BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Saturday, December 31, 2011

packing, unpacking

I'm in the middle of a manicured forest to greet the new year. I asked Hitler to pack my stuff for me -- two shirts, some underwear, jeans, shorts, etc. But of course, here, I realized that I had forgotten (I always do) something. Slippers! How can I forget? And my grey cardigan. How can I miss that?

But then after all the packing and unpacking, all the road trips and the travels, the roller-coaster ride and adventures, I learned in 2011 that no matter how hard I try, no matter how much I fuss and stress about it and that no matter how many hours it takes for me to pack, I will never be able to bring with me all that I need.

More importantly, I learned that the really essential things in this journey called life can't really fit in my bag. You can't pack love, as Roxanne Krystalli had said. And hugs and kisses. And the warmth of an embrace. The smile of a child. Her laughter. That doe-eyed look when she wants ice cream or junk food or just some more minutes to play with me.

You can't pack a cappuccino maker.

And pain and misery. And anger. They shouldn't fit in the bag.

And so, I will carry on. I will travel lighter. Will (try to) let go of what's not needed. Will bring only what I need -- the indescribable, enormous love that can't fit in any bag or backpack.

Crossing fingers.

Happy 2012.

And to the love of my life, here's looking forward to more travels, from muddy paths and devastated patches of earth, to paradise, to hell and back.

Holding hands.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas Day in the City of the River of Gold

Photos by Jes Aznar and text by Iris Gonzales

CAGAYAN DE ORO – We can smell the stench of death even before we actually stepped on Burgos Street, a place where two rivers converge nearby, one of thousands of devastated patches of earth here in the province.

The putrid smell of decomposing bodies; of dead Carabaos, of cats and dogs; of men, women and children, pervades the air. I am standing in the middle of a long narrow road alongside Cagayan de Oro River. If pain had a smell, this would be it.

Both sides of the road are lined with houses devastated by the typhoon that struck in the middle of the night. The roofs are gone, the windows shattered. The doors are wide-open. The street is filled with remnants of the devastation.

Everything is covered with the thickest mud, smudged with soot and garbage: the heaps of clothes, bags, television sets, electric fans, tables, chairs, bed, curtains, pillows and whatever the residents have left. 

It is December 25, 2011 but here in the City of the River of Gold, where a tropical storm struck in the middle of the night while a father sang Christmas carols to his little girls, there’s nothing to celebrate.

There are no gifts to open, no jingling bells, no festivities, no laughter, just crumbs of homes to salvage.

Sendong, which came in the dead of night on December 16, left as swiftly as it came, killing more than 1,500 men, women and children and leaving many more homeless.

In makeshift evacuation centers, survivors swarm like mad dogs whenever relief goods arrive.

Novelyn Gales, 24 years old, lost everything to the killer floods. She is among the hundreds of evacuees seeking shelter here at Barangay Makansandig Evacuation Center.

Her three-year old baby is sleeping on a slab of plywood in a cramped space, filled with donations and shared with another family.

“We lost everything but we’re still lucky to be alive,” said Novelyn, managing a faint smile. When the floods came, she and her husband held on to a tree, the baby held tightly by both of them.

There was no time to pack anything else.

As I write this, the death toll has climbed to 1,500 according to the Office of Civil Defense: 891 dead in Cagayan de Oro and additional 451 in Iligan City.

Across the cramped evacuation center is the village where Novelyn used to live. Now, where tattered homes used to stand and little children used to roam around and play, there is nothing left but a clear view of the horizon, a devastated patch of land and a golden mosque with a crescent moon not too far away.

There is an eerie silence. By the side of the desolate village, a river of mud flows endlessly. Bloated cadavers were seen floating here the morning after the flood, Novelyn said.  Her dreams, like those of other survivors, were washed away, too.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

300 plus days of coffee

In a little corner of the shack I live in is a magic of a machine that helps me get on my feet, start my day, bury last night's nightmares and start anew. It's a cappuccino maker, the only piece of household appliance I demanded to have with me in the aftermath of my so-called divorce years ago (I didn't win. I bought a new machine).

I'd say I must have survived this year with coffee. And love.

There's all kinds of coffee to give me the much-needed fix. My favorite of course is arabica or mountain coffee.  My little girl, some moons ago, went on a trip to Sabah and brought me white coffee from the island. It kept me counting sheep the whole night. Then there's the usual robusta that the ever reliable Hitler buys for me once in a while.

No two cups of coffee are ever the same. Each one is unique, similar as it may seem. The amount of milk and muscovado has to be just right but can never be exact, just the same. There are bad coffee days when the milk just didn't froth. And I often made a fuss about that. It happens when the milk is taken out of the fridge too soon that it gets warm by the time I pour it into the stainless frothing pitcher. The milk has to be cold, straight from the ref and dry steam is needed instead of wet steam, which adds unnecessary water, to make the perfect microfoam.

I'm guided by instinct and faith in making the perfect coffee. Yes, faith even in making coffee. (I've come a long way. Years ago, I didn't even have the guts to operate a machine that is not even half as sophisticated as those in Starbucks. I repel technology and many other things I'm too lazy to try to understand).

And believe me, I try to do the perfect cup everyday.

When Jes makes our coffee, he adds more sugar than I usually do. That's often in the afternoon because he usually does not wake up earlier than I do in the morning. But yeah, that's how he does it. Never fails. Our coffee is sweeter when it's his turn with the cappuccino maker. But that's how it really is. He is the sweeter half of soundslikechinese. I surrender to that fact. And he puts more milk than I do. But again that's how he is. He always strives to make it less bitter, coffee and me.

Like coffee, each day of this year that is about to come to an end has been different. Topsy-turvy. Life-changing. Chaotic at times. Some days left me counting sheep at night, like the Sabah coffee. Other days just didn't feel right, like a wrong froth or no froth at all. Too dark. Too bitter. Most days of course were just perfect, as right as the perfect brew. Like the recent road trip to Hacienda Luisita. Or in Tawi-tawi. In Lake Sebu. In Cebu. Or that phenomenally unprecedented and still unmatched trip to Java, Indonesia.

The perfect moments are endless. The projects we dreamt of and achieved this year happened because we did it holding hands, better than Bonnie and Clyde or Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I know much more than I would ever admit to myself that I would not have done it without him.  But together, we can move mountains, our way, our system, as chaotic as it is, like an efficient motley crew. If we were venture capitalists, our tag-line would be: "Jes and Iris: We Deliver."

There were many dark times, like the time I had to drive my little girl to the hospital because of high-grade fever or when Jes suffered in pain in an emergency room. (I can still see in my mind's eye how much he struggled). As for him, I'm sure he only remembers that cute little nurse in pink who stood by his bed the whole time.

The imperfections are there, too and when I look back on those times, I surrender with awe and amazement at how we survived.

The year isn't over. There will be a thousand more kisses and hugs and trips before the year comes to a close.

As I write this, we're thinking of traveling south to help victims of Sendong. Our problems are nothing compared to their loss. And we feel helpless not doing anything.

But as most of the days had been, we barely have enough breads to make it down south. Yet, hopefully and as always -- without fail -- we will wing it, holding hands.

Just like the coffee that we always share, perfectly brewed or not.

Monday, December 19, 2011

INSIDE THE LION'S DEN is now available at Popular Bookstore, Tomas Morato, Quezon City

Our book "Inside the Lion's Den" is now available at Popular Bookstore in Tomas Morato and also the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines office in Scout Castor. Get your copy now :)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hot-off-the-press-night for INSIDE THE LION'S DEN

Yesterday, December 16, 2011, Inside the Lion's Den finally got off the press. From the printing press, we went straight to Oarhouse Pub to share some drinks and blue cheese with friends. Thanks everyone for the unwavering support!

Copies will be available in bookstores starting next week. For orders or reservations, you can email us at or

(Photos by Jes Aznar, Iris Gonzales, Raymond Panaligan, Jordan Santos)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

from the Introduction, INSIDE THE LION'S DEN

This is from the Introduction of our very first book, Inside the Lion's Den. The book, about the country's trade gates and their keepers, will be available in major bookstores starting next week. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Our Book is Finally Out!

After roughly twenty flights around the country, countless verbal confrontation with Customs guards,  dozens of sleep-deprived nights, gulping on bottles of single malt scotch and beer and cups of coffee, and near misses of WWIII, our project is finally complete.

There are hundreds of people to thank for making this endeavor possible but most of all, I thank my co-author Jes Aznar for giving me the courage to do this and the strength that brought out the words.


Our book,  about Philippine trade gates and their keepers and the problem of corruption and rampant smuggling, is finally out! It will be available in major bookstores starting next week.

Inside the Lion’s Den is a photographic reportage by Jes Aznar, accompanied by essays written by Iris Gonzales, on fragments of daily life inside the country’s trade gates, port areas and the men and women who work here.

It is a documentary journey of a photographer and a writer inside a bureaucracy often unknown to and deplored by the outside world – the Bureau of Customs, its collection districts around the country, far-flung sub-ports and the men and women who comprise it.

It is a story of many stories of survival, self-preservation, and dreams coming true.

The collection of images captured the different aspects of life in both the Bureau of Customs and in the many ports around the country.

The essays provide information on the history of the bureau and the collection districts that are defined by their geographical positions and the economies in their respective areas. The articles also tackle the problem of rampant smuggling and the culture of corruption inside.

It is a journalistic endeavor driven by a desire to chronicle something important in a society struggling to exist meaningfully and define itself, and the need to share it.

The book is edited by Sonny Yabao with text editing by Michael Marasigan. It is published by Europa.

"With unprecedented access granted by its very own Commissioner and if only from a pure photo-documentary standpoint, the images break positive new ground in the direction of public interest and what can hopefully be more honestly transparent and real views of a public agency’s actual role in the country’s life and function. – Ben Razon, from the Foreword to the Photographs. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

on the road

That our blog is titled On the Road to Puka is no coincidence. Jes and I spend most of our life on the road, so much so that in our very first book, our ever reliable sedan, is inevitably mentioned. The past months, we practically lived on the road. Our car has become our office: there's a printer in the trunk, a little black dress, pairs of slippers, jacket, CDs, food, etc.

The back seat easily transforms into a playground when the kids are onboard and once, with only the rain as shield, the car became a dressing room.

You step inside and the mixed smell of Burger King's Mushroom Swiss and beer will greet you. I have this feeling that every time we drive toward Miracle's garage for a much-needed car wash, the boys secretly wished they were closed for the day.

I don't remember being this busy in recent years but in the years to come, I'll remember the recent months as the busiest and one of the most hectic time in our lives. We're often THAT busy that we would take turns on the driver seat; Jes would take it when it was time for me to write a story and I'd do the same when it was time for him to do some last-minute editing. He'd drive so I could eat and vice-versa.

Once, in between a meeting and a medical emergency, we -- embarrassments of all embarrassments -- had to plug our printer in the hallway of a private hospital because we did not have the luxury of time to go home or to an Internet cafe to print the presentation we needed to bring to the meeting.

It was, as Jes described it so hayskul and disgustingly jologs. I know he secretly hated me for successfully convincing him to do it there. But we're no celebrities and I'm not vying for the Miss Universe title so I felt we had nothing to lose.

When we're not in the car, we're chasing flights in airports, hailing a cab to catch a flight, boarding a vessel or rushing here or there. People who want to meet with us have to follow where we will be at a particular time. It's embarrassing, really. And stressful. And crazy. And wrinkle-inducing. And the most fertile ground for WWIII.

But strangely, we thrive, almost perfectly.

all photos by me. On the road in Java, Indonesia

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Arroyo Arrested But Problems Persist

My latest blog on The New Internationalist

Former president of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, has been arrested on charges of election fraud, a non-bailable offense here. As I write this, she is under hospital arrest, in one of the most expensive private hospitals in the country.

The nine-year reign of Arroyo witnessed an endless list of crimes – from human rights violations, illegal arrests, political maneuvering, corruption, overpriced road projects, the list goes on. On November 18, 2011, a local court made history by issuing an arrest warrant against the former president on charges of electoral fraud.

Aware of the crime she had committed and fearing her eventual arrest and because of a lingering illness – the extent and magnitude of which is still unclear to the public – Arroyo attempted to leave the country on November 15, three days before the warrant was issued. She said she needed to seek medical treatment from hospitals in Singapore. But a hold departure order from the Department of Justice prevented her from leaving the country.

The scene at the airport could very well have been from a movie. The Arroyo camp brought the former president to the airport despite the hold departure order (they obtained a temporary restraining order from the Supreme Court). The former president looked helpless and fragile in a wheelchair. Diagnosed with a cervical spine condition, Arroyo must wear a halo vest. Immigration officials barred her from leaving and the scene of authorities preventing a frail president from seeking medical help abroad was meant to draw public sympathy.

Unfortunately for the Arroyo camp, it did not.

Arroyo is the second former president of the Philippines to be arrested on criminal charges filed in court. Her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, whom she pardoned, was convicted on plunder charges. The charges are serious and if convicted, Arroyo faces life imprisonment. Witnesses have attested that she rigged the 2007 elections.

President Benigno Aquino III, Arroyo’s successor, has made it clear that his administration will make sure that the former president and her cohorts will pay for their crimes. Elected on a good governance platform, President Aquino is doing all that he can to make sure corrupt people pay the price for their wrongdoings.

I’m all for it but after more than a year in office, the administration needs to show that it can prosecute the sinners of the past and at the same time fix the economy. The people are waiting for measures that would move the country forward and not just acts to plug revenue loopholes or corruption.The latest data showed that the Philippine economy slowed down to 3.4 per cent in the second quarter of the year, remarkably slower than the 8.9 per cent recorded a year ago.

An anti-corruption mandate, after all, can only get the country so far.

(Photo taken from

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

a letter from a child

This blog post is a much needed break from this seemingly never ending word factory operation. In the middle of cream cheese pasta and warm milk at 1: 40 am.

1. Don't spoil me. I know quite well that I ought not to have all I ask for. I'm only testing you.

2. Don't be afraid to be firm with me. I prefer it, it makes me feel secure.

3. Don't let me form bad habits. I have to rely on you to detect them in the early stages.

4. Don't make me feel smaller than I am. It only makes me behave stupidly "big".

5. Don't correct me in front of people if you can help it. I'll take much more notice if you talk quietly with me in private.

6. Don't make me feel that my mistakes are sins. It upsets my sense of values.

7. Don't protect me from consequences. I need to learn the painful way sometimes.

8. Don't be too upset when I say "I hate you." Sometimes it isn't you I hate but your power to thwart me.

9. Don't take too much notice of my small ailments. Sometimes they get me the attention I need.

10. Don't nag. If you do, I shall have to protect myself by appearing deaf.

11. Don't forget that I cannot explain myself as well as I should like. That is why I am not always accurate.

12. Don't put me off when I ask questions. If you do, you will find that I stop asking and seek my information elsewhere.

13. Don't be inconsistent. That completely confuses me and makes me lose faith in you.

14. Don't tell me my fears are silly. They are terribly real and you can do much to reassure me if you try to understand.

15. Don't ever suggest that you are perfect or infallible. It gives me too great a shock when I discover that you are neither.

16. Don't ever think that it is beneath your dignity to apologize to me. An honest apology makes me feel surprisingly warm towards you.

17. Don't forget I love experimenting. I couldn't get along without it, so please put up with it.

18. Don't forget how quickly I am growing up. It must be very difficult for you to keep pace with me, but please do try.

19. Don't forget that I don't thrive without lots of love and understanding, but I don't need to tell you, do I?

20. Please keep yourself fit and healthy. I need you.

(My Dad read this somewhere and asked me if I agree with them and I told him these are really true... -Zen Longid)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Learning from the Angler Fish

The Guardian has an interesting article about the angler fish, with a lot of strong points.

Take for instance this part:  For a male anglerfish, an increasing reliance on the female results in his organs becoming unnecessary, and he begins to disintegrate. Eventually he's nothing but a lump on her side functioning as the access point for egg fertilisation – an unconscious bulge where once swam an individual.

I agree with some points but of course, there isn't a one-size-fits-all formula in life. Disintegration of oneself is a choice. The key is to be aware of every step in the journey and not be blinded by the daily struggle of survival or the frenzied euphoria of a romanticized life.

The simplest things in life are often the best: hot cappuccino for two; a shared dinner of cream cheese pasta made of left-over ingredients from a recent exhibit; clean sheets; or sharing cold pancakes even during a fight. 

As the Dhammapada once said, "travel only with thy equals or thy betters; if there are none, travel alone."

photo from The Guardian

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

After the Slaughter

My latest blog on The New Internationalist:

Two years ago today, under a glistening sun on a far-flung barren hill, 58 people, including 32 journalists, were massacred to death in the Philippines. The massacre is considered the worst election-related violence in recent years.

Two years on, the grief and the pain remain immeasurable. The families of the victims of decades-old clan war continue to cry out for justice. The carnage, which came to be known as the ‘Maguindanao massacre’, happened on November 23, 2009, somewhere between Ampatuan town in Maguindanao in the southern Philippines and the heart of darkness.

According to Task Force Maguindanao, the group handling the investigation, a total of 100 people are accused: nine policemen, four military personnel, 18 members of the Ampatuan clan, and 69 members of the private army of the Ampatuans, a ruling clan in the province.

It happened on a Monday, as the group was on its way to Shariff Aguak to witness the filing of election candidacy of Toto Mangudadatu, a member of a rival clan of the Ampatuans in the province. His wife Genalyn would be filing his candidacy for him, along with a convoy of supporters and members of the working press.

But on their way to the provincial capital, around 100 armed men intercepted the convoy and led them up a dirt road, some four kilometres from the highway they were on.

They were brought to an empty lot, from where they could only dream of their loved ones in the distant valley below as they stood helplessly to meet their deaths.

Two years have passed but justice for the victims of the massacre that happened in broad daylight remains elusive.

So that people will not forget, media organizations here have lined up various activities for the commemoration. There is a photo exhibit on Mindanao by Filipino photojournalist Jes Aznar.  Under the Lord’s Shadow takes a deeper look into the conflict in Mindanao, the very same conflict that led to the massacre.

There is also a ‘Countdown to End Impunity’ as Filipino journalists join the International Day to End Impunity initiated by the International Freedom of Expression Exchange.

Today, media organizations, journalists and other groups will march to the presidential palace to remind the government that justice has not been served and that the massacre has not been and will never be forgotten.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

TWO YEARS AND STILL NO JUSTICE: A call to bloggers, Twitter users and social media activists

Below is a statement from the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. I urge my fellow bloggers to heed the call:

On November 21, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, in cooperation with other media groups, is launching a Blog Action Day in connection with our commemoration of the second anniversary of the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan massacre and the first International Day to End Impunity.

As of today, only two Ampatuans have been arraigned. Only 93 of the 196 accused have been arrested. Prosecution and defense lawyers have listed 300 and 320 witnesses, respectively, which, according to Senator Joker Arroyo, a veteran human rights lawyer and courtroom litigator, may take 200 years to present.

Meanwhile, the families of the 58 victims continue to suffer from the loss of their loved ones, most of whom were family breadwinners. Some of the children continue to innocently wait in vain for their murdered parents to come home.

On this day, we would like to invite all of you to use the power of communication and the Internet to speak out for justice and against the continued impunity with which those who wish to suppress freedom of expression impose the ultimate censorship – death – and how the apathy and inaction of government has made this so.

Let this be the start of a meaningful partnership as we forge onward together to realize the full expression of our rights and freedoms as communicators and as citizens of our country.

Below are some links that provide background information on the Ampatuan massacre and current status of the 57 counts of murder filed against the 196 accused:

“End Impunity: NUJP’s countdown to the Ampatuan Massacre’s second Anniversary” on Facebook (

NUJP (@nujp) on Twitter (

NUJP on Tumblr  which features artworks of children of the victims of the massacre and other media killings. These artworks express how they are coping with the death of their slain parents (

Let’s do our share in not forgetting the fallen victims of the Ampatuan Massacre.


Rowena C. Paraan

Secretary General

Nestor Burgos

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Documentary photographer gives deeper glimpse into Maguindanao's woes

As published on
15-Nov-11, 6:39 PM | 

MANILA, Philippines - A photo and multimedia exhibit on Mindanao by documentary photographer Jes Aznar opens on November 23, 2011 at Kanto Artists-Run Space in Makati as part of the activities marking the second anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre.

Under the Lord’s Shadows provides a deeper look into the source of conflict in Maguindanao, the very same conflict that led to the massacre of 58 people, 32 of them media workers, two years ago.

The exhibit is an attempt to tell and retell the story of Maguindanao, a place mired in poverty despite its abundant resources, where men, women and children are constant victims of wars and the conflicts between ruling clans desperate to stay in power.


It is part of Aznar’s long-term documentary project on Mindanao, which to him captures the decades-old problems of feudalism, greed and poverty hounding the Philippines.

“What is happening in the rest of the country is happening in the island tenfold. The ruling clans remain in power, living comfortably inside sprawling mansions, surrounded by their very own gun-wielding private armies,” he says.

Armed with just a few hundred pesos in his pocket and a camera, Aznar went to Mindanao some years ago to document this enigmatic and historical island teeming with the complexities of life and suffering, of failure and triumph, of hate and love. A place he now calls his second home.

He lived with priests, soldiers, evacuees, child warriors and different families.

He has been going back and forth to Mindanao for more than two years now.

What has emerged from his trips is a mosaic about the lives of people living under the lords’ shadows. The lords are the powers-that-be, the ruling clans who spawned wars and conflicts to remain in power.

“Mindanao can feed the whole country but the island’s geographical distance from the rest of the country made it easy for ruling clans to plunder its resources and abuse its people. The powers-that-be spawned wars to justify armaments and their slice of the trillion-a-year national budget,” Aznar says.

Aznar has been documenting human rights, land and other social issues in the country for many years now. His works have appeared on various local and international publications including Time, Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times.

The exhibit opens on November 23, 2011 at 4 pm up to December 7, 2011 at Kanto Artists-Run Space, The Collective, 7274 Malugay Street, San Antonio Village Makati, Philippines.

For inquiries please call +639273572724 or email