BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Sunday, September 17, 2017

My Russian Journal

In the port city of St. Petersburg on the Baltic sea, many chilly nights before I had my first shot of Russian Standard, or before I met a beautiful long-legged Russian lady named Anastasia or whispered my dreams to the griffins, I had already found myself in a place filled with long held traditions, enigmas and a rich historical past.A lifetime is not enough in this city, Russia’s second largest. Its charm will blow your mind; its history will haunt you; the view of its elegant canals lined with the grandest mansions and Baroque-style buildings will take your breath away; the bright city lights won’t cease to amaze and the legendary White Nights of May – when the northern sun takes its sweet time dipping into the horizon – will trick you into believing a day is as long as you dream it to be.

Peter the Great, he who reigned with valor and a long silver sword, is everywhere. You’ll see him in the sprawling fortress along Neva River, the oldest landmark in the city; in the cathedrals adorned with golden angels on top, in the museums, in the age-old bridges that part at half past one in the morning for the ships to pass, on the cobblestoned streets and in the bookshops. 

Russia’s first emperor after all built St. Petersburg out of nothing, expanding the country into a larger empire that made it a major European power, and leading a cultural revolution that replaced medieval systems long held by the country’s aristocrats.

And hundreds of centuries after, I suspect, St. Petersburg is as magnificent as it was before, largely frozen in time.

I arrived in the city in the latter part of May, not to go on vacation but to trail Philippine businessmen who traveled to the Eurasian country to explore potential business deals here and in Moscow during President Duterte’s official visit.

But in between deadlines, I managed to go around. For how can I not, what with the splendor, the sights, the gastronomic delights and the magnificence of history teeming all over? Not even the chilly breeze from the Baltic Sea would deter me from seeing the city.

And so I roamed its streets and ducked into the corners of its churches and museums. I looked in awe at the intricate paintings on the ceilings and found myself amazed with the overload of gold in every important piece of historical architecture.

Yes, a lifetime is not enough in St. Petersburg but for lovers of history, one should immediately visit the Peter and Paul Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church that’s now been turned into a museum.

It is the gateway to the Romanov dynasty of the past because it is home to the graves of nearly all the rulers of Russia since Peter the Great. 

Peter’s grave is at the front right, and to this day, Russians still shed tears over it. Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia for 34 years is also buried here.

Another place to visit is the Hermitage Museum, one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. Some of the finest pieces of art are found here, including Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, another must-see, is perhaps the face of St. Petersburg, dazzling with its five spiral multi-colored domes. It stands out in the city’s predominantly Baroque and Neoclassical architecture because of its medieval Russian style. I never imagined a piece of architecture could enthrall me as much as it did, transporting me back to the olden times, in the truest spirit of romantic nationalism.

Outside the city, I went to see the Peterhof Palace, described as the Versailles of Russia and inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Spending hours inside it will give one a feel of how it was to live like a Russian monarch. One will see the beds of grand emperors and empresses, draped with light pink curtains, the collection of silver and gold cutlery in the dining rooms, the floor to ceiling mirrors – oh, the grandeur of it all!
Outside, the complex is dotted with gardens filled with flowers and a vast collection of sparkling fountains. 

A long walk from the palace is the mouth of the Baltic Sea, with its ice-cold breeze, whispering waves and breathtaking view. 

There are many other places to see in the city. One can also just meander aimlessly and simply take it all in. Or linger on balconies overlooking the cityscape.

The city is as surreal as can be – painters paint the dead for a living; strangers who will not smile at you will pay for your ride; most men share the same names – Igor, Sergei, Yuri and, of course, Vladimir; soup is served with sour cream and nobody gets drunk even with endless shots of vodka.

On my last day in St. Petersburg, I boarded the bullet train to Moscow where the rest of the business delegation would converge and meetings for Duterte’s official visit would be held.

In Moscow, it wasn’t easy chasing over 200 businessmen, especially with the presidential visit cut short to only 24 hours from the scheduled week. Meetings were cancelled left and right and the schedules were suddenly revised many times over. 

But when one is in Russia, its picturesque beauty will dazzle and delight and one will easily forget if not find a way around the nuisances – the horrendous traffic, the cancelled meetings, the jet lag and that one unbearably chilly afternoon when the thermometer read five degrees and the well-planned rendezvous with the legendary billion-dollar spy failed.

In the end, there will always be something about Russia that will penetrate deep into the senses, though I haven’t quite figured out yet which one it was exactly. 

Was it the classical music at the Mendeleevskaya metro station at midnight or the art in the subway? Was it the powerful voice of Anna Karenina before she faced her death or the bronze horseman in Alexander Pushkin’s mind? Or could it be the soothing vodka in a Country That Does Not Exist one fine evening or the sight of the well-lit Bolshoi Theater across it? Was it the unforgettable Anastasia whose beauty enamored me, or the dashing gentleman’s warm kiss on my cold hand?

Maybe it’s all these and more. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s simply sitting behind a dark cherry wood desk in a room in the Ritz-Carlton trying to figure out where to find Stalin’s seven sisters.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Somewhere Between My Heart and Bagan

THOUSANDS of brownish red pagodas glisten under the Burmese sun; their stupas spiral upward from miles and miles of vast greenery; towering Buddhas cast shadows on this dusty patch of earth while white horses, kings in blue robes, celestial beings and court jesters with velvet hats – marionettes all -- hang from age-old trees and dance with the wind. The air is dry but at times refreshingly temperate.

Welcome to Bagan, an ancient city in the Mandalay Region of Myanmar, surrounded by the famed Irrawaddy River and a silhouette of mountains smiling from the distance.

Founded in the mid to late 9th century, Bagan is a temple-studded city that stretches as far as the eye can see, set against a backdrop of a majestic curtain of orange, crimson and brown hues.

Marco Polo, the great Venetian traveler, once described it as “a gilded city, alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes.”

Indeed, Bagan is no doubt an archeological wonder, profoundly mystical and perhaps one of the finest sites in the world.

It’s a rare off-the-beaten path still unknown to many travelers and perhaps one of the few remaining places in the vast growing region of Asia that is untouched and relatively raw.

Bagan isn’t crowded or noisy. It isn’t a party place for drinking the night away although there are many places for travellers to drink and eat.

On the contrary, it might as well be the perfect place for a spiritual pilgrimage with its collection of 2,200 temples and pagodas and their shimmering stupas.

And so on a warm Friday morning of March, I packed my bags and left for the famed ancient city, all by myself. I took a nine-hour flight from Manila to Yangon and another hour more to reach Bagan.

Nope, I wasn’t really looking for a religious encounter nor was my heart broken and in need of healing.

But I figured one doesn’t need to have one’s heart broken into a thousand pieces to “eat, pray and love” halfway across the world as what the writer Elizabeth Gilbert did after a nasty divorce and portrayed by Julia Roberts in the bestselling memoir-turned-movie, Eat, Pray, Love.

Sometimes, in the words of a Filipino tycoon, “the soul simply needs the solitude.”

And it was exactly what I found and so much more.

I found that solitude on top of the Bulethi Pagoda, one of the highest structures in the city as I sat there in a quiet corner of the pagoda’s peak after climbing its steep and narrow stairs of more than a hundred steps. It wasn’t an easy climb, with its slope almost at 45 degrees and you have to walk barefoot and endure the scorching hot bricks.

But the breathtaking view of the city and its temple-dotted horizon was so much worth the difficult trek.

I stood there on the top of the pagoda swept away by the beauty before me. It was a land like no other. And so I lingered, forgetting the minutes and the hours, just savoring the silence and taking it all in. The view was majestic, the silence simply magical. It added a perfect piece to my narrative, yet another step in an ongoing journey.

But whether it’s just one pagoda or a thousand, the experience is uniquely one’s own.

The pagodas are sacred sites. One should be prepared to walk barefoot and to dress appropriately as a show of respect.

More than the physical preparation, it is important to empty one's mind, heart and soul to get a richer experience. The emptier one's vessels are, the more one can take in from the journey, which can turn into a spiritual pilgrimage if one is lucky enough.

Inside most of the temples are pilgrims from every corner of the world, praying fervently, making an offering, meditating or simply being there.

And while Bagan is predominantly Buddhist, visitors don't even have to have any religion to be able to have a rich experience in the temples.

Sometimes, to pray is to simply be in total communion with oneself, or to keep silent and reflect.

And in such places, one can find perfect corners for solitude to clear the mind or let it wander back to the olden times or to just listen to the beating of one’s heart.

One can stay in any pagoda for hours and hours on end, to meditate, reflect, and write on a journal or to just escape from it all.

Some pagodas are crowded with throngs of tourists but in other temples, it’s possible not to see a single soul.  In the popular ones, there are vendors and hawkers by the entrance selling anything and everything – bells from bygone times, murals of Bagan’s picturesque landscape, the puppets, Buddhas statues, ancient watches, lucky charms and what-have-you.

I went to view the sunset one afternoon and braved a mammoth crowd in the Shwesandaw Pagoda, Bagan’s most famous sunset stop.

The white pyramid-style pagoda provided a commanding 360-degree view of the city down below. It has five terraces and a circular stupa on top adorned with an umbrella-like structure.

I climbed all the way up the hundreds of steps and waited for the sun to descend in a spectacular canvas of orange and red.

I opened my notebook and scribbled these lines: “Sunset over Bagan…you have to put up with the clouds to see the orange crimson sky then you can bear witness to the sun’s fiery kiss to the night. You have to let the moment linger until it’s gone because that exact moment will be lost forever.”

It was magical, no matter how fleeting. There’s so much beauty in its simplicity and I knew it would stay with me for a long, long time.

On my last day in Bagan, I traveled for more than an hour to the Taung Kalat Monastery, a fabled pilgrimage site on top of a volcano plug from the nearby Mount Popa. It sits perfectly 737 metres above sea level and stands out in the vast landscape below.

The monastery’s golden spires shimmer under the Burmese sun and provide enough enticement to reach the top.

Some say it’s auspicious to make it to the temples above. For me, it was enough that I survived – not just the steep climb of 700 steps but also the army of Macaque monkeys that are all over the staircase, seemingly guarding the monastery.

Aside from the monkeys, locals say the spirits known as nats also guard the sacred site.

There are 37 of them and are depicted in statues at the bottom of the staircase, according to Timetravelturtle, a travel website.

I froze many times because of the incessant fighting of the dozens and dozens of these wide-eyed creatures, wondering which god-forsaken clinic – if there is such a thing in the mountains -- I would end up if I ever get bitten or attacked.

But I’m stubborn like and not one to just surrender or turn back so I kept going, holding my breath and fervently hoping the spirits would guard me.

It was a different story when I reached the top. I instantly forgot how difficult the climb was. It’s true what they say -- you forget about your burning legs when you finally reach the temples above. The view was as I had imagined it would be and so much more – breathtaking and perfect as the gods seemingly welcomed me in a warm embrace.

I’d say it’s a slice of heaven on earth.

Climbing the monastery allows one to think of the simplest joys in life, those that really matter. It reminds you to travel light – literally and figuratively – and to leave behind those that could weigh you down, be it a tripod, an umbrella or memories of a nasty lovers’ quarrel.

While I was up there, I forgot about the time and ended up just savoring the whole experience. I remembered whispering a prayer or two, releasing everything I didn’t need to the universe below.

A pilgrimage, after all, is a long arduous journey to get closer to the gods. Many have done it: the Greeks, Mayans and the Israelites.

Maybe I achieved it, maybe I didn’t. I have yet to find out. But I am sure of one thing: that somewhere between my heart and a place called Bagan, after all the sunburn and trouble, the loud shrieks of the monkeys, my aching body and the burning legs, I have successfully slid through a thin membrane in this great big universe and at the stillest, stillest point in this chaotic world, reached a mind-bending state of pure bliss. And it’s still here, still here inside me. I can feel it running through my veins. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

I like it quiet. I like it quiet in the mornings or just before the sun sets. I like it when not a whisper could be heard, nothing but the beating of my heart. I like it simple, so simple that I could feel, see and hear only the most mundane of details.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Happy 2017!

I've never been so happy to see a year finally come to an end. And so with all my aches and pain, I've finally said goodbye to 2016, which I considered a really difficult one for me. There were a lot of positive things but one traumatic event overshadowed everything.

It's probably the most difficult year for me as far as I can remember. And I'm not even a drama queen. Anyway, I'm just happy it's over.

I survived and as in anything in life, I really don't have much choice but to carry on.
So here's to moving on and making the best of another year.

Happy 2017!

Sunday, September 25, 2016


(I found this in my archives. It's an unpublished version of a piece I did for Starweek. I forgot writing about this but I'm posting it here because I think I like it more than the published piece. But why I chose to submit the other version remains a puzzle).

A scissors, a chair and a cloth to cover falling hair; there is little boy and a lanky barber, his hair grown thick as well. This is a pop-up barber “shop” in an empty alley in downtown Manila. There really is no shop with the trademark helix of red, blue and white, the barber pole that dates back to the medieval times. There is

There is a woman, she with long hair cascading down her shoulders sitting alone appreciating art inside the Oarhouse Pub on Bocobo Street, described as one of the last remnants of Manila’s colourful past.

In a mass grave in Leyte in the southern Philippines, the names of the dead, they who perished when Haiyan came, are cast in stone and etched in gold, remembered forever.

In a town of water lilies, in the middle of cornfields, there is a woman covered in blue. She is the wife of a dead rebel, she is the mother of an infant son and four other children, now without a father.

Welcome to the Philippines where little boys get their hair cut anywhere, anytime, in empty streets or in crowded barber shops, where children roam fishing villages in Snow White costumes, where town elders read the livers of freshly butchered pigs in fog covered mountains in the northern Philippines and where cornfields become massacre sites.

A country of 94 million people, the Philippines is a storied place. Surrealism runs through the daily lives of people. And the stories are endless as they are varied; every place is a cartographic reality; age-old traditions exist alongside the ephemeral and yet the Philippines is as real as it can get.

There is more to the Philippines than just poverty and politics and this is what Everyday Philippines, an Instagram project put up by three Filipino freelance photojournalists, Tammy David (, Veejay Villafranca ( and Jes Aznar (

All three said that EverydayPhilippines, an account on photo-sharing site Instagram seeks to show the Philippines and not just the usual stories of poverty and corruption that the country is sometimes synonymous with.

The Instagram project joins the growing global Everyday movement inspired by EverydayAfrica, which started in 2012 initially as a Tumblr Blog by photographer Peter DiCampo and writer Austin Merill.

EverydayAfrica inspired similar Instagram accounts put up by mostly professional photographers: EverydayIran, EverydayBronx, EverydayUSA, EverydayEasternEurope, EverydayMyanmar and also to non-geographic issues such as EverydayClimateChange and EverydayIncarceration, among others.

EverydayPhilippines officially started on Jan. 1, 2015 and 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 goal is to break these stereotypes, says David, who is also a video journalist and whose works have appeared in both local and foreign publications including the Wall Street Journal.

Villafranca, a photographer represented by Getty Images, said it has become difficult to pitch stories about the country because some Western media’s preconceived 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.

And yes some people zero in on the country being just another Third World nation.

Aznar, whose works appear on the pages of the New York Times, thought of coming up with the project so he suggested it to his two friends Villafranca and David, who in turn, happen to have the same idea, inspired by EverydayAfrica’s success.

The rules are simple. The project is open to other photographers and the photographs must be, as much as possible, phone-camera captured, visually stunning and must provide contexts.

“There are many photographs and stories but what is important is to put the context,” Aznar says.

Photographers can then post their photos on their individual Instagram accounts and use the hashtag #EverydayPhilippines and from this, the three proponents then curate the photographs that appear on this hashtag search before reposting these on the EverydayPhilippines account.

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. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

On Self Preservation

Behind the driver’s seat, I listened intently to his story. He’s been driving all his life, the only skill he knows that can earn him a living. For two years, many moons ago, he was in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, too, driving under the scorching heat of the Middle Eastern sun, serving the thousands or so servants of the King. 

He’s been driving his brother’s car for a month now, to bring commuters to wherever they need to go. Brother is in Qatar, earning a living, for his daughter who is left in Manila with her grandparent. 

Back to the driver. He’s earning a decent amount every month but things could be better. Much, much better, he says. 

And so he wants to try his luck again abroad. In Bahrain this time to earn more and more and more. Life abroad is difficult. Very, very difficult but what can he do? 

"The loneliness can kill you," he says.

"But it’s where the money is." 

The stories of survival in the Philippines are varied as they are endless. 

In the streets of Metro Manila at night, small time drug pushers are playing cat-and-mouse chase with the police and vigilante groups. 

Everyone’s trying to survive the times -- in the most mundane of hours, the most difficult days. 

And it’s not only a matter of life and death. It's also about one’s happiness and sanity.

There are a hundred and one ways to do it — from the illegal to the overt. 

Those in unhappy marriages, for instance, take in paramours and those who fall in love with their paramours just try to fight the misery. 

Some wives settle with their philandering husbands for the family to survive. 

Others just go on with their lives, just winging it, surviving on other people’s skills, talents and perhaps, even money. 

We all have our ways. 

As for me, I write to survive. I write to stay sane. I write to breathe. Most of all, as Anais Nin said, I write to taste life twice. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Earlier Mona Lisa

Imagine strolling the streets of Shanghai, which is known all over the world as the Paris of the Orient and finding out that the Mona Lisa, too, happened to be there. 

This was exactly what happened to Jes and me as we were walking aimlessly in the nooks and crannies of Xintiandi -- "New Heaven and Earth" -- Shanghai's Old French Quarters. It is a shopping district so posh one would think one is walking around the cobbled stone streets of Paris, with its charming cafes and where art is all over the city.

And that's exactly how we felt. At the House in Xintiandi, an exhibition place, we met Leonardo Da Vinci's Lisa del Giocondo. Nope, this was not the Louvre and this isn't the Mona Lisa at the Louvre but we would later learn, it was Da Vinci's Earlier Mona Lisa. 

She had a warm smile and she did look younger. 

Just how lucky can we get. It's not everyday that you get to stumble upon a masterpiece. I remember a few years back when I also saw the works of Frida Kahlo on exhibit in Brussels. This was a de ja vu of sorts. 

The Earlier Mona Lisa, according to an article on the Shanghai Daily, is also the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, but painted a decade before and therefore looks much younger.  After almost 35 years, during which historians made comparative study and carried out scientific research, the Mona Lisa Foundation, together with experts, scientists and art historians, presented evidence in 2012 that confirmed that the “Earlier Mona Lisa” was indeed done by da Vinci. Mona Lisa,” which was commissioned by Guiliano de’ Medici, was done between 1513 and 1516. The “Earlier Mona Lisa” was painted from 1503 to 1506 and commissioned by Francesco del Giocondo. It had a young Lisa, and was flanked by columns, but was left unfinished.

In all probability, da Vinci used the same model to create the Louvre masterpiece, and the earlier unfinished work ended up with da Vinci’s assistant after his death, the article also said. 

It was on exhibit in Shanghai after years of being kept in a Swiss vault.

And how lucky we were to be in same place at the same time that young Lisa was there.