BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Friday, November 29, 2013

Notes from Tokyo

TOKYO - I stepped out of the airport at past ten in the evening; the air was crisp and biting. I followed an old man in a worn-out blue coat to a waiting black van. He offered me a ride to Tokyo at a discounted rate.

I wondered, in the embrace of the cold evening, whether I walked the same steps more than twenty years ago when I first visited Japan.  Nothing seemed familiar, not even the weather. And I thought I was in a place where memories would collide, memories held by a 13-year old girl in green, pink or brown pants or her seventh grade uniform. She spoke Japanese then, at least she tried after weeks of studying the language. 

But now, more than twenty years later, I could hardly remember a thing, not even my broken Nihongo. Who was it who said that one can never go back to the same place ever?

Still, Japan enamored me the way it did the first time. I fell in love, all over again, with everything it had to offer. From its cold but kind weather -- the thermometer read seven degrees Celsius -- to its platters of sushi with wasabi-filled sauce.

I love the autumn leaves, too-- red,  yellow, orange and the bright crimson sun that sets at 5 in the afternoon. I love the river cruise and the ice cold Asahi beer. I love the temples of forgotten times and age-old trees sprawled perfectly in a lush green garden, hidden in the middle of the bustling city.

I love breakfast at seven in the morning and long walks along its busy streets. I love the bowls of ramen and Japanese candies and the endless search for Kitkat Green Tea.  I love those smoking rooms with mirrors all over, the efficient train system and Japanese time.

Japan is a memory of many, many years ago and of a visit a few weeks ago. It is different, yet it is the same. It is red autumn leaves and blue skies and quiet walks on cold evenings. It is good food and great beer but it is best of all, about being at home in a strange land, over and over, again and again, despite the passing of time. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Dateline Tokyo

I am happy to share that I won the first runner-up prize in the Developing Asia Journalism Awards 2013 organized by the Asian Development Bank Institute in Tokyo, Japan last week. It was an honor and privilege to have made it this far in the awards. Twenty finalists from all over Asia and the Pacific competed for the top prize. 

It was my first time to be part of the DAJA and was lucky to be part of such a group of passionate and brilliant journalists from countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand and many others. 

The main prize of Development Journalist of the Year was awarded to Indika Shamindra of Sri Lanka for his story Trade Negotiations: Sidelining the Bigots while the second runner-up prize went to Thi Kim Le of Vietnam.

Other finalists from the Philippines, my friend Joyce Pangco Panares of Manila Standard and Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat of Manila Bulletin both received honorable mention while David Lozada of Rappler was named Young Development Journalist of the Year, a recognition given to journalists under age 30. 

Thank you ADBI for this. Thank you to my Philippine Star family, my editors Marianne Go and Roman Floresca, for the support and thank you to Deutsche Welle for having me in the ten-day regional integration workshop in Myanmar where I met Aye Aye Khaing, a garments factory worker I interviewed for my article. I thank her most especially for sharing her story.

Thanks, too to very supportive friends and family for their greetings and wishes of good luck. My adventurer friend for instance must have wished me luck a hundred times the night before I left for Tokyo. Thanks especially to the dear bf who despite being in the disaster area managed to find time to cut and post yesterday's digital edition.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

When the Winds Start Blowing

There is always something eerie when strong winds blow this way in this God-forsaken country.

The tension begins long before the harsh winds come pounding and the skies turn to gray. Weather forecasters are always the first to know and depending on what they see on the satellite images, their jitters may move as quickly as a raging storm.

“It will come in a few hours,” the weather bureau will warn everyone on the storm’s path. But really, it doesn’t have to. The signs are everywhere.  One just needs to look at the vanishing light and dark skies, the swaying leaves and falling coconuts. Almost everyone knows. Dogs howl in the dead of night. Days-old babies fret uncontrollably. The birds disappear with their flock. Grandmothers with Alzheimer’s will ask for blankets, one or two, anything to keep them safe and warm. They too know about the coming malaise. And they know it well.

These are the portent of things to come, a foreshadowing of sorts.

An average of twelve typhoons visit the Philippines every year and they show no mercy. No matter how you think you are ready, you will never be, not when the water rises and the winds start punching like gladiators fighting to their deaths.

On Friday, November 8, even before the roosters woke up, a typhoon named Yolanda - the strongest typhoon to ever hit the Philippines -- came smashing and it came smashing hard, hitting provinces in the southern part. The hardest hit was the province of Leyte. People call it a monster, a cruel one. And rightly so.

As I write this, 151 people are dead but the actual number could go up because the reports are still sketchy, with cellular phone towers down and an airport wiped out, leaving nothing except for the runway. Malls are closed, homes have been washed away, and poles and transmission lines are down.

The house helper has been crying since last night. No words can bring her comfort. Her family in Leyte could not be reached. Phone lines are down and all flights have been cancelled. She has not heard from any of them for more than 24 hours now.  Not especially from her twelve year old son. She wonders where they all are but she is certain, as certain as a heartbeat, that their tattered house built from scraps of wood, standing in a borrowed land in the center of a sprawling rice field, has been blown away.  The pigs in the backyard are probably dead, she says; and the cows and the goats, too.

When a typhoon comes, there’s no telling how many will survive when the water rises and washes away everything and every man, woman or child that come its way. There’s no stopping flash floods filled with soot and trash from cutting through people’s lives. And there will be no warning. Death comes in seconds, even in a fraction of a second.

Once they are gone, everything is wiped out.

On Christmas Day two years ago in the province of Cagayan de Oro, down south, this is what I saw after a typhoon named Sendong battered the place:

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.

And in an island a few hours away, this is what happened:

For the skies, it was just another spit of rain, perhaps just stronger than in previous days.

But for people whose lives are shared with loved ones and are measured not by routines of Mother Nature but by family ties and relationships, the rains were a curse. A curse so mad, merciless and unforgiving.

And that curse is seen everywhere here in Bayug Island: devastated houses, coconut trees; shattered windowpanes, slabs of remaining concrete, crushed roofs; clothes; wooden dressers; sofas; refrigerator; photographs; mattresses.

The island, traditionally considered as the first settlement in Iligan, has now become a desolate land that breathed its last breath that fateful Friday night when waves, as if furious, came and pared off hectares and hectares of Bayug’s villages.

Located at the mouth of Mandulog River, the island has an estimated land area of 300 hectares, home to some 400 families scattered around eight sub-villages.

Now, large portions of the coastal village are barren. There are only makeshift altars assembled out of left over pieces of wood, for candles and flowers for the dead.

Every typhoon is different and every survivor has his story to tell.  A typhoon’s ferocity and violence have become part of the daily life of people in this country, of farmers who lose their hard-earned harvests, of fishermen who lose their boats and their catch and even loved ones, too, of students whose schools turn into evacuation centers for months and months on end; for every man, woman or child affected by the catastrophe.

It is perhaps like the scalding weather in Death Valley where the thermometer once read 54 degrees Celsius or the biting winter nights of Europe in December and January.

Except maybe, it’s harder here because there’s no telling when the winds will come, in the dead of night or in dry mornings, on birthdays or on Christmas Day.

It simply tells us the end is always so near. 

(The Philippine Red Cross and The Philippine Star are accepting donations for victims of typhoon Yolanda.  Email addresses are or /Old clothes are discouraged because there are simply too much to go around. Cash is best as this can help fund the specific needs of evacuees).

Monday, November 4, 2013

Mornings in Malate

Believe it or not, the sun rises in Malate, home of dirty old men and their mistresses, vagabonds and young boys in auburn dyed hair savoring rugby. 
In the morning, bars are empty and karaoke lounges like the Mabini Jewel Cabin are sound asleep and snoring.
Today, while the sun is scorchingly dry, there's a family of street urchins sleeping just outside the Cabin; passersby drop a coin or two before walking toward the rest of their lives, no time to think where a single peso could go for this family.
Gone are the lasses in their miniskirts and high-heeled stilettos who eke out a living picking up foreigners for more than a one-night stand but for a ticket out of their lonely lives.
Hugs and Kisses stare at me, empty and abandoned, at least today, right this hour. I am sitting by a vintage oak barrel outside Malone's Irish Pub which "lets your beer do the talking," sipping a cappuccino while writing this. 
The Malate of the previous night is not the same as this morning. I wonder where they all went while a UP student who hanged herself visited me in my dreams last night, up there in a borrowed room smelling of Brie cheese and nicotine smoke.
The blazing lights and party music are gone, replaced by the honking of jeepneys plying the dirty streets of Mabini. 
I wonder where the pimps went. I wonder where the pedophiles are. I wonder, too about the young forlorn ladies belting out love songs in lonely KTV rooms. 
A bar girl in pig tails, green checkered skirt and knee-high socks jolts me out of my reverie. Ninety pesos for my cold cappuccino, she reminds me. I reach out for the last of my money but she disappears as a bald foreigner catches her attention. 
"Do you miss me?" he asks her. 
"I'll be back. I'll just pick my laundry," he promises her and walks away. She smiles and waits. And waits longer. They all do. 
We all do. Because the sun rises in Malate.

(A version of this article is part of a submission to a fiction Masterclass) 

Sunday, November 3, 2013


I'm in any one of the four airport terminals in Manila, at least once a month or maybe more, either as a passenger or the bf's chauffeur.

Whichever it is, the experience is the same. The parking lot is a maze, at least in the main terminal, a labyrinthine hell of a mess, filled with cars parked in all directions and motorists born to violate traffic rules. 

There's no telling when one can park or if one can park at all, so don't risk bringing your car if you have a flight to catch because you might just miss it looking for that elusive slot. 

If you're lucky to get one, a dizzying scene of well-wishers and eager loved ones await you. There's not just one family member to send a departing passenger off but jeep loads of clan members. 

When you're waiting for an arriving passenger expect to see a monstrous crowd of waiting families, like monkeys behind bars or prisoners of war. It's no use telling the passenger to stand and wait under the right letter; you won't see him anyway in the mayhem, not with the mumble jumble of cars breaching the two minute limit by the minute. 

The comfort rooms in this part of the country will bring you no comfort with its stench and dirt. And don't bother flushing the toilet because it's either not working or the handle's too dirty for even the dirtiest hands to touch. 

The security personnel are as grouchy as The Grouch so save your smiles for that arriving loved one, whatever need or inquiry you may have. 

Immigration and Customs officials are comparable. You'll chance upon friendly ones more often than not but corrupt ones negate all these small consolations so you begin to wonder what the hell are you paying your taxes for.

Flights will be delayed. The heavens must be performing a miracle if your plane arrives or departs on time so expect to wait and wait longer. 

Still, there's no escaping airports. For a wanderer like me, it's that gauntlet walk to get to wherever my feet takes me -- to some paradise in the southern part of this God-forsaken land or to my favorite Southeast Asian country. 

Yet, it wouldn't be too much to hope for a nice deal, at least for my P550 terminal fee. Clean restrooms are the first on my wish list. 

But then again, who am I kidding here. The Philippines has the worst airport in the world, after all. Never mind if it bears the name of the father of the top official of this land.

(While waiting at the airport, two hours and still counting...)