BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

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.