BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Friday, January 16, 2015

Roaming the Island of the Spirits

The gecko woke me up at 5 a.m. With its rhythmic, clicking sound, it jolted me out of my sleep.

I parted the white canopy that embraced the bed and stepped out of our cottage, guarded by two fertility Gods sitting by the wooden steps.

It is a crisp November morning and Jes and I are in exotic Bali, dubbed as the Island of the Spirits, Island of Gods, a box of sunshine, a heaven on earth. "You've never been to Heaven if you've never been to Bali," says Indonesian writer Toba Beta.

I opened the age-old wooden door, the one with intricate Balinese design to see a breathtaking view of my first morning here at Bali's Red Earth, known in a traveler's website as the world's best resort.

The sky is a shade of pink as the sun peeped out of its cradle. The morning is quiet. What a perfect moment this is.

Welcome to Tanah Merah, the Red Earth, where a rare bluebird from the surrounding forest flies around its nook and cranny. This is a place perched perfectly above the lush gorge of the Cursed River, Tukad Petanu. It is nestled at the end of a short drive from the Ubud Monkey Forest, in the middle of a plateau of lush green grass, a wide expanse of rice fields and rows of retreat houses for the weary and the forlorn or the many happy souls seeking silence.

Tanah Merah is a world of its own, an enchanting art resort experience understood only by those who have been here. It is dreamlike, it is a daze, it is magical in its simplicity. The cottages are quaint and filled with art, the mountain air is fresh and crisp, the spirits are alive and the Gods are all over. In the evenings, the sound of crickets and a flowing river down below will serenade visitors.

There is a villa fit for a king named after Mads Johansen Lange, known as the King of Bali. The villa's grand interior told of stories of Lange, a Danish trader born in 1807. The story goes that he travelled to the East Indies and settled on the island of Bali where he built an enterprise of rice and spices. It's a villa so perfect no visitor would want to step out of it, what with its own infinity pool facing the lush green rain forest, birds chirping in paradise, interiors teeming with Balinese art and a bed suited for the king. 

With a resort like this, who wants to go out? But there is the rest of Bali to savor and enjoy. So we saved the villa for our last day here, settling first in another cottage in the same resort.

We went to the Gunung Kawi Temple and and witnessed two people immortalizing their love in photographs: the bride-to-be looked stunning in her red gown while her groom-to-be was all smiles. We walked the path to the temple of the Gods and deities and allowed the surrounding sprawling rice fields around it to take our breath away.

Next stop was the Tirta Empul Temple, a holy spring water temple in Tampak Siring Village, 39 kilometers east from Denpasar. Here, hundreds if not thousands of men and women bathed their sins away.

In a coffee plantation not far from this, we sipped on a wide array of coffees and teas. My favorite was rice and ginger tea and the famed Balinese coffee. We couldn't get enough of it but we had to move further down Ubud's roads to see Batur Volcano, somewhere between the clouds and the heart of Bali. It was a sight to behold.

The Cekine Tegalalang or rice terraces was the last stop. Though not comparable to the famous Banawe Rice Terraces, we spent a moment here to savor the view.

In one of the evenings, we strolled around the city center, went for a traditional Balinese massage and enjoyed two glasses of Mojito in a place named Bollero.

At the Yoga Barn, I spent a good full hour doing Yin Yoga. It is the best place possible to do yoga when one is in exciting Bali. Until the sun set, I was there in the yoga room, the one with glass doors that opened to a beautiful garden, working on my poses, taking in every breath and loving every moment.

I had a full view of the green grass and coconut trees in front of me. I breathed the afternoon mist left by the drizzle. "Feel the space within when you take a long, deep breath. Let go of everything and be in the moment," says yoga teacher Cat.

On our last day in Bali, we stayed at the King's Villa and lingered in the balcony facing the forest. We ate like a king and slept like a queen. We sipped a glass of fresh fruit juices while enjoying the sound of the flowing river. We waded in the private pool and had a warm bath in the tub of the bathroom that had a view of the paradise outside it.

Here in this villa, we capped our journey to the heart of Bali, a perfect ending of a magical trip to this patch of heaven on earth.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Postcards from Bali (Part 2)

Don't talk about heaven if you've never been to Bali - Toba Beta

Photos by me. Edited by Jes Aznar

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The JASMS Way and Why It Should Stay

Somewhere between my heart and Quezon City lies the haven of my childhood, a school that is partly the reason why I am, and its thousands of graduates, are in the mold that we are now.

My parents sent me, and my brothers before me to JASMS-QC where we had the time of our lives. Schooling was not only fun, it was time spent meaningfully and worthy of Einstein’s Dreams.

JASMS or Jose Abad Santos Memorial School is the basic education brand of the Philippine Women’s University. Founded by American child expert Doreen Gamboa, the school is known for the JASMS Way, which cultivates “freedom of spirit, exploration and expression with the ultimate goal of balanced development and growth.”

There, “we learned by doing…dedicated to peace and environmentalism, cooperation rather than competition…” because that was the JASMS Way.

Our school at the time opened to a huge field, with lush green grass and tall trees. It’s probably just a wide backyard but to my young eyes, it was the size of a football field. It was there where I learned how to play softball. There were some monkey bars from where I often fell and hit my head on the soft ground. There was a pond, too where we studied “farming” and “fishing,” soaking ourselves in the thickest mud and cooking the day’s catch during cooking class.

There, it was possible to climb a “mountain” where we played with the spirits and the pixies, held hands with our childhood love and where the lost boys settled their differences: only those who went to JASMS know what “mountain tayo!” meant.

In the huge field, there would be a camp-out with our dads once in a while. The moms were always in school events and meetings so the camp-outs were made for the dads.

My father and I cooked our dinner over the fire that we made. In the morning, I would see the sunrise from the screened-in window of our borrowed brown tent.

Oh, it was always beautiful. Those camp-outs would always be among my most cherished memories with my father.

In JASMS, it was possible 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. It was almost okay to be afraid, to express your angst, to rebel and to learn from it in the process.

Today, my fellow JASMS graduates and I are happy pursuing our interests in life. That is, after all, what JASMS gave us.

JASMS did not raise us to become nerds or academic slaves but more importantly, JASMS taught us to do what we want, to pursue our dreams and our passion. It helped us find our place under the sun.

Under the JASMS Way, you get to discover what you want and that’s about the most real thing that can happen to you in this crazy and mad, mad world. 

Now, how many kids can actually discover what they really want to do in life when they grow up?

But sadly, the JASMS Way is under threat. STI, which bought into JASMS years ago, is planning to convert the campus into a mixed-use area with several development partners led by the Ayala Group.

There will be a nine-storey building that will have residential units and a mall. The school will be given classrooms in this building and the campus will be downsized.

To say that this is absurd is an understatement. It is a blatant betrayal of the JASMS Way that I know.

After JASMS, my parents sent me to Miriam for four years of secondary school and to UP Diliman for college. A few years ago, I obtained my masters degree at the Ateneo de Manila University but among my four schools, JASMS is that one place I will always call home.

It is somewhere between Peter Pan's Neverland and Holden Caulfield's sanitarium.

Dismantling whatever campus JASMS-QC still has would be a betrayal of the JASMS Way and an audacious intrusion into a parallel universe where children could see the second star to the right.

As an alumna, I strongly protest such betrayal.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Mini, Mini Library for PCMC

A story never really ends. After doing our story on the Philippine Children's Medical Center or Lungsod ng Kabataan originally published here, Road To Puka with Jes Aznar, I've decided to build a mini library for the children patients of the hospital.

Why a library? Because the children have not much to do while waiting for their turn for their chemotherapy, check-up and other procedures.

So I appeal to all of you with spare children's books, pre-loved or brand new, let's help build a library for PCMC. For donations and pick-ups, kindly email me at

Thank you!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A City for Children

Our story original published at
Text by Iris Gonzales/Photos by Jes Aznar

THIS is a story of young boys and girls and it begins in a room with a pastel green door and walls with hot air balloons, flowers and robots and a crawling pink crab.

Angel, 13, steps inside the smaller room with a yellow door. It is Friday, a school day but this is not a classroom, where children learn math or science or the Chocolate Hills and the three islands of the Philippines.

In the room, there is a woman in a crisp white laboratory coat waiting for Angel, ready with a syringe. Angel has been in the same room the week before and the week before that and many other weeks before since September last year.

Today, she is wearing a purple floral sleeveless top so she doesn't have to roll up the sleeves. She stands nonchalantly and takes the shot; she doesn't cringe or cower. By now, she is used to the jab on her right arm. When she is done, she goes back to her seat, in a row of red plastic chairs in the waiting room with the pastel green door. She opens her borrowed tablet covered with its dusty violet leatherette and attempts once again to prevent an army of zombies from eating the brains of her plants. It is her favorite game; she plays it nonstop while waiting here. She will wait for another doctor to call her name. There will be another procedure to check her blood.

Angel has leukemia, diagnosed in September last year. It was an ordinary night with fever, says her father. But it was no ordinary fever, the thermometer stayed at 40 degrees Celsius. She is bald now. Her thick black hair that once cascaded down her shoulders is gone because of chemotherapy.

Welcome to the Cancer and Hematology Center of the government-owned Philippine Children's Medical Center (PCMC) in Quezon City, a decrepit building with faded walls of red, blue and yellow and the names of the Marcos children, built decades ago with the help of Elizabeth Taylor.

Angel is one of roughly 100 cancer patients seeking treatment here every day.

"Every day, there are 200 to 300 out patients that come here. Of which, 100 are cancer patients," says Jara Corazon Ejera, deputy director of PCMC.

Angel's father, Armando is a tricycle driver but he has stopped driving to take care of his daughter. If he could, he would still ply the roads of Bulacan but not anymore. He needs to bring Angel to the hospital almost every week or more often than that.

They live in a borrowed room, in far-away Bulacan, in the northern part of the country, two hours away from PCMC.

In the mornings, they leave the house even before the roosters wake up because the queue can be long. Armando says he and his wife choose to bring Angel here because the cost of treatment is half the price or even less compared to private hospitals. And the doctors are good and kind, he says.

"It's P75 (USD1.7) pesos here. Outside, it's P300 (USD6.91) to P500 (USD11.52)," says Armando, referring to the consultation fee for old patients. Angel’s Cytarabine infusion, a chemotherapy agent, costs P200 (USD4.61) at PCMC. It can cost P1,000 (USD23) in a private hospital.

Miriam, mother to 11-year old Johnell also leaves their home in Caloocan at 5 in the morning to beat the long lines. But for Johnell's chemotherapy, there is no other choice except the PCMC.
"I asked around in my neighborhood. They told me PCMC is good. And it is. I've seen the doctors here. They are really good," she says.

Miriam used to work in Dubai as a domestic helper but she had to go home when she learned of Johnell's leukemia.

Parents like Miriam and Armando usually have to stop working so they can take care of their children full-time. The children have to stop schooling until they get better.

There's no fixed schedule for treatments. Sometimes, their children turn pale in the dead of night, in the stillest of hours, in the most quiet of moments, in between dreams and nightmares. When that happens, they have to rush their children to the hospital. The costs just keep on spiraling because leukemia patients are so fragile that they cannot take public transportation. It is too dirty. It is too tiring.
"We have no choice but to pay for a cab," says Armando.

During treatment at PCMC, their children go through several procedures, which can sometimes take the whole day. To save on costs, they bring lunch and snacks. Whatever money left is used to pay for the treatment and medicines.

Miriam says she cannot afford to bring Johnell in a private hospital because the costs are higher.

More than that, she says, she is at ease at PCMC because the doctors are kind to her son.
"They know what they're doing," she says.

The doctors are warm and gentle, all smiles in their white laboratory coats. They know the children by their names: Angel, Shyli, Johnell, John, Faye, Catherine.

PCMC has been serving 40,000 to 50,000 children patients yearly. Yet the land on which it stands has drawn the interest of business groups, putting the institution's future uncertain.

The 3.7-hectare area where the hospital stands is part of the Quezon City Business District, which the local government said, is envisioned to have more than 250 hectares of mixed-use development.

The lot, at the corner of Agham Road and Quezon is owned by the National Housing Authority (NHA)
NHA, according to Quezon City's blueprint for the CBD, has a joint venture with Ayala Land Inc. to develop the 29.1-hectare North Triangle property.

Last September 4, Health Secretary Enrique On a told a hearing at the House of Representatives that the hospital is staying put and that there is no more intention to transfer it.

Instead, the hospital would be rehabilitated and modernized. However, he could not categorically say whether or not the plan has been shelved for good.

In the meantime, the children and their parents are keeping their fingers crossed that PCMC will stay where it is. 

Johnell is getting better but he wears a mask so his health does not deteriorate, Miriam says.
In one corner of the Cancer center, by the window, nine-year old Shyli sits patiently, waiting for her turn with another doctor. She just had a shot of chemotherapy but it isn’t over. Another doctor will check her. She asks her mother to massage her arm. It is hurting, she says.

In the waiting room, there are children everywhere. Some are sleeping, some are playing, some are lying about; some are in wheel chairs, injected with dextrose while some are covered with masks or pink headwear. Some are writing anddrawing shapes or hugging brown teddy bears given by strangers earlier this morning, while waiting for their turn in the pastel colored doctors' rooms.

The fetid smell of medicines wafts in the air. It is intoxicating to most visitors but the children and their parents are used to the dizzying stench.

The mothers and fathers know each other, not by their names but the same stories they share. By now, they see each other every week, every two weeks or every month, depending on the platelet count of their sons and daughters, depending on the color of their faces, the hemoglobin level or their body temperature.

Sometimes, the day comes when somebody stops coming. The child does not make it and there is an empty seat in the waiting room.

But everyday, another child, a new patient arrives. Here in the waiting room, the one with the pastel green door and walls with hot air balloons.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

In the Land of the Crescent Moon

Every night, in this land of dreamers, surrounded by city lights and glistening golden mosques, I would travel to Asia and sleep in a dingy hotel then head back to Europe the following day for work. In some instances, fractions of seconds and fleeting moments, I would find myself in both continents -- in Asia and in Europe -- all at the same time, in the same clockwork, as if inside a rabbit hole, somewhere, somewhere in this great big world.

It is magical yet and it is real. 

This is Turkey, the Home of Two Continents, where there is nothing between Asia and Europe except the famed Bosphorus straight, known in other lifetimes as the Strait of Constantinople.

I arrived in Istanbul on a scorching Thursday afternoon. The Ataturk airport's exit doors opened to a relentless sun and crisp, cold air -- the weather provided the perfect metaphor to describe where I am as I felt Asia's sweltering heat and Europe's crisp air.

It's among the first things that will strike a visitor to Turkey, the magic of existing in two realms. I was in Asia yet I was in Europe. It seemed impossible but in Istanbul, it was not.

But Turkey is also more than just that. It is dubbed as the Home of the Blue Mosque, the Home of the Silk Road, the Home of the Turquoise, the Home of Troy.

Turkey is nestled at the mid-point of the European, Asian and African continents. Its geography is varied as it is rich. It is so picturesque with its mountains and seas, plains and rock formations and landscapes and seascapes, that the eyes would have a difficult time transmitting everything from the brain to the senses.

Many empires -- Sumerians, Byzantines and Ottomans -- have once thrived, ruled, walked and expired within this land. 

And its rich history casts shadows on everything.

You'll see it in the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar where usually hard-to-find ancient wares are easy to find, where silver and gold shimmer in its quaint curio shops, where hundreds if not thousands of the Turkish Blue Evil Eye -- a lucky charm that stretches 3,000 years ago -- are staring at you, where the smell of grilled beef kebabs wafts in the air and where one can find the softest silk for thousands of dollars.

You'll see it in the Egpytian Bazaar, more popularly known as the Spice Bazaar, built in 1664 at the southern end of Istanbul's Galata Bridge, by the ferry docks. It is a kaleidoscope of all sorts of spices from the exotic East -- saffron, mint, chili, pepper, and curry. There's also a wide selection of oils, from aromatic to therapeutic -- daisies, St. Johns and aphrodisiacs -- for the blissful or the brokenhearted and those in between. And the famous lokum or Turkish Delight are found in nearly every store, alongside spices, dried fruits, cheese, nuts and seeds.

You'll see it in the mosques, the New, the Blue, the Sultan Ahmed -- or the rest of the 82,000 or so mosques in this country of 74 million, majority of whom are Muslims.

You'll see it in Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox basilica and later an imperial mosque. Constructed in 537 until 1453, the mosque, historians say, served as the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, then converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral during the Latin Empire. To this day since 1935, it is maintained as a museum, visited daily by throngs of pilgrims, tourists and travelers alike.

You'll see it on dining tables, where a fusion of Central Asian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Balkan cuisines reflects the country's Ottoman heritage; kebabs, yoghurts, pita breads, risotto rice, grilled chicken, fresh vegetable salads, cheese, olives and olive oil.

One warm Friday, just before the sun appeared, I hopped on a plane to Izrim Province, an hour's flight from Istanbul, traveled for another hour more by land across winding roads and rolling hills before I finally found myself walking in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus where I lingered for more than two hours.

Ephesus, cradle of civilization, is dubbed as the most famous Greek city of the ancient times with a heritage dating back to 6,000 BC.

The ancient city, located close to Seljuk, a district of Izmir, is considered one of the most important 12 cities of the classical Greek period and a crucial religious center for both Paganism and Christianity.

It is situated on the Aegean Sea at the mouth of the Cayster River and in the ancient times, Ephesus was a center of travel and commerce.

There is a theater, built in the Hellenistic period and which is believed to be able to hold 25,000 people.

There is a library, built in AD 115-25, with typical Roman architectural design, dedicated to Celsus, the proconsul governor of the Roman province Asia. There's also the agora, or the market.

Indeed, Turkey is a feast for the senses. It is rich in tradition, history and culture that it will take more than a lifetime to see everything it has to offer.

On my last day, I woke up at 5 a.m. and sat outside the hotel, sipping a hot cup of coffee. I sat in the cold, just enjoying the fresh morning air and savoring the memory of the days before. I imagined as much as my inner mind's eye allowed that I have walked the same land as they did -- the Sultans, the Roman emperors, the warriors and the rulers before me. I traveled back to the middle of the Greek theater and imagined saying as Mark Antony did: "Friends, Romans, my countrymen, lend me your ears." I refused to be jolted out of my reverie by the hypnotic sound of the faithful's early morning prayers. I am dreaming, yes, I am. But how can I not? I am after all, in the land of dreamers, where dreamers can dream of the olden days and wake up in the present-day to relive it all again.