BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Beyond the Barricade

Below is my story published by The New Internationalist magazine, April 2013 edition. The story is part of my continuing personal project on slum areas in the Philippines.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Mayhem Rules for Filipina Mom in Shanty Baby Boom

For several months now, I've been going to different slums in the Philippines for a personal project. I don't really know how I can help even just one individual out of the country's four million slum dwellers, but perhaps, by sharing the stories I've gathered, maybe, just maybe, someone will listen. Below is one story of an amazing mother of eight children, carried by Women's eNews. Thank you to Ka Lito of Kadamay for the opportunity.

Mayhem Rules for Filipina Mom in Shanty Baby Boom | Womens eNews

Teresita Buctot, 46, with her 4-year-old son Brian on her lap and 20-year-old son Albert and his child behind her, in their home in Quezon City, Philippines.
Teresita Buctot, 46, with her 4-year-old son Brian on her lap and 20-year-old son Albert and his child behind her, in their home in Quezon City, Philippines.

Credit: Iris Gonzales
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QUEZON CITY, Philippines (WOMENSENEWS)--The smell of a simmering pot of rice wafts in the air in this slapdash shanty of sticks and plywood, here in a slum dwelling in the northern part of Quezon City, Philippines.
Teresita "Tes" Buctot46, calls her son Keith to put out the fire. Keith is 12 but looks half his age because of malnutrition. He is carrying his 2-year-old sister Rhea, impossibly heavy for his thin and lanky frame, drooping in his oversized royal blue shirt. He puts her down on the rickety wooden staircase and turns on the battered television before rushing to the cooking area, now hazy with smoke. Rhea sobs uncontrollably and cries out to mama.
But Buctot has her hands full, preparing to wash heaps of laundry scattered on the floor; shirts, blankets, a pink bra, some worn-out men's jeans, too. She calls Jon, another son, 6 years old, to attend to Rhea and wipe her runny nose.
Welcome to mayhem, Buctot's home, here in a shanty community filled with sacks of colored plastic bags recycled from trash.
Buctot, a plump woman with some strands of gray hair, whirls of dark eye bags, chipped-off fuchsia toenail polish and a light purple shirt that reads Princess, is mother to eight children, aged 2 to 21.
She dreamt of having only three children but could not afford to buy birth control pills, costing $10 for a month's supply. Buctot earns between $50 and $100 a month by weeding through dumpsites for plastic bags that she sells to a recycling factory for a measly $0.42 per kilo.
Buctot is among the 4 million slum settlers in the Philippines, a country of 94 million that is predominantly Catholic, the only one in the world where there is no divorce.

Children-Filled Communities

There are more children in these communities than anywhere else in the country. In 2008, the total fertility rate for women in the poorest quintile was 5.2 percent, compared with 1.9 percent in the richest quintile, government statistics show.
A new law, the Reproductive Health (RH) Act of 2012, stuck in a legal challenge, is designed to help women such as Buctot afford contraception by providing the poor with universal access to condoms and pills and an adequate supply of these contraceptives.
But conservatives identified with the church have the legislation blocked in court now and with the national elections scheduled in May, the church has launched a campaign against candidates who voted in favor of the RH bill, dubbing them as Team Patay, the Filipino word for death.
Some Catholics went as far as to link the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI to the passage of the measure. "I'm not in favor of him resigning just because of his health. For sure, he has underlying reasons behind--with issues such as the RH Bill," said Marvin Rubio, a driver, in , a local daily.
The name of Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Taglea charismatic leader, is constantly mentioned in reports on Pope Benedict's possible successor, with suggestions that he's among the top 10 candidates, although there are no official candidates.
But the Gabriela Women's Group Party-list, an organization fighting for women's rights in the country, expressed apprehension over Tagle being elected as the next pope. Luz Ilaganthe group's representative in Congress that as a Catholic living in a world beset by modern problems, "she would like to have a pope who can shepherd the flock in these perilous and challenging times."

Staunch Opposition

The reproductive health measure languished in Congress for 13 years because of the Catholic Church's staunch opposition. But President Benigno Aquino, citing the country's high poverty incidence of 26.5 percent, lobbied allies in Congress.
The battle was tough and highly divisive, with church-led rallies organized across the country since Aquino began pushing for the bill in 2010. Sunday sermons turned into campaign speeches against the measure.
"RH Bill if passed into law can harm our nation. Contraception corrupts the soul," said the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, the official organization of the Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines, in a Dec. 12, 2012, pastoral letter.
But just before the clock struck 8 in the evening of Dec. 17, 2012, Congress approved the bill.
"The Catholic Church has not opened its eyes. For us in the medical profession, what we are seeing in the field is that the situation is affecting the welfare of the poor people," said Dr. Antonieta Inumerable, thechief public health officer in Quezon City.
She says women have the right to make a choice in planning their families because the lack of family planning affects their health and that of their children. "It also affects their economic situation," she added.
Once a month, Buctot walks across muddy roads and broken concrete to a nearby public health center to get free birth control pills, but sometimes the center runs out of their supply.
She goes home without pills but come Saturday night, she forgets about this and eagerly awaits her husband with a spray of cheap cologne and a dab of red lipstick. Her husband is home only on weekends because of the long commute from the province where he works as a technician. And when the last of the light disappears and the young ones are all asleep, she said they make love through the night on their faded white mat.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Strolling the Streets of Doha, Qatar. March 2013

Everyone has his or her own drug. Mine is the first taste of air in a foreign country as soon as the airport's exit doors open. I started travelling to see the world when I was 13 and have fallen in love with the lure of travel ever since. No trip has ever disappointed me and every journey is still visible in my inner's mind eye. Travelling is the one thing I do for myself, enjoying everything new and unfamiliar.

My latest trip is in the Middle Eastern country of Qatar and my drug did not disappoint. The high was unbelievable, the surge cut deep in my senses. It is an enigmatic place with a high-desert yellow sun and crescent moons on golden mosques casting shadows on its paved streets.  The trip was yet another  stop in this lifelong unfinished journey between Tokyo, Japan and the tiny shack I live in, right at the top of Heartbreak Hill.

Doha for a Day

I woke up to a rising crimson sun, crawling from the far-away horizon somewhere at the end of a long stretch of a distant desert here in the Middle Eastern country of Qatar.

It is Monday, 5:30 am local time when I opened the airport’s exit doors to a waiting black car sent by the hotel. My eyes slowly adjusted to the sunlight and soon I saw majestic skyscrapers and centuries-old mosques casting shadows on the sandy pavement.

“Welcome to Doha,” said the Qatari driver named after King Solomon, the biblical King of Israel, said to be the wisest of all men.

Nestled halfway down the west coast of the Gulf, Qatar is a peninsula with a size of 11,521 square kilometers and a population of more than 1.5 million.

I am in Qatar for a three-day tightly scheduled coverage, which meant I only had Doha for a day.

But if a day was all I had, so be it. I ignored the lure of the soft bed and the call of the bathtub in my cozy tangerine colored room with dancing white draperies and a charming balcony facing the Arabian Peninsula. Instead, I took a quick shower and hopped on a waiting hotel service.

Raul, the Filipino driver, is said to be the hotel’s best city guide.

“He is a walking brochure,” said the man at the concierge.

Raul, in a sleek black coat and red tie, turned out exactly as I was promised. He took me around the paved streets of Doha, shimmering with shiny limousines and Porsche SUVs.

I saw a golden mosque, with its crescent moon glistening under the blinding rays of the sun. I saw majestic buildings standing alongside traditional Islamic homes, teeming with age-old architecture. I saw construction of buildings and malls everywhere, no doubt a reflection of economic boom in this gas-rich country.

When I stepped out of the car, I felt the scorching sun on my skin; the thermometer read 32 degrees Celsius. The air was dead dry. I felt like a watch in Dali's paintings, melting in the heat.

But this was no deterrent. The first stop was the local bank to exchange some cash. Here, I saw Filipinos standing in a long queue to send their hard earned Qatar Riyals to loved ones back home. There are roughly 150,000 Filipinos here in Qatar, government statistics show and indeed, they are everywhere. I saw them in classy restaurants, at the hotel’s concierge desk, behind the wheels of the hotel’s limo services, in buses and in malls.

We then went to the busy Souq Waqif, located in the center of Doha, near the busy palm-lined Corniche Road. The souq or market is a long, winding street of curio shops selling anything and everything, from the exotic to the ordinary. There are bags made of camel skin, Persian rags, antique wares, chimes and what-have- you.

There are stores selling figs, dates, Cashew nuts, coffee and honey. The smell of spices and shisha smoke wafted in the air.

Qatari women, covered in their floor length black Abaya filled the streets of the market, shopping and smiling while their husbands work in the offices and make money--the norm in this part of the world.

They stride in elegance, wear red lipstick, deep black mascara and heavy pearl earrings. And when they walk past you, the smell of their perfume will pervade long after they are gone. Imelda Marcos, known for her lingering signature Perry Ellis scent, comes to mind.

I bought a traditional red-checkered scarf, a brown vintage leather bag made out of camel skin and a golden chime adorned with stones of red, green and blue.

The next stop is the Museum of Islamic Art, a grand white building that rises majestically out of the emerald blue waters of Doha Bay.

Entering the five-story building, designed by Pritzker Prize laureate I M Pei, I found myself in a time warp as artworks, manuscripts, artifacts, ceramics, precious stones and textiles from the 7th to the 19th centuries filled the exhibition halls.

By the time I was on the last exhibit -- the Heritage of Art Diplomacy, which includes four 17th century paintings commissioned by the Habsburg ambassador von Kuefstein after his diplomatic mission in Istanbul -- I had spent more than two hours inside the museum.

I went back to the present-day as Raul took me next to the Katara Valley of Cultures, a quaint cultural village. I saw chic restaurants serving local cuisine, art shops and galleries. I wandered aimlessly in the narrow alleys of this maze-like district. Katara, to me, is Doha’s mini version of New York's Greenwich Village, flourishing with creativity and culture. There is a stunning and grand amphitheater in the league of the Rome Colosseum. The seats were empty when I visited but the voices of theater artists, performers and phantoms seem to reverberate in the eerie silence.

We drove by the State Mosque at high noon, during one of the Muslims’ five daily prayer hours. This sacred place can accommodate up to 10,000 worshippers inside and 30,000 outside.

Raul also brought me to the Villagio Mall in the Aspire Zone on Al Waab Street, past the Sports City. 

Walking inside the Villagio, I am told, would give one a taste of Venice, Italy’s romantic “City of Canals,” with real gondolas plying the 150-meter indoor canal under a painted baby blue sky.

If one craves for luxury, the Villagio has a lot, selling at lower prices compared to the Philippines because of lower duties.

I saw women strolling with their newly bought bags of LV and Gucci.

"For the women here, Louis Vuitton is just like Mango in the Philippines. They buy a new one as often as they want," said Raul.

The last stop was the Pearl-Qatar, a breathtaking picturesque dock of private yachts owned by Doha’s rich and famous. This waterfront is home to international luxury names such as Ferragamo and Ferrari. Visitors can book boat trips here in between alfresco dining or sipping brewed coffee in world-class coffee shops that line the dock.

By late afternoon, I was back in my hotel, the five-star Ritz-Carlton, where I immediately headed to its famed spa on the ground floor for a deep-tissue massage to soothe my tired legs. Unfortunately, all the therapists were booked for the day but the Filipina staff gladly showed me the impressive first-class steam room and Jacuzzi, exactly as I had read on the pages of the plane’s in-flight magazine.

I ended the day with a sumptuous dinner at La Mer, the hotel’s signature restaurant on the 23rd floor, which provides a majestic view of the Persian Gulf and a gastronomic adventure of Modern French cuisine. It is a place to experience classical dining in its finest.

After roaming Doha for a day, I was off to the industrial city of Ras Laffan, two hours away from the capital for my coverage. On the two- hour trip, I saw the vastness of the desert and remembered travel writer Pico Iyer’s words he used to describe Ethiopia. “Just miles and miles and miles of nothingness.” Indeed, from the highway, I saw mostly a monotonous shade of brown.

Soon it was time to bid Qatar goodbye.

I left Doha in the middle of night; there was nothing but a round yellow moon and city lights. Yet, Doha's beauty shines in the darkness. She is a feast for the senses, teeming with remnants of bygone times and vignettes of modern life. She is no different from the Qatari woman, covered in her black Abaya with every strand of hair tucked under her veil; She is enigmatic and quiet, with a graceful sway and high-heeled black shoes, unable to conceal the beauty that she is and unwittingly captivating those who glance her way.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

In Today's Starweek: Life Among the Waves


MANILA, Philippines - From the air, I could see the tear drop-shaped island, a patch of green-covered earth, as our plane prepared to descend.

It seemed enticing enough – sun, sea and sand. But I would later discover that what was visible to the eye would pale in comparison to the experience that Siargao has to offer.

Nestled in the province of Surigao del Norte, roughly 800 kilometers southeast of Manila, Siargao is the country’s surfing capital and the world’s eighth top surfing destination. It is a welcome break from other beaches bursting with tourists.

It is still fresh and relatively raw, with an embrace that is warm and welcoming to any visitor.

There are a lot of foreigners in the island – Australians, Americans, Europeans – many of whom opted to relocate to the Philippines for the love of the waves or simply for love. Each foreigner here has a story to tell – some lured by the great escape, some smitten by sun-kissed island girls while others simply forgot to go home – wherever home may be. Some work in inns as cooks, managers or surfing instructors in exchange for food and a bed to sleep on.

From the airport, one can hire a motorcycle or tricycle to General Luna Street where most room accommodations can be found. One can choose from small inns, high-end hotels, bed-and-breakfasts or homes that welcome visitors at affordable rates.

To enjoy Siargao is to let it linger, like a sip of ice-cold beer or the surge of a shot of Scotch in one’s veins.

Life in the island is as laid back as island life can be. There’s no fake euphoria or manicured festivities, just pure no-fuss paradise living.

Time stops in Siargao. People don’t look at their timepieces, if they have any. Instead, they look at the sky and check where the wind is blowing to see if the waves will permit a good surf ride.

I roamed the island with documentary photographer Jes Aznar, with the six-star $800-a-night Dedon Island Resort as our first stop.

Neither one of us – or both of us combined – had $800 to spare for a night at Dedon, but a quick visit to the island resort allowed us a taste of luxury, albeit short lived.

Dedon, from the German outdoor designer furniture company of the same name, is a high-end intimate nine-villa resort designed by Jean-Marie Massaud and Daniel Pouzet. It has a gaming room, bar, swimming pool, a relaxing massage hut and a dining room where guests have a perfect view of the clear blue sky while feasting on a gastronomic adventure prepared by Chef Nico, who hails all the way from France.

Guests can walk around the island resort barefoot and lounge by any of Dedon’s signature furniture pieces. The perfect spot is the brown “nestrest” – a chair shaped like a piece of Kisses chocolate – hanging perfectly from a tree by the beach.

The villa is another paradise in itself. It is so inviting guests would not want to step out, if not for the lure of the waves or the embrace of the warm yellow sun.

Inside each intricately-designed villa, white curtains and drapery swing to the rhythm of the wind, like ballerinas dancing in harmony.

It is filled with signature Dedon home furniture pieces, such as the swingrest, a seductive hanging lounge chair. There is a canopy bed with the softest sheets.

The gem inside is the walk-in shower, with the shower itself positioned in a way that water rains down on a cradle of pebbles.

Guests who wish to just lounge around the island resort have the option to experience deep-tissue massage in a candle-lit cozy hut, at the hands of a masseur who came all the way from Spain.

Aside from Dedon, there are other places to stay such as Buddha Bar or The Board Walk at Cloud 9.

The Board Walk at Cloud 9, a no-frills inn, is perfectly situated on the famed Cloud 9 spot, one of the best known surfing waves in the world because of its thick, froth-like hollow tubes. It is the site of the annual Siargao international surfing competition.

According to Wikipedia, surfing enthusiasts discovered the wave in the late 1980s.

“It was named after a chocolate bar of the same name, and made famous by American photographer John Callahan, who published the first major feature on Siargao Island in the United States-based Surfer Magazine in March 1993, and hundreds of his photos in many other books and magazines since his first visit in 1992. Callahan has put the island on the international map and has drawn thousands of surfers and tourists to Siargao,” the article said.

Surfing enthusiasts, both beginners and veterans, locals and foreigners, usually wait for the perfect weather to hit the board.

In between waiting for the perfect combination of wind and wave, islanders just go to where their feet will take them, sometimes to another island, a boat ride, a far-away cliff, an inn to enjoy whisky, wine, beer or a hot cup of barako by the bar or from one home to another, feasting on food and booze.

We gate crashed a birthday party, thanks to Marlo Gallardo, a surfer we met along the way. The celebrant is an Australian who moved to the island many years ago, the same man I saw at the check-in counter at the airport in Mactan, Cebu on the way to Siargao. He came from Cebu where he runs a business that makes skateboards out of bamboo.

His fellow foreigners from all over the island joined the party and feasted on lechon, pasta, seafood casseroles, vegetable dishes and a wide array of desserts, prepared by his Filipina wife.

Guests danced under a round yellow moon and strobe lights, to the beat of music that blared from loud speakers.

Amidst the deafening music, Marlo tried to convince me to hit the board, saying that it is worth every second.

Marlo is a laid back guy with strands of sun-roasted hair falling on his tanned shoulders, without a care in the world except for the thrill of surfing.

Like many other men and women who chose to live in the island, he was once just an ordinary visitor who hit a rented board. It was love at first sight, he confesses. He boarded the plane back home only to tender his resignation from an eight-to-five office job.

Now, Marlo spends his time enjoying the waves as they swoosh and splash in all shapes and sizes. He doesn’t need money or a high-paying job, he says. He just needs to be close to the water so he can hit the waves anytime. It is a paradise truly his own, and there is an unbelievable high, he enthuses.

“You just have to try it. You have nothing to lose,” Marlo says with a dream-like gaze.

I give in and on my last day in Siargao, I rented a yellow surfboard. I was promised it would be easy. 
And I believed him. After all, I know how to bike, skateboard, rollerskate, ice skate and even do the stand-up jet-ski. In short, I know how to balance. But surfing was a totally different experience.

First try = splash. Second try = splash. Third try = splash... I lost count of the number of attempts.
And then, miracle of miracles, it happens. For several fleeting moments, I succeed. I will never forget the first time.

There it goes...the world freezes and time stops. There is nothing but blue water, splashing waves and 
my 100-pound heart and soul on a surfboard, riding the waves.

Ah, truly a dharma of in a paradise of an island called Siargao.

Photos by the author, Marlo and last photo is by Jes Aznar