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Sunday, February 20, 2005

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.

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