Asia’s Challenge 2020

Tuesday, August 31, 2009

Time and the University of Singapore posed the question:

“What is the most important challenge facing Asia over the next decade? Why? What should be done about it?”

Asia – the diverse challenge

Asia. Some call it the root of man-kind, while others call it the fastest growing region on the planet, with four of the five BRICS nations located within it. To me, Asia is just another home.

As a student, I have no extensive knowledge about Asia’s political situation, nor do I have any ideas to add to Asia’s already growing list of developing economies. What I know is what I can see. And in the face of ‘Asia’s Challenge 2020’, I see urban development and environmental issues being key areas in Asia’s continuous growth in the next decade.

As the fastest developing continent on the planet today, it’s not all smooth sailing for Asia and its multi-cultured nations. Asia’s speedy growth is in part thanks to its massive workforce, but it is also this massive workforce that causes Asia to be dangerously over-populated.

Asia is not small. Countries like China, which are overly crowded in the cities still have two-thirds of their land fairly underdeveloped. And even though governments know that development is bound to lead to rapid urbanisation, no one can really put their finger on exactly how “rapid” it’s all going to be.

The unpredictability of social changes coupled with underestimated growth figures often lead to underprepared cities being filled with a more-than-anticipated amount of eager citizens seeking jobs and long-term stability, which inevitably results in the imbalanced sharing of resources. Many major cities eventually end up like the slums of Mumbai or like the favelas of São Paulo.

The effects of when rapid growth meets unprepared urban areas are obvious enough in Asia, some worse than others. Mumbai, Jakarta, just to name a few, are amongst the more serious. Asia is in need of some serious crowd control, and sound urban development policies should be first on the agenda.

Let us not be mistaken – urbanisation is good, and is a “natural” process attributed to a developing nation. But it is urban malignancy that we need to be watching out for.

Taipei, the city in which I live, is a prime example of what rapid urbanisation is like, but unfortunately, it is also at times an example of imbalanced recourse sharing.

As small as Taiwan is, it still has many underdeveloped areas. For example, the entire eastern coast lies largely untouched when it comes to large scale urbanisation. Public transport remains scarce and public schools scarcer. It has become a place of paradise and refuge for all those city folk who can afford to resettle there, but there is still a lack of government policies to ease the pressure on the major cities.

Nowadays, development which took the West half a century to complete is completed in just half a decade in Asia. But it is also because of that speed of development that urban malignancy becomes more threatening.

Brazil’s Rômulo Paes de Sousa, Executive Secretary of the Social-Development Ministry, coined the terms “old’ and “new” poverty – on July 31, The Economist quoted “old” as being “the lack of food and basic needs”, and “new” as being “drug addiction, violence, family breakdown, and environmental degradation.” – I believe many Asian cities suffer from both “old” and “new” poverty.

In a city like Beijing, where capitalism booms on almost every street, one can still find on the outskirts of its world renowned airport, tens of hundreds of family-run car washes, which charge close to nothing just to make a basic living.

In Taiwan, where the nine-year mandatory education policy still does little to stop domestic violence and negligence towards environmental issues. A place where the middle-class to wealthy families can afford to provide high quality education for their children to ensure that they are enrolled in to public high schools and universities, and a place where the less fortunate children have to struggle to get a place in public schools. This leaves the rest to settle for private schools and universities where tuition fees cost four to five times more.

The problem of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer just keeps going on and on in a vicious cycle. Sure, the government provides aid in the form of educational funds for some of the less fortunate. But we all know that aid doesn’t reach all those in need.

“Aid needs to be met with suitable and well-thoughtout policies, otherwise it will just be more and more money down the drain.”

In the case of Asia’s more rural areas, where children still give up secondary and tertiary education to help their traditional agricultural families on the farm, policies similar to Brazil’s “Bolsa Família: don’t seem like such a bad idea.

But therein lies the challenge: Asia is unique not only as a continent, but also in the sense that each and every country is so different in tradition and cultural history. Thus, Asia could never be governed by policies like the EU’s Schengen Agreement or usage of the Euro.

Asia’s challenge lies in the fact that copying other countries policies will never work. What works for China, for example, would not work for, say, Indonesia. Not only because of their differences in political stances, but also because of their population’s cultural values, traditions and religions, etc.

So, as Brazil requires the level of education to be raised, Asia doesn’t really have problems that severe. “Bolsa Família” might work wonders in South America, but when brought to countries like Taiwan and the Philippines where the level of education is relatively higher, other issues like post-graduation unemployment, take up more priority.

These two countries will need to have their own political breakthroughs which will meet their needs and their unique needs only. But where some countries can go it alone, others might require direct or indirect aid. But where aid is available in the form of funds or trained personnel, it needs to be met with suitable and well thought out policies. Otherwise it will all be put to waste and will just result in another failed attempt and more and more money down the drain.

Asia’s environmental issues have always been an elephant in the room when discussing plans to develop further. In Taiwan’s case, it is often used as a rubber stopper to halt the government’s plans to further develop the underdeveloped areas in the country.

As the initiators, the government should make environmental-friendly policies a given when proposing for elections instead of throwing tea cups at each other and making a fool of themselves on public television. But it seems most politicians are afraid of not being supported if they elect to sacrifice a little bit of the economy for the betterment of the environment.

It is not all downhill though. Taiwan’s recycling policies are some of the best in Asia, if not the whole world. It is at least better than what I saw in South Africa, my place of birth, where all rubbish goes in to one big bin and is collected weekly. On this front, at least Taiwan is one step ahead of the rest.

Researchers say that Taiwan, amongst other Asian island-based nations, is going to be one of the first to be hit by climate induced displacement (similar to what is happening to the Maldives) and its people becoming environmental migrants. Strangely enough, though, this I heard not from government reports, but from my teachers at school.

Countries like Taiwan will need assistance in dealing with environmental issues, but how can others help us if we don’t even want to help ourselves?

Environmental awareness is lacking in our everyday lives. Something which is supposed to be transmitted from top to bottom (government to citizen), is becoming reversed. And perhaps that is the only solution.

Environmental movements by NGO’s and the like is becoming more and more important as we try to make everyone aware that it need not be a duel between economy and environment. But rather, like so many Northern European nations have shown, a harmonious relationship for both humans and the environment.

I believe Thailand has set a good example for Asia, decreasing their reliance on industrialisation and turning to show the world the beauty of Thai cuisines. Chefs from all over the world travel to Thailand to get a taste of what makes Thai food such a speciality, boosting Thailand’s economy and international status at the same time.

Asia has the potential, all we need is self-value. As China has proven on countless occasions politically and economically, there is no rule that says the way to success is by emulating the West. Countries like Singapore have also proven that they have the ability to form sound and reliable policies on their own, and are even taking their own measures in countering climate issues, encouraging the usage of public transport by limiting the amount of cars which are allowed on the road depending on their license plate numbers (odd or even).

“Asia will have its own success story, but the route Asia takes to success will differ from country to country.”

Some people tell me that the only way Asia will ever come to the realisation that environmental awareness is essential, is if they are punished by nature first. Like Pakistan’s flooding or Taiwan’s typhoons.
I would like to think about it more optimistically, though, because I think the warning signs are out there already, loud and clear, and there is no excuse for us to not be on alert.

Concluding, I believe Asia’s challenge, environmentally, will be to put all the great minds to work, think up a good and long-lasting environmental policy, and take action. A firm, decisive decision with at least the nation or region’s best interests in mind is needed, because Asia doesn’t lack the innovation, nor does it lack the personnel necessary to initiate what is needed. All policies have their goods and bads, so what Asia – or at least some countries – really lacks, is decisiveness and the guts to make a decision while under pressure from the nation.

Asia is by far the most diverse continent, and therefore each country’s policies will have to take into consideration their own cultural background and history. I believe if Asia can conquer that challenge, then Asia will have its own success story. Asia will develop to the standards of the West, and possibly even overtake them, but it is without doubt that the route Asia takes will differ from country to country. JSF.

UN World Citizens

Saturday, July 17, 2009

The administrative staff at my previous high school asked me to join a movement hosted by the World Citizen Organization — a branch in correspondence with the United Nations — which invited pupils to write essays (long or short) on topics related to or on global warming and climate change. This is what I’ll be sending to them. If any of you feel like writing anything similar, please don’t hold back. It can be written in any language and can be any length. Make yourselves heard!

Global Warming From the Youth’s Perspective

Global warming. The first time I came across this term was in third grade. Ms. Peak was lecturing our assembly on a Monday morning about how our age, our generation, compared to the ‘Space Age’ of the 70’s and the ‘Pop Age’ of the 80’s, was now known as the ‘Waste Age’. Now, I’m not sure if that was an official term or a derogative term thought up just to strike guilt into us six-to-13-year-olds. All I know is that looking back on that faithful Monday morning almost ten years ago, I must admit, they were right.

That morning, Ms. Peak went on about how much our planet was slowly being changed by greenhouse gases, and how all of this was due to our irresponsible littering, reckless spraying of deodorant, and burning of firewood during the winter. Us boys, and some girls, laughed loudly at the prospect of us having to use roll-on deo-sticks instead of our usually Ego (now called Axe) deodorants just to save a few trees. We were 10, who cared about all this global warming hoo-hah or whatever it’s called. We were living our own happy lives completely unaware of the consequences. To us, greenhouse gases just sounded like another funny term we could use to describe the gas coming out of our backsides. Needless to say, I took that entire morning as a joke. And I would’ve continued to think that way if not for the then-to-be headmaster of Hurlyvale Primary School, Mr. Thom. Our Mr. Thom casually walked on stage, took the microphone, and with the simplest of metaphors completely changed my point of view:

“Have you ever seen American Western Films?” Mr. Thom asked into the microphone, “The ones where you see cowboys and such? The scene is usually set in a desert.”
We nodded, waiting for him to get to the point.
“Well, whenever there’s a gust of wind in those movies, do any of you recall seeing stacks of hay tumbling around?”
I nod again, unsure of where all this is leading.
“Children, here in South Africa we have that too; here in Johannesburg we have that too.”
We were silent and confused.
“But,” he continued, “Instead of those hay stacks, we have plastic bags flying around.”

We all laughed. But after a while, somewhere between all the laughter and commotion, I suddenly stopped laughing. I caught a glimpse of the expression on Mr. Thom’s face. I didn’t have to be a mind-reader to know that he wasn’t the least impressed with our reaction. The severity of the situation struck me that day, and my views on global warming took an unexpected turn.

That same year, South Africa implemented the pay-for-your-bags policy, meaning that shoppers at major supermarkets would now have to pay a small fee if they wanted a plastic bag for their goods, or they could bring their own shopping bags.

To be honest, the plastic bags were still awfully cheap and pretty much affordable to anyone. But the policy worked. The amount of plastic bags flying around were reduced by a fantastically large amount. At the same time increasing the sales of material shopping bags, which were bigger and didn’t break as easily; it was a win-win for everyone.

That year back in South Africa was the year my awareness for global warming began. I stopped carelessly littering, stop using plastic bags at supermarkets, stopped using deodorant and other CFC-related products (in correspondence with the Montreal Protocol), and that year in July was the last time our family would ever burn firewood to keep ourselves warm in winter. From then on, electric heaters were bought and used.

I had no idea how all of this was going to help with the matter of global warming, because frankly, I had no clue what global warming actually was or what it did. But they said doing the above would help save Mother Earth, so I did.

All that was ten years ago; hopefully this year can be somebody else’s first.

Now, 10 years on. I’m living in Taiwan, and global warming affects Taiwan too. I guess the term “global” was no joke after all. During my years in Taiwan, I would learn much more about global warming. Much more than I thought I would ever want to learn. The cruel figures of millions who starve, and even more that are under the threat of being displaced. I only recently realised why Taiwan was so much more eager to deal with the issue of global warming, and the realisation came as a hammer blow. Because according to climate change researchers, similar to the threat on the Maldives, Taiwan will soon be hit by the first wave of climate forced displacement. Thus turning the Taiwanese people, and others, into the first group of environmental migrants (or climate refugees).
I quote:

“A climate refugee is someone displaced by climate change induced environmental disasters. Such disasters are the result of incremental and rapid ecological change and disruption that include increased droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, cyclones, flooding and tornados.”

In Taiwan I often see demonstrations by environmentalist about preserving the environment and preventing the further spreading of global warming. In the beginning, I couldn’t really link the two together. Global warming and cutting trees? Global warming and pollution? Global warming and driving cars? All this was so foreign to me, and I didn’t realise how the small things we did had such a big impact on our environment. Back in primary school, I couldn’t find the connection, for example, between burning firewood and increasing greenhouse gases.

“But it’s just a little bit of smoke, dad. Look! You can’t even see it anymore. It’s gone!”
“Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. And it only looks like a little bit of smoke because it’s only our house you’re looking at. John, South Africa has over forty million people. Can you image how much smoke there would be if we all lit fires?”
I could.
My father always took my silence as a sign of acknowledgement. And soon after we stopped burning firewood, I stopped burning dry leaves for fun in the garden too. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

When I’m asked about global warming these days, I usually answer with the simplest geographical explanation I can think of: cold places get colder and hot places get hotter. And that’s just the simple way of explain it.

Extreme weather is attributed to global warming, and rightly so. In recent years, the Earth has experienced events that are shaking just to think about.
I remember picking up a copy of the morning paper one day and finding a column in it about natural disasters. More specifically about the disasters that seemed to be continuously occurring month after month.

For me, the big shocker came on August 8, 2009. After half a year of moaning from Taiwanese citizens about the serious lack of rainfall, Mother Nature responded in the cruelest of ways.

Stage right, typhoon Morakot. For three weeks, the television set was filled with destruction. CNN, BBC and local news websites broadcasted the event in enough detail to convince me of the severity. Six hundred plus dead and hundreds more missing. Entire villages buried, literally, as heaven opened its floodgates. Record amounts of rainfall as flooding washed away everything and everyone caught in its wake.

Living in Taipei just a few hundred kilometers away, with my electricity, drinkable water, food, warm bed and a school to go to. How does one not feel ashamed? It could have – and should have – been prevented. It was not an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. It was a typhoon which was forecasted days in advance. But the government’s lack of urgency together with the locals’ ignorance made the situation worse than it should’ve been. The only thing we could do in Taipei was watch; watch and weep as the scenes unfold on the television.

“I’m afraid to turn on the television,” My geography teacher would say, “I cry every time I do.”

After Taiwan’s Morakot came China’s flooding, then Manila’s. After that was Europe and America’s usual freeze. Eurostar trains stuck in the Chunnel and cars spinning on ice on America’s highways. In 2010 came Haiti, then Chile. America’s flooding came next, and Iceland’s volcano chain followed soon after. China and Guatemala’s sinkholes made the news soon after Deep Horizon’s oil spill incident in the Gulf of Mexico caused the greatest environmental disaster ever recorded in US history.

By request of my geography teacher, the oil spill became a personal project I had undergone just to let my class know what had happened. The news in Taiwan seriously lacked reports on international events, so I thought I could do a little something to enlighten them about the situation in the West. It was important, so important in fact that people would be surprised to learn that the spill is still ongoing and has already destroyed countless precious environmental recourses which cannot be salvaged…the list of disasters go on.

Natural disasters are obviously worsening. Year after year the rainfall count increases as typhoons in Asia reap havoc everywhere they go. Maybe it’s because we’ve taken too much from nature, or perhaps we’re just unlucky to have met such devastating scenarios. One way or the other, nature is biting back, ruthlessly.

Populations are growing; cities are being shaken into rubble. Lakes are shrinking; forests are disappearing. Conflicts are rising; nations are still invading. People remain clueless, we stay ignorant.
In 2010, the film entitled ‘HOME’ enlightened me. If not through this film, I would have never realised the true potential of man. I had no idea solar capturing technology was readily available in such large quantities. I had no idea Denmark’s wind farms produced so much energy. And I had no idea that there were governments like Costa Rica’s, who were smart enough to divert military spending to education, eco-tourism, and the protection of its forests. Through education, global warming and its solutions became as bright as day to me. And it is education that can allow the rest of the world to be in step with the world we’re living in and the crises we face.

“It’s too late to be a pessimist; it’s time to come together. What’s important is not what’s gone, but what remains. We still have half the world’s forests, thousands of rivers, lakes, glaciers, and thousands of thriving species. We know that the solutions are there today. We all have the power to change, so what are we waiting for?” — “HOME

One important person in my high school education was my geography teacher, Mrs. Luo. She was as informed about global warming as anyone could ever be. Not because she was paid to be, but because she had an overwhelming sense of responsibility, a kind which I too hope to acquire in the not so distant future, no matter what field I’m in. As an educator, she felt the urge just to let us know. And she made absolutely sure that we knew everything there was to know about this disaster.

My first geography lesson was filled with acronyms. Some which I understood and others which I wished I understood.
“Morning, Children.” She said smiling in the beginning of her first lesson.
As we responded, she picked up her chalk and wrote the letters ‘I’ and ‘Q’ on the board.
“Can anyone tell me what this stands for?” she asked.
“Intelligence quotient!” I shouted.
“Yes, good. How about this?” She said, writing the now the letters ‘E’ and ‘Q’ on the board. “What does this mean?”
“Emotional quotient,” replied someone else.
“Very good. Now, both IQ and EQ are very important things! One cannot do without them. But today I would like to introduce you all to something which I think is equally important.”

I will never forget the day that Mrs. Luo introduced GQ (not the magazine obviously) to us. Geographical quotient, or a measure of one’s geographical knowledge, seemed interest me right from the off. I had never heard of it before. For all I knew, she could have made it up herself. But in my years with under Mrs. Luo, GQ would be crucial in my decision to make global warming known to those around me.

Mrs. Luo introduced different organisations to us, including some house-hold names like WHO, WTO, UN and ASEAN. Mostly the organisations she thought we ought to know about and the ones that have a direct impact on our lives. Throughout the two years that she taught us, we learned about global warming and its related topics on a massive scale. She commented positively and negatively where appropriate, making sure we knew the difference between well-done environmental conservation and poorly-done environmental conservation. In the end, we came to find that global warming was essentially everywhere. In every chapter of every book; all things led to and from global warming, and this major climate shift was the reason behind all the different conflicts in the world today.

That’s exactly what I think is necessary in today’s education: brave educators. People who are not afraid of saying what is right and true. It doesn’t matter which country you’re teaching in, be it East or West, if it’s important, if it’s right, then spread the message. Let the students, the young generation or “the future”, as we have been called so many times in the past, let us know what we’re facing and what we need to do to improve. If you believe America is being naïve about CO² emissions and they alone could lessen almost a third of the effects of global warming, then voice it. If you think China’s overgrowing population is dangerously causing the depletion of the Earth’s food, water and other valuable resources, then let yourself be heard. Voice it to the population, so the population can voice it to the world. Voice it through education.

Opinions, ideals, concepts, theories. These are the driving forces behind any revolution. And, by God, we do need a revolution. It’s been long overdue and has been brewing for too long. So rally up the troops and think up the strategies. Education is by far our strongest weapon. The children, the world’s little soldiers, are ready. Too many of us lie in darkness unattended and unarmed; in Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceana and the Americas. This is not a racial war, nor is it a cultural or religious war. This is not about different peoples, just as it’s not about different nations. This is a global war against a common enemy, and the cause is ironically just to ensure that in 50- to 100-years’ time, we will still have a planet we can call “home”.

I hope the plea of one can voice the plea of a million. So forget your guns and forget your nukes. Make use of the untapped potential that lies within every child. If we are indeed the future, as they say, then arm us; education us. In the war against global warming, help us, so we can help you. JSF.

Hsinchu, Toucheng and Back – The Dairy of Another Journey


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Being dead and buried the morning after Chinese New Year is a common phenomenon amongst us Taiwanese, but waking up at 8 a.m. on the first day of Lunar New Year for a trip out of town is definitely something else.

The sharp sound of my cellphone alarm broke through the cool, crisp air, Sunday morning. Funny how the alarm seems to be the only function that works all year round; everything else crashes, stalls or just plainly doesn’t work. Not the alarm though. It’s pulled me out of bed every morning for the past year, and today was no exception. I dragged my luggage and took my guitar. This was it! Just me and Bridget, baby! Oh, right, and some relatives, ha ha; specifically a little half-German bandit who goes by the name of Korby.

We were heading to 新竹 (Hsinchu) for a new year’s lunch with my grandparents, a place I hadn’t been to since this time last time.
In my mind, 新竹 never really had anything to give me. No glamour, no excitement, just dusty old streets and unlit alleys. To some extend I was right, because that was the impression 新竹 gave me, but that was because the only place I’d been to is my grandparents’ house, and they’ve been living in the same place for the last 35 years, what did I expect? So, deep inside, I really hoped I could be proven wrong. And what better a time to visit than during the most significant occasion of the year – Chinese New Year.

Like Katt Williams once said, parents usually cannot wait until their children speak their first words and start stringing sentences together. But the converse is true, that once these little ikes start talking, they will be qualified to ask 500 questions a day.

“Why is the McDonald’s sign yellow, Mama?”
“What part of a chicken is a chicken nugget, Mama?”
“What’s the difference between barbeque and hot sauce? Is barbeque sauce just sweet and tangy and hot sauce isn’t tangy? What is tangy, mama? Is that sour but it isn’t quite sour?”

My cousin, Korby, the most energetic little bugger I have ever seen in my life. He’s so bloody lively he makes the Duracell bunny look weak. After setting off from 板橋 (Banciao), I sat in a pile of his toys in the back seat as we headed for the highway going south. Almost immediately after hitting the road, Korby began his four day lingual marathon, with me being the most innocent bystander:

“John! Can we play Battleships later?
“Yes, sure.”
“Joooohn, can we play Lego later?
“I thought you wanted to play battleship? What do you want to play? Battleships or Lego?”
“I want you to read to me.”

Eventually he started playing with his toy Husky and I could get some sleep. My aunt tossed her poodle in the backseat and it seemed pretty content just to sleep on my lap. I turned on some Stone Sour and got some shut eye. The road was long, and I was going to need all the battery life I could get to catch up with Korby, who seemed to run on solar power.

My good friend, Anna, once told me, there are some children who, when you tell them to stop doing something, will always purposely do it once more just to piss you off and to ‘have the last laugh’, so to speak. Korby is one of those kids.
I was woken up by the sound of Korby’s high-pitch scream (the same scream I hear every time he doesn’t get his way). He kept playing with the cup holders in the back seat and my aunt was getting impatient (bless her. She is by far the most patient parent I’ve seen). I honestly didn’t mind, I had Corey Taylor in my ears, nothing could bother me – or so I thought. Five minutes later, Korby unleashed his ultimate weapon: repetitive questioning without the need of an actual answer. Oh my, word!

“Mama, how long until we get there?”
“About an hour.”
“Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama! Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? are we th….”
I eventually fell asleep.

When I woke, we were preparing to enter urban 新竹. Turning off the intersection, I opened my eyes to see what we were passing, when I suddenly had a flash back, back to July last year, when K, H and I were touring Taiwan. I sort of wanted the same sort of excitement out of this trip, so I started paying attention.

I’d never been into urban 新竹, and just like when I went to Tainan last year July, I was shocked to find that it was not that different from Taipei. The city planning was quite discrete for an older city. It is where all the high-tech development in Taiwan takes place after all. The very cellphone I’m holding in my hand was probably designed by some poor sap who hasn’t seen sunlight for 10 years. So it’s no wonder they put effort into remodelling the town.
One thing that really stood out about 新竹 when we first drove into town was how it had everything Taipei had, just three times as big (and they had a lot more Betel Nut stalls)! Maybe it’s because they have more space, but some of their stores are huge! We passed by a three story pet store when I thought to myself, “Wow! What a lovely piece of archite-” “-are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

Damn it, Shrek! How many more children must you brain wash?

We went passed the industrial park where many car firms were situated. Volkswagen boasted one of the biggest showrooms in the area, with a stand-alone size larger than that of a shopping mall. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Honda, Infinity, Opel, Kia, Toyota, Volvo and even Skoda all had their showrooms set up. It was quite a nice sight. As we passed the Lexus showroom, I remember myself looking inside, trying to catch a glimpse of their ridiculous £300,000 supercar, the LFA. Let’s fix the break problem first, Lexus, and the global economic downshift, and then we’ll talk about speed, yeah?

Driving parallel to the train tracks, the shift from the industrial park to the high class suburban area was instant. It was as if we’d been watching a movie in black and white film and someone suddenly turned on all the colour.
First, Caesar’s Park Hotel shot me a glance, then the Sheraton made its presence known, glooming in the background, looking immaculate as ever. I remember passing a giant billboard advertising beds from Bed World and wondering to myself whether they were really selling beds or selling pornography on the side – quite an interesting marketing strategy. 新竹 was taking a turn for the better, and credit where credit’s due, I have to admit that I was quite impressed at how well it presented itself.

We eventually arrived at the Ambassador Hotel for lunch and tea. After finishing lunch early, Korby and I went outside to take photos and throw coins in the wishing fountain. We visited a market in the afternoon and Korby had some crazy fun on the over-priced and extremely unfair games designed by sales people to get children’s money. Yes, I believe that’s a fair reflection.
An afternoon of R&R was scheduled and I finally had time to play some guitar and relax. Korby taught me how to play Battleships (in German) and we sword fought with his Lego. So, all in all, a pretty nice day.

The Fray accompany me as I type my closing remarks about day one. Goodnight, 新竹, thanks for the warm welcome. See you next year.

Tomorrow we’re heading to the other side of the mountains for some sun. Things can only get better.

P.S. Happy Chinese New Year. And, erm…’happy’ Valentine’s Day.

I am running through a flower-filled field…big furry dogs are running beside me as it rains skittles from the sky…

…the weather is good, the sky is bright. What the heck is that bashing sound?
“Jooohnny!” *Bam bam bam bam* “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, guten morgen, Johnny! Good morning! it’s time to wake up!”
What the devil?
My eyes shoot open, staring at the white ceiling.
*Bam bam bam bam bam*
I tilt my head right, and through the blurry glass doors I see the silhouette of a little man, shouting his lungs out at 8:54 a.m.
“Johnny! Johnny! Johnny”
I pretend I’m asleep, when in actual fact I heard this little bugger before he even left his room. By my book, I at least had another half an hour of stay-in-bed time.
My aunt saves me:
“Korbinian! Don’t be rude! Come in here and get dressed!”
I had my sleep.

宜蘭 (Yilan) was new to me. I had never been there before. Heading for 宜蘭, I had no impressions and no expectations. I had my coffee and my croissants and packed up for the road ahead. The long road, I might add. Three hours might not seem like a long time for people travelling by train, but three hours on a car is…distorting.

I don’t know how children do it, but they just seem to have an abundant amount of energy. The second he got on the car he took out books and toys and urged me to join him in his fun. Obviously, I was more than happy to oblige, until I started feeling nauseas of course, haha.
I plugged in my earphones and rested my eyes, thinking, surprise me, 宜蘭, surprise me.
Before long, I dozed off with Keith Urban ringing in my ears.
“Mama! Mama! Mama! How long until we get there?
“Three hours”
Uh oh.

When I opened my eyes again we were speeding through a tunnel at a steady 85km/h. I had no idea where we were. What was not surprising was that Korby was still jumping and kicking. I looked at my watch. 12:37 p.m. We’d been on the road for the better part of two hours, we had to be close now.
What I saw when we exited the tunnel honestly caught me by surprise. The four lane motorway weaved through a tight series of bends between the mountains. Oddly and amazingly, the clouds were right next to our car. Thick, thick bundles of cotton-like clouds gripped the mountainside and snaked its way across the canyon. Either we were really high, or the clouds were very low. I’d never seen anything like it!
The last time I came this close to clouds, I was visiting a famous tourist destination in South Africa known as ‘God’s Window’. But jeepers, that was almost 4000m above sea level! Taiwan doesn’t have motorways that high up. This strange phenomenon had me startled. It definitely added some colour to the grey and foggy day.
Tunnel after tunnel we entered, and tunnel after tunnel we would come out on the other side driving through a ball of clouds. Looking from the tunnel out, it’s as if there was a fire outside and we were going through the smoke. After another 30 minutes of snaky motorway we entered our final tunnel.
I was so busy wondering what the sky was going to look like on the other side, I failed to notice that we had been in the tunnel for over 30 minutes already. I was amazed at how long this tunnel was. Not until I overheard my aunt talking to my grandmother did I realise that were driving through the infamous 雪山 (Xue-Shan) tunnel.

Built a good while ago, heaven knows how many lives this tunnel claimed during its construction. 25km, 25.5km, 26km, 26.5km, 27km…As I watched the numbers on the side of the inner-tunnel wall increase, I realised that we were driving dead straight and right through the heart of one of Taiwan’s thickest and largest mountains, and what awaited us on the other side would most definitely be different to what we had seen for the most part of our journey east.

Blasting out the tunnel, I sort of got that ‘the sky is the limit’ feeling. Huge open spaces. The closest mountain I could see was at least a good 40km to 50km away. The sky was layered with foamy white clouds, they were out of reach. Looking down from the motorway I could see 宜蘭 township down below. The buildings did not exceed three stories, so conveniently everything looked very flat. It was a beautiful sight, definitely something one would not be able to see in Taipei. Because apart from Taipei being a basin, it is also the capital of Taiwan, making it the most well-developed and built up cities on the island. Let’s not forget, the once tallest building in the world is situated there – Taipei 101.

I imagined 宜蘭 to be much like 花蓮 (Hualien), old, traditional and slow-paced. I was right on all three counts. It was not disappointing, though. In fact, it was exactly what I needed to get away from all the bustle of city life. Winding down the motorway into 頭城 (Toucheng) city, we were soon driving amongst the city people. Driving passed a grave-covered hill, I saw a Christian cross in the middle of Buddhist burials, rather standing out. I was happy to see that amidst all this traditional culture, there was still space for cultural diversity.

We were looking for our bed & breakfast so we could take a well-deserved rest and finally eat some food. It had taken us over three hours to get here, and needless to say, we all skipped lunch and were starving. My aunt spotted a big grey estate on the side of the narrow road. It was located in the middle of nowhere and was situated right in the middle of some farm land.
“This is it,” she said, “we’re here.” It was a huge house, with four stories and a fabulous design, it looked more like a presidential getaway than a bed & breakfast. I didn’t even think 宜蘭 had these types of houses, let alone rent them out as B&B’s. Another strange thing I noticed was that the house did not seem very welcoming. Six dogs barked at our car, apparently trying to chase us off. After asking the owner of the house some questions, we knew why. It was because we weren’t even supposed to be there; we had taken a wrong turn and ended up on someone’s private property. Off we went then, and another few minutes later we finally arrived.

Number 596 協天 (Xietian) road doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s just a regular three-story apartment, but wait until you see inside!
The smell of lavender streamed into my nostrils the second I stepped in. Posh European wood paved the floors of the low-lit interior. Beautiful frescos hung from the walls and different brightly coloured couches, chairs, and bar stools were all around the house and in front of the counter. It was magnificent! Even the staircase leading upstairs was lavishly designed. Dark pine wood covered the floors of the second, third and fourth floors. The rooms looked better than in some hotels. There was even a big 72″ flat screen mounted to the wall! It was awesome.
The best part of the B&B was undoubtedly the view from the fourth floor outside on the balcony. They had turned it into an observation tower. Wood on the floor and beautiful European-style chairs surrounding a glass coffee table. Just right for those scenery lovers. Looking down, the sea was visible. We would definitely want to go down and play, if not for it being winter and the North-Easterlies being so bloody cold.

In the afternoon we went to see the docks then had dinner with my aunt’s friend and her children, Mindy and Matthew. They were going to be travelling with us as we toured 宜蘭 these three days.

At night, I grabbed Bridget and headed up to the fourth floor balcony. It sure was dark, not to mention it was freezing cold. I grabbed a chair and sat there in the dark and sang songs with my guitar, all the while listening to the waves which I couldn’t see crash against the shore line, until I was eventually forced in by the rain.

I seem to lose track of days during the holidays. It’s Monday, and tomorrow we’re going to visit some farm animals or something. Korby’s been going on about it for two days. Let’s hope it lives up to the hype.

it’s raining outside. No music for me tonight, just the sound of nature and its silence – and Korby snoring.

Sometime during the night I woke up because Korby had kicked me in the face. I have always been fascinated by the way children sleep, because Korby had somehow managed to turn 180 degrees on the bed. The funny thing is that he turned right back around in the morning. Haha. At 8:35 a.m. he head-butt me on my forehead, accidently I’m sure, and suffice to say, we were both awake. He woke everyone up and gradually at our own pace we all went downstairs for breakfast.

The plan today was to visit a recreational farm nearby. These recreational farms have been crucial to Taiwan’s agricultural existence ever since Taiwan joined the W.T.O., and all exports were deemed too expensive and could not compare with larger countries which had the advantage of mass production. Take America and China for instance, their agricultural turnout is enough to feed themselves and export to other countries, to a point where they would even have enough left over after that to give away to Africa. Although the recent instability of petroleum prices and the knowledge that petroleum will soon be running out has pushed America to more conservative ways. All the extra crop and agricultural harvest is no longer being sent to the African continent to aid poverty, rather it is being scientifically manufactured into organic petroleum, in hope of solving the fuel crisis. Although it must be said that organic petroleum is substantially more time consuming and expensive to produce than normal petrol, so unless you’re a green peace boffin, you probably won’t be too psyched about organic fuels just yet.
So amidst all this new age hype, traditional farmers in Taiwan have turned towards the trend that grows in popularity as the world gets more and more wealthy – tourism. More and more cattle ranches now allow tourists in to explore and understand the lives of cows, allowing curious tourists to observe, feed and even milk cows for a reasonable price. Some farms have all types of animals, making it a sort of interactive zoo.
Now obviously, with a successful business comes fierce competition. So these ‘leisure ranches’, as they are called, offer a complimentary lunch with their tour package if you’re willing to stay the entire day. That’s a pretty attractive offer if you’re the type who doesn’t want to drive all the way to the main road and back just for a meal. Smart marketing strategies are usually met with desirable outcomes, and the hundreds of people at the ranch today were a testament to the leisure ranch’s popularity.

We left the ranch in the afternoon and found a seafood restaurant by the port. Although it was a seafood restaurant, they still didn’t sell the one thing I had been craving since we got to 宜蘭 – big, fresh oysters. In fact, none of the seafood restaurants in the area sold oysters that way. I was kind of disappointed.

I remember in S.A. I used to be able to go to Ocean Basket and order a dozen fresh oysters. My friends and I used to add Tabasco sauce and down them like sweets!
I don’t think Taiwanese people like eating Oysters that way. Oh well.

After an early dinner we went back to the B&B and headed to our rooms for rest.
I was playing guitar and my aunt was watching TV when Jibi, my aunt’s travelling friend, came in and brought in some Australian red wine. She used to play guitar and requested some songs from me so we could all sing together. I felt like a bit of a dim wit when I told her that I only know to play modern songs.
“Uh, do you know Keith Urban?” I said.
She replied with a shake of the head, “Who?”
How embarrassing! I’ve now decided to learn some old classics, just for the road, haha.
Some Abba, Carpenter and Bob Dylan.
We finally found some songs we all knew and could sing together. We sang some songs and I headed for bed after taking a long, hot shower.

Another long day. Second consecutive day of rain, but that’s not going to bring me down.
Last day tomorrow. Let’s see what else 宜蘭 has to offer.

Much like day one, most of our time spent in 宜蘭 was made up of travel.
After a hearty breakfast in the morning, we all packed our things and headed out. We said our goodbyes to the owner of the B&B and travelled north. Since it was still pouring with rain, our plan was to find a coffee shop in the city of 宜蘭 and have some off-time for ourselves. But after an hour on the road, we hadn’t come across any coffee shops; the ones we had come across were either closed or there was a 45-minute queue.
Eventually, we’d been on the road for so long that it was already time for lunch, so we found a decent restaurant and ate away.

Although quite rainy, I would still consider this trip to 宜蘭 a fun one, especially because time with family is few and far between. And just like every other Chinese New Year, I had more food than I could handle. So much, in fact, that the mere smell of food makes my head spin a little. All part of the festivities, I guess. Once a year is not a crime, although the extra weight and the tight jeans might think otherwise.

After lunch, we hit the road.

宜蘭 back to Taipei was, on paper, a two hour drive, but when I saw the traffic on the road, I must admit I had my doubts. It seemed like many people were heading home from their rainy holidays too.
Driving from the city back into the suburban area before the motorway back north, the table cloth of white clouds had almost descended to ground level. The mountains were virtually invisible, covered with fog and rain. The cold front had finally hit, and that meant it was our cue to step out of the spotlight. It was back from whence we came, into the tunnels and back home.

My house isn’t big, but it’s homey – if that’s even a word. My dog seems like he lost a few pounds – my fault for not taking him to New Years dinner with me. It’s back to life and back to classes for me. All’s good in the land of John. I kind of miss the city, and I sort of miss Taipei. Not that there was anything I couldn’t find in 宜蘭 and 新竹 but I think I’ve been up north for long enough; long enough to call it ‘home.’


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Barrelled Thoughts #25

Saturday, January 2, 2010

“Three! Two! One! Happy new year!”

For the first time since I’ve been in Taiwan, I went to celebrate the new year at Taipei’s 101.
“You’ll be trampled to death!” they said.
They were pretty much right, but boy, was it worth it.

After class on Thursday, I went home to change. While I was trying to figure out what to wear I thought to myself: what the heck am I supposed to wear? It’s December 31st and it’s 15 degrees outside. In the end I just grabbed a big jacket and out I went.

I wasn’t that excited during dinner. I don’t think I knew what I was getting myself into, haha, it seemed as if it was going to be like any other day in Taipei. I had no idea what was in store for us.

Getting in the MRT from Banciao, you don’t get the feeling of new years. There weren’t swarms of people, there weren’t any people rushing to catch the train. There weren’t even that many people in the MRT! Until we got to Taipei.
Standing back-to-back and back-to-front and front-to-back, every single inch of space in the MRT had someone standing on it. My Malaysian friend had his eyes wide open, staring at the swarm of people squeezing their way into an already overloaded carriage. “Oh my, God!” he kept saying. “Oh my God!” Haha, he hadn’t seen anything yet!

When we arrived, we met up with a few of our friends and chatted the night away. We were still wondering how were going to pass the two or three hours before midnight, but when we started chatting, we just lost track of time. With 10 minutes to go we moved with the crowd to the middle of the park to await the long anticipated spectacle. Come on, Taipei! Don’t let me down.
The spotlights that lit 101 and the hundreds of neon lights atop the building went out. Taipei 101 was an unlit candle, waiting for that majestic moment to beam.

“Eight, seven, six, five, four…” as 101 is slowly lit up ring after ring,”Three! Two! One!” The tip of 101 blinked white for a fraction of a second, then Boom! Boom! Boom!
Screams broke out as 101 performed its grand finale. Rockets of different colours shot out of different floors. Bang! Bang! Bang! Taipei 101 carried on for 188 seconds while big letters spelt out Taiwan’s new year’s resolution: “Taiwan UP”. None of us actually knew what it meant, but it looked cool so we cheered for it anyways, hahaha.

For the most part I was too shocked to scream. It looked beautiful! Like nothing I had ever seen before. Sure, I’ve seen 101 on the tele, and I’ve seen scenes of Time Square and Trafalgar Square etc, but being right there, in front of the landmark that separates Taipei from all the other cities in the world, it just felt different. As I recored the firework show, I knew it wouldn’t be half as good as watching it with my own eyes. It’s just one of those things I guess.

Everyone cheered after the fireworks show stopped. We all wished each other and gave each other a few hugs for the new year ahead. We were still bedazzled by the awesome display of fire power, too spellbound to realise what was happening around us.
The thousands of people standing in the park started moving. A few started sprinting away, as if they were being chased by some imaginary creature. That was when my friend, Jenny, came, “We have to go!”
“Oh,” I said.
“We have to! We have to go, now!”.
Turning, I grab my friend by the arm and pushed another one in front of me. The bunch of us started making our way to the MRT station as fast as we could.

We stopped about 100 meters away from the entrance to the MRT station, blocked by an army of people all trying to get in. I had never seen anything like it. The spectacle, the marvelous sight of new year madness. It was so heart-warming, it was so…Taiwan.
Pushing our way into the MRT station one meter at a time, I couldn’t help but to laugh at what was happening. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before! It was mad! It was crazy! It was Taiwan! This is ridiculous, I thought to myself, I love it.

Unfortunately I was trampled to death and didn’t make it back home.
But fortunately I got better and I made it into the MRT station with some of my mates. We all arrived back in Banciao to regroup while some others went home. Part two of our New Year’s adventure was over. All that was left now was karaoke and some really good sleep.
A bunch of us found a place to sing and got comfortable inside. Needless to say I died of fatigue.
But I later got better and made it home for some proper sleep.

Happy New Year. And please, let’s do that again. JSF.

Barrelled Thoughts #24

Sunday, November 29, 2009

“If you’re looking for mother Teresa, she doesn’t live in Afghanistan.”
Newsweek, November 9th.

With the war still raging in the east, and with claims of fraud and embezzlement in Afghanistan’s national elections, everyone is being realistic about Afghanistan’s chances at being, so called, ‘civilized’.

Some people say everyone should just let it be — if they want to fight, let them fight. Maybe the only way to resolve conflict in Afghanistan is through war; not an American vs Middle-East war, but rather a war that is settled by themselves, for their best interests. Because it seems to me like the more America and the rest of them fund the reconstruction of the country’s civil system, the more they unknowingly fund all these insurgent groups they’re fighting against.

Surely these funds can be put to better use, because this is a joke.

A while back, me and some of my friends were discussing in class the situation in Africa. We called it “invisible colonisation”, or in other words, globalisation.

Every fiscal year, trillions or dollars enter Africa, whether it be from businesses, government investments, charity, you name it. But what usually goes unseen is the trillions that come out of Africa as well.
To some, Africa might seem like the poorest and desolate place on the planet. It probably is, but to others, Africa is the best investment they’ve ever made.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with pouring money into Africa. But for what purpose?
Just like the case in the middle-east, money going in, which was initially meant for economic and social reconstruction, ends up in the hands of ‘smart’ businessmen who launder it and use it to fund wars and fuel social chaos. Africa is exactly the same, just one big playing field for corporations and billionaires with nothing better to do but to make profit from an already starving continent.

People often wonder why the literacy level in Africa is always at a low, even after all the effort UNICEF and the rest of the UN has put into it. We all know the answer to this question: money.

People in Africa hardly have time to worry about education when they don’t even know when their next meal is. Yes, Red Cross, UNICEF etc. put an awful lot of attention on Africa, but there’s always millions who are left out. Who’s to blame? No one, really. But can we at least ensure that we’re doing everything that can be done?

Someone told me once that chocolate companies in Belgium have their chocolates made and packed in Africa for US$2 by some factory workers off the east coast of Africa, where all the cocoa is, and then they have it shipped to Europe, where it’s made to look all pretty and later put on the shelf for US$100.
OK, look, there’s nothing wrong with being smart and knowing how to cut down on expenses, but how the heck can you sleep at night knowing that you’ve made US$98 off some poor Africans living off a fraction of what you earn in a day? It puzzles me, but we later come to realise that it is, funnily enough, the only chance Africa has of surviving. Because Africa is under-developed and is nowhere near technically strong enough to compete with the rest of the world, they have no choice but to rely on foreign investments. Companies that outsource their businesses can keep operating for next to nothing while the rest of Africa has no other option but to work for them because there are no other jobs.

So, someone needs to make sure all this money going into Africa is put to good use, and not used as a once off meal-ticket. We’re aiming for continuous development on all fronts, not just for the issues we can see today. Sure, saving one is better than saving none at all, but what’s happening now just doesn’t seem like a practical solution to the problems at hand. I think the focus has to shift from all these charity organisations to all these money-making business. Can something be done to ensure that the money they make has to go to Africa? At least partially. The sad thing is, all this is empty and blank, because at the end of the day, there’s no stopping globalisation; there’s no stopping outsourcing, and the same problem occurs over and over again. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. One day, Africa will run out of resources, then we’ll see.

I stand neutral when it comes to the war in the east. Perhaps a war is necessary, but a war against who is the real question. Actually, it’s not who, but rather what. I think we need a global war. A war against unnecessary expenditure. Without trying to sound cheesy, there really is only one shot at this. JSF.

The problems don't stop here. They start here.

Barrelled Thoughts #23

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Today I attended NTNU’s annual college celebration for overseas students. As usually, it was fantastic seeing all those familiar faces. But what I think was more important, was seeing all those faces smiling.

NTNU’s overseas-student crash course was designed for one purpose, and for one purpose only: to let the strongest survive. Out of all the students there, only about 20 percent of them get to go to a decent national university, if they’re lucky.
NTNU was always frowned upon as a get-away for lazy students who don’t feel like working hard in high school. I beg to differ.
I know that they are there because they know a better future awaits; and spending this extra year will do them wonders. Come on, you guys. Make us proud!

I’ve been extremely tired this past week. We went bike riding on monday, which left me absolutely battered. I didn’t actually know the extent of my fatigue until I found myself getting tired at around 8 p.m. I guess in this final year, I really have to use my energy wisely. Just in case I need to squeeze out that extra mile.

My recent dilemma had been solved on Friday, when I was trying to figure out whether to spend my birthday with my classmates or with some 40-year-old men in a conference room. I guess the answer was pretty simple…

Last week, I was informed that the Overseas Compatriot Affairs Commission of Taiwan wanted to hold a conference with representatives of the overseas students from different high schools and universities across the nation. I was asked by one of our administrators to take part, along with 14 others from NOCSH. My first reaction was one of excitement. Of course I’d want to go! Are you kidding me? Once in a life time! But then I was struck down when he told me it was being held on November 4, which is my birthday…Oh, dear.

After a few days of thought, and a counseling session with my guru, Claire, I decided that it was not in my best interests to attend the conference for the following reasons:
1) At least 4,000 other students would be attending the conference, which meant that nothing much will be said when it comes to ‘personal opinion’.
2) Meetings like this were purely for appearances’ sake. Quite fictitious actually. They do it for the sake of doing it. But when questions are raised, there is often little or nothing they can do about them.

But even though I decided not to go, I still feel it is an excellent opportunity, for those more willing, to gain experience from. Definitely still a once-in-a-life-time experience with the big boys. And even though I won’t be there amongst a select few to listen to the chairman of the OCAC babble, I feel that my place is with my classmates, from whom I will definitely gain comfort during these hard, hard times.

All’s good in the land of John. Some things pass, some things don’t; some things seem to stick, where others just won’t. I just know, some day it’ll all turn out well. JSF.

Barrelled Thoughts #22

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

It’s October, and I an already feel the chilling North-Westerlies. Finally, autumn has come.

I’ve been waiting for autumn all year! And I recall someone telling me that some changes in life can not be immediately detected. Such as the growing of fingernails and hair, or in this case, the changing of seasons. Although, from what I’ve seen this past week, I beg to differ.

The Friday before the mid-autumn festival, which was on October 2, I was at school for an annual dinner celebration with my classmates and others from NOCSH. I clearly remember that day suddenly being quite windy, but still with a temperature of about 30 degrees celsius. Only one day after that, Taiwan’s early weather warning system picked up the trail and imminent arrival of typhoon Parma. It was supposed to arrive on Sunday, bring heavy rain and possible flooding to northern Taiwan. When Sunday came I decided to stay at home, not wanting to get myself wet. Sitting in my study in front of my computer, I started preparing music for my afternoon reading session.

Fluffing my pillows and sliding open the window, I prepared to embark on my journey to join Katherine Solomon and Robert Langdon as they maneuvered their way around Washington D.C., trying to avert a national security crisis.
Keyshia Cole sang softly in my ears as the air from outside blew forcefully into the room, slamming my door. I love reading, and accompanied by a lovely environment, I could literally go nonstop for hours on end.

While I was reading Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol”, I rediscovered a sense of reading pleasure I had not felt in a long time. It’s the type of pleasure only a Dan Brown book can bring. An intense, page-after-page type of reading.
I shivered when Katherine bolted through the chilly autumn night, and I felt water gagging in my throat when Robert was being drowned in an airtight coffin filling up with water…
Brown’s writing is so vivid, in fact, that I don’t believe any other writer could, or ever will, make me jolt in the same way. This is what I’ve been missing in my life. Some fiction; some action. Darn it, I’ve been missing some bloody Dan Brown.

“The Lost Symbol” focuses mainly on another esoteric organisation. This time not so hidden as the previously mentioned Opus Dei or the Illuminati, in “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” respectively, but an organisation that is just as mind-boggling as anything in the book stores today. As Dan Brown cleverly puts it, this organisation “is not a secret society”, but rather “a society with secrets.” He is referring to, of course, none other than the famous Freemasons.

As I write this, I actually only have about 80 pages left until the end. It’s a saddening sight, and I can’t do anything about it. Any suggestions?
The last time I had a Dan Brown book in the palm of my hands was over three years. I remember finishing “Digital Fortress” in three days — it was that good!
Whenever I open a Dan Brown book, I’m immediately sucked into the world in which his stories lie.
Paris, Rome, London, Madrid, Washington. His words put me there and I find it hard to leave.
Thank you, Dan Brown, for another captivating masterpiece.

As Taiwan crawls out of the rubble of Morakot’s passing, I can’t help but to notice the series of natural disasters occurring all around the world. Indonesia’s quake was just one example of mother nature’s intolerance for global climate change. On top of that comes the flooding in the Philippines and the entirely wiped-out villages of Samoa – strange how nobody in Taiwan really talks about these happenings, although it is to some degree understandable, after all, we’re still recovering ourselves.

Off the back of another fierce typhoon, the Philippines are currently preparing for the recuperation of their battered nation. I’m sure they were devastated to find out that the typhoon which left Manila and headed for Taiwan, has now change direction and is flying back towards them once again. Brace yourselves, Manila. Here comes round two.

Tragic stories from Samoa depict yet more disasters. One after the other, these seismic movements and massive storm systems just won’t give anyone a break. First it was the hurricane, which brought an incredible amount of torrential rainfall, then it was an earthquake, followed by a ferocious tidal wave. Strike one, two and three all in the period of 24 hours; enough to put Samoa in the ruins for good.

Apparently, on the night of the tsunami, which was a some time after midnight, a young man felt the quake. Alert to his senses, he ran outside, grabbing an empty fuel barrel and a stick to beat it with, he tried his darnedest to wake up his entire village. Those who woke up and were able to evacuated followed this man in the darkness of the night. With only the moon and the sound of the barrel to guide them, they trekked up onto higher land. Five minutes later, what was left of their village could only be described as “nothing”. That night, he managed to save over a hundred lives.

Honestly, if you are the U.N., or if you’re Red Cross, who do you aid first? JSF.