BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Sunday, September 25, 2016


(I found this in my archives. It's an unpublished version of a piece I did for Starweek. I forgot writing about this but I'm posting it here because I think I like it more than the published piece. But why I chose to submit the other version remains a puzzle).

A scissors, a chair and a cloth to cover falling hair; there is little boy and a lanky barber, his hair grown thick as well. This is a pop-up barber “shop” in an empty alley in downtown Manila. There really is no shop with the trademark helix of red, blue and white, the barber pole that dates back to the medieval times. There is

There is a woman, she with long hair cascading down her shoulders sitting alone appreciating art inside the Oarhouse Pub on Bocobo Street, described as one of the last remnants of Manila’s colourful past.

In a mass grave in Leyte in the southern Philippines, the names of the dead, they who perished when Haiyan came, are cast in stone and etched in gold, remembered forever.

In a town of water lilies, in the middle of cornfields, there is a woman covered in blue. She is the wife of a dead rebel, she is the mother of an infant son and four other children, now without a father.

Welcome to the Philippines where little boys get their hair cut anywhere, anytime, in empty streets or in crowded barber shops, where children roam fishing villages in Snow White costumes, where town elders read the livers of freshly butchered pigs in fog covered mountains in the northern Philippines and where cornfields become massacre sites.

A country of 94 million people, the Philippines is a storied place. Surrealism runs through the daily lives of people. And the stories are endless as they are varied; every place is a cartographic reality; age-old traditions exist alongside the ephemeral and yet the Philippines is as real as it can get.

There is more to the Philippines than just poverty and politics and this is what Everyday Philippines, an Instagram project put up by three Filipino freelance photojournalists, Tammy David (, Veejay Villafranca ( and Jes Aznar (

All three said that EverydayPhilippines, an account on photo-sharing site Instagram seeks to show the Philippines and not just the usual stories of poverty and corruption that the country is sometimes synonymous with.

The Instagram project joins the growing global Everyday movement inspired by EverydayAfrica, which started in 2012 initially as a Tumblr Blog by photographer Peter DiCampo and writer Austin Merill.

EverydayAfrica inspired similar Instagram accounts put up by mostly professional photographers: EverydayIran, EverydayBronx, EverydayUSA, EverydayEasternEurope, EverydayMyanmar and also to non-geographic issues such as EverydayClimateChange and EverydayIncarceration, among others.

EverydayPhilippines officially started on Jan. 1, 2015 and joins this global movement as it aims to break the visual stereotype of the Philippines being just another Third World country mired in deep poverty.

The goal is to break these stereotypes, says David, who is also a video journalist and whose works have appeared in both local and foreign publications including the Wall Street Journal.

Villafranca, a photographer represented by Getty Images, said it has become difficult to pitch stories about the country because some Western media’s preconceived notions of what the Philippines is.

“The Philippines on its own is very rich (but) when you pitch (stories) to the Western media, there are a lot of misconceptions,” says Villafranca.

And yes some people zero in on the country being just another Third World nation.

Aznar, whose works appear on the pages of the New York Times, thought of coming up with the project so he suggested it to his two friends Villafranca and David, who in turn, happen to have the same idea, inspired by EverydayAfrica’s success.

The rules are simple. The project is open to other photographers and the photographs must be, as much as possible, phone-camera captured, visually stunning and must provide contexts.

“There are many photographs and stories but what is important is to put the context,” Aznar says.

Photographers can then post their photos on their individual Instagram accounts and use the hashtag #EverydayPhilippines and from this, the three proponents then curate the photographs that appear on this hashtag search before reposting these on the EverydayPhilippines account.

And true enough, the result is a visually stunning tapestry of vignettes of life in the Philippines that entices the audience to take a closer look at a nation whose daily life is so rich in history, culture and magic realism. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

On Self Preservation

Behind the driver’s seat, I listened intently to his story. He’s been driving all his life, the only skill he knows that can earn him a living. For two years, many moons ago, he was in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, too, driving under the scorching heat of the Middle Eastern sun, serving the thousands or so servants of the King. 

He’s been driving his brother’s car for a month now, to bring commuters to wherever they need to go. Brother is in Qatar, earning a living, for his daughter who is left in Manila with her grandparent. 

Back to the driver. He’s earning a decent amount every month but things could be better. Much, much better, he says. 

And so he wants to try his luck again abroad. In Bahrain this time to earn more and more and more. Life abroad is difficult. Very, very difficult but what can he do? 

"The loneliness can kill you," he says.

"But it’s where the money is." 

The stories of survival in the Philippines are varied as they are endless. 

In the streets of Metro Manila at night, small time drug pushers are playing cat-and-mouse chase with the police and vigilante groups. 

Everyone’s trying to survive the times -- in the most mundane of hours, the most difficult days. 

And it’s not only a matter of life and death. It's also about one’s happiness and sanity.

There are a hundred and one ways to do it — from the illegal to the overt. 

Those in unhappy marriages, for instance, take in paramours and those who fall in love with their paramours just try to fight the misery. 

Some wives settle with their philandering husbands for the family to survive. 

Others just go on with their lives, just winging it, surviving on other people’s skills, talents and perhaps, even money. 

We all have our ways. 

As for me, I write to survive. I write to stay sane. I write to breathe. Most of all, as Anais Nin said, I write to taste life twice. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Earlier Mona Lisa

Imagine strolling the streets of Shanghai, which is known all over the world as the Paris of the Orient and finding out that the Mona Lisa, too, happened to be there. 

This was exactly what happened to Jes and me as we were walking aimlessly in the nooks and crannies of Xintiandi -- "New Heaven and Earth" -- Shanghai's Old French Quarters. It is a shopping district so posh one would think one is walking around the cobbled stone streets of Paris, with its charming cafes and where art is all over the city.

And that's exactly how we felt. At the House in Xintiandi, an exhibition place, we met Leonardo Da Vinci's Lisa del Giocondo. Nope, this was not the Louvre and this isn't the Mona Lisa at the Louvre but we would later learn, it was Da Vinci's Earlier Mona Lisa. 

She had a warm smile and she did look younger. 

Just how lucky can we get. It's not everyday that you get to stumble upon a masterpiece. I remember a few years back when I also saw the works of Frida Kahlo on exhibit in Brussels. This was a de ja vu of sorts. 

The Earlier Mona Lisa, according to an article on the Shanghai Daily, is also the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, but painted a decade before and therefore looks much younger.  After almost 35 years, during which historians made comparative study and carried out scientific research, the Mona Lisa Foundation, together with experts, scientists and art historians, presented evidence in 2012 that confirmed that the “Earlier Mona Lisa” was indeed done by da Vinci. Mona Lisa,” which was commissioned by Guiliano de’ Medici, was done between 1513 and 1516. The “Earlier Mona Lisa” was painted from 1503 to 1506 and commissioned by Francesco del Giocondo. It had a young Lisa, and was flanked by columns, but was left unfinished.

In all probability, da Vinci used the same model to create the Louvre masterpiece, and the earlier unfinished work ended up with da Vinci’s assistant after his death, the article also said. 

It was on exhibit in Shanghai after years of being kept in a Swiss vault.

And how lucky we were to be in same place at the same time that young Lisa was there. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Memories of Home

From my window seat, I could see Kansai Airport slowly disappear in the distance. All I could see now was the tail of the plane and the huge white clouds that now surround us.

And this is how it happens every time. I look on the right, watch the earth below me disappear into the horizon and when there is nothing left to see except the clouds that look like giant cotton candies, I lean back, close my eyes and try to catch up on my sleep.

Departures always mean a step away from home or to home, depending on where I am. 

When I no longer see the place I’ve just been to and the glittering city lights disappear, I know  I will soon be home. That moment when the plane’s wheels touch the runway, I know it’s only a matter of hours before I am back in my bed. 

But being in a different place makes me think of home more vividly. Oh how I miss the smell of our tiny apartment; the flowers in the balcony, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafting in the air in the morning, the clean sheets in my bedroom and the love and laughter that burst in the seams. 

I cannot even begin to count how many times I’ve had to leave but wherever corner of the world I am, I carry with me memories of home. Home is always with me, never far, never gone, never forgotten, not even for a moment.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

When Bourdain Came for a Drink

By now, the episode has aired; the secrets unveiled.

Yes, Anthony Bourdain came to Manila last year and his weeks of exploring the country were captured  in the Manila episode of his Parts Unknown.

Together with a group of photographers, I was there during the Oarhouse scene but didn't expect to actually be part of the episode. Still, it was a pleasant surprise.

Thank you Mr. Bourdain for dropping by for a drink at the now historic Oar house Pub.

Photos by Jes Aznar, Jun Sepe and screen grab by Justine Tan

Thursday, May 19, 2016

My Commentary on Duterte's Rape Joke for WomenseNews

My latest piece for Womensenews

May 9, 2016

Photo by Dondi Tawatao

MANILA, The Philippines (WOMENSENEWS)—Although he has been leading his rivals in the pre-election opinion polls, today is the day when the Philippine voters really say what they think of him.
Whether or not he gets elected on May 9 won’t be known for a couple more days, as the votes are counted. In the meantime, everyone should know what he said not long ago when he stood on a stage in a rally in Quezon City, in the northeast part of the National Capital Region.

Rodrigo Duterte, 71, in a bright red collared shirt and with a bulging belly, proudly told a story of a 1989 prison siege. An inmate, he told the cheering crowd, was holding hostages at the Davao City 
Detention Center, in the city in the southern Philippines where Duterte has served as mayor for more than 22 years, among the longest-serving city chiefs in the country.

Duterte recalled the events vividly. There was an assault, then an exchange of gunfire between the troops and inmates. The inmates used the hostages as cover and raped all the women, among them an Australian missionary, he said casually.

The rape of the Australian missionary angered him, he told the crowd. Oh not just because the inmates raped her but because he, the mayor, should have been first in line.

“Son of a bitch, what a waste,” Duterte said in a video that went viral. “I looked at her face, son of a bitch, she looks like a beautiful American actress.”

“What went through my mind,” he continued, “was that they raped her, they lined up. I was angry because she was raped, that’s one thing. But she was so beautiful; the mayor should have been first. What a waste.”

Her name was Jacqueline Hamill, 36 years old, raped by a gang of inmates and her throat slashed. She is among 20 hostages who died in the two-day siege.

That a viable presidential candidate should discuss what happened to her in such terms is incomprehensible.

The grotesque joke drew the ire of the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights, the diplomatic community, women’s groups and ordinary citizens.

“Rape and murder should never be joked about or trivialized. Violence against women and girls is unacceptable anytime, anywhere,” said Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Amanda Gorely, who criticized the mayor for his remarks on Twitter.

Nikki Luna, a Filipina feminist artist based in Manila, was among the first to decry the comments.
"This is by far the best, clearest example and understanding of what is meant by the phrase 'rape culture',” she wrote in a Facebook post. “Watch and listen. Sexual assault, rape, and violence are trivialized, made into jokes, it becomes the 'norm' straight from this 'mayor'."

Gabriela, a militant women’s group, called on the candidate to apologize. “Rape is a criminal offense, a serious crime against humanity. It is no laughing matter. Duterte should know better and must apologize,” the group said.

Several women’s groups here issued a protest statement. “The rape culture in our society persists when officials like Mayor Duterte crack jokes at the expense of rape victims,” it reads. “By making light of the gruesome rape and murder of Jacqueline Hamill, he sends the signal that it is OK to rape women. Mayor Duterte, it is not OK to disrespect women.”

But the mayor sees no reason to say sorry. “Don’t force it. I will never apologize,” Duterte told reporters in a video by CNN Philippines.

Duterte’s supporters see him as the best candidate. They say he is the solution to the country’s woes; crime and corruption that combine with deep poverty. More than a quarter of the Philippines’ 100 million people live below the poverty line, roughly a dollar a day.

The tough talking unapologetic mayor not only jokes about rape but also boasts of his womanizing ways.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Cleansing with Sage

Sometimes all you need is sage. I recently tried it as a way for an energetic shower and a deep metaphysical cleansing.

How does it happen? Here's an article from

Whenever I burn sage (aka smudging) at my yoga studio before a session, I've heard comments like: 

"It smells like weed in here!" Or, "What smells like barbecue?" And then there's my all time favorite, "It smells like my grandmother's cemetery."

Sure, dried white ceremonial sage has a distinctly beautiful scent when burned. And if you're new to this practice, just try to be open minded about it. You can take a moment of meditation to notice if the smell evokes a sense memory for you. Where does that resonate in your body? 

Examine whether you feel a spiritual connection, or an earthy, ancestral stirring within your blood.
This is the smell of thousands of years of spiritual communion and ritual.

Smudging your sacred space, your home or office, or even your body with sage is like taking an energetic shower, or doing a deep metaphysical cleansing. The smoke from dried sage actually changes the ionic composition of the air, and can have a direct effect on reducing our stress response.
Smudging is ritual alchemy — changing and shifting the air element, and transforming our current experience to a mystical one.

The use of incense and other smoke and vapor to connect humans to the spirit world, can be easily traced throughout the East in parts of Asia and even dating as far back to Ancient Greece.

The use of dried white sage however, is a 2,000 year old Indigenous American practice. The shamans used dried sage plants on their fires as a ritual of calling upon ancestral spirits. Any conflict, anger, illness or evil was absorbed by the sage smoke to be released or cleansed from the energy field of a person.

Next, sweet grass would be burned to call forth the energy of peace and love. This ancient shamanic mystical ritual is a simple one to incorporate into your daily or weekly routine, or any time you feel like you might need a little aura polishing. You can never really smudge too much!
Some ideal (or necessary) times to sage smudge your aura and/or space would be:
  • When you move into a new living space
  • When you begin a new job or start your own business
  • Before and after a guest enters your home
  • Before and after a yoga or healing session
  • Before meditation
  • After an argument or any illness
  • Upon returning home from crowded situations
And here is a simple 3-step sage smudging ritual to try:

1. Use loose dried white sage or a white ceremonial sage bundle (aka wand), which is usually bound together by a thin string. You can find sage bundles at your local herb shop or health store, Wiccan/pagan bookstore, metaphysical store, and even some yoga and healing arts centers. Or, if you have a sage plant, you can make your own — just bundle and tie it, and then hang upside down in cool dark space until it is completely dried out.

2. Next, place it on any heat-proof burning surface like an Abolone Shell — a traditional vessel used by Indigenous American people that represents the element of water. Light the bundle by holding a flame to it until it begins to smoke. If a true flame appears, shake the bundle gently or blow until it is just embers and smoke. I often find that I have to re-light my sage bundle a few times during the ritual process. If you are burning loose leaf sage, the best method is to use a charcoal burning disk inside of a censor or small cauldron.

3. Once you have a nice smoke going, use you hand or a feather to direct the smoke over your body from your feet up to your head, then back down again. As you do this, visualize the smoke taking away with it any negative energy from your life, any darkness or malady.

If you feel comfortable with this incantation, repeat the following:

"Air, fire, water, earth. Cleanse, dismiss, dispel." 

The sage ceremony lifts the veil between the everyday and the sacred. As you say your incantation, you are shifting energy at will.

Once you have smudged your body, begin to move through your space. Wave the smoke into all corners, across doorways and into shadow spaces. To maintain the atmosphere of ritual, keep repeating the incantation in your mind as you diffuse the smoke.

Once the space is cleared, allow the sage bundle to either burn out or gently press it out in your heat-proof shell or container. You can even bury the remaining smudge in your garden to really feel the completeness of the cleansing ritual. Once buried, the sage has done its work in completing the elemental cycle. Ideally, you should try to use a new smudge for each cleansing.

Happy Enchanting!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Indigenous Women in the Philippines Are Fighting for Their Way of Life

My latest story for Womensenews

They woke up to the smell of gasoline poured on the canvas roofs of their tents at an evacuation center on the grounds of a church, the complaint says.

It was around 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 24.

"Immediately after, the tents were set aflame when a lighted torch was thrown in," reads the complaint, which was sent to a U.N. official as well as members of the press. "Five makeshift houses were already consumed by fire when it was put out."

Dormitories near the camp were also burned, according to the complaint.
The attack occurred on the compound of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, or UCCP, in Davao City in the southern province of Davao. Those under attack were over 500 indigenous people from the south of the country, known locally as Lumads.

Five people were hurt, including two children who suffered burns when the canvas roofs melted and fell on their feet.

Now Karapatan, a Manila-based umbrella organization of human rights groups, is waiting to hear back from Chaloka Beyani, U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of internally displaced persons. They submitted the complaint to Beyani at the 31st Session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Switzerland, which opened Feb. 29 and runs through March 24.

While the focus of the complaint is on the burning of the encampment, advocates are also looking for help with the deeper problem of the Lumads' displacement pressures.

Legal advocates are lodging this particular complaint, but the Lumad themselves have been doing everything possible to protest on their own behalf.

Month-Long Protest

Late last year about 700 Lumads left their mostly thatched huts and makeshift homes in villages in different parts of Mindanao to travel on foot, by bus and ferry to a camping ground inside the University of the Philippines campus in Quezon City, a two-hour drive outside Manila.

Many were mothers who left their children to join the month-long protest.

One is Minda "Dindin" Dalinan, 36, from the Blaan indigenous tribe. She is a mother to eight children, ages 1 to 17. Dalinan left her children under the care of her husband and relatives. She didn't want to leave them but she knew that joining the protest was something she had to do to try to give them a peaceful life.

"In 2004, the military killed my father. My father is a member of the tribal council in our community. He was stubborn. He did not want to give up our ancestral land so armed men killed him. I just want the killings to stop. My dream is to see an end to human rights violations," Dalinan said.

She comes from the poor farming village of Bacong, Tulunan in North Cotabato in Mindanao, the second of the three island groups of the Philippines in the southernmost part of the country. She is a full-time housewife, taking care of the children while her husband ekes out a living as a farmer.

She spoke with Women's eNews last November inside the Baclaran Church, a popular 1932 Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines.

"Why would a mother like me leave her eight children?" she said. "It's because the human rights violations in our community are so rampant. I have to join this protest. It's too much."

Protesters called their trip "the Manilakbayan," a play on the words Manila, the Philippine capital, and "lakbayan," the Filipino word for journey.

The displaced evacuees at the center of the current U.N. complaint came mostly from remote communities in Davao del Norte and Bukidnon, both in Mindanao. 

They said they were forced to flee because of operations of paramilitary groups in their communities.

Country's Food Basket

Mindanao is considered the food basket of the country, with more than 700,000 hectares of land in the region covered by banana, pineapple, oil palm, rubber and other plantations.

Ten of the poorest of the country's 81 provinces are on the island.

By plane, the distance from Manila is more than 500 miles, or up to two hours away, depending on the province.

More than 500,000 hectares of land in Mindanao, or 12 percent of the region's land, are also covered by various mining concessions, according to industry data. The region ranks fourth in copper, third in gold, fifth in nickel and sixth in chromite deposits in the world.

Indigenous people say they are a business obstacle that mining concerns are leaving up to paramilitary groups, with possible help from the military, to remove.

Months before the Manilakbayan, the different indigenous tribes of Mindanao suffered a series of direct attacks, killings and harassment. The abuses were concentrated in three provinces--Bukidnon, Davao del Norte and Surigao del Sur–that host private Lumad schools that are regulated by the government.

Among the series of incidents against the Lumad, one of the most highly condemned was the displacement on Sept. 1 last year of at least 2,000 residents from the village of Diatagon in Lianga, Surigao del Sur.

Another was the killing of Emerico Samarca, executive director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (Alcadev). He was found inside a classroom hogtied, with a stab wound and his throat slit open.

The armed men then killed indigenous community leader Dionel Campos and his cousin Juvello Sinzo, who have campaigning for the protection of ancestral lands, said Josephine Pagalan, 37, a Lumad mother from the village belonging to the Manobo tribe.

"I was there, I saw them kill Dionel Campos and Juvello Sinzo," said Pagalan.

The murder has not been solved and the military has denied any involvement in the attacks, saying that the armed group did not belong to the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

International Attention

The incidents have drawn international attention.
On Feb. 12, 62-year-old American playwright and feminist Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues," visited the Lumads in the Davao evacuation camp.

She was moved to tears upon hearing of the plight of the Lumads, according to, an online news site, which covered her visit.

"They love the earth. They know how the earth operates," Ensler was quoted as saying on the news site. "They are one with the earth and we're destroying them for mining companies, for greed, for capitalism, for exploitation and when you see how beautiful they are, when you see how generous they are, when you see how all they want is to be one with their beautiful trees and their sky and the earth, their rivers – how can any human being be doing this to them?"

Whoever is to blame, Lumad mothers said they want to live peacefully and take care of their children and return home from evacuation camps.

Gertrudes Layal, 43, left her five children, ages 8 to 19, to join the Manilakbayan. "I just want to protest so that we can keep our ancestral land. 

Mining companies want our land. They always promise development, they promise to give us jobs but they do not keep their promises," Layal said.

Pagalan, the Lumad mother from the village of Diatagon, left four children at home to join the protest.

"We want the government to be made accountable for the human rights violations and attacks," she said. "Mining companies promised too many things in the past but they did not deliver. We don't want to give up our land because money can be consumed but land will not perish."