BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Tale of Two Continents: Turkey 2014

                                         Photos by me. Edited by Jes Aznar

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sun, Sand and Yoga

My latest piece for Starweek: Sun, Sand and Yoga

There’s sand on your toes and there’s the view of perfect sunsets, the afternoon sea breeze blows on your face and the soothing sound of crashing waves wafts in the air as you lie on your mat.

Yoga by the sea could well be every yogini’s dream but for one whole weekend, it became my reality.

The journey began at the end of a rough and at times bending road, in a secluded beach house with white draperies dancing in the wind, rattan hammocks and tall coconut trees that line the white sand beach.

This is the journey offered by the Sea Chi Yoga Retreat, a three-day exclusive yoga retreat, organized by Momo Beach House, a boutique resort in Panglao Island in Bohol owned by hotel management group One-Of Collection.

The experience started with a refreshing welcome drink of pandan juice and a feet-cleansing ritual to soothe one’s tired legs. A fifteen-minute head and back massage came next, giving participants a glimpse of things to come.

The driver who picked me up at the airport was right. The end of the rough and tumbling road is worth the ride.

Around 1 p.m., after a choice of healthy lunch cooked by resident executive chef Paeng Ongchiong, Yohanna Chanel, a Bohol-based French yoga instructor who is a certified Siva-nanda teacher started the opening circle, an introduction to what’s in store for the participants of the three-day retreat.

Chanel banged her small gong and taught us to chant Om, said to be the sound of the universe. It is a mantra chanted at the beginning and at the end of yoga sessions.

“Chanting Om allows us to recognize our experience as a reflection of how the whole universe moves—the setting sun, the rising moon, the ebb and flow of the tides, the beating of our hearts. As we chant Om, it takes us for a ride on this universal movement, through our breath, our awareness, and our physical energy, and we begin to sense a bigger connection that is both uplifting and soothing,” according to the

The Sanskrit word Yoga, said Chanel in her charming French accent, comes from the word yug or union. Originally, yug meant “to hitch up” as in attaching horses to a vehicle, according to the Roots of Yoga published by the

“It’s the union of everything inside. The perfect yogi sees God in everything,” she said.

Yoga, she said, is more than physical exercise. It is about proper exercise, breathing, relaxation, diet and positive thinking.

“It’s a life of self-discipline. It is knowing and living and treating our body as a temple,” she says.

The yoga practice we would be taught for the retreat is the common one, which is Hatha Yoga. This refers to a set of physical exercises known as asanas or postures, and sequences of asanas, designed to align one’s skin, muscles, and bones, according to

“The postures are also designed to open the many channels of the body—especially the main channel, the spine—so that energy can flow freely,” it said.

Furthermore, it said that Hatha is also translated as ha meaning "sun" and tha meaning "moon." This refers to the balance of masculine aspects—active, hot, sun—and feminine aspects—receptive, cool, moon—within all of us. Hatha yoga is a path toward creating balance and uniting opposites. In our physical bodies we develop a balance of strength and flexibility. We also learn to balance our effort and surrender in each pose.

The first session started at around 4 p.m. There we were on the beach house’s open- air lobby where Chanel taught us different postures that are doable for both beginners and advanced yoginis and yogis. She taught different techniques that enabled our bodies to give more than what we could normally do.

For up-and-forwards, for instance, she said: “navel to thigh and plant your forehead on your bent knees by pulling your ankles.”

“Put intention to the tension, breathe into it,” she said.

I sat, stood, twisted, sweated it out, curled my back and moved my arms to unimaginable ways but I survived the one-and-a half hour class. And as in every session, my body and soul loved every minute, aches and all.

By the time we finished, the sun was already setting, a perfect ending to a rewarding first session.

In between the opening circle and the first session, retreat participants had the whole afternoon to swim in the pool, dip in the clear blue waters of Momo Beach, have a siesta on the rattan hammock under the coconut trees or avail of the free massage at the resort’s Sea Tree spa.

And for those interested to know their destiny or a semblance of it, there’s also angel card reading sessions given by the spa’s manager, Atho dela Cruz.

Dinner was a buffet of healthy and vegetarian dishes – kare-kare, vegetarian style, chicken tinola, steamed okra and fruits for dessert.

After dinner, we huddled by the beach for tea to warm our hearts and soul. Under the moon and the stars, Chanel taught us how to meditate, to be aware and to really listen well to the sound of the universe.

Meditation, she said, allows us to be aware of the present moment and to let go of all the negative energy seeping through our veins. There’s no denying the miracles of meditation, she said.

“I have become a calmer person,” Chanel said.

Research has shown that meditating can reduce stress, alleviate anxiety and depression, increase your attention span, and deepen your compassion for others, among its many other benefits, according to an article on mediation published by

“We now know that regular meditation can change the physical structure of the brain, and recent studies by scientists at the University of Wisconsin and UCLA suggest not only that meditation might make your brain better at cognitive functions such as processing information and forming memories, but also that the more years you regularly meditate, the greater the potential benefits. From the Dalai Lama to Oprah and from cell phone apps that prompt you to look inward to 
worldwide flash-mob meditations that aim to publicize the benefits of the practice, meditation is heralded by secular, spiritual, and scientific communities alike as unimpeachably good for you,” it also said.

I opted to have my free massage just before going to bed, which made for a perfect ending to a wonderful first day.

I felt recharged as the wake-up call arrived at 6:30 the next morning. We were given lemon water for detox and to prep us up for the 7 a.m. session.

We had the morning session by the beach, the morning sun on our faces, keeping our mind, heart and soul fully awake and alive.

There was free time after. One can choose to watch the resident chef cook healthy meals or to avail of the second day’s free massage. I opted to visit the famed Chocolate Hills and the tarsier conservation area. While the trip was not part of the retreat package, it was well worth the two-hour ride.

The other participants opted to visit a sandbar 25 minutes away while some tried a hearty lunch at the luxurious Amorita Resort, an affiliate of Momo Beach House, just fifteen minutes away.

We were all back in time for the next session at four in the afternoon, the most intense and grueling session we would have.

Here, I managed to do a headstand even for just a few seconds, the first time in my two-year on-and off yoga life. I nearly perfected my sun salutations, child’s pose, triangle pose and my favorite, the Savasana pose.

We had the culminating buffet dinner of grilled fish and chicken soup, some kilawin and fresh fruits for dessert, all these under the stars on the white sand and the smashing waves with a roaring bonfire in the middle of it all.

Yohanna capped the night with lessons of belly dancing, teaching us to let go and to sway to Bollywood music. We danced around the fire with the music of the universe pulsating in the moonlit evening.

The three-day retreat was well worth the time whether you’re a beginner or an advanced yoga enthusiast.

The P12,000-retreat rate, which includes a three-day two night stay, healthy meals and snacks, four yoga sessions and free massage, is a steal especially if you look at it as an investment for your health and nourishment for your heart, mind and soul. The schedules are light and easy and are even in sync with the flights from Manila to Bohol. I took the Cebu Pacific flight, which left Manila at a comfortable time of 8: 25 a.m. and arrived at the Tagbilaran airport at 9:40 a.m.

Momo Beach owner and One-Of Collection chief executive officer Lucas Niccolo Cauton III, a yogi himself who joined the sessions, said that they plan to hold the Sea Chi yoga retreats regularly.

“We plan to do this every month if we can. It’s really about having a healthy lifestyle,” he tells Starweek in a chance interview on the sidelines of the retreat.

The retreat was held for the first time last May 2 to 4, with upcoming sessions slated on January 8 to 10, 2015 and May 1 to 3, 2015.

My yoga by the sea experience was a much-needed respite -- although momentarily -- from the chaos and traffic of Manila, a perfect way to recharge and prepare oneself again to go back to the daily grind.

I left Bohol with Chanel’s parting words to me: Be in peace and harmony. She didn’t need to say it really. I felt it in my bones. It’s inevitable after being in paradise for three days; the memories still linger, there is a smile in every pose, flow in every breath; grace in every moment; ah what a dharma of sorts.


Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Journey to Maldives

The seabirds -- with their thick feathers of blue, white or black and wings spread out perfectly -- flew above us and guided us as we rode the waves on a white four-seater speedboat across Maldivian waters. 

There we were, the lone boat in the middle of the vast blue sea, on our way to a sandbar called Sexy Beach. I could see nothing in the faraway horizon except islands that appeared as tiny specks of land and the birds that seemed to signal us to just follow.

There was a soft drizzle when we left the island of Guraidhoo on this August afternoon but the drizzle soon parted like soft white curtains swaying in the wind to reveal a narrow patch of pinkish sand, dotted with the seabirds that seemed to give us a warm welcome to this island bliss. I felt the soft wet sand on my feet as soon as I jumped off the boat; I struggled to keep my balance while the big waves embraced my hundred pound body and soul as I made my way to paradise.

The afternoon sun is now out, glistening on the waters that splashed on this isolated sandbar, sitting perfectly in the middle of the wide, wide sea. Looking at it from above -- in my mind's eye --, I could see us walking in the middle of a painting -- the sandbar is a streak of cream colored paint in the middle of a giant emerald blue canvas.

We had this tiny paradise all to ourselves though there were signs of life before us -- a used lighter, a drenched box of menthol cigarettes and strangely, -- I say strangely because alcohol is prohibited in Maldives -- an empty bottle of rum.

A wooden box in the middle of the sandbar served as our makeshift table.

Ibrahim, our local guide, put a white picnic umbrella that stood perfectly in the middle of it all.

We had tuna sandwich for lunch, served with roti bread and fresh coconut juice. We had a box of ice cold lemon juice and the lazy afternoon all to ourselves. The island was ours and only ours to savor and enjoy.

Oh Lou Reed, you were right: It's such a perfect day.

We stayed for an hour or two, enjoying the waves, the big, big waves, chasing the seabirds and lying on the sand before the waters rhythmically devoured it.

Soon, it was time to head back to Guraidhoo, the second stop in our journey. It is our fourth day in this island country, Jes and I.

A few days ago, we woke up in the Maldivian capital of Male, to the sound of birds chirping outside the window of room 402, our temporary home in this Muslim country of only 393,500 people.

I had my first glimpse of the city that morning, while sitting on the rattan chair of our fourth floor balcony.

I could see my reflection from the window of the building right across us, the distance was just a little longer than arm's length. No kidding.

The streets are narrow, so narrow that cars have to fold their side mirrors when they pass by; the buildings are pastel colored, mostly cream and faded yellow. For a second I thought I woke up in Lisbon, as I did one morning in the April of 2011, because of hints of Portuguese architecture. This is not a surprise, with the island colonized by Portugal many lifetimes ago.

The morning sun is out, the air is gentle. It is a quiet perfect morning, with the smell of brewed coffee wafting in the air and restless pigeons dancing outside our window, far from what I had imagined the night before.

Evening had already descended by the time our plane from Singapore touched down the runway of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport. In the dark, I could not see the paradise that people say Maldives is even as I squinted my eyes many times over,

On the contrary, I felt like a war refugee traveling in the dead of night on a ferry with about a hundred more passengers to a far-away place. There was nothing but darkness and the roar of the ferry's engines.

But the far-away place I imagined turned out to be just ten minutes away, the capital of Male, a quaint city littered with curio shops and filled with Maldivians who are as warm and laid-back as islanders can be.

They don't fake hospitality, not these men and women. There's no extra effort to make you feel at home, just genuine courtesy, sincere smiles and a ready hand to help if they can.

The Maldivian women are in their garbs and veil the whole time, seemingly unmindful of the heat on warm afternoons, though they are used to foreigners strolling the city in their colorful beach wears and wide brim hats. 

There is a pristine white mosque, with a golden dome, casting shadows on the sand; its crescent moon glistening in the afternoon sun. By the port, there is a market of vegetables, fruits and fish with mostly male vendors. The fishermen are busy unloading their catch and so are the traders, with their goods from nearby Singapore or Sri Lanka.

On our last afternoon in Male, we were swept by a big crowd marching on the streets of the city, waving flags of India and Maldives and shouting in the sweltering heat: "India - Maldives Friendship Day!"

We trailed the crowd, turning left, right and left again when the marchers did. They shouted in their revelry as they waved their orange and red flags. Music blared, too from their mobile speakers. It's as if we stepped inside a Bollywood movie, with Indian music reverberating in the air.

By the time the march ended and the crowd dispersed, we found ourselves in another huge gathering, this time by the city's Artificial Beach, the paradise of the locals, where Muslim men and women, young and old are whiling their time away swimming in this crowded beach. The women are in shirts or shorts or modest swimwear; two-piece bathing suits are not allowed.

Here, there is a rally against Israel's attacks on the Gaza strip. Songs and shouts blared from the loud speakers; stop the attacks they say, the children are dying, the women are crying, the men are disappearing.

We sat in the nearest cafe we could find after all the revelry and the chaos. Our legs were aching. We were so tired we longed for ice cold pale beer but we were in the wrong country to be dreaming of beer, malt or spirits. And so in this cafe overlooking the city, we settled instead for "mocktails," drinks that looked and tasted like cocktail concoctions but minus the alcohol.

Jes ordered Maldives' version of mojito, which looked every bit like it but minus the punch, of course. It's sort of like getting drunk psychologically.

In the darkness, we walked back to our room, there are men huddled together in the park; some women, too.

The next day, we packed our stuff and prepared to leave for yet another island but not before having lunch in a local eatery where I had basmati rice and curried gizzard, it's so authentic, the taste still lingers. Ibrahim, a local photographer, took us to this place.

We went to the port at 2:30 in the afternoon and at that exact moment we arrived at the pier, the ferry that was supposed to take us to Gurhaidoo, just left dock.

With our heavy backpacks on our shoulders, we stood there, under the scorching sun, watching the boat move farther and farther away from us.

But this slight delay would be forgotten as we soon found ourselves on another ferry to Guraidhoo.

Two men with a wheel burrow for our heavy bags welcomed us at the dock. This quaint little island is now our new temporary home, a paradise of a place and truly the quintessential islander's life.

For days, we roamed the island. Many times, we got lost in the labyrinth of single-storey homes, shops and tall coconut trees. We saw souvenir shops and the locals who sat idly outside their homes. This is what island life is -- time stops here or it moves at a snail's pace, if it moves at all.

In the evening, the sound of hypnotic Muslim prayers cuts through the silence. In the mornings, early, early mornings, the women pick up the trash while their husbands go away to catch some fish or to work in nearby islands.

The last stop in our Maldives journey is the Holiday Inn Island resort in Kandooma, a very short boat ride from Guraidhoo but a strikingly different paradise.

The resort sits on one whole island and each part has a different story to tell. Tall coconut trees line the white sand beach. Surfers are riding the waves on one part while Korean women in their flowery hats are taking selfies outside the seafront villas.

Jes and I spent our last afternoon just swimming and chasing the kaleidoscope of underwater life before we headed back to our villa.

Ours is a garden villa with a tiny porch facing a giant Balete Tree. There is a hammock and a blue green day bed on this cozy area. Here, we sipped the $40 dollar Tiger beer we painstakingly bought from the minibar, our first alcoholic drink since leaving Manila. In private resorts such as these, alcoholic drinks are available but for a very high price.

The bathroom is total luxury, with black and white tiles and a tub. There's no roof above, so at night, one can take a bath under the stars or simply spend hours in the warm tub while listening to the crickets and the rest of the nocturnal world.

On our last day, before boarding our flight, we stood outside the airport, by the wooden plank overlooking the Maldivian sea, watching the crimson sun slowly disappear beneath the horizon. The sky is a palette of blue, violet and orange, nothing I've seen before here or elsewhere, or even in my dreams.

The image rushes in, seeps through the veins and stays for good. And so we are still there, right there, frozen in the moment by the edge of the wooden plank, with the sound of the waves wafting in the afternoon air, a fitting ending to our visceral journey inside the magic of Maldives.

Photos by me

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Postcards from Maldives

Travel only with thy equals or thy betters; if there are none, travel alone. - The Dhammapada

A week before Maldives:
Jes: Alis tayo next week...
me: tara, sa Bali. 
Jes: Hindi, sa Maldives.

at the plaza in Male. Photo by me.

on a ferry to Guraidhoo. Photo by me

beautiful misty morning at Island Way. Photo by me

by the beach. Photo by me

Holiday Inn island resort. Photo by me

perfect time for a swim. Photo by me

waiting for the speedboat to the airport. Photo by me

my ootd, Male. Photo by Jes Aznar

Sexy Beach, South Male. Selfie by Jes Aznar

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Sunny Side of Life: Maldives 2014

SOUTH MALE, Maldives - Here in Maldives, dubbed as the sunny side of life, you master the art of doing nothing. You just enjoy the sun, sea and the sand, the paradise that it is.