BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Postcards from Bali (Part 2)

Don't talk about heaven if you've never been to Bali - Toba Beta

Photos by me. Edited by Jes Aznar

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The JASMS Way and Why It Should Stay

Somewhere between my heart and Quezon City lies the haven of my childhood, a school that is partly the reason why I am, and its thousands of graduates, are in the mold that we are now.

My parents sent me, and my brothers before me to JASMS-QC where we had the time of our lives. Schooling was not only fun, it was time spent meaningfully and worthy of Einstein’s Dreams.

JASMS or Jose Abad Santos Memorial School is the basic education brand of the Philippine Women’s University. Founded by American child expert Doreen Gamboa, the school is known for the JASMS Way, which cultivates “freedom of spirit, exploration and expression with the ultimate goal of balanced development and growth.”

There, “we learned by doing…dedicated to peace and environmentalism, cooperation rather than competition…” because that was the JASMS Way.

Our school at the time opened to a huge field, with lush green grass and tall trees. It’s probably just a wide backyard but to my young eyes, it was the size of a football field. It was there where I learned how to play softball. There were some monkey bars from where I often fell and hit my head on the soft ground. There was a pond, too where we studied “farming” and “fishing,” soaking ourselves in the thickest mud and cooking the day’s catch during cooking class.

There, it was possible to climb a “mountain” where we played with the spirits and the pixies, held hands with our childhood love and where the lost boys settled their differences: only those who went to JASMS know what “mountain tayo!” meant.

In the huge field, there would be a camp-out with our dads once in a while. The moms were always in school events and meetings so the camp-outs were made for the dads.

My father and I cooked our dinner over the fire that we made. In the morning, I would see the sunrise from the screened-in window of our borrowed brown tent.

Oh, it was always beautiful. Those camp-outs would always be among my most cherished memories with my father.

In JASMS, it was possible to travel to different corners of the world without mom and dad, to learn while playing and to enjoy every minute of one's youth. It was almost okay to be afraid, to express your angst, to rebel and to learn from it in the process.

Today, my fellow JASMS graduates and I are happy pursuing our interests in life. That is, after all, what JASMS gave us.

JASMS did not raise us to become nerds or academic slaves but more importantly, JASMS taught us to do what we want, to pursue our dreams and our passion. It helped us find our place under the sun.

Under the JASMS Way, you get to discover what you want and that’s about the most real thing that can happen to you in this crazy and mad, mad world. 

Now, how many kids can actually discover what they really want to do in life when they grow up?

But sadly, the JASMS Way is under threat. STI, which bought into JASMS years ago, is planning to convert the campus into a mixed-use area with several development partners led by the Ayala Group.

There will be a nine-storey building that will have residential units and a mall. The school will be given classrooms in this building and the campus will be downsized.

To say that this is absurd is an understatement. It is a blatant betrayal of the JASMS Way that I know.

After JASMS, my parents sent me to Miriam for four years of secondary school and to UP Diliman for college. A few years ago, I obtained my masters degree at the Ateneo de Manila University but among my four schools, JASMS is that one place I will always call home.

It is somewhere between Peter Pan's Neverland and Holden Caulfield's sanitarium.

Dismantling whatever campus JASMS-QC still has would be a betrayal of the JASMS Way and an audacious intrusion into a parallel universe where children could see the second star to the right.

As an alumna, I strongly protest such betrayal.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Mini, Mini Library for PCMC

A story never really ends. After doing our story on the Philippine Children's Medical Center or Lungsod ng Kabataan originally published here, Road To Puka with Jes Aznar, I've decided to build a mini library for the children patients of the hospital.

Why a library? Because the children have not much to do while waiting for their turn for their chemotherapy, check-up and other procedures.

So I appeal to all of you with spare children's books, pre-loved or brand new, let's help build a library for PCMC. For donations and pick-ups, kindly email me at

Thank you!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A City for Children

Our story original published at
Text by Iris Gonzales/Photos by Jes Aznar

THIS is a story of young boys and girls and it begins in a room with a pastel green door and walls with hot air balloons, flowers and robots and a crawling pink crab.

Angel, 13, steps inside the smaller room with a yellow door. It is Friday, a school day but this is not a classroom, where children learn math or science or the Chocolate Hills and the three islands of the Philippines.

In the room, there is a woman in a crisp white laboratory coat waiting for Angel, ready with a syringe. Angel has been in the same room the week before and the week before that and many other weeks before since September last year.

Today, she is wearing a purple floral sleeveless top so she doesn't have to roll up the sleeves. She stands nonchalantly and takes the shot; she doesn't cringe or cower. By now, she is used to the jab on her right arm. When she is done, she goes back to her seat, in a row of red plastic chairs in the waiting room with the pastel green door. She opens her borrowed tablet covered with its dusty violet leatherette and attempts once again to prevent an army of zombies from eating the brains of her plants. It is her favorite game; she plays it nonstop while waiting here. She will wait for another doctor to call her name. There will be another procedure to check her blood.

Angel has leukemia, diagnosed in September last year. It was an ordinary night with fever, says her father. But it was no ordinary fever, the thermometer stayed at 40 degrees Celsius. She is bald now. Her thick black hair that once cascaded down her shoulders is gone because of chemotherapy.

Welcome to the Cancer and Hematology Center of the government-owned Philippine Children's Medical Center (PCMC) in Quezon City, a decrepit building with faded walls of red, blue and yellow and the names of the Marcos children, built decades ago with the help of Elizabeth Taylor.

Angel is one of roughly 100 cancer patients seeking treatment here every day.

"Every day, there are 200 to 300 out patients that come here. Of which, 100 are cancer patients," says Jara Corazon Ejera, deputy director of PCMC.

Angel's father, Armando is a tricycle driver but he has stopped driving to take care of his daughter. If he could, he would still ply the roads of Bulacan but not anymore. He needs to bring Angel to the hospital almost every week or more often than that.

They live in a borrowed room, in far-away Bulacan, in the northern part of the country, two hours away from PCMC.

In the mornings, they leave the house even before the roosters wake up because the queue can be long. Armando says he and his wife choose to bring Angel here because the cost of treatment is half the price or even less compared to private hospitals. And the doctors are good and kind, he says.

"It's P75 (USD1.7) pesos here. Outside, it's P300 (USD6.91) to P500 (USD11.52)," says Armando, referring to the consultation fee for old patients. Angel’s Cytarabine infusion, a chemotherapy agent, costs P200 (USD4.61) at PCMC. It can cost P1,000 (USD23) in a private hospital.

Miriam, mother to 11-year old Johnell also leaves their home in Caloocan at 5 in the morning to beat the long lines. But for Johnell's chemotherapy, there is no other choice except the PCMC.
"I asked around in my neighborhood. They told me PCMC is good. And it is. I've seen the doctors here. They are really good," she says.

Miriam used to work in Dubai as a domestic helper but she had to go home when she learned of Johnell's leukemia.

Parents like Miriam and Armando usually have to stop working so they can take care of their children full-time. The children have to stop schooling until they get better.

There's no fixed schedule for treatments. Sometimes, their children turn pale in the dead of night, in the stillest of hours, in the most quiet of moments, in between dreams and nightmares. When that happens, they have to rush their children to the hospital. The costs just keep on spiraling because leukemia patients are so fragile that they cannot take public transportation. It is too dirty. It is too tiring.
"We have no choice but to pay for a cab," says Armando.

During treatment at PCMC, their children go through several procedures, which can sometimes take the whole day. To save on costs, they bring lunch and snacks. Whatever money left is used to pay for the treatment and medicines.

Miriam says she cannot afford to bring Johnell in a private hospital because the costs are higher.

More than that, she says, she is at ease at PCMC because the doctors are kind to her son.
"They know what they're doing," she says.

The doctors are warm and gentle, all smiles in their white laboratory coats. They know the children by their names: Angel, Shyli, Johnell, John, Faye, Catherine.

PCMC has been serving 40,000 to 50,000 children patients yearly. Yet the land on which it stands has drawn the interest of business groups, putting the institution's future uncertain.

The 3.7-hectare area where the hospital stands is part of the Quezon City Business District, which the local government said, is envisioned to have more than 250 hectares of mixed-use development.

The lot, at the corner of Agham Road and Quezon is owned by the National Housing Authority (NHA)
NHA, according to Quezon City's blueprint for the CBD, has a joint venture with Ayala Land Inc. to develop the 29.1-hectare North Triangle property.

Last September 4, Health Secretary Enrique On a told a hearing at the House of Representatives that the hospital is staying put and that there is no more intention to transfer it.

Instead, the hospital would be rehabilitated and modernized. However, he could not categorically say whether or not the plan has been shelved for good.

In the meantime, the children and their parents are keeping their fingers crossed that PCMC will stay where it is. 

Johnell is getting better but he wears a mask so his health does not deteriorate, Miriam says.
In one corner of the Cancer center, by the window, nine-year old Shyli sits patiently, waiting for her turn with another doctor. She just had a shot of chemotherapy but it isn’t over. Another doctor will check her. She asks her mother to massage her arm. It is hurting, she says.

In the waiting room, there are children everywhere. Some are sleeping, some are playing, some are lying about; some are in wheel chairs, injected with dextrose while some are covered with masks or pink headwear. Some are writing anddrawing shapes or hugging brown teddy bears given by strangers earlier this morning, while waiting for their turn in the pastel colored doctors' rooms.

The fetid smell of medicines wafts in the air. It is intoxicating to most visitors but the children and their parents are used to the dizzying stench.

The mothers and fathers know each other, not by their names but the same stories they share. By now, they see each other every week, every two weeks or every month, depending on the platelet count of their sons and daughters, depending on the color of their faces, the hemoglobin level or their body temperature.

Sometimes, the day comes when somebody stops coming. The child does not make it and there is an empty seat in the waiting room.

But everyday, another child, a new patient arrives. Here in the waiting room, the one with the pastel green door and walls with hot air balloons.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

In the Land of the Crescent Moon

Every night, in this land of dreamers, surrounded by city lights and glistening golden mosques, I would travel to Asia and sleep in a dingy hotel then head back to Europe the following day for work. In some instances, fractions of seconds and fleeting moments, I would find myself in both continents -- in Asia and in Europe -- all at the same time, in the same clockwork, as if inside a rabbit hole, somewhere, somewhere in this great big world.

It is magical yet and it is real. 

This is Turkey, the Home of Two Continents, where there is nothing between Asia and Europe except the famed Bosphorus straight, known in other lifetimes as the Strait of Constantinople.

I arrived in Istanbul on a scorching Thursday afternoon. The Ataturk airport's exit doors opened to a relentless sun and crisp, cold air -- the weather provided the perfect metaphor to describe where I am as I felt Asia's sweltering heat and Europe's crisp air.

It's among the first things that will strike a visitor to Turkey, the magic of existing in two realms. I was in Asia yet I was in Europe. It seemed impossible but in Istanbul, it was not.

But Turkey is also more than just that. It is dubbed as the Home of the Blue Mosque, the Home of the Silk Road, the Home of the Turquoise, the Home of Troy.

Turkey is nestled at the mid-point of the European, Asian and African continents. Its geography is varied as it is rich. It is so picturesque with its mountains and seas, plains and rock formations and landscapes and seascapes, that the eyes would have a difficult time transmitting everything from the brain to the senses.

Many empires -- Sumerians, Byzantines and Ottomans -- have once thrived, ruled, walked and expired within this land. 

And its rich history casts shadows on everything.

You'll see it in the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar where usually hard-to-find ancient wares are easy to find, where silver and gold shimmer in its quaint curio shops, where hundreds if not thousands of the Turkish Blue Evil Eye -- a lucky charm that stretches 3,000 years ago -- are staring at you, where the smell of grilled beef kebabs wafts in the air and where one can find the softest silk for thousands of dollars.

You'll see it in the Egpytian Bazaar, more popularly known as the Spice Bazaar, built in 1664 at the southern end of Istanbul's Galata Bridge, by the ferry docks. It is a kaleidoscope of all sorts of spices from the exotic East -- saffron, mint, chili, pepper, and curry. There's also a wide selection of oils, from aromatic to therapeutic -- daisies, St. Johns and aphrodisiacs -- for the blissful or the brokenhearted and those in between. And the famous lokum or Turkish Delight are found in nearly every store, alongside spices, dried fruits, cheese, nuts and seeds.

You'll see it in the mosques, the New, the Blue, the Sultan Ahmed -- or the rest of the 82,000 or so mosques in this country of 74 million, majority of whom are Muslims.

You'll see it in Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox basilica and later an imperial mosque. Constructed in 537 until 1453, the mosque, historians say, served as the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, then converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral during the Latin Empire. To this day since 1935, it is maintained as a museum, visited daily by throngs of pilgrims, tourists and travelers alike.

You'll see it on dining tables, where a fusion of Central Asian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Balkan cuisines reflects the country's Ottoman heritage; kebabs, yoghurts, pita breads, risotto rice, grilled chicken, fresh vegetable salads, cheese, olives and olive oil.

One warm Friday, just before the sun appeared, I hopped on a plane to Izrim Province, an hour's flight from Istanbul, traveled for another hour more by land across winding roads and rolling hills before I finally found myself walking in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus where I lingered for more than two hours.

Ephesus, cradle of civilization, is dubbed as the most famous Greek city of the ancient times with a heritage dating back to 6,000 BC.

The ancient city, located close to Seljuk, a district of Izmir, is considered one of the most important 12 cities of the classical Greek period and a crucial religious center for both Paganism and Christianity.

It is situated on the Aegean Sea at the mouth of the Cayster River and in the ancient times, Ephesus was a center of travel and commerce.

There is a theater, built in the Hellenistic period and which is believed to be able to hold 25,000 people.

There is a library, built in AD 115-25, with typical Roman architectural design, dedicated to Celsus, the proconsul governor of the Roman province Asia. There's also the agora, or the market.

Indeed, Turkey is a feast for the senses. It is rich in tradition, history and culture that it will take more than a lifetime to see everything it has to offer.

On my last day, I woke up at 5 a.m. and sat outside the hotel, sipping a hot cup of coffee. I sat in the cold, just enjoying the fresh morning air and savoring the memory of the days before. I imagined as much as my inner mind's eye allowed that I have walked the same land as they did -- the Sultans, the Roman emperors, the warriors and the rulers before me. I traveled back to the middle of the Greek theater and imagined saying as Mark Antony did: "Friends, Romans, my countrymen, lend me your ears." I refused to be jolted out of my reverie by the hypnotic sound of the faithful's early morning prayers. I am dreaming, yes, I am. But how can I not? I am after all, in the land of dreamers, where dreamers can dream of the olden days and wake up in the present-day to relive it all again.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Tale of Two Continents: Turkey 2014

                                         Photos by me. Edited by Jes Aznar

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sun, Sand and Yoga

My latest piece for Starweek: Sun, Sand and Yoga

There’s sand on your toes and there’s the view of perfect sunsets, the afternoon sea breeze blows on your face and the soothing sound of crashing waves wafts in the air as you lie on your mat.

Yoga by the sea could well be every yogini’s dream but for one whole weekend, it became my reality.

The journey began at the end of a rough and at times bending road, in a secluded beach house with white draperies dancing in the wind, rattan hammocks and tall coconut trees that line the white sand beach.

This is the journey offered by the Sea Chi Yoga Retreat, a three-day exclusive yoga retreat, organized by Momo Beach House, a boutique resort in Panglao Island in Bohol owned by hotel management group One-Of Collection.

The experience started with a refreshing welcome drink of pandan juice and a feet-cleansing ritual to soothe one’s tired legs. A fifteen-minute head and back massage came next, giving participants a glimpse of things to come.

The driver who picked me up at the airport was right. The end of the rough and tumbling road is worth the ride.

Around 1 p.m., after a choice of healthy lunch cooked by resident executive chef Paeng Ongchiong, Yohanna Chanel, a Bohol-based French yoga instructor who is a certified Siva-nanda teacher started the opening circle, an introduction to what’s in store for the participants of the three-day retreat.

Chanel banged her small gong and taught us to chant Om, said to be the sound of the universe. It is a mantra chanted at the beginning and at the end of yoga sessions.

“Chanting Om allows us to recognize our experience as a reflection of how the whole universe moves—the setting sun, the rising moon, the ebb and flow of the tides, the beating of our hearts. As we chant Om, it takes us for a ride on this universal movement, through our breath, our awareness, and our physical energy, and we begin to sense a bigger connection that is both uplifting and soothing,” according to the

The Sanskrit word Yoga, said Chanel in her charming French accent, comes from the word yug or union. Originally, yug meant “to hitch up” as in attaching horses to a vehicle, according to the Roots of Yoga published by the

“It’s the union of everything inside. The perfect yogi sees God in everything,” she said.

Yoga, she said, is more than physical exercise. It is about proper exercise, breathing, relaxation, diet and positive thinking.

“It’s a life of self-discipline. It is knowing and living and treating our body as a temple,” she says.

The yoga practice we would be taught for the retreat is the common one, which is Hatha Yoga. This refers to a set of physical exercises known as asanas or postures, and sequences of asanas, designed to align one’s skin, muscles, and bones, according to

“The postures are also designed to open the many channels of the body—especially the main channel, the spine—so that energy can flow freely,” it said.

Furthermore, it said that Hatha is also translated as ha meaning "sun" and tha meaning "moon." This refers to the balance of masculine aspects—active, hot, sun—and feminine aspects—receptive, cool, moon—within all of us. Hatha yoga is a path toward creating balance and uniting opposites. In our physical bodies we develop a balance of strength and flexibility. We also learn to balance our effort and surrender in each pose.

The first session started at around 4 p.m. There we were on the beach house’s open- air lobby where Chanel taught us different postures that are doable for both beginners and advanced yoginis and yogis. She taught different techniques that enabled our bodies to give more than what we could normally do.

For up-and-forwards, for instance, she said: “navel to thigh and plant your forehead on your bent knees by pulling your ankles.”

“Put intention to the tension, breathe into it,” she said.

I sat, stood, twisted, sweated it out, curled my back and moved my arms to unimaginable ways but I survived the one-and-a half hour class. And as in every session, my body and soul loved every minute, aches and all.

By the time we finished, the sun was already setting, a perfect ending to a rewarding first session.

In between the opening circle and the first session, retreat participants had the whole afternoon to swim in the pool, dip in the clear blue waters of Momo Beach, have a siesta on the rattan hammock under the coconut trees or avail of the free massage at the resort’s Sea Tree spa.

And for those interested to know their destiny or a semblance of it, there’s also angel card reading sessions given by the spa’s manager, Atho dela Cruz.

Dinner was a buffet of healthy and vegetarian dishes – kare-kare, vegetarian style, chicken tinola, steamed okra and fruits for dessert.

After dinner, we huddled by the beach for tea to warm our hearts and soul. Under the moon and the stars, Chanel taught us how to meditate, to be aware and to really listen well to the sound of the universe.

Meditation, she said, allows us to be aware of the present moment and to let go of all the negative energy seeping through our veins. There’s no denying the miracles of meditation, she said.

“I have become a calmer person,” Chanel said.

Research has shown that meditating can reduce stress, alleviate anxiety and depression, increase your attention span, and deepen your compassion for others, among its many other benefits, according to an article on mediation published by

“We now know that regular meditation can change the physical structure of the brain, and recent studies by scientists at the University of Wisconsin and UCLA suggest not only that meditation might make your brain better at cognitive functions such as processing information and forming memories, but also that the more years you regularly meditate, the greater the potential benefits. From the Dalai Lama to Oprah and from cell phone apps that prompt you to look inward to 
worldwide flash-mob meditations that aim to publicize the benefits of the practice, meditation is heralded by secular, spiritual, and scientific communities alike as unimpeachably good for you,” it also said.

I opted to have my free massage just before going to bed, which made for a perfect ending to a wonderful first day.

I felt recharged as the wake-up call arrived at 6:30 the next morning. We were given lemon water for detox and to prep us up for the 7 a.m. session.

We had the morning session by the beach, the morning sun on our faces, keeping our mind, heart and soul fully awake and alive.

There was free time after. One can choose to watch the resident chef cook healthy meals or to avail of the second day’s free massage. I opted to visit the famed Chocolate Hills and the tarsier conservation area. While the trip was not part of the retreat package, it was well worth the two-hour ride.

The other participants opted to visit a sandbar 25 minutes away while some tried a hearty lunch at the luxurious Amorita Resort, an affiliate of Momo Beach House, just fifteen minutes away.

We were all back in time for the next session at four in the afternoon, the most intense and grueling session we would have.

Here, I managed to do a headstand even for just a few seconds, the first time in my two-year on-and off yoga life. I nearly perfected my sun salutations, child’s pose, triangle pose and my favorite, the Savasana pose.

We had the culminating buffet dinner of grilled fish and chicken soup, some kilawin and fresh fruits for dessert, all these under the stars on the white sand and the smashing waves with a roaring bonfire in the middle of it all.

Yohanna capped the night with lessons of belly dancing, teaching us to let go and to sway to Bollywood music. We danced around the fire with the music of the universe pulsating in the moonlit evening.

The three-day retreat was well worth the time whether you’re a beginner or an advanced yoga enthusiast.

The P12,000-retreat rate, which includes a three-day two night stay, healthy meals and snacks, four yoga sessions and free massage, is a steal especially if you look at it as an investment for your health and nourishment for your heart, mind and soul. The schedules are light and easy and are even in sync with the flights from Manila to Bohol. I took the Cebu Pacific flight, which left Manila at a comfortable time of 8: 25 a.m. and arrived at the Tagbilaran airport at 9:40 a.m.

Momo Beach owner and One-Of Collection chief executive officer Lucas Niccolo Cauton III, a yogi himself who joined the sessions, said that they plan to hold the Sea Chi yoga retreats regularly.

“We plan to do this every month if we can. It’s really about having a healthy lifestyle,” he tells Starweek in a chance interview on the sidelines of the retreat.

The retreat was held for the first time last May 2 to 4, with upcoming sessions slated on January 8 to 10, 2015 and May 1 to 3, 2015.

My yoga by the sea experience was a much-needed respite -- although momentarily -- from the chaos and traffic of Manila, a perfect way to recharge and prepare oneself again to go back to the daily grind.

I left Bohol with Chanel’s parting words to me: Be in peace and harmony. She didn’t need to say it really. I felt it in my bones. It’s inevitable after being in paradise for three days; the memories still linger, there is a smile in every pose, flow in every breath; grace in every moment; ah what a dharma of sorts.


Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Journey to Maldives

The seabirds -- with their thick feathers of blue, white or black and wings spread out perfectly -- flew above us and guided us as we rode the waves on a white four-seater speedboat across Maldivian waters. 

There we were, the lone boat in the middle of the vast blue sea, on our way to a sandbar called Sexy Beach. I could see nothing in the faraway horizon except islands that appeared as tiny specks of land and the birds that seemed to signal us to just follow.

There was a soft drizzle when we left the island of Guraidhoo on this August afternoon but the drizzle soon parted like soft white curtains swaying in the wind to reveal a narrow patch of pinkish sand, dotted with the seabirds that seemed to give us a warm welcome to this island bliss. I felt the soft wet sand on my feet as soon as I jumped off the boat; I struggled to keep my balance while the big waves embraced my hundred pound body and soul as I made my way to paradise.

The afternoon sun is now out, glistening on the waters that splashed on this isolated sandbar, sitting perfectly in the middle of the wide, wide sea. Looking at it from above -- in my mind's eye --, I could see us walking in the middle of a painting -- the sandbar is a streak of cream colored paint in the middle of a giant emerald blue canvas.

We had this tiny paradise all to ourselves though there were signs of life before us -- a used lighter, a drenched box of menthol cigarettes and strangely, -- I say strangely because alcohol is prohibited in Maldives -- an empty bottle of rum.

A wooden box in the middle of the sandbar served as our makeshift table.

Ibrahim, our local guide, put a white picnic umbrella that stood perfectly in the middle of it all.

We had tuna sandwich for lunch, served with roti bread and fresh coconut juice. We had a box of ice cold lemon juice and the lazy afternoon all to ourselves. The island was ours and only ours to savor and enjoy.

Oh Lou Reed, you were right: It's such a perfect day.

We stayed for an hour or two, enjoying the waves, the big, big waves, chasing the seabirds and lying on the sand before the waters rhythmically devoured it.

Soon, it was time to head back to Guraidhoo, the second stop in our journey. It is our fourth day in this island country, Jes and I.

A few days ago, we woke up in the Maldivian capital of Male, to the sound of birds chirping outside the window of room 402, our temporary home in this Muslim country of only 393,500 people.

I had my first glimpse of the city that morning, while sitting on the rattan chair of our fourth floor balcony.

I could see my reflection from the window of the building right across us, the distance was just a little longer than arm's length. No kidding.

The streets are narrow, so narrow that cars have to fold their side mirrors when they pass by; the buildings are pastel colored, mostly cream and faded yellow. For a second I thought I woke up in Lisbon, as I did one morning in the April of 2011, because of hints of Portuguese architecture. This is not a surprise, with the island colonized by Portugal many lifetimes ago.

The morning sun is out, the air is gentle. It is a quiet perfect morning, with the smell of brewed coffee wafting in the air and restless pigeons dancing outside our window, far from what I had imagined the night before.

Evening had already descended by the time our plane from Singapore touched down the runway of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport. In the dark, I could not see the paradise that people say Maldives is even as I squinted my eyes many times over,

On the contrary, I felt like a war refugee traveling in the dead of night on a ferry with about a hundred more passengers to a far-away place. There was nothing but darkness and the roar of the ferry's engines.

But the far-away place I imagined turned out to be just ten minutes away, the capital of Male, a quaint city littered with curio shops and filled with Maldivians who are as warm and laid-back as islanders can be.

They don't fake hospitality, not these men and women. There's no extra effort to make you feel at home, just genuine courtesy, sincere smiles and a ready hand to help if they can.

The Maldivian women are in their garbs and veil the whole time, seemingly unmindful of the heat on warm afternoons, though they are used to foreigners strolling the city in their colorful beach wears and wide brim hats. 

There is a pristine white mosque, with a golden dome, casting shadows on the sand; its crescent moon glistening in the afternoon sun. By the port, there is a market of vegetables, fruits and fish with mostly male vendors. The fishermen are busy unloading their catch and so are the traders, with their goods from nearby Singapore or Sri Lanka.

On our last afternoon in Male, we were swept by a big crowd marching on the streets of the city, waving flags of India and Maldives and shouting in the sweltering heat: "India - Maldives Friendship Day!"

We trailed the crowd, turning left, right and left again when the marchers did. They shouted in their revelry as they waved their orange and red flags. Music blared, too from their mobile speakers. It's as if we stepped inside a Bollywood movie, with Indian music reverberating in the air.

By the time the march ended and the crowd dispersed, we found ourselves in another huge gathering, this time by the city's Artificial Beach, the paradise of the locals, where Muslim men and women, young and old are whiling their time away swimming in this crowded beach. The women are in shirts or shorts or modest swimwear; two-piece bathing suits are not allowed.

Here, there is a rally against Israel's attacks on the Gaza strip. Songs and shouts blared from the loud speakers; stop the attacks they say, the children are dying, the women are crying, the men are disappearing.

We sat in the nearest cafe we could find after all the revelry and the chaos. Our legs were aching. We were so tired we longed for ice cold pale beer but we were in the wrong country to be dreaming of beer, malt or spirits. And so in this cafe overlooking the city, we settled instead for "mocktails," drinks that looked and tasted like cocktail concoctions but minus the alcohol.

Jes ordered Maldives' version of mojito, which looked every bit like it but minus the punch, of course. It's sort of like getting drunk psychologically.

In the darkness, we walked back to our room, there are men huddled together in the park; some women, too.

The next day, we packed our stuff and prepared to leave for yet another island but not before having lunch in a local eatery where I had basmati rice and curried gizzard, it's so authentic, the taste still lingers. Ibrahim, a local photographer, took us to this place.

We went to the port at 2:30 in the afternoon and at that exact moment we arrived at the pier, the ferry that was supposed to take us to Gurhaidoo, just left dock.

With our heavy backpacks on our shoulders, we stood there, under the scorching sun, watching the boat move farther and farther away from us.

But this slight delay would be forgotten as we soon found ourselves on another ferry to Guraidhoo.

Two men with a wheel burrow for our heavy bags welcomed us at the dock. This quaint little island is now our new temporary home, a paradise of a place and truly the quintessential islander's life.

For days, we roamed the island. Many times, we got lost in the labyrinth of single-storey homes, shops and tall coconut trees. We saw souvenir shops and the locals who sat idly outside their homes. This is what island life is -- time stops here or it moves at a snail's pace, if it moves at all.

In the evening, the sound of hypnotic Muslim prayers cuts through the silence. In the mornings, early, early mornings, the women pick up the trash while their husbands go away to catch some fish or to work in nearby islands.

The last stop in our Maldives journey is the Holiday Inn Island resort in Kandooma, a very short boat ride from Guraidhoo but a strikingly different paradise.

The resort sits on one whole island and each part has a different story to tell. Tall coconut trees line the white sand beach. Surfers are riding the waves on one part while Korean women in their flowery hats are taking selfies outside the seafront villas.

Jes and I spent our last afternoon just swimming and chasing the kaleidoscope of underwater life before we headed back to our villa.

Ours is a garden villa with a tiny porch facing a giant Balete Tree. There is a hammock and a blue green day bed on this cozy area. Here, we sipped the $40 dollar Tiger beer we painstakingly bought from the minibar, our first alcoholic drink since leaving Manila. In private resorts such as these, alcoholic drinks are available but for a very high price.

The bathroom is total luxury, with black and white tiles and a tub. There's no roof above, so at night, one can take a bath under the stars or simply spend hours in the warm tub while listening to the crickets and the rest of the nocturnal world.

On our last day, before boarding our flight, we stood outside the airport, by the wooden plank overlooking the Maldivian sea, watching the crimson sun slowly disappear beneath the horizon. The sky is a palette of blue, violet and orange, nothing I've seen before here or elsewhere, or even in my dreams.

The image rushes in, seeps through the veins and stays for good. And so we are still there, right there, frozen in the moment by the edge of the wooden plank, with the sound of the waves wafting in the afternoon air, a fitting ending to our visceral journey inside the magic of Maldives.

Photos by me

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Postcards from Maldives

Travel only with thy equals or thy betters; if there are none, travel alone. - The Dhammapada

A week before Maldives:
Jes: Alis tayo next week...
me: tara, sa Bali. 
Jes: Hindi, sa Maldives.

at the plaza in Male. Photo by me.

on a ferry to Guraidhoo. Photo by me

beautiful misty morning at Island Way. Photo by me

by the beach. Photo by me

Holiday Inn island resort. Photo by me

perfect time for a swim. Photo by me

waiting for the speedboat to the airport. Photo by me

my ootd, Male. Photo by Jes Aznar

Sexy Beach, South Male. Selfie by Jes Aznar

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Sunny Side of Life: Maldives 2014

SOUTH MALE, Maldives - Here in Maldives, dubbed as the sunny side of life, you master the art of doing nothing. You just enjoy the sun, sea and the sand, the paradise that it is. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


I am honored to be able to tell the story of Ana Arce for The Philippine Star's #28StoriesofGiving, a compilation of stories of hope, change and love. Let her life inspire the selfish individuals in this society, those who care only about themselves and those who refuse to give back and share their talents to make this world even just a bit better than it was yesterday or the day before. 

Removing Barriers, Bridging Gaps for Deaf People

This is a story of love, hope, courage and sheer determination: the life of Ana Arce, a woman who relentlessly pursued her dreams despite being born deaf.

She is the first Filipino to be awarded the World Deaf Leadership Scholarship at the Gallaudet University in Washington, where she completed her master’s degree last May. She is back in the country to share with the deaf community what she has learned. She wants to teach and help them become empowered individuals.

“I was born Deaf. When my parents discovered this, like most hearing parents of Deaf children, they felt that the only way for me to survive was if I learned to speak, and so they enrolled me in different oral schools where I had to wear hearing aids and learn how to lip read. I tried my best in these schools but still it wasn’t easy for me to adjust,” 27-year-old Arce told The STAR.

Eventually, her parents thought of moving her to another school for the Deaf where sign language is used as the medium of instruction.

“I quickly adjusted and started doing well in my academics,” she said.

But still, life wasn’t easy for her both in school and at home. Arce recalls struggling to find her place in college. She went to a school that mainstreamed Deaf and hearing students.

“In this format, teachers would be speaking, alongside an interpreter for the Deaf. But the classroom atmosphere for me was quite difficult, not because most of my classmates were hearing, but because we didn’t know how to communicate with each other, and there was some sort of discrimination. My hearing classmates would opt not to include me in class projects and activities even though I want to participate. I felt stuck and disappointed,” she said.

At home, during her younger years, she felt out of place when family members spoke to each other.

“My family members spoke with each other, and as a Deaf person, I could not understand what they usually talk about so I often have to ask them about it. I then hoped that they could sign whenever I was present. But over time, some of my family members learned some Filipino sign language. Yet, outside of those experiences, I am still happy to belong to a very loving family,” Arce says.

Arce would later move to the De La Salle-College of St. Benilde School of Deaf Education and Applied Studies.

“At St. Benilde, which I call a second home, not only did I find an academic institution, but I also found an environment where teachers and other members of the community welcomed us. I felt loved and cared for and I felt that the school was like a family. I learned the true meaning of a Deaf person and that the word Deaf is spelled with a capital D which means that I am not only a Deaf person but I am someone who is part of the Deaf community, partaking in its unique language and culture,” Arce says.

After graduation, Arce worked as a graphic artist with hearing colleagues for almost three years. It was during this time that she realized she wanted to pursue a master’s degree.

“I realized the Filipino Deaf community’s need to improve their lives and empower them, which led me to pursue a master’s degree. It had always been my dream to study at Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C., an academic institution known for its prestige as an institution committed toward excellence in Deaf education. It is also the first and only Deaf University in the world where I experienced a truly signing environment,” Arce says.

In 2012, her dream came true.

“I am the first Filipino to be awarded the World Deaf Leadership Scholarship to study at Gallaudet in 2012. I completed a master’s degree in Deaf Studies: Cultural Studies in May 2014,” Arce says.
Still fresh from completing her degree, Arce is already planning to “give back” by teaching Deaf undergraduate students in Benilde this year.

More than teaching, she hopes to help society become aware of the needs of the Deaf community.

“I hope to not only help them go through college, but also make them good researchers, and active advocates in their respective communities. In my advocacy, I’m looking at opportunities to bring the needs of the Deaf into the consciousness of society, especially the hearing people. I aim to help integrate the Deaf and the hearing together in unity, bridge the communication gap, increase awareness of the Deaf culture, and raise the respect for the natural sign language of the Filipino Deaf - the Filipino Sign Language,” she says.

To put it simply, she says, she wants to tell the world that Deaf people can do just about anything that hearing people can.

“I want to let the world know that the Deaf people can do anything, except hear,” Arce says.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Bon Voyage

In the end, we just have to say goodbye. Curtains close. The lights go off and people leave to walk toward the rest of their lives.

And there's nothing else to say but a great big thank you. May you have a wonderful life ahead, mi dear amiga!

 Dinner at Escolta, Manila Pen

Lunch at Anvil