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The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining us!  Kristin and Smitty (and Champ) are spending about 10 months in Taiwan, and this is our blog.  We hope you enjoy reading about our adventures.

The way this seems to work is that the most recent posts show up first.  So, if you want to read chronologically, scroll to the bottom amd work your way up.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

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We Take A Driving Trip Around Northern Taiwan

Take a look at a map.  Taipei, where we live, is in the North of Taiwan.  Remember?  Pei (really, is should be written bei, but pei is the norm to accommodate us westerners or something like that) means North.  But, there is land North of us.  Mainly a mountain range.  Yangmingshan National Park (shan means Mountain. Yang as in yin and yang – loosely translates as ‘the masculine or positive principle in nature’. Ming as in Ming dynasty, which can translate as justice, righteousness).  But we didn’t go there (although I’ve done some hiking….more on that in another post).  lol.  The flat area along the coast is where we drove in January. We’ll do the mountain another time (although we look at it every day that it’s not too hazy).  Keelung City to the East, and then a counter-clockwise route along the coast.

north of taiwan map

First stop was Avis.  There’s a branch not far from us.  There’s also one near the main train station, but one of my goals is to never drive there….it’s a confusing area.  This is the second time we’ve rented a car.  I don’t know if they are always so thorough (checking the car for scratches before and after, explaining terms and conditions in infinite detail, etc.), or are just nervous at a foreigner driving.  I don’t know if it would make them more or less nervous to know I learned to drive outside of New York City.

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Our little Ford

Taipei and Taiwan ain’t bad for driving, other than the scooters.  My mantra while driving here is, literally, “don’t kill a scooter….don’t kill a scooter…OMG, don’t kill a scooter”.  They’re like little gnats that you really shouldn’t swat.  If people drove like that in NY, I’d run them off the road.  Then stop and flip them off.  But it’s very ‘live and let live’ here when driving.  When I get around to writing about getting around Taipei, I’ll explain further.  For now, let’s just say that the scooters, so many of them, do things that are normal here but would be very unacceptable back home.  Scooting up (see what I did there?) between stopped cars to the red light.  Generally being inpatient.  But it works, as long as you’re ready for it. I’ve been watching traffic while walking around this city for a while now, so I think I’ve got the philosophy down.

First stop was Keelung City to visit the Xiandong Fairy Cave, (仙洞巖, Xian = Immortal, Dong = hole or cavity, as in cave). It’s a (mostly) Buddhist temple in a cave.  From the outside, you see the entrance, including statues of four temple guardians (one for each compass direction) and a big Buddha keeping watch of who comes and goes:

 

 

I love temple guardians.  They always look so fierce.  I would’t mess with them. Even if they ARE made of stone.  If you’re gonna have a guard, they make a good choice.

Inside it’s, well, a cave.  A very cool cave.  There are carvings on the walls of various Gods, several statues, the usual lit up prayer lights, several ‘altars’, and, on the left, the secret hidden special extra cave.

Here are the first two altars, with Guanyin, my personal favorite Bodhisattva.  Also, I think, the most popular one.  His / her statues are everywhere in temples and museums we visit.  The one at the Nelson Atkins in Kansas City is our favorite.  I think if it came to life, I’d be out a fiance.

 

 

One thing about religion and temples around here.  Most are mainly Daoist.  This one is mainly Buddhist.  I say mainly, because so far (and we’ve been to a LOT of temples), all of them have at least a few elements of both religions.  I went on a group tour of a big Daoist temple in Taipei a little while ago (Guandu Temple).  I’ll write more about that, and about religion in general here, in a separate post.  For now, the main thing to realize is that religion is not a Sunday thing here.  It is an integral part of everyday life.  And it’s very fluid.  Look at this:

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That’s a straight up Daoist God (there are so many…I have no idea which one this is).  The point is, this Daoist God is in the middle of a Buddhist Temple.  And Guandu Temple that I visited is a Mazu Temple, Mazu being a vary popular Daoist God in Taiwan.  And to the left of Mazu in that temple?  Guanyin, the ever popular Bodhisattva. That’s how the temples roll around here.  It’s not so much about what religion you might identify with as that if you want to pray to a particular God (or Bodhisattva or Buddha) there are plenty of places to do so, and it’s not so important what type of temple it is.

Here are some of the carvings and statues in the main cave.  My favorite one is the statue of Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk from the 5th or 6th century.  He’s the one with the bug eyes.  The story is that after being denied entry to a monastery, he went into a nearby cave, and stared at the wall (I guess that’s the monk equivalent of ‘I’m going out to the garden and eating worms’).  He stared at the wall for nine years.  To prevent himself from closing his eyes, he cut off his eyelids.  Hence the bug eyes.  I love these stories!  Much more fun than wandering in the desert for 40 days (no offense, Jesus, or deserts, or wanderers).  The other one is Guanyin of a thousand arms. And eleven heads.  We saw more of him/her later…

 

 

But the best part of the cave was yet to come.  The double secret tiny hidden extra side cave.  To get to the prize at the end (another altar of sorts, a good luck rock, and a lot of carved characters) I literally had to crawl. On my hands and knees.  I don’t have a picture of that really small part, because, well, I was crawling.  But here are a few shots of Kristin in the not the smallest part.  It was worth the effort!

 

 

 

Once we got back outside, we drove on up into the mountains to Jiufen Old Street.  The area has seen a lot of gold mining and other fun history in the past (read that Wiki entry) but today is a major tourist trap. I mean attraction.  Did I say trap?  It’s a cool area, but pretty touristy, including many groups following someone with a flower or small stuffed animal on a pole.  Ugh.  It was Saturday, which I’m sure added to the busy feeling.  But the views were amazing, and we had a nice lunch at a tea house with a heck of a view.  Oh, and as a special bonus – Condom World!

 

 

 

After winding back down the mountain, we drove on around the North end of Taiwan.  We saw a few interesting things along the way to a small puppetry museum we’d heard about. That statue reminds me of big statues I’ve seen wandering Wisconsin.  Without the cheese theme.  The kid is holding a ‘gold brick’.  We also saw a huge cemetery, with a big mausoleum, and a very large temple.

 

Our next stop was the Li Tien-Lu Hand Puppet Historical MuseumLi Tien-Lu was a hand puppet master that we’ve read about at the couple of other puppetry museums and theaters (and a movie) we’ve been to.  Hand Puppetry is a big deal over here. Or was….unfortunately it’s kind of a dying art, but not yet dead.  HERE’S an article about it.

The bummer was… the museum was closed.  It appears they only open if a group makes a special request. Well, the drive was nice.  And there was some pretty cool graffiti across the street (you might recognize the one “president”…the woman is Taiwan’s president), but all we saw of puppets was a closed museum.

 

 

So we went on our way.  Having a little time, and thinking about Guan Yin and all those arms, we found a temple on the map we thought might be interesting.  And we scored.  Sorta.  Yuandao Temple (better turn on google translate for that site) has built the world’s largest Thousand Handed Guanyin. Click to watch a really cool video.  Here is our pic:

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We also saw a bell with a cool sign (don’t ring it…instant karma’s gonna get you!), Guanyin taking a nap (it’s hard work when you’re other incarnation has 1,000 hands), and, best of all – a Christmas tree!  With elephants! And thru it all, that big ass Guanyin with all the arms is just over the ridge….watching…..but in a good way, I’m sure.  She just wants to help the whole world.

 

This temple had cool stuff to see.  It was really a complex.  A huge place.  It struck me as the sort of place a rich American tele-evangelist would build, if he was Buddhist.  Very ostentatious and over done.  Lots of helpers in matching outfits.  A complicated prayer system with color coded incense.  They really really really wanted us to try it.  To me, this place is an outlier here.  Religion really isn’t like this.  The art was cool, but it made us want to move on to our last stop.  Which was…..LLAMAS!!!!

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File this under ‘they’d NEVER allow that in the US’.  It’s a cafe.  And there are llamas.  Or maybe they’re alpacas.  Whatever, they wander around…inside the cafe.  Read THIS article.

What does a llama in a cafe do?  It eats chairs.  It eats peoples hair. They eat menus. They wear headphones (allegedly) and if you’re Kristin, they let you pet them.

Yeah, it was….interesting.  The food was OK, and in their way, the llamas were cool.  And if you really really really have a thing about llamas….like maybe someone I know (and love), you would think this was a VERY cool place.

Me?  I was fine until I saw this thru the window:

Llama

So with that image in my mind, we drove back to Taipei, returned the car, and returned to our city life.

And I did NOT kill a scooter!

It’s a Beautiful Day In Our Neighborhood

What I want to tell you about now is where we live, and a bit about what it’s like.  First, in this blog post, I’ll write about our immediate neighborhood. Later I’ll write separate posts about our neighbors that make this such a fun and interesting neighborhood to live in (Sam, who sells spicy tofu and duck blood each evening and has adopted us and made himself our cultural ambassador.  Chicken Man.  Lynn who sells bread.  The Pirate.  The Tea Shop.  Tony the Mexican chef cooking Chinese food in the market.  etc.) and about what it’s like wandering around Taipei (Scooters!  Subways! Pedestrians!  Scooters!  Did I mention the scooters?  OMG, the scooters).

We’re in a big ass city called Taipei (Tai for Taiwan, and Pei = North…guess what?  We’re in the North of Taiwan!).  Taipei proper is about 2.6 million people  The metro area is about 8 million.  Pretty similar to Chicago.  Our district is called 嵩山 or Songshan (Song = pine tree, also a surname; Shan = Mountain), which is the North East ‘corner’ of Taipei City.

From the maps below, you can see that Taiwan is north of the Philippines, and south of Korea and Japan. It’s sub-tropical here (the south end of the island is tropical).  August was brutal for these Michigan kids.  A five minute walk would necessitate a shower and change of clothes.  October and November have been very nice.  December still warm (in relative terms – we’re talking 60s on cooler days, 70s on other days) and rain more days than not.  Grabbing the umbrella as you leave home is a way of life.  People say Taiwan is shaped like a tea leaf, or a sweet potato.  Coming from The Mitten, I like shape analogies.

Look for the blue dot on the city map – that’s us.

 

The area is, as is most all of Taipei City, straight up urban.  Other than everything being written in Chinese, and all the people being Chinese, and the neighborhoods involving smaller alleys and lanes, it feels like we’re living in Manhattan.  With really good subways.  REALLY good.  There are more places to eat (from fancy restaurants to street vendors) than I could ever have imagined.  I swear, we could eat every meal for the 10 months we’re here at a different place and never walk more than 15 minutes from home.  And often the two of us can eat for $10.  Or, we can go to a Western restaurant (a brew pub, a pizza place, a burger joint) and pay $50.

Home! We have a nice little apartment.  Two bedrooms, although one is more like a big closet.  We have a real shower (many bathrooms here are what they call a ‘wet’ bathroom – there’s a shower head on the wall, and when you take a shower, the whole bathroom floor gets wet).  Sorry, call us spoiled Westerners, but one condition for us was a real shower.  Kitchen?  Well, we have a sink and fridge and small counter.  We bought a hot plate.  And a toaster oven.  A small one. That’s about it. We don’t really cook here.  We heat or boil.  We each have a desk.  We have a clothes washer, but no dryer (typical). And the washer is on a nice little balcony where we hang out in the nice weather.  It’s about 3 feet by 15 feet, and the washer is at one end (keeping the washer outside is also typical). We either hang up the wash (inside, because it’s so freakin’ humid outside it would never dry), or I go around the corner to the laundromat and use the dryer.  This is called foreshadowing:  we are friends with the dude who watches the  laundromat, and it’s next to a very socially interesting tea shop….but that’s for the next blog.

Here are some pictures of home:

 

We have cable TV.  A hundred channels of people speaking Chinese, plus CNN, BBC, and a few other English language channels.  Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video are our forms of visual entertainment.  We use a VPN to convince them we are in the US, so we can access the ‘normal’ content, and attach a laptop to the TV.

While we love our little nest, what’s really cool is our ‘hood.  What I think of as neighborhoods are a series of ‘lanes’ and ‘alleys’ off of the main streets.  Here’s our immediate neighborhood:

Our hood

The star is us.  At the bottom is Nanjing East Road – a very main drag.  Four lanes each way. Crazy crazy busy street.  The East / West roads are called Alleys, and are numbered.  The North South roads are called Lanes, and also numbered.  We’re on Alley #34, building #6, second floor.  But you need to reference the Lane your alley is off, which in our case is #291.  The lane and alley numbers reference the closest main street.  Nanjing East Road, in our case.  Since Nanjing is a really long road, it’s divided into sections. We’re section 5.

Get it? This engineer loves it!  So our address is (take a breath): Taipei City, Nanjing East Road, Section 5, Lane 291, Alley 34, #6-2.  Our mailbox is a plastic tub on a windowsill…lol…and serves about 4 apartments.  It IS possible to mail cards to us.  We got two Christmas cards.  A nice surprise!  The problem is remembering to look for them.  Not that anyone will steal anything.  That just doesn’t happen here (more on that in a bit). A cabbie can find us from that long ass address (if we tell him in Chinese).  I have it, written in Chinese characters, on my phone.  It works to get us home in a cab.

Here are some pix of the lanes and alleys in our area.  The white 2 story building is where we live:

 

When you walk down the lanes and alleys, you have to be alert. Like playing defense in hockey….head on a swivel.  If a scooter comes by, edge to the side.  If a car comes, it takes up the whole damn street, so duck to the side between a couple of parked scooters or into a doorway and let them pass.  They are all respectful of pedestrians.  Sorta.  They know we’ll move, but they wait until we do. There’s no traffic control at the intersections….yet we haven’t seen an accident. Yet.  Still, I’m always watching, fascinated by how nobody really stops, yet it works.  Kind of like 4 way yields.

The cool features of our area include the Keelung river, with parks along both sides, just to the East. I walk there a lot. I have a few river walking peeps (it’s like mall walking…I guess) that I say hi to when I see them.  Up the river a short walk is Raohe Night Market and the Ciyou Temple (see the last post – that’s where we lit incense for Champ after he passed).  Just below us on Nanjing Street is the Nanjing / Sanmin subway station.  Very convenient.  No exaggeration, on this map view I bet there are a hundred or more restaurants.  And tea shops, bread stores, cafes, a couple bars, a grocery store nearby, a Carrefour (hyper market – groceries and home goods and appliances) is a ten minute walk.  Ikea is one subway stop West (or a 20 minute walk).  Taipei arena, where we’ll go see Madonna when she comes (NOT), is close by.  You can see the top of Taipei 101 from the next Lane over.  As you can from most places in town.

And…convenience stores.  Let me count….in this ten square block area on the google view picture above, there are four. And one about to open. And within a few blocks beyond this map detail, let’s say a five to ten minute walk, there are another six or so.  Almost all are Seven Eleven (called Seven….think about the logo, and if you knew Arabic numbers but not English….you’d call it Seven also) and Family Mart (which in Chinese is 全家, or Quanjia, or Whole Family).  Life revolves around them.  Literally.

They have the usual 7-11 stuff, of course with a local twist.  Noodle bowls galore.  Thousand Year old eggs.  I’ll try one before we leave.  Maybe.  And coffee, beer, etc.  The liquor is right out on the floor.  It’s open alcohol here, carry it with your while drinking (but very few people do).  Want to make copies?  Do that here.  Buy tickets to a baseball game, concert, train tickets, whatever? Go to the ATM looking machine, look up your event (better be able to read Chinese!), and it’ll print a ticket with bar codes.  The clerk will scan that and take your money and print your tickets.  Want to renew your car registration?  Pay your electric or cell phone bill?  No problem.  Ship or receive a package?  Check!  Kristin has bought stuff on line, Amazon like, and at check out you pick which Seven you want it delivered to. There are a few seats if you want to hang out and drink your coffee or eat dinner.  Buy a salad?  Sandwich (with the crusts cut off!!!)?  Got ’em.  A hundred kinds of tea drinks.  Budweiser! (I prefer Taiwan beer….cheap and tasty enough for every day drinking).  Recently, the Family Mart near us (we have a ‘friend’ that works there.  She and I laugh at each other all the time because she speaks no English and I speak almost no Chinese) added a small craft beer selection.

 

Out on Nanjing it’s full on.  People, cars, scooters, shops of all sorts, the subway, scooters, bicycles, scooters.  Watch THIS video. We eat at (or from) the Ba Fang dumpling shop, Formosa Chang (Taiwanese fast food), Sukiya (Japanese fast food), and lots of other places.  The sidewalks are wide.  There are always people out walking or riding bikes.  But more on that (walking around Taipei) in a future post.

There’s one feature of our neighborhood, besides the people here and how they have welcomed us (we’re the only foreigners living around here), that is as cool as cool can be.  Literally 100 meters East of our apartment is Lane 291, which is a traditional market street, about six blocks long.  If you’ve never been to a place with this sort of culture, you have to see it to believe it.  Think of the American Express or Mutual Fund retirement commercials of the Americans wandering thru the market full of colorful stalls full of local stuff sold by colorful local people.  It’s that, but at a very real and local level.  Few tourists would come here. But everyone else does. This is not a hipster farmer’s market, although most of the fresh food was walking around or in the ground or on a tree the day before. The colorful people from those commercials? Nah.  Just us locals, buying what we need for the next few days.

 

 

From about 7am until early afternoon, the street rocks.  People on foot, bikes, scooters, wheel chairs, using canes, old, young.  Buying what they need for that day.  Need a chicken or a duck?  Cooked or raw? Whole or cut up?  Fish? A shirt? Sunglasses (that’s where I got mine).  Fruits and vegetables galore.  We ate a LOT of pineapple when it was in season.  Odd stuff that I sure can’t identify but I suspect is edible.  Chinese herbal stuff. Mushrooms (dried and fresh).  Bread.  Nuts.  Kitchen supplies.  It’s wall to wall.  It’ll take you 15 minutes to walk the six blocks, and to me it’s awesome (unless you’re in a hurry).  I go there just to wander and look.  And then I buy a drink (bamboo juice!  Smoothie!) or some bread or a bunch of bananas.  Or a breakfast thing – scallion pancakes or sesame onion bread, which I have them stuff an egg inside).

 

It quiets down in the mid to late afternoon, and then the night shift takes over.  It’s not a night market by definition, but it’s all about food.  Dumplings, noodles, soup, grilled meat (I ate a chicken heart the other night…no shit…it was quite yummy!).  We get tofu soup, dumplings, sandwiches, etc. all the time.

As we get to know a few people working in the market, they introduce us to more.  One time I went to get dumplings, but Mr. JB (more on him, and his hilarious mom, next post) was out of xiao long bao.  I made a sad face (he doesn’t speak much English).  ‘Oh!  Wait!  Here!’ and he took me to his neighbor’s stall.  They made me a couple interesting sandwiches (baked the bread while I waited) and this egg / thin dough thing that I didn’t order, but they wanted me to try.  They were excited to introduce me to their food.  Now we wave and say ni hao whenever we walk by. If I go out to pick up dinner without Kristin, everyone wants to know where my taitai is.  The chicken heart was a gift from the grilled meat guy that Sam, the spicy tofu guy, introduced us to when we were hanging out one evening.  The onion bread is cooked by Tony, from Mexico, and his Taiwanese wife. I get to speak three languages when I go there!

What are the people like?  The stereotype, which is pretty accurate of most people, is that Taiwanese people are super friendly and helpful (see the examples in the paragraph just above, and THIS blog post).  We’ve certainly met a LOT of these folks.  If we stand on the sidewalk and look around like we’re confused and / or lost, odds are someone will stop and offer help.  We walked out of a Family Mart once, bummed cause the bathroom was broken.  A dude offered to bring us to his apartment to use his.  You can’t make this shit up. Working in the convenience stores are some friendly and helpful folks (we’ve got to know many in the stores closest to us, at least by sight and to say ni hao to).  We first met Sam when he saw us watching a ceremony with interest. He introduced himself, asked where we were from, and then explained what Ghost Festival was about.

Of course there are also the people in service positions that just kind of hate their life and wish they were anywhere else.  And there’s a little bit of xenophobia.  Occasionally Kristin will overhear someone, at the next table or near us on the street or in a shop, grumbling about the dang ‘Waiguo Ren’ (foreigners).  Or even using that word to point us out to someone else or their kids.  We’re not used to being at that end of this attitude.  I believe it’s nothing compared to the reverse situation in the US and don’t let it bother me.  Being me (kinda tall…ahem…and very white), I’m used to being stared at here.  A smile often changes peoples stares to a return smile and a nod of hello.  And they think my attempts to speak Chinese are cute.

I have an ongoing experiment I do in all cities we visit.  I try to catch passing people’s eye, and smile.  In NYC, the usual response is a frown and a ‘yo, you lookin’ at me???’ look.  Other places, there are some returned smiles.  Here, in my very unscientific data analysis, the ratio of returned smiles is higher than most places, especially for such an urban area.  It’s like hyper – Mid West friendliness, but in a big city.

Is Taipei a quaint a beautiful city, you may ask?  Ummm….no, not really, but parts of it are.  The temples range from small plain storefronts to amazingly beautiful buildings, the memorials and parks are beautiful and impressive, and Taipei 101 is, to me, the most beautiful skyscraper I’ve seen in person.  But the rest, well, let’s just say it’s been described as the ‘ugly stepchild’ of East Asia (no offense to step children…).  The newer buildings are fine, but there was a building boom in the 60s or thereabouts, and it’s like ‘what were you thinking?’.  Some examples:

The good (I’ve been to all these places and more):

 

The not so good:

 

 

The last thing I’ll tell you about is safety.  Crime and stuff.  Taiwan is very safe. Extremely safe (unless you’re a foreigner trying to ride a scooter, lol).  In fact, we make jokes about how safe it is.  Violent crime is almost unknown.  Taiwan has the fourth highest safety index (or fourth lowest crime index) in the world, according to one website.  One day we were shopping in a big ass mall (it’s called Living Mall – allegedly the biggest in East Asia – I call it Living Hell Mall, and have managed to avoid it other than this one time) and Kristin left her bag of plunder sitting in a store while we were looking at some stuff.  An hour or so later, she realized this, remembering where she had left it.  We went back, and of course it was still sitting there, on top of some merch, in full view.  Nobody had touched it.  Everyone we’ve talked to has similar stories.  I’ve heard Japan is similar.  I remember Korea as being very safe.

So!  We love it here.  You really should come visit.  We’ve had so many adventures that obviously I haven’t (yet) taken the time to blog about.  Patience, grasshopper.  Patience.

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New Years Eve with Sam

Tiger Mountain Ramble Music Festival

On Dec 8th we attended a very cool music festival, the Tiger Mountain Ramble.  This is the fourth time this yearly fest has happened.  The music was diverse, the weather kinda crappy, and we had a ton of fun, enjoying the music, the scene, the food, and making a few new friends.

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The Ramble happens at the home of the Weiyuan Culture and Art Foundation at their home base on Tiger Mountain.  Tiger Mountain is one of the Four Beasts (along with Elephant, Lion, and Leopard) just South and a bit East of Taipei.  The city literally runs up to their feet.  The story of Tiger Mountain (Smitty’s summary here – with the usual disclaimer about potential lack of accuracy..lol) is that the entire mountain was owned by a company that just left it be.  People squatted, built shacks and temples, and time went on.  Eventually most people were made to leave, and at the site of one of the now abandoned temples, the grand daughter of the company founder started this culture and art foundation.  Her concern was that children in Taipei spent all their learning lives in a classroom, and needed to ‘play in the dirt’ more.  A valid concern in my opinion.  So they made a place where kids could have some outdoor fun, enjoy nature, learn some things, all while following sustainable practices.  For instance, Foundation Board meetings serve only food grown on site.  Kids can come learn about the plants and nature and native art and stuff.  And….best of all…they allow folks like the Tiger Mountain Ramble gang to put on music festivals.

It’s very cool to experience music in an old Daoist Temple.  Here’s the temple in the daytime:

tiger mountain temple

Our taxi driver thought we were nuts wanting a ride up the mountain after dark on a rainy Saturday, but we made it.  The first thing we did was head to the temple and caught the last song by Ryan Cook.  Check out THIS VIDEO, where I pan around the inside of the temple a little.

As it turns out, Ryan is from Canada, and we have a few friends in common.  After his set, and talking with Jayson Limmer (aka Wildcat Tex…more on him in a minute) we hatched a plan to get Ryan some gigs when he was back in Taiwan in January.  That turned into THIS GIG , that Jayson and I hosted at Eddy’s Cantina, a Mexican restaurant, and THIS ONE, that our friend Mark Thomas is hosting at Vinyl Decision, his awesome record shop.

Here are a few pix:

 

The main stage was pure Taiwan….lots of light up video like lights and such.  Check out the Djang San video below to see the stage lighting.  There was food and beer and music and beer and so on.  Redpoint Brewery, our favorite craft beer brewer in Taipei was serving.  There were some arts and crafts booths also.

The music was a great mix of styles on the main stage, the temple stage, and a DJ tent.  Follow the links for some videos I took.  Among the styles were rock (a great Japanese band, Kinemas), swing / jazz (The Flat Fives and The Muddy Basin Ramblers – mostly ex-pats living in Taiwan), Singer Songwriters (Ryan Cook, the Canadian guy who usually winters bumming around East and South East Asia), world music (Djang San, a French guy living in Beijing who plays modern rock / folk arrangements on traditional Chinese instruments, using looping and whatnot).

The crowd was friendly, fairly enthusiastic despite the rain, and happy from the beer.  And there was also the DJs.  DJs are a common thing here, but not just the thumpa thumpa hip hop / rap / whatever type.  There’s a very cool movement of DJs who only spin vinyl.  A lot of it is old rock and roll, but there’s also world beat, african beats, whatever.  We’ve become friends with Jayons Limmer (aka Wildcat Tex). Jayson is an awesome dude who spins only vintage rock 45s.  And he’s got a ton of them.  He’s one of the main vinyl DJs around Taipei, living here with his wife Cathy and two daughters.  Jason and some vinyl fanatics started a Taiwan branch of Vinyl Club, which also exists in Brooklyn.  Once a week they ‘meet’ for a sort of open mic (open record?) someplace in Taipei. Bring your favorite record, and play a side.  And drink, eat, and have fun.  Kristin and I have been to The Palace is Burning a couple of times to listen to Jayson DJ.  It’s at a cool arts / crafts / bar place called The Ivy Palace.  Nick is the Brit that started that place and it’s become one of our favorite haunts in Taipei.

Here’s Tex at work:

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I took a video of all the happy dancers in the rain, including one very beautiful at about 20 seconds of the video, while Tex spun music.  Look HERE.

 

All in all it was a great night!

 

 

An Update, and Very Sad News

I haven’t posted in a while.  There are reasons, among them the death of our dear dog Champ.  If you are on Facebook, you know about this.

Most of this post is about Champ, but the update is this:  I cut short my trip ‘home’ last month (more on that below), I’m taking a Chinese class (Survival Chinese 1), and I’ve made some headway meeting and making friends with local musicians and music industry types (including Joe, a death metal singer and really nice guy, and Jayson aka Wildcat Tex, who DJs, spinning all vintage rock and roll 45s).  Kristin is working her ass off at school.  We have Thanksgiving dinner plans at a local Western style bar called On Tap (turkey!), and will visit Korea for a week after that during Kristin’s semester break (Kim Chee!  Soju!).  Then, in a couple of weeks, the Tiger Mountain Ramble, an outdoor music festival (voted one of the top ten music festivals in East Asia) outside of town, with a second stage in an old temple.  But Champ…..

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Champ was my best friend, wing man, buddy.  To say he kept me alive and going when Gerry died is an understatement.  His daily presence and love have seen me thru.

And he proved to be a very good wing man…I mean, Kristin.  I have no doubt that my having such a good dog was part of her attraction to me.

Champ was one of the great dogs.  We had an amazing run together.  He has friends all over the country in the musicians that have stayed with us over the years.  He was a well traveled dog. We put over 100,000 miles on the road together in our first two years being alone together. And he was about to become an international traveler.

 

Champ could not accompany us to Taiwan at first.  There is a requirement that he pass a rabies test more than 180 days before he traveled.  Why the heck it’s MORE THAN is a mystery, but 180 days before we came here, we didn’t know we would come here.  So, he was living with my sister (the most awesome sister in the history of sisters) Jann in Kansas until he was eligible to come to Taiwan.  He was comfortable and happy there.  We had spent a lot of time there over the years, and Jann’s dog Suki and he are buds.

Two days before I flew home to bring Champ to Taiwan, he died very suddenly.  It was unexpected, sudden, quick and tragic.  It was Saturday night here.  Kristin and I had been at the Taipei Museum of Fine Art, and were having a beer at Three Lions (a wanna be British pub…it’s decent) when my sister made the call that nobody wants to make. We will be forever in her debt for taking such good care of The Champster when we weren’t able to.

We took a cab home and got drunk.  What can I say.  We had Jann on the phone for a long while, taking solace together, telling Champ stories.  Nathan Bell (Champ’s funny uncle) interrupted his overseas tour to install Skype on his phone and call me.  It was so hard.

The next day, Kristin suggested we go to a temple and light some incense for Champ.  It’s a Buddhist / Daoist thing to do.  We did that for her grandpa when he passed while we were here.  There’s a very nice temple just up the road, near the Roahe night market. Songshan Ciyou Temple.  I think it’s the ‘main’ one for our part of the city.  Certainly a big one.

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Weren’t we surprised when the businesses nearby all had offerings out front (they’ll put offerings, anything from bags of chips to nice flower arrangements, on a table in front of their business on special days.  I guess God likes food, and this will make her happy and help their business succeed). There was a big crowd gathered outside the temple.  Sure looked like a parade was gonna happen.

 

In a way this made us a little nervous.  Was it OK to go inside and light incense when they obviously had a special event happening?  Would we be intruding?  We really don’t want to be ‘those’ foreigners.  We watched the crowd gather for a minute, and Kristin gave me a shove and said ‘I’ll follow you inside’.  Sure, send the giant American in first.  In fact, we were made very welcome.

Inside there’s a big altar up front, and it was the focus of a lot of attention and people praying.  We went to the ‘office’ to the side to get some incense – big sticks of incense.  The lady there was very friendly and helpful.  I asked how much it cost, and she pointed to a donation slot.  Got it, in goes the cash.  Then she came out and showed us how to light our incense.  It’s as if she knew we were newbies at this.  Ahem.  They are set up for business…a row of burners, each with an on / off knob.  Click, whoosh, fire.  Light your incense, turn it off.  Move on.  This is a busy place!

We perused the row of smaller altars (that’s my word) along the side of the temple.  We left a stick or two at a couple of them (hold it between your hands in a praying position, bow a few times, say what you want to that God, and plant the stick in the urn of sand).

An aside about Temple Guardian Lions.  They are out front of all temples.  Two of them.  They are in paintings in museums, people have mini figurines in their shops and probably homes, and they are a big part of Chinese culture.  They keep out anything bad.  They are protectors.  They don’t really look fierce. In fact, they look kinda playful, but I wouldn’t mess with them.  And they have always, since Kristin first started taking me to Chinese material culture exhibits in the many museums we’ve been to, reminded us of Champ.  They do look a little dog like, especially since traditionally, one of the two will have a ball in it’s mouth (not that Champ fetched balls, but it seems more dog like than lion like to me).  The pictures below are from a temple in Tainan.  On the left is the male.  His ball is next to him, not in his mouth.  The one on the right is the female, and that’s a cub in front of her.

 

Back to the temple. We still had some incense left and were wondering what to do next when a young man came up to us and in broken English showed us a side room where he said ‘there are more Gods in here’.  Hey, Champ’s spirit is someplace, and I’m happy to ask any Gods that will listen to help look after him.  What we found in that room was an altar for temple guardian lions!  I didn’t take a picture…it didn’t seem like the right time, but we spent some time in there.  And have gone back since.

Something seemed to be lining up, with the friendly, welcoming people, a big event, the lions.  As we were leaving, and lighting a candle or two at another spot, the lady came out from behind the counter and gave us an offering to use. It looked like a piece of cake, wrapped in plastic.  Kristin figured out there was a table to leave offerings on for the temple lions, so we left it there.  Maybe the spirit of that cake found it’s way to Champ…he was always hungry.

But it got even better.  We went out front to enjoy the ‘parade’.  Basically, God was out and about…actually, three Gods were out, in their ‘sedans’.  Fancy mini-temples on wheels.  They were making their way to the temple to go back inside (this procession is what looked like a parade to me).  Each God is a statue.  But, before God goes inside, the Temple Guardian Lions have to make sure it’s safe. Oh, and even before that, let’s light off a ton of fire crackers. Not little ones, either.  Imagine a long string of M-80s.  That’s to scare away anything evil, and it’s also really really cool.

So, the lions.  There were four guys dressed up as the two lions.  Imagine the dragon costumed dancers you’ve seen on TV shows about Chinese New Year.  They were on each others shoulders.  They were both on the ground.  They danced. The jived.  They looked around, acting fierce.  Eventually, they went inside.

 

Take a minute and watch THIS VIDEO.  I pan over to first one ‘sedan’, and later, the other.  Pay attention at about 41 seconds…I love it when the one lion, just before going into the temple, turns his head and clicks his jaws at us.

It must have been safe, because after that, each God in turn was lifted out of their sedan and carried inside, to a lot of cheering and hoopla.  Here’s one of them, dressed up in a gold robe:

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The whole thing was surreal, and cathartic. We didn’t plan this trip.  It’s about a 20 minute walk, and was a nice day.  We happened to arrive as the ceremony was happening.  Or, we were meant to arrive then.  Either way, it was very special and a big part of our grieving process.  I don’t feel like a religious person. I don’t belong to a church.  There’s something about the way religion is so integrated with life over here that intrigues me.  It’s not a Sunday thing.  It’s not standardized, it’s a big mish mash of Buddhist and Daoist (Taoist) and local folk beliefs and culture.  A given temple is difficult to classify as one or the other.  They each have elements of all of the above.  And they are everywhere.  Small store front ones in the middle of neighborhoods, big ones like I reference in this post. And people stop in to pray or hang out whenever they feel the need or want.  I intend to learn more about how all this works, and will write more for you as I learn.

Last weekend we went back and lit some more incense.  Then we went to the night market and got pork pepper buns.  ‘Our’ night market (Raohe – pronounced Rah Oh Huh, which is fun to say, especially the Huh at the end – it’s ‘ours’ because we can walk there in 15 to 20 minutes), which is right outside ‘our’ temple, has the BEST pork pepper buns.  Read about them HERE.  Actually, that article is about the super popular big pork pepper bun stand.  We go to the little stand nearby but off to the side, with only one cooker.  Maybe they’re even better, maybe the same.  But the lady there knows us (yes, they really ARE addicting…we go all the time) and she’s always happy to see us and vice versa.  For some reason she remembers the two of us from among all her customers….huh.

After the first temple trip and the big event, I flew home the next morning. It was hard to leave Kristin in the midst of our grief.  The timing of the flight TO Michigan was to attend the Folk Alliance Region Midwest conference in Grand Rapids.  It went well, despite my jet lag and grief.  Champ has been a big part of this conference for several years.  He often roamed free, entertaining and being entertained (meaning fed…).  Champ was supposed to attend with me.  They put a memorial post on the FARM website for him and a lot of hugs were waiting for me.

But after that, I felt kind of lost.  The house was too big and lonely.  There were a lot of things to get done, but as soon as I took a break from ‘stuff’, I got anxious.  Anxiety is not fun.  So, I spent an hour on the phone with Delta, and moved my return flight up a couple of weeks.  There was no sense staying.  Home is where the heart is, and without Champ, right now that’s Taiwan.  I keep thinking of all the parks I had mapped out to take him to, how much he would enjoy the markets.  New smells, new friends. We chose our apartment because it’s dog friendly, which is not easy to find over here.  So we remember the good times with my little buddy, light some incense once in a while, and carry on.

Enjoy every sandwich (and pork pepper bun), everyone.  Rub someones tummy today.

Smitty & Champ and hand heart

BASEBALL!

Super typhoon Trami was kind enough to swerve North (look out Japan!) before getting to Northern Taiwan.  Even so, we expected a lot of rain and wind last weekend.  Instead, the weather cooled off, the rain stopped, and Saturday night we went to a Fubon Guardians baseball game.

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First, some details.  The Fubon Guardians (Fubon is a big financial holding company) used to be the Jungo Bears, then the Sinon Bulls and until 2016 the EDA Rhinos.  Apparently name changes are a little more common over here.  They play in the Chinese Professional Baseball League.  The first half of this season they finished third.  This half they’ll finish fourth.  Of four teams.  Ahem.  But we love our home team!  They play at a stadium with about 12,000 seats, Xinzhuang Stadium.

Our starting pitcher was an American, Mike Loree.  He played 4 games of AA ball in the US, nothing higher.  The other team (The Uni-President Seven Eleven Lions…called the Uni Lions, and yes, owned by the company that has the 7-11 franchise here, along with Mister Donut – awesome smoothies, fyi, Starbucks – the same, and Carrefour, our hyper-market of choice), their pitcher was Andy Van Hekken, from Holland, MI.  He played part of a year with the Tigers, but never stuck very long in the majors.  Both are in their late 30s.  Apparently this is where aging American pitchers go to….age.  I think you could do a lot worse!

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In fact, Manny Ramirez of the Boston F’ing Red Sox played for the EDA Rhinos a while back after he couldn’t play MLB anymore.  Apparently he was very popular.  I coulda set them straight on his checkered past, playing for such a team of losers (winning losers, granted, but still) and taking steroids.  But this Yankee fan digresses.

The Guardian’s, like many minor league teams in the US, have two mascots.  The primary one is Frankie, and looks like, well, a guardian of something or other.  Or a knight with a ball bat instead of a sword.  His partner is Bonnie.  I’m not sure what she’s supposed to look like, but she’s cute and dances well.  I think they’d get along with the Big Lug and Ratchet.  As they should, they sing and dance and cheer:

But all that’s not the best part.  Have you ever seen video of Japanese baseball, how fanatical the fans are, singing, cheering, constantly?  It’s the same thing here.  Most people have percussive devices….thunder sticks, small bats, megaphone like plastic things, or just their hands.  Every strike thrown (including foul balls with two strikes, because….we like to cheer!) has a three bar clapping / smashing your bats together ‘song’.  And the third bar is completely different than the first two.  I struggled….I think I got the rhythm down by the 8th inning.   And then, its a different pattern when we get a guy out.  It’s not an easy job, being a fan at these games.  But I did my best.

When the home team’s up, it’s constant noise.  Most players have their own song.  Not the one they play as they come to bat, I mean the one we sing.  It has their name in it.  It’s about them.  And how wonderful they are.  And we sing it THE WHOLE TIME THEY ARE AT BAT.  OVER AND OVER AGAIN.  If out batter works a full count and fouls a few off….we sing a long time!  Shen Hao-Wei’s song includes the lines (very loosely interpreted…)  “Who’s number three?  He’s number three!  He’s the best number three!  Shen Hao-Wei’s number three!  3 3 3.”

WordPress wants extra money for the privilege of uploading video. But not YouTube!  So, go HERE and you can experience Hu Chin-Lung’s song.  It was one of our favorites.  And HERE is another guys song.  I forget his name, but it’s an easy song to sing along with.  The lyrics are on the scoreboard.  Helpful…if you read Chinese.

Cheerleaders line the tops of both dugouts the entire game.   Crazed fans stand in the aisles dancing and cheering. Both adults and little kids. One little kids mom came and took away his megaphone basher things.  CRUEL!  He didn’t care, he just stood and danced and yelled and clapped. In the home half of the 7th we stand.  And sing and cheer and clap.  The entire inning.  Standing.  Cheering.  Singing.  We cheer routine catches, hits, runs (pandemonium when we score), outs, anything the home team does is worth making noise about.

You know me…I joined in all this.  Enthusiastically.  But there was one instance where I was alone in supporting our team.  Our batter got a hit, and when rounding first ran into the first baseman.  Obstruction!  Obviously.  But it wasn’t called. I yelled at the ump….maybe something about his need for glasses, I don’t know.  It came naturally.  I was supporting our team!  But I was the only one.  Then one of Fubon’s coaches came out and argued with the ump.  They went at it! The name on our coach’s jersey was Chen.  “Give him hell, Chen!” I yelled.  Loudly.  Again, supporting our team.  But apparently not in the way a typical polite Taiwanese fan supports their team.  Oh well.  I suspect everyone had already figured out that there was a giant American among them….and they really knew after that.  lol.

Here’s a shot of the fanatics standing and cheering in our aisle (that’s the kid with his bats, before mom took them away and he found the megaphones – he must have been stealing them from his siblings or something), and a long shot of the visitors fans in the outfield (they had a band and gave it a good shot).

The food was good, prices reasonable.  We had a good dinner (I had a hot dog with corned beef on it….Reuben Dog!! – see pic below – Kristin had a chili cheese dog, we shared tater tots) and a few beers for about $25.  Tickets were about $15 each. I brought one beer in, and Kristin brought in a salad.  Our appetizers.  No problem bringing your own food and drinks.

Oh, and we won.  The cheerleaders and mascots and fans sand and danced for a long time after the game.  We were walking out…they were still going.  Maybe they are still there.  Singing.  Dancing.  Cheering.  For #3.  The season’s over now (not playoffs for us!), but you can be sure we’ll be back in the spring.

Here are a few other pics, including Kristin with one of the Guardian’s licensed fans.  Oy.  And our pennant.  Yup, with that same licensing deal.  She’s now on the wall, encouraging Kristin in her studies.  I think I get good-fiance bonus points for that one.  And yes, that’s my Derek Jeter day shirt I got with Nunu a few years ago.

 

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Kristin’s study mascot…

The Palace Museum (and a history lesson)

A few weeks ago we visited the Palace Museum.  As you can see below, I wore my Tom Mason shirt.  Why a shirt from a musician whose band is The Blue Buccaneers, playing pirate themed songs?  Well…read on and I’ll explain.

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Here’s some ‘Smitty’s History 101’.  Detailed accuracy is NOT promised, but I think the gist of what I say is good enough.  Way back when, mainland China was ruled by various dynasties.  Then, about a hundred years ago, the last one (The Qing) was overthrown, and The Republic Of China (ROC) was formed.  Before WWII, the Communists started trying to take over.  Eventually they did, forming the People’s Republic of China (PRC), led by Mao Tzu-Dong.  Just after WWII, the last of the ROC folks, led by Chiang Kai Shek (CKS), fled (strategically retreated was their term for the event) to Taiwan.  And here we are.  This is basically the root of all the Taiwan / China tension, and the crux of the biscuit over here – is Taiwan part of China, or an independent country.  The answer is….sorta.

But, pirates.  Why pirates?  Because…when Mao was taking over, he taught that everything old was bad.  And he and his minions were destroying a serious amount of material culture.  So on his way out of town, CKS grabbed as much as he could, and brought it to Taiwan.  Did he steal it?  Did he save it?  It’s all a matter of perspective, but to me it seems kinda piratical.  Loading ships with booty, taking it across the sea (OK, the straight…).   And now most of it is at The Palace Museum. Yeah, I like to think of CKS as a Chinese pirate.  And Tom Mason is my favorite musical pirate, so I made sure to wear his shirt.

There is a serious amount of historical Chinese material culture on view in this museum.   It’s amazing!  I have to say, if you could only go one place in Taiwan, well, that would be a damn shame.  But, you’d have to go here.

 

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Some of the booty.  These guys are probably 500 years old (not that old Kristin says…).  The statues, not us.

 

 

They had some great exhibits on scroll type painting from Shanghai about a hundred years ago.  The glazed pottery is an ancient cupholder.  I hear that no matter how many cupholders they put in the carriages, people still complained there weren’t enough, and their favorite tea cup didn’t fit properly.  That stone carving of the piece of braised pork (makes me hungry…braised pork with that nice layer of fat on top…OMG) is one of the most popular items in the museum.

 

 

There are a lot of historical documents on display.  And I’m sure a ton more in storage.  Being an Art Historian, Kristin needs to understand the societal context of the material culture (art) that she studies.  So reading these old docs is important – they are source material.  And the dynastic Chinese wrote stuff down.  Like everything.  Official records included accounts of every day happenings (someone built a new cistern…yay!) to big happenings (we got a new emperor today….can’t find the old one, not sure where he went.  Ahem).  One of the reasons we are here in Taiwan is to further her ability to read this old stuff.  Me, I’m glad the exhibits are partly in English!  I can say hello and thank you in Chinese…not much more.

 

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Last but not least….one more story.  When I was traveling in Korea about 10 years ago, I had a few adventures exploring cultural sites and whatnot.  One thing I learned is that the Buddha’s that they make statues of hold their hands in a very specific way.  I think you can identify which Buddha it is by their hands and how they are posed.  I found one that I really really really liked, and have been searching ever since to find another example of that particular Buddha.  I asked Kristin about it, and she didn’t know which one I meant.  But at The Palace Museum, I found him!  Here is a picture of my favorite Buddha…I call him….’Pull My Finger Buddha’.

Walking along the Keelung River

Near our house is a large river that winds along the North side of Taipei City, the Keelung.  Often I go walking there.  Most of both banks are parkland with a walking / biking path. From it’s closest point to us, a half dozen blocks, you can head North (and then West around the city airport) or East.

Kristin and I walked North soon after we moved in.  That part of the river isn’t so nice.  There’s trash along the shore, some dead fish, and if you get down close to the water it’s kinda stinky (we call this part the Stinky Keelung).  There is a big bridge (in the distance in the pic below) and under it several old dudes hang out playing their saxophones.  I’ll get a picture next time I go that way.  Further there’s a huge dog park.  When Champ’s here, maybe we’ll take a taxi up there (it’s about 3 miles up the river).

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In this pic above you can see the river, and the mountains that are most of the way around Taipei.

To the East, things are a little nicer.  I’ve done a couple of 10km walks in the mornings.  It’s hard…often it is stupid hot here.  Right now, for instance, it’s 9am, 92 degrees, and the ‘apparent’ temp is already 110 deg F.  I was going to walk, because it was supposed to be cloudy today.  But it’s sunny.  Doing ANYTHING outside when it’s sunny and feels like 110 degrees is just stupid.  So, I’ll sit here and write and hope for either a cooler or at least cloudy morning this week so I can convince myself to walk.

Here are some pix of the river to the East:

The entire river is flood controlled, with walls along either side.  There are stairs at frequent intervals (visible in the pic above, and one below) so you can get in and out.  There are flood control gates every so often.  Some open so that a car or people can get thru, but can be closed for a flood.