Wednesday, December 29, 2010

day 98_and I'm off!

Thursday morning when I woke well before my alarm (around 5am), I conceded that there was no hope in falling back to sleep with so much anticipated adventure in my day. At least that gave me plenty of time to prepare: showering, cleaning, packing the few last minute items, taking out the trash, paying any bills that might be due in my absence, etc!

My building security had the taxi I'd requested ready and waiting at our front door at 7:30am, ready for the 45 minute ride to the airport. So, with one suitcase entirely filled with Christmas gifts (the larger suitcase) and another lightly packed suitcase with a few clothing and trip essentials, I hopped into the backseat to begin my 24 hour commute home.

First stop: Taoyuan International Airport - just outside Taipei City.
Thankfully, my check in at the airport was easy and uneventful. I haven't spent much time there and I am typically in such a rush to be either coming or going, that I guess I have never really looked around. It's interesting that in some cities, the airport may be the only place you've seen - and I'm sure I will passing through this one plenty of times - I decided to look around a bit while I waited. The airport was actually quite nice, and of course had an abundance of overpriced Taiwan-influenced gifts and souvenirs...

Decorative local art at the Taoyuan Airport.
Second stop: Narita International Airport - Tokyo, Japan.
When it came to purchasing my flight, I had decided to go with the cheapest ticket (which means more layovers), and I chose a ticket with United (which means the inevitable layovers at Narita, one of their hubs). This airport was quite nice in my opinion, even though I didn't see much of it. I strolled my terminal, looking at duty-free gifts, and admiring the eat-in or take-out sushi menu near my gate. Mmmm. Many people like to ask me how long my journey home takes - and that depends on if you want to know the actual flying time, or the time from door to door, including times like this spent wandering among the souvenirs...

Third stop: San Fransisco International Airport - San Fransisco, California, USA.
I suppose the benefit to having multiple layovers was that it really broke up the flying time - instead of having any flights totalling 10+ hours, the longest leg of my trip was only 8 hours 49 minutes (the hop across the big pond), and was more than manageable considering it consisted of dinner and a 7 hour snooze, followed by breakfast. I was also thrilled to discover that security at the San Fran airport was business as usual... I guess they have not been blessed with the new full body scanners that everyone is ranting about lately. The best part about my final layover? My brief discussion with the customs officer which went something like this:
"I see that you've been living in Taiwan, ma'am?"
"And approximately how long was the duration of your stay?"
"Around about 100 days..."
"Well, welcome back to the United States of America. Welcome home ma'am."
"Thank you!" (and said to myself in my head "God bless America!")

Despite the super short layover, exceptionally long security lines, crowded holiday travel madness, and delayed receipt of my luggage (ugh... which had to be re-checked upon entry to the United States), I managed to catch my last flight! Barely. After a longer-than-average commute home, I made it to my final destination:

Fourth stop: Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Dallas, Texas, USA.

[From my apartment in Taipei to my house in Dallas]: +/- 23 hours and 30 minutes
[and for those of you who even dare saying this is too far away for a visit... not to worry... you can certainly buy a flight with fewer layovers, and significantly less travel time :) ]

day 97_almost there...

Well, clearly day 97 came and went... but that is around the time that I fell off the face of my blog and went MIA! Now that I'm comfortably settled and the majority of my holiday festivities are through, I need to get "back in the saddle again", so to speak. :)

What actually happened on day 97 - I finally had the opportunity to visit the Taipei 101 observatory on the 89th floor, with wonderful views of the city, beautiful handcrafted Taiwanese art & jewelry, and informational displays about the building... only for my camera battery to die after the first picture! Which means, I will have to go back again another day.

Me with "Damper baby"
He is sort of TAIPEI 101's mascot:

A character fashioned after the 4 gigantic wind dampers located in the TAIPEI 101 tower.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

day 96_ready for the holidays

Tuesday was again a busy workday. I did spend a very nice lunch break munching on a traditional Taiwanese lunch box, and enjoying some sunshine in a park near my office. Followed by work, work, work! Honestly, I took the evening off - from shopping, blogging, etc! Prepping for my holiday trip home actually doesn't require that much work, but I think I am just emotionally exhausted from the anticipation. I forced myself to go straight home last night (no more holiday shopping!) and work on laundry, packing, and general preparations for my trip.

This is a small temple in a the park near my office where we ate lunch. Photo taken in the evening, on the way home from work. So beautiful. :)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

day 95_shopping spree

Monday was a gorgeous day, with slightly chilly weather, but not bad for December... and one day closer to the end of my countdown to Christmas! So [my husband knows me best, this won't surprise him at all...] I went shopping for a few last minute Christmas gifts, and got swept up in the holiday spirit. One gift turned into two, followed by three, four, five, six, seven... I think I bought eight -small- gifts yesterday on my way home from work! I usually have so much fun Christmas shopping that I forget I am emptying my wallet at the same time. :) And I did just that. When I realized I had just enough cash left to grab a quick dinner (which is not much)... I figured that was enough last minute shopping for one day! Whew.

I tend to see an item and think of someone, but the someone always turns into a chain of someones... because I don't want to leave anyone else out! Specifically, I have been trying to scope out gifts that people would like/use (not just trinkets), but also that have a bit of Asian flair... that say "I brought this to you from the other side of the plant - in case you didn't notice." Also, I admit. I got suckered into buying a baby gift just because it was cute (I try to set better standard for myself when shopping, because I would much rather buy gifts that are special, not just cute), everything baby is cute... so generic... but I am just so excited about becoming an aunt soon (this week I think!) that I couldn't contain myself! As I may have mentioned before, shopping in Taipei is endless - from bargain outlets, to exclusive designer department stores, to street vendors. If you know where to look, you can buy anything here... I, however, am still learning where to look for things... So, one cute generic baby gift later... I'm standing over my half packed suitcase thinking I have enough gifts now to fill more than one suitcase on the flight back! Ha. At least the little munchkin with look cute, and be too young too remember the first whatever gift. Note to self, must find awesome Asian baby gifts for future occasions!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

day 94_another day in the life

Eclectic decor, soft lighting, and hot tea
made this apartment a very cozy place to spend a Sunday evening. 

Sometimes I think I forget to clue you all in on what it is like to be a foreigner in a far away land - so before I go ahead and say that today was just another day (because it was, pretty uneventful all in all)... let's see... where should I begin?

It began with a very leisurely morning with much Skype chatting with my far away family. Everyone is anticipating seeing me so soon and so am I! It is hard to believe I only have a few days left before the holidays! Anyways, once all the chatting was through I thought maybe I would give packing a preliminary go-round just to see how all of those gifts fit in my suitcase. I'm really wishing I could take home an extra empty suitcase to bring things back in... so I started out by trying to pack a suitcase within a suitcase... and then put the contents in the inner bag... Right. It didn't take long for me to decide this might be my crazy logic gone wrong, and my stomach was growling anyways... I guess I will have to finish the packing later... soon! It was about time to find some lunch (around 1pm-ish I think...) and there is a particular lane I've been wanting to check out - so I took the MRT and walked around the block before I stumbled upon the area I had in mind. Sure enough! I found a tiny little place with a diner-like menu [Burgers, shakes, fries, etc.] for more or less local prices ~ amazing! [Western food usually comes at a premium] After scarfing down my BLT & half the side of fries (the serving was huge), I headed to the office for a couple of hours. In preparation for the holidays, I am trying to stay ahead of the game. I definitely intend to enjoy my time off - with no work interruptions (hopefully)!

I ran into some coworkers at the office who invited me to dinner ~ charming ~ and it is always nice to have plans, company, an excuse to be out and about... so I enjoyed dining on Pizza Hut & Coke at one of their apartments this evening with a few other friends. I was eyeing a particular pizza for awhile before I decided to just brave it and try it out (Was that a hash brown on the pizza slice? A chicken nugget?) Turns out, it was a fish fillet on the pizza slice...

After dinner I stopped by the grocery store on the way home to buy some toilet paper. I stood in front of the packages debating for quite some time because all of the brands I didn't recognize had at least these words on the package "toilet tissue" - but the Kleenex packages had zero English... thank you Kleenex. So, I bought the Kleenex brand anyways [clinging to what I know, and the fact that their product had the FSC certified label on the packaging... it's sustainable... look it up...] only to come home, open the printer plastic wrapping to discover that in fact, I did not buy a roll of toilet paper, I bought individual squares of toilet tissue... Which I draped interestingly over my toilet roll holder... And honestly, for all I know that's not even what they are! There is a cute puppy on the package, but surely these aren't actually for puppy potty training...

So, what do you know?! Just another day in the life! ;)

Hanging out with the monkeys, after dinner.

day 93_Christmas is coming!

First and foremost ~ HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!! ~ to my dear sweet husband. It's the end of a decade love, make it memorable! :)

Other than that, just thought I would post some of the holiday decor around town. I've been scoping out holiday displays every chance I get, and there is no shortage! It doesn't seem to matter that I am in Asia, the retailers still decorate and run sales for the holiday! I'm not sure that Christmas decorations would be as widespread if I were looking in people's individual homes, but in public - the Christmas holiday season is in full swing! I suppose I have found as many holiday displays as I would expect in any large city. :)

Festive Tree, front of Idee Gallerie design showroom
Festive lights, Plaza adjacent to Taipei 101.

White Christmas tree, Sogo Department store
Nativity Scene (this is the only one I've seen so far...), In front of a bank
Christmas tree, Taipei 101 Mall entrance
Tip of the tree, next to Taipei 101 Tower!
My favorite lights display so far, adjacent to Citibank
Last but not least, my own building lobby.
Since I have not decorated my apartment - at least this greets me every time I come home :)
Even though I did not decorate my own place this year... I can certainly picture going all out next winter and inviting over my Taiwanese friends for a very cozy Christmas celebration! :) The holidays feel like 'home,' you know? Being out of my element, there are certainly some items /moments/etc. that feel like 'home' and Christmas will always be one of them! Might need to find room for some of my favorite Christmas decorations to sneak back in my suitcase!

day 92_green roof!

Friday was a long and busy workday, filled with too many tasks to accomplish in one day, a very long meeting with a client (new to me, already a client of my firm), and my third Chinese lesson. I am grateful to be busy and also trying to accomplish as much as possible before the holidays so that I can rest easy during my time off.

The coolest thing about Friday was touring a green roof! Green roofs are a neat idea [literally, constructing a green environment on the roof of a building, and establishing the correct soil, fertilization, and watering systems to maintain the mini eco-system] and something I have heard much talk of, but rarely seen. Most anyone is willing to switch out a few light bulbs for compact fluorescents... but revamp and entire roof and maintain it? Unlikely. In Taipei especially - or any large city where buildings often touch each other with no open or green space in between - it is a way to add some nature back to the cluster of concrete and man made buildings. This building did an excellent job of creating a beautiful oasis! [And made me wish so many more people would follow their lead!] They hired a landscape architect to assist with planning and design, and provided educational plaques upon completion to educate building occupants about the benefits of a green roof. The design used cinder blocks bordering the perimeter of all green areas, and even the cinder blocks were used as planters for additional greenery sprouting out of the two openings in each block. The plant selection featured local vegetation that would thrive in the Taiwanese climate, and the green roof is watered using 100% harvested rainwater. It was pretty fabulous in my opinion - and a really lovely rooftop escape with a nice view looking out upon the city as well. If you ever visit, maybe I will take you there...

Silly me - I didn't take my camera with me, and of course, this would have been an awesome photography opportunity. I guess that means I will have to visit again to take pictures for your viewing enjoyment!

Friday, December 17, 2010

day 91_false alarm

Crosswalk on the way home from work.
Green means go home, people!

After a long day at work, I was ready to get home and have some dinner shortly before crawling into bed. I bought my beef noodles from the shop around the corner that I like so much... but hadn't been to lately. Made it up to the apartment, settled onto the love seat with my noodles and a remote and started watching Australia's Next Top Model - not as good as Britain's Next Top Model, just for the record.

Just as I was preparing to dive into my steaming hot bowl of noodles (chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other), a Chinese woman's voice began broadcasting very loudly from inside my apartment. Something about the 5th floor? Oh brother. Did someone pull the fire alarm? Was the building actually on fire? I figured I had better move and find out, so I grabbed my purse [I guess if the building was on fire the rest could go with it... there is not too much in my apartment to begin with :) ] and headed down the stairs, instead of the elevator. Once I entered the lobby there were 4 or 5 others standing there with me, apparently most of the tenants had already decided this was a false alarm. I waited patiently as the building manager explained what was going on to the other tenants in Chinese... then asked what was up. False alarm. He said maybe someone burned something on the stove, or tried to smoke inside the building.

Ok, no big deal. Now I know that my fire alarm works. I know not to expect a siren - it is a woman speaking calmly, but firmly in Chinese [I still feel like she was saying the fifth floor when she should have said first floor... but clearly... my Chinese has a long way to go... ;) ] And she is SO loud that there is no ignoring her!
In addition to the stairs, there is also an escape ladder off one of the balconies in the hallway. Now, I know the drill.

I'm actually pretty impressed with my list of natural disasters so far in 91 days - typhoon, earthquake, fire alarm - but I'm very glad there was no actual fire :)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

day 90_guanxi

This was the second day of special tea time, compliments of another coworker who had done well in the holiday party lucky draw. It sort of feels like my very own "12 Days of Christmas". We were treated to warm, sweet dessert soups - I chose the red bean flavor, but there was also a peanut flavor available. The weather is starting to get chilly here now, and the warm soup was the perfect treat on a cold afternoon, plus a welcome break on a busy work day. I can only speak on my own experiences, but I am overwhelmed by the way that people share here. It doesn't matter if someone ordered spaghetti (difficult to sample) or a single crab cake (small to share), they will undoubtedly offer you a bite - "Would you like to try?" or "Please help yourself." Sharing in Taiwanese culture takes the concept to a new level... and to expand on that a little further...

There are some things that are unique to Chinese/Taiwanese culture - that we have no exact equivalent for in the US - and 'guanxi' is one of those things. Guanxi is a concept which "incorporates relationship, connection, dependency, friendship, and obligation.Guanxi involves an ongoing series of reciprocal exchanges. One helps and gives to another and therefore expects, at some unspecified future date, to receive from that other person." When I read this, the only word that comes to mind is 'karma'. The concept is pretty classic. What goes around comes around. He who gives shall receive. Share the wealth... but what is not classic is a huge society of people who celebrate this as a core value, and live on the good faith that the reciprocal benefit will return to them.

Sharing and giving is absolutely essential to the Taiwanese culture. I can't remember a time when someone didn't pay the cab bill for all 4 people in the car. Frequently when dining, someone picks up the lunch tab and says you can pay next time. It is not just "Susie, share your toy Joie," but instead it is a more integral and constant way of thinking and acting for the greater good - with the faith that you will be blessed by the same generosity in return. More impressive, is that the understanding is so wide spread. In order for this circle to continue spinning, everyone must participate, it cannot be self-sustaining among only the religious, only the elderly, only the wealthy - but as far as I can tell, all participate in the constant cycle of giving and receiving.

As a matter of fact, receiving from people so openly and often, only makes me want to give back more. And for this American girl who has always known sharing is a good thing... I have been working on expanding my own good habits as a new member of such a generous society.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

day 89_the luck of the draw

Just a quick note for the day... might expand on this one tomorrow...

Following our big lucky draw last night, the luckiest winners often treat the other employees to a holiday tea time... so this afternoon (Tuesday) our office enjoyed a special treat, (see photo below) the largest sushi hand rolls I've ever seen. The rolls contained warm, cooked fillings mostly - for example, mine was similar to a teriyaki beef with rice and veggies.

Sushi = tea time [?]
Apparently, it is likely that all top 10 lucky draw winners may do something like this for the office over the next few weeks. It is seems very Taiwanese to me. There is a level of sharing here that surpasses anything I have ever experienced (except maybe the mission trips to Mexico when we built houses for the homeless... but it might even compete with that...). I know that my own lucky draw prize was a few hundred dollars US, give or take, and I honestly didn't even see what the top prize winners ended up with... but it is so kind of them to share the wealth and give back to all of us just because they can. It's always a nice thought, but I don't think many people are as generous as the people I've met here. I'm looking forward to a few little treats over the next few weeks. So far December has been full of 'life's little moments' that keep me in the holiday spirit. Cheers! :D

day 88_company Christmas party

As the case would have it, I am fortunate to work with a very international firm. We have a wide array of projects, and a wide variety of employees - including an American or two - which seems to be enough justification for a company Christmas party! If you can't tell from recent blog posts, I've been celebrating Christmas all month (still going on!) so I had been looking forward to the party for awhile now. Finally, last night (on a Monday... random, I know) we had the company Christmas party at the local American Club [this is sort of like a country club that is especially popular with foreigners] and I had a blast! I think the party was on a Monday because the American Club books up with so many holiday parties so early. Either way, the day of the week makes no difference to me - I had plenty of holiday cheer to go around.

Christmas is not a traditional holiday here - I think it is more just adopted for fun (Chinese New Year is the big event, in February) So... typically, the Taiwanese may celebrate Christmas (many do), but it is rarely emphasized at their place of business (ie - no days off work, company Christmas party, etc.). At my firm, I get to enjoy both so I am especially grateful. Even still, we are in Taiwan, and the local culture was definitely an integral part of the festivities - so the whole thing was "a first" for me.

For starters, I have never been to a costume Christmas party that I can remember. Our party was optional costume, and also had a volunteer talent show for entertainment. Honestly... I took part in neither. I know, I admit it. I was basically a wimp and I wanted to test the waters with this first big party... but I have now come to the conclusion "Go big or go home!" So I'm thinking maybe next year I will really get into it. The majority of the staff did not dress up, but the ones who did were fabulous! Here is a photo of the costume contest winner (big cash prize), the Queen of Hearts... and I thought she was amazing!!!

Photo taken by our company's professional photographer.
The costumes weren't my only Christmas party first, there was also a whole entourage of clowns to entertain us. I actually cannot remember the last time I saw a clown? (Does anyone remember for me...?) Surprisingly enough, they were great! The clowns greeted everyone as we entered, made people laugh, took Polaroid photos, entertained the kids, and put on a few performances throughout the evening. I thought they were pretty great.

Clowns entertaining the children.
Photo by our company's professional photographer.
Clearly, the entire event was very family friendly, and many people brought their spouses or children or both. Not to fret, my table was filled with mixed company - some people with dates, some people flying solo like me - and I think we all enjoyed the evening. In addition to the entertainment, there was a huge buffet of both Chinese and Western foods. I know you won't believe it, but somehow I think I had forgotten about steak. I know, I know - surely not forgotten! - but let's just say, when I finished my dessert last night, I thought about going back for another piece of steak as a second dessert! Yum.... Anyways... Right - back to the family friendly part... All children in attendance were also given a gift, piled under the tree, and personally handed to them by the boss man himself.

The kids waiting in line for their Christmas presents!
At the end of the evening, the final "first" for me... a lucky draw. Supposedly, these are somewhat common at Chinese New Year parties, but our company hosts the lucky draw at Christmas instead. There are two large boxes on the stage along with a chart of prizes. Each person draws a lottery-type-ball with a number on it. The number relates to the chart of prizes to tell you what you've won. Then the person draws the someone else's name out of the second box, and that person goes next, and so on. One by one, the entire company had the opportunity to draw for the prizes... and wow! Considering that I was unaware of this tradition, you can imagine how excited I was to get my Christmas lucky draw! :) There were many toasts, and many many "Merry Christmas" wishes. I think a good time was had by all. The food, the fun, and the holiday spending money definitely made my night.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

day 87_cemetery hike & simple market

Today a friend & I decided to check out some hiking trails very near my home. Taipei is in a basin surrounded by mountains, and there are said to be some great trails starting up the mountainside about a 15 minute walk from my place. We had both read about the great trails, and the views of Taipei 101 from the mountainside... but somehow, as we tried to find the supposed trail head... it just seemed like we were in a cemetery... because we were! We were headed in the right cardinal direction, and it seemed like the many moss-covered stairways might lead further... but we couldn't find what we were looking for - it didn't seem like this was what the books had described... no mention about the trails running through a cemetery.

Hillside cemetery near Taipei 101
Looking back at the city.
The cemetery was interesting. It reminded me of the cemeteries I visited earlier this summer in New Orleans... some ornate mausoleums, and others that looked aged, overgrown and deteriorated almost like ruins. The hike up the winding stairways was a really great workout (I was panting non-stop more or less!) but we felt a little defeated that we hadn't found the trails. Either way, we had come to a dead end, so we headed back down the mountainside to check out a nearby market.

Go figure we found the nicely laid trail on our way back!
Of course, luck would have it that after an hour and a half of trekking the city, we found the actual trail that we had been seeking this whole time - and because the sun was soon to set - we admitted sadly that we will have to go back another day! Oh well. At least the cemetery was interesting.

On the way home we stopped by the "Simple Market" a small, somewhat quaint vending grounds with mostly food and resale clothing/accessories stalls (today). According to my accomplice, on her last visit the market was filled with handmade crafts, so apparently the market selection rotates. It was a pretty quiet place compared to my busy night market visit last night. The quaintness made it pleasant though. I would like to check it out another day to see what's new in the rotation.

Simple Market

day 86_shilin night market

Night market visit!

Saturday night on my mission to find more fabulous Christmas gifts, I decided to hit up a night market for some fun finds at reasonable prices. The night market is to Taipei as... hmmm.... Coca~cola is to America. It is pretty classic, and if you haven't visited a night market during your time in Taipei - you haven't experienced the heart of the city. During the summers especially, these evening markets give everyone a chance to beat the heat once the sun goes down and still get out of the house for some fun.Even still, the night markets are busy year round - especially on a Saturday night. [If you ever come to Taipei, be sure we visit a market while you're here!]

I figured if I was going to venture out, might as well go all the way - so I picked the biggest and most famous night market in Taipei for my outing: Shilin Night Market. Shilin Night Market is gigantic with hundreds of street vendors and street food vendors lined up along the outside of the permanent stores on a cluster of city blocks. The stores vary from typical "GAP" type equivalents who open stay open late for the evening crowds, to tiny stalls one person can barely even enter offering hundreds of goods packed into their tiny spaces. As usual, the photos don't quite do the market justice, but here are a few of my pics...

One of the many streets in the market - it was packed!
Plenty of games to play, Prizes to win
Snack foods on a stick.
Taiwanese are not fans of finger foods... but you can buy just about anything on a stick! 
Candy-coated fruit snacks on a stick.
Jellies and juices.
Unlimited shopping.
The Shilin Market specializes in clothing, accessories and food.
The cattle-like crowds are pretty hard core, but if you are willing to put up with the herd, the markets are fun fun fun. I made out with a pretty serious stash on a modest budget, and if I get the chance I might even visit the market just once more before I hit the States!

day 85_Ninja birthday party

Friday night after work, I was invited to a birthday party at a nearby restaurant called the 'Ninja Restaurant'. As the name suggests, the theme of the restaurant was ninjas - and they actually put a lot of fun into the entire concept. Basically, in addition to the tasty food, people definitely dine here for the entertainment.

When mentioning this restaurant to others, they tend to know immediately what you speak of if they have every passed by - it is hard to miss. On the exterior of the building, orange-clad, life size ninjas scale the building facade that is also spiked with various weapons, made to look as though they have been launched and sunk into the facade as well. Upon entering, you are greeted by wait staff dressed in ninja inspired apparel, who lead you to the water fall - behind which lies the secret entrance to the ninja school (? ninja hiding place? something like that...). When you yell "Ninja!" the waterfall clears and you may enter the restaurant dining area.

Scroll Menu
Range of Japanese/Chinese dishes
Some of our feast
Our waitress serving drinks all around.
The Ninja influenced version of a mini-keg.
The food was fabulous, paired with fun energetic company and plenty of entertainment... I won't go into detail and embarrass anyone I know... but basically, the waitresses pull members from the audience and drag them to the center stage to perform for the rest of us - it was quite amusing :) I would definitely consider going back again if I had a large group of people with me!

At the end of the night when we were leaving, it felt like one of those moments when I would usually hug everyone goodbye, but these were mostly people I had just met. It hadn't occurred to me how long it has been since someone hugged me. At least 84 days I guess. Either way, it was still fun and I'm glad I had somewhere to be on a Friday night.

Looking forward to lots of hugs on my visit home :)

Friday, December 10, 2010

day 84_Christmas Cards

On a recent visit to the RT-Mart (think big box retailer, low prices ~ Wal-Mart), I stumbled upon a huge display of Christmas and New Year's cards. I was actually quite impressed at the selection and was very tickled by one specific card! So I bought a few - let's say... maybe 20.

Well, of course, upon returning home and writing Christmas cards over the next few days, I knew that I was undoubtedly going to need more. 20 doesn't even begin to cut it! (Considering all of the people that I hope to send cards to! - We'll see...) So, yesterday after work, I hopped on a bus in hopes of purchasing more of the same cards from the RT-Mart. Unfortunately - as usual - I was unfamiliar with the bus route and saw the store I needed as the bus drove past. I tried to convince myself that surely the bus would turn a slightly closer direction for one of the upcoming stops - but, no. In the end, I exited the bus (maybe) 3 stops past my original destination and set out in my high heel shoes towards the RT-Mart. I had just come from work.

Twenty minutes later, my feet were yelling at me, and I could finally see the sign of my destination a few 100 yards away! When I entered the store I realized it was a different location than the one I'd visited previously, but same store, so I scoped out their Christmas card display... disappointing. The selection was not bad at all - but the design I wanted was not there, and the cards are typically sold individually (not like the bundles and boxes sold in US). Seriously, my feet were pretty unhappy by now, but I felt like surely this effort could not be in vain! So I set out to the same location that I had visited before, located a few blocks away.

Oh my gosh, clearly I wore the wrong shoes yesterday! By the time I reached the 2nd store I was on a mission. There would be no leaving without Christmas cards in hand! The card display was pretty much identical to the first location -bummer- they had obviously sold out of the cards that I like so much. But I was there, and I had just gone to all that trouble. And gosh darn it, many of you won't get presents this year, so you had sure better get a festive card from me with Asian postage!!!

In the end, I definitely left with Christmas cards in hand. As a matter of fact, my aching feet and determination might have left me too eager... I have a lot of cards now. :) And all because it means the world to me (yes, I would even sacrifice my feet) to let you know that "On Christmas Day - Wish you Happy!"

Yes, yes I do! :)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

day 83_oh Tex-Mex... I miss you!

Clearly, before moving to Taipei, I already knew that I would be kissing Mexican food good-bye for awhile : / But knowing a harsh truth, and actually living it out are two different things! Tonight as I was walking home after work, meandering through some of the side streets hunting for dinner, I came upon a small Mexican restaurant - "Yuma" - and I couldn't stop myself... I decided to check it out... what's the harm? Right...

Up until now, I have only gone so far as to read and study the Mexican food reviews on my favorite Taiwan blog [A Hungry Girl's Guide to Taipei], but even with a brave girl going before me... I still haven't stuck my neck out and tried any of the few - Very Few - Mexican food venues that she recommends! Even still, did this stop me? Nope!

First impression: The interior was clean, spacious and well lit, with brightly colored walls, booths, and decor... as well as Spanish music playing overhead. I would say the interior of the restaurant as a whole was more or less equivalent to a Tex-Mex place. It was almost vacant (obviously not the most popular place in town), but what else would one expect of a Mexican food restaurant in Taipei?

The Menu: The menu had most of the usual suspects - nachos, burritos, quesadillas, tacos, and fajitas... as well as burgers, chicken wings and "Texas calamari"... red flag, red flag #1! I ordered anyways. I was already there. The quesadillas (a fairly simple dish) seemed too easy to mess up (tortillas + Taiwan don't always mix), and the fajitas were out of my typical dinner alone budget. I decided to go with the nachos.

My meal: The 'Classic Nachos'.
First of all, the nachos came with a spoon - red flag, red flag #2! It might have been more accurate to call this dish "Seven Layer Dip," as it more closely resembled some seven layer dips that I have eaten in the U.S. The nachos were served in a deep dish (almost a bowl) with the chips on bottom. Average salty tortilla chips out of a grocery bag, I'm certain. Topped with refried beans - these tasted right, but were pretty sparsely spread and mixed in with.... Jalapeños. A nice thought, but the jalapeños were sliced length ways so that each piece was bigger than one bite... that's a lot of jalapeño for one dish. Topped with mushrooms. Mushrooms? Really? Red flag #3! Topped with melted string cheese, way too much of it. Topped with sour cream, very chunky salsa that bordered on pico de gallo minus the pico, and guacamole made with local avocados... a very different taste from the smooth and creamy avocados used in the US.

The conclusion: Most of the nachos were so soggy and bogged down with cheese that I wasn't truly able to enjoy them. Plus, I more or less avoided anything that touched the guacamole all together. It wasn't pretty folks. Even though, I am confident that there must be restaurants in Asia that serve Mexican food, and do a great job of it... I would have to say that this wasn't the place. In the meantime, I will look forward to eating some classic Tex-Mex during my upcoming visit to Texas!!! :)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

day 82_holiday wish list

Now that it is December, I am of course celebrating Christmas pretty much for the entire month! (this is typical for me) The excessive holiday displays and Christmas decorations throughout the city just encourage this behavior... and I've been scouting out fun Christmas gifts for many friends and family back home! Aside from the shopping and preparation for the trip, I am mostly just excited about the chance to spend time with friends and family who I miss so much! But if I get my Christmas wish, I will also get a few more things for my homesick American self... here are some of the things I want this year that don't fit under the tree...

1. Time with my Husband! I think this goes without saying, I miss him.
2. Snow! How amazing would it be to have snow at least one day while I am back?
3. My Truck! Even though I don't miss commuting on a daily basis, I do love being behind the wheel of my beautiful pickup truck, and I will definitely be taking it for a spin (or two)
3. English radio! The good, the bad, the ugly... I am still looking forward to hearing the radio and hearing which songs have popped up since I left. I am also looking forward to updating my iPod (playlists are on the laptop in TX...)
4. Bumble Bee (the cat) and Penny (the dog)! I miss having a pet, and I am looking forward to having them around for about a bit :)
5. Homemade Chocolate Chip Cookies! Someone please take note, I need these. [There are many foods competing for a spot on this wishlist...]
6. The Holiday Spirit! [Cheezy, I know, but...] I'm looking forward to being around other people who are excited about Christmas too! [You don't get as much of that here]
7. All of my winter clothes! These got left behind and I am starting to wish they were here in my closet... as of about today. And for the record, I am not packing clothes for the trip - I will just be wearing whatever I left behind... should be interesting!
8. My stocking hung on the mantle over the fireplace, with a fire. Mmmmm....
9. Wide open spaces! I might actually like the endless flat plains of TX and OK, now that I rarely see them.
10. A Vacation! A more or less, all expenses paid vacation to the good ol' US of A. Priceless :)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

day81_AmCham Green Forum

AmCham Green Forum - Q&A Panelists
The American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei ["Dedicated to promoting the interests of international business in Taiwan"] held a green forum yesterday - and I had the opportunity to attend. I am actually the sort of person who looks forward to events like this... so I was grateful for the chance to attend. Some of the presentations had very good in depth data with complicated issues and solutions, while others simply skimmed the basic principles and elements of "going green" - but it was motivational enough for a Monday afternoon. I also met some very kind, interesting, and influential people who work for some of the larger international companies (often American companies) with a presence in Taiwan. 

I always feel like talking about "green" is just discussing topics that you already know, have already heard, but just in case you don't have the opportunity to ponder our environment and our future as often as I do ;) Here are some quick notes of my own from the forum:

  • Projected worldwide population & poverty will only continue to increase. Poverty takes many forms (not just financial); the world is already experiencing other forms of poverty such as unavailability of electricity, water, and transportation in impoverished communities. How do we contribute to the problems? How can we work together to provide solutions?
  • Sustain-ability: The ability of a company to sustain it’s business through core products, services, and business model. With the increased demand for “green,” it is the sustainable companies that will be able to sustain the demand for their business. If supply is based on demand – green is what consumers are demanding.  
  • Solutions need to meet the triple bottom line – environment, economy, and society.
  •  The 3rd industrial revolution will be green: clean, lean, & mean. The market offering genuinely green products and services is lean, you have to stay competitive and provide genuine tangible results. 
  •  Sustainability = meeting the needs of the present, without compromising the future

Near the end of the discussion, when questioned what educational efforts are being made in Taiwan to educate the public… one panelist responded that labels are education. My thoughts on that? There is some truth to it – when you see a nutrition label on a piece of food, you immediately recognize the label, the components, and likely have an understanding of which parts are good and bad for your health based on what you are eating/consuming. In the same way, green building projects produce quantifiable measures that can be explained just as simply for a client or the public to understand… and overtime, I believe the understanding of these ‘labels’ will only increase. For example, there was much discussion about carbon footprints. We have to find ways to make the sustainable building process/results just as simple. 
If you ever want to pick my brain on the subject, this conversation could go on for days...
Grand Formosa Regent Taipei,
Lots of festive decor! Christmas is coming...

Sunday, December 5, 2010

day 80_lion dancers!

Another Sunday, another day filled with errands and chores in preparation for the coming week. BUT - I also decided to venture out through the department stores near my house today and I am so glad I did! I passed the usual street performers, and a few new acts I hadn't seen before. I took pics of all of them, but I will spare you and limit this post to what I came upon last...

I discovered a local talent competition being held - I believe it was called 'Festival of Taiwan' - with a wide variety of acts focusing on talent and cultural traditions. After I had walked the full length of the department store areas, passed a few stages with traditional dress fashion competitions, singing groups, dancers, etc. and was about to turn around... the last stage I approached had a group of young men stepping up to begin their act. The guys each had a drum and were beating those drums like mad! (Sometimes I wish I could convey smells and sound effects on my blog - this is one of those times) It was captivating.

Wish you could hear the beat, but you'll have to settle for the picture and your imagination!

I was admiring their shimmering costumes (pants) and wondering why they went to such wardrobe trouble if they weren't really dancing? When they finished a few minutes of extremely intense drumming (all sweating by this point), 4 of the guys left the stage and the remaining two began another song. I didn't realize that the ones who left were simply performing a costume change to come back as... Chinese lions!!!

Chinese lion dances are very traditional, and I would expect to see such a performance during the holidays, but stumbling upon this performance today was unexpected and it made my entire weekend! The photos won't do them justice, but the show was awesome! I couldn't pull my eyes away... and I am not the only one. The entire audience was entranced and overjoyed by the dance. Each of the lions is comprised of two guys and one costume, moving in harmony. Even though I'm sure this traditional dancing has always been held dear, my guess is that it probably becomes more precious with time as some cultural traditions begin to fade with the younger generations. I was personally impressed with these men for learning the art of Chinese lion dancing. They were wonderful! Here are some of the pics...

They danced...
They played...
They roared...
They lollygagged, wagged thier tails, batted thier eyelashes, and scratched behind thier ears like a puppy dog
They wove through the crowds and pretended to eat the small children ;)
They WOWed.
[This was obviously an intense workout for the dancers themselves!]
They made my day - they were fabulous. :)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

day 79_day trip to Yingge

Taiwan is a pretty small island, and I hope to explore every inch of it in it's entirety during my time here, but - that being the case - I am off to a slow start! Today I finally got out of the city for a bit to explore Taipei County. A friend and I took the train to Yingge, which is about a 30-40 minute ride. Yingge is a town on the outskirts of Taipei that has become particularly famous for pottery & ceramics. I guess in my mind I expected to find a quaint little town in the country... but it wasn't quite. More like an average suburb, with an abundance of dishes, statues, and sculptures.

First, we decided to check out the Taipei County Yingge Ceramics Museum. The museum is housed in a very modern structure designed by a well known Taiwanese architect, Chien Hsueh-yi  - the actual museum design and exhibition spaces were lovely... they reminded me of the Modern Museum of Art in Fort Worth, Texas, by architect Louis Kahn (which I also love).

< Etched In Memory Solo Exhibition by Osamu Kojima >
A soloist exhibition on the first floor featured modern ceramics created to reflect the beauty of forms in nature. In person, these were pretty spectacular - the dark ceramics with the blue clear glazes that formed almost like glass... shimmering like water poured over a rock.

< Etched in Memory Solo Exhibition by Osamu Kojima >
The museum also had traditional displays narrating the history of ceramics in Taiwan, the progression of ceramic uses to present day, etc. I liked the traditional and the modern works - each for different reasons... and I especially liked the history of ceramic building materials.

< (part of) History of ceramics used as construction materials >
On the third floor, the current featured exhibit was from Spanish artists - mostly modern works - these were great too. What can I say? The museum was great - definitely worth checking out if you are ever in Yingge.

< An Exhibition for Spanish Ceramic Art - Cactus Series by Lina Cofan >

< An Exhibition for Spanish Ceramic Art - Column II by Mia Lauder > 
After the museum, we set out to find the "Ceramics Old Street" which is the centralized location of many ceramic and pottery shops/studios/vendors/anything you can imagine related to ceramics! It was rather touristy - the town put quite a bit of revamping into the area a few years ago - but the cobblestone streets, pedestrian blocks, giant palm trees, and warm sunshine were all very welcoming. Not so touristy to the point of being unpleasant. There were also many shops that offered the chance to actually create your own pottery on the wheel - they looked like fun!

Yingge, Ceramics Old Street
The Tunnel Kiln (no longer in use)
The shops vary from offering mass produced items priced at +/- $1 US each, all the way up to custom artisan items costing thousands of dollars. I wish I had a use for some of the treasures we saw today! But alas, I mostly purchased small items for Christmas gifts to family & friends. We walked and shopped for at least a few hours, before we decided we had seen more plates, bowls, teapots and vases than anyone would know what to do with!

Yingge, Ceramic Old Street

Once the shops started all blurring together (not to mention our hands were full and our feet were tired...), we figured we had probably seen enough. Yingge was a neat town though. Now I know where to go to buy dishes or fine china if the need ever arises. :)