Saturday, September 12, 2015

What Happens in France . . .

Some more random experiences from our recent trip to France.

Prior to going to France, we didn't know if our apartments would have soap or not, so Stephanie decided to bring a little with us. Why buy more when you can save money using what you already have, right? Well maybe we sometimes go a little overboard with our efforts to conserve a few pennies. I don't think of us as cheapskates, it's just that if we save money on the little stuff—like darning holy socks—then we can afford the big stuff—like a night out at the Costco Food Court.

Rather than taking an entire soap bar, Stephanie instead found some decorative soap carved into a flower. What else are you going to use something like that for? Sure enough, our second apartment had no soap. I dutifully retrieved the flower and started lathering up in the shower. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that it wasn't regular soap. Instead it turned into Play Dough when wet. It instantly stuck to my skin like a plaster sarcophagus. It was like the spray-on shoes in Cloudy Without Meatballs, except I had it everywhere, and it pretty much took a putty knife to remove. But I did smell like flowers afterwards. Sometimes cheapness doesn't pay.

It's somewhat mandatory to see the Mona Lisa if you go to France. And that means a trip to the Louvre Museum—and of course getting there before the crowds do. We got up very early one morning to catch an early metro to the museum district. We entered the museum from the secret, hidden door in the underground metro stop. We rushed through the mall and after a few wrong turns, ended up about tenth in line at the security screening, ready for the doors to open. We'd done great so far, but still had to get through security, past the ticket checker, and find our way to the special hall dedicated to Mrs. Lisa.

As soon as the gates pulled open, we set off at full speed. We clawed our way upstairs and flashed our passes at the ticket station. I navigated with the map while Stephanie threw elbows. We finally made it to the Grand Gallery, dashed through the hall, and ended up in fourth place, standing in front of the most famous painting in the world.

Taking a picture of people taking pictures of a picture
And were we ever disappointed! She really isn't much to look at. Her colors are all faded, she's quite small, her smile looks forced, and she's behind a wall of reflective glass that makes it impossible to take a good photo. So we just started laughing that we'd basically just committed several crimes and got there first to see something so underwhelming. The others there all laughed with us. It was like we'd just scored a major victory and our prize was a pack of Pez. So we turned around and took pictures of everyone else taking photos of Mona. That was more entertaining.

As we headed towards the airport on our last day in France, a giant flying insect attacked our train car. Not from the outside—that would have been okay. Rather, it emerged from an A/C vent near Stephanie's head and flew around the inside. It was a bee, about two centimeters long. And it flew very fast. Each time it dive bombed towards a group of passengers, they'd all scream and duck, in that order. Thankfully, it headed towards the far end of the car. Within minutes, though, it swung back around for a second run.

It soared straight for Stephanie again, just missed her, then hid behind our chair. The only thing worse than a giant bee you can see is one you can't. We leaped from our chairs as the whole train watched with horror. The bee slowly crawled out from behind the bench and stared us down. Not wanting to lose the advantage, I switched to offense and pounced with my shoe. A collective gasp sounded throughout the car and everyone held their breath while I stood away to assess the damage. It was down, but not out. I had to squish twice more to complete the kill. Finally, it was finished. So we all pulled out our phones and took pictures of the valiant dead bee.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ministry, Monarchy, and Military

I'm in the Latin Quarter of Paris right now, sitting in a two thousand-year-old Roman coliseum and watching kids play football in the same spot where gladiators fought lions in the first century A.D. I wonder if the kids know that. This is right across the street from our apartment, and was an unexpected find when we arrived.

We've spent the past few days wandering around Paris and visiting both the touristy and the "true Parisian" spots. I've come away with an interesting impression: the history of France is characterized by the power of ministry, monarchy, and military. I'm sure France is not alone in this.

A Notre Dame Gargoyle
The great Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris shows the power of the ministry. I'm absolutely awestruck by the incredible workmanship of a building that's withstood eight hundred fifty years of wars and weather. The architecture outside and the artwork inside are humbling. We climbed up to the bell tower and petted the very gargoyles from the Disney movie. I'm sure of it. But like the cathedral in Rouen, again I'm left wondering if the purpose of the building was to encourage piety and faith and bring people closer to God, or was it to inspire fear and awe of the clergy. I'm not being critical of the Catholic Church, because I think religion has always been used as a means to promulgate power around the world in many faiths and cultures. I just question the point of such a grand structure, while at the same time I greatly admire it.

But at least many in the ministry tried to help those in their care who needed it, whereas those in the monarchy just seemed to abuse the commoner. We visited the Palace of Versailles and saw the power of the crown. That's another building that shows the great ingenuity and artisanship of the French people. It's beautiful and HUGE. The whole thing was designed to enforce the idea of deifying King Louis XIV. After seeing the excess of this monstrosity, I can understand why it all led to a revolution. Now in France the commoner probably has TOO much power, with their daily strikes and demonstrations. Personally, though, I'm glad the everyday person has that ability now, as obnoxious as it sometimes can be.

Louis XIV Trampling His Enemies
Like most of the world, France has a bloody military history of war after war after war. In the Battle Room at the palace, there are large paintings depicting many of the battles France has fought, the first one in about 600 A.D. Most all the paintings show a victorious general on a horse, with dead or dying enemies at his feet. It's not a pretty sight. In the U.S., France has an undeserved reputation as a pacifist nation. After seeing all these terrible battles, I think I much prefer avoiding war, not jumping into one. Too bad more nations don't feel the same way.

Maybe we should bring the leaders of warring nations to this coliseum and have them battle it out themselves.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Living the Artist's Life

We spent the past few days in the charming port city of Honfleur, in Upper Normandy. Apparently, someone named Monet also spent time here and drew a few pictures. I don't know if Monet made the town famous or the the town made him famous. But I'm hoping the town has some magical effect on those pursuing a career in the creative arts. If I'm famous soon, we'll know it worked.

We stayed in a rustic, old apartment with a private courtyard. By rustic, I mean a little dusty with the occasional bug stopping in for a visit. But it was a nice place and despite its small size, I'm sure it will seem like a mansion once we check into the tiny flat we've reserved in Paris.


Honfleur is definitely worth the cost of a train ticket! The tiny, curved streets of narrow buildings with exposed timbers takes one back a few hundred years. I would have liked to live back then and apply for the job of town crier. That would be much better than plague body remover.

Unlike other places where you often look for a specific scenic attraction, in Honfleur the town itself is what you come to experience. Although some of it is certainly touristy, much is still traditional and welcoming. On Sunday morning, we hiked up to Côte de Grâce, which sits on a short hill with a good view of the town and the Seine River. There's a monument on the hill honoring Her Lady of Grace for her protection during the Normandy Invasion when many other towns were destroyed.

We also came across a small chapel on the hill, Notre-Dame de Grâce. It had no bell tower, and instead they built a bell rack next to the church. We happened to arrive at noon just as the bells began their concert. It was fun to actually see the bells rather than just hear them up in a distant tower.

We are very much tourists here. We take pictures of doorknobs and mailboxes. But it's still fun to be a part of the culture and meet new people. As we ate dinner one evening, a young man sitting next to us turned around with a look if curiosity on his face. He was of Chinese descent and surprised to hear Mandarin and American English spoken with native accents. His Chinese name has a great English translation—Iron Breaker. I think he's actually a super hero in disguise.

I'm a little sad to leave the peaceful countryside and head back to the noise and busyness of Paris. But we've reserved an apartment, so we're on our way. I'm just glad it's by train, not another claustrophobic plane.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A City Made Famous By Executing a Righteous Babe

Stephanie and I are celebrating our twenty-fifth anniversary this month, so we decided to do something extra special—we signed up with an outfitter to go on an archery moose hunt. You should see Stephanie all decked out in camo with her bow and knife, and her face painted green.

Actually, the outfitter was booked, so we got plane tickets to France instead. This weekend we're near the northern coast in the Normandy Region and right now we're on a train going through a rural area filled with cows and sheep and of course a chapel in every little town. Last night we stayed in the medieval city of Rouen. Growing up in a city where the oldest buildings are barely one hundred years old, it's pretty cool to see structures that have been around hundreds, and even a thousand years or more.

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Rouen is one of those. This isn't the one from the Disney show—we'll see that one next week. This is a different one without a famous bell-ringing resident. But even this one is a very impressive structure. The craftsmanship of the artisans and laborers that threw this thing together is awe-inspiring. The thing that struck me most though, was this: you gotta figure that in today's dollars, this edifice must have cost millions. And those millions were spent at a time when there was a lot of suffering in the world. I wonder if any nonbelievers back then—or believers, for that matter—pondered if the money and effort might be better spent on something else. In any case, it's a beautiful building.

In the evening, we heard about a light show at the cathedral. I figured at most we'd just see a few lasers painting designs on the walls. Boy, was I ever wrong. They had a fantastic display of light, music, and sound effects that went on for an hour.

They projected the images onto the facade and told the history of France with all its wars and one of the most awesome women of all time—Joan of Arc. Or as Bill (or was it Ted) described her: a totally triumphant babe. If we saw nothing else our whole time here, it was worth coming all the way to France just for that! Madame of Arc, by the way, was burned at the stake in that very town, down the street from the cathedral, apparently with the help of some clergy members.

I'm sure the original builders of the cathedral never had a computer-synchronized light show in mind when they stacked all those rocks together. Maybe it was worth the effort after all. Do you think Miss of Arc would approve?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Groovy Pop Music

Sometimes I worry maybe I get a little too didactic in my blogs. I guess I see a lot of bad in the world counteracted by a lot of good, and I hope the good will win. So in an effort to avoid preachiness, here’s a fun story from my youth.

As I walked home from school in the fourth grade with my friend Darin, he sang a song I hadn't heard.

“We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun…”

To his utter amazement, I asked what it was.

“You’ve never heard Seasons in the Sun? It’s only the most groovy tune in the world!”

See, I was raised by parents that didn’t pay much attention to pop music. My dad listened to jazz, classical, and the world renowned Mitch Miller’s Sing Along Band. If you’ve never heard Mitch Miller, you need to look him up on YouTube. I guarantee you full minutes of entertainment. Here’s a sample.

With that background, of course I hadn’t heard of Seasons in the Sun. So after school, I went to Darin's house and we waited at least eight minutes before it played on AM 1320 KCPX. And yes, it was groovy.

Now I had to be groovy, so I went immediately home and told my older sister about it. Wendy was in sixth grade and of course had already heard the song. She and her friend Debby immediately started singing it.

I’d finally joined the groovy crowd! I could walk around the house, our street, the school playground—anywhere—and not be ashamed I didn’t know the latest hit. Our dad even bought the 45 vinyl record for us.

In reality, it’s a pretty lame song with maybe only three chords. It’s about a guy who’s dying of some terrible disease and wants to say goodbye to everyone. But the flip side of the 45 was even worse—Put the Bone In. Before you comment on that title, it’s about a dog that died and they want to bury him with a bone from the butcher shop. Both songs are about on par with most songs The Partridge Family ever put out.

A couple weeks later, Wendy and Debby hung out in our living room talking about groovy stuff when Seasons in the Sun came on KCPX. Trying to maintain my grooviness, I ran in and told them to be quiet because their favorite song was on. They looked at me like I was a stink bug.

“That song is so old,” Wendy said. “We don’t like that anymore. Now we like Run Joey Run.”

Devastation! I’d instantly lost my hipness—I liked an old, outdated song from two weeks earlier. To make it worse, Run Joey Run told about a girl named Julie whose dad is upset because she and Joey got a little too friendly. The doctor told them they were in love and better get married quickly. Julie’s dad pulls out a gun and…well, I won’t spoil it. You can watch the tragic events unfold in this official video.

Anyway, as result of all that, I stopped liking pop music for many years. Decades, really. My music tastes now vary from Tuvan throat music, to prog rock, to Indonesian Gamelan, Irish punk, jazz, classical, and, on occasion, a good pop tune like this.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

What Has Disney Taught Me?

Much to my wife Stephanie's delight, our three kids that are still at home all started school this week. One in junior high, one in high school, and one in college. So this past weekend was their last weekend of freedom. Well, not Stephanie's, her freedom started Monday morning.

Roro and Aarim both had important end-of-summer parties to attend. Tian Tian's life is a little different, though—he didn't have any parties, nor did I. Instead, he and I spent a thrilling evening searching for Disney music videos on YouTube. You can't beat that for an exciting Saturday night! Of course we found multiple language versions of Let it Go along with other fabulous hits.

Other than a monstrous global empire, what has Disney offered the world? Are our kids better or worse with Nemo toothbrushes and Olaf pillowcases? That's a question to be argued many ways, but one answer came my older daughter Miara, who once said, "The problem with the world today is people don't watch enough Disney movies." Disney may teach a lot of strange values—I mean, how come all the characters come from broken families? And they could all avoid a lot of problems if they'd just learn to communicate! But in the end, good always triumphs over evil and the bad guys always die a horrible death, like falling off a cliff or getting eaten by a crocodile.

A few years ago on a family hike in the nearby mountains, I teased the kids on how they all still liked Disney movies and songs, even as teenagers. I asked what they thought were the most important Disney songs. I suggested Colors of the Wind from Pocahontas. It may not be the best of Disney, but I think it really resonates today—probably even more so now than three years ago when we talked about this. Here's one verse.

You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You'll learn things you never knew you never knew

It may seem quaint or cheesy, but with all the hatred, violence, extremism, and conflict in the world, perhaps everyone should memorize this verse.

Aarim mentioned the song God Help the Outcasts from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Just today, I read that 3,000 refugees a day are crossing into Europe from the Mideast and Africa. Who is more outcast than homeless, stateless war refugees? While a sudden influx of refugees is a tough thing for any country to deal with, especially a smaller nation, it kind of bothers me when people show hatred for the newcomers, wherever they happen to be in the world. What would you do if you were in a war-torn country? It's very heartwarming, though, when refugees or migrants are treated with kindness and respect.

In this scene from the movie, the outcast gypsy Esmeralda is in the great cathedral praying to God.

Yes, I know I'm just an outcast
I shouldn't speak to you
Still I see Your face and wonder...
Were You once an outcast too?

God help the outcasts
Hungry from birth
Show them the mercy 
They don't find on earth

Please help my people
The poor and downtrod
I thought we all were
The children of God

Any other suggestions for important Disney songs?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Adventures in Eating

In most cultures around the world, eating together is an important part of social life. Unfortunately, especially in the West, we’re usually too busy to take part in what’s often referred to as Slow Food. Instead, we rush up to the fast food window, grab some unhealthy, fat-laden grub, then eat while we’re driving and cursing other drivers.

When my wife, Stephanie, first came to America, she commented a couple times about how life here seems different than what she expected. One day we stopped at 7-Eleven and grabbed a few items. When we left, I attempted to steer through traffic with my knee while holding a Big Gulp in one hand and a big donut in the other. Stephanie started laughing and said, “Now this is how I always pictured the American lifestyle.”

I enjoy cooking, but I’m not really that good at it and often don’t have the patience to make something really fancy. Stephanie is a good cook, but when you’re forced to cook every day, it gets to be kind of a drag. The worst part is deciding what to cook. Despite all that, we’ve tried to make a point of ensuring our family eats meals together, preferably home-cooked meals, whenever possible. I think that’s made a big difference in our family’s health and relationships, if for no other reason than it gives us time each day to complain to each other about stuff.

On our recent trip to Taiwan, we had opportunities to slow down and eat some awesome meals in very unusual locations. And not all of those were fancy, sit-down restaurants.

In the northern port city of Keelung 基隆, we stopped at a McDonald’s to buy french fries for Tian Tian, because that always makes him happy. Plus we wanted to use their air conditioner for a few minutes. Just outside the McDonald’s door, we met a young lady selling small pancakes shaped like various sea creatures. She stood out there in the hot weather most every day from morning until evening, making and selling these little cakes. It may not seem like a glamorous career, but she sure came across as happy and cheerful. And it made us happy after we bought a couple bags from her and had fun guessing what the creatures were.

Also in Keelung, we stopped at a noodle house where they made their own noodles. The kitchen stretched out onto the sidewalk, which Tian Tian found very interesting, so he took a picture with the cooks. He’s a picky eater, but he ate his entire bowl of noodles. Consuming noodles that are both temperature hot and spicy hot on a day that is very humid hot, seems a little counterintuitive. My son-in-law Colton made mention of that several times on our trip. But it sure tasted good!

In the kitchen of the noodle house, which was actually the sidewalk.
You can’t go to Keelung without visiting the famous Miaokou Night Market 基隆廟口夜市 which actually runs all day long. We ordered fruit drinks that are sort of like Slurpees, but a lot tastier and made with real fruit (no HFCS!). Each of us mixed and matched our own creation. Aarim’s mango pineapple turned out to be the best choice.

Icy Fruit Treats in the Miaokou Night Market
One day we ate with the whole extended family, in celebration of my mother-in-law’s eighty-fifth birthday. To be honest, the restaurant food wasn’t really that awesome, but it sure was fun eating with all our relatives, especially for such an important occasion. Tian Tian liked eating the whole fish, head included—he’s not picky about that. Most of us may forget what we ate that day, but we’ll always remember how happy Grandma was with her family around her.

Fish head dinner!
We had another meal with—and I’m not making this up—Stephanie’s classmates from her elementary school! She’s kept in touch with them all these years and it’s usually a good meal that brings them all together. They’re an interesting group, including a former pop singer and famous director, a well-known and much-sought-after fertility specialist, the owner of one of the largest tech companies in the whole country, among others, and of course a few normal people like Stephanie and I.

I mentioned in another post about our dinner at the Hualien Rainbow Night Market. The vegetables were great, the steak was so-so, but the atmosphere was something we’ll never forget. Night markets are always noisy, with a million different odors competing for attention, and you really feel like you’re not in Kansas anymore. We kind of had to toss aside any preconceptions about restaurant cleanliness standards. But maybe that’s why it all tasted good.

Steak and vegetable dinner at the Rainbow Night Market
It doesn’t take a fancy meal to make you happy. One afternoon, we took a gondola ride up to the small tea village of Maokong 貓空 in the mountains near Taipei. On that hot and humid day, the best thing was fresh-squeezed lemonade. And Maokong has a great view of terraced tea fields stretched out below, with the hazy city below that. Riding back down, we chose the Eyes of Maokong car, which has a glass bottom allowing you to see straight down. With the wind blowing the car around, it was definitely a butt-clenching experience.

Lemonade at Maokong
We can’t forget the “fun” food. One of the funnest and tastiest is the giant mango ice cream cones. Aarim got one at the Danshui 淡水 waterfront near Fisherman’s Wharf 漁人碼頭. It’s not easy to eat that much ice cream before it all melts in the tropical heat without getting a major brain freeze in the process.

Giant mango ice cream cone
My sister-in-law Liu-Ming took us to a Cajun restaurant one evening. Who would expect you could find good bayou food in the middle of Taipei? It’s a very outward-looking, cosmopolitan city, though, and you can find everything from Nigerian to Brazilian to KFC. Some has been Sinicized, but much is very authentic. My first date with Stephanie was at a KFC in Taipei.

The authentic Shaanxi restaurant
There are two meals from our trip that really stand out. One was in a restaurant near my mother-in-law’s house specializing in Shaanxi food. They’d designed the restaurant to look like a traditional shop, with curved portals and rough walls covered in graffiti. I really felt like I’d apparated to the middle of Xi’an. The food itself tasted great and further transported us to an exotic locale. And your neighborhood Costco food court definitely doesn’t have lamb kabobs, tree fungus, or duck blood soup on the menu.

Shaanxi duck blood soup. Poor ducks.
My favorite meal of the whole trip, though, was in the mountains of northern Taiwan, at the small town of Zhuzihu 竹子湖, with our immediate family and my sister-in-law, Olive. The town is famous for its Alocasia flowers 海芋花 that bloom beautifully each May. We missed the blooming display, but I specifically wanted to go to this restaurant after Olive took us there a year earlier.

Lunch at the Zhuzihu restaurant with Aunt Olive. Yum!
The restaurant at Zhuzihu is in the subtropical forest surrounded by cypress trees, bamboo, and giant ferns. The cicadas that time of year are incredibly loud, to the point you sometimes can’t hear one another speak. The short video below gives a sample of the sounds. Be sure to put on headphones and turn it up loud!

A soft breeze blows through the forest around the restaurant, just enough to make it comfortable. The tables surround a small koi pond and overlook the town below. It’s one of the more exotic and beautiful locations I’ve ever been to. A surprising quirk was the music they played—classic western jazz. Sitting there, surrounded by family and the forest, eating great food, while listening to cicadas and jazz, is definitely something I want to do every time I visit Taiwan.

Sometimes, I guess, it’s not really the meal itself that matters.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Glory of Meditation

Eternal Spring Shrine
At the end of our recent excursion to Taroko National Park in Eastern Taiwan, we neared the bottom of the gorge and spotted Eternal Spring Shrine, a Buddhist edifice built on the mountain above a waterfall. It was quite a sight. But when we saw the crowds of tourists (mostly from mainland China) we had second thoughts about taking the short hike to view it. In the end, we chose to take pictures from a distance, then headed back down the mountain.

We neared the main road and saw a sign for a different Buddhist monastery, but noticed no vehicles heading up that direction. We figured what the heck, why not check it out? It turned out to be a great choice—it was a highlight of our entire trip to Taiwan.
Chan Guang Monastery 禪光寺
We arrived at the Chan Guang Temple 禪光寺 late in the afternoon, and there was only one other car in the whole parking lot.

Chan Guang probably has many translations, but I think an apt rendition is The Glory of Meditation. The temple itself sits up on a hill, above a wide staircase and surrounded by the dense subtropical forest common in Taiwan. And of course, the everpresent singing of cicadas.
The grounds at Chan Guang
The temple grounds had sparse, but well-groomed bushes, lotus pots, orchids, incense censers, and lamps.

We wandered around the empty plaza and took pictures of the beautiful surroundings and of each other. After the crowds of the other tourist spots in Taroko, this was a wonderfully refreshing retreat.
The forest around Chan Guang
Nobody pushed us out of the way. Nobody jumped in front of our camera as we posed. And nobody tried selling us anything.

As we relaxed, I kept hearing the sound of Buddhist meditation chants and so decided to investigate. The music got louder as I climbed to the third floor. At the top, a large meditation chamber with three giant golden Buddha statues overlooked the whole valley. I’d hoped to see monks chanting, but I guess they’d retired for the day. Instead, they had a recording of the chanting monks. And it wasn’t a cheesy tape player, either. It was a powerful sound system with concert-quality speakers, and the hall had awesome acoustics.

It’s hard to understate the beauty and peace one felt while standing in that large hall, listening to the mesmerizing chants, overlooking the steep, green hills as clouds floated past the nearby peaks. I wanted to set up a lawn chair and just camp out forever.

Bridge and stairs up to the bell tower
We eventually decided to leave but noticed a long suspension bridge stretched out over the river. And again we thought, what the heck, let’s see where it leads. So Aarim and Roro led me across the bridge (“Weight limit, 5 people”) and we discovered a path and stairs leading up the mountain on the opposite side. After a short hike, we found ourselves at a bell tower with a commanding view of Chan Guang Temple and the river valley.

Bell tower above Chan Guang

All I can say about this whole excursion is, Wow! Had we not thought to take a less-used road away from the tour buses, we’d never have had such a memorable experience.
On the bell tower, overlooking Chan Guang Temple

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Kungfu Panda & Pagodas

I’m sitting in the Narita Airport with a three-hour layover, so I might as well put my time to good use and do some writing. Our family is returning from a two-week trip in Taiwan to visit my in-laws and do a little sightseeing. I could write many pages about this whole trip, but today I’ll just tell about an excursion we took to Taroko National Park on the east coast. Many people consider this an obligatory trip when visiting Taiwan. But despite all the times our family has been to the island, this is the first time to Taroko.

To get there, we took a three-hour train ride through beautiful, green scenery and many, many tunnels. I love train rides like this, especially the exotic scenery and small towns. We passed through the coastal city of Luodong, where I lived for several months a long time ago—one of my most favorite places I’ve ever lived. It’s a town built around a large park, with the park being the center of most activity. That tends to add a sense of casualness to life in the city. It’s like having a big front porch on your house.

Taroko is accessed from the city of Hualien, a comfortable town right on the coast. Taiwan lies on the edge of the continental shelf of Asia and Hualien is on the edge of Taiwan. That means the deep ocean is very near by. That fact is very apparent when typhoons arrive. Big cruise ships and container haulers ply the waters just off the coast.

Our first night in Hualien, we chose to eat in the Rainbow Night Market. That sounds kind of cool, and I suppose it is. But the sanitary conditions in a rural night market are, shall we say, far below typical Boy Scout camp levels. We sat at a lopsided table with a sticky coating from previous patrons, where a contingent of flies and mosquitos joined us. It would make my loving mother cringe, but it’s the type of experience we’ll always remember. Plus, we sat near a very chunky dog who I’m convinced couldn’t move under his own power. He had his very own special chair and a dedicated fan blowing on him the whole time. It was cute, but reminded me of the humans in Wall-E.

The next day we drove up the canyon to Taroko. It’s a beautiful area with an impressive limestone canyon that’s been hardened by tectonic movement into marble. (I know this, because Wikipedia told me.) The walls shoot up high above the road and drop precipitously down into the gorge just a few feet from the edge of the pavement. It’s definitely worth a visit!

We took a several short hikes through the subtropical forest, where it’s always fun to see the insect and arachnid life, and sweat a few gallons in the humidity. We ate lunch at another sticky table in a traditional aboriginal village. The unique, ancient culture—dating back thousands of years—was very apparent in our menu of Chips Ahoy and Pringles, and in the shrine dedicated to Jeremy Lin.

The Tian Xiang area at the top of the Taroko Gorge draws the most visitors. There’s a small village with shops and restaurants, and a very long flight of stairs leading to a seven-tier pagoda high above village, and another spiral staircase that leads to the top of that. It’s kind of like the temple in Kungfu Panda and the stairs that lead down to the Special Ingredient Noodles. Except there wasn’t a talking panda, unfortunately.

Many people choose to take photos of the pagoda from a distance, especially when it’s so hot and humid. But our kids wouldn’t stand for that. Aarim and Roro led me up all those stairs to the top tier of the pagoda. It provided an impressive view of the surrounding area, but more importantly, a refreshing, strong wind. We had cell reception so we called my wife who waited down in the village with Tian Tian.
He answered and we watched his orange shirt bobbing across the village like a tiny lady bug as he ran around looking for Stephanie. Once he found her, they looked up and saw us waving down from the pagoda high above them, like little praying mantises.

After all that, we had another interesting adventure on the way down the canyon. But I’ll leave that for another posting.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

One Bad Decision...

I think it’s human nature to make snap judgements before we really know what’s going on. We often jump to conclusions even if we only have a small set of facts. I heard an experience recently that showed how there’s always another side to the story.

This involved a young lady breaking into my friend’s car—a car parked in plain view of a large office building full of employees and police officers. A herd of incredulous people watched the whole thing happen, including her prompt arrest. The lady was a poster child for meth addicts: all skin and bones, with scabs and missing teeth.

Everyone’s first reaction was, “Duh, we could all see you!” She could have walked two minutes to a nearby neighborhood full of cars not under surveillance. And it seemed pretty obvious she was only feeding her addiction. If she’d never gotten hooked on drugs in the first place, or had tried to get clean, she wouldn’t have ended up in jail.

But like most things in life, there’s a less-obvious back story. In her case, that back story is tragic, and it could happen to anyone. I heard the humbling details from one of the arresting officers.

This hardened, drug-addicted, wasted lady was once a young, promising athlete at her high school. The daughter of a prominent and well-off family. Popular, pretty, with a full life ahead of her. One day she had a serious sports injury and her subsequent recovery required strong pain killers. The powerful medicine soon led to an addition. The addiction led to dropping out of school and hitting the streets. Living on the streets eventually led her to a parking lot where police officers watched her break into my friend’s car. And that, of course, led her to jail.

Think for a minute of her family and former friends, those who loved her and perhaps watched her fall into a life nobody would want. Think of her own broken dreams and lost hopes, and her long-gone athletic career. Think of what she herself has thought about as she’s slept on the streets.

This story hit me hard as I thought of my own children and their many sports injuries. How easy would it be for them to follow the same path? What about my own injury-of-the-week program and the meds I’ve needed?

It’s very easy to judge others. Why didn’t you just quit the pain killers when you first had a problem? Why didn’t you reach out to others for help? Why didn’t you try a recovery program?

But when I heard the back story, I had a different question.

Why have I been so lucky to not end up just like her?

There have been so many times in my life where a simple decision could have led me down a very different path. I truly believe that I—and all of us, really—am only one bad decision away from a disaster. No one should be so arrogant to think something like that could never happen to them.

I don’t know what happened to the young lady after the arrest, but I hope it finally led her on the path to recovery.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Making Friends in Exotic Places

Last fall, we made a sort-of-last-minute trip to Athens, Greece to take care of an eye condition for my younger son, Tian Tian. When you think of medical tourism, Athens isn’t the first place that comes to mind. In fact, people there often raised their eyebrows and said, “We usually go to your country for that.” But for our son’s condition—keratoconus—one of the best corneal surgeons in the world happens to work in Athens. I’m glad he works there and not, say, Syria.
Our neighbors in Athens

We found an apartment through Airbnb and chose to live like regular Athenians, or rather Athenians that couldn’t speak Greek. It was fun living in a normal neighborhood, shopping at the supermarkets and bakeries, and acting like we’d lived there our whole lives—except we got lost a few times. Plus, it was a lot cheaper than a hotel. During our ten days there, nearby shop owners and residents started to recognize us and wave at us like old friends. It’s the kind of place I could definitely live long term, though the air quality was a little iffy.

After Tian Tian’s eye procedure, the doctor wanted to see him every day, which meant we couldn’t take any trips to the beach or the countryside. But we had a little free time, and Tian Tian recuperated quickly, so we decided to visit the local sites—you can’t go all the way to Greece and not do at least a little sightseeing. One afternoon, we went to the big Acropolis Museum, the Parthenon, the Theatre of Dionysus, the Roman Agora, and other ancient and very Greece-ey places.

It seems you can’t take more than a few steps in Athens without tripping over something ancient. One restroom had a ruin right in the middle of the floor—they just built a glass ramp over it so you could bask in the glory of Ancient Greek culture while taking care of other business.

After spending the afternoon visiting lots of old stuff, we decided to head back to our little apartment and cook dinner like normal, non-tourist folks do, so as to not strain Tian Tian too much. Before heading to the bus stop, we found ourselves in Monastiraki Square as the sun set and the full moon rose, surrounded by tourists, locals, and the sounds and scents of Greek culture and food. It was tough to leave such an exotic and beautiful scene, so we bought chicken gyros, barbecued corns-on-the-cob, and drinks, then sat down on the steps to enjoy the atmosphere.

A very talented young man started a live concert, playing about a dozen different types of flutes. The ethereal sounds of his music floated through the crowds and echoed off the buildings. The full moon brightly lit the busy square. The Parthenon glowed on its perch above us, overlooking the city like a friendly sentinel. And the gyros and corn tasted great.

Tian Tian's New Best Friend from Somalia
As we sat there listening to the music, a small crowd of African immigrants slowly gathered on the stairs around us, also enjoying the concert and drinking a lot of beer. One man in his thirties started a conversation with Tian Tian and the two became instant friends—our son seems to have that affect on people. We couldn’t understand all of his English, but he told how he was orphaned in Somalia when younger, and later came to Greece looking for work. (He picked a rather inopportune time, given Greece’s economic issues.) He had a brother with a disability similar to Tian Tian’s, who has Down Syndrome. I don’t know how much of his story was true, or how much of it was the beer talking, but he was a very friendly guy and helped Tian Tian forget the problems with his eyes and how tired his legs were.

Given that we were in a foreign country, surrounded by immigrants of another culture and language, and it was well after dark, I think some people might have been nervous in a situation like that. Well, maybe I’m just naïve and like to see the good in people, but I felt very safe and comfortable there. In fact, if Tian Tian wasn’t so tired, I would have wanted to stay there all evening, listening to the flutes and talking with our new friends.

We eventually took a very harrowing taxi ride back to our apartment and retired for the night. But I’ll always remember the evening our family of three from America joined a small crowd of Somalis in downtown Athens listening to flute music under the full moon.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Urban Jungle Assault

Did you know the Tropic of Cancer runs through the country of Taiwan? That simple fact placed the sun at it’s northern-most latitude—directly above Taiwan—right when we decided to visit our extended family there last June. In fact, I think the sun followed us around whenever we stepped outside.

Taiwan is an island nation which by definition means “surrounded by lots of water.” And that water comes up from the south as part of the warm Kuroshio Current. We definitely noticed the sun and humidity. Near-100-degree (37c) temperatures and near-100-percent humidity make for a climate very different from the high deserts and alpine mountains in northern Utah. But despite coasts that are, obviously, at sea level, the central mountains rise up nearly as high as those in Utah—13,000 feet (4,000m). So imagine going from sea level up to 13,000 feet and back down in the space of 90 miles (145km). That would be a tough bicycle ride.

All of this makes for interesting geography and climate, which in turn make it an interesting place for outdoor activities. The humid heat drenched us as soon as we stepped out the door, but the low elevation in the cities and coasts made it hard to get much of a cardio workout.

Despite all that, my daughter Roro and I attempted to stay in shape through a regimen of urban jungle running. Our first daytime assault left us dripping wet before we even crossed the street, so we later decided to escape the daylight sauna and run after sunset.
On the stairs overlooking the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial grounds
The sprawling Chiang Kai Shek memorial park 中正紀念堂 is a couple blocks from my mother-in-law’s house. There we found a crowd of other runners circumnavigating the grounds each night. The outer sidewalk provided an easier run, but a guerilla strike through the tropical trees and koi ponds of the park’s interior proved much more interesting. A few times we forced a full frontal attack on the long stairs leading up to the memorial—Roro did much better at that than I.

On a short trip down the west coast, we tried another inner-city blitz in the morning rush hour streets of Hsin Chu 新竹. We ended up dodging a minefield of smog-choked traffic. That proved entertaining and we moved a lot faster than the cars did, but I think the damage to our lungs outweighed the benefits.

The thick foliage around Mingchih
Our best offensive occurred in the mountains near a small resort area called Ming Chih 明池. The elevation there was low by Rocky Mountain standards, around 4,000 feet (1,200m), but the lack of vehicles and soup-bowl humidity of the cities made it much more comfortable. We started just after sunset and weaved along a narrow road surrounded by foliage so thick you could never get through it without a chainsaw. Or napalm. The cicadas hummed their noisy songs in a deafening symphonic rhythm. Bats darted through the skies above us. Few scenes could be more peaceful and relaxing—until we startled a sleeping dog that howled and made us slam into each other.

All of this was an attempt to maintain some level of fitness so we could run the Spartan Beast a few days after we returned home. Going from three-and-a-half weeks living at sea level to running a 12-mile (19km) obstacle race at 5,500 feet (1,700m) ended up being a bad decision—the Spartan was very grueling!
Mist-filled mountains around Mingchih

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Foreign Tooth Fairies

Proudly missing a valuable tooth
A number of years ago, we traveled as a family to visit my in-laws in Taiwan. While there, my younger daughter Roro had a loose tooth fall out. She immediately got justifiably worried because she didn’t think the tooth fairy would visit her in Taiwan. We explained how the tooth fairy visits ALL children, but that led to a big discussion because her cousins hadn’t received visits from the tooth fairy before, and in fact had never even heard of the tooth fairy—we had to explain the whole concept to them.

Roro got even more worried. She didn’t think Taiwan had a tooth fairy and even if she was there, she probably wasn’t very good because nobody knew about her.

But she went to bed anyway, and carefully placed the tooth under her pillow where the lame Taiwan tooth fairy would hopefully find it. She didn’t have much hope, though, and thought the tooth fairy would certainly leave her empty-handed.

Then a dental miracle happened.

It seems that Roro’s aunts were also worried the tooth fairy wouldn’t arrive, so they decided to help out. Without telling anyone else—including each other—they each crept into the room and added a little of their own money under the pillow. This went on all night, with people sneaking into the room and adding to the pile.

The next morning, as we all sat in the living room talking, we heard some very excited sounds coming from Roro’s room. She came running out with a big wad of cash in her hands.

With a huge smile on her face, she proclaimed, “The Taiwan tooth fairy is WAY better than the American tooth fairy!”

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Song of Hope

I was recently in the gym talking, coincidentally, to a guy named Jim, and the Styx song Come Sail Away played on the radio. Thinking about that song, it certainly hasn’t been a great, influential part of my life that inspired or comforted me, or even has great sentimental value. But as I told my friend Jim, it’s interesting how my mode of listening to that song has changed over the years.

I first heard Come Sail Away in elementary school on the little AM transistor radio I used to hang on my wrist. I liked the song because it mentioned starships, and I was really into anything that had anything to do with space. I was so cool because I knew lyrics to a pop song.

But that was just the beginning.

Not long after that, I recall going to a friend’s house and listening to Come Sail Away on his dad’s old 8-track tape player. Actually it wasn’t old at the time, and it was really awesome how some songs would suddenly fade out half-way through the music, then fade back in when it switched tracks. It was state of the art.

Or so I thought.

When I reached junior high school age, another friend had the song on a 45 record, which we listened to often. The good thing about records was how they’d get damaged, then skip and keep playing the same part of the song over and over. Few kids were as hip as us.

But things got even hipper.

In high school, I attended an outing with a youth group where we took a bus to another city. Someone on the bus had the whole Styx Grand Illusion album on a cassette tape and played it repeatedly on his boom box while we all sang along. We had to wait after each playing as he rewound the tape, which was a good thing because it allowed us to catch our breath.

Then I took a breather from the song for a while.

Come Sail Away sort of faded out of my life for about ten years until I bought it on CD as a Christmas present for my oldest daughter. I was happy that she liked a song that I liked when I was young. We’d listen to it together and we’d finally reached the epitome of the digital age.

But I was wrong.

Several more years passed and my two older kids, who’d grown into teenagers themselves by then, joined a youth group outing just like the one I’d done so many years earlier. This time I was the driver in our 8-passenger Land Cruiser. My son pulled out his iPod Shuffle and we plugged it into the stereo via the cassette tape adapter. And once again, all eight passengers—two generations—sang along to the same old song. Come Sail Away had sailed full circle.

But there was still wind in its sails.

As I sit here and write this, Come Sail Away is playing on the same stereo that we used to listen to the CD when my daughter was younger. But this time, my phone is streaming the song from Spotify and it’s connected to the stereo via wi-fi. And my kids—the older and the younger ones— are singing along.

So where do we sail from here?

I’m hoping we can stream music directly into our brain from a satellite. Then we can just think of a song and it’ll play.

Perhaps this “song of hope” does have great sentimental value after all, as I think of childhood friends and the dreams we had.

Come Sail Away on iTunes

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Village People

It’s been a while since I posted here, so I thought I’d re-start with a very intellectually stimulating story. A number of years ago, I participated in a humanitarian trip to a small village in eastern Indonesia. Our group of about twenty included retirees, teens, and many in between. We busied ourselves during the day helping install a clean water system for the villagers. In the evenings, we relaxed, spent time with the locals, and shared in each others cultures. Looking back at this experience, it was really a highlight in my adult life, especially the story I’m about to relate.

With no electricity in the village except for a small generator, the community center had the only lights, so we’d often gather there after dinner. One evening, I joined a couple high school kids from our group and we sat on a fence near the community center with several twenty-something men from the village. The villagers didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Indonesian, but we had fun trying to hit things with rocks, attempting to stand on the fence posts with one leg, and other guy things.

Meanwhile, two high school girls from our group, who happened to be sisters, stood on the outside steps of the community center trying to teach a group of villagers an English song. They’d chosen the classic If You’re Happy and You Know It. I’m sure you’ve heard this one: If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands (everyone claps), etc. They struggled getting the point of the song across, since nobody spoke English, but the villagers all readily joined in clapping their hands, stomping their feet, flapping their arms, and other entertaining actions.

Those of us on the fence watched this after having eaten a large dinner that included some spicy beans. At one point, one of the kids with us accidentally made a rather embarrassing bean-related sound.

We all looked at him and his response was something like, “Was that out loud?”

One of the villagers who knew a couple English words, laughed and said, “Katoot. That’s katoot.”

We suddenly realized we had inadvertently learned a very useful Indonesian word. And it was way better than the English word for the same thing.

While this was going on, the sisters on the steps arrived at the verse, “If you’re happy and you know it, show a smile.” But the villagers couldn’t quite get the smile concept, despite the girls pushing the sides of their mouths up until they looked like The Joker.

One of the girls finally turned to us and asked, “Does anyone know the Indonesian word for smile?”

My buddy, who’d just produced the sound that helped us learn the new word, happily obliged. “It’s katoot.”

She thanked him and continued with the song. “If you’re happy and you know it, katoot!”

Of course everyone instantly smiled, so she and her sister assumed it was correct and started dancing while proudly telling everyone to katoot. Soon the whole village was laughing and the girl finally realized something was wrong.

She turned back to us. “Hey, what does that really mean?”

By that point, we’d fallen off the fence, unable to respond.