Thursday, June 30, 2011

In Which the Traveler Addresses Her Father Directly

Dear Dad:

I *know* you told me you didn't want me to go exploring off on my own, but then you knew when you told me not to that I have before and would again, right?

I was smart about it! I used the directions in my Lonely Planet guide to get across town to the National Palace Something Museum because it's supposed to be this like treasure trove of history and antiquities and stuff.

Dad, I saw statues of Buddha from the fourth century. I saw pottery from the year 1 Billion BCE or something. But even more importantly, I ran into a Mucha exhibit.

Mucha, you know, Alfons Mucha? The Czech painter who had that art nouveau style with all the pretty flowing ladies? He was also something of a politico in his later years, and I got to see this image of his I've had a crush on since I was a little girl called Zodiac. I also got introduced to a new painting that made me cry. It was called something like Spring Awakens Earth or Spring Awakening the Earth or something. This really big painting, a burst of spring colors, all spring green and light blue, and in the middle, one woman leans in to wake up the other with this tender sweet love care all over her face...

I negotiated the MRT too, the public subway-type transit here. The guide book told me which stop to get at, and the kids in the hostel told me how to get to the one to get on here. On the way I passed a cigar shop. Guess what isn't illegal in Taiwan? Montecristo #4s. YUMMMMM. Got to the rail and kinda stood back and did my Monkey-see trick before jumping in to Monkey-do after observing enough people. Figured out my route, bought my pass, headed there.

Here's what's fun: looking out windows. WOW.

I got off at my stop and it was super cute and looked like a nice area. I bought some sushi bites and some hazelnut milk tea and sat in the middle of the area and watched for a while. Just as I was finishing up, a bus I needed pulled up so I ran over and hopped on. Monkey didn't see anyone pay the driver so monkey didn't do it herself. They paid when they got to their stop though. I said, "How much money?" He said "15." I gave him 15 and got off the bus and looked around like where's this palace museum... OH THERE. THE HUGE FRIGGIN THING ON THE MOUNTAIN.

Dad it was really cool. I took a lot of photos. I found, though, that rather than removing my driver's licence from my wallet, I had removed my student ID! So no fatty discount for me, whoops. I did, however, act confused and very sad when I found that the ticket that got me into the antiquities would not get me into the Mucha. The folks at the door got nice and, since it was closing time, let me get in for free anyway. Oh man I get choked up just thinking about that beautiful painting!

Then there was a garden outside, and I strolled around and... man what gives? I'm still in my twenties! But ugh how my feet hurt and oh how the small of my back hurt! Just uncool.

I bussed it back to the MRT stop, and strolled around and poked in stores and stuff some more. Here's where I'm a stupid American: people cut in lines a lot here, and step in your personal-space-bubble and don't give a crap and it makes me fume a little. But otherwise they are really strict about following the rules. Like, the sign says no food or drink on any of the public transits - SO NO ONE EATS OR DRINKS. I mean, there are signs like that everywhere back home but don't nobody pay no mind. Here's a mystery: I can't ever find a trashcan, but neither can I find any litter. How does that work? When I could never find a trashcan in Mexico, I understood why there was litter all over the place. But here there's neither. Really strange. So I end up carrying my trash around with me until I find one.

MRT back, and went the wrong way about four stops on the last leg, so I had to swap and take like 7 or 8 stops to get back, at which point I wasn't sure exactly which road on the roundabout I'd come in on so I just headed the direction I figured the hostel was in and bam, once again, good old sense of direction took me right back! Sweet.

I didn't go out last night. I just couldn't do it. I took a shower and was in bed by 9:30. I have a roommate from Ohio who's a really cool cat, and we stayed up talking for a while before another roommate came in hungry and the two of them went out. I thought about it, a quick night stroll before passing out, but I was so comfy and the idea of putting on shoes again did not appeal at all.

Today I think I'll head on down to Pingtung (or Pingdong, depending on who you ask). I'm ready to quit living out of bags and unpack. I couldn't find my toothbrush last night so I scrubbed my teeth with my washrag and then flossed and rinsed some water around for a bit. This aggression will not stand.

And so, I went against your wishes, but how about this concession: I will always be careful when I continue to go off on my own and keep my wits about me and not follow creepy Disney villains down dark alleyways so they won't turn me into a genie and stuff me in a bottle.

All my love,
your crazy daughter.

Last night.

I can't even begin to fully explain all the awesome that happened last night.

Suffice to say:
1) It's good to be backpacking in foreign countries again.

That is all.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

After exploring locally my first day in Taipei

Oh mah lawd my feets is hurtin.

There’s a building here, really near the hostel, that was the tallest building in the world for a while (but must now settle for being second-tallest) called the 101 Building. I don’t know much about anything around here, so I figured that would be as good a first-day trip as any: walk around near the hostel, explore but not lose my sense of direction, maybe eat something local, try making purchases, then get back to the hostel to rest a while before going out to explore the night market.

The streets are laid out interestingly here. Some have numbers, I think? Some have names but then you’re in an alley off the lane off that street… I’m still figuring out how it works. Anyway I went up my alley to the lane to the street and headed toward the giant tower. I hear it was designed to look like bamboo, but I ain’t seein’ it. I explored some convention center next to it first. I was getting hungry, so I ate, and I tried to ask whether the food was vegetarian in the way that my phrase book suggested, but I guess I failed. It was interesting… When I got to the tower, apparently the bottom five floors are taken up by the swankest mall I ever seen in my whole life, and the basement is solid food, most of which looked better than what I ate. Also most had plastic examples of their food out, and naturally I took pictures. In fact, I took pictures of everything. My lunch, the convention center, my walk to the tower (which passed several 7-Elevens)… I intend to load them up to Picasa the way I did my Mexico photos, but can’t seem to get Picasa to work for me just yet. If it doesn’t work by the time I get to the university, I’ll figure something else out. In the meantime, they’re on my Facebook, but I’m kindof a snob about who I’ll add, so if we aren’t already friends you’ll have to wait.

Apparently 101 can still boast the world’s fastest elevator! That was interesting. When I made my way back down it was raining (note to self: don’t wear a white shirt anymore ever) so I decided to hang out inside and explore for a while. While poking around the convention center, this information/guard/porter-type person kinda waved me back to give me fruit. One was a banana, which he was trying to explain to me that it was a banana, and I was like, yes I love banana okay, then he gave me this other thing that looked like a pear that took too many steroids and got big and warty. It was crunchy and kinda potato-textured with something of a piney scent to it and weird seeds inside. I ate it while I sat in the food court and people-watched for a while. There was also this market, I think it was called “Jason’s”? They had free samples EVERYWHERE. I hope there’s one of those in Pingtung. I ate some weird stuff, and drank some too, and I’m not sure what it all was, but I’m still alive so far.

Eventually it had slacked off to a patter enough that I could get back and maintain my dignity in my white shirt. I’ve noticed this weird thing that I might be able to say more about later. For now it goes, I don’t get stared at like I did in Mexico. The stares there were pretty much 100% from men (with women for the most part ignoring me altogether, in a somehow noticeable way?) and they were lecherous. I just felt dirty, even when I was dressed completely modestly. Today I had on a skirt and a tank (yo, it’s hot and humid here, even moreso than Arkansas) and there was none of that. I did get some stares, but they felt more like curiosity stares. Like, damn, look at this tall female with freckles and round blue eyeballs kind of stares. One girl in the tower, I looked up and I couldn’t figure out what she was taking a picture of, because I was pretty sure there wasn’t anything on the wall I was leaning up against, so I turned to look and sure enough, wadn’t nuthin there… except me… oh my goodness this tween is taking a photograph of me leaning up against a wall? There’s another phenomenon that I have yet to figure out, which is, what to do when you run into another cracker. There’s this weirdness like, do we look at each other? Do we ignore each other noticeably? There’s this moment in passing where it’s like, we both know we’re passing each other, and we both know we’re having this shared experience of being this extreme minority, but other than that we share literally nothing, so how do you acknowledge that or do you or ? This one guy today I passed, he handled it perfect. He had this smile on his face that somehow acknowledged all that and more, just this chill Mona Lisa smile as he passed me with his umbrella, so I gave him a halfsmile back, and then bam, we’re gone, the end.

Y’all, I realized on the walk back that while I knew what direction I was going, I had not paid attention to landmarks nor street names nor nuthin. I figured I’d just hope for the best and keep walking… and made it back with literally no problems! No wrong turns, no doubling back to make a turn I missed, my little feet led me right back to the door of the hostel. Rest, wash face, upload photos, write, go to night market, wash body, sleep, explore tomorrow…

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Written on my bed, first morning

I love being a flexible traveler. Wouldn’t you know it, the plan from the last post began to change right away and may just keep changing. I had planned to take the “AirBus” into the city center. When I managed to get off the plane, get through the visa people, get my bags, get through customs, and get to the part of the airport where you find your transportation into town, y’all I had been traveling for over 24 hours nonstop. When I did this backpacking shit last time, I was 21 and full of vigor and spunky and shit. Not that I don’t still have spunky vigor, but damnit, I’m knocking on 30’s door now, and when the nice man smiled at me and said, Taxi? I said YES.

I wasn’t sure whether I should try to chat up the taxi driver. I want to call him the taxista, but I’m not in Mexico anymore, Toto. There are, in my experience, four or five stages to language learning, and they go like this:
1) No Idea What The Fudge.
2) “Well I can speak it better than I can understand it.”
3) “I understand it better than I speak it.”
4) “I feel like I’m doing pretty well.”
I went through these with Spanish. First you don’t know what the Eff. Then you know enough words to put together a sort of sentence that conveys what you want to say, but when folks respond in their rapid-fire mother-tongue way, you go blank. THEN you know enough to understand them, and enough to hear how pidgin your words sound, so you get shy about talking. Finally you find a comfortable place in which to converse and from there can work your way to fluency.

I’m at #2 with Mandarin right now. I spent the whole taxi ride (1/2 hour or so?) thinking in my head the things I would say to my taxi driver if I thought for a second I might be able to understand his response, but they just stayed in my head. Finally curiosity got the better of me (which, if you know me, you know how bad my curiosity can be) and I pointed at this structure I’d seen a few times and asked, What is that? Zhei ge shen me? He responded… and yeah I didn’t understand a word. So I smiled and said Thank you, xie xie, okay, hao, and left it at that.

Here’s what’s funny. No matter where you are in the world, if you’re near a hostel the people there know what you’re there for. I saw the sign to the place but not the door to get up. I walked around the corner for a while until the red-eyed kids chillin’ in front of the tattoo shop pointed to it for me. Thanks, guys.

Y’all I slept the sleep of the DEAD last night! I woke up at one point and zombied my way to the bathroom, then back to the mattress. Met a few folks staying here, so far all males which is strange, but I’ve made plans to go on a pub crawl with them Thursday night. Which will be Thursday morning for those of you reading this back home in the States. Hello from the future. When I got here, the owner was out, so I helped myself to a shower and by the time I got out an employee was back, so I settled in and pretty much fell out. It’s now just before noon here, and I’ve had some coffee and a nice toasted sandwich with peanut butter (which was sweet and tasted hazel-nutty) and jelly (which was current jam I think?) and am about to get changed into some real clothes and pack a shoulder bag and head out to explore. And yes, I will be taking the sheet of paper with the address in Chinese so I can ask the locals “Where? Zai nar?” when I get lost and follow their pointed fingers back to my bed.

Written on the airplane

I set my alarm for 7:00 AM so I could wake up in plenty of time. Dad came in my room before it went off. I scooted over, he laid down, and we held hands for a few minutes until the alarm sounded. He left the room and I opened the door to Loki’s crate. Sweet dog did the thing he does some mornings where, rather than jump up, ready to run outside, he tucks his chin to his chest, makes the sweetest little raised eyebrow puppy eyes at me, and rolls over, showing me his belly as if to say, Here it is, you know, in case you were looking for something to pet, with his precious little puppy paws all folded up, just as darling as the first day I brought him home. I climbed in and rubbed and rubbed his belly and chest, kissing his sweet soft ears… oh how I love those perfect satin ears! Two good goodbyes to start my morning off.

Dad tells me he might sell Mabel while I’m gone. I didn’t give her a proper goodbye. In my mind, I had the photo I wanted all laid out. Someone standing outside the driver’s door, open, as I leaned in to hug the steering wheel, eyes closed, bliss and love all over my face. I intend to chronicle some of the journeys I went on in that car… of course, I couldn’t tell you every adventure we had, or I’d have to tell some things on myself that a lady simply does not divulge. But oh, how I loved that ’98 Mercury Sable for the past 9 years and 120,000 miles. That’s enough miles to circle the globe five or six times. That’s halfway to the moon.

Lots of transition lately, lots of goodbyes and lots of change. And now this new journey has already begun.

As I type this, I am sitting in seat 42F on Delta flight DL281 from Atlanta to Tokyo. I’m not online, I’m just typing it up in a word document to be uploaded later. It’s funny. First of all, there’s the fact that we’re flying into the future. I left Atlanta early afternoon on Monday; I’ll land in Tokyo late afternoon Tuesday, after flying about 13 hours. At least the wine is complimentary.

Secondly, the last time I flew a flight anywhere near this length was in the summer of 2004, as I was flying home from the United Kingdom. I had been working in Scotland for three months, then I packed what I thought I needed into a backpack (promptly decided I needed far less after carrying it around on my back, and mailed a box home as soon as I got to Barcelona) and explored the Mediterranean for a month. I’d had my itinerary home all lined up, but a late Italian train led to a missed flight and as a result, rather than arriving in Scotland with a full day to repack, do laundry, and say final goodbyes, I arrived with an hour or two to spare instead. It was crazy. By the time I was on the flight from London to the States, I was exhausted and famished. When the woman asked whether I wanted chicken or pasta, I said, hopefully, “Yes?” She did in fact end up slipping me both, bless her heart, before I found an empty row and stretched across it to pass out.

But the point of the story is to tell you about the movies on that flight back in ’04. There were exactly two. There was a screen at the front of the cabin we could watch it on, and we could plug our earphones into the jack to listen, switching channels for different languages. That was it.

Now, I can choose any number of genres from Hollywood or from other countries, or even TV episodes, and it’s not a shared experience like Shrek (or was it Shrek 2? Either way, I slept through it) was. Families sitting right next to each other are watching completely different films on the back of the seat in front of them. I remember being in Catering class back in Culinary School, and the teacher told us she had invested a large portion of her portfolio in this company that was going to be putting screens on the back of everyone’s chairs. She recommended that any of us with any sort of cash do the same. At the time I laughed. Everyone with their own individual screens? Never, I thought. Here I am, and I bet that lady is laughing all the way to the bank.

I’m reminded of my RealMom (as opposed to BirthMom or EggDonor) and how she behaves at dinner sometimes. Ain’t no shame in her game (like mother, like daughter, eh?). If someone gets out their iPhone and removes themselves from the dinner party (as so many with smart phones are wont to do) she will flat call them out. She’ll be gentle about it at first, making references to the fact that aren’t we all here to hang out with one another, not to look things up on Wikipedia or Facebook, and isn’t it just a little rude to ignore the party like this, stepping up her game bit by bit until the smartphone junkie is shamed into putting it away, and rejoining the Real World around them. It’s classy, it’s brave, and I like it. I wonder how she’d feel about these screens. Seriously, I got out of my chair to stretch my legs a bit, and everyone reclined looking at their screens reminded me of the people on the spaceship in Wall-E. Creepy.

I was nervous as we left the house. But here I find some calm. They put a meal in my belly, bless them, and then there’s always the complimentary wine. There will be another snack and a breakfast before we land, and I think I get fed on the flight from Tokyo to Taipei as well. Then I’ll take an airbus into town, then a taxi to my hostel, where I’ve booked a room to myself for my first night. I’ll sleep off jetlag (after perusing the night market that sits right outside the front door of the hostel) and move into shared dorms the next day. There are a few things I want to see while in Taipei, then I’ll catch a High Speed Rail south to Pingtung, where I’ll meet my roommate and move into the dorms and spend a day studying before I take my placement exam which will begin my two-month study of Mandarin at the university there. Things appear to be falling into place. This just might go easily enough after all. Nevermind that this isn’t like the time I explored Scotland on my own, where we both share (most of) a language, nor the time I went to Mexico speaking Spanish … my Mandarin is just tragic at this point but something tells me it’s all going to work out fine.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

I've never been to any part of Asia before.

I feel like Europe and I are pretty well acquainted. I've had three trips over there, worked for three months once, spent a good month backpacking the Mediterranean, it was even my first overseas trip ever.

I can't go to Africa, I'm told. I'm allergic to the malaria drugs or something?

Latin America I'm friends with. I spent four months in Mexico, and have visited Belize and Honduras. I can't say I've been to South America, to be fair.

But Asia. Now that's new.

I found myself, in my last two semesters of my undergraduate program, with enough room to take Mandarin Chinese 1 one semester and 2 the next.

I didn't learn in two semesters of Mandarin near what anyone could or would learn in two semesters of Spanish or French or German or even Latin. And nevermind that you're learning the five tones (or four tones and one not-tone) on top of the pronunciations of syllables that don't use vowels or even consonants like you're used to, there's the characters on top of that. Are you learning traditional or simplified? Or both? And man oh man they're complicated either way. It feels like it's exactly three times as hard as learning Spanish was, but Spanish was kinda easy. Four times? Anyway, ouch.

But I'm glad I started, and I like the progress I'm making. I landed a scholarship that pays for my room and schooling in Pingtung, Taiwan at a university there. It's a two month program. I'll live in the dorms with a roommate, I'll have a study partner (a different one each month), I'll volunteer-teach English classes, I'll do a homestay one weekend, and a few of our other weekends are planned excursions that I can go back with the class that day or stick around for the weekend and get myself back later.

I know very little about Taiwan. I know it's an island, that it's under the ROC (as in China, Republic Of), that they speak Mandarin there but that there's also a Taiwanese, and that it might be one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world - that people came out of there in pulses in history, giving birth to the Austronesian languages. I know there are still some aboriginal people there. I know I don't think the food looks too delicious, so no danger of the "Mexican Booty" I came back from my last study abroad with...

Want to see the super cute hostel I'm staying in when I first get there? Okay here you go.

While I'm racking up new parts of the world, I lay over in Japan both ways on my flight.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

My letter to CNN

Why does Kyra Phillips hate her own sex? This morning I watched as within five minutes of each other, she made two comments that each on their own set women back decades.

First she covered the republican presidential debate in which it seems Michele Bachman did well. Kyra's words, paraphrased, were: "Do we even need Sarah Palin any more?" She then further explored this tragically sexist question by even calling up a guest and asking his opinion which, as an apparently straight, cisgendered, white man of privilege was: "NO."

What on earth makes a quesiton like that acceptable? When Mitt Romney did well, did Kyra say to herself, "Do we even need Pawlenty any more?" The question is based only in sex and when boiled down to its core is, Do we need this token candidate with a vagina any more now that we have this new token candidate with a vagina? I am not a Republican. I have no love nor respect for Palin nor Bachman. But so help me, there is room for more than one vagina in a presidential race, and Phillips not only insinuating otherwise but bringing guests on to further such a discussion is disgusting and pathetic.

Then she went on to a story about Weiner in which she became the first anchor, journalist, or newsperson of any sort that I have yet witnessed to turn the microscope around onto the women. I'm amazed it took this long, to be honest, but never suspected it would be a woman who went there first. She asked of her guest a question she appeared to be wanting to ask the women, and her words (and again I paraphrase except for the pivotal word) were: "Ma'am, why are you such a HO."

Ho. The colloquial term for WHORE. As in: a person who engages in sex acts for money. As in: the word that is slung at any woman as an insult more than any other negative word in the English language. And what is this "whore's" crime? Presumably none. We have no evidence that these women solicited or even wanted these photographs. And if we assume they did - which, by the way, is a huge assumption - what? The Weiner story is exactly what Weiner, our POTUS, and many others have said: A Distraction. The man is only guilty of being an exhibitionist, being a little kinky. Who among us has never done a single thing that might raise a neighbor’s eyebrow? In the meantime, Senator David Vitter gets away with bribing his sex scandal into silence with $96,000 and illegal lobbying jobs. In the meantime, Senator John Ensign admits to using the services of prostitutes. And in the meantime, Kyra Phillips would rather call these anonymous, innocent women WHORES on her program, compounding this terrible distraction and committing a grave crime against her own sex.

Not long after her program, or perhaps still within it, a story ran about Tracy Morgan, and how he is going to return to Nashville to apologize for his harmful words against the LGBTQ community. What, if anything, will Phillips do to “make right” her truly horrible actions and words against all women this morning? Here’s a hint: an apology would not be enough. This woman honestly needs to take time off of her job to get educated on what is and isn’t acceptable to say about women. Nothing else can prevent future errors, which obviously stem from some much greater problem, a negative and disparaging attitude toward females. There are those who would argue sexism is dead in today’s society: I would encourage those people to only watch five minutes of Phillips to see that it is sadly alive and well and even perpetuated by its victims.