We make holes in teeth!

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Taiwan Day 9 - Calvin & Grace Show Up

Full picture set of the day here: Flickr set or slideshow.

To Terren - So why does my MIL not want me to drive? Honestly, I don't know. If I can ride my bike in this madness I can surely drive. But she's decided that I shouldn't drive and that's that. I think there's some weird thing going on where she thinks that since I'm not Taiwanese I won't really know what to do behind a wheel. In a sense, I suppose there's some truth to that. It's not so much as being Taiwanese but being used to what to expect, which you tend to do when you're behind a wheel. In the US, there are some expectations. Here, there pretty much are none, aside from the fact that you have to expect nobody to stop at any traffic light or stop sign. Most people do, but with the number of people here a 99% success rate means that someone is going to blow a stop sign or red light about every minute that you're on the road in town.

Moving on to today, which starts with the bike ride as usual. I was looking to do something longer but my being a little tired and the rain changed my plans a bit. Since I can ride whenever, the rain is a sure excuse to turn that 4 hour ride into a 2 hour ride. Today that was the case. I'm itching to do something more meaty but I'm not so excited to go crazy with the weather not cooperating. Like I posted on Facebook, I understand that you guys back home are in the crap right now. But I'm still a little sick of the rain.

Today was a set of 3 climbs and 3 temples. The first was one we had been to years ago with Nat's mom and her aunt. I got to this in pretty short order:

I then went up and over the hill, down the other side, turned around and went back up, then down to the start of the first climb. I then headed to the "toughest climb" area and went up the hill to temple #2, which is entirely not picture worthy. Then up the hill more and turned off to temple #3, which was actually at the bottom of the hill. But before I got there, I found one of those dead construction projects that made me curious. So I turned around to go back and check it out and finally I had pressed my luck one too many times and the bike went out from under me and I slipped on the pavement. Luckily for me, I was going really slowly and was able to unclip and catch myself. The road was so slippery on the edge that I had to walk the bike. I couldn't actually get back on and pedal.

The 3rd temple:

The money shot is really from the base, but it was raining and so overcast that the picture came out like crap. I have it in the full set but it's nothing to write home about. Well, unless you're writing about how it's not...well, you know. I managed to get home without further incident, though the rain was picking up and by the time I was done, my hands were frozen and my feet were cold. Today made me start to see how relentless this rain can be, and I'm starting to understand some of the ex-pats here who complain about the rain in the winter. Still, I see what it's doing back home so I can't complain.

When I got back Nat had some breakfast goodies waiting, 2 leek dumplings smothered in hot sauce and a half a small bun of some sort. I cleaned up and then we took off to the small park to feed the fish, with a small detour at the tea shop for a taro-favored hot tea. I was still a little chilly from the ride and wanted something warm. As expected, Julia loved feeding the fish and we wondered why we waited so long to go here.

After walking around the night market area (in the day) Calvin called and said they were in the house, literally. He never actually said, "We're in the house," or, "We be in the hiz-ouse, yo!" That's not really his style. He and the family were just there. So we headed back and got in the elevator and opened the door, and were greeted by an absolutely blitzkrieg of noisy chaos. And the circus began. You can even see Calvin's smirk, he knows it:

I don't know what it is about this family, but when you put them all in a room together they seem to need to scream at anything and everything to get their point across. It's not family fighting at all. It's just, well, it's just a goddamn Chinese fire drill. I'm pretty sure I used the same description the last time we were here, and it's still appropriate. The 2 main players are Grace and the MIL. They just jabber on constantly. Then they draw in the FIL, which inevitably draws in both Nat and Calvin, who I think want nothing to do with the madness. But to be sure, they all end up in this loud round table discussion on absolutely nothing at all. Then the conversation gets so hectic they all end up yelling the same thing, quite literally, 7 times in a row sometimes. I shake my head.

Calvin and I escape to get lunch, which is Pizza Hut for the kids:

And Japanese lunchbox for us:

From left to right: Mermaid hair, goat ass, fried cow nose, yak spleen, and duck penis rolled in pig scrotum. It was good.

After lunch, and despite the rain, we went out for a short journey to the place where we get the bottled soymilk, which also sells assorted snack food. You can sit down and sample the different kinds of soymilk (normal, rice milk, almond, black bean, etc) then go buy some if you like. Or you can wlk around and taste some of the snacks they sell. They also have some old farm equipment on display as well as a machine that turns your raw rice into white rice. You buy the bag and then dump it into the machine a few times, put it in a bottle, and slap a sticker on it. This kept the kids entertained for a few minutes.

They also got monkey masks:

Then Calvin and family took off to check into their hotel (they love hotels for whatever reason) and we went back to the other side of town and soon I found we were heading towards the area of the temple climbs, the brightly-colored pedestrian bridge, and the toughest climb. We passed the circle intersection where all these roads start and headed towards the pedestrian bridge, up the hill.

We weren't going there, but I did find out the story of the bridge. Apparently there's an Aborigine village on the other side. Nat's mom said that she and her sisters sometimes come up there, have coffee, and walk across the bridge, just to do it. So there is some sort of explanation to it.

Next stop was a small coffee house that sells even more snacks, mostly nut-based, such as roasted soybeans, or a sort of peanut brittle, and so on. They also had little jars you could sample and just about every one of them was really good. I've had these snacks at Nat's parent's house before, as well as at the apartment here. Now I know where they come from:

A bit later, Nat, the FIL, and I went out to dinner and grabbed something local. I got some noodles with pork sauce on top:

Then Nat and her parents took off at about 8:30 to do some ceremony for her grandmother, who passed away almost a year ago. I don't know how this works, but I suspect this is one of those things where the "rules" are lightly enforced. This was something like the "3rd annual" gathering/memorial of her death, which is curious as she hasn't been dead a year yet. In any event, it was the last one and I think the process is finally done with, though I suspect there's some sort of yearly thing that Nat's dad will be doing from here on out. There's a reasonably big mysticism/religion/culture thing with death here. I don't know exactly what to call it, thus the vague reference.

Julia and I stayed at the house and had beer and ice cream. Well not Julia, she had chocolate. And scotch.

Tomorrow there's a big family gathering. I'm thinking Darin, and beer, will make an appearance. Stay tuned!


Friday, January 07, 2011

Taiwan Day 8 - Behind the Wheel

Full picture set of the day here: Flickr set or slideshow.

I'm tired this morning, slept until 5:15 and probably could have slept more but I need to get up and do some form of work before I head out. I realize that on the way back from 7-11 there are no stars in the sky, and I've probably never actually seen stars here. Aside from the constant overcast sky, the light pollution is pretty heavy so your chances of seeing stars are about 1 in 100, is my guess. I'll keep looking but I won't hold my breath.

It's cold this morning. Not the temps, which are the usual 50-55 when I wake up. But it feels colder, and there's a wind. Starting out on my ride I feel a little chilly but soon enough I'm warm and don't think about it. Today's exploration is up the mountain on one of the routes that go up and over to Taipei, or so I thought when I looked at the map. As usual, Google maps starts to get a little suspicious when you head up in the hills, and today was no exception. There was supposed to be a road that went all the way over, and I was going to take it until I ran out of time, or I hit 3000 vertical feet, whichever came first.

I'm getting to know the roads well enough that I no longer load up the GPS for rides like today. I just look at the map and go. I'm sure this will get me in trouble sooner or later but today there was no issue, and before long I found the road going directly west and the mountains looming up ahead of me. The climb was of little note, just another winding road going up the hill, on my left steep up, and on my right a steep down. Now and then I could see the retaining wall up ahead, showing me where I'd be going eventually. But the climb wasn't too hard and the road was well paved and showed signs of much new work.

As such, there wasn't a lot of interesting things to see here. Most of the way up I saw a few workers and got a "jia yo!" which is the equivalent of "you go girl" or something like that. It literally translates to "add oil" and is what you say to cheer someone on. Shortly after everything opened up into a plain of sorts, and there were farms and a quite a few signs. It appeared to be a bit of a tourist area which would explain the well-paved road going up. At the top there was parking and what looked like maybe a tea house, which would make sense.

I saw some people working in the fields and a few off roads going to other farms and maybe some temples, but I kept following the signs to the botanical garden which was supposed to be 8 km away. That was my makeshift goal and once I got past the small farming area I dove back into the woods and the road climbed up a little more. I was pretty excited to see this along the way:

Not something you see everyday in NJ, or even Taiwan for that matter. While I hadn't really climbed up all that far, I had gone up enough to enter the land of monkeys and...well, frankly I don't know what that top animal is. Some sort of surprised sheep maybe?

Soon, however, my rope ended:

Normally I would have just ridden under the bar, and that's actually what I did. But some dude stuck his head out the window and yelled at me, and pointed in the other direction. Some older guy had just driven up and told me that the place opened at 9:00, and that I needed a passport or driver's license. At least that's what I got out of it. It worked out I guess, since I told Nat I was going out for 2.5 hours and this was 1.5 hours in. If I had kept going, I would have been lured by the monkey sign and surely stayed out longer than I had planned. So I guess it was all for the best.

When I got home my FIL was pretty psyched that I went up there, and told me that it's actually closed to the public and you need to apply for a permit to get in. This jives with a sign I had read on the way up, which said that the hiking trail was used for management only and to not trespass on it. You have to understand, that the expression "no trespassing" doesn't exist in this country. So it's odd to see a sign like that. In general, you can go anywhere you want. Except here.

Lunch is a sort of repeat from other meals, with intestine thrown in this time. I'll spare you the pics. I did break out a new bag of tea today though, which is a nice colorful picture that I can throw in here:

This is the MIL's pot, otherwise I would have likely tracked down a blazing blue & orange one to go with my kit. It's hard to get a grasp on how big the pot is, but it makes me a solid 3+ cups of tea. I put in enough leaves to make that much, then top it with hot water, let it go for 3 minutes or so, then drink it while I work. I don't do this at home but I think I should start. This is one of those habits I'll try to bring back with me when we go home. Every time I go on vacation or away anywhere for that matter) I go home and do something different. This may be one of them.

The afternoon excursion came around and we had to pile in the car. Much to my surprise my FIL suggested I drive. Score!

No matter how much I shrink the image down you can still see the bald spot on my head, so I'll just keep it the same size. The car is a Volvo, worth much more than my VW at home. As daring as this might seem to some, after riding my bike in this chaos, driving is simple. I'm already starting to know the roads well enough that I can go out on my own. Not entirely, but pretty much I can get where I need to go. We headed south to see Nat's aunt and then uncle shortly after that. We had tea at one and coffee at the other, and snacks at both. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Nat's uncle:

He's getting on in years, but is a good guy. Well maybe, I can't understand a damn word he says. He may be cursing the white man up and down. But I always walk out of there with good tea so I have to give him props for that. He tried to give me a whole tea set but we declined. This is part of the song & dance of the culture. If they really wanted to give it to us, we would have been hard pressed to refuse it. But we refused and said it was too much to carry on the plane, and they accepted it. That more or less means they didn't really want to give it up. He once tried to pull a huge framed picture off the wall and give it to me. Gotta love his style, have to say.

After not killing us on the roads of Taiwan I managed to not kill us in the middle of Luodong during rush hour. The place isn't really that big but turns into absolute madness around 5:00. I got us to the bakery to get tomorrow's breakfast (ok, so sometimes we drive there, sue me) then over to the parking lot to drop the car off. Nat's dad told the lot guy I would be bringing the car in & out soon enough. Looking forward to being able to come & go as we please. We had to sneak around a bit today because Nat's mom is dead-set against me driving. we didn't bother trying to convince her, we just did it while she was getting her hair done. Maybe I'll pay her to get her hair done every day.

For dinner, Nat and I went out to night market and got more squid balls. In the process of cooking:

Then we went to another place and got oyster pancake, liver soup, and a veggie. Back at the house to generally hang around and BS, then a dessert which is another unique one from anything we're used to. A sweet soupy mix with red beans and more tapioca balls that you find in the bubble tea. Then we hung out talking to Nat's dad for a while and stayed up too late.

Tomorrow Nat's brother comes into town. No idea what that will entail.


Thursday, January 06, 2011

Taiwan Day 7 - An Ordinary Day

Full picture set of the day here: Flickr set or slideshow.

Confused Dude Man is back manning the 7-11. I'm tired this morning so coffee is important. He better not screw it up. I figured out the creamer numbers. I do know they have different hand gestures for numbers above 5, at least I know the one for 6, which is pretty much the same hand gesture for "Hang 10, dude." What this guy was doing was giving me 3 creamers and 2 sugars for each coffee, not total. So when Nat woke up today she had a stack of creamers awaiting her, and 4 sugars.

It was raining when I went out this morning, which is the first time I've actually ridden in the rain. Temps were 50-55, as usual, so it was a bit chilly but not bad after a few minutes. Today's ride was going to be shorter so I went later, avoiding the mad rush of middle school kids on their bikes which I was subject to yesterday. I went in the direction of the Toughest Climb with an idea to maybe climb up to another temple or explore a road on the map that sort of just went up and ended. I decided to go with the exploration as it seemed the better road to choose.

The road was not well traveled so I figured I was on another farm road, so I was surprised when I found this off to the side of the road:

I don't think many people live in, or visit, this area but it may be the off season. It didn't seem like much of a tourist attraction area no matter what, so I think that's sort of a relic of times past. It's a cool relic and once again, my sense of wonder at this island never stops. I'm pretty sure I could bike here forever and keep being entertained by this stuff. There are "things" everywhere, and it seems like other "things" are being built while previous ones are left to be reclaimed by the land. As I was riding up the hill, off to the left on top of the ridge were what looked like a series of buildings that could pass for hotels. If it were my first time here, I'd be thoroughly perplexed by this. But I've seen this sort of thing at the temples before, and they're sometimes used for housing the people who go to the temple for multi-night stays. Still, I find them fascinating.

Eventually the road got sketchy, which happens every day, and here we see where the road has started being reclaimed by the river. Road fall, or fail? Look behind the sign to see just how much of the road is now gone. It appears that the retaining wall didn't exactly hold up its end of the bargain.

Very shortly after this, the road turned into washed out mud, and I called it a ride. The rain had functioned to clean my bike a little, and I didn't want to ride through mud just to see if the house on the other side of the river held a shotgun-toting farmer or not. The road has been drilled by the flood zone, and likely gets washed out every year and re-blazed by trucks to get to the other side. Power lines still cross over to the building so I presume it's still used for something. It was in much better shape than a lot of houses I see being occupied so I have to assume it's still in use.

Got back to the apartment and I was a filthy wet mess, which is different than usual because I was wetter than I normally am. Actually the bike was cleaner than usual, but still dirty and also wet. So I had to clean up a little extra since I need to bring the bike inside after every ride. Leaving it outside, even locked, means it will disappear in no time. I keep it in the office here. After a quick cleanup and some more work, we head out to lunch without Julia so we can eat in relative peace. We get fried rice, mine is lamb and Nat's is pork. As usual, food was good.

The rest of the afternoon is relatively low-key, and this is where our trip may start to get a little mundane for the readers. The reality is that I've got to work, and we simply don't have enough exciting touristy things to do for 44 straight days. So we're going to have some down days, and today was pretty much one of them. Of course, we didn't just sit and watch TV all day so our daily life on an average day is still different than it would normally be, but there were no museums nor coffee gatherings this afternoon.

I did, however, decide I had to try to keep the bike clean. This island is relentless with the grime that accumulates everywhere. While it's no big deal on the frame, it will rapidly grind away my drivetrain and render my brakes inoperable before long. I'm starting to wonder if this thing is even going to make it 6 weeks. So, I took it outside and brushed it off with a toilet bowl brush, then decided I needed better tools for the job. It looks better, but still needs some work. Here it is after a token cleaning:

We set out late afternoon for another excursion, which basically means walking out the front door and going somewhere. Since everything is within walking distance, your daily life is just different here. You don't need to drive to the store and buy a week's worth of groceries. You go out and get what you need every day. I like this, as it means everything you eat is fresher and you get out and walk more often. Plus it gets you out of the house.

But first, we made a quick stop at the English library on the other side of the park. While nothing to write home about, it gave us something to do for a little bit:

Then it was out on another suicide shopping run: afternoon snack of a samosa-like thing but with veggies, oysters, eggs, and hot sauce inside. Then back through the park, to the corner pharmacy, a little odds & ends store (think daily life plus small hardware needs), the grocery store, the bakery, back to the park, and finally home. Here are my makeshift bike cleaning tools:

Degreaser, a few brushes, and some rags. Combined with the lube I brought this should get me to the 44th day. After that, I fully expect the bike to completely seize up and be inoperable when I get back. As long as it makes it, I'll be happy. I'll deal with the future when it gets here.

Dinner is rice with pork, veggies with pork, stinky tofu, and squid balls. The stinky tofu is one of those things that almost no white people eat, but I totally dig it. Every time it comes up that I like it, people here can't believe it. The squid balls aren't actual testicles, but some sort of night market concoction that is really tasty. Even though we had 4 things it was a completely reasonable dinner. We eat so often than by the end of the day I don't really have it in me to gorge further.

Topped it off with a Saranac, which really hit the spot, then Nat ran out and got 2 desserts which we split. The first was something called grass jelly, which is...honestly I don't even know how to describe it. Black jello-like sweet substance with those starch balls you find in the bubble tea. The other was a sort of tofu and soymilk concoction with more starch balls and some sesame seeds. Both were good and filling, and now I'm ready for bed, for sure.


Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Taiwan Day 6 - The Sun & a Museum

Full picture set of the day here: Flickr set or slideshow.

I've pretty much figured out my work groove. It goes something like this. Wake up early, work for a few hours and help out with the end of the day back on EST. Then go for a ride, come home, then work maybe 2 more hours and help the 2nd shift guy with any issues he's having. Then we do lunch and go out, run errands, do stuff, etc. If we're home I may hop online, or if I see emails when I'm out I'll reply. At the end of the day I'll throw in a few more hours unless I get them in during the day. I'm trying to cross-train this guy in London but he doesn't get in until 5:00 pm Taiwan time. So far, this has worked well. My PC in NY stopped responding to remote attempts but we got that worked out, mostly.

Told Nat I was going on a bit of a longer ride this morning, for no other reason than I want to start sprinkling in more time in the saddle so I can go out and explore more stuff. Most of the ride I had done before, but there was a bit of an extension at the end which I wanted to loop because it leads me to the base of 3 different epic rides I'd like to try to do before we leave - Pear Mountain, TaiPing Mountain, and the north cross-island highway. So it was a sort of scouting mission for those.

I preloaded breakfast and set out with the roads still wet from the rain overnight. The sun was supposed to show its face today but I was doubtful until I saw some blue sky in the distance, straight ahead. For the first 10 miles to the base of the hills, I was looking at a view straight out of a post card. Unfortunately I didn't have the good camera (I use the "old" digital to throw in my pocket) so the quality isn't really that great. But this gives you an idea:

Shortly after I headed off the main drag and onto an "industrial road" which is what a lot of these lesser roads are called. This one was well-paved and wide, so it wasn't a quarry road or anything like that. It went up quickly but not for very long, and it wasn't the leg-burner that the previous 2 days had been. I wanted today to be a tamer ride, so I scouted out a route with less vertical. No holy grail on this ride, at least not in theory. Imagine my surprise when I got to the top and saw this:

Down below is a massive riverbed which is actually mined for rocks in the dry season, which it is right now. You can see how small the actual river is. This is a clue about how massive the mountains are here. When the heavy rains come down on the hills and the water washes away on the way to the ocean, this will be full of raging water. This is a hint of what the rivers can do here when the big storms come:

Goodbye Hotel!

But not today. This day was full of awesome views and, again, slick roads. On the way up one of the hills my rear wheel spun out and slid a good 6 inches to 1 side. So even the shoulders of the well-traveled roads end up being slick as snot. When I got to the top of the climb today, I could actually see the green moss growing on the edge of the road. In some spots, there is a sort of constant landslide-wash dumping onto the road, which also makes it slippery. I have given up all notion of having a clean bike in this country. This is what my rear brake caliper looks like:

I got to the end of the climb for the day, which again was almost 2500 feet all told. This seems to be my magic number this week. I reached the base of TaiPing Mountain, which I think will be the first epic as it's only 34 miles from the apartment to the top. Of course, it's als0 over 6000 feet in the air so those last 10 miles may be a really tough slog. The other direction is Pear Mountain, which is a solid 65 mile ride but with the same vertical. Finally the cross-island highway splits off a bit further and goes up and over, no idea what that really entails. Climbing, I bet.

Unfortunately there's not a 7-11 out there, so water restocking may be an issue. I'll have to consult with the local guy and ask what the deal is with that. I can probably stuff 2 bottles in my jersey but it will be a bit of a force. I'd rather bring 2-3 and be able to stop somewhere. Even with 4, I'd probably spend the last 1-2 hours with no water. Thankfully it's almost literally 34 miles up, and 34 miles back down to end. I'm thinking 4.5-5 hours in total.

After I got back I was met by everyone leaving, and told by the FIL that we had a lunch date. In theory, I should be working so I needed to see how things were going. After a quick shower I hopped online with a pot of tea and saw that everything was quiet so I was able to join them. We were being treated by the guy who gave us that handmade glass dragon that we have hanging on the wall at home. They took us to the hotel where we had coffee yesterday. It was a high-end buffet place that most of the readers would have liked, I think. But Julia still objected and threw up when she saw the whole fish sitting on the table. She had no problem hawking mom's rum raisin ice cream though:

After lunch we drove to an Ilan museum which has a unique design best described by a picture. But since my set doesn't have any until the end, you'll need to wade through the next few paragraphs while we're inside. The basis of the museum is the cultural & ecological formation of the county as is stands today, from plants/animals to people to the ocean. It was pretty cool and much of it was available in English. I totally dig these high-level views so it was actually pretty cool. The design of the place, both inside and out, was awesome also.

This is called Turtle Island and is in almost every picture you see of the landscape. Really, doesn't it look like a fish more than a turtle?

This is a model of the greased pole competition that the aborigines used to have. The poles would be like 50 feet high and loaded with grease. You had 5 guys to try and make it up. They would stand on top of each other's shoulders and the last guy would have to climb up the greased pole with only a rope to wrap around the pole to use as leverage. When he got to the top, he would then need to climb horizontally out away from the base and then up over that top level. Pretty cool model:

This is a model of an old-style family house complex. An entire family would live here, and my FIL actually grew up in something like this. The entire grounds was surrounded by bamboo to help when the typhoons would come. Rice paddys were outside the bamboo, and the middle courtyard was where grain was processed, or where the kids would play. Storage huts of a kind were on the outside:

This was probably my favorite thing. It was a block model of the county, and the different elevation points had different numbers of blocks stacked up. he colors/images in the blocks would change so it almost appeared to be a sort of living entity. I love maps and stuff like this:

After a quick stop in the gift shop we took some pictures outside. Here you can see the shape of the building as well as how much Julia likes to cooperate with my FIL when he wants her to pose:

After a bunch of pictures we walked across the street to have a scallion pancake and a sort of dessert unique to the island. It's a pastry wrap filled with shaved peanut candy, cilantro, and taro ice cream. I love these and wish we could get a reasonable version in the states. The scallion pancake was a bit of a different style but had an egg in it and was loaded with scallions, then topped with a little hot sauce. Very good, even if it was different. Really hit the spot at the moment.

After that we went home and just had some noodles and veggies for dinner and put together some of the things we got at the museum for Julia, including a paper guy decked out in traditional Chinese garb and a balsa wood ferris wheel. And I had a Chimay, which was good but I think a bit long in the tooth.

2 firsts for today: A street cleaner (really? I never would have guessed) and a "real" road biker.


Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Taiwan Day 5 - The Toughest Climb

Full picture set of the day here: Flickr set or slideshow.

Terren commented that he wishes I traveled more often so I would produce more stories like this. After careful consideration, I'm down with this idea. I just need to find someone to bankroll my excursions. I'm not sure how well this will play out after 44 days, so it might get old. I'll have to keep trying to do interesting things. Thankfully there are a) a million interesting places to ride and b) Nat has like 50+ cousins, many of them like Darin. Maybe I'll go have some beers with her dentist-supplier cousin. 98% chance the sake gets busted out if I do that.

Jim mentioned getting lost and if I can read any of these signs. No, I can't. Well, I can read the smallest bit of Chinese, but it would be mostly numbers and the word good or big. So if everything were named "big 3 road" or "good man road" I'd be fine. But they're not, so I rely on the county roads being marked (2, 7, 9, etc), and the GPS. The GPS set me right the first day, as I missed a turn near the apartment. On the hill climb days there's really nowhere to get lost. The roads that go up usually have only 2 options: up and down. Unless something suddenly propels you sideways, you generally only need to go out or back. I've gotten to know the town a little bit, but it's still confusing since every intersection looks the same.

So on to Tuesday...

Getting coffee this morning was harder, as the usual Dude Man was replaced with another wide-eyed sub-Dude Man who simply could not understand anything I said. I know my Chinese isn't great but it's pretty hard to screw up 1, 2, and 3. I knew I was in for a tough draw when I held up 3 fingers and he gave me 1 creamer. I don't think sub-Dude man was that dumb, he was just floored by a white man who was speaking his language. In the end, he just gave me 7 creamers and sugars, I guess to cover his bases. Not sure what 3 fingers means here. I held them sideways which maybe means, "I'm going to stab you if you don't give me an indeterminate number of creamers"?

My adventure on the bike for today was, of course, the "toughest climb in the county" or town, that I had heard about yesterday. After discussing with the FIL I decided to give it a go and loaded the GPS up last night. This wasn't one of the county roads, so winging it wasn't going to work. There seemed to be 2 climbs and I loaded them both on the GPS and decided to do them both just to cover my bases.

The first climb was a questionable road choice, and I knew as soon as I turned onto the road that it wasn't right. But in looking at the elevation profile, it seemed that this one was the higher of the 2 so I wanted to do this before trying the hard one. I immediately knew I was on a farming road and that car traffic here would be minimal to none. About halfway up I saw a car pulled off to the side and some guy was working on an embankment. Not sure what that's for as it's clear very, very few people come up here very often. I kept going even though I knew this road wasn't right. Eventually I was proved correct as the road simply became impassable:

Let me step back a bit and say how great these rides have been for me thus far. Every time we've come here in the past, I've always had this sense of wonder about what's "out there". I would often would look up at the hills and see temples or small shacks and think to myself how neat it would be to get up there and see them, just see what the hell is going on up there. Well finally, I can do that. I can get on my bike and pretty much just point and go. With the awesome Google maps feature of user-loaded pics, you can see just about any lookout in the world now. Combined with the satellite view you can check out an area and see if any roads are actually there, and if people have gone and uploaded pics for the area. Sprinkle in the GPS and you have both the adventure of an explorer and the security of the white-bred honky that I really am. It's totally a win-win!

Forgot to mention yesterday that my ears popped as I was climbing. It happened again today, twice. This is a cool phenomenon.

The way back down was really sketchy. It turns out that the roads which aren't traveled very often don't actually need to have wet cement dust sprinkled on the road. A thin layer of algae (or moss?) covers the road and as I was climbing up, my tires would actually spin out on the pedal stroke. Coming down this made things interesting, and for the second day in a row my hands hurt from braking so much. It's not that you can't stop on these roads. The more scary part is that this was "almost" a one-lane road (call it 5/6 of a lane) and if a car were coming up, no way you'd be able to stop in time.

The official climb started with the rooster:

This time I knew I was on the right path, as some of the clues he had given me started to become evident. There was a road to the left to avoid, which went to a small temple. Then another road to the right which went to the bigger temple. There was a sign for it which I can't read but which was brightly colored and seemed to strike a bell as a temple sign. Plus, this road was much more traveled and there were really no turns to speak of. Google maps is great, but out here things can be a little inaccurate. The road went way past where Google maps said it was going to go and ended up being much more elevation that the first climb.

I have to give this guy credit, the climb was solid. He said the end got very steep and as I got close to the top the road turned and I saw the road pitch up pretty steeply. I never needed to stand, so it wasn't as bad as the worst NJ climbs, but it was a solid climb. Apparently, there was supposed to be a journal to sign when I got to the top but I wasn't sure if I'd find it or not. Well, it turns out that being blind might not be enough of an excuse to not find it:

I signed the book, took a few pics (see the link at the top), then turned around and went back down. As I got to the bottom I saw I had been out for 1:46, and had told Nat I would be 1.5 hours. I knew she wouldn't be too-too concerned. But I high-tailed it back to town because I was out much longer than I expected. I got home and hammered a late breakfast, then a bar of Dove chocolate, then hopped online to do some work. One of Nat's cousins came over and we had lunch. This one was beans, gizzard, and roast duck:

Chris asked about the organs and if animals have muscles here. There are no cows, so throw that one out. The primary "big" animal would be a pig, and the whole damn thing gets eaten. The meat sauce that was on top of the rice is made of pork, and pork bits are often used to flavor other kinds of rice or vegetables. In general, the people here don't take a pig, cut out the juiciest parts, and throw away the rest. The prime part is taken and spread as thin as possible to make the most of the animal. When you have 10 acres of land, you grow 9.5 acres of vegetables, and maybe use a half acre to grow grain for the pig. You also feed it slop leftovers. In the US, we would take the 10 acres of land, put 500 pigs on it, then plant 10,000 acres of grain in Kansas to feed it.

After lunch, I tried to teach Julia how to act gangster:

We'll need to work on that. We took a ride to the mall in Ilan (20 minutes north) to buy some stuff for Julia and burn some time away from the house. We went with Nat's dad while her mom stayed back at the house to relax a bit. We got her a puzzle and some toys then went to get some coffee up in the hotel on the roof of the mall. Later we went food shopping in the basement and found some cheese, cream cheese, and finally beer:

While Saranac isn't my favorite, it works. I think this cost me $10 for a 6 pack, which isn't terrible considering where we are.


Monday, January 03, 2011

Taiwan Day 4 - Climbing the Quarry

Full picture set of the day here: Flickr set or slideshow.

Note the link above - I put it at the top of each day to see all the pics. Nat said she didn't notice it yesterday.

For breakfast this morning I needed to eat some fruit, so I had a kiwi and a banana, plus the usual cup of coffee. When the sun came up I geared up for a ride and hit the road, still not sure where I was going. The big mountain still lured me on, but the warnings from yesterday were still sort of in the back of my mind. Of course, I went straight in the direction of the mountain, and figured I'd "wing it". It took me only 20 minutes to get there, but the road wasn't marked so I wasn't sure what to do. Well, it was marked but it didn't have the English name so I missed it.

Eventually I turned around in the other direction it was marked, so I started going up. Immediately I was met with 3 trucks full of stone, which is apparently what they mine for up on top of the hill. I continued on past the lower quarry entrance and kept going. Shortly after the entrance the road turned to gravel, and I thought my day was done. But I looked out across and saw that it was pavement on the other side so I rode through it and started climbing.

And climbing.

To say it went up fast is an understatement. I was in my lowest gear quite a bit and it was still a hard slog. I had been warned about the trucks coming down but after 1500 vertical feet I had seen nothing. But then, the first one came down. Did I mention this was a 1 lane road?

The first few trucks were a little nerve-wracking, but after that I made my peace with them, and they with me. I saw that the first guy was on his radio when he passed me, so I can only assume he was sending back the message of, "Holy shit stupid fucking white man in blue and orange neon is riding his bike up the quarry road!"

The looks on the truck driver's faces ranged from a nod, to shocked surprise, to smiles. One guy even stopped his truck and we cobbled together a conversation in mixed Chinese and English. We both knew a little of each other's language so we were able to get through that it was really high up there, my wife is Taiwanese, her family lives here, we're on vacation, I work online, and my boss lives in Chicago. He asked a few more questions which I didn't understand. So I told him he had a big ass (ni de pi gu hen da!) and we moved on.

One thing I find fascinating about this island is the prevalence of hiking trails. Apparently, when the Japanese colonized the island they forced the natives to build all sorts of cross-island trails, roads, and railways. Many of these are now washed away in landslides and from general lack of use. But some are still active and yesterday I caught a few glimpses of trails here & there. Note the rope to help you get up:

I also found the next pic insanely interesting. There was a bucket conveyor that went all the way up the mountain. It was essentially a ski lift for rocks, but I presume to send them down. As I started climbing the hill, I saw that it went way, way up. As I got way, way up, I later came to a spot where the mountain just loomed over me in gigantic fashion. I had thought I was getting close, but I rounded a turn at one point and saw that I was, in fact, not close. The crazy conveyor kept going up:

They apparently wash down the rocks before they load them in the truck, for whatever reason, and this leaves a stream of water on the roads after the trucks pass. This was good going up, as the trucks all took the same route. So when I would approach a truck I would see where he was going to go, and I would avoid it. I presume I was much less of a hazard this way. As I got closer to the top, however, it struck me that the water was also mixing with stone dust, which is the same stone used to make cement. Everything on the island is made of cement.

So, for those of you who have ever mixed cement, you know that when it's wet, it's slick as grease. What was basically slowly covering the road was a greasy film. As I went further on, it started to rain.

Just after I had talked to the driver who stopped, and rounding the turn to see the massive mountain looming ahead, I realized I'd never have enough time to make it to the top. I had to get to the point where the GPS said 2500 feet, but then had to turn around and head home. This was unfortunate for 2 reasons. The first is that this will be my only trip up this hill, as it's pretty dangerous and dreadfully dirty. The second was that I was now faced with the task of going down the hill that was covered in greasy cement dust, in the rain, with the trucks now coming up the hill. I thought it would be a slow affair, and it was, as I only averaged something like 12 mph going down. But the GPS reeled off the vertical in rapid fashion, going from 2500 feet to -150 in absolutely no time. Even putzing along, it was a rapid descent.

My bike and I were both covered in this shit when I got home:

We had loose plans to hit up a local museum but the light rain made it less appealing, as it is partly outside and it's not as cool if you only stay inside, apparently. So we ran some errands which included going to get a data plan for my phone, grabbing a coffee, getting 2 Ethernet cables, going to an arts and crafts store for Julia, and then grabbing lunch. But before I post the pics of food that you weak-stomached mortals complain about, let me just say again...

Data plan bitches!

Let me also say that the 3G here is just about as fast as my wifi at home. This island is data saturated.

Ok, with that out of the way let me give you the sticky rice with pork sauce on top:

In the afternoon we went for a little walk again, which resulted in us buying more stuff. The danger of living here is that there is anything you can think of within a half-mile radius. So we go out and wind up buying something to eat & drink each time we go, plus something we forgot the last time. This trip was bubble tea, the bakery, an extension chord, and some lotion for Julia. They put these on the sidewalks when they don't want scooters to slaughter the area:

Back at the apartment where I get back into a little work, though I admit that the first day is hard to find my work groove. I did some documents earlier and figured out a little of what I need to get done. but it's hard to really get into anything when the rest of the company is sleeping and the market hasn't even opened yet. So I punch out a few emails to help with some of the stuff I'm doing and then mull around the house all day. I need to define some concrete work items to make it easier to get stuff done.

Later in the afternoon my FIL comes back and tells me he's found me some more riding partners, presumably a bit more capable than Darin. They happen to be going back to the store so we join them for a bit, and they discuss various local routes. With the limited I can understand and in looking at the pictures, they do seem more capable than Darin but really well below what I'm used to, even with my 20+ pound bike. They have done the "toughest climb" in the country, which goes up to something like 3200 meters, almost 10,000 feet. It's apparently the highest road climb in the country. The cutoff to qualify is 7 hours. That's solid, I'll admit that.

He also told me about a local hill climb challenge that is supposed to be really hard in he last 200 m. Yes, everything here is m and km. I loaded it up on the GPS and plan to do it tomorrow morning. By the time I post this I will have likely gone out & come back already, so the FB users will likely already know if I made it.

Dinner for us is noodles. But Julia eats like most of you and is disgusted with our stuff. She gets Pizza Hut, which I have to admit is actually pretty good:


Sunday, January 02, 2011

Taiwan Day 3 - Hangin' with Darin

Full picture set of the day here: Flickr set or slideshow.

Wake up closer to 5:00 today, so I'm pretty much a normal schedule. Today is Sunday, my last day of pure freedom before I have to cobble together some sort of work plan. Yesterday was unsuccessful in finding a back-up connection. There's an Internet cafe a block away so we can try that, though Nat says it's a little seedy. I may just ride it out until tomorrow then figure it out, which surely sounds better than it really is. It's a bit of a scratch workday of sorts, since our 5:00 pm is 4:00 am on the East coast. So I'd be more or less done working before they even started. I can back-load the day a little bit if I have to.

But that's tomorrow.

Today I kicked off the day with my first foray into the world on my own, a trip to 7-11 to get coffee. With 1 small glitch, I'm able to get 2 cups of coffee. The "small glitch" is that I asked for a cup of hot lard instead of actual coffee, so Nat had to be happy with the fact I brought home something that was hot and had sugar and creamer in it. Growing pains.

Breakfast was rice ball again, but this time the better kind, though I have to admit it wasn't as good as I remember it being. Ingredients are rice, fried dough (cruller), pickled veggies, dried pork, and egg, as well as some sort of sauce. As usual, banging:

Then, I had to pay the piper and go for a bike ride with Nat's cousin. I had a feeling that this was going to be a slow ride. Yesterday when I told him how fast I usually ride he nearly fell out of his chair. But like a trooper, he called this morning and still wanted to go. I had a few minutes to get ready and in that time I managed to figure out how to get the work laptop connected with the ADSL router and was able to remote into my work PC. So before 9:00 the work connection issue was solved, as was the blog posting issue. Now tomorrow I just need that data plan and I'll be connected again.

As soon as I stepped outside I knew I was in for an interesting ride. Wearing jeans and about 12 layers of clothing, Darin (as he calls himself) was waiting for me. He also sported a small radio mounted to the bag on his handlebars. I think I mentioned yesterday that his English was so bad that it made me confident in being able to speak Chinese to him. This was well and good for casual conversation with Nat's dad as a translator. But with just us, things were...interesting.

Darrin was a good sport, but I have to be honest, my man isn't going to be riding a bike for a living any time soon. Not that I am, mind you. But he...well, he isn't. We were keeping a pretty slow pace and he still needed to take a break every 10-15 minutes. While Taiwan is a land of hills, this route wasn't particularly hilly:

After the ride, during which he kept insisting we stop and get beer, we went back to his house to drink tea, eat some salty food, and watch NBA basketball then college football. Seriously, you can't make this shit up. I have to say I've come a long way since the first time I came here. I remember the first trip how easily annoyed I would get at being thrust into these family situations and not knowing jack-shit about anything, and not being able to understand or say anything. Here I was today sitting in what amounts to a stranger's living room in full spandex drinking tea and watching basketball. Dude man's wife came in and rolled with it, breaking out some salty snacks to keep us from being hungry.

After the ride I went back and showered, saw Nat's aunt real quick, and was informed that I had 1 minute to get ready to go to lunch, which was with the same posse we had seen yesterday, including Darin. As usual, the food was banging, and I won't bother trying to detail it all here. Check the pic link at the top to see all the food and descriptions. This was one of the things we had, fried tofu:

And Darin got his way after all:

Back at the apartment to make noodles for Julia because she won't eat much of anything in this country. With the addition of video games to her life, she at least allows us to eat in relative silence. Towards the end of the meal things were drawing on a bit long, but she made it with no issue and was able to deal with the array of strange looking foods that were dropped in front of her. After she had lunch, Nat's dad went out to get us some scallion pancakes because we never got it the day before. The last thing I needed was more to eat, but he's just non-stop with this food.

After the early afternoon snack, we took a walk and were surprised that Julia was a trooper and walked much further than either of us thought she would. The weather was nice, mid-60s in the afternoon. We got within striking distance of the giant Giant shop I had seen on the way back from hanging out watching basketball, so we went over and picked up a floor pump for the bike. We also asked about group rides and if one of my planned rides (tomorrow, let's go up!) was a bad idea or not. I found a road not far away that goes straight up the mountain but was told there's a quarry up top and that trucks frequently drive up & down the road. I'm still thinking about checking it out.

Back to the apartment for an easy dinner and low-key night. The first 3 days have been somewhat chaotic and it was nice to get a little down time. But with Julia, such a thing does not exist.



Accommodation in aviemore