Tuesday 30 October 2007

A trip to the tropic of cancer and betel nut girls

Tonight I'm going to Taipei with my Armenian buddy Tigran. He's pleased the US have decided that the Ottoman massacre of Armenians last century is to be labelled a genocide. This issue is causing diplomatic havoc between US/Turkey/Armenia. Anyway, we're going to try and find a club where it's £7 to drink as much as you like. We meant to go last weekend but you need shoes and ID and I had neither.

Armed with my Chinese map, I've just completed a lengthy exploratory walk around my current hometown. I've arrived at the disappointing conclusion that Shulin is your typical industrial suburban sh*t hole. It's like arriving in England as a foreigner and ending up living on a Hull industrial estate.

I walked past an eye-catching scrap metal recycling plant, looking on in awe as the electro-magnetic crane sifted through tonnes of rusty iron. I drooled lovingly at the smog belching from a Middlesborough-style chemical plant. I wish I'd had a camera to catch tired looking forklifts unloading pallets of 'who knows what?' destined for 'who knows where?'. Truly, a treasured memory I will have to keep etched in my memory.

I was doing a financial analysis this morning and have decided that retirement in 2008 is a fiscal reality. 'How can that be Steve? You're only 33!' I hear you thinking. Well, I'm pretty sure I can do it. Not only do it but do it in style by retiring to paradise. Let me explain how.

First. You need to kick materialism into touch (unless of course you're a millionaire). I know it sounds like a Buddhist mantra or something but it's true. For the last 18 months my only possessions have been a few clothes. And you know what? I've never being happier. No clutter. Owning my new mobile phone feels like I'm lugging a boulder around. Denouncing materialism has two advantages. You need less cash and you have less shit.

Second. You need to watch every penny. By this I really do mean every penny. For example, when I started out in Asia I used to think......ah it's only £2 . But this can be a day's pay for some here. You wouldn't think..... it's only £100 back home would you? I remember how I used to blow £100 on a night out in Glasgow or Newcastle. Oh, how I regret that now. That would be one week of luxury out here in paradise!

Thirdly. Learn to live like the locals do. This is probably the biggest challenge for people back home. You have to forget Western standards. It's easy once you get used to it. I haven't wiped my arse with toilet paper in ages - go native! Water! Moreover, once you become more familiar with the local scene, your expenditure will drop. Local knowledge is key.

The only problem to all this is deciding which tropical beach to live at. If you can abide by these few simple guidelines you can join me in retirement in 2008.

By the way, you do need a large wedge of cash in the bank to get started. You get this wedge by buying a cheap house in 1997 and paying the mortgage off early. You then sell said house in 2006 and slap the money in the highest interest paying account you can find. You then endeavour to make the monthly interest cover all costs. However, for this to happen you have to follow the first three steps.


I've just arrived back from Tainan in the south of Taiwan where I visited a lady. I crossed the imaginary line known as the tropic of cancer on the way here. This line marks the northern most point at which it's possible for the sun to be directly above your head. This occurs at 1200 on the summer solstice (22nd June).

We visited salt mountain - a 20m mound of salt. They used to mine it from the plains around here. Apparently it's no longer economically viable (sounds like Thatcher in the 80’s talking about the black stuff) so now it's a salt mining museum (sound familiar?). There's even a house made of salt. I visited some magnificent Chinese temples. They were huge and decorated as impressively as any equivalent you might see in Thailand/Myanmar.

The seafood of the old part of Tainan city was good. Oysters are a staple dish commonly eaten omelette style. The mussels here are gargantuan – the size of your fist. I had a big bowl of them – delicious.

Next we went to Jiading beach for a splodge. We watched the sunset and I lamented being stuck in Shulin when I could so easily have been here. People were constructing huge bamboo frames on the beach but I didn't know why. There were a few people kite surfing but not as good as the guys in Vietnam. There were hundreds of normal kites too – the Taiwanese love flying kites!

Sadly, I caught a 4hr bus back to Taipei. A return ticket costs 1000ntd (£15). Expensive? No way. For this you get a comfortable sofa style single seat with air-conditioning. It reclines electrically and can even massage you at three different speeds. You have your own TV display where you can choose from about 10 channels (English movies too!). It's like sitting in your house.

Sometimes I think the UK is behind Asia in many ways. The standard of living here is better. For example, my rent is £90/month for a smart new place with AC/fridge/cable TV. I eat out every meal for around £1 a go. In fact everybody seems to eat out here. It's the done thing. A great way to spend the warm evenings. In the UK rent is extortionate and people rarely go to restaurants. I earn less than in the UK but the money goes much further. 6% income tax. Council tax? Don’t be stupid.

Many men here like to chew betel nuts (though not on the scale of Myanmar where a white tooth is a rarity). Sexy La Mei (spicy girls) sell them from roadside glass cabinets wearing bikinis. It's awesome – really brightens up a long trip. However it's banned in Taipei county. They reckon it projects a negative image or something. Another reason to lament being in Shulin! This was an unexpected pleasant surprise on my trip south!

I was trying to engage the older kids in a conversation on global affairs during a lesson. I was surprised to discover that nobody knew George Bush or Osama Bin Laden. The confusion arose from the way the Chinese transliterate from characters of another alphabet or language.

It turns out English is a far more flexible language for transliterating. Our language can give a fair representation of most Chinese words and sounds eg. 台北 = 'Taipei' which does sound like how the locals say it. However, this ease of transliteration is not reciprocal. Some words and sounds in English are very difficult to say with Chinese characters. My name does not really sound like Stephen when represented in Chinese. Goerge Bush becomes Goergee Bushee! Of course the kids know who George Bush is but they don't say his name as we say it in English. This provides a few challenges when I'm trying to explain the names of people and places.

On Friday night I have to dress up as a pumpkin and compere a Halloween party for 150 kids. We have a paddling pool and 300 apples for the kids to try apple bobbing. I have to go to the night market and hand out fliers for the party (and drum up more business for the school). This is all very well but I'm cringing a bit with embarrassment – dressing up as a pumpkin and speaking over a PA system to 100’s of Chinese kids and adults!

Georgee Booshee (George Bush??)

牛肉麵 – niu ro mian - my favourite dish (Beef noodle soup)– da - big– shui - water– xiao – small炒飯 – chao fan – fried ricefengshui – this means wind/water and spiritual types reckon that putting a plant pot on the tele can help you win the lottery.

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