BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Hell on Earth, Heaven on Earth and Everything in Between

“Life and death, energy and peace. If I stop today it was still worth it. Even the terrible mistakes that I made and would have unmade if I could. The pains that have burned me and scarred my soul, it was worth it, for having been allowed to walk where I’ve walked, which was to hell on earth, heaven on earth, back again, into, under, far in between, through it, in it, and above.”

- Gia Marie Carangi

I just saw the film Gia, which is about the tragic life of Gia Carangi, dubbed as the world's first supermodel. It is a deeply disturbing movie, starring Angelina Jolie. The movie is a portrayal of the tragic life of the model whose beauty cut through the fashion industry during her time and changed the whole game. 

Carangi had the world on her fingertips. The world adored her yet through it all, she only craved for her mother's attention and someone to really love her. 

In the end she turned to drugs. At the age of 26, she died of AIDs, believed to have come from a contaminated needle. 

Gia's story provides lessons to each and everyone who are struggling to find peace in this life. Anyone can identify with the pain she experienced in her darkest hours. Everyone after all, had at one time or another, walked where she walked -- which was "hell on earth, heaven and earth" and everything in between. 

image from

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


Fidelity is a living, breathing entity. On wobbly footing, it can wander, becoming something different entirely.” - Kay Goodstadt, Love and Death Over Tea

Monday, June 24, 2013

Money, Money, Money

Money can ruin your relationship. In fact, it's the number one problem in marriages and the number one cause of divorce.  People often underestimate the commitment in merging two lives together. The reason we fight most about money is because it's the most measurable. Sure, compromises also need to be made when it comes to issues of time, space and affection, but with money, the give and take is quantifiable. - Dr. Phil

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Before Sunrise, After Dreams, In Between Travels

Before Sunset at 10 in the evening. Bonn, Germany. 2012
I have a Betamax copy of Before Sunrise. That's how old we are -- Jesse, Celine and I and the memories the movie holds.

I grew up with a lot of movies but Before Sunrise stuck because it came at a time when my younger self molded dreams of seeing the world and falling in love. Life held a lot of promises then. I dreamt of love, void of cynicism. 

It came at a time when I had seen only a glimpse of Europe and longed to see more. By the time I saw the film, I had walked the cobblestone streets of Amsterdam and stared at Van Gogh's Starry, Starry Night up close.  I had lived in an old KGB apartment in Kazakhstan and fresh out of college, had experienced driving in the quiet streets of Guelph. I got lost, too in a building in Japan.

Yet, this was not enough. I longed to see more and the movie ignited in me this strong spirit of traveling. I wanted to see not just the beauty of charming Italian cities but the addicting strangeness of the foreign and the unfamiliar. I wanted to ride more trains and buses and to get lost along the way.

Before Sunrise awakened in my younger self this strong sense of adventure, of discovering things, of diving in moments that will never ever come back; of spontaneity. It brewed in me dreams of swept-off-your-feet kind of love, of romantic river cruises and visits to the South of France. 

By the time Before Sunset came out in 2004, I had seen the sunset in Vienna and lounged at the the Shakespeare & Company Bookshop in Paris where Jesse launched his book. 

But as Jesse and Celine struggled in their respective relationships, (he seemed to have hit the end of the road with his wife while she, on the other hand, was trying to work things out with her photographer boyfriend), I, too had struggled between broken hearts and vanished dreams; cynicism had set in and the reality that even the best of relationships don't work out, had wounded me badly. 

Some dreams were blown away with the autumn leaves in New York; some vanished with the last passing train that left London's Russell Square.

In the years following that, I became a mother and in the truest sense of the word, a single mother, even if I never dreamt of becoming one. 

Today, I'm still here, trying to survive the struggles and joys of motherhood; of being in a long-term relationship, of handling intimacy, mature love, the angriest of voices and the toughest irreconcilable differences one can imagine. There's also the harsh reality of domesticity and paying the bills. In short, I've come face to face with real life. 

I have had less time for travel, too, replacing real life adventures with travelogues of Pico Iyer and Paul Theroux. I have had to shelve many dreams because reality intruded.

Yes, somehow, I've managed to squeeze some time to see more of the world and the places and memories continue to fill my heart -- I've knelt before monks in their orange robes in Luang Prabang, cruised the Rhine river with lots of love backlighted by the setting sun, strolled the streets of Qatar under the scorching April sun, went to the tea mountains of Java and enjoyed eleven kinds of beer in Brussels -- but the yearning to travel more is stronger than before.

Perhaps, it's because of the fact that I can no longer just easily pack my bags and go. 

I look forward to Before Midnight but hope that it wouldn't leave me waxing nostalgic about broken dreams and unfulfilled travels. I hope my younger self accepts where the older self is at now, struggling to survive in the rented shack that she lives in and dreaming of her next trip, perhaps right there in Jesse and Celine's Greece or to Istanbul (but knowing it will not be soon, if it happens at all). 

But what I do hope most of all is for the younger self to accept that the older self has surrendered to the reality of love -- pain, bliss, surprises and all. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013


“In the first place, you shouldn't believe in promises. The world is full of them: the promises of riches, of eternal salvation, of infinite love. Some people think they can promise anything, others accept whatever seems to guarantee better days ahead, as, I suspect is your case. Those who make promises they don't keep end up powerless and frustrated, and exactly the fate awaits those who believe promises.” 
― Paulo CoelhoThe Devil and Miss Prym

These words hit me right smack on my face and made me realize that perhaps, I'm such a hopeless juvenile for still believing in promises.

Lately, I have been eating broken promises -- from the most mundane to the important ones -- for breakfast. Promises, for me, are time bound. When you commit something, I ask you when and when you can't deliver on your committed date, you're just another name on my list of people who break their promises.

This is not to say I don't break promises. I do but the difference is, it really breaks my heart to have to break a promise even promises to myself. The least I can do is to be aware of the situation and apologize for it.

And it is the least I expect from people who promise a thing or two. But even that is too much to ask. People break their promises and they don't even realize it.

As I said, lately, there's just too many of them -- from unprofessional PR practitioners, family members, parents, fellow journalists, strangers, colleagues, companies, banks, insurance agents and hell yeah, even the laundry woman who promised (but failed) to put starch on my bed sheets.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Comfort Women Are Old Now, But Still Fighting

Below is my latest story for Womens_eNews:

An offensive comment by the mayor of Osaka has brought the issue of comfort women back to the surface. A survivors' group in the Philippines keeps the women's stories alive and is planning a rally to coincide with President Aquino's State of the Nation address.

Surviving "comfort women" at a monthly meeting in Quezon City.

Credit: Iris C. Gonzales.

QUEZON CITY, Philippines (WOMENSENEWS)--Surviving "comfort women" continue to see each other in monthly gatherings, sharing stories or belting out love songs with the videoke machine.

Recently, they met at the office of Lila Pilipina, a survivors' group in Quezon City. It was the end of May and there was a heavy downpour that morning, but it didn't drown out the sound of the voices of the lolas--grandmothers in Filipino--as they sang their own rendition of love songs from forgotten times.

They shared a bowl of hot soup and a loaf of cheese bread before discussing the next steps in their struggle for justice.

"We can no longer take back what happened to us but my hope is for future generations to not suffer the same thing," said one survivor named Virginia Villarma.

The issue of so-called comfort women isn't usually mentioned by the Japanese government.
Philippine authorities have also been quiet, afraid that the issue may strain economic ties with Japan, which accounted for 18 percent of the Philippine export market in 2011.

However, in early May a Japanese politician brought the issue to the surface when he drew international press attention by saying that sex slaves served a necessary role during the Second World War, particularly to provide relief to Japanese troops.

"For soldiers who risked their lives in circumstances where bullets are flying around like rain and wind, if you want them to get some rest, a comfort women system was necessary. That's clear to anyone," said Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka, Japan.

Hashimoto's words angered the women once part of the comfort system here and in South Korea.

"Such statement is unbecoming of a public official," Lila Pilipina said in a statement. "Japan cannot rewrite history by justifying such wrongful acts and thus exonerate its crimes against women."

The group asked the Philippine government to issue a diplomatic protest. Instead, the Filipino Department of Foreign Affairs reminded Japanese officials to be careful in making comments on the issue of comfort women.

Now, survivors are planning to stage a rally on July 22, coinciding with Philippine President Benigno Aquino's State of the Nation address.

Seeking Apologies

Comfort women have long sought a public, worldwide apology from the Japanese government for the war atrocities committed. They want an apology, too, from Hashimoto, who has since claimed that he was misquoted by the press.

They are also seeking legal compensation from the Japanese government and for the Philippine government to join them in these demands.

"We want the Japanese government to recognize and apologize for its military policy of the use of comfort women during the war," said Richelda Extremadura, executive director of Lila Pilipina, which collects testimonies of Filipina comfort women. "Nobody has the right to use women in furtherance of their objectives."

Lila Pilipina started in 1992 with 174 members. Today only 103 members of the organization are still alive.

They are part of the estimated 100,000 to 250,000 Asian women, many between the ages of 13 and 15, who were abducted by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II to serve as sex slaves.

The army kept them in military brothels where they were repeatedly raped, according to their own testimonies gathered by Lila Pilipina.

For seven decades these lolas have been searching for an apology and financial compensation for what they suffered.

"We will not waver," said Pilar Frias, 87 years old and widely known as Lola Pilar.

Japanese soldiers abducted Lola Pilar in 1943. She was only 16 years old at the time. She was forced to walk with Japanese military men as they roamed far-flung villages in her province in Camarines Sur in search of Filipino guerilla camps. In between the hunt for rebels, the Japanese troops would take turns raping her. She said around 100 soldiers raped her.

Lola Pilar said there are no words for the pain she went through during this time. When she was pregnant with her second child her husband left her when he heard her story.

To her last breath, she vowed, to join her fellow survivors in the quest for justice.

It's not easy. The lolas are old. Their legs are wobbly and they easily get tired.

No Justice Yet

Lila Pilipina's Extremadura said that their arduous and painful struggle hasn't gotten them any justice yet.

"We have exhausted everything," Extremadura said, referring to the legal actions taken by the group.

On April 2, 1983, 18 Filipino comfort women filed a lawsuit at the Tokyo District Court of Japan. They demanded post-war accountability including compensation and reparation.

On Christmas Day of 2003, the Japanese Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit, arguing that Japan's legal system has limitations in complying with international laws.

The mayor's words have now energized the survivors.

Survivor Villarma can't remember how old she is. Her almond-shaped eyes squint and her wrinkles seem to double as she tries to remember. Her lips, covered with a faded purple lipstick, purse into an embarrassed smile. She says she is 81. Or 82. No, she is 83, she says finally after counting from 1929.

She forgets many things, such as what she did yesterday morning or the morning before that.

But Lola Virginia, as her family and friends call her, will never forget that scorching noon day in 1943 when three Japanese soldiers dragged her from an empty street in Manila, pulled her black wavy hair and forcibly put her in their car, a small sedan. She was 14. They brought her to an abandoned building not far from Manila Bay where she saw many other girls her age locked up in different rooms.

The soldiers beat her for hours until she could no longer scream. In the evening, more Japanese military men came. And it was then when they took turns raping her. She had lost count. The rapes went on every single night for three months until she and the other girls managed to escape.

Maria Rosa Luna Henson, known as Lola Rosa, was the first Filipino comfort woman to come out in public in 1992, a move that gave way for others who suffered the same plight to also tell their stories.

Lola Rosa died in 1997 but her story did not die with her. For three months in 1943, soldiers raped her from morning to evening, she said in a story she has told and retold and which joins other testimonies compiled in the book "Justice and the Comfort Women," published by the University of the Philippines, Manila.

Every comfort woman has a story to tell. Many of them no longer remember their children's ages or how many grandchildren they have. But they still remember the atrocities of war.

Iris Gonzales is a Manila-based journalist and blogger, writing economic, development and humanitarian stories. Some of her work may be read at

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Introversion Is a Gift

I've been called many names, in so many different ways and in the angriest of voices. The boyfriend calls me "the bitch girlfriend from hell, an unstable being and an inconsistent introvert living inside her own bubble" while the dad thinks that with his usually gentle and patient demeanor and my -- for lack of a better word -- bitchy ways, the nurses at the Nursery must have mistakenly switched my tag with a kinder soul the day I was born. Hence, I came from a different family with the bitchy genes, my dad thinks.

Friends way back in college call me autistic. The doctors must have failed to detect or to diagnose me when I was a child, they say. Because I love being alone and I love to travel by myself. I find bliss in solitude and between being stuck with a boring person and reading the words of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Truman Capote, I would opt for the latter.

The little sister sees me as the bitchy protege of the mother.

Bitchy? In the eyes of others, no doubt. In this lifetime, I have took to task so many people I can't even count how many. They have either wronged me or have done a great disservice for the service I paid for -- hustlers, street hawkers, foreigners, cashiers, sales ladies, erring drivers, traffic enforcers along Taft Avenue, members of the Manila Police District, Customs officials, PR people, government officials, cabinet secretaries and even immigration officers who think of themselves as God -- you name it, I've given them hell -- momentarily or otherwise.

This is not to say that I am indeed a bitch but really, I don't mind being labeled as one. Unlike most everyone I know, I don't live to impress other people or to get their affirmation. I don't sleep at night worried of what the neighbors or the landlady would say. That's pretense. Me, I just don't care. I know who and what I am even if nobody else does. Some people surrender to the comfort of thinking ill about others to make up for their own inadequacies. I used to wish that amidst all the pretense, pain and noise in the world, there is at least one whom I can say in all honesty, "hey this person gets me."

Now, I need not look far, thanks to a book I discovered about introversion. The Introvert's Way by Sophia Dembling is a liberating book. "It helps and encourages introverts to embrace their nature, to respect traits they may have been ashamed of and reframe them as assets."

"The single most important skill for introverts is managing our energy. Most of us don't want to hide from life and we like being engaged with the world. But if we can't manage our energy, we are quickly depleted. And when we're depleted, bitchy happens. Managing our energy can help us enjoy social interactions more," Dembling writes.

"Be assured: You're not mentally ill. You're not dangerous. Or weird. Or lacking in any way. You just like to be alone sometimes. You were born that way."

Thank you for this book. I highly recommend it to everyone who wants to understand the introverts in their lives.

image from

Monday, June 10, 2013

Lan-fu, Comfort Women

This was not an easy story to do but it had to be told and re-told.  Over the past several weeks, I've had the privilege of talking to them, the comfort women, or lan-fu in Japanese. They are old now and wobbly. Many can hardly remember their age but they will never forget the atrocities of war.

In the coming days, I will be posting my stories here. In the meantime, let us remember their names. Let us never forget.

Lola Lita and Lola Pilar of Malaya Lolas

Ang Bahay na Pula in Bulacan where hundreds of lolas were gang-raped by Japanese soldiers

Lola Pilar and Lola Virginia of Lila Pilipina

The lolas sharing a bowl of soup

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Faces, Places

Over the weekend, I went through my photo files looking for "solo, traditional head shot photos" following a request from a United States-based writer who interviewed me about blogging. I came across some photos from different trips, here and abroad, the past two years. It's always warm and nostalgic to look at photographs from travels. 

Some say photographs are for people who can't remember. I still remember my travels to different places but I still love to take photos because they transport you back to the moment.

    Bonn, Germany 2012.  By Jes Aznar

    Lisbon, Portugal 2011. Self portrait

    Mindanao 2011 By Jes Aznar

    Berlin, Germany 2012 Self portrait