Been raining for weeks, and the field is a bit murky. In other news, it snowed in Taipei City today. Just a few flakes, but still actually snowed for the first time in anyone’s living memory. We could see our breath in the air, and are now in the middle of the coldest snap in over ten years. There is no heat in apartments here. That is all.
After a long morning on the rugby field I came home and crashed, hoping to catch up on some much-needed sleep. Unluckily, it’s only been an hour and I’ve just been awakened by the neighborhood announcements, broadcast at top volume via ancient speakers hung strategically on buildings up and down the alleys. The same tinny old guy’s voice reviews what of importance has occurred that week, when the next god parade will be, occasional changes to the garbage truck schedule, who has died and will be shutting down traffic with their funeral, and such other consequential news. There is, alas, a speaker not too far from my window, so I hear everything that’s going on around good old Longmen Lu.
This afternoon he spent his entire installment urging the public to get out and vote, before wishing them peace and happiness and, though I may have interpreted this wrong, noting that Taiwan is a great country whose people are able to choose a leader who will guide them as a united nation in the face of outside pressure. Betraying some pretty solidly DPP leanings there, pal, though it seems most of the country will be voting in favor of the Beijing-wary Democratic Progressive Party as opposed to the old-school Kuomintang that’s been in power for most of Taiwan’s history.
Today is finally the day of Taiwan’s presidential election, as well as voting for parliament seats and various lower legislative seats, all of which conclude months of political rallies and parades and grandstanding. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten stuck behind a brigade of motorcycles flying campaign banners and shouting support for their candidate through a megaphone. Gung ho locals are also wont to block traffic by cordoning off entire blocks for political rallies, which go long and loud into the night. Every morning for the past month, the street corners are controlled by local-level politicians standing on crates and waving and bowing at passersby while their lackeys run into stopped traffic to distribute flyers and tissue packs overlaid with the political hopeful’s photo.
I’ll be glad when the election season ballyhoo dies down a bit, though sadly there will always remain the possibility of being wakened from a rare nap by the neighborhood report system. Halfway through January now, crazily enough, and busy as ever. My friends and I welcomed the New Year together with half of Taipei at the fireworks show from 101. More importantly we were blessed with a three day weekend and beautiful weather on New Year’s Day.
It’s been raining almost every day for a month now, though funnily enough the past two Saturdays have been clear and sunny – perfect rugby days. I’ve been playing for a while now, for the only international expat team in Taipei. We practice twice a week, often with the guys’ team, though more lately we’ve been having ladies-only practices. We don’t play as many matches as the men, since there are no other ladies’ teams on this little island and we must either go abroad to compete or host teams in Taiwan from elsewhere in Asia.
I’ve learnt an awful lot about the sport, one I not too long ago knew nothing about since, let’s face it, rugby isn’t exactly all the rage where I’m from. It’s a hugely physical game, and I’ve become much stronger over the last half-year – also seem to have permanently bruised legs, knees, and elbows, though there’s only been one bruised cheekbone thus far, thank goodness. I’m quite enjoying myself, as it’s good to be challenged in practice, and I’ve made a whole new set of friends in the bargain.
And now for the weird Taiwan story of the month – a teacher at work has apparently been possessed by a ghost. She’s been on leave for almost two months now because after medical professionals could find nothing wrong with her, temple professionals suggested that she was possessed by an evil spirit – and this is the kicker hahahaha – because she kicked over a gravestone when she was young. Why this spirit is now coming to haunt her years later remains a mystery, but presumably some sort of exorcism is in the works.
Every Taiwanese I’ve met believes in ghosts to one degree or another, even if they won’t straight up give a reason why. Much of the local culture and habits take into consideration the spirits of the dead and how they might affect one’s daily and future life. Almost every child I teach wears an amulet of some sort to both ward off evil ghosts and to help them with their daily tasks. One of my students told me that he had recovered from an illness “because this,” and he pulled a small Mazu charm from around his neck. A lot of people hang amulets off their cars and scooters, too.
Clearly, such beliefs influence rational thinking, as in the case of this teacher’s inexplicable stomach ailment. Among the funnier stories I’ve heard is of an expat who came home to footprints in his house leading to the outside balcony and stopping at the wall, with no set of return prints. The cops were called and, with little to go on, offered a stunning assessment of the situation: it was a ghost. We, as foreigners unaccustomed to these beliefs, laugh and joke about such stories but to many Taiwanese they are very real and ought to be taken as cautions.
And my Chinese success story of the week – I was booking a flight with my Taiwanese card, which requires me to enter a pin sent to my phone before the charges will be approved. I entered the wrong pin by accident and the entire transaction froze. I really needed that flight, so I called my bank’s customer service line and discovered that no one in the department spoke any English. Now, it’s hard enough to have a conversation in Mandarin when you’re staring someone in the face and can also follow their body language and facial cues. But phone Chinese? Next to impossible. I’m proud to report that although I’m certain I understood only about half the conversation and have absolutely no recollection of what I said to describe my issue, ten minutes later my card was functioning again, I received a new pin, and my flight was booked. Go me!
And that leads to the last bit of news. Chinese New Year is fast approaching, and I’ve decided to jet away this year. It will be my first CNY in six years to be spent outside China or Taiwan. I’ll still get my lunar new year, though, since Vietnam subscribes to the Chinese lunar calendar and the Tet holiday falls on the same day. I plan to fly to Laos for four days first, and then fly over to Hanoi in time to celebrate New Year’s. I’ve got nine days to cruise around Vietnam (pretty sure I’m sticking to Hanoi, Halong, Hue, and Hoi An this time around), and then I’ll fly from DaNang to Cambodia for five days. Then a quick stop in Malaysia and back to Taipei. The dates lined up perfectly for CNY this year, and all of Taiwan gets nine days straight. With that amount of vacation, it made sense to tack on another two weeks and have a decent backpacking trip. Prayers appreciated, as many a dodgy night bus and sketchy regional airline are about to be experienced.
Check a road trip along Taiwan’s highest drivable pass off the bucket list. The Central Cross-Island Highway is one of just three roads that connect Taiwan’s west coast with the east, and it’s easily one of the most stunning drives in this country – through deep valleys, around hairpin turns, and ever higher into magnificent mountain ranges all the way to the island’s highest road point, and then back down a long winding road straight to the Pacific Ocean where tall cliffs meet the turquoise sea.
For the recent 10/10 holiday (ok, fine, a solid two months ago now) my local friends helped me chart a route from Taipei halfway down the west coast to Taichung and then across the island through Puli and over Hehuanshan to Hualien and back up the east coast to Taipei. I had three days to complete the journey, some 600 kilometers along my planned route plus a few places I wanted to stop along the way, so I booked a couple of YMCA beds, took my bike for a tune-up, and hit the road.
It was pouring when I left early Friday morning, and I froze my tail off all the way over to Taoyuan and down to Hsinchu where I stopped for a coffee and to thaw my fingers. It wasn’t that cold temperature-wise but in Taiwan cool, rainy days have a way of going straight to the bone. By the time I hit Miaoli, the rain had stopped and the sun shone on me all the way to Taichung, where I stopped to gas up for the first time since leaving Taipei. Oh, and I also pulled into some farmer’s field along the road to divest myself of extra layers. After a half hour driving in circles around Fengyuan District, I finally found my way out of Taichung (the same city, coincidentally, that Julia and I spent forever trying to get out of on our bicycles last winter). Most people will agree that the stretch from Taoyuan to Taichung is one of the most boring areas of Taiwan, and while I saw nothing of particular note, it always interests me to drive through small cities and villages and watch locals going about their daily lives.
From Taichung I got on national highway 136 through the mountains to Puli in Nantou County. The 136 is a gorgeous, desolate road that goes through a range of mountains and past several tiny townships until it dead-ends into Route 14. As I sped along the highway I only saw a few other riders, and I was able to stop a few times to take in the views and tour a small village – really just a massive, gorgeous temple surrounded by a few homes.
Once on Highway 14, it was easy mountain riding, and it was just four in the afternoon by the time I arrived on the outskirts of Puli Township, the largest city on Route 14 between Taichung and Hualien. Puli is a just big downtown area in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains on all sides, without even a train station. The roads out of town lead deep into the mountains and their myriad rural townships, or either east or west to the coasts. I cruised around town for a bit, scored some of the best xiaolongbao I’ve ever eaten, and then headed out into the mountains to see a monastery at sunset.
I took Route 14 out of Puli Saturday morning, and almost immediately the road began to climb higher, offering stunning views of the sunny valleys below. I was now on the Central Cross-Island Highway, and had no way off this road until I hit Taroko National Park. The 14 runs directly across central Taiwan and connects only with Highway 8 down to the stunning East Coast. There are also no 7-11s past a certain point, a horror that no traveler is prepared for in this country. I stopped for an hour-long coffee break at about 1500 meters, near a tourist hotspot called Cingjing Farms that boasted a view of mountains rolling on forever.
After Cingjing there was no more traffic, and it was a straight shot up Hehuanshan to Wuling Pass, the highest drivable point in Taiwan. Straight here means countless twists and turns as the road climbed higher and higher all the way up to 3,275 meters. The higher I drove, the foggier and colder it became. I can’t quite describe how quiet it was up there, with almost no traffic and the fog hugging me close. Peaceful, but desolate. I eventually cleared all forest cover and drove along a road that cut through rock and mountain fields.
Somewhere along the way I stopped to put on everything I had brought with me, as it was much colder than I’d bargained for, and once I arrived at Wuling I was out in the open amidst waving grass and punishing gusts of wind. Mt. Hehuan’s east peak stood right beside me, with the highway running over its neck and down its back en route to the east coast. I lasted maybe ten minutes up there before descending a few hundred meters to an old lodge. It was no less cold here, but I hiked for a couple hours and that helped.
I had to go a bit past Wuling Pass to reach my accommodations for the night, a YMCA located just before the sleepy hamlet of Dayuling. There was no one within a hundred kilometers who spoke a word of English, and my brain was as tired as my body, so check-in was one of my rougher exchanges. It was only about 5pm, but I was exhausted, so I told the helpful worker that I would skip dinner and go straight to bed. He asked if I would like breakfast the next morning but as I planned to hit the road well before sunrise, I declined. A half hour later, after a long, hot shower, I was just turning in when this worker came into the dorm room. “Yixin? (my Chinese name) I brought some mantou for you to eat tomorrow morning.” I was once again the recipient of wonderful Taiwanese hospitality and kindness, even if it took my tired mind a solid minute to realize who he was talking to.
I was on the road by 5am Sunday morning and backtracked along Route 14 a bit to catch a stunning sunrise, the sort paints the whole sky with fire. Since I was close again, I dropped by Wuling Pass one more time, before turning around and riding east. Highway 14 turned into Highway 8 and from here it was all downhill – road-wise, certainly not in terms of scenery. It was foggy, cold, and damp, though, and by the time I reached Tianxiang at the head of Taroko Park I was chilled to the bone. I watched some 60km of elevation signage all the way down hoping to warm up as I got near to sea level again.
I felt a little bad flying through Taroko Gorge, as this stunning wonder deserves a lot more attention than the two quick pullovers I gave it, but I’ve been twice before and I was content to stare at the riverbed cut through marble from my bike as as I tore along. I stayed cold through the forty minute drive from Taroko to Hualien City, where I detoured straight to the door of my favorite restaurant for a bowl of wonton soup. I love Hualien and would have liked to stay longer, but I was bent on making Taipei before dark and had a long drive ahead of me. Two friends had told me it is too tiring to attempt driving from Wuling to Taipei in a day, but I thought I could make it, and now that I was warm again I was gung ho to give it my best shot. I gassed up, made a quick pit stop at one of Taiwan’s most magnificent beaches, and blasted onto the Suhua Highway, northbound for Taipei.
Suhua is a stunning drive, in more ways than one. It’s one of the most beautiful roads in Taiwan and one of my personal favorites, where climbs are rewarded by stunning views off cliffs of the turquoise Pacific. This is also the road I cycled exactly one year prior, and I spent most of the journey wondering exactly how this road had been built along sheer coastal cliff such as this and how exactly I had made it up and over these mountains under my own pedaling power. I was more than grateful to be riding my motorbike this time around.
The rest of Sunday was simply driving, driving, and more driving. I liked seeing all the places that I’d stopped a year ago; this drive brought back so many good and bad memories! One of the things I like most about riding a motorbike around Taiwan is being able to stop when and wherever I wish – if I see a sight or some good food, or just need a break, I can pull over for a rest. I passed Su-ao, the end of the coast highway, and then continued on to Yilan, where I split off onto Beiyi Highway, a really fun road with sharp turns that whip you around in a 180 over and over again.
The final stretch was the backroads that snake their way through the mountains surrounding Taipei. I drive these roads all the time, as they’re easy weekend drives, and I love the passing through the many small townships and seeing rural life and such beautiful nature. I made it back to Taipei by 5pm, just as dark was falling, albeit it on the complete opposite side of the city from where my apartment is. Still, 12 hours all the way from Hehuanshan to Taipei, with multiple stops for food and photography along the way. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself. Can’t wait for my next road trip.
Some stories and shots from school.
My schedule if pretty heavy this year, as I’m teaching double kindy in addition to higher level evening classes. I took over a class of six year-olds who are so-so in terms of English ability and are pretty wild. Not my favorite three hours of the day. Fortunately, I also teach my all-time favorite four year-olds – this is a class that has been mine since they first came to school last year. Back then they couldn’t even say hello in English, and now I overhear them saying things like, “Who is this grass?” (translation: “Whose grass is this?”) during art time, or “Teacher Sara, I’m a little handsome and a lot cool!” It’s the best thing ever to hear their little voices scrape together all the English words they know to tell stories and ask questions.
Since they are middle level kindergarten, I’m enforcing an all-English classroom now, and it’s going pretty well. Of course, there are always a few who have their names written on the board and are banned from playing toys that day, but once the first name goes up it acts as a pretty effective deterrent to Chinese speaking and general misbehavior.
Two months into this semester, and my little hooligans have already let fly with some real humdingers. I’m teaching two kindergarten classes this year, one all morning and one all afternoon, and then I have evening classes three nights a week too. I so enjoy watching so many brilliant little minds thinking and then listening to their ideas. Here are a few of my favorites.
Brian comes up to me in class one day: “Teacher Sara, why you face is so dirty?” I ran my hand over my chin to see if there was anything on it. “Where is it dirty?” I asked him. “Here, here, here and here,” said Brian, pointing at my forehead, chin, and cheeks. And Brian learned the word “freckles” that day.
Jojo is one of my very favorite students, one of the sweetest and quiet girls in my class, but smart as can be. I often tell my older kindy students to read their Easy Reader books when they finish a project early, and every so often, when the volume of 23 six year-olds sounding out a story becomes too much, I’ll ask them to read it quietly to themselves rather than aloud. One time Jojo finished her writing assignment first, so I told her to grab her Easy Reader and sit down with it. She came back and said, “Teacher Sara, I will just read it in my heart, ok?”
We’ve just finished up a week of Halloween teaching, and when I first introduced some pictures to my four year-olds, who are learning the subject for the first time, we had some funny moments. Ethan, one of my smartest, saw a flashcard with Frankenstein on it and shouted, “It’s a ‘jumbee’!” I looked at the picture, which I’d planned to teach as ‘monster.’ “A what now?” “A jumbee! He like this…” Ethan rolled his eyes back and took some halting steps with his arms outstretched, looking more than a little like somebody off The Walking Dead. Then it hit me. “A zombie, Ethan, a ZOMBIE!” To the child’s credit I later found out that in Chinese culture some corpses are believed to jump after death, so maybe he was just combining his English words and ideas. Smart, really.
We also learned about skeletons, which proved a hard word for my four year-olds to master. Anderson, whose English is probably the most natural out of my class of twenty, was struggling when telling me what he planned to be for Halloween. “It is a black shirt and has so much white… inside me have this.” I waited patiently for him to remember his vocabulary and was rewarded with, “I’m gonna be a BONEMAN!”
Another of my little four year-olds dropped the cap of her marker on the floor and was quite concerned when she couldn’t find it on the floor. “Teacher, where is the marker’s head?!”
Wilson, one of my more forward thinkers had a astute observation during our unit on construction vehicles, which came a solid three months after a theme about natural disasters. “Teacher Sara, you know what?” I braced myself for a Wilson revelation and wasn’t disappointed. “Excavators are like tsunamis, because they dig the earth same like a tsunami comes and…” he made a digging motion with his arm, clearly imitating a tidal wave sweeping across land. Oh, the minds of six year-olds.
In the same class, James clearly took to heart the meaning of the word “scootch,” which I used whenever I wanted someone to move their chair over a bit. One day we were riding on the bus when we heard an ambulance. James looked at me and said in all seriousness, “Teacher Sara, when the ambulance comes, all the cars have to scootch.” Right on, kiddo.
Just the other day I was listening to two of my kids arguing about a crayon and trying to drag me into it. “Teacher Sara doesn’t want to hear it,” I said. “And if you keep fighting I’m going to bye-bye your stars,” the most dreaded punishment in my classroom. A few minutes later they were back at it, in a quieter fashion. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one kid scrawl on the other’s book and then lean in to hiss, “Tell it to the police!” Haha.
Once my older kindy class was discussing the Chinese zodiac and I asked who knew in which animal year they’d been born. When Una’s turn came around she said, “I’m a snake and my mom’s a mouse.” After a pause, she continued, “So, I can eat my mom!”
In my class of teenagers we spend a solid fifteen minutes each lesson discussing how to use new vocabulary. One lesson we were talking about kidnapping and ransom notes and such. I posed a question about the naughtiest kid in class: “If Shawn were kidnapped, would anyone pay money to get him back?” Tommy, who I used to consider the nicest kid in class, voiced what everyone was probably thinking: “They wouldn’t even want to kidnap him in the first place!”
A girl in the same class had an interesting take on an idiom we’d recently learned. I was trying to elicit a response along the lines of “help someone do something” when I asked my students what to do should they run across a grandma crossing the street and asking them for help. “I’d tell her to go fly a kite!” said Ivy earnestly. Well, way to use the new vocabulary, girl.
Many of the students at the school come from well-to-do families, and sometimes it shows in conversations. While talking about what it means to invent something, I threw out a final example. “And do you know who invented the car?” An eager kid shouted out, “Benz!”
One of my classes, which I’ve actually just given up in order to play rugby, includes the school’s well-known problem child. My boss claims I’m the only teacher who’s been able to control him over the past couple years, but he clearly has no idea what I put up with in a given class. Last week during break time, said kid was tossing around an orange and decided to throw it as hard as he could against the front wall of the classroom. I swear there was orange juice on the back wall, too. I made him go to get a mop to clean up, and just as it was becoming clear that he had no idea what to do with one, the whole bucket of water tipped over and soaked the entire room. Fun times.
Another highlight of this past summer was “Qipao Night,” a celebration for a friend’s graduation at Shangri-La’s Far Eastern Hotel in Taipei. There’s a lounge on the 38th floor there that offers stunning views of the city during late afternoon tea. Guys were asked to suit up formally, while the dress de rigeur was qipao for us ladies.
Qipao are traditional Chinese dresses, worn today mainly for formal events like weddings or political dinners. The most well-known style is that made popular in 1950s Shanghai, and that’s what most of us ended up wearing. The entire time I lived in China I thought about buying a qipao, as it’s really cheap to get one custom-made in Beijing, and particularly in Shanghai. Or seeing as how a lot of good tailors fled to Hong Kong during the revolution, that would have been a good place to purchase as well. I never got one made, though, because I thought I’d never have the opportunity to wear one. And along came this crowd…
We are all thinking about where we might wear the qipao again, maybe to a fancy tea or a New Year’s celebration or whatnot. Considering we wore them to a night out at Chili’s after teatime, we can only go up from there, right?
And as summer is slowly but surely falling away, we decided a few weeks ago that one last beach day was in order before the weather became too cool. A bunch of my friends and I took the train out to Fulong on the northeast coast for a day of sunbathing and swimming. Fulong is one of only a few golden sand beaches in Taiwan, and it’s a great place to sack out and spend a day. We took a local train and arrived early afternoon. It’s a five minute walk from the train station over the bridge to the beach.
We were blessed with a beautiful late summer day, warm but not hot and sunny with puffy white clouds blown around by the wind. I bought a mango shaved ice and then slept for an hour. Good friends and conversations and a gorgeous sunset rounded out a lovely day.
Summer also means Sunday afternoons spent in air-conditioned coffee shops, rather than sprawled on the grass for a picnic outdoors. That will come within the next month or so again, as we get down to the eighties :)
And now the days are slowing getting cooler, though I’ve a hunch we’ll have plenty of warm ones yet. We’re in the midst of a three-day turned four-day long weekend. Mid-Autumn Festival, or Moon Festival was this past Sunday, and a late typhoon decided to blow in on our Monday off. Since it’s currently plowing its way straight across the island, we now have all day Tuesday off as well. I’ve done very little this holiday, except meet up with friends and chill in coffeeshops, and the break has been wonderful.
Excuse the terribly original title, if you will, and be as glad as I am that I’m finally getting around to posting this stuff.
Summer started off with a literal bang, that coming from the starter’s pistol at the Taipei International Dragon Boat Competition. I paddled for my company’s team again this year, and for the first time ever we advanced to semi-finals. The team sponsored by my company is completely amateur and not expected to place, but it’s always fun to put yourself up to a good challenge. We raced an all-women’s boat this year, and for maybe the first 200 meters we were neck and neck with the other finalists. As we punched it down to the 500m line, the endurance of the teams who had been practicing since January became obvious, but we had come away with a fantastic start to our credit. These were some of the harder races I’ve paddled, because even with the beautiful weather that weekend, the current was strong this year and it was really windy.
I was in Beijing for all three weekends of bucket practice in May, but starting with river practice on the boats, I was pegged as one of the team’s two lead paddlers. As our steersman put it, we were the heartbeat of the team, setting the pace at the front while the other paddlers matched us stroke for stroke. I was unsure about that into little responsibility at first, but from practice one my co-pacer and I fell into a solid rhythm, pushing the paddle down, glancing across to sync with each other and then stroking down again, Practice drills meant a whole lot of the “effing five,” as they came to be known – five long deep strokes followed by fifteen shorter fast strokes. Doing this for five hundred meters down the river is a killer, but when race day rolled around it meant we had a solid start to work with.
The competition is always a fun time, and as it spans the entire holiday weekend, I was at the river for three days straight. After the races and during closing ceremonies we were able to chat up other teams. most were from around Taiwan, but there were several teams representing other nations as well. It’s a tradition to change jerseys with other teams’ members, and so having an extra couple on hand is always a good idea. I came away with one form the Israeli team, and one from a Guandu Warriors paddler. Can’t wait until next year!
My Bible Study group took a trip to Yilan County, about an hour’s train ride from Taipei. We spent Saturday riding bikes around Luodong and eating lunch at some wedding banquet hall that we stumbled upon accidentally. Highlights of that particular visit included shark stew and a bunch of drunk old guys serenading us at KTV. We ended the night with a barbecue at the house we’d rented and a couple rounds of Celebrity.
For the Fourth of July weekend I went with a bunch of friends to Taichung for the day. We grabbed a bus from Taipei Main around 11 and showed up in time to grab some TGI Friday’s at AmCham’s July 4th celebration. From there we cabbed it to the Rainbow Village, an old military settlement turned tourist hotspot, located a bit outside Taichung proper. This is either street art at its finest or oddity central – and all painted by a single veteran grandfather in his retirement years. The best bit of our visit was running across a dude masquerading as Ironman, who grabbed Katy’s phone and worked some magic with his poses. We spent a couple hours in a cafe to escape the brutal summer heat, and finished off the day with some night marketing and a late night ride back to Taipei.
After a couple weeks of cloudy, rainy days, the weather in Taipei has given way to the brilliantly blue skies and hot sunny days of late summer – those days that have begun to feel nippy in the mornings and evenings and make me dream of fall even when I’m not quite ready to let go of summer.
During a week of such glorious weather, I considered it a personal blessing when I walked out of work Wednesday evening, my single night off, and looked up to some of the most beautiful skies I have ever seen in Taipei. I called a friend, grabbed my camera, and we took off for one of the highest peaks in the mountain ranges ringing Taipei. As we rode up Yangmingshan, the sun was still bright and warm, and as we reached the steep, windy road leading to Datunshan the sky began to turn all sorts of oranges and pinks and purples and reds. This peak is my favorite place to watch the day die, and the sunset over the ocean and mountains and city on this day was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.