BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Bon Voyage

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

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

 Dinner at Escolta, Manila Pen

Lunch at Anvil

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Misibis, the Moon and Me

One of the pools

Stopping over at the amphitheater during the ATV drive

this is the relaxing Balinese style spa room where I had a very soothing massage

sunset cruise on the last day

Right after snorkeling.

family villas

Misibis, the moon and me

When one has been under the weather for nearly a week, turning down invites to exhibit openings or to endless bantering over ice cold pale, pale beer in the favorite watering hole, an invite to a pristine white sand beach will sound as ridiculous as ice cream on a cold rainy night.

But when that sick one spent childhood summers in a secluded resort in Palawan, under its emerald blue waters and mesmerized by the amazing kaleidoscope of underwater life, the chance to go back to a similar paradise will be enticing enough, come hell or high water.

And so I gave in, never mind that I could hardly sleep because I've been impossibly sick.

Of course, as expected, the invite got me out of bed in an instant. I suddenly recovered at the thought of another trip because as Jes likes to tease me, traveling is my drug, my barbiturates, my cannabis. The only one that can cure me in an instant.

And so after an hour on the plane and an hour on the road of rolling hills and hanging bridges, I found myself in the abyss of the underwater life once again -- cough and all -- after a long, long time.

There I was under the cold water, the noonday sun seeping through the deep blue sea, at the famed Misibis Bay.

Misibis Bay is my kind of resort . There's no wild crowd or noisy parties. It's for people who want to really enjoy the water and not to be seen or to see others.

Here, you can lounge all day on a chair by the beach all by yourself -- no noise, no nothing -- just you and your dreams, the waves and the deep blue sea. Go ahead and order your favorite single malt or have some margarita. Or you can simply give in to the stupor that paradise brings.

At night, you can swim in the villa's pools or have a soothing massage of your choice at the resort's spa as the Red Priest's symphony wafts in the air.

You can wind sail alone or enjoy the view of the crimson sun setting behind Mt. Mayon while eating kropek served with vinegar and chopped red onions. You can conquer the hilltop on an all terrain vehicle or you can go on a Hobie Cat sail, my favorite. Lie down on the trampoline style deck and lose yourself in the ride as the big waves splash on your face while the relentless sun roasts your skin.

It's not as perfect as the Puka Beach that we know or our beloved Palawan, but Misibis Bay is the paradise that people say it is.

Here, the wind whistles gently, the sand is tan and pink and the water, clear blue. The air smells fresh, as fresh as sage and mint, and violets, too.

And at exactly 6 in the evening when I strolled on the beach, a perfect round yellow full moon -- the first of three full-moon super-moons for the year -- turned the evening sky into an unfinished version of Van Gogh's Starry Night.

It is as close to heaven as one can get, at least when one is in this corner of the world, here in an island called Mibisis, somewhere, somewhere out there between my heart and a volcano named Mayon.

Friday, July 11, 2014


   Children from Pinalpal Elementary School in Sison, Pangasinan head home with their new ‘Sampung       Magkakaibigan’ storybooks courtesy of the Storytelling Project.

Stories of giving are all around us -- from a stranger in the street or a loved one.  For several days now, The Philippine Star has been publishing such stories under its #28StoriesOfGiving project.

I am honored and privileged to be able to tell some of these stories. They are stark reminders that in a world full of selfishness, selfish individuals, self-righteous people who can only rant and complain and thieves who rob the desperately poor,  there are still a few good altruistic souls out there. 

Hats off to these great men and women! Let us support them in whatever way we can.  

Below is my latest story under the #28Stories: Journey of a Thousand Miles. Thank you to Rey Bufi for sharing your story with me. I am deeply honored.

Journey of a Thousand Miles

In a country where things often don’t work, institutions fail or the government falls short of doing its job, a 31-year-old philosophy student opts to do what he can rather than rant and do nothing.

“If you have something good to share, share it because these small acts of kindness may inspire people to do good. If you just rant, nothing will happen,” says Rey Bufi, founder of The Storytelling Project.

The project is a volunteer-based reading advocacy focused on kids in remote communities, with the aim of instilling in them a passion for learning and a love for reading.

Bufi did not conceptualize the project overnight. It came from his experience as a student of philosophy.

“As a philosophy student in college, I had a difficult time reading,” Bufi told The STAR. He had tons of reading assignments and initially had a hard time coping.

This was because he was not an avid reader. Though a little late, he realized that to become a reader, one just has to read and read.

“If you want to be a reader, all you have to do is to read, read and read,” says Bufi.

With this in mind, he thought it would be good to help Filipino children become readers while they are still young.

The idea of a reading advocacy project firmed up when he was with Smart Communications, which conducted the Read to be Smart storytelling project in different areas around the country every year.

He started volunteering as a reader and decided later on to come up with his own project.

Together with like-minded individuals, Bufi started The Storytelling Project. With volunteers, proponents went around the country, coordinating with public community schools and trekking to far-flung villages to read stories to children.

The project consists of three phases, with the first phase consisting of a 21-day storytelling program. Each session lasts from one to one-and-a-half hours.

“We read to children everyday. These are mostly Grade 1 and 2 students,” he says.

The books they use are mostly Adarna books. Many of these books are written in English and Filipino and focus on topics that children can relate to, such as self, family and community.

After each session, the children receive a book they can bring home to their families to share stories with other children.

There was a time when a child asked his parents if he could plant some tomatoes outside their home after learning about farming and planting from a story he picked up from The Storytelling Project.

There is then a simple graduation ceremony, usually featuring a group performance by the children, upon the completion of the 21-day storytelling program.

The second phase is the library project, which involves the construction of new libraries in schools or communities or the renovation of existing ones.
“Reading is an academic activity, so a library is necessary,” he explains.

The third phase is the formation of a book club where children are taught how to write their own stories.

“The goal is to also teach children how to illustrate,” Bufi says.

The project has gone to several communities in Pangasinan, Mountain Province and Rizal.
In August, it will be heading for Coron in Palawan.

Bufi’s partners in the project are Mary Grace Soriano, Mannie Vazquez and lawyer Chris Linag.
Proponents know that they cannot do it alone so they seek the help of the entire community for the project.

For instance, they ask the parents to practice the storytelling routines at home while beneficiary schools are also enjoined to continue the activity in school.

Bufi and his group are seeking the help of corporate partners as well as individual sponsors to help them implement their activities. A corporate sponsorship of P50,000, for instance, goes a long way.

The proponents themselves do not require a lot. Bufi says they sleep in the schools or in the homes of families in the communities that open their doors to them.

When The Storytelling Project visited the Dumagat kids of Purok Tayabasan, Sitio Ysiro, Barangay San Jose, Antipolo City, the group told the story of “Si Langgam at Si Tipaklong.”

“The book was all about saving and so we created piggy banks made of bamboo,” Bufi says.

He adds, “In this community, we stayed in their tribal house for almost 26 days. There is no electricity and mobile phone connection in the community and before you reach the area, you have to trek for at least four hours and it requires several river crossings.”

The Storytelling Project welcomes volunteers who want to join them as readers.

Indeed, Bufi is right in saying that if one has something good to share – be it a talent or an idea – there’s no better way to go than to share this with those who need it most.

Corporate and individual sponsors interested in supporting the project may get in touch with Bufi at 0918-9482590 or .

(Editor’s Note: The Philippine STAR’s #28StoriesOfGiving is a campaign that turns the spotlight on 28 inspiring stories of people and organizations who devote their lives to helping themselves or others. Everyone is encouraged to post or “tweet” a message of support with the hashtag, #28StoriesOfGiving. For every post, P5.00 will be added to The STAR’s existing ‘give back’ anniversary fund. For comments and suggestions to #28storiesofgiving, email follow @philippinestar on Twitter or visit The Philippine Star’s page on Facebook.)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

And the Winners Are...

Congratulations to Jes Aznar and the whole team. This calls for a single malt night.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

SONNY YABAO, Somnambulist

My piece on Sonny Yabao's Somnambulist is out at Invisible Photographer Asia: 

The boy waits behind a rusty blue gate. He wants to step out but he hesitates. He shields himself, perhaps from the blinding yellow sun or from the jolt of a speeding car, from a stranger, or from nothing at all. He has Down’s syndrome. Or maybe he does not. It's not clear.

This is the world that Sonny Yabao sees.  Here, the grass stretch as far as the eye can see. Some are lush green, some are sun-dried and some are burning; there are billows of thick smoke spiraling behind the Gods. Three dead chickens hang upside down from a tree as the blue sky fades into an eerie shade of gray. There are children sleeping on the pavement, sacks of trash beside them. They don't seem to mind the pools of mud, the soot or the noise of passing cars, not these children. Little angels -- all four of them -- their wings spread out, walk side by side on a mountain of garbage. It is the same place where a dead baby lay in a tattered carton of Lucky Me noodles. People call it a God-forsaken land. 

It is a world of the living and the dead, the virgins and the lustful, the dying and the newborns, the wealthiest and the poorest of the poor.  It is a world sometimes devoid of beauty; at times dirty, painful and harsh.

But Yabao has no messianic delusions that he can change all that. He doesn’t even attempt to do so.
"I am not here to change the world," he says.

To him, it’s simply to see life as it happens, and at the stillest moment in this chaotic world, he stands with his camera and captures it when it happens.

“It’s really very simple.”

But what Yabao does not realize is that nothing is simple in his photographs. Through his images, he unwittingly takes his audience in a disturbing, riveting and haunting journey of finding the surreal in the most mundane of things. And to see the absurd when there seems to be none or to hear the slightest hissing sounds when there are only dog whispers. The experience, to say the least, is intravenous and at times visceral.

His images are at best, a blending of reality and magic realism and certainly more than mere documentary. He sees something more in the most normal of scenes and waits for that exact moment when it happens - be it the piercing gaze of a woman in a bright crimson loose-fitting garment or that fraction of a second when she gestures her right hand as she raises a piece of white cloth behind her.

Here the idea of the decisive moment, mastered by French photographer Cartier-Bresson, comes in. It is part of Yabao’s driving force as he attempts to capture what he sees.

It is never deliberate but Yabao, much like Kafka or Garcia Marquez, enthralls his audience to take a second look at everyday life and see the magic that is woven in between the days and the hours. 

And to realize in the process that nothing is what it seems to be; not now, not today, not tomorrow or the day after. Because that is what it means to be alive.  

Somnambulist is Yabao’s collection of these moments, captured in between places, in between full consciousness and dreamlike state, in between dreams and nightmares and in the middle of years and years of treading the strange and lonely road.

But little do many people know that Yabao is an accidental photographer. He is first of all, a writer, an essayist and a poet who wrote love poems for beloveds, real or imagined. He pursued a diploma in English but changed his mind. He painted landscapes of his small hometown in Samar.  And more.

One day, in his 20s, a friend gave him a job in a small portrait studio in Cubao. He experienced the magic in the dark room and by taking photographs he saw the world like never before.

He took portraits of women, forlorn and weary; from broken-hearted mistresses to eager brides and those in between. He captured the smiles of young girls in pink pigtails who sat in the studio. He took photographs of celebrities, movie stars, starlets and action heroes.

He covered news – poverty, disasters, wealth and Imelda Marcos, too. Because magazine editors from all over the world assigned him to do so.

Shooting Madame was both a privilege and a curse. He was there when the other half of the conjugal dictatorship shook hands with Chairman Mao Tze Tung in the China of the past, a country nobody dared to go at the time. He was there when she met with Yasser Arafat and many others he opts not to name.

He was there when the woman with 3,000 pairs of shoes spent hours on end in an airport of another country to buy not one bottle of Joy but boxes of the 1929 perfume, considered to be one of the greatest fragrances of all time.

But Imelda never liked him as her photographer because the woman wanted blinding lights flashing endlessly every time she walked the red carpet. Yabao never indulged her even if it was a sin to say no to the Steel Butterfly. He did not use the flash.

“She never liked me because I do not use a flash,” he says.

There is no need to do so, he insists.

Indeed, in the world that Yabao sees, there’s no need to exaggerate, no need for hyperboles. He simply captures life as it is. The magic lies in the way he sees beyond what is ordinary, as it happens, when it happens. 

And at that exact moment, between dimensions and split seconds, Yabao freezes the time. The result is a visually stunning moving world captured in a huge backdrop of truth and magic realism, of fantasy and reality, of the daily grind and its parallel universe. 

Because he wants to, because he can, because he sees and because he is wide-awake even when he is sound asleep.

Photos above by Sonny Yabao. ( Photo with Sonny after the interview taken by Jes Aznar.