Archive for May, 2009

a thousand stories in the naked city

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

The thing about Taiwan is, it’s never boring. Every time you go out there is something surreal or something new, a small annoyance or a tiny triumph. Today dragonboat practice provided all four, and we were the surreal element. First I went to 7-11 to pay a couple of bills, only to be told I couldn’t – they weren’t bills, just receipts from auto-payments. Which is nice, but reminds me of how much I hate being functionally illiterate. Then I caught a cab to the bar where we practice; it was a triumph when I was first able to give an address to a taxi driver, or tell him when to turn left or turn right, but this may have been the first time I understood what a driver was saying to me in Mandarin (basically, I handed him the card of the place, he studied it a bit, I asked “OK ma” (= OK?) and he replied with the equivalent of “Yeah, yeah, I know it.”) Then since I’d caught the cab on the wrong side of the street we went down some different streets than usual and I was pleased to notice a new Thai traditional massage place right around the corner from home.

Our dragonboat races are this weekend, so tonight was not really a practice, just a change to hand out the shirts and caps we’ll be wearing. A few people showed up who hadn’t been at practices before, and we did a bit of, er, ‘sweep rowing’ with our brooms for photo ops. With more people there we were in the main area of the bar instead of at one end, and the bar was a sea od Dutch orange – I think we provided the surreal experience of the night for a number of patrons. Unfortunately, my camera battery was dead, so I don’t have pictures.

I was thinking on the way home, there are a thousand stories in this city, and not all of them are Taiwanese. I’m getting a picture of the Philippines from here, too. Filipinos I knew back in the US had mostly been of fairly high status back in the Philippines; they emigrated because of a change in the family fortunes, or to give their kids more freedoms and more options, or because they were on the wrong side of a political change. Now I’m getting a picture of a country with a sharp divide between rich and poor; a lot of the Filipinos here seem to have emigrated to escape poverty. Taiwan is a lot closer and presumably easier to get to. Many work as maid or caretakers of some kind (they speak English and so are in demand among expats; our biweekly cleaning people are Filipino). There’s a whole infrastructure for sending packages or money to relatives back home, as with Mexicans in the US, and as in the US there are some issues with workers who don’t have proper permits to work. But two data points isn’t much to base a theory on, and of course I could be totally wrong.

tracking Ted

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

If anyone is curious where Ted is right now, he’s back in the Netherlands in the middle of the Elfstedentocht race, a relay that takes 24 hours. (Same course as the famous Dutch skating race.)

You can see his exact location on the live tracker here – Click on start then look for the Beatrix boat. There’s also a webcam here.

boat moving: the saga

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

Thank goodness that’s over. What a stressmare.

On Wednesday I received the following email from one of the rowing coaches:
“Hello Paula

I have been announced by the government that all the boats have to
move away this week or they will move by themselves, because of
dragonboat festival.They will put it back after that.”

(He meant the city government would move the boats themselves. We have not yet achieved self-propelled rowing shells, unfortunately.)

Now, this is progress, because any of the other times the boats have been moved we were not informed in advance. However, this year we’ve met Henry, another local rowing coach (from a school) who is both very nice and speaks good English, so he was being kind to send this notice along. However, every time the government has moved our boat they’ve come back with new dents and dings – the last time, Ted’s Empacher needed repairs to be even rowable.

My boat was not a problem; One of Henry’s kids borrowed it and scratched the paint, so he’s taking it to an automotive place to get the scratches repainted. He’ll just leave it there during the festival. Also, as an open water boat it’s sturdy as rowing shells go and has an excellent cover that completely surrounds the boat. Ted’s Empacher prima donna, though, is more fragile and has a sucky cover that leaves the top deck exposed. (Boats are usually stored upside down.) Ted reallyreally didn’t want the government to hurt it again.

Ted, may I point out, is also in the Netherlands racing the Elfstedentocht this weekend.

Moving the boats would have been no big deal in AZ, where we had a good rack, a Hummer to mount it to, and a big back yard, though. Here, though, my assets included a rack we’d never used, an SUV wth built in rack whose bars are way too close together to support a 27′ boat well and which are too wide to fit the U-bolts that came with the boat rack, and no yard. There is no way a truck with boat on top could get through the snail-spiral entrance to our apartment garage – I probably couldn’t even carry it down – and nowhere really to put it in the garage. However, I did have one other asset: lots of people willing to help.

I panicked a bit and was tempted to let the government deal with it because no other options seemed really feasible, but Ted was very worried about his boat. Fortunately he has one guy in his group who is both very handy and very familiar with our logistics and warehouse facility, and they’d talked about possible boat moving an storage options. Further, I have to meet a few people in my group at our office this weekend, to give them a ride to a group barbeque, so I’d have extra hands to help unload the boat. I talked to one who agred to help, and later asked another about the legalities of driving with something sticking out over both ends of the car. (He googled around a bit, but didn’t find much.)

Just when it was beginning to look somewhat possible, it turned out that when the Taipei city government said to move the boats this week, they meant THIS WEEK, as in before the weekend. Henry found out Tuesday and the boats were originally supposed to be moved Wednesday (apparently they told his school and the school didn’t tell him). The boats hadn’t been moved by the time Henry left the river Wednesday (he told me in subsequent emails), so he thought they’d actually be moved on Friday.

So now I had one day to get the rack assembled and mounted and the boat moved. Also, it’s really not easy to get a boat on a cartop single-handed; when you’re my size it’s not really possible without the risk of a few more scratches.

That’s where the people asset came in. The guy in Ted’s group, R, took me to talk to the logistics people who own the warehouse. The manager suggested a place for the boat had someone in her group email me the proper “Non-Inventory Storage Form”. (Are you counting? That’s six people helping so far.) R spent a lot of effort (and scrounged a few parts), figuring out how to mount the rack on the car (it had come missing a few bolts – apparently the Chinese (China-Chinese, not Taiwan) company I bought it from concentrates their quality control on the actual boats,
which at least is the right priority). He went off and got things ready, then we spent a sweaty hour or so assembling and mounting the rack. I left work early – with my boss’s permission since we don’t have flex-time here (Seven people) – and drove to where the boats were stored by the river, listening for creaks and watching for motion in the rack.

I was pretty nervous by then, knowing that the trickiest bit of driving would be getting from the river to my apartment – narrow roads, lots of turns, rush hour. On the way home, though, I saw one of the most vivid rainbows I’ve ever seen, and about the first one I’ve seen here. When I first saw it, it ended spectacularly right at the Taipei 101 building. That made me feel a lot better – whether you view rainbows from a purely religious viewpoint (a promise from God that everything will be all right) or a purely secular one (a reminder that there are wonders in this world) they are calming.

The rowing coach (I already counted him) met me there and helped put the boat on the rack, clearly as much of a veteran at this as I am. He showed me a way out of the park that didn’t involve crossing three lanes of traffic and making a U-turn, and followed me home to watch the back end of the boat nad keep anyone from getting too close. We got there to find part of the street closed but fortunately not until after my building. I parked on the street in a spot that’s legal after 8. It was only 6 PM but it’s a tiny steet and the building guard (eight) was there to watch. Henry explained the boat thing to him, and then left.

After all that I erged, so I could get up early and not have to do it this morning. I was on the road before 6:30 – not only less traffic but fewer cops. I parked in back of the office, diagonally across a few spots that are usually empty, then worked until people came in. No one in my group had seen either a rowing shell or the warehouse area, so five people came with me to get the warehouse people (who only speak Chinese) to open the door and help carry the boat in. (Nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen – fourteen people helping, counting the warehouse guy.) We got the boat in and the rack dismounted, I returned a wrench I’d borrowed from R, and got back to my desk – just in time to wash my hands, get a drink, and go teach a class to some of Ted’s people. (Never marry a manager, they make you work. Remember that this was not my boat.)

I’m sure this was all tiring to read. You can imagine what it was like to live. Now at least it’s all done for a few weeks – after that we’ll load up both boats and take them out to store in the boathouse at Ilan. It’s an hour’s drive away but there’s a boathouse and a real dock so at least we’ll get on the water sometimes. At least there will be two of us for that operation; somehow this stuff always happens when Ted is away.

Your assignment for today:

Friday, May 15th, 2009

Convey the message “If you spend NT$300 more [~US$10] you can get a VIP card worth 10% discount,” using only a calculator and body language.

Yeah, me neither. But the clerk at Burt’s Bees managed it, after we established that I speak only a few words of Chinese and she speaks scarcely more English. People here really are astonishingly nice to foreigners (even when there’s not a profit involved).

Also, yet another reason to love living in the future: I walked to the mall tonight for a dinner of teppanyaki and gelato. Try that in 1957!
(The teppanyaki, maybe, since Japan controlled this island until WWII. But with whiskey-flavored gelato?)

getting around Taipei

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

RIding in Taiwanese taxicabs can be … interesting, where by “interesting” I mean “prone to make me want to curl into fetal position and cover my head with my arms”. Yesterday, for example, travel to and from dry-land dragonboat practice (in a bar) featured both a left turn followed by another quick left with driving in the oncoming-traffic lane for 30m between the two turns, and driving most of the way across the Dazhi bridge in the scooter lane.

And coming home from dinner Monday night I get to hear the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. (Are the BeeGees still alive? Given that Air Supply is coming back again soon after a sell-out tour last year, I’d bet they’d do well here.)

Of course there are upsides to all of this. FOr one thing, those were two of my four, count’em four social engagements this week. Especially with Ted in the Netherlands again, it’s nice to go out and talk to people. (The other two are on-the-water dragonboat practice Saturday and teaching beading techniques to my boss’s wife Sunday.)

Even more important, I think that one thing I will greatly miss after we get back to the US is having the freedom of the city even after dark. I love being able to go places on my own when I need to, even being able to walk on city streets safely.

Malaysia photos

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

Here are the pictures – around the resort, the beach, the monkeys.  Click on an image to see it larger. We’d definitely recommend the Club Med at Cherating Beach, which is their oldest and largest in Asia – we liked it enough to consider going back to another Club Med sometime, even though it’s very different from our usual style of vacation.

I’m still sore, though – blame the trapeze!


(And no, I didn’t complete the “catch” in that one photo. Close, though.)

Malaysia is a beautiful country, from what we saw at the resort and on the way there, and in our landings at Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu. Way too hot for me, but with the beautiful blue skies we’ve been missing in Taiwan. Shame it took us about 14 hours door to door to get home – everything went well, the flights just don’t line up nicely. But despite the long travel times it was a great vacation.

not ready to leave

Friday, May 8th, 2009

I felt a little guilty about going to a Club Med, fer gossakes, giant multi-national Euro-corporation that it is, instead of having a holiday in which I’d actually get to see a country. But this has been wonderful, if a little less relaxing and more bruising than anticipated (courtesy of golf lesson (ouch, yuck, clearly not my sport), archery (I can’t imagine I’ll ever be great but it was fun and I’d like to play around with it more), kayaking (I’ve done a bit of that before), sailing (easier than expected), ocean swimming, aquafit class (silly but at least you get to be in the pool), climbing (less fun without proper shoes), and flying trapeze (ouch, scary, and I want to do more). Oh, and juggling lessons. I still can’t get past 4 or 5 catches in a row, but Ted, who already could do basic juggling, has now learned to pass.

Also, they have monkeys and giant lizards – the former kept appearing only when we had no cameras, but they finally came out and posed for photos late this afternoon.

And the food is excellent, orders of magnitude better than our disappointing cruise experience a few years ago. The people here are really nice too, clearly the sort who really do enjoy meeting new people. One Taiwanese woman, one of the circus performers (trapeze, silks, juggling) has a brother who lives only 1-2 km from us and also works in the same office park, which is unusual since it’s a 40-minute drive from one to the other.

I am not looking forward to the next three days, which feature: Sat: going home, which means leaving the resort at 8:30AM and arriving home around 11PM, same time zone – not that far but flights aren’t conveniently timed); Sun: Ted off the the Netherland for nearly 3 weeks; Mon: back to work. But I do have two things to look forward to: the last Percy Jackson book just came out and is available for Kindle and the second Erec Rex is ditto.

6:30 AM wake-up call tomorrow, yuck.

what do you know, it *does* live up to its billing

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

The guy who runs Club Med at Cherating Beach, Malaysia (who refers to himself as the “Chief of the Village” likes to say “Welcome to Paradise”. He’s not far off. Remember when we took that cruise in the Mediterranean and were not wowed with the food? No fear of that here – the buffet features eastern and western food, lots of each. And it’s good. It’s steamy-hot, but not as and as I feared, and the ocean ranges from warm-bath hot to comfortably warm depending on how far in you go. We did a sailing lesson today, and some archery, plus kayaking and a quick tour of the place.

We are now at 3.83 degrees latitude, having been as far north as 67.9 degrees north earlier this year in Sweden – we’ll get to 43 South this fall. North and South hemispheres as well as East and West for a total of four continents – a good travel year.