BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Roaming the World On Two Wheels

“A bicycle ride around the world begins with a single pedal stroke.” ~ Scott Stoll

XI'AN, China - In the cobblestoned streets of Xi'an's City Wall, I (re) discovered biking. I used to bike when I was a little girl. I shared a blue BMX bike with my older brothers but I outgrew it or had
forgotten about it when adulthood happened.

But when I travel to different places and there's a chance to grab a bike, I go for it. Riding a bicycle, after all, is apparently something you don't forget once you know.

I've tried it in Europe in the hills of the Czech Republic many years ago and in Palawan after spending five days on a boat from Coron to El Nido a few years back.

And then there's Xi'an, the eternal city, a testament to the foresight of the Chinese emperors who built it thousands of years ago. It is here at Xi'an City Wall -- an ancient military defense system spanning 13.7 kilometers -- where I roamed the world again one pedal at a time, the wind kissing my face, the elements blowing my hair and the gentle, noonday sun warming my soul.

Photos by Jes Aznar, Likha Cueva, Alena Flores and me

Sunday, April 6, 2014

An Army for the Afterlife

XI'AN, China - This is a story that began two centuries ago with the death of a king, he with the thick, long beard and a black dragon robe buried somewhere at the foot of a mystical mountain in a mausoleum the size of a city.

There is an army of at least 8,000 men. They are standing, strong and brave, in battle formation, with their chariots and armory; their horses and weapons, swords and shields, axes and crossbows, in strict accordance with the Art of War.

They have been standing for over 2,200 years, before the birth of Christ, ready for war yet there is no war.

This is the story of the magnificence of the terra-cotta army, an army for the afterlife of King Zheng of Qin, better known by his modern Chinese name Qin Shi Huang, China's first emperor whose leadership ended the warring states era and unified China.

I am inside the museum, here in Xian, looking in awe at the gallant guardians of the emperor, discovered in 1974 by local farmers in the Lintong District of Xi'an in the province of Shaanxi. The farmers discovered ancient bronze weapons and broken terra cotta pieces while digging a well, instantly attracting archeologists all over the world.

The warriors are life size terra-cotta figures with designs so intricate that archeologists believe they were designed after the men from the actual army of the Qin Dynasty.

Each and every soldier, horseman, longbow bearer, archer and general are well positioned in grand ancient army formation.

The figures are in three different pits inside the museum complex, not far from the emperor's tomb. They include warriors, chariots and horses. Many are still buried and have yet to be unearthed.

The first pit, opened to the public in 1979, is the largest, showing columns of soldiers at the front followed by war chariots at the back while the second pit contained over a thousand warriors. Archeologists discovered it 20 meters northeast of Pit 1.

The third pit, believed to be command center of the armed forces, went on display in 1989 with 68 warriors, a war chariot and four horses, according to the website, xi’

Built over a period of 38 years by more than 700,000 men, the terra-cotta warriors were made to guard the emperor in his after life and to honor the brave warriors of the Qin Dynasty who helped unify China. It is considered to be one of the most significant archeological works in the 20th century.

Visitors to the museum will agree.

This army for the afterlife is of such grand scale and magnificence, that one may feel transported to another dimension, somewhere between life and death and death and beyond and see each and every warrior come to life.

I almost heard generals commanding their men, horses galloping and chariots moving back and fourth, guarding the emperor’s dynasty.

One is brought in an instant to the chaotic ancient warring states period where Chinese leaders competed for power until the emperor Qin asserted supremacy and used his army to unify China.

It is a story from forgotten times yet the reminders are as vivid as life, as complex as war and as immortal as the afterlife.

Why the emperor built his army of clay with such breathtaking magnificence and grandeur is a secret buried with him; many questions remain unanswered.

What is clear, for sure, is that his secrets are safe, guarded by the more than 8,000 men; as safe as he is as they guard him round the clock for more than 2,000 years now, wherever he is, somewhere, somewhere out there between a grass covered mountain where his body lies untouched even by the bravest archeologists, and the great beyond.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Notes from Shanghai

SHANGHAI, China - In a garden in the old town, I dreamt of emperors and their age-old dynasties, their empresses and their sweet smelling concubines. Their armies, too and their bloodied wars; pools of red, red blood splattered all over.

I wondered whether their spirits still roamed the garden, nestled perfectly at the end of a nine-corner bridge that blocks the passage of evil spirits and guarded by two fierce imperial guardian lions at the entrance.

I am in Shanghai, where dreamers can dream of faraway dynasties and centuries old opium wars. China's largest city after all is more than a city of skyscrapers and blinking traffic lights.

Its magnificence is found in its nooks and crannies, in well preserved gardens that transport you far back in time. 

Shanghai is a memory of the tail end of the winter season, where bright pink plums and cherries and sparkling white magnolias start to bloom. The thermometer reads four degrees Celsius. It is a river cruise at 7 in the evening, with its city lights glittering in the dark blue horizon. It is braving the gusty winds to savor the evening skyline. 

It is drinking eight kinds of tea -- jasmine, green, chamomile or what-have-you -- for whatever affliction you may have -- a forlorn spirit or a splitting headache, a broken bone or a broken heart. 

Shanghai is a thousand and one memories that begin in quiet labyrinthine gardens. It is ignoring the impulse to buy because souvenirs are more for those who cannot remember. Indeed, it is filling one's suitcases with memories instead of little warriors and Shanghai shirts; It really is about enjoying the sights and the music of Chinese flute masters serenading passersby; of savoring the scent of grilled strawberries wafting in the air; of watching little boys and girls -- the only child in the families --run around the city's crowded streets in their shaolin hair cuts.

It is for those ready to be swept off their feet; for those who can take them all: the biting winter air, the music, the lights, the skyscrapers, the red round tower of the Rabbit's Foot, the giant bottle opener, the laughter of children, the gastronomic adventure and the living and the dead. Here in Shanghai, be it in a garden in the old town, in busy streets, in crowded restaurants or in one corner of the hotel while watching two old people do Tai chi at 6 in the morning, one goes through an overwhelming ebb and flow of emotions. It is, indeed, an assault to the senses.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Let's Help Send Yolanda Kids Back to School

In early January, my six year old daughter won the grand prize in a Bingo game in her school. At the end of the game, after her crumpled sheet of paper was checked and verified, we were given the check of P20,000. I asked her what she wanted to do with the money. 

She quickly replied, "I want to donate it to the victims of Yolanda." 

Her nanny, Ms. N. who hails from Leyte and who was just there in December to check on her family, said one way to help the victims is to provide them school supplies for the coming school year. 

And so, with our seed money of P20,000, I am launching my little girl Araw's Back-to-School Drive for Yolanda children. 

We aim to buy school supplies for at least 100 children, which will be distributed by Ms. N. and her sister. 

In this light, I ask you my dear invisible readers for grade school notebooks, pencils, plastic envelopes, pad papers, crayons or whatever school supplies you can provide. Old children's books in good condition are also welcome. 

You may email me at if you would like to donate. Thank you! Let's help send Yolanda kids back to school. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

The UP Repertory Company Presents...

If you are looking for something worthwhile to do on March 1, 7, 8 and 10 please watch Damas de Noche and support The UP Repertory Company. Tickets are very affordable at P200. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Welcome to the Philippines. Welcome to Mayhem.

I steeled myself out of bed, thinking that waking up even before the roosters did would put me ahead of everyone else.

Today was National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) clearance day so I needed to start early, as early as I can, well aware of the snaking lines that applicants have to go through. 

I went to the NBI satellite office inside the Quezon City hall compound where parking lots were 
still empty and the Hall of Justice still asleep. 

But I was deceived. At the satellite office, there was mayhem and chaos. No early riser would beat the crowd of sleep-deprived men, women, students, seafarers, young boys and girls and the elderly.  They were there since 2 am and the day's cut-off was 5 am. Had I known, I would not have bothered setting the alarm clock the night before. I would have stayed snuggled in bed, dreaming the dreams that go on and on.

I left the parking lot and drove to another satellite office in a nearby mall but there I saw the same chaos, the same sleep-deprived crowd, waiting and waiting still.

I left with all hopes dashed. It was an impossibly long queue. I had to start some other day or wait for a miracle from the heavens above.

I wondered how it is for the maddening crowd. I wondered how they could just sit and take it all -- such a very flawed system. I wondered how the government can live with the fact that for such a simple form of service, it has failed its citizens. And this is not even healthcare and public education.

Welcome to the Philippines. Welcome to mayhem. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Dreams (And Nightmares)

The mother kept the moon in her belly. She had five secret children, she would later reveal, non-chalantly, as if talking about the weather, 16-degrees cold as the thermometer read.

Three boys and two girls, on top of the other five. To whom would she give the moon? To one of the five secret offsprings, she said.

What would she do with the moon in her belly? I wondered, deep in thoughts. The task is to give it to the most deserving child, she said. The one she loves the most. Yet, she said in a whisper one quiet morning, with doors locked and windows shut, there would be no love child; no other family.

And that the moon would be for the original five, each with a slice of the round, crimson ball. This is the mother who kept the moon in her belly, along with well-kept secrets of her quiet, perfect life.

January 26. Heartbreak Hill.