Sunday, March 25, 2007

Two words

Last weekend I had an enjoyable exercise in following one's impulses: two little words I blurted out set into motion a series of events that, in fact, continue to unfold. I don't mean to be oblique, but I am rather tickled by how the week has gone, and it can all be traced to one moment. Last Saturday night, we headed down with some friends to Fisherman's Wharf on the Kaohsiung harbor. Docked there at the moment is the MV Doulos, which sails to ports all over the world to provide books, medical assistance, and, when possible, a message of faith. The crew of 350 are all volunteers, from the captain on down, and crewmembers commit to a one- to two-year assignment on the boat. Over the years, more than 19 million people have come aboard to buy books and tour the vessel; she was built two years after the Titanic, and was first used as a cargo ship (she carried onions) but was later converted to a cruise ship. She has been running as a ministry since the '70s.

So this is how my two little words came into play. Before boarding the ship, we all decided to find some dinner at the restaurants along the wharf. Nora and I stopped at the first place we came to, a quiche and coffee shop, but the others wandered farther on looking for something else (something more manly, perhaps). At any rate, as Nora and I were eating, a performance began near our table, songs and dances from the drama department of the Doulos. We finished up and made our way over to the stage to watch them. Nora loved the dancing; the audience loved Nora (at one point, all the women squatting down in the front row had their cameras trained on her -- she is such a fascination to them). At the end of the show the members introduced themselves. The crew is made up of people from all over the world, and this group of about ten represented North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Central America. This last one, a woman from Trinidad, had already gotten my attention by using some American Sign Language in her music performance; now she stood on the stage and said where she was from, waiting for some recognition from the audience. People had clapped for France and Sweden and Canada, but no one seemed to have any idea where Trinidad was. She was playing up her disappointment, but still, I felt moved to say something. I called out, "Go, Trinidad!" She smiled, I smiled, the Chinese ladies around me giggled, and that seemed to be the end of it. Nora wanted to see the dancers, though, so we walked over to where the troupe was putting away their gear. The woman from Trinidad, Roopa, came up to me, so excited that I had even heard of her tiny island. She offered to give us a tour of the boat, so I rounded up everybody and we made our way up the gangplank. We did not get far, however, as tours were supposed to end at 8:00 and it was already past. But Roopa extended the offer if we were to come again.

I wasn't sure when we might make it back, but as the days passed I kept thinking about Roopa, about how far away from home she is. (Yes, I'm far from home, too, but I get to go back every summer, and people come to see us here, and the time seems to go quickly. She lives in a room that's smaller than your average walk-in closet. She shares it with three roommates.) I got online and Googled "food of Trinidad." I soon discovered the national treasure that is doubles, a fried bread filled with curried chickpeas. I found a recipe for it; I found I had all the ingredients. I knew we would go back.

Friday was a half day for the kids, and Tim was free in the afternoon, so after lunch I started making doubles [see my recipe here]. Everything went together easily, the house smelled fantastic (cumin and curry and onions, oh my!), and before long I had a bag with ten baras (fried bread rounds) and a little Chinese lunchbox full of channa (the curried beans). Tim came home and we piled into the van, back to the wharf to deliver the goods. I had sampled the doubles, and thought they were great, but I had no idea how close to real they were. Once on board, I handed the bags to Roopa, who asked what was inside. I told her to take a peek and see if it looked familiar. She poked around in the bag of bara and looked up at me with big, big eyes. "Doubles? You brought me doubles?" I smiled. She smiled, and then she started to cry a little. I did, too. How can you not? She was so happy to have a taste of home, and I was so happy to provide it. I feel a real kindredness with her, for whatever reason, and am still searching for ways to make her time here a little more comfortable. Monday is her day off, so I am picking her up at 1:00 for her first and only outing in Kaohsiung (the ship sails Tuesday for Taichung). I haven't decided yet how we'll spend the day, but doubles might factor into it. She did say they were very good.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The thrill of the road

Check out this video for a taste of driving in Taiwan. It has several great illustrations of Kat's Taiwan Law of Vehicular Attraction: When three or more vehicles are on the same roadway, all traveling at different speeds, their paths will align at the narrowest, curviest, or otherwise most dangerous part of the road. Pedestrians, poor weather, and road crews increase the effect.

The video was taken somewhere on the east side of the island. It's beautiful country, but it's hard to appreciate the view when you're behind the wheel.


Monday, March 19, 2007

A little housekeeping

I just dusted off the books section on your right, there. That's been wanting some attention for a while. You may notice that I've renamed it, so I can lump in more titles, not just what I'm reading At This Moment (because I'm not a diligent-enough blogger to give you the play-by-play). Gilead and The Time Traveler's Wife are both novels; I would recommend the former to anyone – it was excellent. The latter I enjoyed, but it did get a bit steamy as the story wore on, so if your sensibilities are easily offended, perhaps you'd best skip it. I was too far into the story to put it down (and after she worked Gordon Gano into a scene I was willing to overlook many a transgression). Overall I liked it quite a bit. Time travel is hard to wrap your ahead around, but then again, I've got to use my fingers to figure out what time it is in Seattle, so it's partially just me.

The other two titles are non-fiction: Madeleine L'Engle's Story of a Marriage is a beautiful description of her life with husband Hugh, which she recounts while also parting the veil on his last months and days. Very emotional, but lovely. The Art of Travel I've just started. It looks to be an enjoyable read, one that I considered setting aside for the long flight home this summer, before remembering that I no longer get to read on the airplane because I am den mother, pack horse, and chaperone to two. I choose sleep over books now on those hops across the pond. At any rate, it's an intriguing look at why we travel, and how. Not a travel guide, but rather a guide to one's motives for traveling (or not, as the case may be).

I have cleaned up the list of "My" links, as well. I had added another blogging neighbor recently, but found out that she has switched over to posting photos on Flickr rather than blogging. So, Laura, you're out. (Auf Wiedersehen!) I updated my friend Clint's link so you go directly to his blog, rather than his photography site. Do check out his pix too, though, and stop by the grand opening of his new studio in Bellingham at the next Art Walk. He's very skillful with the camera.

So everything's tidied up now, and I can blog in peace and harmony. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Another busy day

Some days get the time sucked out of them, but others seem like they last forever. If you'd asked me this morning, I would have guessed that this was going to be one of the former. I will spare you the play-by-play of my day, but I will say that it involved getting Nora to preschool, mailing a package, cashing in some winning receipts, taking Cole to the pediatrician, having a follow-up with my own doctor, and taking a load of hemming and mending to the seamstress. It was a little crazy, but some days require a lot of you, and that's just the way it is.

Two things stand out from my busy day, sitting here now in a quiet house. The first happened at the hospital. I have a national health card with my name on it, last name printed first in the Chinese way; it is the same on my alien resident card and my hospital ID. Perhaps because they are familiar with the western order of names, every nurse or doctor who sees my name on those cards calls me by my last name – or rather, the feminine version of it: Michelle. It is uncanny, that not once in very many visits has anyone ever called me by my right name, nor even my right last name. So today I sat waiting for my number to come up, for the nurse to come out and say, "Please? Michelle?" And she did. That was not surprising. What did catch me off guard is that while waiting to pick up some pills at the pharmacy, the player piano in the lobby (this is a very posh hospital) started playing the theme to Cheers. I was humming along, and then came to that bit. You know, where "everyone knows your name." It was very hard not to laugh. But when the pharmacist handed me my prescriptions and said, "Thank you, Michelle," I very nearly lost it. Poor woman, she must have thought I was nuts.

The other great moment came after our visit to the seamstress. This errand has been a long time coming, Tim and I having amassed a sartorial stash, two bags worth, of things to be altered or mended. Our good friend Tiffany offered to go with us, to interpret as well as get some of her own things worked on. We went after dinner, when the woman's sign was usually set out. We arrived at the home of the seamstress, however, only to find the doors locked, the lights off, and the neighbor insisting that no one there did sewing anymore. No money in it, he said, which I can believe. (Most repairs will run you a dollar (NT$30), but if it involves a zipper it might push three bucks.) Undaunted, Tiffany directed us to a different part of town where she had seen another seamstress' sign before. The three of us walking down the main drag of the neighboring little village, bags of clothes hanging from our arms, must have been a sight. We ended up speaking (well, Tiffany spoke and we tried to look like we were following the conversation) with a shopkeeper who told us that the seamstress we were looking for was no longer in business (a disheartening trend), but there was another not too far down the lane and around the corner. At the OrangeKitchen we found success: behind the darkened cafe front, a back room with a pewter-colored, war-era Mitsubishi sewing machine and glass cabinets of thread was opened to us. We were made very welcome, as our host offered us chairs ("Sit-a down!") and summoned the seamstress in the family. She looked over our various garments (eight pairs of pants, one shirt, one skirt), took measurements, made marks with her yellow chalk, and then announced it would all be done tomorrow.

We decided to walk back to the car via a different lane, one which passed a local church (we had passed two temples on the way in, so it only seemed fair). The lane began to narrow, and then ended -- well, not quite. A passage led off to the left, which was the direction we needed to go. We slipped between the houses on that path, listening to muffled voices and kitchen sounds bounce off the stucko walls, walking farther into the dark, only to slip into an even darker, narrower path before emptying out onto the street. Adventure is too big a word for such a brief detour, but the sensation was there, for a few moments, that we were doing something we hadn't done before, walking where no one we knew had walked before, seeing one more corner of Taiwan which will be filed away under "Remember when?" It was a good day, all in all. Long, but good.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Night noises

It is the last day of February, in fact the last hour of February. I stayed up to take a warm bath and my last dose of pills for the day (apparently pertussis is what's been going around). As I walked through the house, shutting off lights, I was so pleased to hear the night noises drifting in through the open deck doors. Only February (!), and outside crickets, frogs, some unknown nocturnal birds with a whooping call, all sing to me through the screens, as tan geckoes skitter across. This has been a particularly cool winter (I will refrain from calling 50ยบ cold), and a rainy one, but I'm not sure I'm ready for spring yet. Late winter days here are just about perfect, as are the nights.

Happy Chinese New Year, by the way. My camera isn't working, so I've got nothing to show you from our week off -- but then again, you can probably picture us staying home and laying low without any visual aids. The whole of the country goes visiting on New Year's, so we waiguoren tend to stay put. As it is Year of the Pig, we ate a lot of bacon and I made sausage. I'm not sure how the poor beasts came to symbolize good fortune, but we did enjoy our share of them. Do not, however, draw conclusions about how we rang in the Year of the Dog....