holidays

Halloween Massive 2010 in Taipei

I originally posted this on my LiveJournal, but I want all of my Taiwan posts in the same place. So, after a three-month hiatus from proper blogging and over three years after the actual event, I present:

Halloween Massive: photo proof I was there, and I was awesome.

DJs Roger Shah and Benny Benassi were playing a rave on Halloween in Taipei, and when I found out, I was pumped. I decided on my costume, began working on it on Wednesday, and by Saturday night was a dancing, fist-pumping can of Taiwan Beer.

Taiwan Beer Halloween costumeOnce I knew what I wanted to be, I found the supplies and began working on my costume. I wanted a costume that would require no explanation and very little financial burden, and this was perfect – everyone in Taiwan knows this beer, and it cost me $15 US to make. Quite a few hours went into the creation, but I didn’t mind. I’m actually not bad at recreating stuff with a marker and a canvas.

a lot of work...Wednesday night, Thursday night, Friday night and Saturday afternoon: I worked ten hours or so with tape and permanent markers to create my beer can. It was done by freehand, very slowly and deliberately, with some artistic license taken when I got tired of working on a particular section.

so close!I finished the tab headband first, then the can face, then hung the apron from a modified hula hoop. I finished in time on Saturday so that I could help Gretchen and Juan with the finishing touches on their costumes – Gretchen was a flamingo, as you can see from the pink boas in the first picture. Juan was Evel Knievel, and I helped him with the markings on his helmet.

Saturday night at 8:30 we hopped in a cab and made our way to the High Speed Rail station in Jhubei 15 minutes away. We bought our tickets, ran into some other foreigners, boarded the train, and took an entertaining 20-minute ride to Taipei.

posing on the HSRThe foreigners were all in costume and looking ridiculous, while the local Taiwanese stared, smiled, or shied away from the craziness. We exited and made our way through the station to the subway. Normally this would’ve been a five-minute endeavor, but we were stopped numerous times to take pictures with strangers or pose together.

group shotAs we took the above picture, literally 20 Taiwanese were taking our picture with cell phones and cameras. We were quite the sensation. Anytime we saw fellow foreigners or people dressed in costume, we’d all yell and wave, causing an even bigger commotion. It was hilarious and more fun than I’ve had in a while.

We pre-partied at a Family Mart (7-Eleven’s cousin) with a few dozen other revelers, and I took the opportunity to take a picture with my family… of Taiwan Beer.

cheersI was a certifiable hit. When a man walked toward me, looked me up and down, then bumped his beer against my costume and said, “Cheers,” before walking away, my night was made.

Finally, around 11:30, we entered Taipei’s World Trade Center to the insanity of thumping bass, thousands of people dancing in costumes, and lights and lasers darting around. It was incredible. We made our way to the front, near the stage, stopping to take pictures with strangers as we pushed forward. In front of the stage, ten people back, is where I made my home for the next 4.5 hours.

Roger ShahI had a blast. Dancing, waving my arms, jumping, celebrating the night with an awesome crowd; at one point during his set, Benny Benassi looked at me and waved. After I waved back, he smiled, nodded, and ramped up his set.

I had water the entire night, and while I was surrounded by people who were trashed in some form or fashion, it didn’t take away from the wonderful atmosphere. Everyone was smiling and enjoying the rave.

Benny BenassiIt was my first rave, but it will not be my last. Even as my feet began to ache and my costume became cumbersome, I stayed in my spot until the last sounds of Benny Benassi’s set faded and the lights came on at 4am. Fifteen minutes later security began encouraging people to leave, and our group went back to the Family Mart to figure out the next step. I ended up taking a cab with another girl back to Hsinchu at 5:45; for a 1.5 hour cab ride, we paid around $50 US. I crashed into bed at 6:30 or so, slept until Gretchen and Juan called me to let them into the building at 8:30am, then fell asleep until 12:30pm.

It was the best Halloween I’ve ever had.

Easter eggs and pancakes

I’ve been to mass twice in my life. Once was in middle school. I was super excited about the font and over-blessed myself, and then was slightly bummed when I couldn’t take communion. I didn’t understand all the rituals, and the monotone priest/congregation recitations left me trying to find the most exciting passages in Song of Solomon to pass the time.

Last Sunday, after a homemade breakfast of healthy chocolate/banana pancakes lovingly thrown together by my dear friend Amy,

When Amy said she had maple syrup, I got super excited. Amy's Canadian, so I expected Canadian maple syrup from Canadian trees grown in Canada. Her Costco version was just fine, though.

I celebrated Easter by attending mass for the second time in my life. It was a small church, and the two of us were the only Westerners.

Everyone in attendance could've sprawled out on their own pew, and there still would've been room.

The rituals were similar: singing, recitations, stand up, sit down, kneel, pray.

I was just as confused during the Chinese mass as I was in the English one, though not nearly as bored.

There are Taiwanese traditions in this Catholic church, such as this altar where people can light incense and pray for deceased relatives. (Amy, correct me if that's not actually what it is, please.)

Amy would quietly turn to me and explain what we were doing. I finally whispered, “Don’t worry about me. Enjoy the service.”

When I found out there were pictures in the hymnal, I was set. How can a person be bored when there are pictures in the books?

I meant it. She had nothing to worry about; I was enjoying taking it all in.

I read the English Bible. Amy read the Chinese Bible. Amy is amazing.

It wasn’t so much a religious experience for me as it was a cultural experience. An Indiana-born, Texas-raised non-denominational Christian visiting a Catholic church, led in Mandarin by a Filipino priest, in the middle of Hsinchu, Taiwan, a predominantly Buddhist country.

"Hosanna" means praise or pray. I think it's fascinating that "san" in Mandarin means three, an important number in the Christian religion.

There are times in my life when I realize just how intensely different my path is from most people I know. This was one of them.

I want to buy this hymnal, if only for the drawings.

No matter the religion, being surrounded by people of steadfast faith invigorates me. When I visited Longshan Temple in Taipei, it was during a daily ceremony in which people chant, light candles and incense, and pray. Seven years ago in the Dominican Republic, while at a friend’s house for dinner, I heard a hymn being sung in Spanish. I explored the run-down community until I found a small gathering of worshipers passionately singing and dancing. While the people at Longshan kept quietly to themselves, the people in Santo Domingo greeted me with big smiles and encouraged me to join them. Two very different experiences, both of which made my faith blossom.

This is what a Bible written in Mandarin looks like. This is Acts. Or First Corinthians. For all I know, it's the appendix.

On Sunday the priest walked down the aisle, dipping a long-stemmed serving spoon into holy water and flinging the droplets on the parishioners. When I felt the drops land on my face and arms, I looked at Amy. “I’ve been blessed!”

Christian enough to be blessed with a holy water shower, but not enough for communion. That's okay. I have my own wine at home.

After mass, we ate a light lunch with other members of the church,

The pancake-looking thing is delicious, but I don't know what it's called. You'd think eating it with chopsticks would make me look less barbaric, but I proved that theory wrong.

then looked around the grounds.

Blink and you'll miss it.

The weather, always humid, was warming up, and my black tights, jean skirt and heels (psh, flats with a lift) were beginning to make me uncomfortable, so Amy and I walked back to her apartment.

Hsinchu: always under construction, even on Easter Sunday.

It was a quiet and simple Easter, but I did receive something I didn’t expect:

Easter eggs! I didn't take more than one. Had they been full of jellybeans, I would've stolen them from small children.

Tainan: worth a 6,000nt cab ride

The last Friday of Chinese New Year, I scheduled a trip down to Tainan to visit my friend Yvonne and her family. Though my trip was a lot shorter than expected, it wasn’t any less wonderful. I rode the High Speed Rail an hour and twenty minutes south from Hsinchu and met Yvonne after taking a taxi to the slow train station downtown.

This is Yvonne, the same Yvonne from my Yilan trip. It wasn't cold, but both of us had our jackets after being trained by Hsinchu's miserable weather.

The sun was bright, the sky blue. Not gray, not smoggy, not hazy, but a brilliant, springtime blue. The weather was perfect for walking around, so Yvonne and I visited several sites clustered together, taking our time and walking from one place to the next.

We first visited an old, famous temple that reminded me of the Forbidden City in Beijing; it consisted of a central building surrounded by a wall and narrow rooms. As the photographer extraordinaire, I forgot to charge my battery, so I took pictures using Hipstamatic on my iPhone. All the Photoshop fun with none of the effort!

There were people everywhere, and most of them had cameras bigger than mine.

After the temple we ventured into an open air market, then to a secondhand bookstore across the street. The bookstore was one of the highlights of the day.

I like to photobomb. A lot. Sorry, Yvonne.

We entered a narrow, artistic shop. I walked to the back, stepped through a bright atrium, then found myself in a two story, tall, comfortable room. Old ladders made of bamboo reached up from the first floor to books at the top of the second floor. Books were stacked neatly along the walkways, on shelves, and anywhere they would fit. There was an impressive section of used English novels, where I snuck a picture.

English novels - a few hundred of them! It was like finding a secret treasure that the citizens of Tainan already knew about.

Back at the front I browsed through a few postcards with Che Guevara on one side. Venturing back outside, we went next door to a quirky restaurant called the Narrow Door.

It was a tight fit.

The entrance was a claustrophobic walkway between two buildings, then up a set of stairs wide enough for one person.

Yvonne walking out the entrance while I stand by the stairs.

In the second-floor restaurant, the sun brightened the room and the assortment of collectibles gave the space a great personality. I felt like I was back in Austin.

At the top of the stairs, you can see the urinal area. If a guy needed to go number one, he'd have an audience.

"Yvonne, did you see this? Golden Opium!" "Yes, and I ordered it."

Thin slices of lemon, coffee and sugar sprinkled on top.

First the lemon zaps your jawline, then the coffee makes your eyebrows arch, then the sugar balances it out. And then the lemon rind makes the hairs on your arms stand on end. It's actually pretty good.

Post Golden Opium and dim sum, we were on our way to the port.

Look at that sky - blue. No Photoshopping required.

We explored an old fort and spent the afternoon taking pictures and people watching.

We passed an intricately carved, carefully painted, beautifully maintained temple on our way to the fort. They also decorated with hanging water bottles.

Important stuff happened here. The day we visited, there was a crowd listening to some performers sing and play instruments.

Those soldiers must've been in good shape.

I wonder how the other side of the story goes.

Tainan is my new favorite Taiwanese city. If Taipei is the New York of Taiwan, I’m thinking Tainan is San Francisco. Even though I had to pay 6,000nt and spend 4 hours in a taxi in order to get back to Hsinchu, I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Of Tibetan turquoise, tits and Taiwanese puppets

My Valentine’s Day 2012 in Hsinchu, Taiwan, ranked among the best days I’ve had here in a very long time. Thanks to my dear friend Amy, Tuesday night was fun, easygoing, and managed to incorporate the word “tit” without being inappropriate.

All these pictures were taken with my iPhone. My lovely prosumer Nikon, perfect for all the incredible pictures I missed, sat bored in my room all night. I’ve really got to start taking it with me more often. I’ll learn eventually. 

Amy and me at the beginning of our Valentine's Day adventure.

Escaping the busy shopping center where the theater is located, we made our way to Aroma Thai, a very small restaurant tucked away on a side street in the middle of downtown.

That's the kitchen. I'm standing on the street just outside. There wasn't really enough room for me to stand inside with Amy.

After receiving our chicken soup to go,

The best technological advance I've found in Taiwan? Plastic lids sealed onto the top of drinks and soup. Hey America, get on it.

we walked to a park nearby to sit on a bench and eat, people watch, and catch up.

Restaurants give to-go drinks out in bags, and I went the Taiwanese route and kept the bottle in the bag as I drank.

Dinner finished, we walked back to a main street and visited the Hsinchu City Hall,

Pre-bombed brick and post-bombed brick. Taiwan has an intense history.

which was decorated with red lanterns, blue Christmas lights, and a large, rotating dragon display.

The display took a comedic turn with the dragon's golf-ball eyes. It looked like it had been smoking.

We left and continued on through a network of alleys and small side streets. Our goal was to find a Chinese fortune teller Amy had researched as part of her thesis. She stopped to ask for directions, and a doctor fluent in English ended up helping us find the teller’s stall, which was closed. We thanked him for walking with us, and he invited Amy and me to dinner next time his bachelor son is in town. Nice try, Doc.

Parting ways with the doctor, we fought our way through scooter traffic to a temple.

Details on one of the roofs.

Surprised it was open, we walked inside and greeted some of the worshippers and staff.

These engraved characters look like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. According to Amy, it's Chinese.

It’s common for those who have traveled extensively or lived in Asia to say, “You’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all.” For some reason, though, visiting a temple on Valentine’s Day felt right.

Each light has the name of an individual who donated money to the temple etched into the bottom. There are generally thousands of these lights in every temple.

I just had to hold back from buying the shirt on sale.

This, a scrunchi, a side ponytail, and high tops are all I need for my 90's-kid outfit.

Amy and I exited and continued our stroll. The night was becoming foggy, and the crowds thinned out as the evening progressed. On one nearly-deserted street, we happened upon a Tibetan store. Twenty minutes later, we emerged; on my wrist sat one of my purchases, in my purse were the other two.

I broke my own rule about buying something from one country in another country, but I couldn't help it. I love this bracelet.

At one point in the shop, Amy turned to me.
 
Amy: “Make a wish. Your tit is showing.”
Me: “WHAT.”
Amy: “No! The clasp of your necklace! It’s… that’s what we call it! It’s come around to the front.”
 
Canadians are weird.
 
Post purchase, Amy led me to the City God Temple, outside of which was a lottery ticket stand. We bought two Valentine’s-themed tickets.

We're losers.

No money for us. We left, but not before I got a picture of me drinking out of another plastic bag.

Turning Taiwanese, I think I'm turning Taiwanese, I really think so.

Our final stop was a store selling puppets famous to Taiwan.

These were the most normal of the bunch.

The store was full of handmade puppets representing different gods and characters from stories.
 

A tribute to The Simpson's. Not really. At least, I don't think so.

It was incredible seeing the details on each puppet, some a foot tall, others three feet tall.

The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.

Amy talked to the shopkeeper and her family in Chinese while I took pictures and admired the craftsmanship.

They were closed for the night, but the door was open to let in a breeze. I stuck my head in, and they reopened just for us.

Amy, generous and always thinking of others, bought puppets for her nephew and her manfriend back in Canada. I plunked down 300nt (around $10) for a puppet for myself.
 
We thanked the shop owners and meandered back to our scooters,

Art on an electrical box outside.

pausing briefly to smell flowers at a small flower shop and look at a gate in a small alleyway.

Amy inspecting the gate. The fog really gave the city more personality.

It’s been a long time since I’ve truly enjoyed Hsinchu. Caught up in my routine and what I don’t like about the city, I’ve forgotten that there are still a lot of places in Hsinchu I haven’t seen. The people are generous, and there are little treasures hidden away that, when I find them, remind me how lucky I am.

An unusual scene: a downtown Hsinchu street almost deserted.

I’m an American living in Taiwan, on the opposite side of the planet from my home country. Not many people get to experience something this intense. I need to make every moment count.

Year of the Dragon

新年快樂!
Happy New Year!

Chinese New Year is to Taiwan what Christmas is to the United States. We have a week-long vacation this week, stores are full of decorations and special foods just for the holiday, and the year’s animal is prominently displayed everywhere.

This is a handpainted dragon a street vendor painted for me. I saw it, squealed and clapped my hands like a child.

This is the Year of the Dragon. Not to offend anyone, but that’s so much cooler than Year of the Rabbit, which was last year.

Sunny, my tutoring boss and one of my good friends, invited me to go with a group to Taipei to the annual Taipei Lunar New Year Festival street market. I piled into a car with Sunny, her son Jack, Annie, and Annie’s mother. We were meeting Sara and her mother in Taipei.

Most cars here have mini video cameras that record everything that happens in front of the car. These cameras, coupled with street cameras everywhere, mean several big brothers are recording at all times.

Jack, Annie and Sara are in one of my tutoring classes; I teach them, their younger siblings, and three more kids.

We arrived in Taipei, found Sara and her mother, and made our way through busy streets to the market.

You can literally buy the truffles off Costco Man's vest.

It was busy, loud, and a visual feast. Vendors called out for people to try the foods they were selling. As I passed one vendor, he yelled, “English! Camera! Facebook!”

That's not the most flattering advertisement.

In the middle of the din of the market, this monk stood, eyes closed, striking a bell.

It's not uncommon to find people in wheelchairs selling lottery tickets. Some of the proceeds go to charity.

A beggar in the middle of the market.

Sunny and Jack. Several times I caught them reach out and give each other side hugs. Jack would be so embarrassed if he knew I was talking about him.

Vendors would sit or stand in the middle of the already-crowded street and herd people to their booths. This guy moved like a prissy robot.

One of two stores we passed selling shark fins.

One half of the market was open, the other covered. This half was warmer and darker, but they were equally loud.

Each time we passed a stall with samples, Sunny would make sure I tried at least one. She would call out to me, smiling, with a toothpick or cup bearing a new food held in my direction. I was well-fed, though I’m not entirely sure what I ate.

Fish eggs. I thought they were cow tongues. After an already exciting culinary tour, I declined to try some.

There is one thing I am absolutely certain I ate. Sunny turned to me as we walked through the market. Her eyes were wide, a smile creeping onto her face. “Mandy – stinky tofu?” That entire experience merits its own post, coming soon.

Before heading back to Hsinchu, we passed a table where an older man and his wife were selling personalized paintings for the new year.

I told him I wanted seven dragons. Sunny translated, and he whipped up seven different designs. Each time he finished one, I loudly exclaimed, "Yes!" The silly foreigner was good for business; lots of people stopped by to see what all the commotion was about.

After learning what you wanted, he dipped his large calligraphy brush into gold paint and went to work.

Long pinky nails no longer signify drug users. In Taiwan, they signify someone who wants a long pinky nail.

The kids and I stood by, transfixed, as he worked. We ended up with several pieces; one for each of the kids and several more I could give away as gifts. I did, of course, keep the largest and best looking one for myself.

Taiwan’s pretty side: Yilan Day 3

I was a terrible tourist on Sunday. The day was nice and relaxing, but I don’t think I read a single sign explaining the cultural significance of where I was or what I was looking at. Anything I learned was thanks to Yvonne, Larry or Cam filling me in.

We spent the morning at the Yilan Craft and Cultural Center, a former logging village in the middle of the city. It was a quiet area where you could learn about Yilan’s logging past, climb aboard a model of a train, and poke your head into various little craft shops housed in the old dormitories.

There was a sign telling what this concrete thing did.

Yvonne, Larry and Cam spent the morning learning.

Can you find Cam?

I spent the morning wandering around the small lake, giggling at the angry ducks, and people watching. Apparently even women in clubwear enjoy learning about logging.

They floated logs on this lake. I don't know why, but I saw some.

We slowly made our way around the complex, and I bought a small, hot cup of milk tea to warm my hands.

One of the exhibits required visitors to take off their shoes. Read signs AND take off my warm shoes? Psh.

We lost Cam to a small group of children he was entertaining, so Yvonne, Larry and I continued around the lake.

The path along the perimeter of the lake (to the right). It was peaceful and quiet save for the trains that passed within ten feet on the other side of the bush line.

We could be twins.

After reuniting with Cam, we drove to a nice restaurant tucked into a row of buildings. I didn’t even bother to look at the menu; I asked Yvonne if they served beef noodle soup. When she confirmed they did, Cam and I each ordered a bowl.

Cam: “You’re eating really slowly. Are you not hungry?”
Me: “Nice try. You can’t have my soup.”

Before we left Yilan, we made two final stops. The first was a Japanese-style house that sat in the shadow of an enormous shopping complex. I think it belonged to the former president of some school.

Leaves enveloping the trees outside the Japanese house.

There were only a few visitors, which made capturing good pictures easy - I didn't have to wait for people to get out of my shot.

Setting up fake cherry trees outside the Japanese house. You can see the rest of the blossoms on the ground behind the ladder.

Larry was napping in the car. That's a giant (GIANT) shopping center in the background.

Then on our way out of town, we stopped by a candied fruits museum, where Yvonne and I bought dried mangoes to enjoy on the way back to Hsinchu.

On the way to the fruit museum, we passed these side-of-the-road tables where people were selling fish.

Me: “Does anyone want some dried mangoes?”
Cam: “No. Gross.”
Me: “Not gross! They taste like candy.”
Cam: “Yeah, they definitely don’t. They taste like fruit.”

With that tiny conversation, on an island 8,000 miles and 20-plus-hours of travel away from her, I realized I was just like my mother. The only difference is that she would’ve read all the signs… probably.

Taiwan’s pretty side: Yilan Day 2

We met for breakfast on Saturday at 8:30am in the restaurant on the ninth floor of our hotel. Yvonne and I quickly finished our food and started taking pictures of the sun peeking out of the clouds. When we found stairs that took us outside to the roof, I borrowed Larry’s house shoes, leaving him barefoot, so I could go outside and take more pictures.

The weather was very cooperative during our trip, including this Halleluijah scene Saturday morning.

Just before 10am, after we repacked and I returned Larry’s shoes, we headed to a scenic outlook that was a five-minute drive from our hotel.

The scenic overlook was to the east of the bottom blue "9" indicator.

From the platform we could see the entire So-au Port, including a beautiful, secluded beach south of the marina.

Objects in picture are larger than they appear.

Yvonne, vacation planner extraordinaire, herded us back to the car, and we set out for a small artists’ community where a Japanese wooden shoe “factory” allows visitors to come in and create their own personalized shoes.

These blocks will someday be shoes. Comfortable, right?

Cameron immediately chatted up the saleswomen and tried on a finished pair. He wandered around the shop, his thick black socks sticking out of the shoes; the saleswomen giggled as he raved about the shoes and tried to convince me to put on a pair.

Always fashionable.

Later, after we’d pulled Cam away from yet another female admirer, we walked back to the car. It was time for lunch at a local restaurant, and after we sat down, I immediately began eating from the first plate brought to us. After a few bites, Yvonne looked at me from across the table and asked, “Mandy, do you know what you’re eating?”

It's generally delicious until you find out what you're eating. After a year in Taiwan, though, I've gotten over the surprise factor and just keep eating.

Pig ears. That was unexpected.

Soon after we finished eating, we drove through the marina, making our way to the beach we’d seen earlier from the overlook. It was a small beach, no more than a kilometer long, with very few visitors, and it was perfect.

Yvonne searching for shells.

When taking candids, I pass my target nonchalantly, then turn around and quickly take the picture before they notice and pose. It's a bit like a one-sided wild-west gunfight. This is a local fisherman who'd started a small fire to cook whatever he caught.

We stayed at the beach for a few hours, searching for interesting shells and rocks, climbing, exploring, watching the surf, shooting pictures, and taking in the views.

Click on this picture to see it full-size. No, seriously: it's a pretty decent shot.

Cam and I are either discussing the noisy bus of Chinese tourists that just arrived or Jay-Z's new album with Kanye West.

I climbed some rocks on the shore. It was a really unique beach, with smooth shards of shale littering the entire area.

Before it began to get dark, we emptied our shoes and pockets of rocks and sand accumulated and gathered, and we bid the beach a fond farewell as we left to visit a local tourist attraction: a lake naturally shaped like a flower.

Above the lake sat a large temple. As Yvonne and I wandered around taking pictures, Cameron found a new female friend and Larry napped in the car.

The sun set, so we left and drove to our hotel. From there we walked to a local night market. We quickly lost Cameron to a gathering of locals practicing magic, so Yvonne, Larry and I continued around the market. We ate dinner served from various carts, including a delicious ham and cheese crepe that never stood a chance.

At this point, one of these pairs of glasses is already owned by me.

The highlight of the evening was the ridiculous selection of glasses Yvonne, Larry and I tried on.

When I first saw this pair, I guffawed so loudly in the small store that people turned to look. I knew they were mine before I even picked them up.

With glasses like these, your IQ is certain to skyrocket at least a few points.

Now that's true love.

With no sign of Cameron, we left the night market and returned to the hotel. I relaxed alone in the room, then curled up in bed at 11:30 and drifted to sleep.

Taiwan’s pretty side: Yilan Day 1

First, the cast of characters:

Cameron, me, Larry, Yvonne. We're a good looking group.

The most efficient way to drive from Hsinchu to Yilan (“E-lahn”) is to head north to Taipei, cross the island just south of downtown in the Banciao District, pass through New Taipei City, and eventually go through the Hsuehshan Tunnel.

The mountains are prettier in person... when you can see them.

The tunnel is eight miles long and is one of the longest in the world. It bores through the mountains separating Yilan from Taipei.

On the way back to Hsinchu, it took us 20 minutes to go through the tunnel thanks to traffic. I didn't time us on the way there, but I did ask, several times, "We're STILL in this tunnel?"

When you arrive on the other side of the tunnel, it feels like you’re on a different island. The craziness of the big cities disappears, the air is clear, and the mountains and Pacific Ocean take ownership of the land.

In simple terms: east coast pretty. West coast not.

Our first stop in Yilan was the Lanyang Museum.

Here's where Cam and I argued about my pronunciation of "dock". He claimed I said "duck" and said he felt sorry for my future children. I told him I was sorry he was Canadian.

The four floors of exhibits are housed in an architectural marvel, and for less than 100nt we wandered around taking pictures and learning the history of Yilan County.

Yvonne and I took more pictures of the building than of the exhibits.

Trippy perspective, right?

I imagine the architect was a big fan of MC Escher.

We're on the second floor. You can see the escalator that takes you to the fourth. There's a walkway from the third floor to the other side of the building... which I just realized we never crossed. That's Cam in the corner. That's Cam in the spotlight, losing his track of time.

Yvonne and I were taking pictures of an old map when this kid shoved in front of us and started fiddling with the exhibit. Then he ran off and tried to pull the fire alarm. Go go gadget ADHD!

After the museum we made our way to a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop famous for its peanut sauce. It tasted like peanut butter and was good, but the uniqueness of the flavor was almost distracting for me. Luckily, Yvonne ordered bowls of mussel soup for everyone as a side, so I passed my unfinished bowl of peanut noodles to Cameron and dove into the mussels.

When we left the noodle shop, we passed this building, and I grabbed a quick shot. Taiwan is incredibly colorful, with even the dilapidated buildings painted bright colors.

Our bellies full, we headed back out toward the museum; passing it, Larry turned on a side road that fit one car, then turned again onto another narrow lane that took us past an enormous temple. We rode up the side of a mountain, taking in the views of the coastline below, until we reached the peak. There, in all its glory, was the Mr. Brown Coffee Castle.

This architecture sticks out like a sore thumb in Taiwan. The entire building is one big coffee shop.

The view from the castle grounds: you can see the Lanyang Museum to the right of the lake in the center of the picture.

Larry was exhausted from driving all day. He was probably tired of Cam and me bickering like adolescent siblings all day, too.

It was getting dark, and the skies threatened rain, so Larry drove us from Toucheng south to So-au, a port town where we were staying for the night.

It was a scenic one-hour drive. Near Wujie the sun set, and the rest of the drive was dark.

We tried to go to a scenic overlook to see the coastline, but it was too dark, so we checked into our boutique hotel.

Notice the light switch outside the room. Whenever I went to Yvonne and Larry's room next door, instead of knocking, I turned off their lights.

Everyone was tired, especially Larry, but we all went to a seafood restaurant across the street for dinner.

Conveniently located next to Mick's World. (I took this the next morning.)

We dined on nearly-frozen sashimi, a popular dish of mayonnaise and shrimp with sprinkles on top (1. I’m not kidding. 2. Gross.), lamb (delicious!), and oysters.

After dinner we retreated to our rooms and fell asleep well before midnight.

Anytime we left the building, we had to take the key back to the front desk. With this keychain, I don't know how we would lose the key, but they made sure we didn't have the chance.

Being thankful for Taiwan

Had I never moved to Taiwan,

I wouldn’t have met a government representative from Guam, who told me to email her if I ever made it there.

I wouldn’t have tried Nestea’s Honey Pear flavored bottled tea, which is making my life without soft drinks that much easier.

I never would’ve gotten involved with TUAPA, which allowed me to meet some of the most selfless people on the planet. I wouldn’t have become such a dog person.

These dogs are my therapy. When a dog looks at me like this, it's everything I can do to not turn into a baby-talking, cooing fiend.

I wouldn’t have tried grilled chicken sphincter. Or duck blood soup. Or vegetable jelly. I promised my students I’d try stinky tofu at some point and told a friend I’d attempt to eat durian fruit sometime. I need to learn to choose my culinary battles more carefully.

I wouldn’t have discovered technical writing. If I can make networking cables interesting to read about, I can probably find a cure for spontaneous dental hydroplosion.

We were going to make more loops, but a VP walked by... twice. I don't think he found the humor in, "We're increasing company morale!"

I wouldn’t have developed a taste for beer. It took me 7 years, but I finally like it. I’m a late bloomer.

I wouldn’t have met the diverse, generous group of friends I have here. They keep me sane and laughing.

I wouldn’t have so drastically expanded my food palate. I used to hate vegetables; now I prefer to cook with them.

I wouldn’t have seen Benny Benassi or Tiesto or Roger Shah live in Taipei. Benny Benassi wouldn’t have waved to me from the stage (I was dressed as a beer can. Who doesn’t want to wave to a giant beer can?).

I was cheersed a lot that night.

I wouldn’t have learned just how much impact the words “I love you” have.

I wouldn’t have gone to Beijing over Chinese New Year 2011 and done a handstand in the middle of Tian’anmen Square. Or luged from the Great Wall back to the bus. Or stayed in a hostel with a round bed and mirrored ceiling.

Showing my respect in front of some government building or museum in Tian'anmen Square.

I wouldn’t have lived in a cash-based society, which completely changes your view on money and finances.

I wouldn’t have celebrated Thanksgiving 2011 by sharing a massive chocolate-filled crepe with four other people who yelled, “Happy Thanksgiving!” every time someone took a bite.

Yeah, I live a blessed life.

Ten googly-eyed owls

As any teacher will tell you, teaching is easy. For those who are completely inept, however, and want some advice, I offer the following step-by-step guide on how to plan a Haloween-themed lesson for nine children. Watch and learn.

TWO DAYS BEFORE LESSON

Step 1: Figure out what you’re going to do. Must be educational and fun. Can’t be gross ’cause the kids won’t do it. Can’t be scary ’cause then you’ll get angry letters from parents. Can’t be expensive. Can’t be too elaborate ’cause you only have an hour and a half. Can’t need too many supplies ’cause you drive a scooter.

Substep A: Stupid scooter.
Substep B: Google.
Substep B: Scowl at Google because there’s no Hobby Lobby or Michael’s or specialty craft store in Hsinchu.

Step 2: Decide on lesson: owl magnets. Cheap craft, you can teach about owls, everyone has a take-home toy parents won’t hate.

Step 3: Google image search. Find a cute picture of a cartoon owl you can recreate with paper and slap onto a magnet.

Your adorable owl. Now figure out how to make it.

DAY BEFORE LESSON

Step 4: Find store with supplies.

Substep A: Upon entering store, realize you may have to go down every aisle because of all the cool stuff it has. And there are two floors!
Substep B: Jackpot. Supplies located.

Step 5: Realize you should have figured out what exactly you needed before coming to the store.

Step 6: Buy paper, something you think is magnetic tape, sticky-tack instead of glue (so the kids can reposition everything when they mess up), pipe cleaners, and enough googly eyes for six owls.

Substep A: Six owls? You have nine students.
Substep B: See Step 7.

Step 7: Return to house. Spread out supplies on bedroom floor.

It's at this moment that you realize you're in the deep end without your floaties.

Realize you only bought 12 googly eyes when you needed 18.

12 eyes. Plenty if your owls are cyclopses or pirates with eye patches.

Scowl. Of all the supplies you could screw up, it’s the one you could actually count?

Substep A: Roll eyes.
Substep B: Deep sigh.

Step 8: Stare at owl picture. Wonder if you’ve lost your mind. Since it’s already the night before the lesson and you already bought the supplies, you’ve dug your grave.

Step 9: Spend an hour trying to put the pieces together to resemble an owl.

The albino sample owl.

Use your Swiss army knife to cut out foam-board stencils and templates. Who needs an exacto knife when you can MacGyver your way through craft projects?

Step 10: Put magnetic tape on sample owl’s back.

Substep A: Stick to metal dresser.
Substep B: Watch it tumble to the floor.
Substep C: Change lesson name from “Paper Owl Magnets” to “Paper Owl”.

Based on the pictures, this has a solid chance of being magnetic. You're really just guessing.

Step 11: Look at the clock. Notice that it was your bedtime an hour ago. Pack everything up. Go to bed.

You've got to show a bunch of squirmy kids how to make this tomorrow. Better have your Mother Theresa hat ready, 'cause you'll need patience.

DAY OF LESSON

Step 12: On lunch break the next day, go back to the store (a 20-minute scoot from work) and buy more googly eyes.

Substep A: Get extra paper just in case.
Substep B: Spend 20 minutes walking through all the aisles again and realize you’re going to be late getting back to work.

Step 13: 4:30pm: Start class. Tell owl facts. The kids are good today – that’s going to make everything a lot easier.

Step 14: Take the kids through the process of making their owls. Accidentally have the kids use the wrong-sized template for the “tummy” part of the owl.

You're doing something right... no one's crying.

Step 15: Roll with the punches.

Step 16: Tell Ryan to sit down. Tell Sara to sit down. Tell Annie to stop taking things off your desk.

Step 17: After they’ve finished their owls, the kids stick their owls to the white board… and they actually stay! The magnetic tape really works!

Substep A: Clap like a little kid at Christmas that just unwrapped a new puppy.
Substep B: Do a touchdown dance and end up hands skyward, thanking the Maker for magnetic tape that works.

See? Easy.

Step 18: Kids start a game: who can throw their owl at the board and have it stick?

Substep A: Watch Ryan throw it so high that he can’t reach it.
Substep B: Retrieve Ryan’s owl.

Step 19: Everyone’s giggling. Sunny, your boss, is giggling even harder than you are. The owls are a hit and everyone’s happy.

YOU WIN AT TEACHING.

But not at buying the right number of googly eyes.

Pirate owls would've been pretty sweet, though. Just sayin'.