We make holes in teeth!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Day 13: Last Full Day

Sleep is getting later and later, 7:30 today, a far cry from the 1:30 wake up when we landed not that long ago. Before I know it the cycle will start again when I get home, waking up at 2:00 for a few days. Then when I get adjusted to it Nat and Julia will come home and all hell will break loose again. Julia is staying up later every night, so we all sleep later. She was all fired up at bedtime last night and didn't go to sleep until well after 11:00. Back on the soft bed, no sore shoulders here.

While Nat went out to get breakfast I watched some kooky 1970's Chinese TV show, the scene was 2 guys dressed up and fighting on a building ledge, one was a chicken and one was a transformer-like dude. Silly stuff, but no more silly than half the crap we have on TV. Calvin had the news on which is full-court politics right now, just talking heads yelling at each other all day. When he showered I turned the channel to something stupid. There's plenty of that here. They seem to have a pretty good assortment of stuff on TV - news, sports, kids stuff, American shows, Japanese shows, and plain old left field Chinese TV which can be really awesome in a Terrible TV way.

Speaking of politics the US is apparently sending the USS Kitty Hawk here for the election tomorrow. Last time there were protests and some small-scale riots. I guess you could question why we would come during such a tumultuous time, but the reality is that other than the posters lining the streets and the news, nobody seems to give a shit - just like back home. It gives people a diversion but when the sun rises Monday morning all these poor slobs have to go to work just like I do. Ugh, the thought of going to work makes my groin ache.

Breakfast is reasonable today. Nat went to get it and kept it small because she didn't want to wait in line. I'm still not hungry but I'm feeling pretty spent again today. Maybe the half bottle of wine had something to do with it, who knows. Maybe the Hulk Hogan lunch. Maybe both. Like the end of many vacations, I'm looking forward to going home and having some normalcy again. Nat, Calvin, and I were talking last night and we all agree that doing this trip was a bit premature in that covering all the bases with Julia's schedule mixed in with the jetlag was ambitious to say the least. In a few weeks we'll talk about coming back but one requirement is that she needs to not be napping anymore. Maybe 2 years from now.

Today is a day of details, buying things we never got around to buying and then eating in between. First stop is Costco for bagels and cheese, on the road at 10:50. I forgot to mention there are no stop signs in this country. There are traffic lights sometimes but no stop signs. You just need to be ready to stop when you're city driving. Brakes are very important here. I would imagine being a mechanic would be a great job here, especially a scooter mechanic. Nat and I both estimate that there are 5 million scooters in Taiwan. Even if we're high, that just tells you the scale of the scooter population. At red lights, the scooters weave through traffic to the front where there's a little area specifically for them. In rush hour it's not strange to see 100 scooters waiting at 1 side of an intersection for a light to turn green.

The Costco here is almost exactly like home, with about as many Asians as the one on route 10, just no white guys. I did see one non-Asian though, a black man and a Taiwanese woman buying stuff. We get some Dora DVDs in Chinese, bagels, and several kinds of cheese. Even here we manage to spend $100 at Costco. On the way out Calvin buys ice cream. Figure it's a perfect pre-lunch snack. Or something. I have to say that I love watching Calvin operate. He's total entertainment sometimes.

We got to talking this morning about houses here. Calvin seems to think
that we could get a house with several floors for $100-300,000 which would be suitable for all of us. It's a neat idea, if it's remotely possible. I'm sure once we get back home the idea of dropping anywhere from $33k to $150k on a house here will sound retarded. But it's intriguing now, to have somewhere to live when we're here. But then, this is forward looking to say the least. It's obviously not a short-term plan and then long-term gets to the point where we start to get into the college years. Plus, how dumb do we sound going on vacation and then turning around and saying we should live here? But then, Nat's whole family is here. It's not like we don't have a place to stay when we do come, at least now. Then you have to consider Calvin, and their plan to have Lydia go to school in the states. So they might not be here long term either. Who knows, let's just have a few beers and lay on the car hood and ponder the infinite possibility of space.

Lunch is Szechuan, which is one of my final checklist items to do. I get 3 of the dishes that I like. The first is kung pow chicken, which is really good. We also get the intestine and pork blood concoction which is also excellent. The stewed beef is a disappointment though. It's better in Edison believe it or not. Overall lunch is good, not great. Grace and I share a bomber of Taiwan Beer, which is like Taiweiser or Budwan, your choice. After lunch we do some token shopping and a drive back to the apartment to nap Julia. She goes down around 2:00.

I chill out on the couch writing this and drinking coffee while Nat goes down to buy books with Grace for me to carry home, as well as a tiger for my desk at work and a piece of carry-on luggage for me to take back. Usually on our Taiwan trips, by now I'm planning what to do once I get back but plans are more or less useless and I'm going to just enjoy the last 24 hours with my wife and baby. I let Julia ride on my lap the last mile or so home, which is a big no-no in the states but in a country where 25 is about the top speed, I feel relatively safe doing that, especially with Calvin at the wheel. I'm going to miss my little monkey.

She wakes up at 4:00 because I woke her up. Nat and Grace come back 10
minutes later with an awesome rolling luggage/backpack that cost $33. It's really pretty slick and it's orange to boot. Orange is more or less becoming my favorite color these days. I'm wearing an orange shirt right now and the new bike I'm building is orange as well. Wow, talk about reality, when I get back I should have a new mountain bike to ride, assuming I can still turn the cranks.

They also picked up some books for both Julia and I to learn Chinese and Taiwanese. Grace found one for adults which is geared for "laborers and brides." Sweet! After this I'll be able to be a blushing bride in several different languages. Or I can work here. Not sure how much of a common language there is between brides and laborers, other than sex workers.

They weren't able to find me a tiger. Grace said the selection was crap. So we'll either have to go find that and my scallion pancake or Nat will have to bring me one back and I'll have to be content with the ones Calvin made me last night. They were pretty good, I have to admit. But they weren't from a street vendor so I'm feeling that I didn't get the full experience. "Oh hey white guy, give him free food!"

We hung around the apartment until 6:30 and then went out for dinner at a Hakka place, which is just a kind of cuisine from China, more or less. I got another Budwan bomber and split it with Grace again but this time she had a 4 ounce glass and I drank the rest. I think she was just enabling me. This meal was really enjoyable. Got a nice light buzz before the food then had some good solid eats after that. They were liberal with the garlic which I was happy about. Probably one of the better meals we've had here. Maybe the 2nd or 3rd best meal.

After dinner we went over to the department store to buy a DVD player for this region's DVDs, which is a different region than the US. Yeah it's a PITA but in order to get the Chinese learning DVDs it's just easier this way. I think it was $60 for the player and it's supposedly a good one. DVD players are dirt cheap so whatever. We'll pack it in some clothes and be good with that in the luggage. They're super thin so it takes up very little space.

When we went into the store Grace said to Nat, "Watch Julia, she's cute so someone might steal her."

Great. This is all I want to hear the day before I leave, that our daughter is cute enough to be the object of kidnappers. I don't think it's a real concern because Grace is a little over cautious at times. But you know, it's just another thing that I'll worry about from time to time in the next 2 weeks.

There's a Mister Doughnut in the department store basement, and Lydia likes to go so we went there for dessert to bring back to the apartment. On the way out I won another parlor game but gave the monkey boat prize to Lydia because Calvin was trying to win it for her. Julia seemed pretty unhappy about that, and kept trying to take it once we got back to the apartment. Eventually Lydia shared it, and I played with it with Julia. Then they both forgot about it because kids are like that. It's not like Lydia's room full of toys isn't enough for them both.

The doughnuts were decent, a little more doughy-chewy than in the states. At least the first bite I had was. They got a bunch of different ones and we sampled various ones through the night. The chocolate was standard American doughnut, which I'm not a fan of. Didn't go nuts with the doughnuts because my stomach-time fuse is coming to an end. I'm still enjoying my tea addiction but that also is about to come to an abrupt end because I can't seem to find it anywhere online for sale. Not like I would buy up 40 cases or anything but it would be nice to have 1-2 on the weekends for the sentimental value.

The kids were in rare form tonight, not playing well at all. But at least they were both feisty as opposed to the beginning when Julia would break out in tears no matter what happened. In between trying to keep the peace, I had Calvin burn me a CD of the pictures so I'll be able to post up some pics over the next week or so. I'll probably use it as a way to describe the trip in pictures over the week, and to give me something to do other than surf useless websites when I get home from work.

Starting to mentally prepare for the pack tomorrow morning. It's surely going to be a cluster fuck of getting as much shit in these 2 bags as possible, then realize I forgot something. We forgot some stuff in Lotung so the sooner Nat's parents get here the faster I can get that taken care of. Among the festivities tomorrow is the national election, by the way. They hold it on Saturday so everyone can vote. So when I take off it will still be in question. When I land there should be a preliminary winner, though last time it took weeks to sort out.

Anyway, the last full day is in the books. While going to sleep Nat admitted that she's partly ready to go home too. You can end up packing a lot into 2 weeks and this has been a busy one even though there was a lot of nap time thrown in there. My next entry will be my last day here then the plane ride home, which will be posted from NJ Saturday night. Wish me luck.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Day 12: Back to Taipei

Awake at 7:00, same rice ball breakfast as yesterday. This is the best tasting breakfast so I want to get one last banging breakfast in before we leave Lotung. I think if we live here for any extended time, we would probably spend much of our time down here because the food is better and there are more relatives. Plus it's more convenient to everything. I would call that a little cart before the horse-ish right now. This trip still has some legs left to it. Well ok, maybe just 1 leg. But a 1-legged man can still hop from food stall to food stall.

A flurry of packing activity as we bring everything back up to Taipei with us. We're going to load me up with as much stuff as possible to fly back with, then Nat doesn't have to lug a ton of stuff with her. I'm sure we'll wait until Saturday morning to do that, maybe Saturday afternoon. Just getting out of Lotung and fitting everything in the minivan will be difficult enough. But Nat's parents are coming back to Lotung tonight because Nat's mom is going back to the doctor tomorrow. So we only have our luggage load to worry about today. Speaking of luggage, I need to buy a
carry-on piece/backpack to bring with me on the plane.

I was ready to go at 9:30 but we didn't hit the road until 10:10. Our lunch date is for noon and we have a stop along the way to get some art that Nat's dad bought. Leaving late probably means we won't be detouring to see Nat's grandmother like we suspected. It seemed a little fishy that he wanted to leave 2.5 hours in advance when the drive would be an hour and change. I'm still not convinced he won't stop there for a quickie.

Terren suggests I sound like a woman with all the obsessing about the weight. If you think I sound like a woman, you should see me. My fun bags are like C-cups now. I have grizzled old Taiwanese men copping feels when I walk through the park yelling "nei nei" and "wo xiang kan ni de bitch tits!" It's embarrassing. In all seriousness, it's not the weight so much as me feeling like I got hit by a truck sometimes, especially in the morning. This morning was better by a long shot, but I'm still feeling like a tank. I think the exercise bike was a dumb idea. I should have either walked as much as possible or gone out on a real bike to make it a fun
outing as opposed to strict exercise. It's obvious why people bail on the gym because it's mental torture.

Anyway, I haven't slowed down on the eating much, if at all. This morning I feel pretty good. I slept well last night on the rock bed. No back problem today though Nat said her back hurt. I won't miss that bed, or the shower for that matter. The shower goes like this. It's really hot. Then the hot water stops completely for 1-5 minutes. I don't mean a little, I mean totally cold. This is one thing that Calvin's apartment has over here, that the shower is hands down better. The bed is a push, as we have an air mattress there which is absurdly soft. So we go from rock hard, as in the bed is so hard that if you sleep soundly on your side your shoulder will hurt the next morning, to a bed so soft that when I roll over Nat and Julia bob up and down like 2 small boats on a wave.

I haven't really talked much about the culture quirks here. That stuff was really covered in my first 2 trips as well as my last 8 years of time spent with Nat's parents. So none of it is new to me, even though it would be different to the people reading this. Take an example. When someone offers you something, you refuse. To me, that means offering a token "men ah" which is Taiwanese for, "here is my token refusal, I hope what you gave me is awesome but that it doesn't seem like I'm a greedy white man." Thus far they just laugh at me when I say anything. The idea is that you're supposed to refuse it, to not appear greedy. If they really want to give it to you, they'll persist. If not, they'll take it back. There are other things like this, such as trying to pay for food. You should always pretend as if you want to pay, even if you don't. Nobody will let you, ever. Ever. I've never paid for a meal here when with someone. Strangers give me food. Vendors pay me to eat.

This is how yesterday's visit with Nat's aunt went.

Nat's dad: Do you want tea?

Me: Am I allowed to say yes? No, no it's ok. I'm good. MEN AH!

Them: No it's ok you can have tea.

Me: OK I'll have tea.

Or when there was some food on the table that I really wanted, I said, "Am I allowed to have that?" Nat gave me one. Then her dad went out and bought 2 boxes for me last night. When he told the guy it was for the whitey, they gave him a case and carried it for him.

At lunch yesterday, I asked if I could start eating the finger food, Nat suggested I wait for her cousin. That's how it goes, more or less. I want to be a slob and I have to ask when it's ok to be a slob. Usually the expectations are so brutally low I can't embarrass myself much. I don't belch loudly in public. I think my ability to utter a few expressions like "dou ke yi" (it's all good) and to use chopsticks impresses people beyond their expectations so it's easy for me to impress.

We had to get dressed up for this lunch today because Nat's uncle is some hot shot big advertising guy. I'm dressed as if I'm going to work. And much to Terren's delight, he'll be thrilled to find out that my pants don't feel any tighter at all, at least they didn't before the meal. Personally I find that hard to believe, but whatever. I guess I'll have to step up the eating on these last 3 days. I have to admit it feels good to get dressed up. It's cool to bum around in shorts and t-shirt but this also feels pretty good to change it up.

We didn't get to take the train which is a little disappointing. The view is cool and Julia would have been able to travel with more freedom on it. But again, it's tough to look this gift horse of a taxi service in the mouth. Though to be honest, these trips always end up in side trips. We never go from point A to point B because Nat's dad is always doing something else, like getting the car washed last time we came down. If we really want to we can take the train tomorrow. I doubt we really want to. Not sure what we're doing tomorrow either way. Maybe make Calvin take us
somewhere. Maybe we'll eat some more.

The trip to lunch is another rigmarole. Nat's dad gets lost going to the pit stop, and when we get there they go in and we sit in the car just waiting. After almost an hour we have gone about 8 miles. At least he didn't go to see his mom like I suspected. To add to this, Julia woke up an hour early today so she's going to have a short fuse. Should be fun. I think we're resigned to napping her in the car after lunch. Sounds like another day sitting in the minivan in Taipei. No big deal though as long as she gets her nap on and stays awake nice and late to get her play on with

Lunch is Japanese, which seems to be considered the best meal to take someone out for in this country. I'm content with grubby $1 rice ball-style food but I'll take this too. Since I only have 8 meals left I have to make each one of these count. Or I have to squeeze in a few extra breakfasts to make it 10 meals, and maybe an extra lunch or dinner to bump it up to 12. It's a numbers game at this point.

I took Terren's advice and ripped it up at lunch time. I spared no stomach expense in enjoying myself at the all-you-can-eat sushi bar then getting a salmon entree to boot. The food was solid good, but the lobster bisque was disappointing. Other than that it was very good. The place was beyond top-notch, by the way. Total 5 star quality. Why they would take us all there, I can't say. Nat said it's because her uncle is loaded. I remain dubious, as it's clear I don't understand the culture well enough to say.

Despite the fact that Nat's dad kept us out past 2:00, Julia did exceptionally well then fell asleep in less than 5 minutes, at 2:15. If she hammers this nap it's going to be a late night. This would be a good time to mention that Nat's dad drives a bit like a lunatic. He's one of those "always on the gas or always on the brake" guys. When he backs into a parking space it's very herky-jerky. Calvin is the preferred driver when naps are concerned, but they shot down our request to go home with Calvin
and Grace for some reason. The fact he didn't wake her up on the drive home was a bit of a surprise.

She ended up sleeping until 3:45 when we woke her up. We both sat in the car for an hour with her and decided to wake her up because we didn't want to stay up until 11:00 tonight. Funny that keeping her up until 7:00 was a chore Sunday and by Thursday she might stay up until 11:00. Such an erratic sleep pattern. I'm still full from lunch at 4:00. I may have kicked it a little too much. F you, Terren.

Still, you can't stop me. By 5:00 I broke down and bought a bar of dark chocolate at the 7-11 with my cold tea. I've been hankering for dark chocolate and it was good stuff, something called Whitneys (not Whitmans) from New Zealand. At 5:30 the idea of dinner isn't appealing at all. I think I've eaten all of this country to shreds. I have no more room left. We'll have to pull out the vomit bag to make room for dinner.

Nat's parents are gone, back to Lotung already, having left at 4:00. They both looked totally shot. Nat is also tired, as is Grace who apparently had a coffee for lunch yesterday and ended up staying awake until 5:00 am. I'm ok, and Calvin looks the same. The kids are their usual insane selves. In all, looks to be a fairly low-key night with just the 4 adults and 2 kids. Maybe we'll break out a bottle of red wine tonight, if I ever get some room in my stomach. I'm going to need to spend some quality time on the commode in the next week. I mean like 12 hours next week.

Eventually we eat dinner, a half-hearted effort by all involved. Since nobody is hungry we just eat some of the pig knuckle leftovers from lunch. Grace makes rice and puts out some veggies and we pick at all of it. After dinner Grace puts out some snacks as well. In all this is my most reasonable dinner of the trip. No big deal as I wasn't very hungry and I think we all felt the same way because lunch was so colossal.

After that we just hang out in the apartment, which is nice and relaxing, as relaxing as having a 2 year old wrecking ball can be. Things are more low-key when the whole family isn't together, be it the 4 of us down in Lotung or the 4 of us up in Taipei. The Whole Family Experience is taxing for both me and Julia, and we both end up staring into space before too long. So I prefer the separate gatherings.

By 9:00 Calvin is defrosting scallion pancakes to cook and busting open a bottle of red wine. If he breaks out some mashed potatoes I'm going to be in my glory.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Day 11: Solid Vacationing

I wake up at 7:00 feeling exhausted. I think I'm giving myself too much credit for being able to handle all this running around and then throwing the exercise on top. The bed we sleep in is rock hard, which I thought I liked. But it's tough to sleep well and it's catching up to my back. Thankfully Nat's parents go out to get breakfast and I can sit on the couch and relax this morning while Julia sleeps a bit more. She wakes up a little before 8:00 and eats toast with cream cheese. This kid costs a fortune to feed in this country of cheap food. Dairy is cost prohibitive here - cows need land and this island ain't got any. So the cheese is literally imported from Wisconsin.

We have coffee and a rice ball for breakfast, which is the best rice ball ever! This is what I remember, not the generic one we got up in Taipei. This one is packed with flavor, just awesome. Costs about $1 for 1, which is less than the coffee. Talk about cheap. We need this shit in the states.

After bumming around a bit Nat and I go out to the Barista coffee which is more expensive than Starbucks. Nat got some Milky Way thing which is a mocha with sugar and I got a large coffee. Again, I ordered mine in Mandarin and was able to actually understand the question and answer this time. The cost was $240 NT. With the exchange rate at 30:1, that means the coffee cost $8 US, which is sick expensive. Even in this rural town there are ways to spend your money exorbitantly.

Nat taught me how to say bed, so now I can ask, "Where's the bed?" Nat doesn't think this will do if I'm stuck here by myself. I can always sleep on a park bench. Perhaps I should learn to say, "Where's the motel?" or "Can you spare some change?" or "Will work for rice ball," or maybe just, "Where's all the white women at?"

After coffee we run some errands out in the busy market area which still bugs Julia out a little bit but she's getting much better. It's windy as hell and looks like rain but it never comes down on us. I take Julia back to the apartment by myself and we take a detour and win another parlor game and bring home yet another Doraemon character. Back at the apartment Nat's dad and I hang out and entertain Julia while we wait for Nat and her mom.

For lunch we meet Nat's cousin for Japanese. So we walk out of the apartment to get the car, drive out to get her cousin, end up parking the car in the same place, then go to the Japanese place around the corner from where we're staying. Talk about a silly round trip. We end up walking further for the car than we would have walked to go right to the restaurant. Over lunch, they ask if I want wine or beer, and I decline. They ask about Saki and I say ok, I'll try some. Well this is a mistake, as any Saki means a lot of sake. So we toast each other endlessly until I'm well on my way. Thankfully they don't try to bury me and I walk out with nothing more than a solid buzz. I also walk out with a full stomach as lunch was another meal of waves of food, too much food. How are these people not all fat?

Julia asleep by 1:30, during which time I take the opportunity to relax. I'm buzzed, so getting on the exercise bike isn't happening. I didn't really want to get on anyway. I'm pressing my luck and don't want to totally burn out over the next 4 days before I leave. So I'm resigned to being an anchor for the time being. Once I'm back home I'm going to ride my bike for 14 straight days. Seriously I may do that.

At 3:00 we take off and leave the monitor with Nat's mom while Julia naps. She offers to give us some free time so we jet and hit some stores along one of the many store-lined streets in search of kiddie utensils and a new teapot, as ours is cracked as of last month. It was a really good pot, sentimentally speaking. It was made entirely of glass and we've had it since my first trip here in 2001 on our honeymoon. It's a bummer that it chipped around but that's the way it goes.

While we're out we see a 3rd bike shop in town and of course get a snack on the way, just a little 33 cent snack for no other reason than it being there. Eventually we find a department-like store but the elevator brings us to the parking level and we end up in the offices somehow. Then we take the stairs up to another parking deck, the second deck that has no cars in it. We eventually find an elevator to bring us there and we pick up a few things but find no teapot.

Back to the apartment and we go upstairs to Nat's aunt's and bum around with them for a little, Julia likes playing with Nat's cousin's 7 year old kid. Nat's dad comes back from his mom's and drives us the equivalent of a 10 minute walk to see his other sister. That's the last required family stop for his side of the family. Now we just have Nat's mom's oldest brother for lunch Thursday and we're all set.

This stop is short, under an hour all told. They have a 4 year old granddaughter who is both good and bad with Julia. She reluctantly helps her with some toys but then flat out refuses to let her play with some things. At one point she unplugs the keyboard Julia is playing on and Julia throws a tantrum and runs to the center of the living room where we're all sitting and stands with her back to us, like Jim Morrison at an early Doors concert. She does this for 2 minutes until they talk the other girl into plugging it back in and I convince Julia it's ok. She sits with me for a minute then runs back to play.

Back at 6:00 we give Julia dinner then head out with the stroller for night market while Nat's parents go out and have dinner with their friends. It's nice to have some free form time and I'm sure they're happy with the down time as well. I win a 3rd parlor game but Julia flat-out rejects my latest Doraemon winning. We strap it to the stroller and go on to eat pork blood soup and a rice dough and meat concoction at our first stop. Second stop is a Chinese hot dog, which is a rice sausage that's cut in half and used as a bun then a regular sausage slapped on it. We then get 3 different desserts and head back to the apartment with a quick detour to get french fries for Julia.

I sit and feed her fries while Nat goes out to a store she wanted to check out. Julia poops, so I get her ready for a bath and take a bath with her. She always likes taking a bath with daddy. So I wash her and dump water on my head for entertainment while Nat finds some teapots for us. After her bath we just hang out. It's a nice relaxing night for us, even though Julia is chock full of energy and jumping on the couches all night.

To recap we have 1 last required relative tomorrow then I have a full 48 hours of vacation left, all of it in Taipei. We'll be out of Lotung by 10 or so and lunch is noon. Getting her back to Calvin's will be a chore because she'll be pressing her luck with nap by then but hopefully it works out. Today was a good day all around. Good stuff, nice solid day of vacation.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Day 10: Groove Finding

So far so good as Julia slept until almost 8:00 this morning. Staying up until 10:00 wasn't too difficult last night. Now we need to get her used to this pattern and things will work out for the better on a daily basis, we hope. She definitely responded well to my trying to give her more attention.

Went out this morning and I was able to get 4 coffees as well as go to a food stand and get a bite to eat, all in Mandarin. If I get stranded here I should be able to eat, and drink coffee at least. I also know how to ask where the bathroom is. So I can eat and shit, drink and piss. Now I need to be able to ask for a bed and I'll be all set.

Nat's 5th aunt brings some more homemade turnip cake for breakfast #2 which is one of my favorites. Then her 6th aunt comes down with her cousin's wife who is in town to vote (for the bad guy) this coming Saturday. These 2 visits are the perfect example of the quick-hitting visit technique. After they leave Nat's mom goes to the doctor because she's still sick from before we left. She's back in 30 minutes.

On the road at 9:30 to the tea farm, but a different farm than we used to go to. Apparently a lot of places cut their tea with Chinese or Vietnamese tea because it's cheaper that way. Or so the story goes, which means we need to be selective about what we buy. I don't drink as much tea as I used to but I still drink, usually a cup a day or so. I really should lean more on tea and less on coffee. It's healthier and I have a good source of reasonably cheap and very good tea here.

Eventually Julia blows when she falls off a chair and hits her head on the big wooden table. She was bored and monkeying around on a chair and it tipped over. I was close but not close enough so I couldn't save her. Not a big fall but that paved the way for the next 2 hours as she was generally unhappy the rest of the way. We stopped at a little artist shop on the way back and she kept pestering us to pick her up and go see the dogs, who wanted nothing more than to go eat her but she found it funny. Better than crying I guess.

The rest of the trip home was her screaming, which might help Nat's dad understand that you really need to make it quick, a concept he's not very good at. When we got home she ate a little bit of this and that then went to sleep at 1:30, which is a good time. We had an assortment of stuff from a local stand that was good, as usual. Some fatty pork and pig intestine, greens, fried root of some kind, 2 soups, and another fruit I've never seen in the states. The fruit was awesome.

At this point there's no question I'm lethargic. Is it because of the excessive eating, I don't know. I think I see why Calvin is the anchor he is. It's way too easy to overeat here and every meal is treated as a small party. Because of this, I needed to spend another hour on the exercise bike after lunch. If I'm lucky I can get 3 more hours in total before I fly back. But the reality is that just today and tomorrow look likely and Thursday will be a rush out of town.

Did 50 minutes on the bike before I had to hit the showers and start the pageant to see more relatives. When I was done I felt totally shot. I did a fairly hard workout but man that was like a ton of bricks. This is more than falling out of shape over vacation. I think I'm stretched way too thin right now. Sitting around after the shower, I felt excessively tired. I think I'm just spent from vacation and I could use to sleep 10 hours a night. I'm getting a solid 8 a night but I guess it's not enough. Maybe I should skip exercise for the rest of the trip.

This afternoon's Tour de Lotung is Nat's aunt then dinner with some indeterminate number (a number between 1-3) of her uncles. Really this is a bit insane. We haven't even gotten to night market yet and we only have today and tomorrow then we're going back to Taipei Thursday. So we need to bargain a bit to try and get Wednesday night free.

Julia wakes up at 3:40 which is 1:10 later than yesterday. It's obvious this kid needs sleep. Wow, she slept 2+ hours and we had to wake her up. Well I guess we're in the later pattern, which is good. I think. After a few minutes we're back in the car where she declares "TV" then repeats "mommy up" randomly until we get there.

First stop is Nat's aunt (dad's side) who just got out of the hospital.

Oh, but no! The first stop is Nat's grandma! We specifically told her dad we needed to start taking it easy with this stuff. So as we pull up to the door, neither of us moves. Literally, not at all. Nat looks back at me like, "Are you for real?" We both say again that we need to take it easy with her and we reluctantly go in for a little bit. Nat says to me, "I already told him twice." Nat's dad keeps the visit down to 10 minutes.

Second stop is Nat's aunt (dad's side) who just got out of the hospital. Thankfully he got out this week or we'd all be going to a hospital for a visit. If you've gotten the impression that Nat's dad is nuts, well he is. But I think he's a generally a really good guy. He just goes a little overboard with the family stuff. He's just a little gung ho and out of touch with the needs of a 2 year old, despite this morning's screaming tirade.

We get to stop #2 and the garbage trucks are out. I haven't explained the garbage truck phenomenon yet. Basically it goes like this. The garbage trucks blare really loud circus music as they drive through town. Seriously. This is because you need to take the garbage down to the truck and throw it in as it passes by. So they need to announce their presence and this is how it's done. The streets here are too narrow and have too many wild dogs to let you leave bags out. I tried to get a picture but it came out all blurry. We get there when there are at least 2 trucks going through town, and the 2 dogs on either side of the house are barking their heads off. And incomprehensibly, someone starts shooting off fireworks. Really this happened, I shit you not. So of course you expect our super sensitive child to blow her lid. But she doesn't. She smiles and gets excited because of the dogs. All of the sudden she loves dogs, even if they want to devour her.

Nat's aunt has a 3 year old grandson who has a boatload of toys. To top off the happiness she finds herself among a load of toys. When it's time to leave she doesn't want to. But I divert her attention by suggesting we look for the dogs. As we walk out the door, Nat's cousin was there and yet another hockey match broke out between him and her dad.

Before we left, Nat's uncle gave me 2 bags of tea. Actually he gave me 1 but his aunt gave me another one because she said the first one wasn't that good. This is the uncle that was in the hospital. He's a really nice guy and the last time I was there he tried to give me a huge framed picture of Suou that was hanging on his wall.

Stop #3 is back to the oldest uncle's to drop off a gift but only Nat and her mom go in so it's really a 5 minute stop. We get to the restaurant at 6:05 for stop #4, which is dinner with 2 of the uncles (#3 and #4, #2 is Nat's dad). I think Julia should be more or less OK except for her being bored. She's had plenty of rest and we go into it in a pretty good mood.

Nat's 3rd uncle hands us a bag with 2 more bags of tea in it. This is the uncle that drove us all over the mountains to Pinlin last time only to find out the tea museum was closed. Also, uncle #4 was the one who drove us down the winding road on the East coast of the island to Taroko Gorge. Give Nat's dad's family this. They sure as hell go the extra yard to help you out.

This is another one of "those meals" so I pace myself well and do not overeat. I'm still full but not atrociously so. This time we brought props to play with so Julia was content to sit for almost the entire 90 minute meal. I don't know anything they said, but it sure was an enjoyable meal all told. Good food and a seemingly good bunch of people.

But then Julia pooped and we had forgotten our diaper bag. Game, set, match, and we're out of there.

With the sleep schedule and the props at dinner and the DVD in the car we're getting a lot closer to having our groove down with her. As long as she gets attention we seem to have things more or less down pat. We get another day of eating tomorrow then we're off to Taipei to eat some more.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Day 9: Dialing It Back

We sleep until 6:00, thankfully. Actually Julia and Nat were up at 5:30 and I caught up 30 minutes later. We got out of bed another 30 after that. Once again we went downstairs for breakfast then went to the office until 8:00 to let them sleep. Breakfast is a redux of stuff we had last week.

We're stuck. We've fallen into a pattern that has wedged us into doing little to nothing for almost 3 straight days. Where Calvin lives, I would call the culture "thin" in that it's an office complex with a few families here and there. When the weekend rolls around there's not much humanity going on. No markets and shops in walking distance save for a few food stalls here and there. Everything pretty much requires a drive, which throws a monkey wrench into the whole "walk anywhere" philosophy.

Julia wakes up early every day, but nothing opens until 10. Then she falls asleep on the way back, and we fail to get her to nap later, then she can't stay up later and consequently sleep longer every morning, and the pattern continues. So today we opted to do nothing in the morning. We were going to go to Costco for bagels but by the time we got ready to go it was dangerously close nap time and more of the same cycle. So we stayed in, went for a small walk, then to the office before coming back to the
apartment for lunch. We chose to split a lunch. I think without question I've put on weight in the past few days. I was holding serve but with all of the sitting in the last 3 days I'm plumping like a Ball Park Frank. Need to get a move on in the coming days or I'm going to be horrified when I step on the scale next Monday.

She went down for a nap at 12:30. Hopefully she's out for 2 hours and we can push out her wakeup a bit tomorrow. Nat's mom's oldest brother wants to take us to "the place" in Taipei for lunch Thursday, but if she needs to nap by noon that's just not going to happen. We'll be in Lotung for the next few days so we'll have a more relaxed time there and maybe we can get her to sleep a bit later than she has been. Time will tell.

Over these few days the vacation has stalled a bit. Everyone but me is content sitting around talking most of the day, and eating when they're not talking. I want to do something, anything really. But as we saw in the last 2 days when we do go out Julia falls asleep early and then it screws up the day. So we need to work around her schedule, which nobody seems to be doing without us making a point of it. It makes doing anything tough. Calvin is trying to get us to stay as long as he can. He doesn't want us to go at. He likes the company. But he doesn't like to walk, which explains why he's put on so much weight since he moved here.

I've also come to believe that Julia is throwing tantrums because she needs more attention. Both Nat and I are not giving her nearly as much as we normally do and I think she's really hurting in that regard. I think we screwed this trip up in a number of ways as it pertains to her. There's no way around it, she just wasn't ready for this. All of it is too much for her. There's no familiar surroundings and we have a hard time giving her the attention she needs. So she's been lashing out by throwing tantrums and she seems burned out almost all the time. For the next week, I think we need to dial back the expectations and give her more attention. I'm nervous about how she's going to be for the 2 weeks after I'm gone. I'm sure it will be the 2 longest weeks of my life.

Everyone naps after lunch except Nat and I. She watches bad Chinese soap operas while I go up and shoot baskets on the roof. After an hour of Julia's nap I get a coffee and Nat goes down to the basement with her parents to shop and I sit-in and wait for her to wake up, which happens at 2:30. We lay in bed and read for 15 minutes. Nat comes back 2 minutes after we get out of bed and we're packed and on the road by 3:30.

I think a hiking & photography trip would be pretty cool here. There are so many steep little hills to climb everywhere, as well as huge ones of course. On bright days the scenery would be fantastic and the hiking would be grueling but rewarding. As we drive down I see so many little things perched on the hills that I would love to hike up and see what's up there. Sometimes I see shacks that sit 1000 vertical feet from where we are, that look like something from an era long gone. Maybe someday, which is something I say about a lot of things - someday. Someday my ship will come in.

I think I either need to get more serious about learning the language or give it up entirely. I can get by with my spattering of Mandarin and the local's English. But in order to fully get around I would need to be more fluent in Mandarin. What makes it harder is that in order to converse with the family, I would also need to learn Taiwanese. That would be tougher because there aren't nearly as many resources available for learning Taiwanese. Mandarin resources are hard enough to come by. You might think that learning Mandarin would be easy in that I could find some Mandarin radio to listen to. The problem there is that almost all of the Mandarin talk radio is news, and Chinese news broadcasts are often read at auctioneer speed. Add to the fact that they use a lot of political terms and my brain checks out after a minute. I'm sure there's a good way to utilize my commuting time for this. I probably should look for podcasts in this realm. I went through this last time so we'll see how it goes. Someday my ship will come in.

My thoughts are drifting back to "reality" already today. I feel like I've been here a long time though it's only been a week and I have a full 5 days and change until I fly out. I think this has a little to do with all the sitting around I've been doing, since I spent more time online today than I have any other day of the trip. My time is also limited so I stress about making the most of every day because I don't have a lot left. Human nature I guess.

We stop at the apartment quick and drop off the luggage and go to see Nat's 4th aunt and also see several other relatives there. They're ready and waiting with french fries for Julia. See now these guys know how to win the little peanut's affection. She sits patiently eating fries while Nat's cousin makes me tea. We discuss the tea a bit then he goes and gets a bag of tea for me. Every time we come here he gives me some kind of tea. Here's another way they know how to win our affections.

Eventually Julia gets sick of sitting there and fervently repeats "outside" while pointing out the door. So we relent and take her out, eventually putting her in the stroller and walking around the school yard, which is the same school Nat's mom went to for grade school and junior high. Pretty cool stuff, and if you use just a little bit of imagination you realize you, as a white man, are so far out on a cultural island as you walk your stroller around in a school yard that was probably there when the Japanese occupied this island before WWII. Pretty remote reality if you ask me.

It's just the 3 of us (plus Julia) for dinner as Nat's dad is off to see his mom for the rest of the day. So we stop at a corner build-it-yourself food place where you pick a bunch of things and they cook it for you. While Nat's mom waits for that we go and get 3 oyster pancakes from night market to top off dinner. Without Nat's dad we can go totally cannibal and eat whatever strikes our fancy. While we walk around the early stages of night market Julia looks smoked already.

On the way back we pass a bunch of parlor games and of course Julia points and grunts, which means she wants to play. So I drop a coin in and almost pull it off on the first try. I'm getting better. Naturally I should be happy with my near success but I continue. After a second coin I hit paydirt and get the prize! I win a small Doraemon cat. Both times the arm drops it but I'm getting better at positioning it so it drops it a little more to the left, closer to the bucket. On the second drop it bounces up and over and I'm a winner!

Dinner is good, nice and quiet. We eat while Julia destroys a stack of folded laundry and plays with a hair dryer, unplugged. She had her fries so she's not hungry. After dinner I take a bath with Julia while Nat goes and gets dessert, not that we need any more food. But we eat anyway because that's what people do around here. Nat's dad comes back and opens more food, which I eat because this is one thing I really like. I'm starting to worry that the plane back is going to be too heavy with passengers to make it the whole way.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Day 8: No Rally For Jesus

To channel Jesus from The Big Lebowski, What's this day of rest shit? What the fuck, don't you Taiwanese people eat breakfast? A man spends his hard earned money to fly to Taiwan I expect you to keep these fucking food stalls open 24/7. You might fool the fucks at the league office. But you can't fool me. Nobody fuck with the Jesus.

Translation: Prepackaged food from 7-11 for breakfast.

On the road at 9:00 to go see Nat's mom's second sister, Er-e, literally translated as 2 aunt. I heard from Nelson this morning and he is going to call back around noon. Maybe it works out, maybe not. But we're both busy and timing might not work out. Calvin was animated because he thought it might translate to night market but I think Nelson will be off to China by then. We skipped last night as I just wasn't in the mood to go out. Maybe I should follow through and go out tonight? I think he was disappointed we didn't break open a bottle of wine last night.

I'm actually happy we're going to see more relatives because it gets me out of the house. I took every opportunity to get out yesterday and it still wasn't enough. So the more the better as far as I'm concerned. I'm feeling a bit cooped up in the apartment and with the heat, I've a feeling they're trying to roast me like a chicken. Should I be concerned they occasionally drip sesame oil and soy sauce on me? They asked me to wrap my legs in foil earlier today.

So this is Nat's oldest aunt on her mom's side. Nat's cousin and her son show up. This cousin is the one who lent us the apartment for the last 2 trips. Unfortunately we have to stay with Calvin now because this is the politics of the family. Plus, I guess, you know, they're part of the reason we come here. Practically speaking, with a kid it's better to be in the child proof apartment than in the one where she can break all sorts of things. Their apartment in Taipei is awesome, but it has a lot of things she can break and no toys at all, unless you count the stuff she can break.

We go to see family and to show Julia off. But as usual, a discussion about politics breaks out. That's like the old joke that I went to see a fight and a hockey game broke out. This is what you get most of the time with Nat's dad, politics up the wazoo. There's an election in less than a week but this is the way most conversations end up when Nat's dad is around. We eat some snacks, drink some tea, and try to entertain our bored child with small origami stars and swans that she unravels.

Julia is very clingy during this trip and when we get in the car she is out at 11:15, less than 5 hours after she woke up. I know we've been pushing her a bit but she is far more tired than even I had imagined. Sooooo, that means we're both sitting in the van again while Julia sleeps it off. Fun stuff. We decided to let her sleep since she obviously needs it. No idea what that means for the rest of the day. Probably a logistics nightmare with the sleep schedule.

She wakes up at 12:00 so my sitting session isn't long, I've barely touched my coffee by the time she opens her eyes. We head back up to the apartment where Nat's cousin's son is talking politics with Nat's parents. Nat's dad guilted him into going to the rally with them later today. He had plans to hang out with his friends but Nat's dad got to him.

Lunch is fried rice with liver from around the corner. Nat gets oysters with her noodles. Oysters are common here and rock the house. Nat's cousin's kid eats like he hasn't eaten in a week, inhaling the food with such bad manners that even I notice, which is saying something because I'm oblivious to table manners. He slurps and talks with his mouth open. Nat's mom must be horrified because this is her side of the family.

Out of nowhere Nat's dad just drops his request for us to go to the rally. I guess the reality of it set in, that it was going to be impossible to manage with Julia, especially since she hadn't napped much the first time. It turned out they took a taxi which also might have something to do with it. They also planned to walk for about 2 hours and we had no stroller, as Lydia needed it for the long day. Add it all up and we're on our own for the afternoon. As a side note, Nelson never called back so I guess his free time burned up or, you know, he set fire to something.

We hop in a taxi and head into Taipei proper and hit a mall/food shopping center, which is a high-end mall with food in the basement, also pretty high-end. There we load up on dairy products to the tune of $24 for one shopping bag of cow products and a bag of pretzels. While there, 2 girls stop us and ask to take a picture with Julia because they thought she was cute. She was half-burnt already and wanted nothing to do with anyone, but I took the picture anyway. We also find a Mos (pronounced moss) burger there, not that we needed anymore food. It's basically a hamburger but instead of a bun it's a pressed rice bun. I have fond memories of these but this one is just OK, nothing amazing. I think I'm overloading my taste buds.

Taxi back and she almost falls asleep sitting on Nat's lap. But when we get back to the apartment she wants nothing to do with a nap. So we put on Dora in Chinese and burn up the rest of the afternoon relaxing. No real idea when people are coming back to the apartment. The answer turns out to be 5 minutes after I write that last sentence, around 5:00.

One of Nat's cousin's kids leaves, and is replaced with Nat's cousin a bit later. The 2 are roughly the same age but different generations and different sides of the family. The girl who shows up second was actually in our wedding in the states back in 2001. Both of them speak some semblance of English but it's obvious neither speaks often. When she leaves she utters something to me in English that is entirely left field, like, "We've got lumps of it out back!"

Dinner is Pizza Hut pizza and a bucket of fried chicken, I shit you not. No big deal, as I was planning to take it easy for dinner tonight and this makes it easy. They wanted to go out for Szechuan food but we passed because Julia was so out of her gourd with sleeping. Her at a restaurant would be blue murder to say the least. Not sure what blue murder means. I bet it's not pretty.

Speaking of Julia and her lack of sleep, getting her from 6:00 to 8:00 was a chore and a half. We gave her a bath at 5:45 and she was on the edge for the next 2 hours, a period during which she lost her temper at least 10 times. This is a bit of a new development but on the bright side these tantrums are the most passive things you'll ever see. At 7:55 it was too much and we brushed her teeth and put her to sleep for the night. Hopefully she makes it until at least 6:00 tomorrow. This kid needs sleep. We both need sleep.

Looks like night market is out but wine is in, at least in theory. I don't really need it. I'm full. I don't mean like at the moment. I mean all the time. My gauge is on F, I'm never hungry. These past 2 days have been the same amount of eating but less movement. And with Julia's development that she wants us to carry her everywhere, going anywhere is more and more difficult. I wonder if Julia is just starting to rebel in any number of ways because this is all too much for her. Maybe I do need a glass of wine after all.

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