The White Woman on the Green Bicycle- book review

It’s rare to come across novels written about Trinidad so you can imagine how I felt when I randomly picked up The White Woman on the Green Bicycle in the library and realized where it was set. Despite the book’s title, the novel is about a white European couple (the man English, the woman French and the “white woman” in the title) living in Trinidad for decades but still coming to grips with life there.

As you might know, Trinidad (full name: Trinidad and Tobago) is a small island nation in the Caribbean where I happen to be from. Though I lived there until I left to go to university in Canada, it was only in my adult years I learned to really appreciate the country. Reading this book made me go over how I feel about Trinidad and what I miss about it, from the natural beauty to the relaxed pace of life to the mix of people. In case you’re wondering how diverse a country of 1.3 million could be, I’ll say Trinidad has several ethnicities but the largest is 40 percent.

Anyways, the novel focuses on a white European couple which might seem unusual. Whites are a very tiny minority in Trinidad, and this couple aren’t originally from the country, but having lived in Trinidad for 50 years and raised their children wholly in the country, they have more than earned the right to be considered Trinidadians. For George, who came to Trinidad with his wife for a 3-year job posting and then decided to stay, he has no regrets. For Sabine, the “white woman” in the book’s title, things are more complex because she detests the country. At this point, you might think that writing a novel based on the views and experiences of white Europeans makes the book controversial or unrealistic but the author carries it off well. As a Trinidadian who herself was born to parents from Europe who settled in Trinidad, Monique Roffey wrote from personal experience – she has said in an interview that she based the couple in the book on her own parents.

What makes the book so intriguing was how it blended Trinidad’s historical, political and racial issues with the personal lives of the couple, as well as their grown-up children and their maid and her child. As such, it’s not all natural beauty and beaches and country clubs, but also crime, corruption and racial tensions that figure prominently. In the parts of the book. As whites from Europe, the couple face envy and distrust from local Trinidadian whites as well as scorn from Trinidadian blacks. And like almost every other Trinidadian, they encounter crime and poverty, though not themselves personally but of people close to them.

The novel is first told in the present, which is actually 2006 (the book came out in 2009), then goes back to 1956, when the couple came to Trinidad, then moves forward to 1963 and 1970, which were both important years in Trinidad’s history (Trinidad became independent in 1962 ) and for the couple. This is strange to me, but again, the author makes it work. Dr Eric Williams, Trinidad’s first prime minister and a noted historian and author in his own right, plays a big part in the book both as a black leader of a post-colonial Trinidad and as an object of obsession for Sabine.

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is a provocative and fascinating novel about Trinidad, both past and present, relatively speaking. For a brief moment, reading this allowed me to imagine myself back there.

Who needs April Fools Day anymore?

April 1 is tomorrow and I’m sure most of us know what that means. But the thing is who needs April Fools’ Day now, when it seems like idiocy and absurdity are around us all the time in the world? Paraphrasing a comment I saw on an online forum about a Southeast Asian country, I can extend it to the world and say it’s almost as if every day is April Fools.

The most obvious example might be the UK and its ongoing Brexit mess. Despite the original deadline actually having just passed (April 29), the British parliament are still unable to decide what they want to do. Every day there is some kind of vote, which always fails, and the prime minister even promised to resign if MPs would support her bill, but even then she failed. The British parliamentarians can’t agree on whether to support Brexit, whether to hold an election, whether to have a full or a partial Brexit. It’s a little frustrating to me so one can imagine what lots of British people must be thinking.

In the US, you’ve still got a joker in power but at least he’s not a Russian stooge, or at least there wasn’t enough proof. It hasn’t stopped Donald Trump from feeling even more confident and giving his enemies verbal jabs in bombastic speeches and tweets.

In Hong Kong, the government has decided to solve the problem of inadequate public housing and supposed lack of land by building thousands of homes on new man-made islands in the sea. And it will only cost at least US$80 billion (HK$624 billion). Keep in mind this is Hong Kong, which boasts one of the world’s most pro-big business, pro-tycoons governments, and one would have to be dreaming to think that US$80 billion will be spent on affordable housing.

With all this nonsense happening in real life, it’s going to be tough to come up with convincing April Fools’ stories. Talking to colleagues last week, maybe only something uncontroversial and banal would do like “UK leaders decide what they want for Brexit” or “Donald Trump says [something sensible]”.

Exploring Taipei

View of Taipei
Taiwan’s capital Taipei is one of my favorite cities in the world, having been my home for many years over the last decade. My mother and most of her family like my grandmother, aunt and cousins live in Taipei, having been there for decades. As a modern, orderly city, it’s got the advantages of being first-world and prosperous while also being relatively laidback, especially when compared with Hong Kong, Tokyo, or many Chinese cities. It’s definitely a great place to live, though working is another matter. A lot of people really enjoy the food in Taipei, but for me, it’s the comfort, safety and general pleasantness of the city that stands out (I like Taipei for living, not for traveling), as well as the hiking you can do in and around Taipei.

I recently wrote about Taipei for Rough Guides website, specifically on five places to enjoy and explore, that are not night markets, Taipei 101 or the National Palace Museum. Besides an article I wrote many years ago about Taipei’s Yongkang Street food places (my first and only food article), I haven’t really written about Taipei travel, because having lived there for so long, I don’t really see it as place to travel. This changed last year when I had some free time and decided to visit more places in the city, which culminated in the Rough Guides article.

I came to realize Taipei has a lot of different and fascinating aspects, especially nature and historical. These places might not be individually famous or spectacular but they are very much well worth visiting and make Taipei special.

These places are Yangmingshan mountain park; the city’s hiking trails; Beitou hot spring area; Guandu (which features a wetland park and a large historic temple); Daan Park, Taipei’s largest park; and the historic neighborhood of Dadaocheng. Besides these, there are other interesting, historic and scenic parts of Taipei.

Yangmingshan
This is a large park in a mountain range just north of Taipei which features dormant volcanoes and active fumaroles that spew sulfur into the air. Yangmingshan also has mountain trails, grasslands and gardens all entirely on the mountain range.
Yangmingshan fumarole, Taipei

Dadaocheng
This historic neighborhood used to be a busy trading hub in the 19th and 20th centuries due to its proximity to the Keelung river. Now, it’s Taipei’s best preserved historical district and features loads of colonial buildings, shops, and museums. It also hosts Taipei’s annual Lunar New Year outdoor market.
Dadaocheng, Taipei

Beitou
This is a historic hot spring holiday destination that fulfills the same purpose to this day. Beitou has a lot of hot spring resorts and an outdoor bath, a sulphuric lake and a cool library. See my post on my travel blog here for more about Beitou.
Thermal Valley, Beitou

Guandu
I’d never come here before but it’s a low-key area to the north of Taipei that just happens to have a wetland park as well as a magnificent temple, one of the biggest and most exquisite East Asian temples I’ve ever seen.

Guandu Nature Park wetland, Taipei

City hikes
Taipei is ringed with mountains and hills, several of which offer pleasant hikes and fine views of the city. While Xiangshan is the most popular due to its being close to Taipei 101, Fuzhoushan offers a nice, less-crowded alternative where you can also see Taipei 101. Jiantan Mountain is a fine ridge walk that also has some nice views (see the photo at the top of this blog post).
Fuzhoushan, Taipei

Daan Park
It’s Taipei’s version of Central Park, though much smaller. It’s also got a cool MRT subway station that resembles a giant turbine engine.
Daan Park MRT, Taipei

 

Doing the unthinkable in Hong Kong- slowing down

I’ve been spending some time in Hong Kong recently so I think it’s fitting I publish this short essay below which I first wrote last year on whether Hong Kong should try and slow down.

As a major regional business hub, many Hong Kongers take pride in working and talking quickly. An English-language book released by a local well-known HK writer a few years ago (and which I bought) was titled “No Place for Slow Men,” implying only fast doers thrive in Hong Kong. Indeed, Hong Kong is full of fast talkers and movers and shakers. But is this really something to continue to be proud of?

While Hong Kong is a bustling business hub that tops many business-related lists, it has developed an unabashed money-first mentality and a stressful society that lags in certain measures of livelihood including happiness. Maybe Hong Kong should take a look at elsewhere in the region.

Take Taiwan as an example. The stereotypical image of Taiwanese are of people that are laid-back, friendly and not in a rush. While there is a lot of truth to it, the fact is the “laid-back” Taiwanese are not sitting around relaxing and doing nothing. Many working Taiwanese face just as much or even more stressed than their counterparts in Hong Kong. Salaries are much lower, annual leaves are shorter, and working hours are among the highest in the world.

Frankly, as someone who has worked in both Hong Kong and Taipei as well as on the mainland, my Hong Kong colleagues were no more hardworking than those in Taiwan or Beijing, actually took more days off and seemed the most happiest, spending much more time hanging out in the office and chatting.

When it comes to customer service, the difference between Taiwan and Hong Kong is like night and day. And the politeness is matched by efficiency. As someone who has lived in Taiwan, I can safely say that going to the bank, hospital or convenience store is almost always a quick and efficient experience. Over the last decade, I have flown on Taiwanese airlines Eva Airlines and China Airlines as well as Cathay Pacific many times and I would say service on Eva and CA are better than Cathay, especially in recent years.

Going beyond work ethic and customer service, Taiwan has achieved significant progress in areas like recycling and e-government.

In Taipei, residents must separate food waste, paper, plastics and regular garbage into different bags so they can be recycled accordingly. In contrast, the HK residential building I lived in did not offer any recycling so I had to take my paper waste to the public bin out on the street or even to my workplace. The local recycling industry is small as the vast majority of Hong Kong’s waste is sent to mainland China. Hong Kong has no paper recycling plants nor is food waste able to be utilized. Hong Kong is however set to implement a new garbage fee on the public to help reduce waste. Similar schemes have already been undertaken in Taipei and Seoul, while Hong Kong’s will start, not right away, but sometime in late 2019. It is striking that the speed with which Hong Kong authorities approach business-related matters is not replicated in policies that are not economic-related.

Let’s also look at Hong Kong’s regional rival Singapore. Almost every other week, it seems there is at least one article in local media about yet another area in which Singapore has outperformed Hong Kong. Yet I remember once overhearing in my workplace elevator a Hong Kong lady give her opinion on Singapore to someone next to her, “It’s alright, but the people walk so slowly there! They are not fast like us [Hong Kongers].”

Nevertheless, those Singaporean “slowpokes” have outpaced Hong Kong in things like Smart City initiatives and mega-projects like Gardens by the Bay and Sentosa. One can just as easily look at the more spacious and green urban layout and the affordable and bigger public housing flats, and see a big gulf between Hong Kong and Singapore in the latter’s favour.

Hong Kongers might still revel in thinking they walk and talk very fast, but that hasn’t prevented others from overtaking them in many aspects. As unpalatable as it might sound to Hong Kongers, being less obsessed with moving fast, taking the time to concentrate on issues other than business, and being more considerate might actually be a good thing.

Maybe it is time Hong Kongers should consider slowing down a bit, and realize fast is not always the best.

Hiking Hong Kong’s Dragon’s Back

Dragon's Back, Hong Kong

For such a tiny place, Hong Kong has some really great hikes. The Dragon’s Back is probably one of the world’s most scenic and pleasant coastal hikes. Located on the southeastern tip of Hong Kong Island on a peninsula jutting out into the sea, Dragon’s Back is a mountain ridge that overlooks Shek O Bay. Besides the views, what makes Dragon’s Back great is that the hike is only a short bus ride from a subway station.

The hike starts from a path next to the To Tei Wan stop, which I got to on the #9 bus from Chai Wan subway station. Before you get on the path, you can enjoy fine views on the opposite side of the road (this being the west side of a peninsula) of Tai Tam bay and a ringed apartment complex. The path goes up a long flight of stairs but once you reach the top, it’s a nice walk along a ridge during which you enjoy unobstructed views of Shek O Bay, beaches, villages, and the Tai Tam headland.

Dragon’s Back is a very well-known hike and I’ve heard that the trail is full of people on weekends as it’s popular with locals, expats and visitors. As such, I chose to go on a weekday when I had free time so there were only a handful of people.

After Dragon’s Back, the trail heads gradually downward to a forest path on the hill that goes on a clockwise loop (see the map on this site) down to Big Wave beach. It’s a completely different sensation walking along this path shaded by trees, vegetation and streams after the wide open views from Dragon’s Back. This trail is also section 8 of the Hong Kong trail, a 50-km islandwide route that goes across the entire Hong Kong Island.

The loop adds at least an hour to the hike and while it is not hard, I had the misfortune of tripping over a large brown snake while staring at Googlemaps on my phone. Luckily, the only harm I suffered was a huge fright that resulted in me jumping twice (the first after I tripped, and the second after I realized it was a snake and not a long piece of rope). I definitely learned my lesson not to stare at my phone while walking along quiet forest paths.

The forest path eventually reaches a concrete clearing where it diverges into two paths heading in opposite directions. I took the path to the right and walked all the way (there are at least two side paths on this trail you can use to head back down if you don’t want to continue onwards) to Big Wave beach, then proceeded to Shek O village in a taxi shared with a HK couple (who kindly paid the full fare and refused to accept money from me).

The village features a headland, where you can look out on the South China Sea. While it’s probably a 10-15 minute walk between Big Wave beach and Shek O village, I was not in the mood to walk after just completing a 3-hour hike.
Dragon's Back, Hong Kong
Dragon's Back, Hong KongDragon's Back, Hong KongHong Kong
Forest trail on the way down from Dragon’s Back
Hong Kong Hong Kong Shek O, Hong Kong
Shek O village
Hong Kong
Big Wave beach
Hong Kong
View from across the road after getting off at the bus stop
Hong Kong
Shek O village

Berlin travel-Wall’s East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery, Berlin
The Berlin Wall is probably the starkest visual symbol of the Cold War. It divided the western or “free” part of Berlin from the eastern part that was under East German authoritarian rule until it was famously torn down in 1989, marking the end of the Cold War and the unification of Germany. Some of the wall is kept intact as a memorial and a lesson for future generations to heed. But there is one part of the Wall that serves as a symbol of joy, not sadness. This is the East Side Gallery, a 1.3km section of the wall that is covered by 105 colorful graffiti artwork. There are caricatures, wacky abstract patterns, and fantasy figures.

One of the most well-known graffiti artworks is a kiss between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, president of East Germany, which was based on a real photo (which I didn’t know before). The graffiti painting actually has its own name “My God, help me to survive this deadly love.” The kiss was known as a socialist fraternal kiss, done by communist leaders as a greeting during the 20th century.

Situated along the river Spree, the East Side Gallery is a very pleasant place to visit, not to mention it is completely free. As a plus, the nearby Oberbaum bridge, on which road traffic and subway trains travel, looks like a medieval castle with its two towers and Gothic style design.
East Side Gallery, Berlin
Iconic kiss painting of the former Soviet and East Germany leaders (they really did do that in real life)
East Side Gallery, Berlin
Berlin
Oberbaum bridge
East Side Gallery, Berlin East Side Gallery, Berlin    East Side Gallery, Berlin

East Side Gallery, Berlin
A truly fitting message for these times
East Side Gallery, Berlin
Not all the colorful artwork was on the wall