Some good practice versus Hong Kong here in Taipei, and then a trip to Macau for beach rugby. I’m not a huge fan of Macau, and since I spent most of my time on a rainy, sandy pitch I didn’t get around all that much except for a couple nights hanging in the old town center. The most noteworthy travel experience this time around was flagging a cab for the airport 70 minutes before my flight and making it there, though security, and to the gate with time to spare.
Taiwan is riding out a strong, loud, and rather slow-moving typhoon, and I am therefore stuck in my apartment. Might as well blog. And yes, I know it’s not technically summer any longer. This typhoon is our third storm inside ten days; the first swept across the southern tip of Taiwan, the second across the north, and this current one is cutting a diagonal path right across the middle. The wind and rain have been terrible, but I still have power and water. Looking outside, the damage doesn’t seem that bad, either – just some trees and signs down, scooters blown over, and debris all over the place. We’ve just gotten notice that tomorrow will be a second typhoon day, with work and classes cancelled island-wide. We have four or five typhoon days each storm season, but this is the first time that I’ve had double days off.
Let’s see. It’s been almost two months since I came back from America. Most of the month of August was shadowed by the ghost festival. In my very traditional neighborhood, it’s impossible to walk down the road during this month without running across people burning money or possessions, or setting tables full of offerings for their ancestors. Temple parades and street rituals happen daily, and there’s a much higher amount of incense wafting around than usual.
A family from my church moved to Sanchong over the past summer, so now I actually know some other expats living in my neighborhood. One of the reasons I chose to live where I do is because there is a distinct lack of foreign people – much easier to be immersed in Taiwanese culture and language. And I can also attest to the fact that a foreign face brings fun and interesting interactions with the locals, particularly if they aren’t used to seeing laowai living amongst them. I’m glad that this family has moved to Sanchong, though. It’s nice knowing that people I know and can talk with are just a five minute scooter ride down the road. They moved to the area to do missions work, and I’ve been over a couple times to babysit for them.
Work has been taking most of my time. I have way more classroom hours than I currently want, but we should be getting a new teacher this month and I hope to have more free time before too long. I’m teaching two kindy classes again this year, as well as a fourth grade ESL and science class, plus an upper level evening class. I enjoy all the classes, but the administrative side of things is killing me – prep, grading, comm books, progress reports, etc. There have been some extra events lately, too. Last weekend we hosted a full day outing for parents and students to Taoyuan City, and then the next weekend I had to spend five hours at an awards ceremony for teachers.
When I do have a free evening or weekend, I still love getting around Taiwan on my scooter or on the back of a friend’s. We had a four-day weekend in mid-September for Moon Festival. The first day of vacation blessed us with a full-on typhoon, but the second holiday gave us the most perfect weather since I’d come back. The best weather always comes right before a storm, and we knew another typhoon was right behind the first so we’d better make the most of the one nice day we had.
The past month or so has been hectic and hurried. I’m leaving for the U.S. in less than 12 hours, and have yet to pack a single thing. I’ll likely end up chucking a few things in my bag around midnight before I head to the airport for an early morning flight to Korea. It’s truly strange to pack up my whole life for an entire month. Work, friends, scooter, apartment, daily routine – zaijian until August. Taiwan feels a lot like home right now, and I know I’ll miss it while I’m away.
My neighborhood never fails to entertain, so let me share some of my most recent sightings. I specifically chose to live in Sanchong, an area bordering Luzhou, where I work. These two districts are older, densely populated, and extremely traditional, but Sanchong ups the crazy and crowded with a gangster scene. I rarely see other foreigners here, which allows me to really immerse myself in the culture and language. Not a day goes by that I don’t see or do or experience something that, not so long ago, would have boggled my mind. Now it’s just everyday life.
Because Sanchong is so traditional, people’s religious beliefs influence a lot of what goes on. Almost every day I see someone burning hell money in an urn or setting up a table of offerings to the gods outside their home or business. My own workplace does the same twice a month – I’m not sure how they determine which days are auspicious or require atonement, but incense and gifts of food are set out at regular intervals. Then there are the miaohui – maybe translated to temple fair in English or, as I prefer to call them, god parades. At least every other week one of these shows come roaring through my hood, showcasing the gods themselves in idol form, temple dancers, various statuary, mediums that perform intercessions for residents, and a ton of firecrackers.
When someone dies, a procession traipses around the block too, utilizing many of the same characters as the temple parades, though usually with a decidedly worldly element – pole dancers and nightly performances for those sitting the wake. This past week someone died, and their funeral procession carried on for hours. It included some of the more beautiful temple flags I’ve seen, so I took out my camera and took some shots.
At the end of May, my rugby team played the first ever game of women’s 15s in Taiwan versus a Hong Kong team. We lost, but fared quite well all things considered. We’re hosting another team from Hong Kong in August, also 15s – and now we’ve got experience!
Mid-June was Dragon Boat Festival. My team started practicing in April, and toward the end of May we got a few really nice mornings out on the river. Race day weather, not so great. We had a four-day weekend this year, and the Taipei International Dragon Boat Championship was held over the course of three of those days… and it rained on all of them. Talk about a hard race, with pelting rain and a strong current. Still fun times, though, and a really great cultural atmosphere. We were slotted in a heat with two professional teams, and came in just six seconds behind the number two boat. Not good enough to advance, but good in the grand scheme of the heat, especially since we finished light years ahead of the final boat.
I’ve been working long hours the past couple months in order to graduate my class, and finish everything that needs to be done before I leave. I will miss their graduation ceremony, which falls pretty much the same time as Tom’s wedding (with the time difference), but I still had to get them performance-ready by that time, minus the week I won’t be here. Graduating to primary school is a huge deal for children in Taiwan, which means it’s also a huge deal for their teachers. Huge deal = huge amount of work. I’ll save that rant for another post, though, and just say that I really will miss these little rugrats.
We were just told this week which classes we will teach next year. I’ll take my B3 class, the original derps who happen to by my all-time favorites, to G3 (another grad, yay!). This will be my third year with them. I’ll also take a class who is a year behind, as well as an after school primary English/science class. It’s a ton of classroom hours, but I’ll be done with teaching every night by 7pm.
So that’s about it. A few more random scenes from my neighborhood.
After a weekend of rest and relaxation – and rugby – I’ve decided that Okinawa is my new vacation destination. What a gorgeous island, perfect for adventuring and chilling, and only an hour and a half flight from Taipei! This was my first time to Japan in three years, though I felt that Okinawa is really nothing like the main island. Also because I only stayed in the Naha area it felt a lot more like America than Japan to me. The small bits I saw were beautiful and welcoming, and have convinced me to return as soon as possible. 🙂
My rugby team caught a Friday evening flight from Taipei to Okinawa, and by the time all we girls and guys had made it through customs and onto the bus to a taxi stand it was pretty late. A bunch of us had booked rooms in a small hotel, but when we arrived no one was at the reservation desk. A real comedy of errors ensued as we tried everything to contact the staff and get into our rooms. At one point I googled how to say manager in Japanese, and I thought we were finally getting somewhere when a local fellow jumped up to offer his assistance… by walking over to switch on the massage armchair and spreading his arms wide in welcome. When pulling the fire alarm didn’t result in anyone showing up, we decided we’d exhausted all options, and went to a have a midnight snack and then crash on teammates’ floors in other hotels. Sleepless rugby tours are a thing, and we definitely kept with that tradition.
We got up early the next morning to go play some RUGBY! You know, the reason I was even in Okinawa to begin with. Our matches were slotted to be played on base, and we were meant to be at the gates of Camp Lester at 8am to verify our presence. Our team was down several players in advance because we had been told that ROC and HK passports aren’t allowed on US military property, and those nationalities are about half our team. Those of us hailing from countries acceptable to US military review sailed through the checkpoint, slopped on sunscreen, and then slipped back out for a Starbucks run before we started warming up. We played three matches and watched the guys play their games. It was a total blast – lots of playing time and good competition, and fun times just hanging out. And the weather cooperated 110 percent with gorgeous blue skies and a breeze that took just enough edge off the heat.
We ladies were finished around 2pm, so I left with my friend J who’d come to watch our last match. I was already pretty tired and banged up and super hungry, but I was rejuvenated by the idea of seeing more of Okinawa than just some military camp’s rugby pitch. We headed for food straight away to a restaurant where customers push buttons on a computerized menu, and then sit down to wait for their orders. Japanese innovation for you. After a quick stop at J’s apartment to change, we ended up at the seawall with a bunch of friends, a bag full of snorkel gear and a couple paddleboards. I’d heard Okinawa has some of the best snorkeling in the world, and I was not disappointed. Underwater was a turquoise blue world filled with schools of fish and beautiful coral. I saw a blowfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and some venomous black and white snakes that I swam away from really fast! We snorkeled out to where the reef dropped off into deep water, and my friend gave me some deep diving lessons on equalizing so that my eardrums wouldn’t burst. Now I just need to work on holding my breath.
After we swam back to the seawall, we paddle boarded for a little while just as the sun was going down. J swore that this was far from one of Okinawa’s best sunsets because the clouds had come in, but I thought it was pretty darn gorgeous. We went back to get washed up, as we both had social engagements that night. I hitched a ride over to my rugby social, where I found all the teams who’d played in the tournament that day, including my own Babes who had done some excellent work on their tour outfits. I’ll just say that the tour theme was “jorts” and leave it at that. And this is the only picture of the evening I’m willing to provide… without my jorts.
I’d love to say I woke up early and gung-ho for touring the island the next morning, but it’d been a late social night, and I was both exhausted and in some serious pain. J suggested a chill morning complete with an all-American breakfast. Sold. We went onto Kadena Air Base, and after stopping to get me registered for a pass, I got a whirlwind tour. I was essentially back on American soil for an hour, which was cool and all, but mostly really strange. Here I was in Japan standing in the cereal aisle of an American base supermarket like, what even IS all this stuff? We swung through a gas station and paid in American dollars, and I realized I was getting some serious reverse culture shock vibes while still half a world away from home. Don’t even get me started on the home-cooked bacon and eggs breakfast and the fact that I was heading back to Taipei with graham crackers and Reese’s cups in my bag.
J was on duty that afternoon, so after brunch I said goodbye to the American Village and hopped a bus south to Naha, where I spent a few hours touring the city and visiting Shuri-jo. I ran into a few guys from the squad there, so we headed together directly to the airport to catch our flight. The natural thing was to head for international departures, but none of us had been paying enough attention when we arrived on Friday to remember now that we needed to be at the LCC terminal, since we were flying on the cheap with Peach Air. That required us to walk all the way to domestics and catch a bus to the proper departure area. Fun times.
I’m planning another trip to Okinawa this autumn, and I hope to get farther north, and also do a lot more snorkeling and some hiking and cycling. I didn’t visit any of the war memorials because I didn’t want to rush through, so that’s on the list as well. I want to get more of a feel for Okinawan culture… not that I’d say no to another weekend with a decidedly American feel, either. 🙂
When I flew into Hong Kong on Saturday morning I was in a terrible mood. I wasn’t keen on spending the next four days there when I had so much going on back in Taipei. But such is life, and Hong Kong is, after all, one of my very favorite cities in the world. Within an hour of landing I was gung-ho to hit the streets and get lost in the energetic vibe of the city. I did a tango with the Chinese Embassy, checked into my hotel, and then my camera and I switched to full wanderer mode, seeing places I’d been a dozen times before and stumbling onto some completely new scenes.
Hong Kong is the perfect city for an aimless ramble filled with wrong turns; new discoveries wait around every corner, there are stunning views from pretty much anywhere, and the people-watching is set for primetime. No matter how many times I go up the Peak or stroll along the TST I think how lucky I am to be staring at the most gorgeous skyline on earth yet again. I could easily spend days wandering around this city without getting bored.
I tried finding a church up in mid-levels on Sunday morning and ended up having my own personal service as I followed Kennedy Road in the wrong direction for a solid hour… maybe cabbing it actually is the better option from time to time. But I love all the old-school public transit option. Trams and ferries are slow-paced and cheap and the perfect way to take in Hong Kong’s daily life. I had a couple good hikes, ate too much dim sum, and even did some shopping. Ha, I was looking for a dress for Tom’s wedding, but I actually bought a new mouthguard and some sweet kicks. And, because I actually did have work to finish, I spent an entire afternoon in the Central Public Library.
Most of my time rambling was spent working the settings on my new camera. I’ve been meaning to figure it out for a while now, and an extended weekend in Hong Kong gave me the perfect opportunity. Enjoy!
As usual, Hong Kong ended up revitalizing me, and I was sorry to leave – especially when my carefully chosen 945pm flight didn’t back away from the gate until 1037. The last twenty minutes into Taipei was directly through a lightning storm, which was terrifyingly cool until it turned out that meant circling over Taoyuan Airport for another forty minutes until we were cleared to land. I didn’t hit my apartment until 2am. Luckily, I had less than three days back at the grind before turning around and heading straight back to the airport to catch a flight to Okinawa. Stay tuned. 🙂
Yesterday’s rugby practice. It’s been raining since New Year’s, give or a take a few sunny days here and there. Mudbath, anyone?
Somewhere about halfway down Taiwan’s East Rift Valley, I realized that I was on my fourth cup of coffee in half that number of hours, and still had a long day of riding ahead of me. Like most travelers in this country, I was in awe of 7-11, a literal land of milk and honey (and caffeine) found in just about every tiny village located up and down Taiwan. Seven, as it’s known in both English and Chinese, offers water, coffee, snackage, bathrooms, wifi and anything else I might possibly need while roadtripping around the island.
This past weekend was the Chinese Qingming Festival, a public four-day holiday. I decided to head down south for a few days and drive some of my favorite roads. Buying train tickets during a holiday weekend is never easy, but I somehow ended up getting a seat for the exact train I wanted. 11:30pm on Saturday may not seem the most ideal time, but it let me hit up rugby practice and have dinner with a friend that day before I headed to Taipei Main Station to catch my train. As it was a slow train, I had a solid 6 hours of sleep aboard before pulling into Taitung Station just before 6am the following morning.
I walked to a rental shop across the road from the station, flashed my Taiwan license, and had a scooter for the next two days just like that. I’ve been to Taitung several times in the past, and it’s a great place for a vacation. For the largest city on Taiwan’s southeastern coast, it’s pretty small and completely laid-back, but you definitely need wheels to get around. I grabbed coffee and zoomed over to one of Taitung’s seaside parks where I spent an hour staring at the Pacific and face-timing the twin.
After that it was a straight shot up Highway 11 to Hualien, a good 170 kilometers or so. The 11 is a beautiful road, as it runs right next to the ocean and passes through countless small towns, many of them aboriginal. The perfect route for a day of exploring and relaxing. I’ve ridden the length of Highway 11 on a bicycle before, but that trip was in the fall. It was nice to ride the road in the springtime – and on a scooter!
About sixty kilometers up from Taitung City I reached Sanxiantai, a national scenic area full of unique rock formations and an even more unique eight-arched bridge heading out to the Terrace of the Three Immortals. The bridge looks like ocean waves or a sea dragon’s back, depending on your perspective. I spent a good two hours hiking around the island and hanging out on the rocks.
I reached Hualien City around 2 in the afternoon, after a leisurely drive along the coast. Highway 11 is set with the Pacific on one side and huge mountain ranges on the other, but in many places there are fields of crops between the road and the mountain – and sometimes between the road and the ocean, too. I saw pineapples, sunflowers, and dragon fruit, but most of the fields were rice. Every so often a graveyard appeared in the most prime locations, and because this was Tomb Sweeping weekend there were hundreds of people in each cemetery to clean the graves and pay respect to their ancestors.
When I arrived in Hualien I went straight to the beach, but within an hour the sun had disappeared and the sky became pitch black. I left to hit up my favorite wonton shop and check into my hostel. I felt a little bad crawling into bed at 7pm instead of going out, but I’ve been to Hualien a million times and I was tired. Besides, waking up at 4am the next morning meant I got halfway down Highway 9 before the sun came up 🙂
Highway 9 runs from Hualien City down Taiwan’s East Rift Valley and back out to the coast in Taitung City before continuing south. I only needed to make it about 180 kilometers between Hualien and Taitung, and by 6am I found myself in a 7-11 along the highway on my fourth cup of coffee.
An hour later I’d made it all the way to Chishang, a tiny little village in Taidong County famed for its stunning rice fields and delicious lunch boxes. Last time I was in Chishang was autumn, and the rice fields were golden yellow; now they were green and growing. I grabbed breakfast and strolled around town for an hour – also skyped with the family from the middle of a rice field.
After that it was a straight shot down Highway 9 to downtown Taidong. I went straight to the train station to buy a ticket and lucked out in a big way – I thought I’d get stuck with a standing ticket at midnight, but somehow I landed a seat on the 2pm train back to Taipei. And it was the fast train, so I’d be back in Taipei by 6pm! I called up my friend Julia who was also in Taidong, and we met up and chilled at the beach for a couple of hours. Then I returned my bike to the shop, hit up 7-11 for another coffee and slept all the way back to Taipei.