BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Friday, October 26, 2012


Soon, it will be Christmas.

The rush is so chaotic – malls are packed, roads have become huge parking lots and the stress level is on the rise. Schedules are so hectic and the social calendar is all filled up.

In a way, I dread Christmas because of all the stress that goes with it but I love shopping for children's gifts. I used to shop for gifts for the kids – the nephews, nieces and children of friends.

However, last Christmas, I learned my lesson the hard way. The gifts I bought turned out to be way behind the kids' ages. They’ve become grown-ups, hardly able to appreciate the useless stuff I got for them. It’s my fault, really. I haven’t really spent a good part of the year with them, thinking that come Christmas Eve, I’d be able to make up for all the lost time by showering them with gifts. 

Christmas makes me realize all the changes the year has brought. It is about changes and transitions; about the passing of time, seeing kids grow up so fast and the family becoming bigger or smaller.

For the past five years, I have been spending Christmas Eve with a sweet little girl – the two of us -- and quite a pair we are. We make do with our little Christmas tree, the food and the drinks. We open the gifts and come midnight, we cap the celebration with endless kisses and warm hugs.

But who knows -- perhaps, the day will come when she will be juggling between spending Christmas in the tiny shack we live in and somewhere in a place between her heart and soul. She will no longer delight over the gifts I prepared for her. She will not be asking for little tiny trinkets, which will all be behind her age. 

And it is on Christmas, of all the days in a year, that such changes will hit me hard.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Men, love them and hate them.

(the hate part)

I come from a family of mostly boys. In the house where I grew up, there's a comfort room for boys and another for mum and me. As the world knows, some men just don't put the toilet seat back. It is rare that they close the doors when they relieve themselves. And before toothpaste manufacturers had the wisdom to put flip-open caps, fights over returning the toothpaste caps have been recorded all over the world.

In the kitchen, men wash the dishes in their own messy way. The sink just overflows with leftover food when they're done cleaning. In contrast, my mum's version is not only right, it is perfect. When men cook, there are pieces of vegetables or chopped meat all over the kitchen. Mum's way is nothing like that. As if the mess isn't enough, men wouldn't even have the slightest clue that they've actually made a mess of the kitchen.

Don't ask them to do the weekly grocery shopping. They will -- and I will bet the world -- forget something, no matter how many grocery lists you write. Actually, by some strange twist of fate, they might even lose the list on the way to the grocery store even if it's just a 5-minute drive. Oh, and please don't ask them to buy sanitary napkins. They are either too macho to oblige or too, hmm -- masculine to remember. Hoping they would do it would just leave you soaking in your own blood, literally and figuratively.

But I write this article no longer with my brothers or my father in mind. Just men in general. You see, I just finished a project for an organization. It was simple work but the headaches caused by having men oversee the tasks were just too much. They did not meet the deadlines. They did not check the proofs. They did not see the details. Heck, they don't even remember the agreement, the tasks and the responsibilities. And when the project got all f_cked up, they had to run to me for help. Is it unfair of me to conclude that it's all because they're men?

What's left to do but to sigh in frustration. Perhaps, this is the reason why women fall in love with the same sex.

(the love part)

Now, let's go to the love part. Some men, despite their follies, are so lovable and talented. My dad can do just about anything. He can talk his way out of any mess. He once talked his way out of a traffic altercation by offering an enforcer a left over cheese burger. He can breeze his way through airport security to send off my mum even if he has no flight tickets to show. He has constructed apartments, town houses and studio-types out of junk. No kidding. Scrap tiles, wood and metal he has accumulated through the years have served as materials for some of the best houses he has built. Once, in a foreign land on vacation, he earned enough to buy himself a vehicle simply because he built a treehouse out of nothing and out of boredom. To the amazement of the neighbors, he ended up providing handyman services to every house on the street and got paid for it.

The family joke is that my dad is the man who can fix anything and everything except his life.

And that's just my dad.

Jes is a jack of all trades and a master of all. With his eyes closed and hands all tied up, he can make magic. He can make book covers and artworks and photographs and gourmet dishes. Out of nothing. He can fix this and that. He can read maps and decode train routes in complicated European cities. He can be patient and he can be quiet. He can talk to children including special kids. He can travel from Afghanistan just to kill a rat and he can drive through hell or high waters.  He can charm an 18 year old and a cougar going on 60. Hey, he even tries to understand me.


I end this post with the conclusion that men, no matter how much you hate them, can be equally lovable. They probably exist to put some balance in the world -- to make women feel beautiful and for those who feel too beautiful than they actually are, to realize that they're not.

Men see things in black and white, if they see things at all. They don't sugarcoat. They just say it as it is. Black dresses are all the same. They can't tell the difference between a wedge and stiletto so don't expect a compliment when you're wearing your new pair. Oh and ladies' bags are all the same. Don't even ask them which one will suit you for the night's event. Be thankful if they actually notice you're wearing a bag. A fat woman is fat, no ifs or buts.

Perhaps, they exist to make the world simpler while women live to complicate it.

As Dave Barry once said, "Guys are simple...women are not simple and they always assume that men must be just as complicated as they are, only way more mysterious."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


At the end of a narrow, dark walkway near a busy street in Makati is a brightly lit room filled with naked women.

It is Saturday night and in a span of two hours, men and women climb the stairs to see the muses in their naked glory.

The women are seen through the lens of photographer Mitch Mauricio and in between the threads of illustrator and tattoo artist Wiji Lacsamana in a collaborative exhibit, Karesinda. 

Karesinda is the caress, the seeking of self-awareness through sexual exploration, specifically the sexual exploration of the female self. “Stories about the sexual miseducation of my female friends and relatives made me realize there is something important to say,” Mauricio says in the exhibit statement. 

Lacsamana, in the same statement, says: [I have always been interested in] ‘womanity,’ which entails the beauty of being a woman: the sensuality and the strength of womenfolk.”

Those who came to see vaginas and pink-colored nipples, however, did not see any because these were concealed in Lacsamana's kaleidoscope of bright threads. The juxtaposition is compelling -- a fitting tribute to the enigma of being a woman and indeed "an insidiously disturbing mix that forces the viewer to come to terms with women’s desires."

The impact of the visual experience resonates far beyond what the naked eye can see. Mitch hopes that through her images, women will get the message that we own our sexuality. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The World of Chocolates

Life has a list of little pleasures and each one may have a different list. Mine would definitely include chocolates.
I would take chocolates over flowers, would devour it over ice cream and between doing yoga and eating chocolates, I’d rely on even just a small bite to lift my spirits.
And so between shopping in a foreign country and visiting a chocolate museum, my choice is obvious.
One cold November afternoon a few years ago, I did just that. I visited the chocolate museum in Cologne, Germany and had such a treat. I was for a few hours a wide-eyed little girl, smiling from ear to ear, enjoying the experience.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A New Era Dawns in the (Southern) Philippines

Below is my latest blog for The New Internationalist:

On October 15, under the scorching heat of the noonday sun, thousands of Muslim men and women gathered outside Malacanang, the presidential palace, to bear witness to the signing of a historic peace pact between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels.

The Muslim crowd had gathered the night before to start the so-called vigil for peace. They didn’t mind waiting for hours on end. It was a small price to pay to see a day they hoped for but didn’t think would ever happen in this lifetime.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group had been waging a four-decade insurgency before deciding to take the road to peace.

On October 15, at three in the afternoon, the Philippine government and the 11,000-strong MILF signed a preliminary peace pact aimed at ending decades of conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced countless men, women and children.

It is the beginning of an era in the Muslim-dominated Southern Philippines, a region so rich in resources that it can feed the whole country but is ironically so mired in deep poverty because of decades of fighting. Reports say that 150,000 people lost their lives in the 1970s because of the government's all-out war against rebels.

The agreement marks the first step toward a final pact that grants Muslims in Mindanao that autonomy they have long been fighting for. In exchange, the rebels agreed to lay down their arms and end the violence that not only crippled development in the region but also made the island so poor.

Both parties recognized that extending the proverbial olive branch is just the first step in achieving lasting peace. Hard work and difficult challenges lie ahead, officials from both camps said.

But as in anything good and significant, taking the first step is an important and bold move.

The final peace agreement hopes to be sealed before the end of President Benigno Aquino III’s six-year administration in 2016.

The initial peace pact signed on Monday is a product of 15 years of intense negotiations and debates facilitated by Malaysia who shares a border with the Southern Philippines.

President Aquino, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and MILF rebel chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim witnessed Monday’s signing, along with hundreds of people who have been waiting for the landmark deal.

In a speech before the signing, Ebrahim said he didn’t think he’d ever set foot on Malacanang.

“I must confess that this is the first time in my life to step on the grounds of Malacanang. It is in the context that I come in peace,” said Ebrahim who was given a red-carpet welcome.

Malaysian Prime Minister Razak shared the story of an evacuee who nearly lost hopes for peace.

“I was not even married when this conflict began. Then we had children. We had to evacuate again. Now we have three grandchildren and nothing has changed,” Razak quoted the evacuee as saying.

“Now, something has changed,” Razak said in his speech.

President Aquino said the peace agreement now gives the people the right to peaceful coexistence.

It is an agreement, he said, that would now give every child in Mindanao or elsewhere in the Philippines, "the opportunity to shape his own destiny."

Ebrahim handed President Aquino a miniature version of a traditional Muslim gong.

“This is the sound of peace,” he said as he banged on the gong.

It is my hope that the sound of peace echoes not just in the jam-packed hall of Malacanang but also in the minds of each and everyone involved in the whole process; in the hearts of the tens of thousands who have lived in conflict, toward their homes in far-flung villages in Mindanao; in barren hills-turned-mass graves for the dead; in the island’s strife-torn schools and homes; and in abandoned hospitals there.

May the sound never be drowned again by the deafening exchange of bullets or homemade bombs or by wails of families burying their dead but only by the laughter of children playing endlessly under the sun, or a glistening crescent moon. 

Photo: A young Moro rebel standing in front of a sign board at an MILF outpost. By Mark Navales under a CC Licence.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Filipino IDPs: Struggling to Rebuild Their Lives

Below is a story I wrote in 2010 as an entry to the Think 3 global blogging competition organized by the European Journalism Centre. I remember this now as the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed today a historic peace agreement that hopes to end decades of conflict in Mindanao. I remember Jun, his wife Angel and Aida and her children whom I met two years ago. They are just among the thousands caught in the middle of the conflict.

I hope that with the agreement, they will finally be able to rebuild their lives. That there will be no more lost generations. Just peace. And homes that have been rebuilt.

Filipino IDPs: Struggling to rebuild their lives

Published 15th May 2010 - 12 comments - 5443 views - ShareThis
IDP's living under a school building in Datu Piang in Maguindanao. Photo by the Author

(text and photos by the author)
DATU PIANG, Philippines – Jun comes out from the darkness with a charcoaled kettle on one hand. He squints, eyes blinded by the glare of the yellow sun. His four-year-old-daughter peeps outside to look for her daddy.  Strands of curly brown hair cover her big round eyes. Jun makes a few steps to an open fire to boil some drinking water. 
People start coming out of this huge enclave beneath Datu Gumbay Piang Central Elementary School, a dilapidated two-storey wooden building.
This space is temporary shelter to dozens of internally displaced persons (IDPs) here in the province of Maguindanao in the Southern Philippine island of Mindanao.  Caught in the middle of decades-long conflict between government troops and rebels, the IDPs had to leave their homes in far-flung villages.
When they moved to the school compound, they slept inside makeshift tents set up on the vacant front-yard but authorities transferred them to the huge area underneath the school in preparation for the national elections held last May 10. In the Philippines, the voting and counting of ballots are done in public and private schools around the country. 
Photos by the author
This underworld is a shadowed space.  Small amounts of light seep through the slabs of wooden panels that serve as walls. Some makeshift doors are too small. To get inside, you have to bend through these manholes, like in the movie Alice in Wonderland. 
There are no tables and beds, everything improvised from broken classroom chairs and tables. They sleep on tattered mats laid on the dry earth, sharing the space with scrap and junked materials the school no longer needs. 
The stench of mud, trash and spoiled food pervades in the air. There is no toilet, just patches of dug holes on the ground. No clean water, no electricity. 
Jun, his wife Angel and their three children are among the IDPs who fled from the interior villages. 
According to the United Nations World Food Programme, in a March 14, 2010 article published by Mindanews, a Mindanao-based online news cooperative and information center, there are 320,000 people who remain displaced in Maguindanao and neighboring areas as of September last year. 
Two years have passed but the thunderous sounds of guns and flying howitzers still echo in their ears.  The pain of leaving their homes still haunts them. They remember it like a loved one's death anniversary. 
“It happened on August 17, 2008,” says Angel. 
Each passing day, they struggle to rebuild their lives.
Angel now works with Medecins Sans Frontieres, an international medical and humanitarian aid organization working mostly in conflict areas including the Philippines.
She helps distribute medicines during mission work. She earns P300 for a day of work. 
“That’s a big help for my family,” she says.
On most days, Jun waits for Angel to come home while looking after the children. A regular job is hard to come by for him because he did not finish elementary school. 
But on lucky days, he says, non-government organizations offer them “food for work.” He points to a distant concrete house he helped build some months ago in return for some cash for his family’s survival.
There are other IDPs here, the spaces divided for each family by whatever clothing and wooden panels they can find.
Photo by the author.
In another area are Aida and her children. Today, she is busy weaving fans out of the native silay or palm leaves. The whole space she occupies is covered by heaps of colored leaves, some untouched, some unfinished. 
She is preparing to complete a dozen of these fans to sell to the market for P110. It’s a long process. The leaves are laid out on the sun for days. These are then dabbed with different colors to create designs straight of her dreams.  
The dyed fans are then left under the heat for another long process of drying. 
From the sun-dried leaves, there emerges--like magic--a kaleidoscope of yellow, purple and green colored fans.
This helps Aida and her kids survive on most days. 
When there is nothing to sell, she puts her children to sleep with their stomachs grumbling and empty.
But for the IDPs here, giving up isn’t an option. 
Slowly, one by one, piece by piece, difficult as it may be, they struggle to rebuild their lives harshly disrupted by war, as tedious and as careful as the way they weave those little intricately-colored fans for a few pesos a day.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Gray Spaces

Gray is the color of the space that appears when a dear friend leaves. It is the shade of abandonment and the eerie tone before one moves on.

But I didn't think gray is for you and me. Neither is it for Robin and Ed or Tintin and Miranda and the rest of us who together, had the best of times in the worse of times, from the enigmatic mountain along EDSA to the mythical lake of Caliraya.

For how could it be? We laughed and laughed until we rolled over and over. We talked until the wee hours of the morning and waited for 12 to cross another year. We drank rum coke until we passed out and floored the gas pedals until the Crying Cow screeched. 

But we all must go to the thirty plus years and leave gray spaces behind. No choice but to quietly accept when a text goes unanswered or an email is ignored.

Who knows? Maybe in rivers where time stops, we shall find each other there - and the gray spaces between us shall easily disappear.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Madness is all gray, rainy nights; unspoken words and open wounds. It is driving with no seat belt and aiming for the concrete barrier in the middle of the road. It is imagining jumping from the rooftop of the building facing Roxas Boulevard – eyes closed or looking at the last sunset?

Madness is silent afternoons in the balcony of an empty house, smoking one cigarette after another. It is counting the hours until the beloved comes, only to hate him with so much love or to love him with so much hate. It is fighting until every bone hurts and making love until all the pain is gone.

Madness comes in the least expected moments, in the most lucid of times; in the dead of night, when the moon is a sliver or round like a ball. Or in the happiest waking hours, when the roosters are crowing and the smell of freshly brewed coffee is wafting in the air.

Madness is a thousand little voices screaming in the head. It is a flashback of images of ripping pain, from mama’s bed to white sand beaches.  It is breaking down when memories collide and feigning smiles for interviews.

It is what it is. No rhyme or reason. Just because.

Photo by Jes Aznar

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Of Tomorrows and End of the World Worries

In the cobblestone streets of Paris, a novelist stands in the dark. The clock strikes exactly twelve times and a car from the 20th century comes and transports the writer into the magical world of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. It is Midnight in Paris and the journey back in time begins.

There are people often trapped in nostalgia, waxing sentimental over the better years of the past, of lost time and the glorious years of youth. The curses of nostalgia are often immortalized in movies and the best literary works.

But not me. I fuss about tomorrow. I worry sick of growing old. I desperately try to squeeze whatever I can do with my thirty plus life and imagine in my wildest imagination that tomorrow, I will be gone. I count the wrinkles on my face, and frown upon the fact that the lines are growing everywhere -- and in the process cause more and more lines to appear.

I check my bank account often and wonder where all the money I struggle to save everyday goes. I dream of the dreams I have yet to fulfill -- a children's story book, an in-depth story on child abuse victims and hell yeah, at least one marathon in this lifetime. No, I have no delusions of being Murakami, the great novelist who finished marathons here and there while doing novels here and there.

And there's the long bucket list of places to see: the south of France, Istanbul, Barcelona and Greece. Africa, too as well as The Great Wall of China.

I think about these trips and worry with urgency that I may no longer have the endurance to walk around a strange city for hours on end or to even see the ends of the earth. I say to myself I should have done more trips than I had done when I was younger. Hindsight really is always twenty-twenty.

Jes always tells me that it's not the end of the world, that waiting for the time to pass isn't a mortal sin.

Of course, it's tempting and comforting to live in the now, to not worry at all, to lie on one's back and to forget about the rest of the world. I do that when I am in a foreign land, thinking of nothing at all because the essence of traveling is exactly that - to take in everything the moment has to offer, no fretting over the future or looking back to the past.

But here at home, my days are spelled out from exactly 7:45 am to until whatever wee hour I am needed by a growing five year old. There's hardly time to pause and rest. I look at her growing up so fast and wonder, too where did the time go? 

In times like these, I can only dream of Einstein's Dreams where time is circular, or bending, or a nightingale trapped in a bell jar.

Written while while stuck in horrendous traffic on Friday, October 5. The world from Roxas Boulevard, Taft Avenue and Luneta were in a mad rush to go home but got stuck in the traffic all because Jesus Is Lord.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The 4th NSM Media Awards

Today at the 4th NSM Media Awards. Thank you to the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) for the award and congratulations to my colleagues who won. 

Photos by Jes Aznar (whom I thank for allowing me to drag him to this morning's awarding ceremony despite his sleep-deprived and hangover state)