence report. He had to respond to the call of duty. He had to finish his job. He ended up celebrating his birthday at precinct 9 with family and friends.

There was no hotel food at the police station, but a local official gave a bottle of Black Label, a birthday cake, and a bilao of Pancit Palabok for the celebrator.

"It was like a scene from a Tagalog film," Javier said of that incident. "I realized how true those scenes from local films are which show that sometimes policemen can't even celebrate their birthdays because they have to respond to the call of duty.”

"People sometimes look down on policemen, but they do not realize how difficult our lives could get sometimes," Javier said.

Job offers with unbelievable perks from top executives of banks and companies continue to come the captain's way in. But the man with the badge is happy and proud where he is.

Javier admitted that when he was in college, students often regarded a policeman's work as a last choice or option for a job.

"A lot of them would say, ‘I'll just be a policeman,’" he said. But when I became one, I realized that the profession is something one should be proud of. Pulis yata 'to," he declared proudly.

Javier finished a degree in criminology in 1972 at the Philippine College of Criminology. After graduation, he immediately joined the service as a patrolman. He later became a corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, and then captain. The next step for him is to be promoted major, then colonel, then maybe, general. But he humbly admitted that is unlikely that he would reach the rank of general before he retires.

"Nowadays, if one goes through the Philippine Military Academy or the Philippine National Police Academy for two years, you could be promoted lieutenant right away," he said.

He laments that when he was still training to be a policeman, he could neither enroll at the PMA nor the PNPA. If he could have, "I would be a general by now."

Javier, however, said that even though he did not have a chance to study at the PNPA, his hard-line experience at the beat taught him just as much as what he could have learned there.

He grew up like any boy of his time. His father was an employee at the government-run Bureau of Printing while his mother took care of his children. "My mother was a good cook," he recalled, adding that his parents worked hard to make both ends meet.

Javier is proud that despite the odds, he worked his way up and was able to send all his three children to school and build a house for them through a loan from Pag-ibig Fund.

He and his wife pulled resources together to give their children good education, believing that it is one of the best gifts parents could bequeath to their children. "I have to keep reminding the kids that I and my wife work our fingers to the bone to earn the money we used to send them to school," Javier said.

"He wanted all of us to finish out studies," said Andy, his eldest son, now 28 years old. At the tender age of 17, however, Andy got married even though he was still a college freshman. In spite of his disappointment, Capt. Javier continued to finance Andy's education until the latter graduated with a degree in Industrial Engineering. He now works with Kimberly Clark, a multinational corporation, and has made his parents proud of where his determination to graduate landed him.

Twenty-six year old Raquel, the second child, finished psychology at the San Juan de Letran College in Calamba and now works with the computer firm Intel.

Donna, the youngest at 22, graduated cum laude with a degree in Occupational Therapy. She is taking the board examinations and is planning to work abroad for a few years when she is issued her license.

A consistent honor student, Donna said she also disappointed her father when she got married at the age of 20, had a daughter and stopped going to school.

"Papa asked me if I could still continue schooling," she recalled. "I said yes. He supported me financially, and I eventually graduated cum laude. Papa cried when I got my diploma," Donna said.

Now, all three children have finished school and have families of their own. "They are slowly establishing themselves," Javier proudly says. "Andy and his wife have their own house and lot in Sta. Rosa, Laguna where they stay with their three sons," Javier added.

"My husband and I will have our own house in Cavite very soon through our own savings," said Raquel, adding that she had ample training from her father in terms of setting of goals, and more importantly, in budgeting finances.

"When we were younger, my father gave us a budget for household needs," Raquel said. Now and then, he would check with her the family's acknowledged "chief accountant" -- if the money was enough to last till the next payday.

Raquel emerged from this experience wiser. She and her husband now invest in stocks to earn extra income for their two-year-old child an option that wasn't available to her parents while she and her siblings were growing up.

Donna said, "My husband and I are acquiring a franchise of a beverage kiosk with the help of my parents." The young coupe is also into selling cellular phone call cards.
Donna explained that it would have been difficult for the three of them to raise their own families without the support of their parents.

"We are very lucky because even if we got married at an early age, our parents helped us finish school," Donna said. "They continue to support us up to now."

"I made sure they took their studies seriously," Javier said. When his children were still in grade school and high school, he saw to it that he was the one who signed whenever their teachers sent their report cards. He wanted to check on his children's progress.

"Even if they were already asleep, I would insert my comments in their report cards," Javier recalled.

The man is a good father to his children, attests 51-year-old Teresita Gavino Javier, the Captain's wife. "He is a disciplinarian," she said, adding that it was he who made sure that all three children practiced time-honored principles of Filipino culture.

"He always reminded us to kiss the hands of our elders as a sign of respect and to always say po and opo," said Andy.

Teresita admitted, however that it is difficult to be a policeman's wife.

"There were times when we wouldn't see each other because he'd always be away," Teresita recalls. Sometimes, she said, she had to be both mother and father to the children.

She was a college freshman when she and the Captain met for the first time. She was waiting for a bus ride along Taft Avenue in Manila when they first set eyes on each other.

Teresita admitted that she has lot of suitors back then. "Hindi mo naitatanong, ligawin ako nuon," Teresita said. But she was serious with her work. She had to find a job when she was barely 14 because her father had died of cancer. After job-hopping, she eventually landed her current job as liaison officer of Aloha Hotel where she had been working for the past 33 years. Because she had to fend for herself at a young age, she was not able to finish college.

Even if she had many suitors, she ended up with a policeman, she chuckled. She admits that her friends had often asked her if it was true that policemen were babaeros, Teresita says she "does not really know," and refuses to find out. Di ko alam at di ko na lang inaalam," she says.

"It is perhaps a phase in a man's life (to seek women outside of marriage), but I am happy with the way things are between me and my husband," Teresita said. "We always communicate even if he is very busy. He calls me everyday at nine in the morning," she added.

Andy admitted that his father was, and still is, his "idol." But the Captain advised his young son early in life not to follow his father's footsteps because a policeman's life is always in danger.

"Kalahati 'nang buhay mo, nasa hukay (You're always at the brink of death)," Javier used to tell Andy.

Aside from the dangers on the job, Javier says, one also has to keep his name clean. In spite of the generally unsavory reputation of policemen, Javier is proud to say that he's worked hard for every single centavo he's earned since he started in the service. This he attributes to hard work and perseverance.

Why else would he have to borrow P150,000 for the expansion of his humble home in Binan? "We also joined paluwagans, particularly before enrolment periods to be able to raise extra funds for our children's tuition fees," recalls Teresita. "What can you expect from a policeman's salary?" he asked.

"I admit that in my 29 years of service, I have received a lot of tokens of gratitude from many big names," Javier said. He sees nothing wrong with being on the receiving end, however. After all, they were given after not before or during -- an operation. He hastens to add that they were mere tokens of gratitude, not bribes.

Home to Javier is a middle-class bungalow in Binan, Laguna where he spends weekends with the whole family. He acquired the house and lot through a loan from Pag-ibig 17 years ago, on a 25-year-to-pay term. He's still paying P2,000 a month for it. "At one time the amortization was only P800!" he recalled.

Javier goes home to Binan only on Wednesdays and on weekends. He stays at his home in Pandacan on weekdays as the daily commute is more convenient. He never forgets, however to communicate with the children daily by calling them through their cellular phones or sending them text messages.

More than his retirement pension of P3M, Captain Javier looks forward to the day he turns 56, when he can rest from years of police service, spend more time with his wife, children, and his five grandchildren. 

Now, that would be the day.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Notes from Paradise

Iris in paradise: footloose and cell phone-free 
By Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) Updated March 18, 2012 12:00 AM  

On a clear February morning, under a glistening yellow sun and an emerald blue sky, I boarded Aurora, a 72-foot wooden boat, from the northern Palawan island of Coron.

It was the beginning of a once-in-a lifetime, weeklong adventure into some of the most remote islands in this part of the province.

With 20 other travelers from different corners of the world – two French guys, a young Swede, a newly married German couple, a number of Australians, an American, a Korean and the all-Filipino boat crew, 

I surrendered to the adventure and bade my daily routine of deadlines, emails and Blackberry messages goodbye. Even the early morning cappuccino ritual had to go.

There’s no lack of warnings from the organizer of the trip, Tao Philippines, a group that offers bespoke remote island expeditions between Coron and El Nido, a journey of roughly 150 kilometers.

“Our expeditions are not for everyone. We emphasize that this is not a tour. We have no set route or itinerary. We leave port after breakfast on the first day and arrive before nightfall in the destination port on the last day. What happens in between is up to you,” Tao Philippines said on its website.

Set up by Eddie Brocks, a half-Filipino who hails from the northern Philippines, and his British buddy Jack Foottit, Tao Philippines takes travelers to unchartered territories, places off the beaten track.

The expeditions go to the Linapacan group of islands, a group of 200 islands on the 150-kilometer route between El Nido and Coron in Palawan.

The group of islands,as Tao described it, is an “undiscovered paradise which hides hundreds of white sand beaches lapping with aqua marine water, a wild landscape of coconut forests and thick wild jungle, pristine coral reefs teeming with sea life.”

The night before we boarded the boat, our expedition leader, a sun-tanned woman named Zaza, said in a briefing at the rustic Tao office in Coron that the success of the journey largely depends on us.

“It can be life-changing,” Zaza said enigmatically, her sun-roasted hair rolled up nonchalantly, revealing what seemed to me a celestial tattoo on her nape.

Before the briefing ended, Zaza closed with a seemingly noncommittal stance from Tao. “Hey, remember guys, you signed up for this.”

Hearing her words, I thought twice. Thrice or even four times. I wondered how I would survive living on the boat for five days with no idea where we would be going.

I thought there was still time to back out, to just stay in Coron and settle for the safe and typical island-hopping tours offered by the hundreds of fishermen-turned-tourist guides.

But in my twenties some years ago, I had been a regular of Palawan doing those manicured island-hopping trips. I would board a chartered plane from Manila, land in El Nido and get ferried off to a private island resort. I would enjoy the usual activities that tourists around the world die for: snorkeling and enjoying Palawan’s coral reefs; doing beginner dives; kayaking; feasting on seafood or simply bathing in the scorching sun and getting my skin tanned.

I thought I’d try something different.

“It could be a life-changing trip,” Zaza’s words echoed in my mind.

True enough, the adventure proved to be a real one, in every sense of the word.

For five days, I was in real paradise – not the manicured kind but a universe of pristine white sand beaches, the most remote and untouched islands I’ve ever set foot on and a seemingly eternal stretch of turquoise color sea.

The breeze is crisp and the sun, a constant gentle kiss.

Tao Philippines did not disappoint when it promised to bring us to islands where there are no tourists except Tao travelers.

On the first day of the expedition, we traveled for hours before putting down anchor on a small island with no electricity, no running water, no tourists, no guesthouses or air-conditioned rooms; just huts on stilts, crystal clear water and sugary pink sand.

It was our first “base camp” as Zaza called it. We would be spending the night here. Travelers get to choose between tents or mattresses with clean sheets and mosquito nets. We would bring nothing except the things we would need for the night. Our hulking backpacks stayed inside the boat.

We put our stuff in our small dry sacks because we would either swim to the shore or wade through the water, depending on the tide. Forget about mobile phones, Blackberrys or iPads. There’s no signal in this corner of the world.

We arrived just as the sun was saying goodbye. And before I could get off the boat, I froze at the breathtaking view of the crimson sun disappearing into the horizon, leaving a glitter of what seemed like a million diamond studs on the deep blue sea.

On this island, we could do whatever our pleasure was, as long as we were “home” by dinner.
Foreign travelers who craved for the beach wasted no time getting wet. They swam, they kayaked, they snorkeled and yeah, truth be told, they played in the water like children left alone in paradise.

Some played beach volleyball while others climbed a small hill on the back of the island to catch the last few seconds of the setting sun.

In between the play and dinner, we just gathered around the dinner table, sipping ice-cold beer and a concoction of pineapple juice and rum. We were all on cloud 9, savoring paradise under a moonlit sky.

Dinner, served on a wooden table surrounded by bamboo torches, was a gastronomic pleasure of grilled fish and vegetable salad.

After dinner, the all-Filipino crew led by Zaza – Marlon, Adrian, Chance – joined the guests in a long night of music. Chance, a regular performer in one of the bars in El Nido, played the bongo drums and the guitar, which he always brings during expeditions.

Music, booze, a smorgasbord of seafood and good company, plus sun, sea, sand or moonlit skies and never-ending laughter and banter – all this in Paradise. And it would go on over the next five days. We went from one remote island to another, inside local fishing villages and small community-run day care centers supported by Tao Philippines.

The typical day starts with breakfast in the base camps. Some early risers braved the cold waters for a morning swim even before drinking coffee and then packed away their tents just before breakfast is served or immediately after.

Each base camp is unique. One village is enclosed in an idyllic lake while another remote island is home to a community of fishermen.

There’s no turning back once we’ve left a base camp. The expedition goes on to another destination. In between, the boat docks in one, two or three small far-flung islands for the travelers to jump off and enjoy shipwreck or coral reef dives. We saw hidden lagoons and waterfalls and on some days, the braver souls jumped off cliffs, ripping through the waters down below.

On some afternoons, in between the swims and the island hops, we simply lounged on the top deck of Aurora, bathing under the sun.

There’s no lack of gastronomic pleasures on board the boat. Grilled fish, saut√©ed prawns, fresh vegetables, crabs, salads and unlimited rice satisfied our palates the whole time. In between meals, we had brewed coffee, fruits, native delights and ice-cold beer.

I always looked forward to dinner when we often ate beside the campfire, under a moonlit sky. After eating, we drank our ice-cold booze and exchange stories from our faraway homes. It was just us, some villagers and the all-Filipino crew. Our laughter and banter echoed in the night along with the sound of crickets and the rhythm of the waves.

The last base camp, just 20 minutes away from El Nido mainland, is one of the homes of Tao Philippines. Here, women from the nearby fishing village treated us to a night of massage. It is one of the livelihood projects of Tao Philippines.

In the morning, we sailed again and spent the last afternoon in a secret beach, a paradise enclosed and totally hidden from the open sea. The water is a magnificent shade of electric blue, lined on one side by pristine white sand.

Here, I lazed on a decrepit sundeck chair and closed my eyes. I wanted to savor the last moments of the expedition. Now if only I could dream of Einstein’s Dreams, bend the time and stay in this moment of pure island bliss.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Because Women Hold Up Half the Sky

My latest blog on The New Internationalist

International Women’s Day: women hold up half the sky

I wish I never had to write anything about violence against women. I wish this harsh reality no longer existed.

I wish that no woman’s face would ever be bruised, scarred or attacked, that her soul would stay intact, dignified and never, for a second, humiliated. I wish no part of her skin – whatever colour or shade it may be – would turn black and blue.

But the reality is stark and telling. Violence against women exists everywhere, from posh homes of celebrities to shantytowns in the poorest corners of the world.

Everyday, women are raped, beaten, sexually attacked, tortured and humiliated.

In Pakistan, countless women are suffering from acid attacks. Their lives are shattered forever.

In Kuwait, just three weeks ago, a Filipina worker was raped and beaten. She was on her way home one night when two men who pretended to be police officers dragged to her to a tent in the middle of the desert and took turns raping her.

Not even her monthly menstrual period prevented the men from forcing themselves on her.

She was raped from behind and it hurt like hell, she narrated.

Here, too, in the male-dominated and macho Philippine society, violence against women exists.

A female journalist tells of how her husband would try to beat her every time they had a fight.

Once, to make her shut up, her husband – who weighed twice as much as she did –  forced a cotton shirt inside her mouth.

Another time, she had to literally crawl out of her house to call out to strangers to bring her to a government hospital.

The wife of a Filipino politician jumped off a building and took her own life. She was a battered woman.

The trauma and stigma that sticks to the victim of sexual violence or physical attacks stays for a long, long time, if they ever go away. Some women never recover. Others just lose it and go mad.

The stories go on and on. The names are different but the plot and the pain are nearly the same.

I write this in the fervent hope that violence against women – in whatever shape, size or form; in whatever magnitude or strength – will cease forever.

I hope that no women will ever suffer the trauma and humiliation of being hurt, attacked and violated. I hope that each and every woman in this world will be spared injuries brought upon her by another human being.

I write this because I believe there is no excuse for one person to take another’s life or to deliberately hurt and violate another person.

I write this on International Women’s Day to honour the brave women out there who have been victims, or continue to be victims, at the hands of their perpetrators.

May the world be better for them because, after all, it is their strength and resilience that really hold up half the sky.
Bhutan - photo by RadioFreeBarton under a CC Licence 
Madagascar -  photo by babasteve under a CC Licence
Peru - photo by quinet under a CC Licence

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Alleged Smuggler* Speaks Up

My reply: 

Dear Counsel for Sanyo Seiki:

Indeed, you are right in saying that it is not the number of cases filed but the quality of the complaint that matters.

But pray tell me how the filing of smuggling cases involving a handful of onions -- by Customs standards -- can be considered of good quality when every Tom, Dick and Harry in the bureau knows how much is really lost in smuggling? 

We are talking of billions here  Mr. Counsel and as the World Bank and the Department of Finance have noted, P60 billion in potential revenues are lost to smuggling every year. Simply arithmetic would show that theoretically at that number, the government is losing an average of P5 billion a month to smuggling. 

The BOC files smuggling cases at least twice a month. Since Commissioner Ruffy Biazon took over in September, the agency has yet to file a smuggling case that is worth at least a billion. It has so far filed cases involving the smuggling of either onions, computer-related equipment or rubber shoes. Last February 9, it filed a P21-million smuggling case against traders of motor vehicles. How's that for quality?

On the other hand, the records of past Run After the Smugglers (RATS) programs can show what quality means. But then again, we may have a different understanding of what "quality" is.


Iris Gonzales

*Sanyo Seiki was the subject of a smuggling case filed by the BOC in the past. It has vehemently denied any involvement in smuggling activities.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Beneath the Rubble

BAYUG ISLAND, Iligan City – For the skies, it was just another spit of rain, perhaps just stronger than in previous days.

But for people whose lives are shared with loved ones and are measured not by routines of Mother Nature but by family ties and relationships, the rains were a curse. A curse so mad, merciless and unforgiving.

And that curse is seen everywhere here in Bayug Island: devastated houses, coconut trees; shattered windowpanes, slabs of remaining concrete, crushed roofs; clothes; wooden dressers; sofas; refrigerator; photographs; mattresses.

The island, traditionally considered as the first settlement in Iligan, has now become a desolate land that breathed its last breath that fateful Friday night when waves, as if furious, came and pared off hectares and hectares of Bayug’s villages.

Located at the mouth of Mandulog River, the island has an estimated land area of 300 hectares, home to some 400 families scattered around 8 sub-villages.

Now, large portions of the coastal village are barren. There are only makeshift altars assembled out of left over pieces of wood, for candles and flowers for the dead.

Most of the survivors have sought refuge in cramped evacuation centers – public schools turned temporary shelters or tent cities donated by aid agencies.

Danny Gongob is among those who survived. But he lost his wife and two children.

I met him a day after Christmas Day, standing on a small square of concrete where their house used to stand, where the family used to live, where he slept with his wife and children every single night; where they used to spend Christmas Days together.

Now, there is nothing but a makeshift altar with a flickering candle and a bunch of pink and white flower petals for his missing loved ones.

And their dark red Spongebob mattress covered with the thickest mud, which he found a few meters away.

It was very dark when the storm came that night, he says. The grip of the waves was strong and howling, drowning the sounds of children who screamed for help.

But for Danny, there’s no time to grieve too long. He is back in Bayug only for a brief moment, as he will be going around the city and nearby villages in search of his wife and children.

Dodo Nagayag, another survivor, lost his mother and three siblings but he, too does not have enough time to weep.

To survive, Dodo must salvage whatever pieces of scrap metal left of their house and their neighbors’ too.  He will sell this for ten pesos a kilo.

With bare hands and some stones and slabs of concrete, Dodo tries to pull out from the rubble whatever rusty metal bars he could find and even the iron sheets crumpled by the waves.

Photos by me