Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year! (Xin Nian Kuai le!)

In Traditional Chinese characters: (these characters might not show for some of you)

My co-manager, Barry, invited me over to his place to have hot pot with his family, and ring in the new year with Chinese tea (is that why I'm still awake?) and watch the fireworks display at Taipei 101 (the tallest building in the world, which I FINALLY went up a couple of weeks ago, thanks to one of my guests). The display was highly dramatic - there are many lights on Taipei 101, and they use them to full effect, and at each section of the building shoot off fireworks. And we saw it all from the comfort of Barry's living room. We could hear the fireworks through the glass - he lives at most a mile away from the building. Mostly white fireworks coming out of the building. And, at the top, the lights spelled out 2006 on the north side and Taipei 101 on the west side, and, on both sides, BAVARIA by Sony. I have no idea what BAVARIA is, and neither did anyone in Barry's family. But, we know that whatever it is, it's by Sony. I'm assuming that Sony foot the bill for at least some of the fireworks.

Anyway, I've got to get up in about 6 hours for another hike (can't miss that!), so I have to get to bed, but wanted to help ring in the year for those of you who are just a little behind (tee hee). . .

Happy New Year! May you all have good health in the year and years to come!

I'm providing a slightly blurry picture of Taipei 101 a couple of days before Christmas, to show a sample of the light display, which, in this case depicted a christmas tree. I didn't bring my camera for the New Year's event, so no pictures of that. . .

P.S. I've only 3 more months here in Taiwan! Time is flying. . .

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The lights do go out, 0 hour, and the year is still 94

I guess that this is the first day that I ran after midnight, here. I thought that I'd done it, before, but this time, many of the streets were different, and I, who am used to running in the dark at home in Oregon on the dark logging roads, noticed that oh, the lights are no longer on. The streets and parks that I was running through were all dark, light only eminating from the apartment buildings and stores along the way (which provided plenty light - dark is really a very relative term, here). The well-lit hi-lite, OK, and 7-eleven stores stay well-lit and brighten up everything for quite a ways.

I ran by a thermometer/clock that read 0:00, and was thinking that it was malfunctioning, and then realized that here, where the 24 hour clock is used on any digital display, it was midnight. The temperature was 19C, by the way (66F), and 20C (68F) on the airport clock next to my house (where it always reads 1 or 2 higher). I'm still looking forward to it dipping down a bit more to where I can wear long sleeves and maybe even a jacket to work, but I can't complain too much, since it sure beats the higher temperatures of the summer.

I was reminded, today, that here, it's the year 94, for the 94th year of the establishment of the Republic of China. Conveniently, it started Jan 1, 1911, so one only has to add 1911 to the Taiwanese year to get the Gregorian Calendar year. People here tend to remember, when they are speaking English to change the year for us foreigners (but sometimes forget, causing great confusion - you were born WHEN?), and also to subtract a year from their age, since they consider themselves 1 year old the day that they are born. I can also usually get two birthdays out of most people - one for the Gregorian (solar) calendar and another for the lunar calendar, a calendar that is closely watched for those interesting holidays, and lucky days to get married.

Ok, I must get to bed. I still have a ton more things to tell you all about. . . I just have to find the time to write it all!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Tang Yuan & and the first day of winter

Like the southern states of the US, it doesn't exactly get "cold," here, when winter starts, even though people here consider it so. I mean, how cold is 10C (50F), anyway? That's about the coldest I've seen it get here, so far, but of course, today is the start of winter, so maybe there is colder to come (looking forward to that!). Of course, 10C *is* considered cold, even to me, if I'm inside a building and that's what it is, inside. So, what is odd, at least to me, is that not so many people here have heat in their apartments/houses. Some companies don't have heat in their office-buildings, either. And even, here, where we *do* have heat, and the temperature is the same as if it were summer, people wear their down jackets. I find it very funny, and even took a picture of a couple of my team members with their jackets on in the normal course of their work. . .

So, for this first day of winter, the tradition, here, is to eat Tang Yuan, which is a nice hot soup of gooey rice balls. The rice balls can be smallish round balls, or they can be rather largish (US quarter-sized) with "stuff" in them. The "stuff" can be a watery paste of sesame (my favorite), peanut, red bean, or possibly others that I've yet to see.

So, happy winter to you all (I know that I've heard that Oregonians are enjoying a nice snow and not so nice freezing rain)!


Saturday, October 01, 2005

Typhoon Longwang, WHO video, a REAL hike

While my friends in Shanghai and Beijing are enjoying the National Day holiday (commemorating the now 55th year of the current government), we here in Taiwan are awaiting the onslaught of our 4th direct hit typhoon this season. Imagine - Taiwan is this tiny little island about 245miles long by 90 miles wide (394km by 144km for you Europeans, Aussies, Africans, and Asians. . .), and the typhoons completely envelope the island. When I looked at the US map and the area that suffered the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina, it looked to be about the size of Taiwan, and this is Taiwan's 4th. . . The wind is picking up - I'm starting to hear the howling that I experienced with the first typhoon this season. . .

Well, I think that we'll survive.

I was forwarded this video url (WHO video) that is about Taiwan not being a member of the World Health Organization, a video published on the Taiwan's Department of Health website in May of this year (unfortunately, the video disappeared from the Department of Health's website, and so the url now points to one that is of lower quality, but does have the same content). This, of course, could spark political controversy, which I'm not really interested in doing in this list, but I did want people to see it, because I am extremely impressed with how well a whole bunch of unique-to-Taiwan images, as well as "Chinese cultural" images, were captured in that video. There are images of native-people-to-Taiwan dancers, a dragon boat race, lantern festival, Chiang Kai Shek memorial, a plane landing at what looks like the Taipei Municipal Airport, someone playing the Erhu (a 2-string instrument, and one that is being played for the music in the video - sounds somewhat like a viola), picking Guava (a very popular fruit, here - maybe by the time I leave, I'll understand why. . .), Taipei 101 (currently the tallest building in the world), the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit system) in Taipei, people showing the peace sign when people are taking their picture (index and middle finger creating a V), the sulphur vents in Yangmingshan Park, the red lanterns that decorate many streets and temple areas, the ocean with that majestic sky - sun streaking through the clouds, the Daoist temples, a big family gathering around a round table with tons of food, people doing exercises in a public park early in the morning, a waterfall with a flowering tree which was taken in TianShan - a snapshot of which I have from when I visited Taiwan 25 years ago for the first time with Jeannie and her then boyfriend, and now husband, David. Hey, the only thing missing in the video is a radar picture of a typhoon covering the island on the zoom-out at the end! (The wind is really picking up as I write this.)

On to hiking, which I've been wanting to talk about for months, now. . .I've been doing a lot of hiking here in Taiwan - various friends and colleagues have taken me hiking to various places, mostly around Taipei (there are several "mountainous" areas around Taipei - YangMingShan Park (Shan means Mountain), and GuanYin Shan), and I was put in touch with an English bloke (pianist) who has written a couple of Taipei area hiking books and who has some regularly scheduled hikes. Going with him (Richard Saunders, in case you're interested in purchasing his books, which come highly recommended by other hikers), has been very interesting, since it was the first time that I'd really gone out with anyone except for the locals, excepting my first week, and times when managers came from the US. People on the hike were from all over the world: Germany, Montreal, South Africa, France, Malaysia, Australia, with mixed abilities in Mandarin. The common language was English. Many of these people had lived all over the world, so it was interesting to hear of their experiences and find out what they liked and didn't like everywhere. One guy was telling me how he loved Hong Kong, and wasn't too impressed with Taipei, and then about 5 minutes later, I was talking to someone else who loved Taipei, and didn't care for Hong Kong! I told them that they should talk to each other. . . What people notice and care about, and what they can ignore is all very interesting.

Mostly, hiking in YangMingShan park, there are cement or rock trails and steps. Tons of steps. Un-even steps. And more steps. And more cement. It's rather rough on the feet, and the knees. And it's all covered with a nice thin layer of moss which turns especially slippery when wet. It was nice when a friend of a friend got a friend of his to take a bunch of us for a hike on one of the "challenging" hikes in YangMingShan park. There was a lot of stone and cement, but there was also a section where there was an extremely steep dirt and rock trail. There were ropes strung from tree to tree so that we could hang on as we went up or down the steep incline. We wore gloves. Here's a picture of us just before we descended. We all had shiny new gloves (the common painting and everything else work glove, here), which were soon not so shiny and new. . .

And here's a picture of a descent:

And then, last weekend, I did another Richard Saunder's hike - which was kind of sort of in the country-side to a nice waterfall, and then a couple more small hikes on Saturday, and then, a real treat, a REAL hike on Sunday. Sunday's hike had been planned weeks in advance, by my apartment's owner's agent, now friend (also now "gan meimei" - sort of adopted little sister), Amy. Amy said that we were going for a nice hike south of Taipei - a place called ManYueYuan near SanXia - and she would cook us a nice picnic lunch. Our little group consisted of Amy and two of her friends, whom I'd previously met, and one of my hiking employees at work, Simpson. People were asking me what I was going to do for weeks in advance, and I told them I had no idea, no idea how we were going to travel (I had assumed by train, since we were to meet at the Taipei City Main Train station), and no real understanding of where or what sort of hike it was. But it didn't matter, since none of the hikes were too difficult, and I didn't care, particularly, where I was going. It was a new place! Great! Let's go! Amy did say something about not having gone with this "climbing" group, before, but her English, while very good, leaves room for some differences in terms for describing things. When we all met at the train station, we were directed to a bus. On the bus, people with trekking poles, backpacks, and gaiters covering their lower legs got on. Amy commented on how "professional" they looked. The hike leader greeted me in English, and gave me the brochure, in Chinese, of all of their future hikes. And then gave me one with our current hike. The only thing that I could read was that we were going to be going 17km (10.5 miles). It made me a little concerned for my little sisters (Amy & her 2 friends), since 2 of them were dragging on our short little walk around the "town" of DanShui a month or so, earlier. However, I assumed that they all knew what they were doing, and I had been the only clueless one.
Later, I discovered that they thought that they were headed to a nice little park, where we would pretty much look around and take in the views, and have our little picnic. Instead, we all climbed 2 peaks, with a lot of ascending and descending. And with these hiking clubs, the good thing is, you get dumped off at one end of the trail, and picked up at the other end. The bad thing is, if you make a mistake, and think that you're going on a short hike for a nice picnic and views, you still have to do the whole hike. There is no turning back, just pushing forward . . My little sisters bravely trudged on, and completed the entire hike, not that they had a whole lot of choice. . . I remember Amy's elation when she made the top of the peak. I don't think that she understood that she was at the top of the FIRST peak at that time. Here is a picture of Patty and Amy, thinking that they had arrived! They had conquered! Before they understood that they still had another, higher, peak to climb and at least 1/2 of the hike yet to go. . .

This picture is looking North, by the way. Taipei is in the northern part of the island. Isn't it impressive how many mountains there are? We were not that far south of Taipei.
This hike crossed streams, was all dirt, except for the very beginning and end of the hike. The end of the hike was in a resort area, and so steps were provided - fortunately, most were wood. It was a very nice hike, even if my little sisters weren't expecting it. . . Little sister Debbie wrote up her tale of woe, and put more pictures on the web at: (look at her September 25th entry, which she kindly translated into English for me, and at the photo album in the upper right hand corner, select the button that allows you to see the "full size" pictures, and then select the album that has a 9 and 25 and "car" in the name. She and Patty tried to capture how steep the trail was in places.)
I just noticed that on one website ( our Typhoon has been classified as a category 4 (wind gusts of 131 to 155 miles per hour) expecting to hit Central Taiwan. However, even here, about 100 miles away, the wind is really howling now, and the rain is coming down quite steadily.
Dang - no hiking, tomorrow. . .

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Typhoon Haitung

It's not here, yet, but it's coming. I decided to turn on the TV so that I could find something out about it, as I couldn't find anything on the web. I heard one weatherman (I think that it was on CNN - they haven't turned off the cable, yet, assuming, perhaps, that one day I'll pay - hahah! They would be wrong!) say that if this were in the Atlantic, it would be rated a category 5. I saw on the web that Hurricane Emily is considered a Category 4 and "extremely dangerous." So this must be worse. I can't tell the relative sizes of this typhoon versus the hurricanes that have hit Florida in recent years, though, I just know that on the satellite pictures, the typhoon very much dwarfs Taiwan. Right now, on the satellite picture, a small arm is smacking the whole of Taiwan. We haven't even gotten to the big stuff. . .

My co-manager called me up to warn me about it - it's supposed to hit, tonight. One of my employees also called me up to let me know that we should not go into work, tomorrow (the government declared a day off - in advance!).

I'm hoping that the power stays on. I feel so petty. Here, people's crops may well be ruined, flooding may ruin people's possessions, houses, lives, but what do I care about? The power.

I'm not sure that there is a way to capture this on film. But I should take a audio recording of the howling of the wind. It started around noon, today, and hasn't really let up. I suppose that a headache from the howling wind would be considered a minor inconvenience should that be all that happens. I decided that I'd better try to protect the glass of the sliding doors in the apartment by shutting the metal gates that are intended for theft prevention on the front balcony. The rain sometimes comes down as if someone was in the sky pouring buckets of water down. As some of my employees have said, "there's big rain."

When I was asking where would be a safe place to observe the Typhoon happenings, I was pretty much told nowhere - or, rather, from the safety of the apartment. On the streets, the biggest concern is with wind, picking things up and throwing them around, and stuff that is up, coming down, like all of the signs that the various stores have. Trees coming down is another concern. When I suggested the riverside park, I was told that that's not safe due to possible flooding. The hills can become oversaturated with all of the rain, and then the landslides start.

Haha! I just taped my sliding doors, and there is no more howling. Very happy. . .

Anyway, be safe. I'll report back after the Typhoon, assuming that power and communcations remain in tact.


Thursday, August 11, 2005

Happy Valentines Day!

I thought it was some weird joke when I received this greeting, today (August 11), but since I'd already been greeted with Happy Father's Day on Monday (August 8), I was starting to get the idea that things were a little different, here. I still have to find out exactly what one should do on these days, but I think that it's really just another excuse to eat, and eat I did - shabu shabu (individual hot pots - where soup is boiled at your place setting and you dump food in and cook it). Unfortunately, all of the hot pot places that I've eaten at are "all you can eat" and I *always* take that seriously, no matter how stupid it is to do so. I'm sure that I will be some number of pounds heavier when I return to the US, unless I can curb my desire to eat hot pot. The other reason I like it, though (I've had it at least twice this week), is that I can get nice, exceptionally hot food. The peppers here are really and truly hot. You don't HAVE to have it hot, and most people don't, but there are those of us who just can't seem to have enough. Have to get those endorphins flying. . .

I weathered another typhoon, a much milder one, but had another day off of work, and had another nice run on the closed river park (but this time I saw a guy curled up asleep on a chair under an overpass, so I can't say that I was completely alone) after the typhoon blew past, saw a number of scooters on their sides, but not nearly as many branches and trees down as last time.

I also had another episode without airconditioning. It was not a good thing. Four weeks ago, I started noticing sudsie water apparently coming up out of the drain in my back balcony, and I thought it was from my washing machine. A day or two later, I realized that I'd not done a wash, recently, so maybe it wasn't *my* water. The next week, I did a wash, had no problems with the water, and then, the following day, noticed sudsie water, again. I told my apartment manager. I also told the security guard (one who speaks excellent English!) about the situation, as well as another guard whom I tried to tell in my broken Chinese. The English speaker told me, they would have to snake it. Great! Go ahead. Two weeks, later, I woke up all hot, and just assumed that I'd had a tumultuous night, and for some reason looked on the back balcony, and discovered that it was completely flooded. 4 inches deep. Higher than that, and it just rolls off the top of a ledge in the balcony. They came and pumped out the water and then snaked out the drain. Problem solved; they went away. That night, I realized, gee, this air conditioning just isn't working. I called the agent. Unfortunately, for me, the next day was the typhoon, and the government declared a "no work" day. Fortunately, the typhoon brought less than hot weather through. Saturday was still bearable, and Sunday was not. And then I discovered that the dryer also didn't work. A friend came over and discovered that it was "leaking" electricity - that is, he touched a side panel and got a nice little shock. I unplugged it, and called the apartment manager once again. Fortunately, clothes dry pretty well when hung (which is what I normally did, anyway, so the dryer not working wasn't too big of a deal).

On Monday, after several nights of splitting headaches, and cursing hot weather, everywhere in the world, and in Taipei, in particular, someone came to look at the air conditioner and dryer. They discovered that neither the washing machine nor dryer were safe to have plugged in - they would both need to be replaced (glad I didn't electrocute myself when I used it!). They realized that they would have to replace something that wasn't easy to replace on the air conditioner ("can you wait 10 more days?" "No, this is the middle of AUGUST, the hottest month of the YEAR!"), but figured out a way that they could temporarily fix it. So, I spent one more hot night ("only 27 C" one of my employees told me! - that's 81F! - anything above 72F/22C is pretty much too hot for sleeping to me), before a temporary fix to the air conditioner was installed, and I was able to get cool enough to stop snapping at people. Did I mention that I don't do well in the heat?. . .

Yesterday, I received the new dryer and washing machine. Tonight, I tried to get some employees to explain to me how to run them. They know a lot of English, but translating the buttons on a fancy washing machine was quite the challenge, and I still don't know how to work it, completely.

Ok - have to get to bed - stay cool, and Happy Valentine's Day. . .


Sunday, July 03, 2005

Welcome to Taipei & followup on Bubble Tea

A couple of stories ago, I mentioned that I'd taken a job (still with Intel) that would send me to Taipei. I'm now in that job, and am now installed in my apartment, mostly chosen for being very close to work. I should be here, with a few business trips to the US, until the end of March, 2006. It's only another 9 months, so you've not much time to visit me while I'm here! Make your reservations, now!!!!

So, now, a little bit about my apartment. It's about an 8 minutes walk to work, door to door, which includes the minute or so I use to lock up my apartment. I've seen this sort of security in Taipei, before, and it seems so incongruous with what I've experienced. There is a locked door at the entrance to the apartment building, and during the day, there is a security person who sits at the entrance with that door open (no airconditioning). And then, the entrance to each apartment has a big metal door surrounding the door, and then there is the normal door to the apartment. When I was talking with another expat who was staying in an apartment without the outer metal door, it turned out that while his apartment wasn't robbed while he was there, the apartment one below his was robbed. I guess the metal doors do deter. . .

When I moved into this apartment, which is 46 ping big (one ping is about 36 square feet), which means this is around 1656square feet (very big by the standards in this expensive area of Taipei), the air conditioning wasn't quite working. It actually took a little bit to realize this, and even a greater bit to get everyone else (there were 5 others in the apartment in addition to me when I took possession!) to agree that there was a problem. They finally settled on saying that the airconditioning needed to be "checked." I blurted out that it needed to be more than "checked" - it needed to be *fixed.* I finally decided that that was just the way things were said, here. Ok, it needed to be checked. By the time it was checked, it was *clearly* not working, and I'd spent one almost sleepless night, so I was a bit cantankerous. It turned out that there was a leak, which is why it apparently worked at first, and why it was difficult to convince people that it wasn't working, originally. When they put in a temporary fix and said that they would be back in a week to fix it, permanently, I started to complain. I probably didn't fit in, culturally, at that point. . . The agent for the landlord brought me an electric fan, just in case. This made me happier. I was also happy that the air conditioning actually did work when I needed it, and so when they came and fixed it, permanently, I was less cantankerous. The agent kept buying me tea/bubble tea to make me happy, too. . .

I'm right across from the Taipei city airport, and about a 5 to 8 minutes walk to the MRT, the Mass Rapid Transit system that is like the light rail in Portland. It's very cheap - anywhere between about 50 cents to about 2 dollars for the most far away locations. I bought a card that can be used on that and the buses, and it turns out that it discounts all trips that I take, so it's even cheaper than the normal cheap rate.

The apartment has 2 full bathrooms and 3 rooms outfitted as bedrooms, one as a study, a living room, a (small) dining room, and a lovely kitchen for Taiwan. It also has a balcony in back where the washing machine and a dryer, which appears to have come from the US, reside, next to the whole apartment airconditioning unit (unusual for Taipei as far as I've seen - most have room units in the major rooms). Kitchens frequently have a sink, a two-burner gas (Yay!) stove, and no oven, and mine is no exception. The refrigerator may or may not be in the kitchen (mine is in the kitchen, although with the door opening in the wrong direction). There may be a sanitizer, something I've only seen in Shanghai and Taipei - the idea is to sanitize the dishes that have been washed in perhaps lukewarm or cold water. I don't have one, but I do have an excellent, efficient, on-demand, whole house hot water heater. There were a few apartments that I looked at that had dishwashers, but they were few and far between, and mine is one that does not. . . I do have a microwave, and a little toaster oven, and, after buying one, a rice cooker (essential!).

My master bedroom has an American king sized bed, which is bigger than any normal bed in Taiwan. I bought the biggest sheets that I could find in Taipei, and they were still too small. Typical sheets in Taiwan consist of a non-fitted bottom sheet, a sort of top sheet that is like a duvet cover, meant to have a blanket in it (so it's like 2 more sheets, sown together on 3 sides with an opening on the fourth side to insert the blanket), and some pillow cases. I asked the landlord's agent where people purchased sheets for the bed, and she gave me the landlord's old sheets (with a fitted bottom sheet - yay!). I don't know what to call the other beds in the apartment - I have to look up the sizes on the web and see what they are close to. They look sort of like a 3/4's bed, rare in the US, or possibly a short double bed. The beds here do seem to be shorter, on average, than US beds.

I have ADSL, which is quite a treat. Dialup is going to be a drag when I go back. . .

The food here is superb. There are also at least 3 completely vegetarian restaurants within easy lunch-walking distance from work. The city is riddled with vegetarian restaurants. There is a vegetarian section at the local little food market, where I can pick up nice little taro "cakes" for frying (these normally have shrimp or pork in them). And, yesterday, I went to a market and bought some of the nice small hot slim red peppers (I think of them as Thai peppers), that are most excellent, so I'm set! I also did find some good, locally made 70% chocolate. However, so far, I've only seen it in small, expensive quantities. I'm hoping to find out where it's made so that I can pick up larger quantities. I'm not sure if that is possible. . . I didn't bring my intended supply of Trader Joe's 70% Belgium chocolate, and I do admit that I notice the lack. I try to make up for it with Hershey's baking cocoa powder mixed with sugar. Not QUITE the same, though. . .

Many on my team (and their spouses!) have been great at helping me get situated - taking and driving me to the not-so-local, but well known places to shop, and helping me find necessities. One place was similar to the Dollar store in the US, only here, it's the 50 New Taiwan Dollar store - with the exchange rate at about 31NTD per US Dollar - but the concept is the same - everything for 50NTD, except for those marked only 39NTD - which was mostly what I chose. . .

Ok, this is getting long, and I wanted to update people on the Bubble Tea/Tapioca Tea/Tapioca Milk Pearl Tea. It seems that it has been exported to the US and other places. I had a number of people tell me that they'd like to try it, and another number of people tell me all the places they've found it. Places include: Shanghai, in China; In Canada in Windsor, Ontario; in the US in Ann Arbor, Michigan; the Bay area of California; at a Vietnamese restaurant just west of Cedar Hills Blvd on Canyon Rd, at Jih-Wah, and at Taiwanese café near Walker and 158th, and at another place at West Union and 185th all in the Beaverton/Hillsboro area, and in Portland's Chinatown in Oregon; Great Wall shopping center in Renton, Washington; Grand Asia in the Durham area of North Carolina; near the U. of Penn. in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; in Cambridge, Massachusetts. People also read about it in the Wall Street Journal and heard about it on National Public Radio in the US. It's taking over the world, but nowhere near as popular as it is, here!

Hope to see you, here! Don't be shy about coming here!


Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Taipei 101

No, it's not a basic lesson in living in Taipei. Taipei 101 is the tallest building in the world. I was doubtful when I heard the locals make this claim, after all, I remembered it being, very recently, the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. And no one talked about Taipei 101 when I was here in August of 2003. Why all of a sudden is everyone talking about it? Well, it's because it just got finished being built in 2004! Shanghai is getting ready to outshine it in 2007, so you'll all have to hurry here to see it while it's still the tallest. . .

The other day, I went running after a big pouring rain (the first since I've come here), and I could see Taipei 101 disappear into the clouds. It made it look very tall, indeed, especially because there are no other tall buildings around it.

The food here is just fantastic! The variety for vegetarians is immense. And, Vara, it's REAL vegetarian food, not just the vegetarian food pretending to look like beef, pork, chicken, duck, shrimp, etc. In addition, I can expect to be able to get something vegetarian at any restaurant, here. People do know that if something is fried in pork lard, it's not vegetarian, and that is nice. Now, if I could just find the Lao Gan Ma brand of hot sauce (obtainable all over China), I'd be all set. . . I haven't conducted an extensive search for it, yet, though. . .

Tonight, I attended a church service of my friend's mother, and was pretty amused because they had a translator. The primary speaker was speaking Taiwanese, and the translator, Mandarin. I could actually tell that one was Mandarin, the other some other Chinese language, but I can just imagine what it would sound like to someone who knows no Chinese at all. . . It sounds as if these guys are having a conversation!


Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Hi, all - It's been a while since I have written, and now lots of things have happened. I went on vacation to Spain & Morocco, with my high school era buddy, Ed. Then, I went to Taiwan for work (new job!), where I am, currently. I'll be back in Oregon for a couple of weeks in May, and then back to Taiwan until the end of March, 2006, if everything goes according to plan. Yes, things change quickly, sometimes. . .

This write-up is about our little (6+ day - we flew in on April 1st and out on April 7th) trip to Morocco.

Short version:
Morocco looks like a mixture of Arizona, Utah, and southern California. The food & eating style (with hands (no utensils), seated on the floor, or maybe on a sofa-like cushion) & tea (green tea + mint + tons of sugar, poured from a great distance from the glass) are just like at the Moroccan restaurant (Marrakesh) that we have in Portland, Oregon. The languages are (for many of the people that we met): first, Berber (3 different dialects), second, Arabic, and third, French. A distant fourth comes Spanish or English. . . The clothes are varied from very chic western styles to the saharan turbans & cloaks. The people are, as everywhere we've been, fantastic. And yes, we have friends there, now, whom we'll want to go back and visit.

(very) Long version:
Ed (high school era buddy) and I went for another trip, this time to Spain, to visit a high school friend of his that he'd newly reconnected with, and to see some of Morocco. As you might know, I'm not big in the planning department when it comes to vacations, and the most I did was talk via telephone to a Moroccan the day before leaving. Ed, as usual, did a little more - looked at web sites and determined, roughly, what we should do with our 6+ days, there, but somewhat unusually, did not actually book anything except our tickets to Marrakesh. Our desire was to go hike in the mountains & gorges, and visit the sand dunes of the Sahara. He had 3 places circled on the map. We flew to Marrakesh and the fun began.

We knew that French was the "main" language - what we didn't know is that it was actually, in most cases, people's THIRD language. One of the 3 Berber languages being number 1, Arabic number 2, and French number 3. If people went on for a fourth language, Spanish or English might be that language. Ed and I know NO French, Arabic, nor Berber. We try to fake French with using Spanish words and only pronouncing half of the word or diving into my Berlitz French phrase book. Anyway, we managed to hire a taxi for the bus station, and using Ed's Lonely Planet guide, my French phrase book, broken Spanish and English, and a lot of sign language communicated our destination & negotiated the price. For some unknown reason, the taxi driver didn't drop us off directly at the bus station. He waved his hand in the general direction of the bus station - "over there, to the right" his wave, body language, and, indubitably, his French, said. We started walking in that general direction. On our journey to find the bus station (we could only see food market stalls), a young man approached Ed asking him where he was headed, in English. Ed mentioned a city name (Ed was prepared!), and the young man said that there was a bus leaving in about 20 minutes - we should follow him. We did. We expected that he'd take us to some food market of some friend, but no, he took us through a back door of the bus station to the buses, and directly to the bus for our destination. We were told to pay so much for the bus (~$7.50 each for about a 5 hour bus trip) to one man, and so much to another man for the bags that we put in the belly of the bus. It all seemed legit. The actual name of the destination was on the front of the bus. They gave us tickets for the bus in return for the money. The bus was nearly empty. Another man asked us if we had a guide. No? He has a guide friend in Ouarzazate (Pronounced "War Zah Zaht") with this (he gave it to us) phone number. He would call the man, now, and let him know that we were coming. Ok. We get on the bus and wait. Twenty minutes go by and the bus never moves. Young children came and hawked bottles of bottled water, bottles refilled with tap water (which we bought), a peanut "bar" (which we also bought), and lots of slippers and jewelry (which we didn't buy). We decided to take turns leaving the bus. Ed to take pictures, and me to find a toilet and the actual bus station. When I started to take pictures, I was told to stop by someone who look vaguely official (had on a reflective vest). I subsequently read in Ed's guide book that one shouldn't take pictures of places like military facilities, airports, and, well, bus stations. . .

Ed discovered that the bus wouldn't leave for another couple of hours, so we continued swapping wandering time. Ed bought us some oranges, and I discovered that we could go even further to a town even closer to the places where Ed had circled, and by the time Ed wanted to get there (before 8pm). We paid a little more to change the tickets. We finally left after a couple of hours. I was very tired, and tried to sleep across two seats. It just didn't work. Finally, a young man offered me his seat (using English!) at the very back of the bus. I took it, gladly, and got a somewhat good rest. When I got up, again, the landscape had turned into mountainous green terrain. It was lovely. The high snow (Atlas) mountains were visible. I started talking to the young man who'd given me his seat, and told Ed that I'd found someone who spoke English. Ed joined us in the back of the bus, and had the guy try to teach us the numbers in Arabic (which, at that time, we thought was the 1st language of the country). It was hard work, but the young man, Haytam, was very patient, and we discovered we had the same destination, so we all knew that we had hours that we'd be spending on the bus, together.

The bus stopped many times along the way to pick people up or let people off.

A couple of hours later, the bus stopped for a while. Haytam helped us to find the toilet (a squat, porcelain toilet, although unlike Asian squat toilets, this one had the foot pads in front rather than on the side, with the hole in back) for 12.5 cents, and get lunch. Tajine. It was, as we discovered, one of the roughly 4 meals that we had, over and over, and over, again. It became a joke between Ed and me. It was also when I discovered that in Morocco, also, vegetarianism is not understood very well. Haytam had ordered me some nice vegetables. The Moroccan way is to eat with your hands, using bread. Water with soap was available to wash our hands. About half-way through my meal, Haytam realized that he'd made a tiny mistake - there was "a little meat" in the center. Ed ate the lamb.

In Ouarzazate, a mob of people got onto the bus. I worried about losing my seat so I got back onto the bus. Shortly, a man came up to me, and started showing me a phone number, and somehow I realized that he was the one the man in Marrakesh had told us he would phone and tell about our arrival. I wanted to go on to the next city, but I decided that this needed discussion with Ed so we got off of the bus. I told Ed about it, and Ed wanted to stay, and go with this guy. We asked him some questions - how much would it cost to stay that night? English? What could we see? We decided to terminate our bus trip at this city, but the bus started taking off to leave! Our bags in the belly, and some stuff on the bus, itself. We asked Haytam (he was our expert in Morocco!) if we really could get off. He was confident that we could, and actually made it happen, even though we had to get onto the bus as it was moving, get our stuff through the packed bus, and then get back off. Haytam got one of the bus people to actually stop the bus so that we could get our bags out of the belly of the bus. (And, no, I didn't get a refund for the amount we paid extra to go to the next city. . .)

We waved goodbye to Haytam, and waited for our new caretaker. We were taken into what looked like someone's personal residence, but which was very nicely appointed, and were given a room with a bathroom (western style toilet, bathtub with shower, but no shower curtain - towel rack near the ceiling so that it wouldn't get wet). Everything looked sparkling and new. We were given too much dinner (Tajine), and "Berber Whiskey" which is also known as Moroccan Tea, which is startlingly sweet green tea with mint. We discussed what we wanted to see and how we could see it, and our host, Moustafa, left for a while. Ed and I discussed how much we were willing to spend on the package, and eventually, Moustafa came back, and we discussed the price. It was high. Ed bargained down, we stopped at a number that was a bit higher than we'd originally wanted, and then Moustafa gave the kicker. . . Well, he actually couldn't join us, so there would be no one who could speak English with us. Ed and I have gone the "no English" route many times under varying circumstances, but in this country where Navajo (Ed's "1st" other language) and my Chinese, German, and Ed & my combined Spanish were not even in the 1st three languages, well, that just didn't cut it for us. We'd gone with this guy SPECIFICALLY because he'd said that there would be an English speaker to guide us. I told Moustafa that that just wouldn't do. We would have continued on to the further destination had we known this. We'd already met English speakers (Haytam) and we would have had Haytam help us somehow, had we stayed on the bus. Ed and I always ask tons of questions. We couldn't accept the deal if English weren't spoken. Moustafa looked very upset, but bravely decided that ok, either he would find someone else, or he, himself, would go, in spite of a prior commitment he had. Oh, and by the way, tonight was free. Dinner and place to stay - gratis.

The next day, we had our Berber, Arabic, and French speaking driver, Houssine, and our Berber, Arabic, French, and English speaking guide, Abdulrakman, who worked with many film makers, whose job was to translate, who spoke fantastic English, much better, in fact, than Moustafa, so we were thrilled! This was going to be a GREAT trip! We spent the next several days with these guys, learning some Arabic and Berber and local culture, driving to our various destinations.

As part of our first day out, where we were going to spend the night, they provided us with a local boy, our first non-muslim who was of Jewish background, to lead us on a hike through some slot canyons and in the hills. It was fantastic. We were thrilled to be out and walking around. We went through our first village. They are made out of adobe bricks, and the old worn out buildings are side by side with the newer buildings. All made out of mud. This was definitely desert country. There was a large valley of irrigated fields and then the adobe village was built up the sides and into the mountains on the drier land.

On our 2nd full day, we were taken by a former nomad (Mohamed) through one of the huge irrigated fields, with palm trees shading it. This nomad had been all over Germany, and several other countries. He'd decided that he didn't want the nomad life at age 7. We asked him tons and tons of questions. He spoke English very well. He, our driver, and Abdulrakman decided that we could meet a still-practicing nomad family. We walked through some of the beautiful gorge (Toudraa Gorge), and then up into the hills to the nomad family. We brought them tea and sugar (for the "Berber Whiskey" that we knew we'd be served), and I tried what I thought was my thank you in Berber. It turned out that it was Arabic, and the nomad family only knew Berber, so we learned the Berber version, and the family was thrilled. There were 3 girls and 1 boy in the family, all very shy. They lived in a tent, and managed about 30 sheep and goats, 1 donkey, and 2 dogs. Mohamed, when he didn't just straight out answer our question from his own experience, translated all of our questions into Berber,and all of the family's answers into English.

That night, we were greeted by Mohamed's brother, Abdul, who still is a nomad, but who helps out in the tourist business, taking people out to be with a nomad family for a day, night, or more. He was garbed in the long cloak with a hood, which he used, that we'd been seeing all over. The 4 of them suggested that we change our itinerary to include a night out with a family, but it turned out that it was an extra expense, and we also wanted to stay in the sand dunes of the Sahara. We opted to not do it. Then Abdulrakman told us that he was fasting, which he does, during the day, for 2 days every week. These were those days, and he was concerned about getting sick because of not eating or drinking, yet being in the sand desert. He would leave us, and Abdul would take over. Abdul's English wasn't as good, and we'd formed a nice friendship with Abdulrakman, so we let him know that we were very disappointed. As we drove toward the dunes, though, with some prodding from Ed, he eventually changed his mind, and decided to continue with us, so we dropped off Abdul, and continued on. However, Abdulrakman received a phone call (both he and our driver, Houssine, had cell phones) en route that called him back to work in the film industry. We had to let him go. Houssine got onto his cell and immediately arranged to get Abdul back (by calling Abdul's brother, Mohamed, who ALSO had a cell phone). The switcheroo happened at the next town, where Abdul, his cloak gone, and looking very much like some high tech guy out of silicon valley, complete with small backpack, arrived, and Abdulrakman took off. Abdulrakman offered to have us stay at his home in Ouarzazate for our last night there. We said we'd think about it, possibly taking him up on it when we returned to that city, although we'd planned on staying in a Kasbah (a huge, multi-family adobe building) that night. We were very pleased to be invited and let him know that, and arranged to meet each other again when we returned to Ouarzazate.

We went on to the dunes, got on our camels, and rode out into the desert with a desert nomad walking leading the way, and Abdul walking along side us. We actually had arrived a bit late (Ed and I didn't know we were supposed to be there at a certain time!), and so when we caught up with the 6 others on camels with whom we would spend the night, the lead desert nomad called Abdul up front (saying that he was freaking out my camel - I was at the end), and the two discussed their different lives as nomads - desert versus mountain in Berber.

We ate - can you guess?. . .Tajine, that night, and slept in a tent made out of goat's or sheep's wool, and pooped and peed anywhere in the sand (this could be improved, since it's not like the solid stuff disappears in the desert - it stays, forever). The following morning I climbed up the nearby highest sand dune - wow, was that TOUGH - and when I reached the top, was disappointed to see that I could see the rest of the desert with its villages outside of the sand desert. We weren't as far out as we'd hoped we'd be (maybe I shouldn't have climbed the HIGHEST sand dune?), but it was still quite a nice little experience. There were a few trees where we'd camped, and apparently, this was where a spring was, hence the camp in this particular spot.

Everyone is always worried about us travelers getting sick, well, of the three of us, Ed, me, and Abdul, guess who got sick? Yes, Abdul. Poor thing. It seems that he can't tolerate tomatos of some sort, and spent the night mostly being sick. After a continental breakfast (the only type of breakfast that we ever had in Morocco), we got back on the Camels and headed back. Houssine had slept in some big building where other guides sleep while awaiting their customers. We headed back to Ouarzazate. Ed and I decided along the way that we should take Abdulrakman up on his generous offer, as Houssine and Abdul were telling us that the Kasbah was just a major tourist attraction and we wouldn't like it. Unfortunately, Abdulrakman was working very late, so that didn't work out, and so we went to a really nice little hotel that Houssine knew about, very near to the Kasbah, with a French woman as one of the proprietors. We decided to go out for a beer (Houssine, our muslim driver, definitely enjoyed partaking a little beer with Ed, so we had to oblige him, right?). It was a bit of an adventure finding the place, with a washed out detour that demanded 1 or 2 mile per hour driving over a couple of sections to not destroy the small van. When we were seated, we got the impression that the proprietor was saying that he didn't have any beer. Ed said "I want beer" in the little bit of Berber that we'd learned, and suddenly, he and Houssine were able to get beer. Language makes a difference. . . Next thing we knew, the owner was sitting down with us and having a nice little chat (mostly with Houssine and Abdul), and teaching us magic tricks.

The next day, we saw our Kasbah, were invited into one of the stalls for some "Berber Whiskey," which we accepted, and wound up playing drums, after drums were distributed all around. In our night out in the gorge after visiting with the Nomads, we'd also done the same thing, so now we were pros. . . (ok, maybe not. . .).

We finally left, and this time, we were going to take a bus to Ouarzazate, and say goodbye, once and for all to Houssine and Abdul (by the way, Abdulrakman called us several times, sorry that we couldn't see him again, and therefore just to say hi and talk about work a bit). While we awaited the bus to Marrakesh, Abdul and Houssine realized that they had an opportunity to pick up some more clients if they took us to Marrakesh, themselves, rather than us taking the bus. I asked the price, and when it was the same as our taking the bus, man, we were *in*. Actually, it took a while to get to that conclusion - they were only offering to do it if the bus failed to show up. We finally convinced them that they should do it, regardless. We were all happy that we'd be spending more time, together, and that we'd be able to stop in the lovely mountains whenever we wanted (the mountains were between Ouarzazate and Marrakesh), so that picture taking would be enjoyable, rather than the "fly by" picture taking that I was doing from the bus on the way out to Ouarzazate from Marrakesh that first day.

On the way, Houssine invited us to HIS family home, which wasn't exactly on the way. We were concerned about making our plane the next day if we did that. We told him that the plane left at 6. Houssine thought we meant 6am, and looked crestfallen. We corrected him on the time - it was 6pm, and he lit up like a Christmas tree with sparkling white lights on a cold, dark, Christmas eve. Both Ed and I didn't want to then turn him down, in spite of this, but we did, as we were very concerned about making the plane, given how far Houssine's family home was from Marrakesh, and how we knew time was not something that either Houssine or Abdul took particularly seriously. If something happened, the car broke down, whatever, it'd be hard to work around it, so we told Houssine again and again how happy we were that he'd offered, and how happy we were that he was so excited about us visiting his home, but no, on to Marrakesh. I found us a hotel in Ed's guide book, and in the heart of Marrakesh, we found it. Houssine was rattled up with all the people wandering around in Marrakesh. We arranged to meet, again, for one last dinner, and Abdul and Houssine took off, and Ed and I went to the Hotel. I wasn't in the best of moods so Ed suggested that I take a walk, and I did. The city was absolutely bursting with people. I was reminded of my people-crushing experience in the ancient city of ZhuZhou in China during the holidays. It wasn't as bad as that, but oh, it was close. Wall to wall people, even in the huge (football-stadium sized?) center plaza, that had no fixed structures.

We met with Houssine and Abdul for dinner (they were going to take us to Pizza Hut! Ed stepped in and saved us. . .) at a multinational place where Houssine could get his pizza and I, soup. A cat joined us for dinner. They were pretty prevalent. Not too many, but they were definitely around. We said our final farewells. We'd seen Houssine doing a "cheek" kiss with many of his friends that he met along the way (he'd made the trip he took us on we guessed at least 800 times, so he had some very good friends around). He would approach his friend, and they would put their right cheeks together, and then their left cheeks together. They'd do this a couple of times. They may or may not have kissed - it seemed to depend on how well they knew each other. (I know some on this list could probably fill me in on the exact ritual.) Anyway, I told them that I knew that they kissed each other, but did they hug, as well? Hugs were more what I was interested in. . . "YES," they said, enthusiastically, and hugs were then liberally applied to all individuals. Houssine said that he's going to try to learn English, but we made no such promises that we'd learn French, Arabic, or Berber, but we did use all of the words that we did know on parting. We've since been in contact via email.

Oh, for our last lunch in Morocco, we chose a restaurant where I thought that I could explain to them what I wanted - a "berber omlette" that has no meat in it. They didn't understand "Berber omlette" so we said in 3 different languages (French (spoken and written, just in case), Spanish, and English) that I didn't want any meat, but that tomatos, onions, and even egg were all ok. Ed congratulated me on my communications skills. I wasn't so sure. . . I was worried because the waiter had said "no tomatoes" a couple of different times. The proof would be in what we got. The waiter came over with a great flourish, set down the ceramic with the now-familiar hat-like round-top, took off the top, and voila! There was ONLY meat on the plate!!!! Ed happened to have ordered a vegetarian dish, and rather than deal with the mixup, we switched, especially after both of us looked at the plate in horror at having been so miserably misunderstood and said "no, no, no, no!" A second waiter came running over and gave us a spiced tomato sauce. We concluded that he realized that something was wrong, but had no idea what, and so had tried to fix it. We ate each other's meals and wondered how we could have made what we'd said any more clear. We realized that I'd never once told the waiter, specifically, that I was vegetarian. I'd just said "no meat" in the 3 different languages. . . Fortunately, we can afford the adventure in the food department. . .

We did make our plane. . . It was a very nice trip. . .