We live in the very same apartment now that we lived in during our first two years at this school. It was a strange feeling, walking back through our door after two years away. The apartment looked just as we'd left it; we even found some things tucked away for us (a phone, the Swiffer, a laundry basket) that had been ours to begin with. And outside the house things are much unchanged: the smells, the sounds, the view. Apparently, you can go home again.
There was some turnover within staff housing, but our neighbors to the north, an older Taiwanese couple, are still here. We've always enjoyed watching them work the land around their house – when we first arrived they planted two adjacent guava orchards, and while the wife could be seen tending to hers without much ado, the husband was constantly messing around, digging trenches only to fill them in again, laying irrigation pipes, pulling trees out for no apparent reason – except perhaps as an exercise in small equipment operations. He loved to bring in the Caterpiller and the backhoe. It was no surprise, really, that she seemed to harvest a lot more guava than he did, but he was probably having more fun.
So we were amused, about a month after our return, to see the same backhoe ripping out all the trees on the old man's side. We waited to see what he would try next. Pineapples are all the rage now, having replaced most of the guava and papaya orchards around us. He really pulled out all the stops, though, bringing in a digger, a giant crane, and a long flatbed truck with four mature trees strapped to its back. Nora and I stood on the balcony and watched as they moved the trees into place – it was quite a show. The trees were stripped of nearly all their foliage, and the roots were cut quite short; I was doubtful they would survive, especially considering they weren't watered at all. They seem to have taken to their new home, however, and stand like crowded sentries at one end of his field.
I knew there had to me more. The rest of his land, bare and dry, was just crying out for something to fill it up. About two weeks ago our patience was rewarded: more dirt. As the first few dump trucks tipped their loads, I thought is was the saddest looking topsoil ever. Whatever he planted would have to be as hardy as his trees. But the trucks continued to come all day long, and the next day, and the next. In the end, he had nearly 60 full loads of dirt brought in – and when the trucks were done for the day there was the backhoe, picking out the biggest stumps and chunks of concrete.
Last week the mystery was solved when an extra long dump truck came and took a dozen piles away: the farmer has turned his land into a fill-dirt depository. Like the huge cisterns in the field beyond, his dirt piles are providing an income that is probably greater than what he could earn with an orchard, with less effort on his part. His wife continues to care for her guava trees, carefully wrapping baggies around the tender young fruit and harvesting them later, still wrapped in plastic, to sell at the morning market. Kaohsiung county is growing, but the land to the west is so fully industrialized that it's the farm land around us that is feeling the pinch. This couple's farm is just the greater transition writ small. They are having it both ways for now, guavas and fill dirt living side by side; we'll have to wait and see how things turn out for them and the surrounding community.