Vietnam – The Colour of Money

So, having fallen for Vietnam’s physical attractions, her ability to cook delicious meals, her spirit, her stories and her intellect, the final thing to consider is how does she measure up financially and what is her relationship to the crumpled notes.

Amusingly, when we visited one of the village temples, where we were shared green tea with the four elderly caretakers, we took a picture of the gathering and one of the women said she needed her glasses to see the picture on the screen, her friend joked with her teasing that she didn’t need glasses to see the colour of money.

 Sharing green tea with the locals and chatting about the ‘colour of money’

Ideas of wealth diverge vastly amongst the various living positions in society, in the rural farmlands, a man is considered rich if he has a gas hob rather than burning sticks to boil water. Whereas in sophisticated Saigon, a modest courtyard café (that we were trying to locate as per a recommendation) has recently been replaced with a bling shopping centre, with a stylish Armani Café, with exorbitant prices to match. The new up and coming Hanoi elite enjoys rooftop cocktails and valet service at the ‘Paris Deli’.

Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, however there is massive inflation and the global financial crisis has introduced uncertainty with banks quelling their appetite for risk following the rampant investment and speculation in property. Vietnam has abandoned the state socialism and is embracing free market capitalism. The major investors have ironically been the US, along with Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and the EU with global investments of $3.3 billion in 2008 down form $9 billion in 2007. But the country is still mostly agriculture with 25% of the population living in urban areas and 75% rural in 2004.


The majority of tour operators that proliferate street frontage do not realize the value of brand, trust, reputation, relationships and customer focus. Although they wave at you ecstatically to entice you of the street, most fail to follow through on their promises. Although, we did experience some tourist focused businesses that had managed to scale their service and offer consistently good quality, a fair price and transparency. One of these was the ‘Sinh Café’ that has recently re-branded itself as ‘Sinh Tourist’. The other success was the cooking school and restaurants that I mentioned earlier in Hoi An. But there are always opportunities to be ripped off, so one must always be on guard remembering there is absolutely nothing for free and ‘bargains’ have to be worked hard for and sought out with effort.

Street Sellers

The street sellers are savvy businesswoman, although they are earning very little, they know the right things to sell at the right time, balloons on a Saturday for the children before Tet, night snacks for the party revellers and street breakfast for the workers. As a designer, there is so much to learn from how the design and construct their moving restaurants. From the use of materials, ease of transportation, gadgets and adaptability, some contain a charcoal grill, a cooler box, stools and a fruit stall, all slung over their shoulder on a bamboo stick.

Street sellers take the same position on the curb everyday

Tailor-Made (Epic)

Going to Hoi An for the perfectly tailored suit is one the main attractions for tourists, with five hundred tailors with streets lined with these emporiums. So, what can one expect from a custom designed suit? Is the transaction tailor-made for the vendor or the buyer? Having gone through this personalized service, I thought it similar to what the expectations of a holiday romance might be. One has so much hope at beginning, yet the success of the outcome depends entirely on what you want from the transaction and what the seller does.

The experience of tailor-made clothes, sometimes ideas get lost in translation

I wondered should the tailor be honest that they probably won’t be able to fulfil your high expectations, so you both know what you going to get out of the relationship. When you first enter the shop, there is an illusion that you are actually speaking to the tailor. These shops merely function as seduction room with the real work been done in a sweatshop outside of town.

At the beginning you hope to get that perfectly tailored suit, that you’ve always imagined, the tailor on the other hand, sees an opportunity to knock out something quickly before they close for Tet. They sit you down and you look at a Giorgio Armani website, where you see the perfectly fitted black suit (bearing in mind that you have completely ignored that the model is six-foot tall and skinny as a rake with no bosoms). The tailor makes a few scribblely notes and say it’s no problem, it’s possible, you’re excited at the prospect of my new suits and manage to give her an image on a memory stick because, guessing they have a big screen in the tailor shop, where they can see all the details up close.

A few hours after they’d taken my order, I have the first fitting of the top and trousers, the trousers are extremely tight but can be let out, the tops on the other hand are an amoeba flop of material. They say “similar, but not the same, same not possible”, all I could say after several protests “can you just fix it, so it at least flatters me?”

Then came the jackets, only the colour and the neckline were as per the image, everything else was improvised. At this stage I’m feeling exasperated and compromised and I’m regretting getting into this situation, but like all optimistic women, I want a ‘happy ending’ to the story.

We go for dinner, still not fully at ease and on the way back to the hotel, I pop back into the shop, in case there is anything else to try on. The pants fit fine but they’ve run out of the red linen fabric for the jacket and show me a shoddy ‘similar’ material. I say “With five hundred tailor shops and a fabric market in the town, can you not get anything to match?” They say they will look for a matching material and ask us call in at 11am tomorrow morning.

The next day, I call in. The tops have not been changed and they try to pass them off as finished. They say the tailor is very busy, but they will fix it themselves. They still have no fabric for the jacket and a stand-off follows. They eventually give me the option of finding the fabric myself in another shop. I’d say I checked up to twenty shops to find a match, so many ‘similar’ ones that were all claiming to be ‘real’ linens.

I felt like I was at a gambling table now and had wasted so much time, time I could spent working for a ‘real’ Armani suit. The last shop I tried, had a material that looked good, although different. I took a sample and brought it back to my tailor. They inform me that it’s not possible for them to go to that shop to buy material, as they have a bad relationship with the owner, so they send me back and say I should pay no more than $10 a metre. Returning to the other tailor shop, they don’t even acknowledge me, as I only want to buy fabric. They know I need it, so they say $20 a metre for fabric and walk away, they commiserate with me and say that you can buy the cheaper one for $13. I eventually get them down to $16.50, they wish me a happy New Year and intonate that they are sorry for ripping me off. They know when it’s not necessary to negotiate.

It’s 1:30pm now, I bring back the fabric to my tailor and they seem disappointed that they actually need to make the jacket. Their panic is growing, as this is the second last day the shop is open before they close for Tet. At this stage, I have all my chips on the table and I know the odds are against me of them pulling off the designer ‘like’ jacket that I first set out for.

It occurs to me when I eventually sit down for lunch that they said they would bring me to the button shop to pick out special buttons for the jackets. As I am ever the perfectionist, I make sure that this is also considered. They bring me there by moped, so I hop on the back of a sixteen year olds moped that is half my size. As the journey gets longer and longer, I think am I going back to Hanoi to get these buttons. Again, my expectations are that I will arrive at a beautiful emporium for buttons, but we arrive at a corner shop with nothing but plastic buttons behind an inconvenient glass counter. Nobody wants to help, and my sixteen year-old tailor urges me to make a decision straight away. So, I reluctantly pick something. The moped then pulls up outside the ‘sweat shop’ where my jacket has been constructed, bits of fabric are flying everywhere with ten men cramped into a shop front, fervently running through the last of the orders. I initially conceived that there would be big screen projecting pictures of the designs, after seeing the real ‘tailor shop’, I begin to realize how instructions and scribbles could get lost in translation.

My ‘Armani’ imitation jacket was then bundled into a plastic bag and we head back to the shop for what I hoped was the final fitting. They understandably want to rush me through it, keeping me a distance from the mirror, but on closer examination the fabric is puckered at the seams and one sleeve is still longer than the other, measuring revealed the inaccuracy. I felt I was back on a construction site, with sub-contractors trying to distract you from away from their dodgy workmanship.

My ‘tailor made’ suit

On the final day before closure of the shop for ‘Tet’, I return hesitantly with bated breath to put an end to this tailoring epic. Once I had entered the pin for my credit card into the machine, the assistant has disappeared without even a goodbye, leaving the young helper to give me the receipt. Transaction Complete, leaving the shop I barely got a good-bye. I wondered, are these good businesswomen, are they trying to build a brand and reputation and do they understand their customer needs?

As I walked back to the hotel with my suits and amoeba tops in hand, I reflected and wondered what I have learned from the experience. There are so many things to consider when you choose to get a bespoke item made, rather than buying an item of the shelf that has gone through the experience curve and rigorous testing. Consideration of the material is required, what are its properties? How much information do they have on the design? What are the edge finishes, stitching and seams? Does the design flatter your figure and not just the model in the picture? What is the relationship between the person taking the order and the tailor? And items that are out of your control, what kind of day is the tailor having? Is his wife putting him under pressure? Does he have a headache from sitting in a hot sweaty room? And how many other items does he have to finish in the same time frame? Considering all this, if your determined to get that tailor-made experience, it’s probably best to get something copied that already fits you well, rather than reinvent from scratch, remembering that the style and colour may not flatter your figure in the same way as svelte models in the pictures.

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Vietnam – New Year’s Resolutions and Conclusion

The child called out ‘Happy Hour’ to the tourists, selling hope in the form of paper lanterns, that perilously have to survive the choppy journey down the river

The blossom leaves have all fallen from the Tet trees and the New Year begins not so differently as the last. The patriarchal society will still be ever present, women will continue to do the lion’s share of the work and one party will continue to control the hopes and dreams of the nation.

Vietnam reflects on the year that’s past and thinks about new opportunities for the future

Exploring Vietnam in all her contexts reveals a vibrant, vivacious personality, who is spiritual, savvy, family orientated and individual. Her rich history and physicality only make her more attractive to outsiders. Yet, with the New Year in site, there are many challenges that await her. Regardless, she steadfastly has aspirations for a better life for her and the family.

Vietnam has to endure many human rights issues with suppression of any dissent, but most enjoy more freedom than their forefathers in Vietnam’s long history ever did. Her health is also continually challenged with unmonitored pollution, without much enforcement. There is very little presence of police on the streets, with continual offers of drugs in the backpacker’s area. Her international reputation has been tainted by a piracy and copycat culture, with the mantra of ‘Same, Same but Different’ emblazoned on tourist t-shirts.

By writing this story of falling for ‘Vietnam’, with all her beauty and warts. I wanted to express the experience of getting to know her as a fusion of millions of people, stories, ideas, traditions, all wrapped in the beautiful, complex and the deeply engaging entity of ‘Vietnam’.

‘Vietnam’ keeps the show on the road
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Descending into Nepal

It’s 9am and I’m waking up in Hong Kong on Christmas morning, looking out the window on the 27th floor of our rented apartment. I see a blue hazy sky with a grey layer of pollution, towers clustered at different levels, the harbour with speed boats zipping across the window in all directions, a collection of working trawlers that turn direction with the tide, but everything looks pretty much the same as it did yesterday. So what makes this Christmas Day different?

Is it about the journey home, decorations that twinkle and sparkle, Christmas music that resonates and drifts you into childhood memories, the smell of turkey, the touch and embrace of a family members, the clinking of the glasses or general chorus of voices and laughter? I thought I wouldn’t miss Christmas, being on the adventure of a lifetime with the man I dearly love, but I do miss the lights, the smells and the touch, something that Skype and a keyboard hasn’t managed to successfully replicate yet.

Picking up where I left off the last time I wrote, we continued our journey into the greener pastures of Nepal following a steep decent from the Tibetan Plateau. Instantly the Nepali Hindi people looked different from the Tibetans, draped in pinks, purples, greens and blues. There was a frenetic social liveliness that was verging on chaos as we crossed the boarder and entered Nepal. We boarded a taxi and hoped our bags would remain tied to the roof, as our jeep accelerated through the villages and meandering roads, overhanging the river valleys. Amidst the chaos, the jeep missed a small child by a sliver as he darted across the road. This is a normal days driving in Nepal.

The orderly modest homesteads that we saw in Tibet were now replaced with attempts at palatial dilapidated concrete ‘mansions’. The closer we got to Kathmandu, the more expressive the buildings became, featuring colonial hangover motifs with arches, paneled windows and all painted fantastically bright colours, of green and pinks similar to their dress. There are few international companies advertising along the route, but a noticeable one is Berger paint, they say life can be uplifted with a bit of colour.

As we travelled through the landscape we noticed that people seemed to have very little materially, but they did have abundant water  (not drinkable for you or I), warm sunshine and fertile soil, luxuries in comparison to the hardship of Tibet. Also, most people seemed to have a mobile phone. Although the transportation infrastructure is woefully underdeveloped, their mobile communication is less so, with most of the tourist restaurants and hotels offering free Wi-Fi. I thought to myself, how might they use these communication ‘tools’ to improve people’s lives, could it assist in the understanding of building technology, to control the environment in which they live, to improve energy conservation or to improve foreign investment into the country that was only $1 million in 2008 and climbed to still an insignificant $39 mil in 2009.

On the outset of this journey around the world, we thought the trip would take eight to nine months, that’s always been the endpoint in our minds. So, when we reached the arbitrary halfway mark of the trip, I felt really exhausted for the first time. My throat ached and my body shivered feeling the approach of some kind of flu. I also felt that I was lacking the enthusiasm to look forward to the next big thing, when you hit such highs, it’s difficult to keep repeating the exhilarating feeling of being completely in the moment of travel. I lay down for almost two day, slept mostly and just let my body and mind catch up.

After a couple of days we set of into the hinterland to hike in the renowned Annapurna region. I didn’t know what to expect, although it had been recommended by friends as one the highlights of their trip. We decided to get a guide, who also served as a porter. As we settled into our seats for the long bus journey, we were amazed that several men had to push start it for quite a distance, less amusing though were the site of locals throwing rubbish out the window to an already littered street. What makes people think it’s ok to throw rubbish out a window? Is it that people become accustomed to a dirty environment, expecting someone always to clean it? Driving out of Kathmandu, the pollution was astonishing, the banks of the rivers that should have been formed with rocks were compacted with plastic bottles, bags of rubbish piled up with children playing along side, this over-crowded generation is so new, but what makes the situation more damning is that what’s discarded does not disintegrate.

As we passed though the many bustling streets, I noticed that life is mostly lived in the open air. From grooming, washing clothes, breast feeding, playing cards, cooking food to settling up small shops on their front steps. Life is a social interaction with few barriers, where as in the suburban life that we are all familiar with, conceals all the ‘private activities’ within the comfort of our homes. I wondered as we passed a young girl looking back at our bus, how and why does someone fall in love in Nepal? What does a young woman desire, when she has to contend with traffic, dusty roads, cold water and over crowding?

It’s interesting to see how advertising communicates to different markets. On our journey, we noticed the repetitive ad for coca cola with a beautiful man and woman drinking from the bottle, coke also one of the cheapest drinks at any restaurant, even cheaper than water. A brand of whiskey projected a meticulously toned topless man being caressed by a beautiful woman, all his because he was able to choose luxury. This approach to advertising I believe would not pass in a developed country, but the innocence of the market leave them open to obvious persuasion. Much of the advertising is hand painted on the sides of houses, becoming a semi-permanent fixture. One home could be sporting two different brands of beer and become inadvertently a drinking establishment as a result. A huge amount of the signage and advertising is also in English, the aspirational language of the prosperous.

It’s never acceptable or mannerly to talk about bouts of diarrhea, but in Nepal because it’s so prevalent to get sick, even for the locals, everyone has empathy and understanding if you get struck down. On the first day of the hike I got that worrying cramp that only leads to misery and lethargy. I can normally cope well in the comfort of my own home, but in this ‘wilderness’ with only an outside ‘squat’ toilet, this really stretched my coping mechanisms. What’s amazing though is that the body is able to mend itself and it will tell you subconsciously what it can and can’t do, so after one day of rest and I was back walking.

Our walking route was the Annapurna Sanctuary, a route that ascends into the mountains up stone manmade steps and terraces. To my surprise, people are living and working along this ancient route, mostly farming the mountain terraces that have been shaped by many generations. The fields are a hive of activity, cutting hay by hand, drying it horizontally on the manmade ledges. One of the mornings involved hiking in the darkness in order to see the sunrise on Poon hill. This involved waking up at the ungodly hour of 4:30am and walking into the darkness, with only my flashlight illuminating my feet and flagstones in front of me. When we did arrive at the summit, an orange glow blazoned behind the thick horizontal band of the earth, turning around we could just make out the silhouette’s of the surrounding range of mountains and we knew we would be in for a spectacular treat.

Astonishingly, education still happens in the mountains, there are no four-wheel drives on the school run though. Children walk with their siblings and friends one hour down the mountain and one and half hours back. It was very cute to see a five year old hold the hand of a three year old, as if she was the older and wiser sister. All the children are neatly dressed in their school uniforms, perhaps a hangover from the British Empire. The private schools in the cities are taught through English, recognizing the path to opportunities.

I have a friend that volunteered in a Nepal school for several months and he asked the children where would they most like to go on holiday, an overwhelming majority thought their ideal holiday would be to go down to the river in the valley to wash their clothes and themselves and maybe swim and play with friends for an hour or two. Holidays in our sense are definite luxuries.

We met an abundance of travellers on our hike, in the evenings we exchanged stories of our journey and shared the common difficulties and good experiences. On one evening the guesthouse dining room resembled a gathering of the UN, with one side of the room occupied by China, South Korea and Nepal and the other Switzerland, Australia and Ireland.  It was particularly cold and damp that evening and the young Swiss gentleman took it upon himself to represent us and request from the manager heating for the room. To set the scene, the walls were constructed of plywood and stone and the single glazed windows had numerous gaps at the junctions. There was no fireplace in sight and my feet were placed on a cold concrete floor, so I guessed the owner was not going to flick the switch for the under floor heating! Our Swiss representative returned with what was on offer from the owner, a kerosene heater for two euro per person in the room, the rent for the night was costing us six euro, so we considered this highly overpriced, also our Chinese colleagues were not interested in joining in on the deal, leaving more expense on us. Considering what we were bargaining was very little compared to our ability to earn. Sometimes it was easy to lose sight at how difficult it must be for the owner to make money with only two tourist seasons per year sandwiched between monsoon and winter. Also the main transportation to this location is by mules or Sherpa’s, many of the latter wearing little more than flip flops, carrying three times their weight tied from their forehead to their back.

To set Nepal’s economic situation in context, the county has been blighted by political instability.  The monarchy were dethroned in 2008, leaving a vacuum of leadership, with the new Government occupying itself with the maintenance of truces between Maoists and other political parties, with little time left for consideration basic services and infrastructure. Meanwhile, raw sewerage flows into the rivers and rubbish piles up with nowhere to go. There is only a 50% employment rate, with the majority of those involved in agriculture (and this is seasonal due to monsoon). Tourism although effected by the uprisings is the panacea to their ills, but the majority of small businesses operating in the tourist areas have an almost identical offering with little differentiation, pashminas, crafts, knock-off outdoor clothing, guides, currency exchange, laundry, massage, café and book shops. Any kind of need that a tourist could possibly have will be satisfied for a price. There is even a pharmacist doctor who will take a stool sample given the prevalence of stomach sickness. Previously, as we entered Nepal across the Chinese border, lines and lines of dilapidated trucks cued up to bring cheap goods for re-sale across the boarder and on our departure from Kathmandu airport, tourists had amply filled knock-off ‘North Face’ bags full with cheap goodies. On viewing this cycle, I wondered was there something perverse about the benefits of global economics.

2011 is supposed to be official year of tourism for Nepal and officials are obliged to do everything they can to attract tourists. The beauty of Nepal lies in it’s majestic scenery and traditional way of life and the exuberance of the people. I would question the role of government to enhance these existing valuable assists. On exiting the country from what felt like a provincial airport, the last smell I got as I entered the gate was of urine, from the overflowing toilets adjacent. Although I was greeted warmly by the army with guns at the airport entrance, I was then frisked intimately three times at different points. At the last check, I was sent back to the check in as my hand luggage was missing a tag, the bureaucracy of the system insisted I had to, although the check in staff had no uniforms or what seemed any management in sight.

Flying back into ‘civilised’ China, we were amazed at it’s airport infrastructure, but we still experienced an exasperated bottleneck at the security transfer, with strict adherence to protocol. I wondered, comparing the two systems, were Nepal’s problems down to poor governance and thought what variations of communism actually work? Considering Hong Kong where I’m now sitting, the British handed it back 13 years ago, but has anything changed? There is no democracy, but it is governed independently from China. This lack of accountability is acceptable as long as people have plenty of money and the comforts of everyday life are unaffected.

I’m enjoying the ‘rest ‘in Hong Kong, looking out at the harbour of what I thought was the 27th floor, but is actually the 24th floor in reality.  There is actually a superstition in Chinese culture with the number 4, as it has an association with death, so the 4th, 14th and 24th floor have been omitted from the elevator! Finding myself now in this rather unfortunate numeric location, I have to say I’ve never felt more alive! And I’m trying to balance in my mind the desire to stay still with the perpetual need to move forward. I know in a few days I will be happy to pack my bags again and move to the southern tropics of Vietnam and celebrate their lunar new years festival -TET. We look forward to discovering this fiercely independent place and hopefully gain some understanding of how it maintains it’s communist zealous with a burgeoning capitalist economy.

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Japan at 300km per hour

At the moment, we’re hurtling though the landscape at 300km per hour on a bullet train travelling to Kagoshima on the southern tip of Japan. In this region there are more temples and shrines than churches in Ireland, with each competing to have a more sacred relic of Budda or taller Pagoda. Their main religion is Shintoism, which is indigenous to Japan, no God as such, just a set of beliefs that are based on superstition and help them keep safe from the vagaries of nature. Their located on the conversion of four tectonic plates, so there are tons of Volcano’s, hot springs and of course earth quakes, so they have good reason to be paranoid about nature. Christianity was banned in the 15th century, so the only places that have churches are where there was some trading with Europe.

We visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki where the atomic bombs were dropped, fascinating places and even more interesting to see them operating as lively hubs of activity today, rebuilt as if nothing had ever happened. Interesting to read about the history, their version of events of world war 2 and then to watch some documentaries on the US version of events, but the Japanese did commit atrocities to their Asian neighbors Korea, China etc. prior to the bombing. Hard to know who was right, but the tragedy is that so many innocent civilians were killed in the process.

It can also be a challenge to be walking into the unknown each day, not knowing what to expect, what you’re lodgings will be like. The language can get a bit isolating, but we try our best with signals, miming and point, some times we even speak Irish because they haven’t a clue what we’re saying anyway, but they still smile at us, nod and bow. The other thing is that everyone bows at you, the deeper the bow the more respect they have for you, sometimes it can get too much, but it’s only out of respect. It’s also an extremely hierarchal society where everyone has their rank in relation to each other, your status relates to age, wealth, what school you went to, where you’re from, nobody is equal, everyone is either higher or lower then you, which creates a continual pursuit for status and superiority.

The final thing is that they’re a very old fashioned society in terms of the role of woman (almost like 1950’s US). It’s expected that they will stop working when they get married, most woman take roles as ‘office ladies’ in big companies so that they can meet their husbands there and the better company they get into the greater their prospects of meeting a good rich man to keep them in pretty clothes and fine food and with all this pampering the birth rate is still only 1.3 children per family. It is incredibly expensive to educate you’re children, if you want them to get into a good school, so that they get into a good company, you will need to pay fees of $900,000 dollars from lower school to University and that’s just one child, needless to say they put enormous pressure on their children to succeed and do the family proud. But coupled with these pressures comes one of the highest suicide rates, accepted infidelity as the men are working every hour of the day to pay for their wives and expensive children and when the men have worked their whole life, married couples find they don’t have that much in common after all and there is a high rate of divorce at retirement age!

The more we’re here the more perplexing it gets, sometimes it feels like it asks more questions then answers, but it’s great to be here experiencing it first hand.

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Icons in the landscape








While travelling across the US, I had the privilege to see the sun set on the Devil’s tower in Wyoming. This conical tower is located in a flat landscape, its stature creating a focal point and allusive challenge to 2,000 rock climbers each year. It captured the imagination of the native Americans before it’s present incarnation, they called it the bear’s tower, but somehow it’s meaning got lost in translation and the settlers misunderstood it to be the ‘bad god’s tower’.

Today, at the base of Mount Fuji, I contemplated another Icon, 8,000 miles from the former. This icon has inspired artists, pilgrims and writers through out history. In our ‘stressful’ times, people reflect upon it from their tranquil spas dotted around it’s base and the workers in Tokyo lust after it from their desks and imagine the escape and break from monotony it represents.

Why do people feel the need to make or take a pilgrimage? What’s worth the sacrifice of shutting down your every day life and setting of on a journey into the unknown? These paths are not always altruistic; the pilgrim may ask himself what do I want from this? Indulgences, elation or even respect?

Alain de Bottem talks in his book the Art of Travel “that our lives are dominated by the search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest-in all its ardour and paradoxes-than our travels”. When we are pursuing these electric moments on our journeys, we may only experience 10-minute intervals of uninterrupted bliss, where our minds think of nothing else, not the past, nor our anxieties of the future, but are completely in that moment of experience.

Is this what a pilgrimage and an icon offers, places to forget our mortal bodies, that need caring, feeding, cleaning and rest. Are these the moments that we most crave to exist in?but if we experienced them continuously, they would merge into the everyday and lose their iconic significance?

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What is the Point of Going to Japan?

Why would a person want to travel to a country that is so expensive, difficult to navigate and a potential radiation threat? The usual comforts of food are represented by symbols, people look at you strangely as if you’ve landed from outer space and you feel like a giant, although you’re average height at ‘home’.

What does it mean to have a home and to be from somewhere? Does this origin set out how you should behave, a palette for food, a physical appearance or a sense of purpose?

Japan is grueling and perplexing, a cacophony of neon lights and noise, young girls dressing up in school and the ‘salary men’ in their armor of white shirts and man bags descending into the underground when darkness falls and the work is done.

But Tokyo is not what you would expect from a major city. It has 12 million people, but it feels like the safest place I’ve ever been. How can a society create and control this, when one can visit a socialist city like Vancouver and venture to the wrong street and feel petrified.

I wonder is Japanese rigor and discipline admirable or frightening? If a society has this kind of control, what does it repress? Where is the outlet for human wickedness? Is it better to think of human misdemeanors secretly in ones own mind?

Why travel to Japan when you’re packed like sardines into a train carriage, but one also has the opportunity to travel to almost every unique corner and foothold of the country. Would an Americans except being lumped together or would the desire for independence and freedom trump the advantages of travelling as a group. But is this uniquely an American trait or a human desire to be master of one’s destiny?

My home is an island on the west coast of Europe, I can’t travel for a long distance without seeing the horizon, the context has shaped who I am, always pursing what’s beyond it. America is an expansive bountiful landscape for the pioneer and the ‘brave’.

So, why am I travelling in Japan, to understand its nuances, its cohesiveness, i’s obedience, its quietness and ponder if the individual’s desires will begin to emerge from the ‘group understanding’?

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Design Around the World

We have designed our journey around the world, to evaluate the business and culture in our chosen contexts. The subjects of art and economics are of particular interest because of their apparent polarity, yet in their difference, we want to understand their connections. The destinations include: USA, Canada, Japan, South Korea, China, Tibet, Nepal, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and India.

On the journey, I would like to gain a better understanding of people’s motivations and what makes them happy – Is it companionship, children, food, holidays or aspects that I have no idea of yet?


What is driving business, demand and need?

What is the work that’s occupying people?

What are the trends in the movement of manufacturing?

Where is the growth of the free-lancer evident?

What businesses really care about their customers?

How is the world been communicated to?

What are the messages? Does it play on our insecurities?

What is a good environment for business development?

What countries have design as part of their branding?


What are the forces that have shaped cultures?

Who are the individuals that have created history?

What are our traditions and rituals?

what makes us all the same? what makes us different,

How do people create homes in different places and landscapes?

Is design important? Is it the reserve of the wealthy? Or is it a survival instinct by those with limited means?

What are the differences between how cites work, why do some work better?

How has landscape formed peoples outlook, perceptions, interactions?

What should we be doing differently, what could we be doing better?

What are the greatest challenges that the world faces, where are the opportunities?


These are some of the questions that I would like to reflect on during and after the journey.

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