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Monday, February 28, 2005

The Old Woman on the Stool

It is the third day of a long holiday weekend, and so far it has done nothing but rain. I haven't had time to write anything for this as I've been busy cleaning and working on a children's story. As part of the cleaning process, I've been going through a lot of memories - cards students have made for me, gifts given, and things written. March is almost here, and the months are disappearing. Time is relentless in the way it passes here...As Taipei memories have come and gone, so too have memories of other places - memories imprinted as short motion pictures that somehow come to mean so much more than the event itself. In other words, memories which come to represent not just a passing moment in time but a place, an entire set of experience distilled. This is a theme I find myself returning to over and over, with both the things I have been writing (children's stories excepted) and the pictures I decide to post. So here I post something I wrote maybe a year or year and a half ago. It is something I had forgotten writing, but as I read it just a short while ago, I was transported to my first apartment in ShiDa, a night market area which abounds with cafes, bars, and restaurants. It is near two universities, and a large number of foreigners take up residence there. It is, I think, one of the more vibrant areas in town. I hope you enjoy:

There is something about the early mornings in the neighborhood I live. There is something wonderful about the quiet, about the way the noises are quiet. I live in a market area in Taipei, and at night the streets are packed with people, usually groups of two or three, couples or friends - students from the nearby universities. There are also a number of foreigners (people like me) living around here, and given the amount of cheap, good food, dessert places, and cafes around, you can be sure to see at least seven or eight white faces on the walk home.
The thing one must understand about Taipei is how loud and crowded the city is, and thus, how rare it is to have quiet. Cars, scooters, bikes, people all the time. 7:30 in the morning and if you are in the wrong neighborhood here comes the sound of the trash collector, playing his ice cream siren song. Yes, the first time I heard the truck, I was excited because the day was brutally hot and I had just finished my first class, during which my confidence was kicked squarely in the balls. I followed the jingling, metallic, loud-speaker scratched sound of music, expecting to find a gaggle of the very screaming kids who had just shown me how hellish the coming year might be. Instead, I found a line of Taiwanese dutifully tossing their bags of trash into the prescribed trucks. Its not like in the States where you leave your trash on the curb in the morning expecting to find an empty, overturned can standing sentry, awaiting your return in the evening. In that particular neighborhood, the truck comes by in the early evening, and where I live now it comes by around 10:30 at night. If you are in one of those places where it comes by in the early morning, though, you can say good-bye to your peace and quiet.
It gets light early here, and if you are an early riser (or a late party-goer), you can find some quite wonderful moments in this city. You can find old people doing tai-chi in the park, or playing a steady rhythm on drums. You can watch as the pink light of the early morning mixes with the general gray of the city, creeping along the grimy buildings like vines, and the first actual sun glinting off the metal bars guarding so many of the balconies and windows here. And through the bars the sight of yesterday's laundry hanging, drying, waiting to be folded and replaced by today's. Shadows of lives. You can watch the sun finally break above the buildings that seem to lean inwards above you. The buildings that seem to be leaning in over the street, so narrow are the lanes, so close the buildings. In the summer, the first prickle of direct heat, the departure of the bearable. Cats and dogs strolling through the lanes, or a dog sitting atop an overhang, looking down at another, at you. A cat screaming, unseen. On the ground cockroaches scurrying rapidly, much larger than those in the west, almost beautiful. And as the sun is breaking out, looking up and seeing the trees that grow on the roofs, their arms spread out over the ledge, above the street, the pink blossoms growing from balconies, the ivy, all of it coming alive, the colors bursting like a sharp taste in you mouth...fruit after two months of rice or a sweet wine after two months of water.
I work at a preschool Monday through Friday, and I have to walk to the subway around 8 each morning. By this time, there is noise to be sure, but, as I said earlier, it is the quiet of this noise. There are no longer stereos blasting from each small shop, competing for your attention begging to be heard, to be noticed, There are not yet so many people competing to be heard. Now the sounds are simple. A single motorbike. The click of a chain on a bike as the rider shifts gears. The sound of a knife on the second floor of a restaurant, out in the open air, chopping today's vegetables - the repetition, the sharp fall of the knife on the cutting board. The clicking of high heels. A distant sound of traffic. The various food and fruit and vegetable stands doing their first business of the morning as they finish setting up their tables. The first haggling voices of a new day. Vendors who have been working side by side forever talking about one more day's worth of nothing in the rising and falling, sometimes harsh sounds of Chinese.
Eight is your last chance for peace. After that and it gets too loud. Even then, the main streets are packed, the subway that I ride overfull. It spreads like a virus from there, from the main routes, into those narrow lanes that I have come, if not to love, then certainly not to hate, until by late afternoon there is no room to move. Until the signs attached vertically to each building start shouting at you louder and louder as the neon grows brighter, staining your retinas. Until you forget it is possible to be alone. And this, in a rather elliptical way, is how I come to why I love mornings in my neighborhoods the most. The short glimpse I have every morning of one person, the same person. An old woman on her worn, wooden stool.
Her stool is low to the ground. It is positioned just outside of the door to what I assume to be her home. The door is always open just enough to give a glimpse of a rack of dirty dishes and a wooden table in the room beyond. Her face is worn. Perhaps worn is an understatement. It is something far greater. There is not hint in her face of the young woman who must have once existed. There is no hint of past beauty. No hint of youth. She sits on her chair, and watches everything and nothing it seems. She sees me walk by. She sees the woman next to her, the woman who every morning at this time is out beginning to prepare the pork dumplngs she will sell throughout the course of the day. She sees the man riding the bike with a large wagon attached to it, the man collecing trash and recycled goods that have been left on the street by people too lazy to take them to the pick-up point the night before. She hears the bells he rings on his bike.
But how can I be sure she is aware of these things? There is a look in her eyes, something faraway. Perhaps I am here influenced by her face in general, for it seems that a person with a face like hers must have experienced real difficulties in life. Did she flee China, losing a husband in the process? Did her daughter grow up to decide that she was not meant for a traditional life, that she would forego marriage to pursue her career? A daughter who would never listen to her mother's reasoning voice, who would ignore the pleas, the shouts, the harangues, and eventually moved out without even a good-bye.
I see this woman sitting on her stool, her expression never changing, an expression that at once hints at tears ready to spill and eyes that have long been dry. I see her and I think of my own grandparents, on the other side of the world. Perhaps I am biased, but when I am home for visits, when I see my grandmothers, it is impossible not to see the youth and the beauty they once possessed. My father's father has had many health problems in recent years, and now he is frail. It is difficult to stand, to walk, to do many simple tasks. But still, he is always ready to smile, to laugh, to offer a hug. My mother's father, he is 91. He is a short man and he has struggled with back and foot problems the last few years. And yet, he, more than anyone I know, is possessed of a burning desire for life. This desire comes through in his eyes, his laugh, in the steel-gripped hand-shakes he has for me whenever I visit.
I do not mean this to be about my grandparents, though. It is about the woman on the stool. What fascinates me about her face is that even though it remains expressionless, or rather, in fixed expression, there is no hint of frailty. I can not tell if hers is an expression of resignation, of reflection, or if, after all that has passed in her life, she just does not give a damn. Perhaps she is sitting on her stool with her expression fixed specifically because she doesn't care about anything anymore, and she can't think of a better way to pass the time than to watch people walk by in the morning. Or maybe, she keeps her expression intentionally fixed as it is, as a way to suppress the laughter she must stifle as she watches people whose faces are filled with hope for each new day.
I never see her anytime but in the morning. But then, I usually do not return to my neighbood until nine or ten in the evening. Soon I might well be moving away from the neighborhood altogether and I wonder if I will see her at all. Maybe she is out there in the evenings, though. Maybe she is in the shadows, hidden behind the illegal booths selling jewelry, T-shirts, socks, mobile phone covers. Maybe she sits directly under the garish neon lights, the lights that distract searching eyes. Maybe she sits in the shadows under the lights, watching the young couples laughing and holding hands, sharing ice cream cones or a bag of fruit. If she is there at night, I would like to see her face sometime. Is it still expressionless? Do the tears come now? When she sees the youth in faces that must seem so foreign to her own. Or maybe she is cackling, her witchy laugh hidden away behind the cacophonous sound of another evening in Taipei. Cackling at the youth that will one day disappear, that will someday stare out from behind wrinkles and moles and sadness and life, and maybe just then try to understand what she is doing sitting on a stool every morning as Taipei comes to life.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Getting back to Taipei pictures that for me present a vision of the city...This was from the second time I went out with my Canon S50, and I look at the folder of pictures and realize what I really liked then I think are awful now (this is from last May). I went to the weekend flower and jade market, which is one of the major draws for tourists in Taipei, and it is always packed with Taiwanese and foreigners alike. You can find bonsai trees, all sorts of flowers and potted plants, jade and pearls for great prices, calligraphy paintings, and many other things. This lady was selling a few hats just across the street from the market, which is held under an elevated highway. You can find people selling things on sidewalks everywhere in Taipei - hats, clothes, gloves, umbrellas, shoes, scarves, and jewelry can all be found for low prices. Unfortunately, they often postion themselves on the most crowded sidewalks, leading to bottlenecks and shoving at worst, a general feeling of annoyance at best. Of course, looking at this lady, I get the idea that maybe she could use a bit of a crowd.  Posted by Hello

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

This is the memorial itself. There are skulls stacked to the top of this, as I mention in "Death Tourism," arranged by age and sex. In the foreground are the mass grave sites. There was an excellent article in the New York Times today about the genocide that isn't a genocide taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan Posted by Hello.
Please check it out, although I must warn you it includes a few unsettling pictures. In the article are further links to some sites where you can get more information about what exactly is happening in Sudan right now.

This is a picture taken from behind the Killing Fields, giving a sense of the open space surrounding the site, and giving an idea of why it might be so attractive to those hoping to bury several thousand bodies. Posted by Hello

These next few pictures are meant to illustrate the post about death tourism. This is on the drive to the Killing Fields, as we crossed the bridge to the dirt road.I suspect that in the wet season, the stilts make a lot more sense. Posted by Hello

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Death Tourism

To get to the Killing Fields about twenty KM outside of Phnom Penh, one can take a car, a motorbike, or a tuk-tuk. To get there, you drive past houses on stilts, road-side shops, green fields and small lakes. The road is busy with life, cows and dogs walking along the side of the road, kids ready to flock to you when you want to stop for a picture, people carrying vegetables or fruits or meats on their way homes, and traffic heading back towards the city. After awhile you turn off the main road and cross a small bridge that carries you over a river of green vegetation fronted by a scenic row of raised houses. Then you are on a dirt road lined by large, gnarled trees (and at times the trees grow right in the middle of the road). The air is filled with dust, and as you go down the road, you begin to see wooden shacks and houses, and in front of these children or wrinkled adults selling coconut milk, drinks, or a variety of clothing - a sure sign that a tourist destination is near. The drive is bumpy (especially in the back of a tuk-tuk) and dirty, and in February, the surrounding countryside is parched and dry, lined and scarred with dirt paths leading to the horizon in various criss-crossing designs. It is easy to imagine this place empty of the houses and the people. It is easy to see why the Khmer Rouge chose this area as the final resting spot for about ten thousand people. When you get there, after paying a two dollar entrance fee, you quickly encounter a tower of skulls, really a temple of sorts, which houses around eight thousand skulls, arranged by sex and age. The skulls make it clear if the person died from blunt force to the head, gun-shots, or if they were stabbed with a sharp object and enough force to penetrate the skull. Behind this is a large open area, quite peaceful with its small rolling landscape (sort of how I would imagine a golf course in Scotland to look), and further on, behind a thin line of trees, a wide open stretch of farm land. It would be quite easy to forget that those depressions were man-made, the site of mass graves, were it not for an occasional sign or pile of bones left on the ground.
A trip to the Killing Fields is almost inevitable followed or preceded by a trip to the Tuol Sleng prison, in the heart of Phnom Penh, just down the road from the bustling maze of covered shops known as The Russian Market. Tuol Sleng was once upon a time an elementary school before being co-opted for use as a political prison by the Khmer Rouge. The prisoners were of all ages and sex, and brought in from all over the country. They were brought as part of the effort of the K.R. to exterminate the educated of their country. In Tuol Sleng, one can see pictures taken of every single prisoner - many of the faces impassive, some leaping out with an expression of mixed fear, anger, and resignation, others bearing an innocent half-smile. There are also pictures of battered or dead prisoners. Some of the more visceral displays are found in rooms that were used for torture - these rooms containing the bed on which the prisoner was tied to, the instruments of tortured used, and finally, and prominently on the wall, a photo of the final effects of the torture. In other parts of the compound are more skulls, testimonies from those Cambodians who worked in the prison and who now must live with their actions (not that many people have ever been brought to trial in relation to the genocidal crimes in Cambodia), and a video room which shows a French-made documentary telling the story of one prisoner and her family. Taken as a whole, it is an impressive place- impressive in the sense that it should, in fact, leave an impression.
As we left, I did not feel such an overwhelming response, though. Of course, I was left unable to imagine the things that happened there, appalled by what Tuol Sleng stood for, but more I was considering previous trips I had made - to the KGB museum in Vilnius, to Dachau, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, to the bullet-riddled museum in Sarajevo dedicated to showing how supplies were smuggled in under the airport during the Serbian siege, and even to the "Torture Museums" that abound in central Europe. Tuol Sleng and the KGB museum were similar in many ways, with the preserved torture cells and instruments used. They both display pictures of the victims, and both, in their own way, attempt to add to the mood of death and morbidity with the use of music, recordings of prison-keepers voices, blood-stains, etc. From each I walked away with an unsettled feel in my stomach, but that unsettled feel had as much to do with a contemplation of what had occurred in the place as it did with my curiosity as to why such places do so well as tourist destinations.
Both of these places pale in scope with Dachau, and especially with Auschwitz, just as the Killing Fields represent a fraction of both the size and the amount of dead from Birkenau. This is not meant as a belittling of what happened in Cambodia (for indeed, millions died under Khmer Rouge rule), but it is something that must be mentioned. Why? Because that is exactly what I was thinking when I was walking around the mass grave sites near Phnom Penh. However, just as tourists every day make the trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and often with the help of tourist agencies, so to do people make the trip to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng - most of the guest houses and hotels even arrange the trips for you, as these two trips represent part of the must-see itinerary of any trip to P.P. I am left to ask, why?
This is a question I suspect I've been asking myself for a long time, if only in my unconscious. Perhaps the first time I asked it was when my parents and I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. the first year it was opened, and for the first time I found myself engrossed with a museum. Perhaps the question was nagging me as I filled my head with books about the holocaust and other historic blood-lettings. But then, I might have been asking myself, why am I drawn to these subjects? Why am I drawn to the darkest apects of human behavior? The trip to the Holocaust should have been a hint to me that I was not the only one, and as my first trip to a death camp (Dachau) proved, there are indeed so many with this morbid curiousity that death tourism, it seems, provides a most stable, reliable source of visitors with those in areas unfortunate enough to have been the site of some atrocity.
The question remains, though, why? For answers, I have often peeked into the comments books left in places such as Tuol Sleng and the KGB museum to get an idea for what other people are saying or feeling as they leave. Inevitably, a majority of the comments center around the general thought of "How could this happen?" "This must never happen again!" "Please don't let this happen ever again," and variations of the theme. Also might be found some comments regarding the museum itself, normally described as "thoughtful," "thought-provoking," "powerful," "moving," or some variation of those themes. I know this sounds quite cynical, but I have come to feel that if this is the only thing one has to say, they shouldn't bother. It's pretty self-evident. This type of comment also leaves little insight as to why the person was drawn to go there in the first place.
Other comments invariably take on an edgier tone. Perhaps there might be a slap at the governments of countries that did nothing to help. There might also be comments that mention a wider historical truth - in the case of Tuol Sleng, mention of the U.S. bombing raids near the Thailand border. Then there are the comments that touch on present day truths - the truth that whatever people ask never to happen again is happening again. In the case of Tuol Sleng, the few comments that touched on present day realities mentioned Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Surprisingly, I saw no mention of Darfur.
Seeing the mention of U.S. run prisons in place as part of the "War on Terror" got me thinking. What if Iraq can ever get straightened out? What happens if the insurgency is suppressed and a civil war is avoided and an infrastructure is finally in place. What will intrepid travellers and tourists find when they arrive? Perhaps a series of cafes - many of them, at least in part, western-owned, set up along the Tigris River, along with a series of guest-houses and hotels. The guest-houses and hotels, perhaps, with signs in their lobbies advertising different day trips and overnight trips. One of them could be to Abu Ghraib (although I suspect that by then, the prison will no longer exist - or has it already been torn down? I feel like I may have heard something to that effect...). Inside the prison complex, if it is still around, could be separate exhibits, one dedicated to the things Saddam Hussein had done, and one dedicated to the abuses U.S. soldiers perpetrated. There could also be a separate journey advertised which would take people in air-conditioned vans up to the mass grave-sites where gassed Kurds were buried. I'm sure there could also be tours of Saddam's palace, and maybe a city tour of areas that had seen suicide bombs. It may be a cynical thought, but it does seem that one of the lasting legacies of violent, suppressive governments and war is the existence of at least one sure-fire tourist draw.
The question still remains, though. Why do people go to these places? Why are they not just destroyed the moment that option becomes feasible? The reason I have most heard sited for the existence of monuments to atrocity, as well as the reason for visiting them is to remind ourselves of...Of what? I don't buy the argument that these are left as monuments meant to remind us of what people can do to each other. We don't need these places to make ourselves aware. Just read the newspaper. The mere fact that no heads have rolled over the torture cases in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay (and why is this, by the way? Just because these actions were carried out as part of "The War on Terror?" I'm sorry, but that is not a high enough standard for justification...besides, as long as people can find justification for torture and murder, we will have sites dedicated to atrocity). Do we go to remind ourselves we were lucky to be born where we were born, or that we are mortal? Perhaps so that when we get back to wherever we are from, we can discuss it at a dinner party and come off as being compassionate? OK, I suspect I'm being a bit sardonic now.
The real reason I think we go to these places is to see the brutality of them. We go seeking the tales of torture and suffering and pain, to see the photos and the blood-stains. We seek to acknowledge some inner parts of ourselves - both the part that is capable of reverting to our most savage nature, the part of us that might be capable of carrying out such action, as well as the part of us that imagines being in the position of the captured. We wonder, perhaps, if we would have the strength to refuse orders if told to kill someone, or if we would have the strength to fight back if we were about to be killed. Or maybe that's just me.

Monday, February 21, 2005

It seems like a good time to post this picture from Dasi beach. This was taken in June of last year on a last minute trip to the east coast with my friend Fauna. We had no plans to stay anywhere and ended up meeting a couple South Africans who let us crash with them on the first night in a wicked house near the beach. We stayed up late on the beach, watching a sweeping searchlight patrol the beach and the waters for (I suppose) immigrants and/or invaders. The second night we stayed with a kind old woman in a house right on the ocean front for about five dollars. This picture gives an idea of the mountains that rise almost straight from the coastline. This was taken with the S50, late in the afternoon when most people had already packed up their things and headed back to their houses or cars, or to catch a train back up to Taipei. Posted by Hello

Sunday, February 20, 2005

This is from when I got my first camera in Taipei, before I realized how much I enjoyed taking pictures. This was with a Canon S50, and I had gone for a long walk starting from my apartment and heading east on Minsheng road. This street came as a pleasant surprise with its overhanging trees..I felt like I was back in the states for a little while. Posted by Hello

This blog, Taiwan, and my life

With just a touch over four months left of living in Taiwan, the conflicting emotions that will no doubt grow and multiply as the final departure date comes have already begun. One minute, I might be bemoaning the fact that it is four months instead of three, or dreaming of how it will be to take in the green grass of Great American Ballpark. And it is not just the sight of the grass I look forward to, but the sounds of American baseball – the constant hum of chatter and radios, the polite claps for a strike or routine out, the building noise and feel of drama during a rally. The smells, too, I dream of – hot dogs and beer and sugar and sweat…how different an experience from a Taiwan baseball game, where people stand the whole game pounding plastic bats together, or using plastic hand clappers to create a never-ending clattering punctuated at least once an inning by cheers of jia-yo jia-yo (Go! Go!). At Taiwanese baseball games, one sees little if any beer, and the food tends to be sold outside and might very well include an option for squid or pig intestines. As the dream of a ball game in Cincinnati on a muggy June evening fades, the realization comes that the kids who have become such a part of my life will soon be gone. This isn’t just a short trip home, a month or two of holiday which will conclude with me back in the classroom. This is it. Who knows the next time I will be back in Taipei, and whether or not, by that time, the kids will even remember me.
I have only been doing this blog for a few weeks now, and I realize that I don’t have much plan for it, except that it reflect the choices I have made in life related to travel and to seeing the world. Also, I think of it as a place for me to put down some thoughts and open them for feedback, as well as a place for others to come for a glimpse at things they might not otherwise see or hear about. In this context, the format of the site might not be the best, but it is what I have for now, so for the time being, I’m going to use it as well as I can.
With this in mind, and with my coming departure from Taiwan, I suspect that in these next four months, many of the postings here will be reflections on life in Taipei and on teaching. I suspect also that there will be many pictures posted reflecting the many aspects of the city and its people – the modern, the old, the gleaming, the crumbling, the beautiful, the ugly. Also, with three or four more long weekends planned in the coming months, I am hoping to see more of the island, and of the islands surrounding us, to make my experience here a little more complete.
I do not expect it all to be about Taiwan, though. As I feel like I am coming to something of a turning point in my life, I suspect that there will be a lot of reflection on previous travels as well, through Europe and the States, Bali, Laos and Cambodia. I suppose you could say that I am taking stock of my life, trying to see the way in which all of the traveling I have done in the last few years – both physical and mental (and here I refer to teaching, to reading, and to studying) have woven themselves together to put me in the place I am now.
With this in mind, I might as well mention the trip that Natalia and I took this weekend, to the Shangri-La Farming Resort in the mountains just outside of a city called Luo-Dong, a city which, we were told, has the largest city park in all of Taiwan (it looked big from the road, but as it rained the whole weekend, we did not check it out).
There isn’t much to say for the resort itself, except to say that it would be very nice in the summer time. The farm is large, with several walking paths and fruit trees. The fruit trees are actually one of the big drawing cards for the place, as guests are allowed to go out and pick their own fruit. As it is winter, though, the oranges on the trees were about the size of acorns, and were sour enough to turn one’s mouth inside out. The tea served in the cafeteria, was of a similar quality.
The views were nice, though, and it was quiet. Quiet. Sometimes in Taiwan you forget what quiet is. With the constant sound of scooters and cars and cats and people, there is never quiet. You just get so used to the hum of the city that when you are in a silent place, the silence resounds in your ears and takes on a depth, a loudness of its own. The air was clean as well, and the view was…quiet. Yes, I think that is the best word for the view. Below us was a valley, and in the valley were several farms, their land flooded or green, and there were several fires burning, sending smoke drifting high against a backdrop of mountains on the opposite side. Gray clouds hung low over everything, and in the falling mist, it seemed the only sound was that of a woman above and behind us mixing something in a large wooden bucket.
We walked around a bit, watched some movies, and slept. That sleeping thing was nice, as both of us are beset by undependable stomachs and lingering colds (between us I think we are on fourteen different medicines – Chinese doctors are prescription happy). We left this morning at around eleven, and were on a train back to Taipei at one.
The train ride up Taiwan’s east coast is something special. I had, I think, forgotten just how nice it is, even on a gray day in February. In the two hours of the journey, we went past houses surrounded by flooded rice fields, their reflection drawn perfectly down into the still water, past rock-strewn beaches and fishermen braving the cold and rain, past cliffs, wild vegetation, and lush, tree-covered hills and mountains. At times it might be ocean on one side, mountains on the other, at other times, mountains on both, or those rice fields cut by narrow lanes, as much walking paths as roads – the kind of place I without fail wish to stroll upon, contemplating nothing or everything.
I used to make this journey nearly every weekend my first summer in Taiwan, on Sunday mornings to go down to the beach, suffering through the bumpy progress of a slow train as my hangover swollen head cried for sleep and darkness. All of the people I used to go with are gone. Even the beach we used to go to is gone, at least for now, as it got swept away in one of the typhoons last year. It was that beach we used to go to for all-night parties, and that beach where we wondered when Taiwan will figure out a better way to develop a tourist infrastructure (there are a few surf shops in town, a Vietnamese restaurant and not much else – not even a 7-11, which in Taiwan is saying something)! But then, we weren’t complaining…
Taking the train today, I thought about those days and how long ago they seem, and how all the people from those days have scattered – to Japan, back to Canada or South Africa, Australia, the States. There could be a lot of other places, too. I never would have guessed that of all of that group of friends in the beginning, I would be the last one here.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Random Thoughts (1)

As for the title, I am just assuming that there will be many more random thoughts to come, so I might as well start a series of them or something.
A long week has just ended, and a hard week. After a few unseasonable warm and sunny days early in the week, February has returned and as Natalia and I walked home from watching The Aviator, we did so under umbrellas and a steady rain, unable to avoid the puddles filling the sidewalk, and shivering in the cold (well, ok, 12 degrees C, but like I said earlier, that feels really cold here). We have both been sick all week, with colds and stomach-aches, and we have been infected with this horrible form of malaise that makes it impossible to feel motivated to go to work. If the purpose of taking a vacation is to recharge one's batteries, then this vacation failed miserably. Our symptoms are different - hers related to her distaste for her job while mine relate to my lack of time for writing, studying, and figuring out how three months could possibly be enough to travel in China - but the result is the same. The result? Evenings spent bemoaning the fact that in x amount of hours we will be at work again. Healthy? I suspect not.
I wish I could focus on one thing for more than an hour or two at a time. I think that if one trait of mine presents my eventual downfall in life, it may very well be this. I thought that by this age, one should be, if not having already chosen a field to pursue, pretty darn sure of where things are heading. Sadly, my paths just keep multiplying, ideas sprouting and blooming and rushing out of my mouth in tiny bursts of excitement weekly, daily, sometimes hourly. Is this some sadistic form of ADD meant to prevent me from ever succeeding in anything?
Forgive the foray into melodrama.
Tomorrow we are going to Ilan County in Taiwan, which is on the east coast, maybe an hour and a half away by train. We are meant to stay in some resort where one of Natalia's friends helped us to get a deal for half-price room rate. I hope the room is really nice as, with the weather as it is, we will probably be spending most of our time there. If not, the grounds of the place are meant to have loads of fruit trees, and the surrounding scenery, at least in the brochures, looks quite inviting, so perhaps this country respid may proove a better source of rejuvenation than the trip to Cambodia. If nothing else, I'll have my Canon, my laptop, and a book with me to cover all the bases (and no doubt a girlfriend telling me to put those damn things down and talk to her already).
Hopefully when we get back on Sunday, I will have something more interesting ready to post up here for you...

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

This is one of my favorite pictures from the trip. This was taken in the late afternoon as the sun set on Angkor Wat. For me, this captures the contemplative mood that being at Angkor instills. Posted by Hello

To act as a balance to the picture of the girl...this was in Phnom Penh, a last celebration of Chinese New Year. This little boy was doing a dance on the street, and was having a great time, as were his friends. A scene I could have seen in Taiwan as well. Posted by Hello

How old is this girl? What has she seen in her life that has given her such a hard face? I don't know. What I do know is that usually when I turn a camera on children, they either get very shy or very excited. She just looked at me and turned away, kept eating her little bit of fruit. Posted by Hello

I am not sure which temple I took this in, but the shadows drew my eye immediately. Five minutes earlier or later and this would have looked differently. I'm glad I was there when I was. Posted by Hello

This is from Bayon, perhaps the most recognizable of the temples around Angkor Wat. These faces are immense, and surround the visitor with their subtle smiles. Posted by Hello

Monday, February 14, 2005


It is 7:40 Monday morning, and in about fifty minutes I have to leave for the first morning back at school, and a very long day to follow (I have accupuncture treatments on my shoulder this evening, and as the Chinese medicine section of the hospital is always very crowded on Monday night, I suspect I won't get home until near ten). I will try, though, before I leave, to give you some impressions of Cambodia...
I'll start with Phonm Penh and the hectic traffic, with tuk-tuks, three-wheeled bicycle taxis, tourist buses and vans, cars, and motorbikes all vying for space on the riverfront road, all of them honking, their unmuffled engines growling, and then people dodging their ways across the street or along the sidewalk. Speaking of dodging traffic when walking along the sidewalk, also the necessity of avoiding beggars sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, breast-feeding undernourished babies, the children selling boot-legged copies of Lonely Planet guides and various histories of Cambodia or flowers, and the tuk-tuk drivers sitting around with friends or leaning against their tuk tuk, asking you where you want to go. Against this backdrop, riverside cafes catering to Western taste buds, filled with foreigners eating food that 90 percent of Cambodians could not afford, drinking cheap drinks that would still cost the average Cambodian a percentage of their monthly earnings to buy. This is not to mention the overweight, aging white men with beautiful young women massaging their arms or hands or back, fawning over them...perhaps the most disturbing sight of all, really...
Away from the riverfront, many of the roads in disrepair, buildings once handsome, stately, now fading and crumbling...the new buildings, and the homes of the rich, though, looking as if they would be more at home on the streets of Paris. Children in the streets, playing in their barefeet, amidst the piles of rubbish built up on the sidewalks, the adults too often sitting on steps in front of shops, or hiding in the shade of an awning, doing nothing much of anything. Also the market places, filled with flies and colors and butchered meats and fish...stacks of fruit and vegetables, $5 North Face bags, $2 silk scarves and skirts, people getting their hair cut and their nails polished, people eating, pharmaceutical products, etc etc...
More things that will stick with me: The taste of dust, from riding in the back of a tuk-tuk while visiting the temples at Angkor and when heading out to see the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh, the unrelenting heat of the sun, the colors at Angkor and in Phnom Penh, the shadows and light...
Of course, I will also remember the hassle of our boat ride up to Siem Reap, and then sitting in a plane on the tarmac for over an hour, waiting for some VIP to be welcomed by the press (this is when we were waiting to fly back to PP from Siem Reap), boiling in the late afternoon heat as there was no AC on the plane.
A visit to Cambodia (so many places in this part of the world, really) has the power to raise a lot of troubling questions at least it did for me.
First there are the beggars, most of them either children or victims of land mines. The children are usually dressed in rags, their hair a mess, their eyes big and dark and broken. The one that I will remember followed Natalia and I for about a half KM on Saturday night as we walked along the riverfront, saying over and over "Mister, mister," occasionally hitting me on the arm or pulling my arm hair...her hair was a tangled mess and it seemed there were a few flies that swarmed around her head, or perhaps I was just superimposing that detail, a memory of the poverty we saw near Tomle Sap when we arrived at Siem Reap...anyway, I did not give her any money. Why not? I keep asking myself this question, and I asked myself many times in relation to other kids as well...Was it because her eyes were half-closed and reminded me of the phrase "Dead Zone," that she looked as if she was on some kind of drug? Was it because I suspected that if I gave her money, she would just take it back to some adult who was exploiting her for his own monetary gain (yes, this happens), or was it because I was raised in a culture where to say no to a beggar, to turn your head from their trouble is something of an automatic reaction? Was it that there are too many beggars in Phonm Penh, that if you give something to one, then five more will be around you within seconds, or is it that I am selfish? I did give some money to some kids, and more importantly, shared some food with kids, but still...and then there is the problem of sex slavery in Cambodia (well, in many more places, but since I was just there...)
There were some excellent stories in the NY Times recently by Nicolas Kristof about sex slavery in Cambodia, follow-up stories to ones written about a year ago, about two girls he had bought out of slavery. If you can, find them in the NY Times archives - they were published in January, and are very enlightening. Anyway, there was a "Karoake" Bar next to the first hotel we stayed in, and it was quite obvious there was a lot more than singing going on there. As we walked along the riverside in the evenings, I could not help but think that most of the women we walked past, the young women no older than 14 or 15 were prostitutes...Were they all? I don't know, but enough of them no doubt were...and the sight of them with men in their fifties and sixties, twenty or forty pounds overweight - I'm sorry, I'm pretty open-minded about a lot of things, and I believe that love strikes in odd places at strange times, but the picture of those men with those girls - what makes it even worse is the instinctive thought that the girls are using the men just as the men are using them...and perhaps this is true to some small extent, but you look at the girls' lives and wonder what other options do they have? Some are sure to exist, but in their youth, can they see any of those options, and can they know the dangers of what they are doing, both physically and mentally? Judging by the amount of women and children with AIDS in Cambodia, it would seem the answer is no.
One of the things about traveling is that we take it for granted that we will be leaving. We are dropping in on the lives of a people for a few days, a week, a few weeks, months even, but in the end we are leaving. We have our comfortable lives to return to, and to those lives, we bring stories of the things we see, the beauty, the poverty, the misery, the people. We walk past the wood shacks and the unhygenic markets, the crumbling buildings and lives, and we take it in like it is some kind of outdoor museum and at the end of the night we return to our 12 -50 dollar rooms with Satellite TV and AC, eat meals that we consider cheap, surrounded by other foreigners, served by people who could never afford to eat the food they are serving and we talk about all the terrible things we have seen, or about the lives we will soon return to. When we do return to those lives, our memories of the trip fade, but the lives of those in the place we visited go on, the impoverished lives, the poor who see new foreign faces every day, and must again do whatever they can to make a dollar.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

What has to be one of the most photographed places on Earth, and for good reason. Sunrise at Angkor Wat. Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting different pics from our time at the complex, trying to give an idea of the size, the beauty and intricacy of the carvings, and the way in which shadow and light create such wonderful, everchanging images.  Posted by Hello

This is the boat that dragged us, finally to deeper water. Keep in mind that our boat was more crowded than the boat you see in the next picture... Posted by Hello

How many Cambodias does it take to get a boat moving again? This is the other passenger boat that tried to help us on our ill-fated journey from P.P. to Siem Reap. Posted by Hello

This was at one of the first temples we visited, on Thursday morning...I think it would have been Ta Prohm. Anyway, I walked over to the side of the complex, away from everyone, and there was this sweet little baby sleeping in a hammock, being watched by two or three women working there...One of them was nice enough to let me take the picture. Posted by Hello

It is not often you see pictures of monks at Angkor like this...I took this on Friday evening, as the sun was going down at Bantay Sream. We saw a whole group of monks walking around the base of the temple, and from their postures you might have guessed they were factory workers waiting for the bus to take them home, and from the small clouds of smoke whirling in the heavy orange light, the impression was that they had had a long day indeed. When I asked him to take his picture, he put the cigarette down, but then I asked him to pick it up and he started laughing. So did his friend, who in poor English said something like "'re in trouble!" What was even better was the way all of them checked out Natalia as we walked away! Posted by Hello

This is a scene from Phnom Penh, Sunday morning before heading to the airport. You can get an idea for the dirtiness of the streets, as well as the abundance of kids seemed like the kids outnumbered the adults in P.P.  Posted by Hello

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Why I should never take a boat again

I had heard it is quite pleasant to take a boat up from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, as it allows you a chance to sit in the sun (or inside the boat) for a leisurely morning trip, giving you a chance along the way to get some idea of life along the river here in Cambodia. At twenty-two to twenty-five dollars a ticket, it isn't cheap (only about six for a bus ticket, for a trip of about the same amount of time0, but I thought, it's vacation, why not?
Unfortuntately, I seem to have misplaced my memories related to my brother and my ill-fated boat journeys in Laos (changing boats two times in the course of what should have been a fifteen minute boat ride - first due to engine failure, and then to a leak, leaving finally 10 of us (8 Laotian schoolgirls and my brother and I) in an even smaller boat with an incredibly skilled driver using nothing but a pole to keep us from running aground, then from spilling into the water, and then, at last, to lead us to shore. That seems a very badly constructed sentence, but you will forgive me, I hope, any lapses in grammar this evening...the keyboards here are not so great, and I am rather tired...
So, this brings us to yesterday. Though we had seats inside, we chose to sit atop the boat, watching the sun rise in to the sky, the fisherman in the water, floating houses, kids on the banks waving to us. It was quite nice really, with the breeze, and with conversational folk around us. I did notice, though, how much less traffic the Mekong saw here than it did in Laos, where there were always boats on the water, operating as fishing boats, or as taxis, and along the banks there was much more activity in Laos as well.
We reached a point where the river opens into a lake, the name of which I do not have handy at the moment, and it is here that the fun began. The sun was quite high in the sky by now, as it was about 11, and so it was not the most opportune time for the boat to get stuck in the mud. It is dry season now, and so the river is not so deep. Our driver, it seems, picked a rather poor lane through which to navigate the river (we saw another boat zip right through, coming in the other direction, and then there was the poor boat that tried to help us.,.). So at first, it didn't seem too bad. We backed up and tried again. No luck. Then an old man came up in a dug out boat and suggested we move over some, closer to the banks. A man jumped from our boat to look for deeper water and it was somewhat discouraging to see the water never go higher than shoulder height on him (keep in mind, this is Asia and men tend to be short!). The old man seemed to know what he was talking about, though, so over we went. Again, no luck.
About this time, another boat that had left from P.P. at the same time as us came by and towed us aways before the rope snapped in two. Then it towed us some more. The Cambodians directing this operation seemed to think we were in a good place to start, so we tried. We didn't. All this time the water around us was filled with silt churned up from the bottom.
I noticed that the other boat and many less people than we did atop the boat, and I can only imagine they had far less inside as well (part of the reason we went up to the roof was the massive amount of people and bags inside the boat - which made any trip to the bathroom a bit of an adventure, as did the bathroom itself). Another guy noticed this too and suggested we off load some of ours. I was quite keen to do this as I realized we were not going anywhere anytime soon, but my bag was buried in the back of the boat and so I had no chance.
The process was repeated many times, and many times it failed. The boat would pull us, we would try to start, we would stop, float backwards, and then stop again. One quite fun attempt ended with the side of our boat lodged on the side of theirs, theiroreign passengers no doubt pissed and ready to beat our drivers senseless for making them waste half their days trying to assist. After more than two hours of trying to help, that boat drove off, leaving us stuck and helpless.
A half hour after that, another boat came...a ramshackle looking thing that looked as if it might break apart the second it towed us. Somehow, though, that little thing managed to pull a boat about five times its size, loaded with two times too many people, all the way out into the lake and into deep water. A cheer went up, and then everyone who wasn't already asleep fell asleep...well, I didn't but my ass did. Those boat roofs aren't so comfortable.
We made it to Siem Reap at about 5, after a short boat ride through a floating city, and a drive on a dirt road filled with one of the most awful stenches I have ever encountered and a display of poverty I have seen once or twice before...A great lead in to today's first encounter with Angkor Wat.
Angkor is amazing, by the way, or what I've seen of the complex, but as I am waking up at five to take in a sunrise tomorrow, it will have to wait for another day to talk about (although I wonder if I should even bother trying to talk about it...its one of those places that just has to be seen).
I'm excited about the next two days - especially the fact that when we leave, we won't be taking the boat.

Monday, February 07, 2005

In Cambodia

Well, Chinese New Year is under way, and we have made it to Cambodia. It was a bit of a rough start, though. In Taipei, the airport was packed as people took advantage of the first day of the holiday. This is the first time Ive seen the airport so busy...usually you can get there an hour, hour and a half before a flight and not worry too much about getting through. Saturday looked more like an two days before Christmas in the States.
Anyway, we got through on time, and then had to wait for about a half hour due to mechanical preparations. Meanwhile, Natalia was confessing to having a bad feeling about the trip (we couldnt find the passport photos we thought we would need but didnt, and she had been told by her boss that Cambodia was extremely dangerous and that she would not make it back to Taipei...).
The flight was uneventful, but as soon as we landed in Phnom Penh, the fun began. First, there were two separate lines for people applying for Visas, one for white foreigners and one for Asian foreigners (there were no signs denoting this, however, and it seemed quite strange). I zipped through the white people line while Natalia moved back over to the Asian line and waited again. Then, as I waited for my passport to be returned with the visa, I noticed that people who had gone after me were getting their passports back first...I looked down the line of people processing them (a ridiculous assembly line of five people doing different things that one person could have done just as easily and much more quickly) and could not see mine. Natalia was given her passport back and still I did not see mine. Finally a man called me over. He informed me that I have no pages left in my passport and that this was a problem..I then pointed out that while in Laos I had been given several extra pages (I had been somewhat illprepared then, and had to pay 10 US for the pages). The man in Cambodia kindly pointed out that those pages could not be used here because they were from Laos...I disagreed, but he would not listen.. His face, was indeed, expectant and disinterested at once, as he suggested I get on the next flight back to Taipei, or to somewhere else where I could visit a US consulate to get more pages...I pointed out that this would be a bit of an extreme measure given that I was here for eight days...I suggested - much to my chagrin - that perhaps I could give him a few dollars to help me...He paused, pulled on this really long, coarse hair growing from a mole on his face, and suggested that this one time he might be able to accomodate me...He suggested I give him as much as I thought was appropriate, so I gave him a five and was on my way...
Then we had to wait another half hour in line at the immigration counter because the man there made natalia go back to the end of the line after she explained that someone else had taken her immigration form, and instead of letting here fill it out while he processed me, he waited until I was done, then gave her the form, and then we waited...
Anyway, we finally made it out of the airport after the hassle and entered into a sight familiar in all of these Southeast Asia nations and their airports...the taxi drivers and bike drivers crowding you, offering their assistance in any way possible...we got in a cab and off we went.

We have been here for two and a half days now, the first day spent in PP, and yesterday and today on the coast where it is sunny and hot...full of cheap guesthouses that will provide any tourist service you might desire, and restaurants serving pizza, omelets, "real" khmer food, italian, and every other conceivable dish a foreigner mightwant - in other words, the generic menu of backpacker geared sights all around asia.
A few impressions thus far...the light is phenomenal...especially in PP, as the sun goes down or up, and the orangish light it cast on exposed parts of buildings...somehow adding to the overall impression of a city in decay...roads full of trash, roosters strolling around pecking at garbage, cows eating from woven baskets of trash...the way the red of coke cans at road side drink leaps at you from as the bus approaches, and sweating water bottles gleam.
The thing that resounds with me most thus far is the quiet, especially here on the coast, where even the sounds of the motorbikes seem absorbed into the atmosphere...I havent heard cocks crowing or dogs barking...And as we walked along the coast this morning, and then onto a white sand beach where we were just about the only ones, it seemed that we were in another time, or a time that has been in an unchanged state for a long time...

Friday, February 04, 2005

The sound of rain

I think this is one of the unifying factors of my time in Taipei, maybe the only thing that has remained consistent from the time that I arrived to now - the sound of rain.
March 2003 seems a long time ago, the month that I arrived here, and that version of me seems a distant memory as well. Back then I lived in a busy nightmarket neighborhood, right near a large university...a place with bars and cafes and youth, as well as a large number of foreigners like myself. I stayed out until 2 or 3 on a regular basis, often not going to bed until 4 or 5. I had a large group of friends and no interest in learning Chinese.
One year ago seems far away as well. I had just returned from a visit home and was just getting excited about learning Chinese. I was in between apartments, and thus crashing at a buddy's place - just about my only close friend then. We played hoops every night, went out every now and then on the weekend, and hung out with his girlfriend.
Now I live by myself, have a few close friends and a nice group of people I enjoy spending time with. I also have a girlfriend I spend as much free time with as possible. I've gone from being able to say about ten words in Chinese (after living here for a year!) to being able to hold conversations and read a decent amount of text. I go out to clubs maybe once a month, and am usually in bed by 10:30 or 11:00...And in the time between my friend leaving last Feb and meeting my girlfriend at the Dragon Boat Festival last July, I had 5 months of nearly complete isolation - in the sense of having almost no social life outside of my class of preschool kids and their family, and frequent solitary trips to coffee shops to study. I've heard change is good, that it keeps you from falling into a rut and getting bored with life, and I suppose that is my motivation for these polar fluctuations...either that or I've gone through a delayed and somewhat awkward process of maturation.
The rain has been with me through all of it. One of the most vivid memories of my first month in Taipei revolves around sitting in my bedroom at about two in the morning, working on a book and hearing the rain coming down on the metal roofs outside. The other is similar...coming home late at night, the rain coming down, soaking me before I get home, the streets empty but for a few cats heard rather than seen (cats I could always hear from my bedroom window, jumping onto things, fighting with each other, screeching for no reason that I am aware of). There is something about the rain here, and the sound of it...perhaps because of the sheer amount of asphalt and the puddles always glistening in the streetlights, the trees that grow from the streets, the metal...the rain has a rhythm. It is a rhythm at once soothing and maddening - one that embraces and one that appalls. Even the sound of tires on wet roads, heard at 6 in the morning on a trip to the bathroom, giving an early warning of what is soon to be faced, is not altogether terrible sounding...but the repetition of it in February and March...morning after morning...
I have been thinking a lot about Taipei and my relationship with the city, no doubt because my time here is running short. I will miss a lot of things, and a lot of things I won't miss at all. The rain - that is a tricky one. For the time being, though, I have to be honest - tomorrow I will be in Cambodia, and I won't miss the rain a bit.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

How can 60 degrees feel so cold?

When people ask me how the winter weather is here in Taipei, I often complain about how cold it is. Then I mention the temperatures - between 55 and 65 F (8-13 C). Those are early spring and temps in Cincinnati, where I'm from, and on days like these, people feel it is time to shed one or two layers as the icy winter melts away. Stop complaining people say.
Well, Im going to complain again. The problem is, there is no central inside or out it doesn't matter. Yesterday I was teaching a class with a beanie on so I wouldn' get sick, and last night I slept with a long sleeve shirt on underneath my fleece and three blankets...I still slept like crap. Of course, the problem may have been all the green tea I drank, but that is besides the point.
The other problem with the weather is how bloody gray it is. Since January 1, I think we have had maybe 4 sunny days and seen the sun in a glimpse on maybe one or two other occasions. It is just like it was last year, every morning waking up and knowing it is gray outside, hearing scooters and cars driving on wet roads, their tires spinning up water...and the ever-present sound of water falling on the corrugated metal covering added on structures. It makes it damn hard to get excited about getting out of bed to write for awhile, let alone going into school to teach five year old kids how to read.
In 48 hours, though, I will be in Cambodia with my girlfriend, and the weather reports show sun and high eighties (28, 29 C)...relief! Of course, in May and June when every day creeps into the high eighties here, I'll be complaining about my electricity bill from the A/ can't win with the weather in Taipei. I just don't understand why I like it here so much.
The worst thing about the weather lately is that I've had few opportunities to take out my Canon 300 - the digital rebel - to play. I went up to Danshui one day, and around my place on another (some of the pics you see here), but precious few chances to get a feel for it...and now I'll be at Angkor Wat in a few days, having to figure everything out...I guess you could pick worse places to be.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

There was a lot of this in Laos...just sitting around and watching Posted by Hello

This woman kept laughing at the two foreigners trying to eat spicy soup on at midday in 30+ degree heat. I suppose it was funny watching us sweat Posted by Hello

There is something wonderful and pastoral in this picture - the house all alone out in the middle of the rice fields, surrounded by mountains. Laos has an extraordinary landscape...go for that, but stay for the warmth of the people Posted by Hello

I just keep wondering where all the water went Posted by Hello

I wish my zoom was a little stronger for this one Posted by Hello

Also in Danshui Posted by Hello

From an underpass near my apartment. Posted by Hello

The glorious ugliness of northern Taiwan! This is Damshui on the northern coast, taken with my new Canon Digital Rebel Posted by Hello