BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Monday, June 30, 2014

Looking for Jes Aznar?

Whether you're a stalker or a client, you may reach Jes Aznar through his email address at jesaznar(at)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Welcome to the Philippines: My Country Profile for The Internationalist May Edition

Country Profile: The Philippines

INSIDE the Bronx-like district of Tondo in Manila, the Philippine capital, one will see a densely populated labyrinthine community of makeshift dwellings, licked by the trash-filled waters of the famed Manila Bay. It is home to the city’s poorest of the poor. 

Deeper into the interior, surrounded by this sea of shanty homes is the heavily -guarded seaport empire of Filipino billionaire Enrique Razon, who runs 27 ports around the world – from Manila to Madagascar. 

Tons of cargo – From Feta Cheese to iPads – change hands at Razon’s port everyday as the slum dwellers around it beg for food in Manila’s streets or eke out a living doing odd jobs. 

The contrast is stark and telling and is seen in the rest of the country.  Decades after a bloodless revolution toppled the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos and restored democracy in 1986, the Philippines remains home to only a few filthy rich families, with the rest still among Asia’s poorest. 

These families have been controlling big businesses in the country, from retail malls, beach resorts and toll ways to a new and glittering 100-hectare Las Vegas-style gambling city. 

From the airport to the nearby Roxas Boulevard, for instance, one will find homeless families sleeping on the cold pavement or children selling sweet smelling Sampaguita garlands to sleek four-wheel drive SUVs plying the road, lined with five star hotels and high-rise condominiums.

President Benigno Aquino III, the only son of the late Corazon Aquino who became president when democracy was restored in 1986, is trying to change that, boosting economic growth and trumpeting an anti-corruption platform with the aim of uplifting the poor. 

After putting Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the ailing former president, on hospital arrest on corruption charges, Aquino is now building cases of plunder against opposition lawmakers who allegedly received commissions for ghost infrastructure projects.

More than three years since he took office, however, economic growth, although increasing – 7.2 percent in 2013 from 6.8 percent the previous year – is not trickling down to the 25 million people living below poverty line. 

The administration has failed to create local industries that are heavy enough to significantly boost the economy, relying instead on the call center business, which is booming in this English-speaking country. 

Everyday, some 5,000 Filipinos still leave Manila to work mostly in the United States, Hong Kong and the Middle East as domestic helpers, entertainers, caregivers or seafarers, because there are not enough gainful opportunities in the country.  

And while Aquino enjoys high popularity ratings, he has yet to fulfill many of his campaign promises such as addressing the problem of extrajudicial killings of journalists and human rights workers.

One of the most awaited promises yet to be fulfilled is the distribution of his family’s 4,000-hectare sugar plantation in the northern part of the country as mandated by an agrarian reform law.  It is the same promise his mother made 28 years ago as president. 

He also promised to build infrastructure – new roads, trains and airports – with the help of businessmen to decongest traffic in Metro Manila and at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the main gateway named after his father, which has been consistently dubbed by travelers as the world’s worst airport.

Motorists are waiting for such promises as they brave the daily three to six hour traffic jams along EDSA, the main thoroughfare that stretches 23.8 kilometers through six cities while commuters endure the impossibly congested elevated metro train that traverses the same route.

The monstrous traffic jams daily have put the Philippines in novelist Dan Brown’s fiction Inferno, which described Manila as the gates of hell and one with apocalyptic poverty. 

Indeed, Manila is a place where truth reads like fiction; where the surreal meets the mundane and where a handful of Filipino billionaires make it to the Forbes list every year, while the poor stay desperately poor.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Notes from Paradise

You step into this place and you are in an instant, in paradise. This is a place perfect with the beloved. Or with the kids. Or just by yourself, with your dreams and words.

Your mind will rest in the tranquility and the energy that flows from the age-old garden and cascading violets; the sound of water and the whisper of crickets on quiet evenings. 

I attended a yoga class but there was so much more to it than my usual yoga experience. Here, reality blends with magic realism. The beauty is almost surreal. 

It comes close to our favorite paradise of all time -- Tugu in Malang in East Java, Indonesia, which Jes and I discovered many moons ago.

                                beautiful morning

                               Waterfalls pool

                                the bath area in the spa room

                                          the spa room

                                afternoon walk

                                          the charming room

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Araw's Yolanda Kids Back-to-School Project a Success!

My daughter's nanny, Ms. J, just got back from Leyte with the good news that Araw's back to school project for the children of Carigara, Leyte has been a big success. 

The project started after Araw won the grand prize of P20,000 in a fund-raising Bingo game in her school. 

When I asked her what she wanted to do with the money, she said without hesitation that she wanted to donate it to the victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan. 

And so we did. We bought school kits for 100 children. The kits included a plastic envelope, a notebook, pencils, erasers, sharpeners, crayons, pad paper and pens. We also bought water bottles and some vitamins. 

To supplement the school kits, I also sought the help of some companies for "whatever corporate give-aways they can include." They all gave their overwhelming support. Rest assured your help has gone a long way. Thank you to the MVP Group's PLDT and Maynilad, Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corp., National Grid Corp. of the Philippines, Manila Water and Full Circle.  Thank you to Jes Aznar for this bright idea.

Again, on behalf of the children of Carigara, Leyte, I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to Jay-Anne Encarnado of PLDT for the support that went to logistics and other additional expenses, Cherubim Ocampo of Maynilad for 50 school kits with notebooks, sanitizer and water bottles, Ron Jabal of Shell for the towels and the additional notebooks, Atty. Cynthia Perez-Alabanza of NGCP for 100 notebooks, 100 ballpens and 100 pencils and Milen de Quiros for the pencils and ballpens from Full Circle and Manila Water.  Ms. J and her siblings brought the stuff -- in six big boxes -- to Carigara, Leyte. Thank you Ms. J. and thanks, too, to Dennis Longid for lending his vehicle which brought the boxes to the bus station.

A great big thank you to each and everyone of you for responding to our call. Without your help, this project would not have been as successful. 

But this story is not about us nor is it about Araw. This is the story of the children of Carigara, Leyte.  May we never forget what happened to them on November 8, 2013 when a monster of a typhoon came in the dead of night. 

(Photos by me; Photo of photos by Jes Aznar)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

This Man, the Jack of All Trades

This is a story about a man I love deeply. He loves me, too. Calls me his OAO. It's not always great but mostly there's lots of fun and belly-aching laughter. A great deal of love but there's pain, too. He has been so patient with my bitchiness, I with his eccentricities. But we exist because we are who we are.

The story begins many, many, many moons ago, at 2 a.m. on Valentine's Day.  The memories we share range from magical to mundane, from makeshift trollies to dirty camp sites and posh hotels. Dinner tables, beat-up cars, James Bond movies, hospital beds, emergency rooms, police stations and dark crowded streets, you name it, we've been there.

He is the smartest of all, so great in the dirty Gates of Hell and wiser in the August halls of any office. He is fierce and bold and brave, braver than the bitch that I am. The safest place in his home is his warm embrace. He can get out of any trouble, be it double murder or a traffic altercation and he can survive anything this crazy world can offer -- it's the best thing I learned from him.

The years have passed and I have seen him age but I know that up to the end, to his very last breath or mine, he will stand by me and with me and I, for him. He will never be able to read this because he doesn't know this space exists but no words are necessary for him to know that he is and will always  will be the great man that I know.

Happy Father's Day to my dearest dad. I will greet him on Sunday and as he has done every year without fail since seven years ago, he will give me a kiss and a hug and say, "same to you!" And then we will roll over with laughter.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pamilya Banal

Because I don't have an FB account, a friend sent me this photograph from a recent trip to China. We call ourselves the "Pamilya Banal."  Thanks, tito Boy!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Miracle That Is JASMS

Sharing with my readers a graduation speech for JASMS Grade School Batch 2014 which mentioned my thoughts about my favorite school. (I went to four -- Miriam, UP and Ateneo but JASMS remains my favorite of all). If you are looking for the perfect school for your child, this is it. 

Graduation Speech by Concepcion Vallejo-Pijano

Many times over the past few weeks, I have often wondered why I was chosen to address the Grade 6 students on graduation day. I have been having nightmares about what to tell you.

There’s a gap of over half a century between our generations. And I wonder what I can share with you that would make sense in your world, that is now dominated by computers, the I-pad, I-phone, X-box and games like, Angry Birds, NBA 2K 13, Minecraft and Halo.

Let me begin by congratulating the Batch of 2014 who belong to Generation Z. You are now standing at the midpoint of the K to 12 basic education program, moving up to junior high and senior high which is equivalent to 6 more years of schooling. You will be the High School Graduates of 2020. Isn’t that awesome? But that’s the future.

Let’s focus on today - Today we have come together to celebrate your graduation from Grade 6. The JASMS education which you have received goes back to 1933 when Doreen Barber Gamboa pioneered in childhood education which is “child-centered” and totally different from the educational approach of her time.

It is surprising that 81 years after Doreen Gamboa pioneered in this approach, it is only in the recent past that educators in the country are focusing on student centeredness. It is said that in Mrs. G’s world, the child was the center. In this school that she created, which is JASMS – YOU are the center. 

This is the reason I kept my 3 sons here in JASMS in the mid 80’s and now I have 5 grandchildren who are all studying here. For the second generation of Pijanos who are here now, coming to JASMS was a blessing, short of a miracle, a milestone in their young lives.

Let me tell you the story of how they landed in JASMS?

In SY 2012-2013, they were all enrolled in an exclusive school for boys, about 7 minutes away from home. It was a good school, academic-oriented, but the classes were big, about 40-45 students per class.
It was John who sounded the first red flag when he told us he wasn’t happy there. He was being bullied and the class of 43 kids were rowdy and noisy. In September 2012, (about one and a half years ago) we decided to transfer him to JASMS.

One evening in September last year, he said: “Lola, it’s my anniversary at JASMS. It has been a very happy year for me”.

In June last year, his older brother and 3 cousins joined him at JASMS. This is the happiest period in their young lives. For them, JASMS is a piece of heaven on earth, and rightly so, because here, love abounds.

It is a caring environment where every child is unique and respected.
Mrs. Gamboa’s favorite line which you can see etched on the wall here at JASMS states, “A child grows up only once, let his childhood be a happy one.”

From the Internet, let me share with you what some graduates have written about JASMS:

A Manila-based multi-awarded journalist who is a world-traveller - Iris Cecilia Gonzales wrote a beautiful blog entitled, “J-A-S-M-S Oh yes! The school we love the best, " and I quote: 

“Somewhere between my heart and Quezon City, lies the haven of my childhood, a place which is largely the reason why I am in the mold that I am now.

It has been so many years ago since we stepped out of our playground to live the rest of our lives. 

Today, we are proud and happy pursuing our interests in life. That is, after all, what JASMS gave us. It did not raise us to become nerds or academic slaves but more importantly, JASMS taught us to do what we want. It helped us find our place under the sun. JASMS allowed us to be children. It also gave us enough time to grow.”

This resonates with the famous statement of Doreen Gamboa which says: “Each child has his own time for blooming, It mustn’t be hastened and it mustn’t be held back.”

From another website called TeacherJulie. com: I quote:
“If one would observe the children at JASMS, they are different from students in other schools. They are happy, noisy and confident. One can feel their energy just watching them play, interact with one another and perform in front of people. They are friends with their teachers and principal. They go through a learning process that is different from the traditional setting because they focus more on the process. They are enjoying their childhood.”

We all know that teachers and administrators are what make an excellent school. Today, allow me to pay special tribute to 12 teachers who have been here at JASMS for more than two decades, interacting with the kids, teaching and loving them every step of the way and keeping the institutional memory of JASMS alive:
Mr. Abelardo Giron, Mr. Herminio Laygo, Mr. Isidro Manrique, Ms. Amelita Manangbao, Ms. Aurea Cavinta, Marilyn Donato, Ms. Rosario Rosales, Ms Julie Monsale, Mrs, Flocerfida Singh, Ms. Maria Poblete, Ms. Venus Ramos and Ms. Marivic Roman.

I would also like to pay a special tribute to Mrs. Remedios Cruz, Principal of PWU-JASMS, Manila who has taught here for many decades and has made a difference in the lives of the students under her care.

These teachers and the rest of the faculty make learning an exciting journey where new opportunities are constantly being created.
Let’s give a big round of applause to your heroic teachers, who day in and day out have accompanied you in your journey of discovery and learning.

We also have in our midst, 4 JASMS alumnae, who have decided to remain in JASMS to carry on the JASMS tradition: They, too, are my heroes:

Mrs. Diana Gutierrez, Principal, High School Batch 89, Mrs. Rosanna Prieto Luciano, Mr. Norman Ramirez and Mr.Claude Despabiladeras

Can we give these alumnae another round of applause? Their passion, dedication and commitment to the JASMS tradition and way of life are admirable.

I also wish to congratulate your parents for letting you come to JASMS. Dear Parents, I can assure you this is one of the best decisions you have ever made in your life for your child.

My job takes me across the country visiting schools, and I can tell you that we are lucky because here in JASMS, classes are small – 16 to 20 students. This is rare, very rare. Only international schools in the country are able to do this.

JASMS continued existence is a blessing to the Filipino nation.
Its facilities may not be that great, but their graduates are able to pass the most difficult entrance exams in the country - given by UP and the Ateneo. In my son’s class 25 years ago, two thirds of the entire class made it either for UP or Ateneo. This year, majority of those who took the exams passed.

It is said that those who pass the UP and Ateneo entrance exams belong to the top 2% of the graduating class in the entire country.

Truly, this is a wonderful record which tells us that JASMS is one of the best institutions we have in this country.

Again, let me quote from Ms. Gonzales’ blog: “There, it was possible to climb "mountains," to soak oneself in mud and enjoy it, to travel to different corners of the world without mom and dad, to learn while playing and to enjoy every minute of one's youth”.

A renowned American writer of children’s books, Dr. Seuss, has this to say: “I A renowned American writer of children’s books, Dr. Seuss, has this to say: “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it's a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life's realities."

Learning to laugh at life’s realities, keeping a balancing act as you go through life and learning to cope with life’s various challenges – this is the miracle that is JASMS. "

Educators agree that what remains with a person after leaving school are not the classes attended or papers and projects submitted but the co-curricular activities pursued outside the classroom. These activities have a far greater impact on our lives than all the hours spent in the classroom.

Maybe this is why John was beaming with happiness and pride last night at dinnertime when he was recalling the many experiences and achievements he has had since he came to JASMS a year and a half ago.

As we end, let me give you another quotation from the blog of Rhissa Garcellano, HS Batch 87, which states: “ We honour and acknowledge the people and the institution that have played a big role in our lives. (It is) because of the school’s different approach to teaching that we are who we are today – great unique individuals. JASMS gave us tools to learn through experience, to discover on our own, to keep asking questions and to grow in an environment filled with so many wonderful options.”

It has been 81 years since Doreen Gamboa created JASMS. Many generations later, it is still turning out happy kids, eager to make a difference in the world.

It is a miracle how it has survived through the decades. I guess God must be watching over it and the generosity of the teachers and administrators have made this possible.
For this we are eternally grateful. I do not have enough words to tell you how much I appreciate JASMS and the impact it has made on our lives as a family.

Thank you, JASMS, for helping me raise three happy boys in whose veins run deep the philosophy of founder Mrs. Doreen Gamboa, “learning to be free”.

To the JASMS High School Department – get ready for this Magnificent Grade School Batch 2014.

They are flying high, they are brimming with joy at discovering a brave new world which is Junior High.

My parting words to the Graduates are again taken from Dr Seuss: "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. You are the guy who’ll decide where to go."

Congratulations, Batch 2014. Stay happy!
Concepcion Vallejo-Pijano

(Mother of 3 JASMS alumnae and grandmother of 5 JASMS students) 

Friday, June 6, 2014

My Piece for Germany-based Tea After Twelve is Out

Tea After Twelve: Megacities

It is three p.m. in Manila on a sizzling Monday afternoon. The thermometer reads 30 degrees Celsius and the traffic is at a standstill.  I have been driving for almost three hours already from the airport back to my house in Quezon City, a drive that could take only 20 minutes if only the roads were empty. But these days, Metro Manila's roads are never empty anymore. Traffic is a mess of epic proportions, a nightmare, an apocalypse of sorts.

The route from the airport to Roxas Boulevard for instance is at a gridlock almost the whole day and past office hours because of ongoing construction and road works.

The road is lined on one side by buildings surrounded by giant cranes and construction workers in their bright orange workers' vest and hard hats who are busy building giant casinos and hotels -- all part of a glittering 100-hectare Las Vegas-style casino complex targeted for completion in four years.

Indeed, Metro Manila, a region of 16 cities and home to 11 million of the Philippines' 94-million population is indeed changing and it is changing fast.

Traffic is one such indicator of rapid change, caused as much by daily road and construction work brought about by cheap condominium boom as it is by the rise in business process outsourcing (BPO) offices.

Blue-collared workers now have to leave their homes double the time that they used to. If one has a meeting in Makati, the country’s financial business district for instance, and one is coming from Quezon City – just an hour’s drive five years ago, one would have to leave more than two hours ahead because of heavy traffic. It’s worst to take any of the public buses that ply EDSA, Metro Manila’s main thoroughfare that stretches 23 kilometers through six cities, because their drivers, paid on commission per passenger, won’t move until their buses are filled to the brim.

The elevated commuter train that passes the same route takes only thirty minutes but one will have to fall in line for an hour to get inside and two hours during the morning and evening rush hours.

Once in a while, I become part of the chaos, when I am too tired to brave the monstrous road jam and would rather sit or stand on the crowded train than to do the driving myself. Or when gasoline prices are skyrocketing as they do when the oil-producing Middle Eastern region is in a crisis.

The chaos actually begins long before the ride starts as I experienced one damp October morning, at the foot of the train’s Quezon Avenue station, the one nearest my house, on pools of mud and water from the previous night's rain, where the line to the morning's ride started.

There are mostly office workers in the long, snaking line of commuters, some in high-heeled shoes or crisp uniform. Many are used to the kind of hell but it’s still as inconvenient as it is any given day.

The crowd is always as thick as the Red Sea's waves.

Welcome to Metro Manila, the Philippines' national capital region. Welcome to mayhem. The City of Manila itself, the Philippine capital, is indeed experiencing rapid change. Even the once treasured national landmark, the monument of the late Dr. Jose Rizal, our national hero who was shot by a firing squad of the Spanish Army, is now surrounded on one side by high-rise condominiums.

Indeed, there is without doubt a housing boom in the Philippines, with record low interest rates, irresistible down payment requirements, many Filipinos are finding themselves able to afford their own homes.

Developers say they are helping Filipinos have their own homes.

Januario Jesus "J.J." Gregorio Atencio III, co-owner of local property developer 8990 Holdings said having one’s own home is empowering.

“It’s more than a business. We do it to change lives,” he said in an interview.

According to real estate consultancy Colliers International Philippines, more than
4,400 high-rise residential units were completed in 2013 in the five major central business districts in Metro Manila that Colliers monitor.

It expects 19,700 units to be turned over in the next three years, the company said in its outlook on the Philippine market released in February 2014.

The monstrous traffic is the price to pay for the prevailing construction boom in the country. Traffic is such a nightmare that fiction writer Dan Brown has dubbed the Manila the gates of hell, citing the six-hour traffic jams. Indeed, it is here where fiction meets the truth.

All these development should be good. A construction boom means job opportunities. Some Filipinos are now able to have their own homes. But a closer look in Metro Manila’s nooks and crannies reveals that a huge part of the population is still being left behind. Many are still homeless and without jobs.

Shantytowns are expanding as fast as new condominiums are rising. Philippine economic growth rose to 7.2 percent in 2013 from 6.8 percent the previous. Yet, 25 million Filipinos still live below the poverty line.

The country’s wealth and resources are shared by just a few billionaires and they are the same people who are behind the booming condominium industry.

One look at any of the labyrinthine slum areas all over Metro Manila, one will find teeming poverty and impossibly difficult living conditions. The fetid smell of human sweat, garbage and trash pervade in these communities as two to three families of six are cramped in make-shift dwellings like sardines in cans.

Jobs are still difficult to find, forcing Filipinos to leave their loved ones in Manila to work mostly in the United States, Hong Kong and the Middle East as domestic helpers, entertainers, caregivers or seafarers. Some 5,000 Filipinos leave Manila everyday to work abroad.

Indeed, Metro Manila is changing and it is changing fast. The worsening traffic situation and the construction boom are just few of the signs of changes in this metropolis.

Some are adjusting and feeling the change, now able to buy their own homes and drive their own cars. But at the same time, Metro Manila’s poor stay desperately poor.

Whether or not development will eventually trickle down to the poor is still anybody’s guess but for sure, it is the change that many of them have been fervently waiting for.