Life in prison

Recently, I had the amazing privilege to spend some time with the director of one of the biggest prison in Thailand. The woman is in charge of facilities housing 4,000 female prisoners. It is the common size of a village in Switzerland! We discussed about the differences between male and female prisoners. About the challenges of running such kind of establishment. The prison even offers vocational and meditation courses, grows fruits and vegetables and sell handicraft.

I started wondering. What is a good prison? Is it a prison where the prisoners feel good? If so, does it remain a punishment? Or is it a place of suffering, in which case why would we criticize prisons with poor living conditions? The answer I was given is that prisons are places where freedom is removed, and where respect of the rules and discipline towards authority are taught. And almost no prisoner goes through this without suffering, otherwise they would not be there. There is no need to bring additional suffering. There may not be any other purpose for imprisonment.

I was wondering more: These places are so well organized. Prisoners are given tasks for the community. Everyone has a roof, friends, food and work. Even meditation courses. Like a small village. Better than a small village? I was thinking, isn’t it similar to a monastery, except that in a monastery, the integration in the community is chosen voluntarily? Jean-Paul Sartre was saying that freedom of choice brings suffering. What if we offered alternative villages where people voluntarily choose to serve any task that is given to them, force themself to work a certain amount of time in exchange of food and accommodation, and peace of mind. Peace of the absence of responsibility. Volunteer total subordination.

Now I am thinking: This “alternative village” pretty much looks like our society. Except that we have freedom of choice, which is good, but not everyone has a roof, nor food, nor work, which is pretty bad. So in a sense, we sacrificed the potential for great peace for the sake of freedom.

But who really is free in this world? What does freedom mean? What more should it bring, that worth the sacrifice of a comfortable life in prison? And do we get it?

Maybe I am thinking too much.

On the way home.

There we are. After nine months of travelling, I finally wait for my last connecting flight for Geneva at Istanbul Airport.

I see all these people around me sleeping on benches, waiting for their connecting flights. This is beautiful. The poor and the rich connect. In front of the most luxurious shops, people wearing suits sleep on the ground. Money does not seem to make the ground softer though.

I am happy and peaceful. Today – or was it yesterday? – I spent my last day wandering in Taiwan. Nothing special to do, I already ticked all the must visit places on my to-do list. That’s the moment when you start considering these interesting places that you decided to sacrifice from your original plan. The moment when you decide to spend your last afternoon in a teahouse recommended in your travel book. The moment when you happen to meet some of the most interesting people because they sit next to you: an elegant woman with fine manners producing high quality tea, a graphic designer who studied in Tokyo, a young graduate in textile industry, and a Korean journalist willing to explore the tea universe.
We chat. They invite me to visit remarkable tea ceramics shops in Taipei’s old streets. They offer me gifts to bring home, snacks for the flight and bring me to the airport shuttle bus station by taxi.

Everything is natural. This is Taiwan. This is Taiwanese friendliness and hospitality expressed at their best. In which other country in the world do locals express so much kindness to foreigners?

And it is not an isolated case. Every Taiwanese person I met was exceptionally open-minded, careful, welcoming and generous. I’ve stayed at people’s homes. Been invited for lunches, dinners and breakfasts. Driven by car all around Taipei just to show me the most amazing sights and vegetarian restaurants. They organized mountain hikes for me. They booked tables in the finest cafés. Introduced me to their families. Regularly, they would write to ask news from my trip and offer me again to answer any question I would have. Always friendly. Always generous.

Never have I been welcomed so well in a country. Thank you so much.

Posted from Istanbul, İstanbul, Turkey.

Hello from Taiwan

Taiwan. This country already sounded interesting the very first time I heard about it three years ago. I left this feeling untouched somewhere in the back of my mind. Then I met someone in Kathmandu who made me feel even more curious about this island. Then suddenly, without any particularly good reason, I knew I had to come. I bought the ticket. I bought the Lonely Planet travel guide and went through the pages. I felt I would love this country.

And I was right.

Taiwan is fascinating. Roughly summarising, it was originally inhabited by adventurous Chinese centuries ago who just left the continent to establish themselves on this volcanic island. The territory ended up being stolen by Japanese in the beginning of the 20th century, after experiencing Dutch and Spanish occupation. Finally after WWII and 50 years of occupation, the Japanese left the island to whomever wanted to have it, which happened to be a political leader who failed establishing his supremacy on the mainland and retreated there with his fellow friends. The unlucky guy had the great idea of stealing almost the entire collection of Chinese government’s antique heritage, which is now luckily displayed in an absolutely amazing museum in Taipei. The guy also thought he would like to rule the island without much discussion with the people and thus established his dictatorship supported by his fellow military friends who joined the retreat (yeah, they were a lot). Finally the people got unhappy enough to get rid of the dictatorship and established democracy 30 years ago. To celebrate this, the United States who like to get involved in every possible place in the world when there is military or economic interest decided to put Taiwan under their protection (to protect them from evil Chinese communism of course! Buuuuhhh), thus theoretically preventing China to mess too much with them.

The result is a unclearly defined state (China claims it is their territory but let them do whatever they want) where Japanese and Chinese influences joyfully shape the culture of this beautiful island full of mountains. A slight US influence can also be perceived, and the lifestyle of the prime aboriginal tribes is omnipresent outside of the major cities (and especially in mountain villages, their refuge during decades of oppressing and discriminatory politics). Tea plantations and natural hot springs are spread all over the place, and Taipei and its 2+ billion inhabitants feels a bit like a mini-Tokyo (sorry if it hurts anyone!), full of activities, shopping, temples and entertainment areas.

The sad part lies in Taiwan’s political status. Not officially recognized as a country, international partnership opportunities get limited. China does not want that so many people start considering the place as an independent country and happily reminds everyone it belongs to them, and try to prevent them from getting too much involved on an international level, including tourism. So they are now stuck with almost one single trade partner (China) which actually provides now cheaper labour, forcing the country to move to the service industry, while not being completely able to join international markets. Taiwanese’s life thus become self-centered with little career opportunities abroad (they even don’t use the same chinese characters as China’s main land) and salaries keep decreasing, unlike the living costs. Nowadays, Taiwanese have a hard time to keep being optimistic about their future. Many want to move abroad, but feel stuck and hardly able to compete with Chinese labour. And since pessimism comes often with risk avoidance strategies, many Taiwanese prefer to accomodate themselves with their own country.

I feel sad about that. Actually, I really, really like this place. The mountains offer amazing trekking opportunities, the hot springs are delightful, the tea culture on the island is nothing but a jewel of delicacy, and Taiwanese people themselves are so lovely and easy-going you just can’t help feeling home. During my stay, I was very lucky to meet many locals with CouchSurfing. I spent a couple of days in a family with two children in the suburbs of Taipei, some other days with another family, been brought to mountains and over cute cafés and tea houses by absolutely lovely people, went clubbing, and so many other things… and there is so much more to see. I am already planning to come back. Maybe spending a couple of years here, who knows?

Anyway, coming back to Switzerland in just a few days. So weird. I’m both excited and confused. A chapter comes to an end, and a new one is about to start.

See you very soon!

Love you all ♡