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