Saturday, April 3, 2010

how to walk down a mountain

Easter morning. The day before Tomb Sweeping day.
Tomorrow is Tomb Sweeping day. It is a national holiday. It is a Monday. I don't have to work tomorrow. That feels so good. Two days of sleep.
It is raining now. It wasn't this morning. This morning was stone grey, and I took a walk.
There is a path up a small mountain, the entrance to the path is only a few blocks from my door. The "mountain" is maybe only 1500 feet. I don't really know. It doesn't seem too high. I've done it before, and on a clear day you can see Taipei, 15 miles away. Today I couldn't see past the green of the trees on either side of the road. The fog was rolling in quickly, even mingling with my own breath, though it wasn't cold , when I exhaled, I could see my breath. The climb was steep but entirely paved, like a street, what my grandpa used to call "Mac Adams", what we call "street".
I was at the top in less than 40 minutes. There if found a small park that housed a giant bell. You cannot ring the bell. It is not suspended. It is resting on a platform.
I imagined if a giant came along and picked up the bell, he could fit fifteen people in it and shake us up like dice, then roll us down the mountain.
There were other people on the mountain, some families, some individuals, taking their Sunday constitutionals. I noted with some curiosity on my way up that quite a few people were coming down the mountain backwards.

Going up a mountain is always the easy part for me. Coming down is the hard part. If I'm not petrified with fear (this mountain was nothing to fear) then I'm pained by my left knee (it's shot, 29 years old and I'm falling apart). Going down hurts the knee. At some points of descent the road grade was about 65 degrees! Pretty steep. I decided to try my hand at the backwards thing.

If you ever wanted to make an annoying walk down a mountain an epiphany, just turn around.
First, something to do with body mechanics, the pain in my knee, gone.
Then is the perspective. My mind was confused, as my eyes took in the flowers and palm trees and spider webs laying themselves in front of me, in reverse, my brain took a while to adjust. There was a slight lag time between experience and understanding, reception. My body, my feet my legs my swinging arms, were jubilant and giddy with gravity's gentle tug against unfamiliar muscles. It was beautiful.
The mountain got higher as I went lower.
Somewhere in the middle of the mountain I heard a rooster crow, then his cocky friend answer. I listened to their conversation until I got a bit lower.
Then on the fingers of the fog were bleats of a trumpet. I thought it was an auditory acid jazz hallucination.
It got stronger. It was either an expert avant garde artist playing or a beginner learning, but unmistakably, someone somewhere on the mountain had lips against a trumpet and was playing something that was beautiful, and raw.
There was a primordial screech of a bird. I looked up. It was a navy blue bird. It had a long tail, that was cut with white stripes. It was bigger than the red winged black birds that used to taunt me along the marshes of Stone Harbor Boulevard but I began to notice that these birds lined the road on either side of the road down the mountain. Had they been multicolored and born of fire, I would have sworn they were Phoenixes.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


There was a 6.4 earthquake this morning near Taitung in the southern part of the island at 8:20 this morning.

My friend emailed me to tell me about it.

Didn't feel a thing.

Usually my bed vibrates or something. It feels kinda nice. But at that time I was walking to work. As far as I know, there was no trouble in SanShia.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


They're eating me alive. My kindergartners have changed. Since they returned from their winter vacation they have become ornery, lackadaisical, maniacal schmucks. Even the good ones, the sweet little round five year old girls, got the memo which I can only assume read "Teacher Helen is a loud pinata". They stomp on me. They ignore me. During story time I read an over-sized story book. It is so big that I have to stand up and hold it with both hands. Stanley thought it would be funny to pull down my fly. Austin thought it would be funny to eat the art supplies, and three girls decided to leave and take a walk around the school.

In better news:
I HAVE A CHINESE TUTOR!!!!!! She is Taiwanese. I meet her on Wednesdays in Taipei where she lives. Today was our first lesson. We first grabbed a bite at a dumpling shop. Then we went to little cafe that she'd been wanting to try. We walked in and there was some Taiwanese music playing. We sat down and they put on the Abba CD. Ok. They were trying to make me comfortable, I understand, but on it's second go around I looked at Vita (my tutor), she understood and asked them to change the music.
I can't wait till I can ask people to change the music.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Ping xi Lantern festival

Chinese New Year is a moon based holiday, so at the first new moon of the year people party. They're given time off and spend it surrounded by friends and extended family. This is the time of year with the highest rates of domestic violence.
Fifteen days later, at the full moon is the Lantern Festival. There is only one place in Taiwan to really know what the lantern festival is all about. It is Ping xi. Sure there is a town near Tainan that celebrates lantern festival by bus-ing in thousands of people and giving them fire crackers to throw at each other (fire retardant clothing is recommended), but while I have not experienced that, I don't think it could ever compare to the beauty and light of Ping xi.
The week before the lantern festival, Ashley and I began making plans. The area surrounding Ping xi has the highest concentration of waterfalls in Taiwan and the widest waterfall on the island. It is mountainous and from the summit of some mountains you can see the ocean. I told my students I wanted to go. They warned me. It will be very crowded. So we planned to leave early and buy an all day train pass so we could get on and off the train and do a little hiking around each stop. In the morning at the main train station in Taipei,we bought our tickets. We asked the man for an all day pass on the Ping xi line, "duo tien" (all day). He thought we said "jiuo dien"-(9:00). We boarded the 9:00 AM train.
According to the guide book, lanterns would be launched after sundown every 20 minutes. The train was packed tighter than a can of mackerel. We feared we wouldn't be able able to get back on the train if we got off and explored , so we decided just to ride it out all the way to Ping xi. We arrived a little after 10Am.
We walked around the town. Every where there were people selling lanterns. We ate some food. I ordered two cold dishes. One was shredded bamboo in a flavorless orange oil. The other was a cold meat dish. Thin slices of smoked meat with a raw texture, marinated in a light oil, some vinagre, garlic, chives and ginger. And a hot bowl of noodles with chunks of yam and bean sprouts with a brown sauce. The sauce had no salt, maybe it was some kind of nut based sauce but it was not sesame or peanut. I can't identify it yet. But tasty.
Refreshed, we looked around us. The town is a small mountain town. It was swarming with day- tripping youths, groups of bicycle enthusiasts, families. A man-made river cut through it. An old woman was fishing. From above her where I stood on the street, I watched the shallow dingy water as she whipped it with her rod. The river was filled with fish because I could see the silver flashes of their bodies as they leaned skyward then disappeared. Ping xi is a town of tiers and on this day it was capped by a grey sky. It is surrounded by green mountains. The streets are laid on steep hills. Some buildings are on higher hills then others. The train runs along the ridge of some of the hills in the middle of the town. There are shops and homes that flank the train tracks and a railroad bridge to span the gaps between the hills. There are shops and homes that flank all the narrow streets. Some wind under the train, some are above the river, some open onto it. Some homes cut into the hills, some sit at their feet. This used to be a coal mining town. It was in its prime 50, 70 years ago. Now there is nothing but cabbage and lanterns. There is no 7-11. There is no Family Mart, High Life or OK mart. There is nothing of the sort. There is no McDonalds. No Starbucks. For an entire day I forgot I was in Taiwan and thought I was in Taiwan. That is not a type-o.
We climbed up a mountain. We read in the guide book there was a trail that led to an abandoned mining site. We found a trail that was marked with some English labels which looked promising. One trail said it lead to "Disused Office" "Disused House" and "Disused Tunnel". We figured that had to be the mine. We got lost. We climbed ropes bolted into the sides of mountains and trekked up narrow stairs that were chiseled into the soft sandstone. Yes, when we reach the summit of one of the peaks I thought I was going to die. I don't have a head for heights and that's an understatement. But I was well rewarded when I dared myself to look out at the valley and the little town of Ping xi below. Even though it was still daylight people were launching lanterns.
The lanterns are made of waxy tissue paper. When filled with hot air they are about 5 feet tall and three feet in diameter. First you pick your color. Each color has a specific meaning. Orange is money. Yellow is to find a good mate. There were red lanterns, white, blue, purple and some were two colors and even three. Then with a big marker or a caligraphy brush you write on the lantern. You write your wishes for the new year and then say something nice to the gods. Of course some people deviate from tradition. I saw one that had a drawing of Snoopy and another that said, in English, "I'm going to killing you!". A wad of oil soaked ghost money is fastened to a ring at the bottom of the lantern. It takes at least two people to light a lantern because one has to hold up the paper while the other person lights the ghost money. Then wait. One minute, maybe two. The lantern puffs up and begins to rise and then you can let go. It floats like a bubble with a soul of fire. If done correctly, your lantern should fly up to the heavens where the gods can read your requests. If the gods reject you, your lantern will catch fire and fall to the ground.
I saw hundreds of hopes and dreams go up in flames. I saw hundreds more "disused lanterns" littering the streets, the river banks, the parks, the rooftops, looking like so many "disused condoms".
This is REALLY REALLY dangerous. INSANELY so. People shot their lanterns off from anywhere they pleased with out regard to power lines, population, buildings, trees, traffic.....
Some people stood on the railroad bridge (40 feet off the ground, not cement and steel bridge, just naked railroad ties and air) and launched their lanterns in the face of approaching trains. Many were caught in telephone wires. Some were pushed too aggressively by rogue gusts of wind and suddenly caught fire, falling into a crowd of thousands. And this is Taiwan, so everyone was packing fireworks. All kinds were popping incessantly.
Despite the trash and the danger and the crowds (which I tactfully managed to avoid by watching everything from a slightly precarious perch on the railroad tracks) this is a beautiful festival, breathtaking. After dark when the group launches began it was like watching one hundred giant fireflies float over the mountains. And because it was overcast, the lanterns replaced the stars.

Monday, February 22, 2010

shooting things

I bought a gun. A little pistol. An Infinity G.o58A AIRSOFT gun. It came with little plastic pellets. On the box it says, "Our company will not be responsible for trouble caused by misusing or remodelling (two 'l's) with the gun." I tried "remodelling" my apartment with it last night. Now my wall is riddled with little holes. I finally deciphered the meaning of the warning label. What it is meant to say is, "Please buy ball bearings and turn this into a bee-bee gun". Yes!

Back at school. The kindergarten class has a set daily schedule. Exercise Time. Sharing Time. Snack Time. English Time. Fun Time. Lunch Time.
Every day at Fun Time I have to think of another arts and crafts project for them. I've been wracking my brain for ideas. What can I do with these kids to encourage growth of their fine motor skills and drive their future teachers into early retirement? Paper airplanes. check. Paper bangers. check. Tracing leaves. check, but there are no autumn leaves here, I had to use strange tropical leaves. Paper footballs. on the list. Paper fans. check.
This morning I had a memory which inspired today's project. When I was 8 or 9 years old my mother went on a trip to Florida with my sister Julia. This left my sister Kate to mind myself and my younger brother. She took us to the video store and let us pick out a couple of movies. She gave us a bag of chips and 2 liters of cola. She took my brother up to the family room, made sure we were nice and cozy and safe. Then she told us not to come downstairs on pain of death. Maybe she was 16 years old.
After watching the Disney Robin Hood cartoon 3 times my brother and I were getting antsy. We fashioned some crude bows and arrows with cardboard, pencils and rubber bands. We made little paper hats and quivers and loaded them with ammunition. Pencils, twigs, anything. Prepared for battle we sneaked down stairs and we could hear music and people talking. We greeted my sister and her friends with a shower of pencils. It was epic. The battle lasted all of 30 seconds until we discovered the dragon had gotten loose (our rottweiler, Scarlett) and bit one of my sister's friends on the buttocks.
Anyway. I remember how much I loved my bow. Today I brought rubber bands, cardboard and popsicle sticks to class. The kids went wild. They loved their lethal machines. Everyone still has their eyeballs and everyone's bow is different. My Chinese homeroom teacher, Joan, started taking video. If she shows the video to anyone I'll probably be fired.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

It is Sunday. It is a beautiful day. The sun is shining on the mountains, on the buildings, on everyone's smiles, on the mounds of wet spent firecracker tubes. The rain has been unrelenting since Friday a week ago, since the first day of vacation. Tomorrow I have to go to work. This is a mean trick to usher in the year of the tiger. There is an expression "Dragon moves, Tiger changes". I don't know what it means but I can sense profundity there.

The rain did nothing to stop the revelry. Firecracker Pops and Pows and drums and horns and sounds of singing were as constant as the rain. Last night the rain stopped.The noise, it reached a fever pitch. Around 11 o'clock I left my apartment. It was too loud to think in my cell, I thought I could better cope with the noise if I were in the crowds. I wandered the streets of Sanshia. At such a late hour the streets are usually empty. Shops closed up. Wilted vegetable debris from the market gathered in the gutter. Maybe an old woman carrying a bag of tin cans some where and a pack of stray dogs but that is all the life prowling at night. Last night it was a different town. As I got closer to the temple I was swept up in the throng. Riding the crowd like riding the monorail at Disney World. Look left : a man with a microphone in front of a wall of toy cars and airplanes hawking his wares. Look right: Girls in cow suits playing with their mobile phones and selling icecream. Left: two South Indian men rolling dumplings. Right: a man selling leather belts, first he dips them in butane then he lights them on fire. Left: Biam! Pow! Watch out for those fire crackers! Right: A man sucking on a sausage on a stick. Right: A group of women poking their skewers into a warm greasy bag of mushroom nuggets. Left: candy coated cherry tomatoes on a stick. Right: a silhouetted group of little girls running through the crowd with sparklers. Walk up to the pedestrian bridge. From there I could see scores of little boys on the river banks shooting off fireworks. I stood and watched. I watched lovers stroll by with their hands on each others confections, cotton candy, candied strawberries, candied squid. I walked across the bridge. In the center of a bridge stood some police. they roped off a bit of the bridge. I looked into the roped off area. No bodies, no people, just a couple spent boxes of fire works and and..some thing wet. A pool of wet. Red wet. No juice containers nearby, no bottles of beer, just a massive pond of blood. I walked faster.

I came home and passed out.
Earlier that day I'd walked to the neighboring town, to Yingge and I went to the ceramics museum. They had more toilets on display then the the HomeDepot. But it was a beautiful museum. Some eclectic labeling system and strange organizing but a great space.

Ashley had already been to the museum with her Judge earlier in the week.
Ashley has a Judge now. One early morning when she was at the gym for her swim she met Judge T. He struck up on conversation with her. He is in his 60s. He studied at Harvard when Ford was president of the US. He invited her to lunch. Since then they have had lunch and dinner and hikes and hotsprings around the northern part of the island. He always picks up the tab and hasn't made any romantic advances. It is still hard for me to believe but there is a little part of me that says, here, a lonely man of means just wants to have a friend. He has children but they are grown and live away, he has a wife but we still haven't found out where she is. He's picked a good friend to have in Ashley and she learns a lot about the island and its people from her adventures with him. So for now it is win win.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Nothing like an early morning kill to get your day going. Like a strong cup of coffee. 8:30AM walking into work. "Teacher Helen! Teacher Peggy has show you!" "OK" I hand over the giant box of cookies I grabbed from the Family Mart as a New Years offering for the staff. I go upstairs to the kindy area. There are kids sleepily playing. They take me into the kitchen area.

This is the domain of Auntie (all older women are called Auntie here). Auntie is a large woman. She usually speaks Taiwanese so I can't understand anything she says. In between meals of overcooked greens, overcooked rice and boiled fishballs that she prepares for the children, she runs a noodle stand in Yinko with her husband. I would never cross this woman. She has short pythons for arms, hair like Medusa and a bosom that could swallow several children in my class if they ever dared to get close enough. I went into the kitchen and Auntie was cowering in the corner along with several of the other teachers. A brave teacher took me to the back of the kitchen. She showed me a glue trap on which lay a twitching rat. "Are you scared?" they asked. In Chinese I told them "wo mayo pa" I have no fear. (of course I was lying but I knew the torture these women were capable of. last time they caught one it was night time and I was teaching an evening class. I could hear screams and then a teacher ran into my class and told me to stay inside. Later I asked what was going on and they told me they caught a rat and the were pouring boiling water on it. Considering the screams from the teachers lasted for a good 10 minutes I can only assume they hot waterboarded Mickey for that long.) I told them, "I got it. I need some newspaper." "We get hot water!" said Teacher Dolly. "No!" I said. "Hot water is eee eeee eee. aaahhh aaha aaah. Longtime. not good. I take. 'thwap'. easy OK?" OK. (The kindy teachers speak about as much English as I speak Chinese. I wrapped the glue trap in newspaper and a little cardboard. I put it in a bag. I took it outside and give it a good stomp.
I went back inside a hero.

Today is Chinese New Years Eve. It is the turning of the year 4707, or 4706 or 4646 or whatever. The Chinese lunar calendar year is different depending on who you ask. It doesn't matter any way since here in Taiwan everyone knows the year is 99. They started counting from the founding of the Republic in 1911.
My students sometimes date their work 99. I tell them "English is the future, it is 2010". I don't really say that. I don't wish I did either but it is still funny.

So, what do you do for Chinese New Year?
I had to teach a song to my kids and it goes like this:
"I am so happy so happy so happy
I get to eat some dumplings
I am so lucky so lucky so lucky
I get to eat some candy
We need to clean the house
I get to help decorate
And we need to make a big dinner
For Chinese New Year!"
1-dumplings: people eat dumplings 24-7 here. No big deal.
2-Lucky Candy. It is wrapped in gold. It is made to look like the gold ingots used in ancient china, like our gold candy doubloons only these look like dumplings or boats. I ate some lucky candy. It tasted like pulverized driftwood and molasses.
3-Clean the house. This is the time to clean the house. Sweep out all the bad luck, clean out all the ghosts. This is the best time for street scavengers because all the old furniture and doodads come out onto the street. I've heard the trash truck music constantly for the past three days. All businesses do a major cleaning now. My school is cleaning. It needs it.
4-Decorations. This is serious. Everything that isn't nailed down has red banner with writing hung on it. Lanterns are strung up on all the streets. Because I live in Sanshia and the Tzushi temple is here things are especially festive. This is one of the most important temples in the Chinese world. A giant arch has been erected near the street entrance to the temple. it is two stories high and made of red and gold cray paper. Sometime this week they will take the 4 fattest pigs from the mountains and slaughter them in front of the temple. They they will blow them up. Or something. I don't know exactly what will happen but I'm gonna be there to watch it. It is the last animal sacrifice ritual in Taiwan. Officially.
5-Make a big dinner. People get the week off here. Banks, government buildings, schools, even my sweatshop of an English bushiban are closed. Everyone goes back to their towns of origin to hang out with their families. If they are from the south they go south, same goes for north, east and west. When they get there they begin to eat. They eat all week. First they eat lunch, then they eat dinner. I've been invited to a couple people's houses. I hope it works out. I really want to share a Chinese New Years dinner with someone.

So since everyone is off to their family's home, many restaurants, etc...are closed. What will us foreigners do?! This is the only time I have off! I'm sure I'll find something. Tonight I accepted an invitation from the NSTs I work with, Farah and Mike, to meet them at the Eslite bookstore. Apparently there is a microbrewery there that makes the best local brew in Taiwan. I hope it is open but even if it is not, I'm determined to have a good time tonight. FREEDOM!