Friday, November 25, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving!

We have so much to be thankful for! God continues to bless us abundantly. We are grateful for our family, our health, Tim's job, a nice home, the ability to travel and explore new places, and so much more. It's good to pause and give thanks for all those things we take for granted all year long. The holidays are a hard time to be so far from home, but we keep up our traditions and are grateful for the company of friends. May you, too, be among friends and loved ones this Thanksgiving. Peace to you all!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Rails & trails

We had a great weekend, but boy are my legs sore. A few weeks ago we bumped into a family whose son had attended kindergarten with Cole – the two of them had been great buddies – and they invited us to join them for a hike. So last Friday night we stayed at their house in Chiayi (our first overnighter with a Chinese family), where they treated us to Pizza Hut and Pepsi followed by a tour of the local night market. We hardly ever do the night markets, but this one I really enjoyed: lots of food (like the candied strawberries you see here), people-watching, people watching us – all under a cool, starry sky. It was my first visit to Chiayi, a small city, very clean and inviting. We had a lovely evening.

The next morning after a cold-pizza breakfast we headed for Alishan. With so many little ones along we opted not to hike up, but instead took the narrow gauge railroad (one of only two in the world) to a village in the bamboo forest. The train was crowded, standing room only, but I was immediately offered a seat since I had Nora in my arms. It was an hour to the village, so that was a real blessing. We had an amazing view; the train circled around and through the mountain several times (Cole counted 14 tunnels) before letting us off at 1,400 meters. The air was fresh and cool – such a nice change from Kaohsiung.

We made our way from the station to a nearby restaurant. The owner stood at the door, waving and beckoning people in, while at his side stood a life-sized cardboard cut-out of himself, doing the same thing. Apparently he's a local celebrity; his picture was everywhere. We ate a traditional Chinese meal, what westerners call a lunch-box: a lidded tin bowl filled with rice and topped with cabbage, pickled bamboo, green vegetables, a drumstick, a pork chop, fried tofu, and a curly red garnish that no one could identify. I shared my lunch with Nora, who was most fond of the rice and chicken. I made short work of the rest, except for the Maraschino parsley.

After clearing our table, we walked through the market for some shopping and sweets. I decided against the glow-in-the-dark Alishan Train t-shirts (even though Christmas is coming), but was more than happy to spend 50NT on a bag of peppery ginger candy. Cole bought a dozen glutenous strawberry rice balls, and Nora got a pack of melon gum from 7-11. (Tim, I think, was holding out for a latté.) Snacks in hand, we headed for the trails.

Hiking in Taiwan is not an Eddie Bauer affair. Women in skirts, fur-trimmed jackets and low heels were handling the groomed trails just as well, if not better, than I was in my all-terrain runners. The fact that Nora preferred my arms to the carrier on Tim's back may have had something to do with my lumbering pace – that, and the altitude. But the scenery was worth the effort. A bamboo forest is very calming, so when we came upon some benches I was happy to sit and take it all in. The light filtering through the giant grass was soft and cool. There was very little noise. My first impression was of the uniformity of the forest, endless stick-straight stalks of green. But then I saw shades of brown and grey, even blue mixed in. And as I looked closer I noticed characters – Chinese names, love poems – etched into some of the stems. I wondered who had carved them, and when. The forest had become personal, the sameness replaced with individuality. It's akin to what happens when you live in Taiwan for a while: what at first seems like a massive, homogenous population slowly takes shape as a collection of individuals. Of course that's what they've always been, but it takes some time to see it. Humanity is in the details.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Dishing dirt

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.


The weather forecast was for clear skies and 77º today and tomorrow, with a chance of rain on Tuesday. A peek out the window, however, reveals that the shushing sound I hear is indeed tires on wet pavement. It's raining! Very strange for this late in the year. It's cool, too – I'm going to go put on a sweater and then post my dirt blog.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Still here!

It's been a while since I've written. Well, since I've posted, at any rate. I started an entry last week that grew and grew until it turned into something too introspective to publish, even by my standards; but it was useful and I'm glad I pursued my thoughts for as long as I did. That is one of the joys of writing, arriving at unexpected places within yourself, discovering connections that you hadn't consciously made.

In other news... there's not a lot to report. This is from a letter I sent to a friend:

Not much going on here. Earthquake last week -- maybe I mentioned that already. Nora's sick today, and I'm tired from being up with her all night. Despite all that, though, I'm feeling really happy to be here. Maybe I should blog about that today.

It's two days later, but it's all still true. Nora is asleep, but feverish and scratchy-voiced, and waking frequently (I am in for another long night). The earthquakes (two right in a row) were not huge – 4.2 – but they were centered much closer to home than usual, so we rocked and rolled a bit up here on the 4th floor.

And yes, I am happy to be here. I was having a conversation in my head on the way home from Costco today, and imagined the question, "What would you change about living in Taiwan?" The main thing is airfare. I would love to be able to go back home whenever I wanted, and for people to come see us here; but it's an expensive proposition no matter which way you're flying, so once a year is probably the best we can do (and even that takes some effort).

Certainly there are things that bug me – Kaohsiung is no one's idea of nirvana – but I'm not sure that I would change them. The further I get from what I thought my life would be like, the more I like myself for having come the harder way. That's not as eloquent as it could be, but I hope you get my point. Taiwan shapes me, refines me, and pushes me closer to the inner chasms that I might otherwise avoid. Scary, but exciting, too. And with God as your sherpa, what's to fear? If He says stand at the edge, that's where I want to be.

Hmm. Apparently introspection in unavoidable. I better post this before it suffers the fate of my last letter. I will go back to weather (84º and holding), domestic details (finally got glass for our dining table), and other mundane stuff next time. And pictures! I've got to get something new for you to look at. Maybe my crazy neighbor's fifty-odd truck loads of soil that he brought in last week. It's like Close Encounters of the Dirt Kind. Wait 'til you see.

Friday, November 04, 2005

82º|77º, 82º|77º, 82º|77º, 82º|77º, 82º|78º

This is the five-day forecast for Kaohsiung. Just wanted to share.

(Oh, and the airport code is KHH, which is useful when booking your flight.)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

It was a dark and wormy night...

I'm afraid I don't have a picture of this to share with you, but this morning as we left for school we were stopped in our tracks by a horde of black worms seeking drier ground – namely, our lobby. Rain all night long had driven them out of the yard and onto the pavement, and some, in desperation, had inched under the front doors and lay, still and dying, on the stone floor. It was Hitchcockian, a perfect start for Halloween. Cole and I shuddered and squealed – there were literally hundreds of worms between us and the car – while Nora kept pointing at them with her sandaled toe, saying, "Look at that!"

Our school doesn't make an event out of Halloween, which is probably best in a country where ghosts and spirits are not taken lightly. (Taiwan has more temples per capita than anywhere else on earth.) Here in staff housing, however, we had a great party Sunday night: dozens of kids roamed the seven floors of our building for treats, and then everyone descended upon our neighbors' house for apple bobbing (it's okay, we're all friends) and green bug juice. It was a graveyard smash.

The costumes were the best part of the evening. We had Neo and Trinity (of The Matrix), a hippie chick, two Mormons, a ladybug and a butterfly, a cleaver-wielding doctor, the Cat in the Hat... and that's just the grown-ups. The kids came as faeries and ballerinas, wizards and nerds, a sleepy-head (that would be Cole) and George of the Jungle (played by baby George, of course). Pictures don't do them justice, but I'll put up a couple.

We have a great mix of people in our community, and there are so many children! Cole made a good friend right away, and Nora has lots of little girls to play with. There's a babysitting co-op so the parents can get out once in a while on their own (that's been a real treat), as well as game nights and fellowship for evenings closer to home. We certainly liked all of our neighbors the first time we lived here, too, but there seems to be more going on this time around. I like it, and am looking forward to getting to know everyone more as the year progresses. Now, if we could just do something about those pesky Mormons....