We make holes in teeth!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Taiwan - One Week Later

One week later, and here I am. Here we are. I wanted to sit down 1 week, and then 1 month, later and write a little about the trip now that I've had a chance to decompress a bit. I'm pretty much over the jetlag, though I always contend it takes a solid week and with the stomach virus running through the house I don't think anyone is quite "normal" just yet. It was certainly harder coming back than it was to go.

On that note, the first few days, almost the whole week, I hated being here. I'm still not loving it, but it's a little better. Everything about "here" is just drab, so dreadfully boring. I've gone on a few bike rides, and the landscape just sucks. You have to drive everywhere and the drivers here, while fewer, all think they own the goddamn world. I also realize how much people here live an existence where they hide in their cocoons and come in contact with as few people as possible.

Jetlag and Being Sick

I'd like to thank all the parents out there who bring your children to school when they're sick. You know how people say "it's going around"? Well the reason it "goes around" is because your kid spikes a fever or throws up all night and you still send them to school. It's pretty easy to figure out really. If the kid has a fever, or is shitting and throwing up all over, yeah, go ahead and keep them home.

As you might guess, Julia and I are both sick with this stomach thing that's "going around." She got it from school of course, where some of her classmates have it. Mine was pretty low-key, maybe a 24 hour deal with some light residual the next day. Julia had a day of fever, then a day of crapping fire which was the most intense I've ever heard her cry, then yesterday was a day of vomiting all day. She must have thrown up 12 times. Awesome stuff.

Combine that with the jetlag and you have an awesome week. By "awesome" here I mean "not awesome" of course. On top of the jetlag, the past few days have just been a total drain on all of us. Julia was in constant pain with a stomach ache most of yesterday, which made all of us want to jump out the window many times. Living on the first floor takes some of the oomph out of that statement but you get the point.

I like jetlag sometimes. It's an opportunity to see the world in a time frame you normally wouldn't. One of the things a trip like this produces in you is a desire to get out of the ruts and routines you've established in the past whatever-time-frame. Waking up at 1-2-3:00 am makes life different, a little more interesting for a few days. Nothing is open, of course. So it's kinda limited. But it's not like you can run down to the breakfast shop and grab an early breakfast for $4. We went to the diner the other day and it was $25 for breakfast. This country is seriously cash mad. When the heck did 3 eggs start costing $6?

Speaking of diners, Utah said it best to me the other day when he said NJ is like a diner. Lots of things are good, nothing is great. Really hit the nail on the head with that one I think.

Diversionary Constructs

I used this expression the other day when talking to Bill. I think I create these diversionary constructs to remove my brain from the "here and now" a lot of times because it is so boring here that I need something else to make life interesting. I'm sure a lot of people are cool with the routine, and I'm sorry if I'm offending you in some way. I know that living elsewhere for 6 weeks like that seems like it would be a chore, and in some ways I admit it was. But for me, the routine often times means rut. I greatly dislike that in life.

So we, or at least I, setup what I refer to as diversionary constructs. And of course, you all know that this comes in the form of biking for me. Just 23 minutes into my first bike ride since being back, I started to think about training plans and how my race season was going to go. This is in stark contrast to my desire to just wing it this year, do fewer meaningless crap races, and do more epic rides and events to make life more interesting. I have time to rearrange my thinking. But it took all of 23 minutes of riding here to lose interest in where I am and start thinking about those diversionary constructs.

I think that's a lot of why I race and blog about it, because it gives me a vehicle to create this alternate world where NJ is more interesting than it really is. I've long contended that a place is as interesting as you make it. I still believe that, to a point. But I also have to admit that the grass field across the street is damn boring, no matter which way you slice it. So some places have additional perks which mean you have to work less to make it interesting.


I've spent a lot of time trying to learn Chinese and several people have said to me since I got back that my Chinese must be rocking now. Well, my "street" Chinese has gotten better but the textbook language that I've been learning has gone to shit. I can survive in the country, scallion pancakes and coffee being an obvious example of one narrow window of how I can do that. But the scores of audio lessons I've listened to and reviewed amounted to almost no use while we were there, other than showing off to the taxi driver that I can say "seatbelt" in Chinese.

The best analogy is like this. Here is how I learned to speak:

I walk into a bar in England and want to order a beer. So I say, "Hello old chap. I was wondering if I could have a full glass of your finest barely-based alcoholic drink."

Someone then says, "Kibbles! Hey Stumpy, Blarney here wants an up of the old nig-nug. Primp up on the quick!"

It's kinda like that. All this time I feel like I've been learning stuff that nobody says. I mean here and there I recognized some words. But people speak in more of a street talk, not the "proper" way that they teach. For instance, they teach you to say, "I do no understand what you're saying," if you are confused. But in real life, they say the equivalent of, "hear no understand." It's very simple, "ting bu dong." A street vendor selling scallion pancakes more or less taught me that. So all the time I spent learning Chinese seems to have been somewhat of a waste. Or rather, I've gone right to high school conversations where most people speak grade school, at least as far as actual conversation goes.

That sounds like people speak like hacks. But it's more like if they taught you to say in English, "I'm sorry, I don't understand what you're saying." But then you went to the market and everyone just said, "Huh?" The sad reality is that nobody ever teaches you WTF "huh" means.


On that note, I have not rolled out of the vacation trying to continue my Chinese skills. I'm not sure what my plan is. I need to do something, or give up entirely.

Food & Fat

I'm not going to deny it, I got fat on this trip. I don't yet know how much weight I gained because I've been avoiding the scale. Well I got back on it 2 times. The first time was right after the trip, and it said I gained only 3 pounds. The second was like 2 days ago and it said I gained 9. So it appears that I have gained 6 pounds in the week we've been back. I'm still sick right now so I'm going to wait to normalize a bit since my weight goes up when I'm tired/sick. But the takeaway is that unless I carefully track my calories in/out numbers, I get fat. Of course, those who saw me in the old days can attest to that. But every now and again I need to make sure. I'm sure.

Since we've been back, I've made my own soymilk, rice milk, and scallion pancakes. The soymilk was really good (though Nat thought it was a bit "beany"), the rice milk was once good and once so-so. And the scallion pancakes were ok, still a WIP.

Nat made one of the stewed pork & bamboo concoctions which came out great:

This looks good but was lacking salt, and may have been a bit too thick:

Open invite for any of this stuff to those people who a) still read and b) don't scare me.

Terren's Comments

I have cherry picked these, but I'm trying to pare stuff down. Terren gets his own section because he was the most consistent person to comment. I really had no idea who was reading the whole time but I did know T was. So in no particular order...

Look forward to next year's 60-day trip even if it means we don't get to see you guys for two months.

As I sit here now, on Saturday, kid vomiting up a storm and the weather sucking out there, I'm thinking that another winter trip is what I'd like to do. I'm actually bummed that we missed the Lantern Festival. I can do without the Chinese new year, since it's kinda meaningless in terms of public outings.

But there are a few considerations which might roadblock this. First being work. I need to make sure that whatever role I'm in allows it. Second would be Julia's school, and if she can bow out of kindergarten for 2 months. The final piece would be Nat's parents, and their plans to be there at the same time which would make things more difficult.

The lean right now would be to go for summer next year, or perhaps spring. Summer would eliminate 2 of the 3 issues, with the only remaining 1 being work. Spring would eliminate the in-law's trip plans. We'll see what pans out but at this moment, I'd say we're likely a lean to go again.

Anyway, looking forward to whatever you have to say about it. I'm a big fan of Alan Watts as you may know and everything he said about Taoism was fascinating, to me anyway. It might be the only mystical type religion I'm actually interested in.

Unfortunately I have nothing to add on the subject of Daoism right now. It's on my radar, but I'm too busy with work and vomiting child to think about much right now. Also rearranging the deck chairs on our own personal Titanic we refer to as a house. I get like this after every trip, but this effort has been the most effective so far.

Hey, know what, I dreamed last night that I was in Taiwan with you guys. I was driving around and kept messing up because the traffic was so strange. And then we made it the apartment you guys were staying in and Natalie proceeded to unfold this incredibly complex contraption which turned out to be an ironing board. I wish it was more interesting then that but I had to share.

I really have no comment on this but I wanted to share it with the larger audience.

You weren't kidding about the Betel Nut stands... just found this:

There used to be many easy-to-look-at Betel Nut girls but those days are mostly gone now. You can still see them in Taoyuan county, but by and large they're manned by, well, sometimes men, but more often than not middle-aged women that don't exactly turn the eyes like the Wikipedia pic. We did see maybe 3 really nuts stands, all of which I missed the pic on. I wanted to go back and get a good shot but like many other things, we just never made it. If they sold good beer and had hot betel nut girls at the top of Taipei 101, that might have been 1 trip I was sure to have made.

These days, the girls that used to "man" the stands are working at cell phone stores or the mall, among other places. There's too much money elsewhere for most girls to slum to the truck drivers, which is the majority of the business of these drive-up shops. You often see the stands on busy roads that lead in & out of the towns, easy pit stops for the trucks as they leave town.

By and large, that era has passed in the country though. They will almost always draw my attention still, since there remains the off chance that you may catch a real Betel Nut Beauty. But more often than that, it's a middle-aged man who could stand to lose a few or 20 pounds sitting in the booth watching TV.

Stay Tuned

I hope to come back again with a last follow-up, 3 weeks from now, to put a final cap on the trip. Like many of the small plans we had for Taiwan, it may fall by the wayside and never happen. But I have some things written down that I'd like to address. I also hope to be done with the deck chairs here and maybe the weather will be nice and I won't dislike this state so much by then.

One thing I will add because I have it written on a post it note is that we brought back far too much snack food and far too little real stuff. In all, we seem to have carried back 20 pounds of things to eat, none of which will be around in a month from now. But the persistent things, like the tea seat and the glass dragons, were pretty sparse. In hindsight I wish we would have done more of the permanent additions and less of the stuff that turn into little piles of shit you flush down the toilet. Oh well, live and learn.

I also hope to be able to report back that I did not, in fact, gain as much weight as feared, that my Chinese is at near high school conversational level, and that the spring came astoundingly early this year. Alas, I won't hold my breath on any of those points but one can hope.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Taiwan Day 44 - Saying Goodbye

Last breakfast of the trip is the same shop we've been going to for the better part of the last few weeks. I was resigned to only get 1 thing, but when I got there I couldn't choose, so I ended up getting the same as the last 2 days - rice ball, soymilk, and scallion pancake/egg combo. This time I only ate half of each, and ended up throwing the rest away. I'm not a big fan of waste but in this case I felt it was necessary since I won't be able to get this stuff for another who-knows-how-long.

After breakfast I tied up the packing and got ourselves ready to go. The plan was to be ready to go at a moments notice so that when we got back, we could pick up and go if we had to. Not the ideal plan, but if we came back at 3:55, we could shoot out and not be late.

We met up with Calvin & family at the American Club. They had been out visiting Grace's parents that morning then had to run to Taipei for something, so we met there. Usually I'd reject the notion of the American Club for my last meal, but after something like 130 meals, really it didn't matter. Here's a shot of the inside:

For lunch, I got the sha cha jiang beef, which is Chinese BBQ sauce beef. I really enjoyed it so it ended up being a good stop for the last lunch:

Coming back from the bathroom I noticed someone sitting behind me that looked familiar. It turned out it was the guy from the liquor store who lived in Manhattan for 17 years. I said to Nat that you know it's time to go when you start "running into people" in a city of 3 million people.

We took our time eating then drove back to the apartment and jammed even more shit into our luggage and let the kids play for another hour before loading up the car and heading to the airport. There was no traffic so we were there early. Here's our mass of junk we're bringing back:

We asked which line to get into and the guy saw we had a kid and put us in the first class line. Sweet! However, when we got to the window the guy said he had no record of us. He took off for 10 minutes and came back and said that he found us, but it turns out that our return flight was booked for January 12th, not February 12th. That kinda sucks, but it turns out the flight wasn't booked so we not only got 3 seats, we got them together.

We had just over 110 kg of luggage, which is more than 242 pounds. That's absurd.

Wasting time before the flight, Julia wanted to look in the bathroom for who-knows-what-reason and I took a picture of us. I don't look like I got too too fat on the trip:

We then found a Hello Kitty gift shop where I dropped almost $30 on a Hello Kitty doll worth maybe $5 on a good day. We grabbed our last meal of mediocre beef noodle soup and bubble tea, then we got in the fast line to board because of the 4 year old. Once again, sweet!

The plane took off and once we got in the air I took a look at this, which hurts to even think about:

As long as the flight was, it ended up being only (only? only?) 13.5 hours and not 14.5. No idea why it was so fast but I'll take it. I'm not going to describe the flight because everyone knows what a plane is like. The food was so-so at best, kids cried on and off, and I slept about 12 minutes total, in 3 different attempts.

When we landed the gate to get out was broken so we were delayed slightly, but not long. Immigration was easy and we passed through to grab our luggage when the Fruit & Veggie dog identified us as being smugglers. Awesome! The lady asked if we had any fruits, veggies, or meats and we said no. But we forgot we had brought 2 bananas to snack on so we got nabbed for having them. She said it wouldn't be a problem but she took out immigration paper and put a big red mark on it, like in grade school.

Once we got to customs we had to go through the "troublemakers" line where the guy just told us we had to scan all our bags. The lady took the bananas and randomly searched 1 bag. She looked at the preserved eggs and said that they were ok since they came from Taiwan and not China.

Nat had called Joe (our ride home) when we got off and it turns out they had no idea we were coming home that early. We suck at planning but it worked out for the best. Actually, they were supposed to be in South Jersey but had come home early by chance. So once again, we got lucky. We got home about 9:30, in all just over 18 hours from door to door, which is as about as good as it gets.

I unpacked everything and listened to Wilco's Sky Blue Sky because of the memories I have of that album from the last return trip from Taiwan. I managed to get through all 242 pounds of stuff (plus the 2 carry-on pieces) before going to bed. I also had 2 Victory Storm King Stouts because I had to make amends for all the bad beer I've had in the last 6 weeks. Here's all the junk I managed to pack in the wok box, I needed to be efficient:

And that's just about that.

Oddly, I don't feel like I said a proper goodbye to the country. I don't know why I say that. I gave it a fair sendoff on the bike. But I feel like I should have said goodbye to the 7-11 coffee clerks and the breakfast shop lady, among other regulars we saw routinely. Maybe it's because I know we'll be back sooner than later. In the flight back, Nat and I already talked about possibly doing the same next year, but for the full 60 days of the visa. Usually when we're heading back, we're not thinking about coming back.

Coming back to the house, I didn't feel like I was "going home" so much as just going somewhere else to live for a little bit. I think a trip like this changes you in ways you don't actually understand, and may not ever understand. That may be part of it, I'm not sure. If I figure it out I'll let you know. In the meantime, I'm just doing what I can to keep my eyes open when they should be open, and closed when they should be closed.

There's probably no better way to end the story of our last day than to describe the last moment of the drive back to the house. When I backed the minivan into the driveway Nat said to Julia that we were home. Julia looked up, peered out the window, and said, "What parking lot is this?"

Thanks to all for reading my War & Peace on our Taiwan trip, and all the comments. Everything you guys have contributed have made me realize how special of an opportunity this really was, and I'm glad I took it. We'll see everyone next time.

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



Accommodation in aviemore