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Archive for August, 2009

Airports and fei ji’s

I left Taipei at 12 when Jim’s dad came to pick me up. It all happened so quick. I had been eating Dan Bing with Mien Bao and then all of a sudden I was throwing bags in a car and waiting in security lines. Good bye Taipei, I feel like I left as quickly as I came.

Boarded the plane in Taipei. Told some girl I would not trade seats so that she could sit with her friend. There was no way I was trading an aisle seat for a middle one. She asked another lady who said the exact same thing. Eventually she got the flight attendant to badge some guy into changing. Pish. I watched the new Star Trek movie finally and I slept almost the entire flight, which never ever happens. It was really strange. Then we had to sit on the runway for an hour after we landed. I didn’t care…I have 8 hours to kill between then and my flight at 9:30. Virgin Airlines didn’t charge me for my overweight bags woo.

And thus my mega long day/days of travel is still happening. Paid for some internets, gonna watch some Mad Men and read Esquire…because the damn men magazines have all the good writing. Sleepy so sleepy though. My body thinks its 3 in the morning, when its actually almost 5 pm.

On to New York. Not excited about wrangling bags on the subway. But I am excited to see Chris again. And New York again. And Kari and Ellen and all the peoples.

Number one thought while sitting here, looking around. Man, Americans are fat. Maybe Athena was right, “but teacher, American’s need two seats because they’re so fat”.

Now? I’m off to a restaurant where I can read the whole menu and order food that my mouth is familliar with! I can read! I can read! Hahaha.

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I’ve been so busy today I’ve not had time to stop and breathe. Barely thinking about what I’m doing.

Went to school. Went to bank. Hugged everyone goodbye. Went to all sorts of offices on errands, all around this city by bus, cab, and mrt. Walked through Gongguan, past the bars and the university, and the yummy ice place. Past places where I met some of my best friends, took long walks, learned bits and pieces of Chinese.

I went by the wonton place and said bye to the owner. I went and got my hairwashed one last time and actually talked with the lady a long time. Ate one last dan bing. Elisa got me a mango freeze from CocoLulu one last time.

I’m gonna make one last set of phone calls…weeeeeiiii.. ni yao zuo shen me? and hopefully have one last night on the town.

I quoted this about a year ago, and here I am again. How can I keep doing this to myself?

We’re Leaving by Devotchka

Raise your glasses please into a toast
For we are many hometown ghosts.
Let it spill all over the floor.
What the hell are you saving it for?

On June, July, August, September.
Let’s drink ’em all, I don’t want to remember.
These have been the best years of our lives.

It’s a shame my dear,
There’s no room for lost years.
So we’re leaving, we’re leaving tonight.

Taiwan I love you.

To my friends: thank you for making this a truly fantastic year.

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Good bye things.

Yesterday evening, I went to the night market. I had to get my last fix of street food in. And boy did I do it. I started with a steaming bowl of beef noodle soup (which in the middle of August, is kind of ludicrous) then sweet sausage on a stick, then a bit farther down mango juice, then dou hwa, then tomatoes on a stick, and then…well then I was stuffed. But I had also managed some baoz from the stand near my school about an hour before, as well. Bread won some bubbles from the little marble game; I of course won the “you suck” consolation hard candy. We went through the alleys to the rainbow bridge. Got to see three mini fireworks shows, and nearly broke our hands off trying to open the bottle caps on the beer we bought at 7-11. One last night of endless staring and “wei guo ren” whispers. Two little kids daring each other to run closer and closer to me, in some sort of tag game. Good bye Rainbow bridge! Good bye Raohe night market! Good bye marble games! Good bye candied tomatoes! Good bye gooeybooger gluten balls! Good bye aroma of stinky tofu!

A morning of tax office, in which I discovered I will be getting back 68,000NT. Woooohoooooo. And then…A last chance at the beach. Baishawan. Boiling sand, cool water with octopuses, tea eggs, more sausage on a stick, and several very long naps in the canvas tent, in which only the upper part of my arm got sunburned for some reason. Good bye Danshui! Good bye Grand Hotel! Good bye betel nut girls! Good bye coastline! Good bye clothes wearing swimmers!

Later? Going away party at A Bar. More goodbyes. Good bye friends! Good bye dice games! Good bye Taiwan Beer! Good bye karaoke! Good bye smokey rooms! Good bye bathroom gossip!

(Upon re-reading the exclamations make me sound..well estatic, when the truth is, I’m barely keeping it together. Must repeat, Jenn doesn’t cry, Jenn doesn’t cry. )

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Stepping away from the travel writing. This is my last week in Taipei and in Taiwan and in Asia in general. While life has been hectic lately, moving things out of the apartment, cleaning, packing, sorting, constantly traveling to the coffee shop to have internet access…I’m trying damn hard to take little moments of the day to savor the mundanity of my life in Taipei.

Coming back from an afternoon trip to Danshui, I wander through Main Station, taking the usual exit, waiting for the usual bus, racing to grab the first seat in the back section so my poor knees can have a break from the rest of the cramped rows. I love this. Sitting in the back of a cab, watching the light shine on all the tall buildings in the Xinyi roundabout. The taxi cab driver laughs at me when I announced that I want to go to the Living Mall (Jing hwa tsen). I ask “Whatttt…why am I funny? (Shen me, wei shen me wo shi hao xiao ma)”. He brokenly explains that he was in a bad mood but the funny way I pronounced Living Mall, has now cheered him up. …Great? I’m glad my ineptitude brightens other people’s days?

Anyways, today I went to work to visit the kids. It turned into an all afternoon affair…5 hours of being Teacher Jennifer all over again…”No Chinese please! Hey! No running! Ephraim please stop karate kicking Duncan, you will get hurt!” However, I wasn’t prepared for the second I walked in the door. Screams of Teacher Jennifer!!! And then being pummeled by multiple little, waist high hugs. Michelle’s version of a good hug involves climbing you like a human jungle gym. We quickly settled into sitting on the floor watching Tom and Jerry…universally popular since there are no words. Pizza party and Ivy and Elisa presented me with a picture puzzle of the day we went to the library. It’s one of my favorite photos from teaching.

Cindy and Athena and Michelle spent the afternoon drawing me cards with ice cream and kittens (They asked what my favorite thing was…and I of course named things I knew they liked to draw…I wasn’t going to be mean and say…umm libraries and gin and tonics).
“Thank you for teach we one year. We love you so much. We will miss you. (and on the back) “Kittens! It is in the zoo!”
So pizza, blowing bubbles with straws with repeated shouts of (do not drink the bubbles), and then a pool party. All the kids in their swimsuits throwing water balloons were adorable and cracked me up, the girls squealing at the boys and the boys trying to punch each other and make manly muscles. With their swimming caps on it was hard to tell who was who. Finally a quiet afternoon of popcorn and more movies. They had worn me out. My ears were ringing from shrieks but my heart was melting from their cuteness. Tiny, smiley, Howard said as I was leaving “Good bye Teacher Jennifer, See you tomorrow’. I’d been trying to get him to learn that phrase for 3 weeks when I taught him, but all he’d do was giggle….finally, finally he can say it…too bad no “see you tomorrow”.

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My Tho, Vietnam

To the east and south of Saigon is the Mekong Delta. Miles and miles of rich rivers and canals. I took a short tour there with some people from Singapore, France, Ireland, and Malaysia…I got to use all three languages I know in one afternoon, switching, depending on the person. We arrived in My Tho and took a small-motorized boat across the broad brown river to the island of Ben Tre.  It was used to house lepers a hundred years ago but now has bee farms and fruit plantations. The family who ran the boat had a young boy, about 4 years old and that was the happiest child I have ever seen in my entire life. He has probably lived his entire life on that boat, but there he was swinging in a hammock, back and forth back and forth singing little happy songs in Vietnamese. He let me take some pictures of him in his hammock, but they were corrupted when I lost my files earlier this week (the one real tragedy).

On the island we followed little gravel paths dotted with small colorful houses and chickens to a shady restaurant where we had some lemon honey tea and sampled the local rice wine and snake wine—nothing like a dead snake in the bottom of your liquor to add zest. After some dried ginger and coconut snacks we were off to explore the little gravel paths again with a stop for fresh fruit and local music and some chatting amongst ourselves, then off again. We got in some canoes paddled by locals and traveled along the shady canals peeking at the backs of houses with clothes drying on the lines. We had gone from motorized boat, to canoe, then to horse cart. Horse carts down a larger dirt road to a restaurant and then some naps in hammocks hanging in a nearby shed. Finally our mini-stay on the Mekong was over and it was back to Saigon in our cramped minibus following the trails of tangled wires back to the raucous world of “capitalism”.

Axel didn’t accompany me on the Mekong trip. He wanted to do it more authentically without a tour group just take a bus into My Tho itself. This was the final stage of 2 weeks of disagreeing over travel philosophy. A planner over a wanderer, public versus private transportation, museums versus markets…a terrible match for travel that we hadn’t previously predicted. In the end, I was unwilling to compromise on what is my only chance to see a country. I wanted to see everything, I didn’t want to waste time by not planning, by fumbling along, I wanted to know what things I could see and have them ready for me. While I might lose an element of authenticity, there was still a hell of a lot of authenticity in the streets I daily wandered and the local people I ate or purchased from. I also enjoyed interacting with the other world travelers. Their stories were also interesting. Hence we decided to finally quit compromising and each do it our own way. I booked a bus straight to Siem Reap, Cambodia chatted with a German guy the whole way and spent the evening eating barbeque with some Italians and British people who had lived in Cambodia for years. You’re never really traveling alone as long as there are others doing the same exact thing. And I got to do a lot more things at the pace I’m used to in the fashion I enjoy. (Mom, I’m home and don’t worry, nothing happened while I was traveling politically unstable countries alone.) I’m sure Axel can say the same thing for his version of the second half of the trip as well.

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Cu Chi

We took some day trips to areas near Saigon. The first to the Cu Chi tunnels. These were the tunnels built all over the Saigon area that allowed the Vietnamese to travel and move supplies without the US soldiers knowing during the war. In fact American soldiers had one of their bases right on top of most of them and just couldn’t figure out where in the hell those enemy soldiers were sneaking in from. There are around 500 km of these tunnels dug by hand, reaching all the way to the ocean. They’d put the extra dirt in bomb craters. The tour guide for this tour had pretty passable English and a good sense of humor, “Now, when we get to the tunnel part, if you get scared you can get out every 20 meters. There are 100 meters total”…What do you mean get scared…what? Then I go crawl in. These tunnels are tiny…very very tiny, and snaking, and hot. Despite spending lots of time in caves…I got out of this tunnel after 60 meters, exhausted from walking crouched over and crawling. 500km? Holy shit, is all I have to say.

Before we left they had us watch a “documentary”…it was straight up a propaganda film from wartime, grainy black and white film. It showed smiling little kids standing on the bodies of dead Americans, young girls receiving awards for killing “capitalist baby murderers” and old men sharpening bamboo stakes for rudimentary booby traps. While I completely disagree about America entering the Vietnam War, much the same as the Iraq war, nonetheless, it was strange to sit there amidst mostly Europeans and watch this “documentary”.

Later in the day we went to a museum called the “War Remnants Museum” while about the effects of the Vietnam War on the Vietnamese people, it was more of a museum about the horrors of war in general. The people stuck in the midst. Do you defend your home? Do you defend it at the risk of choosing sides? How is anyone to know what you believe? Do you want to sacrifice everything for a future that you were never previously aware of outside of your village?

It was a museum filled with nothing but thousands of photos of bodies, bombs, crying children, elderly people marching. Scientific reports, census numbers, bomb fragments. A whole floor dedicated entirely to showcasing the effects of Agent Orange, not only on people alive during the war, but those currently being born every single day. Unimaginable birth defects. They didn’t die immediately from bullets or bombs, all of these people and children, they live everyday with the consequences of poison from 40 years ago. I watch people cultivating rice from fields that were inundated with thousands of gallons of poison just 40 years ago in Cu Chi.  I was surprised that the only anti-American sentiments I heard spoken the whole time I was in the country were from the wobbly voice of a video from 30 years ago. But nothing had to be said; in each and every city there was evidence of destruction, a past that they’re still recovering from. The museum made me physically ill, but I felt like there should be more of this in every city in the world… we are desensitized to TV, to the shock value of daily media. There is nothing more moving than simple, candid, home photographs taped to walls in room after room, with nothing more than the request to look in silence and think.

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August 10 thru 15

Ho Chi Minh is Vietnam’s other large city. Drastically different from Hanoi, you can definitely see the touch of America on this city. Bright lights, store chains, commercialism. While I feel that most French and European tourists start in Hanoi and head down…the Americans start in Saigon and head up. There are less opportunities to haggle for reasonable (ok honestly, by reasonable I mean dirt cheap) prices in HCMC because most tourists just slap down the money and go. Damn you American’s. Trying to explain that I earn NT not US dollars isn’t very effective when a shopkeeper is stonewalling me for 8$ for a photocopied illegal novel. Finally I leave exclaiming, “It’s a photocopy…a blurry photocopy!” (I later caved and purchased 2 photo copied books while traveling…a verrrry interesting story about the second one that involves beggar children punching each other to follow when I get to the Cambodia posts).

Personally I liked Hanoi a lot more. HCMC reminded me of a loud Florida tourist town but with less organization. Riding in our taxi from the airport (after being followed and bargained with by a herd of 10 different cab drivers…this happens anytime you exit anything). Axel says… “Look!” and points upward. “What?” I look out into the night…what I thought had been some sort of street decoration I realized was actually just a mass of hundreds and hundreds of electrical wires draped from building to building. Giant masses, and tangles of wires, how anything actually works I have no idea…and if something falls down during a storm…damn. I took a picture on a not so busy street but it in no way captures what was really going on. Vietnam is continually a country in progress. Growing in leaps and bounds, giant stacks of bricks and rickety bamboo scaffolding everywhere you look…but no real rules or plans for any of it…do what you will…we’re heading for the future!

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While in Saigon we checked out the royal palace…expecting some old building in the French style or with dragons and tile roofs we were surprised to see a 1960’s mod building (a little ugly to be honest). While the palace was nothing fancy, meeting rooms, tasteful 1960’s décor, official things, the basement was another thing. Apparently the Vietnamese president was so hated, his own army tried to blow him up, dropping bombs on the palace. So he built a big bunker underneath. It is….creepy down there. Endless dark hallways, map rooms, rooms with single desks, rooms with big menacing 1950’s style radios. Really eerie. Later in the day we were checking out the history museum down the street and again creepy basements. Why do they let the public down here? In a looming grey, French style building we wanted to reach the second floor but ended up following arrows downward…and down, and through some metal gates…into some dusty tiled rooms with low ceilings filled with sad black and white photographs and old furniture. I seriously wouldn’t have been surprised if we had found ourselves in the middle of some horror film with zombies and mental patients. Upstairs I posed with some lovely wax people. Tea party!

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