Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Chott el-Jerid

From Tozeur, we drove to Douz at the northern edge of the Sahara Desert, through Chott el-Cherid.  

On the map, Chott el-Cherid is represented as a lake, and even coloured in blue.  I was wondering what it is going to be like driving through a lake.  I was imaging a road slightly elevated above the water. I was both right and wrong.  

I was right because there was a road.  I was wrong because there was almost no water.  This is not the rainy season and the lake is practically a desert, with small pools of coloured water here and there.  

The water, apparently do fill and lake and come up to the level of the road, in rainy season.  Then it becomes the third largest salt lake in the world.  

Now all the water had vapourized, leaving behind a lot of salt.  Salt appears in may different forms.  Such as small pebbles.  

To blocks like hardened, melted cheese. 

To chunks of beautiful crystals.  

At places the sand piles up.  But not in the scale seen in iconic pictures of deserts.  

Even though I did not see vast, hill-like sand dunes, I wasn’t disappointed.  It was quite an experience. nevertheless. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Chebika Oasis

From Tozeur, we went to visit a number of oases, one of the more interesting was Chebika.  

We drove north west from Tozeur for an hour in the middle of a seemingly endless, completely flat desert.  

Suddenly, coming up from nowhere a mountain range to our right (north).  And an oasis spilling out of a gorge in the mountain.  

We skirted the oasis on the left (west).

And soon found the source of the water - a waterfall in the desert!  It was a tiny nano waterfall, but a waterfall nonetheless.  Some Russian tourists happily bathed in the little pond.  Knowing how many people have been in there, I avoided the waterfall.  

This was not really the source because the water came from further up the stream.  The water actually came from underground, out of a spring.  

We hiked up the gorge to the rim, and was rewarded by spectacular views of the mountain range, gorgeous gorges, and the desert plain in the distance. 

Coming down the mountain, we encountered an abandoned Berber village.  The village had been occupied for more than a thousand years and was abandoned in 1969 because of the damages by a flood.  Imagine that - a flood in the desert which destroyed a village.  It sounds too incredible to be true.  Yet apparently it was. 

The people from the village have since moved to a new one a little further down.  That includes the family of our guide into the oasis. 

The whole thing is just too amazing. 

Monday, August 21, 2017


Tunisia is, of course, a Muslim country today.  Many cities in Tunisia, however, seemed to have been built on the foundation of earlier civilizations, such as Rome and  Carthage.  Kairouan is clearly one which was founded by the Muslims.  In fact, it was founded by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi as a military outpost for the conquest of the Magreb, including present day Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.  

The most notable landmark is the medina (old city) around the Great Mosque.  We stayed in a hotel converted from the old fort protecting the medina.  

I went out running in the afternoon after arrival and tumbled upon the Great Mosque.  When I came out of the hotel I wasn’t sure where I was going.  The map given by the hotel showed that I wasn’t too far away from the hotel.  When I found that the neighbourhood looked friendly enough, I decided to make a loop and tried to reach the Great Mosque before turning back.  

In the end, I did stumbled upon the Great Mosque before I realised that I had arrived.  

When I passed one of the gates to the medina, I realised that it was actually a World Heritage site.  

There are plenty of people around, but few looked like they are tourists. A couple of kids seemed quite friendly, even though they couldn’t really speak English. 
It was late, and the Mosques was closed.  I knew I would return in the morning anyway, so I wasn’t disappointed.  I did get to see the impressive mineral and the outer walls.  Just beyond the minaret was a cemetery without markings.  It turned out to be people buried there in the early days, when Islam was struggling to establish itself in the area.  The identity of the dead were lost.  The dead are buried in another cemetery nowadays. I was also told that the dead are laid by their sides, with their feet towards Mecca, so that when they rise up at the end of the world, they would see Mecca.  

The following morning, I came again with my wife and the rest of the group.  We got to see the distinctive keyhole arches and the beautiful but austere courtyard.  

We were not allowed into the sanctuary but allowed to peek inside.  Some people were praying.  

There was a water filtration system which seems to kind of still works. 

There was also a kind of a sundial that I did not recognise and did not know how it worked.  

There was also a friendly family from Algeria.  

Kairouan had left me with good impressions. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Roman Tunisia

The Romans, and their successors the Byzantines, rule the present day Tunisia for roughly 800 years, until the conquest by the Muslims.  They left a lot of ruins behind, such as those at Dougga. It is said to be a “small” Roman town.  But it is pretty big, with a Capitol Temple, theatre, many baths, brothel, etc.  And it was not purely Roman.  It was a Numidian town before it was conquered by the Romans and some Numidian architecture remained.  

The theatre remains impressive. It still overlooks a wide plain growing a variety of crops. 

Presumably this was why Dougga was built, to protect the crops which feed armies. 

The Capitol Temple dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva (the Roman equivalent of Zeus, Hera and Athena) remains impressive, from various angles.  

There are many baths, including modern looking toilets.  One thing, however, that is missing is privacy.  Perhaps it wasn’t considered as important as it is now.  It was said Romans often do business with each other in the toilet, before golf was invented. 

At least one brothel was identified.  With a central courtyard flanked by many smaller rooms where, presumably, businesses were conducted. 

My wife pointed out to me one Roman “video”. 

These ruins have stood for more than a thousand, some more than two thousand years.  It seems the Muslim conquerors were mostly happy to just leave them there.  That apparently is not true for some of the more radical “fundamental” Muslims these days.  Fortunately, Tunisia seems to remain one of the most open and tolerant Muslim countries. 

The ruins were surrounded by a kind of cactus which produce the “prickly pears”.  

Once you get rid of the needles and thick skin, you are rewarded with juicy, lightly sweat flesh.  If you can deal with the numerous grape-seed-sized seeds.  

And it is cheap, at least in Tunisia.  

Thursday, August 17, 2017


Here I am, in modern day Tunisia.  This was the ancient land of Carthage, itself a colony setup by the Phoenicians, who came from the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the modern day Lebanon.  From here, Hannibal took the fight to the Romans around 2,200 years ago and almost destroyed them before the Romans had a chance to build an empire spanning 3 continents.   

We started at the Carthaginian fort, the basis of the fearsome Carthaginian naval power.  The bay is still there, but the fort left few traces.  

Some Carthaginian graves have been found.

Many tiny coffins littered the site, supposedly made for the babies that had been sacrificed to their gods.  Today, it is hard to imagine that people would burn their babies to please their gods.  But apparently it was a common practice in those days more than 2,000 years ago.  

The Romans won, of course, and turned Carthage into its “African” province, from whence the continent derived its name.  They then built cities and theatres, and grew so much corn that they could feed their army for centuries.  This theatre, with the iconic semi-circular shape, is said to seat 5,000 people.  Not the largest of its type, but impressive enough.  

Here lived the great Augustine, well known for the concept of the original sin, Confessions, the City of God, and so much more. 

To the right of the theatre in the photo is a mosque, a symbol of Islam, who, in turn, overcame the Romans.  

Why would someone ever find history boring?

Monday, August 14, 2017

Learning from Service-Learning (a humbling experience for the teacher)

One of the tasks in this year’s project in Rwanda was quite challenging.  We had to install a set of 12 solar panels onto the roof of a house more than 10 feet high.  Each set measured roughly 8 feet by 4 feet, weighting 24 kilograms.  We had to setup 4 such charging stations.  This was probably the most challenging, risky and critical task of the whole project this year.  Everyone had to work together correctly, efficiently, and safely.  

We went through a lot of planning and training in Hong Kong prior to going to Rwanda. On the first morning on site, we worked fairly quickly.  At one point, everyone was busy except one of the students, G (not in the photo), who seemed to be wondering what to do.  So I asked him to cut some metal wires and pull them through the holes at each of the 4 corners of he set of solar panels, so that they can be used to secure the panels once the set was on the roof.  I showed him a big pool of metal wires.  He grabbed one end and started pulling.  I watched in horror as the wire got tangled up!  I shouted to stop him, then told him he had to gently ease the metal wire from the pool.   Subsequently, it took him quite some time to figure out the length of the wire needed, how to measure the length and twist the wire for more strength.  I knew I had to be patient with him, but could not hide my impatience.  Then I got upset with myself of being impatient.  (Follow up: At the second station on a following day, G was able to do that properly.)

In the evening, the team sat down to review and reflect on the work for the day.  I remembered that there was an incident earlier when some of the students did something that upset some of the teaching staff and were then scolded.  We told the students that they should reflect on their behaviour, and have the courage to admit their mistakes.  Then I thought of myself: what about me?  Shouldn’t I have the awareness that I was wrong to be angry with G, and then have the courage to admit I was wrong.  At that point I told the group exactly that.  It was embarrassing for me to admit that I was wrong and apologise to a student.  But I felt I had to be honest to myself and to God, and I should do this "in public" to set an example.  

This is particularly relevant since Service-Learning is more about character than cognitive skills.  It is difficult to teach students something that we cannot, or will not, practice ourselves.  It is not just the students who have something to learn from Service-Learning, The same is true for us teachers.  It should not be surprising.  But I suspect we, as teachers, do not do that often enough. 

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Falling Further

Has Hong Kong fallen beyond the point of no return?  I don’t really know.  The present situation and the direction where it seems to be going are not encouraging: Communist China continues to grow in self-confidence and it is obvious it desires to impose tighter control on Hong Kong.  It also seems that Hong Kong is falling further when:

The land is increasingly in the hands of wealthy corporations controlled from the Mainland. 

More and more and more university students from the Mainland ask to be taught in Putonghua.  

More and people people, not necessarily educators, demand that schools teach in Putonghua.  

Fewer and fewer stations broadcast in English.  Even “English speaking” stations advertise in Chinese.  

More law students are taught by academics educated in the Mainland.  

Hong Kong   (where the law is held in high esteem) is regularly lectured by people from the Mainland (where the law serves the party) on matters of the law.  

More and more people counsel Hong Kong to submit to the reality of the overwhelming economic, political and military power of Communist China. (It is hopeless to try to resist, so it is better to stop resisting and learn to “enjoy” it.)

More and more religious “leaders” (who are supposed to trust in a higher order of justice and love) want us to submit to the authorities (irrespective of whether they are just or not). 

It is very difficult to be optimistic under these circumstances.  But I refuse to give up hope completely.  I believe God loves justice and He rules in the end.  And also because a life without hope is too painful to contemplate.  

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Fall of Hong Kong

Hong Kong did not fall on 1st July, 1997 when the Communist Army marched into Hong Kong.  At least, not completely. 

Hong Kong falls a little when “nationalist education” turns out to be “education in praise of the Chinese Communist Party”.  

Hong Kong falls a little when agents of the Chinese Communists Party becomes  formally legitimate Hongkongers, having stayed in Hong Kong longer enough - acquiring the right not only to vote but also to stand for election.  

Hong Kong falls a little when the chief executive exaggerates the supposed threat of Hong Kong independence so that he can demonstrate his loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party by suppressing the supposed independence movement. 

Hong Kong falls a little when the obviously incompetent official in charge of education was kept in place, apparently to spite those opposed.  

Hong Kong falls a little when the appointment of a professor as a senior manager at a university is brutally suppressed because of his relatively open minded political stance.  

Hong Kong falls a little when the chairman of a university council treats his own students as the enemy to be suppressed, instead of students to educate.  

Hong Kong falls more when the police fires tear gas at peaceful demonstrators. 

Hong Kong falls more when our residents are mysteriously and involuntarily removed to the mainland and persecuted because of speech considered unacceptable to the Communists. 

Hong Kong falls more when writers are dismissed from newspapers and reporters dismissed from broadcasters because their voices are critical of the establishment.  

Hong Kong falls more when more and more newspapers and broadcasters sell out to the establishment.   

Hong Kong falls more when Communist law is executed in Hong Kong because it is convenient for the government, even if it is a violation of the law, even when there are lawful alternatives. 

Bit by bit, Hong Kong is falling by the death of a thousand cuts.