29 July 2008

Some Final Thoughts

Today is a travel day. I'm returning home. I've had quite a lot of time to reflect on Taiwan. I'm sure not sufficient time to file the experience neatly away into the annals of my memory; a lifetime wouldn't be enough. But, as Pat and I began to reflect on the way to the airport, we came to some important points of engagement.

Conversation, classroom lectures, and mountains of textbooks educate me. I'm heavily invested in my formal education, thus far, and I'm greatly humbled to have such an opportunity. In some ways, however, my first extended trip abroad has proven more didactic than years at any university. (We value knowledge so, but understanding is rarely appreciated to its merit.)

So to travel to Taiwan, to stay, to befriend Taiwanese people, to eat the food, experience the culture--in all of this, I was not expecting to be so imprinted with perspective. Much to my embarrassment, I didn't realize all of this until my much anticipated trip to the airport with Pat.

We began to talk about the previous evening's meal, when our fast-friend from Taiwan, Claire and we went out to celebrate our time together. We asked Claire what her favorite restaurant in Taipei is, and when she suggested one with, of all things, a Chinese name, we stared blankly, and asked her to show us the way. We were brought to a small brewery with delicious food and another interesting amalgam of US and Taiwanese influence. Seafood soup with a beer broth, and a teriyaki cuddlefish salad were on the menu for the evening, as was some in-depth discussion of Taiwanese vs. American Education. Through this one meal, all my education of cultural differences finally engaged with practicum.

Claire is perhaps the gentlest of all my friends. Her humble deferring attitude lends itself well to most relationships, and quietly demands both respect and reciprocity. In thinking on her conduct, I've learned a lot. Most religions at least allude to the paradox of the least being the greatest and visa versa. From Claire's offering me a sip of her drink before she had a taste, to her intense concern over our affinity to the restaurant she chose, Pat and I have discovered what collectivism is truly about. I'm able to understand traditional "feminine" roles, and instead of dismissing them as foreign or antiquated, to embrace the power found in humility.

For the above reasons, I'm intensely sorry that I didn't allow my heart to be more open to Taiwan. Perhaps as an effort toward emotional preservation, I guarded myself from investing my whole humanity into this experience, assuming that two months is too short a time to make worthwhile connections. How many opportunities have I forgone in doing so? Who did I miss getting to know?

On the other hand, how touched I have been, in spite of my stoic approach. How happy I am that the least among us has the strength to make me melt. And how excited I am to forge ahead into more mistakes and lessons in humanity.

26 July 2008

Our final adventure found Pat and I at Yeliu (野柳) Geological Park, a considerable distance from Taipei. Because of the 45 minute journey, our bus was quite comfortable with comfy seats, and plenty of leg room. The downside to having such a luxurious coach is that you can't tell where you are, let alone discern which stop is yours. We were promptly helped by the locals, when we confidently headed to the front of the bus 15 minutes early.

An especially bulbous 
sandstone formation

Upon arriving, it was a short walk to the park, which is notable for it's sandstone formations. As the sandstone gets eroded by tides, wind, and other sand in the water and wind, the harder layer on top remains.This produces fragile looking protrusions from the ground that have the potential to resemble human figures, like Taiwan's famous Nephertiti Head. 

The African Princess's Head-
smaller than expected

The formation is lauded as one of Taiwan's natural treasures, and it is quite fascinating. However, I was expecting something more American Southwest in scale. Regardless of the size, though, many of these formations are indeed endangered.

Funky sandstone formations, 
whipped up by the wind.

The queens head isn't expected to last for much longer, as her "neck" is shrinking by the year. So little time! The threats of erosion are not only significant from the wind and water, but also from the tourists that traipse all over the nifty squiggly rock.

Squiggly alien landscape

Some are even so daring as to get on top of the formations, which will inevitably lead to the sqigglies eventual disappearance.

Taiwanese tourists, their 
own brand of rule-breaking

The park is also a place where the ocean and the shore cohabitate, making for some dramatic interplay. Because the sandstone is so fragile, the shore is little more than a steep, rounded drop-off into the ocean. 
Ominous, yet ignored warning signs

That's probably why the powers that be decided to paint a red line on the sandstone shore, with multiple signs reading "Danger!" -- none of which were heeded by any tourist present, myself and Pat included. The Taiwanese have a slightly-more-than-healthy fear of water, and take it upon themselves to restrict citizens and, especially, tourists from even the most remote risk of drowning. That said, the following picture is much more safe than it looks.

Pat is perfectly safe. 
The angle gives a daring feel, though.

This place, pretty as it looks in the noontime sun, is best visited in the cooler months, or in the morning if you must on a summer day. By about 2 pm, I was spent, and had to get out of the sun and heat.

22 July 2008

Beach Bum

My nose began to peel today. I'd been expecting it, though. Some pretty intense days on tropical beaches merit such dermal behavior, no matter how many coats of SPF 45 one slathers on. Let me explain.

The bottomside of the British Consulate

Saturday, July 12, a heard of Grand Valley students headed off to a Rock festival at Fulong Bathing Beach(福隆海水浴場) as a sort of last hurrah before their return home. We didn't listen to much music, but instead shirked the official swimming area for more exciting ventures. If you followed the link to the Fulong Beach wikipedia site (above) you could see a picture of the extensive beach-front with the little buoyed off area for swimming. This year was about twice as packed as that picture shows, and the swimming area about 4 times. Needless to say, we didn't want to be in a suss-pool of humanity; we opted for a cozy beach area across the little stream that emptied into the ocean there. We splashed, laid out on the beach, and sat in the surf like we've seen big beautiful black ladies do in Michigan. It was a blast. 

Then, this weekend, Pat and I decided to go with a group of students from the Mandarin Training Center (having been ruthlessly left behind by our Grand Valley friends) to the southern tip of Taiwan. It was good timing, too, as a typhoon struck the Northeast side of the island as we were heading South. On the way, we stopped at Kaohsiung (高雄, Gāoxióng) to ride the tallest Ferris wheel in Taiwan, which is so high because of its placement on top of a mall. The bird's eye view of that city was interesting, but it wasn't night time. I'd be quite interested to see it at night. And when it isn't raining.

Windows in a dungeon?

Before we got settled into our lodging, we stopped at the Former British Consulate just outside of Kaohsiung. It was interesting, complete with an awkwardly short basement, with tiny passages (that's me in one at the top of the page) into other, even smaller rooms. A place of torture and misery for legal offenders? Maybe. An elaborate cellar for storing sensative foods served at the Consulate? More likely. It was interesting to see the juxtaposition of English taste with the Chinese flavor. The brick building at the top, square and, well, western looking, had been retrofitted with cement downspouts shaped like bamboo. There was even a temple at the top of the bluff overlooking the ocean.

Terraces at the Consulate

Later on, having arrived at our quarters, we got a good night's rest for the following day. On the way to the bus, we found that the lodge that we were calling our temporary home was also home to a small number of fowl. And such a mood they were in. Apparently, they didn't want us to walk on the path that they were occupying, but hiss nor stink-eye could keep us away.

A. Anser Domesticus

On it was, to Éluánbí (鵝鑾鼻), the southernmost lightouse in Taiwan. It was visible from almost the whole park surrounding it, but few were looking bacak at the lighthouse with views like this:

Boardwalk in Kenting National Park

When we finally made our way to the lighthouse, we found it inside a courtyard, with whitewashed walls and buildings. It was kinda quaint.

Courtyard at the Éluánbí

I was amazed at how many people there were here. Our group only made up forty-some, but there were easily 4 times that many people swarming around the lighthouse and adjacent gift shop. 

Resting after a long hike in the sun

Following Éluánbí, we explored further into Kenting National Park, and finally came to the beach. After about 45 minutes of battling the 3 foot waves, I was whipped, and went under our parasol to relax and plug away at a book I've been hooked on.

I made lots of friends on the trip, and am looking forward to getting together with them once or twice before I head home.

The last two days, I've been relaxing, trying to recover from a persistent cold, and holding out from any last minute consumerism. I did get out to some new restaurants today, and explored a 24 hr bookstore more thoroughly than I had my first visit.

I finished my book Wicked on the trip down South (wonderful read, and jarringly different from the namesake broadway musical), and am anticipating a desire to read on my way back. I bought A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce and The Communist Manifesto(Books are so cheap here!) Portrait is delicious thus far...

12 July 2008

A Week of Culture (Jiu Fen, Chinese cooking class, and our Closing Ceremony)

大家好!(Dà jiā hǎo!) That means, "Hello everyone."

So, Tuesday (I realize that is a long time ago; I apologize for the delay.) the group went to Chiufen (九份,Jiǔ fèn, or Nine Measures), a traditional village gone slightly-off-the-beaten-path tourist attraction. The village still has an old style street complete with cramped passage and cozy shops.

The old style street

These streets are filled with all sorts of people. Your typical American college students studying Chinese, your miscellaneous Asian tourist, popping over to Taiwan, and quite a few friendly, if slightly over the top, vendors.

A sassy vender in 九份

Waking around 九份 with the amigos, I found some more interesting entrances to buildings. My classmates and Taiwanese friend grace the pixels of the following. Here, we're on our way to taste some shaved ice with different sweet bean sauces over the top. Not many of us Americans thought this was the delicacy that the Taiwanese people did, all of whom slurped greedily.

A televangelist and an Asian supermodel

I really enjoyed 九份, because it offered a chance to see a tiny little town, an evident contrast to the 6 lane bustle of Taipei. The souvenir opportunities abound here, too. I think that a lot of my American classmates relished this as their chances to buy gifts for their loved ones are getting fewer by the hour. Another reason to love it is that it's on the side of a mountain that overlooks the Pacific. I really love places where the ocean and mountains are so tightly packed. 

A door on a hill

I've been noticing a lot of color in Taiwan. I really like taking pictures of places where a wall becomes a passage. Especially when they're advertised with such pigmented adornments...

Windows next to the door on the hill

The architecture of 九份 doesn't end there, though. Just up the mountain from the town were what looked like tiny summer cottages, all colorful and well lit. My professor informed us to the contrary, though. Rather than homes for the living, these quaint bungalows are dwellings for the dead. Not cheap, either. The cost about the same as house (one that people live in). They certainly are pretty, though.

Afterlife bungalows

Wednesday, we had cooking class. It was hard to catch a picture of our teacher, as she was a busy bee, flitting back and forth to each of the 11 dishes that we would eventually enjoy for dinner.

Chinese chef extraordinaire at work, with assistants

Cooking in a wok is much different that otherwise. Apparently, you're supposed to heat the wok first, then add the oil. When that's hot, ad the seasonings, and meat/tofu to brown. Then, in go the vegetables and salt at the end. The food lastly goes on a big plate/bowl from which people are served onto their small bowl of rice. This way, everyone gets to try everything they want, and get plenty of carbs to balance their meat/veggie/lipid combo from the wok.

The bounty

Thursday we had a delicious meal at a fancy restaurant as part of our Grand Valley program. And what a meal! Peking duck. I've never had this before, and I started out high up, apparently. This restaurant has it's own duck farm and everything. Talk about local.

Finally, on Friday, the Grand Valley Group's graduation of sorts was held. We all got our pots that we threw at Yingge., along with a certificate recognizing our participation and completion of the program.

The ceremony was quite fun, with performers from Shi Da and our (Grand Valley Students) own skits. The names of these instruments are the Erhu (follow the links to read about the instruments, see more pictures, and audio/video samples at the bottom of the page), a two stringed violin-esque instrument with a bamboo bow and a snakeskin covered body:

The sorrowful sounding Erhu

The really amazing thing about these instruments is that they allow for notes to be bent. The Erhu has no frets, so a note isn't fixed like on a guitar. And the Pipa's frets have enough space underneath the string to allow for a half or sometimes whole step of action. That means that one fret can produce two notes, depending on how hard the player pushes down the string. This note bending is a classic element in eastern music, and distinguishes these instruments from the western similars.

Pipa student working her musical magic

I really can't say enough praise for the people of the Mandarin Training Center for being such wonderful hosts! They've facilitated the housing, entertainment and intense education of 15 students from GVSU, and hundreds more from all over the world. If you know anyone interested in studying Mandarin, especially if they're interested traditional characters, the MTC comes highly recommended.

04 July 2008

Plants and Animals, Fire and Ice

Guess what we did on last Wednesday?

That's right, we had a culture class on Chinese medicine, including, but not limited to acupuncture. Our presenter was an MD from China who told us about Chinese nutrition, exercises to aid in digestion and fatigue, and lastly, showed us acupuncture and a more extreme form of meridian stimulation:

You may not be able to tell, but that's a flaming hot pile of mugwart on my foot, burning a clear path for the Qi to flow through my immune system. The look on my face did eventually turn into a dapper grimace, but I think this one illustrates the pain pretty well. 

LI-3 point is good for decreasing
 headache and general inflammation.

In other news, I went to 淡水 (Dan Shui) this weekend to check out the ocean. I didn't see much of the ocean, as we didn't get out too far until later, but did catch a glimpse of some interesting Taipei county fauna:

S. Scrofa Domestica

This little beaut had a smaller amigo just out of the frame above. A little black squirrel was leashed to a small stump and was doing his best to look cute.

And speaking of cute, here's Joey just ticked pink over his mountain of an ice-cream cone at 淡水漁人碼頭 (Danshui's Fisherman's Wharf). More pictures of less quality can be found at the link to my Picassa Album for the Taiwan trip, also found on the side of my blog page.

Elation never tasted so good.

Tuesday a couple of different students and I went to Bao An Temple, my second time. I remembered that in writing a previous post, I couldn't find any pictures of the process of 擲筊, throwing the moon blocks. Remember, you toss two of them, so there's plenty here for lots of people to ask lots of questions at once.

Moon blocks

And should you get your question answered, it would come by way of drawing a stick from a barrel...

Numbered sticks

...and the number on the stick corresponds to a script of classical poetry, at this temple, on a board:

Classical poetry, for your interpretation

Last time, I wrote about how the poetry was in a circular chest of drawers, but this temple does things differently. Same basic concept, though. I was glad to have a chance to return to this temple. There were plenty of pics that I wanted to take that I only thought of after leaving the first time.

Little Giants; bonsai guarding the main alter

Yesterday, our group went to 貓空 (Maokong), a mountian area in the Southern reaches of Taipei. To get there, you take an half hour long gondola ride up the mountain, which offers some amazing views...

Taipei Basin from Maokong Gondola

One could see the whole taipei basin. And a pink sunset. It was quite nice to get such a beautiful panorama.

Atop the mountain, we were served a meal of delicious food, with every dish using tea in some way. After dinner, we sampled different types of tea from around Taiwan. Education by contrast. Lots to learn.

Of course, there's more to write, but at the moment I'm feeling quite ill. I think I should rest. Comments welcome.