BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Thank you, Nepal; a Postscript

More than two months after our visit, the enigma, magic and unshakeable faith of Nepal still linger in my mind.

Thank you to the Nepali people for their unwavering strength and resilience and to this Himalayan country for revealing its beauty amid the devastation. 

Here's my collection of stories from the trip:

Nepal is still strongly in need of help, my story for The New Internationalist even as Social Caretaking Keeps Nepal Going, as I wrote for Womensenews.

And reminisce with me again as I reflect on this amazing place for The Starweek, made extra amazing and strong by its women, who played visible roles in rebuilding Nepal as I wrote for Womensenews.

Again, thank you to everyone that Jes and I met in this journey. It was magical to say the least. 

Once again, Namaste!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Women Play Visible Roles in Rebuilding Nepal

My latest story for Womensenews:

KATHMANDU,  Nepal (WOMENSENEWS)-- The capital city of Nepal is slowly and painfully rebuilding after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck this Himalayan country on a seemingly ordinary lunch hour on April 25, a Saturday.

The earthquake left the people of Nepal, especially its government, in a state of shock, but amidst the chaos, women are remarkably playing a significant role in the difficult but necessary process of rebuilding. Here is a sampling of what women are doing. All photos by Iris Gonzales.

Water supply is intermittent in Kathmandu because of the damage to water pipes by the earthquake. Women and children collect water from a public source near Basantapur Durbar Square.

Naniyera Tamraker, 68, owner of a bakery in Nardevi Street in Kathmandu, sits with her grandchildren, Palaistha Tamraker, 10, and Palpasa Tamraker, 15. She stays with her grandchildren constantly now to help allay fears left by the disaster.

Sita Shrestha, 48, forms cotton wicks, which she sells to candle vendors near the various temples in Nepal. She is staying in a tent city near Thamel because her house was destroyed by the earthquake.

A woman in a tent city near Nardevi Street prepares to dry native crops under the sun. The poles propped against the buildings to prevent further collapse are a now-common post-earthquake feature.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Nepal's Unshakeable Beauty and Magic

My latest piece for Starweek:

Kathmandu - The chaos begins long before I even reach the city center. It begins right at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, a small building made of orange bricks, then on to its jam-packed parking lot, an ocean of dusty white cabs with no air conditioning.

It is a dry and sweltering late morning and I am in the Himalayan country of Nepal, known for its enigmatic beauty and also for a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck a month ago. From the plane, I walk inside to what seems to be the immigration, Customs and baggage area. There were several lines of people – perpendicular and parallel – and I’m not sure where to fall in line.

When I finally find the right immigration line, the officer leaves his post without a word, leaving me wondering whether I should just walk through the unguarded exit of the airport or move to another queue. Turns out, he went to help an elderly man who tried to enter Nepal without paying his visa.

There are all sorts of people at the airport – travelers, aid workers, journalists, non government workers – all off to somewhere. Outside, in the noonday heat, a swarm of taxi drivers are racing against each other to win over the next passenger who exits the airport. And one can hear the honking of cars, the shouting of parking attendants and the whistle of security guards as they try to bring order to the disarray of vehicles all desperate to get out of the parking lot as quickly as possible.

The scene at the airport is a perfect metaphor of what I saw throughout my stay in Nepal – people are doing their best to rise above the chaos, to rebuild their lives amidst the disorder, to go on with the daily grind even if it seems impossible. One can see this in the many tent cities all over the capital, in the unpaved roads filled with fruits and vegetables vendors, in the stupas – ancient Buddhism shrines – and temples and in the many curio shops all over Kathmandu.

Rebuilding officially started a month after. It took a while because the people were really shocked, says 22-year-old Success Ad, my Nepali guide and translator.

“In my village in Gorkha, everyone was crying and shouting,” Ad says.

He believes it would take a year or two before the situation will go back to normal.
At the same time, he says, Nepalis are learning a lot from the Philippines, after surviving Yolanda (Haiyan).

“It’s like the Philippines, in a way. You survived Haiyan so we are trying to survive, too,” he says. As what happened in the Philippines, the help of international media is important, he says, as it brings attention to the situation on the ground.

I am here exactly a month since the  earthquake, which left at least 8,800 people dead and injured more than 23,000. The earthquake occurred at 11:56 a.m. on April 25, with the east district of Lamjung  as its epicenter. It is said to be the worst natural disaster to hit the country since the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake.

It caused an avalanche at Mount Everest, killing 19 people on the mountain that day.

Ad, manager of Happy Home Hotel, says the hotel staff was having lunch on the rooftop of the building when the earthquake struck. “Now, they don’t want to eat there anymore.”

Indeed, there is damage almost everywhere. The road where our five-story hotel is located is closed because a building, also five stories high, has slanted and is leaning on another building, putting all the buildings on that side of the road – our hotel included – at risk of falling like dominos.

Most homes are propped up by whatever support the people can find – stilts made of branches, old wood or bamboo – to prevent further collapse. Some roads are filled with the thickest dust and dried mud; some are closed to motorists because they are too damaged for people to pass through. There are heaps and heaps of fallen orange bricks everywhere.

In Thamel, a tourist place, vendors manning the souvenir stores and curio shops opt to wait out on the streets for fear that the earth will tremble again.

Everyone has a story to tell – of survival, of hurting, of trauma, of losing loved ones, of losing homes and a lifetime of hard earned money, of moving on and of finding healing.

And everyone is trying to do their best to help.

Prateebha Tuladhar, a Nepali journalist, believes that women are playing a significant role in the rebuilding of her country. “Women are holding out better,” she says.

The trauma of the people, she says, goes beyond the memories of that day. Some are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and are having difficulties continuing with work or with their relationships.

When the earthquake struck, she narrates how her mother and sister stood strong to save their family.

“My mother seems to be very strong. She was always telling us not to panic,” says Tuladhar of her 56-year-old mother. As the whole family stormed outside, her mother went back to the house to make sure everyone was safe. After the earthquake, her 30-year-old sister instinctively picks up her newborn baby whenever there is an aftershock.

She says even the government is too shocked to act quickly. But individually, everyone is trying to help. She especially notes how women are working on individual actions to help ease the situation.

Tuladhar puts the spotlight on a project initiated by her female friend, A Tiny Little Perspective. It is a project that helps provide nutrition packages for mothers and their newborns.

Dipti Sherchan, an anthropological researcher, founded the project. Days after the first earthquake, she found herself among two newborns, a 7-day-old and a 3-day-old, in the camping area in their community. The mothers, she says, all looked traumatized.

“Every tremor would lead the mothers to move along with the villagers to a nearby tent, holding on to her baby, and after things became a bit calmer, return with their babies to stay inside a room,” 
Sherchan says in an e-mail interview.

The initiative provides nutrition packages that contain relief materials catering specifically to the needs of pregnant women, post-natal women and their infants.

There is a bucket filled with rice, lentils, salt, biscuits, multi-grain cereal; a box filled with a mosquito net, sanitary pads, nutrition supplements like vitamins, calcium and iron; water purifier, soap, toothpaste and toothbrush, toilet paper rolls and baby products such as blankets.

Despite all the damage, Nepal is still worth visiting, even in these times. Its beauty, deep, raw and profound, is still very visible because it is seen more in the everyday life than in its damaged temples.

It is a magical journey, a feast for the senses. It is bursting with colors, with its well-dressed women in their long saris and adornments of jewels; its Lung ta prayer flags that are everywhere – blue, green, red, white and yellow; its rickety rickshaws decorated with glittering makeshift canopies and its hundreds and hundreds of shops and roadside stalls selling anything from bright yellow mangoes to antiques from the Himalayas.

There’s also a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds: its stupas with Buddha’s giant eyes, surrounded by the colorful prayer flags and the never-ending noise on its roads; the honking of cab drivers who seem to drive with no rules and limits, and the rhythmic sound of Nepali songs that blare from their radios.

Nepali food – from curries to dumplings – is a gastronomic adventure, with strong Indian influence and lots of lentils and spices. There’s a lot of rice and roti and the freshest vegetables. You never want to stop eating. There’s authentic lassi, the popular yoghurt-based drink, sweet, plain, banana or what-have-you.

But more importantly, it’s the Nepali people that make one’s visit worthwhile. They are always warm and happy despite what they are going through, always ready to greet and welcome visitors with Namaste and a warm smile.

On one of our last moments here, we stood on top of a hill overlooking the city of Kathmandu. We lingered for a long, long time, forgetting the minutes and the hours, admiring the city down below, those hundreds of small pastel-colored houses glittering under the warm Nepalese sun, taking it all in and getting lost, grateful to this Himalayan country for opening its doors to us and revealing its beauty despite the devastation.

I close my eyes one last time before leaving the hilltop, in an attempt to seal in my mind’s eye this magical, breathtaking view, to keep in my heart forever. It is a stark reminder that even in the most chaotic places, the spirit and the soul, in all their beauty, are never destroyed.

To know more about the Tiny Little Perspective Project, please email or visit

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Dateline Nepal

I was interviewing earthquake survivors when @jeszmann came rushing to say there's something I have to see. He led me through labyrinthine streets filled with debris and men rebuilding temples.

To this. My photograph does not do justice to this majestic moment but it really is magical and profoundly beautiful. We lingered here for a long, long time forgetting the minutes and the hours. Just taking it all in and getting lost. Thank you Nepal for revealing your beauty amid the devastation. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Filipino Families Struggle With Motherhood Exodus

My latest story for

Being both mother and father to the children is difficult, says an unemployed man whose wife works as a domestic helper in Dubai. The feminization of migration leaves more families affected by what one researcher calls the commodification of motherhood.

Jimmy Gamad; his wife works as a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia.
Credit: Photo by Iris Gonzales

MANILA, Philippines (WOMENSENEWS)-- Maria Juliana, 4 years old, is crying and whining; her nose is now runny and her voice hoarse. It is 7 in the evening and she hasn't had dinner. There's no food on the table yet. She is tired, hungry and fussy now. And she is calling out to her father.But 52-year-old Edgardo Agido is checking on Maria's sister, 7-year-old Samantha Nicole, who is still out playing hide and seek with the neighborhood gang under the moonlight.

Agido and his children live in the outskirts of the University of the Philippines, a state-owned school in the northeast of Quezon City. Their neighborhood is a labyrinthine slum where families crowd into dwellings that are made out of concrete or a hodgepodge of plywood, cardboard and whatever else can be found.

Agido's eldest, 9-year-old Albert, is helping in the kitchen.

It's a typical night. It can be chaotic at times, says Agido but he's the only one in charge for the past year, since his 34-year-old wife Melona left for Dubai to work as a domestic helper.

"I couldn't go. I'm already over age so my wife had to go," he says. Agido used to work for a water distribution company but he was dismissed after a change in ownership. He has filed an illegal dismissal case, which is pending with the courts.

Being both mother and father to the children can be difficult. And lonely, he says. "It's really very sad because my wife is not around."

Gathering the children for dinner is a breeze compared to when they are sick. "Sometimes, when one of the them is sick, it can be so stressful. I would especially wish that my wife was around," he says.
Melona Agido is part of a global trend, writes Zuhal Yesilyurt Gunduz, associate professor in the International Relations Department at TED University in Ankara, Turkey, in a recent paper on the feminization of migration. "In the past it was mainly men who went to countries far away; women came as followers. In the last 20 years, however, this has changed so much that today over half of all migrants are women."

Gunduz notes that female migrants are often the main or sole wage earners of their families.

As a result, millions of children of migrants are forced to settle for what Gunduz calls the commodification of motherhood. "A generation of children has grown up without their mothers at their sides. The consequences of long separation periods, especially in very young ages, can be devastating," she writes.

Global social and demographic trends in developed countries, such as aging populations, are driving the feminization of migration, Gunduz writes.

And Filipino families are particularly affected, she notes. "Not only do many employers explicitly seek foreign women, specific nationalities are often sought-after, such as Filipinos."

Domestic workers from multiple countries are at U.N. headquarters in New York to push for adoption of international labor standards and labor projections for domestic workers during the March 9-20 annual assembly of the Commission on the Status of Women.

But improved labor standards won't necessarily help the children left behind.
"Studies reveal that migrants' children are ill more often than other children; they experience resentment, bewilderment and indifference more than their friends, who live with their mothers. Here we notice injustice at work, linking the emotional deprivation of these children with the surfeit of affection their First World counterparts enjoy--at least ostensibly," Gunduz says in her paper.

In the case of Agido, the family had no choice. "I couldn't find a job here or abroad so my wife had to be the one to go," he says.

Having Skype Helps

Jimmy Gamad, 49 years old, who lives in the same neighborhood, is luckier. He says his children, who are older, do not feel any resentment toward their mother who is in Saudi Arabia working as a domestic helper.

"I think my children are fine. With the help of technology, they are able to talk to their mother," he says. His wife Emma left two years ago.

"We are able to talk to her on Skype so it's OK," says 24-year old Marc Jay, the second of their four children.

The eldest is 27-year-old King J, then 19-year-old Jimlet and 11-year-old Ej.

Their father works as a cook in a school canteen and goes home right after work to check on them.

"He is both father and mother and he is really the best," says Marc Jay.

Gunduz, of TED University in Ankara, says migrants should have a right to family life and to be reunited with their children.

"[I]t is necessary to struggle to guarantee the right of children in all situations to be with their mothers (not to exclude their fathers as well) so that they can share family life again even while the mothers are working," she writes.

Millions Working Overseas

An estimated 10.48 million Filipinos worked overseas as of the end of 2012, an increase of 33,000 from a year earlier, according to the latest available data from the Commission on Overseas Filipinos, the agency tasked to promote and uphold the interests of Filipinos abroad.

As the total number of overseas workers rise, so does women's share of that population, with 46, 940 female Filipina migrant workers registered in 2013 compared to 31,288 males. In the nine-year period between 2004 and 2013 the number of women who registered to work abroad was 466,933; for male counterparts it was 312,456.

Authorities recognized the struggles faced by Filipina migrant workers, especially mothers who are away from their children.

"All these, unfortunately more often than not, translate to exploitation, abuses, dysfunctional families," she said in a speech earlier this month at the Ateneo de Manila University.

The government, she said, will continue its thrust to create jobs at home and make working abroad a choice rather than a necessity. "When Filipinos do choose to work or live abroad, their welfare and protection should still be our priority," Nicolas said.

For international migrants' group Migrante International, the feminization of migration among Filipinas boils down to a weak domestic economy that doesn't offer enough good jobs. The unemployment rate in the Philippines stood at 6 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. Among unemployed people, about 65 percent were males.
Garry Martinez, chairperson of Migrante, says many overseas employers prefer women because women are paid less.

"For example, when I was working in Korea, I was earning $1,500 (a month) but my co-worker, was earning $900 to $1,100," he says.

The disparity, he says, shows how female workers are exploited. "It's also very sad that Filipina migrant workers are unable to take care of their own children because they have to take care of other children in abroad," Martinez says.

And it's equally hard for the children.

"They miss their mother," says Agido.

Iris Gonzales is a journalist based in Manila, the Philippines, who writes about economics, development and humanitarian stories. Some of her work may be read at and

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


I finally found some time to update my website by adding some links to my blog roll as follows: EverdayPhilippines, Sonny Yabao's strange and lonely road, WomenseNews, my voice in the United States for my stories on women, Tammy David's updated site as well as Veejay Villafranca's update site. Enjoy some of these very good reads and visual journeys!

Friday, April 10, 2015

EverydayPhilippines: The ExtraOrdinary in the Everyday

A belated repost of my story on Everyday Philippines for Starweek.  Everyday Philippines is the Instagram project put up by Jes Aznar, Veejay Villafranca and Tammy David, which joins the growing Everyday movement. A big congratulations to the EP crew!

A town elder, in a red cap and white long-sleeved shirt, “reads” the liver and bladder of a newly butchered pig, its blood still splattered on the ground, somewhere in the mountains of Benguet in the northern Philippines.

Boys and girls of different ages, their faces in between the light and shadows of the afternoon sun, gather at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Palo in the Visayan province of Leyte to rehearse a presentation for the visit of Pope Francis.

Inside a Starbucks outlet in Manila, people are queuing for cups of latte as a group of women devotees gather at a table outside it to eat their provisions of food after hearing a mass celebrated by the pope. 

And in a place called Pandacan, in the belly of the Philippine capital of Manila, a story goes that the image of the Santo Niño was recovered from a well near the district’s stone church, built in 1732. The story goes that water from the well resulted in the miraculous healing of the residents and to this day, the people of Pandacan – sinners and devotees alike – celebrate the feast of the Child Jesus every third Sunday of January to honor the Santo Niño.

Welcome to the Philippines, where the most mundane meets the uncanny, where truth reads like fiction and where the ephemeral weaves with age-old traditions.
This is the Philippines and it’s as real as it can get.

Indeed, there’s more to the country than just poverty and politics. The images that paint a more complete and accurate portrayal of what the country is and what it is not are as endless as they are varied.

And this is exactly what Filipino freelance photojournalists Tammy David (, Veejay Villafranca ( and Jes Aznar ( had in mind when they put up 

EverydayPhilippines, an account on photo-sharing site Instagram that shows the everyday life in the Philippines and which joins the growing global Everyday movement inspired by EverydayAfrica.
EverydayAfrica started in 2012 initially as a Tumblr Blog, put up by photographer Peter DiCampo and writer Austin Merill.

The blog, which turned into a big Instagram project and which is now funded by the Pulitzer Center, sought to show what Africa is – beyond the usual stories of disease, war and famine – which mark the common portrayal of the continent.

This landmark project gained the interest of people worldwide and spawned similar Instagram accounts: EverydayIran, EverydayEasternEurope, EverydayMyanmar and also to non-geographic issues such as EverydayClimateChange and EverydayIncarceration, among others.

The EverydayPhilippines project, which officially started on Jan. 1, 2015, joins this global movement as it aims to break the visual stereotype of the Philippines being just another Third World country mired in deep poverty.

The three sat down with STARweek to share the ideas behind the project and what they hope to achieve.

We want to break the stereotypes on the Philippines,” says David, whose works have appeared in both local and foreign publications including the Wall Street Journal.

Breaking the stereotypes applied not only to the audience but to editors around the globe as well.
Villafranca, who works for Getty Images, says the project was also borne out of the difficulty of pitching stories about the country because some Western media have preconceived – or, if you will, simplified – notions of what the Philippines is.

“The Philippines on its own is very rich (but) when you pitch (stories) to the Western media, there are a lot of misconceptions,” says Villafranca.

He notes for instance that some people know the Philippines just for poverty, the Smokey Mountain and Imelda Marcos, issues that made headlines decades ago.

Today, however, there are so many other stories of life in this country of roughly a hundred million people, he says.

And while the age-old issues of poverty and Madame herself still exist, what the three photographers want are for the stories to be given the proper context through the EverydayPhilippines project.

EverydayAfrica’s DiCampo and Villafranca were classmates at the World Press Photo Joop Swart Master Class in 2013. Villafranca remembered the EverydayAfrica project that DiCampo told him about and mentioned it to Aznar and David, who were also familiar with the Instagram account and who also thought of doing it in the Philippines.

The three agreed to formalize it and thus, EverydayPhilippines was born.

How does it work? The rules are simple, says Aznar, whose works appear on the pages of the New York Times.

First and foremost, the project is open to other photographers, whereas some of the other Everyday accounts on Instagram are limited to certain photographers. The photographs must be, as much as possible, phone-camera captured, square-shaped, visually interesting and must have context.

“There are many photographs and stories but what is important is to put the context,” Aznar says.
Photographers can post their photos on their individual Instagram accounts and use the hashtag #EverydayPhilippines.

The three proponents, among the best photographers of their time, then curate the photographs that appear on this hashtag search before reposting these on the EverydayPhilippines account.

“It has to catch attention. It has to be stunning. It has to be arresting,” David says.

And true enough, the result is a visually stunning tapestry of vignettes of life in the Philippines that entices the audience to take a closer look at a nation whose daily life is so rich in history, culture and magic realism.

Just a month old, the project has already attracted the interest of photographers, local and foreigners, young and old alike.

Photojournalism professor Jimmy Domingo, on Instagram via @jimmysunday and who teaches at the Ateneo de Manila University, has contributed to the feed as well as photojournalist Luis Liwanag who is on Instagram via @luisliwanag.

Veteran photojournalist Ben Razon, on Instagram via @stellamylab and who now runs a pub after partially putting down his camera, is shooting again and has contributed to the feed.

Indeed, the project has created a micro-community among photographers, says Villafranca.

“And everyone’s excited to shoot again,” says Aznar.

David stresses that this is not some exclusive camera club and is, instead, a platform where the individual stories of photographers matter.

“You don’t have to shoot a Manila Bay sunset. Or the Sinulog. Your stories matter,” David says.

In the long run, the proponents are excited for bigger projects that EverydayPhilippines may turn into, such as a book or an exhibition. There will also be guest curators and feed take-overs by other photographers, says Aznar. The project is simultaneously on blog site Tumblr at and on Facebook at EverydayPhilippines.

“More importantly, what we hope is for the project to make a dent on people’s perception,” he says.

But before all that, EverydayPhilippines is every photographer’s chance to do his story, his own insightful journey as he fulfills his love affair with photography and his country, says veteran photographer Sonny Yabao, the only one revered by generations of photographers as the Master.

“EverydayPhilippines is a great idea. It gives the photographer the chance to fulfill the promise to photograph every day. It is a torrid love affair with photography, a romance in action,” says Yabao, commenting on the project.

Indeed, it is a chance to capture every single day in this chaotic and magical country, in the stillest, stillest moment of the everyday life.