Archive for November, 2008

A Different Tack: Winter in Japan

Golden Pavilion, Kyoto. Photo by oudodou.

Golden Pavilion, Kyoto. Photo by oudodou.

SEOUL — IT ALL STARTED WITH a warning about leech socks. My wife and I were beginning to plan a long-overdue honeymoon and were taken by the notion of going someplace less conventional. So when I hit upon the idea of going to Borneo, we got excited. I bought a Lonely Planet and a Malay phrasebook, and eagerly skimmed through passages describing Sarawak’s primate-inhabited jungles, dreaming of riverboat rides to Iban villages as I rode the train to work.

Then I passed LP off to Janice, who — being a much more methodical person than myself — started reading from the beginning. Only a few minutes had passed before she brought the aforementioned warning to my attention, raising a skeptical eyebrow as to whether our honeymoon should involve insidious crawlies used to bleed people in the middle ages.  Leech socks (actually thigh-length leg guards made of durable fabric) were highly recommended when trekking around any of Borneo’s mystifying national parks, our guidebook told us.  And with a few more Google searches on the likelihood of getting vampired, my wife was recommending we go somewhere else.

A trip to Bangkok and Koh Samui was our next idea. A heavy shift towards the typical honeymoon, perhaps, but it would still bring us to a part of the world we had never seen. We did extensive research, feeling the pressure build for “the perfect trip” and then watching our options dissolve as it became clear we would be arriving in the eye of the 30-day peak tourism season. Hotel rates, even for those with “meh” reviews, were ludicrously high. Flight availability was also drying up. It began to appear as though we would be draining our savings for a vacation that would ultimately feel like work.

We dumped the plans and went back to the drawing board. And reading the news this past week, we’re glad we did.

Meiji lantern. Photo by Abrilon.

Meiji lantern. Photo by Abrilon.

Japan should have come to mind sooner, but our pursuit of a warm beach had kept the idea outside the realm of our travel imagination. Only after I gave some thought to the ease of heading somewhere so nearby — if we took the ferry to Fukuoka, we wouldn’t even have to step foot on an airplane — did it become clear that this was the trip we had been seeking. With barely a month left before my wife’s vacation time, we kicked planning into high gear.

Making arrangements was not as simple as I had envisioned. With the autmn leaves mulch on the ground and cherry blossom season a long ways off, I figured booking a room in a traditional Kyoto guesthouse  for five nights would be a cinch. I had, of course, failed to take into account the hubbub New Years might bring to the ancient capital. But Janice and I manuevered around this mostly without panic, locking in three nights at a mid-range ryokan and then opting to head towards Osaka to ring in 2009.

The process has brought home a couple of travel truisms: planning is half the battle, and “the perfect trip” is most elusive when sought after. Also, keep your eyes open to destinations in off-peak seasons. (The New York Times did a great piece about Prague last Februrary.)

We’re extremely excited about our upcoming jaunt, and we’d be lying if we said we didn’t have any expectations. But we are also, ideally, determined to just roll with how it unfolds, in the mode of the planning process itself. It’s a state of mind we hope to retain, for use when we finally decide to trek through the wild of Borneo — donning a pair of leech socks.

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The New World Order: A Land Grab Looms

Masaola Forest, Madagascar. Photo by glowingz.

Masaola Forest, Madagascar. Photo by glowingz.

SEOUL — SOUTH KOREA’S DAEWOO LOGISITCS recently locked down half of Madagascar’s arable land for agriculture exports back home, according the Financial Times. But the real kicker, and what has the London paper using words like “neo-colonialism,” is that Daewoo isn’t expecting to pay a dollar for the land.

The Indian Ocean island will simply gain employment opportunities from Daewoo’s 99-year lease of 1.3m hectares, officials at the company said. They emphasised that the aim of the investment was to boost Seoul’s food security.

“We want to plant corn there to ensure our food security. Food can be a weapon in this world,” said Hong Jong-wan, a manager at Daewoo. “We can either export the harvests to other countries or ship them back to Korea in case of a food crisis.”

The local Maeil Business Newspaper (매일경제) bitterly refuted the Times’ report on Friday. The paper said Daewoo will invest 6 billion dollars over the next 20 years into the East African island nation. It added that while the South Korean government has not directly responded to the FT’s coverage, Seoul sees the report as a “malicious distortion.”

In an unashamedly biased front-page story Friday, the Maeil asked: “Could (the FT report) be a sign of greed over Europe’s lost hegemony in Africa, once considered its back yard?”

Also on Friday, the FT reported that Kuwait and Qatar, along with Asian nations including South Korea, are looking to scoop up land in Cambodia in return for sizable investments.

The trend is worrisome. Should food shortage fears like those that rippled through Asia earlier this year spike again, capital-rich nations will surely start to horde. Poorer agricultural nations will be left in the lurch, and unable to feed their people, they’ll resort to outside aid. This would give birth to a new power structure that could indeed be characterized as colonial.

If Daewoo’s Hong is right about food becoming a “weapon,” and he may be, then our world is set to open a new dystopian era. It’s hard not to wonder when reading quotes like these whether humanity has lost its vision; whether we have regressed from modern civilization into a new global feudalism.

(Edited on November 22, 2008)

Lost Coast: Trump Wins Right to Build over Scottish Dunes

Dunes at Balmedie. Aberdeen, Scotland. Photo by doublebug.

Dunes at Balmedie. Aberdeen, Scotland. Photo by doublebug.

SCOTTISH COASTLINE, MAKE WAY for Trump. The billionaire developer won the right on Monday to doze a unique and ecologically sensitive stretch of dunes just north of Aberdeen, infuriating environmentalists and many locals while others cheered for new jobs. The land will give way to “the world’s greatest golf course,” along with a village of luxury homes and timeshares that will pay for the whole project.

A fisherman and his wife whose house sits at the center of the property have said they aren’t going anywhere; wonder if we’ll see anything like the resistance Wu Ping put up in China. Either way, it’s another sour lesson that despite the boost in “green” rhetoric of late, humans are still chiefly concerned with greenbacks. From the Guardian:

[…] The planning inspectors ruled that the damage to the dunes was outweighed by the resort’s substantial value to the economy – a judgment challenged by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

“It appears that the desires of one high profile overseas developer, who refused to compromise one inch, have been allowed to override the legal protection of this important site,” said Aedan Smith, head of planning for RSPB Scotland.

Martin Ford, the Liberal Democrat councillor whose casting vote against the development forced Scottish ministers to “call in” the plans, said: “This is a very, very bad precedent indeed and sends out a bad message about the protection in Scotland of our natural heritage sites.

“It appears to me to be a vanity project. I don’t think we can claim this is a nationally important development, and it certainly did not need to be built on this site.”

(Read Full)

On Dislocation

Lake Wingra. Madison, Wis. Photo by windelbo.

Lake Wingra. Madison, Wis. Photo by windelbo.

SEOUL — I WAKE UP AND EVERYTHING is gone. The familiar props have vanished like a set on Broadway, and in their place is a just a big window and the day ahead. There are bare walls; an apartment without memories. Slowly, the inertia of routine animates my limbs into showering, putting on socks. I’m out the door and I press the elevator call button. Night is draining from the sky.

Hours pass.

My legs gyrate awkwardly on an elliptical machine and I wonder who I’ve become. I am not someone who joins health clubs. I see flashes of the University of Wisconsin arboretum. The road is covered in patches of snow and I can see my breath. There’s tall grass on the edge of the the lake. My tires hum.

Pounding techno pulls me from my reverie. My reflection bounces up and down on the window; people on the street below scurry off to somewhere.

Everything about moving here has been harder than I expected. Stripped of the elements that made up what I called life — the time to write, my bicycle, locally grown food, coffee shops and friends — I’ve found myself in an identity funk. I slip back and forth between welcoming this, in hopes that the experience is somehow making me richer, and feeling like I’ve just lost track.

Korea, ironically, has in some ways felt more distant and elusive than I when I was Stateside. I mainly see three places: the apartment, the subway car and the office. What keeps me grounded in the fact that I am actually here is an often acute sense of alienation from my surroundings and occasional bouts of homesickness. What has also escaped me is progress towards finishing a set of personal projects: language fluency, regular posting and an in-depth piece of journalism among them.

I once read that a person can only successfully do 2.5 things during a given period of time. A job counts as one thing, a new marriage another, the saying went. I’ve been testing this theory since I got here, railing against it with inflated ambitions and strict time schedules. Still, the rule has held true. Which is why I find myself squeezing in 40 minutes at the gym on the odd day to keep from becoming totally sedentary, instead of taking the long, daily bike rides I would prefer. And why this blog has fallen into disarray.

All of this, however, is being viewed from a perspective that is too muddled in the daily without respect to the full equation. When I am afforded the presence of mind to observe where I am — both geographically and in life — I feel more satisfied. I notice the how the leaves are changing off in the mountains, the way Seoul’s air seems purer with the crackle of autumn.

What its even more enlivening is when I think about travel. My wife and I recently found a block of time in which to escape, and as soon as we had set the dates we stirred into action. Laptops flew open, clicking over maps and researching phrasebooks. Malaysia has taken our imagination. The idea of waking up in Sarawak and peering out towards the South China Sea sends a cool ripple through me; the unfamiliar once again inspires.


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