My Side of Paradise

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Paradise.

It is the place that we always think about while we slave away at our various jobs throughout the year. We want that place we can go to that will allow us to forget the worries always piled on us. In most people’s minds, it is the same kind of place. There is usually a beach involved where somebody can come out to serve you various kinds of fruit concoctions. The weather is always warm, and there is not a piece of responsibility to be found anywhere. It is the lifestyle that we wish we could subject ourselves to on a daily basis, but we are lucky enough to be able to enjoy it for one week a year. A short list of places come to mind when we think about paradise: Maui, Manuel Antonio, Cancun, and the place that I traveled to over my Spring Break, Boracay.

This sliver of an island is a part of the Philippines and is a huge tourist destination for many of the people living in Asia. Thousands of people flock daily to the sandy beach, sunny skies, and laid back attitude of this slice of paradise. It is hard not to lose yourself to the culture that this place has to offer as there are many fun activities to do during the day: swimming, paragliding, diving, paddle boarding, and sailing. And there are many ways to lose yourself to the nightlife: great restaurants, wonderful bars, strong drinks, and fire dancers. Instantly, when arriving here, you forget about the cares you have and indulge in the fantasy the place has to offer.

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During our stay there, we weren’t able to stay on the beach itself, but that did not mean that we couldn’t find a place that had spectacular views. It required a little bit of a workout to get there. 224 steps up from the beach to the patio of the villa we rented made the hike worth it. This was what I had to wake up to every morning. It was great to have my morning coffee while watching the morning storms blow in to cleanse the island of all the dirt that had collected the night before. Also being so far away from the beach but still being able to enjoy its view forced me to ease into my day instead of attacking the relaxation that I believed possible at the place.

Too often when we go on vacation, the idea of squeezing all the fun out of the moment is all we think about. We try to pack our days with so much stuff to do that we forget that we had come to this place to relax. This is exactly what I did on this trip. Of course, I needed to plan a little bit before I left my villa every morning. If I forgot something back at home, I would have to trudge up those 224 steps to get it and that would have ruined the whole purpose of this trip. So after the morning rains turned into the afternoon sunshine, I would grab my beach gear and a good book and make my way down to the lounge chair that was waiting for me somewhere on the sandy landscape.

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That left me time to enjoy the important things in life — drink and food. Even though when you think of the Philippines you don’t necessarily think about the cuisine, Boracay offers a wide selection of dishes. There are a couple of dishes that are from the area, and they usually come with fresh fruit, but if you don’t want to try this, there are many other restaurants there that serve any kind of dish. There was anything from Indian to Italian. Restaurants would serve burgers to baba ganoush. It just meant that I would never get bored with what I was eating.

And if I didn’t feel like partaking in what the restaurants had to offer, there was a market where I could pick up some freshly caught fish. There was a grill at our villa that we could use, and it was nice to be able to BBQ again. This is not a luxury that you can find if you live in an apartment in a big city, so it just added to the atmosphere that this small treat was made available to us. I did spend one night grilling a chicken that was probably killed and plucked that day, and we were going to do the same thing with some fish. This was until the maid that we had working in the villa came in and grilled the fish for us. It wasn’t the way I would have cooked it, but it did give us an opportunity to try it the more traditional Philippines cuisine.

The drinks in Boracay are also good. Beer is not what the country is know for, but on a hot day, a cold San Miguel is a welcomed refreshment. Most of their mixed drinks come with fruit juice that was squeezed that morning, and if the drink required coconut milk, the bartender could grab one that had fallen from one the nearby palm trees. I don’t know if it was invented on the island, but it was the first time I had ever encountered a drink called the weng weng. It had seven different types of spirits in it mixed with various juices. It reminded me of those drinks I used to be able to find at college parties usually mixed in a large trashcan. People at these parties would bring a bottle of something that would be poured into the mix followed by more juice. The juice would tone down the alcohol, so it made it feel like you weren’t drinking anything at all. The sad thing would be a hour later after sucking down a few of these drinks you would be reminded that you had been drinking all along. This was also the power of the weng weng. It could make an evening very interesting or shorten it up altogether.

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Despite the cultural experience that could be found in a weng weng, around certain corners, you could find little gems of the culture that is offered on this island. Statues of lions, and other cultural icons could be found everywhere.

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The sight of these statues made me wonder more about the culture of the area. I feel that something has been lacking in my education when I travel in the Pacific and Asian countries. The American-centric view of the world makes me wonder how a whole culture can ignore such a large population of the world. The history here and the culture is just as rich and probably even older than anything that Europe has to offer the world. But the only way that I can experience it or learn anything about it is by visiting these countries because this little corner of the world is ignored in the history text books back home.

It is not the only thing that is ignored out here. Even though there is slice of paradise out on this island, there is another aspect of it that is not often talked about. It requires people to look through the cracks to find it.

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Even though the sun might always be in the sky, and the sandy beach seems to stretch on forever, the people who live here aren’t always given the opportunity to enjoy it the same way the people visit it do. In 2014, one out of every four people in the Philippines lived below the poverty line which was slightly higher than it was the previous year. Things are not getting better, but in fact they are getting worse. There are always signs of this problem wherever you go. Children on the beach yell at you to give them some money because they are hungry. Mothers with their newborns wrapped in their arms sit outside stores with a cup to collect unwanted coins. In fact, if I looked out the back window of the villa we stayed in, I was welcomed by a different sight than when I looked out my front patio.

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The reality of the situation is more people live like this, but the tourist industry does not want you to think about this when they create a picture of the paradise you can visit out here. They don’t want you to think about the people who have made shelters out of any scrap that they find lying around and then call it a home. They don’t want you to think about the hungry mouths and unclothed people. They do want you to think about the great time you will have by visiting this paradise. And there is the fact, that when you do come out here to visit you pump a lot of foreign currency into their economy. But if tourism was the solution to this problem then the poverty rate would be declining instead of rising.

It has to be even worse for the people that do live here. Every day a new shipment of visitors come in with huge wallets ready to ignore the poverty all around them. They sit on the beach, consume the food, sip on fruity concoctions and go back to their first world problems to quickly forget about the struggles that other people in this world are experiencing. The people who live here are reminded every day what it is they will never be able to have.

Does that mean that I am a contributor to this problem by being one of these tourists that comes and enjoys their time while ignoring the plight of the Philippines’ people? What could I do? Throwing money at the problem won’t solve anything because it will only end up in the hands of the people who don’t really need or it will just continue to serve the poverty by giving the ones who live there a meal without showing them the way out of it. How can I make the world a better place and eliminate this debilitating social disease?

Well, it can always start at home. An honest person would look at their own community and admit that poverty exists there as well. We can not solve all of the problems of a country half a world away, but we can make a dent into the problems that we have at home. The only chance that these kids have of rising themselves out of the lot they found themselves born into is by becoming a productive part of the work force, and this can only be obtained by a good education.

During my days on the island, I saw lots of children playing in the cool water and on the beach when they should have been in school. They were getting a personal education when they were rewarded for their begging, and even though this was an easy solution to their problem, it would never help bring them and their country out of poverty. They need to be in that classroom, and the classroom needs to be well supplied and have a great teacher at the helm. There they will learn about the truth of their situation and gain the tools needed to fix it.

This same solution works for the children struggling with poverty in your corner of the world. If they are given the tools to succeed, then most of them will. You will always have the ones that fight against the charity given to them, and there is not a lot you can do about it except to not encourage the damaging attitude. For the most part, most children want to make something of themselves and are grateful for the opportunity.

This is where you come in. Support public education in your community, and country. Respect the professional attitude of the teachers, and understand that they are doing their work for the right reasons. Fight against the standardized tests because there is no job in this world where filling in the appropriate bubble on a piece of paper is considered productive. If you do this then every child who works their way out of poverty will make the whole place a better one to live in. This way when you make it out to paradise, you won’t feel guilty because of the poverty that is hidden behind the beauty that you came to see in the first place. The trickle effect of your contribution to the world will make all places into true paradises.

Best Movies that didn’t Win Best Picture

Citizen Kane

#1 – Citizen Kane

Often referenced as the best movie ever made, Citizen Kane, was Orson Welles first movie. He has said that he didn’t know exactly what he was doing, so he took every cool trick that he learned in film school and applied it to this movie. This is the movie that you watch to see what can be done with film, but it still did not take home the best movie trophy in 1942. This was a case where the academy awards really got it wrong as they gave it to How Green was my Valley instead. It doesn’t really matter though because Orson Welles’s classic is still study by millions of film students still to this day.

The wizard of oz

#2 – The Wizard of Oz

In 1939, movie goers were introduced to a new technology. No longer would their stories be told in boring black and white, but instead the magic would happen in color. The Wizard of Oz was the first movie to bring this technology to audiences everywhere. It literally brought us from  black and white Kansas to the colorful world somewhere over the rainbow. You would think that it would not hold up very well after almost 80 years since its release, but people still enjoy this masterpiece today. What movie could have beaten it out for best picture that year? That would go to another iconic movie, Gone with Wind, so even though it did not win the coveted award, it is a little easier to swallow this bitterness knowing that another great film took its place in the top spot.

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#3 – Boyhood

I know that this movie is not considered a classic yet, but I do believe that it was snubbed in 2015. If there was any movie that I wanted to win over it, it was Birdman, but the idea behind this story was so original that it will never be repeated. It is interesting to watch this movie and understand the cohesion that Linklater created by recording slivers of time. It is not just the story of this boy growing up in America during 9/11 but it is also a story about us, who we are, and the culture that we have created.

It's a Wonderful Life

#4 – It’s a Wonderful Life

Before Ted Turner obtained the rights to this classic, every American associated the Christmas season with this movie. Every channel was able to have rights to this movie, and they used that right to show it at least once during the holiday season. The weird thing was that even though you knew it was going to be on at least twenty times during the month of December, you would somehow catch all twenty showings of it, and never be disappointed that you wasted your time watching it again. It is not only a great story, but it is an iconic piece of the American culture. It just shows that sometimes the academy gets it wrong.

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# 5 – Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino has always been one of my favorite directors. When Pulp Fiction had come out in 1994, Reservoir Dogs and True Romance had already topped my list as two of my favorite movies. I had sat through Natural Born Killers earlier that year and was blown away by its story, and I found out later that he had written the script for it. But it wasn’t until I sat in the movie theater and experienced this new exploration in filmmaking that I realized what power a movie might hold. It was an instant classic and redefined the movie industry for years to come. It will always top my list for greatest snubs of all time.

Shawshank Redemption

#6 – The Shawshank Redemption

I don’t know how many times I have been at home on a Saturday flipping through channels and this movie comes on. For some reason, I always catch it at the very beginning, and I can’t do anything until I finish it. I never get bored with the story, and am thoroughly satisfied with the ending even though I know exactly what is going to happen. The story entranced me so much that I actually sat down once and read the novella by Stephen King, and this is the one time that I can say that the movie is better than the book. Why didn’t this movie win best picture? Well, 1994 was a good year for movies and even though this makes the number six spot on the list, it wasn’t even my second favorite movie that year.

Dead Poets Society

#7 – Dead Poets Society

Anybody who knows me knows that this is one of my favorite movies of all time. The ending gives me chills every time I watch it. It is the story that made me want to be a writer. It is the story that made me want to be a teacher. It is the story that taught me to take chances in life, and make the most of it. I don’t remember which movie won the year that this gem was in the running, but I do remember being mad that it wasn’t this one. It holds up really well too. Every generation discovers and falls in love with this movie.

The Graduate

#8 – The Graduate

Every year, the Academy Awards likes to nominate at least one comedy. In 1968, this was their pick for that honor. There are rare occasions where the comedy takes home the coveted prize, but just like in 1968, it does not happen. That does not mean that the movies are not incredible, and worth watching over and over again. It is also hard to compete against the socially conscious In the Heat of the Night which took the top honor that year. It just shows how good the field was in 1968.

Apocalypse Now

#9 – Apocalypse Now

When talking about the greatest movies ever made, this one usually makes the list and ranks high on it. So what great picture took down this classic look at the madness that is within each of us and the journey we need to take in order to wrestle with that issue? Kramer vs. Kramer took the top nod in the year 1980, and it just shows that sometimes the academy does not always get it right. Apocalypse Now, even with all of its production problems and behind the scene stories, has held up well through the ages and will always be analyzed and discussed for years to come.

A Clockwork Orange

#10 – A Clockwork Orange

I am actually quite proud of the fact that the Academy nominated this movie for best picture. Of course, it could never win. It was a seriously disturbing piece of cinema back then, and even by today’s standards, it still makes people cringe just to watch it. But the genius of this story lies in the fact that it is not just about the horror and gore, but there is a deep message imbedded within the story even though Stanley Kubrick didn’t know about the final chapter of the book when he created this masterpiece. If you have not seen this movie yet, sit down and watch it. Just make sure there are no small children present when you do because you will scar them for life.

Good Fellas

#11 – Good Fellas

Sometimes an iconic movie doesn’t win the Best Picture category because it is up against a juggernaut that year. This was the case with Good Fellas. It was up against the heart wrenching and socially conscious Dances with Wolves. There was still hope held in the hearts of many that this would Martin Scorsese would finally win that coveted prize and this could easily be considered his best movie he has ever made, but it just was not to be. The funny thing though is this movie is still discussed as one of the best pictures of all time whereas Dances with Wolves is hardly ever referenced. This movie still garnered some awards with the best speech given by the winner of the Best Supporting Actor, Joe Pesci, when all he said was, “Thank you.”

Saving Private Ryan

#12 – Saving Private Ryan

In the year 1999, many people believed that this gritty war epic was a shoo in for the Best Picture win giving Steven Spielberg his second real academy award. But as all the years before as he sat in the crowd and watch somebody else take home the prize, he had to do the same this year as Shakespeare in Love won. Many people still cry out bloody murder for the way this movie got passed over. Never has D-Day been portrayed in such a way that we understand what it felt like to actually be there. Because of this alone, it should have won best picture.

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It has been awhile since I have done a list, but now is the perfect time to get started again. The Academy Awards were just held, and after each year, there are complaints about who won and who didn’t. Granted all the movies represented are great works and should be applauded, but there is always that one who got robbed. That is the list I would like to create this time around. What were the best movies that were nominated for best picture but did not win. Spend some time thinking about it and send me your lists to jacollings44@gmail.com. The final list will be compiled by March 31st, and will appear in April.

The Staycation

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Our lives are busy.

I’m sure many of you are screaming at me for wasting those five seconds you spent reading that statement to be told something you already know. I’m sorry to state the obvious, but it is something that we all need to recognize from time to time. The big question is what should we do about it once we admit to ourselves that we need a break from our daily routine.

The conventional wisdom tells us that we should go on a vacation to some place fantastic so we can tell everybody about it. They will be jealous and will start to make plans about going to the same place. How do we know this happens, well, they start to ask us things about what we loved, and the things we would have skipped if we were given the opportunity to do it all over again.

The crazy thing though is we come back from these incredible vacations more exhausted than when we left. It is because we don’t stop with our busy lifestyles while we are on vacation. We just change the focus. We tell ourselves that we need to squeeze in as much fun as we can while we are at these places or the effort of traveling half way around the globe wasn’t worth the experience.

You know this is true. I’m sure many of you have made the statement that you need a vacation after you return from your vacation.

Why do we do this to ourselves? We know we need a break, but yet we go on vacation and run ourselves ragged in order to get it.

There is another option that more people are considering, a staycation.

What exactly is a staycation? It is where you pack a bag, find a hotel in the city you live in, and go and stay there instead of making yourself crazy by rushing to the airport, driving across the country, or making other travel plans that leave you more worn out than when you began.

It might sound like a cop out for really going on a vacation, but I am here to tell you that there are many benefits for enjoying this kind of break. Don’t get me wrong, I love going out and seeing the world, but I find myself not knowing much about the city that I live in. In fact, you probably have said sometime in your life that it take others to come to town for you to really go out and see the sights of where you live.

It also is less expensive than taking a vacation further from your home. You don’t have to pay for that travel expense. You just have to find a way to make it to the downtown area of the city you live in. For most people that means hopping in their car and driving there, and if you live in a big enough city, it means just getting on some public transportation and finding the route that takes you to your destination. The money you save on transportation costs, you can use on getting a little nicer place to stay and still save a bunch of money. It also means splurging on some better food.

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Add into this mix a national holiday, and you have something really special about your staycation. I know you are thinking that the holiday would have to be the Super Bowl, but the city I live in really doesn’t care much for that game (Yes, there are places out there that don’t care). The people of Korea were getting together to celebrate the Year of the Monkey. It was my first Lunar New Year in Asia so I wanted to go out and see how they celebrate this event. We picked a place downtown which we haven’t explored much of, Myeongdong, and got a hotel room right next to the subway entrance.

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It was the perfect place to experience this holiday. There was a huge shopping market right around the corner, which is not something I am usually excited about especially in Korea. They are interested a little too much in fashion which doesn’t excite me as much. It also doesn’t help that the clothes out here are a little small for me. But there was plenty of street vendors offering my favorite Korean cuisine, street food.

Koreans know how to do street food very well. They have a sweet bread that they cook an egg on top of. They will twirl a potato into one log chip and poke a stick through it. They then lightly bread it, fry it and roll it around powdered cheese. They will make a banana pancake, fill it up with Frosted Flakes, and Nutella. It all spells delicious. If you find yourself as one of those guys who have to stand around while your wife or girlfriend looks at shoes or clothes, you can always run out to the streets and partake of some of the local fare that is offered. The Koreans have figured out how to please both genders with the shopping experience. The only real problem was it was still cold, so I wanted to run back inside every moment to warm back up.

But Myeongdong has you covered there as well. There are various restaurants around that will satisfy your hunger that the street fare only tickles. There are offerings that show what Korea has to offer to world culture, such as Korean BBQ, and chicken and beer places. But if  you are in the mood for something else, you can find sushi, Indian, Thai, Italian, burgers, Chinese, and even pizza. My favorite was the Italian place underneath the CGV movie theater called Mad About Garlic. There are two locations that I know of in Seoul, and this is the second time that I have eaten at one. The atmosphere in the one in Myeongdong isn’t as nice as the one in AK Plaza, but the food is just as good. A little warning for those of you who don’t like spice, when Mad About Garlic says something is spicy, they mean it. For those of you who like spice, enjoy.

After you have eaten, are there places where you can enjoy the evening? Yes! What would an outdoor shopping place be like if you couldn’t have a few drinks and enjoy it a little more? The stores like it as well because it makes people spend more money. There are bars that make strong cocktails, and the craft beer movement has even seeped into the streets of Myeongdong. You can find a good IPA, or a hearty stout. And if a beer is not enough for you, you can always go with the traditional Korean drink, soju. It might be a little more expensive to buy it at one of the bars than the dollar fifty you will spend at a convenience store, but it is still a lot less than a beer. It makes the next experience you come across even more fun.

And yes, there is culture down here as well. You can take in the longest running play in South Korea, Nanta. If you don’t speak Korean, you don’t have to worry about it because it is blend of physical comedy, drumming, and audience interaction. It is a lot of fun no matter what your language barrier or your age might be.

Another fun little thing to do if you don’t mind making a fool of yourself in front of your friends is to go to a norabong. This is Korea’s answer to karaoke. You rent a room, and are given a book of songs you can sing. A waiter comes in dropping off cans of cheap beer while you shout into the microphones, and laugh at the scores the computer gives you for your performance. If you have lived in Korea, or just visited, and have not made it to a norabong, you have not lived yet.

If these activities are a little too low brow for you, there are some other places you can go that are more worthy of your sophistication. A short subway stop away is the Korean War Memorial. This museum gives perspective to America’s forgotten war. I will admit that what I know about this conflict comes from the TV show, M.A.S.H., and I don’t think that is very accurate. A visit to this place will clear up what you might have thought happened and what really did happen. So far, with all my experience in South Korea, it is the one museum that has moved me the most.

All of these experiences have made my first ever staycation a wonderful and relaxing experience. I have also learned more about the city I live in. I would recommend to other people that this is something that they should do as well. So the next time you need to recharge your batteries and are thinking about the place that will help you do this, start thinking about it from a different perspective and just…

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Stay.

My Pilgramage

As I once told one of my old co-workers, we are all geeks.

Just as he did at the time, I am sure there are some who are offended by this sweeping statement, and the negative connotations that are usually associated with the word, geek. My old co-worker told me that there was no way he could be a geek because he was too athletic to be one. He demonstrated this by showing off the various college football t-shirts that he owned and talking non-stop about the history and the importance of the SEC. This outward display of his passion for college football just proved my point; he just first needed to realize what a geek is.

A geek is someone who is so insanely passionate about something that he or she will obsess over it, and know everything there is to know about that one subject. This is usually displayed in the media by those who attend Comicon every year to debate which is the better series Star Wars or Star Trek. But this passion does not only need to be reserved for the ones who enjoy science fiction and fantasy. There are food geeks, and there are fashion geeks. Probably, one of the biggest contingencies of geeks out there are the ones who obsess over sports. There is nothing wrong about this. These people should be proud of the fact that they have a passion for something because if they did not, it would mean that they were a hollow people waiting for some form of inspiration to give them a reason for living. At the same time, they shouldn’t claim that they are superior to other people because they don’t want to admit that what their passion is makes them a geek. They geek out as much as the stereotypical geek as portrayed in the media.

Considering that I believe that every person holds this pension for geekdom within themselves, I can’t exclude myself. There are a few things that I geek out on, but one of the biggest ones is The Lord of the Rings. I am a huge fan of that story. In fact, the whole history of Middle Earth has been a passion of mine ever since I first saw the Rankin Bass version of The Hobbit when I was in first grade, and I had nightmares that Gollum was going to come and gobble me during my sleep. At the same time, I was always fascinated by the character. When Peter Jackson released the movies, it was a dream come true for me because here was one of my favorite stories coming to life on the big screen. I had some reservations about it: would they be able to create a believable Sméagol, would they make sure to stay original to the text, and most importantly, where would they find a location that demonstrated to me what the world of Middle Earth actually looked like in my mind?

At the time, I knew that there was a country called New Zealand. Beyond that, all I knew was that the people who had visited it considered it beautiful, and if I ever had a chance to go visit during my lifetime, I should do so. I always had it in the back of my mind that I would make it there someday, but it wasn’t until I saw the scenery in the movies that I knew that I needed to make this one of my life goals. It was the place I always imagined while reading the novels here it was on earth. The only problem was it would require a lot of effort to make this trip a reality, and it wasn’t until I moved to South Korea that this effort would be minimized to the point where I would be a fool if I didn’t take the opportunity to visit and fulfil one of my greatest desires, visit Middle Earth.

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So this Winter Break, I boarded a jet plane to travel to the other side of the world, and see the wonders that New Zealand held. I would search for the locations that had been made famous from the movie and see first hand what it was like to travel through Middle Earth to destroy to one true ring. This had become more than a quest for me; it had become a pilgrimage. It would be a religious moment. I would be able to witness first hand what the vision of Tolkien was supposed to look like much like the pilgrims Chaucer wrote about in his most famous work as they traveled to the site of that famous martyr they respected so much. It threw me off even more when I encountered a Canterbury while traveling around the country, but this wasn’t about the bones of that holy saint, Thomas a Becket, but instead about the spiritual connection I had come to make with the land of the elves, and orcs, and most importantly hobbits.

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In fact, my first stop on this trip was to the small town of Matamata which held a small farm just outside of its jurisdiction. This location was used by Peter Jackson to create Hobbiton. If you have never been there, it is a magical place that transports you to the Shire. There are hobbit holes all over the place, and they were built as if they were intended for halflings to live in because the top of the doors would barely come up to my hips. The amount of detail that went into making this place look real was intense. Small coats would hang on the edge of small plows leaning against tiny wheelbarrows. You would be able to look into the windows of some of these places and see small vases next to small wheels of cheese. There was even the party tree placed in a huge field next to a babbling stream. The whole place made you feel as if the hobbits would come out at any moment and eye you suspiciously as an invader to their peaceful land. There was even a bridge over the river next to Sandyman’s Mill that led you to the Green Dragon. And yes you could go inside and order a drink and sit next to the fire that was built out of tiny blocks of chopped wood.

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I was in pure heaven. Here I was, less than twenty-four hours out of Seoul with an ale in my hand and the summer sun shining right out a circular hobbit door. The fire was only there for effect because we really didn’t need it. The best part was the place that Peter Jackson had picked to create this reality was on a sheep farm, so it had that pastoral setting I always thought of when reading the stories. There was a connection with nature there where these little people were able to live n harmony with their surroundings instead of trying to control it. There were no combustible engines except for the one that brought us from the gift shop to this other world. If I was half my size, I would have taken up residence in this place and would have been one with the hobbits.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and they loaded us back on the tour bus to take us off the farm and back to the reality of life. Luckily, I was in the place where they created Middle Earth, so wherever I turned there was another reference to The Lord of the Rings. We spent some time searching out these spots, and sometimes re-enacting some of the scenes. Yes, I hid behind the root of a tree pretending that there was a Nazgul on the other side hunting for the one ring. And of course I made it down to Wellington.

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Wellington is most famous for the home to the Weta Cave. This is the special effects department that Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor created for all their various projects. It is one of the leading production companies in the world and it is situated in this small town on the southern coast of the northern island. These two not only work on their own productions, but they are called by many other directors to make other fantasy worlds come to life. They designed the weapons and aliens for District 9. They imagined the world of Krampus. Most famously, they put together the tall blue aliens that inhabited James Cameron’s Avatar. This was a place that I needed to visit, and it is not where you would expect it to be.

In order to get there, you have to get on a bus as it takes you over Mount Victoria to a small suburb on the other side. When the bus drops you off, you have to stroll through streets that look more like where you grandmother would live rather than the place where they would hide a major movie studio. In fact, when you get there, you find out that the Weta Cave actually belongs to one of these houses you were passing.

There were a few other people on the bus that were looking for the Weta Cave when we got on, and we all instantly became friends on our search for this magical place. We kept on scanning the horizon for some sign that we were getting close to the place, and we knew we were there when we heard from one of our group scream out in joy, “Look, Trolls!”

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Yes, that is how you know you are in the right place. Peter Jackson took the life sized models that he used for Tom, William and Bert and placed them in front of the Weta Cave. It is a little disturbing because it is right across the street from an elementary school, and there are probably a bunch of kids attending that school that have nightmares every night because of these statues. There were some kids that obviously didn’t care. One Chinese couple brought their toddler who ran between the three of them with a huge smile on his face as if these were something he would see on a regular basis. The rest of the tourists didn’t seem to care much either as they walked around the three trolls and had their pictures with them in various poses of terror and humor. For me, it was just another one of those moments that let me know that I had found a concrete connection to one of the stories I have loved more than any other in my life.

The tour was a lot of fun too. We got to play around with various props from the original movies such as battle axes, mythril, and prosthetic limbs that were used to make the different inhabitants of Middle Earth look as if they belong there. We got to view other items too, such as aliens weapons from District 9, Hellboy’s gun, and the snowman from Krampus. It was like being in movie making heaven even though the room was really small, and you would expect something more from such a big player in the movie making industry. I got to learn a lot about the production of special effects and props and it made me want to pick up a camera and start to make movies of my own. So if any of you who are reading this have a half a million dollars lying around could you lend it to me. I’ll make you a really good movie.

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The creations of Peter Jackson weren’t the only things that excited me on our trip. We found ourselves in the back country of New Zealand which there happens to be a lot of. At every turn there were more moments from the movies. It didn’t only happen on staged sets. This is Franz Josef Glacier; you can see it peeking out from underneath the clouds on top of the mountain. This was a set in itself. Peter Jackson used this location for the lighting of the beacons. It wasn’t his first choice either but the summer they were filming was extremely dry and there were fire bans all over the place. He had to use this place instead because he was allowed to light huge bonfires on the tips of these mountains. I could sit there and point out the peaks that the fire were being lit from, but something strange happened to me here. I stopped paying attention to the reference to The Lord of the Rings and started to pay attention to New Zealand. My propensity to my geekdom was causing me to miss something quite amazing. I didn’t need this obsession of mine to make this place incredible because the place was pretty amazing on its own terms.

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The landscape jutted out of the ocean in such a dramatic fashion that I needed to quit worrying about where Frodo would be on his journey, and start marveling at the natural landscape that surrounded me. There were opportunities for my own personal adventures here that I didn’t need to worry about the epic voyage of a couple of hobbits; I could make my own memories of the place.

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When I started to look at New Zealand for what New Zealand had to offer, a whole new perspective started to carve itself from the landscape. There was blue sky with fresh air just waiting to be sucked deeply into my lungs. There were some of the most dramatic mountains I had ever seen, and remember that I come from Colorado, and have spent considerable time in the Pacific Northwest and the Swiss Alps. There were river of the most beautiful icy blue coming directly from glaciers that were carving the newest sets of fjords many people this world have not enjoyed yet. It was a young land still being shaped by mother nature, and was so far off the beaten path that humanity hadn’t destroyed its beauty with its own mark. The lessons we had learned from all the other places of the world were being implemented here to make this one of the last and purest frontiers left on Earth.

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But the view would dramatically shift as I traveled along its highways. In the morning, I would be shivering next to blocks of ice floating down frozen rivers, then travel through pastoral lands filled with sheep and the occasional farmhouse, to find myself on a pristine beach soaking up the sun of the day. Even the beaches were something I had not witnessed before. The volcanic rock that made up these islands left behind a soft, fine dark sand that is not associated with beaches, and since the ocean in this area wasn’t being littered with gasoline extract of thousands of ships, the water was the clearest blue that begged to be jumped into. Of course, I didn’t do it because I was far enough south of the border to know that the water would be freezing, but it was still nice enough to dip my toes in before strolling down these amazing beaches.

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Because man had eventually learned to respect mother nature and let her thrive, many animals come to the place to enjoy moments of their lives. Rocky extensions of the shores would be covered with seals as they ate, mated, and raised families. It wasn’t always that way down here as they were hunted almost to extinction at one time, but man quickly learned its mistake, and made adjustments to live in harmony with nature instead of always trying to control it. It was this decision made by the Maori that allowed this little corner of the world to thrive before it was touched by Western thought.

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The changes in landscape didn’t only happen when I moved from inland to the coast either. There would be dramatic shifts when I moved from beach to beach. Where one beach would be filled with dark sand and my lonely thoughts, another would be covered in all types of trees giving it a feeling of a tropical rainforest rather than a cold water beach.

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And then there were the beaches that the people sought out to relax on. They were usually in a small coves that allowed the water to warm up a little more. Many people would dip their toes into this water, and the more adventuresome person would actually venture into the water to take a swim. The landscape made the beach even more impressive allowing me never to tire of the views.

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Sometimes the coast wouldn’t even allow for a place to pull out a beach blanket and enjoy the view. Rather, rocky cliffs would constantly be giving way to the waves crashing into them. It would develop into fantastic sculptures that only mother nature could create, and only man could decipher. Natural formed bridges would allow people to cross from one section of these sculptures to another part while watching the wave create a smaller bay right underneath it.

The landscape of New Zealand had so enthralled me by this point that I had stopped searching for every little hint of The Lord of the Rings. In fact if I had turned just a little to my left of the land bridge pictured up above, I would have seen another set used in the movies, and even though it was still interesting, it was this tiny bay carved into the hills of the coast that captured my imagination. I was starting to become enchanted with this land, and my original purpose was getting lost among everything I was experiencing.

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The people with their quirky sense of humor were wonderful to visit. At first, it threw me off because they were overly friendly and I was coming from a place where this wasn’t natural, but I quickly accepted it and enjoyed every moment of it. There were also funny little gems along the side of the road that forced you to laugh when you saw them. Before you even realized what it was you actually saw, you would be further down the highway laughing out loud about the way the people of New Zealand could make you laugh without even having to interact with them. Items like this sign or a construction of a Gary Larson cow would instantly put a smile on my face. It made the time I got to spend here even more enjoyable.

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If that wasn’t enough, the towns that were scattered throughout the country all held their own special charm. A small town would give you the feeling of living in the old west as it shop fronts would maintain a rustic design. Just off the beaten path from here was a river in which you could actually dig up part of the bank and sluice through the dirt to try to find some of the gold that was there. It wasn’t that unusual of a thing to do either because there were a bunch of people who were doing it.

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There were even some mountain communities that reminded me of the ones I left behind in Colorado. During the summer months, this town offered many exciting opportunities such as mountain biking, and bungee jumping; the latter of which, I found out, was invented in this small mountain town and then spread throughout the rest of the world. Though I did not partake in either of these activities here, it did not stop me from hiking around the hills and even riding a couple of luges down a cement track laid on one of the hillsides.

I could just imagine this place during the winter as well. It would still have that cozy feel that I experienced when I was there, except it would be covered in a blanket of white instead of the green canopy. People wouldn’t be walking around in shorts and t-shirts while carrying around skateboards, but instead, would have snowboards under their arms as they trudge off towards the slopes in their heavy coats and snow pants. It was the tourist destination that you always expect when you are on vacation, but with split personalities that you won’t get to experience unless you go back in a different season.

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And even though they might be modest compared to other places within the world, New Zealand even had its share of large cities. Even these places were very livable, and seeped in culture. Of course, if you still want that thrill, you can bungee jump off of the needle in the middle of town.

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Hidden within all of this is an indigenous culture that is rich in history and unique among all of the cultures of the world. Though it is believed that the Maori people originate from Tahiti, it still had been removed from those people long enough to create its own art, its own philosophy, and its own spirituality. This was a culture that was embraced by the people who moved here from Western Civilization; instead of them trying to take over the culture. A lot of this was probably due to the fact that it was the last part of the world that the European countries ever found, and some of the first people to land here, such as Cook, could see the mistakes that had been made in other places that were colonized that he didn’t want to make the same ones down here. It allowed the cultures to eventually live in harmony with one another, and not to let the Maori culture to get blended with the European one and eventually disappear. This history, though short, is very rich and should be looked at more often in history classrooms across the world, but won’t be because of the fact that New Zealand is so far away from any other country.

All of the richness of this faraway land was revealed to me throughout the course of my travels, and I might have missed it due to one of my passions. Though I would often say that you should never let anybody put you down for that thing that makes you a geek, I am now able to say to not let that passion consume you. For if you do, you will be a lot like Sméagol hiding out under the Misty Mountains content with what will come your way. You need to make it out of that cave every once in a while and experience different things. Don’t let that passion leave you because it is a part of who you are, but let other people’s passions into your heart as well.

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The voyage that you take might surprise you and what you find will become unexpected. It is what makes life worth living. Though my pilgrimage originally started out as an exploration of a great passion of mine, it turned into something even greater than I would have expected. It was for this reason that this will always be one of my favorite trips.

But don’t worry, I still got to see Mt. Doom!

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The God Organ by Anthony J. Melchiorri

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The God Organ gets a strong eight out of ten.

When I picked up this novel, it was marketed under dystopian literature, and I expected to see a bleak landscape with no hope for its characters that mirrored the problems seen in the United States today. What I got instead was a pleasant surprise. Anthony J. Melchiorri tell the story of a great mystery wrapped around the development of a new medical marvel, the God Organ.

The year is 2064, and LyfeGen, a biomedical company, has developed the Sustain, termed by some the God Organ. This medical marvel allows the person who has it implanted into their body the benefit of no longer suffering from heart attacks or strokes. It also offers the bearer a more youthful appearance for the rest of their lives which also gets extended because of this device. Preston Carter enjoys the benefits from his creation both financially, as well as physically because he was one of the first people to have this invention implanted in his body. This is until he falls victim to a stroke that sets into motion a series of events that questions the integrity of this miracle device.

Anthony J. Melchiorri does a wonderful job of bringing to light some of the modern problems facing the Unites States such as the ever-growing division between the classes, and the disadvantage this puts on the poorer members of society as they not only struggle with making financial ends meet, but also with their inability to get the medical attention that they need. Add to this the fact that the jobs usually held by the masses are being taken over by automated machines, making it even more difficult to find anything worth a person’s time and effort, except for those who have the luxury of some of the more prestigious positions. He also brings up issues with the power of religion over certain people as it takes on issues that it perceives to be against their beliefs, and the declining power of print media as fewer people read it and more of it is written by algorithms. These are real issues and Melchiorri handles them well.

The most surprising part of this novel is the way that it was written. It has lots of strong characters that at first don’t seem to have any connection with one another but in the end blend together very nicely. Each character has their own problems and their own flaws which makes none of them the perfect person and also makes them very realistic. He also doesn’t write his story as an overdone representation of what the world will look like in the year 2064. Instead, he shows what life will be like at that time making strong predictions based on the direction that society is headed in. It is refreshing to see a science fiction novel written this way.

But because of the way it is written, I think calling it science fiction is a mistake. The story has more of a feel of a mystery or a thriller, and fans of that genre would really love this story. I don’t believe the hardcore science fiction fan will like this story as much even though there is a lot there to make it worthy of that genre. It definitely keeps the reader engaged with the twists and turns that only a good mystery can take.

Camping Korean Style

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Dictionary.com defines Taoism as “the philosophical system evolved by Lao-tzu and Chang-Tzu, advocating a life of complete simplicity and naturalness and of noninterference with the course of natural events, in order to attain a happy existence in harmony with the Tao.” (Taoism) Basically Tao literally translates into English as the way or the path.

Being a professed Transcendentalist, this idea appealed to me as I made my move to Korea. It conjured up images of a society that blended together with nature to create a new harmony between these two opposing forces. I was told of hiking trails in the hills surrounding the city of Seoul that within seconds would make you feel like you were out of the city. Tales of a community that enjoyed the outdoors was regaled to me on numerous occasion before I took the flight over. I was going to a country that loved skiing, hiking, and camping. How could I not look forward to this. Even in one of the largest cities in the world, I would be able to find nirvana just by walking out my front door and finding peace among the trees that surrounded me. Even though there is some truth what was explained to me, what I built up in my minds rarely lives up to that expectation.

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I had the chance to go on a “camping” trip with people I work with at my school. It was suppose to be an opportunity for us to gather together in a remote part of South Korea, and celebrate the holiday with the people who have become our family out here. The head of the experiential education program set up a place for us for this adventure. It wasn’t necessarily camping because she had rented out a whole pension for those who had signed up. It was located in a beautiful part of the country called Peyongchang. The pension itself is a series of cabin like rooms that overlooks an amazing river and is close to a cave that you can explore next to some wonderful hiking trails. It wasn’t exactly my idea of camping but then again it was cold outside so there would haven’t been as many people willing to come if they had to spend the night in tents. The first snowfall of the season confirmed their beliefs that this was the way to go.

The pension rooms definitely lived up to the concept of Taoism. There was not a lot added to the room and we were given the bear minimum in order to make ourselves comfortable. There was a thin pad you unrolled on the hard floor to sleep on. They also provided you with a pillow and a comforter to keep you warm. The small kitchen had one electric burner, and one gas one. They did supply us with a canister of propane, even though we never used it. They did give us enough plates, chopsticks and spoons for four people. Luckily, we had five people sharing the room, but we made it work. The whole layout required us to get very comfortable with each other and there is some to say about that.

It still wasn’t roughing it. Some of the others who came along might have thought that it was truly out in the wilderness because there was no Wi-Fi connection which for a younger generation would be like going back to the dark ages, but once again this was something that I really appreciated. It forced all of us to take those extra steps to talk with each other instead of hiding within our electronic devices.

It still wasn’t this connection with nature that I was hoping for or used to. I wanted the feeling that I had gotten away from signs of humanity and could enjoy the natural way of things. How was I able to be in harmony with Tao if wherever I looked there was some sign of human interaction? Even on hikes up in the hills behind the pension, it was hard to escape from these signs.

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Now I have been on many hikes during my lifetime in the mountains of Colorado, and I have run into cairns many times on these hikes. They were small stacks of stones to help guide you on your hike so you wouldn’t get lost. I know that they would be considered signs of human interaction, but they are easy to ignore as soon as you find them because they will blend back into the environment.

The cairns I ran into on the hillsides of Korea were a little different. They weren’t stacks of five or six rocks to help guide your way, but instead a large stack of stones that obviously took more than five minutes to put together. In fact this labor of love looked more like an archway welcoming you to the rest of the trail rather than a few guiding markers. It was impressive to look at, but it instantly reminded me of the fact that I was now in one of the most heavily populated areas of the world. As I have mentioned before, it might be because I have been spoiled by growing up in Colorado and have been able to experience those moments of extreme solitude that when I see a sight like this I automatically think of those moments and wonder why the rest of the world can’t preserve the nature that is around them instead of trying to enhance it.

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Does it make me antisocial to want to have these moments where I enjoy the world for myself? Would you claim that I am being selfish for not wanting to share it with anybody else? Do I expect to find comfort in only what nature has to offer me instead of what mankind can prove it can do? I think back to Taoism and revel in the fact that the way cannot be perceived the same for everyone. There should be no guidance along the path because only I can find the revelation for myself. The paths that I found in the hills of Korea contradicted this idea in my mind’s eye.

I voyaged back down to the pension and this idea that Korea had about camping disappointed me a little bit. I know that not every culture tries to experience things in the same way and they have their own take on things, but still I couldn’t help to think that maybe, somehow, Korea had gotten it wrong in this case. The connection with and the struggle against nature is what camping should be about and not this moment where you go out there to relax in it and enhance it. I didn’t spend too much time worrying about it though because I only had a short break off from work and one of my favorite holiday traditions was asking for my attention.

That night the folks from my school gathered together in a large hall in the pension and everybody brought a couple of dishes to share. We gathered around the table, stuffing our faces with the traditional fare as well as some new items that were brought from people from other cultures. We shared stories, we laughed, and eventually somebody brought out a guitar and we sang together. It wasn’t a new experience for me, but I felt at that moment a joy I hadn’t felt in many years. It was the same joy I used to feel on Thanksgiving Day when I gathered with my extensive family, a feeling of love and kindness. Glasses were raised and for the first time out here in Korea, I felt like I belonged to something greater. It was euphoric. It was a collection of individuals brought together to create something special that would endure forever. It was in harmony with everything around me, and yet I could feel that it was always there to begin with. Maybe it was the Tao that I was searching for in the first place.

I came to a realization that day that when looking for what is important in life, I shouldn’t look for what I expect to find because what that is never truly existed. Instead I should take in what is given to me and enjoy it for what it is worth. That is the place where I will find something special, and I need quit searching for it. Maybe that is what is meant by finding the way. So even though camping in Korea is nothing like what I am used to, I am still able to find a new truth through the experience that I wasn’t able to find before. Maybe instead of looking for the power of nature, I should start to look for a way that I can live in harmony with it. Even though nature’s beauty has a lot to offer, like a thousand rocks brought together, and fifty strangers gathered, there can be an enhancement to that beauty that makes it a greater marvel than what it started out being.

“Taoism.” Dictionary.com. 2005. Houghton Mifflin Company. 5 December 2015 http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/taoism

The Woodman: Book One. The Roads of Hell by G. H. Bright

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In a post-apocalyptic world, who can you trust? The question of what any stranger is getting out of the starting a relationship with you and whether or not if these motives are really worthy enough to commit yourself to their company always pop up. Sometimes you might have to give up something small, but there is a good chance that their reasons might be something dangerous and could lead to potential pain and suffering on your part. Therefore, you want to be careful. That is until you meet the legendary Woodman. He has proclaimed to uphold justice and seek to help those in need. Rumors of him have spread throughout the forests of Southern England, and if you meet him, you better hope that you are on the side of good because he is not a person whose bad side you want to be on.

This is the hero of G. H. Bright’s first installment of The Woodman series, The Roads of Hell. He will remind you of the concept of Batman in the recent movies featuring this superhero. The Woodman is not a single person, but an idea that can be passed down from one to another in order make sure that justice is served in a violent world.

The world of the novel has become a dramatically different place after a man was allowed to get on a plane from Africa with the Ebola virus. The disease quickly spread, and soon many people died. Of course there were those who were able to survive for various reasons, but this was the minority. Without all of those people around to maintain the infrastructure of the world, transportation and communication as now known by modern society became non-existence. Mankind was forced to live in another dark ages where the strong ruled and the weak got preyed upon. This is the world that the Woodman now lives in.

He tries to keep safe the little corner that he inhabits as he also protects the only haven that he knows about, Coast Town. The town is under the threat of a vicious criminal, the Black Pope, and his band of knights. They have raided the local museum and used the medieval armor they found there as their new uniforms. They travel the countryside making slaves out of anyone they come across, and threatening everyone with the guns that they carry. It turns into an epic battle to save the innocence of this small town from the obvious threat of evil that is brought there by the Black Pope.

The set up to this story creates a very entertaining ride with some wonderful characters. The Black Pope plays out as one of the most memorable villains in recent memory, and the demonic landscape left behind after the epidemic is not your typical post-apocalyptic wasteland. G. H. Bright introduces us to a vivid world of what it would be like if we had to take a step back from out modern conveniences.

There are a couple of problems with the overall book. The story continues long after the climax which leave the reader feeling as if things were drug out a little too long. These story lines could have started the second book instead of finishing off the first one. It just seemed to be placed there as a marketing ploy to leave you with a cliffhanger so you would go out and purchase the next installment. I don’t think G. H. Bright needed to do this though. He could have let the story end after the climax, and it would have been entertaining enough that I would have wanted to get the next book anyway. Even with this flaw, it was still a fun read and definitely worth your time.

For this reason I give The Woodman: Book One. The Roads of Hell a seven out of ten.